Maize elementary school wins national award for building kids’ good character

At Pray-Woodman Elementary School in Maize, lessons in friendship don’t just happen; they are part of the curriculum.

“I want you to think about some of your behaviors: ‘Why do people like to be around me?’ ” counselor Joey Buresh queried a class of fifth-graders recently. “Something you’re good at or you enjoy – a reason people might want to be your friend and stay your friend.”

“I’m honest,” said Connor Grindstaff. “And I’m kind.”

Rhys Owen said she is honest, too. And generous.

“I like to think I’m funny,” added Katie Fisher.

The 30-minute lesson on friendship, one of many the students will have this year about traits such as acceptance, honesty, perseverance and self-discipline, is part of the school’s award-winning character education program.

Pray-Woodman recently was named a 2013 Promising Practices in Character Education winner by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Character Education Partnership. The group will recognize the Maize school during its National Forum on Character Education in October.

Earlier this year, Pray-Woodman was one of a dozen Kansas schools honored by the state for its support of character education.

“I feel like if we don’t teach these, no matter how good of a reading or math lesson we can put on for the kids, they won’t be successful,” said Buresh, the counselor.

As part of Pray-Woodman’s program, now in its fourth year, teachers and administrators spend much of the first few days of school reviewing procedures and proper behavior in hallways, on buses, in the cafeteria and on the playground. They continually talk about three schoolwide character traits: respect, responsibility and self-control.

Each month, they focus on another trait – August’s was friendship, September’s is compassion – and incorporate it into classroom activities. Art teachers, for example, might help students make beaded friendship bracelets and encourage them to give their bracelet to a friend. During writing lessons, students might answer prompts such as “What do you think makes a good friend” or “What is something a friend has taught you?”

Pray-Woodman’s program echoes a districtwide effort called the Maize Way, which aims to involve all students in character building. It also reflects new state standards for social, emotional and character development, which were adopted by the Kansas Board of Education last year.

“This is an investment,” said principal Nils Gabrielson. “Talking about this now is time that we’re going to save throughout the year avoiding conflicts on the playground” and elsewhere.

Buresh, who regularly leads classroom discussions, said a close look at new Common Core academic standards show that character traits are part of the curriculum in nearly every subject.

“It’s about collaboration, it’s working together, it’s listening to other people’s point of view,” she said. “It’s being persistent in math, not giving up when something is hard. In (language arts), it’s taking criticism about your writing from a peer when you’re editing.

“All these basic skills, social skills, are embedded in the curriculum.”

Pray-Woodman students earn special recognition when they’re “caught being good.” Fifth-graders who demonstrate good character serve as school ambassadors, wearing special name tags, manning the front doors and greeting students and teachers in the morning.

“I’m starting to get used to it now: ‘Good morning, Ms. Buresh,’ ” the counselor said. “We rarely, five years ago, had kids look at us and say that and do that. But because we model that, we teach it … it becomes part of the routine.”

During her recent lesson on friendship, Buresh urged fifth-graders to think about 12 specific “keys to friendship” – things like compromising, including others, being a good sport and giving compliments.

“What would it sound like if you’re giving your friend a compliment?” she said.

“You’re the best friend ever!” one student answered.

“I like your shoes,” said another.

“I want my hair like you.”

“You don’t smell.”

Buresh smiled. “Sometimes it might be easy to make friends, but this year I really want you to work on keeping friends,” she said.

“Getting along all year. Being kind all year. Being respectful. Do all of those things we just talked about. … That’s important.”