In July 2018, I wrote a blog that featured the House system that I implemented at my previous school. In the original blog, you can find out a bit more about what a House system is, its origins, why it's valuable, and my experiences in helping schools establish them across the country.
This year (2021), I led the charge in establishing a House system at my new school, in a new district. While there were certainly similarities, many aspects were different, proving that this can look different ways and still be equally impactful. Read below on how we rolled it out:
Starting at this school in August 2020 meant that navigating COVID was the primary focus. Establishing a House system was not on any type of priority list, however, it remained a long-term goal that could have subtle seeds planted along the way. For starters, the term Houses is something well known and widespread, but I had an opportunity for it to be something unique. Our school mascot is the giraffe, and a play on this fascinating animal provided a chance to take the term Houses in a different direction. I researched and found that a group of giraffes is known as a tower, and subsequently a great alternative name for a House. To begin getting this term in the daily vocabulary of my school community, I created a hashtag for our school to use on all social media posts, #TowerAbove, with the play on words bringing various meaning.
Later in the school year, I welcomed any interested teacher to join me in a "culture" committee where I could build a team to help bring the implementation of this new program to the school. In all, I had 8 volunteer, which gave us a great representation of staff in this planning committee. The committee met throughout the spring to plan out the Tower names, the rollout, earning points, and other details to help make this a successful endeavor.
Our committee decided upon four Towers, each named after a giraffe subspecies (which by the way there are actually nine in all!): Rothschild, Thornicroft, Masai, and Kordofan. Each had a color and positive character trait to accompany it. We decided that we would "sort" staff prior to returning to school with a balloon popping ceremony along with a special surprise at the end (more on that in a bit). The students would be sorted on the first day of school using Tower colored bandanas inside of to-go boxes out on our field.
Before the end of the school year, we had a roll out meeting with staff to explain the new concept to kick off the next school year. Details had been thoughtfully considered, though feedback was definitely encouraged. Having the planning committee consist of classroom teachers provided much credibility to the roll out of this and led to very few questions or concerns. Folks were excited! I also shared this roll out with our wonderful PTA, who would be instrumental in the execution of this from a merchandise standpoint.
Of course, planning this at the end of one school year and introducing it at the start of the next school year meant that there had to be anticipation and an element of mystery built in. So using iMovie on my phone, I made a series of videos that would get my school community excited (and wondering) what was to come. You can watch the first teaser video here. And then another one here.
The first order of business was sorting the staff on a teacher workday to start the year. The plan was to place numbers 1-4 inside of black balloons with staff member names on the balloons (teachers were strategically sorted ahead of time to help ensure equity in Tower distribution). We would go outside to the field, release everyone, they would find their balloon, pop it, and then go to the table that had their corresponding number. From there, once everyone was sorted at a table, they would release the magical sorting surprise! I ordered "smoke grenades" ... kind of like you see at baby reveal parties. Each of the grenades would be in the colored smoke of the Tower. I also found a person who does drone videography and would record it all for me! Everything was flawless on paper.
When we went outside and released the balloons, the balloons were inflated so much that several began popping on the blades of grass. We recovered enough of them and luckily I had a sheet with me to tell people what table to go to in case their balloon popped. So we eventually got everyone sorted, and it was time to pull the release on the smoke grenade! It was a beautiful sight as three of the four grenades released perfect clouds of smoke. Unfortunately, the purple Tower (my Tower) had a dud grenade and no smoke released. We used our deductive reasoning, however, to determine our Tower color. You can see the video here.
Staff was now sorted and so attention was turned to the first day of school! My lovely PTA assisted in stuffing the boxes with the bandanas and I had volunteers from a local university the first day of school come out and help put equal amount of boxes for each Tower in each homeroom. For example, if a homeroom had 20 students, they would have five boxes of each of the Towers in their pile. When classes came outside that morning, each teacher found their sign, stood around the boxes, and when I said "go" they each selected a box and opened it. Once they had their bandana, they went over to the table with a table cloth that matched the bandana. After everyone was sorted into their Tower, we had our first competition of the year using a hula hoop race. I also invited parents to witness this and had PTA set up their merchandise table so parents could buy shirts immediately after their child was sorted. You can see the sorting here.
I made a recap video on all of the action that had happened to sort the staff and students for parents and the community to see. You can see that here.
The Day to Day:
The sorting provided plenty of excitement and buy-in, but that can be short lived if there is not a clear plan in place for how to sustain the excitement. Over the course of the first weeks of school, we would come on the morning news and give little tidbits about Towers, we would update the leader board on our television each day, I would praise classrooms that were giving points, and we had our first Wheel Spin! The Wheel Spin is something that provides a weekly reminder to everyone that Towers is always there. I purchased the physical wheel off of Amazon and had my talented friend Katie Mense create the wedge inserts inside of them. The actual game play of the wheel is a bit complicated, so that may need to be in a separate post. You can see video of our first wheel spin here.
Things were going as I expected in the early weeks of Towers. Generally, those who were in it from the beginning were all in. We had some staff who were eager, but not exactly sure how to participate yet, and then a small few who were just on the outside looking in. It was a typical rollout of a new program. I believe this all changed in week 3 of the year during the Friday wheel spin. By some stroke of luck, one of the spinners that week managed to make her way down to the final row, where the spinner has the ability to earn 100 points, something that I had only seen happen a few times in the decade plus of seeing wheel spins at various schools. Long story short, she got the 100 points, and the energy of this one event turned on even the most skeptical of folks to the excitement that Towers can bring. You can see it happen here.
Since then, and now to the winter break as I write this, Towers has grown each day. We have bi-monthly Tower meetings or events, Tower competitions, and Tower Tuesday where the kids wear their Tower colors. Parents come up to me all the time to tell me how much their kids love Towers. Teachers have incorporated it into their daily instruction and classroom management.
One of the most unique features of this implementation of Houses/Towers that I had never done before is our deliberate inclusion of a service learning component. Thanks to one of my committee members, she had the idea of embedding service learning into our Tower program. We decided upon "waste" as our yearlong theme, with quarterly themes of food waste, paper waste, plastic waste, and water waste leading our activities. This has led to community partnerships, including a local farm, the city recycling center, and local artists.
Leadership opportunities have also risen from our Towers program. We held elections for 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade Tower leaders. We also have done a book buddy program, where older students are matched up with younger students in their Tower to buddy read.
I have witnessed so many iterations of Houses over the years at schools across the country. The words of advice that I always offer schools is to make it work for you. There is no one right way to do it. But I do have a few pieces of advice for it to be successful:
1) Have a plan and be transparent. Flying by the seat of your pants causes more questions and anxiety from those who you need support from most.
2) Be flexible. Not everything will work great or according to plan (see Tower reveal from above). Accept failures or bumps in the road and adjust accordingly.
3) Build a team. No one can do this alone. Find dedicated folks who are willing to take this on with you. Accept that not everyone will jump on right away, and some may never. Keep pushing forward with those who can support the mission.
4) Have fun! This is something that is supposed to build a positive school culture. Bring innovation in your design of your program!
Thanks for reading! Feel free to follow me on social media @adamdovico and check out my books: When Kids Lead, The Limitless School, and Inside the Trenches for more tips and strategies for the classroom!