When a kindergarten class walked into the gym at Russell Elementary last week, many of the older students had already found seats with fellow members of their “house.”
Teachers with red feather ears springing from headbands led House Compassion in stomps and claps at one end of the bleachers. At the other, a teacher from House Resilience repeatedly tossed a ball for students to catch. Upbeat music blared from speakers, so a teacher from House Courage danced and asked kids in the bleachers to join her.
Principal Cindy Christensen greeted students as they walked in.
“Come on, kinders!” she said, pumping a fist above her head.
Each student wore a sticker with their name and house in case they became lost. Teacher Rebecca Schendel sorted her class by house and sent each group of two or three walking hand-in-hand toward the group they should join in the bleachers.
“See the yellow?” she said, leaning over as she pointed toward a teacher from House Integrity, who waved the tentative kids forward.
Last year, Russell Elementary decided to mimic the Harry Potter book series, where the fictional students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are sorted into houses based on their characteristics. For instance, members of Gryffindor are known for their courage and determination, students of Ravenclaw are wise and witty, and people from Hufflepuff value loyalty and hard work.
At Russell, students are randomly sorted at the beginning of the school year into one of six houses — compassion, courage, integrity, resilience, gratitude and tenacity — by popping balloons with paper slips inside.
Like the books, friendly rivalries exist among the groups at Russell. Sometimes they have to cooperate to achieve a common goal.
Russell students earn “house points” for good deeds, such as being helpful in class or walking quietly through the halls, that are tallied on a bulletin board outside the gym. Periodically, students gather for house meetings to talk about and practice the school’s goal for the month, such as October’s focus on friendship and cooperation. Students from all grades work alongside each other.
Students also can receive “shout-outs,” or written compliments, from teachers. One shout-out pinned to the hallway bulletin board celebrated students who “were taking turns sharing the swing and pushing each other.” Another thanked a student for “taking care of a sad friend.” Every once in a while, Christensen chooses one child from the shout-out board to visit her office. They write their name on her chalkboard door and call home to tell a parent about their good work.
At the end of each trimester, the house with the most points earns a trophy and a special reward.
The houses aren’t just fun and games though.
“Russell School is creating an atmosphere of community and respect,” Christensen said.
The houses “teach students to be good people and to help them grow as good citizen," said Hatton Littman, Missoula County Public Schools communications director. They “support our core values and serve as an easy way to build a community of respect and tolerance for differences.”
After a roll call of the six houses at the assembly last week, Christensen directed each to walk to a different place in the building for a group activity.
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The 53 students in House Compassion gathered in a nearby room and sat on the floor.
“What does compassion mean?” asked Jenna Seaman, a fourth-grade teacher. “It’s a big word and it’s super important.”
“We think about other people's hearts,” said Jaxon Fulcher, a kindergarten student.
They then talked about that month’s focus.
“If you want a friend … ” Shannon Judge, a second-grade teacher, said, pointing to the kids to finish her sentence.
“Be a friend!” they shouted back.
“Raise your hand if you can tell me a way you can be a friend at Russell school,” Seaman said. “Be listening because this is what we’re going to be doing in our activity, in our squads.”
“Be kind,” said Eliza Ascher, a second grader.
“We could help each other when we fall down,” said Mattisyn Mattix, a kindergartner.
The group then broke into 10-person squads with each member drawing a picture of how to be a friend on a red paper puzzle piece that they would later assemble as a whole group. Older students were asked to help younger ones spell difficult words or to fetch more crayons when there weren’t enough.
In the library down the hall, members of House Gratitude were shaking hands and talking with each other.
“We are introducing ourselves to new people so that we can make new friends,” Raelene Punke, a resource teacher, said.
As the bell rang, Gratitude stomped and clapped to the beat of their house chant.
"We have the attitude of gratitude, we push the bad away, we see the good in everything, our gratefulness is here to stay."
They cheered some more before returning to their regular classrooms. Fourth- graders paired up with kindergarten students to help them find the way.