Climbing Over the Top

by Chuck Saufler M.Ed.
This article was published in the Maine Journal of Education, 1995 Vol. XI, No.1.

Can a guidance Counselor working collaboratively with a Physical Educator sew the seeds of school and community cultural change? We like to think that, in our case, the answer to this question is yes! "We", are Chuck Saufler (Guidance Counselor) and Linda Hanson (Physical Education Teacher) of the Wiscasset Primary School (WPS), a K-4 facility of 400 students in the mid-coastal area. Through a four year collaboration we have created and evolved a project which has had a positive effect on both school and community culture. We call this project CLIMBERS. The following is a rendering of our work together and our personal stories of change. It documents how a collaborative effort can put an idea over the top.

The acronym CLIMBERS was chosen to represent specific behaviors and attitudes which are emphasized in this program, as follows; Cooperation, Leadership, Initiative, Motivation, Belief, Encouragement, Respect, Success. CLIMBERS combines interdisciplinary and cooperative learning approaches with physical challenges and a responsive group process. The challenges focus on personal safety, consequences of actions, components of positive relationships, responsibility, fair play, tolerance of differences, cooperation, empathy, peer pressure and refusal skills through an array of games and problem solving. The group process focuses on cognitively linking these components with real life experiences promoting transference of the learned competencies back to school, family, and community situations

This whole process is conducted under the guidelines of a set of rules called the Full Value Contract (FVC). The FVC asks students to commit to a contract which includes :

Chuck: When I began as Guidance Counselor at Wiscasset Primary School in Sept. '89 I was the fourth guidance counselor in three years to work in this school. I started with a bare bones curriculum and little knowledge of what needs existed in the school and community.

The seeds for CLIMBERS inception were sewn through the staff development process during the '89-'90 school year. A major effort was under way to educate teachers throughout the system in cooperative education methods.  Many teachers at the primary school were experiencing difficulty in their classrooms because many students lacked the basic social skills necessary for a cooperative process.  In their frustration the teachers approached me with this issue. I had been talking with the principal about some fundamental changes that needed to be implemented in the guidance program and this need meshed nicely with that of the teachers. Through another guidance counselor I heard of an experiential approach to teaching social skills called Project Adventure (PA), and with administrative support and financing from Drug Free Schools money, I enrolled in a five day workshop at PA headquarters. At this time I had doubts that any one social skills program would be much more than a band-aid approach to a larger school culture issue.

The PA workshop was the most empowering professional experience I had ever had. It provided me with a reflective opportunity through which I examined my own values and paradigms and made some important decisions regarding my role, skills and direction. I returned to school knowing that I had the power to implement cultural change. I had a vision to share of primary school students and staff working together in harmony under the umbrella of the full value contract. The most receptive staff person was Linda Hanson, the Physical Education teacher. Linda clearly saw the need for social skills to be taught at the primary school level.

Linda: The '89-'90 school year was my eighth year teaching Physical Education. I had been developing the WPS physical education curriculum for seven years. It was a curriculum with a strong focus on sequential skill development. Affective development was also a major strand of this curriculum. I had always believed that social/emotional growth was syntonic with physical skill development. When Chuck presented his experience at Project Adventure to staff his enthusiasm was contagious. I wanted to know more. The idea of FVC seemed to naturally fit with my philosophy.

It was exciting to have a partner sharing the same vision. It was exciting to have a partner sharing the same vision. We approached our principal with our idea and with administrative support and Drug Free Schools funding, attended a Project Adventure workshop together.

Chuck: This workshop called Adventure Based Counseling really brought home the concept of valuing myself and others and what it means to live the full value contract. It reinforced and extended the changes I had experienced at the first workshop.

Linda: The Adventure Based Counseling workshop was the most valuable professional experience I had ever had. It reinforced my belief in affective development and demonstrated that there were a variety of ways to promote it through non-traditional programming. Personally, it deepened my understanding that social/emotional growth needs to parallel physical skill development in primary school age children. That attending to both produces better learners and citizens.

It was participation in this workshop that bonded us into a strong team ready to initiate change at school. We came away from this experience with an agreement to use the full value contract to govern our relationship and to implement it in our work at school. The program we began in the '91-92 school year called Adventure Groups (now called CLIMBERS) won an award for innovative programming. It introduced the concept of FVC to the whole school.

Some teachers recognized immediately the value of the FVC and brought it into their classrooms. It was the beginning of cultural change! More and more teachers became interested in the novel activities and processing that was taking place in Guidance and Physical Education classes. In March of '92 ten teachers went off to PA for the Adventure in the Classroom workshop. They returned very excited about what they had experienced. They continued to meet as a group every other week for the rest of the school year to share the experiences they were trying in their classrooms.

The '91-'92 school year included every student in a cross grade "Adventure Group" which had as its focus the full value contract. The adventure groups had to be conducted in the gym on two afternoons because that was the only space available. During the year many teachers and parents expressed an interest in these groups and felt they were valuable. The students loved Adventure Groups and participated enthusiastically. In Physical Education Linda introduced FVC and the six step problem solving method. This was the beginning of empowering students to solve their own problems.

Linda: The FVC was a more structured and sophisticated way to reinforce the social skills piece that I had always included in my program. The problem solving method initially took time to teach. Once it was established as the routine way to resolve peer problems it became a time saver. The FVC and problem solving working together enabled students to resolve peer conflicts which used to take up a lot of time during class.

Chuck: That year was a difficult one for me. Coordinating adventure groups as a pullout program across grades was very hard. Teaching primary students the skills of reflective processing was a real challenge. My focus in these groups was group problem solving and helping students learn to listen and share ideas in a group setting. Structuring enough time into the groups for adequate process was, and continues to be, difficult.

As the year progressed it became clear to us that we needed a regular meeting time to coordinate and plan our Guidance and Physical Education programs. At that time there were several external factors which forced us to reconsider the model for delivering our social skills program. There was an addition to be built onto our school to house the fourth grade the next school year. Linda's position would become full time so there wouldn't be any space available to to do Adventure Groups. The Guidance schedule was already full so the addition of four classes created a scheduling crunch.

Chuck: I began talking with the principal about program and scheduling options for the following year. These brainstorming sessions lead to the idea of blending the Guidance and Physical Education curriculums during Physical Education classes. The idea excited me as I considered team teaching with Linda. I thought that Linda and I, modeling the FVC for the students, would be an invaluable teaching tool. However, I also recognized the risk we would be taking. A new approach like this would be closely scrutinized by teachers, parents and administration. Anxious is an understatement for how I felt.

Linda: At first the idea sounded good but trying to imagine how we could deliver two curriculums simultaneously made me apprehensive and protective of the comprehensive Physical Education curriculum already in place. My philosophical beliefs about educating the whole child and my willingness to be flexible in my approach brought me to agree with the team teaching idea . This was a very difficult decision.

At the same time it was clear that the FVC was becoming a part of school culture. Teachers requested and suggested staff development activities focusing on school wide change. A major change to come out of this was the adoption of a six step problem solving method throughout the primary school. It was taught and implemented in all areas of the school. It empowered students to solve their own problems. That year ('91-'92) the number of students referred to the principal for discipline was reduced by over fifty percent. It was evident to us that change was, in fact, happening and picking up momentum.

The '92-93 school year saw the implementation of project CLIMBERS which was the next step in the Guidance/Physical Education collaboration. We had struggled with the idea of team teaching a blended curriculum to third and fourth graders for the first sixteen weeks of the school year. Our principal supported the idea as an experiment, with the condition that if either of us thought we were sacrificing too much of our curriculum we could rethink how we would do it for the next year. It was going to be a year of experimentation and refinement.

We experienced several difficulties right away. The students were unfamiliar with team teaching and the new gym provided numerous distractions. We found ourselves talking too much in an effort to establish different parameters than they were accustomed to in Physical Education alone. We discovered that teaching new physical skills and attending to social process was going to be more complex than we had anticipated. We spent a lot of time evaluating and modifying what we were doing that year. It was a continuous struggle to find a balance a balance between Physical Education and Guidance curriculums. By the end of the year we had redesigned our delivery system.

Linda: That year I had to be more creative and more efficient in delivering my PE curriculum than ever before. The amount of planning that went into CLIMBERS was overwhelming and draining. I still believed strongly enough in what I was doing to persevere. This belief was bolstered by the progress in developing interpersonal skills evident in my students.

Chuck: I felt strongly that we were on the right track. We needed to continue our work and refine, refine, refine. However, this took huge amounts of time and energy beyond the school day.

The personal side of the struggle, guided by our FVC, actually has improved our relationship through increasing trust and respect for each other personally and professionally. We feel that using the FVC to provide interactive guidelines helped make manageable even the most difficult negotiations. It has helped us become a high performing team that continues to function well, modeling the FVC in our interactions throughout the school.

The '93-'94 school year produced much positive change. We decided to teach CLIMBERS every fourth week. As instructors we talked less and the students processed more. We used previously learned physical skills in our activities allowing us to focus more on the social skills and process. The students recognized Climbers as a part of their Physical Education time and looked forward to it. We worked hard at improving the connection with classroom teachers and parents. We focused more on transference of social skills to the classroom and playground.

Chuck and Linda: This change process has been challenging. We have had to continuously evaluate and reevaluate, create and modify what we do, how we work together and how we include other staff and parents. This process has been both energizing and debilitating, frightening and fun. We have learned the importance of enlisting other staff, administration, students and parents in the process. We agree that that if we had it to do over we would start working with parents from the beginning. Their support is essential for sustained change.

This change has had a profound effect on both of us. It has demanded large amounts of time and energy. It has also demanded and taught patience with the process of change. The nature of our work with children, parents, and staff is intensely personal. It requires constant evaluation of our values behavior and goals.This evaluative process has helped us achieve clarity about what we think is important for students to learn and how we can help them learn it. We continue to be renewed by this process. It has required from both of us the willingness to take risks and face the possibility of failing in front of colleagues and community. In this process we have tried to model the model of Full Value Contract. It has not been without reward. All along the way the interest and support of staff, parents, and administration have kept us going. The excitement expressed by students about CLIMBERS is contagious. They recognize that this is important stuff. They want to learn it! They need to learn it! Project CLIMBERS provides them with the opportunity for this learning to happen so they can keep climbing over the top.