Here’s the current reality:

1/3 of teachers are currently thinking about leaving their jobs and education professionals report worse well-being than other professionals (Bryant et al., 2023). Teachers of color are more likely to leave the profession and well-being is especially poor among Hispanic/Latinx teachers and female teachers and principals (Steiner et al., 2022). Furthermore, teacher shortages disproportionately affect low income schools (Grabenstin, 2022).

 Students are struggling. No matter your belief in test scores, they are at an historic low, especially in MA. (Mervosh & Wu, 2022).

These statistics translate into a gloomy picture of schools, particularly schools in our poorest communities where teacher shortages are at an all time high.

And yet, when one walks into the Sokolowski school in Chelsea, MA something is right! There is a peaceful energy that pervades the hallways and classroom. The walls are bright and covered with student work. When children move from one class to another, they greet visitors with a smile and hello. One group of young boys walk in a trio, arms across one another’s shoulders so pleased that the halls are wide enough for their joyful camaraderie. Classrooms are open to visitors; teachers and students alike are happy to see us.

Demetrius Fuller showing cards to HGSE students

I have come to visit with my #HGSE graduate students as part of my graduate class “Schools in Action.” Specifically, we are curious to see how the HOMies (Habits of Mind) have been integrated into this school. The brainchild of another former graduate student, Demetrius Fuller (author of “The Hope of the HOMies”[1]), the HOMies began in the art room to encourage students to practice, to observe, and to be curious. And importantly, to embrace mistakes. Too often in art, or math or reading, students will say, “I can’t do that.” The idea is that these habits of mind (the H.O.M. of “HOMies”) can build a school culture of curiosity where thinking, creativity, and expression are enticing to students. Demetrius has been developing this framework for learning and thinking for the past two decades. (I blogged about his work in the art classroom last March 2023).  However, it took the vision and openness of the principal, Nate Meyers, for the HOMies to move from the art room to the whole school.  As researcher and author Simon Sinek argues in his 2009 Ted Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” we all have the ability to do great things given the right environment. The leader sets the tone and can nurture and nudge that positive environment. “When people feel safe and protected by the leader in the organization, the natural reaction is to trust and cooperate” (Sinek, 2009). That is what I saw at Sokolowski. 

HOMie cards on student desks

On each student desk is a small card where students earn badges when they practice the skills of The Brave One, Triple Practicer,  Eagle Eye Detective, Stellar Storyteller, Inventor Innovator, Captain of the Clouds, Maven and Inspector Reflector. 

In one class, students are working in small groups and pairs studying a small bug or insect. I ask one student what badge he hopes to earn. Holding his small plastic magnifying glass up to the jar where a small dubia roach is moving around, he says without pausing, “Definitely Inspector Reflector.” His partner disagrees, “No, this is about being an Eagle Eye Detective. We have to figure out how many legs this insect has!” Whichever current badge is correct seems less important than the total focus that these young seven- and eight-year-olds apply to the task. The teacher lets students know that they are, indeed, winning badges for Eagle Eye. There are some audible “yesses!”

2nd grader proudly displaying Captain of the Clouds and Brave One

In another class that is just finishing a literacy block, a young boy pursues Demetrius, or Mr. D, as he’s called. “I’m ready for my card. I’ve earned three badges for Brave One.”

“Absolutely,” Mr. D. concurs. “Your teacher will email me, and I will do a Card Ceremony.” Once students earn three badges, they then earn a card.

The idea is that students will collect all eight cards. (Three badges equals a card). Once a student has collected all eight cards, they earn the coveted “Whole Me” card. 

While the card collecting and the habits of mind clearly have captivated the attention of these elementary school aged children, what is more impressive is to hear the teachers remind students which habit they might focus on. This framework has the potential to shape academic discourse in the whole school.

“I want the HOMies to instill in the teachers the same awe and curiosity and wonder that our children naturally come with.” Demetrius explains how he sees the power of this framework.  “I just facilitated a team meeting and asked the teachers to make a bird’s eye map of the school and surrounding areas in order to tell their friend who is visiting where to park.”  He’s excited by the models that teachers made and the excitement that they brought to the task. “We don’t do enough of that kind of work in school. Adults need to play, too.”

This is Demetrius’ first year as an interdisciplinary coach. “I’m seeing so much tension amongst the adults.” He clenches his fists to show how the teachers feel.  “There is so much put upon them. And then that spreads to the children. I want to find ways to lighten the atmosphere. We need to play. We need to laugh. That’s learning, too.”

Demetrius explains the evolution of the Homies

The HOMies provide a framework for the teachers to experiment and play. Each HOMie habit can reflect numerous skills, and teachers have autonomy in how they connect their curriculum with those habits.

HOMies reward students for their thinking (the process) over the product and can help teachers as they differentiate instructional material. Most importantly, HOMies have built a school culture where everyone wants to be a Maven or an Inspector Reflector or a Brave One or a Story Teller.

The next challenge will be how to institutionalize these habits so that the HOMies no longer rely on Demetrius to bring the light and laughter. Will each professional learning community or PLC have its own HOMie ambassador? Will the instructional leadership team continue to tweak the HOMies? How will they determine impact? Will parents and caregivers get involved as ambassadors, too?  When might there be a living HOMie handbook that is regularly reviewed by all stakeholders? The possibilities are endless.

The HOMies have helped this school, students and faculty take deep pride in how they think about and represent learning. These are not just words on the wall: students and teachers live the Brave One and are true Captains of the Clouds and compelling Steller Storytellers.

Final Card: The WHOLE ME

[1] “Hope of the HOMies” is a chapter in our forthcoming book Designing Schools and Democratic Learning Environments: A Global Perspective, Palgrave Macmillan, Cham., February, 2024. (Edited by Gustavo Rojas Ayala, Jonathan Mendoza, and Linda Nathan)