The recent tragedy in Newtown has sparked heated debates about gun control and school-related violence. There is a lot of talk, but what’s actually being done?
“In light of what happened in Connecticut, everybody’s talking about security,” said Anna Thomas, principal of Marina West Elementary School in Oxnard. “We have to be proactive and look at how we’re preventing those sorts of things.”
To do this, Marina West has incorporated an educational program created by Lesson One, a Boston-based nonprofit foundation, into its daily curricula. The program teaches students accountability, self-control and resiliency.
“Each of these skills is equally important, they’re sequential,” said Jon Oliver, program founder and author of Lesson One: the ABCs of Life. “It’s like saying any letter in the alphabet is more important than the others. We need all the skills together.”
On Jan. 18, Oliver demonstrated the complementary nature of these skills through a variety of his program’s exercises in classrooms at Marina West, some 3,000 miles from his Marblehead, Mass., home. For more than three decades, he has been working with schools across the country.
“I’ve done this for 36 years; I’ve been teaching for 40,” said Oliver, carrying a large duffel bag stuffed with various games and toys to Mrs. Martinez’s first-grade classroom. “We’ve been in about 30 states.”
Marina West Elementary is just one of the Ventura County schools incorporating Lesson One’s principles. The program is being used at 10 different Oxnard locations, including Chavez, McKinna and Rose Avenue Elementary schools. It has also seen success at E.P. Foster Elementary in Ventura.
“We’re trying to get the word out in Southern California because there’s so much interest, in Oxnard and other places, about the total child.”
As he stood in front of a classroom full of 6- and 7-year-olds, Oliver instructed them to sit up “proud and relaxed” and to use their “self-control.” They did so immediately, focused and attentive as he delved into his bag.
From it, he withdrew a wheel with tiny, multicolored bells, which, he reminded the class, were to celebrate diversity. As the wheel spun, Oliver would tap the bells to make them ring, then stop, and ring again. The students raised their hands and wiggled their fingers in response to the sound.
“Who made you wiggle your fingers,” Oliver asked the class. “Me, the bells or yourself?”
Hands shot up across the room.
“When you raise your hand, do it proud,” Oliver reminded them and every hand inched slightly closer to the ceiling. He pointed to a student near the back of the room.
“Myself,” came the response.
“Very good,” said Oliver. “See? It’s fun to use your self-control.”
After a few more exercises, there was a brief pause to have the students close their eyes and focus on their breathing so that they could “transition out of the excitement.” Then Oliver picked up his duffel bag and headed to Mrs. Mayeda’s fourth-grade class, where an awareness of current events was more prevalent.
“On the news, there have been a lot of stories about people being out of control,” said Oliver. “When you see these news stories, what skills can they use? Or when you see them acting that way, what can you do to show you’re not going to act that way?”
“Use your self-control,” replied a student.
“Exactly,” said Oliver. “When you do, who does it make you proud of?”
“Myself,” came the response.
Oliver also employs a trademark exercise: lining students in a row and blowing bubbles at them. Students are instructed not to pop them, but to ignore them as they would taunts from a bully.
“We try to make things that aren’t tangible, tangible,” explained Oliver. “You say ‘self-control’ but what is it? The idea is, we do a game to define it — experiential learning — and then the kids know what it is and then we can share it and talk about it.”
But the concepts of the program’s “ABCs of Life” aren’t the only things being made tangible; the positive results of their implementation are as well.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently recognized the program on its list of evidence-based practices for mental health.
Locally, McKinna Elementary has seen an 80 percent reduction in suspensions and a 13 percent increase in standardized test scores since implementing the program. As a result, the Oxnard School District Educational Foundation hopes to bring the program to additional schools. The city of Oxnard will be contributing funding through the Community Development Block Grant Youth Enrichment Program.
“This really gives us a sense of community and that we’re here together, caring about each other,” said Thomas of Lesson One. “It’s just been fantastic.”
To learn more about Lesson One and Jon Oliver’s book, Lesson One: the ABCs of Life, visit www.lessonone.org.