Be the Water Bottle

Standards Met: McREL Life Skills/Self-Regulation Standard 6 (Restrains impulsivity); Standard 2 (Performs self-appraisal)

What You Need: The Leader in Me curriculum, can of soda, water bottle

What to Do: Beth Vavrousek, a fifth-grade teacher at Grove Elementary School in Marysville, Washington, uses The Leader in Me, a curriculum based on Stephen R. Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, to instill leadership values. Students review the seven habits extensively, and then set goals for embodying them.

To teach the habit “Be Proactive,” Vavrousek passes around a can of soda and invites students to shake it, asking them what would happen if they opened it. (It would explode.) Passing it around again, she asks them to tap the top; when she opens it, it fizzes but doesn’t explode. She relates this to getting shaken up and then calming down. Students brainstorm events that might shake them up and strategies that could calm them down.

Next, Vavrousek has students shake a bottle of water and asks what would happen if they opened it. (Nothing.) She explains that while it’s helpful to have calming strategies, it’s even better to stay calm. The water bottle becomes a metaphor the class refers to: Be the water bottle. “Kids have become more in charge of their own lives,” she says. “And I’m free to focus on teaching!”

Techies at Work

Standard Met: McREL Life Skills/Thinking and Reasoning Standard 5 (Applies basic trouble-shooting and problem-solving techniques)

What You Need: Computers, computer programs (e.g., iMovie)

What to Do: At Pilot Knob STEM Magnet School in Eagan, Minnesota, fourth-grade tech whizzes support their classmates. In a program created by technology integration specialist Michele Haigh, three students per class are selected to serve on the “Tech Squad.” These students teach tech mini-lessons and support peers during class, enabling the teacher to lead small-group instruction.

Assign small groups to become experts on different computer programs and teach mini-lessons when you want to use a program in class. To prepare, ask pairs of students to complete different tasks using the same program and identify a technology skill that may be difficult for other students. Then, each small group develops and rehearses a mini-lesson teaching the skill and delivers it to the larger group for feedback.

Leadership Lessons

Standard Met: McREL Life Skills/Working With Others Standard 5 (Demonstrates leadership skills)

What You Need: Books about historical leaders, e.g., The Hero Two Doors Down: Based on the True Story of Friendship Between a Boy and a Baseball Legend, by Sharon Robinson 

What to Do: Historical figures can serve as leadership case studies. In small groups, invite students to read excerpts from books about historical leaders, such as The Hero Two Doors Down, which tells the story of Jackie Robinson, the African-American player who broke down racial barriers in Major League Baseball, through the eyes of his young neighbor Steve. (The groups could either all read about the same leader or about different leaders.) 

Once they’ve finished the story, have each group write a summary of the events of the person’s life and what they think his or her motivations were. Then, ask students to discuss what made that person a leader. Encourage them to consider both explicit acts of leadership (e.g., becoming a powerful voice in the civil rights movement) and implicit ones (modeling respect for different cultures). 

Finally, ask students to consider how the leader would react to school situations such as bullying or getting a bad grade, and have them write a fictional interview between their historical figure and a reporter. For example, a news reporter at the school playground might interview Robinson about how a fourth-grade girl should respond to a group of boys who will not let her join their kickball game. Use these examples to model how students can be leaders in their own lives.

Keep the End in Mind

Standards Met: McREL Life Skills/Self-Regulation Standard 1 (Sets and manages goals); Standard 2

What You Need: SMAARTER goals worksheet

What to Do: Kids are responsible for setting goals for themselves and their classmates in Paul Solarz’s student-led classroom.

At the end of every day at Westgate Elementary School in Arlington Heights, Illinois, one fifth grader leads the group in evaluating the behavior of everyone in the classroom that day. Students decide on a goal for the next day, such as “Listen to directions in music class,” and they are responsible for reminding one another if they are not following through on their goal.

As the year goes on, each child sets individual goals. Solarz asks students to set at least five goals for themselves. They fill out a goals worksheet to ensure that each goal is SMAARTER (specific, measurable, achievable, ambitious, relevant, timely, everlasting, rewarding) and has a specific action plan attached to it. Then, once a week, students review their goals and record evidence that supports their progress.

By setting and monitoring their own goals, students take responsibility for their behavior and achievements, says Solarz, who shares more ideas for student-led classrooms in his book, Learn Like a Pirate: Empower Your Students to Collaborate, Learn, and Succeed, and on his blog, Learn Like a Pirate.

Books and Bullying

Standard Met: McREL Life Skills/Working With Others Standard 5

What You Need: Erin Frankel’s three-part series: Weird! A Story About Dealing With Bullying in Schools; Dare! A Story About Standing Up to Bullying in Schools; and Tough! A Story About How to Stop Bullying in Schools; chart paper; marker

What to Do: In Erin Frankel’s series of picture books, the same bullying situation is presented from three different perspectives: that of the bully, that of the bullied, and that of the bystander.

Begin by reading all three books aloud to the class, or assign a different book to each of three groups to read and report on. Then, lead a discussion about each character’s role in causing, sustaining, and/or ending the bullying. In particular, students should note the power of words.

Ask kids to brainstorm bullying situations they’ve witnessed or experienced. Record the scenarios on chart paper before assigning small groups to rewrite one situation as a skit involving a successful bystander interaction. After watching the performances, discuss the power of the bystander and encourage kids to act like leaders if they encounter bullying.


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