East Elementary students fill backpacks

East Elementary fourth-graders Presley Simpson and Aubrey Freymann fill bags with groceries to give away as part of the school’s backpack program. The job is one of several leadership roles being given to elementary students as part of the school’s Leader in Me program.

SHELDON—Elementary students in the Sheldon School District have been passing notes all week — notes about how to be responsible.

Their notes and ideas are being displayed in the school’s hallways on Post-it Notes. The activity is part of East Elementary’s Leader in Me program, which incorporates lessons on leadership and success in and out of the classroom.

The program, which started in January and will last through the spring, combines in-class instruction on habits of successful leaders with hands-on activities. Students then act on what they have learned with new leadership roles in and out of the classroom.

“We’re giving them a chance to do things kids traditionally wouldn’t get to do,” said fourth-grade teacher Jerod Reinking.

Reinking, along with kindergarten teacher Megan Fitzgerald and third-grade teacher Ann Jansen are coordinating East Elementary’s program.

Leadership roles include reading school announcements in the morning, leading assemblies or handing out bags from the school’s backpack program. A small group of students also help give building tours to visiting families.

The roles come with added responsibility, but Reinking said the students have responded with enthusiasm and left their own touches.

“It’s unique to be led around a building and get a tour from a 9- or 10-year-old kid, but we’ve had awesome feedback,” Reinking said. “It’s a unique thing and a positive experience for our students besides just to come to school and take classes.”

Leadership opportunities are smaller and more structured at the lowest grade levels, but Reinking said the roles available to third- and fourth-grade students give the younger students something to work for.

“It’s a privilege when you get to an older level. It’s something for those younger students to look forward to that they can model for younger kids, that one day I get to do that,” Reinking said.

In addition to giving students chances to practice leadership, the Leader in Me program centers around the seven habits of success laid out in author Stephen Covey’s 1989 book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

Each of the seven habits are incorporated into classroom lessons. Jansen helped tailor the curriculum for East Elementary teachers to make sure students at all grade levels have a shared vocabulary. She said the common ground encourages students to talk with each other about what they’re learning.

“They’re taking ownership in it. They’re excited for the lessons, they like talking about it,” Jansen said. “They like thinking about opportunities of ways they can help at home, ways they can help at school and in the neighborhood.”

Students spend two weeks covering each habit, concentrating on lessons in the first week and following up with games and activities to boost their learning in the second.

Fitzgerald helps plan the booster activities, which includes the Post-it Notes exercise on responsibility. Other booster activities involve playing quiz games or drawing pictures.

Fitzgerald also implements booster activities for teachers and staff during weekly meetings. These range from games to brainstorming ways to implement Leader in Me into classes.

“We are compiling so many activities for the staff to do to build the Leader in Me. But we’re also making student boosters and trying to make it fun by showing there’s another way of teaching it to them,” Fitzgerald said.

The Leader in Me program also is being implemented at the middle and high school. The program was supposed to start in the spring of 2020 but was pushed back when school closed for the coronavirus pandemic.

Middle and high school students restarted the program in the fall, but East Elementary pressed pause until after Christmas break so teachers and students a chance to adjust before adding a new thing during COVID-19.

“It was pretty overwhelming to be a teacher in the fall,” Fitzgerald said. “It was a lot to come in and just be a teacher starting back during the pandemic, so we talked and decided Leader in Me is very important but let’s press pause until maybe January and then we can restart.”

Since starting in January, students have completed the first of the seven habits, “Be proactive,” and are wrapping up the second, “Begin with the end in mind.” Fitzgerald said the program is an opportunity for younger kids to start seeing their own potential.

“At our level, we’re just giving them ideas and ways they can be a leader and then they can decide how that looks for them,” Fitzgerald said.