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Building Integrity Island: Insight from Inside Out

By Josh Cobb, Head of Middle School
This summer I went to see the movie, Inside Out, with my wife and daughter. Though the five emotions vying for control inside 11-year-old Riley’s head entertained me, the fate of her “personality islands” truly captivated me.  

When the movie begins, Riley has five pillars of her character: goofy, honest, hockey player, good friend, and loving daughter. Some of these elements of her identity seem typical.  We are often defined by what we do (hockey) and who we are (friend and daughter), but other components of our personality are character traits that we value so much that they become part of us (honesty). As I watched Riley struggle with the challenges of preadolescence while also enduring a move to a new city, I was particularly intrigued by the impact of that transition on Riley’s integrity.

Interpreting Integrity
At Graland, we have a set of guiding principles that help guide us toward our mission. To keep these principles at the forefront of our minds, we ask faculty to choose a guiding principle and share its impact on their lives with the entire Middle School. We call these “UpWords assemblies.” This year, we are also asking every eighth grader to give an UpWords speech to his or her classmates. Over the years, we have had faculty speak on “Embrace Experiences,” “Promote Independence,” “Celebrate Perseverance,” and several others. No one has yet to speak on “Instill Integrity.” Speakers may avoid this topic because it is challenging to define integrity, to capture all that it encompasses in a 15-minute speech.

Unlike a speech, a film like Inside Out can use powerful images to create meaning. The brilliant animation that depicted the destruction of Riley’s Honesty Island clarified my understanding of integrity. The first definition of integrity in the Oxford English Dictionary is “completeness,” deriving from the Latin word, “integer,” meaning “whole.” Though further definitions directly link integrity to morality, the concept of wholeness is most instructive.  

Before her family’s move to San Francisco, Riley feels intact. Yet, as she struggles with that transition, her identity begins to dissolve. Specifically, her vision of herself as an honest person shatters, shaking the completeness of her character. Watching Riley’s Honesty Island collapse made me realize the significance of our integrity. If we are honest and reliable, we feel whole. If we are dishonest, if we cheat, or if we let someone down, our character begins to disintegrate.  Though there are times when we are all tempted to dodge a relatively small consequence by fudging the truth, there is always a bigger consequence: the crumbling of our character.

Instilling Integrity
Since it is our mission to “build strong character,” we cannot ignore the integrity of the Rileys, the 10- through 14-year-olds, who inhabit our Middle School. We have events, like UpWords assemblies, in which we share the values that make up strong character, yet we also want students to have a chance to discuss and discover the values that make them who they are. These conversations happen throughout the day from advisory to academic classes to athletic endeavors. They happen during a private conversation with a teacher after class or in an administrative office after a student makes a mistake. 

Of course, we want each student to have a completely established moral compass that guides him from right decision to right decision, but the reality is that the identity and the integrity of preadolescents is still in progress. Like Riley, sometimes students can make a choice that goes against what they truly value, and they then have to work to rebuild the wholeness of their character.

Though our school rules are a good starting point to help students avoid mistakes, we don’t believe developing integrity happens by simply demanding adherence to school policies.  Understanding integrity takes time and experience; therefore, we help facilitate that process through education, conversation and reflection. Though some students may stumble through this journey, we believe that they have the resilience of Riley. During the movie her identity was shaken, but she was also quick to rebuild. Our students’ personalities are still forming, some islands will go, some will stay the same. 

At my opening speech this school year, I asked the students to think about the islands that are essential to who they are and do their best to maintain those throughout this year and throughout their life. I concluded by telling them, “I look forward to seeing you build and rebuild your character this year. As Riley’s story tells us, it is not always easy growing up, sometimes sadness takes the reins from joy, but in the end, we are strong, we find ourselves whole again.” 

JOSH COBB holds a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, a master’s in English literature and a master’s in education from Columbia University in New York City. He loves the blend of progressive and traditional teaching methods at Graland, and how the faculty works to combine diverse strategies in order to best serve their students.
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Graland Country Day School

55 CLERMONT STREET    DENVER, CO 80220    303.399.0390   
Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1924, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.