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News and Events
School Stories

How We Cultivate Strong Character & Community in Lower School

By Nan Remington, Head of Lower School

Families and schools have faced several challenges in the last few years. Students might be grappling to understand the events in our country and worldwide while feeling the pandemic’s effects. As educators, these events come into our classroom through our students, who ask questions and look for clarity and understanding. For students to look at these events through the lens of critical thinking, compassion, and empathy, they need to be taught and practice these skills at school and at home.

While academics are essential to the school day, Lower School teachers understand and see the need to help students cultivate skills that allow them to act with high character and compassion. Associate Professor of Philosophy, Charles Starkey, studies emotion theory and moral psychology. He says that our values determine character traits but that emotions also play a huge role. In short, kids need emotional intelligence and to notice and be influenced by positive character traits in others.  

ou may be thinking that this all sounds too ambitious, especially for our younger students. However, our Lower School teachers will tell you that their students model the traits in Graland’s character framework throughout the school day. Our teachers know that small, consistent opportunities to use and practice these skills in day-to-day life result in students beginning to form a compass on how to live a life filled with agency, resilience, individuality, curiosity, responsibility, empathy, and more.

Promote Independence / Agency
By Justine Hall, Grade 2 Teacher

Promoting independence and agency in the classroom is like giving a student the key to a magic door. A door that opens up a world of possibilities for them to feel confident, capable, creative, and curious. 

When students have independence within the classroom environment, it helps to develop a sense of agency. This begins when teachers set up their classrooms. When materials and resources are clearly labeled and accessible for students, it promotes resourcefulness and offers choices. Additional opportunities for students to express independence and agency can be seen through classroom activities in Grade 2 daily. 

As an educator, I have found that students develop self-awareness and self-motivation when they have independence in their learning. This can be seen during second-grade writing lessons when students are challenged to use a rubric to assess their writing and reflect on their current skills to generate future goals. In addition, in each second-grade classroom, anchor charts adorn the walls. These are a reference from which students can select ideas or strategies for story writing or solving various math problems. Students are encouraged to use these charts to develop independence and problem-solving skills rather than relying solely on their teacher for support.  

As you can see, there are opportunities for students to march through that magic door in every lesson. It is so exciting as a teacher to watch them go!

Cultivate Compassion / Empathy
By Julie O’Connor, Grade 3 Teacher

As I watched a third-grade boy come my way at recess, I could tell he was in significant pain. He had just fallen onto the cement while playing a game with his friends, and his hands did not catch his fall. He was scared about what this injury might mean. As I quickly walked him to the nurse, third graders from every direction showed sincere concern, and once I returned to recess, children were checking in on how he was feeling and if they could do anything to help. This boy’s friends didn’t want to carry on with the game but instead were concerned for him. I watched compassion and empathy in action as third graders felt each other’s burden. And, though this was a heartbreaking situation, there was such beauty in the kindness displayed. 

Graland third graders regularly experience what compassion and empathy look like and how it feels to not only give it but to receive it. During the school day, this is displayed in different ways. I see how our students draw upon patience, humility, and forgiveness (third graders are so quick to forgive) to have empathy for their community. The models our children have at home and school are key contributors to instilling compassion in them. In turn, I see our students’ tender hearts readily give empathy to themselves and those around them.

Honor Individuality / Curiosity
By Liza Baker, Kindergarten Teacher

In Kindergarten, we know that we are an introductory year for most families to who we are as a school. Our goal is to provide a student-centered, caring, and supportive space and establish a solid foundation of trust for the many years ahead at Graland.

 Honoring individuality and curiosity are cornerstones of the kindergarten year. From the moment a child walks into our classrooms, we begin building connections and trust. We show interest in who they are and are curious to get to know them as individuals. When students feel seen, heard, and loved, they thrive in our space. We attend to this daily by learning about their passions and asking questions. We greet each student, listen to their stories, and also share our own. We celebrate our differences and similarities in our “Self and Others” and “Family” units of study. We foster individuality through choice in play and academics. We aim to see each child for the unique and special talents they bring to our community of learners rather than fitting them into a preconceived mold.

In addition to understanding our kindergartners socially and emotionally, we also work to know them as students. We facilitate discussions, whether in Morning Meetings or learning time, that give students a voice. We foster a safe community that allows us to celebrate successes and work through mistakes. We honor and support each student along their personal journey of understanding our curriculum and adapting it to fit their needs. We do this through individualized and small-group instruction. Thanks to small class sizes and two full-time teachers, we are able to teach directly to the specific needs of each student while also moving them along as a whole. While we have kindergarten benchmarks to meet, we weigh student progress into our definition of success. 

Instill Integrity / Responsibility
By Lisa Schreiner, Grade 1 Teacher

We instill integrity and responsibility in our first graders by modeling expected behaviors, holding students accountable for their choices, and encouraging them to have empathy for others. Helping students build a strong sense of identity is the foundation of integrity. We begin the school year with a review of the Graland Guidelines. Students listen to a number of picture books on the topics of honesty, safety, respect, and responsibility. Students participate in class discussions, act out various scenarios, and write their own Graland Guideline books. These guidelines serve as a roadmap, whether redirecting behaviors or highlighting positive choices. First graders begin to notice the impact made by the positive actions of others and enjoy sharing their observations at the end of the school day. 

As we continue to read picture books throughout the year, we focus on building empathy. We discuss the feelings of the characters and encourage students to make their own personal connections to the text. Students use empathy as they participate in various activities that help them discover the difference between the concepts of equality and fairness. They also get the opportunity to use these skills to meet the challenges presented in the Gates Innovation Lab. First graders who think about the feelings of others are more likely to stand up for what is right, take responsibility for their actions, and make positive choices in difficult situations.

Celebrate Perseverance / Resilience 
By Courtney Menk, Grade 4 Teacher

Fourth graders celebrate perseverance and resilience throughout the school year. Writing a story or essay is a lengthy, time-consuming process in fourth grade. Students spend weeks planning, drafting, revising, and editing their pieces. The revision stage is a big emphasis in fourth grade. Students revise on their own as well as with peers and teachers in the quest to develop the best final product. Once the final copy is printed, it is time to celebrate all of this hard work! Classes gather together for “Publishing Parties,” where stories are shared, and treats are enjoyed. Each student is truly proud of their writing and the perseverance and resilience that it took to create it. 

In math class, perseverance and resilience show up in a variety of ways. Every day in math class, students are given multiple chances to tackle similar types of problems allowing them to learn from their mistakes and make adjustments to their strategies and techniques. Through our classroom discussions, students talk about mistakes and help each other discover new ideas and methods. It is great to see the smiles on everyone’s faces as they leave the classroom with a better understanding of the day’s topic than when they walked in the door.   

Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1927, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.