Principal Ted Vierling and his staff are helping students create a culture of kindness, honesty, and self-respect at Seven Lakes High School.
By Lacey Kupfer Wulf Opening photo by SLHS journalism student, Payton Vogel
At Seven Lakes High School, just after third period every other week, you’ll find every student in a discussion. They won’t be discussing math or history. They will be discussing honesty, perseverance, setting goals, positive self-talk, and more. The curriculum is called CharacterStrong.
What It Is
CharacterStrong is an organization that provides curriculum to schools about character and social-emotional learning. Katy High School alumnus and principal of Seven Lakes, Ted Vierling—who before was a teacher at Mayde Creek and principal at Beckendorff Junior High—says, “There’s a lot of pressure put on schools for test scores, but I think it’s important that we focus on the human being aspect. I don’t want you to forget how to treat others.”
CharacterStrong goes far beyond an anti-bullying assembly or a kindness week to teach students topics like mindfulness, stress management, positive self-talk, how to serve and be compassionate toward others. Yamilet Batiz, instructional science coach and head of the campus improvement team, says, “Socially our kids are exposed to so much good and bad. Instant gratification is everywhere. Behavior like cheating is easier than ever.” She adds, “You have to work at building good character.” CharacterStrong provides opportunities to build that good character.
"There's a lot of pressure put on schools for test scores, but I think it's important that we focus on the human being aspect. I don't want you to forget how to treat others."
- Ted Vierling, Principal, Seven Lakes High School
In every lesson, teachers use culturally relevant videos and fun activities to engage students, and lessons are chosen with specific needs in mind. For example, Hampshire says, “Right before finals, we did a lesson on stress management and mindfulness.”
CharacterStrong teaches students lessons that go far beyond the school halls. Batiz says, “It is our hope that the kids will walk out of the classroom remembering that their teacher taught them about empathy or honesty. If not the most important thing we’re teaching, it’s up there!” And it doesn’t have to stop there. Senior class president and captain of the dance team, Alexa Keller says, “Hopefully it will make our school a better place, and we can pass that on to our community.”
Where It Started
District-wide, Katy ISD schools are going through seminars like Safe and Civil Schools to address issues like bullying and school safety. But Seven Lakes High School wanted to find a vehicle to teach what they value as a campus. Alone, Safe and Civil Schools felt insufficient.
As a student council sponsor, world geography teacher Kirsten Hampshire often takes her students to workshops or camps for leadership. At one of these workshops, she heard about CharacterStrong. After bringing it back to Seven Lakes and discussing it with Principal Vierling and other staff, they decided to implement the CharacterStrong program. Hampshire and Batiz have spearheaded this program at Seven Lakes.
Principal Vierling says, “Programs like CharacterStrong reinforce what we are already doing and make what we are doing that much better.” He continues, “As a community, we have the opportunity to build character in kids. We need to talk about how to treat each other with just basic good human interaction.” CharacterStrong is the way Seven Lakes has chosen to teach the core values at Seven Lakes.
How It Works
Since fall of 2017, teachers leads a discussion using lessons plans from CharacterStrong every other week for twenty minutes after third period. Each classroom teacher identifies a lesson to focus on and facilitate.
Every week, students are also given a character dare, or a challenge, something to do or think about that week. Principal Vierling says, “Even if only a handful of students do the challenge, and it helps them feel good and learn, fantastic!” Although not everyone completes these character dares, they encourage students to actively do something different and more to improve themselves and the world around them.
But CharacterStrong benefits more than just the students. The lessons they teach also impact them as adults and educators. Hampshire says, “There isn’t a person on the planet who can’t benefit from positive self-talk, having grit, and managing stress.” Teens and adults alike are benefiting from these character lessons.
Where It’s Going
So far, Vierling says, “On the whole, it has been pretty well received by the kids.” Keller has already seen a difference at school. She says, “I’ve seen a sense of unity. The students see that they aren’t alone in struggling with these things. They learn that they can rely on each other. And the lessons are coming from a teacher they have every day. They see that the teachers are real people who struggle too.”
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As with any new program, CharacterStrong at Seven Lakes will adapt and change to meet the students’ and teachers’ needs. “We are making lessons more relevant to what we do in our daily teaching and in our lives as Spartans,” Batiz says.
Among the future plans for the program, CharacterStrong staff will come and train the teachers in August 2018 and provide additional guidance for the program’s development at Seven Lakes.
Also, other schools in Katy ISD have followed suit and are implementing CharacterStrong curriculum as well. Beckendorff Junior High and Seven Lakes Junior High, feeder schools for Seven Lakes High School, are among them. Because these other schools are joining the CharacterStrong ranks, students can have consistent instruction for years on character and social-emotional development.