Syracuse Students Discover Inner-Strength and Learn to Value Each Other Through Positivity Project

Local veterans gathered together with a 5th grade class at J.T. Roberts PreK-8 School in Syracuse. The students interviewed the veterans, who shared stories of life, loss and bravery.

Bravery is one of 24 character strengths that are part of the Positivity Project, a national nonprofit effort that helps students build stronger relationships by recognizing these traits in themselves and each other.

For about fifteen minutes a day, students discuss weekly character strengths, including optimism, teamwork, self-control and appreciation of beauty and excellence. The discussion is supplemented with a hands-on activity to bring the ideas to life.

The program is in its first year at Roberts and is soon being implemented across the Syracuse City School District.

Leigh Sexton, a social worker at Roberts, said even though the program is growing quickly, it’s adaptive to every classroom and every student.

“We really try to embed positivity in all different areas and collaborate with the Syracuse community to bring in new perspectives,” Sexton said.

In 2016, the Central New York Community Foundation awarded the Positivity Project a grant to implement its lessons in Syracuse. Funding went toward the training of teachers and staff as well as development of resources.

The grant was awarded from the Shirley M. Aubrey Fund, which supports programs serving children. Aubrey, who passed away in 2006, was a lifelong Syracuse-area resident and graduated from East Syracuse High School in 1941. She retired from Bristol Laboratories, where she worked for 18 years. A portion of her estate was left to the Community Foundation to provide charitable support in her name in perpetuity.

Treasure, a fifth grader, said her favorite character strength so far is appreciation of beauty and excellence. She recalled how watching a video of people playing in snow helped change her perspective.

“You always think about how you have to shovel and plow snow, but there are good things about it,” she said. “You could get snow days and you can actually go outside and appreciate how pretty it is.”

As part of the program, fourth grade students have been creating a kindness chain. When they observe an act of kindness in their classroom, they write it on a piece of paper and add it to the growing chain that hangs wall-to-wall.

Mike Erwin, president and co-founder of the Positivity Project, said the organization is already making a big impact in Syracuse.

“CNYCF funding made it possible for us to train JT Roberts’ teachers and staff in positive psychology, provide on-going support, and give each student their own “Positivity Shield” shirt that reminds them that they, and other people, matter,” Erwin said.

In a first grade classroom, students are focusing on the character strength love.

“How do we show love?” Ms. Kimberly Gacek asks her class. Her students are full of ideas:

“When somebody falls we can help them up.”

“We can smile at them!”

“If someone is sick we can take care of them.”

After brainstorming, students draw a paper heart out of a bag, and hold it against their chests. When it’s their turn to share, they read the heart to the class: Help clean up, use your manners, smile, give a hug, and listen.

The positive actions become their homework assignments, and when they go home they will explore these new ways to embody love and positivity in their communities.

Check out more photos of the Positivity Project in Syracuse here!

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