Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

May 9, 2010

Hook, line and sinker

RMS students, staff catch, keep life lessons from 'Fish!' program

Tammie Hetzer-Womack
The Independent

RUSSELL — It’s less than a month before the last school bell rings. Almost beach time. Russell Middle School parents, do you know where your guppies are?

They’re taking a dip into education using the morale-pumping “Fish!” books.

Awhile back, Carol Digby read the popular book “Fish!” by Stephen C. Lundin, John Christensen, Phillip Strand and Harry Paul. Watching fishmongers at Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market, the authors came up with four life lessons modeled after the upbeat workers who whistle while they work, lobbing perch at patrons: “Play, be there, make their day and choose your attitude.”

Nicole Gomez says the book’s angle is life-touching.

“It’s inspirational because even though they work in a smelly fish market, they have fun and are happy and positive. It shows us even though we are in school, which kids think is boring, it can be fun while learning,” the 13-year-old Ashland girl said.

Digby floated the idea, asking fellow RMS teachers to bring “Fish!” to their classrooms. After a voluntary back-to-school professional development seminar, about 70 percent came aboard. The tidal wave of positivity spread to district schools and its pupils. Laughter filled corridors.

“The ‘Fish!’ program helps instill a sense of choice — a personal choice. It helps everyone — students or adults — realize the life you live all comes down to the choices you make. You can choose to live a life of always focusing on the bad, or you can choose to take the bad and work to resolve it,” said social studies teacher Billy Parker.

Right before state testing — not your typical quiet public school of fish — Digby tosses a beach ball to a student, throwing out a review question. He cruises by with an answer, hurling the ball back at Digby. Students chuck a stuffed Nemo or Dory animated movie fish around the classroom, quizzing one another.

“It’s so precious to watch, seeing them so motivated, pepped up and focused,” said science teacher Stacey Thompson.

“Kids got the picture. We told them we want to be here and get work done. But why can’t we play while we’re doing that?” Digby asked.

“Though we are in school, it needs to be fun for everyone — even the teachers,” agreed Madison Gallaher, 13, of Russell. “They try to make the learning fun and help us through the year.”

Hot outside, the days can be lazy and hazy. But the program keeps William Peterman, 12, in the swim.

“The ‘Fish!’ program has benefited me by instead of waking up in the morning and going, ‘I don’t wanna go to school,’ to waking up in the morning and thinking that I am going to have fun,” the Russell boy said.

Erica Bergmann said the school always had a welcoming atmosphere, but the program “caused us to be more purposeful in finding ways to be positive.”

The English teacher and department chairwoman said the initiative helps students chart their course.

“Early adolescent kids are trying to figure out who they are and where they belong. They often have a hard time feeling accepted in middle school, so it is really important for us to make them feel valued,” she said. “We’ve tried to be cheerleaders for our students this year so that they feel like they are an important part of our team and school. 

“We’ve spent quite a bit of time cheering, clapping and celebrating.”

Because of “Fish!” Jordan Goorey is smoothly sailing uncharted teenage waters.

“The biggest struggle as a kid growing up is the fact people are afraid of being judged. Our teachers teach us that being ourselves is usually the right way to go about it,” the 13-year-old Flatwoods boy said.

Resource teacher Abby Francis said when one student smiles it catches on.

“Your attitude is contagious. A negative attitude is like the swine flu. If you keep your head up and keep a positive attitude, eventually the people around you will catch it, too. There are a lot of things in this world we do not have control of and things we can’t change. However, we have the power and ability to choose our attitude each day and decide if we want to make the best of a situation or let it bring us down. We have the control to make something great or make ourselves miserable.”

Instructors share the “Fish!” philosophy too, uplifting each other on bad days.

“I always try to lighten the mood. ‘Fish!’ encourages emphasis on play and trying to make someone’s day. This is often easily accomplished with laughter,” said science teacher Derrick Elliott.

In team teaching, everyone is on same page, “united on high expectations and positive attitude,” said math teacher and department chairwoman Jo Traylor.

“Our primary concern is maintaining a positive environment for our students and for each other. We want to make school a place where we all want to be, not have to be.”

Digby said the grassroots campaign was pushed to everyone — teachers, administrators and support staff.

“The ‘Fish!’ program has brought me, as a teacher’s aide, more on an even level with my colleagues. They have included me in unified projects and activities. That might not have happened as often in the past. It has created a stronger bond between us and made it a more pleasant atmosphere to work in,” said instructional assistant Brenda Litteral.

Everyone sharing “Fish!” is a plus for students.

“This is the first time all of my teachers expect the same things. All of my team teachers use the ‘Fish!’ program and it helps to unify what goes on in the classrooms. I always know what is expected of me,” said Michael Baird, 13, of Flatwoods.

It’s “life-changing,” said Digby, adding when she comes home from a rough day at work and is grouchy, her husband and children ask, “What happened to the ‘Fish!’ philosophy?”

Math teacher John VanHoose always attempts to be lighthearted.

“’Fish!’ helps to reinforce it. It improves my relationships and how I conduct myself daily.”

During National Teacher Appreciation Week this week, RMS students are thankful for their educators — and their playfulness.

“My teachers are so special because they help me to learn, not just sit down in the classroom with hours of lecturing. They are absolutely the greatest teachers in the world. They make learning so much fun and they try their very hardest to make us happy,” said Maddie Fletcher, 13, of Ashland.

Kenna Kazee, 12, knows it isn’t easy.

“All the fun things our teachers do for us, it must be really hard to plan great motivational things day after day to do in the classrooms. I love all my teachers and I always try to express my feelings by my actions toward them,” the Flatwoods girl said.

Seventh-grader Cheyenne Buchanan would love to be a teacher. Her teachers offer inspiration.

“They make me feel very loved,” the Raceland student said.

She’d recommend “Fish!” for grownups, too.

“They can learn to respect one another. It’s important for adults to get along because it sets good examples for children and other youths,” Cheyenne said. “Making people’s day can make them feel great. Just a smile can show someone how much you care.”