I had been up since 3 a.m. and had driven treacherous roads to a mining town in the eastern part of the state to provide an Arts in Education writing residency to elementary school children. I knew that the population was mixed: ranch kids and mining families mingled with Native Americans from the nearby reservation and the children of Hispanic migrant workers. I'd had some experience teaching mixed populations, and I knew that it would be especially challenging to create focus, excellence, and unity. Anxiety made me shiver as I parked my car.
I trudged into the school, but as soon as I opened the door, my heart lifted. All feelings of dread and homesickness left me. I felt like I had come home, in the best sense of the word: to a place of light and order and joy, a place of belonging. I followed the sound of voices to the multipurpose room, where the whole school had gathered for a morning assembly. Children sat or knelt on the gymnasium floor while the principal, followed by several students and teachers, spoke about and demonstrated various positive actions.
The children in the audience were utterly polite, breaking into laughter as different negative actions were transformed into positive actions. Their delight was palpable. Their joy was unmistakable. When the children stood together to perform a positive song, every one of them singing at full-tilt, tears filled my eyes. This was the essence of my dream of school, the one that had attracted me to teaching in the first place. I had left teaching, ostensibly to write but mainly because I felt beaten by the huge and heavy challenges of education. This school had taken those challenges and transformed them!
"This," I thought, "is what school should be for all children everywhere: a place where people want to be; a place where they are safe to learn and grow." My experience at that school continued to be positive and uplifting, and I found myself wishing that every school could offer opportunities like this one.
Over a 12-year period, as I conducted writing residencies throughout the region, I learned to recognize Positive Action schools when I walked through the door. My heart always leapt in anticipation. At a Positive Action school, I could count on receiving respect and attention from students, teachers and administrators; I knew that the students would do their best in their writing and their behavior. Our results were always amazing, our performance programs inspiring. So many students produced stellar work that I began to track the difference between "ordinary" schools and Positive Action schools.