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In these houses, all belong

Godwin Heights — Fourth-graders Aaniyla Williams and Khariyah Leal sat in the cafeteria and studied drawings they had made. 

“When I think of the Earth, I think of trees and flowers,” said Aaniyla, whose drawing features two trees crossing each other surrounded by mini drawings of the Earth, flowers and the letter “E.”

Khariyah’s drawing is just of Earth, because it “is always together,” she said.

Elements of both of the girls’ drawings, along with those in their group, would be incorporated into a poster of a smiling Earth held up by two hands, with trees as ears and a group of people on top, holding hands. The slogan, “The Earth is what keeps us all connected” is written across the top.

When the group revealed their poster to the rest of House Earth, you could hear the collective gasp – only a small sign of the excitement about to come.

Building Belonging

Instructional specialist Karen Baum said a superintendent survey of last year’s fifth-graders showed that about a quarter felt “they didn’t belong here.”

“We just thought, we don’t want any (to feel that way),” Baum said. “We want that percentage to be zero, zero kids to feel like they don’t belong.”

Baum acknowledged that the survey was done during pandemic building closures, while online learning and minimal school activities were taking place. But staff felt something needed to be created to help build that sense of belonging, she said.

The school’s improvement team presented the idea of the house program. Principal Steve Minard was introduced to the concept at a previous school, a concept developed by the Ron Clark Academy. Similar to the idea in the Harry Potter books, the student population is “sorted” into houses at random.

At North Godwin, there are five houses: Earth, Wind, Fire, Water and Space. Each house includes third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders. Even staff was sorted into houses.

“The idea is, if you are in House Wind in third grade, then you would stay in House Wind in fourth and fifth grades,” Baum said. “So you really have an identity in this building that is separate from your teacher, your class or your grade.”

The goal is to help students develop a sense of belonging and social skills, have a positive impact on their community, participate in cross-grade collaboration and learn to be team members, which can grow employability skills. Students will do that by participating as a “house” on service projects, working together to plan and carry them out.

“Industry needs kids to be collaborative,” Baum said. “They need kids to communicate. They need them to be creative. They need them to have critical thinking skills. These are the Cs of the 21st century.”

House Fire demonstrates their chant during a North Godwin assembly and third-graders Ximena Chavez-Rubio and Jordis Pelekoudas demonstrate the House Earth handshake

Dances & Fist Bumps

It was hard for North Godwin staff to contain the excitement of the students as they filed into the school’s gym. During the assembly, each of the five houses was able to introduce their house and showcase their poster, dance, chat, mantra and handshake.

“We don’t want you to feel like you don’t belong here,” Minard said to the student body as he explained the reason behind the houses. “We want everyone in the building to feel like they belong.”

A cheer rose up from the students. 

“It was fun,” said fourth-grader Serenity Bates, who helped create the House Earth chat and dance.

Third-graders Ximena Chavez-Rudio and Jordis Pelekoudas were part of the group that demonstrated the House Earth’s handshake, a fist bump followed by one hand wrapping over the other.

“It is supposed to symbolize a tree,” Ximena said. “It’s kind of cool to have our own handshake.”

Even staff got into the fun, shouting chants and showing off their dance moves with their houses.

“A lot of what was demonstrated, it may have been teacher polished, but it was kid driven,” Minard said. 

In the end, North Godwin is one, and with the students Minard went through the school’s mantra before the assembly was dismissed:

“We are North Godwin
Five houses strong
Growing tomorrow’s leaders
In a place where everyone belongs.”

Recalled Baum: “As the students were leaving, I had one student stop to tell me that this was the most fun he had had so far this year.”

Students from House Earth show off their poster
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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma covers Kent ISD and Godwin Heights. She was born in the Detroit area but grew up in Brighton where she attended Hartland Public Schools. The salutatorian for the Class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism and minored in photography and German. She expanded her color palette to include orange and black as both her daughters graduated from Byron Center Public Schools; maroon and white for Aquinas College where her daughter studies nursing and also brought back blue and maize for Grand Rapids Community College where her youngest daughter currently is studying music. Read Joanne's full bio

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