Clifton gathers Stars for higher motivation, achievement

A business morning meeting is usually entered into with a small sigh and a large cup of coffee, but that’s because the vast majority of them don’t start with a rousing chorus of You Are My Sunshine.

That’s how they start at Clifton Elementary School, just outside Grand Junction, Colo. Students file into their school gym for the “Gathering of the Stars” morning meeting at 8:23. All grades come together every morning to sing, clap, chant and keep up with rapid hand motions as best they can. But don’t dismiss their gathering as 17 minutes of fun and games. This morning meeting is all business.

“It provides immediate focus, gets the kids thinking about school,” said Anne Djokic, fresh off leading the 371st iteration of the morning meeting  for her 450 Clifton Stars. “They have more purpose, and as adults we know the more purposeful we feel, the more we’re going to accomplish. The better we feel about ourselves, the more we’re going to learn.”

The morning meeting song list is silly, yet serious.

“The songs have important jobs to do for the children,” said Djokic. “Watch this,” she says, launching into a chorus of Waddaly Atcha with motions, bringing each of her hands up to the opposite ear.

“Some students have a hard time, at first, crossing over the opposite ear,” said Djokic after the demonstration. She said that simple movement allows different parts of the child’s brain “to awaken and share information, and heightens their ability to retain information.”

Djokic said her program of fast-paced, changing activities meets a goal to physically wake students up and get them going. The routine, though, is “physiologically exciting for learners” in a very intentional way.

“This type of activity – the singing, the moving, the Peel Banana, Peel Peel Banana,” said Djokic, breaking into another catchy tune, “alerts and engages the part of the brain that allows students, for two hours after they’ve had this morning assembly, to call upon and have more recall of new information that they receive.”

The next item on the morning meeting agenda is vocabulary.

“The vocabulary comes right after the mind is awake, and that’s why we reinforce it right after that first round of singing,” said Djokic.

“Predict!” shouts Djokic. The students yell back, “P-R-E-D-I-C-T – Tell me what the next will be.”

Djokic and her vocab choir breeze through 24 verbs, those high-frequency words the students are likely to see on state exams, in a few minutes.

The morning pre-class schedule, which starts with hot breakfast for all and quiet study time, hasn’t always been the Clifton way. A few years back, the Stars were not shining so brightly in the morning, wandering aimlessly on the playground, in and out of trouble.

“Our discipline issues – we were handling five, six or more a day,” said Principal Michelle Mansheim. “We went from over 100 issues in our first year to zero. We don’t have any, because the kids aren’t out on the playground.”

Discipline wasn’t the only challenge at that time. The morning meeting and other initiatives began at Clifton in response to low test scores. Three years ago, the school was placed in ‘transformation’ status by the state and received a federal School Improvement Grant to better meet the needs of students. Teachers like Djokic received intensive training and tools from a consulting firm. Principal Mansheim visited other schools, including one in Tulsa, Okla. that was running a successful morning meeting.

“We loved the energy that it brought to the children and to the teachers, and we said, ‘We’re going to do that,’” said Mansheim.

“That very first year, our math scores skyrocketed because we became a team. We became a community. The children identified with ‘Clifton Stars’,” said Djokic. “They just exceeded the expectation for a first year transformation school.”

The second half of the morning meeting instills a sense of community in the school. Djokic recognizes birthdays, honors those who have performed good deeds, and has a couple children lead the student body and faculty in the Pledge of Allegiance.

“Everyone who loves the children is in the same room at the same time, and that’s the message that we give to kids, that all of you are all of our children,” said Mansheim. “It’s not classes of children, but a school of children.”

“When I step in front of that group, no matter how I feel walking in, I feel great. I feel excited,” said Djokic. “We move from song to song and activity to activity to engage the students, and I feel that they deserve something as high quality as I can dish up.

“It is such a valuable way to spend 17 minutes every morning,” Djokic added.

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