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Principals Caught Up in FISH! Philosophy

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Long popular in the business world, the FISH! philosophy developed by ChartHouse Learning is rapidly gaining fans in education circles as well. Several principals told Education World that employing FISH!™'s four guidelines in their schools has brought spark back to working and learning. Included: Tips on using FISH! to motivate staff.

FISH!, the organizational philosophy inspired by fish-flinging merchants, is migrating from corporate offices to school hallways. But FISH! is not new to the academic world. Some principals who already have tested the waters say following FISH! has transformed their schools.



FISH! was created when John Christensen, the chief executive officer of ChartHouse Learning, observed how animated and engaged fishmongers at Seattle's Pike Place Fish Market were in their work. They fired fish to each other when someone placed an order, filling the market with laughter and the crack of high-velocity fish hitting thick wrapping paper. Often customers were invited to join the fun. Workers gave their complete attention to each of their customers.

Christensen realized that not only were the workers making a routine errand fun for themselves and their customers, they also were selling mega-schools of fish. He broke down the fishmongers' approach into four key concepts that became the FISH! philosophy. Those concepts are

  • Play,
  • Make Their Day,
  • Be There, and
  • Choose Your Attitude

Formalizing the philosophy in 1998 spawned books, videotapes, and workshops.



While ChartHouse has trawled corporate waters for customers, it also offers one- and two-day FISH! "camps" for school administrators and teachers, during which they learn how to use FISH! with staff and students. "In camp, educators get excited about the FISH! philosophy, and learn practical skills to give FISH life in the classroom," said Andy Halper, national education director and "professor of boredom prevention" for ChartHouse Learning. "It's about engaging kids in discussions about their behavior rather than just punishing them."

FISH! strategies for classroom management include establishing behavior guidelines early on, so students understand that certain behaviors have consequences. Then when infractions occur, teachers can ask the student, "Are you making everyone's day? What are you choosing to do?"

Other FISH! classroom activities include having students keep track of what they do to make other peoples' days and developing action plans to do that more often. The goal would be to have students internalize the behavior, so the desire to make someone's day becomes part of their personality. Teachers also can discuss with students the value of becoming the type of person who wants to make someone's day.



During camp, administrators and teachers also learn that there are many ways to adapt the FISH! philosophy without pitching perch across a room or having play become chaos.

Choosing your attitude, for example, is timeless advice, Halper noted. "You can resolve problems and give yourself a more positive outlook on life." Play means having a playful, upbeat view.

Several principals who are FISH! camp alumni told Education World that they could not wait to go back to their schools and try out what they learned. They all said they began the year with assemblies or workshops to explain the FISH! approach to staff members, and often had them brainstorm ways to use it.

"I read the book two years ago, and wanted to bring the philosophy to the staff," said Alan Beam, principal of Holton High School in Holton, Kansas. "I wound up training district staff. Then I attended FISH! camp in January. I've been sharing the activities ever since. I bought every teacher a book, so they could try to apply it to students."

First, though, Beam decided to focus his efforts on helping staff members enjoy their jobs more -- so students would enjoy school more. "We talk about how we can support students and how they [staff] choose their attitude," Beam said. "I'm just trying to create a positive mental attitude about being in school. There is a need for some changes; we wanted to create an atmosphere more amenable to change. It's a way to get issues out on the table."

Not all activities work with all staff members; some people are not as outgoing as others, but Beam said he is trying to find programs into which everyone fits.



For one of the first activities, Beam divided the faculty into groups and collected some sticks he called "negativity sticks." Staff members who said something negative received a stick. They could pass it on to someone else who said something negative. If no one in the group got a stick one week, then the names of everyone in the group went into a drawing for a prize.

Some people took longer to get into the swim of things than others. Two veteran teachers who did not want to participate refused to pass the sticks along and were disqualified, Beam said.

For more FISH! fun, Beam distributed to teachers lanyards in the school's colors and a sheet of smiley-face stickers. Each lanyard had an index card attached to it. Staff members who "caught" a colleague doing something positive and "making someone's day" would put a sticker on that person's index card.

At the end of the contest, two people had collected the most stickers: the teachers who initially had refused to join FISH! events.

For the students, a FISH! activity can be as simple as letting everyone take a break on a brisk March day and fly kites on the athletic fields. "Kids overwhelmingly want this to continue," Beam said. "We want to try to get daily activities in class."



Other schools have made FISH! their theme for the year. "I was looking for a philosophy with four or five guidelines, and this fit in with my criteria," said John Newton, assistant principal of Carmel High School in Carmel, Indiana.

Carmel High is FISH!-infused. Teachers received a FISH! book over the summer, and watched the video during an in-service day. They also did presentations about the book. The principal greeted his staff wearing a fishing vest and waders.

Hallway banners proclaim the FISH! philosophy, and contests -- such as guessing the number of fish in a tank -- sprung up throughout the building. Newton was the keeper of Pete the Perch, a toy fish presented to a staff member who personified FISH! philosophies.

As the year went on, the ideas passed down from teachers to students. "I've noticed a change in the school's atmosphere," said Newton. Teachers started to use FISH! phrases in classrooms, and posted the four principles in their rooms. "The philosophy spreads over into how they want to react to students," he added.

And there was time for play. By April, teachers had completed all their staff development requirements for the year, so the administrators threw a surprise FISH! Frolic on the last scheduled staff development day. Teachers chatted over pizza and soda, and played games in the gym and on the athletic fields. By the next school day, Newton had received more than 80 e-mails from teachers who said they enjoyed the frolic, and were asking about scheduling additional fun staff activities.



Eastwood Elementary School also is trying to instill the FISH! philosophy, with posters and workshops for faculty. "I implemented FISH! to improve relationships among staff, students, and parents," first-year principal Johnson said. "The relationships were good; I just wanted to do more."

During the workshops, teachers broke into groups and discussed how to improve student projects and relationships, relationships with parents, parental involvement, and ways the team could benefit the school. "It helped people to realize that by choosing their attitude, they could make a choice to be a good role model, added Johnson.

Teachers are making a conscious effort to use FISH! in dealing with students. "They are working hard on showing how they are there for parents and students," according to Johnson. "Teachers are more consistent in dealing with kids, in terms of discipline. More staff are using the same language in dealing with kids -- like, 'I see you're having a bad day -- how can I help you, what works for you?' It helps the staff keep their composure and be more consistent."



More schools of FISH! fans could be appearing soon. Currently, about 27 percent of ChartHouse's business is in the education market -- and that is with almost no marketing to educators. ChartHouse staff realized during FISH! camps that numerous educators had read the books and were adapting the philosophy for their own uses. Over the next 18 months, the company plans to roll out new curriculum designed for classroom teachers and administrators.

The administrative piece, which focuses on "changing the school climate," is due out November 1. "The curriculum will be the reinforcement piece to camp; it will keep the FISH! spirit going," Halper told Education World.

ChartHouse is testing its classroom curriculum in several schools, and expects it to be available by winter 2004.

Even without formal curriculum, there are so many simple ways to put the FISH! philosophy to work, that spreading it around becomes easy, principals said.

"There is no reason we can't smile at work," Newton said. "If you emphasize those things, you catch the fever."

"The FISH! philosophy is age-old wisdom," added ChartHouse's Halper. "It's simple, but not simplistic. It's a philosophy that can be easily incorporated into people's lives."