Podcast S2. Ep36 - Meaningful Inclusion Can Lead To Lasting Friendships #choosetoinclude - Odessa High School Students

Character Strong · December 20, 2019

As the recipient of Special Olympics Missouri’s 2018 School of Character Award of Merit, Odessa High School values kindness and meaningful inclusion. The school with just over 600 students is in a rural community approximately 30 miles east of Kansas City. Following a year of using Character Strong resources in their student-led lessons in freshman classes, the school is in its first year of school-wide implementation of the Character Strong Advisory Curriculum. The school’s student council is recognized as an Honor Council by the Missouri Association of Student Councils. The senior student council members featured on the podcast include President Keiton Johnson and Vice President Makenzie Lewis along with Tyler Hepworth and Lyndsey Roseler. Tyler and Lyndsey are a Special Olympics unified pair who recently represented Character Strong at the Inclusive Youth Leadership Summit held in Chicago. The school utilizes unified pairs to teach Character Strong lessons to freshman classes. The group is active on social media. Follow them @odessar7_stuco on Instagram and Twitter.

We talk about how they have been intentional about the goals at Odessa HS to #makekindnessnormal & #choosetoinclude, we chat about some practical ideas to help build community, and they share some unique ways they have rolled out the CharacterStrong Currcula.


“...we just really want to give students with disabilities leadership roles in our school. That really helps build a culture of meaningful inclusivity, rather than just inclusion and throwing them in random classrooms. We really do try to partner each other up and work as a pair rather than partners to teach the lessons to our freshmen and just show them that meaningful inclusion can lead to lasting friendships and really build that culture of meaningful inclusion rather than just inclusion and building lasting friendships.”

Lyndsey Roseler, Odessa High School

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Odessa High School student council. As the recipient of Special Olympics Missouri's 2018 school of character award of merit, Odessa High School values kindness and meaningful inclusion. The school of just over 600 students is in a rural community, approximately 30 miles east of Kansas city. Following a year of using CharacterStrong resources in their student led lessons and freshman classes, the schools in its first year of school wide implementation of the CharacterStrong advisory curriculum.
  • John: The school student council is recognized as an honor council by the Missouri Association of Student Councils. The senior student council members featured on the podcast today include president Keiton Johnson and vice president Makenzie Lewis, along with Tyler Hepworth and Lyndsey Roesler. Tyler and Lyndsey are a Special Olympics unified pair who recently represented CharacterStrong at the inclusive youth leadership summit held in Chicago. The school utilizes unified pairs to teach CharacterStrong lessons to freshmen classes. Are you ready? Let's get Character Strong with the Odessa high school student council.
  • John: All right. We are so excited today. So honored and pleased to welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast from Odessa High School in Missouri four senior members of the student council, Keiton, Makenzie, Tyler, and Lyndsey. Welcome to the CS podcast.
  • John: Well, I'll tell you personally, one of my favorite things is when we have students who are in the work, in school making stuff happen on the show, it's my favorite thing as a former high school teacher, student council advisor. I'm giddy this morning getting a chance to talk to you, let's dig right in. We really believe in cut the fluff, get right to the stuff, and the stuff today is really important. I know that you have had two primary goals at your school that have been turned into hashtags, which I love, because you have a very active Twitter account. I hope you let us know what that is so people can come and find you. One is #makekindnessnormal and the other is #choosetoinclude. Tell me a little bit about those hashtags and how you have been intentionally going after those two things.
  • Keiton: So this is Keiton, we use those hashtags not only to include our CharacterStrong classes, but we want to do it throughout the whole entire school. So with the #choosetoinclude, we did a thing at the beginning of the year with paw prints and we put everybody's name on a paw print and posted them all around school and then you find one and there are different colors of them and you give it to our director and she gave you a piece of candy or a different thing depending on the color of that. So that was something that we did right off the bat at the beginning for the #choosetoinclude. And then last week, Thursday, we had a chance to get all the grade levels in and have a little assembly for them that includes CharacterStrong. So we did more character building games and games to just get everyone going to get everyone knowing each other.
  • John: Yeah, I mean even with that, one, I love the idea of making sure at the beginning of the year that everyone is included by getting their, did you say their name is on those paw prints?
  • Keiton: Yes.
  • John: Yeah, like up on the wall. I love that as a start, because some people, their name's never up on the wall. Right. And so to guarantee right off the bat that everybody is a part of things by doing that, I love that move. Very practical and very intentional, and it takes a lot of work in terms of organization, but the payoff is big. And then you talk a little bit about the games that you do and to quote you, "To get people going." Why do you think as a student for maybe an educator who is like, "Oh really, we're going to do these games?" Or maybe someone who doesn't have as positive an attitude about it. Where it's like, Oh, this is the touchy feely stuff. Tell me why those games are important or those activities to build community, from the student perspective.
  • Makenzie: This is Makenzie. We find that really important to really include everyone in having that positive attitude, excuse me, so that everyone really feels like they're a part of the atmosphere that we're trying to enforce at our school. We're really trying to bring that about and make that a really big thing this year.
  • John: I love it. Yeah, and if we don't get opportunities to connect, then how are we ever going to build that inclusive environment that we want? Well, I want to dig even deeper into something very unique. We work with a lot of schools now at the point of this podcast, there's over 1500 schools, I think in 44 states that are using the curricula and yet you've done a really intentional and unique job of how you've rolled it out. Tell me a little bit about how you have rolled out the CharacterStrong program in your school because it's pretty awesome. So I'll let you tell us about it.
  • Makenzie: This is Makenzie again. We started pushing for the CharacterStrong initiative initially with just our freshman classes, taking different mentors into that class, and teaching the freshmen, and now we've taken it to a school wide initiative where the teachers will teach a lesson for all grades and then those mentors from the student body will go back into their freshman classes and teach them a follow up lesson the week after.
  • John: That's great. So I loved the idea, because a lot of schools it'll be maybe just the teachers that are teaching it. Right. But you've got this kind of combo approach, right? Where students are teaching some, staff are teaching some, but then you've even gone beyond that with a unified approach. Where student led lessons in freshman classes being led by unified pairs. Correct? Tell me a little bit about that program and how you're doing that.
  • Lyndsey: Hi, this is Lyndsey. I went to the inclusive youth leadership with my unified partner, Tyler, and we just really want to give students with disabilities leadership roles in our school. That really helps build a culture of meaningful inclusivity, rather than just inclusion and throwing them in random classrooms. We really do try to partner each other up and work as a pair rather than partners to teach the lessons to our freshmen and just show them that meaningful inclusion can lead to lasting friendships and really build that culture of meaningful inclusion rather than just inclusion and building lasting friendships.
  • John: I love it. So Tyler, have you been going in and teaching some of these lessons?
  • Tyler: This is Tyler. Yeah, we have communities. It was pretty fun and interesting. I thought most of the kids and adults really liked what we were teaching them.
  • John: Yeah. I mean for the entire group too. I just love this. Have you noticed that when you go in and lead the lessons, especially with the younger students, the freshman classes, that there's more student buy in because it's being taught by students. Have you noticed anything around that?
  • Tyler: No, there's lots of kids talking instead of adults, but I think it's pretty interesting what they're talking thing is teach.
  • John: Yeah, I mean for the group, the topics that you've been discussing and the CharacterStrong curriculum, we would say social, emotional learning, character development. As a group of four here that are representing Odessa high school, who's doing this intentional work. Maybe for those that are listening, a couple of questions. So feel free to address either of them. One, why is it important that we are learning these things, and two, any results that you've seen.

“...we really focus on making this an initiative that is the lifestyle choice to be kind to people and to really make this a normal thing rather than a choice that like, "Oh, that's another thing that I need to get done. I have to be nice to someone three times today." Make it a, "I've been nice to someone three times a day. I'm going to do it three more times because it made that person's day better," and it makes you feel good.”

Makenzie Lewis, Student Vice President, Odessa High School


  • Keiton: So this is Keiton, and so for the first question, why it's important. It's important because some students don't get to be doing all this stuff outside of school. Sometimes students come to school and that's where they need to be. That's the best place for them to be. So us making this an inclusive school and helping them build their character and help them do everything else. That is like a great thing for us to do for them because they can't really get it outside of school. Some students don't have, they don't have the opportunities for that.
  • John: Well said. Yeah. What else? I mean any it Makenzie, Lyndsey, Tyler, from your perspective? Cause a lot of times when you think about it, there's your normal core classes that you need to take. And educators sometimes can get into that mode as well of, we teach our academic classes and if there's anything else then it's one more thing on our plate. Tell me why it's not just one more thing on the plate, and why in reality it actually is the plate. It's the foundational work that we all should be focusing on.
  • Makenzie: So this is Makenzie again, and we really focus on making this an initiative that is the lifestyle choice to be kind to people and to really make this a normal thing rather than a choice that like, "Oh, that's another thing that I need to get done. I have to be nice to someone three times today." Make it a, "I've been nice to someone three times a day. I'm going to do it three more times because it made that person's day better," and it makes you feel good.
  • John: That idea of being right. We're human beings, not human doings. And I love that. This is who we're trying to be or who we're becoming. Well said. Well, how about this? Like what results have you seen? I mean, Lyndsey, have you seen any results in the work that you're doing around the school? Has it had any impact? If so, what have you noticed? Is it an overall feeling? Is there any specific examples that you can remember of positive impact?
  • Lyndsey: I have not definitely seen the culture of our school changed dramatically. There's more teacher buy in as well as student buy in and our CharacterStrong curricula and the things we're teaching, even for the older kids, but especially the younger kids, they're getting the sense of this is what our school is about. Our school is about being kind, it's about having strong character. With our teachers and older students influencing these younger students and to these strong adults that they're going to be. It really is changing the culture of our school dramatically and we're seeing huge differences each day in the way our culture of our school is going.
  • John: Cool. So for those that are trying to get a visual, I'm thinking through the lens of like the listener. There's intentional things that you're doing throughout the school to increase people feeling like they're a part of things and that inclusive community, meaningful inclusivity. There are lessons being taught intentionally by teachers, lessons being taught by students, even in unified pairs, and I love that. When it comes to then the impact that you've seen, give me a visual. What does that look like? What does that sound like? Was it one way before and now you're seeing it different? Give me some specific examples of what does that look like? Sound like? Feel like. The impact of putting attention like you have towards making kindness normal and choose to include.
  • Lyndsey: We're seeing a huge difference in the lunchroom. We're seeing new students sitting with students that normally you would never think would include people, but really they're just including them because they want to. We're seeing more teachers smiling at students, asking students how their days are going, we're seeing more students, including kids with intellectual disabilities and without intellectual disabilities, in classroom discussion in our clubs and our student council, we're seeing more inclusion and kindness happening rather than exclusion and avoidance.
  • John: I love it. Well, I always love this because I want to talk more, right, but I always love the idea of leaving people wanting more. So let me intentionally bring today's podcast to a close. One, Keiton. Can you tell us if people were to want to follow, I know that you've got a very active social media at your school. My guess is that has been a key to some of the successful traction, so to speak, or impact that you've had because you can really rally behind it and it's relevant. That's why you've got those hashtags. So how can people find what you're doing on social media?
  • Keiton: So we have an Instagram and a Twitter, doing both very actively. And both of them are odessar7_stuco. There you can find all the activities we do, some of the challenges we do with CharacterStrong, signs of the day we do.
  • John: And then how about this like too in terms of the other pieces I was, I'm really excited about maybe closing the podcast this way, is so many people, one of the things that they're wanting cause it's all about implementation, that's how we roll it out. How we do it intentionally, right? So you have obviously got something here that is working and then yet are quick to say even in our pre-conversation and communication we obviously have long ways to go. We always do, right? We could always improve. But I want each of you to think of what has been one key to this working at your school. What move, what intentional thing, in your own mind has been the key to you so far being successful, rolling out a program like CharacterStrong. And if anybody's ready they can share first. Right? But I'd love to hear from each of you. What has been a reason why you've been so successful?
  • Tyler: Well, this is Tyler again. To me it's been successful for me because I've been through a few groups helping the school, which is student council at BLA and DECA and that they all basically help the school by making money which gets the supplies for school and new tables.
  • Lyndsey: This is Lyndsey. I really think that this has helped our school and we provide energy. We provide the idea of meaningful inclusion rather than just regular inclusion and making those lasting friendships with our unified partners.
  • Makenzie: This is Makenzie. I think a big part of it for me is having multiple perspectives both by students with intellectual disabilities, students without intellectual disabilities. And my partner last year, Connor, he was deaf, so I got to work with him really closely and see how his perspective could affect different students.
  • Keiton: This is Keiton, and I think one thing that has really, really helped, and something I focus on kind of piggybacks off inclusion, but getting everyone together. So not just standing around with the people in my grade, but also connecting with the sophomores and the juniors and connecting with the freshmen and also the teachers and just building a good relationship with all of them.
  • John: I love it. Well, I mean the things that really just have stood out to me today and I've been taking notes as each of you have been speaking. One, you can hear the passion in your voice, the intentionality in your voice. I love and I'm being left today with meaningful inclusivity, how important that is, that it's not just, well we're inclusive because we do this, this and this. Like we're checking it off a list. No, meaningful inclusivity that this is who we're wanting to become. This is who we are as a school and going all in with that I think really does build community and gives us an example of community that we would want to see not just in our schools, but in our greater community, and in our world.
  • John: And so thank you for being such a bright light of making that happen. Thank you for joining us today and sharing your perspectives. And I do hope that people do reach out and see what's happening on that Instagram and Twitter, and we'll make sure that that's in the show notes so people can find it. But from CharacterStrong to Odessa high school in Missouri. Thank you, Keiton, Makenzie, Tyler, and Lyndsey for joining us today.
  • John: Thank you.
  • John: Make it a great day. Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review, and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on Apple podcasts, Spotify and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong, and how we're supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening, and make it a great day.

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The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.