Sally Rusk has taught middle school for 20 years. She's taught in the Edmonds, Bellingham, and most recently she spent 12 years as the activity coordinator at Inglewood Middle School in the Lake Washington School District. She was on the planning team for Timberline Middle School which opens in the Fall. She was the 2018 Washington State Middle Level Advisor of the Year and teaches social and emotional learning centered classes to over 250 kids a year. She is also a Character Strong presenter and loves to travel the country supporting educators do this very important work.
We talk to Sally about the CharacterDare Process and how it has transformed the 18 different classes that she has led through it. She also shares some tips for those just starting the CharacterDare process.
“Watching students grapple with things, watching students question kind of where they are, and really sometimes the best moments are when they're not willing to do the Dare, and they're honest. When they say, "I can't do it. I'm not ready." To have a kid in front of 30 other kids raise their hand and just go, "Truth, I'm not ready to do it," and they kind of break down why they're not ready to do it, is a pretty transformational moment for not only that child, but so many other kids in the classroom.”
— Sally Rusk
- John: Welcome to the Character Strong podcast, where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today, we're talking with Sally Rusk. Sally has taught middle school for 20 years. She most recently spent the last 12 years as the Activity Coordinator at Inglewood Middle School in the Lake Washington School District in Washington State. She was the 2018 Washington State Middle-level Advisor of the Year and teaches a social/emotional learning-centered classes to over 250 students each year.
- John: She is also a CharacterStrong presenter and loves to travel the country supporting educators. Today, we talk to Sally about the CharacterDare process and how it has transformed the 18 different classes that she has led through it. She shares some tips for both those just starting out, as well as the seasoned veterans. Let's get Character Strong with Sally Rusk.
- John: All right. It is such an honor to have Sally Rusk on the CharacterStrong podcast with us today. Let me just say this before you say anything, Sally, one of the greatest implementers of the work that we focus on so much day in and day out, week in and week out, that lasted whatever number of years, has been you and your classroom. I'm so excited to hear from you today, to talk about it, because you have truly dug in and made this a regular part of your climate and culture. So, before we dig in, I just want you to know how much of an honor it is to be with you today.
- Sally: Oh, thanks John. It's always good to talk to you too.
- John: And I love it when you have to deal with me giving you compliments.
- Sally: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I just try to skip right over that and get to the stuff. You know that you've been the guiding force in a lot of the work that I've done.
- John: Well, that means more than you know. Let's talk though. Let's get right into it because you hit it. We're a big believer here on these shorter podcasts with cut the fluff, get right to this stuff. So let's talk CharacterDare process. For those that aren't familiar, the CharacterDare process is a regular part of what we do in our CharacterStrong curriculum, both in our leadership class where it's more of like we're meeting every single day. I know that you are very familiar with that content where you're getting to work with students over a semester and/or year, and then it's also a part of are more school-wide Advisory curriculum that maybe is more once a week.
- John: But let's talk about the process of the CharacterDare and the way that it has transformed your class, because you now have been doing the CharacterDare process for how many years would you say?
- Sally: Well, in reality I've only been doing it about three years. Even though I've been implementing a lot of this curriculum for the last nine, and I'll definitely speak to why it's only been in the last three years, but I would say with two fidelity, the last three.
- John: Which is still a good solid amount of time to be able to speak to the ups, the downs, how it's transformed. So, let's go then. Let's start, go back. You've done it for nine, and you've started over the last three. Give us a little bit of that backstory then.
- Sally: Yeah, so the backstory is, I was really a resistor. I got so caught up into the things that I think teachers get caught up in, and it's like, "How do I grade it? What does that look like in the classroom? Are the kids going to get bored of it? Are they going to feel like I'm being too preachy if I'm telling them all these things to do." I couldn't think through the logistics. It was just this barrier.
- Sally: It was really you, at one of the many conferences I've been at with you, where I've learned from you, and you looked at me and you said, "Sally, let it go," in kind of a kind but assertive way. You said, "Let it go, and just ask the question." I typically trust most of the things that you say.
- John: Most, I love it.
- Sally: And so I said, "Okay, I need to let it go and not let some of these barriers get in my way." But for years, because I've been doing a lot of this curriculum for the last nine. When I finally let that part go, let go of kind of all those little barriers that we put in front of us, then my classroom was transformed. Even though it's been three years, I've guided I would say 18 groups of kids through it, because of how many classes I have and the fact that I teach semester-long classes.
- Sally: Watching students grapple with things, watching students question kind of where they are, and really sometimes the best moments are when they're not willing to do the Dare, and they're honest. When they say, "I can't do it. I'm not ready." To have a kid in front of 30 other kids raise their hand and just go, "Truth, I'm not ready to do it," and they kind of break down why they're not ready to do it, is a pretty transformational moment for not only that child, but so many other kids in the classroom.
- John: That's powerful. Yeah, and I think that there's going to be some great insight here, because here you are having taken 18 different groups with that semester system through. You can speak, my guess is, to a lot of specifics that might really help someone else, where if you would have been able to hear back when you were first starting, like, "Hey, that would have been helpful." Let's start with this part of it, which is what tips would you give to someone who's utilizing the CharacterDare process, which is simply an idea of here's an example of character into action and the next time that we meet, we're going to talk about it.
- John: We use a process of Truth of Dare. If you didn't do it, that's all right. Speak your truth. What do you think about that Dare? Or, like you just shared, why didn't you do it? Not like, "Why didn't you do it, you're in trouble." No, like "Why didn't you do it?" Well, maybe I wasn't ready. Or maybe I think it's silly. Or maybe I don't think that that this is the best way to do it. But speak your truth or I tried it. And in that case, I pick dare, and here's what I've learned about myself or others in doing that dare.
- John: Give me some of the tips that would give someone else who's starting in that process.
- Sally: I think everything you said is the process we walked through and the tips that really came from my students. The first round that I did it, I circled up my kids at the end and I said, "Hey, I just went through that with you. How can I do it better next time?" And the number one thing that came out of my kids' mouths is that, "You didn't ask us enough about how we were doing." And I said, "Well, I don't want you to feel bad." And they're like, "No, Rusk. We know you're going to get mad at us if we didn't do it."
- Sally: So, I think number one, that's the first thing is make sure you're setting up a climate and culture in your classroom that if a kid doesn't do it, they don't feel bad. They're not berated. They're not like, "Oh, didn't-" or definitely don't grade them for doing them or not doing them. They're only graded on their reflection, and that's simply just filling out a matrix of here's the eight essential completed or incomplete.
- Sally: And so, when they're doing that, opening up your classroom so that they feel comfortable just saying like, "Hey, I didn't do this," and allowing that opportunity to get that out. They said, "You know Rusk, you didn't ask us enough." And so, I went back to a tried and true teacher trick, plain old Popsicle sticks, and every kid's name is on the Popsicle stick. I always begin the class with pulling five or six, and then Truth or Dare.
- Sally: So, that they're ready. Well, so when kids said I didn't ask them enough, I said, "How should I do that?" They actually recommended the Popsicle sticks, and in that second round, again circled the kids up, "Hey, how could I do that better?" What they said was, "Some days, my Popsicle stick wasn't drawn, but I really wanted to tell you about it." So then it was like, okay so now what do I do? They're like, "Why don't you just say something like, any open shares?"
- Sally: Now the process is pull the Popsicle stick, let's talk about it. Then I go open share, and there's always those kids and you have those same kids every time that love to raise their hand. They love to get words out, and that's great. It's giving them a space to do it. But then every once in a while I'll notice a new kid's hand would be up, because for whatever reason that dare spoke to them in a positive, maybe in a negative way, and not negative in the sense of the dare's negative, but just they know they had a rough time with it and so they want to get it out.
- Sally: I mean so much that when we think of social/emotional learning, kids are figuring themselves out. I had a kid, it was the Dare around complaining and swearing, and he raised his hand and he said, "You know, at home, I never swear. And the second I walk into my house, I find myself squaring constantly." He goes, "It's like I'm a different person, and I don't like that feeling." What a powerful moment for an eighth-grade boy to think about, "Oh gosh, who am I? And am I living this divided life that I'm not always necessarily proud of?"
- Sally: That wasn't from me telling him he's good or bad. That was just him kind of walking through this process and going, "Wait a minute. Is this who I want to be?"
- John: Yeah, that's powerful. I mean, and I just want to like... Having done the CharacterDare process for a decade, highlights something that really stood out to me in that, that in that last reflection that could easily be missed. I think it's the importance of when you create the environment that you just articulated. What it does, I think is... Well first of all, it's the idea of trust the process.
- John: In creating that kind of culture and climate in your room around the CharacterDare process, I think what happens is over time it creates a more and more safe place for certain students who maybe aren't always sharing every single day or maybe even at all, unless their Popsicle stick is called, which I think is good. It creates more of a safe space for all of a sudden one day you see that hand go up that you've never seen go up, and you're like, "Oh, that's interesting."
- Sally: Yeah.
- John: And, and some of the most powerful CharacterDare reflections and examples that I've ever seen, were students who every day were not sharing their reflection on the dare. In fact, maybe they only did seven out of the 40 total dares, but some of those seven that they did were really big, and I believe deep down that they would not have most likely done those if they hadn't been a part of that ongoing process of discussing and hearing from other people and all of that.
“We're saying all of these different things for them to think about. And some of it, honestly, it hits them three years later, you know? I do firmly believe in trusting the process, and I firmly believe that when we say these things, we're loving adults in their life. We're speaking positively in their life of strategies that they can solve these things, because a lot of strategies they see from their peers and on social media, these are not the healthy ways to handle this and we're modeling healthy ways to handle kind of life being thrown at them."
— Sally Rusk
- John: So how about this, next question then about that process? A lot of times I might hear a teacher that says, "Well, what if I'm having the issue of just the students aren't buying in?" Talk to me about that because I think there's a level of then going back to like what's good teaching in that moment, but the other is specific to this process. What would you share with someone like that, who's maybe having a student who isn't coming across as "buying in" to the process of the Character Dare.
- Sally: Yeah, I always hear your voice in my head of just kind of like, "We don't really know." I guess that's the beauty of doing this for a few years is you'll have kids come back to you and talk to you about that. But for the people that don't necessarily have that longevity and they're scared to dive in, you know, you said it earlier, trust the process. And I love one of the lines that you say a lot is like, "But they did that one."
- Sally: I think so often, especially at the middle level, but I'm sure it's true at the high school level as well, I think we don't totally know what buying in looks like sometimes.
- John: That's right. Good point.
- Sally: I think that they look a certain way, but kids’ mascot their feelings just like we as adults do. And it's easy to make fun of or it's easy to kind of look like, "Oh, I don't really care," but where else are they going to be exposed to these things on a consistent basis the way we're doing it? And so, I always joke with kids that I'm trying to plant seeds and that they might take some of that dirt and just kind of kick over it and walk away. Or they might put that dirt and maybe throw some water on it and let it grow. But my job is to plant seeds.
- Sally: If I've done that then I'm doing my job. We're saying all of these different things for them to think about. And some of it, honestly, it hits them three years later, you know? I do firmly believe in trusting the process, and I firmly believe that when we say these things, we're loving adults in their life. We're speaking positively in their life of strategies that they can solve these things, because a lot of strategies they see from their peers and on social media, these are not the healthy ways to handle this and we're modeling healthy ways to handle kind of life being thrown at them.
- John: Yeah, so true. Well said. I love the perspective that you just gave on that. That really got me thinking, and that is that idea of do we really know what like buying in looks like? What we see a lot of times, it's not necessarily what's really deep down there. That's I think an important reminder for all of us today, not just in the CharacterDare process, but in anything that we're doing where we're working with youth or even just in people in general is, we never know fully what's going on there.
- John: How about this piece, we talked at the beginning about how this has transformed your classroom. Let's end with that today. Talk to me about why, if someone was listening to this, maybe someone is using the curriculum, maybe they're like, "What are these CharacterDare things?" but just this idea of we believe that students want to do good, they just don't always maybe know what it looks like. So, what if we gave them examples and then created a process where they actually got to talk about it, and it meets them right where they're at. Just talk to me, to kind of close it down, how it's transformed your classroom with that process.
- Sally: I think it opens up the dialogue and it allows them to come up and talk to me in different situations that are beyond the Character Dare, so that relationship is really strengthened and we know it's all about relationships. They feel far more comfortable to talk to me about other random things going in their life, because they see that I'm constantly validating the struggle. A kid today was like, "Yeah, I wanted to not procrastinate and not do my homework, but the struggle is real."
- Sally: I was like, "I feel you. The struggle is real for me to get jogging around green, like I need to do that." And so, I think it opens up that dialogue to the relationship. I also think it allows for a deeper dive into the principles of servant leadership because it's not just me talking about selflessness, maybe showing a cool YouTube video, which we typically have for these concepts, but it's allowing them to really live it.
- Sally: I'll go, "Remember that dare you did on selflessness?" And so it's bringing it back to the reality of what these eight essentials of agape love really look like, and what does it look like in action, because they've been hearing "Be kind" since they were probably three years old, but what does that really look like? And so, it allows my classroom to be almost like a lab. It's like this testing ground of, "Hey, you tried this," and "Oh, that didn't work." "You tried this, and man you felt really good after you did that. Let's talk about it."
- Sally: And so, it just really brings alive the principles of how we're trying to see them grow of servant leadership and just being a human, right? Like, be a good human. It gives them those opportunities to practice.
- John: And don't we need more of that in our world right now?
- Sally: Oh, all of us. Yeah, for sure. When I was saying, "All of us," we just had a brand new first year teacher pop into my room earlier on my planning period. He said, "You know," because we're doing the staff CharacterDares as a group, and he loves one of the staff CharacterDares because it allows him that connection and that relationship. So it's not just the kids that need these reminders. We, as adults, need them as well. It's pretty fun when you hear about people practicing these different things, because we all need to practice.
- John: Yep, so true. Well, let's end with that awesome reflection and specific, not just the practical nature I appreciate, but really the heart behind it. I mean, you are so good at what you do, and that's because of your heart, and your passion, and your vision for that, and that you unapologetically go after this. I love our reflection, or your reflection at the beginning about, "At first, I was a resistor."
- John: I loved that honesty, and how once you worked through those pieces and made the choice to really dig in and teach this, it's just been so awesome to see how that has grown, how many different educators have been influenced by you, Sally, and your presenting on a regular basis for us. Especially in the "off season" before your school year starts. I appreciate you being willing to share your passion and your experience with that with so many other schools and educators across the country.
- John: Thank you for your work. I know we're going to have another conversation on this podcast soon. But, thank you. I just want to wish you the very best as you finish out the school year. You've got this.
- Sally: Thank you. Absolutely. It's my pleasure to be a part of this. This movement is really firmly believed in, and I think we're doing some great work.
- John: Awesome, thank you friend. Take care.
- Sally: Yep, you too.
- John: 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 iTunes, Spotify, and Google play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we are supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening. 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.