Jeff Bryan - The Positivity Project
Michelle: Thank you. So, hello everyone. I have a very special guest with us here today. His name is Jeff, and Jeff is a co- founder of a very special group or, I guess, curriculum for kids. And before I inaudible, actually have him come in and start talking, I just want to give you a little bit of a background on this. This is a K through 12 character education curriculum. It's actually for America's youth and it's being introduced to schools across the country. And I'm going to have Jeff go ahead and talk a little bit about himself first before we talk about the Positivity Project. So hey, Jeff.
Jeff: Hi, how's it going?
Michelle: Good. Thanks for coming in today, and I wanted to hear about you and your background.
Jeff: Yeah, so I actually grew up nearby, where we're located now in Upstate New York. I played sports growing up and got recruited to play lacrosse at West Point in 2000, which is when I graduated from high school. So that was obviously pre- 9/ 11. And when I was a sophomore, 9/ 11 happened. So that's when we all knew that we'd be going to war. And so, we stationed at Fort Hood deployed to Iraq twice, once in 2006 for a year, once in 2008 for a year, and then went on to serve in the US Department of State in DC and Jerusalem. And then, my wife and I were just talking and the question was, do we want to live this international life? Or do we want to settle down here in the United States? And our decision was to settle down here and my co- founder, Mike Irwin, and I, he also went to West Point with me. He was two years ahead of me. He was stationed at Fort Hood and he deployed to Iraq once and Afghanistan twice. And he was getting out of active duty and both of us wanted to continue to serve, so the question that we had was how can we serve our country? What does our country need and how can we help? And the Positivity Project was our answer.
Michelle: So I think that's great. And first, let me just say, I'm glad that you came back and you didn't do the international lifestyle, because what you're doing here is a really wonderful thing. So everybody's going to be so excited when they hear about this. Now, you immediately knew you wanted to focus on America's youth. And I'm just curious, what was it that pulled you in that direction?
Jeff: Well, it's actually funny. We started just a Facebook page. So in February 2015, Mike and I started a Facebook page focused on character strengths and positive relationships. And our background in that was that Mike studied under Dr. Chris Peterson, who was one of the founders in the field of positive psychology. And then Mike went back and taught leadership and psychology at West Point to cadets. And we just started this Facebook page focused on character and relationships, and a teacher that Mike had grown up with reached out and he said, we need the Positivity Project in my school. And Mike said, well, it's not really built for schools yet. And he's like, well, whatever we need it. So he quickly put together what he would recommend them teaching, like a character strength of the week. Just threw something together. They took it and ran with it. We went to visit in November of 2015. They've been implementing for one month and they told us, this is the best way we've ever taught character. You should bring this to schools across the country.
Michelle: And that's fantastic. And just really quickly for the listeners, what is the Positivity Project?
Jeff: Yeah, so the Positivity Project is a K to 12 positive character education curriculum. And our mission is to empower America's youth to build positive relationships and become their best selves. And the way that we do that is we partner with pre- K to 12 schools across the country, and we equip educators with the tools that they need to teach positive psychology's 24 character strengths.
Michelle: So it's so insightful and I want to know who came up with this mission and the vision of this, actually it started off as a nonprofit, but I'm just curious as far as the mission and the vision, you and Mike working on that together.
Jeff: Yeah. We were worked together. He was in North Carolina at the time, I believe. And I was living in New York City. And we started with that one school, Morgan Road Elementary in Liverpool, New York. And then we just really studied what was happening. Mike was out there on the road trying to, he's got a ton of enthusiasm, a ton of optimism. He's very inspirational when he gets up and speaks. And so he was traveling all over the country, getting schools excited about this. And meanwhile, I was studying what worked at Morgan Road, talking to them, and trying to build out essentially a curriculum and a strategy for us to bring this to schools in a really easy way for teachers to be able to implement without much prep time and in just a really short period of time during their day.
Michelle: And so, as far as the feedback from the teachers, because you've been at this for seven years now, and looking at curriculum, that's nothing. That's still a baby. It's not very, I guess, not very many years in to this, but it's gained so much traction and the feedback you've gotten from the schools and the teachers has been tremendous. So as far as the teachers coming back with that one first initial school, and I'm assuming they're still working with you these years later.
Jeff: They are.
Michelle: Yes. So have you seen a lot of progress and differences in the curriculum?
Jeff: So yeah, we built out the team. We've got a curriculum manager now, Melissa Killingbeck. She was a former partner school principal out of Michigan. So she is full- time. She manages our curriculum team. We have two resource developers at the secondary level, and my wife is actually our elementary curriculum developer. So it's gotten way stronger than when it was just me, because I wasn't in education. I was building it out to the best of my ability, and my wife would often tell me what was good and more often what was bad. So I could change that and fix it. But now we've got real professionals doing this work. And so our curriculum just keeps getting better and better.
Michelle: Nice. So I always stress work life balance, but I guess this is a great thing, because it's something positive, you don't have to worry about the work life balance.
Jeff: Yeah, sometimes you still need to worry about it.
Michelle: So, it sounds like you might be doing some brainstorming at night.
Jeff: Trying not to. Try to shut it down sometimes, but it's tough.
Michelle: I hear you. So as far as looking through it and looking through the website, one of the big things that I notice that you stress is respecting one another, and in today's world where I feel like our differences are so magnified, has this been a difficult lesson to teach, or how do you see children responding to it?
Jeff: Yeah. I think people really embrace it. Children and educators, and I think people in general, they embrace it. I think a lot of things get amplified now and it's just easier with social media, with the internet. There's click bait and you try to get people's anger up, and that's what gets clicks, that's what is monetized. But I think people really do want to respect one another and they do want to build those positive relationships. It's just, I think, more difficult now.
Michelle: Yes. And I think I've always been under the mindset that people are good, and always believing that seeing the children gravitate to this, it just must be so intuitive for them, rather than having gone through the changes that their culture is experiencing and the negativity out there. Do you see a difference with the social media channels before and after? Children might have their iPhones, because you're teaching children in elementary school versus middle school and high school, do you see a difference there at all?
Jeff: So, I mean, I think, to your point, kids do want this and I think adults want this too. They want to focus on building positive relationships with one another. From a social media standpoint, we share a lot on social media. Obviously not kids younger than middle school, aren't on it. And a lot of times parents don't want their middle schoolers or high schoolers on it as well, which is completely understandable. But we do you see people posting more positive messages, posting about what the character strengths are, videos showing perseverance or bravery, and really just identifying the positive rather than the negative.
Michelle: I love that. So I guess this is a good segue into explaining some of the virtues and then how you also can talk about the curriculum, the characteristics that you emphasize.
Jeff: Yeah. So, there's a book called Character Strengths and Virtues, and that book is 800 pages long. It was co- authored by Dr. Chris Peterson, who was Mike Irwin's mentor and thesis advisor at the University of Michigan, and Dr. Martin Seligman, who was one of the founders in the field of positive psychology. And Chris Peterson led a team of, I believe it was 40 PhDs over a three year period to understand what character was. That was their question. What is character and how is it manifested in our lives? And they read through ancient philosophical text, religious text. They read all the way up through Pokemon cards. And what they wanted to know was what is character and how does it present itself in individuals and in societies? And they found that there were these 24 character strengths that cut across cultures and have existed throughout time. And they then classified these 24 character strengths under six virtues, such as courage, and temperance, and wisdom.
Michelle: Okay. I mean, in all of this, we're going to in our show notes, we will have examples, or we're going to actually give you a lot of details and we actually have some exciting things to talk about a little bit later. But I did want to also focus on, you also make an emphasis on relationships and I wanted to ask why relationships?
Jeff: Yeah, well, I think, intuitively, we all know that relationships are so important to our health, and our happiness, and our wellbeing, but the research also bears that out. And we have a bunch of research that we cite on our website, but two specific studies that really stand out to me are the Harvard study of adult development and another study out of Harvard about the developing child. And the Harvard study of adult development is an ongoing 70 or 80 plus year study. Dr. Robert Waldinger is currently the director and then started in the 1930s with Harvard sophomores, expanded in the 1970s with some of the poorest teenagers in Boston. And what they wanted to know was what keeps people healthy and happy across their lives. And a lot of the men, when they first started thought it was wealth, and achievement, and fame. And obviously you need a baseline of wealth. You need a baseline of achievement to feel like you're doing something, those are important, but what they found was that positive relationships and that strong quality of relationships is what kept these people healthy and happy across their lives. So that's the first one. The research bears that out. And the second one specifically with children, it was an interdisciplinary group that had a question. They said, Why do some children show resilience despite exposure to really stressful circumstances while other children don't? And what they found was that it was a quality relationship with an adult in their life. Whether that was a parent, or an aunt or uncle, or a coach or a teacher, it was that relationship with an adult in their life. And that helped them get through these really stressful times. So when you talk about relationships, we all know that relationships help us get through tough times. I learned that in Iraq, I learned that with my kids when they were sick in the hospital when they were babies. Those relationships are just so critical and you can't quantify how important they are.
Michelle: Thank you. Thank you for that. And I guess that is one of the core ways the model works, but for potential parents out there or teachers, can you explain a little bit more about the model of the curriculum?
Jeff: Yeah. So we've developed it to be really easy for teachers to teach, because we know that teachers have more on their plates than ever before. And we know that it's only increasing since the pandemic and virtual teaching, and all those things. So it's literally daily 15 minute lessons where the slides are completed for the teachers ahead of time. So there's very little to zero prep time that teachers need for that baseline understanding of teaching a character strength during the week. So it typically follows a model of understand, engage, and reflect with that character strength each week. So for example, for perseverance week, you might watch Michael Jordan play through the flu for three minutes and a little compilation of that game with a voiceover, and then there's questions that the teacher asks the students about the character strength of perseverance. What they just saw in the video. So that's done for them. And then there's an activity that teachers can read off the whiteboard, say, all right, get up out of your seats. Let's do this activity on perseverance. And then at the end of the week, they reflect on it in a reflection journal, they write about what they've learned, and then the following week is the next character strength. So again, it's just really easy for teachers to teach that baseline model.
Michelle: And I did ask this, and just so everyone knows, the nice thing is every year, each of those characteristics kind of gets a reboot. So you get to teach it in a new way the next year.
Jeff: That's right. Every grade level has differentiated lessons. So from every grade from pre- K to 12, it's different. We've also got project- based learning. We expand it out to families. We have P2 for families that follows a 1- 1- 3 model. One quote, one video, and three questions, because we really believe in the importance of parents with expanding this to the student's homes. We've got electives for middle school and high school that we're piloting. So we keep building out more and more, but that baseline is just really easy for teachers who want to start it, and have that impact right away.
Michelle: I love that. So I did, in reading some items, I was looking at the other people mindset, and this is really promoted and pushed. And I love this, because I feel like in today's world, we are so focused on self and we don't often pause and try to put ourselves in someone else's shoes. I remember doing this as a kid and I just remember it almost gradually. So everyone knows, I'm in my fifties, but I kind of saw the evolution, a little bit here. And I remember, I was in my mom's, my mom was driving her van, was passenger, and this gentleman, person, pulled in front of us and he was like one of these big whale tails, the Porsche whale tail. And I remember his bumper sticker said like, the person with the most toys when they die wins. Some stupid bumper sticker like that. And I remember thinking at the time, like, ew. Like yuck, as a kid. But I really felt like going into the eighties, like that was the mindset. It's what you're achieving, and what you're getting, and how much are you making? And that's all that mattered. And I remember I didn't have that feeling. Okay, yes, I was younger, just even been the decade before and I've watched this kind of happen more and more. So I was really excited to see that this is something that you really talk about to your kids and I was hoping you could talk about that a little bit.
Jeff: Yeah. So the other people mindset originated from a phrase by Dr. Peterson. And what he said is that he could sum up positive psychology in just three words. Other people matter period. He said anything that builds relationships between and among people is going to make you happy. So our question was okay, how do we operationalize that statement, other people matter? How do we make it something that kids and teachers understand what it looks like and sounds like. And so, we have five elements and each of these elements is taught alongside the 24 character strengths over the course of the year. And these elements are, identifying and appreciating the good in other people, knowing that my words and actions affect others, supporting people when they struggle, cheering their successes, and probably most important today is being present and giving others my attention. Because it's just harder and harder to do that today.
Michelle: That definitely, it definitely is. I have an area here where, and I don't want to, because you have six virtues on your website and then the characteristics come off of the six virtues. But just for the listener, I would love for you to kind of describe how one of these virtues, how it's essential for us to thrive and just thrive as human beings, and be very successful in society and helping our society grow in a positive way.
Jeff: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think the virtue of courage, which includes bravery, and perseverance, and integrity is really important. I think you need to face your fears, we all do, and do things that are difficult or scary, and know that it's okay to be afraid. Bravery isn't ignoring fear. It's not being not afraid. It's being afraid and having the courage to go and do something anyways. Same thing with perseverance, right? Perseverance isn't just doing something normal. It's wanting to quit, and then pushing through and pushing yourself harder. So, these character strengths, they're not about ignoring the negative. It's about what can you do in any situation to make it better?
Michelle: So thank you. One thing that just knowing that the school's out there, there's a lot of schools that are helping kids through a very difficult time. I know that mental health, just with the pandemic has been very, very hard on a large population, or a large number of people. And I just wanted to talk about quickly the social, emotional learning standards that you've implemented or aligned with, with this program.
Jeff: Yeah. So we align with social and emotional learning standards and a lot of states have those now. New York has social and emotional learning standards. So does Michigan. And we align with all of those. And there's the CASEL list, so we're not on the CASEL list. We classify ourselves as positive character education, but we do align with those standards. So when schools are looking for a social and emotional learning curriculum, the Positivity Project definitely aligns with those and with their focus areas.
Michelle: When people hear about this and they hear about the Positivity Project, do you find, as far as getting the schools on board, because to me, this is a movement. It's the potential of a movement. It's something we have needed for a long, long time. So I'm just curious. I know that you have a goal this year, and the goal is 2000 schools. I wanted to kind of ask you where you're at with that, and just everybody out there listening how we can help them meet this goal.
Jeff: Yeah. So we set that goal years ago, we wanted to reach 2000 schools by 2022, and 10, 000 schools by 2030. Right now we are at 757 schools. And so our team is working hard to figure out how we can triple the number of schools this year to get over 2000. We grow primarily through word of mouth. So if you look at the pockets of schools, it's Upstate New York, it's the central corridor in California, Fairfax County, Virginia, Raleigh, North Carolina, and Eastern Michigan. And there's really pockets of schools because educators are telling each other about it, parents are telling each other about it, because it works. And so, really that's how we grow is word of mouth.
Michelle: So as far as maintaining, or I guess creating a positive school environment and then maintaining that, I mean that can be very challenging obviously in the best of times, and this has been quite the struggle. So, educators and teachers, there's a lot of stress. There's a lot going on right now. How easy is it for them to get help if they do need help? And do you have coaches or staff who will get online with them or go visit the school?
Jeff: Yeah, I mean our support is honestly world class. We're typically back in touch with anyone who reaches out asking for support within one to two hours. And so, we've got people who are just going to hop on a Google Meet if someone needs to talk through something technically, or if they want to talk through the curriculum and how to best implement. We can also send trainers out to buildings if a school wants a trainer to come there. But we're always there very quickly to answer any questions that educators have because that's the most important thing, making sure that the implementation in each of our 757 partner schools is as strong as it can be.
Michelle: So families are there to help back up the educators. That's always been my philosophy. So the educators there, I'd always encourage the teacher to call us if they needed us. This program, you all have set up something very special where the program can actually follow the student home, and I wanted you to also talk about that as well.
Jeff: Yeah. I mean, we're big believers in the importance of parents and families with this education. We designed the Positivity Project to be lifelong learning. It's not a specific situation in the lunchroom or at recess. Now, obviously those things can play out with these character strengths, but this is really about how do you apply these character strengths now, but also for the rest of your life. So a huge part of that is how do we connect it to students' homes? And so we've developed P2 for families, it's a hyperlink on our website and it's differentiated for grades pre- K to two, three to five, six to eight, and nine to 12. And it's just one quote, one video, and three questions for each character strength that parents can talk about at home with their kids.
Michelle: That's beautiful. So, we had lunch before we got on the podcast here and I got to hear some really great stories, and I was hoping you wouldn't mind sharing a few, just so people can hear the impact of what's going on in the schools that are taking part of this curriculum.
Jeff: Yeah. I mean, recently we had a really powerful experience going up to Potsdam, New York, up near the Canadian border. And there's a P2 club at the high school level. So, we partner pre- K to 12 and typically we're strongest at elementary school just because it's a very natural fit at that level. But the P2 club at Potsdam High School, they have done incredible things. It's a student- led club. They have a couple faculty advisors, but the students are really leading this. And when the pandemic hit, they realized that some people couldn't afford food, they lost their jobs. So they put together a food market at the high school, so that any high school student, or really any student in the district and their families could get food. It was completely anonymous. So the students didn't know, the students in the P2 club didn't know who was receiving the food. Only I think two teacher advisors knew, but they had numbers, so it was an anonymous system. They set it up through Google Forms and a spreadsheet. They were packing the food every week, they ended up getting a$10, 000 grant from the Kentucky Fried Wishes Foundation.
Michelle: Wait, did they do this in one year?
Jeff: In one year.
Michelle: That's impressive.
Michelle: I don't want to interrupt you, please keep going. It's amazing.
Jeff: Yeah. No, very impressive. And the Kentucky Fried Wishes Foundation found out about them, because the owner of a local Kentucky Fried Chicken said, hey, you should really look at this organization and what they're doing for the community. So they've got support from now, the Kentucky Fried Wishes Foundation, from the local KFC, the local Tim Hortons, the local Dunkin Donuts, the Subaru dealership, Laval Trucking, which goes across the border in Canada. And they've got support from all these local organizations, and they're supporting the students in their school, and they've also expanded that support to local senior citizen centers. And so, they are also bringing food to local senior citizen centers.
Michelle: Okay. So I have to dissect this just a little bit, because this amazes me. How many kids started, and then because the video, there's a fabulous video, we're going to share the link in the show notes. The video shows a room full kids and they're coming before school. So, how does it even start? How did they get this going?
Jeff: So the P2 club started there. It was a few years ago, and it was just a couple of students and their advisor, Dan Davis, and they talked about the character strengths. They've got the P2 shield, and they just focused on what good things they could do around the school. Like for example, during finals week, they had a hospitality room where kids could come in and they could get food and drinks and just relax a little bit. They started a remember everyone deployed program within the school. And they've done work with Fort Drum, which is close by. They've had soldiers come in, talk about how to properly dispose of American flags. They're going to do a veteran's breakfast next week. So they have all these different subcommittees and they're all student lead. So this specific one though, with the food market, it started during the pandemic and they've built this whole thing out. They're partnered with the Food Bank of Central New York. They get the shipments from there and then they give out the food to people in the community who need it.
Michelle: So going up there and meeting these kids, not kids, young adults, talking to them, did you ask them what they were thinking about the future? Because really you're making another generation of leaders, and people who will be giving back, and thinking and problem solving. And I'm just curious, are you kind of not tracking them, but are you watching to see kind of what their ideas are moving forward?
Jeff: Yeah, I mean, they're incredible leaders. They're incredible leaders in their community and they want to continue this when they go to college. They're starting an alumni P2 club within Potsdam to come back, and I think they're going to have a board to provide advice made up of local community members and former P2 club members from the high school who are in college. This is very much a community focused organization. And in addition to obviously all the great work that they're doing, they're also building really good friendships, which goes right back to P2, we're all about relationships and friendships. And so, they're building these relationships, they're building these friendships out while doing this really important work to help their community.
Michelle: Okay. It's impressive. Everybody has to take a look at this. And now that one, I'm assuming, and I should not be assuming, it just, they may have had a director or someone behind it or how involved were they?
Michelle: The teacher or the advisor?
Jeff: The teacher advisor, yeah. I mean, Dan Davis is involved. He's there every week for their six or 6: 30 AM meeting. But it's the kids who are leading it. So he's absolutely involved and he is spearheading a lot of things, and he's got a lot of relationships with people in that community, which is huge for that club. And there's other advisors as well, and they've got the support of the superintendent and the high school principal and all of that. But the students are the ones leading all of these different clubs within the P2 club.
Michelle: That's fantastic. So looking at the elementary programs that you have, do you have a story or two that you can share with the elementary kids?
Jeff: Yeah, I mean, so our first year with Morgan Rhode Elementary, it was funny, and this was just a real good indicator that it was working. A third grade teacher told me that a student came in from recess and he was bummed. He had his head down, and she said, what's wrong? He said, well, the kids are upset with me. She said, well, why are they upset? What'd you do? And he said, well, I guess I was bragging after I beat him in basketball. I guess I could be a little more humble. Right, and humility's one of the 24 character strengths. And so that's one of the quieter strengths too, that you typically wouldn't recognize. And this is a third grader saying I could have been more humble after we won the basketball game.
Michelle: Nice. That's perfect. So did she make that a teachable moment and talk about it in class?
Jeff: I would think so. Probably. It was really cool. And even that first year, hearing a second grade student, we went and we interviewed parents, and teachers and students, and a second grade student talking about all the character strengths that she saw in the movie Zootopia. And then her mom was like, oh yeah, she wouldn't stop talking about all the character strengths she saw in Zootopia. Right, so you knew it was resonating. You knew what they were learning was actually resonating, staying with them, and they were applying it to life outside of school.
Michelle: Oh, that's great. So as far as the parents being held to a new set of standards, I bet that that's happening too.
Jeff: Yeah. We have heard that a couple of times. Like at Lincoln Elementary in Pittsburgh, where Dr. Virginia Hill was telling us that some of the kids were like, you're not practicing self control. You got to use these character strengths. And I'm sure that's a little frustrating. Sometimes. I know I get frustrated if my four year old told me that.
Michelle: Oh, I love it. I tell my son all the time. He actually teaches me something new every day. So, I guess I'm used to it, but as far as anything, because I try to find the right questions to really give an idea of how great this program is. Is there anything here that I may have missed or not given you enough to answer or think about?
Jeff: No, I mean, these were great questions. I think, really just our focus is always on getting better and we're building out our team. We're trying to support schools as much as we can. We're always building out new resources or easier ways for teachers to access these just because we know how much is on teachers' plates today. And same thing with parents, we really believe in the importance of parents in this education and we want them to be involved in this. And so, this is a lifelong learning process and that we think is really important for the future of our country.
Michelle: Absolutely. So when I heard about this, and the Positivity Project, and knew I would have a chance to meet Jeff, I was very excited and I jumped on it. I'm the type of person that I don't know who a movie star is or the name of a band or anything like that, but to me, you are a rock star superstar, so you bring sparkle to the world and I love it. And just thank you for doing all the good work that you're doing and making a difference.
Jeff: Well, thank you.
Michelle: Yep. And thank you for being today from the basement up. M are you there?
M: Yes, that was great.
On this episode of From The Basement Up, Michelle talks with Jeff Bryan, Co-Founder & CEO of The Positivity Project. Jeff is a U.S. Military Academy at West Point graduate and served five years in the Army, 2 of which were in Iraq. Following the Army, Jeff served in the U.S. Department of State in D.C. and Jerusalem. Eventually, deciding to settle in the states, he and fellow West Point graduate Mike Irwin wanted to continue to serve the United States and decided to help by creating The Positivity Project.
The Positivity Project's core mission is to empower America's youth to build positive relationships and become their best selves. They put this into action by partnering with Pre-K through grade 12 schools and teaching them character strengths and concepts that will carry with them throughout their life.
Today, Jeff shares examples of putting their methodology to practice. He emphasizes the importance of having relationships and empathy towards others. Listen now to hear about Jeff and The Positivity Project's impact on America's youth.