Learn how “stinky fish” transformed a classroom.

Teaching always came naturally to Chris Streiff.

Things went so well that for her first seven years of teaching in Rochester, Minnesota, she never used a behavior plan. “My approach was: You respect me and I respect you. I never had a problem building a classroom community.”

Until she encountered a first grade class at Gage Elementary School that just didn’t click. “They were a handful,” Chris says. “Kids were mean to each other. They argued over crayons and markers, scribbled on other people’s work. They hit. They fought. Every transition took half an hour.”

Gradually Chris’s personality began to harden. “I started sending kids to the office left and right. I had never done that before. The joy was gone. I went home wiped out, and I didn’t enjoy my family life.”

One day, she had a meltdown in the assistant principal’s office. “I can’t keep doing this if I’m not going to be successful,” she told him.

Changing our classroom

About that time, Chris learned about The FISH! Philosophy through her staff development work. “I realized The FISH! Philosophy was a model for behaviors I was looking for with my students.”

Chris recognized that she couldn’t do it alone. “It wasn’t just my classroom. It was our classroom. I had to find a way for my students to want to make it better.”

“Do we want a stinky fish?”

Chris started the process by drawing a large fish skeleton on chart paper. “I said, ‘Boys and girls, I need your help. There are some things in class that are bugging me. Are there any things that are bugging you?’ ”

Almost every child, even the ones causing the most problems, was bothered by something going on in the class. Chris and her students identified the things that were interfering with learning and fun, and wrote them on the lines of the fish bones—pushing, shoving, blurting out, stealing, budging in line, not sharing. They quickly filled up three large fish bones.

Then Chris asked, “How do you think a dead fish smells?” To which the kids replied, “Stinky! Smelly!”

“Do we want a stinky fish in our classroom?” Chris urged.

“No!” the kids yelled.

“Do we want these behaviors in our classroom?!”


Chris took the sheet off the easel, crumpled it, and threw it in the trash. “I wanted them to see the symbolism of throwing these behaviors away.” (Chris kept the sheet in a special Stinky Fish Bin, referring to it from time to time when needed.)

Understanding FISH!

Having identified the behaviors they didn’t want, Chris and her students used The FISH! Philosophy to talk about what they did want. “I didn’t say, ‘These are my rules and here’s how it’s going to be.’ I explained this is something I’m learning that might help us. Let’s explore it together. I wanted their help. It was an invitation.”

Next, Chris showed the FISH! video to her class. “We watched one section at a time, and then talked about how each practice might work in our classroom. When we looked at Play—where the guys are throwing fish—one child asked, ‘Can we throw books in class?’ ‘No,’ I answered. ‘But what can we do that’s fun without throwing?’ We came up with lots of ideas—singing, dancing, chants.”

Once they knew what FISH! was about, “we were speaking the same language,” Chris says. “If a student did something that wasn’t helpful, I could say, ‘Do you think that would Make Their Day?’ It helped them think about how their actions affected others.”

Practicing positive behavior

The final step was to practice FISH! behaviors. “Kids learn by doing. During transitions, we’d brainstorm ways we could put FISH! into action.”

One idea was an attitude survey. At the top of the sheet were the words This morning, I feel … Next to it were three faces: happy, neutral, and sad. When students came to class each morning, they circled the face that matched how they were feeling.

Also on the survey were the words, I will work toward having this attitude today … and a second set of three faces. “Even if they felt a certain way now, they learned they could choose a new attitude that worked better for them,” Chris says.

The class also started a Make Their Day plan. Every morning, students selected a Popsicle stick from a can with the name of a classmate, then wrote how they were going to make that person’s day. “The idea was to consciously make an effort,” Chris says. “Maybe my plan was to play with Katie, but instead I sat with her at lunch or helped her with math. We did this activity for about three weeks, and after that it came naturally.”

Seeing changes

Chris’s students were amazed at how making someone’s day made them feel. She saw one student who had been rude helping a student with autism tie his shoes. “He was thinking about someone other than himself,” Chris said.

The more students practiced Be There, the more they listened to each other. “Many of their little spats and issues with sharing went away.”

Eventually, students started coming to Chris with books they were reading. “They’d tell me, ‘This one has something about Be There or Make Their Day,’ ” she says. “We started a basket of books whose messages reinforced FISH!, so if we had problems I’d grab a book and I had a discussion tool right there.”

One rainy day during indoor recess, two students accidentally collided. Neither was seriously hurt, but their classmates quickly gathered to comfort the students. “They were taking care of each other. That summed up the year for me.”

Going with the flow

Chris’s students were proud of the culture they had helped create. “They talked a lot about how things had changed,” Chris says. “It was important for them to see they had the power to take a situation that wasn’t good and make it better.

By the end of the first quarter, behavior slips issued in Chris’s classroom “dropped about 90 percent. Everything just flowed. We had finally figured out we were all in this together.”

“We got through lessons more quickly. They were doing their job, which gave me time to do my job. It allowed me to get back to who I was and why I got into teaching.”

Create a great classroom with The FISH! Philosophy

Stinky Fish/Fresh Fish Exercise

This exercise empowers students to work with you, as partners, to create a successful classroom culture. It’s a great way to start the year, or when certain behaviors are getting in the way of learning.


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As your staff prepares for next year, here are two ways to re-ignite enthusiasm and build a remarkable learning culture:

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The FISH! For Schools Complete Pack (retail $999) includes everything you need to introduce and sustain The FISH! Philosophy. It comes with the original FISH! video, staff development videos (perfect for staff meetings or study groups) and classroom resources to help students live The FISH! Philosophy.

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