AK: Happiness is orange at Hoonah City Schools

Hoonah City Schools Superintendent PJ Ford Slack, right, sits in on the Orange Frog training, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (Photo by Quinton Chandler/KTOO)

This story starts with Superintendent of Hoonah City Schools, PJ Ford Slack. Hoonah is a small village on Chichagof Island in Southeast Alaska.

Listen now

Slack came to Hoonah as an “emergency replacement” for the district’s last superintendent and when she got to work, she noticed something.

“The adults were really not happy. That didn’t mean they actively knew that, but they seemed to be down,” Slack said.

Hoonah’s community does feel a lot of stress.

The isolated town’s commercial fishing and processing industries dried up years ago, the school district is under heavy financial strain and drug and alcohol dependence are growing concerns.

Slack believes a teacher’s attitude has a powerful impact on the kids they teach. So she started researching something called the Happiness Advantage.

It’s an idea based on research that points to a link between a positive mindset and success.

“It seems to make sense that would make a difference if the kids and the adults all learned a little bit about this and learned happiness is a choice,” Slack said.

The district used about $20,000 in grant funding to pay for a training based on the work of author and motivational speaker, Shawn Achor.

It’s called the Orange Frog Project. The project was supposed to teach Hoonah’s high school and middle school students how to choose happiness every day.

The adults went through it months ago and Slack says it has already changed some their lives.

Devin Hughes at the front of the class during the Orange Frog training. (Photo by Quinton Chandler/KTOO)

“Whoo! You’re awesome, BAM! Let (them) know, let’s go,” Devin Hughes yelled. He’s the chief inspiration officer for the International Thought Leader Network.

Hughes ordered a round of high fives as he explained that he would teach the room full of high school kids to be outwardly positive even if it means being the weird one.

Hughes said, “my whole mission, my tenet, is to go around and inspire, motivate others to achieve happiness and joy and optimism. It’s pretty cool.”

Hughes used a comic book to jumpstart the training. It’s a story about a bunch of sad green frogs and a happy frog, who slowly turns orange.

The more the orange frog does to make himself happy, the better he gets at catching flies, and the more orange he turns. Eventually, the other frogs copy him: they get happier, they catch more flies and they start turning orange too.

Hughes said his company travels to corporations around the world and to schools teaching people to be orange.

“So right now, I think schools are probably the fastest growing segment within our business,” Hughes said. “Because if you can get a kid, whether it’s a kid that’s 6 or 16, and start to rewire their brain and doing these things more often and feeling pretty good, behavior issues go down, test scores go up.”

But let’s walk this back. Hughes said he’s being paid to teach people to be happy. Doesn’t anybody question that?

“Oh, all the time. I mean people are like, ‘Really, really,’” Hughes said. “Because, if you think about it when I ask you the question, ‘Did you have anyone in your life when you were a youngster teach you, give you the secret sauce to happiness, tell you something prescriptive, something actionable that you need to do to work on this, your mojo and your mindset? Universally nobody raises their hand.’”

Hughes said after the initial skepticism, people usually jump in, because, “who doesn’t want to be happy?”

The high schoolers seemed to embrace Hughes’ message. All around the room kids wore bright synthetic orange wigs, frilly orange necklaces; they had streaks of orange marker on their faces — any kind of orange prop or clothing they found, they wore it.

A high school student sketches a formline frog based on the main character from the Orange Frog comic book. (Photo by Quinton Chandler/KTOO)

Hughes told the kids to keep it positive. Throughout the day, he had them share the best things happening in their lives with other people.

“First rule (of) Orange Frog, if something good happens you have to talk about it,” Hughes said.

Hughes asked them to run the halls delivering what he called “joy bombs” to people all over the building so the kids gave people unexpected high fives and hugs and told them that they were awesome.

Hughes told them to think about how to stop their problems from keeping them down.

He told them to think about changing behaviors that affect everyone, things like bullying or ignoring kids they usually don’t hang out with.

At the end, Hughes asked the kids to spend time thinking about how they can remember to keep doing this after he leaves.

Some of the kids said Orange Frog definitely changed their school’s atmosphere, but will it last?

Senior Kelsey Thein isn’t sure.

“I think that only time will tell with that one. I can see that a lot more people are upbeat than normal and if it stays, it stays,” Thein said.

Other kids said optimistically that they can easily turn their school orange in the long term.

Superintendent Slack hopes so too.

“I’m hoping that this will help them as they go through their life know that they can make some choices and that those choices are tough sometimes,” Slack said. “Life is tough. But, there are ways that we can turn the frown the other way around and make it a smile.”

Slack doesn’t see this as some kind of silver bullet. She hopes learning about Orange Frog will help them develop better coping skills to handle whatever life throws their way.