The Necessity of Emotional Social Learning Inside our Schools and Classrooms

Nothing is more important! “ If we cannot reach them, we cannot teach them.”

 

Looking down and inside the rabbit hole is where I find myself observing the ever present dissonance of educational reform in this time. Indianapolis Public Schools are sitting in the midst of it all… four turnaround schools await their outcome as they transform from public middle and high schools to charter schools.

 

On some days, I feel encouraged, on other days,, I am frustrated and saddened by the voiced hostilities, aggravations and inability to shift perspectives, listening to one another as school reform is “seemingly and paradoxically” discussed.  Reviewing the perspectives from a parent’s and educator’s  lens, these past few weeks have highlighted  some very real topics for all to consider and rethink as a community sharing in the privilege and responsibility of providing a holistic education as we look to serving our students, our future world citizens.  

 

Facts 

 

The chronic stress and depression levels of our children and adolescents are over 20% in the United States, higher than any other age group.

 

“Bullying” is and has become the most prevalent student, parent and educational topic across our nation with insurmountable suicides, expressed hopelessness and growing anger and dissension within families and communities.  

 

Our students today are digital learners, multi-tasking like no other generation. Their lives are immersed inside the most populous and diverse world in our history and their relational skills and face to face connections with others has never been less, yet, the paradox is:  our children and adolescents are more globally connected and are able to acquire information across the world within minutes!    

 

1. College debt has never been higher for students and families.

 

2. We have the highest unemployment rate worldwide for young adults between the ages of 15-24 years of age. Students are graduating in 4-6 years with majors and skills that either require another degree or there simply is not a position for that degree.

 

According to a 2005 report issued by The Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit group, only 63 percent of students who enroll in a four-year university will earn a degree, and it will take them an average of six years to do so. The other 37 percent will either drop out of college before finishing or else flunk out of their programs of study. (USA Today).

More recently, however, Mary Beth Marklein, writing for USA Today, reports that nationally, four-year colleges graduated an average of only 53-percent of entering students within six years, and graduation rates of less than 30-percent are often the case, according to a report by the American Enterprise Institute, “a conservative think tank” (2011).

 

 

3. Standardized testing of ELA, math and science is driving most instruction and performance of both teacher and student in public schools.

 

4. Many colleges and universities are looking at SAT and ACT scores WITHOUT the inclusion of the writing section and only basing proficiency on critical reading, science and math multiple choice scores.

 

5. Divergent thinking that many large companies and organizations, and yes, universities are desiring and asking from their students and employees,  are no longer a priority inside the instruction of many,  if not most K-12 educational systems. 

 

6. Thirty- five percent of students who enter college will drop out during the first year.

 

7. Research has shown over and over that an emotional intelligence quotient has more to do with your success in the world and than your intelligence quotient. High intelligence is not a predictor of how well one integrates and lives successfully in the world.   

Talking with a colleague a few days ago about the upcoming Teach for America and New Teacher Project cohort groups that began their summer institutes last week at Marian University  she said, “Lori, there are so many great teachers who are implementing social and emotional learning  by building relationships with their students, but we still need content experts!” I thought about her comment after we talked, not disagreeing, but wondered how many people look at the social and emotional aspect of teaching and learning as solely, “building relationships”? When social and emotional foundations are placed inside the culture of schools and classrooms there is much more going on than building relationships, although this is important. Creating emotional connections to the academic content,  the practice of reflection and  implementing “transfer” are key in assisting students to take the subject matter out into their world, personalizing it, differentiating, and discovering how this information can deepen their goals, career visions and paths, while discovering their strengths, innate talents and passions in life.   This is the epicenter of social and emotional learning.  

As a mom of a high school senior, I am choosing for a moment to step out of my profession as university faculty.  I am perplexed and intimately experienced the paradox of the educational process this week. My daughter and I visited a few colleges and as we finished the first day with dinner and discussion, Sarah looked at me and said, “Mom, I have GPA, of over 4.0, I have participated in the performing arts and service clubs through high school which clearly shows I have been able to manage my time, work independently, problem solve and yet, my SAT and ACT scores counted for as much if not more than the last four years of my day to day life! And Mom, what about students’ writing? I have spent hours writing stories, papers, speeches and sharing creative thoughts, and yet, they did not want those scores?”  

Her questions also ignited the knowledge that higher educational institutions are promoting and presenting learning opportunities for higher level creative and critical thinking skills. We are creating opportunities for students to collaborate with businesses and organizations, knowing that this student population will hold 7-10 careers in different capacities in their working adult life! The days of working for a company for 30-50 years are over!

So what does all of this mean for educators and students who are teaching and learning inside private, public and charter schools in this time of school take-overs and controversial funding cuts, privatization and public school reorganization? 

I believe this means that we will experience positive change when we move from within each classroom and school, creating educators who deeply understand “how” the brain learns!  As Pat Wolfe, author, educator and international researcher and lecturer clearly explains, “experiences” we provide in and out of the classroom structurally and functionally change the brain!  It is our responsibility and privilege to “mine assets” with every child we encounter giving every student an opportunity to discover their strengths, passions and learning preferences. This upcoming school year I will be sitting beside and mentoring first and second year teachers and school leaders who will be going into some of the most challenging public and charter schools in Indianapolis. We will be focusing on creating “safe and brain compatible cultures” where these teachers and administrators will create “mindsets” for learning and emotional engagement.  Research reportedly demonstrates through the work of Eric Jensen and Shelly Carson from Harvard University that there are neural correlates that invite “how” the brain learns. Patterns, novelty, the implementation of questions and story-telling personalize learning and create these cognitive mindsets of anticipation, curiosity, short bouts of confusion and a desire to collaborate  when we begin to “feel felt” inside our environments.

How do we construct a classroom environment  where learning is creative, mistakes are welcomed and viewed as assets, and cooperation, discussion and critical thinking mind sets lay the foundation for emotional and social growth therefore inviting critical thinking processes and empathy?  How do we share the good news that brain you are born with is not the brain that you are stuck with? This aforementioned statement is the best news we could receive from research as we delve into closing achievement gaps, and raise our assessment scores to be globally competitive, BUT, high test scores and mastering standardized and curriculum based assessments is not enough in this age of professional growth and an economy that is crying out for new ways to tend to old professions. Howard Gardner from Harvard University and author and former attorney Daniel Pink have reiterated and shared what these novel minds embrace in this time of revolutionizing education and our global economy.   

Twenty-first century minds are minds that create, make new meaning out of traditional professions, analyze, implement collaboration, model flexibility and the power of shifting perspectives , while employing  adaptable and empathetic ways of communicating and collaborating with one another.

 

How do we begin to create classroom cultures and academic subject matter that feels meaningful enough to motivate us to expand upon the isolated facts and dry content into our real time real worlds?   

 

  1. Develop school and classroom guidelines together. When guidelines are posted in the school or classrooms and are created ONLY by the teachers or administrators, students are not invested! Take a survey, create these together and change them often! An adolescent who is entering middle school in August is not the same “body or mind” in December, so change up your class guidelines often to meet with the developmental stages of your students.

 

  1. As educators are learning about the neuroscience of learning, teach your students about their brains and how they learn.  What motivates the brain to learn? What stifles growth? When students feel empowered and invested as to their own neurobiology, they will begin to know when they need to stretch, get some water, take a minute and breathe deeply, or walk away from a negative experience.     

 

  1. We create new roles for teachers and students. Students are assigned to mentor teachers as well as teachers assigned to mentor students for a few months or weeks during the school year. This concept will look very different in each building within various grade levels, but the heart of this concept is to build trust, equity, while empowering one another inside this tenuous time of learning and teaching. Educators would benefit from the reflections and feedback of students as well as students sitting beside those adults who can implement stories, analogies and metaphors taking their observations of the students and sharing those in constructive ways where students feel supported and are motivated to improve and expand their learning.  

 

  1. We begin to allow our students to teach, design and implement the assessments, quizzes and showcase (for parents and other teachers in the building) how they have learned these standards and concepts. Show them how to utilize resources discerning viable information from technology.  Research has shown that when we teach what we need to learn, our retention over a 24 hour period is over 90% and when the information is remembered and stored as meaningful, we are able to process at the higher cognitive levels of evaluating, analyzing and synthesizing. If you as an educator or school leader are asking your teachers or students to complete an assignment for homework or over the weekend, do the same for them! Ask what they would like to know more about, and research. Bring in new information, posting it and sharing with your class or team of teachers.

 

  1.   Invite guest speakers to come to your classrooms or schools each week. In-class field trips are inexpensive, necessary for “transfer” of information  and the integration of standards and by all means, do not wait until the end of a unit! Inspire and engage at the beginning of every concept or theme taught.  There is no cost to this suggestion and there are hundreds of organizations and willing community members who would be so inspired and motivated to come to a school or classroom and share their expertise Think of your common core standards over the summer or during a weekend and think about those community members who employ those skills on a daily basis and invite them to school!   As educators we are being called to sit beside our colleagues and students, encouraging them in ways to make meaning, design, and enhance learning through the critical and creative thinking processes that ensure deepened learning. Look at the acuity and NWEA assessments or any of the standardized tests you are required to give; and as the students learn the content with novel activities, show them how to approach and tackle a multiple choice question from an assessment they will take in the future. We are a world of either/or and it is time to recognize that we can differentiate and use “both” when it comes to academic processes through emotionally engaging our students, while personalizing and seeing our students as the “experts!”  

The brain processes questions long after they have been asked. Nothing lessens stress, anger or anxiety more than asking another what  they need. How can I help? What can I do? What do you need? Intrinsic motivation is ensured when students feel empowered and heard! When you are willing as a parent, educator or student to ask and listen to learn- our political reformers who sit in centralized offices far removed from classroom desks and the emotional climates inside our learning environments, may continue to argue, accuse, and banter about systemic educational changes; BUT they will learn from you, your students, your individual classes and schools!  Envision the “what will be” and keep your eyes on the heart and minds of those genius students who walk through your doors everyday bringing baggage that you may never understand, but hearts and minds that are in need of affirmation and recognition. Someday, that compassionate presence you hold for a vulnerable and outwardly aggressive child or teen will be remembered and revered.  When you imagine the best inside any child or adolescent, this is the greatest gift, asset and experience you could contribute to another’s life journey.