A Conversation about Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)

In conversation with:
Beatrix Jackson, Assistant Director for ACT Supports
Jillian Luft, Assistant Director of Scholar Support
Javon Ralling, Dean of Culture, Democracy Prep Harlem Middle School

As Democracy Prep continues to implement its network priorities that encourage expectations for scholars that are intentional, fair, and not punitive, our organization is also reimagining what social emotional learning (SEL) can look like. Democracy Prep staff members Beatrix Jackson, Jillian Luft, and Javon Ralling are facilitating a professional development session for NYC Men Teach on how teachers can approach and incorporate social emotional learning (SEL) into their daily practice. This virtual professional development is open to all and will take place on April 27th at 4PM EDT / 1PM PDT. RSVP here.

In a time when our scholars have had the least in-person interactions with peers and teachers in their entire lives, what is the significance of prioritizing SEL, and how do we as educators do it well? We asked to find out.

What does social-emotional learning look like in a Democracy Prep school?

At DP, we define social-emotional learning as understanding our relationships with ourselves and others to recognize one another’s humanity, and work together to change the world to one rooted in equity and justice. We don’t perceive social-emotional learning as a toolkit or discrete set of strategies. Rather, SEL is a mindset and underlying approach we employ to build inclusive learning communities. Part of SEL is learning at a young age that it’s okay to have feelings and seek to understand how to process them.

This vision we’re driving toward is a place where we dedicate advisory periods as opportunities to socially connect with our classmates, people in our cohorts, our teachers, and our staff members. It’s also an opportunity to do some circle protocol conversations in which we enter a space without judgement, with open ears, with open hearts, and we reflect on what’s going on within our community. We listen and we support and we continue to bring that support in different ways throughout the school day.

One of our network priorities is Purpose over Power. This priority pushes each of us to reflect on our current school systems and make sure that all of our rules and expectations are in service of academic achievement, rather than control or compliance for its own sake. How does social-emotional learning tie to the Democracy Prep network priority of Purpose over Power?

When you start acknowledging social-emotional learning, how you [and scholars] feel, and how much of how you feel is connected to what you do, then the purpose of what you’re doing becomes more clear.

We are acknowledging that we are moving away from a display of authority for authority’s sake. As we move towards being a network that is purposely doing things over authoritatively doing things, it compels us to reflect on what the purpose of the action is. For example: silent entry during school arrival. The purpose of this action is to begin the day safely and efficiently. However, silent entry felt very punitive because not following the rules meant scholars could lose daily points and dream dollars.

In trying to create a safe atmosphere, we created a punitive system. The purpose was to make sure scholars were expeditiously and safely moving from classroom to classroom. Does it need to be silent? Is that a display of power? Perhaps. When you truly reflect on this action, you begin to reconsider: what does it mean to get from one area to another safely? What does it mean to acknowledge how a child feels if they just sat in a class for 50 minutes trying to take in as much as they can and be a good participant? Do we need another 3 minutes of silent, heavily enforced expectations to get to a room quietly? The purpose and the power may not be level here. Students need time to be social, talk to a friend, to smile, or to hug (when it’s safe to do so again).

We [at Democracy Prep] are at a point where we are really reflecting on what it means to be more human. As Democracy Prep evolves as an organization, and we bring our commitment to anti-racism to the forefront, we’ll see the clear connection to social emotional learning and to purpose over power.

What are two things that teachers reading this blog can do today to create more space for social emotional growth in their classrooms?
1. Have unstructured time for socializing

Teachers can use parts of their day for students to have informal, unstructured time to socialize with their peers and teacher. This could be when scholars arrive at school early in the morning, while they are unpacking for the day, or when they are eating breakfast. You can take the initiative as the adult to use those times to engage with your scholars.

One thing we lost when we moved to a remote world is the informal touch point. It’s important to create spaces for organic communication and connection because this builds relationships. Now more than ever, as we end this school year and embark on the 21-22 school year, those relationships are crucial to keeping kids invested in trying to get over that curve and close that gap that has been widened by nature of academics being virtual.

2. Use relevant lesson hooks

Think about how you can connect your classwork and objectives to scholars’ real life. Think about how you can create opportunities for them to talk about what’s going on in their lives and draw those connections to what you’re teaching.

For example, a hook for a math class on exponential growth could be: since the lockdown, TikTok views have grown exponentially. People become viral overnight. What do you think exponential means, and which TikTok videos or creators do you follow?

By beginning a new topic with a real-life example that is familiar to students, you are encouraging students to draw connections and apply your lessons to the world outside the classroom.

Keep in mind, SEL is simply about connecting with each other as humans.

Want to learn more? We are opening this virtual professional development to anybody who would like to develop strategies for SEL in their classroom. Join us on April 27th at 4PM EDT / 1PM PDT by RSVPing here.

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