Margaret Raymond Driscoll is a nine-year Melrose School Committee member who is passionate about excellent teaching and learning for all public school students, and considers it a privilege to collaborate with others who share that passion. You can also follow her on Twitter at @MargaretDrisc. Just to be clear - opinions expressed here do not represent those of the Melrose Public Schools, the Melrose School Committee, or the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials - they are hers alone.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Cool (and Slightly Wonky) Education Discussion (2/9 Citywide PTO): Part 3 of 3

Third, this part is less wonky, more social/emotional/behavioral:

Social emotional learning (SEL) is a topic that is gaining more attention and focus as districts are asked to increase work around supporting the “whole child,” with research showing that it supports improved academic outcomes for students. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the definition of social emotional learning is: …”the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” Their work is here: http://www.casel.org/social-and-emotional-learning/

The last segment of Tuesday’s Citywide PTO included a thoughtful discussion of SEL, its history (in broad terms and in Melrose), implementation, examples, and more. Supt. Taymore spoke to the district’s employment of the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) model that is currently used in the elementary schools. It originated from Special Education Law about 40 years ago and “took off” around seven to eight years ago. The first application in Melrose was at the Lincoln School where Mr. Conway implemented the CARES system. Because it needs to be organic, each school has their own PBIS. The programs have grown significantly over the last three years, with schools having their own mascots as well as common language and expectations. In many cases, families are using this language in their homes to partner with the schools. The ECC is doing focused work in this area too. Kindergartens use the “Incredible, Flexible You” curriculum (more here: http://www.theincredibleflexibleyou.com/). Many administrators spent time last summer working with the Educator Effectiveness Guidebook for Inclusive Practice, a DESE resource “to create a place for all students to thrive in general education settings. (More here: http://www.doe.mass.edu/edeval/guidebook/Guidebook.pdf.) There is never enough money for what the Supt. refers to as research and development, but the Melrose Education Foundation (MEF) has been very generous in their support of R&D in the schools. Supt. Taymore is evolving the district’s Strategy Overview (http://d1868cr0a5jrv6.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/MelroseStrategyOverviewFY16Decupdate.pdf) to present social emotional learning more overtly (see especially p. 4). More professional development is planned in this area. A next step is to build on this mapping using the recently released report from the Rennie Center (http://www.renniecenter.org/topics/SEL_policy.html).  

Supt. Taymore chairs the professional development committee of the Mass. Assoc. of School Supt’s (MASS), and they have done an entire conference on SEL. They spent time talking about the rise in student trauma, anxiety, depression, etc. and are working with experts from the Dept. of Public Health (DPH) and Dept. of Mental Health (DMH) on this issue. The emerging thought is that there must be a shift away from student accountability. The new federal education law, ESSA, includes “soft” measures of achievement (as noted in my previous blog post) because there has been so much pushback on traditional accountability (like testing) from teachers, parents, and health professionals. In Melrose, she is trying to build a sustainable SEL system.

The Supt. contends that at this time, it is tougher being a teacher than it was 30 years ago. It’s tougher to be a student too. Some community members and parents say things like “we don’t get enough students into Harvard,” and at the same time say “our kids are stressed.” Higher ed is starting to see this dichotomy and are hopefully shifting the paradigm. Supt. Taymore doesn’t want to lose the advances made in curriculum and instruction; she sees that students need skills to find and use information because there is so much content now. Teaching in this era means one can’t be a “filing cabinet teacher” (one who uses the same lessons for each class every year forever), or a “sardine can teacher” (one who opens the sardine can of the classroom and pours the content into the tin of students). Staff members like social workers can be supportive to teachers and students in this work.

One challenge: how will parents react to SEL? Some parents think this work should be done exclusively in the home and schools should stay out of it, while other parents feel it is critical in schools. There are students who are stressed when navigating the use of SEL strategies, e.g. what if it’s used at school but not valued at home? What if it’s used at a custodial parent’s house but not at a non-custodial parent’s house (or vice-versa)?

[A Citywide parent asked about the use of restorative justice as a practice in the schools. (More on the concept here: http://restorativejustice.org/.) MVMMS has a team attending a grant-sponsored event regarding this topic with other local educators.]

SEL is not a “silo’d” approach. Research is showing mixed results for a “canned” curriculum because it doesn’t build a culture, so Supt. Taymore feels that embedding it into all areas of the schools’ work is the best approach. (Also, it’s expensive to train new staff members on specific curriculum every time there is a new hire so embedding it is more fiscally responsible.) Another Citywide parent mentioned that one thing MVMMS principal Mr. Conway is doing is beginning the practice of not bringing dates to the traditional 8th grade semi-formal, and one way she thought parents could support that kind of change would be to have a mandated parent information night like the high school’s mandated parent prom info nights. Supt. Taymore indicated that parents must understand that we teach all students, and some have extreme behaviors; there are stresses in classrooms for the students with the behaviors and the students who witness and experience those behaviors. (SEL learning can help with that.) Reflecting back on the curriculum piece, the Supt. is very concerned about asking a teacher to take it on (for example, a 3rd grade teacher), since they aren’t clinicians. The state is talking about mandating alcohol/drug screening for 7th and 10th graders (ref: https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/09/24/bill-would-mandate-school-drug-screenings/nNB5B5BGKpBeRbIDgIzsfI/story.html) and she worries that teachers will need to decide whether a student needs intervention services.

At the elementary level, students are employing devices like “accountable talk.” At the high school, when the Urban Improv program caused concern among some participants and parents, it was determined that students need more skills around how to listen, take perspective, and develop a two-way dialogue. This realization gave teachers an “aha!” moment: they asked themselves whether they were modeling those practices in their own classrooms. Supt. Taymore is working with teachers in so many academic areas now – new elementary reading social studies texts, etc. and struggles to ask them to do even more. If we work on the culture piece, it will build capacity to embed SEL in the content work being done. One implementation of this work is found in using the first three days of the school year for three specific purposes: build relationships between and among teachers and students; build routines; and set class expectations. Supt. Taymore will continue to follow this topic closely and work with staff to embed quality SEL practices for the benefit of students.