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Creating Communities of Practice

What happens when people are able to connect with others that have similar interests? What kind of energy is generated when practitioners are able to share what they know and learn from others?

Lorea SEL EventTwo weeks ago, I co-hosted a meet-up with Six Seconds for educators interested in Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in Menlo Park (CA). The main goal was to bring like-minded teachers and school leaders together, so they could collaborate and share best practices about SEL implementation. The meet-up had two schools present their approach to SEL, EPACS and Synapse School. At first glance, these two schools couldn’t be more different: EPACS is a public charter school in East Palo Alto (CA), serving an economically disadvantaged community; Synapse School is a private school serving gifted learners in affluent Menlo Park (CA).

Jen SEL EventAlthough these two schools serve a different student population, they have in common a commitment to provide quality education for kids and the belief that teaching social and emotional competencies to students is a necessity when educating the adults of the future. Both schools shared the great impact that having SEL as part of their educational program has on students. EPACS had a 34% decrease in the number of behavior referrals due to the SEL intervention the school put in place. This means that students were spending more time in their classrooms, learning and growing with their classmates instead of being sent to the office. What a great accomplishment!

In addition to learning from these two schools, participants had an opportunity to get together in small groups and discuss SEL-related topics; for example curriculum resources, SEL and school climate, teacher development, and others. Educators were so engaged during these conversations that we couldn’t bring the group back together for closing remarks… in my eyes that meant success! It showed that there is a need in our educational community to create spaces were educators and school leaders get together to discuss best practices and the challenges that come with educating the social and emotional skills of children and youth.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAThis brings me back to the title of this post, Communities of Practice. The term was first used in 1991 by Lave and Wegner to highlight the process of social learning that takes place when people who have a common interest collaborate over an extended period of time. Wegner (1998) defines communities of practice as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”. This meet-up was, in a way, a first step in creating a community of practice for educators that are passionate about SEL; a space for sharing and collaboration, to feel connected and energized by the work of others and the recognition of your own contributions!

My hope is that this blog and future school meet-ups will contribute to create an SEL community of practice, present and virtual, where we can support each other as we learn how to be more human, and as we educate others in the importance of teaching social and emotional competencies to children, youth and adults.

Dealing with change

I have recently started rereading Carl Rogers’ classic book On Becoming a Person (1961). It has been a refreshing read, as I reflect on how we (educators, administrators, and parents) deal with the changes and challenges that the Common Core Standards bring to our lives, and how we can use Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) to support that change. Here are some quotes that resonated with me:

“The more I am simply willing to be myself, in all this complexity of life and the more I am willing to understand and accept the realities in myself and in the other person, the more change seems to be stirred up.”

i_am_proud_to_be_myself-3979This idea of accepting the realities in myself starts with one of the core competencies of SEL, self-awareness; the ability to assess your feelings, know your strengths and weaknesses, and identify your interests and values, so you can maintain a well-grounded sense of self-confidence. According to Rogers, being yourself is a first step for change and growth. Implementing the CCSSS is going to ask us, at least, to reflect on our teaching practices under the lens of these new expectations and check how aligned those two are. In other words, before thinking that you have to start from scratch because your students will be evaluated on a different set of measures, identify the strategies that are part of your practice that already support 21st century skills.

“It is a very paradoxical thing-that to the degree that each one of us is willing to be himself, then he finds not only himself changing; but he finds that other people to whom he relates are also changing.

change is a processChange can be energizing and a motivator for improvement, but it can also be frightening. The uncertainty of accountability demands for schools, as well as the worry about how well students will perform on the new assessments, or any other concern you might have about the CCSS is going to affect how you feel and deal with this change. One strategy that I have often used with students is having them write how they feel about a particular situation. Try it for yourself! Considering that the transition to the CCSS is beyond your control, this exercise might help you clarify your fears and worries about this change, and reframe your worries to focus on the potential positive outcomes for your students.

When we engage in innovative processes, in our work or our personal lives, we are often faced with uncomfortable situations that might be stressful. Changing or developing instructional practices is a process that takes time; it is something that happens over time when supported by cycles of action, analysis and purposeful reflection on the practice. Dealing with this process of change asks teachers to use another of the SEL competencies, self-management; the ability to regulate emotions to handle stress, persevere in overcoming obstacles, and monitoring progress toward goals. Does this sound like the skills you are trying to develop in your students?

SEL is a process to develop social and emotional competencies in children, and also adults. In this transition to the CCSS, teachers and school leaders are faced with the challenge to respond to these new demands. This transition won’t come free of concerns and stress about how to best support student learning. In this process, remember to notice and identify your emotions, clarify your concerns, and set up realistic goals to improve your teaching practice. Change is a journey, not a blueprint (Fullan, 1993)!

3 strategies to address SEL in your classroom

Some people may think of implementing Social Emotional Learning (SEL) as solely teaching an off-the-shelf curriculum, such as Second Step, PATHS, Positive Action or others.  While the explicit instruction of social and emotional competencies is a key component of a robust SEL intervention, there are two more strategies that will increase the impact of this work on your students: using teaching practices that enhance the use of social and emotional competencies by students, and infusing SEL with the academic content you teach.

It is worth taking some time to think about how your teaching strategies provide students with opportunities to practice their social and emotional skills. Do you use cooperative learning? Do you often have classroom discussions? Do you balance direct instruction with guided practice? Those are all instructional practices that support positive learning environments, and students’ learning. You might be already using some of these strategies, and if you do, you are already supporting your students’ development of their social and emotional competencies!

Let’s look at the 3 strategies to address SEL in more detail.

AES-Responsive-Classroom-Morning-MeetingExplicit instruction. This strategy refers to teaching the specific skills and vocabulary that you want your students to use and master. For example, if you want them to use a specific protocol to solve conflicts, you will have to teach each one of the steps and the strategies/sentence starters that you want students to follow when solving problems. Explicit instruction is very powerful when starting to teach SEL, because it will provide students with a common language to communicate about daily issues in and outside the classroom. Schools might use an off-the-shelf curriculum to teach explicit instruction, or they might develop their own lessons and activities.

dv1940061Using teaching practices that enhance students’ social and emotional competencies. This strategy is directly tied to how you organize and manage your classroom. Instructional practices that require students to work and learn together, discuss a topic and collect different points of view, solve a math or science problem in a small group or make choices about their own learning are all activities that ask students to use social and emotional skills in one way or another. To make sure you are consistent with your explicit instruction, you should share with students which competencies they are practicing and developing when they participate in these activities. A few examples of teaching practices that enhance students’ competencies are cooperative learning, classroom discussions, project-based learning, workshops, feedback loops or student self-assessment.

Elementary StudentsIntegrating SEL with academic content. This third strategy connects the content and vocabulary of your SEL instruction with your English, math, science, or PE lesson. For example, in language arts it is possible to connect lessons and activities around the study of characters or the development of themes with emotional literacy and self and social management skills. In order to maximize instructional time while addressing students’ character, KIPP uses what they call Dual Purpose Instruction. Teachers include both an academic and a character objective in their lessons plans, and are explicit with their students about the character trait that students are developing when they work on a particular assignment. You can also find SEL programs, like the Ruler Approach, that provide a curriculum already aligned to the academic content: the Feeling Words Curriculum is a language-based emotional literacy program for students that is mapped directly onto the core curriculum and align with the ELA Common Core State Standards.

Providing students with explicit instruction, plenty of opportunities to practice their social and emotional skills in a safe learning environment, and connecting these competencies with their academic learning will build a solid foundation to address students’ social and emotional needs in your classroom.

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