Inspirational Thoughts

SEL to the Rescue

My name is Rio Clemente and I work at a middle school in New Jersey.  September 2020 will be the start of my 20th year teaching social studies to sixth grade students.  I have been a consulting teacher for The Center for Responsive Schools for the last five years.  With a lot of teaching experience and professional development under my belt, September 2020 is going to a year where I am going to need every bit of it. 

The summer of 2020 was not your typical summer.  I spent most my summer stressing about whether I would be teaching virtually or in person.  Most nights I had trouble sleeping.  When the decision came that we would be teaching in person, my stress levels increased drastically. I also began to think about my future students.  How must they be feeling?  Are they nervous?  Are they scared?  Are they excited?

When I was given my schedule, I was unsure how I was going to run my classes.  I would see kids in person based on what their last names are.  For example, A-L would be in person while M-Z would be virtual and then it would swap the next day.  Regardless of the day, the 100% virtual kids would be home.  I was tasked with teaching the in-person kids and the virtual kids at the same time.  This is no easy task.  Which led me back to my previous question.  How must the kids be feeling?  It was then that things finally came into focus.  I knew I was going to have to take time and focus on social emotional learning (SEL).    After speaking to my colleagues Kelly Pickul, Noelle Cocca, and Gary Brady, they were on board.  All of them are strong believers in teaching the whole child.  We make a great team.

As a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher, not being able to do the type of things that I was trained to do was not easy to accept.  However, I knew that making connections with kids was still a possibility and it was something that I needed to make a priority in my teaching.  I knew that if given the time, I could still make a difference.  I began plans to run 50-minute Responsive Advisory Meetings (RAM) during my afternoon classes.  This was the time chosen because everyone would be virtual, and I could my student’s faces.

For the past few weeks, I have run advisory lessons starting with teambuilding using the last person standing activity.  This is where kids tell me something that they think most kids in their class have in common, something maybe a few kids have in common, and one thing that is unique to them.  This activity gave me some great insight to my students.  Whether it was learning that one of my students is a nationally ranked wrester or that some can speak multiple languages, or some have lived in a variety of states and countries. After our first advisory, I could not wait for the next one.

The next advisory lesson was on effort and its impact on success.  For this advisory, I used Padlet so kids could be honest with their answers and stay anonymous.  I then used Microsoft Forms to gather some closure data.  I gained some interesting feedback from the kids.  Some kids said they do not think their parents, teachers, and friends notice their effort.  One went on to say, “I put my effort into my phone because nobody notices my effort.”  I knew I had to try to use my reinforcing teacher language to let my students know I noticed their effort.  If kids feel that their effort is not noticed, many give up and in the current situation we are living in right now, giving up seems easier for kids if they feel they can hide by just muting their microphone and turning off their camera. After seeing such heartbreaking comments, I knew we had to keep going.

My colleague Kelly Reid (Science Teacher) followed up our lesson with her own RAM on how create a success plan.  Mrs. Reid as a teacher has a tremendous amount of empathy for her students.  Just like me, Mrs. Reid is feeling the pressures of teaching in this environment.  However, this has not stopped her from meeting the needs of her students on an emotional and personal level.  Being able to work with someone who has the same belief system as you is a gift. 

When we shifted our focus from effort to leadership, it was at this point that I noticed a change in my students.  I could see they were taking leadership roles in our discussions.  They were becoming more confident and were self-advocating more.  I felt like we were making progress, but there was still a way to go.  I felt like we had not had that one moment where I could be like “YES”!  Then it happened.

Our next advisory was on resistance.  Kids were given scenarios and they were asked to respond how they might resist the norm in the scenario.  One of the scenarios dealt with gender equality.  The scenario went like this: You are a new student at an imaginary middle school. It turns out that they only have sports for the boys at the school.  When you ask the principal how come?  You are told that there is not enough money to pay for girl sports. You are then told there are some nice girl clubs that you can join after school.  How can you resist this policy?

This scenario was the game changer.  Especially for the girls in class.  Not only did they participate more than ever, something incredible happened.  Girls in class began talking about personal experiences dealing with times that they were mistreated because they were a girl or for other reasons.  Basically, the lesson went off track, but it was worth it.  When comments came up about being treated badly by their friends or being a target in the past, the other girls in class comforted them and did what they could to make them feel better.  When the lesson was over, some of the kids from class stayed for almost an additional twenty minutes because they were not done talking and they needed to be heard.

To me, that is what is all about.  Kids just want to be heard.  They want someone to listen to them and acknowledge their feelings.  When I ended my virtual class period, it changed me.  Trying to teach in a hybrid model was taking its toll on me.  I was feeling defeated and distraught.  Starting my twentieth year in the classroom, I felt like I was not making a difference.  After this period, I finally felt like my old self.  The point I am making is it is not always the teacher who is changing the lives of the students.  Sometimes it is the students changing the lives of their teachers.

I look forward to our upcoming advisory lessons.  We will focus on communication, empathy, and stress management.  These are three topics that I feel will really benefit the kids in this environment.  The beauty of any advisory is that you can connect it to your content.  My advice to anyone who is nervous about running an advisory, take the risk.  It is worth it.  It gives us a chance to be ourselves and help kids deal with the challenges of life.  You might not see the result immediately, but I promise that you are making a difference.  You just have to believe. 

When you are done with your advisory lessons, a good idea would reach out to the parents what was done.  After each advisory, I send a summary to the parents.  Here are a couple sample responses that I received.  “This is all so wonderful to read. Great job teaching such a worthwhile lesson to our children.”  Another parent wrote “Wow. This IS wonderful! Some of these kids really did open up so much. Excellent assignment.  We truly appreciate how you and Ms. Cocca genuinely care about our children’s wellbeing. We are immensely grateful. Virtual schooling has been extremely challenging for our daughter.  We’re glad she’s in your class, though.  She really enjoys it. Thank you!”  Parents will appreciate your efforts.  Everyone has their own challenges and if we work together, we can help one another.  Never forget that you are making a difference in the life of a child.