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Feb 21

Guest Post: How Do We Want to Feel in School?

Posted by Valentine Burr in Fair Is Not Equal on Feb 21, 2013

This post comes to you from Bank Street College alumna and guest blogger, Andrea Henkel.

Before meeting my 7th grade students, I had been warned that they were a tough bunch. Let me rewind and explain my circumstances: This is my first year working as a learning specialist at a private general education school that serves students in grades 5-12. In addition to working individually with struggling students, I also teach small group classes of 7th and 8th graders who have been identified as needing support.

These classes do not follow a particular curriculum, as the goals depend on the needs of the students. Going into this year I spoke with teachers, deans and learning specialists to research my students so that I could design responsive lessons and units.

Throughout these conversations a common thread emerged-these students struggled with social-emotional skills. Once I met them I saw that they struggled to maintain age-appropriate conversations and to work collaboratively. They also lacked awareness of their own strengths and challenges. I realized that any other skills I wanted to impart would have to be bolstered by social-emotional growth.

To begin this process, my co-teacher and I reached out to the school psychologist, who helped us create lessons and activities to support our students’ emotional and social development. She comes in once a week to help students practice speaking about how they feel about themselves, build their empathy and listening skills, and articulate what they struggle with in and out of school. One project to support the development of these skills was creating an “emotional literacy charter” that outlines how the students want to feel in school and how they will support each other in getting there.

This project spanned multiple weeks and addressed a number of skills, including developing students’ emotional vocabulary and self-advocacy skills. Working on the “emotional literacy charter” gave them the tools to speak honestly about their struggles in school, and helped them learn how to work together in small groups.

We introduced the project by presenting small groups of students with a selection of adjectives that reflected a particular emotion. Each group sorted these words into 3-6 categories and shared the categories they created. They noted similarities across categories and the subtle differences between particular adjectives within each category. This activity not only provided students with a richer language base to describe their emotions, but also built on their literacy skills, as we explored root words and prefixes to help determine meanings of unfamiliar words.

To further internalize our understanding of the emotional vocabulary, we also played a game of Catch Phrase, in which students had to guess one of our emotional vocabulary words based on verbal clues from their peers. We thought it was important to supplement this project with a game, giving them a chance to practice vocabulary, work collaboratively and have fun.

Emotional Charter

Having established a solid base of emotional vocabulary, we asked students to arrange the full set of adjectives along a spectrum of negative to positive, then identify 8 emotions that they wanted to feel when they were at school. In order to fully develop the charter, we used Inspiration software to create a visual map of how students wanted to feel in school and connected the emotions to concrete situations. These situations ranged from easily recognizable classroom behaviors, like being attentive and participating (which students equated with “interested”), to social-emotional scenarios, like “[students are] bursting with ideas” or “people are smiling...nobody is alone”. Using Inspiration helped students develop their thoughts and supply relevant examples, while providing a colorful display that mapped their ideas and supported their planning and organization skills. 

Based on this web, the class collectively wrote a charter that described how each of them wanted to feel in school, expectations for behavior that would support everyone feeling that way, and follow-up actions students can take if the charter is broken. Once we all signed the charter, we pasted it into the students’ planners, celebrating the hard work they put into this project. The charter serves as a reminder of how they can support themselves and their peers in feeling emotionally safe and supported in school.

tagged classroom charter, emotional literacy, emotions, middle school, visuals
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