Social, Emotional, and Academic Development: SEADing the Path Forward

(My recent blog post for the Institute for Student Achievement. You can see the original here.)

Soon, many young people will graduate high school and head off on a new adventure. Whether their journey leads to enrolling in college, going to work, joining the military, or diving into another postsecondary pathway, the transition into the real world can be a bumpy ride. Ideally, their high school education will serve as a launchpad for this next stage in their lives, giving them the skills and knowledge to navigate the bumps so that they are successful and can ultimately be a contributing member of this vibrant democracy.

Many young people attending schools supported by the Institute for Student Achievement (ISA) entered high school behind in areas such as literacy and mathematics but were able to make up those gaps due to their own hard work and the intense and dedicated work of their teachers, leaders, and counselors. Certainly, the content mastered in classrooms will be of value, particularly for those that go off to college. And the academic skills that they learned in those classrooms, such as learning to analyze a passage from a text or to write critically, will aid a variety of postsecondary pathways. As this 2016 practice guide from the What Works Clearinghouse stated, “Indeed, writing is a life-long skill that plays a key role in postsecondary success across academic and vocational disciplines.”

But reading, writing, and arithmetic are just one part of preparation for life after high school. There is a great deal more that young people need from their high school years to prepare them, such as the social and emotional competencies that serve as the backbone for any maturing young person. Social and emotional learning (SEL) is equal in importance, if not more so, to the book learning that high school has always been about. It requires us to think about how we implement this work not only in after-school programs or through advisory, but intentionally and within academic core settings. Are students asked in their classrooms to collaborate with peers, for example? How are classroom activities set up so that communication is practiced? Young people not only need to learn algebra and read Toni Morrison but also need to collaborate with their peers, orally present findings from an experiment to the rest of the class, and build self-confidence when taking a final exam.

For the past two years, ISA has worked with several of our schools on this important integration of social and emotional learning with academics — SEAD or social, emotional, and academic development. In this work, we have found that teachers are initially nervous about taking time out from “coverage” of content, particularly if that content is tested on state assessments. However, once they find that SEAD strategies and practices help students access challenging content and have students take charge of their own learning, teachers take the time to coach students on using those strategies regularly and share these successes with their colleagues. In one ISA school, for example, a school that prides itself on requiring students to complete demanding, long-term “capstone” projects, it has successfully addressed student procrastination, last-minute drama, and low completion rates by teaching students goal-setting strategies. Students break down the long-term project into manageable chunks and monitor their success in meeting daily and weekly goals.

Teachers in this ISA school and others, with support from school leaders and ISA, have equipped their students with learning strategies, goal-setting techniques, and methods for monitoring their own learning. When teachers use these strategies regularly, their students persevere with rigorous work, learn from their mistakes, identify their own learning needs and ask for help, and track their own progress. These behaviors have also nurtured the students’ sense that they belong in an academic setting and that, through diligent effort, they can succeed at school, become better students, and be prepared to navigate the bumps on the road after high school.

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High school and being prepared for college

I was poorly prepared for college. I took the right classes in high school, got good grades, and was able to get into college. It was just implementing that college acceptance that tripped me up. In fact, I was such a screw up that my father drove up to campus after the first trimester ended – got a D and failed a class, of the three I was taking – and told me to get my act together or else.

I’ve been thinking about what tripped me up that first year of college. Some of it had to do with the knowledge I did not get in high school. I was terrible in my college French class, for example, since I didn’t know what a direct or indirect object was (as well as the fact that I slept through my 8:00 am French drill class more than I made it). I loved writing but was a clod at it, clumsy and opaque, and college math was a foreign language to me; I had become procedurally facile in high school, able to solve calculus problems through tricks and sleight of hand, but I was conceptually bereft, clueless to the underlying concepts of a math problem. That didn’t bode well in Math 13 at college.

I also didn’t have what was more important than the book knowledge needed to succeed in college: I did not know how to learn. In high school, I got by with a minimal understanding of that mindset – with a minimal understanding of the skills needed to study effectively, to manage my time, to read texts closely, to prepare for quizzes and tests and long-term projects. I know, I know: I was 18 at the time, with the pre-frontal cortex to show for it. But I don’t remember intentional instruction on these kinds of skills, and that lack showed ugly when I got to college. (And so did the free beer in fraternity basements. Here’s a math equation I now understand: Lack of study skills + free beer + poorly developed pre-fontal cortex = disaster. But certainly a giddy disaster.)

I asked a few recent college students to weigh in on this high school/college issue. Did high school prepare you for college? How so? What are the biggest differences in your academic life at college, as compared to high school? Henry Wileman, a freshman at the University of Maryland and graduate of our local high school, Bethesda-Chevy Chase (B-CC), had this to say:

Going to B-CC prepared me for college incredibly well. A lot of my high school teachers pushed us and demanded excellence, therefore making excellence a habit. That is what all professors at the University of Maryland expect from us.

I would say the biggest difference [between my academic work in college versus high school] is the responsibility we hold when it comes to academic work. The professors expect more from me than teachers at B-CC did and give students full control over their academic lives. All the professor does is post the assignment and then grade what he or she gets. No reminding of due dates and somewhat vague rubrics, with a fair amount of time to complete the assignment.

A high school classmate of Henry’s, Ella Grove, who’s a freshman at Chapman University, had this to say about high school and college:

I’d say the biggest difference [between high school and college] would be the amount of attention that teachers give to individual students. While I go to a fairly small school, it’s still a big adjustment to not have teachers knowing a lot about me and the specific way I learn. I would just say that high school teachers (especially at B-CC) have a much closer education-based connection to their students than the professors at my university. At Chapman it’s more an “either you do well or you don’t” attitude.

Brigit Cann, who also went to B-CC and is a sophomore at Oberlin, zeroed in on what tripped me up in college: writing.

I’d say the biggest difference between college and high school is the writing. Because I took many AP classes in high school, much of that coursework was based around the AP exam, which meant writing short essays in short periods of time. In college I’m required to write much longer papers. This was a shock to me at first, but I’ve learned how to write them. Overall, I feel that high school prepared me well for college with the exception of the writing.

College coursework is different; there’s more of it, but you’re given more time to complete it. Once I got the hang of time management, it became much easier. I’ve found that reaching out to professors and going to office hours really helps me get a sense of what they’re looking for when grading assignments. This has been helpful for me because college coursework is far less formulaic than high school.

Lastly, here’s what Caroline Karson, a graduate of B-CC and a freshman at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR, had to say. She too credits learning to write in high school as critically important for college:

The biggest difference [between high school and college] is that in college I have a lot more time. In high school, I’d be in school from 7:00 to 2:00 and then swim practice from 4:00 to 6:00, to be home around 7:00. That left me with two-three hours to do homework, spend time with family, eat dinner, shower, etc. I felt rushed during my days in high school because I had such a tight schedule. As a result, I learned to complete homework during school lunch and to make use of the free time I had during school.

I also feel like I’m well prepared for what I’m being asked of in college. I was in a full International Baccalaureate (IB) program in high school, and in IB, we had many long-term projects, such as the extended essay and the internal assessments, and they prepared me to write essays and papers, from six to 22 pages long. For me there was no disconnect between high school and college work; IB trained me to learn time management and other skills that not only help for college but also for life.

There’s no true surprise with what the four of them had to say; they talked about more independence at the college level, as there should be; about time management and its importance; about the level of expectation at college, which for some was matched by rigorous high school programs; and about writing well. How do we ensure that all high school students are ready for college in these four areas?

I got the first picture here. The Chapman pic came from here. I got the last picture here.

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More on that first job in high school

After my post on my son’s first job, I reached out to a few friends to hear from them about their high school work experiences. Neighbor Allison Fultz, a lawyer at Kaplan Kirsch Rockwell, wrote that she

worked as a teaching assistant in a Saturday morning program for gifted kids that I had attended in elementary and middle school. It was quite varied and a lot of fun. And I clearly remember that my father absolutely did not let me skip one day when a bunch of friends (OK, including a boy I was pursuing) were going in to NYC. My father gave me that lecture about the importance of work and the fact that people were relying on me to show up, a lecture I recall to this day. It was also my first exposure to whack-a-doo parents and their still-sweet kids.

What I learned: 1. I gained great pride and a sense of agency from earning my own money. 2. It was my first brush with adults not behaving rationally in public – some of the parents were difficult and demanding, and I had to learn to deal with them firmly but courteously. The kids, by and large, were great. 3. Camaraderie among colleagues is essential. Us teenage helpers got along well. 4. It may sound corny, and was like band, theater and chorus, but being part of an effort that’s larger than yourself conveys great pride and a sense of agency.

Neighbor Dana Cann, author of Ghosts of Bergen County, had this to say:

I went to high school in the late 1970s, and had a number of jobs I hated: caddie, sandwich maker, cafeteria worker. But the one job I liked (and held for fifteen months) was a “houseman” at the Holiday Inn in Bethesda, Maryland. I worked in Banquet Services, setting up rooms for parties and meetings—rolling out tables and chairs, piecing together dance floors and then taking it all down when the events were through. I liked the job because, unlike other jobs I’d had, it was largely unsupervised and never required customer interaction. I worked in teams with one or two others. We got a list of assignments at the start of the shift, and left when those assignments were complete. After-school shifts typically ran from 3-8. Weekend shifts started earlier. The housemen were almost all guys from my high school, college-bound, for the most part, living with parents, and looking to make money for records and stereo components. In contrast, the customer-facing side of Banquet Services was a group of waiters, who served food and beverages at the parties and meetings that the housemen set up and tore down. The waiters were paid more, but were also adults—primarily Latino men with families and rent and car payments and responsibilities we had no curiosity for. There was a generational, racial, and cultural divide between us, obvious even to a sixteen-year-old. What I never considered until much later was how difficult their lives must have been compared to mine. A record album cost $4.99. I could buy a new album every two hours of work. I doubt that the waiters thought of their pay in those terms.

And my college classmate Vaughn Halyard, who runs the Cedar Rapids-based media shop StoryLounge, reminisced about both his first and best jobs in high school:

The first job I had in high school was at a KFC at 14 and half. It was Wisconsin, labor laws were lax, and the money seemed good. It was real world, and I soon found there was little consideration for the need to balance work, education, sports, and homework. School work was disallowed during work hours, which actually made perfect sense given we were pressure cooking battered chicken at about 1200 degrees.

The best job I had in high school was working for one of our track coaches who had a tree trimming service, a fantastic experience that I’m certain would be illegal today in so many OSHA ways. I started at 15 as a “Grunt,” trimming and hauling stumps, scraps, and limbs. We were unburdened by back supports but did have harnesses and tree safety equipment. Most importantly, we had our own hard hats, which were stylishly macho.

I learned the value of perseverance, job promotion and advancement, teamwork…and cash payment. It is with those earnings that I paid for a Jeep that served as a pathway to instant promotion, via a trailer hitch that enabled me to pull scraps and stumps to the junior “Grunts” for them to deal with. I learned about seniority via execution and promotion to “Sawman” (one who uses a chainsaw) and ultimately to a “Squirrel,” one that climbs with spikes and pre-cuts limbs and branches before the tree is felled. In that Jeep I would travel to logging camps in upper Wisconsin and Michigan and serve on crews up there, which was culturally interesting. Before meeting me, the only black people most of those guys had ever seen was on TV or at the movies. Sadly, I’d think twice before venturing back into some of those areas today.

Looking back, the biggest life lesson I learned is that, given the working conditions and risks involved, it is most definitely a miracle that I’m alive to look back at a fantastic set of life lessons.

I got the record album picture here. I got the classroom picture here. Chainsaw guy came from here.

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That first job

Our son has his first job; he works at a local restaurant as a food runner, hustling out plates of food from the kitchen to tables all over the restaurant. He’s pretty happy to have this job, for three reasons, I think: He’s making a few bucks; he’s got an interesting little community to hang with each night that he’s working; and he’s treated as an adult the moment he walks in for his shift. Restaurant shirt on, apron tied tight, he’s put right to work and expected to carry out his duties (and others as assigned) right up to the end of his shift.

We feel pretty lucky that he got this job, as there are not as many jobs for teens as there used to be. As the Atlantic reported in June 2017, “employers are more reluctant to hire [teens]. First, the rise of low-skill immigration in the last few decades has created more competition for exactly the sort of jobs that teenagers used to do, like grocery-store cashiers, restaurant servers, and retail salespeople. Second, older Americans stay in the workforce longer than ever, and many of them wind down their careers in office secretary and retail jobs, which used to be the province of 16-year-olds in the summer.”

As the Atlantic reported, in the summer of 1978, 60 percent of teens were working or looking for work; in the summer of 2016, just 35 percent were. Child Trends reported that in 2015 about 18% of high school students had jobs.

More than 40 years ago, my brothers and I worked all through high school. On weekends we caddied at New Haven Country Club, and during my senior year I had a job at a small pool pump manufacturing plant in our town. A few days a week, I’d go in after school, spend my six hour shift testing pool pumps, to make sure they didn’t leak, and then head home for food, homework, and bed.

I didn’t do a lot of deep thinking about my jobs when I was 17 – I didn’t do a lot of deep thinking about much at that age – but as I now reflect on it – with our son juggling work, school, college applications, and social stuff – these first jobs can be really important for a young person. First, there’s the personal independence that comes with work – the chance to make a name for yourself out of the house – and to become (somewhat) financially independent, by making a few bucks. Second, there are those soft skills learned: Showing up to work on time, politely interacting with co-workers and customers, being part of a team, working well under pressure, etc.

A job (at least this kind of job) and school are an interesting pair, serving as different places to practice some of the same skills. You hand in your school work on time, and you get to work on time. You collaborate with classmates on a project, and you do the same with your co-workers during the dinner rush. You learn to work with your teacher, and you learn to work with your boss. As school (I hope) develops in our kids the kind of critical thinking skills that will serve them in a variety of settings, a first job (I hope) sets the table for those future jobs, giving young people a small sense of just what work is. No wonder career and technical education programs that are connected with a work place outside of the school can be so powerful for young people, as they build on – even more acutely and intentionally than for our son – that school/work connection.

I got the above picture here.

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Starting school (culture)

Eight years ago, the very first post that I wrote for this blog was about the beginning of the school year, and with school starting all over the country during these next few weeks, I thought I’d revisit this topic, since what that beginning is like for students sets an important tone for the rest of the year, if not beyond. Particularly for young students, a thoughtful, healthy start to the school year can impact how students view school more generally.

I really appreciate those teachers that start the year with just the right mix of big and little picture – as I said in that first blog post, addressing both the forest and the trees. It’s perfectly reasonable and important that teachers get some of the nitty gritty done on those first few days. Procedures for the classroom need to be established, pieces of paper need to be collected, stuff needs to get filled out. But how do you balance that side of those first few days with, for example, sharing the wonder of the topic to be studied or getting to know each other in the classroom?

My friend Bobby Thym, who teaches English at Columbia State Community College in Franklin, TN, wrote that

I remember getting a copy of that book First Days of School, whose writer really hammered the idea that the first week sets the stage for the rest of the year. At a community college there is an expectation to address the syllabus on the first day to let the students get an idea of how much reading and writing they’ll do, and there are procedures in place that are created to address certain problems that might arise (plagiarism, sexual harassment, emergency situations, etc.). I think reviewing the syllabus is great because this act does create a sense of order and premeditation; however, I used to work with a very good teacher who knew the students were being bombarded with a thousand rules on the first day, and he would immediately get his students free-writing to “send the message” that he took the acts of reading and writing seriously. In this stage of my career, I try to synthesize both approaches.

And here’s what I heard from Jessica North Macie, a middle school English teacher at DC’s National Cathedral School:

There are two things I always do in the first days of school: (1) I ask my students to tell me a story about their name. It could be a story about what their name means, where it comes from, how they got a nick name, etc. They tell the class and me the story of their name. (We use serial testimony, which is a technique from the National SEED Project.) From that activity, I make sure I am calling them by the name they want to be known by and pronouncing it correctly.

(2) I ask them to remember a time when they felt they were really learning – when they were feeling “in the groove” of learning. I ask them to close their eyes and remember what was going on in the room at that moment, the sights, sounds, and sensations of that learning moment. Then I ask them to throw out on a big brainstorm map those things that contributed effectively to a great learning environment. From this brainstorm we will generate norms for the classroom – expectations of self, peers, and teacher to establish and support a great learning environment.

Lastly, Dan Ryder, Education Director of the Success and Innovation Center at Mt. Blue High School in Farmington, Maine, has his students create a personal users’ manual during those first few days of school:

After reading an article about how helpful these have been in corporate settings, I decided to have my students design user manuals that will help their classmates and me better understand how to best work with that individual. The manual includes things like their strengths, their worries, their feelings about working in teams, their core beliefs and principles, and those things that make them smile and that annoy them.

A great way to get to know your students – and I bet that Dan’s already created his own manual, so that his students get to know him also.

Teachers: What do you do that first week? Parents: What have you seen done that really resonates with you and your cherubs?

I got the school bus photo here.

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Timeless Learning

Three nationally known educators that I respect a great deal – Ira Socol, Chad Ratliffand Pam Moran, all from Virginia’s Albemarle County Public Schools – have a new book out called Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-based Thinking Change Schools. It’s dynamite, and here’s what the three of them had to say about it, school today, educating young people, and hurling. Enjoy!

What led the three of you to write this book? What was its impetus?

The three of us have been talking with each other about education for almost a decade. We all “met” in the early days of Twitter, and we’ve been challenging each other ever since. In 2010 we began working together in Albemarle County, and in ways big and small, we teamed with great educators there to transform the learning experience for every child. We’ve written about these transformations separately and together and presented to groups across the nation – and beyond – separately and together. We finally decided that this was a story worth putting together, a story that could both inspire and offer hope to educators everywhere.

Why the focus on progressive education? What drew you to write from that perspective and about that topic?

As Chad says at the start of one chapter, “There are really only two types of schooling, that which is meant to assimilate and oppress and that which is to enlighten and empower.” So there is “progressive education” – which to us means paying close attention to the “timeless” ways humans learn – or there is what we might call “adult-centric formal education.”  Ira adds in that same chapter, “We don’t ask kids to develop ‘grit,’ we choose to surround them with whatever abundance we can muster. We don’t choose adult comfort at the expense of children’s. We choose to do what our kids need.” That’s our viewpoint. We disagree, in profound ways, with both the high-stakes test culture and the “grit narrative.” We believe in children, in childhood, in curiosity, in exploration, in collaboration, in play.

You begin each chapter with dialogue among the three of you, which is often about philosophy. Do you ever disagree with each other? And, if so, what about?

We disagree a lot. Of course we do. Ira and Chad actually debated fiercely with each other on Twitter in 2007 and 2008, as they worked toward an understanding of what was important to them – Ira coming from a postcolonial view, Chad from a more entrepreneurial, changemaker position. Pam and Ira, Pam and Chad, or all three of us – we have argued and challenged each other through all of our time together. We arrive from different school experiences, from very different adult experiences, and we’ve had very different roles to play. So we will argue about what we’ve seen, what we’ve heard, about how we work with others, about strategies, but we are brought together in our understandings of the need to do better for kids.

Who is the book’s audience – and why?

Timeless Learning doesn’t read like the typical education book of these days. It’s a complex, somewhat circular narrative because none of us are linear thinkers, and all three of us are storytellers by nature. That said, we think this is a great book for teachers for the hope it offers and the support it presents. We think that it’s very important reading for educational leaders in any role because it presents proven-on-the-ground beliefs and actions. For those studying education – either as pre-service teachers or as graduate students in leadership – Timeless Learning offers a different narrative, a different way of thinking about how to make schools great places for kids to be – great places for every kid. Parents, too, are finding value in the book.  Many parents of young children came through school in the “accountability era” which, in many schools, was a double-down on compliance-based, test prep schooling, and they don’t want their own children to endure that.

You write in the afterword that you purposefully avoided focusing on data. Why, particularly in this day and age?

There are all kinds of data; people need to remember that. Measuring children – or schools – on linear, numerical scales is one way; we just don’t think that’s necessarily the best way. Ira has called the 2002 grad-school-standard text Scientific Research in Education “the most dangerous book published this century,” much to the consternation of some of his graduate school professors. He says the book implied that only one method of research really mattered, and that method reduced human children to numbers. But we see a very different kind of data as essential. It may start where one of our Australian collaborators does, “Where do we count the moments when a kid smiles for the first time?,” as Tomaz Lasic has asked. Chad watches for that “closed down” teen who joins a conversation with her peers. Pam rides school buses, sits on the floor in classrooms, talks to kids cutting classes in high school corridors, looking for everything from mood to relationships. Ira looks at kids’ feet as they sit in classrooms and counts the number of kids moving on their own through hallways to measure boredom and trust. Our book is filled with data, just not what people today think is data.

Thinking about the title: What do you mean by “zero-based thinking”?

Zero-based thinking is, in education, this idea: Imagine if you’d never seen a school, never heard of a school. How might you plan to get our kids from four-year-olds to 18-year olds, or 22-year-olds? What would you do? What would you want to do? That sounds extreme, but it’s the way real change is developed. Pam often talks about the “Bell Labs Moment.” In the very early 1950s an AT&T executive challenged the entire Bell Labs staff, “the entire phone system of the United States has been destroyed; now, how would you build a new system?” In those days of copper wire, rotary dials, and mechanical switching, the engineers developed – over the next 12 months – everything we now have in phones. They developed the basics of push-button dialing, cell phones, messaging, and microwave transmissions, because they were freed from, as Tyack and Cuban say“tinkering towards utopia.”

Now, there’s a balance. We start with observation and mapping the present state; find out where you are. Then – this next step returns to that research model because it’s never about one change but it’s about moving toward the environment you want (use of space, pedagogy, technology, etc.) – begin the changes that move toward that zero-based desired state. That desired state for every child needs to be your north star.

Lastly, just what is “timeless learning”?

Humans…well, everything is born ready to learn. Watch a two-year-old explore her world. Watch a four-year-old play in a puddle. Kids learn at this incredible rate birth to four or five, and then we impose “formal” education and the learning curve collapses – and not just during school hours. We literally teach most kids that learning is boring and painful and that it comes from passive information intake.

Pam and Ira visited a school outside Limerick, Ireland a few years ago – a small primary school, pre-K through grade six, about 40-something kids and two teachers. The verbal skills, the collaboration skills, the vocabulary, and the depth of understanding was astounding. We noticed a few things; one was the multi-age nature of the school (common in Irish primary schools), another was the peer mentoring and support, still another was the consistent complex adult vocabulary the teachers used with the kids, and another was the level of responsibility the kids were entrusted with. But here was the main thing: the school culture was predicated on the County Tipperary obsession with the sport of hurling. Every child had a helmet and “hurley” (the wooden stick the game is played with) under their desk. When they took breaks from the classrooms, almost all the kids engaged in a mass free-for-all version of the game. It was beautiful to see, and it built this great combination of competitiveness and camaraderie that drove things forward. But not every kid played, and that was fine too. Small groups of others just played catch with their sticks or just talked. Just as in the classroom, one highly dyslexic fifth grader videoed other students reading and talking on an old broken-screen iPhone. He gathered information and knowledge differently, and again, that was fine.

The point is that “timeless learning” is learning. It isn’t school. It isn’t really formal education as we know it. It is taking the natural routes of learning and giving those back to children.


Get Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-based Thinking Change Schools online and from independent booksellers. And follow the authors on Twitter: @csratlff, @pammoran, @irasocol, and @timelesslrng.

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