Tonight's homework, class: playing well with others

By: Jill Tucker | SF Chronicle  

Alexandra Vado (right) whispers into Hannaiz Elia's ear a sentence
that was started by their fourth-grade teacher and recited around
the circle in a listening exercise at Lakeshore Alternative Elementary
School in S.F. Photo: Lacy Atkins, The Chronicle
If public schools were grocery stores, their shelves would be stocked with the three R's and ABCs. Math? Aisle 3. History? Against the back wall. Science? Hang a left after literature.

In other words, they offer, almost exclusively, an array of academics. But schools in San Francisco, Oakland and a handful of districts across the state are adding to that inventory, and in the process redefining what students need to know and ensuring that schools teach it.

In the simplest terms, the districts say kids need to be able to play nice, and it will be the job of public schools to make sure they know how.

Educators call it social-emotional learning - skills that ensure students are better learners; better neighbors; better citizens, employees or bosses; and better team players.

"These are teachable skills, and everybody can improve upon their skills," said Paul Goren, senior vice president at the Chicago-based nonprofit Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. "Almost all the businessmen and women say, 'We're looking for high competency on the academic side, but we're also looking for team players.' "

Prior knowledge

Some students show up to kindergarten knowing how to play nice in the sandbox. They're the ones who are more likely to share shovels and collaborate on building castles and less likely to throw sand in someone's face.

Others lack such skills and are unable to navigate the social mores of the playground or classroom as easily as their peers.

To many educators, they either had those skills or didn't, said Matthew Hartford, principal at San Francisco's Lakeshore Alternative Elementary School.

"If kids don't come to school prepared to collaborate, we punish them, blame their family, blame their neighborhood, blame their race, their socio-economic situation, instead of reaching deeply to teach them," he said. "Some kids need to learn it."

Lakeshore is among 48 of the district's 107 elementary and middle schools that are incorporating a program called Second Step, which teaches a range of skills in each grade, kindergarten through eighth, including how to listen, how to manage stress, how to be empathetic and deal with conflict.

Program expanding

Eventually, all K-8 students in the district will participate in Second Step lessons as part of their regular schooling, learning self management, self- and social awareness, and relationship skills.

For back-to-basics or conventional education advocates, those words might sound a little too left-coast liberal. Supporters, however, say kids who don't have these skills tend to lag in school.

"They're not really hippie-dippie in my view," said Thomas Graven, San Francisco Unified executive director of Pupil Services. "Actually, it's what great teachers already do."

San Francisco teacher Anastasia Fusscas leaned down and whispered the sentence to one of her fourth-grade students.

"We respect other people."

The Lakeshore student turned to a classmate and whispered the sentence he had heard, who then repeated it into the ear of the next person and so on until the last student in the circle whispered the sentence back to the teacher.

Fusscas started laughing. As was the case with most games of Telephone, the sentence had been garbled along the way.

"Do not touch a lot of people," she said, repeating what she heard. "Well, that's a good rule too."

But the real lesson of the day wasn't about respect or the avoidance of excessive physical contact.
The Second Step lesson was about listening and ways to listen better, like making eye contact, asking clarifying questions and not interrupting.

Critical to learning

The lesson had nothing to do with multiplication or the California Gold Rush. But it had everything to do with learning, Fusscas said.

And while it means setting aside class time, it's worth it when students are more focused, stay on task and listen.

"It teaches the socially acceptable way to be in a group of people," she said. "It makes for a better day.
"I get that time back later in math."

The eight California districts incorporating social-emotional school won't make sure every student is taught the skills, but schools will be held accountable for whether kids learned them.

In fact, the districts have promised the federal government they will do that.

The eight jointly received a federal waiver from many of the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, including those that require a district to achieve 100 percent student proficiency rates in math and English.

Special status

Instead, the districts, which also include Long Beach, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Sanger, Fresno and Santa Ana, have created their own plan to judge district and school performance - one that includes academic test scores as well as social-emotional assessments.

The districts are rolling out social-emotional programs and ways to measure them, with schools to be held accountable by the 2015-16 school year, said Noah Bookman, chief accountability officer for California Office to Reform Education, which is coordinating the eight districts' efforts.

"When you look at schools that have been moving kids further faster, they are also the schools developing (social-emotional learning)," Bookman said.

Indeed, research shows that social-emotional programs in general improve behavior and academic success. But creating school-based evaluations is new.

Hard to measure

For example, how does one measure, say, whether a child feels a greater level of control over successes and failures, or whether students believe they can be good at math even if they initially struggle?

Teacher feedback, parent and student surveys will likely be in the mix.

The districts will be at the forefront of a national movement to rethink the role of schools in educating students, preparing them to believe in themselves and play well with others in life's sandbox, Goren said.
"Our argument and the CORE districts have embraced this in order to do well by kids and help them be successful in school and in life," he said. "It's a grand experiment by brave and focused educators."

3 R's, ABCs and now - SEL

Five categories of social-emotional learning:

Self-awareness: Recognizing one's emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior, including assessing one's strengths and limitations and possessing a well-grounded sense of confidence and optimism.

Self-management: Regulating one's emotions, including the ability to set and work toward goals, manage stress, and control impulses.

Social awareness: Empathizing with others; understanding social and ethical norms for behavior; and recognizing family, school and community resources and supports.

Relationship skills: Establishing and maintaining healthy and rewarding relationships by communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help.

Responsible decision making: Making good choices based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the realistic evaluation of consequences, and the well-being of self and others.
Source: Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning