“Jack was frustrated today because he can’t read yet,” my third grader told me on our way home from school one afternoon. “Jack the moose, not Jack the person,” he clarified. Jack the Moose has provided our family a great introduction to Park’s Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum, and I so appreciate it that I wanted to find out more.
In the course of learning more for this article, I had the opportunity to read curriculum guidelines, speak with faculty and students, and even watch a puppet show. I am in awe of the dedication Park staff demonstrate in helping students gain skills to treat themselves and others with compassion and respect.
As described by Kimberly Formisano in The Park Parent in 2018, SEL is a central part of the Park program throughout the PreK-Grade 8 journey, built on a unified framework that allows teachers the freedom to shape their own curriculum and lessons in ways that support overall goals. The many additional SEL-related resources and community groups at Park range from the Grade 4 Empathy Task Force, lunch bunch groups, affinity groups, and the Gay-Straight Alliance, to regular sessions led by psychologist Dr. Olivia Moorehead-Slaughter and school counselor Julie Mumford. Park also uses the Responsive Classroom approach.
What follows is a snapshot of three different SEL components of Park’s curriculum: Mindfulness in Grade One led by Tahira Wilson-Guillermo, Dare to Care in Jen Riley’s Grade Three classroom, and Growth Ed in the Upper Division as shared by Department Head Heather Offen.
Mindfulness: First Grade
In first grade Park students have a twenty-minute mindfulness lesson each week with Tahira Wilson-Guillermo, who as well as being a learning specialist faculty member is also certified in the Mindful Schools curriculum.
The Mindfulness program in first grade began as a partnership between first grade teacher Jeannie Hahn and Tahira Wilson-Guillermo. Ms. Wilson-Guillermo told me that it was an opportunity both to teach children mindfulness strategies that could enhance health and learning and to give students more time with another educator of color.
Ms. Wilson-Guillermo was also recently certified as a holistic nutrition consultant with the American Fitness & Professionals Associates (AFPA) and teaches students about the gut, heart and brain connection using a drawing she created and showed me called “Person Mindful aka Heart Gut & Brain Friend or HGBF.” She uses this model to help students understand new research and recognize their emotions, sensations, and their body’s reaction to those emotions. She shows students the co-leadership roles that the brain, gut, and heart can play together to maintain their total physical and emotional health.
Sometimes Ms. Wilson-Guillermo uses stories, like Owl at Home by Arnold Lobel and Listening With My Heart by Gabi Garcia. These stories can be a starting point for classroom discussions about feelings. Students discuss how to recognize feelings, the fact that you can feel more than one feeling at a time, and how to shift those feelings if you need to.
“Mindfulness is not a silver bullet,” Ms. Wilson-Guillermo reminded me. “But it helps you notice your patterns of thinking.”
First grade student Eujay would agree. She told me that when she uses breathing exercises to feel better outside the classroom “sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.” I was impressed that a child in first grade had the emotional self-awareness to notice how she was feeling, and that she remembered to try breathing in some of those moments. A classmate, Tabby, also appreciates the benefits of mindfulness, noting “I think it’s helpful because it helps you calm down if you’re feeling scared, it helps calm down your nerves. I used it when my mom went on a business trip and I missed her.”
Mindfulness at Park is currently offered in every first-grade classroom. A grant request written by Ms. Hahn and Ms. Wilson-Guillermo was funded by the Parents’ Association for Grade 1 over the last two years. Their grant to bring a mindfulness program to the whole school has been approved and will begin next fall.
Practicing Social Skills: Grade Three
Jack the Moose is a beloved puppet in Mrs. Riley’s third grade Dare to Care puppet shows. I’ve been told that he’s only confident about counting to three, but he can really count to ten. His favorite book is Snoozers, by Sandra Boynton, and he’s getting better at reading because he’s been working hard at it all year.
Almost every week I hear a story about Jack the Moose or one of the other puppets, and these stories have helped me better imagine my son’s classroom experience, a classroom that I’ve never seen. It’s clear from the way my son describes things that it’s an enjoyable and low stakes way for him to learn from the puppets’ mistakes and help shape their behavior by making suggestions. When children experience a social challenge in their own lives, they can sometimes be too worried about their relationship with their peers or the weight of a mistake to learn much during the moment.
As much as I enjoyed hearing about Jack the Moose, I liked what my child was learning from Dare to Care even more. Common social learning topics are covered, but Mrs. Riley also incorporates more nuanced social topics such as the difference between good-natured sarcasm and mean-spirited sarcasm or what it feels like to be embarrassed in a group.
“I developed Dare to Care in response to the way children treat one another in their normal, age-appropriate struggles for power, acceptance, and independence. Children are motivated by positive values and the desire to please. As third graders, they lack the social skills to get what they want and need. The goal of Dare to Care is to teach children the language they need to name their experiences and the skills required to solve conflicts independently, fairly, and generously.” – Jen Riley
The Dare to Care Puppet shows combine an SEL lesson with an interactive puppet experience that allows children to see examples and practice skills. The lessons are a hit with students: “The Dare to Care puppet show encourages you to write notes to people who did kind things during the week. It helps students recognize how many nice things people do for us everyday,” says Noura. And her classmate Luke concurs, adding, “Mrs. Riley shows and explains the feelings and emotions in friendships when things happen including misunderstandings and when jokes go too far.”
Growth Ed: Upper Division
In the Upper Division at Park, SEL is a focus of the Growth Ed curriculum. I spoke with Heather Offen, the Growth Education Department Head and a science teacher at Park, about the program. Growth Ed is introduced in fourth and fifth grade and then taught weekly in Grades 6-8 by teams of two teachers. Whenever possible, teachers with dissimilar aspects of identity are paired, so as to offer more varied perspectives to students.
Ms. Offen emphasized that Growth Ed is not just sexual education, though that’s included. The curriculum is geared toward teaching students how to lead healthy, productive lives, physically, emotionally and socially. Themes for each year are geared toward answering bigger life questions: “How do I survive middle school” in sixth grade; “How do I hold my own voice within a group” in seventh grade; and “How can I make healthy decisions in a grown up world” in eighth grade. Park’s Growth Ed curriculum can also be shifted in response to current student needs or events. This spring, in response to current observations of student stress and language of self harm, faculty added a class on caring for students’ mental health including suicide prevention.
This fall, the curriculum was also updated to include a unit on antiracism. Ms. Offen told me she incorporated feedback from the community, including the @blackatparkschoolbrookline Instagram account regarding Growth Ed. Park’s DEI Implementation Plan includes curriculum creation exploring racism, bias and allyship within Growth Ed as a 2020-21 priority, with a longer-term goal of adding antiracism to SEL scope-and-sequence frameworks across all levels as a 2020-2023 priority. Going forward, Ms. Offen is working to incorporate additional antiracism education into more Growth Ed units — including the units on identity, bullying and stereotypes — so that it’s taught throughout the year.
Growth Ed happened virtually this year, and Ms. Offen and other Growth Ed instructors used Padlet and Google forms so students could post anonymous questions that might have been dropped into a physical box in other years. “I miss having an existing in-person connection with students,” Ms. Offen said. “Knowing each other face-to-face instead of through a screen made it easier for kids to get to know their teachers and feel comfortable asking questions.” She looks forward to an Upper Division return to campus in Fall of 2021.
Thank you to these educators, and to Park staff in all areas of SEL that I was unable to cover here. And, many thanks to everyone who gave their time to help me with this piece: Christina Fox, Tahira Wilson-Guillermo, Jeannie Hahn, Heather Offen, Jen Riley, and students Eujay, Tabby, Luke and Noura and their parents for facilitating.