Viewpoint: When We Learn Holistically, A Piece of Glass Can Become a Gem

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From left: Nikki Tabron, Jonathan Gay, Shaunda Lewis, Kim Le, Arthur Pearson, Charles Grandson, Arron Jiron, and Gil Noam

Creating equity in opportunity for our nation’s youth ... removing barriers to academic success … ensuring all students have the tools they need to reach their full potential. These themes come up again and again in our work at Thompson Island Outward Bound, but feel particularly relevant in the wake of the recent college admissions scandal, of families buying their way into top colleges, continuing revelations about the many legal ways wealthy families can give their children advantages in the admissions process, and efforts such as the adversity score to level the playing field of the SAT (which many argue is in and of itself a biased way to evaluate college applicants). 

I am proud that our CEO penned a personal and compelling piece on how those with economic privilege can open doors for those born without it. 

In this context, it was inspiring to be part of an Island dialogue at the June 6th Education Conversation, where members of 33 educational organizations and a panel of local and national experts discussed the power of combining social, emotional, and academic learning (SEAL) to ensure educational success for our youth.

The opening comments of national keynote Arron Jiron, from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, were further enhanced by the perspectives of:

—A researcher (Gil Noam from The PEAR Institute)
—A senior public school official (Boston Public Schools Chief Academic Officer Charles Grandson)
—A social impact professional (Shaunda Lewis from Boston After School & Beyond)
—A non-profit leader (Jonathan Gay from Playworks New England) and
—A field instructor who works directly with middle school students (our own Kim Le). 

The day began with a hands-on activity. Each of us was instructed to pick up an unfamiliar object from the beach, spend time observing it, and ask ourselves: What do I notice about this object? What do I wonder about it? What does it remind me of?

We answered the questions out loud, first to ourselves, then to a partner, and finally in a group of 10. One individual found a feather, another an insect, someone else a plant; I picked up a piece of sea glass. 

After debrief with an Outward Bound trained facilitator, we realized that we weren’t just learning facts and practicing how to be more observant; we were connecting what we found to a prior experience. Using observation and reflection is foundational to SEAL: by analyzing information through their own, personal lens, students become more engaged, and are also more likely to retain what they learn.

In true Outward Bound fashion, the structure of the exercise helped individuals move out of our Comfort Zone (not speaking up) to a Learning/Challenge Zone (speaking up, first to oneself, then to a partner, then to a larger group) without hitting a Panic Zone, where learning is inhibited.

After the activity, Arron’s keynote and the panel discussion got to the heart of why it matters to integrate social, emotional and academic learning. Some takeaways:

—Today’s students (tomorrow’s leaders) need skills beyond reading, writing, and math, including setting and striving for goals, working as a team, thinking critically, and persevering and re-calibrating in the face of setbacks.

—Enriching life experiences (such as outdoor adventures) and relationships (such as mentors) make a huge difference in how (and whether) kids learn.

—Just as a student can’t learn if she is hungry, a student can’t learn if she can’t find her voice. (One of my favorite moments on the Island was overhearing a 12-year old girl say, “I feel smart here; I don’t usually feel smart in school.”)

—SEAL has been (re)implemented and researched in the U.S. for over two decades under many names (character development, resiliency, whole-child approach, 21st century skills, positive youth development). Yet, much work remains to be done in making sure it is recognized as core to academic achievement and embraced at a systematic level. 

I was heartened when Arron noted that this work is so important to the Bechtel Foundation that they launched a $126m character development initiative, not to create new organizations and approaches, but to identify the strongest ones and bring their best practices to the entire youth development field.

At the end of the day, we shared our own best practices for better integrating social, emotional and academic learning:

Whenever possible embed staff from partner organizations in the classroom.

At Thompson Island Outward Bound, our Connections students benefit from the continuity of a highly trained, highly attentive adult who is not only present on the Island during hands-on science activities on outdoor challenges, but back in the classroom as well. These embedded instructors are part of the school community, and often develop close relationships with families that support their student’s journey on the Island.

Similarly, Playworks places coaches in partner schools to create a culture of play throughout the day and to help teachers incorporate physical activity, teamwork, and leadership into their curriculum.

Promote a healthy social-emotional climate in schools.

To create lasting change, we must equip adults with the same kinds of social-emotional skills we are teaching the kids, from executive function to anger management to collaboration.

When teachers and administrators understand the value of SEAL, and are encouraged to practice it themselves, it boosts student performance school-wide.

Participants gave examples where all adults who interact closely with students—lunch monitors, custodians, support staff, bus drivers, in addition to teachers and administrators—were trained in SEAL, strengthening the school community as a whole.

STEM is a particularly potent way to combine social, emotional, and academic learning.

To think like a scientist one must learn particular skills, like making observations, testing hypotheses, and evaluating information. These skills can be applied to any career and to life challenges as well, so having these in their toolbox greatly benefits students no matter what path they choose in life.

Thinking like a scientist is easier when one is doing hands-on work, and at places like Thompson Island, Camp Harbor View, the Boston Nature Center, the Arboretum and others in Boston, interacting with flora and fauna in its natural environment stimulates new ways of thinking about academic and life challenges.

I appreciated Arron’s closing challenge: “Your state has long been a leader in education (it’s the birthplace of public schools!) and youth development. The country is looking to you to show that Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic can’t stand apart from Reasoning and Relating. We need you to continue to lead us, Massachusetts.”

On June 6th, the sparkle from my piece of sea glass led me to a brighter understanding of the needs of our youth and our schools. This city, it’s a gem.

We’re already thinking ahead to next year’s Education Conversation, so if you have a topic or speaker to suggest, I would love to hear from you.

Meanwhile, kudos to all those in the field—educators, school leaders, advocates, funders, non-profit and corporate school partners, elected officials—who strive mightily every day to close opportunity and achievement gaps for our youth.

And special thanks to our panel for inspiring and challenging us, and our VP of Education, Nikki Tabron, who expertly facilitated the day.

Laurie Sherman is the Executive Vice President of Thompson Island Outward Bound

Participants enjoy breakfast and hear from CEO Arthur Pearson as the Education Conversation begins