A+ SEL in Action

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A+SEL in Middle School Math

By Lisa Sassaman

SEL instruction in content areas is practical and beneficial to all members of the classroom community.

Middle school math—it’s a topic that strikes fear into the hearts of both students and adults. As a Responsive Classroom practitioner for 18 years and a middle school math teacher for 14 of those years, I know that it does not have to be that way. By the time students get to middle school, many have negative feelings about math (and math teachers). While those feelings are real and should not be discounted, they can be changed. Intentionally embedding social-emotional learning into math content is not only possible but can be the key to changing those feelings.

Students who dislike math often perceive it as being filled with embarrassing errors. The use of anchor charts to remind students of the procedures to complete mathematical routines is one approach to help change that perception. Start by displaying the charts in a prominent spot in the classroom as the content is taught and practiced, and then move them to a reference location. Don’t cover them up. Refer to them often and model for students how to use the charts to guide their learning. As students use these anchor charts, not only do they learn the content correctly, but they also take responsibility for their learning while developing self-control and perseverance.

One of the most discouraging phrases a math teacher can hear is “I don’t get it.” Students often don’t have the words to express their frustration or confusion, but learning the skill of self-advocacy can help develop this aspect of assertiveness. Start by displaying sentence starters in the classroom for students to use when asking questions and working collaboratively. Model how to use those sentence starters so students hear them in action. I will never forget the first time one of my students said (while repeatedly glancing at the sentence starter out of the corner of her eye), “I don’t understand what you said. Could you say that in a different way?” We both stood a little taller at that moment.

When working in cooperative groups, provide sentence frames for disagreeing (“I understand what you are saying, but I disagree that______________because______________.”) and for keeping someone on task (“That’s interesting, but right now we should be talking about__________________________________.”). Model how to use and respond to these sentence starters when giving directions for the assignment. While monitoring cooperative work, provide students with feedback both on content and on how their use of these sentence starters will keep the work moving forward and foster cooperation.

A+SEL in Elementary Science

By Tally Lent

SEL in content areas makes learning challenges possible and exciting.

Over my 25 years of teaching elementary science classes, I have always found students to be natural scientists. Curiosity, observation skills, and motivation make each child an extraordinary learner, and a positive environment and developmentally responsive teacher plan will bring these three attributes to the forefront.

After I was trained in the Responsive Classroom approach 20 years ago, my success and enjoyment as a science teacher grew. I established ways of being and basic rules for my science classroom that my students would understand, whether they were five years old or eleven years old.

I begin each class with a brief meeting in which I go over the agenda and what I hope to accomplish in our 40 minutes together. One of my classroom rules is that students have to ask questions every day. With this in mind, some of the agenda items are purposefully open-ended to elicit questions and interest. It could be a big question that we might not know the answer to or a small question that we could explore and discover the answer to together. Like scientists, it is through question asking and trial and error that students will make discoveries.

To feel safe and comfortable enough to ask questions, a student must be involved in the class and feel trust in peers and teachers. My science classroom is designed to foster that involvement through hands-on learning, daily science sharing from students, and journaling to record observations and reflections. Trust is built carefully and deliberately.

Students enjoy bringing in small natural or scientific artifacts or discoveries to share during our meetings. To prepare the class for sharing, I modeled and we practiced how to share and to give just enough information without going on too long. We had to practice empathy for our listeners to keep the sharing focused and engaging for listeners, and we learned to read their faces to make sure we were keeping their interest. The audience members also had responsibilities. I modeled and we practiced how to listen to the sharings and show that we were listening by keeping our eyes on the speaker and our attention quietly focused. Audience members had to actively listen so that questions or comments could be asked of the sharing student that add to our collective knowledge. Questions or comments were expected after each sharing, and the sharing student would call on peers and respond to them.

Sharing discoveries is a valued element of each class, and it develops our group dynamic and trust for each other. It takes just a few minutes of each class, but in those short moments, listeners effectively develop cooperation and self-control skills while the sharing student develops their assertiveness and voice.

After the science sharing portion of our class meeting, we move on to working in cooperative groups to explore concepts and skills with hands-on materials and experiments. These explorations don’t always work out as planned, and when they don’t, we reflect on what went awry and what we could have done differently. It may have been due to behavior within the small group, that the materials were difficult to work with, or it was a concept that was still in process and therefore our understanding was limited. Science class is a perfect place to reflect, revise, and try again: metacognition in action!

Active learning, immersed involvement in class, and exercising responsibility as a learner make science class lively and fascinating. Building social and emotional skills along with academic competencies allows for exciting learning opportunities to blossom. One example of this was the culminating exercise for a second grade class after its study of balance and motion. Using pipe insulating tubes, masking tape, and other found items, students were given the challenge of creating a room-size marble run. The marble had to be propelled by gravity alone and teams of students were in charge of different sections of the run. The science skills and the SEL skills that were essential to the successful completion of this challenge had to be developed and worked on over time, and second graders were ready for this task by late winter. My role was only to facilitate patiently. Students completed this challenge as a whole class, working together and listening and talking to each other with care. When that marble ran the course successfully, those students cheered as though they had won the Olympics!

Lisa Sassaman is a seventh and eighth grade math teacher at Lawrence Middle School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, and has worked in education since 2002. Prior to teaching, Lisa worked as an environmental consultant. She was first introduced to Responsive Classroom practices after attending a workshop in 2003 and has carried those practices with her throughout her career as an elementary and secondary school teacher.

Tally Lent has been an educator for 44 years, teaching everything from preschool to middle school science. She holds an MEd in curriculum and instruction from Lesley University. For 26 years Tally served as lower school head and elementary science teacher at an independent school in central Massachusetts.