Yesterday, I posted the following on Facebook:
Favorite moment(s) of the day: Today I helped coordinate the Understanding Our Differences program on Learning Disabilities for Grade 4 at Gabriel’s school. We do hands-on activities in the classroom first, then move down to the library where the whole grade gets together for a guest speaker. Today’s speakers were two sisters who grew up in Newton. They spoke about how difficult it was when they were kids. They were both bullied and treated very unkindly because of their learning disabilities. During the Q&A, one girl in the front row raised her hand and said, “This is not a question. It’s a comment. I think that no matter what kind of learner a person is, people should not be mean to them. Everybody has stuff that is easy for them, and stuff that is hard for them. That’s just the way people are. And, if you see someone being mean to someone else because of the way that they learn, then you should stick up for them and be a good friend.” I thought that was going to be the best moment, but it just got better. A little later, another girl raised her hand. “This is not a question. It’s an analogy. I have a little sister, and we like to race each other on our bikes. But I have long legs, and she has short legs. So when we race each other, I give her a head start. I don’t think she’s getting an advantage. It’s just that if we both start at the same time, then it would be unfair. And it doesn’t mean that I’m better than her, it’s just that I have long legs and she doesn’t. It’s like that with Learning Disabilities. Everyone is good at different things, and we should all get help with the things that are hard for us.” Some days, I feel sad for the state of the world, and the lack of empathy I sense in the way I see people treat one another. Today was not one of those days.
A few years ago, I was carpooling to a conference with a fellow educator. She asked me about my career. I told her that my background was in the field of Social Emotional Learning, and that I had worked for many years for an organization that was focused on changing school climate and culture to be supportive not just of children’s academic development, but of their social and emotional well-being as well. She asked me to tell her more, so I told her a story, much like the one above. The story I told was one in which students were engaged in an activity that encouraged them to put themselves in another’s shoes, and take the perspective of someone different from themselves. The story ended, like the one shared above, with several students expressing thoughtful and inspiring insights prompted by the educational experience they had just participated in.
“And do you think these programs are effective?” my colleague asked in a neutral tone.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well,” she continued, now in a tone that was both condescending and dismissive, “It’s been MY experience that kids say what they know teachers want to hear, then they go on behaving in the way they were before. It’s been MY experience that these programs take a lot of resources and classroom time, but they don’t have any actual effect on behavior. They affect what kids say when there are adults around, but they don’t actually affect what kids do when they’re on their own.”
I sat stunned into silence. I mean what could I say, really? This “fellow educator” had just torn down my entire career in a single statement.
Over the years, I’ve revisited that moment in my memory many times. Every time I go back to that moment I try to remind myself that the power of Social Emotional Learning is extremely well-documented in study after study. I remind myself of the transformations I’ve seen in the schools I’ve worked in. Transformations of classrooms in which the climate went from chaotic and disconnected, to peaceful and supportive. Transformations in culture where I’ve seen adults go from talking about “those kids” to talking about “our kids”. Transformations in which kids were given the tools to understand and communicate about differences, and so were able to come together in ways that they hadn’t been able to do without social emotional learning practices.
And so, when I have an experience like the one I had yesterday in UOD, for a long time, the first voice I hear in my head is that educator from that car ride a long time ago. “It’s been MY experience that these programs take a lot of resources and classroom time, but they don’t have any actual effect on behavior. They affect what kids say when there are adults around, but they don’t actually affect what kids DO when they’re on their own.”
To that voice, I say, “You’re right. Sometimes, kids just say things that they know adults want to hear. But sometimes, like in that UOD lesson yesterday, kids say things because they’ve had a new and powerful insight. They’ve thought about a person they know, or an interaction they’ve witnessed, in a new way. And they want to share with the person that gave them that insight this wonderful new thought that they’ve had. Will this new insight lead to new behavior? Maybe, maybe not.”
But one thing I know for sure. The two young women who spoke at UOD yesterday had been students in that very same school, just fifteen short years ago. And the bullying and cruelty they experienced at the whim of their classmates does not happen anymore in that building. Does. Not. Happen. And that is because there has been intense and focused attention on creating a school culture and climate in which differences are understood and diversity is celebrated. And it happens one conversation at a time. One thoughtful comment at a time. Those comments are uttered for a million reasons (maybe to impress a teacher, maybe not), but they are heard and recognized by everyone in the room. And when it happens again and again, it changes the culture.
So, in answer to my colleague’s long-ago question…. Yes. Yes, not only do I think these programs are effective, I know these programs are effective. I hope in these intervening years, that you have come to know it too.