Teachers at Athens Middle School Taking Action on Social-Emotional Learning

By Ana Rosales

“SEL is important because it will endure long after my kids forget how to diagram a sentence or identify a poem’s rhyme scheme. These are everyday life skills. They matter.” – 6th grade ELA teacher Nick Looney, Athens Middle School

On October 3, The Alabama Best Practices Center hosted a regional Powerful Conversations Network meeting in Athens. Athens Middle School originally planned to send a team of three. However, the administration had been researching the topic of equity and recognized the potential impact of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). After some dialogue with our teachers to check their assumptions about the topic, the decision was made to double the size of the team. It was a great decision.

During the PCN session, we learned about the tenets of SEL based on the book All Learning is Social and Emotional: Helping Students Develop Essential Skills for the Classroom and Beyond by Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and Dominique Smith (ASCD, 2019). It activated some of our previous professional learning regarding engaged and empowered learners – a focus for Athens City Schools during 2016-2017 that led us to begin the redesign of our curriculum with all of our teachers in 2017-2018.

At the PCN meeting last month, through the facilitation of Alyson Carpenter (ACS Professional Learning Coordinator) and Kelli Nichols (Muscle Shoals HS Assistant Principal), we realized that there was a missing piece in our redesign.

Jim Horn, our 8th grade Social Studies teacher at AMS, said, “We are teaching an SEL curriculum within a ‘hidden curriculum’ every day. We need to begin to organize and be intentional about it.” We knew we needed to dig deeper and revisit our units.

Some of our take-aways

We had a great day of reflection regarding the academic side of SEL, and it led us into a conversation about behavioral issues that our students are grappling with. Nick Looney, our 6th grade ELA teacher shared this take-away: “The learning shifted my thinking from ‘dealing with behaviors’ to ‘teaching kids the skills to deal with their own behaviors.’ It seems so obvious; kids learn behavioral skills just like they learn content and standards. Teachers need to be equipped to offer that support, especially to those students who might not have it at home.”

As a Student Council Association (SCA) sponsor for our school, Daylee Downs (a 7th & 8th ELA teacher) was particularly inspired by the Public Spirit Competencies identified in All Learning is Social and Emotional. They include respect for others, courage, ethical responsibility, civic responsibility, social justice, service-learning, and leadership. Her take-away: “The list of skills that are commonly known as ‘soft skills.’ should be called something else! These are the skills employers most want their employees have – and they are the skills we need to be more intentional about teaching in our classrooms.”

Spreading the big ideas about SEL

The following week, we had the opportunity to share our new insights with ACS colleagues during our One Athens Professional Learning Day on October 9. Our team members who attended the PCN meeting were determined to get the messages about SEL skill-building out as soon as possible. We decided to create a video in order to communicate their passion and sense of urgency and invite others to join in the learning. Here’s the product:

AMS administrators are enthusiastic about the empowerment our teachers feel and their decision to create a professional learning community around the concepts found in All Learning Is Social and Emotional. Assistant Principal Amanda Tedford sums it up: “A PLC that’s started by teachers and for teachers can be tremendously impactful. I can’t wait to be a part of this team and see how it develops as we learn together!”

As the school’s Instructional Partner, part of my role is to support and promote teacher leadership. These teachers make my job easy! Their willingness to take on the additional responsibilities involved in leading learning with their colleagues shows their dedication and commitment to our school community and the need for our students to become skillful at managing their social-emotional lives.

There was a great turnout for the session on October 9. After hearing from these passionate leaders, 23 teachers signed up to participate in our local PLC. Additional planning for the next steps is in the works.

We can’t wait to see how this work will impact student learning and well being. And we’re really looking forward to our next ABPC network meeting to continue our learning!

Ana Rosales is the Instructional Partner at Athens Middle School where she works with  teachers, administrators, and district leaders to improve instructional practice and instructional technology integration.