London, a bubbly 8th grader at the Urban Assembly Unison School in Brooklyn is an adept communicator. Thanks to her school's emphasis on social and emotional learning, London has developed the listening, learning, and responding tools that help her daily and will support her throughout her life.
"When I get into altercations with my friends, I remember I have to let them speak because they have to communicate too," London recently told a Zoom room of educators from across the country who had gathered for ExpandED's annual SEL Convening. "SEL taught me that using my communications skills is important."
The convening was part of ExpandED's National SEL Demonstration Initiative. Supported by a generous grant from the New York Life Foundation, the initiative, now in its 5th year, aims to assist schools and afterschool programs in implementing the best SEL practices throughout the entire day, from the first bell through afterschool. The five participating cities are New York, Providence, Wisconsin, Omaha, and Dallas.
Over the course of a two-day gathering, school-day and afterschool partners discussed how SEL-informed practices could help students confront and heal from historical and recent traumas.
"Schools have been the places that have perpetrated some of the most traumatic experiences against students of color," said Emily Paige, principal of The Urban Assembly Unison School. She explained that SEL tools, including establishing advisory pods for students and using common language, can help undo the harm and contribute to an environment where students thrive both socially and academically.
At Unison Schools, advisory brings together groups of 15 or fewer students to nurture relationships through empathy-building and perspective-shifting practices. In addition, teachers and staff help pods to develop their own culture and identity. For example, each pod at Unison names themselves after trailblazers throughout history. One pod called itself John Shakur Bryant to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions of Rep. John Lewis, Tupac Shakur, and Kobe Bryant.
Rosario Orengo, a Unision School teacher, said the SEL practices have far-reaching impact.
"Before Unison, I didn't believe in an advisory. I've never worked at a school with a strong advisory program," said Orengo. "I am 100 percent, now a fan, fangirl of advisory that is structured and organized that has explicit instruction - it really makes other components of our job easier and pleasant and joyful because we have something to come back to that is our anchor."
During the convening, educators from the five participating cities shared their experiences trying to address student needs over the past year. Some grew emotional talking about the lost connections and the overwhelming circumstances facing the students in their programs.
At one point in the convening, participants brought an artifact or shared an image that best described their SEL approach and impact during the school year. Members of the PS 84 shared a graphic students made for them that revealed how excited they were to be able to go to their program online. Joy Schneider from PASA in Providence shared care packages of Crayola markers, construction paper, scissors, and glue sticks afterschool educators sent out to students.
The convening also featured several workshops to help educators address their students' needs. ExpandED program managers offered a range of trainings on topics ranging from the 1619 Project, a project developed by The New York Times to reframe the country's history through the lens of slavery, to ways to engage families in a remote world.
During the convening, educators also talked about their importance of taking care of their staff.
Ann Durham, the program director of PASA in Providence, said she gave self-care packages to all of the afterschool staff involved in SEL practices.
We can't expect adults “to be engaged in supporting the youth in SEL if we're not supporting them in their SEL development,” Durham said.