Bringing the Summer Into the School Day

Supporting youth’s social-emotional competencies deepens academic engagement.

Posted Aug 27, 2019

Source: iStock

Though we may fantasize about endless summers, the school year is here again. I point this out not to ruin your last days of vacation, but to challenge you to bring some of the joy, lightness, and play that makes summer a memorable time for many young people into the school year. It may seem like a tall order, but I have witnessed first-hand that deep, lasting engagement in the educational experience is possible with the right support. For example: At the beginning of the summer, I attended the Excellence for All (EFA) Capstone Showcase held by Boston Public Schools at the headquarters of our local public television station, WGBH. I represented The PEAR Institute as one of EFA’s partners. The EFA program is designed to address opportunity gaps in underserved 3rd to 6th graders and aims to close these gaps by expanding social-emotional and academic skills through rigorous in-school teaching as well as partnerships with organizations and youth service providers in the community. To support this mission, EFA partnered with The PEAR Institute to “know every child” (one of our mantras) at the beginning of the year by asking students directly about their social-emotional strengths and challenges through PEAR’s Holistic Student Assessment.

As a part of the Capstone Showcase, selected student groups from different schools presented their projects, which covered topics ranging from environmental concerns to social justice and racism. The content was important—but equally important was the students’ excitement and pride as they shared their work. With teacher support, the students showed true investment in what they were researching and great creativity in how they presented their findings, which included drawings, computer printouts, and digital representations. 

During the showcase, I had the opportunity to spend some time with four girls who were presenting on the racial disparities experienced during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. For their project, they had drawn pictures of the Black and White experience and also displayed images from the media supported by data and research.

They placed two images next to each other: the first was of an African-American woman accused of looting, and the other was a Caucasian woman in an equivalent situation and pose but with a caption that said: “looking for food.” The encountered stereotypes led the girls to dig deeper and they could describe the statistics that showed what people lost what and what neighborhoods were most affected. The images they included of boarded-up houses in neighborhoods where many African-Americans left, never to come back or to reclaim their homes, were also very powerful.

The girls were highly engaged with their project and took turns animatedly explaining the images and results to me. I saw the pride of knowledge in these young students. It was a moment in their education that they’re unlikely to forget—they were able to give meaning to their learning and to teach something to the adults at their showcase. 

What was striking to me is that these students appeared to have great engagement in their projects, having experienced the best practices of learning. To better understand the social-emotional impact of this experience, I’ll use the four domains of the Clover Model—a developmental process theory we developed at The PEAR Institute—to describe what I saw that indicated that the program was of stellar quality. The students had opportunities to create different aspects of their project with their hands (minds-on and hands-on), which supports their need for Active Engagement and physical connection with the world. Voice and choice were emphasized throughout this process, as students could choose what they want to learn about and how they would present their findings.

This structure supported the students’ need to practice Assertiveness and agency by demonstrating their knowledge to their peers and adults. They were also able to strengthen their relationships by getting encouragement from peers and teachers at different steps in the process, which supports their need for Belonging and builds empathy and trust in others. Students who served on a panel were asked what was most difficult for them in completing their projects. They all agreed that collaboration and teamwork came hardest to them and they were glad they had to find ways to work together.

Finally, the deep and personal nature of many of the topics the students chose supported their need for Reflection and deep meaning-making of the world around them. They talked about how the projects changed their outlook.

The integration of these four elements in every curricular and learning effort is essential—yet most middle schoolers are not given projects that give them opportunities to work on developing all four of these essential social-emotional competencies. I was so pleased to experience these powerful projects with my own eyes in such an immersive way, alongside school administrators, teachers, and parents who were there to learn and to celebrate a real accomplishment. What I saw in this event is education the way it should be everywhere, all the time. As we turn our attention to the upcoming school year, it is important that we make sure all students have opportunities for active engagement, assertiveness, belonging, and reflection in their academic experiences. Bravo Boston Public Schools, and good luck in the new school year to all students, teachers, and parents. As the summer turns into the fall, let’s all make a commitment that we will know every student and assure that every child and youth is learning and thriving.