Learning to be comfortable in school
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Learning to be comfortable in school

Yeshivat Noam teaches social and emotional learning to its students in Paramus

Students heal through considering what they can do as well as what’s not possible right now. Photos by Shira Ashendorf)
Students heal through considering what they can do as well as what’s not possible right now. Photos by Shira Ashendorf)

“Absolutely magical.”

That’s how Yeshivat Noam third-grade teacher Shira Winkler Ashendorf describes her pupils’ reaction to a curriculum of social emotional learning — SEL — implemented to kick off a strange covid-19 school year, in which facemasks and Plexiglas dividers are part of the new normal.

“Until children feel emotionally and socially comfortable, they won’t learn,” Ms. Ashendorf said. “I knew I wasn’t starting with the regular curriculum for the first week of school, but with ‘This is what school looks like and this is how it feels,’ even though it looks very different this year.”

The Paramus day school’s entire elementary school teaching staff attended an online SEL training program. It was led by Lily Howard Scott of Hidden Sparks, a nonprofit organization that helps teachers to support every type of learner in mainstream Jewish day schools, and to better identify and support struggling learners in particular.

The SEL training will continue over several months. But even after just the first session, Ms. Ashendorf felt well equipped to start employing what she learned. “I’ve been an educator for 20 years, and SEL has always been the most important aspect of education for me,” she said.

“I knew that it boosts students’ sense of connection, engagement, and investment at school. But now we all have a more concrete way to use it. Lily gave us the words and activities to make it happen. She showed us ways to enable students to put their feelings out there, discuss what worries them and what makes them feel safe, so that school is always their safe place to land and a happy place to be.”

Here’s an example of how Ms. Ashendorf implemented SEL in her two classes — 18 children in her morning general-studies class and 16 in the afternoon group — on the students’ first Thursday back in school.

“Each class has a daily meeting to get our bodies and minds ready for the day,” she said. “Thursday was ‘Thankful Thursday,’ and the children were asked to think about how to fill in the blanks in these statements: ‘Even though I can’t do ____ I can still do ____.’

Shira Winkler Ashendorf

“Then we did ‘pair and share,’ where students think about how to turn a negative into a positive. They each talk to their neighbor in the circle, and once they’ve listened to each other we come back and discuss what we heard from our friends: who has the same feelings we do, who was made to feel better from what we said to them.

“Lily calls this Windows and Mirrors. A mirror is when you feel the same as your friend; a window is when you can see how your friend feels but it’s not how you feel. They express this physically, using a flat hand for a mirror or making a square with their fingers for a window. It fosters a beautiful sense of community. They become so close with each other and feel so safe.”

Ms. Ashendorf said the children even took the Windows and Mirrors concept outside the classroom. “I see them using this for everything. At recess, if someone gets hurts, another child will yell ‘Mirror! I hurt myself too.’ It’s just magnificent how it’s become their own language.”

Another technique she learned from Ms. Howard Scott is called Outer Shell/Inner Swirls. In it, each child gets an open stick figure to embellish with the details of his or her outer appearance, such as hair color, eye color, and clothing.

“Then the kids get to fill it in by saying, ‘This is what you see on the outside but this is how I feel on the inside.’ You may have a child who looks well put together on the outside, but feels shaky on the inside.”

Each Yeshivat Noam teacher is sharing SEL experiences through a group chat. “We tell one another how we’ve been using Lily’s methods in class, and we share documents so everyone can adapt it to their grade level,” Ms. Ashendorf said. She also began an Instagram page showing how she uses the methods.

She expressed gratitude to the school for giving teachers access to the Hidden Sparks training, and for starting the fall semester earlier than usual to allow time to implement SEL.

“We were supposed to start after Labor Day, but the brilliance of our school in starting early gave us a gift of time for just social emotional learning,” she said. “It’s been outstanding.”

The Hidden Sparks seminars include strategies for both virtual and in-person classrooms. Ms. Howard Scott — whose written and video-based materials are used in graduate school programs and professional development seminars around the country — will continue to consult with and further train educators, based on the needs of their specific students and classrooms.

“Research shows that the way students feel in the classroom is inextricably linked to how well they perform educationally, and that their social and emotional wellbeing is tethered to their academic wellbeing,” Hidden Sparks’ executive director, Debbie Niderberg, said.

“We’re thrilled that Lily is guiding our educators on how to welcome their students back to school, and how to talk about the pandemic. Given that students are most successful when they feel a sense of belonging in their classes, she is also helping teachers to nurture caring and connected classrooms for all pupils.”

Founded in 2005 and first piloted in seven New York-area schools in February 2006, Hidden Sparks (www.hiddensparks.org) now works with 110 day schools and a total of 3,875 educators. The organization has touched some 47,450 students since its inception.

Ms. Ashenberg said over the years she’s been teaching — the last five years Yeshivat Noam and before that at other Bergen County schools — she’s seen that SEL often works wonders.

Does it affect bullying? “It’s rare to find a bullying situation when kids are so connected to each other,” she replied. “SEL almost takes away any fear of interacting. And activities such as Windows and Mirrors help children realize there is so much that they share.

“When children are emotionally healthy, that’s the foundation of education.”

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