After a few years of teaching, I realized the academic skills we were expected to teach were not enough to ensure students were prepared to be productive participants in society. Over time, my students’ social emotional development became as important to me as the academic skills designated by the state. When my administrators decided to add an advisory class, I jumped on the chance to plan its curriculum. Despite my best efforts to create meaningful social emotional learning experiences, the class was often treated by both staff and students as an afterthought, with the skills not transferring to other classes or “real life.” I found a solution to this when I tried a new classroom model: self-paced blended learning. A self-paced classroom is able to provide personalized instruction via blended learning, with the right balance of autonomy and support to develop both cognitive and non-cognitive skills. The students in my pilot program outperformed their peers on credit accumulation every trimester, but the real success was the social emotional growth I observed.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines Social Emotional Learning as, "the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”1 There are five SEL competencies, which I was able to address in the self-paced class.
Self-paced instruction is “any kind of instruction that proceeds based on learner response.” We used a self-paced design as a pilot to support a variety of struggling learners. We selected a group and scheduled them for a three hour block of class. Within this block, we offered thirteen different blended learning classes. The students chose which courses to focus on. I became a true learning facilitator, supporting all subjects, but responsible for one. The advantage of the self-paced, blended learning model is that it allows for the integration of SEL skills as part of the structures of the academic class instead of a separate initiative.
To succeed in a self-paced class, students must be aware of their strengths and limitations, because the responsibility of deciding how to learn is on them. To help students realize their personal preferences and abilities, I designed surveys to have students reflect and develop self-awareness. Throughout the term, I provided follow-up surveys with similar questions to help them review and refine their assessment of themselves as students. This reflection and feedback helped students become more aware of their learning preferences and needs. With some guidance, they were able to apply this understanding of themselves to maximize their academic efforts. For example, many students responded that when they want to memorize something they write it down or repeat it over and over but those same students didn’t always apply this when they were trying to study for a quiz. In these moments, we would discuss if that is actually how they learn best, if there were other strategies they should try, and why they weren’t using it in the moment to hone in on how they really learn.
Key takeaway: Let students express their strengths and weaknesses and support them in developing and refining their understanding of themselves through surveys and conferences.
When students entered my self-paced classroom, they set goals by creating a checklist of at least three things they planned to accomplish during the block. Because students were responsible for choosing what they were doing each day, they also had the opportunity to complete job applications, update resumes, prep for SATs/ACTs, etc, providing them with the time and space to work towards professional and personal goals as well as academic. Prior to checking out technology for the day, they’d show me their checklist as a way to inform me of their focus and for me to provide feedback on their goal setting skills. The feedback I gave students was geared towards making SMART goals, an objective I taught over and over again in advisory class, but without the context of an academic setting and opportunities to practice. Instead of spending a few days on goal setting skills in an advisory class, we were able to practice setting SMART goals with daily practice and feedback on the specific need for growth. Students needed less feedback from me as setting and working towards achieving personal and academic goals became part of their everyday routine.
Key takeaway: To develop self-management, students must practice managing themselves with frequent practice and feedback.
I started every school year by establishing group norms with student input. We would post these in the room and students would sign the chart paper as a social contract. I did a similar exercise in my self-paced class, but found a way to take this practice to the next level: I established a routine of monthly class meetings to review our progress as a group. We discussed academic successes and how well we were meeting the social expectations we established together. I asked students to evaluate how well the class was doing and consider the impact they had on their peers, which they shared with the group. My students were then able to lead the conversation about strategies for improving the group dynamic and why they should, which felt like a huge success.
Key takeaway: Let students lead the discussion on how the class is performing by developing a safe place where students can openly share their needs from the group and reflect on the social consequences of their actions.
To promote healthy relationship skills, I heavily promoted peer mentoring. Often, throughout the year, at least one student had already finished a course and could brief students on what to expect or offer strategies on how to learn the material. This is different from peer mentoring in that it can happen in regular classroom settings because the “advanced” student is advanced because they have already done the work and not because they are naturally better at the subject. Peer mentoring in this setting supported the mentoring students’ sense of self-efficacy, while providing a chance to practice communicating clearly and listening actively. Students who were being mentored were more likely to seek help from that peer again prior to asking for help from the teacher. My favorite example of this was an ELL student supporting a peer taking Spanish class and that peer mentoring them in English and Global History. That peer advocated to expand the peer mentoring system to the rest of the school community because they felt the rewards of a healthy peer relationship.
A common concern about blended learning is that students will access materials online inappropriate for school. Some schools combat this by blocking a whole host of sites that might be distracting or unsuitable for school. In reality, students, like everyone else, want to be successful. I convinced my administrators that blocking sites completely blocked access to great content and that off-task technology moments can serve as a starting point for conversations about responsible decision making. The questions I posed most often were, "Is that going to help you succeed? And if so how?" Usually, this was enough to curtail the activity, but if it wasn't I would follow up by asking, "Do you need a break?" A break is a normal part of work-life, but rarely are students given the opportunity in schools to learn how to take a responsible break. A break is something most class models cannot support because each day is a new thing to be taught, assessed, remediated, and extended.
In my self-paced classroom, students made a “realistic evaluation” of the consequence of their choice to take a break, and with some teacher-facilitated reflection, decided if that choice would prevent them from reaching their goals. An added bonus to this flexibility was that it supported student curiosity. I had a student whose “off-task” time was often spent exploring topics that interested him, but that did not fit into his coursework. I “caught” him watching a video about useless human body parts: exploring your interests is the type of behavior schools should encourage not discourage.
Key takeaway: Students can only learn to make responsible decisions if you let them make real decisions. By providing real choices for the students, you may revive their curiosity.
What’s the Next Step?
Providing students some level of autonomy is one way to bridge the gap between academic and social skill development. I found it easier to address the skills I had been trying for years to teach in advisory with my self-paced classroom model. Of course, there is always room for improvement and if I still taught, I would purposefully track my students’ SEL development as part of their overall class evaluation. While I had plenty of anecdotal evidence to support my claim that students made SEL progress, the students themselves should also be aware of their SEL development as they are of their academic grades. The two should not be separate.
If you are interested in learning about other ways to incorporate Social Emotional Learning in your classes and/or how to track student growth in both cognitive and non-cognitive areas simultaneously, check out SEL 101: a no-nonsense guide to incorporating SEL in the classroom. SEL 101 was co-authored by teachers and Kiddom, a learning platform supporting educators making this important change.
By: Jessica Hunsinger
Blended Learning Coordinator at ROADS Bronx High School
Curriculum Specialist at Kiddom