Sanise Lebron, an 8th grader at Cornerstone Academy for Social Action (C.A.S.A.) Middle School in the Bronx, stands poised and confident before her peers, teachers and principal as she tearfully shares with them the pain she experiences as a fatherless teenager. Watching her in this video by Brooklyn film editor Michael Elliot, I was reminded of one of my first grade girls who – in the middle of a lesson – put her head down and cried. I do not know what triggered my student’s feelings of despair. Although I work in a rigid environment that stresses the importance of maximizing instructional time, at the expense of social and emotional learning and snack time, for example, we took a break so that I could address her emotional needs. Without my prompting, the classroom became quiet and two boys tried to comfort her by offering her their snack. It turned out that my student was upset because she had no relationship with her father who lived in a different country. Her classmates – six and seven-years-old – were compassionate and respectful, and I felt successful as a teacher.
There have been other moments when we’ve had to suspend instruction to address an accusation or incident where the majority of students felt an injustice had occurred. Yes, my first graders know the meaning of the word injustice. It is not part of the ReadyGEN curriculum; it is part of my own curriculum to improve humanity. During the shares, there’s only one voice. Whoever is holding Pete the Cat (I learned this from another teacher) gets to talk. Pete is then passed on to the next individual who wishes to talk.
Pete the Cat is an important member of our classroom community. He’s perched atop the SmartBoard along with models of the Watts Towers that my first graders created collaboratively during a unit on public art (not part of ReadyGEN).
I recently spoke with Michael Elliot about the good work C.A.S.A.’s principal, Jamaal A. Bowman, is doing to cultivate a school community in which middle school students feel valued and safe to express themselves; their fears, their triumphs, their regrets, their joy. In his principal’s message, Bowman writes,
Our student and staff culture is rooted in love, support, being responsible, and improving what we do each and every day. We have counseling and mediation services for students, and follow a progressive discipline model to support students behaviorally. We have a community circle meeting every Friday in which we reinforce our positive school culture through inspirational videos and speeches, public apologies, and student-to-student and staff-to-student shout outs.
Michael Elliot had the opportunity to observe one of C.A.S.A.’s community circles and he wrote about the powerful experience in You Can’t Measure This, an article co-authored by Kemala Karmen, Deputy Director and Co-founder of NYCpublic.org, which appeared on Huffpost Education’s The Blog on April 7, 2015. Elliot writes,
I recorded many of the student testimonies given on that initial trip to C.A.S.A., but for me the testimony of Sanise Lebron, an 8th grade student, best revealed the depth and power of what is happening at this Bronx middle school. She shared her story with her entire school. They watched her deliver the anguish in her life with such grace and beauty. Jamaal and his staff, and the students themselves, have created a compassionate space for children, fully aware that real learning cannot happen in the absence of empathy.
Please watch the amazing Sanise Lebron. In this era of standardization and excessive testing and accountability, Jamaal Bowman’s commitment to teaching the whole child is laudable. His work restores my faith in the true meaning of public education.
I love this example of school’s focus on social and emotional learning. Frankly, students won’t need calculus or organic chemistry on a daily basis when they enter the real world. Getting a job and forming a family and many other aspects of life is centered around human interactions, so it makes sense that social skills are openly discussed and taught at schools. It’s a shame that not all students have this opportunity though, especially in some public schools.