Prioritizing Social & Emotional Learning at C.A.S.A. Middle School in the Bronx

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.

PeteTheCat

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.

-Katie

 

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Bill Lapham – One of the Good Guys

The year my father was dying of cancer, the company he was on the board of established an award in his name. It’s called the William V. Lapham Award for Extraordinary Integrity and it’s given “to individuals who clearly demonstrate an exceptional commitment to the highest standards of personal or financial integrity for the benefit of the Company.”

Growing up, I was conflicted about my dad’s job in corporate America. I was grateful for the comfortable lifestyle he provided us with, including financing my high school and college tuitions, but I also indulged in trying to get a rise out of him by challenging the existence of capitalism. Like many students of liberal arts, particularly history, I flirted with Marxist ideology and even named my cat Trotsky. My dad adored the cat, but changed her name to Trotty after I left home for college.

As a corporate auditor, my father disdained mismanagement and waste and, in decision-making, always asked himself ‘does this make sense’? He was a thoughtful and self-reflective man, and very thorough in his investigations. Both of us – at one point – aspired to be FBI agents.

Now, as I spend my free time educating myself on market-driven educational policies and Bill Gates’ influence in public education, I imagine my dad and myself engaged in a respectful dialogue about this topic. He’d probably tell me that I needed to be realistic and practical, but at the same time I know that he would listen – with an open mind – to my stories about what’s really happening in our nation’s classrooms as a result of privatization. In addition to being a man of integrity in the business world, he was sensitive and had a big heart.