Opal School closed in 2021. You can continue to access these resources for free at teachingpreschoolpartners.org/resource-library/.

Creating the Conditions

Not just was the school good – I also felt safe, and, you know, this feeling of safety had been lacking for the previous few years. And I think it does something to you – I think you have no resources to pay attention to things about the world which are beautiful, things about the world which are interesting, things about the world which are intriguing. I'm speculating here, but I think you're somewhere at a deep level distracted by the – by the threat. I could instead focus on catching up on the things I hadn't learned.

Emir Kamenica as heard on This American Life: How I Got Into College

The purpose of a social-emotional learning program, then, isn't to elide emotion but to channel it: to surf the rapids rather than be swamped by them. This can be hard to do. When we feel angry, we usually act angry – even when that makes the situation worse. The nature of emotion is that it tends to run away with us. 'When a feeling is unpleasant, how are you going to handle it?" asks Stephanie Jones, a Harvard psychologist who has studied a number of social-emotional learning programs. "Do you default to an angry response? Or do you go into a mode that's more information seeking?"

Jennifer Kahn, Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?

How do teachers at Opal School actively work to create safe environments through nurturing children's social-emotional intelligence?  Opal School teachers work with principles rather than programs; values and beliefs rather than products. As Sunday's NY Times article suggested, scripted materials have too small a vision of children's capacities and refuse to embrace the unimaginable potential of children's ability to make meaning.  Kahn writes, "though [the teacher] was engaged and thoughtful, the class felt more like a rote exercise in social obligation than a nuanced exploration of a complicated issue."

We live deep in that spirit of inquiry and nuanced exploration.  In many ways, we've shared what we're learning about this question – including in Opal School Online and our upcoming Creating Learning Communities workshop.  Here is a peek into what this has looked like over the last few hours:

In Preschool, Turtle is eager to be friends with Blue Jay – but isn't sure how. 

Turtle friends

C: How do you make friends? What do you do when you’re feeling shy?

G: You just take a chance.

C: How do you take a chance? What do you tell yourself when you’re feeling shy? Do you know what you tell yourself?

G: You can do it!

In Opal 2, struggles emerge over materials.  Kerry and Joey decide to roleplay the situation and ask the class, Who do the materials belong to?  The students come up with easy solutions that don't reflect the legitimate challenges Joey and Kerry have been observing.  They ask them to keep thinking about the question during Explore time.

O3 Sharing Materials 2

In Opal 4, the class gets ready for its overnight trip to Camp Collins.  How can they support each other as they step to their edges?  The class explores the question, with K pretending to be out on the ropes course. 

L: What felt good?

I: They weren't saying "you have to" – they were asking if she wanted to.

B: They weren't urging – they weren't saying, "Don't you want to?"

L: Oh – so it matters what voice you use.

B: They were just asking if she wants to; not urging her to go up.

N: When she was just two feet up, they weren't like, Really? You aren't going to go higher? They weren't disrespectful of her comfort zone – they were respectful of where she was at.

People of all ages need safe spaces in order to fully develop all aspects of themselves. That Sunday's New York Times devoted so many column inches to that concern might be seen as evidence that the pendulum is starting to shift away from over-standardization of academic skills.  In that shift, stories from classroom life need to be the heart of understanding what kinds of physical and cultural environments and relationships foster and support that growth.

September 16, 2013

One response to “Creating the Conditions

  1. I agree, we often forget the impact of our words. As adults we are so used to the language we use and forget that tiny readjustments to how we say things do make a great impact when dealing with young children. I need to make a conscious effort to think about the words I use to express my thoughts.

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