This post is part 2 of an interview by Jeff Wetzler, co-founder of Transcend, with Cynthia Robinson-Rivers, Head of School of Van Ness Elementary School. Part 1 is here.
As we’re exploring what it means for schools to adapt to the changing landscape of what is required of graduating students, we’re spending time talking about the Eight Great Leaps schools are taking to make that shift.
In our last post, we discussed in depth one leap--the Focus of the School--and how that leap is at play in Van Ness, an elementary school in Washington, DC. Today we’re going to look at how the Eight Great Leaps work together and how these foci can have significant impact on each other.
Van Ness enthusiastically created a Focus of the School with social-emotional learning on par with academic learning. As we interviewed Cynthia Robinson-Rivers, the school’s founder, it became evident how this dual focus played a role in almost everything else. In the interview, Cynthia will describe how integrating a social emotional focus changed the Educator’s Role (the Fifth Leap) as well as how the School Community (the Seventh Leap) transformed as well.
In the traditional school model, school communities are often fragmented and inequitable with separate classrooms, desks, lockers, and often homogenous racial/economic populations. In creating a more interconnected and equitable school, a shift towards diversity, equity, and inclusion becomes the heart of school community practices. We’ll see how that happened at Van Ness in Cynthia’s responses below.
In addition, the Educator’s Role has shifted from a singular, pre-set role, to a communal role that includes many caring adults and that affords educators a key role in shaping design of the learning environment.
Here’s how Cynthia balances the different approaches to learning and works with the school, community, and students to create a holistic approach to achieving these new outcomes:
What does a day in the life look like for a student at Van Ness?
Cynthia: We start the day with something we call “Strong Start,” which is the implementation of several practices derived from Conscious Discipline and has specific practices added to it.
Students come to school and at the door receive a warm greeting from a loving adult, either a school administrator or teacher. They head up to class and get another greeting from their teacher, followed by the opportunity to set a goal for the day. The goals will align to some social skill that they might be working on from the day before.
Then we have breakfast in the classroom. We decided that intentionally because we saw in the previous years that if we helped kids who might have come to school in an emotional state or a survival state, get closer to their executive functioning state through the greetings but then sent them to the cafeteria, we were undoing a lot of what we had already accomplished. Instead, if we have breakfast in the classroom, kids come in usually in a slow trickle, that allows us to connect with them one on one with an adult, and have breakfast in a calm, serene environment,then read a book or do a quiet activity before joining the class in a whole group. That start to the day is much more compatible with getting kids into their executive state.
Then we have a morning meeting that allows kids to connect with at least one other child and that’s an opportunity to practice having appropriate eye contact and appropriate touch. That might seem like it would be an inherent skill in human beings but many of our kids need to learn this intentionally. We try to create these opportunities for students to feel united with our class through community building activities in the morning meeting. The last part of “strong start” is the explicit teaching of strategies to disengage stress or gain composure when upset. The teacher practices these strategies or breathing techniques so that students can use them independently later.
That’s the first hour of the day.
Then we have an academic program that is common-core aligned in which we expand the amount of time students spend learning in centers. Students can engage in self-directed learning, working in the makerspace or other center areas, some of which have an academic focus while others are more creative, such as the art center, or grounded in technology, such as the animation studio.
Throughout the morning we’ll also incorporate movement breaks as well. Between 8-11 in the morning you’ll see four or five times where kids are moving. If the teachers are good at it and know yoga themselves, they might lead that or may leverage technology to help facilitate that.
We have a robust recess and lunch. We don’t shorten recess; we believe it’s very helpful. Many students who have toxic stress or have faced severe trauma have higher levels of cortisol. It’s clear from research that one way to release that cortisol is by moving around. So we don’t decrease the amount of time kids get to do that.
Our afternoons continue with project-based approaches. In these blocks kids might be learning traditional skills like math through the curriculum but they are also engaging in challenges and project-based learning that lets them apply those math concepts in a hands-on way. Then we dismiss.
Many afternoons we invite our parents in for behavioral trainings. So that a lot of the things we’re doing are connected and repeated at home and parents have the skills to use some of the language and structures that we’re using at school so there’s alignment between school and family.
What are the indicators that you look for to know if your learning environment is succeeding or getting the results that you want? Whether it’s academically, social/emotionally, or any other way?
Academically, we are showing strong results so far. Of our 2nd grade group, that’s the group that’s been with us the longest, 70 percent of them are reading above grade level. When we look at that and at their attendance, which are two of the factors we have found predictive of how well they’ll do on the standardized tests, we feel like they are on track to do really well to be college and career ready.
For the social-emotional skills, we’ll engage in different tests to see if what we’re doing is working. Sometimes the tests are qualitative, sometimes they’re more quantitative. One example of a test was timing the amount of time it would take a child to calm down when upset at separation anxiety in the morning. We could see it went from five+ minutes to 1 and a half down to one minute on average. Before and after teaching some of the strategies kids could use in the safe place--i.e., a specific area in every classroom with furniture, materials, and visuals that students can use to calm down.
Below are a few illustrative examples of safe places:
Safe Space materials in office of Van Ness social worker Lori Chase
Photo credit: Talisha Bond
Safe Space materials to support breathing strategies in office of Van Ness psychologist Talisha Bond
Photo credit: Talisha Bond
Another example was the amount of time sustaining engagement in an activity for some of our highest behavioral needs students. Those students could maintain focus with a whole group or something traditional for maybe a minute or two and in our maker space could do so for 20 minutes. One early childhood student, for example, who struggled to maintain engagement during whole-group or traditional activities for even a few minutes, could sustain engagement in the classroom makerspace for 20 minutes attending to a complex task. That data helped us be encouraged and feel confident that we’re meeting that child’s needs by giving him that alternative format for learning than the more traditional one.
It’s one thing to have the model for this approach on paper, but what’s important about the human side of it to move towards something like this with the capabilities and capacities to pull it off?
The hiring process is very important for this. Bringing on adults who are aligned or have bought in and are invested in thinking this way about children was important. It was one of the qualities we hired and vetted for. The ability to be patient, kind, caring, and compassionate.
We have also engaged in actions if a teacher wasn’t as bought in as we wanted them to be that helped them get there. For example, we’ve sent groups of teachers to be trained and to pilot certain practices and then share and teach it to other staff members after seeing different results. Giving them the tools for success before requiring them to implement something helped them to be more invested.
What are the top mindsets that you hire for or try to cultivate in your teachers?
That lens of positive intent is a really critical mindset. You could look at a child hitting another child and think, “oh, that child is misbehaving” or “that child is bad or naughty.” But looking at that child and seeing that behavior as a lack of skills or seeing what that child was actually intending. Maybe they’re trying to connect with the child they’re hitting. But viewing the child through that lens is an important mindset for our teachers to have.
When you view the child through that lens it makes you more likely to teach. If you view the behavior as intentional that makes you more likely to punish.
The second most important is constant learning. We’re constantly reflecting on what we do--ourselves as constant learners and trying to cultivate that skill in children for them to believe that you have to iterate on something to make it better, that practice is a good thing. That the first time you do something it won’t be perfect. That’s how we learn and grow and is a quality that our teachers must have. If they don’t have it, it would be uncomfortable to work at our school.
I would also say patience and love. The environment that the staff creates influences the environment for the whole school community. We have people that are just kind to one another and so many parents will often remark, “It feels like a family” or “It feels so welcoming. Everyone greets you with a smile.” That matters.
This might seem trite but beauty and aesthetics, and understanding the value of those, are also qualities our teachers have. When you walk into our rooms, the environments are beautiful. It is an implicit way to send a message to students about how much they’re valued. We want students to think, “I’m worth my teacher making this space as beautiful as probably her home is.” With an emphasis on the student work as the art on the walls versus teacher created or commercially manufactured things.
We even go so far as to say that the rooms should smell good. We have air diffusers and essential oils and plants and lamp lighting and all of that contributes to a feeling you have when you’re in the school environment. We wouldn’t take for granted or say it isn’t important because we do believe it is important.
The holistic approach that Van Ness implements touches every part of a student’s experience. In cultivating a generation of students who are prepared for the demands of today and the new world ahead of them, these foci create the opportunity for success in many areas.
What would this look like in your school or learning environment? For more resources check out our Graduate Aims Database that is helping learning communities shift the way we approach education.
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