The Morningside Center: 'What riles you, miss?'
'By the end of 1972, Hank was only forty-one home runs short of the mighty Babe's 714, the most revered record in all of American sports. Hank was excited, but he was getting more and more angry letters claiming that a black man should not be challenging the record of a white man.
Hank decided to fight the best way he could. He swore that each angry letter would add a home run to his record.'
-Hank Aaron, Brave in Every way. Peter Golenbock
Hank Aaron is a retired American Major League Baseball (MLB) right fielder. He played 21 seasons for the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves in the National League (NL) and 2 seasons for the Milwaukee Brewers in the American League (AL), from 1954 through 1976. Aaron held the MLB record for career home runs for 33 years, and he still holds several MLB offensive records. His inspirational story as told by Peter Golonbock is one of the texts used by The Morningside Center in their 4Rs programme.
The Morningside Center
I mentioned the Morningside Center before, as I attended their CREW after school programme training last week, but yesterday I spent another day learning about other programmes they offer. They offer a range of programmes that work with districts, schools and after-school programs to build students’ social and emotional skills and create safe, collaborative, and equitable classrooms and schools. In relation to my research, I was most interested in the 4Rs program because they integrate social and emotional learning into academic literacy work. Learning about the 4Rs was extremely inspiring, but I also had the opportunity to learn about The Morningside Center's teacher coaching programme and their PAZ after school programme, which really helped to consolidate for me the depth and significance of The Morningside Center's work.
I started the day by meeting with The Morningside Center's Executive Director, Tom Roderick. Tom worked as a teacher in Harlem for 10 years before starting The Morningside Center. He informed me that he was motivated to work on social and emotional learning by the situations in the classroom when he saw children being mean to each other. This led to his ground breaking work at the Morningside Center on how to create more supportive classroom environment, which has supported hundreds of classrooms since its creation in 1982.
The 4Rs program
I was keen to find out more about the 4Rs and Tom explained that the 4Rs uses carefully chosen literature to start a class discussion on areas of social and emotional learning. The literature chosen has good characters that have to make choices. None of the books they use find solutions in magic, instead they show that human thinking creates solutions. This approach can be seen in the quote above from Hank Aaron, Brave in Every way: This quote provides an example of a positive response to an anger inducing situation, and positively models assertiveness and drive.
A 4Rs session would start by reading a text, such as Hank Aaron, Brave in Every way and then teachers would use the text to start 'Book Talk', these are a series of open ended questions that develop thinking around the themes of the book. They support academic comprehension skills, but they go further than this as they encourage young people to link their reading to their lives. Young People may read an extract such as the quote above and be asked to think about what makes them angry, and what do they do when they are angry.
The texts become part of classroom life and through these discussions teachers and students have a stronger understanding of each other and can refer to these conversations if there is a situation that comes up that could potentially cause a negative emotion such as anger.
This programme is universal, in that all students in the class take part and benefit from it. A gold-standard, control-group study by researchers from New York University, Fordham University, and Columbia University found that compared to a control group of schools who didn't offer the 4Rs program, Children in the 4Rs schools were less aggressive, less hyperactive, and saw their social world as less hostile than their peers in non-4Rs schools. They were happier and more likely to resolve interpersonal problems competently.
The program is not particularly aimed at at-risk groups of students, but research into the program shows that at-risk students do particularly benefit. The students who were determined by their teachers as being 'behaviourally at-risk', showed improved attendance, engagement and standardised test results after taking part in the program. When asked to reflect on this, Tom suggested that it is easier to behave well in a 4Rs classroom, as there is something for all students to relate to.
The benefits are not only seen in results for students, but they actually can save school districts and local Governments money. A new study by the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education found that The 4Rs and five other top SEL programs are extremely cost-effective, delivering $11 of economic benefits for every $1 invested. This makes sense because if more students can be engaged within the classroom, then less money would need to be spent on individual behaviour programmes outside of the classroom and on supporting people who are not able to access life's opportunities because of a lack of social and emotional skills and because they were not engaged within the classroom.
Digging Deeper-The MTP Coaching Programme
After being blown away by the impact of the 4Rs program, I was also humbled to hear that The Morningside Center is aware that this program alone is not always enough. The impact of social and emotional learning programs can be limited if there is not enough professional development to support the teachers who are delivering the program.
Therefore the Center is currently implementing a very in-depth coaching program to support the teachers of the 4Rs programme. I was lucky enough to sit down with Kristin Stuart Valdes, who is the 4Rs + MTP Program Director. She explained to me that when the 4Rs was being researched by Josh Brown and Larry Haber at NYU, they used a rubric of assessment called CLASS that had been developed by University of Virginia. A rubric is something used to judge the effectiveness of a teacher's lesson, so it tells the observer what to look for. The CLASS rubric was different from other rubrics in that it focussed on the quality of interactions between teachers and students. When Tom Roderick found out about this rubric he worked with Josh Brown and Jason Downer (from the Centre for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning), to apply for grants to combine the CLASS rubric with the 4Rs program. They received the grant and a coaching model of the rubric called My Teaching Partner, is currently being used with a group of teachers in New York who are delivering the 4Rs program.
This means that as well as receiving all the 4Rs materials, these teachers are being supported in their delivery of the programme. This works by the teachers videoing a selection of their lessons and using the coaching version of the CLASS rubric to improve their class interactions. This is having a transformative effect on teachers and their students. Kristin explained that the aim is to create classrooms with more student initiated dialogue, more modal learning, more dialogue and questions between students, where teachers value students thinking over whether an answer is right or wrong and where there is freedom of movement for students.
And, right at the centre of this classroom nirvana is the literature, where Kristin modelled for me how literature can be used in displays and discussions to help create this atmosphere. Kristin also explained that the coaching model requires teachers to be aware of their own social and emotional learning, and that when discussing emotions with their students, they need to be aware of their own emotional sparks. During this conversation, I became aware of my own feeling of jealousy, as I reflected on how amazing it would have been to have tools such as the 4Rs and My Teaching Partner when I was teaching!
Seeing this in action: PAZ after school program
Even though I had heard and read about the impact of these programs, I still wanted to see it with my own eyes! Luckily, I had the chance to visit The Lorraine Hanbury School in the Bronx, where students take part in a number of programs offered by The Morningside Center. They take part in the 4Rs program during the day, but I visited and observed their PAZ after school program. PAZ stands for Peace from A-Z, and I listened open-mouthed as Bryanna Kolja, the director of the program at the school, told me that they offer a range of after school activities based on social and emotional learning for 3 hours every day after school. As the school day ends at 2.20pm, I could understand what vital support this provides for children and parents. The after-school club bases its activities on what the children are interested in and activities can range from art, to sport, to trips, to discussions and so on. The program is run by PAZ counsellors who are not school staff, so are able to create a different environment from school, but teachers are always invited to join if they have time. around 50% of the school population take part and teachers can ensure certain students who would really benefit are in attendance. Bryanna is in the school during the day too, so she knows if any of the students are having particular difficulties that could effect their participation in PAZ. The students clearly know and respect her.
Comfort in Discussing Emotions
In the groups I observed yesterday the PAZ counsellors were getting to know their students and were having very frank and open conversations about Anger with their small groups of 10-15 students. These students were clearly comfortable discussing these difficult emotions and one particularly brave student who was curious about me being in the room, came over to me with the 'talking piece', a stuffed globe that is held by the person in the group who is talking, and asked: 'What riles you miss?'
This shocked me for two reasons as I reflected on a situation the night before where someone had pushed in front of me in a line and I explained the British obsession with queuing. In my head I reflected on how I had been irrationally upset about being pushed in front of as it seemed unfair and I thought about how that small question from a student had really made me appreciate that fairness was very important to me.
I also thought, I don't think I've ever had a conversation about anger so quickly after meeting a new student and how it was striking how open and curious these students were about this topic.
I do believe that this attitude is cultivated through the experience of discussing these topics in literature such as Hank Aaron, Brave in Every Way and through a school climate where discussing social and emotional issues is as important as ABC's.
As with every program that is in depth and impactful, it takes a lot of resources. This type of model can be difficult to scale, but Tom Roderick and The Morningside Center team, are dedicated to making their learning available to more schools, so another program that Tom is working on is 'Gold Nuggets', which will involve providing schools with the most powerful lessons and tips they have learnt from their years of experience in the field. These will be sent to participating schools in small bitesize chunks throughout the year.
I am very grateful to Leslie Dennis who welcomed me into and arranged my meetings at The Morningside Center and all I can say is, that this visit has provided me with a whole plateful of Golden Nuggets, and the chips and peas to go with them!