It’s one thing to teach reading, writing, science, math, world language, music and art. Westport schools do that — and they do it very, very well.
It’s another thing entirely to teach emotional and social awareness; kindness with sincerity; principled thoughts and actions, and a love of learning.
You can’t test those qualities. You can’t quantify them, or describe them particularly well. Most school systems don’t even think about such things.
Called “Guiding Principles,” they’re part of a conscious initiative to add social, civic and ethical education to the school day. And they’re being introduced system-wide, from kindergarten through 12th grade, not only in the classroom but at recess, in the cafeteria — anywhere students gather, and teachers can teach.
Last week, director of secondary education (and incoming Staples High School principal) James D’Amico and director of elementary education Julie Droller discussed what it all means.
“We have a robust social skills curriculum,” D’Amico said. “But we realized we needed to recalibrate what we were doing.”
“We’re addressing more needs than even a few years ago,” Droller added. “Society expects schools to do even more now.”
With the help of Deb Sawch (former Staples English teacher, now co-founder/director of Studies in Educational Innovation at Teachers College, Columbia University) and Allison Villanueva (one of Westport’s Teachers College partners), administrators studied how other top-performing schools — as far away as Singapore and Australia, as near as Horace Mann and as diverse as Berkeley’s Haas School of Business — handled social and civic expectations.
But D’Amico and Droller knew they could not impose any directive from the top down. They had to talk simply, without jargon — and there had to be teacher buy-in.
They worked for 18 months with a group of 45 teachers from throughout the district, to determine the best ways to give students (for example) the opportunity to connect, value and accept others; to act with integrity; to be curious, inquisitive, passionate and joyful about learning new things; to persevere, even during challenges; to view mistakes as part of the learning process, and be flexible in all they do.
They also wanted to find ways for adults to model those behaviors.
“We don’t want kids who are compliant,” D’Amico stressed. “We want them engaged in learning.”
In reading, for instance, “we don’t want kids to just flip through pages,” Droller said. “We want them to stop, talk with each other, grapple and compare ideas. We want them to ask questions, without waiting for the teacher.”
All well and good. But how does that happen in a school system — and national environment — that demands quantifiable measures, like getting through a unit and preparing for standardized tests?
“That’s a good question,” D’Amico said. “The changes can be subtle. In 8th grade social studies classes, it could mean changing an assignment from ‘Write about the American you admire most’ to ‘Write about the most principled American you admire.'”
“We’re naming these principles,” Droller continued. “We’re saying, ‘Here’s what being empathetic means. Here’s what it means to be persistent. Here’s what a growth mindset looks like.'”
This August, Westport hosts its 1st-ever district-wide keynote address. Dr. Marc Brackett — director of Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence — will talk about the ability to manage emotions. He believes that emotional intelligence can be taught. In fact, he says, it must be.
Workshops will be offered to parents too, so they can partner with teachers and administrators in the initiative.
“If we don’t have these principles in place, kids don’t learn anything,” D’Amico says. “We can’t go a mile wide and an inch deep. Kids already have access to plenty of information. We have to focus not on what you learn, but how you learn.”
“It’s a shift for our teachers,” Droller admitted. “We’re saying, ‘It’s okay to pare back. It’s okay to develop students as learners,'” not as mere receptacles of facts.
Teachers do this already, D’Amico said. What’s being added is the emphasis on it, as a district-wide focus.
“Teachers own it,” he concluded. “They’re reading books about growth, mindset, grit. This is going to come from them and their colleagues. We’re all excited.”