By Shira Hammerman, Joey Eisman, and Samantha Star
[The following is a special issue in an essay series on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in Jewish education. The ideas below are stepping stones on the path to creating a more comprehensive and coordinated SEL approach. If you are interested in learning more about how to enhance your work with SEL in your educational setting, congregation, organization, etc., we encourage you to contact the authors. The series is edited by Joey Eisman (Teachers College, Columbia) and Dr. Jeffrey Kress (William Davidson School – JTS).]
We are in an unprecedented time. Like many other educators, we could not imagine the seismic shift that would require schools to rethink every aspect of their practice. Alongside a quick transition to remote learning came an onset of fear, uncertainty, and cultural transformation. We know that these feelings must be acknowledged, supported, and addressed in order to move our students and teachers forward. We know that the methods once used to do so need to be adapted, at least temporarily, for a new reality. For that purpose, this article revisits and updates our previous essay that introduced the four SEL cornerstones from the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s Quest for Teaching Excellence initiative. We suggest adaptations for online learning that acknowledge and correct for emotional challenges, decreased motivation, and social isolation.
1. Support Your Teachers (and Parents) First
Teachers need support now, perhaps more than ever. Like other essential workers, teachers must attend to intensive professional demands while balancing the heightened personal and family needs created by the current situation. Additionally, they are expected to create, innovate, and adapt curricular material without sufficient planning time or training. Easing the emotional toll requires multifaceted approaches.
- Create social and emotional outlets by setting aside time at team meetings for quick emotional check-ins, creating faculty WhatsApp groups as ongoing points of connection, and planning evening drop-in “happy” hours for teachers to unwind, connect, and share “war” stories.
- Use these tools to open channels of communication, initiate morale boosting activities such as daily jokes, inspirational messages, and shout-outs of gratitude, and provide access to SEL tools such as mindfulness apps and yoga videos (see this previous essay for more on this topic).
- Simultaneously, ensure that all teachers, administrators, and other school professionals are assigned a point-person and receive individualized check-ins, preferably by phone.
As remote schooling necessitates that parents take on some functions that were previously filled by teachers, it is important to consider their social and emotional well-being as well. To this end, acknowledge the stress that this situation is causing parents and mirror the efforts being used with teachers to encourage social interaction and emotional regulation. School-parent communication should clearly explain the school’s goals and strategies, identify point people for instructional and technological questions, and inquire how the school can support parent mental health and emotional well-being. Consider providing resources for parents to hone social and emotional skills and opportunities for parents to learn about SEL practices that have been brought into classrooms so they can make use of them at home. (See this previous essay for suggestions!)
2. Develop Language That is Specific and Shared
Encourage students to voice their emotions during class sessions. Individuals without the words to describe nuanced feelings can become overburdened by the weight of their emotions and remain unprepared when emotional conflicts arise. Group reflections at the beginning of a day allow students to voice frustration, gratitude, fear, and other emotions. Further, they allow teachers to gauge their classroom and offer self-regulation techniques, some of which you can find in the next section. Implement morning reflections using either synchronous or asynchronous approaches depending upon the time and technology available:
- Start with breathing exercises or meditations sent via email or WhatsApp.
- Instruct students and teachers to share reflections asynchronously using journal writing, art, photography, and other creative modalities.
- Integrate a quick opportunity for sharing at the start of a live tefillah, morning learning session, or team meeting. Use chat functions and polls, in addition to verbal interaction, to make sharing during live remote learning sessions more manageable. Polls can be created using Google Forms, Nearpod, or paid packages of Zoom.
- Schedule a Zoom session devoted entirely to an adapted version of your in-person morning meeting complete with virtual greetings, sharing, energizers, and a morning message/announcement that is shared from your screen. Keep all students muted unless it is their turn to greet or share, and instruct them to change their settings to gallery view so they can further connect by seeing one another. If you had not previously integrated the morning meeting framework into your teaching practice, consider starting using these resources.
- Share a recorded video that walks the audience through your in-person morning/advisory routines to be viewed at their own schedule. Students can record themselves as they complete each component and share via Google Photos.
3. Create a Positive School Climate Where Emotions Are Supported
Creating an online environment can be challenging. Simple tricks teachers can use include coming to class sessions with high energy and meaningfully chunking lessons to give students breaks. This is important both to enhance student engagement and to give students time away from computer screens. When in an online class where the content is difficult to understand, students may feel frustrated, stop paying attention, and struggle to think. In fact, our thinking gets “blocked” when we are frustrated. But we can do something about it! When students feel stuck, annoyed, or frustrated, encourage them to try one of the following before rejoining the class with a clear head. Teachers can post this list in chat boxes at the beginning of each session.
- Square Breathing: Look away from your screen and take one deep breath in for four seconds, then hold your breath for four seconds, breath out for four seconds, and then hold one more time for four seconds. Continue this cycle until you feel a bit clearer.
- Take a Drink: Sometimes when we get lost, we are also tired. Get up from your seat and go get a cold drink of water. Make sure to get up and walk!
- Eyes-Closed, Deep Breath: Ground your feet and close your eyes. Now take a deep breath in and then one deep breath out. As you breathe in and breathe out, say to yourself “I am breathing in, I am breathing out.” Continue breathing in and out until you feel less frustrated.
- Reframe Yourself: When we get stuck and frustrated by the learning process, we sometimes tell ourselves that “we are dumb and don’t get it.” This happens, and that is okay. When it does, we need to remind ourselves that we are smart, capable, and we are still learning. When you get stuck, tell yourself, “This situation may be new, but I can do this! I can succeed in my learning.”
- Ask For Help: Sometimes your teacher is busy helping another student and it is hard to get individualized attention. So…ask a friend! Ask someone in your class to help. Or, maybe you can help a friend in the future.
- Teachers can also make use of “breakout rooms” which are available on most platforms. By pairing stronger students with those in need of assistance, the teacher is creating an environment where students are synthesizing their learning, teaching other students and students are receiving scaffolding if needed.
4. Design Opportunities to Reflect, Reset, and Reorganize
These challenging times make it increasingly important to incorporate reflection into remote learning schedules, to support realistic goal setting, and to encourage “do-over” efforts that help teachers and students feel successful and gratified. End your learning days with opportunities for closing reflections.
- Consider exit notes that include reflective questions to bring out social/emotional dimensions of your topics, opportunities for students to process their current predicament in relation to their learning, and additional check-ins regarding student social/emotional needs. These can be shared using polls, chat, or in follow-up emails.
- Introduce students and teachers to SMART goals and incorporate daily opportunities to track them in order to maintain reasonable expectations and a sense of progress and achievement. Consider using Padlet or Flipgrid for student sharing!
As you continue to develop your remote learning plan over time, position your choices for teachers, students, and parents as a work in progress.
- Articulate your daily expectations and goals clearly. Provide schedules to help structure students and parents accordingly and alert them when changes are needed.
- Encourage students to keep their cameras on during class time, this will help foster a greater sense of community. Make allowances for students who do not feel comfortable doing so.
- Take time each week to gather feedback from students, parents, and teachers as to whether expectations and goals are realistic, achievable, and sustainable. Consider sending a Google Form that asks respondents to rate your efforts in different areas
- Adapt learning plans in response to changing needs and give permission to your teachers and students to do the same.
- Don’t talk at your students. It is all too easy to sit in front of your device and lecture without interacting. Encourage participation and appeal to different learning styles by screen sharing text, videos, games and worksheets.
- Model the problem-solving process, “thinking aloud” as you work through challenges so that the learners see that SEL skills are useful in real-life situations.
Like our previous essay, we want to remind you that you are not alone. This is a new experience for all of us, and we are experiencing differently. If you do not know how to respond to someone, find someone who can. If you are feeling the heaviness, take time for yourself.
Shira Hammerman is the Coordinator of the Quest for Teaching Excellence at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. She is an educational consultant who supports teachers and schools through professional development, curriculum writing, community building and research. Shira can be reached at [email protected].
Joey Eisman is currently a consultant and graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University, and formerly a Senior Program Manager at BBYO, managing their global expansion and operations. He is a graduate of M2 and can be reached at [email protected].
Samantha Star is an online teacher. She is currently a graduate student at McGill University, in the department of Educational & Counselling Psychology. She completed a certificate in Experiential Jewish Education in 2013. Samantha can be reached at [email protected].
- Gillet, A-L, & Jallais, C., (2012). Mood’s influence on semantic memory: Valence or arousal? In S. Masmoudi, Dai, D. Y., & Naceur, A. (Eds.), Attention, representation, and human performance: Integration of cognition, emotion, and motivation. New York: Psychology Press.