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Social-Emotional Learning for Senators: This Elementary School Exercise Helped End the Shutdown

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talkingstick3.JPGA group of Senators helped negotiate the compromise that ended a three-day government shutdown using an exercise familiar to many elementary school teachers: To prevent interruptions during a spirited conversation, the elected officials were only allowed to speak when they were holding a "talking stick" that belongs to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

In elementary and middle school classrooms that emphasize social-emotional learning and restorative practices, it's not unusual to see students sitting in a morning circle, taking turns talking as they pass a prized object around. Some students take turns bringing things from home to pass around—like toys or family photos—which helps create a sense of community during conversations with classmates.

It's kind of funny to imagine the "world's greatest deliberative body" using a colorful prop to solve a seemingly intractable dispute. But there are some good takeaways for schools about being sensitive to students' relational needs and emotional development in the classroom. (Collins, it so happens, is a member of the Senate education committee.)

1. When it comes to skills like listening, adults don't have it all figured out.

Congress voted to restore funding to the federal government Monday after a three-day standoff over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for those brought to the country illegally as minors. A group of mostly Democrats who'd pushed for congressional action for DACA recipients agreed to move forward on a pledge to debate immigration policy in the coming weeks.

But in the initial hours of the standoff, there was a lot of talking (and tweeting) and not a lot of listening.

Collins, who also helped broker a compromise after the 2013 government shutdown, called the bipartisan meetings she held with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., the "Common Sense Coalition." That's when the talking stick came into play.

"As you can see, it's beautifully beaded and it was given to me by my friend, Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota," Collins told CNN anchor Chris Cuomo. "It is originally from Africa and it is used to help control the debate in a meeting, particularly when you have a large number of loquacious people."

Collins danced around reports that one senator had broken a glass elephant after throwing the stick in frustration. The senator was just trying to toss the stick to a colleague and "the toss went slightly amiss," she said.

The experience illustrates something school leaders have told Education Week in the past: It's wrong to assume that adults have social-emotional learning all figured out. We all need help with skills like social-awareness and relationship skills, and some tools and scaffolding never hurt anybody. Many school leaders who've put social-emotional learning plans into place have later said they should have started with adults, like teachers, who are crucial for modeling respect and healthy interactions to students.

2. Tools and exercises can help make students more deliberate.

Listening is central to many of the social skills schools emphasize. It helps students build social awareness, it's key to forming healthy relationships, and it involves a great deal of self-awareness and self-control. 

But young students don't always recognize how they communicate with body language and facial expressions. So some schools use the same kinds of "scaffolding" exercises when they teach listening as they do when they teach traditional academic subjects, like writing. That might be posters with sentence starters that help children reflect what they heard back to their peers, or objects like talking sticks to make the roles of speakers and listeners more deliberate.

A few years ago, I watched a group of fifth-grade students in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, an area known for gang violence and poverty, complete a listening circle. To help listening become more deliberate, their teacher had created a routine. First a classmate led them in some mindful breathing to "inhale the positive and exhale the negative." Then they went around the circle answering questions from their teacher: What is something they've said or done that made someone happy? What's something they've done that made someone hurt? How could they "set an intention" to fix it?

All along, the students followed routines, sometimes even reminding each other to keep their eyes on the student who was speaking and to gently acknowledge peers who were more hesitant to speak.

Such conversations may seem frivolous to some, but learning the ordinary things about each others' lives makes it easier to talk about more difficult things, students told me at the time. Once, while talking about where they like to play, a girl said she doesn't like to go outside because of gangs in the alley outside her home.

And those listening skills can be leveraged for academic benefits, teachers say. One teacher in Oakland told me last year how she has her second-grade students have guided conversations, exploring each others' ideas and asking question, before they complete writing exercises. The exercise helps promote listening skills, and it helps students identify the thinking process behind writing, rather than seeing it as merely a skill of mechanics and grammar, she said. Another teacher who completed a similar exercise said she used posters with conversational prompts to help students improve their listening process.

3. Be sensitive to the unique needs of students.

Commited to addressing a congressional dispute, Collins surely wouldn't have introduced a talking stick if she thought her fellow senators would respond poorly to the exercise.

Similarly, teachers need to think of developmentally and culturally appropriate ways to engage students in learning social skills. For example, not every conversation in that Watts classroom deals with heavy social issues. Sometimes kids talk about their favorite ice cream flavors.

Also, teachers should be careful with the concepts like talking sticks—and any object with cultural significance—if they aren't aware of their history. A Cherokee woman recently recalled how her daughter brought home a "talking stick" craft project, a twig with feathers and glitter glued to it. Her teachers had incorrectly told her it was an American Indian tradition without specifying anything about the tribe they believed to be involved. The project was deeply offensive to this mother, who wanted her daughter to learn about her cultural history in a specific and accurate way.

It sounds like those teachers should have done a little more listening themselves.

What do you think? How should schools teach listening skills? What's the best way to make exercises personal and meaningful for students?

Top image: Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, displays her talking stick in a screen capture from CNN.

Bottom photo: "Talking pieces" decorate a blanket in the middle of a discussion circle at Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School in Los Angeles. Students bring in objects to represent themselves as they take part in discussions aimed at building trust and support. (Jamie Rector for Education Week)


Related reading about social-emotional learning and listening skills:

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