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How Are You Really Feeling?

Live from the Celebration of Teaching and Learning conference, New York.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the Celebration of Teaching and Learning, I want to give some quick background. It's a really very impressive conference put on every year by WNET, the PBS affiliate in New York. There are some 8500 people in attendance, about 65 percent of whom are teachers. Most of the attendees are from the New York area, but I'm told there are folks here from all over the country and beyond. The conference organizers take great pride in the electicism and breadth of the offerings. The idea is to combine classroom-oriented workshops with high-level policy discussions and presentations by luminaries whose work has bearing on education (and whose doesn't?) So in one weekend, for example, you can catch not only the likes of Arne Duncan and Randi Weingarten but also both Queen Noor of Jordan and (not to be outdone) Queen Latifah of New Jersey. Plus, you can get some tips on, say, using video in the social studies classroom. In any case, the teachers in attendance seem enjoy it: I'd say there's a pretty high enthusiasm level.

I spent most of yesterday in the big policy-oriented sessions, so it was with some relief that I caught a really entertaining and thoughtful presentation this morning by Mark Brackett, a youngish and very funny Yale professor who studies the role of emotions in learning. Simply put, Brackett's contention is that emotional literacy is a hugely overlooked factor in the way schools go about their business (and in the way most of us go about our lives). He pointed to a recent study he conducted of 60 schools in the New York area showing that the "emotional climate" of classrooms was closely linked to academic engagement and improvement--indeed, it was more important that any other factor (including race and income). He also presented an array of slides on how emotions affect our ability to process new information, make decisions, and pay attention.

And yet, as the educators in attendance attested, teachers are given little or no training in E.L., which for Brackett would mean being able to thoughtfully recognize and manage both their own and students mood states. (Do you think any of the Race to the Top applications proposed to evaluate teachers in that area?) Learning to become facile in understanding and effectively responding to emotions is something that requires training and practice, Brackett emphasized--"emotional literacy is an achievement"--but he also offered some practical tips for getting started: For example, he suggested using a mood chart on which students can plot there energy and emotional states at various points during the day and drawing up (with the help of students) a classroom emotional literacy charter spelling out needs and expectations.

Brackett also suggested that one of the most important steps teachers could take was simply to recognize and think closely about the linkages between emotions, student learning, and their own instructional practice. It's something too many educators and school leaders neglect, he said, perhaps because they're often in no mood to do so.

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