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Listening and Learning: The Power of Story in Creating Community

Friday, April 27, 2018

On April 18 school closed at noon and soon after Burgundy employees — both teachers and staff — headed off campus for this year’s Capital Area Progressive Schools (CAPS) Symposium. Mary Akeley and I were part of the steering committee that organized this year’s event, with a presentation from Dr. Dena Simmons, the Director of Education at Yale’s Center for Social and Emotional Intelligence. She spoke to us about leveraging emotional intelligence and culturally responsive practices for thriving students and just schools. Her presentation echoed and extended: the diversity work we have been doing at Burgundy around implicit bias; the discussions, field trips and observations we’ve been conducting to further explore progressive education; and the trainings we have been doing with mindfulness and social and emotional learning.

Dena began with a quote from Mary Lou Kownacki, “Engrave this upon your heart; there isn’t anyone who you couldn’t love once you know their story.” Mixed groups of staff and faculty from every school were seated in circles all around the gym as she asked us to begin sharing our stories with each other. We started with the story of how we each got our names. A simple task perhaps, but also an enlightening one and a good way to break the ice. People visibly relaxed in their chairs as we went around the circle laughing together, and finding common ground. The activity emphasized Dena’s point about the power of personal stories and the importance of listening to the people around us in our classrooms and our community.

Dena wove activities like this throughout her presentation during which she shared her own personal story of growing up in the Bronx with two sisters; of a mom who found a way for them to attend boarding schools in Connecticut; the experience of being one of only a few black students at that boarding school; of feeling like an impostor every day in order to be accepted and even excel in that world; of still feeling that way as she moves forward in her career and through life. She also talked about her experience as a middle school educator who returned to her old neighborhood and taught for three years.

She shared information about the key elements of emotional intelligence — recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotions — and provided detailed strategies for us to grow those skills in our students as well as ourselves. She concluded with steps she encouraged each of us to take: to look within ourselves, cultivate self awareness, and practice self care; to invite stories from our students, colleagues, and families; to mine for assets in our classrooms and in our community, those from the head, heart, hand, and home; to build our diversity curriculum; to lift up our students and each other. She reinforced that culturally responsive teaching is really about fully knowing your students and teaching with those needs and interests in mind — something near and dear to our hearts as progressive educators.

We left our session feeling energized and with a host of ways to better connect and more fully know and appreciate each member of our community. We will strive for these stronger connections in our classrooms, during new employee orientation, at our Cove retreat, and at gatherings with colleagues and parents.