So what are the best benefits of social and emotional curriculum? Brian Fizer’s third-grade class is learning about being social and about their emotions.
The empty chair represents the idea that there is always room for another person, another voice, in the circle; there is an open seat in every meeting.
“We’re going to first pass a greeting around,” says Fizer. “Let’s do a high-five this morning. And let’s focus on eye. . . ” “CONTACT!” respond his 20 students.
The topic of today’s class discussion is friendship. “What do you think friendship is? What does it mean when someone is your friend?” Fizer asks.
Hands go up around the circle. Everyone waits to be called on. And one by one, everyone’s voice is heard. This is how most Tuesday mornings begin at the Tobin K-8 school in Roxbury — with Open Circle.
Open Circle is a social and emotional learning program for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, aimed at providing children with the skills they need to recognize and successfully manage their emotions, develop positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and constructively handle challenging situations.
Tobin is one of two-dozen Boston public schools that adopted the program last year. “We had strong relationships with a handful of schools in Boston and had been hoping more schools could get access,” said Nova Biro, co-director of Open Circle at the Wellesley Centers for Women.
In 2012, Partners HealthCare and its founding hospitals, Mass General and Brigham and Women’s, gave $1 million dollars to the Boston Public Health Commission to help start Open Circle programs in 23 Boston public schools, providing Open Circle training and professional development for 750 educators.
The Boston Public Health Commission views social-emotional learning as integral to long-term violence prevention in the city, said Biro. By teaching children social-emotional skills and fostering safe learning communities, Open Circle gives children the tools to manage their emotions and productively work through conflict, she said.
With the 23 schools added by last year’s grant, Open Circle is part of the elementary school curriculum in 32 Boston public schools, nearly half of all city schools that span grades K-5.
As part of the Open Circle program, teachers hold 15-20 minute meetings twice a week that bring students into a circle for a range of activities, including group discussions, story-telling, role-playing and community-focused activities.
Teachers and school staff are trained over the summer and have check-in meetings with Open Circle trainers throughout the school year.
Teachers are given a grade-appropriate curriculum, with outlines for activities and topics to address, but Open Circle is very much tailored by the teacher to a particular classroom’s needs.