Photo: Barbara Galaszewski and her students share ways to calm down when they are upset.
Improved learning starts with heart — Luis Muñoz Marín Dual Language Academy
by Justin Glanville, photos by Julia van Wagenen
Teacher Barbara Galaszewski marshals a dozen or so second-grade students into a rough circle of desks in her classroom at Luis Muñoz Marín Dual Language Academy.
Then she holds up a glittery, pink stuffed fish.
“Remember,” she says. “Talk only when you’re holding the fish.”
She hands it to the first student.
“Hello,” the student says. “I’m at a 4.”
“Hola, I’m a 4 too,” says the next student.
The fish continues around the circle, reaching a dark-haired girl who tilts her head downward.
“I’m at a 2,” she says, softly.
Galaszewski nods. “OK, let’s talk about that later,” she says, making eye contact with the girl. “We’ll see if we can make it better.”
A check-in like this happens daily in every K-4 classroom at Muñoz Marín and at schools throughout the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. It’s one of a suite of practices designed to foster students’ social and emotional well-being in addition to their academic success.
In the check-in practice, the numbers correspond to their mood that morning, with 4 being highest and 1 lowest.
If a student is a 1 or 2, the teacher will reach out later in the day for a private conversation to see if there are ways the school can help — anything from dealing with a bully to providing a meal or a winter coat if a student in is need.
“The idea is that if a child is having problems, either at home or at school, we want to reach them early, before they act out in a negative way like getting in a fight or skipping class,” says Noriliz Santiago, the school’s assistant principal.
Methods for dealing with anger and conflict are also taught during regular class time. Students learn to stop, take a deep breath, and even give themselves a hug before either talking to a teacher or calmly expressing their feelings to the student antagonizing them. Older students, in grades 5 to 8, learn more age-appropriate steps: Stop, Make a Plan, and Go.
For students who do misbehave, or just need a reset, the in-school suspension room has been replaced with a Planning Center. There, students can talk through their problems with a trained faculty member, complete classwork, or play educational games.
“We want to move from a punitive approach to a restorative one,” says Santiago. “We don’t want any kid getting the message they’re ‘bad’ or in exile.”
The practices are based in part on national models developed by the American Institutes for Research, which conducts behavioral and social science research. Implementation in Cleveland schools is overseen by the district’s Office of HumanWare and Social-Emotional Learning, headed by Denine Goolsby.
“Students are under so much pressure now, not only in Cleveland but everywhere,” Goolsby says. “We have to make sure we’re addressing what they’re actually experiencing.”
For example, she says, there are downsides to the rapid advancement of technology that gives students easier access to information.
“It used to be that if someone is bullying you at school, you could go home and it was over,” Goolsby says. “Now, that bully might continue their brutality on social media.”
Creating school environments that address both academic and social-emotional needs is a component of Cleveland’s Plan for Transforming Schools, the comprehensive strategy to provide a high-quality education for all Cleveland students.
At Muñoz Marín, Santiago says HumanWare practices are yielding results. Last school year, the first full year of implementation, there were 119 out-of-school suspensions. This year, there have been 33.
The Planning Center itself has become less busy. Last year, the room was usually full of students, most of whom were sent there against their will. Now, Santiago says, the Center is often completely empty. Students who do go often make the decision themselves.
The attendance rate, seen as an indicator of students’ happiness and engagement at school, rose to 90 percent this year, compared with 88 percent for the 2016-17 school year.
Conflict still happens at Muñoz Marín, Santiago says. But having productive ways to deal with strife has made everyone happier — not just students, but also teachers and staff.
“The school feels more like a community now, more like a family,” Santiago says. “I’m so proud of that.”