Love in the Classroom
There’s so much more to writing about love at Eagle Hill.
It seems the term Social Emotional Learning, or SEL, is popping up everywhere. But what does it mean, how is it beneficial to students, and how is Eagle Hill School incorporating SEL into core offerings on campus?
We have learned a lot about mental health during this pandemic. One thing that has been rising to the top for me as a school psychologist is the absolute importance of a holistic, team approach to each and every student. It hammered home the importance of guiding each of our young people to reach their potential specifically with goals that include wellness.
For a long time, it was thought that these parts of wellness were inherent personality traits and they’d just “show themselves” when it was needed. This changed in the last twenty years when the terms “resilience” and “grit” started to appear in the literature. More recently this focus has shown up in schools across the country and in specific programming delivered to students.
Merrel, et al stated back in 2008 that the social-emotional focus in learning is an expansive promotion of grit, mental health, and resilience to teach social, emotional, and life skills, and to prevent negative life outcomes, through effective curricular programming, as an integral part of a school program (e.g., Greenberg et al., 2003; Ragozzino, Reznik, O’Brien, & Weissberg, 2003; Zins, Weissberg, Wang, & Walberg, 2004).
Schools that address SEL report increased social and emotional competence, decreased behavioral issues, and even correlate it with higher academic achievement.
This was primarily interpreted by schools to adopt social-emotional programs and those started popping up in education circles. The data supported this as well. Schools that address SEL report increased social and emotional competence, decreased behavioral issues, and even correlate it with higher academic achievement (Wilson, Gottfredson, & Najaka, 2001; Zins et al., 2004).
Sure Eagle Hill has always been at the forefront of offering classes aimed at increasing wellness through our pragmatics department and if you ask any teacher here they’d tell you that all teachers here are “prag teachers”. I’m sure they’d say that our role as teachers includes addressing situations in all types of courses in which we can model and teach these skills.
While formal SEL is ever-present on the dorm floor, in pragmatics classes, and through monthly, targeted activities delivered school-wide, we believe that weaving this important work through the core curriculum is an invaluable experience.
I recently sat down with one teacher on campus who has introduced SEL into the core of her writing classes. Kim Bonica from the English department took the opportunity of revamping her Writing About Love curriculum with a specific focus on SEL—and she’s had amazing results.
Dr. Miller: So, Mrs. Bonica, tell me about this writing class. What was the premise behind offering Writing About Love?
Mrs. Bonica: A few years ago, the English department began offering themed writing classes to give students some ownership of the topics about which they would write. We figured that students who have some autonomy in choosing these courses would come into writing classes with more enthusiasm and could pursue research and creativity related to topics they enjoy. Each year, these themes change so that our kids can enjoy learning about a wide range of topics that interest them through the lens of also practicing their writing skills. Obviously, teenagers are very interested in the idea of love and relationships, and between that interest and the success of pop culture phenomena like The Bachelor, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, and other popular programs, we thought that this writing course would be appealing.
Dr. Miller: This class does seem like something that many of our students would want to sign up for!
Mrs. Bonica: Yes, it was a very popular class this year!
Dr. Miller: Given the autonomy afforded to teachers at EHS, what were your initial goals for your own section of Writing About Love?
Mrs. Bonica: I wanted to start the course with a conversation about the class’s ideas on love and what it looked like to them, then use that conversation as a jumping-off point to focus on the types of love and relationships that were most meaningful to the group. We started off by brainstorming different types of love (romantic, family, friend, self, etc) and describing healthy representations of these kinds of relationships. The kids in the class had a diverse range of personal experiences to draw from, meaning that the conversation was multifaceted and represented a lot of different views and interpretations of relationships. At one point, I asked the kids for examples of what they thought were good representations of healthy relationships and a lot of them referred to pop culture moments, film, television, etc, which I thought was really interesting and it got me thinking about this class from an SEL perspective.
Dr. Miller: How so?
Mrs. Bonica: Well, a lot of the films and examples that the students in the class noted actually didn’t really represent healthy relationship dynamics, but a lot of the kids held these up as “great” love stories. For instance, one student cited the film 10 Things I Hate About You as a good example of a couple working through relationship issues, even though the main romantic relationship in the film was based on a lie and the couple never actually addressed their conflicts by the end of the movie. I realized that many teenagers, by nature of their exploration of the world around them and maturation of themselves as young adults, often look to pop culture for social cues and norming of behavior, including in learning how to manage interpersonal relationships. It occurred to me that this course could offer students a vehicle for allowing students to explore their perspectives and test their previously-held ideas of love, friendship, and their interactions with those they care about.
“I realized that many teenagers often look to pop culture for social cues and norming of behavior, including in learning how to manage interpersonal relationships.”
Dr. Miller: Interesting approach…..as a person who has worked with teens for almost twenty years, why do you think SEL is an important part of the school experience?
Mrs. Bonica: Adolescence is such an odd time in one’s life, where you have so much intelligence and reasoning capability and you are figuring out who you are and what kind of person you are going to be, but you are also still learning how to cope with the world around you and experiencing all sorts of things for the first time….first crush, first “friend breakup,” first dating relationship, first heartbreak, all while also managing school, extracurricular activities, and the looming prospect of graduating and leaving home for the next stage in your life. Our students have an added layer of complexity in these experiences, in that as residential students, they spend more time with each other than students in a day school, which can often mean that it’s harder to have a break from those relationships when conflicts arise, as they naturally do. That’s a lot to deal with, and I think that we often assume that teenagers, based on their intelligence and reasoning capability, have it covered, when the reality is that a lot of them just need space to be able to process their experiences and talk through how to move forward. Kids need to be able to take a moment and find their bearings, and in today’s society where we are constantly on the go and rarely stopping to reflect, SEL can provide students with an opportunity to have much-needed conversations about the parts of their life where they need a little support and advice from people they trust. With the smaller class sizes we have at EHS, a class with good rapport can certainly fit that bill.
Dr. Miller: Where did you get the idea to integrate SEL into your Writing About Love Class?
Mrs. Bonica: Once we began talking about the class’s examples of ideal relationships in film and television, I realized the degree to which their ideas were based on how a relationship was presented as healthy and positive, regardless of whether or not it actually was. We spent a lot of time dissecting the examples that they gave and determining the difference between normal conflict in a relationship (ie, no relationship is perfect) versus toxic interactions, such as when one friend/romantic partner never took accountability for their own actions. We also discussed why so many friendships and romantic partnerships in popular culture are so dysfunctional, mainly because conflict provides good entertainment value; however, when children and teens base their beliefs in behavioral norms on these types of dysfunction, they don’t realize that they’re mimicking an unhealthy dynamic. By pointing out how these relationships fail to address the needs of both partners in an equitable way, students were able to begin thinking about more positive resolutions to the problems they hadn’t recognized were there.
Dr. Miller: It sounds like you all had some excellent conversations about interpersonal pragmatic skills and how those benefit relationships. Did you see any “aha” moments with your class this year?
Mrs. Bonica: Actually, one of my favorite moments this year was a total “aha.” The course initially met in the first three terms, then went on hiatus, and will resume in the seventh term. The last unit that we focused on before the break was studying Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew, which is actually the source material for the film 10 Things I Hate About You. While reading the text and viewing a classic film version of the play, the student who had previously cited the modern version of the story as a “great love story” turned to me and declared the male romantic lead as disrespectful and clearly not a good love match for the female character. She then pointed to multiple instances of behavior that she felt was not loving nor indicative of a solid, loving relationship, and she specifically noted that the couple had not resolved any of these issues before the play neatly concluded. It was such an about-face from her previous perspective and she arrived there on her own after reconsidering the lens through which she had viewed the story. She also pointed out that, as a fan of romantic comedies, she was interpreting the relationships she saw there in a very different light and she questioned if this was a byproduct of our class. It was very gratifying to see a student put into practice what we had theoretically discussed in class.
“We have spent so much time on romantic relationships that I really want to switch gears and focus on the give and take the aspect of friendships as well as the importance of being satisfied with one’s own self and how that self-love impacts our interpersonal relationships and interactions with others.”
Dr. Miller: It’s definitely rewarding to see that kind of growth in relation to your projected goals for your class. So, where do you see the class heading when you reconvene in March?
Mrs. Bonica: We have spent so much time on romantic relationships that I really want to switch gears and focus on the give and take the aspect of friendships as well as the importance of being satisfied with one’s own self and how that self-love impacts our interpersonal relationships and interactions with others.
Dr. Miller: So important. All of this. This stuff impacts the current lives of our students and it sounds like they’ll rely on this knowledge well after they grow and leave us. I look forward to continuing to listen to your classes when I’m working next door!
Dr. Rebecca Foley Miller grew up nearby in Worcester, Massachusetts earning a Bachelor of Science in psychology and health education from Worcester State University, a Master of Public Health from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a Doctorate in Educational Psychology from American International College. Her research interests include building resilience and optimism in students. Prior to joining the Eagle Hill faculty in 2004, she worked as a health educator in New York City for both the American-Italian Cancer Foundation and for a mother-child transitional living program at Covenant House. In addition to teaching in the Pragmatics Department at Eagle Hill School, Dr. Miller is a licensed School Psychologist, Title IX Coordinator for the campus, and nationally certified as a Health Education Specialist. In her spare time, Dr. Miller enjoys coaching Pioneer Rowing. She can often be found having a cup of coffee in the café with students or chasing her two sons Rowland and Alastair across the quad. She lives on campus (in the oldest house in Hardwick built in 1735!) with her family including cat Meatball Tiger and black lab Pepper Roni. Pepper is a regular campus visitor on the weekends.
Mrs. Kimberly Bonica is currently a member of the English department. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Regis College, in the areas of English and secondary education, and a master’s degree in special education from the University of Phoenix. She began teaching at Eagle Hill School in 2004 and her responsibilities here have included teaching English, coaching the varsity tennis and volleyball teams, summer session faculty, and advising several extracurricular activities, such as dance committees, participating in Relay for Life, and more. Mrs. Bonica also has a keen interest in reading, painting and sketching, and volleyball.