“SEPAL” AT HARBOR
February 28, 2019

Dear Harbor Families,

Growing up, I was a sensitive kid. Though my childhood memories overall are happy, safe, and comfortable, surrounded by a loving family and lots of friends, I also remember moments where I was distraught over things that might seem small to an adult, but in my childhood experience of the world, were huge. One such example that comes to mind is when I was in first grade. In my memory of the event, Mrs. Podell flipped my desk over in a fit of rage and poured all of my belongings all over the floor, humiliating me in front of my classmates. My mother, however, describes getting a call from her before I got home explaining that she was helping me get my desk organized and when some of the supplies fell out, I was extremely upset. Perhaps Mrs. Podell was being kind and helpful and I misinterpreted the situation completely, or maybe she expressed  frustration at me for having a disorganized desk. At any rate, I doubt that the event took place in the way I recall it. But, it’s the way I experienced it.

The other day, I was in our first grade classroom during a workshop with InterAct Theater. The first and second grade students were seated, some on the floor and some in chairs, while our dynamic drama teacher from InterAct was telling a story of Ananzi the Spider and having the students act out events in the story. With 18 students in the room (a small class in itself compared to most standards) ,  our four first and second grade teachers were there as well, participating and interacting with the students while they dramatized the Ananzi story. At one point, in his excitement,  one child jumped into the circle and acted out a scene with more enthusiasm than the space or classroom expectations allowed. I watched as one of the teachers quietly approached him and whispered into his ear, “I’m so happy to see how you are much fun you are having and how you are expressing yourself and the characters in the story. It’s important that we all stay in our personal space so everyone in the classroom can express themselves as well. Please go back to your chair.” The student responded quickly, moving back to his original spot, and re-engaged in the group activity happily.

It occured to me, watching that interaction, that that moment could have gone one of many ways. In those three gentle, quiet sentences,  the teacher validated the student’s emotions, praised him for his engagement and participation, reinforced classroom expectations about behavior, and gave a real reason for those expectations. If any of those things hadn’t happened, the child could have been put in a defensive position, a power struggle could have ensued, and the whole class experience could have been disrupted. The greatest consequence of a different approach could have been that the student’s learning would have stopped cold. And who knows, that moment could have gone down in history in  his adult memory, as a moment similar to my first grade memory with the desk.

Research about the brain has continued to reinforce something that we at Harbor have known for a long time. Learning happens when people have their physical, social, and emotional needs met. We need to move our bodies regularly, we need to feel a sense of belonging, and we need to feel respected and known by the people around us, including our teachers. This, I believe, is the Harbor difference. Social and emotional learning at Harbor is purposeful, and respectful relationships and classroom community  frame our differentiated academic learning. For years, we have been a highly regarded school for our expertise in early childhood, small class sizes and the ability to personalize learning for different learning styles, and our close, tight-knit community, both at the classroom and the school level. I know that this has made a difference for Harbor students and families throughout our 45 year history, because after talking with many of our current and past families, teachers, and students, our nurturing, respectful approach to teaching and learning in early childhood years, where it matters most, is almost always the first thing that comes up.

If you have your finger on the pulse of what is happening in schools, you may know the acronym SEL. It stands for Social and Emotional Learning, and there is a lot of buzz around it, for good reason. At Harbor this work has always been central to our mission, as are physical and academic learning.  So I’ll take the SEL acronym and raise it to SEPAL, for Social Emotional Physical Academic Learning. (Not that the education world needs more acronyms!)

Warm regards,

Leah Musico

Head of School

The Harbor School

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