It’s a strange paradox of today’s high tech students that while they are more connected than ever, many feel isolated and lack the social skills needed to interact in school and beyond. That’s why helping students gain social emotional know-how has been a top priority across Palo Alto for the past several years, particularly at Gunn and Paly high schools.
This past fall, Gunn High School launched the SELF (Social Emotional Literacy and Functionality) program for the incoming freshmen class. According to the program’s website the goal is for students to learn, “social awareness, self-awareness, self-management, social responsibility, social engagement and self-efficacy.”
Why the SELF program?
History teacher and SELF mentor Laura Howard believes that “mental health is an equity issue because students that do not have the support that they need won’t be able to access their education at the same level.”
Through SELF, the Gunn administration aims to provide a safe environment for students to learn crucial social, emotional and academic skills by interacting with kids who are outside of their friend groups and regular school classes.
As part of a resolution passed by Palo Alto Unified School District in February 2017, Gunn and Paly must provide social-emotional learning (SEL) for every high school student in the district. Administrators at Gunn decided to adopt the nationally-known School-Connect curriculum, which will be taught through its new program.
Titan 101 evolved into a new approach
In previous years, Gunn has implemented the TitanConnect (also known as Titan 101) program as a year-long program for freshmen only, focusing mostly on the transition to high school. What makes SELF different is that it’s a four-year program with a dedicated mentor, so Gunn students can build and maintain relationships with both their fellow classmates and a trusted adult throughout their school experience. And while TitanConnect had a short-term goal, SELF focuses on supporting students’ long-term social and emotional well-being.
Beyond the support for new ninth graders at Gunn, SELF this year also offers opt-in sessions for 10th through 12th graders about social emotional learning, the Teenage Brain, and the Power of Thought, and more. Or they can just take a break from regular classroom learning in a welcoming environment.
Titan Ambassadors still play a big role
Despite these differences, the SELF program still has a role for upperclassmen, called Titan Ambassadors, to help freshmen transition to Gunn. Titan Ambassadors helped to plan freshmen orientation and also attend selected sessions that focus on specific Gunn traditions, such as Homecoming Week.
According to Eric Ledgerwood, a science teacher and SELF mentor, the Titan Ambassadors,” give freshmen access to upperclassmen who can offer their advice, and hopefully the students can grow to trust each other.”
SELF Mentors see new possibilities for student connection
The teachers who are currently mentors are excited about the new possiblities for students with the new program. “The program gives mentors a lot of flexibility, which in turn allows us to bring in our own experiences and strategies,” said Mentor Laura Howard, “It feels more meaningful to me because it allows for real conversations.”
Science teacher and SELF mentor Eric Ledgerwood agrees, saying,”I love the concept of teaching [SEL] skills that are at the foundation of what will hopefully be a fulfilling life for students who participate. I also see SELF as a more meaningful way to get to know students and follow them for their four years at Gunn.”
Positive impact for Gunn students and teachers
When reflecting on SELF, Mentor Laura Howard emphasized its potential positive impact on both Gunn students and teachers. “We all deserve to feel happy and engaged in something meaningful. There are tools to help us feel like we have agency and control in our lives, and that’s what we practice in these classes.”
A new chapter for Gunn?
As Gunn begins the second semester of SELF, much remains to be seen about how the program reaches its goals and what teachers learn about how it needs to be adjusted to meet the needs of students. However, with lessons in active listening, free snacks and fun ‘Escape the Room‘ bonding activities, this new program may be the beginning of a new period in Gunn’s history.