Educating Hearts: A Districtwide Initiative to Teach How to Care | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Educating Hearts: A Districtwide Initiative to Teach How to Care

In Alaska, the Anchorage School District's investment in social and emotional learning is paying off both socially and academically.
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Girl 1: Falling.

Boy 1: All the way.

Narrator: Learning to support and be supported by their classmates is a key lesson for incoming freshman at East High School in Anchorage, Alaska.

Boy 2: I trust you guys.

Teacher 1: What's your name?

Boy 2: Dustin.

Narrator: A lesson they will be tested on every day.

Boy 2: All right, I'm falling.

Girl 2: Okay, Dustin.

Narrator: Led by seniors, this day-long series of games, trust exercises and truth telling sessions is called, "Change of Heart."

Boy 3: Some people think that I'm gay because I like to dress up. But I didn't-- being in middle school, I didn't knew how to handle it. But I learned how to deal with people.

Narrator: Designed to forge a caring community from the diverse group of 2,400 students and staff at East, this day is just part of a concerted effort to address the social and emotional needs of every student in the district.

Teacher 2: If you've been hurt, move into the circle.

Narrator: An effort that began with schools in turmoil just a few years ago.

Alivia Mercedes Feliciano, Student: You know, you hear the horror stories about like thugs showing up at school, and like, you having to look behind your shoulder. And that's how it was. There was a lock-down at lunch.

Carol Comeau, Superintendent: Alaska, unfortunately, has the highest rate of domestic violence, sexual and child abuse in the nation, per capita. And so a lot of our kids, they're watching violence in their homes, sometimes they're the ones being attacked and abused. And for them to be able to come into school, which is, frankly, for many of them their safe haven, and to automatically switch that off and say, "Oh, yes, I'm going to really focus on algebra," it isn't even realistic. And so we've got a lot of young people in very great distress.

Narrator: After nearly a decade of studying best practices from around the country, the district adopted concrete standards for social and emotional knowledge and appropriate behavior at every grade level. They designed classes to teach specific skills and develop guidelines for assessment.

Victoria Blakeney, Curriculum Coord.: Any district you go to probably will have sort of a left-side of the report card that has sort of a checklist of behaviors. Like responsibility, citizenship, that sort of thing. But in a way, that turns into sort of a meaningless checklist. How can you offer grades for something that you've never addressed?

Teacher 2: We've asked you to come up with some attitudes that support your success.

Victoria Blakeney, Curriculum Coord.: So we're placing those with the social/emotional standards, and giving people ways to say, "This is the behavior that you should see at this grade level."

Narrator: Former classroom teacher, Vicki Blakeney was hired to coordinate the district's social/emotional learning and objectives.

Victoria Blakeney, Curriculum Coord.: And asked if I would use some lessons and model what they're doing here.

Carol Comeau, Superintendent: Good.

Victoria Blakeney, Curriculum Coord.: I'm a Curriculum Coordinator. So I am seen in the same office as the Language Arts Coordinator, the Math Coordinator, the Health Coordinator, etcetera. To show just visually, politically, everything else, that we are going to value this like we value any of our other curriculum.

Teacher 3: In this bag are slips of paper that have things that kids come to school with, baggage. Okay? And what I want you to do is write about some suggestions that you have so that kids can let go of some of the baggage that they're coming to school with.

Victoria Blakeney, Curriculum Coord.: A lot of my job as a Curriculum Coordinator is to look at the already adopted curriculum.

Girl 4: I thought "physical bullying."

Victoria Blakeney, Curriculum Coord.: And so, "Okay, here's a place where if I was teaching this reading lesson, I could also hit this social/emotional learning center at the same time."

Teacher 4: "Two roads diverged in a wood, And I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." What do you think he's saying there?

Girl 5: I think he took the one that not everybody was doing. Like maybe everybody was doing a different thing, and he thought that it was wrong, so he did the other thing. And maybe he was right.

Teacher 4: Doesn't have to be right or wrong. Just follow your heart. Be true to yourself. Look at the poster back there, "What is popular is not always right; what is right is not always popular."

Boy 3: So Mike has eight doll-- is this Mike?

Narrator: In this fifth grade math class, solving problems is a social activity.

Girl 6: Mike started with eight. Kelly had twice as much as Mike, and Joe had half as much as Kelly, which is...

Chris Opitz, Teacher: Every teacher out there has probably said at some point in time, "Turn to your neighbor and talk about this idea. Look at your teammates and talk about this idea."

Boy 4: Why did you do those shapes there?

Girl 7: Because it looks cool.

Chris Opitz, Teacher: And really watch, if they are talking about "the topic" that you've asked them to talk about, if they're actually listening to each other and using that language and those social skills, then all of a sudden, you have an environment where 30 kids are all learning at the same time.

Teacher 5: Today, Lucia intentionally bumps into Jackson in the lunchroom and makes him spill his food. Then Lucia and her friends stood back and laughed. Okay, what are some impulsive hot-headed thoughts Jackson may be having?

Boy 5: He could have hit her.

Teacher 5: Okay, he could have hit her.

Narrator: The Aggressors, Victims and Bystanders, or AVB curriculum has been adopted by all of the middle schools in the district.

Teacher 5: What are some of the cool-headed thoughts he could have?

Boy 5: He might think that she likes him, and that's why she's being so mean to him.

Teacher 5: Exactly. I hate to say it, but sometimes at middle school, kids do some really weird things to the kids they like.

Narrator: The AVB curriculum is also taught in special classes for the large population of Native Alaskan students.

Tina-Michels-Hanson, Teacher: Do you start sweating when you're nervous? I do.

Girl 8: Sometimes.

Tina-Michels-Hanson, Teacher: [to the class] Sometimes? Okay. That's your body's natural reaction. And if somebody's bullying you, "Hey Taylor, your name is pretty funny!" Or, "I saw you looking at that girl on the bus this morning!" Okay, he's getting embarrassed. His face is turning red. He's a good sport. He's a good sport. So there are a lot of..


Tina-Michels-Hanson, Teacher: I'm from rural Alaska myself. I'm Inupiat [ph?] Eskimo and so I can relate to these kids on a whole different level.

Tina-Michels-Hanson, Teacher: [to the class] In middle school, we call it the "think first" model. When you are getting provoked, or you feel like provoking somebody, it's important to stop, and do what?

Boy 6: Size up the situation.

Tina-Michels-Hanson, Teacher: [to the class] Good.

Tina-Michels-Hanson, Teacher: The wonderful thing about our program is we're able to infuse a lot of the things that they are already familiar with. You know, traditional ways of knowing. The way that we teach is very individualized.

Victoria Blakeney, Curriculum Coord.: In the Inupiat language there are 25 words for "snow." So they can see 25 different kinds of snow, because they have vocabulary for it. And I have one word for "snow" so I see "snow." It's the same with emotions. If all you know is anger, and it's really just an annoyance or a frustration, but what you know is anger, you're going to respond in anger every time. Because that's what you know. So it's important for us to take it back a step, and say, "Okay, let's look at what that feeling really is."

Trudy Keller, Teacher: [to the class] Today, you're going to be interviewing one person. And that one person is also going to be interviewing you. And you're going to write not only facts about them, but also some perceptions.

Narrator: Freshman English teacher, Trudy Keller, incorporates social/emotional learning standards in her daily lessons.

Trudy Keller, Teacher: [to the class] "Scrutinized" is a word that will be on your next quiz. I want you to really scrutinize them and think about your impressions beyond just what they say. So it's what they're like, what they're feeling that type of thing, okay?

Trudy Keller, Teacher: One of the students wrote about his partner that he interviewed, because this student's parent was a drug addict, and actually caused a great deal of turmoil in the family. And it was actually a student that he had sort of looked down on, I think, before. And at the end he wrote, "I have a great deal of respect for what this student has been through."

Girl 9: Do you have a job, or what's your home...

Girl 10: Well, I have a disabled brother, and I usually take care of him myself.

Trudy Keller, Teacher: I just think that you need to be in touch with their feelings, their emotions, in order to teach well.

Boy 7: I'm usually out skateboarding if it's not raining.

Trudy Keller, Teacher: When I know what's going on, and I acknowledge that, and we deal with it. Then we can get on to the job of learning.

Janey Lidey, Teacher: Two, three. [chorus singing]

Narrator: Music teacher, Janey Lidey wrote this song after participating in the "Change of Heart" program with some of her students.

Janey Lidey, Teacher: Because we've sung the "Change of Heart" song as sort of our theme song for years now, my kids, I think, really buy into it, because you know, they're selling it, and they-- you just embody it. All of us just need to be reminded that it's okay to be kind. And actually, it's becoming the cool thing to be that way.

Michael Graham, Principal: We're all under the gun to improve our test results, the academics. But I tell you what, it's a whole lot more fun to start focusing on that connection with kids, and helping people feel good about where they are. The other will follow. Our teachers, I think, are much happier. They like their kids.

Teacher 5: Good job, kiddo! Excellent. Practice being cool-headed this weekend!

Victoria Blakeney, Curriculum Coord.: The advantage of spending time doing this is the payoff in academics. There's research out now that shows that kids involved intentional social/emotional learning programs like we're trying to do right here, scored on average, ten percent higher on their standardized tests. So what are we giving up? We're giving up, you know, higher referrals, we're giving up violence in our schools. What are we getting? Kids who come to school, because they want to come to school. And kids who know how to act when they get into the schools. And hopefully, kids who will go into their futures with a better chance at success.

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Loren Micalizio


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Rob Weller
  • Cal Coleman


  • Michael Pritchard

Original Music:

  • Ed Bogas

"Change of Heart" Song by

  • Janie Lidey

Comments (13)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Excellent story. Thank you.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was unable to get the video to play past 4 minutes. Tried several times and it quits in the same place each time.

LauraBelle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My niece is currently a teacher at the High School and she sent this link to her family for us to watch.

I am VERY impressed with what the teachers and staff are doing for these kids. I wish ALL schools would adopt these principles and have them available to help our kids of today, who many of which are living in troubled homes.

I am proud to have a family member who works in this system and applaud the Anchorage School District!!

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