George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Tony Bencivenga: In Support of Social/Emotional Learning Curriculum

February 22, 2001

Tony Bencivenga, principal of Benjamin Franklin Middle School in New Jersey, talks about how his school has benefited from supporting emotional learning in the curriculum and focusing on teacher preparation.

1. How valuable is social/emotional learning for students?

I believe that the social/emotional component is clearly the most important part of a child's life. We need to interact with each other. We need to care for each other. And I don't know of any child who learns best when they don't feel good about themselves.

I'm committed to making sure that children have a good picture of their own self-worth, they feel good about who they are, and are committed to making others feel good. If we can create an environment where we feel good and care for each other, everything else falls into place.

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2. Why do you consider social/emotional learning such an important part of what happens at Benjamin Franklin Middle School?

We have a strong academic program at BF and that program is based on important principles, like constructivism, creating meaning, metacognition, authentic assessment, all those good things that are all part of what one would want to see in a solid, comprehensive academic program.

However, it occurred to me that whenever I spoke with parents, either individually, in small groups, or in large groups, every time I asked the parents what they want to see happen in middle school or what their wishes are for their children, invariably the responses would be, "I want to see my children healthy, happy, and in a loving relationship." So I realize if that's what the parents are talking about, that's what we ought to be doing at school. Why should we be any different at school? So our commitment to social/emotional learning is really based on what the parents feel is important and I believe what you or I would feel is important.

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3. How do social/emotional learning and technology come together for the benefit of students?

Social/emotional learning, or social/emotional intelligence, in my view, is the foundation for children to explore and to feel good about themselves and to take risks, to think divergently.

If they have a strong social/emotional foundation, then they can use technology in all kinds of ways. And innovative technology can open up their world so that they can explore and they can take risks. So I see a connection there. And at BF, what we try to do is merge the two. We try to bring social/emotional intelligence and technology together in the culture of a school so we can move forward and have the children explore through the innovative technology.

Technology is more that just someone sitting at a computer, and sometimes when we talk to parents, even teachers, there might be a stereotype of that, one on one, a child with a computer. But in my view, the innovative technology is more than just a computer, it's the need for children to be able to use computers and all kinds of digital technology and technology in the twenty-first century that we can't even imagine. So our challenge here in the school is to help children frame questions, model good exploration and good discovery, try to figure out how to use the technology cooperatively.

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4. How do students benefit from the broadcast news class?

In the broadcast news class, the eighth graders prepare the daily live show that will be produced the following morning. It takes a total commitment on the part of the children to make this TV show work. They work cooperatively. They learn about themselves. They learn about their strengths. They learn to help each other get through the show. They realize that everybody has a stake in this.

The payoff comes when they produce the show and get immediate feedback from their peers and from the teachers who say, "That was a great show." So from a social/emotional learning point of view, an environment is created in that broadcast news class that demands cooperation and self-esteem and self-worth, taking risks, playing.

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5. How do you integrate social/emotional learning into your school program?

Some people might argue that an emphasis on social/emotional learning is at the expense of other parts of the program. I see them congruent. I see them related. And I think you can have all of those things together. In fact, you can embed social/emotional learning principles throughout the program, throughout the curriculum, and I think that's what we try to do here.

I think a measure of the success to which a school achieves a healthy social/emotional learning environment is the extent to which the kids participate in activities, whether it's a co-curricular program or regular academic program, the extent to which they sign up for electives, the extent to which they are willing to work on community service.

When someone asks me or challenges me why I am willing to commit an entire section of the building to TV productions or to a TV studio or to a Wellness Center or a Fitness Center or to a Community Service class, I have no problems saying "This is what we are about and this is what we should be doing." Because that's the way we nurture not only social/emotional learning, but we nurture everything. So the academic program is easily built upon a social/emotional learning environment.

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6. How do you foster collaborative learning at Benjamin Franklin?

The structure at our school is such that we have teams of teachers working with blocks and teams of children and in that way, we can really encourage cooperative learning and partnership in trying to identify problems and solve problems. So I believe in the 21st century as we use technology, children, and ultimately adults, need to learn how to work together and it's the challenge of the school to create activities and programs that foster a cooperative relationship and a cooperative environment to solve those problems.

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7. How do you prepare teachers to incorporate social/emotional learning into what they’re doing?

If an educational leader such as a principal asks the staff to commit to either an academic program or to a social/emotional learning program, that leader or principal has to provide staff development. You have to provide the opportunity for teachers to learn what's going on and to really commit to that.

In my view, and here at BF, we make that commitment. We make it through summer workshops. We make it through the entire school day by providing at least two periods a day where the staff gets together and plans programs, plans interdisciplinary projects, plans programs that integrate social/emotional learning with technology. So if you're going to talk the talk and say to a staff that you need to commit to whatever program, no less a social/emotional learning program, you have to, as they say, be able to walk the walk, by providing space, time, facilities, commitment, and support. And I think we do that at BF.

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8. How do you know your efforts at including social/emotional learning are effective?

One of the most positive and exciting and powerful results of our efforts in the area of social/emotional learning, I believe, is the children's willingness to share the results of their work, whether it's on Benjamin Franklin Broadcast News, our daily show, or in, through art work displays, or the act of just sharing ideas with their peers and with their parents and teachers. To me, that's the most important, the willingness to have the self-esteem and the courage to take the risks at sharing what you do, and for a middle school child to do that, I think is very powerful. And I think in part, it's a result of our commitment to social/emotional learning.

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