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Beyond the 3 Rs — School focusing on social and emotional learning

MARTHA TUTHILL PHOTO  Student leaders engaged younger classmates in discussions about tolerance and respect for others during and Anti-Defamation League character building program at Shelter Island School.
MARTHA TUTHILL PHOTO Student leaders engaged younger classmates in discussions about tolerance and respect for others during and Anti-Defamation League character building program at Shelter Island School.

Reading, writing, arithmetic. They’re all still essential to a well-rounded education. But at Shelter Island School, there’s also an emphasis on what’s being termed “social and emotional learning” that’s part of classroom subjects.

There are special, student-led sessions focusing on social awareness; self awareness; self managing of one’s emotions; relationship skills that involve teamwork and conflict resolution; and responsible decision-making.

Because Shelter Island is a small place, students interact with parents and teachers more closely than in larger communities. Recognizing that advantage, the school began to incorporate an Anti-Defamation League program — “A World of Difference” — into its curriculum last year.

The ADL program, designed to help students recognize their biases and the harm they can inflict on others, seeks to train young people to build understanding of how diversity benefits society.

Now in its second year at Shelter Island, the program is off to a solid start, according to Superintendent Christine Finn, with 18 student leaders working in groups of three, visiting classrooms to initiate discussions among students in grades 6 through 11.

Some sessions are group discussions on subjects ranging from biases, diversity, racism, team work, anxieties students may have as well as depression and cyber bullying. Others involve exercises geared to helping students become more aware of the impact of their words and actions.

Much of the program is being coordinated by guidance counselor Martha Tuthill.

Director of Athletics and Physical Education Todd Gulluscio brought the program to the Island last year and Ms. Tuthill and Ian Kanarvogel worked with students during their training to lead classroom discussions.

This year, Ms. Tuthill and Patricia Kreppein worked on updating the program, particularly with respect to some of the exercises used last year that needed to be updated.

Ms. Tuthill explained that students more readily communicate with one another about these subjects than if they were being lectured by adults. What they’re learning is that despite differences they may have with one another, at the core, “We’re all similar,” Ms. Tuthill said, adding,“They’re getting more comfortable speaking about subjects” like biases.

The issue of cyber bullying will get intensive scrutiny at sessions later this month, when Katie Schumacher, the founder of the educatioanl porgram, “Don’t Press Send” visits the Island.

“It is my objective to educate and empower our children to use technology responsibly and with good intent,”  Ms. Schumacher said.

She’ll meet with students in grades 5 through 12. In the evening, Ms. Schumacher will offer a session for parents.

In today’s world, there’s less face-to-face interaction as people communicate through text messaging, Ms. Finn said, and messages can seem harsh when the recipient can’t see facial expressions. Today, it’s too easy to post or text  a hurtful message on social media with no understanding of the damage it can do, Ms. Finn said.

What’s more, it’s vital that students learn how to discern what’s true and what’s not on the web, she said.

A campaign called “Decency,” created by resident Lisa Cholnky, is also underway to encourage kindness among people in the wake of political discourse that splits families and friendships. You’ll see vehicle stickers bearing the single word “Decency” to encourage such behavior and students, will be handing out pins to those they observe demonstrating decency toward others.

Teacher Elizabeth Eklund brought the idea to the attention of Ms. Finn.

Ms. Cholnky goal is to bring civility back to political discourse through her grassroots effort.

A mindfulness program teaching people to focus on the present without judgments is also a part of the school’s focus as well as focus for the town through its Senior Center and Recreation programs. More on that subject and ongoing efforts at the school will be the subject of future stories.