Gunn launches new SELF program

By: Ayala Tzadikario

This year, the bell schedule has been changed yet again, this time to implement the newest state-mandated social-emotional learning (SEL) program, known at Gunn as Social Emotional Literacy and Functionality (SELF). SELF is a program designed for high school students that aims to help students with self awareness, social management, relationship skills and decision training. In other words, SELF is a program about connections, both within and outside of the student body.

SELF is mandated by the Collaborating States Initiative (CSI) which works with states and school districts to ensure that students from kindergarten to senior year are all getting social-emotional learning. According to their official website, they work with states, such as California, to develop plans that incorporate social-emotional learning. Additionally, the California Department of Education (CDE) is committed to working with CSI to help educators learn more about SEL and how to make it a part of every child’s school experience. Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) decided to implement SEL in February 2017 for the upcoming 2017-2018 school year because it is legally required for students in California to take a certain amount of Social Emotional Learning curriculum.

SELF students are currently meeting once a week to talk about topics that target emotional wellbeing. Before SELF, Gunn had a similar program, Titanconnect, that met roughly once a month and talked about the same topics of student connection. “I think that SELF is a great way to connect from a different direction” said Principal Kathleen Lawrence, “It is a great program that teaches students how to interact with the world and I am hoping that it will help us with empathy, resilience and managing our own emotions.”

Titanconnect and other previous programs were traditionally only for freshmen as a way to help them integrate themselves properly into the high school life. SELF is currently only being held with freshmen but is a 4 year program, so SELF students will remain in that class with the same teacher and classmates all throughout high school. “I am looking forward to being with students for such a long time in their high school careers, that just sounds really really exciting, already in the first month of school, you can see how much they’ve grown” Jamison said.

The purpose of SELF is to connect teachers and students and build relationships by using  conversation and reflection skills that have not only been proven effective, but are also relevant to student life. It is really important for SELF Teachers on Special Assignment (TOSA) Tara Firenzi and Courtney Carlomagno that students are able to learn these skills so that they can use them in and out of Gunn. “The goal of the program is to help students work on their social emotional learning skills and relationships, so basically being able to build their relationships with peers and trusted adults” Firenzi said.

Since SELF classes meet one time a week, students have the opportunity to really get to know each other and make the connections that they are trying to learn about with each other. According to SELF teacher Marcus Jamison, meeting frequently is beneficial especially because of the topics discussed. “[Meeting] every week is really nice because we get to check in with students and I think that meeting once a month will not be enough to make those connections and encourage students to feel safe to speak freely about the topics we talk about” Jamison said, “Even with only meeting once a week, it feels like ‘oh man, I have seen my other students three times, and my SEL students only once.”

SELF student Anshika Agarwal agrees that SELF is more impactful because it meets once a week instead of once a month. “I really like that we get to meet every week because I feel that it gives me the opportunity to make connections with people that I probably would not have even tried to get to know if I knew I only see them once a class and we do not  have any other classes together” said Agarwal, “It has become one of those rare classroom environments where I actually feel like I know everyone’s names and personality, which is not always a given in such a big school.”

According to the other SELF TOSA Courtney Carlomagno, having students really know other students in the school was one of their main goals. “We are a pretty large campus so we would love for students to have a class where they are comfortable,” said Carlomagno, “we want their time in the classroom to be meaningful and impactful and give students a class that is not so academic but about wellness”

Carlomagno hopes that SELF will be able to make Gunn a better space for students by giving them a trusted adult or teacher that they can talk to and get to know in a nonacademic setting. “A major priority of SELF is that every student will be connected to a trusted adult on campus and a larger sense of community,” Carlomagno said, “being able to check in with the same peers all four years will be really powerful, especially in a school with thousands of students.”

According to Jamison, the reason why SELF is a great class for students is because the material is not only used in class. “It is a class where we can keep it kind of real,” Jamison said, “we do have things that we need to talk about, but it is applicable, everything we are doing is applicable to what you are doing every day” Lawrence agrees that one of the reasons SELF has the potential to really impact students is because they can use it outside of the classroom. “School is not really about what is in school, it is about teaching students how to live in the world and I think that that is something SELF does really well,” Lawrence said. “I am not saying that students won’t have trials and tribulations or bad times and good times, but hopefully they will be easier to handle because students were taught the skills they need.”

School Connects, founded in Austin, Texas was one of the biggest contributors to the SELF program and it is currently implemented in all 50 states in a variety of courses. “We are heavily drawing from another program called SchoolConnect, which is also a program that focuses on social emotional learning and had a lot of success and positive review from other schools” Firenzi said.

According to Jamison, at the end of the day, SELF is about giving students the opportunity to learn how to connect with themselves and others. It is about building the Gunn community by starting with the ones who shape it which are students and future students who will all have this program. “Overall, SELF is going to help them be a better citizen of Gunn, of Palo Alto, of the Bay Area, and of the world.”