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Build social emotional learning into the school walls

Social Emotional Learning has moved to the front of the class. And school district leaders are embracing the move

In March 2016, The Atlantic magazine article “When Social and Emotional Learning Is Key to College Success” stated, “While test scores can predict academic success, self-management and relationship skills may better prepare students to thrive and graduate.”  In September, The Aspen Institute formed the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, to advance “the full integration of social, emotional, and academic development to ensure every student is prepared to thrive in school and in life."

SEL in action

There are now multiple examples of how architecture and design – “branded environments” - are being used to support SEL curriculum.  Better still, these examples demonstrate that incorporating environmental components into an SEL program can be accomplished with only an incremental investment when developing or redesigning a school facility.

Located at 545 Hill Street SE within downtown Atlanta’s Grant Park neighborhood, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School – which serves sixth through eighth graders – provides a vivid illustration of integrating SEL messaging with physical infrastructure.  The revamped Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School campus opened in August 2016 and includes 175,000 square feet of renovated structure and 17,000 square feet of newly built facilities. In addition to structural changes that give the facility a much more open feel and enhance exposure to outside light, Perkins+Will thoughtfully integrated branded communications across the building in order to shape a sense of shared values and to engage students directly in ownership of their environment, education, and community. The design includes visual themes that come from the school’s namesake – bringing modern relevance to Dr. King’s message and legacy.  Bright, bold imagery emphasizes self-awareness, reinforces community pride and encourages responsible decision-making.  “Integrating vibrant branding within the school encourages the students to build an emotional connection to something bigger than themselves,” said Keith Curtis, Branded Environments leader for the school’s architect, Perkins+Will.  Note, too, that such brand treatments were accomplished for well under 1% of the total project construction budget.

The school’s new branded environment makes direct reference to the Civil Rights era and is cohesively composed and strategically displayed on the school’s walls and floors through dynamic colors, patterns, images and words.   A silhouette of Dr. King’s face is subtly incorporated in the windows of the school’s Administration wing.  Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School features a large open central community space for town hall meetings. A floor to ceiling portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. presides over the hall.  The iconic image of Dr. King is also featured throughout the building alongside quotes from the Nobel Prize Winner and one major hallway has an extensive, hand-painted mural of civil and human rights leaders, turning the corridors of the school into pathways of inspiration and reminders of the communities educational and societal aspirations for the students.

“Middle school is a vital bridge between elementary school and high school—it is also a period when students, often for the first time in their lives, begin actively seeking a sense of purpose and place,” said Paul Brown, Principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.  Recognizing this growth need, in July 2015, Atlanta Public Schools (APS) announced a partnership with the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to implement a district wide SEL program.  Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School is an active participant in the APS/CASEL initiative. “Our new facility is a physical representation of our entire school community’s purpose and place,” he added.

Just two miles from Martin Luther King JR Middle School, Maynard H. Jackson High School has undergone a similar revitalization in recent years.  The school’s namesake, Maynard Jackson, served as the first African-American mayor of Atlanta, Georgia and of any major city in the South.  Jackson symbolizes the school’s mission of striving for globally competitive academic achievement and of encouraging civic engagement as productive, responsible citizens.  Students and faculty are reminded of these expectations as they ascend the main staircase where the gigantic visage of Maynard Jackson watches over them.

“There are two main components to Social Emotional Learning,” Dr. Sheldon Berman said.   Berman is superintendent of Andover Public Schools in Andover, Massachusetts and author of Children's Social Consciousness and the Development of Social Responsibility (SUNY Press, 1997).  “The first component of SEL is curriculum-based, direct instruction.  The other component is environmental.  It means demonstrating and integrating SEL values as a part of the climate and culture of the school,” Berman said.  Earlier in his career, while superintendent of the Hudson (MA) Public Schools from 1993 to 2007, Berman initiated SEL innovations that were matched by the construction of new facilities for the school.

“The core concept is having community spaces where students can interact in a comfortable social environment and feel included in the school as a whole.  At Hudson, we reorganized so that students were affiliated with one of several career and general interest clusters.  Then the school was designed in pods with common meeting space for community building within each of the clusters,” Berman said.  Each cluster had a community council of students and teachers that met in that space to deal with school policies, projects and other issues.  These gathering places provided students a platform from which to share their voices and also provided a non-threatening environment for relationships to develop.  “We demonstrated in a long term, physical way that we are committed to treating students humanely, like individuals,” Berman added.

Just 30 miles northeast of Hudson High School is Billerica Memorial High School in Billerica, MA.  Incorporated in 1655, the town of Billerica carries rich history including claim to the first soldier killed at the battle of Bunker Hill and the man about whom the song Yankee Doodle was penned.  Billerica Memorial High School strongly identifies with its broader community and historical context.  It is also committed to Social Emotional Learning as directly expressed in the school’s mission statement:  “Ultimately, we define success as maximizing the intellectual, emotional, physical, social, and civic development of each member of our school.”

When town and school officials presented a new Billerica Memorial High School building project in January 2016, the initial design included multiple ways that the space will foster strong community ties and cultivate social and emotional intelligence.  Intended as a facility for both the students and the community the new building design reflects a small town charm and a humble pride in history and tradition that carries forward to the current generation of students.  The proposed building façade is red brick, recalling the town’s historic mills district.   Further linking school and city, the design includes a brick chimney-like tower that – on the inside – serves as a memorial to Billerica citizens who gave their life in U.S. military service.  Such contextually aware design helps students recognize their shared destiny with fellow community members and promotes civic engagement.

Representing school values

The Billerica redesign depicts the school’s “Indian” mascot theme with more contemporary images of feathers and arrows shown symbolically by using herringbone patterns.   Color themes are carefully chosen for each area of the building to inspire the aspirational mindset of students as they are in that learning space.  Symbols and colors were selected to express values of honesty, truth, majesty, strength, courage, wisdom, power and freedom.  These values are reinforced by including the Billerica Memorial High School logo alongside words like “pride” painted on the corridor walls and in other common areas.  SEL-related cultural keywords like “kind, smart, fierce, curious and resilient” are repeated in surprising spaces such as on the backside of the exposed central staircase.

“Everything within the learning setting holds the potential for learning and teaching,” wrote Dr. Bonnie Shapiro in her 2015 research paper, Structures That Teach.  Dr. Shapiro is Academic Director of the new MEd Interdisciplinary Program, Education for the Environment, at the Werklund School of Education at University of Calgary.  “In addition to listening and reading texts, learning takes place through daily interaction with building and communication structures. These structures are representations of cultural values that are read by all who inhabit learning settings. They are structures that teach,” Shapiro added.

More permanent than the classroom bulletin board, more visceral than the flat screen TV in the hallway, creating a prideful school brand and designing aspirational imagery and messages into the walls of the school can help school faculty to operationalize SEL pedagogies.  Increasingly, schools committed to Social Emotional Learning are employing all tactics possible to ensure success.  We are likely to see more structures that teach in our educational future.

Katie Janson is a Senior Branded Environments Designer with Perkins+Will.  She was involved in creating the design strategy and implementation for the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, Maynard H. Jackson High School and Billerica Memorial High School projects, among others.