PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Morningside Community School teacher Renee Clark received a big surprise from the Allstate Foundation when she was funded nearly $2,000 for a social-emotional learning project.
Clark is using picture books to teach social-emotional learning, or SEL, to her pupils, including important skills such as self-awareness, self-management, growth mindset, relationships, social awareness, kindness, respect, and responsibility.
The Allstate Foundation funded about 2,000 projects for teachers across the country looking to bring SEL into their classrooms. The foundation was able to donate $1.2 million nationwide, benefiting about 300,000 students and 1,700 teachers.
"Many of my students are from low-income homes and don't have the best home environments," Clark wrote on the fundraiser's biography on DonorsChoose.com, where she was connected with the Allstate Foundation.
"To ensure the learning of our students and meeting their social needs, all of these books will be read to the students every day with our new morning meeting curriculum. They range from emotions, friendships, growth mindsets, leadership, and much more."
Currently, in Pittsfield, schools use a SEL program called Second Step. With this donation, Clark was able to acquire an array of SEL books to expand this curriculum.
These books will be used in four fifth-grade classrooms, but Clark hopes that when school life returns to normal, the whole school will be able to utilize them.
"I am very thankful for Allstate realizing the need for Social-Emotional Learning in classrooms. This is needed now more than ever," Clark said. "Thank you, Allstate for the funding that was needed to make this project be so successful."
Social and emotional learning is the process that allows children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.
Clark said students are able to connect these books to their own lives in ways that educators have struggled to get students to open up in the past, provoking more meaningful, in-depth conversations with one another.
"Students, even in fifth grade, like to be read to," she said. "And it seems to be easier for them to talk about the choices a character in a book makes or should make rather than the choices that they may have made in the past."
This project was started to prioritize the social and emotional well being of students. It aims to encourage children to succeed in education as well in every aspect of their lives. Clark said this can difficult for children without knowing themselves first.
With access to SEL picture books, students are able to listen to a story about a child that is oftentimes struggling and needs to make a choice that has either a negative or positive effect depending on the choice made. This builds skills in real-life decision making and cognitive thinking.
Clark said the project is going very well. Often, students will ask her to share the title of the book for the day and the class will begin to talk about the SEL topic of the day. Clark and her students then take a look at the cover and make predictions that help guide discussion.
Clark said some students have even asked their families for copies of the books read in class for birthdays or for Christmas.
When asked about the SEL books, fifth-grader Brenna said, "Yes, I really enjoy them. They make morning meetings more intriguing rather than a card and a 2000s video."
Allstate's SEL expert Laura Freveletti said teachers will often use their own money to provide classroom resources to students at an average of about $500 a year.
This year, in particular, the Allstate Foundation wanted to make sure they were getting free resources to educators and families amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We of course believe that our educators are our most important partners in the country and certainly more so this year than ever before," Freveletti said. "Our focus on youth empowerment means that we support educators and families because they are the ones who have the most influence on youth."
The foundation has been focusing on youth empowerment and domestic violence for more than a decade. It supports young people's success by making sure that SEL and service-learning programs are available. In domestic violence situations, Freveletti said the focus is on financial literacy because it is important for survivors to be able to thrive outside of an abusive relationship.
"It's interesting when we think about all of our youth empowerment work because it is the school of life and those tend to be things that you don't necessarily learn in school," she said. "How you become involved in your community, how you develop healthy relationships, how you develop these social-emotional learning skills that really help kids succeed in the short term through school but also then in the long term because more and more companies are recognizing that these social-emotional learning competencies are the most valuable skill set that a person can bring to the workplace."
In the last few years, the Allstate Foundation has worked with younger people in developing healthy relationships as a goal to preventing domestic violence. Allstate employees and agency owners across the country typically volunteer their time but were unable to this year because of the pandemic.
Freveletti said the foundation wanted to do all it could to support local communities this year, especially during these unprecedented times.
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