During the first days of school this week, along with finding their lockers and classrooms, Gunn High School freshmen got a new kind of assignment: Discover what they have in common with each other.
In classrooms across campus, freshmen conducted "frienterviews" with each other — interviewing at least 10 students they didn't know and identifying a shared interest. For two students in one class, it was writing and drawing; for two others, it was simply that they both have a sister.
The activity — an assignment in finding commonalities rather than differences when meeting new people — is lesson No. 1 in a new social-emotional learning curriculum Gunn is piloting in earnest this fall. (Palo Alto High School is also testing out the curriculum but not as extensively as Gunn.)
The social-emotional effort is a districtwide initiative that will roll out to all 17 Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) campuses over the next few years, from elementary through high school.
Gunn is launching it this year through a new iteration of the school's teacher-advisory program, the second new version in as many years. Last year, Titan Connect — a program that paired cohorts of students with a teacher-coach and upperclassmen mentors and which started with last year's freshmen class — replaced Titan 101, a freshman transition program.
Titan Connect has been replaced this year with Social Emotional Literacy and Functionality, or SELF. For the pilot year, ninth-graders have been assigned to a cohort of 20 to 24 students and paired with a mentor — a Gunn teacher who volunteered for the role. These cohorts will stay together through to their senior year, meeting together in a weekly advisory period.
Unlike Paly's longtime teacher-advisory program, Gunn's program will not have an academic advising component but rather focus on the tenets of social-emotional learning.
Courtney Carlomagno, a social-emotional learning teacher on special assignment at Gunn, defines the increasingly buzzy educational term as "skills so you're able to understand yourself, so you can understand others and more successfully navigate your life at the high school level and after." Lessons touch on everything from making first impressions and taking effective notes to understanding the teenage brain and forging identity.
At Gunn, the idea is to provide students a small, tight-knit community within the large school, Carlomagno said.
"The long-term idea is that PAUSD in general is in a big shift to making social-emotional learning a priority in how we prepare the whole child for a happy, healthy and responsible life," she added.
The ultimate goal, Carlomagno said, is for students to receive direct instruction in the new program. Professional development for all teachers will also touch on social-emotional learning so that the skills are also reinforced in core classes such as math and English. She plans to send out a weekly update on the program with suggestions for how teachers can incorporate social-emotional learning into their classes.
Advisory classes at both Paly and Gunn participated in the same activities during the first week of school, but each teacher put his or her own spin on the lessons. At Paly, teacher Paul Kandell led his class of sophomores through four "frienterviews" and then asked them to find one new person outside of the class and write down his or her name and common interest by the next time they were to meet.
Gunn teacher Yukie Hikidas challenged her students instead to memorize the name of each person they interviewed in class.
The curriculum is structured so the first few weeks are the fun, "low-stakes" activities, like memorizing names and a handshake competition, so students can get to know each other and feel more comfortable before moving onto heavier topics, said Tara Firenzi, Gunn's other social-emotional learning teacher on special assignment. Something as simple as learning each other's names seems "mundane," she said, but is "critical" to forging early connections between students and teacher.
Gunn formed a student advisory committee that will meet regularly and give feedback on the new program, Carlomagno said. Sixty upperclassmen — out of 100 who applied — are also serving as "Titan Ambassadors," this year, helping with freshman orientation and in the first days of the social-emotional learning program.
Gunn sophomores, juniors and seniors can also opt into the freshmen's SELF lessons during their free "flex" period on Thursdays.
The school district's focus on social-emotional learning grew out of interest in evaluating counseling and service models at the two high schools in recent years, part of a broader focus on student mental health and well-being. A committee of students, parents, staff and administrators convened last year to explore possible social-emotional learning curriculum, which the district said existed in pockets throughout the district but lacked coherence.
Acting on the group's recommendations, the district is phasing in the curriculum this year at the high schools. A group of teachers and staff from Paly, Gunn (including new Principal Kathie Laurence) and the district were trained this summer in the chosen curriculum, School Connect.
Kandell, who has taught in the district for close to 20 years and participated in the summer training, said he's wary of educational trends but sees this as a well-intentioned effort to support students proactively, inside and outside of the classroom.
After two teenage suicide clusters in recent years, the district's stance was, "'We're going to do everything on the list to try to change our culture,' and they're going through the list," Kandell said.
The district plans to form a new advisory committee this fall to help oversee the continued roll-out of social-emotional learning at all schools in the coming years.