How one teacher used Wayfinder’s Belonging Curriculum to foster social emotional learning during COVID school closures
JUNE 2020|By Lauren Parker, M.Ed., Educator at Fort Worth Academy
Last year, a colleague and I were invited to participate in a Project Wayfinder training at another school in our community. We had both worked to foster meaningful connections amongst our students, but hadn’t found much that seemed appropriate for middle school-age kids. From what we could tell, it sounded like Project Wayfinder might help. The first morning of the training, we knew we had stumbled upon something special. As we participated in some of the lessons that make up Project Wayfinder’s “Purpose Toolkit” and had discussions with our fellow educators, we knew we wanted to bring this work on cultivating purpose to our students.
I have the privilege of working with 7th and 8th grade students at a K-8 school. One of my favorite parts of my job is helping students find their own goals, plot the steps to reach those goals, and eventually choose the high school that’s the perfect fit for each of them. While we’re continually working to improve this process, something was missing. At the Wayfinder training, it became apparent that Project Wayfinder was the missing piece. We knew the research-backed purpose curriculum would enable students who had identified the “WHAT” of their goals to zero in on the “WHYs” behind them.
After completing the Wayfinder curriculum with our 8th graders, we saw that while it’s a great solution for high school students, our 8th graders weren’t quite ready to be that vulnerable and were lacking the life experience to fully connect with the ideas behind each lesson. It was helpful, but not perfect. Then, the Wayfinder team introduced the Belonging Toolkit.
I’m often one of the first to roll my eyes at packaged Social-Emotional Learning Curriculums — they often seem too juvenile and cheesy. But the Belonging Toolkit isn’t an elementary or high school curriculum adapted to fit middle schoolers; it was actually designed with middle school kids in mind. I quickly found my students were engaged and participating in lessons. I loved how the lessons not only helped students find belonging with their peers, but also in the spaces where they spend time, with themselves, and as global citizens.
In the lesson “Conversation Starter Bingo”, students are tasked with practicing different conversation starters. They have a bingo card with suggestions to try out on both their friends and people they don’t talk to as often. One of my 8th graders even said she was keeping that card on her wall so she could use them as she started at a new school next year. It’s always nice as a teacher to know that students find the same value in a lesson as we do! In “The Color of the Door,” we explored belonging in our place. Students are asked to reflect on the physical space around them, starting with the color of the front door of the school and noticing things in the room around them. Many of my students have attended our school since kindergarten, and even after eight years at the school, would still debate the color of the actual front door of our school. Students wanted to take a trip to the door to investigate, and found themselves noticing new things throughout the school during the week. They also learned more about me by taking the time to notice some things I had placed around the classroom that were important to me. It was fun to hear their observations, make some of my own, and connect with them in a new way!
We started piloting the Belonging lessons in a traditional class setting. Then the COVID-19 pandemic quickly switched the end of our pilot to a virtual classroom. With a few modifications, we were able to use the Belonging lessons to help our students stay connected to each other. Some students even reached out to me individually to comment on how much their Wayfinder Belonging lessons had helped them through difficult situations, and to stay connected with their peers while they couldn’t be together physically. Some students even learned something new about the peers they’d been in school with for eight or nine years, and spent time virtually socializing with people they wouldn’t normally hang out with.
The team at Project Wayfinder has been a huge help as we find the best curricular fit for us. I appreciate that we weren’t simply onboarded to the curriculum, never to hear from Project Wayfinder again. The weekly emails, regular check-ins, and support along the way have been invaluable. As educators moved to virtual learning, the Wayfinder team even offered suggestions for adapting lessons, staying connected, and best practices for taking care of ourselves and our students.
I’m looking forward to a full year of using the new Belonging Toolkit in whatever form that takes this fall. Knowing we’ll still be able to help our students find belonging in a tumultuous world is a comfort in our current time of chaos.