Learning Students’ Stories to Help them Become More Successful


When a teacher shows respect for students’ stories – their backgrounds, cultures, even the slang they use –children can become more successful learners.

This is key when focusing on emotional wellness and its connection to more effective classrooms, Dena Simmons, Director of Education at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, told more than 80 educators from the Hudson Valley region at Manhattanville College on Friday.

“You can’t be emotionally intelligent without being culturally responsive,” Simmons said in the college’s Reid Castle. The joint program offered by Manhattanville College School of Education and Putnam | Northern Westchester BOCES Center for Educational Leadership followed last year’s Spring Symposium, which featured Dr. Marc Brackett, Director of the Yale Center.

The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence explores ways to help students feel supported and safe in the classroom, and to see that their teachers are invested in their success – all key to putting them in a frame of mind to learn. Simmons’ talk focused on the need to understand the students’ circumstances and cultures. That involves avoiding what Simmons called, “the danger of the single story.” That is, looking beyond what you may think you know about a person’s background.

She talked about approaches educators can use to better understand their students, and even their colleagues. One involved asking a person to explain the story of his or her first name – a question that sometimes prompts a student to ask a parent overnight and come back with the answer the next day.

“It brings the school to the home and the home to the school,” Simmons said.

She told of one teacher who asked her students to write a sentence that began “I wish my teacher knew…” The answers revealed that one child had no friends, another’s father had been deported to Mexico years earlier, and still another had a mother who was rarely around to add the required signature to the child’s homework.

Simmons also used examples from her own life, the daughter of a woman from Antigua, growing up in the Bronx and going to a boarding school in Connecticut. She told of one schoolmate who guarded her belongings when Simmons entered her dorm room, and of a teacher who taught her how to pronounce the word “asking” in a crowded hallway “as my classmates were snickering.”

“I learned to erase myself in order to survive,” she said.

The approach she described involved Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, or tapping into the students’ backgrounds to help improve achievement.

“Essentially, it’s inviting the students’ stories into the classroom,” Simmons said. “Because they’re validated, they feel empowered, they feel a sense of competence and some efficacy. They take initiative, and essentially, they’re more successful students.”

The talk came as the Yale Center and PNW BOCES’ Center for Educational Leadership plan to launch a new program this year with 30 schools in the Hudson Valley, upstate New York and on Long Island. The program will implement the Yale RULER model, which stands for: recognizing emotions in self and others; understanding the causes and consequences of emotions; labeling emotions accurately; expressing emotions appropriately; and regulating emotions effectively.

The program will begin with trainings for district and building-level leaders and school-based teams in June and September.

Some educators said after the seminar that their districts had started to become more culturally responsive and that Simmons’ insights and information affirmed they were headed in the right direction.

“It makes me really hopeful that this is something that is valued in public education,” said Dorothy France, an English-as-a-new-language teacher in Putnam Valley Elementary School. Part of the effort, she said, has to involve getting to know the community well. It’s not enough to post a notice on a district website and hope people see it. The district needs to connect with people who may not feel that they are welcome to participate.

“Our responsibility is to reach out and show them that they’re invited,” she said.

Joe Prestianni, the social emotional wellness facilitator at the Emma C. Chase Elementary School in the Monticello district, said the exercises Simmons offered can help staffs work more closely together.

“Even if the staff has been together for a while, there’s still more you can learn,” he said.