“Talk-nology” – A Course Developed to Foster “Social” Skills (“S”EL) in order to Activate Social Awareness, Student Voice and Agency to Catalyze Change

(Be sure to view the accompanying video at the conclusion of the article featuring, Principal, Mark Erlenwein.)

In K-12 education and academia, there is no debate that SEL-Social Emotional Learning remains a highly prioritized focus that is crucial towards ensuring our children and young adults recover and rise above the challenges and setbacks brought upon by COVID. Where there is plenty of debate and ongoing research amongst pedagogues, healthcare and mental health professionals involves “how much damage COVID caused” and “what are the most effective types of social emotional Learning and interventions” needed to address the impact of this disruption. For educators, we are constantly searching for the best programs and resources to meet this call to action.

Some substantive research and answers have emerged recently via a study, published in Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science, involving the first attempt to compare MRI imaging of teenagers’ brains before and after the pandemic started. Early findings state that, “the stress of pandemic lockdowns prematurely aged the brains of teenagers by at least three years and in ways similar to changes observed in children who have faced chronic stress and adversity. The researchers found growth in the hippocampus and amygdala, brain areas that respectively control access to some memories and help regulate fear, stress and other emotions.

In my practice as a 25 year educator and 10 year principal at Staten Island Technical High School, it’s been my experience first-hand that the disruption of our students’ social emotional well-being occurred long before the COVID pandemic. If anything, COVID simply magnified and amplified a greater root cause, while accelerating an already steady degradation of our youth’s social awareness, social emotional well being and access to rich and meaningful social emotional education and experiences.

As the Fall 2022 school year is well underway, this year is different in that there was a welcome return to our sensory-enhanced, hands-on, high-energy approach to engaging students in and outside of the classroom, and a reboot of our full-complement of in-person extracurricular activities. The only remote DNA that remains are our virtual parent meetings, which have increased parent & guardian access / participation to all time highs. My greatest takeaway, observation and concern that has emerged this school year involves our youngest learners, the 9th and 10th graders. Two years of COVID and a ceasing of essential in-person social interactions, with screen time taken to extremes, has escalated a more concerning problem. Our youth continues to do less talking and more typing! The spike in students using social media and SMS platforms to air their grievances and most personal inner feelings is at an apex. This booming student practice, while nothing new, has peaked our response for restorative intervention services, as student-to-student sexual harrasment, cyber-bullying and emotional outcries for help are surmounting. The current uptick in these behaviors supports some research findings that suspects COVID as an instigator for impacting our students’ ability to regulate fear, stress and other emotions. What’s important to remember is that children aren’t to blame and it’s not about finger-pointing, but more about what we, as adults, do to properly respond and correct course.

I’ve often lamented in previous blogs, when you look at our students’ entire experience encompassing school, home and social life, I’m always in awe as to how our students balance the trichotomy. There are times I imagine that if we could peek inside their mind it would look like the static white-noise channel on an old fashioned television set. Our students are operating within a world of absolute information overload, which has been curated via biased search and return filters. They’re challenged in-the-moment by the complexities of real-life, blended with virtual and augmented reality, likes, follows, hearts, emojis, shares and commentary on a flat glowing screen, that’s growing bigger, brighter and faster at delivering content. Content and information will soon move closer to their eyes, as wearables become more prevalent which will further blur the lines between reality and perception and continue to move social interactions further from in-person experiences. We and our youth are collectively living in the era of hyper change, disruption and a spiraling social crisis. 

Seven years ago, we at Staten Island Technical High School identified a key component of social emotional learning that we felt was a skillset that would require focused attention and intense support. We applied an intentional and greater emphasis on the development of the “Social Skills” component of SEL, which often goes largely ignored as a set of skills that needs to be taught and reinforced in schools. After receiving feedback from alumni who struggled in job interviews and networking, while also witnessing our current students finding great difficulty in social interactions, public speaking engagements and gravitating towards more screen time, it was clear we needed to intervene. 

Our school’s paradigm shift in practice and purpose would lead to what is now a widely successful “Talknology” program at Staten Island Tech, where cultivating Social Skills, Awareness, Student Voice and Agency has led to a transformative change in our students’ academic, social and home lives. Below, I will unpack and exemplify the steps we took to create meaningful change and provide a blueprint to help schools build their own program and practice.

PHASE 1: Creating a Social Awareness and Defining Social / Soft Skills 

Our school’s first step in the process was to bring an expert and new voice into our environment, a person who not only could capture the students and faculty’s attention, but someone who has great experience in conveying and sparking an interest in the importance of these soft / social skills. Bob Wolf, the founder of the H.O.P.E.® Skills Seminar Series was that person.

Bob Wolf, who has become a very close and important thought partner for our school, specializes in SEL” – Soft / Social / HIKA*® Skills Development (*HIKA® – Human Interaction Knowledge Applied Skills®). For over 20 years, Bob has been filling a growing skills gap in education by helping students learn five skills which build upon each other: First Impression, Interpersonal, Communication, Presentation and Selling. He discusses the five basic resources everyone has: Academics, Technology, Capital/Finance, Experience, People and helps students discover the fact that people are the #1 resource for everyone and explain WHY (Will Help You™) people are the #1 priority in every walk of life.

Working with our students and faculty through annual in-class push-in presentations, Bob shares the belief and practice that every student can learn and will apply these skills regardless of their grades, test scores, social, cultural and economic background. More importantly,  as a student grows, the skills grow with them becoming more refined over time.  These skills will help Improve Self-Confidence and Strengthen Self-Esteem as students navigate their career path, whatever that path may be.

During his presentations, Bob Wolf defines terminology students hear all the time; i.e. Business, Career, but do not know the meaning of. Bob also incorporates Theories, Concepts and unique acronyms he created to support the basic premise of people being every person’s #1 resource in life and in whatever they do to earn a living. (People; i.e. Present Exciting Opportunities Plus Learning Experiences™)

Phase 1 of our journey helped our school in creating a baseline understanding of the soft / social skills for students, and beginning to create a practice and method for faculty to give students the tools to effectively communicate in all aspects of life.    This also set the stage for our larger goal of continuing to embed equity within our school landscape, cultivated, developing, modeling and empowering the use of student voice & agency.

Resources / Exemplars: 

PHASE 2: Creating an Introduction to Talknology & Career Development course for 9th graders. #LearnToTalk #TalkToLearn

Our school’s next goal was to create an instructional component that when regularly taught, reinforced and modeled soft / social skills in a classroom environment, which would also create linkages, pathways and a process to immediately implement and practice these skills on a daily basis. Jennifer Fitzpatrick, SITHS’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) – Work Based Learning Coordinator & Teacher, co-developed the “Intro to Talknology & Career Development Course” with Principal, Mark Erlenwein. 

The intention of the “Talknology & Career Development” lab course (meets once a week, similar to a science lab for every 9th grader) is to provide 9th grade students with the technical ability, knowledge, and skills necessary to succeed in future endeavors and prepare students for college and career readiness.  We are committed to providing students with a unique experience while at Staten Island Tech, supporting them as they work towards building the 21st century skills needed to stand apart in the global competitive market.  In order to achieve this, the Introduction to Talknology and Career Development (Career and Technical Education) Lab Course is focused on applying a high-tech, low-tech, and no-tech exploration of: 

  • Acquiring and accurately using protocols for effective communication in oral, written, and multimedia/digital formats
  • Examining multiple sources of career information from diverse formats to make informed career decisions and manage personal career plans
  • Analyzing existing and emerging computer technologies to research and explore the global impacts on industry and the comprehensive job market
  • Developing the key ‘soft skills’ needed for workplace success
  • Understanding how an individual’s digital media presence is used by potential employers and post-secondary agencies to evaluate candidates
  • Exploring work-based learning opportunities to demonstrate and expand upon knowledge and skills gained during classroom instruction
  • Students will develop the skills needed to transition from the classroom to the workplace; these competencies include core academic and technical knowledge, employability skills, and job specific training.

SITHS’s powerful 9th-grade “Talknology (Oracy) & Career Development” course was developed by Ms. Fitzpatrick to teach students two critical frameworks, HOPE (HIKA) Skills® & School 21Voice 21’s Oracy Skills Framework. The HOPE Skills® focus on five key components – First Impression, Interpersonal, Communication, Presentation, & Selling skills – while the Voice21 Oracy curriculum digs deeper by teaching students how to hone-in-on and apply their Physical, Linguistic, Cognitive, Social/Emotional talents. This course empowers students to develop confidence and self-advocacy skills, articulate their personal brand and engage in inspiring speech within and beyond our school community. 

The development of the Talknology course, also introduced another vital aspect to the areas of importance we identified, namely around communication skills. At Staten Island Tech, we refer to communication skills as oracy, a term which we adopted from the United Kingdom’s, School 21Voice 21’s Oracy Skills Framework, who describes oracy as follows: 

Oracy is the ability to communicate effectively.  One of the biggest barriers to young people succeeding in the academic and professional world is a lack of social skills development. Employers put good oral communication & “soft skills” at the top of their requirements for employees. Yet we rarely teach it systematically in schools. Whilst research has found that good oracy leads to higher order thinking and deeper understanding, on average a child in a deprived area speaks no more than 4 words a lesson.

The skills learned in the “Talknology” class can be applied broadly as students progress throughout both educational and professional careers. This course also encourages collaboration and teamwork with peers and with students’ growing network, promoting the inclusion of divergent and creative perspectives.  An emphasis is placed throughout the entire course on the 21st century learning skills and relevance of the concept of oracy.  The specific focus on oracy is designed to provide students with the opportunity to learn effective communication techniques – verbal, non-verbal, and written – that can be applied as they progress throughout their educational and professional careers. 

The culminating opportunity that awaits at the conclusion of the Talknology courses is the opportunity to continue to practice and utilize their new tools and skills in social interactions, workplace settings, and life. Being our Talknology teacher, Ms. Fitzpatrick is Staten Island Tech’s Work Based Learning Coordinator, who handles our school’s internship program, we are able to offer 9th graders paid internship opportunities at the conclusion of their freshmen year. Using the tools developed by School 21 in England, and through the incorporation of Work Based Learning practices and the HOPE Skills, students are given the chance to continue to practice and develop the necessary soft skills and oracy skills necessary for success in any industry. 

Resources / Exemplars:

PHASE 3: Practice makes Progress:  The Transformation Tables Method of Growth

During the 2022-23 school year, Staten Island Tech incorporated the Transformation Tables Method in the 9th Grade Health curriculum, as a reinforcement and practice of the skills taught in the “Intro to Talknology & Career Development” course. The Transformation Tables Method builds trust and confidence, as well as a comfort level and a practice for cultivating communication (oracy & HIKA®) skills. Additionally, Transformation Tables cultivate a skill just as important and complementary to oracy, known as “active listening” skills. These practices in tandem will help develop a norm and system for students and the school community to come together, use their voice and build towards active student, faculty, staff and parent agency.

Prior to the 2022-23 school year, after seeking a logical high school appropriate “next step” towards incorporating an SEL instructional component that also specifically builds social skills and offers an easy entry point for teachers, Principal Erlenwein’s 12-week experience with the Transformation Table Method emerged as that next step.

During the previous 2021-22 school year, Lions Pride Leadership (Affiliate company of the John Maxwell Team, lead by Chad and Danielle Reyes) worked closely with four District 31 – Staten Island principals (piloting the process over the course of 12 weeks) to experience the Transformation Tables method of growth.

The teaching method of the Transformation Tables is very simple but highly effective. Every person understands the value of two-way communication. However, the most common form of training used is one-way communication where one person talks and everyone else listens.

Transformation Tables employ two-way communication in a structured environment with an emphasis on active listening. Ideas are not taught; they are facilitated. During Transformation Tables, a designated person leads, but all participants share from their own experience. As a result, everyone grows together—including the facilitator. Transformation Tables are effective because:

  • They are conducted in a small group setting consisting of four to ten people. 
  • They usually take between 30 minutes (four people) and 60 minutes (ten people).
  •  They give every participant a “voice” and the chance for a win. 
  • They are designed to emphasize and promote personal growth.

Resources / Exemplars:

PHASE 4: Activating Social Awareness, Student Voice and Agency to Catalyze Change

In our last and continually evolving phase of developing and implementing a process to continue to develop and allow students the opportunity to practice the skills learned in the Talknology curriculum, we employed an inquiry group process. This process aims to create the ultimate opportunity to activate Social Awareness, Student Voice and Agency through deep inquiry and conversations that can lead to catalyzing change.

Creating brave-spaces to discuss sensitive issues is important in ensuring that our own school’s culture, from a curricular, instructional and experiential perspective, meets the needs of our students and families. SITHS conducts needs/inquiry-based decision-making. This is achieved through the use of distributive leadership via frequent meeting of our School Leadership Team and constituent focus groups.  A team of students, faculty, staff, and parents – as well as prospective students and parents – help us to evaluate how we build relationships, partnerships, trust, and rapport from a Culturally Responsive focus. 

We function in a large system which moves quickly and changes often. The city, state, and nationwide “initiatives” that impact our “work” often end and cease to exist before any efficacy can be established, which calls for a robust and resilient decision making system within our school environment. Our institutional systems-based decision-making is always scaffolded around a multi-year plan, with sustainability and preservation of past-initiatives embedded in our practice and execution. I have come to reinforce my belief around the importance and sensitivity of how a message is collaboartively crafted, cultivated, delivered, and preserved within our community.

The goal of our inquiry-based-decision-making always aims to identify our school’s “glows” and “grows” to create a plan to be more culturally responsive to better align curriculum choices and instructional practices to ensure the student experience is inclusive, rich, and rigorous. 

In our school’s inquiry work, there has been a strong resonance and parallel among the faculty, students, and parent feedback about what constitutes a “partnership”, what needs to be done to further facilitate these partnerships, and what instructional shifts best foster independent learners. During the 2018-19 school year, prior to COVID, our inquiry work highlighted and celebrated our approach towards “mastery instruction / assessment” which focuses on equity and Culturally Responsive Education (CRE) as core values. The philosophy is that pedagogical shifts towards Mastery Based Learning creates more transparent and effective learning environments for all stakeholders—and that certain elements of mastery are inherently culturally responsive. We see that “mastery” and “CRE” work in tandem to amplify the impacts. Together, CRE and mastery shifts have empowered students to be active and independent learners, with increased engagement and motivation, and a sense of belonging.  Students have become invested in their journey and gain confidence that they can experience success in our rigorous academic environment.

To further create awareness and share what has been identified by these key stakeholders during the inquiry process, a public service announcement-style video has been developed and used for our work to be heard, received, and realized. (bit.ly/NASSPLearningPartDispos)

Resources / Exemplars:

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