Transcription of the episode “Centering SEL for social and economic mobility”

Jon M: 00:15 I’m Jon Moscow.

Amy H-L: 00:16 And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools.

Jon M: 00:19 Our guest today is David Adams. David is the Director of Social Emotional Learning at the Urban Assembly. He previously served as the social emotional learning coordinator for District 75 in New York City, where he shaped the district’s approach to social emotional learning for students with severe cognitive and behavioral challenges. He has published multiple academic papers around the relationship of social emotional competence and student academic and behavioral outcomes. He serves on the board of directors of CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, and as an engineering officer in the Army reserve. He holds a masters in education in educational psychology from Fordham. Welcome, David.

David A: 01:01 Thank you for having me Jon, and Amy.

Amy H-L: 01:04 What are the Urban Assembly (UA) schools and how do they differ from most public schools in New York City?

David A: 01:11 So the Urban Assembly (UA) schools are a collection of 22 schools within New York City that are designed to develop innovations and to disseminate those innovations into the larger system. Our mission is focused on providing social and economic mobility by improving public education. And so the outcomes from our schools are students who are able to be social, socially mobile, have economic mobility in the context of their jobs and postsecondary outcomes. Our work to do that is by providing the types of experiences that they need, whether cognitive or social, emotional or career focused, in their school environments.

Amy H-L: 01:52 And what is your strategy for breaking up this cycle of poverty and moving kids into the middle class?

David A: 02:01 We developed four inputs, major inputs into our schools that are designed to support the economic and social mobility of our young people versus high quality academics. We need to make sure that our young people have the skills to be able to attain the types of positions that allow them to have a livable wage and a family-sustaining wage for them and their families. So that means that the types of skills that they need to master or the types of skills that we need to develop within our high school curriculum and the experiences that articulate those skills to our young people. The second would be social emotional development. We know that the types of skills that are developed through a high quality social and emotional learning program help our young people solve problems and we know that it’s [inaudible] solving problems is what needs to happen if our young people are going to break that cycle of poverty and be able to achieve academically and socially. So the social emotional development of our young people is an intentional aspect of the work that we do in our schools. Last we focus career development where students are exposed to careers. In postsecondary outcomes in and middle school and in high school through our current technical education programs but not limited to those. Also through our career pathways in which students are exposed to careers that they can be a part of through work-based learning, internships, credentials that they earn before they leave high school. And other opportunities for our young people to understand what a career looks like that is family-sustaining. And then second, I guess the career was second to last cause the last one would be postsecondary outcomes, which is high quality college coaching, meaning that we’re matching students to outcomes at the highest quality possible. So students who are going to college and one wanting to be successful in that context. We have a really robust college and post secondary access program. They’re students want to ensure that they have the credentials before they leave high school in terms of programs like CTE. Then they also have opportunities to get those credentials before they get into college as well.

Jon M: 03:59 And CTE is Career and Technical Education?

David A: 04:00 That’s correct. Thank you, Jon.

Jon M: 04:02 So each of the schools has a theme. Does the approach to social emotional learning or SEL vary depending on the school’s theme or student population?

David A: 04:13 It can, yes. So for example, we have a school of collaborative healthcare up in Queens or the Queens/Brooklyn border, and there we contextualize the importance of social emotional learning within the importance of interpersonal skills in the healthcare fields, right. So what does it mean to enter the healthcare field and what type of interpersonal skills do you need to be successful in that context. Whereas when we have a school for law and justice and more recently, an institute for math and science for young women, for example, we incorporated social emotional learning into a design derby in which our young people were looking to solve problems and in [inaudible] developing applications for mobile devices and then incorporating the social emotional skills in that context. So the skills are actually the same regardless of where they’re taught, but sometimes the context for these skills shifts based on the theme of the school and the focus of what they’re trying to accomplish.

Jon M: 05:07 You’ve mentioned the design project, I’m forgetting the last word of it. The design derby. Could you talk a little bit about what the design derby is?

David A: 05:17 Sure. So we have the privilege of working with Facebook to get together with a group of ninth graders, the entire ninth grade class for Institute for Math and Science for Young Women, and have them identify a problem that they wanted to address. So these young people got together and went through the design thinking process. They prototyped, they iterated, they tested out their ideas. And throughout this entire process, not only were they working through some of the technical aspects of how to use Excel, how to pitch a product effectively, but they were also working through the career development and the social emotional aspects, how to work on a team, how to put something in within a time that that’s been allotted, but how to listen to everybody on your team so you get the best product. We had the opportunity for Facebook engineers and product design leaders to come and give our students feedback. And then they actually presented the final product at Facebook headquarters in New York City. And then the winner of that went out, is going out next week to Facebook headquarters in California to present some of the work out in a larger space. So I think it was a unique opportunity to really demonstrate the intersection between academic and technical skills, social emotional competencies and career development.

Amy H-L: 06:26 David, do you see ethics or the language of ethics as integral to SEL?

David A: 06:33 I think that ethics plays a really important part of developing the, the understanding of how our young people see the world. I think social emotional skills enable students to have a conversation about what ethics means to them. I think social emotional skills gives our students the ability to articulate the value systems that they hold and then connect those value systems to behaviors that reflect the ethics and the ethical kind of dimensions that they want to develop. So I’ll give you an example here. One of the big core of the core SEL skills we think about is perspective-taking skills or social management. And so when you think about what it takes to develop a sense of who you are and who other people are and be able to manage that into a coherent set of values, a lot of that has to do is being able to take the perspective of others, merge that perspective with your own needs and wants and then come to come to a consensus that allows a group of people who are in community to to come to an agreement around balancing my needs and your needs so that we can solve problems and work together. So I think when we think about ethics, we think about what types of skills enable and enhance the ability of our young people to come and consider ethical considerations. And how do we develop those consistently for our student body.

Amy H-L: 07:47 You’ve said in the past that an ethical school is one that lives up to its values. Who determines or should determine the values of the school? Is that the organizing body, in this case UA, the principal, the community or some other stakeholder?

David A: 08:08 So that’s a really important question. And actually I had not considered it from the perspective of the UA. And so far as that, we are less kind of involved in determine the values of the schools. Actually I don’t know if that’s true. So let me take a step back to answer that. I’d say it’s a collaboration of all of those different parties, right. So one of the values in the UA, for example, is that all students should have an opportunity to develop themselves, an opportunity to contribute to the society. And so because of that, we really emphasize that our schools should not be screened. Students should not be denied an opportunity to participate in our schools because of past academics or past issues around minutes or behavior. We really care that our schools are open up to all people and all young people in order to support and develop that social and economic mobility. And so that’s the value that actually that comes from the UA and that we look to communicate that to our schools with diversity plans and [inaudible] of New York City. We look to communicate that to our schools in terms of ensuring that they’re unscreened and that are they’re available for all young people. And then we look to develop that to our schools by ensuring that we have the appropriate inputs around social emotional development and an academic rigor that allows all of our students to be successful. So I think to answer your question, who should develop those those values is it’s a conversation. I’m going back to the importance of communication skills and perspective-taking skills. Values are ever changing thing, right. So even within the last 10 years, the values around discipline in schools have drifted from 10 years ago where there was less of a focus on the school to prison pipeline than now, when the Obama administration actually put out a report that said this was a concern. And so you’ve seen that value shift reflected in practices that are more focused on making sure that our students develop the skills to maintain themselves as part of that community in the school rather than exclude our students. So I guess it’s the answer is it’s a balance. We can identify and articulate what we care about and our schools are going to do the same and then we’re going to work together to compromise, to come to a conclusion that allows us to support our young people and maintain our environments effectively.

Jon M: 10:27 So one of the things about teaching ethics, and we know that the Regents have called for sort of the teaching of responsible or ethic ethical decision making per se. And obviously UA is actively doing this. How does it, how does any institution, and obviously you can answer specifically in terms of UA, but what are the mechanisms for sort of ensuring that everybody involved, especially if you have 22 schools, that the environments are ethical environments, that what the kids are seeing that people in practice are modeling sort of what the vision of the overall organization is. Just the, I mean we obviously see lots of examples where, especially over time when you get away from the founders, for example, or the people who are particularly motivated, that it’s hard to keep a clear ethical sense in terms of expectations in a practical sense. Is this something that you end up talking about or that you’ve worked out ways of trying to do?

David A: 11:40 You know, Jon, I think one of the key parts of developing a really clear sense of your ethics is knowing your why. Like why are we doing this? Why does the system exist, right. If, if we are looking at a school that has high suspension rates and we’re asking them, you know, tell me about this suspension rate. How do we get to this level where 26% for example, of your student population has a suspension? And then the school says, we really want to make sure that they understand what are our rules and regulations or norms are on this school, right. And the next question is are there ways that we can do that without excluding people from our environment, our community? So I think the question here is really coming to a question and an understanding of why we’re doing the things that we are doing. And a lot of people spend a lot of time using educational jargon that has very little meaning when they’re trying to explain their why. You know, people will throw out terms that don’t actually have a lot of resonance or depth to them because those are terms that are being used in the educational system. And so, you know, the standard I tend to use is I have a six and seven year old, and when my kids were four and five, you know, my stand is if I can’t explain this system to my five-year-old, then it’s too complicated and/or it doesn’t really have a purpose. So if you’re telling me that the system exists to differentiate, well I don’t want to get into the terms people use because they don’t want to [inaudible]. You know, it should be a relatively simple theory of action. And that’s where your ethics comes from. People obscure ethics by using complicated concepts or faux complicated concepts so that they don’t actually have to explain themselves in their theory of action. So I would say that we spent a lot of time making sure that schools can articulate a theory of action that’s clear. And if it’s not clear enough for me to explain to my five year old, then it’s not enough clear enough for us to explain to our kids. And I’ll tell you one more thing about that. You know, like when a kid asks why, you know, why do I have to take off my hat or why do I have to walk on this line in that way in different other schools? And then you can’t come up with a really good understanding, the kids are like, well that doesn’t make any sense, right. And instead of blowing that kid off and being like, well, you just have to do it right? Like take some time and say, all right, this helps us to to know what part of the hallway to walk in so that there’s a pathway that’s clear and that people don’t get hurt. This is not about control, this is about safety, or maybe it’s not. Maybe it is about control, but if you don’t have that why, then a young person’s going to ask you. If you can’t explain it to your five year old and you don’t have any business making happen for your schools.

Jon M: 14:16 Your last answer feeds right into my next question, which is: We talk a lot on Ethical Schools about the State’s new Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education Framework. Is culturally responsive and sustaining education a sort of defined factor in UA’s approach?

David A: 14:39 Yeah, I think we’re all looking to make sure that we are connecting our approaches to the experiences and the relevance of our young people. I think when you are in tune with young people and you’re listening to young people’s experience, you want to make a connection between the content and that experience, right. I often say that instruction is inherently relational. Either people have a relationship to the content itself or people have a relationship to the person who’s teaching the content, but you have to have some relationship in order to create a motivation that that that helps us engage in that. And that’s what we’re trying to accomplish. So I would say at the UAE, what we look to do is ensure that there is a relationship. There either is a relationship to the material by using culturally relevant kind of and interesting material and or relationship to a person who is making that material culturally relevant by making active connections between the concepts that are being taught and the student’s own life. And I think the easiest way to do this is to talk to the students. If you talk to students and ask them what’s going on in their lives, ask them what they care about, they’re going to tell you. And you can use that to help make connections between you and the content. I think the biggest thing is that students always have to be in the forefront of everything that we do. When we put students at the forefront and we ask them what’s going on and we ask them what’s relevant and makes sense to them, they’re going to tell us the answer to that. And we use those answers to help integrate these ideas in terms of the way that we teach and approach their academic and social emotional development.

Amy H-L: 16:10 We talk about ethics as being all about relationships. Three of the UA schools, or maybe two, are all girls schools, In the realm of relationships, what is the thought behind single sex schools at a time when most single sex post-secondary schools are going coed? So what tend to be the reasons that parents and students choose these schools?

David A: 16:40 I mean, there are a lot of reasons. I think one is there are some religious reasons that parents feel they want single sex schools in terms of their young people. Also, I think there are parents who feel like having coed schools are a distraction and with regards to helping their young women concentrate on the things that they feel are important. I think for us, the focus is on developing pipelines for underrepresented people or our populations into career fields that could benefit from the largest diversity. So for example, we have an Institute for Math and Science for Young Women. We know that the diversity of math and science is not where it could be in terms of increasing the gender and the racial diversity and the correspondent ability to solve problems in the larger space. And so what would I would say is that these are our opportunities for young women to devote themselves to a really specific course of study and empower those young women in the context that may not happen in a coed space.

Jon M: 17:41 So some educators, especially in black communities, have argued for the value of single sex schools for black boys. Others of course have argued against this. Was this an issue that UA has considered?

David A: 17:52 For black boys specifically or single gender for males?

New Speaker: 17:52 I guess it would be single gender for males. I think it’s mostly arisen in the context of black boys.

David A: 18:04 Yeah, I can give my own thoughts on this. I don’t have a sense of UA’s kind of overall position. I think that that what we need to be able to do is think about what ways are we preparing our population for the future. I think that we need to be understanding and sensitive to the different ways that different people develop and think about how are different groups interacting with our structures in different ways, right. And so the question that I have of when we’re thinking about single gender schools and and some of the challenges that we see in terms of outcomes and particularly in terms of black males is, is what are the structures in our schools and how are black males interacting them in different ways than our other groups, and how is that impacting their achievement? And so for me, I have tended to see a value in understanding the experience of a specific subgroup. And thinking about going back to culturally relevant and culturally sustaining pedagogies, how do we take those values and experiences and really embed them into the quality of supports that we offer, the quality of experience that those young people experience. So I guess for me, I think there is a place for developing a strong identity through single-sex education. If that identity is designed, at the end of the day, integrating people back into a context in which they’re going to have to solve problems in a larger group of diversity.

Amy H-L: 19:39 One aspect of the UA schools that’s incredibly exciting is the partnerships. UA schools seem to partner with public agencies, private companies, nonprofit organizations, and post-secondary institutions. Could you tell us about those partnerships and how they work? You told us about Facebook working with the Institute for Math and Science, but I know there are some other exciting things going on.

David A: 20:11 Yeah. We partner with Cisco systems. We partner with the Bronx Law School. We partner with organizations across across New York City and across the country. And most of this is designed to make learning relevant, right. We want our young people to see an outcome in which they could take the skills that they’re learning and use them in a real context, in the real world. In order to do that, you need to have real people in real jobs talking to our young people. I think one of the challenges in education is that it’s a relatively insular field, right. So imagine if you are an educator, you maybe went through your high school education, then you became a teacher and you were an educator into college and then you started teaching. And so there’s a kind of a feedback loop in which the only thing that people really see is the systems that produce them rather than the systems that we are producing our young people to experience. And so these partnerships are designed to help our young people see something beyond their immediate four walls and a desk, right, that that global commerce is something that drives production and thinking from Amazon to UPS to the post office. That law and justice is not just laws codified through a book, but it’s actually the way our societies interact and solve problems, that criminal justice in our School of Criminal Justice is an opportunity for young people to think about what law enforcement could look like. How do we develop norms in our community? So I think this is about taking the thinking that’s learned in our schools, partnering with people who have articulated that in different contexts, whether it’s business, whether it’s government, where there’s logistical thinking, and helping our young people to see the importance and opportunity in that.

Jon M: 21:54 Your fourth SEL symposium is coming up in May. Can you tell us about the symposium and who might find it useful to attend or who’s invited and who might find it useful?

David A: 22:06 I sure can. Thank you so much Jon, for that opportunity. So Amy actually talked about this notion of partnerships, and one of the things that’s important to us is that we see social and emotional learning as a partnership within our community, right, that our schools play an important role in social emotional development, but they are not the only people who play that role. So on May 29th, 2020, we are having our SEL symposium that’s focused on SEL in the community. The SEL Community Symposium was going to be focused on how community organizations can interact with schools to integrate and to align approaches to social emotional development so that our young people experience cohesive opportunity for their social emotional skills to be developed and to practice them. Who should come is teachers, community-based organizations, administrators, superintendents, anybody who cares about social emotional learning, community leaders. We’re going to have My Brother’s Keeper’s executive director, Michael Smith, as our keynote. I’m really excited to talk about what social emotional learning looks like not only in schools but out there in the community and civic organizations and the religious spaces, community-based organizations so that our students can experience a cohesive, an aligned approach to social emotional development in New York City.

Amy H-L: 23:18 Thank you so much. Is there anything you’d like to add?

David A: 23:22 Yes. On March 27th, we are also having our SEL Day. International SEL Day is our [inaudible] with SEL for US to increase the awareness of the importance of social emotional development. You can get involved by posting an artifact around the work that you’re doing around social and emotional learning and hashtagging it #SELday on your social media. Instagram and Facebook are the ones that we’re going to be supporting. So make sure that you are getting out there and talking about SEL, creating artifacts, blogs, letters to your editor. We’re also hosting a congressional briefing on that day down in DC. So you’ll have an opportunity to see some of that happening, based on our opportunities to advocate for social emotional learning. So March 27th SEL day 2020. #SELday.

Jon M: 24:10 So, thank you again and thank you listeners for joining us. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles. We’ve begun to post annotated transcripts of our interviews, which a number of people have told us makes it easier to use segments in workshops and classes. We offer professional development on social emotional learning and ethics in the New York City area. And you can contact us at We’re on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter @ethicalschools, and our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week.

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