During Andrea Lucas’ first year teaching at Lamar Elementary, two of her students lost an immediate family member to gun violence. She quickly learned that their experience was not unusual.
“Many Lamar students encounter trauma in their lives, often struggling to manage their emotional responses to crises large and small,” said Lucas, who recently won the Trinity Prize for Excellence in Education.
She and school administrators decided they needed a way to help students cope with personal tragedies. In 2016, a group from Lamar Elementary underwent training at Yale University’s Center for Emotional Intelligence, a program that emphasizes the need to address social and emotional learning during the school day. After Lucas returned from Yale, she began to train other teachers.
Starting in the 2016-17 school year, the elementary school in the San Antonio Independent School District carved out part of the day for “Tiger Time,” named after the school mascot and envisioned as a session for helping students find words to describe their feelings. Lucas said that her students face myriad challenges: poverty, divorce, moving frequently, and being in the foster care system. Tiger Time is designed to give her students tools to deal with the issues they face.
“The thought is that you have to be able to name your emotions to tame them,” Lucas said.
Each week, Lucas begins her fourth-grade class by teaching students a new word and the deeper meaning behind it. Past words have included “considerate,” “rebellious,” and “excluded.” She said she bases her selection on what is going on in the classroom. The week the class discussed “excluded,” a student felt he was being left out by his friends.
“Since teaching the feeling word ‘excluded,’ as well as other lessons on kindness, other students have come alongside the ostracized student, including him as part of our community,” Lucas said.
In the second week of May, students discovered the meaning of “assertive.” Lucas started the first lesson of the week with a story.
“Who here knows how to play kickball?” she asked the class.
About half of the students raised their hands. Lucas showed the students a short video of a kickball game before telling a story of a time when she felt her classmates were unfairly moving forward in the field to catch her ball because she was a girl.
“Every time a girl was up to bat, everybody that was out in the field would scoot way, way up,” she said. “This started to upset me, because I [thought it was] kind of insulting.”
Lucas said she started to feel that she needed to speak up and say that moving forward just for girls was wrong.
“I was feeling really confident about speaking up for what I believed in,” she said. “Assertive is exactly how I felt in the story of kickball, [when] I felt that I was going to be strong and confident in speaking up for something. I was going to assert my opinion.”
Lucas then asked her students if there was a time they had been assertive. Most students didn’t have an example, although some answered with stories where they, too, had played kickball. Lucas politely told her students, that no, just playing kickball didn’t count as being assertive.
But, in the course of the week, students’ understanding of the word developed.
On Wednesday, Lucas told her class another story – she said students respond best to stories, especially ones that involve students their age.
Lucas told the class that on Tuesday afternoon, one of her former students had been selling Sonic coupons to raise money for her basketball team, and was nervous about approaching Lucas to ask her to buy one. The student’s mom encouraged her daughter to “be assertive,” and Lucas said she ended up buying a coupon.
“Oh, that’s what it means,” one student remarked, following up with a question about what Lucas would order at Sonic.
On Thursday, Lucas switched it up. She asked students to create pieces of abstract art that represented their individual understanding of the word. Through a computer application, students produced art, recorded voiceovers that explained the work, and submitted their projects to Lucas.
A student described a time when he was at the grocery store and assertively told a woman with four kids behind him that she could go in front of him in line. Lucas chuckled when she saw this submission – she had told the same story when she taught the word “considerate.” However, she acknowledged, his repetition of the story showed that he had retained at least part of the lesson.
During the fourth lesson, Lucas applied “assertive” to preparation for the upcoming STAAR exams. She asked her students to brainstorm ways they could feel assertive and confident as they took the tests.
Students worked in their desk groups to come up with suggestions. Eventually the list included listening to fun music, taking deep breaths, and standing like a superhero.
Throughout the lesson, a few students would ask others at their desks, “what does assertive mean again?” The difference from the beginning of the week was that each time this question came up, another student would be quick with the answer.
Teachers at Lamar Elementary are able to devote about 20-30 minutes each morning for Tiger Time because the campus converted to an in-district charter last fall. With its change of status, the school extended the lengths of both its instructional day and school year, and identified fostering emotional intelligence as a focus area.
In the school’s in-district charter application, school officials said teachers would use the time right after students arrived for the day, typically devoted to morning announcements, to “sit, learn, and listen together.”
“Through lessons like [the ones] during Tiger Time, I address the social-emotional needs of our learning community,” Lucas said, “and build students’ capacity to face challenges.”