A new social-emotional learning curriculum to prevent violence and create a culture of respect is being tested this semester at Jackson Hole Middle School.
Jeff Bucholtz, the director of the social business We End Violence, has big goals for the curriculum he’s helping introduce.
“We’re doing it to give students an opportunity to build the world that we have not been able to achieve yet,” Bucholtz said. “To build a world of respect and connection, to build a world with safety and resilience. It’s an opportunity for us to do what just has not been done in our culture, really.”
As an activist, organizer and public speaker on topics like sexual violence, masculinity, stalking and bullying, Bucholtz has created curriculum elsewhere and has come to Jackson for parent nights and talks over the years. Other efforts in the district have laid the groundwork, like a Gender in Society class taught by Jim Jenkins and programs like “Athletes as Leaders” and “Junior Advocates.”
Now, with the urging of the Community Safety Network, a more formal effort is underway.
“We have this phrase, ‘We don’t poach powder,’” Director of Prevention and Education Karin Waidley said. “We just don’t do that as Jackson Hole residents. And this, ‘We work to end sexual violence,’ that’s a Jackson Hole kind of ethos as it were.”
Middle school Principal Matt Hoelscher hopes the curriculum can give students the tools they need to be leaders.
“The theme is that the kids are the agent of change themselves for creating a school of respect that is systemwide, that is schoolwide,” he said. “That’s something they create, and it’s something they want to be a part of. When we talk to kids, they say the same thing. It’s the world in which they want to live in, and we as adults also want that and strive for that and need to model that.”
The six-week series of lessons is being tested on a pilot group of 135 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders this semester. The goal is to take their feedback and the input of teachers after 12 lessons and fine-tune the content before fall 2019.
Hoelscher said the creation of what’s called a flex period in the middle school schedule is helping the social emotional curriculum to replace older programming.
Funding comes from the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole and the Rotary Club of Jackson Hole, as well as a federal grant for school safety purposes. The development, materials and implementation costs just under $50,000. Though some of the costs will go away, staff time will remain.
“CSN is committed to this,” Director Andy Cavallaro said.
The curriculum homes in on learning social-emotional skills, like self-efficacy and relationship building. Teachers familiarized themselves with the lessons during a professional development day in January, and Hoelscher, who was also present, described them as “very interactive and gamified.”
Bucholtz’ curriculum is creating what’s called “hype teams” to make students feel supported to stand up for what’s right. The idea of group power is supposed to combat instances with bystanders who don’t intervene.
The curriculum addressed social media, too.
“We’re careful not to demonize it or make it sound as if social media is where the problem stems from,” Bucholtz said. “It is not. It is a tool that is magnifying problems we’ve always had.”
In education-speak, the curriculum will be “scaffolded” throughout the course of students’ middle school years — meaning it will build on itself. As with any social change, results will take time.
“It’s not like the curriculum is like a magic wand that you wave at kids and it just happens,” Hoelscher said. “It’s really something that’s integral to what we do and who we are. It’s critical to live it and breathe it on a daily basis.”
A pre- and post-curriculum-change survey with all students, not just those exposed to the curriculum, will help establish a baseline. A professor from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who specializes in evaluating social change programs will help refine the lessons. If evidence shows the curriculum is working, there’s potential for expansion.
Bucholtz gave the school district credit for trying a new approach with its youngsters.
“We firmly believe if there’s someone who can imagine this new world, it’s young people,” he said. “It’s one of the cool things about youth. They’re not stuck in the same patterns, they can adapt and change.”
Plus, Bucholtz believes Jackson Hole is a “ripe” place to champion a better school environment.
“It’s a majestic place, so why not imagine it there?” he said. “Seems like a good spot to dream.”