In the center of the classroom, in front of the U-shaped grouping of desks brimming with pencil cases and binders, is a circle of chairs – one for every student in Brian Fizer’s third-grade glass, one for Fizer, and one open, empty chair.
The empty chair represents the idea that there is always room for another person, another voice, in the circle; there is an open seat in every meeting.
“We’re going to first pass a greeting around,” says Fizer. “Let’s do a high-five this morning. And let’s focus on eye. . . ”
“CONTACT!” respond his 20 students.
The topic of today’s class discussion is friendship.
“What do you think friendship is? What does it mean when someone is your friend?” Fizer asks.
Hands go up around the circle.
Everyone waits to be called on.
And one by one, everyone’s voice is heard.
This is how most Tuesday mornings begin at the Tobin K-8 school in Roxbury -- with Open Circle.
Open Circle is a social and emotional learning program for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, aimed at providing children with the skills they need to recognize and successfully manage their emotions, develop positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and constructively handle challenging situations.
Tobin is one of two-dozen Boston public schools that adopted the program last year.
“We had strong relationships with a handful of schools in Boston and had been hoping more schools could get access,” said Nova Biro, co-director of Open Circle at the Wellesley Centers for Women.
In 2012, Partners HealthCare and its founding hospitals, Mass General and Brigham and Women’s, gave $1 million dollars to the Boston Public Health Commission to help start Open Circle programs in 23 Boston public schools, providing Open Circle training and professional development for 750 educators.
The Boston Public Health Commission views social-emotional learning as integral to long-term violence prevention in the city, said Biro. By teaching children social-emotional skills and fostering safe learning communities, Open Circle gives children the tools to manage their emotions and productively work through conflict, she said.
With the 23 schools added by last year’s grant, Open Circle is part of the elementary school curriculum in 32 Boston public schools, nearly half of all city schools that span grades K-5.
As part of the Open Circle program, teachers hold 15-20 minute meetings twice a week that bring students into a circle for a range of activities, including group discussions, story-telling, role-playing and community-focused activities. Teachers and school staff are trained over the summer and have check-in meetings with Open Circle trainers throughout the school year.
Teachers are given a grade-appropriate curriculum, with outlines for activities and topics to address, but Open Circle is very much tailored by the teacher to a particular classroom’s needs.
“We might meet for Open Circle more than other classes,” said Coreen Miranda, a fifth-grade teacher at Tobin. “We meet as part of our class curriculum --and whenever we, as a class, feel we need to,” she added.
Open Circle was started in 1987 by Pamela Seigle at the Stone Center, part of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, as a pilot program designed to improve the social skills of students in six schools in Framingham, Mass. Now adopted by more than 300 schools in over 100 communities across the country, it has reached more than two million students and 13,000 educators -- at a time when academic achievement has edged out social development as a budget and policy priority in many districts.
“As a new teacher, I recognized what had been missing from my training was something beyond classroom management . . . (such as) understanding the importance of relationships and learning relationships among students and teachers,” Seigle recounted in a recent report from the Wellesley Centers for Women.
In announcing last year’s grant for Boston schools, Dr. Gary Gottlieb, president and CEO of Partners HealthCare, said the program’s goal is to help young people “better understand their emotions and be able to talk about them and learn to manage them. This project will help young people develop skills for healthy, positive relationships.”
So far, there are indications that Open Circle is making an impact. A program description by the Massachusetts Department of Education shows that teachers report an improved ability to identify students’ social and emotional needs; that students demonstrate improved social skills; and that the program has engendered an improvement in overall school climate.
“The beauty of Open Circle is that there is a consistent program, curriculum and language. Students get consistent messages,” said Efrain Toledano, principal at Tobin. “I think it’s phenomenal. It’s exactly what the students need,” he said.
Toledano, who came to Tobin this year from Dever-McCormack K-8 School, said he’s handled very few disciplinary referrals from Tobin’s elementary classrooms.
“People forget that these are children who learn through observation,” Toledano said. Having a positive emotional climate at school can help students who may have tumultuous home lives, he said.
“(Open Circle) gets students comfortable in a low-stakes atmosphere,” he said. “It lets them think about the kind of person they want to be.”
That comfort and consistency is key for a school like Tobin, which has one of the highest rates (93 percent) of low-income students eligible for free or reduced lunches.
“Open Circle’s a safe place for dialogue,” said Fizer, whose third-glass class is designated as a Sheltered English Instruction classroom, which focuses on providing bilingual support for English language learners. “It lets students lower their affective filter and relax . . . Everyone is comfortable emotionally, which opens the door to academic (success).”
While building students’ social skills may seem like a secondary priority in an environment focused on academics, the two are tied closely together, said Miranda. “Without the social piece, our academics falter,” she said.
Research indicates that a focus on social and emotional learning leads to increased academic performance. In a 2011 study involving over 270,000 kindergarten through high school students, students who participated in social and emotional learning programs such as Open Circle showed an 11 percentile-point increase in academic achievement, as well as improved social and emotional skills.
Open Circle’s success in Tobin’s K-5 classrooms has educators hoping to move the program into middle-school grade levels.
“I want to see it go all the way through,” said Toledano. “They have math and ELA (English and Language Arts). I want Open Circle to be another subject . . . (so) that we not just teach academics, but teach the whole child.”
This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of a collaboration with The Boston Globe.