Social and emotional learning (SEL) has a limited track record of culturally-responsive practice. In fact, some have criticized SEL for imposing dominant cultural values onto students of color—we agree this is a valid concern. A group of leading SEL researchers observed that current approaches to SEL “insufficiently address” cultural differences across unique environments, beliefs and behavioral norms. Others have noted that many available SEL programs “do not successfully address life situations that are experienced by urban African-American children.”
The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) advised researchers to “provide greater clarity about how SEL relates to diverse student populations.” SEL clearly has a ways to go to serve students of color in the ways they deserve.
Despite this gap in the SEL field, some districts have made great strides in taking a more culturally-responsive approach to SEL acutely attuned to issues of equity. Project Ki’L in Girdwood, Alaska is one such example.
Project Ki’L is not your typical SEL program. Anchorage School District staff created Project Ki’L in 2008 to reverse a troubling trend they saw in their data: the big and widening outcome gap between Alaska Native boys and all other students. Compared to their peers, these boys consistently underperform academically, drop out of school at higher rates, and—as we know from national studies—are at higher risk of depression, suicide and other mental health illnesses. While Project Ki’L is open to all students, Anchorage designed it with Alaska Native boys in mind. (Ki’L is the Dena’ina Athabascan word for “boy.”)
The program gives students a year-long experience that integrates Alaska Native cultural heritage and SEL to help them achieve academic success. These students participate in after-school clubs once a week during the school year, go on field trips to learn about different careers and take part in a three-week summer camp. And, they also join their families and loved ones in a process called DREAMS (short for Developing Relationships, Exploring Actions to My Success) through which they articulate their life goals, brainstorm how they’ll get there and define a role for their community to support them along the way.
The DREAMS left a big impression on us and showed us new and powerful ways that SEL can better serve students of color, especially those who are most vulnerable. We want to share what we learned.
The DREAMS prioritizes Alaska Native values and lets those values guide and inform SEL.
When boys complete their DREAMS, their unique identities, cultural values and personal and community histories are firmly at the center of the conversation. Boys draw and color their ideas on a large template in the shape of a dreamcatcher, which visually calls out several traditional values in Native communities. A trained facilitator engages them and whomever else they invite to participate in the process—like their families, community elders and friends—in a dialogue that connects their cultural assets to their vision for a happy and healthy future. All throughout, the boys actively reflect on questions that encourage them to practice several SEL competencies, but always on their own terms, in their cultural context.
The DREAMS helps teachers and school staff cultivate their adult SEL skills in order to establish meaningful relationships with Alaska Native communities rooted in trust and mutual understanding.
The DREAMS is about relationships—the relationship between boys and their families, between boys and their education, and between schools and the communities these boys call home. Teachers and school staff have to build their own SEL skills to collaborate with boys and their communities in a way that celebrates the many strengths and assets they bring to the education system.
The DREAMS isn’t about solving the problems in these communities, or changing who these boys are or want to be. As a result, the process re-envisions the role of the district’s SEL efforts: Project Ki’L’s SEL practice aims to learn from, serve and support Alaska Native communities as they are. And this is a starting point for relationship-building.
Anchorage School District continues to improve Project Ki’L. In 2017, the district intends to incorporate more elements of culturally-responsive teaching into their professional development trainings and other supports for teachers and school staff involved with the program. Ultimately, Project Ki’L’s vision is to embed culturally-responsive SEL into district schools to help all students thrive, especially Alaska Native boys.
It’s a long path to get there, but the district has made some headway with Project Ki’L. We’re eager to see—and learn from—their journey.