ALTON—The emotional and social well-being of students has always been a priority at MOC-Floyd Valley Middle School, and the school administration continues to seek ways to make sure that their teenage students have the tools they need to face whatever challenges they come up against.
Ever since eighth-grade English and American history teacher Beth Oolman started teaching at MOC-Floyd Valley Middle School 28 years ago, there has been in place a program by the name of STAR, or Student/Teacher Activity Room.
As part of STAR, each student at the middle school has a homeroom teacher with whom they have contact at least once a day.
For most students, this time for interaction comes during homeroom in the morning, STAR time when they do specific lessons on such things as manners, behaviors and normalcy, and during study hall or work time, according to Oolman.
“All of these students are also in one or more of our core subject area classes like English, literature, math, science or social studies,” Oolman said. “So, we see kids in all kinds of situations and atmospheres to help learn more about them and to help them cope with thoughts, actions, feelings.”
It also helps that all teachers take on additional duties, such as helping out during lunch time, recess or test retakes, providing teachers with another chance to engage with and assist students.
Oolman said that building character has been a top priority at the middle school from the beginning. Each month, they study a different character trait, such as integrity, work ethic and caring.
“For example, each grade level has over the years utilized the traits of giving and caring to incorporate service projects such as community cleanup, Care Bear collections, Soles4Souls, canned food drives, visiting nursing homes, writings letters to veterans and so on,” Oolman said.
The school last year began pursuing more formal social and emotional learning programming than what they had in place.
That led the school to purchase a program called Second Step, Oolman said, that offers lessons designed to meet the needs of middle school students at three different grade levels, from grades six through eight.
The main idea behind Second Step and other work to meet the social, emotional and character needs of the students is to help the students be better equipped to identify and understand their thoughts and feelings, realize that they are not alone in having those thoughts and feelings and learn how to handle those thoughts and feelings responsibly.
“Our goal is to make what can be a rather awkward and tough time in a young person’s life feel and seem normal as we identify what is truly happening to others around them, to people just like themselves,” Oolman said.
For sixth-graders, the program focuses on teaching students how their brains work and why and how to set goals. It also teaches about different personalities, friendships, emotions and conflict resolution, among other topics.
Those lessons carry over into the seventh grade, with some additional topics such as helping new students, making and admitting mistakes, taking responsibility, recognizing unhelpful thoughts and harassment.
In the eighth grade, they cover social groups, overcoming failure, setting long-term and short-term goals, addressing the changes to friendships and relationships that might come, responding to anger, handling rejection and what to expect in high school, to name a few things.
One of the tasks the students do as part of the program is list all of the identities that make up who they are.
“It could be like, I’m a girl, a daughter, a cheerleader, a volleyball player, a musician, an artist. They would write down all the things they are and how they see themselves changing and things they see never changing about themselves,” Oolman said.
For that part, some wrote that they could become a parent someday or a professional athlete. Others wrote that they would always be a Christian or a member of the family, for example.
Oolman said that earlier in the school year, principal Cam Smith sent home a letter explaining the program to parents. Then, during parent/teacher conferences, Oolman was able to share with parents some of the work they’ve done so far on goals and self-identity.
“I explained that we are strongly encouraging our eighth-graders in many classes and assemblies to learn, be brave and be strong in the identity they wish to have throughout this year and on into their future,” Oolman said. “The parents responded very positively to the information and were pleased to see how their kids identified themselves and the goals they had set.”
And she has witnessed the relief the program has given many of her students.
“I have watched my students almost heave a big sigh of relief because they now see that everybody has these feelings and that it’s normal,” Oolman said. “We’re all learning how to control what we’re feeling, what we’re thinking and what we’re doing. I think the opportunity to talk about that gives them freedom to identify who they are.”