On the first day of school at west suburban Oak Park River Forest High School, 25 seniors trickle into the second floor library.
“How many of you know of this class as ‘Experiments in Reading Literature and the World’? How many of you know it as ‘Feelings’ class? How many know it as both?” asks teacher Avi Lessing.
“Either way you’re in the right place.”
Lessing started teaching this class in 2005 after pitching it to a bunch of juniors. It was pretty popular then, but now, it’s even more so. This year, there are nine sections and two other teachers teaching it.
“The main idea of the class, if I could sum it up, is that, you know how on the first day of school is the getting-to-know each other day and the rest of the days become just like school?” Lessing said. “In this class, every day is the getting to know you, and getting to know yourself, and getting to know your classmates.”
Lessing says as school becomes more and more about academic achievement and test scores, students are missing important skills—often referred to in education circles as social-emotional skills—like how to listen, how to communicate, how to relate to people with different experiences than your own.
This class has become one piece of a bigger focus at Oak Park River Forest to integrate social-emotional learning into the curriculum. The school’s Board of Education outlined it specifically in the formal goals for the 2014-2015 school year.
The kids in Lessing’s second period class on Tuesday are racially diverse and come from all different parts of the school—athletes, brains, music nerds—a bit like The Breakfast Club.
Class starts with all the students standing in a big circle. For the rest of the period, they play a series of different name games. First, find the people you know and say hello. Then, stop, find a partner, stand back-to-back and change three things about your physical appearance.
Emma Burke puts her straight brown hair in a ponytail, takes off a shoe and removes her ID. Another young man pulls the bottom hem of his shirt up and through his collar so his stomach is exposed.
The pairs then turn around and try to notice what the other person had changed.
“You buttoned your flannel and your ID is backward,” Burke guesses.
Then, Lessing tells the students to find the people they don’t know, introduce themselves and bow to each other. After that, with another different partner, play “two truths and a lie” and finally, recap by walking around, touching someone’s shoe and repeating their name.
At the end of class, Lessing asks each student to go around and say why they signed up for this class in the first place. The answers are all over the board.
“I took this class because my homies told me it was cool,” says Sargron Sinclair.
“My sister told me to,” Burke says.
“I wanted a non-traditional learning environment,” says Elaine Houha.
“My counselor put me here,” a young man named Toby says.
“I took this class because I want to learn something that I can actually apply to my life,” adds a girl named Beverly.
With a class full of seniors, Lessing warns the students it’s not just an easy ‘A’ or a blow-off class.
“I think it’s easy in the sense that you get to know a lot of people,” he says. “But I think it’s hard in the sense that you have to show up and kind of face each other and be here. I value your presence more than anything else.”
And, he hopes, students will eventually see “Feelings” class as less of a class and more a part of who they’re each becoming.
Becky Vevea is a producer and reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.