Kindergartners and elementary school kids at Brownsville’s P.S. 298 Dr. Betty Shabazz aren’t just studying math and English, they are learning “Acting with Purpose,” a social-emotional program that puts mindfulness, empathy and social awareness on the school’s curriculum.

Founded by actor and director Brian Smith and his wife Teresa Dooley, a language pathologist, the program trains teachers to use classic acting techniques and play to impart students with five core competencies: self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, social regulation and social skills.

These skills are integral to academic and personal development but become harder to learn naturally for this generation of students, Smith said. With their families working longer hours, children have less opportunity to explore, play and grow outside. Instead, they tend to spend more time isolated indoors, with computers and TV at their disposal.

Photo credit: Anna Bradley-Smith for BK Reader

“Older generations acquired these skills just by moving through the world as it existed,” said Smith. “As society has changed, kids have fewer and fewer opportunities to naturally develop these competencies, and it has a real impact on the learning culture inside the classrooms. Each year, kids arrive just a little bit less skilled at these core skills of communicating, collaborating, compromising.”

Teaching those skills in a classroom is challenging; they can’t just be taught through traditional academic learning, said Smith. Therefore the Acting With Purpose curriculum is centered around games, followed by structured discussion and reflection.

“An actor uses many different tools to convey information. Our voices, eyes and bodies all give crucial cues to our conversation partners about the message we are trying to send,” said Smith. “When we use these tools to teach kids how to navigate social situations, they learn more quickly and naturally than they do through rules-based instruction.”

Mindfulness, which is a part of the program, provides students and teachers with a calmer, more focused learning environment. And since the Brownsville school introduced the program into the curriculum three years ago, there has been a palpable culture shift at the school.

“Cultivating the students’ abilities, and shifting the overall culture to an awareness of the importance of respect, civility and decency, strengthens the fibers on which the other achievements rest,” said Smith.

So far, the program has been rolled out in two other Brooklyn schools, and come fall, Smith will bring it to two additional schools.

To learn more about Acting With Purpose, go here.

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Anna Bradley-Smith

Anna Bradley-Smith is Brooklyn-based reporter with bylines in NBC, VICE, Slate and others. Follow her on Twitter @annabradsmith.

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