Years ago, I was at my desk grading papers, while my room was being used for a social-emotional intelligence class when I witnessed for the first time a group of 8th graders engaged in a conversation about suicide and depression. I was shocked to hear how candid, organic, open and empathetic students were during the discussion. After witnessing this “Open Session,” I requested more information about the format from the counselor leading the group of students, and I asked to sit in on more of the classes to better understand my students.
Two years ago, I started teaching at St. Anne’s Episcopal School. I was placed with the 7th-grade advisory team, who had been running a “Town Hall” on Friday mornings. The “Town Hall” was a place to discuss current events, possibly discuss local or national issues, and even discuss the mysterious jumble of emotional overload that is 7th grade. After witnessing one session of “Town Hall,” I knew that using the “Open Session” format would be a perfect fit for this community. We implemented it soon after, and the students blew our minds.
Janice Toben, the creator of Open Session, designed this experience with the idea that “classmates respond to student-generated issues through an intentional, supportive exchange of listening and ideas.” The students bring up the issues that are relevant to their lives or their experience. They write their issues, concerns, and thoughts on a notecard. Some examples: parent and child connection (or lack thereof), anxiety, social tensions, loss of loved ones, frustrations with siblings, etc. They can choose anonymity, and they can indicate importance. We, the teachers, categorize the cards, read one to the group, and observe. The students provide various forms of feedback (clarification questions, support and encouragement, or wisdom/solution ideas), and the knowledge they have is simply from their experience.
I think it has been a success. The students genuinely want to help one another. They enjoy knowing that they are not alone. They listen to their peers with a different intentionality, and they realize that the issues being discussed are important for their community.
After finishing with our second year of the “open session approach,” we had our students complete a survey telling us about their experience. Here are some of their sentiments regarding the once a week, year-long, open session.
“I liked open session. It really helped me get my ideas out and get advice.”
“Open session was very helpful. As classmates, we have to get used to helping each other and being comfortable around each other.”
“I liked open session a lot because it makes me feel more connected to my classmates. It was very helpful when I needed advice or support.”
“I think that it was really helpful to have my peers give me advice, because they understand what I am going through.”
To learn more about Open Session, visit: https://www.instituteforsel.net/approach
By Matt Krause, MS Spanish Teacher & Advisor