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Grey Matters, September 16, 2013; Vol. 2, No. 3

posted Sep 15, 2013, 12:28 PM by Andrew Shen   [ updated Jun 26, 2014, 11:18 AM by James Marcotte ]

My wife and daughter were away this weekend, attending a baby shower in New York.  So it was just me and our two sons for a few days.  For some reason, I took this situation as an opportunity to finish all of the laundry, clean the garage, the kitchen, change the kids’ bed sheets, and help our youngest son finish an assignment from school.  I was proud of myself, and then an hour ago I came to the realization that this increased (and yes, uncharacteristic) productivity on my part may inspire my wife to plan more weekend trips away for herself.    

We are looking forward to seeing many of you at Back to School Night, which is this Wednesday, September 18th.  Parents whose kids take Band, Drama, or Chorus have the option attending a short presentation from 6:30pm to 6:45pm.  At 6:45, I’ll be in the auditorium and offering a brief welcome to any parents who may want to say hello before the festivities really begin.  Also, here’s one final plea to 7th grade parents, to consider throwing your hat in the ring for our School Council.  If you are interested, please submit a short paragraph about yourself to PTSO co-chair Tammy Sarnelli at or to me at

Two other friendly reminders: first, school picture day is this Friday, September 20th.  Please email Assistant Principal Jim Marcotte at if you have any questions.  Second, if you did not get a chance to fill out the PTSO volunteer form when you logged in for your team assignments, it is not too late.  You can download the volunteer sign up form by clicking here.  All volunteers must have a current CORI form on file in order to volunteer. Please check with Marcia Charter (x3304) if you have CORI questions, or fill out a CORI form at Back to School Night.

This time last year, while I was getting ready to share with families our school’s efforts to address and teach what many refer to as “non-cognitive skills” and “social emotional learning”, that week’s episode of NPR’s This American Life came on and was, serendipitously, about that very subject.  If you’re interested, you can access that episode on their website here.  This week, as I was preparing to write on the topic again (and yes, recycle parts of last year’s message), it seems like lightning has struck again.  In last week’s New York Times, there was a very detailed article by Jennifer Kahn titled “Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?” , and similar to the This American Life episode, explored the notion that emotional skills are crucial to not only supporting improved academic performance, but also addressing concerns over school safety, bullying, and adolescent mental health.  

Next Monday (the 23rd), we have our first Second Step lesson for both 7th and 8th grade students.  The Second Step curriculum, a nationally recognized program, is one vehicle we use for engaging students in the development of skills like empathy, perspective-taking, and managing emotions.  Our reasons for helping students develop these skills certainly include thoughts about the long-term academic benefits, and our more immediate objectives focus on the development of a positive and safe school culture.  As many of you know, Massachusetts passed a comprehensive law to address incidents of bullying and harassment in schools.  Among other aspects of the law, it called for every school to implement a research-based curriculum that addressed bullying prevention and pro-social behavior (which overlaps a lot with the above-referenced “non-cognitive skills”).  Starting in 2010-2011, RJ Grey has utilized the Second Step program, which the Kahn article in the New York Times actually makes reference to, including some critiques by some who consider it to sometimes have an overly formulaic approach.  Over the past two years, we’ve made efforts to emphasize what we consider the best parts of the Second Step curriculum and add dimensions that we feel creates opportunities to incorporate topics, issues, and examples that students see as more applicable to their experiences.  For example, starting last year, we included performances by a local improvisational acting troupe, a separate performance by students in our drama program, and a presentation on the tricky and temptation-filled terrain of social media by the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC).  By the way, this year we’ve arranged for MARC to provide a similar presentation to families in the evening, so stay tuned for details about that program.    

While our bullying and teasing  curriculum is a tangible strategy we can point to as an example of our efforts, it’s only part of how we try and encourage student growth (and safety) in this area. We know that our attention daily to how people treat each other is the most central element of our approach to creating a safe school. Every school needs to continuously work on avoiding the “rhetoric reality gap” – that is, inconsistencies between what a school might promote through anti-bullying curricula, and how it addresses on a daily basis the spectrum of behaviors one witnesses in classrooms and hallways (and now, Facebook and cell phone texts).  More simply, our Second Step lessons will prove ineffective if we don’t also commit to intervening when, for example, a student belittles another student in the halls, or uses homophobic remarks to elicit laughter from peers.

So when I send everyone information about upcoming Second Step lessons, we absolutely think it would be helpful if families took some time to discuss the most salient points from the lesson.  But more importantly, we hope you’ll continue to work with us in finding opportunities to model and emphasize the behaviors (being mindful, empathetic, self-reflective) that we all want our students to have.

We look forward to seeing many of you this Wednesday.