Using Crew to Create Community

Morning block becomes a mechanism to promote social-emotional learning and equity

When my school was thrust into the virtual world of teaching and learning at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we looked carefully at our traditional school structures to determine what should stay, what should be postponed, and what should be adapted to fit the new landscape.

Oakhurst Elementary, a K–2 Blue Ribbon school in Decatur, Georgia, has been advancing social-emotional learning (SEL) and equity for almost as long as they have been hot concepts in education. And while we already had multiple strategies to prioritize SEL and equity in place, there was one that stood out as something we would keep, no matter how the pandemic played out.

We call it Crew. It is a 30-minute, structured block at the start of each day that puts all other meetings and activities on pause. Everyone in the school community is involved in Crew. Two educators serve as Crew leaders, and staff including instructional coaches, media specialists, counselors, administrators, and special education and gifted and talented teachers go into the classrooms.

Two adults then co-lead class lessons focused on building community, social justice, and equity. Crew is our main mechanism for prioritizing the development of classroom communities where all students feel supported academically, socially, and emotionally.

Leading the Lesson

We begin each lesson by presenting a learning target for the day. The class then recites the “Crew Call”— sort of a mission statement for the block and the day. Students then spend a few minutes greeting their classmates and staff, then each shares how they are feeling on a scale of 1 to 5. We keep the check-in engaging and fun by asking students to use emojis or facial expressions to illustrate their moods.

We also use this segment of the lesson to highlight historic figures. In February, for example, we featured notable African Americans such as Oprah Winfrey and Simone Biles. After check-in, we begin the teaching component of Crew: a book spotlight and initiative.

We are intentional about book selection to ensure that we choose a variety of authors, feature books with diverse characters, and teach lessons that align to school goals. We are also careful to ensure that all students feel represented in the resources we select. Teachers can diverge from schoolwide lesson plans if they need to address a matter that’s specific to their classroom.

Through the book spotlight, we teach skills such as emotional regulation, inclusiveness/diversity, community-building, and acceptance. Students complete a short activity to demonstrate their understanding of the concept or apply what they’ve learned. This portion of the lesson sometimes includes service projects, academic goal-setting, and collaborative projects, and it isn’t always completed in a single day.

The lesson closes with a debrief, in which students reflect on their learning. This has proven to be one of the lesson’s most powerful components; it’s amazing to hear the connections and insights K–2 students take away from a Crew lesson.

Creating a Crew

The Crew meeting structure originates from the nonprofit EL Education and is similar to that of the Morning Meetings of Responsive Classroom. However, it adds components such as courageous conversations, initiatives, service work, and SEL. Crew allows for relationship-building, academic progress monitoring, and character-building. At Oakhurst, we use it to respond to current events and students’ SEL needs, as well as promote shared understandings.

The Crew structure incorporates several best-practice strategies that any school can use. Here’s how you can get started:

  • Develop a team to lead the work. For Oakhurst, it’s the Equity Leadership Team. This features representation from all grade levels and departments, and includes a media specialist, school counselor, and instructional coach. Because of the need for Crew to promote schoolwide expectations, school leaders (administrators) must be heavily involved from the outset.
  • Schedule a sacred 30-minute block at the beginning of the day. Be sure there are no other meetings such as a multi-tiered system of supports, conferences, and student services scheduled during that time, and have the team create common lesson plans. We use a variety of resources to craft lessons using a Google Slides template; it’s easy to use and allows the incorporation of graphics, videos, and music.
  • Monitor implementation. Gather feedback from staff regarding the lesson rollout, content, and other issues regularly. This will provide ideas for future lessons. Meet with the implementation team regularly to review feedback and make adjustments. Make note of successes and challenges so that implementation improves each year.

There are many avenues for meeting the social and emotional needs of students and staff, but Crew is one of our most successful and critical mechanisms.

Tanisha Frazier is a director of partnerships for EL Education and former principal of Oakhurst Elementary in Decatur, Georgia.