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New Social and Emotional Learning Curriculum Seeks to Create More Positive School Environment

In the wake of fights and disruptive behavior, the district implemented a social and emotional learning program. The reality was more complicated.

At the beginning of the school year, Ames High School joined more than 1,500 schools nationwide who have implemented RULER, an approach to social and emotional learning developed by Yale University in 2005. The program aims to teach people of all ages skills to manage their emotions in a mature way. At Ames High, students participate in 30-minute RULER lessons two times a week during “seminar,” previously homeroom.

RULER came at a time when fights and disruptive behavior at both the Ames High School and Ames Middle School had increased drastically since students returned to school following the pandemic. At the time, teachers had requested that the district pay more attention to social and emotional learning.

“I really do think that it can be beneficial for students to have this knowledge on how to hone in on their emotions,” said Jessica Zeiss, an English teacher at Ames High School.

Conflicting Opinions

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The responses to RULER were strong. Many students were reluctant to talk about their feelings in front of people they hardly knew. They preferred the previous system, where homeroom was a time to catch up on school work or meet with a club. For juniors and seniors, homeroom had also been optional in previous years; now required and ungraded, many choose to skip instead of attend. Those that do attend RULER dislike the program.

“You feel like you’re a kindergartener. And then I also don’t like having to do it with people in my homeroom because most of them aren’t really my friends,” said sophomore Lucy York.

Because RULER is in its first year of implementation at the high school, freshman through sophomores are taught based on the ninth-grade RULER curriculum. Only seniors are taught the 12th-grade curriculum.

“My interpretation of how my students feel about RULER is that we don’t like to talk about feelings, right? We’re always on our phones, and that is everyone’s outlook as opposed to actually thinking about what we’re feeling and expressing. So I think that’s where the biggest pushback is with students. It makes them uncomfortable and no one likes to feel uncomfortable,” said Emma Knopf, a math teacher at Ames High School. Knopf is also part of the RULER committee at Ames High.

You feel like you’re a kindergartner.

— Lucy York

In Iowa, RULER implementation has only become more difficult with legislation that makes it illegal for teachers to collect data on students’ emotional health. Much of the RULER curriculum is based on the Mood Meter, a 2 by 2 multi-colored scale used to identify how a person is feeling. It is illegal for teachers to collect this data.

“Our idea before the senate file came out was that we would be able to use the mood meter quite often throughout the day with kids checking in. But we are not allowed to legally collect that data anymore. So we can say, ‘How are you feeling?’ But you have to keep it in your mind, which isn’t the point of ruler,” continued Knopf. “We’re supposed to be able to see the data and use that data.”


RULER has found success at the elementary level.

Erin Miller, the director of teaching and learning for the Ames Community School District, and recently appointed Ames Middle School principal, cites instances where RULER has been used when lessons are taking place. An elementary school class, for example, was having trouble focusing on a lesson. The teacher used the mood meter to demonstrate that at the beginning of the day her emotions were in the top-right of the mood meter; in other words she had felt high pleasant and high energy. She began moving the dot diagonally across the mood meter to demonstrate that the class’ actions made her feel less high energy and less pleasant.

“When the kids watched her do that they could see that their behavior had an impact on someone,” Miller said.

Indeed, a study examining fifth and sixth grade students found that RULER classrooms had more emotional support and a more positive environment than non-RULER classrooms.

Miller said she believes RULER will become more effective with time, as students become used to the curriculum and as grade-appropriate RULER lessons are put in place.

“We have a three to five year implementation plan. We know it’s not going to be perfect at the beginning,” said Miller.

A Bigger Problem

The frequency of fights and disruptive behavior at Ames High have diminished since the 2021-22 school year. However, they have continued despite the implementation of RULER. In October three students were expelled from the Ames Community School District following a fight that left a student unconscious. Because RULER is taught during an ungraded seminar period, the students most in need of RULER instruction do not receive it.

“The people getting into fights are usually the ones that need the instruction, because they’re not able to identify themselves, their emotions, and how to stop and regulate those emotions before the fight,” said Zeiss.

Are we trying to solve a complex problem with one solution?

— Cynthia Gillette

At the heart of RULER instruction lies a bigger problem.

“The ideas behind RULER regarding emotional regulation are certainly valuable,” said Cynthia Gillette, a social studies teacher at Ames High. “However, I teach my students to be aware of simplistic solutions to complex problems. Are we trying to solve a complex problem with one solution?”

This story was originally published on The WEB on April 24, 2024.