When we wrapped up our unit on the novel After Dark, for which the essential question had been “What is empathy and why does it matter?” students wrote beautiful reflections about how the unit had taught them to withhold judgement and be curious about other people’s stories. Then I introduced the next unit on the drama A Doll’s House, complete with a bridge from the previous unit by showing Brene Brown’s 3-minute video on empathy vs. sympathy and the essential question “Why would a reasonable, rational, normal human being do that?” That very helpful question I had picked up several years ago from a conflict management book, Crucial Conversations (chapter 8), realizing that while it is an essential life-skill tool, it is also a perfect drama-interpretation tool. In a drama, like in real life (and unlike in most novels), there is no narrative voice to give editorial commentary (“Edith had always been a solitary child…”) or dive inside a character’s head (“Edith hated it when he said that…”). All you have to go on is what the character says and does, or what others say about him/her. And if you’re an actor, you have to construct a believable character with a backstory and realistic motivations from that.
Day 2 they were aghast at Nora. We dived into act 1, reading aloud and stopping to compile inferences about the 2 main characters’ personality and motivations and the textual evidence. “She’s a gold digger!” they cried with one voice. I tried to bring them back to the essential question: “Okay, you think she’s a gold digger, and you have some textual evidence for that, but what’s her motivation? Why would a reasonable, rational, normal human being be a gold digger?”
The chorus came back, “She’s greedy!” “She’s dumb!” “She’s lazy!” I was nonplussed: “What happened to all those lovely things you wrote last Friday, about reserving judgment and not knowing people’s true stories from their appearance?” Stunned and embarrassed silence. “Oh…yeah….”
Clearly our world has an empathy issue, and even for my wonderful students, it takes more than one high school literature unit to embed the skill and foster transfer to life. That is just one of the things that has piqued my interest in what I’ve been hearing about SEL—social and emotional learning. It’s quite the buzz in education these days—in fact, “The Promise of Social-Emotional Learning” was the topic of the October publication of the ASCD journal Educational Leadership. If you need a working definition, CASEL, one of the leading organizations in the field, gives this: “Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
Since I’ve started hearing about SEL, I’ve had a feeling that it could provide the research base and some well-tested tools for implementing the philosophy Christian education has been propounding for all my 30+ years in the field—that children are many faceted image bearers of God, full of many kinds of potential, all of which we need to develop so we can all live as God intended—embracing our gifts, in community, caring for creation. In addition, I suspected it might embrace many of the skills and themes I address in language arts classes. Thus when the opportunity came to attend a 4-day IFSEL (Institute for Social and Emotional Learning) institute last weekend, I jumped at it.
It was an excellent experience—one that I’ll be unpacking for many blogs to come. So what I want to capture for now is that my instincts were right. There is research to show that SEL isn’t another “extra,” but it is based in neuroscience, it supports academic learning, it does “stick” and transfer, and every $1 invested to support SEL development provides $11 in long-term social and economic benefit to society.
There are also well-developed “tool boxes” for students (such as Check-In for empathy and compassion, Win-Win Solutions for group problem solving, Put-Ups for encouragement, and the De-Escalator for checking assumptions and instigating forgiveness) and for teachers (such as questions for personal and social insight, group design and collaboration, and appreciation and acknowledgment). There are also many strategies and activities for teaching and applying each tool.
Finally, I was affirmed in that, as in the story at the beginning of this blog, any time we literature teachers help students grapple with the big questions of literature about who am I, who is my neighbor, what’s wrong with the world, and so what? we are addressing the core SEL competencies of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making (CASEL.org). Similarly, whenever we teach the thinking and communication skills inherent in our classes—active listening and curious questioning for discussing; and imagining occasion, audience, and purpose for effective writing and speaking—we are addressing those same core SEL competencies.
I’m really excited about what I’ve learned about SEL—how I am affirmed in what I already do, equipped to do it even more effectively. I’m building my summer reading list with recommendations from the IFSEL institute. I’m imagining students coming to me in 10 years’ time with that much more SEL teaching already under their belts—how excellent their intrapersonal, interpersonal, and problem solving skills will be. And my students…well, they’re working on their “Who Am I?” papers. For many years that’s been our response to A Doll’s House: Nora ended up in a tough place because she was never asked to answer that question for herself. So I’m asking my 10th graders to begin to answer it now so they won’t end up in Nora’s position.
What have you learned about social and emotional learning that excites you about the potential for yourself, your community, or our young people’s potential?