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How to Integrate Social and Emotional Learning into Literacy Instruction

SEL and the Stories We Tell

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is innately tied to literacy and language development and can be a critical element of any ELA classroom. In this installment of our virtual Spring into Literacy Symposium, educator and SEL champion Wendy Turner joined Kevin Baird, Senior Vice President for Integrated Experience at McGraw Hill’s Center for Innovation, to talk about the intersection of SEL and literacy. Watch the recording of their conversation here, or read on for synopsis of key ideas to bookmark and share.

How does Social and Emotional Learning support our goals for literacy instruction?

Kevin: I’m going to offer four ideas here:

  • Research by Dr. John Hattie (and others) indicates that a critical factor of a student’s learning is their self-efficacy. Show me a self-confident child, and I’ll show you a learner who’s willing to tackle a hard problem. Combined or shared self-efficacy is also one of the most critical elements to foster effective teachers.
  • Consider: How do we learn language? We don’t learn language just by sitting and reading text. We learn language by collaborating, by interacting with the people around us. If I don’t know how to do that, I don’t have the skills for language acquisition.
  • Our brains are built around a very ancient core. We sometimes call it the “reptilian brain”, or you might also know it as the amygdala. That part of the brain controls “fight, flight, or freeze” and when it’s activated — when I get angry or upset — I can do nothing but fight, flee, or freeze. I can’t learn. Students need the skills to manage their emotions and keep their bodies from drowning in these chemicals that prevent them from learning.
  • You might have heard of Zones of Regulation. When I’m feeling very hyper or anxious, how do I calm myself down? At the same time, how do I pick myself up on a rainy day, when I’m feeling gloomy? These are very specific skills, and as adults we probably (hopefully) have learned how to deal with these elements. But younger people may not even recognize these experiences.

Truly, it’s about helping learners understand themselves, their bodies, and their minds, which allows them to be ready to learn and connect with others to learn.

How can we meaningfully integrate SEL into literacy instruction, especially when teachers already have such full days?

Wendy: Educators often need a lot of help with this, because we’re at a point where people know how important SEL is, and they have a deeper understanding of it coming out of teacher preparation programs, but the integration piece is hard. I find that you can bring elements of all CASEL’s core competencies into your literacy block.

I’ll start with self-awareness. As Kevin said, the child that can learn is a confident learner — and confident learners are well-versed in self-awareness! They know what their strengths and weaknesses are, they know what their interests are, and they have a good emotional vocabulary. For students of all ages, one of the best ways to foster self-awareness is through storytelling and connections to characters. From a very early age, it’s important for kids to be able to relate their lives to what’s happening in stories.

For self-management, there’s so much here that’s related to science. A lesson I teach very early in the school year is how the brain works! We look at a piece of nonfiction literature that explains how the brain works, leveraging informational texts and literature in a science lesson. Students create a model of the brain and think about what happens before they’re triggered, when their amygdala is calm, and when they’re triggered. They create a map to track what their body feels like at each phase.

Social awareness is all about empathy, moving out from self to others and to the world. A big part of social awareness is about understanding the perspectives of others and understanding problems in the world. I use a framing from the UN Sustainable Development Goals to help students understand major problems in the world and have them identify a local problem that relates to a global problem. Then, they act on that issue as a team. Recently, we focused on endangered species, and I led a collaborative project where my students wrote and illustrated narratives about endangered penguins and plastic waste in the ocean. Then, they acted by collecting hundreds of plastic bags and donating them to a local store that makes furniture from recycled plastics. Leveraging research, writing, and finally, action is a great way to show students how they can have an impact on the world.

I think that if those first three competencies are in place, students are going to have strong relationships and make good decisions. Students with these competencies are aware of and can manage a cacophony of emotions — and believe me, students have so many emotions coming back to school after these last eighteen months. They also can engage in perspective-taking with others, which is what they need to have good relationships and make good decisions.

Be sure to check out this key resource from CASEL, recommended by Wendy, for SEL integration practices you can implement in your classroom today:

What do teachers need to implement SEL effectively?

Kevin: As a system, we need to do a better job of supporting teachers in integrating this work — because the true challenge is deciding what to do when a student comes to school and is really having a meltdown and facing intense obstacles. In these truly critical scenarios, in many ways it comes down to the adult’s SEL skills, and their ability to respond to students, that are important. Wendy, in your school, has there been something that has helped you?

Wendy: I think it comes down to knowing that your school has a set way to respond to trauma. We know that kids are going to struggle, and having MTSS and restorative practice tools in place, coupled with knowledge about trauma and neuroscience, is important. I’m also seeing that more teachers are coming out of teacher preparation programs with knowledge about SEL and trauma, but not everyone. Many preparation programs are still focused on classroom management, which implies that children must be controlled and managed, but nothing can be further from the truth! I’m always advocating for trauma-informed practices and SEL embedded in adult education to create a safety net for learners.

Do you have a personal favorite book to help foster SEL in literacy and ELA — for students or adults?

Wendy: One of my favorites is The One and Only Ivan, a story about animals who are kept in a mall. There’s such empathy, compassion, problem-solving and perseverance displayed in this book, in addition to a lot of real-world application opportunities for lessons. Another title I love is called The Name Jar, which is the story of a Korean girl who came to America but didn’t want to use her Korean name, and the book is all about her quest to find her American name.

We must make sure our students can see themselves in the stories we read, and as much as we come together around our similarities, we also need to acknowledge and celebrate differences.

A few years ago, I audited my classroom library collection and found that most of what I had featured white children and animals. So, I wrote a grant to obtain more books featuring characters of color. My goal was to have only 25% books with animals, 25% books with white main characters, the rest featuring characters of color — importantly, not just stories of struggle, but stories of characters of color living their lives and succeeding!

Kevin: There’s an entire set of texts from an organization called Nabu written by authors in Africa, Haiti and the Philippines, that are universal stories but with a unique lens. They remind me of one of my personal favorite books called I, Rigoberta Menchú, which is written by an activist from Guatemala, and two of my children were born in Guatemala. Additionally, Oklahoma City Schools published a text of autobiographical texts from their newcomer students called Where the Rainbow Ends. That collection contains a story by a young girl in middle grades that really amazed me.

For more books to add to your list, check out our Empathy reading booklist, with recommendations to foster empathy in learners grades PreK-12.

Watch more on-demand webinars about the Science of Reading, blended learning, and more by visiting our virtual Spring into Literacy Symposium.

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