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The Other Side of Social and Emotional Learning: Culture, Identity, and Community Concepts of Teaching and Learning in K-12 Education

By Fiona Vernal, Director of Engaged, Public, Oral, and Community Histories and Associate Professor of History at the University of Connecticut

With the help of her colleagues, Dr. Fiona Vernal created Part 3 of our series, “Voices in Social Studies”, as a resource guide for teachers interested in the intersection of SEL, culture, and community. Special thanks to Isalena Gilzene and Hope Brown. Read part 1 and part 2.

Old Wine, New Bottles? Thirty Years of Social and Emotional Learning

Every few decades, education experts reconsider what pedagogies, principles, materials, and methods will contribute to success in the classroom. Social and emotional learning (SEL), a framework developed almost thirty years ago in 1994, is beginning to coalesce and gain momentum throughout the country. By August 2020, 29 states had developed SEL standards for teachers and students, with the pandemic accelerating urgent calls for more attention to learners’ emotional health and well-being. State and school districts’ SEL programs are being ranked or highlighted in a number of industry forums, think-tanks, non-profits, and in spaces like blogs and government websites. Education programs have begun offering certification.

SEL involves children and adults’ ability to develop self-regulatory skills that aid in the process of managing emotions, making effective decisions, expressing and feeling empathy, and developing healthy relationships to become successful in all stages of life. Specific to students in K-12 academic settings, the range of self-regulation can include learners’ ability to stay on task, regulate reactions to events, and learn socially acceptable behaviors for school, home, and community. In later stages of life, SEL is being attached to college and career readiness as well as civic and community engagement. The stakes could not be higher.

Initiatives like SEL, when made a part of public education policy, unleash a cascade of new guidelines, procedures, and professional development opportunities that can seem like old wine in new bottles. Educators are, after all, familiar with “whole child,” “lifelong learning,” and other educational approaches that emphasize that learners are not a blank slate and, along with families and educators, and communities, are part of one ecosystem.

SEL, as an educational panacea, must come to terms with the widespread calls for social justice, equity, and cultural competency in the classroom.

Young people across the nation are demanding to see their life experiences, cultures, communities, and identities reflected in their curriculum. Systemic racism, also in the spotlight, makes it all the more important for educators to address with purpose and precision, the links between SEL, learning, culture, community, and identity.

Culture Gets a Permanent Seat in the Classroom

Teachers understand explicitly that their preparation and training are important variables in learner success. So is the curriculum. School administrators must be intentional in selecting a curriculum that includes a clear focus on the integration of compelling and challenging perspectives. Curricular shifts have brought a more sustained focus on customs, practices, and historical experiences from a variety of nations and people of varied racial and ethnic identities. Anemic or intermittent efforts focused on food, music, fiestas, and cultural heritage month have given way to more robust efforts, including a groundswell of reforms in history and social studies. Professional development is the key to ensuring that a new curriculum that includes bold, anti-racist, and culturally relevant narratives is now integrated in an effective manner.

Why is this important? Because the vast majority of public school teachers are White. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that:

  • In 2017–18, about 79 percent of public school teachers were White, 9 percent were Hispanic, 7 percent were Black, 2 percent were Asian, 2 percent were of Two or more races, and 1 percent were American Indian/Alaska Native; additionally, those who were Pacific Islander made up less than 1 percent of public school teachers.

If the curriculum is getting reformed, the textbooks are being rewritten, and SEL is being integrated into educational strategies, then professional development must also leverage the SEL model of lifelong learning to help teachers make sense of community and identity as curricular assets. This is an opportunity for teachers to demonstrate that they too are lifelong learners willing to respond to continuous feedback and willing to see culture as content and culture as a skillset.

Asset-based frameworks that integrate culture, identity and community into SEL frameworks transform classrooms into spaces of shared authority, agency, and collaborative learning. Community and identity as curricular assets can remain murky when viewed from the vantage point of daily and weekly learning activities. How can teachers leverage student, family, and community knowledge?

Explore the new 6–12 U.S. and World History programs:

🌏 Inspire students to experience history through multiple lenses and inquiry as they learn to practice civil discourse on their way to becoming future-ready citizens.

Incorporating Student Input Into Lesson Plans

Teachers can solicit each student’s own account of what culture means to them and develop lesson plans that can integrate content-area knowledge, particular skill sets, and SEL frameworks. This should include helping students to explore their own cultural identities. This example is drawn from a high school social studies immigration module with potential ELA integration.

Students will:

  • Develop individual reports of how they view their culture and the theme of immigration
  • Report and compare with someone in their group/pair-share
  • Identify which stories connected with them emotionally and why
  • Engage texts that address internal migration and migration to the US of different groups
  • Research web resources and databases for census and immigration data
  • Develop a short 10-minute interview with two family members from different generations or a community member to encourage classroom-family connections/classroom-community connections
  • Collage their family and community interviews and highlight themes
  • Explore public oral histories via the Library of Congress and select one family or community member to conduct a longer interview
  • Storyboard their ideas and collect photographs and pictures of artifacts
  • Create a poster session exhibit and invite parents and the community to the school-wide premiere
  • Write/Share a reflection on their experience

Teachers will:

  • Collage reports and organize students into rotating groups or pair-shares to talk about patterns
  • Provide texts that address internal migration and migration to the US of different groups
  • Unpack the terms immigration, emigration, migration and use the term mobility to talk about different ways people move within and between countries
  • Connect students with web resources/databases where they can search census and immigration data
  • Introduce interview methods and have students practice with each other
  • Discuss the merits, methods, and challenges of oral histories including memory, privacy, and confidentiality
  • Consider expanding the lesson to invite community members from students’ interviews and integrating public oral history, along with sharing with ELA teachers, and planning a schoolwide or grade level assembly

In all stages of implementing this lesson, SEL was front and center — explicit and implicit. Students played a role in leading the organization of information and materials and developing a community and family component of their academic work. They participated in activities that required time management, socializing, communication, collaboration, adaptable thinking, strategizing, decision making, listening, and creativity. They assimilated information in a way that was culturally meaningful and relevant and could incorporate their own and others’ families and community. They were introduced to oral histories and databases and developed tangible deliverables that had a wider audience. They explored broad conceptual frameworks for understanding why people move and connected their own and their families’ experiences to global, national, regional, and local histories of migration, including internal migrations.

Rethinking/Reimagining SEL

Old wine in new bottles may require that we dust off or finally implement the almost 30-year old framework of SEL that attempted to address the efficacy of educational interventions and theories of learning. Long before SEL, Paulo Freire’s 1968 Pedagogy of the Oppressed taught educators that,

At the core of the quest for efficacy or social justice are the concepts of humanism and freedom.

When other educators and crusaders took up this clarion call in later years, they also reinforced this formula. In Teaching to Transgress (1994) and Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope (2003), bell hooks renewed the call for integrating humanism, freedom, and community into the classroom. However we package our educational initiatives, if we embed human dignity, mutual respect, and critical thinking into the formula, we will all be lifelong learners on a common journey to achieve the best outcomes for our children, families, and communities.

Explore the new 6–12 U.S. and World History programs:

🌏 Inspire students to experience history through multiple lenses and inquiry as they learn to practice civil discourse on their way to becoming future-ready citizens.


Freire P. (1968). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.

hooks bell (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

hooks bell (2003). Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge

“Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Standards in All 50 States.” (August 7, 2020). Retrieved March 10, 2021

“Overview of SEL. Https:// Retrieved March 10, 2021.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Data Point. “Race and ethnicity of Public School Teachers and their Students.” Https:// Retrieved March 10, 2021.

Picture of author, Fiona Vernal

Fiona Vernal is the Director of Engaged, Public, Oral, and Community Histories (EPOCH) and Associate Professor of History at the University of Connecticut. She has extensive teaching and research interests in African, Caribbean, and African Diaspora history and consults on K-12 curriculum and professional development. She holds a B.A. from Princeton and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University. Follow her on Twitter @FionaVernal.



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