I’ve never before witnessed a moment in history in which both individual educators and the education system itself are forced to innovate in such a rapid, widespread, and fiercely committed manner. It has been an insane three weeks since school closures began! Educators, students, and families are scrambling to find a new normal in a state of emergency, and the transition has brought deeply painful moments for many of us. My social media feed is full of teachers working really hard, and trying to hang on: “Opened google classroom to continue providing feedback to my students, and instead just stared at the computer and cried. This is really hard, y'all.” We feel you, friend. Although social distancing sometimes leaves us feeling like we are alone, we really are in this together, all trying to figure out how to show up for our students and our families in an unprecedented time.
Focusing on Our Most Vulnerable Youth
As we personally and collectively manage an enormous, abrupt revision in how we do school, we must embrace this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild our systems and personal practices in service of true, equitable learning experiences for all young people. With over 55 million American students thrust into a new era of at-home learning, inequities in our students’ experiences, resources, and opportunities have become even more glaring. As so many teachers go online, the digital divide separates those who have internet access from those who don’t and threatens to widen the achievement gap. We know exactly which students will struggle to access the new digital classroom. And, as appealing as online instruction can be given the limitations of our ability to be together in physical community, we must be mindful of the potential equity pitfalls along this path. As argued by Justin Reich in his EdSurge OpEd: “A growing body of evidence suggests that online learning works least well for our most vulnerable learners,” including Black and Brown students, those with already low GPAs, students living in poverty, and those whose parents haven’t attended college. As we seek to create meaningful learning opportunities for young people sheltering in place at home, we must focus our collective attention on how we support our most vulnerable youth.
Social and Emotional Skills are Critical
If there was ever a moment to center our teaching practice around social and emotional learning, now is the time. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has the power to serve as a lever for equity, as it creates learning environments that validate, respect, and affirm the experiences of the diverse learners we serve. And SEL skills are urgently needed right now: adults and young people alike are relying on SEL skills to support us through the fear, anxiety, loneliness, uncertainty, frustration, loss, and grief brought on by this global pandemic. Now, more than ever, these skills are game-changers:
- The self-awareness required to understand, recognize, and name our feelings in the midst of this chaos;
- The self-management skills needed to cope with our feelings, whether we breathe or bake or journal or snuggle with our pets to soothe our frayed nerves;
- The social awareness to empathize with the ways others are experiencing this moment, especially across differences in identity, circumstance, and privilege;
- The relationship skills to communicate and connect with others, manage the inevitable conflicts that will come up in close quarters, and work together collaboratively;
- The responsible decision making skills required to act in service of our needs and goals, and to contribute to a society in which we balance our personal desires with the needs of our broader communities.
SEL and Rigor Are Not Mutually Exclusive
Centering our teaching practice on these social and emotional skills doesn’t require us to give up academic rigor—in fact, SEL is the approach we must embrace to effectively engage our most vulnerable students in learning right now, when so much weighs on them. As bell hooks implores, “To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.”
We Need SEL Now More Than Ever
We know that young people need social and emotional learning to cope with the experiences brought by Coronavirus, as one teacher shares: “Today I heard a kid tell his friend that the world was getting ready to explode. His friend said ‘I know, and I’m worried about my grandparents.’ The kids are listening & watching. And they’re afraid. I’m worried about the trauma we’re leaving for young people to deal with.” What lessons are most pertinent in the midst of this global pandemic? Those that help students talk about, cope with, navigate, and make meaning of this moment in history--especially those who have the fewest resources and supports already on their side.
Accessible Adoption is Possible
One equity-driven approach to integrating social and emotional learning into instruction is simple: leverage the power of relevant reading. Rudine Sims Bishop asserted over twenty-five years ago that reading “becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek mirrors in books.” Relevant literature can help us better understand our emotions, identities and experiences; for young people especially, reading can be an invaluable resource in building social and emotional skills. As educators who care about the students we serve, how can we use books to empower and connect young people across physical distance?
- Start with culturally-relevant literature. Pick books that feature main characters that provide your students with the mirrors they crave (and deserve!). Look for stories that counteract stereotypes and support students to build a positive sense of self, giving them the chance to see themselves as deserving of a whole story about them, their struggles, and their accomplishments. One particularly relevant read right now is Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, a novel-in-verse that explores timely themes (family, health, loss, grief, and resilience) when two young men discover that their father’s “Basketball Rules of Life” provide them with powerful strategies for coping with an unexpected crisis.
- Select accessible reading formats. Think about how you’ll get this content into your students’ hands--there are so many accessible options right now! Some incredible authors are reading their works aloud, for free, on social media (Elizabeth Acevedo, RJ Palacio, and Kwame Alexander to name just a few). You’re also welcome to read these books aloud to your students (as long as you’re not doing so for commerce!). Many audiobooks and ebooks are either free or have been drastically reduced in price, making them much easier to access. If digital options aren’t the right fit for your students, you can always make hard copies of books available for students to pick up alongside free/reduced meals.
- Create intentional tasks. Focusing on the social and emotional themes in the texts you’ve selected transforms great stories into concrete SEL skill-building opportunities. Books have the power to help young people practice self-awareness, consider a variety of coping skills, and empathize with others, even across differences. Teach students to connect what they’ve read to their own lives, experiences, and identities: in discussion and reflective writing, prompt students to think about the story in relationship to their own. How can what they are reading help them better understand their experiences? Did any characters or plot lines remind them of their own lives? Have they felt any of the things the characters in the book feel?
- Adapt your instructional methods to meet the needs of all learners. Think about the most vulnerable young people you serve: how can you support them to access a meaningful learning experience from home? Be flexible and adaptable in creating accessible opportunities for them to share their reflections about what they are reading. Whether you’re able to bring students together online for synchronous class discussions, moderate their engagement with the text asynchronously through digital tools, or connect with them individually over the phone in the absence of internet connectivity, relevant reading is a powerful resource for helping students better understand themselves and others during a moment when this is so needed.
Now is the time to unite social/emotional learning, cultural relevance, and academic instruction--at scale--for all young people. We have an unprecedented opportunity to build something new for our students, and they are counting on us. Let’s do it together!
Learn more about Reading with Relevance, the CASEL-certified social and emotional learning curriculum for grades 2-12 that seamlessly integrates with many titles that already exist on your shelves. Reading with Relevance was co-authored by D. Lacy Asbill and Elana Metz and developed by a collective of progressive educators on a mission: to inspire relevant reading experiences, heartfelt conversations, and instructional breakthroughs in classrooms across the nation.
About the Author:
D. Lacy Asbill is the Co-Founding Director of Moving Forward Institute, a nonprofit organization that focuses on students’ emotional well being as a critical strategy for improving their academic achievement. Founded fifteen years ago in Oakland, CA, the organization has taught more than ten thousand of the most underserved youth in their community, and trained over five hundred young adults to serve as a new generation of educational leaders. Lacy’s proudest professional accomplishment is her role in authoring Reading with Relevance: a literacy program that guides students and teachers through the process of reading relevant, culturally diverse, socially and emotionally rich literature. Now, Lacy is on a mission: sharing and scaling the program she’s built for (and with!) her students, to inspire relevant reading experiences, heartfelt conversations, and instructional breakthroughs in classrooms across the nation.
About Open Up Resources:
Open Up Resources is a 501c3 that exists to increase equity in education by making the highest quality curriculum freely accessible to educators and providing implementation supports to the broadest number of teachers, empowering them to effectively and sustainably improve student outcomes in pre-K-12 English Language Arts and Mathematics. To learn more about Open Up Resources' mission and work, click here.