Books can serve as a powerful tool for supporting students’ development of both literacy and social/emotional skills. Building classrooms that are rich with diverse and intentional reading experiences provides students with opportunities to cultivate critical SEL skills like self-awareness and empathy while mastering reading fluency, comprehension, and critical thinking. Author of The Sun is also a Star, Nicola Yoon, said “Books breed understanding and empathy. You can’t spend 300 pages in someone’s head and hate them. It is hard to hate what you understand.” In order to get students engaged, we must provide them with diverse books that serve as both reflective mirrors and windows into other worlds.
Mirror books allow readers to see characters and communities that reflect their own lives. Seeing their own culture and experiences reflected in literature helps students develop a positive sense of identity and self-esteem. Window books allow readers to better understand the lives of people with experiences different than their own. A variety of books representing diverse cultures helps students to develop attitudes of openness and empathy around difference. A single book can serve as a mirror for one child, and a window for another!
Unfortunately, many students struggle to find the mirrors and windows they deserve to see in diverse literature. Since 2002, the Cooperative Children’s Books Center has published data on the number of books they receive each year and documented the number by and/or about people of color and first/native nations. Of the 3,653 books: 2,865 (78%) were written by white authors, 351 (10%) by Asian Pacific Americans, 202 (6%) by African Americans, 197 (5%) by Latinos and 38 (1%) by American Indians/First Nations. Lee and Low, the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the country, just released this diversity baseline survey which has unsurprisingly similar numbers. This presents a true challenge to teachers looking to present their students with more diverse and reflective reading experiences that make all students feel welcome and supported.
“Books breed understanding and empathy. You can’t spend 300 pages in someone’s head and hate them. It is hard to hate what you understand.” - Nicola Yoon
The US census predicts that by the middle of 2020, children of color will make up the majority of kids. Furthering the challenge, the National Center for Education Statistics cites that approximately 80% of public school teachers are White, with only 9% Hispanic, 7% African-American, and 2% Asian. New kinds of books can help us build new kinds of classrooms—supporting teachers and students to connect across differences.
Everyone’s Buzzing about SEL
There is much talk about social and emotional learning (SEL) in education circles today. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social & Emotional Learning (CASEL), “social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire the skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
A report by the Pennsylvania State University and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that “extensive research shows SEL programs can promote academic achievement and positive social behavior while reducing conduct problems and emotional distress. The report continues: “Benefits of SEL in the elementary years have been documented in reviews by independent research teams and through meta-analyses which demonstrate the immediate and long-term positive outcomes of well-designed, well-implemented SEL programming.”
The Linchpin: For educators to respond in culturally-aware ways in their increasingly diverse classrooms, and teach their students to do the same, they must first understand the complex and evolving landscape themselves. It’s simply not enough to provide educators stand-alone social and emotional curriculum. In addition, teachers need the ability to seamlessly integrate SEL into existing academics to avoid being overwhelmed by adding to their already packed day, or worse, failing to implement the curriculum at all due to low bandwidth.
Teachers are making efforts with or without leadership support. In a recent survey by First Book, 63% of teachers reported a lack of culturally relevant books as a common barrier to learning, and 51% reported that diverse, inclusive books are a priority when spending their own money.
SEL for All
Open Up Resources (OUR) incorporates SEL into classroom instruction through Reading with Relevance—a CASEL-certified, scientifically-tested curricula for grades 2-12 using many of the titles schools already have on their shelves.
Reading with Relevance is a literacy program that guides students and teachers through the process of reading relevant, culturally diverse, socially and emotionally rich literature. By integrating intentional social/emotional development into every lesson, this program is helping create a generation of learners ready to understand, question, and remake the world around them..
Reading with Relevance addresses the five research-based SEL competencies and allows students to see themselves, their identities and their cultures reflected in literature. It provides a platform for teachers and students to discuss different perspectives, cultures and communities other than their own in a controlled and thoughtful manner
"Both educators and students are navigating today’s diverse classrooms,” says Tammy Baumann, Open Up Resources Chief Academic Officer. “We see that many teachers are unprepared for what they face, and their students have often not been taught the skills to empathize with unique experiences, norms, and behaviors of others. All school administrators should adopt SEL-based curricula and provide the necessary professional learning so teachers are prepared to foster deep understanding. The benefits of embedded SEL strategies into the existing curriculum being taught can aid with building stronger peer-to-peer communities in classrooms, help close the achievement gap and provide populations with the critical foundation to succeed in the workplace in todays’ global economy.”
Open Up Resources exists to create equity in education. Social and emotional curriculum is crucial, qualitative learning that compliments a rigorous and high-quality core ELA and math curricula program. Reading with Relevance makes implementation accessible. To learn more about Reading with Relevance, click here.
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.