If you are like me and just getting started with Social Emotional Learning (aka SEL), then you may be hesitant to add yet another acronym to your English teacher toolkit. I get it. However, if you look at the tenets of Social Emotional Learning, you’re likely to discover that you are already doing SEL in ELA without even realizing it! Here are the five Social Emotional Learning competencies:
- Social awareness
- Relationship skills
- Making responsible decisions
While you can probably think of several ways a concept like “relationship skills” plays a role in your ELA classroom, this post is about validating what you are already doing, acknowledging the importance of English class in regards to social emotional skills, and giving you ideas for incorporating even more SEL in ELA.
Since I’m just getting started on my SEL journey, I am going to hand the mic over to an experienced SEL in ELA educator.
Alex Yeganegi, Ed. S., teaches high school ELA in the Atlanta area. She is passionate about engaging students in reading, helping them understand the power of words, and building SEL into ELA curriculum.
How to incorporate SEL in ELA curriculum
Social Emotional Learning has been thrust into the spotlight since the pandemic, but in reality ELA teachers integrated SEL in their classrooms long before Covid-19. Contrary to what some may believe, SEL is not just about warm fuzzy feelings; it is grounded in building skills that help students succeed academically, have stronger relationships, and resolve conflict effectively. The ELA curriculum offers natural opportunities to support students in the five areas of SEL: self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision making, and self-management. From routine classroom management practices such as positive reinforcement and collaborative work, to project-based learning, to the inclusion of diverse texts, there are many ways to help your students master SEL and the standards simultaneously.
Five research-based strategies that you can implement to incorporate SEL in ELA
Use books and pairings to expose students to diverse texts that build social awareness
Consider using independent reading or literature circles to allow students to select books based on their personal interests. Prioritize texts that reflect different cultures, abilities, and life experiences, feature characters facing moral dilemmas, and grapple with societal conflicts and/or social justice issues. Graphic novels, comics, and picture books are also valuable for helping students make meaning. Through these texts, students can work on standards that ask students to engage deeply with complex and diverse texts, see themselves reflected in those texts, and analyze characters’ emotions and behaviors in the texts.
Plan activities that promote communication and build relationship skills
Planning reading activities that promote collaboration, discussion, and reflection go far in building relationship skills, a key component of SEL. For example, Book clubs give students a regular chance to talk about their books, and you can ensure that the time is well-spent by including activities that require meaningful discussions about the characters and conflicts. I’ve had great results using Cult of Pedagogy’s TQE Method, which allows students to take the reins and lead strong and meaningful discussions about texts. You can also find lots of discussion activities here: How to Liven Up Your Socratic Seminar and Get Students Talking
Formative assessments are also a powerful learning opportunity. Here are a few ideas:
- Character Report Card: Students create report cards for any character from any text. Try assessing Romeo and Juliet’s self-awareness and relationship skills, or Gatsby and Tom’s conflict resolution abilities.
- Ladders/Ranking Activities: Build a ladder to evaluate characters with the most power in The Crucible, a staircase of challenges that Odysseus or another character faces on the hero’s journey, or a ranked list of the most serious problems facing George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men.
- Poetry Connections: Connect The Great Gatsby to Harlem Renaissance poetry, characters in A Raisin in the Sun to a variety of spoken word poetry, or read cultural poetry that complements diverse texts (for example, pair Rumi with Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi).
Finally, some of my most memorable teaching days have centered around short, impactful texts. It’s an amazing feeling when students are riveted by a suprising text and invested in the characters’ experiences. Below are some of my students’ favorites, from a wide variety of genres, that have led to high engagement and excited discussion:
- “Contents of a Dead Man’s Pocket” by Jack Finney
- “Deadly Manners” Podcast
- “Death by Scrabble” by Charlie Fish
- “Half-Hanged Mary” by Margaret Atwood
- “Ordeal by Cheque” by Wuther Crue
- “Trifles” by Susan Glaspell
- “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
If you need more guidance with classroom discussions, keep reading here: How to host a Socratic Seminar in Secondary ELA
Integrate expressive writing opportunities to foster self-awareness
Journaling and personal narratives are always great options, but you might want to try something new. Dialogue journals can turn into written conversations between the student and you. Reflections and self-assessments after a major assignment correlate directly to SEL skills. Writing activities that require students to take on a character’s or someone else’s perspective allow them to walk in someone else’s shoes.
Provide opportunities to explore through movement and other self-management strategies
Allow (or teach!) students to appreciate the arts by integrating art and music. Gallery walks can expose students to different pieces of artwork and work well for kinesthetic learners; some that have worked well for me are “museums” of Banksy exhibits, Norman Rockwell paintings, and African-American artwork. Listen to music that matches your thematic unit and have students analyze the lyrics. Get students moving. I am a proponent of role play/simulation activities that help students take on the perspectives of a character in a creative and kinesthetic way; here are some I’ve had success with:
- Pre-Reading Character Mixer: Students each play the role of a character, taking on their point of view and presenting a small blurb about them, to “meet” other characters before reading.
- Scene Immersion: Students play different characters while doing a live act-out of a scene (before, during, or after reading). For example, students play the roles of people at Gatsby’s party in Chapter 3; doing this prior to reading the chapter allows students to preview the rumors and uncertainty surrounding Gatsby.
- Character Talk Show: After reading a text, cast students as characters, audience members, and talk show hosts. Characters in the hot seats take questions from the audience.
Incorporate relationship building activities that strengthen connections and relationship skills
In addition to conferencing with students and getting to know them yourself, provide time for students to get to know each other. Here are some great strategies for classroom community building:
- Try Mindful Mondays. Building a few minutes for SEL into the weekly agenda adds structure to the week and stresses the importance of SEL to students. Some Mindful Monday activities that have worked well in my class include journaling, watching and discussing TED Talks about grit, time management, or other skills, and breathing exercises.
- Add some festivity with holiday or seasonal activities that are both fun and educational. Valentine’s Day and spring are just around the corner. I love having students write literary Valentines to anyone in their lives, or spring Shamrock thank you notes to a teacher they are “lucky” to have (bonus tip: incorporate writing requirements to reinforce what you have already taught, whether that’s semicolons, rhetorical devices, or sentence variety).
- Opt outside. Any classroom activity is more fun when fresh air and sunshine are added. Try writing transcendentalist poetry, listening to a story while taking a walk, or any of these other ideas for taking your class into nature. My students’ favorite thing last year was going on a nature walk to observe details and practice imagery, writing a poem, then creating a piece of art inspired by it.
- Teach students to celebrate themselves and others. A colleague does Friday celebrations, a quick opportunity for students to recognize a personal accomplishment that week. I try something similar whenever I have time to spare; sometimes they share accomplishments, goals for the next week, moments of gratitude, or positive shout-outs for peers.
SEL matters, but it doesn’t have to stand alone. Harness the relationship-building power of ELA teachers and incorporate SEL skills into your standards-based lessons. By adding SEL in ELA, your students will reap the benefits, and you’ll notice positive changes in your classroom.