By Matt Renwick
Social and emotional learning (SEL) is defined as “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions,” (www.casel.org).
As educators and parents recognize the important of SEL, there has been a push to include it in the school curriculum. However, this initiative has been met with some pushback. Time seems to be the obstacle, a reasonable concern for an already overflowing academic schedule.
Thankfully, literacy instruction can also support the social and emotional development of students. I stress the word "can" as the outcomes should not be assumed. Buying a reading or writing curriculum resource does not automatically lead to more thoughtful and empathetic individuals. What does make a difference is thoughtful and empathetic teachers who can orchestrate an integrated literacy experience.
With that, consider some applicable findings the authors of Engaging Literate Minds: Developing Children’s Social, Emotional, and Intellectual Lives, K-3 discovered and summarized in their resource.
Successful Readers and Writers Tend to Be Happier Individuals
The teacher inquirers/authors learned through their instruction and from research that when students see themselves as capable and literate people, their levels of happiness were positively correlated. This includes the areas of positive relationships and behaviors, cooperation, empathy, and self-regulation. (2)
Why are kids happier? Largely, it was due to the classroom environments that the teachers created and sustained with their kids. Lots of voice and choice—such as opportunities to read texts they wanted to read and make original books—gave students more control in their lives. The teachers positioned themselves adjacent to the kids as they guided and supported student decision-making (as opposed to the traditional, front-of-the-classroom model). Instruction was still happening, such as regular mini-lessons, but the authority over how the learning would occur resided more with the learners.
Reading and Discussing Literature Reinforces Pro-Social Behaviors
In many of the book’s transcribed conversations from the teachers’ classrooms, the students were doing much of the talking. Often, they led the conversation. The teachers’ role was to coach the class with thoughtful responses (“Say more about that.”) and pose questions that encouraged everyone to think more deeply about the text and their thinking around it.
How do book discussions promote pro-social behaviors? Primarily, because students learned to talk and listen in authentic literacy contexts. SEL and literacy are not separate initiatives in these teachers’ classrooms; they are mutually beneficial. Interruptions and off-task comments are reduced because the teachers set up norms for conversation and practiced them within school activities that mattered to everyone. Memorable books read aloud and peer feedback on an original piece of student writing captured the students’ attention. Again, this work mattered, both on an academic and a personal level.
It does not make sense to us to teach literacy as if it were separate from other aspects of children’s development. Changes in literacy instruction can produce a cascade of consequences affecting many aspects of learning and development. (71)
Literacy as a Gateway to Responsibility and Independence
The authors noted the importance of students being able to maintain focus and be flexible in one’s thinking, and how literacy instruction can support healthy habits of mind.
For example, one of the co-authors, Laurie McCarthy, read aloud A Fine, Fine School by Sharon Creech. The well-meaning principal wanted to extend learning time into the weekends, holidays, and summer. Building off students’ internal sense of injustice, Laurie asked her kids to write about this experience and identify with a character from the story. (76)
The opportunities to take someone else’s perspective, to appreciate the power of the written word, and to clearly make one’s position both known and valid build valuable skills for literacy as well as for an active citizenry. They are essential for anyone to be able to successfully advocate for others and to navigate themselves in a democratic society.
Defining anything as we perceive it helps to understanding something, but it can also limit what is possible. What is literacy without a real-world purpose or an authentic audience with which to apply it? How might someone’s ability to empathize with another enhance their reading and writing? For a better world, we need to start blurring the boundaries between academics and social/emotional learning and embrace these natural connections.
About Matt Renwick
Matt Renwick is a former classroom teacher and now serves as elementary principal in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. He writes frequently about literacy leadership on his blog (readingbyexample.com), on his newsletter (readbyexample.substack.com), and on Twitter (@ReadByExample). He was recently recognized as a “Friend of Literacy” by the Wisconsin State Reading Association. Join Matt and several other educators for this summer’s book study of Engaging Literate Minds at these sites.
Engaging Literate Minds: Developing Children’s Social, Emotional, and Intellectual Lives. Copyright © 2020 by Peter Johnston, Kathy Champeau, Andrea Hartwig, Sarah Helmer, Merry Komar, Tara Krueger, and Laurie McCarthy. Stenhouse Publishers. Portsmouth, NH.