A+SEL in Action

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by Heather Young

Middle School social studies covers several disciplines: history, citizenship and government, geography, and economics. As a Responsive Classroom practitioner and passionate believer in the whole-child approach to education, I felt overwhelmed when thinking about how I could possibly cover all the standards and still have time to include social and emotional learning skills. I came to realize, though, that the content of our social studies curriculum offers many natural opportunities to embed the instruction and practice of social and emotional skills.

Addressing empathy is one way social studies educators can incorporate SEL skills during social study units. Present multiple perspectives of an event instead of just

one side’s viewpoint. For example, while discussing the Boston Massacre of 1770, one might share with students that the same event was also known as “The Incident on King Street.” The class could analyze and compare the perspectives of American patriots and British loyalists in an attempt to find commonalities in descriptions of the event.

We can also encourage students to practice a variety of cooperation and empathy skills by thinking about decisions people have made. Through activities that incorporate questioning, students can become more aware of the impact people’s actions can have on others, and how culture can impact attitudes and behaviors. This awareness

allows them to practice empathy for people throughout history and around the world today. Students should consider questions such as these:

  • What influenced this person in history to make a particular decision?
  • How did that decision impact those around them?
  • Viewing through our modern lens, how would we choose differently?

Another way educators can integrate SEL skills is through simulations. One example of a larger-scale simulation would have students play the role of US senators and write bills about topics they are interested in. Bills should be on a national scale, which will encourage students to think beyond themselves and what changes they would like to see in the world. In this activity, students gather evidence to support their bill and then defend it to a Senate committee. Prompt students with questions such as these:

  • How and where do you find evidence to support your ideas?
  • How do we think about what someone against this bill might say, and how do we counter their argument?

This simulation not only provides students with a chance to practice finding evidence, an essential historical thinking skill, but also with a chance to practice a variety of assertiveness skills.

Committees of students debate the bills and decide whether or not that bill should make it to the “Senate floor.” This provides students with a forum to practice listening to opinions that are different from their own and working with others to come to a consensus. The easy and successful way to incorporate SEL practice in your classroom is by allowing students to interact with each other in structured and collaborative ways. Whether it is through quick-partner or table chats during a geography lesson, a government simulation, or a group analysis of a historical event and its varying perspectives, students will benefit from these and other opportunities to engage with differing opinions. Utilizing the content of our social studies courses, educators can model, scaffold, and offer feedback on academic as well as social and emotional learning skills in the classroom.

Heather Young began teaching in 2011 and is currently a middle school social studies teacher in the Minneapolis metro area. Before assuming her current role, she taught sixth grade reading and reading intervention for six years. Heather wrote the sixth grade sections of Empowering Educators: A Comprehensive Guide to Teaching Grades 6, 7, 8 (Center for Responsive Schools, 2021).

Social Studies Belongs in Morning Meetings

Adapted from the introduction of Doing Social Studies in Morning Meeting

by Leah Carson and Jane Cofie (Center for Responsive Schools, 2017).

The Responsive Classroom practice of Morning Meeting offers an ideal opportunity to keep social studies alive and present beyond its often tightly scheduled block of instructional time. Morning Meeting provides students with more opportunities to think about the social studies content they’ve been learning as well as to explore concepts, issues, and skills in new and engaging ways. In addition, bringing social studies into Morning Meeting is an opportunity to investigate and propose solutions to fun and interesting challenges that connect to their personal lives, school, and community.

In a very real sense, Morning Meeting is social studies. In defining their curriculum standards, the National Council for the Social Studies notes:

Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences. The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world. (NCSS, 1994, p. 3)

With its lively interactivity, Morning Meeting offers opportunities for making challenging social studies concepts such as map skills, economic principles, and models of government more tangible and thus more easily grasped. Students learn better—and remember more of what they learn—when they can link social studies concepts with things

they care about in their own lives: making and maintaining friendships, feeling a sense of belonging and significance, and meeting academic and social-emotional challenges in a safe and cooperative environment.

The four-component structure of Morning Meeting—greeting, sharing, group activity, and morning message—offers a perfect context in which to use meaningful social interactions as a way to deepen students’ understanding of core social studies concepts, content, and issues in safe, engaging ways:

During greeting, students welcome everyone to the classroom (and the day) as equal and valued participants in a social group dedicated to learning.

For sharing, students hear one another’s thoughts and ideas about various aspects of their current learning and discover respectful ways to respond to multiple perspectives.

With group activity, students interact with one another in fun and lively ways while also stretching their social skills and deepening their understanding of academic content.

A social studies–oriented morning message linked to previous or upcoming learning gives students the opportunity to reflect on and interact with social studies concepts, content, or skills, and to build confidence, competence, and curiosity.

Responsive Classroom Morning Meeting offers teachers a structured, purposeful, and fun way to start each day on a positive note and build a strong sense of classroom community. Beginning the day in such a powerful way sets up students for success for the day and enables them to approach learning with an open mind and a willingness to take academic risks. In a world filled with academic pressure and high-stakes testing, Morning Meeting offers an opportunity to explore academic concepts and skills in an engaging and supportive way, making it a fruitful and essential part of each classroom day.

Be sure to vary and modify activities. Here are some things to consider:

  • Choose activities according to your teaching purposes. With a little modification, activities could be used to activate students’ prior knowledge at the start of a new unit, enable students to practice skills they’re learning or deepen their understanding of content, or help students make connections or review information they’ve already learned.
  • Adapt activities to current content. For instance, if you are using a set of matching content-based cards, they can be easily adapted to a wide variety of social studies topics and terms.
  • Consider your school’s policies or students’ needs in regard to touching. If your school prohibits student contact or you feel that students aren’t developmentally ready for it, adjust activities accordingly. For instance, instead of shaking hands during a greeting, students can simply look at each other, smile, and speak their greeting words.
  • Support English language learners and emerging readers. Morning Meeting can give all students, including English language learners, a chance to successfully engage with rich social studies content. If your students need additional support, use sentence frames for greeting and sharing, add picture clues to morning messages, let students write out what they’re going to say for certain sharing topics, or have students pair up to do certain greetings or group activities.
  • Adjust the reading level of messages as needed and adapt particular messages to meet your students’ specific needs.
  • Adjust for any time constraints. For example, if you want to spend more time on a group activity or are trying one that may be a bit challenging for your class, use a shorter and simpler greeting, sharing, and morning message that day.

Morning Meetings are designed to set a positive tone for the day and to help students make a successful start, so be sure to consider students’ needs, interests, and abilities. Choose activities that allow students to practice or apply social studies skills or concepts you’ve already presented to them rather than introducing new content. Avoid playing it too safe, or students will lose interest. Aim for activities challenging enough to engage every child, yet not so challenging as to be discouraging.

As you probe questions, explore social studies concepts, and help students extend their understanding out into the world, remember to have fun, embrace mistakes as opportunities for learning, and keep a curious and open mind.

Leah Carson has been an educator in New Jersey public schools since 2000, and she currently works with diverse learners as an instructional support teacher in SouthBrunswick, New Jersey. Leah has been a part-time consulting teacher for Center for Responsive Schools and uses her classroom experiences to bring the Responsive Classroom approach to life for educators across the country.

Jane Cofie is director of curriculum and instructional designer for Center for Responsive Schools and previously taught grades pre-K–5 in private and public schools in Virginia for 20 years. Jane is the author of Strengthening the Parent-Teacher Partnership (Center for Responsive Schools, 2021).