SEL in History Class: Social and Emotional Learning in Context

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By Terrence McAllister and Sonny Kelly

United States is currently rife with debate in a struggle to develop working definitions of terms such as “racism,” “patriotism,” “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion.” Parents, pedagogues, and pundits alike publicly debate the meaning and application of critical race theory, privilege, and wokeness. Unfortunately, social and emotional learning (SEL) curricula that help educators create and implement a more relevant, inclusive, and comprehensive pedagogy for students are sometimes eclipsed in the fray. Unfortunate, too, because implementing an SEL approach to history lessons can offer many benefits to educators and their students. By applying such an approach to diverse history lessons, teachers and learners can discover fertile soil for fomenting the “social, emotional, behavioral, attitudinal, and academic skills that lead to success in learning, play, friendships, relationships, life, work, and business” (“What Is Social and Emotional Learning?” n.d.). As an example, what follows is an SEL-based approach to teaching the Boston Massacre and the involvement of Crispus Attucks.

Not unlike our current time, the 1770s saw their fair share of protests in the name of freedom. On March 5, 1770, British soldiers shot and killed five American colonists, including a Black man named Crispus Attucks, in what became known as the Boston Massacre. And not unlike current events, the soldiers were found not guilty of murder for Attucks’s death, in part due to an imbalance of power fed by racist attitudes.

Using an SEL approach to teaching this moment in American history will help students to contextualize it and apply it to current events, at a time when America finds itself

still grappling with police violence against people of color, a racialized justice system, and double standards regarding who has the right to protest for the ideals of freedom and justice. Teaching historical events such as the Boston Massacre can provide entry into the discussion and implementation of the five components of SEL: cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control (C.A.R.E.S.).

Attucks was a runaway slave. He was born in 1723 to a Native American mother of the Wampanoag Tribe and an enslaved Black father near Framingham, Massachusetts. An ad placed by slave owner William Browne in a newspaper in 1750 described Attucks as six-foot-two, knock-kneed, and with short curly hair (“Crispus” is Latin for curly). As a newly freed man in his late twenties, Attucks found work as a sailor.

It was dangerous and difficult life, but being a sailor offered a runaway slave cover from bounty hunters. Attucks worked mostly on whaling ships, and when not at sea, he found work as a rope-maker. On the night that he died, Attucks had just returned from the Bahamas, on his way to North Carolina. The events that unfolded on that Monday night of March 5, 1770, have been reported from many different sources and perspectives. We know that the American sailors despised the British soldiers because they often competed with them for work, and that the British were known to kidnap American sailors and force them to serve in the Royal British Navy. (These notions of immigrants taking American jobs and engaging in human trafficking are not new.) A crowd of American colonists, which included Attucks, started harassing a group

of British soldiers that evening. Surrounded by a crowd yelling and throwing everything from snowballs to clam shells at them, eight British soldiers confronted over 300 angry colonists.

The Boston Massacre itself began as an example of cooperation. Bostonians of diverse ethnic backgrounds gathered to protest England’s oppressive occupation of the city. As a runaway slave, Attucks knew firsthand the deep human desire for freedom and liberty. As a sailor, Attucks stood in solidarity with the other colonial sailors in their indignation over the common British practices of taking colonists’ jobs by working for less and of kidnapping young colonial men for impressment into the British Navy. As a proponent of both personal and collective freedom, Attucks rose as one of the leaders of this protest.

The Bostonians modeled assertiveness in their protests and by facing off against the small group of armed British soldiers. When the angry crowd of colonists pressed into the British soldiers, the protest turned violent. One of the British soldiers fired his musket, which prompted the other soldiers to fire into the crowd. When the smoke cleared, five men lay dead or dying in the snow: Patrick Carr, Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, and Crispus Attucks. Most reports confirm that Attucks, armed with a wooden club, was one of the leaders of this uprising.

With regard to responsibility, the story of the Boston Massacre and Crispus Attucks allows learning communities to critically discuss the power of the law and media in shaping our perceptions of ourselves and others. For example, learners might examine Attucks’s

simultaneous status as a patriot and a runaway slave to discuss the American colonial society’s responsibility to its members versus its perpetuation of the institution of slavery.

John Adams, often lauded as a great statesman, served as the defense attorney for the eight British soldiers during the trial in Boston. An American patriot in his own right who would later go on to become the second president of the United States, Adams put forth his best effort to ensure that the British soldiers received an effective and fair trial. In his defense of the soldiers, though, Adams leaned on racist and bigoted tropes, referring to Attucks as “a stout Molatto fellow, whose very looks, was enough to terrify any person” and went on to declare that it was due to Attucks’s “mad behaviour, in all probability, [that] the dreadful carnage of that night, is chiefly to be ascribed” (Adams, 1770). Adams also specifically noted that Patrick Carr, one of the American colonists killed, was an immigrant from Ireland, and referred to the crowd of colonists as a “rabble of Negroes, &c.” (Adams, 1770).

While Adams carried out his responsibility as an attorney by defending the soldiers, he also showed irresponsibility toward his fellow colonists by leveraging their nationalities and races to sway the opinions of the jury in the trial. After deliberating for about three hours, the jurors found the soldiers not guilty of murder. Adams was famously lauded for his legal acumen and blind commitment to justice.

Our responsibility is to learn from Adams’s example of how we can do a better job of

treating each other with fairness and honesty. We are also responsible for managing our own perceptions and acknowledging the narratives that mold our values, beliefs, and actions. A look at two of the most popular artistic renderings of the Boston Massacre— Paul Revere’s and William Champney’s—can help us to do this (Gearty, 2006).

Champney’s color drawing of the event is perhaps the most widely distributed depiction of the event. It shows a crowd of American colonists confronting British soldiers in the streets of Boston on that day. Of the five colonists who lost their lives, Attucks is depicted most prominently in the foreground as a dark-skinned Black man gripping the muzzle of a British soldier’s musket. (Ironically, Champney’s drawing of the Boston Massacre was actually produced in 1855, and it served as propaganda for the growing abolitionist movement of that time.) In fact, the first prominent depiction of the Boston Massacre was Paul Revere’s, which was originally circulated in the 1770s and showed only white protesters. Revere’s omitting of Attucks challenges students to contend with the fact that in a country that seems to aspire to color blindness, race has always mattered.

Comparing and contrasting these two renditions of this event allows students to explore the responsibility of representation. It appears to have mattered enough to Paul Revere to produce the glaring omission of Attucks’s Black skin in his rendition of the Boston Massacre. It mattered so much to William Champney that he clearly featured Attucks as a Black man prominently in the foreground of his lithograph. And now, it matters to students who may have never seen Black Americans portrayed as anything but slaves in colonial America. We have a responsibility to manage our understanding and expression of history.

Empathy is also a key element of the Boston Massacre story. The story of Crispus Attucks is

a clear reminder that people of color played important agential roles alongside whites in many historical events. Such culturally relevant context indicates to nonwhite students that they have historically had a stake in this nation’s foundation and growth. It indicates to white students that interracial and interethnic cooperation have been historical practices in America, as some of the historical figures of that time modeled this. While John Adams depicted Attucks and the colonists as troublemakers, to most of Boston’s inhabitants Attucks came to be known as a patriot and a hero. After his death, Attucks lay in state in Boston’s Faneuil Hall for three days. Poet John Boyle O’Reilly wrote that Attucks was “the first to defy, and the first to die” (O’Reilly, 1888).

With regard to self-control, the Boston Massacre offers a case study in the threats posed by a situation where many people showed a lack of self-control. Between the increasingly violent crowd and the hasty use of lethal force by the British soldiers, both sides contributed to the outcome. Written reports from multiple witnesses of the event note that some of the colonists shouted insults and instigations, calling the British soldiers “lobsters” and “bloody backs” while openly daring them to fire their weapons. At least one witness claims that Attucks charged the soldiers as he shouted, “Kill the dogs, knock them over” (Kiger, 2021). Captain Thomas Preston, officer of the guard, attempted to control the situation by calling the crowd to “Stand off!” In the midst of this heated exchange, someone from the back of the mob threw a club that hit one of the soldiers, knocking him to the ground. “Damn you, fire!” someone shouted. One eyewitness said that Attucks actually grabbed the musket of one of the soldiers by the end of the barrel. As the crowd became more aggressive, one of the soldiers fired his musket, hitting Attucks in the chest. The other soldiers followed by firing indiscriminately into the mob.

This chain of events offers students an opportunity to break down the failures in communication and self-control that caused the massacre to happen. They can also work together to examine how a higher level of self-control on the part of both the colonists and the soldiers might have produced a more positive outcome.

Despite John Adams’s effective weaponization of race at trial, Attucks has been celebrated by Americans since 1770. A monument was built in 1888 in Boston Common commemorating the death of the five men who died in the Boston Massacre. In 1998, to commemorate the 275th anniversary of his birth, the US Mint issued a silver dollar coin in honor of Attucks. Many schools, children’s centers, foundations, and museums are named after him, representing the struggle and heroism of a Black man searching for freedom.

A comprehensive and interactive SEL approach to teaching complex historical events such as the Boston Massacre

offers teachers and learners a unique opportunity to call each other into conversation, cooperation, and collective understanding. It allows learners to explore underrepresented and often unvoiced narratives. It challenges learners to consider the implications and importance of the key SEL competencies of cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control. Such competencies transcend any particular curriculum or political platform. They allow learners to put real history into context, to see themselves as agential actors in a historical context, and to apply the lessons learned from that history into their real, present lives.

Terrence McAllister is currently the chief of educational partnerships at Center for Responsive Schools, with a focus on the Fly Five curriculum, and an assistant professor of educational leadership at Fayetteville State University. Terrence has an extensive background in education, including as a teacher, principal, director, and assistant superintendent. He has a PhD in educational leadership from East Carolina University.

Sonny Kelly currently teaches communications at Fayetteville Technical Community College in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He has a BA in international relations from Stanford University, an MA in communication studies from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, and a PhD in communications from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.