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In the Field: Educators Share Thoughts on SEL and Literacy

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To see how SEL and literacy work together in practice, Sarah Fillion, Director of Consulting and Certification for Center for Responsive Schools (CRS), spoke with Tracey Tierney and Kimberly Eisman. Here’s what we learned.


CRS: Do you think using literature is an effective way to help students develop and refine SEL skills?


Tracey: Many third graders enjoy cooperative work but have challenges working with certain peers. Using literature to support tough situations helps them recognize that they’re not alone. I use books to start discussions about topics some kids find too personal to talk about. When we look at what’s happening in a story, it’s easier to make the connection to what’s happening in class.

Kimberly: Using literature to teach SEL skills has been a game changer, no matter what size class I’m teaching. Choosing the right novels and short stories, though, is essential. While certain books have been around in schools for years, are they truly the novels we want to use to teach the skills we, as teachers, believe the students need the most?


CRS: Are there specific books that pop into your mind to support CARES (cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control)?


Tracey: There are so many, but here are some favorites. For cooperation: Swimmy by Leo Lionni. For assertiveness: Bob Sornson and Maria Dismondy’s The Juice Box Bully. For responsibility: Ellen Javernick’s What If Everybody Did That? For empathy: Derek Munson’s Enemy Pie. For self-control: Bryan Smith’s What Were You Thinking? For educators looking for support themselves, there’s All Learning Is Social and Emotional by Frey, Fisher, and Smith.

Kimberly: I started this year with Refugee by Alan Gratz. It’s about four children seeking refuge from difficult conditions in their home countries. I use it to teach empathy, responsibility, change, stress management, and cooperation. As we read, students track these SEL skills and become able to apply many to their everyday lives. I was pleasantly surprised how invested they were in the story and how easily they could apply the characters’ struggles to their own.


CRS: Do you have any anecdotes about using literature to develop SEL competencies?


Tracey: Last year some of my students struggled with including everyone during recess, lunch, and cooperative classroom activities. At our Morning Meetings, we used interactive learning structures such as Maître d’, Concentric Circles, and role-play to explore the issue. Though they were able to devise strategies, the behavior didn’t improve. Then, I read them Trudy Ludwig’s The Invisible Boy and devised an art activity using white crayon to illustrate their plan to make sure no one felt invisible. I knew things were going to improve when I heard comments like, “You really showed how sad you felt being left out. I’m glad you’re not invisible anymore.” In a few days, they were doing their very best to be more inclusive.

Kimberly: Time constraints being a large hurdle, a few RC teachers came together to figure out ways to teach the SEL skills middle schoolers need while still advancing our curricula. We created an Advisory meeting to focus on empathy, then tied it to how characters in our current novel displayed the skill. Students then designed action plans for the characters. We also held Socratic seminars for big questions, such as “Who can I go to if I am upset?”


CRS: How often do you use literature with the intent of developing SEL competencies?


Tracey: Daily! Every narrative I read has the opportunity, even if it wasn’t chosen for that purpose. The book you read at snack time may be the only one students hear all day, so finding that nugget of wisdom is essential. Point out that Wilbur becomes assertive to support Charlotte’s babies in Charlotte’s Web, or that Clementine cut off all her hair because she had empathy for Margaret in Clementine.


CRS: Any tips for teachers interested in embedding SEL in their existing literacy block?


Tracey: Observe your students, especially during unstructured time. It tends to reveal which SEL competencies need support. Also, your librarian is the go-to for literature, with oldies-but-goodies as well as the latest. I also chat with guidance counselors about any struggles my students are having. They not only have great book recommendations, they often have a fantastic activity to accompany it.

Kimberly: Choosing the right readings is essential. It is important to choose books that appeal to your students. My students love graphic novels and often choose them for independent reading. When asked to reflect, they’re able to connect the characters’ development with the SEL skills we practice in the classroom.

Tracey Tierney has been teaching for 35 years. She began with four-year-olds, then moved to a private kindergarten. She later transitioned to public school and now teaches third and fourth grade in Milford, New Hampshire.

Kimberly Eisman has been a sixth through eighth grade ELA teacher for eight years at the Randolph Middle School, which was recently recognized by New Jersey Schools to Watch.

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