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The Transformative Trifecta: Driving Change Through Literacy, Equity, and Social-Emotional Learning

By Alina O’Donnell
 | Sep 19, 2019

Eckert_680wIn June 2019, the Ohio State Board of Education adopted a set of social-emotional learning (SEL) standards for K–12 students. This comes as part of the state’s new strategic plan for education, in which SEL is one of four “learning domains” outlined—a move that essentially says SEL is as important to a child’s education as literacy, numeracy, and technology.

Ohio isn’t alone in these efforts. Between 2011 and 2018, the number of states with K–12 SEL standards jumped from 1 to 18. Outside of the U.S., the popularity of SEL has also grown significantly.

This isn’t surprising, given today’s social climate. More and more schools around the globe are prioritizing SEL, which aims to develop interpersonal skills, self-regulation, and the ability to feel and demonstrate empathy. Educators are turning to SEL-embedded instruction to foster equitable learning environments.

What is surprising is that despite this, and despite how SEL-informed literacy instruction paves a powerful pathway to equity, very little has been written about how the three intersect.

This is the driving goal of the Equity in Education Program at the ILA 2019 Conference, October 10–13 in New Orleans, LA. The program, which has expanded across all four days of the conference, will draw clear connections between literacy, equity, and SEL.

The intersection of literacy, equity, and social-emotional learning

Over the past 15 years, the United States has increasingly emphasized assessments as an index of school performance. This emphasis on academic rigor has left many educators feeling pressured to choose between strengthening SEL skills and growing academic skills.

Justina Schlund, one of this year’s Equity in Education Program speakers, is here to shatter that false dichotomy. Central to her work as director of field learning at The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is her steadfast belief that social-emotional competence is inextricably tied to academic achievement.

“Foundational to how all learning happens is how students engage socially and emotionally with each other, with themselves, and with teachers in the classroom,” she says. “In order to achieve any other goals, we need to be focused on students as whole people.”

A long body of research shows that inequities such as disabilities, poverty, and discrimination can pose barriers to children’s social and emotional development. Schools have an important role to play by helping students develop the skills, habits, and dispositions that equip them for success in school and beyond.

Schlund sees social and emotional development as a lever not only for academic achievement but also for increasing educational equity.

“I’m not saying SEL is the solution, but it contributes to how people understand each other, how we explore and examine our own biases, and how we make decisions that impact others,” she says.

Supporting teachers’ social and emotional development

Although Schlund stands by CASEL’s definition of SEL, she believes it’s often misinterpreted to apply exclusively to children. She views SEL as a lifelong process needed to navigate every context, from the classroom to friendships and first jobs.

“We do not talk about SEL exclusively for kids, even though that is often the focus of SEL in schools,” says Schlund. “I think it’s important to remember that everyone is engaged in this process of learning and answering questions like, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘How do I relate to the world?’ and ‘How do I make decisions that benefit the community and the world at large?’”

Just as a history teacher needs to learn history to be effective, educators wishing to teach and model SEL must first build their own competencies in self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, relationship skills, and social awareness.

“In order to do this work, you need to take care of yourself and you need to take care of your own social-emotional needs,” says Katherine Theodore, senior technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research (AIR), also a speaker during the upcoming Equity in Education Program.

The Equity in Education Program session on Friday, Oct. 11, “The Intersection of Literacy, Equity, and Social-Emotional Learning,” will focus on preparing teachers to develop their own social-emotional skills through self-reflection on practice, curriculum, personal biases, and growth opportunities.

After a short opening keynote, five literacy leaders will share how they build capacity and prepare educators to accomplish goals around SEL in their schools and communities. Along with Schlund and Theodore, attendees will hear from Pedro A. Noguera, distinguished professor of education at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA and founder of the university’s Center for the Transformation of Schools; Jovanni Ramos, principal of Foundation Preparatory Charter School in New Orleans, LA; and Stephanie K. Siddens, senior executive director of the Ohio Department of Education’s Center for Student Supports.

Following these TED-style presentations, Noguera will facilitate an audience-driven Q&A, allowing time for attendees to respond, exchange ideas, and ask questions.

Identifying key challenges and outlining next steps

Led by a panel of classroom practitioners, the Equity in Education Program session on Saturday, Oct. 12, “Integrating Social-Emotional Learning in the Literacy Classroom,” will shift the focus onto classroom implementation.

Following the same format as Friday, presenters will demonstrate what evidence-based SEL looks like in literacy education, highlight potential pitfalls, and offer recommendations for educators seeking to implement SEL.

Attendees will hear from Kimberly Eckert, 2018 Louisiana State Teacher of the Year, high school English teacher, and reading specialist at Brusly High School; Shawna Coppola, middle school language arts teacher and literacy specialist/coach; Gerald Dessus, middle school cultural studies teacher at The Philadelphia School in Pennsylvania and an ILA 30 Under 30 honoree for 2019; Tiana Silvas, fifth-grade teacher at PS 59 in Manhattan and former Heinemann Fellow; and Tamera Slaughter, manager of educational partnerships with Center for the Collaborative Classroom.

Eckert will deliver the opening keynote, during which she’ll share her own SEL journey and discuss the main challenges to implementation—one being recruitment.

“Too often, teachers enter the profession because they still follow the antiquated ideal of ‘you love English, so you teach English’ instead of ‘you love humanity, so you teach,’” she says. “We need to recruit and attract people who are seriously engaged in changing the world and who have a 4.0 in people, not necessarily a 4.0 in physics.”

In addition to the Friday and Saturday sessions, this year’s Equity in Education Program is also bookended by events on Thursday, Oct. 11, and Sunday, Oct. 13—Institute Day and Children’s Literature Day, respectively.

These all-day events require separate registration and are not included in Core Conference.

On Thursday, educators Kathy Collins, Shawna Coppola, Matthew Kay, and Aeriale N. Johnson will lead the Equity in Education Program institute—“Equity in Education: Roles, Tools, and Approaches for Engaging in Bias-Free Practices.” During Children’s Literature Day on Sunday, a morning session, “Equity Through Empathy,” will be led by educators, authors, and activists including Chad Everett and Tricia Ebarvia, who will examine the role children’s literature plays in social-emotional learning. Finally, an afternoon workshop, “Empathy and Identity,” led by Everett, Ebarvia, and San Diego State University’s Virginia Loh-Hagan, will unpack the latest research about representation in the classroom.

Takeaways

When asked about what they hope attendees will take from this year’s program, presenters said they hope attendees will start to see SEL as an indelible landmark in today’s educational landscape rather than a fleeting fad.

“It needs to be tightly embedded within the curriculum. You can have an SEL program, but when you are designing your lessons and your curriculum, you need to have that SEL language in there,” says Theodore. “It cannot be taught in isolation of the curriculum.”

“SEL is the underbelly of everything that we’re doing,” adds Schlund. “If we care about our kids and we care about the world at large, we have to care about SEL.”

Alina O’Donnell is the former editor of Literacy Daily and communications strategist for ILA.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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