+ Social/Emotional Learning (SEL) Through Characters in Novels

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Traci Vogel, in an article called “A Novel Approach to Feelings: Using Literary Characters to Teach Emotional Intelligence,” says teachers have been fruitfully weaving social-and-emotional-learning (SEL) techniques into their literature segments.

A growing body of scholarly research provides evidence of the impact of SEL initiatives.

“Books like From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankenweiler  provide a starting point for discussions about community building, handling anger, listening, assertiveness, cooperation, mediation, celebrating differences, and countering bias,” she writes.

Kelly Stuart, national education consultant at the Developmental Studies Center in Oakland California, says such lessons enable students to “access their own background and emotionss, and their relationships in the class, in a much different way.” 

The Developmental Studies Center has spent the last seven years researching and compiling the “Making Meaning” program, a K-8 reading comprehension curriculum that uses read-aloud books to develop social values.  Used in almost every state, “Making Meaning” marries the academic and the social, Stuart feels.

For example, one “Making Meaning” lesson plan, aimed at eighth graders, is based on Lois Lowry’s Newberry award-winning young-adult fantasy novel The Giver.   It helps students understand the underlying themes of the novel, in which young Jonas learns disturbing things about his supposedly utopian community.

Students are paired up for the entire unit, which spans several weeks.

After each reading, they are asked to analyze character relationships, outline the plot of the story, and explore character change as a result of conflict and resolution in the plot.

In “Heads Together” sessions of four students, they are then asked to discuss their feelings about what they’ve read.

Lessons are carefully constructed to teach talking and listening skills, using strategies such as verbal prompts (“I agree with what you said, and I think…”), clarifying questions, and confirmations.

It is important to choose the literature for these lessons carefully, says Stuart.  “By using texts with strong characters, with kids — not just adults — solving problems and taking on some big issues that may have cross-curricular applications, we find the kids not only connect to the stories but also really can learn a strategy that way, over time.”

At the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility in New York, executive director Tom Roderick created a curriculum based around the books The Librarian of Basra  and Alia’s Mission Saving the Books of Iraq.  He was inspired by a July 2003 NY Times story by Shaila Dewan.  These books tell the real-life story of Alia Muhammad Baker, chief librarian of Basra, Iraq.

To Alia, “books are more precious than mountains of gold.”  So when her country is invaded and the library is threatened, she single-handedly organizes people to move 30,000 books to safe havens.  Alia is a strong character who is proactive in a time of conflict, and an important role model for children who may feel powerless.

In his lesson plans, Roderick addresses reading comprehension questions: “Who is the story mainly about?” and “What is Alia worried about?”  But the lessons also help students connect the story to their own lives with questions like “Are there things going on in the world that you worry about like Alia?  What are they?.” 

Lessons then move on to practical applications: “Has there been a time when you made the world better by something you did?”  If students can’t think of anything, teachers are urged to remind them that small things count — for example, “helping your mother, sending a card to someone who is sick.”

Since most stories and plays involve conflict they can provide valuable SEL lessons, says Roderick.  But, “It’s useful to distinguish conflict from violence; conflict and violence are not the same thing.” 

If, in their language arts class, they’re reading a story where the main character is having a conflict with somebody, a teacher can say, “What do we have here?  We have a conflict.  Did the character deal with it the right way?  How do you think these characters are feeling?”

Discussions then lead to real life lessons.  You might have kids talk about a recent conflict they’ve been involved with, and how it turned out, suggests Roderick. 

The Orange County Department of Education’s Institute for Character Education developed curriculum using The Mixed-Up Files.  The book leads to discussion about Claudia’s running away because she [says the curriculum] “felt she was treated unfairly, that she had too many chores, and that her allowance was too small.  What else could she have done instead of running away?  What negative value illustrates her decision to run away?”

Writes Traci Vogel:

Good literature has long been a window into our psyches.  As historian Barbara W Tuchman put it, “Books are humanity in print.”  Incorporating SEL lessons into reading curriculum can put students in touch with the universality of literature, its power to transport us to different experiences and to connect and even change human beings. 

After all, as Claudia says near the end of From the Mixed-Up Files,  “I didn’t run away to come home the same.”

 sole source: article (10/3/08) by Traci Vogel, a freelance writer in San Francisco, from Edutopia.com, which is associated with the George Lucas Education Foundation.   http://www.edutopia.org 

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email   aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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