‘If we don’t teach to the heart, we will never reach the mind,’ says Lyon Terry, Washington state’s Teacher of the Year in 2015.
“How were you a responsible partner?” This is a question I ask regularly in my reading lessons this school year. All K-5 students in Seattle Public Schools are hearing this. As teachers learn to teach a new literacy curriculum from the Center for the Collaborative Classroom, we are integrating social and emotional skills with reading and writing instruction.
As social and emotional learning has come to the forefront in education, what teachers worry about is another initiative piled on our already crowded desks. Rarely is anything taken off. Fortunately, social and emotional learning doesn’t have to be added to what we teach, but can be an essential part of our existing lessons.
Many teachers know this already and are ready and willing to bring this instruction out in the open. It’s time to embrace social-emotional learning as an important part of every lesson, because these skills support students in learning academic content and in becoming the citizens we want them to be.
Washington state defines social and emotional learning as “a process through which people build awareness and skills in managing emotions, setting goals, establishing relationships and making responsible decisions, leading to success in school and in life.” As you can imagine, students, teachers, parents and future employers all benefit by our integration of these standards in our regular teaching.
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The Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development is taking a similar approach, stressing the need to integrate all types of learning. The commission has released a case study that explores different curricula that can help teachers attend to all dimensions of learning, including the Center for the Collaborative Classroom lessons that we’re teaching in Seattle. Last week their Council of Distinguished Scientists released a set of consensus statements “that affirm the interconnectedness of social, emotional and academic development as central to the learning process.”
What does this look like in practice? When the 9- and 10-year-olds in my fourth-grade classroom talk with one another about content, I teach them to face each other during a conversation, to take turns talking, and to respond in a way that continues the conversation. These are the behaviors of responsible partners. Some of the prompts in the curriculum include:
“In addition to what _____ said …”
“I dis/agree with ____ because …”
With such lessons, my students know that when they share an idea or an opinion, it won’t be immediately shot down or laughed at. They know what it means to play games fairly and by the rules, because I teach these skills. This specific instruction calms emotions during games and group work and allows students to focus and learn. When we establish classrooms in which students communicate well and have positive mindsets, then they will be more open to new ideas, to making mistakes, and to learning from them. This is important in literacy, math, science and even computer coding. (See my conversation with Bill Gates about this.)
Respectful classroom talk takes place when we’re studying science and doing any group task. “How can you break the task apart so everyone participates?” “How can you ensure that each voice is heard?” “Can you monitor your ‘airtime’?” Before kids set off on their investigations, they respond to these questions. At the end of the lesson, these are the questions I ask students to reflect on. They know that being a good group member is valued, recognized and important. Isn’t it to you?
“How are you feeling today?” or “Can you explain your thinking?” These are phrases that help us all participate in the world, so we should explicitly teach them in classrooms. Think about your workplace: Don’t you appreciate people who can connect and collaborate? We need to teach our rising citizens to do this.
Integrating social and emotional skills with our content lessons helps our students see others as thoughtful, engaged people. These skills give them the ability to interact, create knowledge together, and understand an individual’s role in our increasingly complex society. Social and emotional skills are also the roots of love and empathy, emotions that are needed today more than ever.
If we don’t teach to the heart, we will never reach the mind.