Balancing Content and SEL as School Begins

A MiddleWeb Blog

I’m going to start this blog post with something controversial:

I don’t like doing social emotional learning lessons with students and fun get-to-know-you activities.

And now I’m going to qualify that, because I don’t really hate these activities. I just think they have to be considered carefully. So here are two (I hope) non-controversial statements:

1. Making sure students know that you respect them and genuinely care – not just about their learning, but also about them – is critical to being a successful teacher.

2. We all know that this school year will be like no other, and that students will need #1 above more than usual.

So what should we do as educators during the first day(s) of school – a time we hope will be like no other in the future? Even if you’ve already started, these suggestions will still be helpful, I think.

In a post I wrote this past spring, I noted that there is nothing like this pandemic to get us to focus on what matters most in teaching. This is why we must think carefully about our first days and weeks with students. Yes, we need to show them we care. But we are their teacher, not their best friend, parent, older sibling, or therapist.

Our students are not coming to our Zoom class to hang out and have a good time. (No matter what you do, that won’t likely happen.) They are coming to learn. With that in mind, let me offer a few ideas for the first day or week of school.

A Few Suggestions for the First Day

For the ELA teachers, I love the idea in Matthew M. Johnson’s The-ReWrite Blog on having students write for five minutes. For the history teacher – that’s me – I’m thinking about a discussion on what artifacts and/or primary sources best represent this current moment.

Science teachers? Maybe you could use my history idea but adjust it to focus on the power of observation: pre-select five objects that represent our current times and have students make observations.

An alternative idea: make a list (or have the students make them) of five things about our current time that show that science matters. Or ask five questions they think scientists could answer about the current moment through their research. Anything to get students talking about science and to each other.

For the math teachers out there, what about “a quarantine by the numbers activity” which demonstrates that sometimes numbers have a simple beauty to convey things that words cannot. I didn’t write down the actual numbers, but in my journaling during the early weeks and months of the pandemic, I made a list that looked like this:

• Number of days I forgot to brush my teeth until well past noon.
• # of times per day I’ve thought about whether something I’ve touched might have the coronavirus on it.
• % of my clothing that I’ve worn during the pandemic.
• # of days that the horrible news headlines looked just like the day before.

In groups you could have students come up with other examples they relate best to their lives as tweens and teens.

Three Guidelines for This Year

Whatever you decide to do, I would consider the following three guidelines which I think apply not just to the first day of class, but to the whole year:

1. Find ways to get students to talk to each other. If you want to develop a genuine sense of community and learning with your students (a resource from Larry Ferlazzo) and not just a facsimile learning space, you need to find ways for them to talk to each other. They will need the opportunity to discuss the elephant in the room (or in your Zoom room): this is such a weird way to start the school year!

Give them interesting things to discuss and they will. Yes, they will spend some of that time off-task. But that is okay, because that is our reality and talking about it develops community.

2. Get students to think about something that is related to your content. That’s what this is all about. We are their teachers. We need to teach them something! Make them want to come back and learn more. Or, as Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince, said far more eloquently,

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Find something to let them know that what they will be studying in your class is fascinating and that it matters. Appeal to their curiosity, their sense of fairness, their wonder.

3. Whether it’s during the class period, or afterwards, in the feedback you provide to something they write or turn in, make sure you show them that you are listening to them and care about what they have to say.

Yes, this will be a school year like no other. But maybe, just maybe, we will all become better, stronger teachers as a result.

Feature illustration: Jennifer Gonzalez