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June 24, 2021

Engaging Students in Personally Meaningful SEL

Lessons should promote deeper learning and, ultimately, greater student engagement and retention.

Social-emotional learning
Instructional Strategies
Grappling with the barriers to interpersonal connection inherent in remote learning has made us think even more carefully about how we craft lessons for students. Whether online or in person, lessons should promote deeper learning and, ultimately, greater student engagement and learning retention. That's why it is of paramount importance to apply a social-emotional learning (SEL) lens to all lessons, no matter the subject. This means actively fostering belonging in a safe and welcoming classroom community, engaging students in learning that is relevant to their lives, and helping them grow skills that will enable them to pursue their personal goals.
Even as schools transition back to in-person learning, virtual and blended learning are likely to remain a reality. Because of this, we must continue to improve virtual practices and consider how they can be used to support in-person learning for the good of students' academic success and mental health.
Wayfinder, an SEL curriculum for middle and high school students, was born out of Stanford's to address a rise in student mental health crises. We partner with educators to design learning experiences that foster belonging in the classroom and guide students to navigate life with purpose.
Let's look at several touchpoints for lesson planning that support students' emotional and psychological well-being in addition to their academics.

Encourage collaborative lesson plans.

The pandemic has created social isolation, but it is possible to make remote learning collaborative in ways that mirror in-person classes and build intentional connection and community.
One way teachers can accomplish this is to co-create their classroom environment by inviting students to give their input on classroom media, expectations, and routines.
A Class Playlist: Teachers and students can collaborate on music playlists for entering or leaving the classroom, during games and activities, or as part of communal lesson introductions/conclusions. We also invite students to lead opening and closing activities, such as personal check-in/check-out questions, brief meditations, or quick body movement exercises. To avoid the need for prior preparation, suggested activities should include some previously practiced by the class and new ones with short, simple directions. Collaborative tools such as Google Jamboard and Google Slides can be especially helpful for preparing these kinds of activities.
A Community Agreement: Set agreements as a class. If classroom norms already exist from in-person lessons, they can be adjusted for virtual lessons, and vice-versa. A good rule of thumb is to limit norms to about four so that each one is practical, observable, and easy to remember. Classes should discuss expectations for (online/in-person) behavior and why it's important to adhere to them. You can have students write down ideas individually, pair-share the norms they created, then close out with a whole-class conversation about which ones to agree upon. At least once a year, the class should check back in on their community agreements to see if they are still relevant or if they need to be adjusted. For further student involvement, teachers can invite students to lead this process.
A Meaningful Ritual: Classes can create an opening and closing ritual as a group, such as a game, a class cheer, or a check-in/check-out procedure. We have had small classes co-write poems to recite, one line per student, at the end of each class. Larger classes have used call-and-response check-ins and check-outs, cheers of encouragement, and short, student-choreographed to open and close lessons with energy and positivity.

Support deeper learning.

Making lessons that feel significant is always important, but for student engagement in times of transition, it carries extra weight. For students to achieve deeper learning, they must be able to connect lessons to their own experiences, current interests, and future pursuits.
Explain the Why: Without an in-person school community, or with limited access to one, going to class can feel meaningless. One antidote to low motivation is explaining the why of lessons. Research shows that students need a personal connection to information to encode it to memory (Brown et al., 2014). Teachers can briefly share what is important to them about teaching their subject. This kind of modeling prompts students to reflect on the lesson's relevance to their lives too. Some of our lessons end with an intentional "Wrap Up" process that connects the learning back to real life, such as encouraging students a linear model of success and see their lives instead as a fluid, constantly changing journey.
Engage the Senses, Make it Experiential: Experiential lessons that include games, roleplays, puzzles, and group challenges encourage embodied knowledge. How can the senses or the whole body engage? How can music fit in? How might students change their physical environments to better connect with the lesson? Incorporate sensory experiences, such as going outside to interact with nature, moving between activities at table stations, doing jumping jacks, or drumming.

Ensure cultural relevance.

Culturally relevant lessons take special care to meet students where they are by weaving their personal interests, experiences, and identities into learning. Making education culturally relevant is crucial for student engagement and achievement, particularly for marginalized students whose identities are often not acknowledged or represented in classroom content (Ladson-Billings, 1992).
Share a Story: Our brains love stories. Evidence shows that when we resonate with a story, we release the neurochemical oxytocin, which increases empathy and connection (Zak, 2015). For any given lesson, teachers can think of a relevant story to share to make learning personal. For example, in Wayfinder's lesson on generating ideas for purposeful projects, we invite educators to share a personal and meaningful project outside of their work. In the lesson about joy, we ask teachers to share something their students might not know about that brings them joy. They can also share a story about something that's happening in the world, like an upcoming holiday or current event.
Connect Content to Real-World Contexts: Connections are easier to make in some classes than in others. When teaching content that is more theoretical or abstract, consider examples to demonstrate ideas. If you know of a specific interest many of your students share or a topic that is locally relevant (e.g., an upcoming community event or celebration), find stories or ideas that can be weaved in as examples that demonstrate how concepts play out in your students' actual lives.
Invite Student Voices and Feedback: Ask students to share relevant knowledge and stories, using media, apps, and creative platforms like TikTok and Instagram to supplement or present their in-class learning. Empower students to provide input on how they think classes could be more meaningful and engaging. Over the years, students we've worked with have requested more time for personal interaction with classmates in less structured ways and to discuss and get help with their problems. Requests like these have enabled us to improve our lesson plans.

Factor in the current context.

The crises of the past year call for special attention to context. The pandemic has been disruptive to life in innumerable ways, and we would do a disservice to our students to ignore the gravity of the moment. Lesson plans that explicitly name and factor in the current context and regular check-ins will help ensure students have a touchpoint on their well-being.
Simplify Lessons: With school's structural changes, it may be overwhelming for students to focus on learning. Teachers may need to build in more time than usual for students to process information, articulate their thoughts and request clarification. Also, the online classroom can feel one-directional and anonymous, and students might think it doesn't matter if they're present or responsive. The simple act of acknowledging students by name can change that.
Plan for Flexibility: With so much talk about lost learning and growing achievement gaps, teachers may be eager to approach their planning with a quick return to academics in a business-as-usual manner. However, as some aspects of school life regain a sense of normalcy, others will remain in flux. As a school, it may be helpful to hold staff meetings to verbalize concerns and revise expectations together. As always, hold up the reminder that students who are well supported by strong communities will be better able to engage in their academic work.
Encourage Student Choice: Offer options for how students can participate, moving beyond speaking up in class to writing on a (virtual) board, submitting work for gallery walks of written content, or responding to thought-provoking questions through direct messages or a group chat. Participatory options remind students that all forms of contribution are equally valid. For virtual lessons in particular, digital tools with poll functionalities like Poll Everywhere enable students to give their input about preferred daily energizers, games, and parts of lessons they need more help on.
Use Check-In Tools: Playful prompts can establish time for students to connect with one another about something unrelated to the day's lesson. Moments like these conjure the social interaction that exists during passing periods or in advisory. Students might authentically share how they're doing using a tool like the Mood Meter by Yale's Center for Emotional Intelligence. We also like to use what we call a "weather report," which encourages students to share how they're feeling as though delivering a broadcasted weather report, or we'll have students draw images and shapes that represent their current state.
By applying an SEL lens to curriculum planning and classroom practices, schools will be better positioned to support students' well-being and academic achievement. Preparing to do this in both the virtual and in-person classroom can offer students meaningful learning experiences even in times of great transition.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2010). Reading between the lines and beyond the pages: A culturally relevant approach to literacy teaching. Theory Into Practice, 31(4), 312–320.

Zak, P. J. (2015). Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative. Cerebrum, 2.

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