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October 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 2

Learning Character from Characters

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Social-emotional learning
Hiding in plain sight on our classroom bookshelves and in the school library are mentors children need for healthy social-emotional development: stories and biographies where fictional characters and real people solve many of the same problems students face themselves. Reading and analyzing texts are perfect ways to introduce larger questions about the ways in which we interact with one another and the larger world. The bonus? Teaching social-emotional learning through literature doesn't add a new expectation to teachers' already jam-packed curriculum—it can easily be incorporated into reading routines already in place.

Read It and Reap

For more than a decade, U.S. teachers have focused extensively on academic goals. After No Child Left Behind, there was the introduction of the Common Core standards. We had barely begun to understand those standards when along came new assessments to measure students' proficiency in applying them. For reading teachers, our strategies changed. If the question wasn't text dependent, it wasn't a good question. We stopped asking How would you feel if …? Or, what would you do if …? We stopped asking anything where the inference couldn't be drawn directly from the text.
I'm not opposed to questions that require students to dig deeply into the text; good readers begin with a solid grasp of what the author is telling them before relating those insights to their own thinking or behavior. But somewhere in our school day, there should be a place for forging connections between what students read, their personal values, and the world around them.
I propose a strategy for linking social-emotional learning to the reading curriculum already in place. It involves returning to a text previously used for close reading or a book you've simply read aloud to your students. This time, ask questions related to social and emotional problem solving to begin discussions that raise students' awareness and encourage them to rethink their own responses to challenging situations. Get kids talking, get them to role-play, and, most important, get them to write. Writing encourages even more reflection than conversation, which tends to generate in-the-moment reactions rather than more carefully considered responses.
A collateral benefit of incorporating SEL into literacy this way is that many of your questions will take you into the Common Core's comprehension standards and deeper levels on Webb's depth of knowledge (DOK) system. Depth of Knowledge refers to the level of thinking students demonstrate related to specific learning tasks. Because most questions you pose will be inferential, calling for strategic thinking, reasoning, and insight, students will get lots of practice with DOK 3 and even DOK 4 as they recognize similar messages across texts. SEL-connected conversations can also take you into standards that are sometimes overlooked: the crafting of the text, purpose and point of view, the sufficiency of evidence, use of illustrations, and connections between texts.
Now comes the fun part: applying SEL skills to books children love. This requires a clear vision of the social and emotional skills we wish to enhance and the books that will serve as mentor texts. It also asks us to think harder about the prevailing culture in our classroom.

Begin with a Set of Social-Emotional Skills

What social-emotional competencies do we want our students to achieve? Different programs and organizations emphasize different skill sets. While there's merit to all of them, depending on which outcomes you prioritize, I especially like the five social-emotional skills identified by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) because each competency can be addressed through several related focus areas:
▪ Self-awareness: identifying emotions, accurate self-perception, recognizing strengths, self-confidence, self-efficacy
▪ Self-management: impulse control, stress management, self-discipline, self-motivation, goal-setting, organizational skills
▪ Social awareness: perspective taking, empathy, appreciating diversity, respect for others
▪ Relationship skills: communication, social engagement, relationship-building, teamwork
▪ Responsible decision making: identifying problems, analyzing situations, solving problems, evaluating, reflecting, ethical responsibility
Note that there is a logical sequence here, with the first two skills centered on the individual and the final three addressing interaction among individuals. As with any well-articulated curriculum, the concepts should build from simple to complex. In this case, it's difficult for students to manage their relationships with others until they can identify and manage their own feelings and self-perceptions.
While there are many chapter books that support social-emotional learning, I tend to use high-quality picture books when working with elementary students. In a mere 32 pages (on average), they often deliver just what we need: robust characters and real-life heroes who face challenges, persevere in overcoming obstacles, and ultimately prevail—or at least learn an important lesson along the way.

Close Reading with an SEL Lens

Although books often address multiple SEL skills and focus areas, I prefer to choose only one focus for a text and ask questions that target this area, so students can think deeply about specific issues. Here are three examples of books and the identified SEL skill and focus area, along with related questions to ask students. I've also included a key question for teachers to spur their thinking on responding to students' social and emotional needs in the classroom.

Book #1: The Wretched Stone by Chris Van Allsburg (Houghton Mifflin, 1991)

SEL skill and focus area: Self-awareness: Self-efficacy
This tale of an ill-fated ship, the Rita Anne, is written as a series of journal entries by the ship's captain. As the voyage begins, the captain writes about the many interests and talents of his crew. They show their creativity in many ways, such as reading and making up songs. But then the crew discovers the "wretched stone," which emits an alluring bright light and mesmerizes the sailors, who sit transfixed in front of it. (Could this be a television in disguise?) Gradually, they lose their creative edge until apathy results in the wreck of their fine ship. It is only then, when all is nearly lost, that the crew begins to reclaim its can-do spirit.
Self-efficacy is the capacity to become all you can be. This book begs the questions: How do I actualize all of my potential? What is getting in the way of my becoming the "best me" I can be?
Sample questions for students:
▪ What do you know about the talents and interests of these sailors from the author's description of them at the beginning of this book? Why were these talents and interests important as the story continued?
▪ Think about the meaning of self-efficacy. Why was the captain so upset by the behavior of his crew once the wretched stone was aboard the ship?
▪ What were the members of this crew in danger of losing based on their fascination with the wretched stone? How does this relate to self-efficacy?
▪ What talents or interests do you have? How can you stay on track to develop them in the best way possible?
A question for teachers:
▪ How can I be the "cheerleader" my students need to encourage the optimal development of all their interests and talents?

Book #2: After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat (Roaring Brooks Press, 2017)

SEL skill and focus area: Self-management and emotional regulation: Self-motivation
In this version of the nursery rhyme, Humpty tells his own story. But the emphasis here is not on the infamous fall, but on what happens next. After such a scary tumble, Humpty's first inclination is to nurse his wounds from his new vantage point on the ground. But he realizes he wants more. He wants that view from the top of the wall. And so, despite his apprehension, he is motivated to climb back up—demonstrating that the will to reach a personal goal goes far in overcoming a momentary setback.
Sample questions for students:
▪ What details in this story show Humpty's progress in getting better control of his emotions?
▪ Humpty Dumpty was afraid of falling again, but he managed to climb the wall anyway. How did motivation apply here?
▪ Which of Humpty Dumpty's problems in this story could be solved? Which problems could not be solved? Did the unsolved problems get in the way of his dreams? Why or why not?
▪ How can Humpty Dumpty's experience in this story inspire you to better manage your emotions and motivation to succeed, especially when faced with setbacks?
A question for teachers:
▪ How can I help my students manage their emotions so that their motivation to achieve personal goals takes precedence over intermittent failures along the way?

Book #3: Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2012)

SEL skill and focus area: Social awareness: Empathy
This book is more about the downside of lack of empathy rather than a testimony to the power of empathy itself. Still, it demonstrates the impact of choices made by both students and teachers. In this story, Maya is the new kid in school, and her classmates, especially the little girls, team up to torment her. They inch their desks away from hers, rebuke her efforts to make friends on the playground, and, behind her back, whisper mean comments about her second-hand clothes.
When Maya is absent one day, the teacher brings in a pot of water and drops a stone into it, noting that "each kindness is like that," as the ripples spread outward. She then invites each student to drop a stone into the water, sharing a kindness they have shown toward someone. Everyone has something to share except Chloe, the queen of the mean girls, who gets the message immediately and vows to change her behavior when Maya returns to school. However, Maya does not return, and Chloe is left with many regrets. Always choose kindness, this story suggests, since you may not get a second chance.
Sample questions for students:
▪ Do you think Maya's classmates bullied her? Give some examples of their bad behavior and explain why you consider this bullying—or not.
▪ Maya tried to make friends with her classmates. But could she have done anything else to help solve her problem? What might you do in a similar situation?
▪ How was Chloe feeling at the end of this story? Why? How could empathy have helped her to avoid these feelings?
▪ What do you think is the biggest lesson the students in this class learned about empathy? Is there a message here for you, too?
A question for teachers:
▪ How can we be proactive in dealing with lack of empathy among our students, to build a more caring classroom community?

Social-Emotional Learning in Context

I regard the teacher's "too little, too late" action in the book Each Kindness as a wake-up call for educators. Beyond its message about the need for empathy among students in this class, I think this story highlights another equally important issue: Teachers need to be vigilant in recognizing mean-spirited behavior among students and address it immediately. Where was that pot of water and this lesson in kindness when it could have made a difference? We need to engage students in hard conversations about lack of empathy and other negative behavior before situations get out of hand.
The questions recommended above for teachers to ask themselves are one place to begin examining what we may or may not be doing to support students as they become more attuned to their sense of self and their interactions with others. Indeed, picture books can become our mentor texts, too. So many books. So many possible questions to ask our students and ourselves. So many opportunities for linking literacy and social-emotional learning.
End Notes

1 Webb's Depth of Knowledge Guide. (2009) Retrieved from

Nancy Boyles is a former classroom teacher and professor emerita at Southern Connecticut State University, where she was professor of Reading and Graduate Reading Program Coordinator. She now consults with districts and other organizations and agencies, providing workshops, modeling best practices in classrooms, and assisting with curriculum development.

Boyles' workshop topics include Close Reading, Small Group Differentiated Instruction, Rigorous Assessment, and Depth of Knowledge. Boyles is the author of Closer Reading, Grades 3–6; Lessons and Units for Closer Reading, Grades 3–6; and Lessons and Units for Closer Reading, K–2. Boyles has also written many articles and six additional books on reading comprehension. Her newest program is for small-group close reading instruction in grades 3–5, Close Reading Links, published by Capstone.

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