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October 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 2

What's SEL Got to Do with It?

Social-emotional learning
There is a growing consensus that schools must address both academic and social-emotional learning (SEL). Districts across the country have invested in whole-school, evidence-based SEL curricula to support teachers in developing positive classroom communities and building students' self-regulation and conflict-resolution skills. Yet in many schools, social-emotional learning is seen as something that happens during a targeted time of the day (perhaps through a short lesson), rather than a set of skills that teachers expertly embed—and cultivate—within the academic curriculum itself.

Where SEL and Academics Intersect

Five years ago, the Oakland Unified School District in California, one of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning's (CASEL) eight original collaborating districts, initiated a partnership with Mills College. Through a collaborative teacher inquiry process, the goal of this partnership was to shift adult practice around SEL instruction and create a strong adult learning community in which teachers were growing their own SEL skills. In order to achieve these objectives, teachers needed opportunities to reflect and share honestly, practice active listening skills, attend to the ways they interact with one another, set goals for themselves as learners, and build their understanding of SEL.
As the director of the Mills Teacher Scholars program and the primary facilitator of the group, I have witnessed firsthand the development of a vibrant teacher-learning community around SEL practice as a result of this partnership. In a key part of the program, approximately two dozen Oakland elementary school teachers—or "SEL Teacher Scholars"—meet monthly to investigate student learning through an SEL lens.
During our inquiry sessions, the teachers choose an academic routine on which to focus throughout the year, situated in a core academic subject area. Examples include academic discussion, cooperative problem solving, and sustained independent writing and reading. They capture and analyze video data of students engaging in this routine, then work with peers to determine a central learning goal and specific indicators of student success that they will refine and track over time.
A primary question that teachers ask themselves during this process is "What's SEL got to do with it?" Specifically, what are the core SEL competencies that will support student success on this academic learning goal?
As our teacher scholars come back together each month, they have a chance to look at new data, track student progress, and make instructional changes to grow the requisite SEL skills. Through structured conversations with colleagues, they share their thinking, questions, and data—and they are pushed to clarify goals and next steps.

Video Data Brings SEL Alive

Our teacher scholars are encouraged to use video—a rich but underutilized data source in schools—to capture the subtle dynamics of students in the classroom that are not visible through most other forms of data collection. Initially, some teachers were reluctant to share "imperfect" video data of their students. But once a few brave teachers set the tone as public learners, more teachers opted to share this kind of process data. By year four, almost all the teacher scholars collected video of students engaging in classroom work or reflecting upon their thinking and learning. The smartphone era has transformed how easy it is for teachers to record the work happening in their classrooms. One 4th grade teacher who had struggled to collect data on her own successfully assigned a student the task of recording peers during groupwork in science class.
Celia Green (pseudonym), a teacher scholar who works at a Title I elementary school in Oakland that serves primarily English language learners, used video to more deeply understand her students' learning needs. Celia recognized that the Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practice, which ask students to construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others, were ripe for SEL instruction and language support. She decided to focus on supporting students to work together on end-of-unit math problem-solving tasks. In the Fall, with some feedback from her fellow teacher scholars, she articulated a clear learning goal and indicators of success for this routine (see Figure 1) and began to collect video data of her students.

Figure 1. An SEL Teacher Scholar's Inquiry into Math Partnerships

Inquiry focus: Math partnerships

Data: Video footage of 3rd grade math partners working on a district-mandated math task

Learning goal: Students will work to collaboratively solve the math task

Indicators of success:

  • Students will each share their thinking (self-awareness)

  • Students will listen to one another's ideas (social awareness, relationship skills)

  • Students will agree and disagree respectfully (social awareness, relationship skills)

  • Students will come to consensus about possible strategies and answers (social awareness, relationship skills)


At our next gathering, Celia shared footage of a boy and a girl working together on a math task in her bustling classroom. The two students initially worked side-by-side without talking. Then, when they shared their answers with one another, the female student erased her correct answer and replaced it with the male student's incorrect answer. This was not what Celia had hoped for.
Based on her specific learning goal and indicators of success, Celia and her colleagues noticed some SEL assets—the students were taking turns sharing answers and they were focused on the task at hand. But they also recognized deficit areas that would need to be developed in her classroom with these next steps:
  • To support partners' awareness of one another's thinking process, Celia would need to create a protocol for student problem solving that provides steps and sentence frames for students to articulate their thinking, not just their answers.
  • She would need to clarify what collaborative problem solving looks like in math partnerships through a "fishbowl" activity, in which students model for one another what a successful collaborative process might look like and, as a class, co-construct a rubric or anchor chart to support future practice and reflection.
  • To strengthen perspective taking, Celia would need to utilize her school's SEL curriculum during morning meeting to talk with students about valuing different perspectives, how to assert oneself to respectfully disagree, and what language could be used to do this.
  • For deeper reflection, she wanted to share the video with the student partners to see what they noticed about their interactions and probe them around their thinking, experiences, and goals for next time.
This short three-minute video provided Celia and her colleagues with nuanced formative assessment data that helped her support student learning in a targeted way. Had she been simply relying on wide-lens observational data or rotating from group to group, she may not have been able to gather such rich feedback. As she captured new video data throughout the year, she was able to see growth in how students negotiated the collaborative problem-solving routine, which informed how she implemented additional instructional supports. For example, in subsequent videos, she noticed that students were doing a better job explaining their own thinking, but she needed to teach protocols on active listening for understanding within math partnerships.
Oakland teachers collaboratively analyze student video data—with an SEL lens—during a monthly inquiry session. Photo courtesy of Mills Teacher Scholars.

An Integrated Approach to SEL

Effective teachers take an approach to instruction that integrates SEL and academics—anticipating the SEL demands of academic tasks and continuously embedding opportunities for skill building, practice, and feedback. Most teachers understand that students need to develop SEL skills to be successful in school, but they may not yet have developed an intentional practice of integrating SEL in academics. To guide their work and to deepen teachers' understanding of SEL, schools and districts need a professional learning model that looks at SEL in academic contexts, is embedded in the day-to-day work of teaching and learning, and provides rich process data to inform next steps in the classroom. Teacher-led collaborative inquiry, such as in the example described here, provides a model that allows teachers to build their own capacity to learn both with and from others.
In our end-of-year survey this past Spring, 100 percent of the participating Oakland teachers reported that they'd changed their practice based on their SEL Teacher Scholars assessment work and improved their instruction as a result of an increased understanding of the academic-SEL connection and of their students' needs. They shared powerful reflections on the collaborative inquiry process and results. As one teacher noted, "This process allowed me the time to slow down my practice and focus on students' tasks in tiny discrete pieces. This resulted in more decisive actions because of the rich video data and interviews that were conducted." Another teacher added, "It has allowed me to look through an SEL lens, thinking about how SEL and academics intersect. I have a deeper understanding of the core competencies, how to explicitly teach them to my students, and ways to highlight those skills throughout the day and across subjects."
Now in the fifth year of our partnership, new teachers have joined the cross-district group, while veteran SEL Teacher Scholars are engaging their colleagues in inquiry at their home schools. As innovative districts across the country work to drive change through system-wide SEL, Oakland's partnership shows how collaborative teacher inquiry can deepen and spread SEL implementation.

Try It Yourself: Video as an SEL Data Source

  1. Choose an academic routine that your students engage in frequently. Turn and talk is a great routine to look at more closely because many teachers ask students to do this several times a day.

  2. Collect video data of a student partnership engaging in this routine or use audio as a less-intrusive alternative. A few minutes of data can provide rich information about how your students are engaging.

  3. Ask a colleague to watch the video with you. Let them know what your learning goal is for the routine and what specific questions you might have about your students in relation to this routine (Are students showing that they are listening to one another? Are they on topic? How do they negotiate the conversation?).

  4. Discuss the SEL assets you see in the video and the SEL skills you were hoping to see that the students are not yet exhibiting.

  5. Decide what next steps you could take to support students' success on this academic routine, building on their strengths.

Daniela Leamer Mantilla is a 3rd grade teacher in the San Leandro Unified School District and the former director of programs at Mills Teacher Scholars, a teacher learning program out of the School of Education at Mills College in Oakland, California. Mills Teacher Scholars partners with schools and districts to achieve transformative change in the learning culture for teachers and equitable outcomes for students.

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