*This blog is part of a presentation I will be giving through the Drew Writing Project in October 2020.
“I would say that I have had a great junior year. I am proud of myself for many reasons. But, I am the most proud of learning how to stand up for myself. I’ve never been good at this, but I feel like I am finally strong enough to do so. I’m just really happy that I have found my voice. I don’t think I’ve ever been so confident and I’m really proud of all that I’ve accomplished so far in my life.” — Brooke
What is Social and Emotional Learning?
I first learned about SEL when I got hired at Pascack Valley High School in 2015. Social and emotional learning is defined as "acquiring and effectively applying the knowledge, attitudes, and skills to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions" (CASEL qtd. in Weissberg & Cascarino)
Under the leadership of our administrative team, PV made, and continues to make, a concerted effort to address and support the emotional needs of our students. We encourage students to attend the Wellness Center when they feel overwhelmed, and we eliminate homework throughout various parts of the year to lessen student stress. Our school has created a positive culture for our teenagers' mental health, but there is still more that individual teachers can do.
In "Academic learning + social-emotional learning = national priority," Roger P. Weissberg and Jason Cascarino argue that teachers should empower students to develop the following five competencies:
As educators, we need to help students regulate their behaviors, thoughts, and emotions through goal-setting. It is vital that we motivate our learners to identify their priorities whether they be academic, athletic, extracurricular, social, or professional.
However, teenagers should not only focus on their individual priorities, but rather they should recognize and respect the varied needs and identities of their peers. To do so, teachers must guide students in developing relationships with one another through clear communication, active listening, cooperation, and conflict resolution (Weissberg & Cascarino). In turn, these collaborative experiences should help young adults to become better decision-makers, fully considering the consequences of their actions beyond individual selfish motivations.
Implementing SEL through Writing
At the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, my supervisor, Valerie Mattessich, provided composition journals to each teacher in the English department for all of our students to use. Admittedly, I did not recognize the benefits of these notebooks until I saw their impact upon my teenagers.
At the beginning of each week, I would assign a free-write where I would ask my students about their weekends and what they were either looking forward to or dreading during the upcoming week. I quickly learned a lot about my writers' lives, particularly when I took the time to write back to them.
“I have not quite accomplished all my goals for junior year. I planned to do more things like build a greenhouse in my backyard and a rustic picnic table but haven't done them yet.
I succeeded in learning more about the outdoors and how to work with various tools. I failed with finding wood. I just can't find any logs of wood anywhere. I am proud of not using store bought wood. I took the road less traveled with that one.” — Craig
It may sound a little corny, but we became pen pals in a way. Many of my students were happy to know that I was reading their entries and that I cared about their lives. This correspondence allowed us to form deeper relationships because I was able to cheer them on during their successes and console them during their difficulties. I didn't write long responses, just enough so that my teengers knew that I read their words.
One unexpected benefit of these closer interactions was that they improved my classroom management. When a behavioral problem or inappropriate comment did occur in my classroom, I was able to more clearly communicate with my learners because we had developed a foundation of mutual respect through the free-writes
Once I recognized the impact of the free-writes, I included them more and more often in my classroom instruction. By the end of the year, I was using the free-writes to aid my learners in:
Other Healthy Writing Practices
As fulfilling as I found using free-writes to be, they are not enough to help students to develop SEL competencies. My developing writers need to actively take command of their composing processes, so I found three other strategies that can help students learn in less stressful ways:
While it is vital for educators to instill healthy self-esteem in our learners, it is equally important that we actively promote their self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the confidence that students develop from, partly or wholly, succeeding on previous assignments.
Self-efficacy impacts students':
The higher a student's self-efficacy, the more willing they are to tackle the challenges of a new writing assignment. When students possess self-efficacy, they recognize that no compositional task is impossible.
How do we assess and promote self-efficacy?
The best way to measure our learners' self-efficacy is to provide them with self-efficacy surveys. Not only do these surveys gauge our students' confidence, but they also reinforce learning objectives by letting students know what specific skills they are trying to develop on their current writing assignment.
In my classroom, typical survey question look like these:
It is best to provide these surveys at the beginning, the middle, and the end of an assignment. This way you can track the growth, or lack thereof, of student confidence.
I find that using Google Forms is an effective way to deliver these surveys because Google Forms can visualize the data for the students. You can share the results of the surveys with your students and let them see what anxieties that they share with their peers.
Here's how my students responded to the previous questions:
This survey was provided at the beginning of our college application essay unit. Most students felt fairly confident that they could effectively use imagery, diction, and syntax when composing their essays. At the same time, looking at these survey results as a whole class enabled us to specifically identify where the students felt that they might have trouble when drafting their college application essays. Ultimately, these conversations let my writers know that they are not alone in their struggles and that, as a class, we can develop solutions for their specific challenges.
Recursive Writing Practices
My favorite piece of writing research (this may be the nerdiest sentence I've ever written) is "Learning the Uses of Chaos" by Anne E. Berthoff. In this article, Berthoff rails against teaching the writing process as a cookie-cutter recipe where first you prewrite, then you draft, and finally you revise and edit. Instead, Berthoff reveals how writing is a messy business, how it is necessary to shift back and forth from phase to phase rather than adhering to a linear approach. Only by doing so, can we reduce the anxieties students feel when encountering an unfamiliar writing assignment.
As teachers, we need to help students embrace the chaos. We need to show them that there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to writing, but rather that your audience and your environment impact the strategies you use when composing.
To decrease their stress and to increase their autonomy, our developing writers need to use the messiness of the writing process to frame their approaches to their compositions.
When I introduce the writing process, I show them this image:
The point of this visual is to disrupt the linearity of the writing process. I want my students to feel freer knowing that they can start their writing processes however they like.
I let my novice writers know that they can start a composition by doing one or more of the following:
One final way I have discovered how to lessen student stress is through the use of Mary Jo Reiff and Anis Bawarshi’s “discursive resources.”
In their article, Reiff and Bawarshi use M.Z. Lu's definition of discursive resources: "the often complex and sometimes conflicting templates of languages, englishes, discourses, senses of self, visions of life, and notions of one’s relations with others and the world".
I like this definition because it reminds teachers of how students approach a writing assignment. So much of their academic performance is tied into how confidently they feel about their abilities to write and about their abilities to succeed in their current classes.
Providing developing writers these discursive resources offers them ways forward through this chaos. These mental frameworks lessen student stress as they are given concrete strategies for how best to begin an assignment.
Accessing prior knowledge
Very rarely will students encounter an assignment in school that is completely unique. Odds are that when they perform this new writing assignment, they have composed a similar task in the past. This strategy is effective for writers who want to begin their piece in the revision phase. It also helps students view their compositions as part of a learning continuum rather than separate, individual assignments just for a grade.
Possessing genre awareness
When students know the rules of an assignment, then they have some guidelines that lessen their anxiety. Think about how often students will ask how long a paper has to be or if it needs to be in MLA format. Once students possess a general understanding of the demands of a writing piece, it frees them to start composing. They are no longer paralyzed by indecision. Instead, they can make informed decisions about how best to enact their writing processes for this specific assessment.
At the same time, if students know the rules of their writing task, then they know which rules they can bend or outright break. Determining how strictly to follow a composition's structure is a valuable experience for developing writers because this questioning invites them to be creative and to discover their voices. Doing so empowers students to write as individuals rather than trying to conform their performance to a single conception of how the assignment should be written.
Developing a solution-based mindset helps students to identify the specific and concrete challenges that they are currently facing while composing. Once developing writers recognize the problems, they then can go about overcoming these obstacles whether it is by conducting individual research, meeting with their peer writing groups, or conferring with a teacher.
Identifying as novices
It is always important to remind students that they are beginners, that they don't have to be "perfect". No one composes fantastic and immaculate pieces on the first go. We all write, as Anne Lamott puts it, "shitty first drafts". Since this is the case, our developing writers do not have to put all of that pressure upon themselves. Instead, they can take chances and risks, eventually reconceiving and revising their choices until their writing tasks are complete.
*if you'd like more information about discursive resources, please refer to my earlier blog post "Survival Strategies: The Writing Process & Problem Solving"
If you feel overwhelmed by all of these strategies and practices, please know that you can pick and choose from them. Treat this overlong blog like a buffet. You can implement as much of this as you like. You can start by free-writing once a week, or you could use self-efficacy surveys, the recursive writing process, or discursive resources during a single unit.
If you do choose to implement SEL into you writing instruction, then please make sure to do the following:
I'm an English teacher at Pascack Valley High School looking to grow both as a person and a professional.