In education, we sometimes fall into an acronym trap: ESSA. IEP. ELA. SEL. Or we default to rattling off statistics as shorthand for what we’re really talking about. And sometimes, this kind of secret education code serves us well. It allows us to transmit information efficiently. But it also comes at a price if we forget to balance it out with stories about the humans at the center of our work.
Discussions about social and emotional learning, I’ve found, are especially prone to this kind of abstract language. I’ve been in lots of conversations where the heartbeat of schools and classrooms gets lost in a cloud of acronyms and statistics, research findings and competencies.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Jason Lee Middle School in Tacoma, Washington, and met a group of students who helped me articulate what transformative social and emotional learning, thoughtfully integrated with academics, can actually look like in schools.
I walked into a sixth-grade algebra classroom and saw small groups of students gathered together. In each group, one student stood at a whiteboard and presented a question about what they had been learning in class. I sat down next to a quiet girl and asked her what they were doing.
She explained that every week, they helped one another review and untangle their confusion. They aren’t supposed to teach their classmate, she said, only ask questions to help them discover the steps they should follow to solve the problem.
“So what happens if someone gets frustrated?” I asked her. “What if they are feeling really confused and they just want you to tell them what to do?”
“Oh,” she said, “well then we just do emotional labor.”
She had my attention. “’Emotional labor’? What’s that?”
“Well, like, we help that person feel less frustrated by telling them a joke or making them laugh, and then we get back to doing the work.”
I went over to watch another group, and they were giving their classmate a new problem to solve to make sure she really understood how to do it. After she finished, she asked them, “Did I do it right?” and one of her group members gave her a wry smile and said, “Did you do it right?”
She rolled her eyes and smiled. “Yes, I did.”
Another boy, who was pedaling away on a standing bike attached to a desk, said, “Wait! Let’s do emotional labor! Let’s do a clap.” And they all did a little synchronized clap and cheer to end the process.
I got to visit the Jason Lee Middle School thanks to the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, which partnered with Tacoma Public Schools to highlight the social, emotional, and academic learning initiatives underway in Tacoma. The visit was a great way to balance discussions about social and emotional learning, which can tend towards the abstract, with real-world examples.
Witnessing these students collaborate with one another and lift one another up in the service of mastering academic concepts was inspiring. And it was a perfect foil for nebulous discussions of social and emotional learning. Here was a concrete example of what happens when teachers help students build skills to navigate the tricky waters of learning and communication. Suddenly, my brain was on fire with ideas for how I might integrate what I saw at the Jason Lee Middle School into my own classroom practice. It wasn’t theoretical. It wasn’t abstract. It was real.
When I teach students something new, I often ask them to apply their learning to a real-world situation. Making connections helps the learning stick. I wonder what would happen if, in conversations about education, we applied that same principle: connecting every conversation to a real-world example of a school doing this work on the ground with students. How much more could we accomplish if we strove to balance the theoretical with the practical? How much more effective could these conversations be if we attended to the heart, as well as the brain, of education?