How You Can Integrate Academic Development and Social Emotional Learning

Integrate Academic Development and Social Emotional Learning

Social emotional learning (SEL) in education is a phrase that has been known to elicit eye rolls. One reason for those exasperated responses is that it feels like yet another concept and practice for which schools are responsible at a point when there isn’t extra time for planning or implementation.

This article will debunk the notion that SEL cannot be measured and that critical thinking and SEL are mutually exclusive. It will also provide activities and materials from Junior Great Books® (JGB) programs that allow teachers and students alike to practice their own social emotional growth in the classroom.

True or False?

It’s Impossible to Measure a Student’s SEL Skills 

False. Social emotional learning is about feelings, expression, and listening. That description feels nebulous, and measurement therefore becomes subjective. But SEL can also refer to a set of skills that can be actively practiced, measured, and reflected on. While still qualitative in nature, these measurements can be used to set individual and group speaking and listening goals.

Junior Great Books employs a learning method called Shared Inquiry, which is rooted in the Socratic method. JGB activities expand on the practice of civil discourse and provide authentic learning opportunities through dialogue and active listening. Students discuss a rich text, connect their ideas about the text with evidence, and respond to each other’s thoughts. SEL skills are embedded in the process and encourage a strong inquiry-based environment.

To help students measure their skills development, JGB uses the standards set out by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a nationally recognized organization that emphasizes that social emotional learning is foremost a practice taken on by whole school communities. With this approach, Shared Inquiry facilitates opportunities for teachers and students to strengthen the following SEL competencies:

  • Self-awareness and self-management
  • Social awareness and relationship skills
  • Responsible decision-making

This chart lays out how the Shared Inquiry method provides students with the opportunity to reflect and build their SEL skills as outlined by CASEL’s framework:

Shared Inquiry Sequence of ActivitiesPrimary Social and Emotional Learning Competencies Addressed
Prereading: Students share responses to a question about the text’s topic.Self-Awareness and Social Awareness: Students share personal connections to the text and listen to the perspectives of others.
First Reading: Students listen to or read a text and mark places where they are confused or curious.Self-Awareness and Self-Management: Students build cognitive control by tracking and recording their responses.
Sharing Questions: Students share their questions about the text and explore answers with a teacher’s help.Social Awareness and Relationship Skills: Students take turns sharing questions and listening to those of others. All questions are regarded as valuable, and students respond to and help answer others’ questions.
Second Reading: Students read or listen to the text again, engaging in close-reading activities.Social Awareness and Relationship Skills: Students take turns sharing their own perspectives and listening to others, with an emphasis on explaining and comparing reactions.
Shared Inquiry Discussion: Students collaboratively explore a central problem of meaning in the text. Guided by a teacher’s questioning, students develop ideas, find and explain evidence, and respond to their peers’ contributions.Responsible Decision-Making, Self-Awareness, Self-Management, and Relationship Skills: This cornerstone activity addresses many SEL competencies. Developing and explaining a personally satisfying answer to the discussion question prepares students to make responsible choices in other complex situations.
Writing Activities: Students further develop their response to a text in a persuasive essay.Responsible Decision-Making: Students synthesize their own thinking about a topic while drawing on perspectives they heard in Shared Inquiry discussion.

True or False?

Schools Must Choose Between Academic Development and SEL

False, although it can feel true. When reading some K–12 English language arts standards, it feels as though specific, foundational reading and writing skills are being supported with such laser focus that there is no room for anything else in the classroom. In other words, meeting and teaching only towards objectives that meet standards requires us to sacrifice supporting the growth of the whole child, including their social and emotional development.

The good news is that this feeling does not need to be a reality for students or teachers. The Great Books Foundation has found that building a child’s social and emotional development plays an active role in building their critical thinking and reading skills.

Separately, states like Texas acknowledge the validity of practicing social skills in tandem with academic skills. The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) emphasize the process of learning through speaking and listening. In the TEKS, each grade incorporates speaking and listening standards, and it is explicitly stated that “speaking, listening, and thinking are interconnected.”

True or False?

Making Thematic Connections to the Text Means that Students Will Only Be Making Text-to-Self Connections

False. While text-to-self connections in literature can be a helpful entry point for students, they can also be used as a way to avoid thinking deeply about a text or its characters. As a result, students are content, even excited, to chatter, without connecting with each other or the text itself. Rigor is lost.

The selections and curricula that comprise Junior Great Books programs expand the focus from text-to-self to one in which students are prompted to consider characters’ perspectives and motivations, as well as probe the themes of a story or text selection. The materials plainly ask students to think and wonder about social emotional themes. The lessons themselves offer up questions that exclusively focus on social emotional learning and are scaffolded to support all learners.

Apart from the questions that directly address emotions, there are also questions that ensure students are using evidence from a text to support their thinking, creating the opportunity for students to empathize with and understand characters, regardless of whether they are alike or not. Rigor and empathy can work in tandem, authentically supporting students as they speak, listen, and think critically about a text.

Introduction to Junior Great Books fourth-grade thematic unit on Trust.

A Final Thought

Social emotional and academic learning and teaching happen in every school community, whether intentionally or not. As a field, we need to consider how we are providing opportunities for students and teachers to build their skills and expand their perspectives. The Shared Inquiry method and Junior Great Books provide flexible learning opportunities for students to express their thinking through reading, writing, speaking, and listening. It is important that as we enter the 2022–23 school year, we encourage whole school communities to make this work a priority, as both academic achievement and social well-being depend on it.

Get Started Today!

Your Great Books K–12 partnership manager will get you started with the right mix of classroom materials and professional development to bring Junior Great Books to your classroom, school, or district. Our carefully curated anthologies of outstanding fiction and nonfiction inspire students to collaborate, think deeply, and share. And our seasoned professional learning consultants are ready to teach educators to use inquiry-based strategies to help students uncover the joys of reading and interpreting texts, and to feel comfortable and supported while doing so.