Friday, November 8, 2013

Year 4: Week 10 - Taking Care Of Fee-fees (or Social Emotional Learning In Music Class)

When I first started teaching I didn't think about social emotional learning. I was so caught up in teaching my kids music and getting them ready to perform that I didn't really have the space in my mind to consider their social emotional needs.

It wasn't that I lacked empathy for my students. I spent hours after school talking to my high school students about job problems, boyfriend issues and social issues. However this wasn't a deliberate or thoughtful part of what I did I the classroom.

Like the progressive style of teaching that lay deep inside or me, actively addressing social emotional learning as part of what I taught didn't come up until I saw it in action at my current school.

In the first couple weeks while observing other teachers, it all started to make sense. Teachers took the time to have conversations with students. Things that happened in recess and in the lunch room were as important as the learning that happened in the classroom. The way that teachers about talked students at my school was not based one their academic progress or test scores, but who they were as people and where they were socially and emotionally. Whenever I would ask someone about a student their academic progress would come up later in conversations or sometimes not at all, because their SEL simply mattered more.

Part of what made me feel comfortable diving into SEL was the fact that I was backed up. When I told one of my third grade classes about how we respect each others' opinions in small group work, the homeroom teacher echoed my sentiment. The fact that I felt like I was part of a team that was concerned with SEL made me feel that it really was my place to take the extra time to teach about so much more than music.

The thing is that I could teach music without weaving SEL into my lessons.  They could be motivated to sing a certain way simply by my intimidation. If they weren’t given freedom to work in small groups, create music and share their art there really wouldn’t be a great need for SEL.

Instead I ask my kids to be creative. They work in small groups and they are expected to share what they create with other students. Also, I want them to enjoy performing music.

All of these things require that I integrate SEL into my classroom. They can’t work in small groups if they aren’t guided in how to interact with each other, and given tools on how to settle disagreements. The only way that students are able to share their compositions is if a level of care and empathy are created in the class so that they act as respectful audience members. Yes, children can perform amazingly well when they are motivated by fear. However, if you want genuine and joyful musical performances, teacher intimation doesn’t really work. Students need to value their own contributions to the group as well as the contributions of others.

Sometimes I’m explicit when I’m addressing SEL in my class. When I talk about being an audience member, we disucss about empathy, closing your eyes and imagining what it feels like to perform. I have students reflect on moments when they felt really supported by their classmates and what specifically they can do to create these moments. These audience to-do lists are much more effective than a list of what not to do because it communicates to students that they have power to make a positive difference in the class.

More often SEL is interwoven into classroom activities. For example, if a student laughs at a joke when I’m giving instruction, I’ll tell them how it made me feel and let them communicate to me that it wasn’t their own intentions. When we are working on singing as a group, I make sure everyone is singing, not by punishing kids who aren’t but rather by expressing value in their contributions. It’s because as I tell them “everyone is important and everyone matters.” During small group work, I let students work out their own disagreements, and when they need my help, I’m happy to intervene, but I’m careful to guide them to a compromise as opposed to simply telling them what to do.

While I try to address SEL in my class I don’t know how to deal with many issues. I regularly ask the classroom teachers and the school counselors for help in addressing these types of issues. I care about my students enough to know that I don’t always have the answers and guidance they need.

It is more important to make a group of students feel valued than to learn another verse of a song. It is more important that a student feels safe to share his or her music with a class than to have a polished performance and it is more that students learn to know their own feelings and the feelings of the people around them better than to know the great musical composers of the past.

Integrating SEL learning into your instruction, your curriculum and your assessment is a choice. It’s also a challenge. It asks incredible emotional maturity out of teachers, a great deal of patience and a willingness to take a chance and put aside a lesson plan to address what is most important to your students, not the subject you teach, but the emotions they are feeling.

The most important thing to do with SEL is show and tell your students that you care about the way they feel and the way they treat each other.  They need to see it in the way that you listen to them and they need to hear that you care.  All the SEL seminars and programs are useless without communicating this level of care.


Take the time to address SEL is taking time to treat your students as full human beings with dignity and respect.  It's the least we can do as teachers and at the same time the most powerful and meaningful action we can do for students. 

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