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Teaching Social Emotional Learning Through Art in Times of Crisis

Social Emotional Learning through the arts

Teaching Artist and Director of the Teaching Artist Project Katie Rainey shares how she uses art to teach social emotional learning skills in times of crisis.

Do you want to talk? Or do you want to make art? The decision was unanimous and we got to work.

Through the arts education nonprofit Community-Word Project (CWP), I train teaching artists in a program called the Teaching Artist Project (TAP). Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve led professional development workshops on virtual learning, power and privilege, art as activism, and social-emotional learning based on the work I do as a teaching artist.

A Little Background

I teach creative writing to 9th graders at The Young Women’s Leadership School of Jamaica, Queens and have done so for the last six years. In those six years, I’ve seen my students face unimaginable difficulties, but this past year has been the worst of it. For nearly a year now I’ve taught remotely and we’ve spent my classes unpacking our emotions and giving them an outlet through art, while navigating the difficulty of virtual learning.

We’ve focused a lot on developing social-emotional skills and, when I woke up on January 7th, 2021 to 40+ poems in my inbox all in response to the riots at the capitol, I was reminded just how much art supports that work. In the wake that all our students have faced over the last year—a global pandemic, protests sparked by racial inequality, civil unrest, and a divisive election year that peaked last month with rioters in our nation’s capitol building—social-emotional health must be a priority in the classroom.

Defining Social Emotional Learning

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), defines Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) as “how children and adults learn to understand and manage emotions, set goals, show empathy for others, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

SEL does not mean shying away from difficult situations or subjects, but creating a nurturing environment in which students can explore those subjects and feel safe. It’s a place for them to get curious about their emotions.

As I tell the teaching artists I train, it is impossible to assume teaching and learning can occur during a crisis without first attending to our emotions. It’s important to normalize and give space to talk about them.

Yet, as our classrooms are forced to meet virtually, SEL repeatedly gets overlooked because of academic requirements and the challenge of digital learning. Our students are missing those connections and relationship building opportunities, so we have to work harder than before to make sure they get the support they need.

Social-Emotional Learning through Art in Times of Crisis

In a workshop I led recently called “Social-Emotional Learning through Art in Times of Crisis,” teaching artists were able to participate as students and experienced SEL through art-making. In this workshop, we looked at art through the competencies of SEL, I gave examples of how I use that in my classroom, and allowed space for teachers to develop their own activities to bring into the classroom.

The following is a breakdown of that workshop, of how I use SEL in my classroom, activities I do with my students, and an exploration of best teaching practices for creating a positive classroom culture where our students can build these skills through art.

Understanding Ourselves (Self Awareness + Self Management or Self Care/Self Balance)

At the outset of the workshop, participants were tasked with an opening activity that I call “Map-Making”. Using whatever materials they have handy, I ask my students to make a “map” of their emotions over the last several months/year (March 2020 to present day). This map can be any shape, form or style they wish, meaning they can draw a traditional map, they can make a body map through dance, a sound map with an instrument, etc.

Next, after brief introductions and an overview of what exactly SEL is, we plunged into our first activities and the meat of how we can implement SEL in the classroom with an activity I call “Body Awareness”. In this activity, I ask my students to close their eyes and name whatever emotion they are feeling right now; happiness, sadness, anxiety, etc.

Then, I ask them to pinpoint in their body where they feel that emotion the most and one descriptive word (adjective) about that body part. They should now have three words that I ask them to put together in this formula: The [Emotion] + [Adjective] + [Body Part]. This will serve as the title of a piece of art they will create.

I then ask my students to take some notes on that title. I give them a few prompts to help them: What does that body part look like? What might it say or sound like? What does it feel like? What causes it to feel this way? How is it reacting to the world right now? What does it think about what’s happening?

After a few minutes of journaling their responses, students are then given time to create a piece of art with this title. It can be any form they like: dance, a piece of music or visual art, a monologue, poem or story, etc.

Addressing Self Awareness and “Self Balance” SEL Competencies

The first two competencies of SEL are Self Awareness and Self Management. However, the latter I prefer to call Self Care or Self Balance. Why? I believe in the power of language and therefore, as teachers, we must be critical of any framework we use. It’s important to call out bias in ways that we regulate our emotions.

I believe the term “management” and the definition CASEL gives for it polices students, rather than helps them to develop skills for processing their own emotions. Different bodies expressing emotions are perceived differently because of the society we live in. For instance, Black students are disproportionately punished for subjective behaviors like “defying authority” and “insubordination”.

We must take extra care with the language we use when talking about SEL. What we’re really trying to build here is an ability for a student to positively process their emotions and work through them. So why not use language that works towards that?

For self awareness, we want to create activities that allow our students to ask themselves, “What are my thoughts and feelings? What causes those thoughts and feelings? How can I express my thoughts and feelings respectfully?”

And for self balance, we want them to ask, “What different responses can I have to what’s happening around me? How can I respond to the world as constructively as possible?” Looking at the above activities, what are ways we gave space for these questions to occur? How did we reframe our emotions so that students could look at them with curiosity? Reframing doesn’t mean we diminish hard things or dismiss them. Instead we try and look at them another way.

Additional Activities to Address SEL Competencies

After completing these activities and unpacking them through an SEL lens, we can start to imagine other activities that address these competencies in the classroom: journaling, meditation, using a feeling wheel to identify our emotions, building a toolkit of self-care practices with our students, or a Jamboard or Mentimeter of current thoughts and feelings.

Here are two student poems that were created from this Body Awareness activity:

“Am I a threat?” by Sy’rai

My skin
Do you see my skin
The rich melanin
The soft, smooth, brown surface called skin.
Does it scare you? Do you feel threatened?
Am I a threat that has to be eliminated immediately?
Is my skin a hidden weapon that permits you to shoot my brothers and sisters?
What do we have to do so that the shackles that we carry will finally be released?
When will we be able to walk the streets without a big red target on our backs with a sign that says “shoot me”?
When will my people stop being killed because they “looked suspicious”?
When will we finally have to stop fighting for rights that we should have?
When will we be able to rejoice in saying that I can breathe?
When will we be free?
And you know what…
I am tired of hearing people say all lives matter
All lives can’t matter until black lives matter
My life matters
My black brothers and sisters’ lives matter.
We aren’t a threat. Remember that.

“Hopeless Heart” by Aaliyah

Pink, Red, Gray
Screams of terror, it’s not okay
“I can’t breathe” is what they say
I hate it here, because they can’t hear
He’s Dying!
Now his mother is crying
I hate it here, because they can’t hear
We’re the future?
But you destroy our hope
We’re the future?
But you destroy our courage
We’re the future?
But you destroy our confidence
Damaged beyond repair
Who are we?
What’s next for us?

Understanding Others (Social Awareness)

One of the easiest ways to build social awareness in the classroom is to encourage students to share what they create with the rest of the class. However, this is not as easy as it sounds, especially when you have a room full of teenagers who are acutely self-conscious at all times. There must be a layer of trust built in order to get to this space. One way that I build this trust in my classroom is by sharing a piece of myself first.

I have been an avid journaler since I was six years old. On the first day of school each year, I give my students a journal that they will use during our time together. As a way to model bravery and vulnerability, I read a page from the journal I kept in high school for them. This always helps to break open the class and get my students to feel more comfortable quickly. Sharing something personal of yours will help your students feel more connected to you and more willing to open up.

Once this atmosphere of trust is built, sharing becomes easier and easier. Each week I start my classes with a five minute free write, just to get whatever we’re obsessing over out of our heads. On the first day of school, no one wants to share what they wrote. Yet, halfway through the first semester, I have to limit the number of shares each week, otherwise we wouldn’t have time for anything else.

Following up on the body awareness activity, participants are invited to share their creations if they feel comfortable to do so. Students aren’t compelled to share, however. Choice is one of the most powerful things in the classroom and one simple teaching practice that can build social-emotional skills.

When a student does decide to share, I follow up with a round of snaps and praise when they are finished, and then I open up the room for observations. I steer students away from what they “liked” or “didn’t like” about a piece of artwork, and instead ask, “What did you notice about this piece? What feeling or emotion do you think the artist wants us to understand? What makes you say that?”

These questions provide a way for students to engage with each other’s artwork without judgment and help to create a culture of empathy, i.e. social awareness. Sharing and reflection allow students to ask of themselves, “How can I better understand other people’s thoughts and feelings? How can I better understand why people feel and think the way they do?”

Understanding Others (Relationship Skills + Responsible Decision-Making)

Moving from individual art-making and sharing, our next activities focus on collaboration and the final two competencies of SEL: Relationship Skills and Responsible Decision-Making. Participants are sorted randomly into breakout rooms with approximately 4-5 to a room.

In a classroom, the next few activities would take place over a series of lessons. Students are tasked first within their groups to share their maps and individual art-making from the first two activities. Some students find it less stressful and are more open to share with a few students, rather than the larger class.

When they’ve shared, I have a series of discussion questions I give each group to talk about amongst themselves: Thinking about that emotion(s) you expressed in your maps or in your artworks, how did you (whether positively or negatively) express that emotion when it occurred? What are creative ways you can address that emotion with yourself? With others?

Students will unpack their feelings with each other and build community, i.e. relationship skills. They begin to build a support system for one another and see in real time the way their emotions affect the people around them. They can reflect on the questions, “How can I adjust my actions so that my interactions with different people turn out positively? How can I communicate better with other people?”

Finally, once we’ve reached this point, we move into collaborative art-making. For poetry pieces, this might look like the creation and performance of a community poem. Each student contributes a line(s) from their individual pieces to a shared document. Then, together, the students revise and edit their collective project.


“Rebirth: Through The Dark” 

I survived
This night
I am coming out
                to fight
the light of fear
beyond the tears
of the cruel realities of life
I come to strife
This life of mine
from agony and pain
of my mind
from being disgraced to being respected
being victorious from being defeated
this dark night
I fought the demon that thought they
had control over my life
I dodged a knife multiple times
I survived
I survived
I am a survivor

I survived
This year
It hasn’t
Been good at all
This year
what a roller coaster
it has been
filled with many fails
and very little wins
Why to me?
What have I done for you to
cause me this pain?
Maybe next year I will gain

I survived
Right now
                Right now
I found my true self
coming in and out
                of my old self
Sometimes it shows
                sometimes it hides
I found my true self
                I found my true self
Now I am here where I want to
be, no one can stop me
from who I want to be

I survived
This day, today
I discovered a
new me
thriving and

This day, today
I’m in love
                with myself
I fell and got back
I brushed off
my pain
I discovered a
new me

For their performance, my students chose to create a “music video” of sorts, which unfortunately I cannot share because of permission issues. But in this video, they each filmed clips of things they felt brought the poem to life and cut those together over the track of one of them reading the piece. This collaborative project allows students to ask of themselves and each other, “What consequences will my actions have on myself and others? How do my choices align with my values? How can I solve problems creatively?” Combining their respective individual pieces causes students to handle each other’s work respectfully and with care, i.e. responsible decision-making.

And students have a choice here of what they create and what art forms they contribute. In their video, some of my students danced, some acted out the parts, and some created visual art pieces.


Additional Teaching Practices for Social-Emotional Learning

 There are many best practices for teaching SEL, but no matter what you use ultimately the goal is to have students take ownership of their own learning. We’ve already looked at a few ways to do that. Explicitly, through inquiry-based learning, experimentation, and choice.

Other ways to create an environment where students can build these skills are by using practices such as check-ins, circles, greetings, and sharings, which will help to create a sense of security and routine for your students in a space that may feel new and scary.

Sharing the agenda or even letting students build it with you the week before gives them control over what you do together. Encouraging partnerships and collaboration in art-making will build those relationship skills.

Discussion boards with open-ended questions like, “How are you feeling today? What emotions are you experiencing right now? What can you do to make the day better?” can gently open your classroom each day and allow for natural transitions into this work.

Most importantly, make space for talking—no teaching. Some days, my students want to talk or to only share their journaling (as I mentioned before) and I have to let that happen.

The day after George Floyd was murdered, however, I asked my students, “Do you want to talk? Or do you want to make art?” The decision was unanimous. They needed to process their feelings through art, and SEL goes hand-in-hand with activism. The poems above came out of that class, as well as this anthology, which we in turn sent to their city council members and the Mayor’s office.

Since then, my students have published their poems in literary journals, used poetic devices to unpack what they’re feeling, and sent me writing in response to what’s happening in the world. When Social-Emotional Learning is made a priority in the classroom, all of the other elements—learning, activism, art-making—are able to happen as well.

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