Social and emotional learning happens in schools in many ways. Explicit instruction might happen in advisory or during a specific part of the day; concept review and integration might happen in regular classes. Teachers and students can build positive relationships, and students might reach out to new faces in the cafeteria. But how does SEL extend beyond the school hallways and spill out into the “real world?” Research shows that students who receive social and emotional skill education make better choices as adults and ultimately have more successful lives, but is that the only way that SEL benefits society at large?
The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas is dedicated to increasing social awareness and civic engagement. Twice a year they invite groups of middle- and high-school students from across the state to identify an issue they see in their schools and communities. The teams work together over the course of several weeks to research the identified problem, discuss possible solutions, and put together a presentation showing their way forward. They then compete at the bi-annual Speak Up! Speak Out! contest, in which the student teams present their identified problem and best solution to adult judges and community leaders. Teams can win up to $300 toward implementing the solution to their problem, and awards are given for research, presentation, and spirit.
One of our Social and Emotional Learning specialists was asked to participate as a judge of this competition, and she came back excited about SEL in action! The teams had tapped their social awareness and compassion to identify issues that were meaningful and urgent to them. The participants had to muster all of their collaboration and problem-solving skills to decide on a problem together— from self-harm to stress management, bullying to cafeteria food quality. They had to tap their literacy and technology skills to research and write about the problem. They had to use active listening and respectful collaboration to discuss and determine the best solution, and then show off their final product to the judges with their most polished public speaking and presentation capacity. In order to participate in this state-wide competition, students as young as 6th grade are using the same 21st century skills so sought-after in high-level corporations and government organizations.
This potent combination of capacities like literacy and empathy, problem-solving and compassion, public speaking, social awareness, and collaboration is exactly what the Annette Strauss Institute strives to foster in young people. The hope is that building these abilities early-on will create civic-minded, socially engaged adults. And it will be these engaged, compassionate adults who generate and maintain a healthy society and democracy. Truly, the social and emotional skills woven into civic education projects like this are strengthening the fabric of American society.
The Annette Strauss Institute’s Speak Up! Speak Out! competition is a beautiful example of social and emotional learning in action outside of the classroom, priming students on their way to civically engaged adulthood. Congratulations to the teams from AISD schools:
Participant’s Choice – Tutors Assistance, Fulmore MS
Participant’s Choice – The HAPPY Project, Reagan HS
Excellence in Primary Research – Improving School Cafeteria Food, Reagan HS
Excellence in Persuasive Speaking – Know Child Left Behind, Reagan HS
Outstanding Passion for Change – Live to Thrive, Not Survive, Akins HS
Excellence in Innovative Thinking – I Can’t Read My Dollar, Akins HS
Quotes from Student Participants:
“I think that it’s important for people to identify problems and find solutions – especially if they’re kids – because if you’re finding problems at a school, it’s almost always going to affect kids… and kids affect the entire future!”
“I thought it was really cool that we could find a problem that a lot of us were very passionate about and try to put a stop to it.”
“There are a lot of problems in our community and I wanted to try to help it, because if you don’t help it then it’s never going to get fixed and it’s just going to continue to grow.”
“My favorite part of the Civics Fair is talking to the judges. We get to tell them what we think and they actually listen to what we say, take it into consideration, and ask questions about it.”
“I honestly like when the judges come by because we get to talk and explain, and they seem so interested, and we feel like we can make a difference so it boosts our confidence.”
“Science and history fairs are good for making base concepts, but I think this competition is especially important in showing people how you can take these concepts further. What you learn in school is great, but this shows you how you can take that learning and actually impact your community, and that’s something that’s really important.”