Unburden Your Emotional Backpack

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Unpacking emotions to nurture student success

As my colleague Shenandoah Weiss outlined in her last post, Lessons for Learning, managing fear, cultivating trust, and encouraging creativity are all essential building blocks for productive, holistic learning. I had a chance to test drive some lessons formulated around these same building blocks during the recent Social Emotional Learning Institute held in Seattle, WA, attended by more than sixty K-12 teachers, advisors, administrators, and non-profit leaders from around the country.

I embraced this four-day dive into a complex subject with multiple motivations. As someone who helps form our approaches at ISKME, I was looking forward to gaining a deeper familiarity with social emotional learning (SEL) to apply to our work in facilitating collaborative innovation. As a former arts instructor and an advocate for creativity in the classroom, I’m always game to learn more about uncovering aspects of self as raw material for art making and writing. As a muddling parent of a middle-schooler, I’m curious about what I might gain to implement on my home turf. On all fronts, I found deep relevance to address my professional and personal learning goals.

An emotional backpack is a useful SEL metaphor for describing how anyone might feel given different contexts. By adding knowledge of SEL, the emotional backpack can hold an expanded and practical toolset around self-awareness, becoming a support system for flexible thinking, trust, and empathy. If only this toolset had been around when I was a young student-- it might have saved me years of stress-filled isolation. The workshop offered me new evidence that putting students’ personal perspectives front and center has deep value, and opens the door for increasing access to creativity to solve problems.

Led by four facilitators and social emotional instructors, Janice Toben, Rush Sabiston Frank, Nick Haisman and Elizabeth McLeod, the institute offered educators a chance to experience active, collaborative strategies for sharing, including specially prepared games, puzzles, movement, discussions, and improvisations, that provided new insights into “unpacking” emotional and social awareness with students across the grade levels.

“Many classroom teachers and parents have known intuitively for years that students learn best when they are relaxed, confident, and feel a sense of agency,” explains facilitator Elizabeth McLeod. “The exciting thing is that the educational research (including brain research) is finally validating what many have known all along and the pendulum seems to be swinging away from the focus on academics in a bubble. SEL provides a framework for focusing on important 21st century skills so that students will develop into resilient learners and compassionate leaders.”

In the institute, we were treated to sample activities that students of any age can benefit from, such as, naming a feeling. Simply saying “I get angry when…” can be a first step toward “managing” feelings, that is, being able to appropriately voice them and respectfully listen to others. Without this basic awareness and skill, students may be at a loss when it comes time to trust creative instincts. They might shrink from challenge. They might not risk being wrong. This can damage self-esteem, and impact school performance. School leaders are starting to take SEL more seriously since research has shown ties to academic success.

Unpacking the emotional backpack can give students awareness and skills they need, like resilience to bounce back in the face of challenge. This seems a persuasive rationale for SEL -- it nurtures a “growth” vs. a “fixed” mindset, demonstrating a link between student academic success and emotional approaches to challenge.

I found the following quote from Stanford researcher, Carol Dweck, explaining this further: “When we teach people the growth mindset, with its focus on development, these ideas about challenge and effort follow. Similarly, it’s not just that some people happen to dislike challenge and effort. When we (temporarily) put people in a fixed mindset, with its focus on permanent traits, they quickly fear challenge and devalue effort.” (p. 10)

This flexible mindset is seen as essential for innovation, key to our work at ISKME and critical to my work as an artist and a parent. By cultivating awareness of one’s emotional backpack over time in a trusted setting, teachers and others can enable students to recognize options and reach for new opportunities. This awareness can nurture tolerance for others’ differences and greater understanding around issues of identity. For middle schoolers, this is key, as experimenting with identity and self-esteem makes up a critical component of their development and their school experience.

This work is not to be confused with therapy or counseling. It doesn’t require being a psychologist to be open to social and emotional issues, to celebrate uniqueness and diversity in the classroom. It does require informed awareness and courage, and a commitment to change. I plan to keep unpacking.