Educator and activist Bill Ayers notes that every class in every school reflects the political and economic system of its setting, from apartheid South Africa to the Soviet Union to the United States. Ayers also notes that in all those disparate settings, teachers have wanted their students to obey them and do the work. He asks us to consider what classrooms would look and sound like if students were taught the skills of actively living in a democracy—that is, the skills to build and participate in a better world.
On the surface, “Improve Every Lesson Plan with SEL” (Social Emotional Learning) has been a journey through every part of a formal lesson plan. Deeper down, at its heart, I want it to be a source for giving students the experience and skills of participating now in that better world, in your classroom. The term “Social Emotional Learning” is a catch-all for a grander aspiration: a practice of creating and sharing our understanding, so that we are collectively wiser, and our hard-earned wisdom is directed to the greater good. We can provide such a learning environment in our classrooms. Administrators can work to create schools that support every classroom in becoming a lively space to walk into every day. We have the tools right here and right now, richly supported by brain science and studies of child development.
Changing the predominant structures of how we educate all children is going to take a long time. When I was the principal of a small school, I struggled to find the words, resources, and willpower to carry out many worthy initiatives in that relatively tiny place. Changing our larger system of schools—for instance, from ones that replicate inequity to ones that oppose inequity—will be a long, hard road to travel. There are so many barriers.
Some barriers to changing how our schools function have become undeniably obvious. As I write this book in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the long and present history of structural racism in the United States is front and center. People of color and poor people die at much higher rates from the virus, Black and brown students are left further behind white students in achievement as schools go virtual, and videos of unarmed Black men and women being shot by police are horrifically repetitive. Whatever your opinion on the issues of racial justice and reparations, the need for continued explicit and direct conversations about racism, how it manifests in our schools and how to oppose it, is an imperative—and those conversations are happening. Our SEL skills will be critical tools to move those conversations from theory into practice.
The conversations that are not happening, and therefore remain a barrier to the greater good, are conversations about the U.S. economic system. Some call it “free market,” some call it capitalism. In all my years of reading ASCD’s (the publisher of this book) books and articles, I have no memory of seeing the word capitalism in print. Yet the economic system profoundly influences every aspect of schooling in the United States, from the proportion of time devoted to SEL skills, to the content of the required curricula, to the role that standardized testing plays in sorting students into winners and losers, to the efficiency of classroom ventilation, to the size of school libraries, to teachers’ contracts, to school funding, to access to technology, and to students’ hopes to be able to afford a college education—or to have any hopes at all.
Professional basketball player Jaylen Brown said that growing up poor and Black, the content of school seemed so disconnected to his community’s needs, so ignorant of their lived reality. He had no idea that the conditions of his community were “not a coincidence,” not the fault of his hard-working mother and neighbors. He assumed poverty was something to overcome through heroic individual effort, but poverty itself was never the subject of consideration. Not until he was in college did he learn that economic inequality was not inevitable, but a structure integral to the system. It’s no surprise that Pope Francis has identified both racism and structural poverty as threatening our collective existence.
It is said that fish are unaware of the water through which they have swum their entire lives; the economic system in the United States creates the ripples, tides, and tsunamis that determine so much of our lives, including the messages we give to students every day: what is inevitable, what can be understood, and what can be changed. Whether you revere, tolerate, or criticize our economic system, it’s time to talk about its impact on teaching and learning. More than 100 years ago, Horace Mann championed public schools as the great equalizer of our democracy, but the lack of economic equality and opportunity outside of schools remains a barrier to that ideal.
Through our lessons and all of our school rituals and procedures, students consistently get the message that they are being prepared to compete for a life in an economic system where failure can have disastrous results down the road. That assumption may be true. Parents of kindergarten students are asking for more homework to get their kids ready for more homework later on; those with the economic means are sending their kids to math camps and hiring tutors for the SATs. Most people on the street would probably fail every final exam administered in our high schools, and still we push every student to pass every test, lest they face a hard life—but rarely do we urge students to learn the curricula because of the contributions they will make to their communities—that most worthy SEL skill. The message is about individual survival.
Teachers are expected to post new lesson objectives each day, time on learning is measured by the minute, and arts and music programs are often the first to be slashed as budget cuts squeeze the administration into making choices about what courses will push the school’s test scores that extra point higher. This is not a system in which SEL skills naturally flourish—as they should in a setting filled with humans!
No wonder the theories of resilience and grit have found a home in schools; they support the message that kids better toughen up to compete. But to what end, to what world view are we relentlessly pushing them so hard? How are our hopes and fears for our students implicitly fueled by the economic forces we all must navigate? Can we discuss those economic forces? Do we have visions for our students beyond being compliant employees, beyond fitting in to survive? Maybe the words poverty and capitalism can be spoken, and their impact on all of our efforts in schools can be analyzed. Our adult SEL skills will need to be well honed to begin those conversations.
I hope this book’s images and activities for SEL-rich lessons support your vision of a better education—and so a better world for our students. An alternative to grit and resilience is resistance, a pushing against what we know is not right for children, a making of space for them to be their whole selves. I think it is our moral duty to protect our students from being pounded every hour by demands that only some of them are willing and able to take on—not because they aren’t tough enough to take it, but because education should mean more than a disempowering compliance that ultimately sustains an inequitable system.
Good lesson plans have an almost mysterious power; they declare that all information can be interesting, that every skill acquired broadens our potentials to make a better world, and that all impassioned activity leads to learning. Our best teachers have shown us over and over that life is not a struggle against boredom and compliance; it is a wonder to be apprehended. Every bit of SEL you can integrate into your planning will not only begin to heal the wounds of passivity, racism, and inequity, but also give students an experience today, in your classroom, of that better world.