Using SEL to Create Anti-Racist Schools

by David Adams, The Urban Assembly, September 29, 2020

Two hundred and forty-two years ago, a group of colonists came to conceive of a nation whose structures would allow for its citizens to govern themselves. This revolutionary ideal attempted to define an American social contract by which the power of governance and the resulting social fabric that flowed from those decisions would be derived not from divine right, but from its citizens themselves. While this idea extended the concept of democracy to the farmers, merchants, and tradesmen who had never before had formal access to levers of governance, it did not blanket society equally. Notably, enslaved peoples, women, and Native Americans were explicitly excluded from this fabric. And yet even in its failures, the ideas embodied in this document created the seeds for its own fruition. Our Constitution was designed to create a framework by which we the people could continue to evolve the concepts of self-governance, and in order to fulfill this vision, our education system must equip our students with social emotional and academic skills needed to perfect our Union. 

The concept of public education cannot be separated from the notion of self-rule. The very idea of education as a shared resource is grounded in the notion that our coherent sense of self as a nation is not a given, but an emergent quality forged through widespread participation in institutions that nurture the skills, attitudes, and values necessary to navigate towards the common good.  In the last half century, these institutions have withered on the vine, beset by corruption, negligence, and the inability to place the welfare of the constituents they served over the needs of the institution itself.  While not immune to these trends, if public schools fully embrace the principles of social and emotional development, they remain our best hope to produce the types of citizens who will repair the holes in our social fabric and expand it to include all who seek its comfort.

The notion of community is foundational to our ability to integrate our personal and social identities. From the beginning of our nation, we defined the American Community through the exclusion of African Americans.  Our nation first separated African Americans from the community of humanity itself, enslaving Africans and enshrining in our legal system the notion that all men are created equal, but some are less equal than others. In denying Dredd Scott his petition for freedom in 1857, Chief Justice Taney addressed the concepts of equality written into the Declaration of Independence writing:  “The general words above quoted would seem to embrace the whole human family, and if they were used in a similar instrument at this day would be so understood. But it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration; for if the language, as understood in that day, would embrace them, the conduct of the distinguished men who framed the Declaration of Independence would have been utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted; and instead of the sympathy of mankind, to which they so confidently appealed, they would have deserved and received universal rebuke and reprobation.”

Even among the most ardent abolitionists, the notion of freeing enslaved people versus embracing them into the American community were not necessarily synonymous. It is the idea that people of African descent were not worthy of inclusion into the American social fabric that drove the exclusion of African-Americans from every institution in our nation, including schools. And yet even in these failures, the American framework offered the seeds that allowed men and women of moral clarity and deep courage to expand the imagination of our country to live up to the ideals that ground our nation’s values and to expand our national community to all its citizens. Today, schools are beginning to adopt an idea, Social-Emotional Learning, that provides the tools for students to reimagine what our American community could be. 

Within the framework of Social and Emotional Learning, the domain of Social Awareness calls for students to develop an awareness of the role and values of others in the greater community. Specifically, it asks students to demonstrate a consideration for others and the desire to positively contribute to their community. The questions of: who is part of our community, what obligations we hold to each other within that community, and how will resolve conflict within that community towards the common good reflect the formation of a social contract.  The framework of Social- Emotional Learning pushes young people to ask these questions of themselves and others as they pursue a community within the classroom, preparing them to do the same within their towns, for their counties, and ultimately for the nation. The tools of social awareness: perspective taking, active listening, conflict resolution, develops our social identity and shapes the ability of “we the people” to govern ourselves in ways that improve the failures of imagination that limited so many of our forefathers. Public schools are where this transformation will occur. 

In his 1995 book The End of Education: Redefining the Value of Public Schools, Neil Postman writes: “Public education does not serve a public. It creates a public. And in creating the right kind of public, the schools contribute toward strengthening the spiritual basis of the American Creed. That is how Jefferson understood it, how Horace Mann understood it, how John Dewey understood it. And, in fact, there is no other way to understand it. The question is not, Does or doesn’t public schooling create a public? The question is, What kind of public does it create? A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers? Angry, soulless, directionless masses? Indifferent, confused citizens? Or a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning, and tolerance? The answer to this question has nothing whatever to do with computers, with testing, with teacher accountability, with class size, and with the other details of managing schools. The right answer depends on two things, and two things alone: the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide an inspired reason for schooling.”

Our public schools have the capacity to develop students who have the imagination to envision and create an American community that rectifies the sins of our past in order to move our nation forward.  But to give our young people a chance to move us in this direction we must give them skills and experiences to navigate a common social good by prioritizing social and emotional learning. We must end segregation in schools so that young people who will come participate in self-governance can practice developing a common sense of identity by communicating across differences and learn to manage competing interests while resolving conflict. And lastly, public schools must embrace the idea that the highest calling of education is to prepare our citizens to contribute to society.  In the words of the late Rep John Lewis:  “Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part.”

It’s time for us to do our part. 
David Adams is the Senior Director of Strategy at The Urban Assembly. Previously, he served as the Social-Emotional Learning Coordinator for District 75 where he shaped the District’s approach to social-emotional learning for students with severe cognitive and behavioral challenges. Mr. Adams has worked internationally, standing up and evaluating programs of positive behavioral supports and Social-Emotional Learning as a research intern at Yale University’s Health, Emotion and Behavior Lab, and published multiple academic papers around the relationship of social-emotional competence and student academic and behavioral outcomes. He co-authored The Educator’s Practical Guide to Emotional Intelligence, is married with two children, serves on the Board of Directors of CASEL and is an Engineering Officer in the Army Reserve. David holds an M.Ed in Educational Psychology from Fordham University.

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