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Summer 2020

Emily Meland

Photo: Jason Grew

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Study Skills: Ph.D. Student Emily Meland, Ed.M.’16

At the first school where Emily Meland worked as an assistant teacher, there were 17 different languages spoken in a class of 19 students. At her next school, almost 100% spoke Spanish. As a white teacher teaching social-emotional learning (SEL) skills, she wondered how to also honor her students’ varied cultural backgrounds and identities.

“There’s lots of great research to show that SEL skills are linked to academic success, better decision-making, and so on,” she says, “but often when SEL is taught in schools, it’s seen as a way to control student behavior and to teach very specific ways of being in the world. I think that’s restrictive and too often reflects a white, middle class way of being.”

For example, SEL can be misinterpreted as teaching students to be calm and happy all the time, she says. “That’s not a natural way of being all the time. I come from a big Italian family. We can get heated, but then everyone comes back to the table, and that’s okay. And Italians aren’t the only culture like this. If we’re teaching students that there’s only one way to express yourself, that there’s a ‘wrong’ way and a ‘right’ way, that creates conflict. And often these judgments are driven by our unconscious biases.”

When she looked for research and resources that integrate SEL with culturally responsive practices, she found very little, so she decided to survey what families and educators are doing in this area.

“I’m interested in finding what’s working and shining a light on that,” she says. “We’re at a place in education where we now know SEL is important, but we don’t necessarily know how to make sure it’s reflective of all students.”

One tool that’s promising is kernels of practice for SEL — simple strategies that teachers can tailor to students and settings. Meland learned about kernels working in the Ecological Approaches to Social and Emotional Learning (EASEL) Lab with Professor Stephanie Jones. “You can take these kernels and adapt them to be more reflective of your students.”To start though, she says, we have to ask what our purpose is in teaching SEL.

“Is it so that students can learn to conform and then succeed in the world as it is, or is it to provide skills students can use to think critically about problems, to push back against injustices, and to succeed in a new world of their making?”