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Five Tips for Integrating Project-Based and Social-Emotional Learning

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Kelina and Dante were already behind the other groups on the day’s task: building a parallel circuit with two light bulbs and a switch. So when their partnership devolved into name-calling, my first reaction was frustration, and my first instinct was to chastise them for wasting time. Before responding, I took a deep breath and reminded myself that project-based learning is often messy and that working with others is often difficult, even for adults. Then I approached them with the hope of starting a conversation about collaboration.

Recent research has affirmed what many educators have known for ages: social-emotional learning, or SEL, is a critical component of effective education. When classrooms address skills like collaboration, empathy, and problem-solving, researchers see improvement in students’ academic progress as well as long-term life outcomes (including lower rates of arrest, substance abuse, and mental health problems). In addition, social-emotional skills rank among those most prized by employers.

While welcoming the “whole child” into the classroom has long been a best practice among early childhood educators, I have often found it difficult to make space for SEL in my high school classrooms. In high schools, an unrealistic expectation underlies the curriculum: Students should be “grown up” enough to check their feelings at the door and focus solely on academics. In reality, teachers know that students’ feelings find their way into the classroom no matter what. So instead of sweeping them under the rug, how can we make students’ social and emotional challenges a focus for learning and growth?

One approach is the weekly advisory period. Many schools carve out a half hour or more each week to address topics that don’t fit neatly into the academic disciplines. But trying to teach tolerance or teamwork in the absence of an authentic purpose is frustrating if not futile. What’s the point of getting 25 teenagers to participate in a team-building activity, only to send them off in different directions to their academic classes? What’s the point of team-building if you don’t really need your team to get the work done? If we want SEL to be meaningful, we can’t separate it from the real work of the world.

Real-World Problems

Project-based learning, or PBL, is one way that teachers integrate subject areas and connect academic work to authentic problems. For example, at my school, a small project-based high school in Philadelphia, 9th graders are working in groups to produce radio shows that investigate aspects of police brutality. This project engages students in the science of radio waves, the history of police brutality, the art of interviewing community experts, and the craft of media production. The best student work will air on a local radio station this spring. Within the context of this project, my students are encountering real challenges: interviews with unfamiliar adults, conflicts with group members, and strong emotional reactions to the subject matter. Although it’s easy to see these challenges as obstacles to success, my colleagues and I strive to see them as opportunities to build social-emotional skills.

Project-based learning allows teachers to break down artificial barriers between subject areas, between “hard skills” and “soft skills,” between the classroom and the real world. It offers us the opportunity to address problems as they arise, instead of pushing them to the fringes of the curriculum. Inviting the whole child (and indeed, the whole world) into the classroom is not easy, and the attempt often leaves me feeling overwhelmed and underprepared. In my moments of doubt, a few ideas help me to move forward.

1. Investigate the why

Most teachers and most students are not accustomed to addressing social and emotional needs at school. It helps us both to take time to discuss why this work is important. At the beginning of the year, my students complain about not being allowed to choose groups. But after multiple conversations about the challenges and benefits of collaboration, they begin to see managing group dynamics as an inherent part of the work we do together.

2. Forgive the mess

In project-based work, moments of frustration and conflict are inevitable. Although the traditional teacher in me still recoils at signs of distress, I am learning to see these moments not as failures but as natural parts of a messy and human process. This means accepting that progress is uneven and looks different for different students. On any given project, some students may be excelling in the academic portion of the work while struggling with the social and emotional aspects; for others, it will be the opposite. Projects are not tidy affairs, and it’s okay to forgive—or even embrace—the mess.

3. Build in time for reflection

Integrating SEL and PBL means we are asking a lot of our students. We are asking them to take on academic challenges, social challenges, and emotional challenges, all within the space of our classroom. Reflection offers a way for students (and teachers) to translate these challenges into insights about ourselves and the people around us. Here are some of the prompts I use with students during the course of project work:

• What part of this project is most difficult for you? Why is it difficult?

• Describe one thing you have done during this project that makes you proud. Why does it make you proud?

• Who has given you feedback so far on this project? How did you respond to the feedback?

• Set a goal for tomorrow. How long do you think it will take to reach this goal?

• What did you learn today? What questions do you still have?

4. Enlist student supporters

Some students bring incredible social-emotional strengths to the classroom. In a traditional classroom, these strengths are often overlooked, but in a project-based classroom, these students can help facilitate growth among their peers. By asking these students to play a leadership role (for example, by supporting a student who is struggling or helping to lead a group discussion), we honor their strengths and allow others to follow their example.

5. Give positive feedback

Whenever I start feeling overwhelmed—by a challenging project or a challenging student—I try to find one reason to praise a student in my class. The reason might be small—a thoughtful question, an interesting idea, an act of kindness. The act of sharing a compliment almost always shifts my mindset. It sets me on a path of noticing progress instead of fretting over obstacles, and it reminds me to see my students (and myself), not as uni-dimensional scholars, but as unique human beings.

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