Opinion
Student Well-Being Commentary

Teaching Social Awareness Through Reading

By Robert L. Selman — September 17, 2003 8 min read

Robert L. Selman is the Roy E. Larsen professor of education and human development at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, in Cambridge, Mass., and the author of The Promotion of Social Awareness: Powerful Lessons from the Partnership of Developmental Theory and Classroom Practice.

Throughout the history of American public education, the practice of integrating the teaching of literacy and social awareness has taken many forms, from the explicit and blatant learning of religious vocabulary words and biblical themes in the primers of the 1850s to the more subtle lessons about the implicit social roles of the two-parent suburban life of Dick and Jane’s family in the 1950s.

Rarely, however, has research on this connection taken place in a classroom, and even more rarely has the connection been used as a vehicle to evaluate the effectiveness of both reading comprehension and character development. For three decades, I have studied the development of social awareness in children and, most recently, have observed how it evolves in 5th grade students during their reading and writing studies. Their experiences can inform how we teach literacy skills in the future—with an eye toward creating strong, ethical adults.

Each year, these 5th graders read Nicholasa Mohr’s novel Felita, which describes the experiences of a 3rd grade Puerto Rican girl and her family in the late 1950s. Mohr quickly introduces readers to the book’s narrator and namesake, and to her friends, family, and neighborhood in Spanish Harlem. After the family moves to a new neighborhood in search of better educational opportunities and living conditions, Felita faces the awkwardness of making new friends and attending a new school. Although the girls in the new neighborhood invite her to play hopscotch, their parents do not welcome this new girl from a strange (Spanish-speaking) family into their community. The children’s initial friendliness turns into hostility and aggression once they fall under the influence of their parents, and a painful confrontation takes place.

Introducing books with themes like Felita‘s helps students across grades deepen their understanding of themselves and strengthen their commitment to the democratic values and practices of our society. Infusing them directly into the comprehensive reading curriculum corrals the energy children bring to social relationships and drives it toward literacy. That energy becomes a platform from which to discuss literature and, in turn, develop their burgeoning literacy and social skills simultaneously.

Not surprisingly, some children express a deeper level of social understanding than others. In the class I observed, we explored what made some children’s comments more incisive by focusing on the meaning of social incidents in the text that were inherently challenging.

In one particularly sophisticated reading assignment, students must probe the complex meaning behind something Felita says. In describing how she reacts to a confrontation with other girls in her new neighborhood, Felita tells her grandmother: “I never said anything to those girls. Never. It was as if they were right, because I just walked away, you know.” In a follow-up homework assignment, students must describe what Felita means. This question does not simply ask students to reference a passage in the story. Instead, it probes for the levels of understanding children have not only about fictional characters, but also of the social world around them.

Most students fell into one of two groups. Some thought that Felita meant that she was sorry she had run away to avoid participating in a physical confrontation with the girls, because they thought she was chicken. Others thought she was upset the other girls rejected her for no good reason—she did nothing wrong—and would not be her friend.

However, a small number of students believed that what most upset Felita was how she herself reacted to the neighborhood kids, and how they in turn judged what they had done as a function of her reaction. One student, Guadalupe, clearly understood this and stated very eloquently: “Felita means when she says, '[it] is as if they were right because I just walked away you know.’ She means that they had the reason ... to beat her up because she walked away and didn’t say anything while she was leaving.”

Without self-understanding and social awareness, moral action will always be at the whim of external forces.

Although Guadalupe’s sentence seems grammatically confusing at first, she catches something most of the other children missed: She realizes that Felita thinks that because she walked away, she implicitly validated her attackers’ view of their discriminatory behavior.

Developmentally speaking, Guadalupe’s comprehension represents a deeper level of social awareness as well as a deeper level of reading comprehension, and it is a level that we should strive to promote in all students as they move across the elementary grades. When I talk to educators about this analysis of how students interpret Felita, many initially agree with me. But as soon as I recommend creating developmental “social awareness” benchmarks, patterned after literacy benchmarks, the resolve of these educators quickly dissolves. They say, “Whoa, you can’t do that.” Why not?

Educators usually object for one of two reasons—what I call the liberal and conservative perspectives. Liberals fear that any assessment might underestimate the student’s social awareness, or worse, that it will not recognize that there are alternate—and equally sophisticated—ways to express deeper social awareness. They are concerned that a developmental approach will (incorrectly) label the level of the student’s expressed awareness as some fixed ability of the child. In other words, they mistakenly confuse, and hence fear, the use of levels to classify the emergence of social awareness as a kind of absolute diagnosis.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, conservative thinking argues that even an accurate assessment of students’ social awareness will not tell us how they will act when faced with similar situations. These educators want a clear path of action—a right choice— students know needs to be taken. They are concerned especially with giving credit to the student who develops the capacity to express both sides of a debate but may not “do the right thing.” In other words, there is not enough emphasis on absolute virtues and values. Ironically, they mistakenly confuse the ability for reflection with an inability to see the right action.

I am not saying that a single method or measure can fully assess the social competencies of any particular student. Nor should we expect to predict how students will behave based on what they say a character in a novel is concerned about or should do. The method we used in the Felita example accepts the limits of words to express thoughts, and subsequently, of thoughts to predict actions, and we need to acknowledge that the analysis of our observations only captures the depth of awareness that a particular student (or group of students) expresses at a particular time in that single assignment. It does not generalize to their social development overall.

Despite these limitations, I believe it is possible to use this approach to develop a valid method of measuring social and ethical awareness. The Felita example demonstrates why such an assessment is necessary, and essential if we are to integrate the promotion of social and ethical awareness into elementary school literacy and language arts programs.

Reconsider Guadalupe’s interpretation of Felita’s comments alongside the other interpretations. The other students were not necessarily wrong, but their answers were certainly incomplete. It is very likely that Felita actually did not want to be seen as chicken and did want to be friends with the kids in the new neighborhood. However, the other students express less depth of awareness because they have not learned to integrate the complex feelings with which Felita actually had to deal.

Having research-based standards for measuring students’ level of social awareness will enable teachers at all grade levels to better determine which students have yet to acquire a deeper understanding of ethical issues. Without self-understanding and social awareness, moral action will always be at the whim of external forces. If teachers were able to use carefully selected children’s literature during the year for language arts that reiterated themes from personal identity to social responsibility, they would be able to analyze students’ responses to key questions to study how social awareness grows in each student.

Having research-based standards for measuring students' level of social awareness will enable teachers to better determine which students have yet to acquire a deeper understanding of ethical issues.

If teachers had a map that located students’ responses to meaning-oriented questions about social awareness on a developmental continuum, they could determine how well the whole class understands the complexity of social issues via a particular book in the literacy program, and be able to assist those students who need additional help in developing and understanding their own social awareness.

The teachers we have worked with have been fascinated by the prospect of interpreting their students’ writing beyond a “straight” literacy analysis. They well understand that promoting social awareness requires students to understand the meaning these characters make of social events in their lives. They know that students cannot—or will not—always say what they mean, but that practice sharing their thoughts about difficult social issues through writing and discussion is an essential step toward making that connection. Frameworks that organize their students’ responses would be very helpful to this practice.

Teachers also know that fostering students’ mature social conduct, either in the moment of a critical incident, or in relationships over time, is not something that happens as a simple and direct effect of promoting their capacity for social awareness. Both social awareness and social actions fluctuate, and they continue to change depending on conditions in the social atmosphere.

But systematic analysis of children’s writings on these matters provides one necessary scale for assessing those changes and fluctuations, even if it should not be used as the only indicator.

Investment in research to devise and validate a set of standards to measure the development of social awareness through literacy is an essential component of the evaluation of any approach to the promotion of character in schools that purports to have continuity from one grade to the next.

Robert L. Selman is the Roy E. Larsen professor of education and human development at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, in Cambridge, Mass., and the author of The Promotion of Social Awareness: Powerful Lessons from the Partnership of Developmental Theory and Classroom Practice.

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