Could social/emotional learning in schools deter the horrific and senseless shootings of black men?

MLK monument in D.C.By now, you’ve most likely seen the chilling video of Walter Scott, a black man from South Carolina, first running away from a police officer and then falling to the ground after he is shot in the back by that officer a number of times. Once again, Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream speech (“Speech”) resonates about the dire condition of black people in our country:

“We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of brutality.”

Yet, the buzz is that webcams will fix the problem of random shootings of black men. I find this hardly persuasive. It’s rare that external measures drive meaningful change. Some internally persuasive thought or feeling provoked Officer Slager to pull the trigger.

Meaningful change requires internal transformation, driven by moral and ethical conversations. That’s when schools need to jump into the dialogue. We need to teach self -awareness, tolerance, decision-making, and respect for differences. According to gifted expert Linda Silverman, we need to make this instruction a centerpiece of our curriculum so as to cultivate a responsible citizenry and strong community leaders:

Moral leaders characteristically choose ethical rather than expedient alternatives when faced with a dilemma; are committed to principles and causes; identify with humanity, not just their own group; feel compassion and forgiveness; admit to their shortcomings; and hold their own personal ideals….(Silverman, 2000, p. 312)

Silverman and others are calling for humanitarian education that leads to sound, moral leadership.*

Educators have the framework in place to foster humanitarian education through social/emotional learning that leads to positive youth development. Pursuant to public law, the Illinois State Board of Education was authorized to “develop a plan to incorporate social and emotional development standards.” The standards mandate instruction on how to use "social awareness and interpersonal skills to establish and maintain positive relationships;" and require that students "[c]onsider ethical, safety, and societal factors in making decisions." Id.

Ethics, safety, good decision making, all go to the heart of the horrific and senseless shooting of Walter Scott and the slew of other black men before him. I’d argue that they also cut to the crux of solving so many other social ills.

I wonder how many teachers write and teach curriculum with social/emotional issues in mind, especially given the pressures of high stakes testing, though social/emotional learning (sometimes referred to as the affective curriculum) is supposed to be aligned with the knowledge and skill goals in the rest of the academic curriculum. If integrated properly, this framework can promote bottom up change on moral and ethical development. With sensitivity, teachers can create relevant, affective units. When I worked in Highland Park as a gifted resource teacher, we used literature to advance social/emotional learning and nurture positive youth development. For fourth and fifth grade students, we put together a fighting oppression unit, incorporating:

• Mildred Taylor’s novel, Role of Thunder, Hear my Cry
• Excerpts from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, highlighting the brutality under overseer Covey
• I have a Dream speech
• Selected poetry

A few parents balked at the graphic nature of the readings and yanked their children from the enrichment program. I remember one parent in particular who was mortified that we had chosen Taylor’s book because a character burned to death at the hands of the KKK. Wonder what this parent would think if her child turned on the TV today?

An overwhelming majority of parents, however, were enthusiastic about the content of the enrichment units that incorporated social/emotional learning. We talked about the characters’ decisions, societal, and religious values, and the systems that were in place then and are in place now. Students were urged to read and write from the heart. Some drew pictures of oppressive practices and wrote raps about slavery. A few came in with personal histories of ancestors who were imprisoned in the Japanese internment camps and were victims of the Holocaust. What mattered most was that they were given time and space to explore these ethical, cultural and moral dilemmas. Most of these students graduated from our elementary school as self-actualized young adults. They went on to participate in amazing philanthropic efforts, ranging from work on climate change, to supporting students in South Africa, to working with students with disabilities, and founding a company dedicated to shovel snowy walks for senior citizens.

It’s a great feeling to witness the growth of self aware, tolerant, caring and compassionate student citizenry.

Guns and cameras don’t fix intolerance, but education can. We fail in our mission as teachers if we neglect the social/emotional curriculum. Respect, tolerance, compassion, and personal freedoms have to be central to our conversations with students. I return to the Speech. In1963, King urged his supporters to "rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

We have the mandate and power to cultivate ethical and caring souls, classroom by classroom. That’s how we will make meaningful inroads in today’s culture of violence.

*Silverman, L (2000). Counseling the gifted and talented. Denver, CO: Love Publishing Company.

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