EdCuration Blog: Learning in Action

The Power of Stories for Adolescents: Integrating SEL into Middle School Literature

Mar 15, 2023 3:22:38 PM / by Erica Vuolle

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If you’ve ever performed a Google search using a combination of keywords like “literacy” and “SEL”, a list of elementary texts may appear, including beloved favorites like Enemy Pie by Derek Munson and Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes. This isn’t totally surprising, as educators often read these kinds of stories with primary learners to support conversations about real-life experiences and emotions. However, these formative discussions often come to a screeching halt once students enter middle and high school, specifically during literacy instruction. That isn’t to say many Language Arts teachers aren’t embedding their own social and emotional learning (SEL) components into novel studies and other literacy-based activities. But this requires additional time and effort from educators, as most Language Arts curriculum do not integrate SEL elements into their scope and sequences. 


Why Combine Literacy and SEL in Older Grades?

As a woman in my early 30’s, I recently joined a monthly book club of other female bibliophiles. The host is responsible for generating discussion questions and providing delicious snacks, of course. While we do talk about the book in depth, we also prioritize sharing personal life updates - both the good and the bad. This routine, grounded in our love of reading, has become sacred and therapeutic. Literature has the power to connect us and help us make sense of the world around us, at any age. 


I wish my young-adult self had a similar space to connect with others in the classroom. My affinity for books waned as I transitioned to middle school, in part due to the mandatory novels read in class that rarely felt relevant to my life. As a former middle school Language Arts teacher, I witnessed this firsthand with my own students. Children in the middle grades are more likely to learn when they see the subject relatable and relevant to their personal lives, and this most certainly applies to the whole-class novels they are often forced to read. Studies show that 62% of children between the ages of six and eight enjoy reading books for fun, however, this percentage drops to 46% for children between the ages of nine and eleven. This percentage remains fairly consistent for adolescents between the ages of twelve and seventeen. This data highlights the obvious fact that the texts we choose to put in front of students matter. If they can connect to the story, their chances of actively engaging in discussions and finding genuine enjoyment dramatically increases. 


What Is Bibliotherapy and How Can Educators Use It?

Some would argue that book clubs are a prime example of bibliotherapy, a therapeutic practice using literature as a vehicle to help individuals grow and develop. The term bibliotherapy was coined in the early 1940’s and has expanded in its definition and usage over the past few decades. This approach encourages educators to lean on literature to support students with the social and emotional challenges faced in adolescence. Researchers have found that reading, writing, and collaborative discussions can “provide an opportunity to work through grief, cope with a difficult situation, or just explore developmentally-appropriate topics” (Fries-Gaither). 


Experts recommend that bibliotherapy be followed in 10 basic steps:

1. Cultivate genuine relationships and trust with your students. Build rapport before diving into content, whether it’s SEL-related, literacy-based, or otherwise.

2. Identify other staff members in your building that may be available to assist. This may include library media specialists, counselors, and school psychologists.

3. Ask for support from your students’ guardians. If you have their buy-in, this can promote discussions at home to deepen students’ understanding of the subjects covered in class.

4. Clearly define what challenges your students are facing. This may vary by class, grade level, etc. Consider polling your students to gauge what they’re struggling with. If you have a pulse on your students' needs, you will be able to tailor your instruction accordingly and choose relevant texts that your students can actually relate to.

5. Design objectives and activities directly tied to students’ challenges and personal goals.

6. Carefully select young adult reading materials that lend themselves to your students’ developmental needs. Examine a text’s cultural relevance, diverse range of characters and perspectives, and SEL-related themes. A list of award-winning YA literature can be found on booklists.yalsa.net, the website of the Young Adult Library Services Association, YALSA.

7. Present the reading material to your students. If you’ve found a list of potential texts, consider surveying your students to see which ones they are most interested in.

8. Implement meaningful reading activities, putting a heavy emphasis on student-led and collaborative discussions.

9. Create post-reading activities for your students. Rather than giving students extra work to complete, think creatively about how you can embed SEL concepts into school-wide systems and procedures. For example, if your school uses a PBIS system, reward students for displaying a particular SEL competency that is being discussed during your bibliotherapy-related lesson.

10. Evaluate the effectiveness of bibliotherapy on your group of students. This might include providing them with a pre/post assessment to determine if they’ve grown in specific developmental areas, or receiving their feedback to determine strengths and growth areas in your instruction and delivery. 


How Can Educators Embed SEL Efficiently? 

If school leaders have not already carved out specific time in the day solely for SEL instruction, Emozi® Middle School, published by PATHS Program LLC, allows secondary teachers to authentically integrate SEL into their already existing content. Rooted in CASEL’s five competencies, Emozi® is a comprehensive, student-centered SEL curriculum using culturally relevant and high-quality literature as a guide. While the program suggests strong diverse mentor texts, such as A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park and Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan, educators are also encouraged to choose their own novels to fit their students’ needs and interests. The teacher acts as a facilitator while students engage in collaborative and inquiry-based discussions, including Socratic seminars. 


Emozi®’s easy-to-use and differentiated-by-grade lessons are some of the many reasons why educators, like those at Maze Middle School in Hollister, California, are choosing this program over the litany of others on the market. After adopting Emozi® last year, 60% of students at Maze Middle School noticed they were being frequently checked on by their teachers. Additionally, 52% of students felt deeply connected to their peers after participating in deeply emotional discussions. Learn more about Emozi® Middle School and peruse the structure of their program in their scope and sequence. 


Interested in implementing Socratic seminars in your own classroom? Explore Emozi®’s free professional learning course to learn best practices and receive free resources that you can use to support your students’ class discussions.


And if you’re curious about Emozi® success stories in schools currently using the program, consider listening to EdCuration’s podcast episode featuring school leaders from Maze Middle School in Hollister, California.

Topics: SEL, Literacy, Reading

Erica Vuolle

Written by Erica Vuolle

Erica is a committed educator with ten years’ experience inspiring elementary and middle school students, transforming classroom cultures, and implementing effective programs.

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