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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Use Literary Characters to Teach Emotional Intelligence

When it comes to learning real-life lessons, fictional characters offer a strategy all their own.
By Traci Vogel
Credit: Ian Roberts

"I've picked you to accompany me on the greatest adventure of our mutual lives," the character Claudia tells her younger brother Jamie in E.L. Konigsburg's Newbery Medal-winning young-adult novel, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The adventure Claudia is referring to is running away from home to take up residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the invitation addresses young readers as well. Reading is an adventure, full of discoveries: new lands, new words, and new emotions.

That last subject, emotions, hasn't traditionally been addressed in language arts curricula. But in the past decade, spurred on by growing scholarly evidence of the impact initiatives in social and emotional learning (SEL) can have on classroom productivity and academic performance, teachers have begun to weave such lessons into their literature segments. Books like From the Mixed-Up Files provide a starting point for discussions about community building, handling anger, listening, assertiveness, cooperation, mediation, celebrating differences, and countering bias.

Such lessons enable students to "access their own background and emotions, and their relationships in the class, in a much different way," explains Kelly Stuart, national education consultant at the Developmental Studies Center, in Oakland, California. The nonprofit organization has spent the past seven years researching and compiling the Making Meaning program, a K-8 reading-comprehension curriculum that uses read-aloud books to develop social values. Making Meaning, in use in almost every state, "marries the academic and social," Stuart says.

One Making Meaning lesson plan is based on Lois Lowry's Newbery award-winning young-adult fantasy novel The Giver. Aimed at eighth graders, the curriculum helps students understand the underlying themes of the novel, in which young Jonas learns disturbing truths about his supposedly utopian community.

Students are paired up for the entire lesson, which spans several weeks. After each reading, they're asked to analyze character relationships, outline the plot of the story, and explore character change as a result of conflict and resolution in the plot. In "Heads Together" sessions of four students, they're then asked to discuss their feelings about what they've read. The lessons are carefully constructed to teach talking and listening skills, using strategies such as verbal prompts ("I agree with what you said, and I think . . . ."), clarifying questions, and confirmations.

The literature chosen for these lessons is important, Stuart notes. "By using texts with strong characters, with kids -- not just adults -- solving problems and taking on some big issues that may have cross-curricular applications, we find the kids not only connect to the stories but also really can learn a strategy that way, over time," she says.

At New York City's Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, Executive Director Tom Roderick created a curriculum based around the books The Librarian of Basra and Alia's Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq. Inspired by a July 2003 New York Times article by Shaila Dewan, the books tell the real-life story of Alia Muhammad Baker, chief librarian of Basra, Iraq.

Books are "more precious than mountains of gold" to Alia, so when her country is invaded and the library is threatened, she single-handedly organizes people to move an estimated 30,000 books to safe locations. Alia is a strong character who is proactive in a time of conflict, an important role model for kids who may feel powerless.

Roderick's lesson plans address reading comprehension questions such as "Who is the story mainly about?" and "What is Alia worried about?" But they also help students connect the story to their own lives with questions such as "Alia is worried that the books might be destroyed in the war. Are there things going on in the world that you worry about? What are they?"

The lesson then moves into practical applications: "Has there been a time when you made the world better by something you did?" If the students can't think of anything, teachers are urged to remind them that small things count, for example, "helping your mother, sending a card to someone who is sick."

Most stories and plays involve conflict and can provide valuable SEL lessons, says Roderick. "It's useful to distinguish conflict from violence; conflict and violence are not the same thing," he says. "If, in their language arts class, they're reading a story where the main character is having a conflict with somebody, you can say, 'What do we have here? We have a conflict. Did the character deal with it the right way? How do you think these characters are feeling?'"

These discussions can lead to real-life lessons. For example, says Roderick, "You might have kids talk in pairs about a recent conflict they've been involved with, and how it turned out."

In curriculum developed by the Orange County Department of Education's Institute for Character Education, conflict in From the Mixed-Up Files leads to just such a discussion. Claudia runs away from home because she "felt she was treated unfairly, that she had too many chores, and that her allowance was too small," the lesson plan notes. "What else could she have done instead of running away? What negative value illustrates her decision to run away?"

Good literature has long been a window into our psyches. As historian Barbara W. Tuchman put it, "Books are humanity in print." Incorporating SEL lessons into reading curriculum can put students in touch with the universality of literature, its power to transport us to different experiences and to connect and even change human beings. After all, as Claudia says near the end of From the Mixed-Up Files, "I didn't run away to come home the same."

Traci Vogel is a freelance writer and editor in San Francisco.

Comments (24)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Wynelle Scott's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Some feel the graphic novels are "demonic" and a waste of money. There are many students asking everyday for these materials. Any materials on using graphic novels with any student, not just reluctant readers, would be great.

Laura Pazourek's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Please send samples of novels to our school of social and emotional learning. My students are predominately minority, lower economic level and many are practically raising themselves under difficult circumstances. We are a center for teen parents, grades 6 through 12 with age ranges between 11 and 21; so my reading classes are both levels middle and high school.
Thank you in advance for your help in reaching these children.

connie pruitt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am interested in samples of novels that teach social emotional learning.

Cal Joy's picture
Cal Joy
Former High School Art and Science Teacher in Queensland, Australia.

Staff comment:

I'd like to point interested readers to the Edutopia article "A New Literary Hero: Comics Make for Colorful Learning," which looks at how teachers have begun to accept comic books as a tool for teaching literacy through group projects.

Edutopia Staff

Cal Joy

Sarah Ritter's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Even more effective than The Giver, by Lois Lowry, is her novel, Gathering Blue. This is the second in her three book series that begins with The Giver. Unfortunately, schools all over the country have been using The Giver as class books with younger and younger students, therefore losing a great deal of the emotional connections within the conflicts of the novel. Many of my sixth graders arrive at our middle school having been 'taught' The Giver in fourth and fifth grades. Gathering Blue differs from Lowry's previous novel by having a protagonist who has support from lesser characters, and a major antagonist who is at first perceived in a positive light. My students could relate to the problem of assuming someone was a good friend when that person was actually acting from a self serving and/or manipulative position.

Better yet, the hero of this novel moves along most of the steps of the first stage of Robert Campbell's Hero's Journey, thus supporting how truly difficult 'doing the right thing' can be. Lowry also gives young people a delightfully accessible understanding of the use of literary symbolism. Many of my students go back and reread The Giver after we finish our study Gathering Blue. They are thrilled to understand so much more of the first novel once their emotional and intellectual development is more mature.

Another wonderful example of a novel that addresses emotional intelligence (and its development) is Susan Fletcher's Shadow Spinner. This novel gives marvelous little "Lessons for Life" that offer students moments to reflect and connect with the protagonist, Marjan's conflicts, and provides openings for wonderful classroom discussions and journal prompts. I plan to use the Lessons for Life as my major focus for our class blog on the novel this year.

Thank goodness there is YA literature so appropriate and meaningful, and worth sharing with our students.

Ken Arneson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Stories and storytelling are powerful ways to reach and teach children about character education. That is the core of the LifeStories for Kids program (http://www.selmediainc.com/products/index#charEd). It is an award-winning program and is research-based, results having been recently published in the Journal of Research in Character Education.

Please contact info@selmediainc.com if you would like to learn more.

Mary Miliard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am interested in receivng a sample of Graphic Novels to use in my 6th grade reading intervention class. Please let me know how I can get these samples. Thank you.

Teresa Mathias's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would like free samples of graphic novels. I teach SPED at Clovis Community Day School in Clovis, CA. I have been brainstornig how to present social emotional lessons from a
Language Arts platform. I feel that these will be high intrest and touch on alot of power themes for our students.

Mendy Hutson's picture
Mendy Hutson
High School EBD Teacher

I would like a list of other novels that could be used in a high school social skills class for students with emotional disturbance and behavior disorders. I am trying to incorporate challenge-based learning that inspires the students to take positive steps toward bettering themselves, the school community, their city, and to think more globally. I would like to find some literature that would go well with this idea.

Mendy Hutson's picture
Mendy Hutson
High School EBD Teacher

What are some examples of literature that you have used to do this character analysis? I really like this idea. I teach a high school social skills class to students with EBD and I find that it is much easier for them to engage in discussion about others before they are willing to self-reflect and self-analyze. Would love to have a good list of novels to use in my class. Thanks for any help you can offer.

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