George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social and Emotional Learning

SEL and Spirituality: Instructional Implications

November 19, 2014

In the previous blog, I began to explore the connection of SEL and spirituality with Jeffrey Kress, Ph.D., an associate professor at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York. Here, we finish the conversation with a focus on the instructional implications, specifically, how might we bring the SEL and spirituality connection into any school?

Dr. Kress and I in the my last blog discussed how adolescents make the deepest connections when they are in the context of caring, trusting relationships. We continue from there . . .

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Edutopia: What are the implications of this reality for SEL-related curriculum and instruction in adolescents?

Dr. Kress: The starting point for SEL-related curriculum and instruction begins with the nature of relationships among adolescents and between adults and adolescents in the particular educational setting. Feelings of safety and trust form the bedrock of meaningful interactions and discussions. This could take time to develop and should go beyond the SEL-spirituality issue. So relationship building is always the first step.

It seems as if, in secular schools at least, the topic may best be addressed through subjects and contexts where spirituality and contemplation have authenticity. Literature, poetry, art, architecture, music, and social studies provide clear openings as would informal educational settings like trips and retreats.

Dr. Kress: About the latter, yes, sometimes a change of venue helps in spurring on conversations that may feel out of place at school. Rachael Kessler describes the intensive work achievable on retreats with adolescents. In my own work with on informal learning contexts in Jewish schools, I witnessed the strength of creating intentional communities in which students and staff come together to celebrate the Sabbath together, as described in detail in the book I wrote on the topic.

There are also ways to prime the discussion through having students read literature by or about people, such as Martin Luther King Jr., who have used their spiritual quest as a springboard for self growth and contributions to the world, or viewing art or buildings that have been similarly inspired.

As you implied, the work of Laura Weaver and Mark Wilding with Rachael Kessler's Passageworks Program are such excellent examples. They provide clear guidance for how these delicate topics can be brought up to students in authentic ways, particularly around life passages, such as entry to and exit from high school, as well as in the course of one's teaching. But they also focus on everyday school contexts.

Resources and Getting Started

In their book, The 5 Dimensions of Engaged Teaching, Weaver and Wilding discuss the importance of mindfulness and creating a sense of connection to self, others, and the world as important in building adolescents' willingness to embrace the "big questions" about themselves and life. Among the practices they have found useful are:

  • Explore where students come from: lineage, roots, heritage, people, beliefs
  • Create opportunities for students to understand themselves as part of "communities" in which they live -- family, neighborhood, region, nation, humanity
  • Provide students with opportunities to contribute to something larger than their own personal lives, such as through school or community service projects, action letters on topics related to current events, trips to deliberative bodies such as legislatures, judiciaries, Civil Rights commissions, United Nations meetings, etc. 
  • Build mindfulness by asking students to notice five things out of the classroom window: clouds, trees, birds, cars, people, buildings, power lines, etc. And to do so with fresh eyes, seeing something different from what they have seen before; these observations can be pair-shared and/or written about
  • Bring in an inspiring quote and discuss how and why it is inspiring
  • Use reflective writing in the context of various curricular content areas. Journaling or blogging assignments can be opportunities for students to draw out the spiritual, social, and emotional elements of, say, a poem, a novel, or a particularly poignant historical figure or event, or a scientific discovery or innovation in the arts or athletics

Rationale: Spirituality in Schools

Dr. Kress and I agree that's it is clear that there is no barrier to connecting SEL and spirituality, contemplation, and reflection in the public school context. While some educators are concerned about the boundaries between religion and public education, there should be less concern with spirituality. Spirituality is defined as relating to, or affecting the human spirit. The word itself denotes a profound sense of belonging. Others link the term with transcendence.

Regardless, these are areas of particular developmental salience to adolescents, which is why it is important for education, and the SEL field in particular, to find ways of being comfortable with, and encouraging of, the spirituality and SEL connection.

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  • Social and Emotional Learning
  • Curriculum Planning