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Social-Emotional Learning Takes Center Stage in 2016 Commencement Addresses

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The more I learn about social-emotional learning, the more I see the concepts and character strengths schools are seeking to promote in everyday conversations and experiences. 

For example, nearly every commencement address has a nod to resilience, relationship skills, or the ever-debated concept of grit. But, if these values are so important to students' success inside and outside of the classroom, why do we wait until the end of their academic careers to have an NFL star, an actor or the President of the United States speak to them about their importance?

I combed through some popular 2016 commencement addresses to find the big SEL takeaways. Here's a sampling.

Perseverance: "Hamilton" Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda at the University of Pennsylvania

The creator of the white-hot Broadway musical told students that it took years of rewrites to get his first show off of the ground. At one point, a popular producer offered to stage the show if Miranda changed the plot line, an offer he resisted. Miranda also nodded to the perseverance of so many first-generation college students and new Americans who struggle in unseen ways to achieve their dreams. This echoes the importance of perseverance when facing failures or obstacles and the value of setting long-term goals to drive shorter-term decisions.

"In a year when politicians traffic in anti-immigrant rhetoric, there is also a Broadway musical reminding us that a broke, orphaned immigrant from the West Indies built our financial system, a story that reminds us that since the beginning of the unfinished symphony that is our American experiment, time and time again, immigrants get the job done."

Conquering Stereotype Threat: President Barack Obama at Howard University

President Obama encouraged graduates of the historically black university to embrace their culture identity and to refuse the limits others may seek to impose on them. Some students have found that concept to be more challenging than others. Some researchers have found students can internalize negative stereotypes about people of their gender, race, or ethnic group. Culturally informed social-emotional learning programs seek to break down those stereotypes by disproving them and encouraging students.

"In the past couple months, I've had lunch with the Queen of England and hosted Kendrick Lamar in the Oval Office. There's no strait jacket, there's no constraints, there's no litmus test for authenticity."

Grit: Russell Wilson at the University of Wisconsin

The NFL quarterback plays for the Seattle Seahawks, a team that has famously sought to create a culture of "grit," a combination of passion and perseverance in achieving long-term goals. In her new book on the subject, researcher Angela Duckworth recounts a conversation she had with the team's head coach after he watched her famous TED Talk on the subject.

"Potential just means you haven't done it yet. Already in my career, I've seen that a lot of people have potential, but not everyone does it."

Growth Mindset: Sheryl Sandberg at the University of California, Berkeley

Facebook's chief operating officer recounted the lessons she learned from grieving the unexpected death of her husband, Dave. One of those lessons echoed some of the messages of growth mindset, an idea popularized by Stanford researcher Carol Dweck. That message: Failures and challenges aren't always a reflection of who we are. Rather than seeing these experiences as a sign of their own weaknesses, students should explore the potential to learn from them and start again, she said.

"The first P is personalization—the belief that we are at fault. This is different from taking responsibility, which you should always do. This is the lesson that not everything that happens to us happens because of us ...

Studies show that getting past personalization can actually make you stronger. Teachers who knew they could do better after students failed adjusted their methods and saw future classes go on to excel. College swimmers who underperformed but believed they were capable of swimming faster did. Not taking failures personally allows us to recover—and even to thrive."

Self-Awareness: Hank Azaria at Tufts University

The actor, who voices many characters on "The Simpsons," said his abilities as an actor grew when he came to understand himself and see value in the things that make him unique. This is an example of self-awareness, a skill that helps students recognize and control emotions, understand their own strengths and limitations, and be confident in themselves.

"I didn't realize it but when I was you guys' age, I had a belief that who I was and how I thought and how I felt was inherently uninteresting, and flawed, and not practical. Well maybe they were and maybe they still are, but it wasn't until I embraced the person who I really was that my work as an actor got interesting."

Social Awareness: UN Ambassador Samantha Power at Yale University

Power, a Yale graduate herself, encouraged students to find their sense of purposes by "getting close" to the lives of others, understanding their values, joys, and struggles. Her speech touched on the concept of social awareness, a skill that helps students learn to empathize and consider the perspectives of others.

"From the Facebook and Twitter feeds we monitor, to the algorithms that determine the results of our web searches based on our previous browsing history and location, our major sources of information are increasingly engineered to reflect back to us the world as we already see it. They give us the comfort of our opinions without the discomfort of thought. So you have to find a way to break out of your echo chambers."

Photo: Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway musical "Hamilton," gestures after receiving an honorary degree during the University of Pennsylvania commencement ceremony on May 16 in Philadelphia. --Matt Rourke/AP

Additional reading about social-emotional learning:

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