Building Social Emotional Learning in Youth Through Humanities Centered Activities

February 11, 2019

 Learn how a reading-based library program builds teen social emotional skills

In 2010 the Pennsylvania Humanities Council created Teen Reading Lounge (TRL), an interactive discussion program that uses the humanities to build social emotional learning skills in youth. Over the 8 years TRL has been out in the field, we’ve worked with over 80 libraries, schools and community-based organizations across Pennsylvania to engage over 1,000 young people from a variety of backgrounds. The program is built on the belief that the humanities can cultivate curiosity, empathy, critical-thinking, social awareness, and perseverance.  There are three key steps to building a Teen Reading Lounge experience: featured texts chosen by participating youth; peer-to-peer discussion and dialogue of the themes and issues explored in the readings; and development of hands-on activities and projects to deepen youth’s understanding of the issues brought up in discussion. Projects often incorporate a community engagement or volunteer component as youth begin to connect the readings to issues present in their lives and communities.

The program framework is intentionally simple and flexible. There are no required reading lists or must-do projects. Site staff, local educators and youth work together to build a curriculum that’s relevant and meaningful to them. Research around positive youth development cites this as a best practice; developing programs in collaboration with youth that meets their developmental needs and interests ensures they’ll stick with the experience longer. That sustained participation can yield higher levels of engagement and stronger outcomes. When we’re talking about building social emotional learning skills, the more time youth get to practice these skills the more likely they are to become a permanent part of behavior. We’re also working with sites and youth to improve the model and share promising strategies. This is done through youth feedback loops and practitioner community of practice calls. A spirit of experimentation and exploration is baked into the model. The reflective nature of the wrap-around supports is essential to making the learning stick for both youth and the adults overseeing the program.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social emotional learning (SEL) “enhances students’ capacity to integrate skills, attitudes, and behaviors to deal effectively and ethically with daily tasks and challenges.” SEL consists of growth in five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.  Teen Reading Lounge cultivates these competencies by inviting youth to be active participants in their learning and personal development. The humanities are a natural fit for these activities because they invite us to explore the human experience by analyzing circumstances and choices as a way to build knowledge about how we live our lives.

Teen Reading Lounge programs have taken place in a variety of settings and deployed a variety of strategies to engage youth in skill development and learning. This too is intentional – and part of what makes the experience unique for each site. As youth workers, all our hand-wringing about sticking to a set agenda, or accomplishing narrowly defined goals, can fail to give young people the opportunity to be their own leaders. It is the spaces between our agenda items where teens so often shine — making decisions as a group, establishing rules, cooperating and dealing with conflict. As the following examples demonstrate, expanding these opportunities can be more important than having control of the outcome.


Growing Empathy at John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School

Teen Reading Lounge was developed in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Office of Commonwealth Libraries, and initially all participating programs sites were public libraries. But in 2017, PHC expanded the program to include high schools and a variety of other youth-serving organizations. A small, dedicated group launched at John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School in Philadelphia that year, led by out-of-school time program coordinator, Jo Bradley, and language arts teacher, Samantha Dugan. One text the group explored was Liliana Velásquez’s Dreams and Nightmares, a gripping first-person account of the author’s solo journey from Guatemala to the United States when she was just fourteen.

Together the girls participated in a series of conversations about the book, which led to them sharing stories of their parents’ immigration experience. Three of the teens in the group were children of Vietnamese immigrants and the novel made them acutely aware of their own families’ struggles. One of the young girls remarked that Liliana’s account of her journey to an unfamiliar land made her reflect on her own parents’ journey to the United States. She spoke of building empathy for them, hinting at a growing understanding of the immigrant experience.

The group was fortunate to meet the author in person, an activity facilitated by the dedicated adults overseeing the program. This experience provided a rich learning opportunity for the group as they were able to hear more about Liliana’s story first-hand. They fired off questions to Liliana, eager to better understand the choices she made, how she navigated some life-threatening situations and what impact the experience had – and still has – on her. The program coordinators were careful not to dictate the questions asked during this Q & A session or control this exchange; it was important for youth to drive this discussion on their own.

Embracing their creative control, the students’ final project based on Velásquez’s Dreams and Nightmares was something novel and unexpected. They applied their religious education to develop a secretly coded Bible for immigrants. This ingeniously covert travel guide gave survival instructions, directions to safe locations and other life-saving advice. Through discussion and interactions with Liliana, the group was able to tease out some of what the immigrant experience might be like and brainstormed solutions to help individuals navigate unfamiliar and hostile terrain.

This project brought the group closer together while allowing them the opportunity to develop interpersonal skills. The group also explored the concepts of self-management, self-awareness and social awareness. A graduating senior in the group reflected on the experience saying, “On the news we see adults shouting at each other and getting upset but Teen Reading Lounge gave us a positive example of how you can discuss complicated issues and that has really grown my interest in being a more participative citizen.”


Processing Tragedy at Priestley-Forsyth Memorial Library

When the Parkland, Florida school shooting happened this year, Priestley-Forsyth Memorial Library in Northumberland, PA, was in the midst of reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as their featured Teen Reading Lounge text. The book was selected because of its relatability to the participating youth’s life and developmental stage; many of them were middle schoolers about to transition to high school and were eager to discuss the changing landscapes of their academic and social worlds. Then the Parkland tragedy hit the national media – and the conversations began to take on a sense of urgency about rampant school violence and fears about safety.  

Although it was heartbreaking and unexpected to have these conversations, librarian Kim King and local teacher Renee Albertson, who were co-facilitating the program, recognized that the opportunity for youth to talk about Parkland was more important than whatever expectations they had for the program. Kim remarked, “We did not anticipate this discussion, but we knew we had to make space for it so we adapted our plan. It was important to give our group a voice and help them see they could navigate unexpected situations. We all needed time to reflect on what was happening nationally.”

Alice’s journey “down the rabbit hole” – previously viewed as exciting and new – became a mirror for the growing disorientation, fear and hopelessness teens felt about the Parkland shooting.  The shooting had stirred consciousness of their vulnerability and in this process, youth revealed a growing disillusionment about their safety. They felt like they had entered a new world where things were more unpredictable. Over the course of the program youth discussed these issues in depth and explored some current school safety and disaster planning policies.  

As Alice makes her way through Wonderland, she comes in contact with many different characters, including the Queen of Hearts – an arrogant, emotional monarch – whose solution to most problems is “off with his head!” The group used this character as a way to analyze and discuss leadership styles. Using playing cards with different traits, participants chose their top must-have qualities for a leader. Once this was completed, they discussed it as a group making sure all participants had time to share their top traits. The conversation generated around this exercise had two goals: one, get youth to think about what leadership meant to them; and two, to make connections to skills they had or wanted to build on their way to becoming leaders in their own lives. Interestingly, given the context of the discussions about Parkland that preceded the activity, many young people identified “ensuring safety” as an important leadership skill – once again showing that the program opened up a whole new way to process tragedy and consider its effects on how we live our lives.


Exploring Social Awareness at the Free Library of Philadelphia

For several years, the Teen Reading Lounge group at the Philadelphia City Institute branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia has been meeting to discuss an array of books exploring topics such as privilege, equity, power and social justice. Although some young people have dipped in and out of the program, attendance has been consistent – a rarity for high school aged youth.

Erin Hoopes, the branch manager and librarian overseeing the program, has taken care to build a comfortable, safe and welcoming environment for these teens. They come back because they know TRL is a place where they can explore topics they may not be able to unpack in school or at their own dinner tables. To watch Erin facilitate group discussion is a master class in how to connect with young people. She takes the reins when appropriate but also steps back to let the young people practice their facilitation skills. Her questions are always sincere; it’s obvious that she cares about what these young people think. She also recognizes the urgency of the issues with which they are grappling. The youth she works with are at a developmental phase where they are in the process of discovering their values and ideals – a necessary step in forming their identities. However, the media, a prevalent force in these young people’s lives, can undercut this process. This is particularly true for youth of color who aren’t always valued or positively supported by society.

Erin works with a lot of these young people – and it’s important to her to support them. Not only does research suggest that adult role models can have a positive effect on youth development – but to her it’s the right thing to do.  For Erin, giving youth in her library a space to discuss and analyze the issues that affect their lives is key to building their confidence about themselves and their futures.

As the group grew in membership and maturity, Erin sensed a need for them to take action on some of the issues they were discussing. She introduced the concept of civic engagement to the group and together they built projects exploring education inequities in the Philadelphia school system (the group was made up of youth from schools throughout the city) and gun control.

The process of choosing topics to explore wasn’t easy. Although they often bubbled up out of the book discussions, building consensus around which one to address was challenging. To help the group through the process of shared decision-making and collaboration Erin used a tool called the 5 Stages to Social Action. Developed by Dr. Valerie Adams-Bass as part of the Freedom Schools curriculum, the 5 stages walks a group of young people through the process of identifying what matters most to them. Questions like “What issues are you concerned about in your community?” and “What do we know or want to know about these issues?” help young people learn more about the cause and effects of societal challenges and do a little bit of fact-checking around their own knowledge and perception of the issues. The tool then carries through these discussions to dreaming big – what can we do about these issues – and from that, the group creates a project to explore solutions.

Erin’s group conducted two major projects: they wrote a blog about their experience with the education system and produced a video exploring the public’s perception of gun violence. In addition to talking through these issues, building knowledge about them and learning about their peers’ perceptions and beliefs, youth also take the reins in creation. In these two cases, they learned how to build and launch a blog as well as produce a video from start to finish. The goal here isn’t to “get it right” – and occasionally a group will over-reach or abandon projects they build as a result of the process. Staff is advised not to frame this as a failure but as a valuable learning process that supports the teen’s self-management skills. Erin has talked about how difficult it was not to step in and “save” the project. Instead, she advised and then asked them to reflect on the process – which is where the real learning lies. Participants considered motivation, self-management, teamwork and patience with all of these projects. In other words not only did they practice the skills it needed to get the project done but in the process explored what it takes to make something successful or not. This is an important life lesson. Tackling complex projects is part of every adult’s life and learning how to set realistic goals takes practice.

Through this process, Erin’s group has built a sense of community and a sense that they can apply solutions to big, complex problems. Her community of teens is now thriving — creating impressive civic engagement projects and putting on events that are making headlines. They recently guest-blogged for the YALSA this year and said, “Through TRL, we have become better, more empathetic individuals, and more conscious about the world we live in.”


The Humanities Have a Place in SEL

One of the most frequently cited benefits of the humanities is improving students’ critical thinking skills which is closely related to the SEL concept of responsible decision-making — that is, making ethical, informed and conscientious life choices. Responsible decision-making is hard enough for adults, but for teens struggling through their social and emotional development it is especially challenging. Teens can be helped to see the potential consequences of their actions by collectively engaging with the humanities through book discussions. It can build a strong foundation for responsible decision-making by exploring multiple perspectives while encouraging self-reflection and dialogue. In the real world practice of facilitating discussions with teens this can be messy but in a wonderfully rewarding kind of way.

The TRL outcomes we track through surveys and other data collection, tell the story that the humanities have a place in SEL. They support the conclusions of a 2017 meta-analysis by CASEL that found SEL to “boost student well-being in the form of greater social and emotional competencies, prosocial behavior, and prosocial attitudes.” Teen Reading Lounge participants showed significant improvements in communication skills, interpersonal relationships and job-ready skills like literacy and creative problem solving. They also report doing better in school and feeling better prepared to express their thoughts and opinions. This is important for any teen but particularly the marginalized. As one of our site managers said, “It’s a great way for libraries to reach all kinds of kids but especially those that are on the fringes.”

At our recent workshop for facilitators and site managers of Teen Reading Lounge, making space for kids at the margins was a frequent topic. Each site is nested in a community with unique demographics and needs. Effective SEL addresses the needs of all participants and an effective library or other organization opens itself to the diversity of the community. That’s easier said than done and you just have to embrace the bumpy road ahead. One of our workshop facilitators remarked, “The [TRL] workshops provide youth development professionals — yes librarians are in the business of youth development if they are working with youth — an opportunity to develop and practices skills that help to enrich the experiences of teens in the program.”

From the examples we’re seeing at Teen Reading Lounge sites throughout Pennsylvania, the humanities are an able partner in making a meaningful impact in the lives of teens and supporting their SEL. Even in this age of infinite distraction, teens forget everything else during a highly spirited TRL discussion. From stories of personal transformation to powerful civic engagement projects, the humanities are sparking change in teens and the broader community. Offering young people the right environment, a place where they have autonomy and feel like they belong is something we can all be excited about.

JEN DANIFO is a Senior Program Officer at the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC). She works closely with grantees to provide technical support in all aspects of public engagement, program development, and learning and evaluation.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of the Young Adult Library Services (YALS) digital magazine (Volume 17, Number 2, pp. 27-31).  For more information, or to subscribe to YALS, visit their web site. 

The Pennsylvania Humanities Council would like to thank YALSA for permission to republish this article.

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