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Prepare to Engage: How the Social-Emotional and Social Justice Curriculums Converge

Over a year ago, the Graland Character Task Force unveiled its vision for social-emotional learning. Influenced by Turnaround for Children, the task force’s draft framework consisted of building blocks of character traits, culminating in a portrait of a graduate who is full of agency, empathy and curiosity. Though we stopped addressing this vision formally over the last nine months, the social-emotional competencies discussed in the building blocks have never been more present or more important than they are right now.
Though we stopped addressing this vision formally over the last nine months, the social-emotional competencies discussed in the building blocks have never been more present or more important than they are right now. Our country is facing a multi-layered health, democratic, economic, educational, and equity crisis that requires certain character traits, several of which are emphasized in the penultimate row of the building blocks visual:

  • Civic Responsibility
  • Resilience
  • Global Understanding

Our reliance on these characteristics further emphasizes the need for a social-emotional curriculum that intentionally teaches these competencies from preschool through eighth grade.

In the midst of the crises above, a movement manifested over the last nine months that makes this effort even more essential. Following the murder of George Floyd, many rose up to demand that all institutions question their role in promoting anti-racism and racial justice. At Graland, this imperative took us back to our mission to prepare engaged citizens and thoughtful leaders, and inspired us to recommit to our social-emotional learning platform as a path to social justice.

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, and Peter Senge capture the three spheres of social-emotional growth in their work, The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education. The inner sphere is defined by understanding of self, the middle sphere by understanding of others, and the outer sphere by understanding of the world. The journey of understanding the three spheres can also be applied to a social justice curriculum and specifically aligns with Teaching Tolerance’s Social Justice Standards on Identity, Diversity, Justice, and Action. 

To delve into social justice, we, whether we are teachers or students, start with attempting to deepen our understanding of who we are. This inquiry begins with identity work, looking at our different identifiers, such as gender, race or class, and how they intersect. The Teaching Tolerance standards under “Identity” explain this work as “develop[ing] positive social identities based on [our] membership in multiple groups in society” and “recognizing that people’s multiple identities interact and create unique and complex individuals.” Through a process of self-exploration, we develop a deeper view of ourselves and also begin to understand others. 
Once we know ourselves better, we extend that same curiosity to others by exploring the rich diversity of humanity and doing our best to understand various perspectives and backgrounds. The Teaching Tolerance standards describe this stage as “express[ing] comfort with people who are both similar to and different from [us] and engag[ing] respectfully with all people.” Overall, the objective of this sphere is to enhance our appreciation of diversity and cultivate our empathy and respect for others.

With a developing understanding of self and other, we tackle the next stage, just as elusive as the first two, and confront the world with curiosity and discernment, investigating it for examples of justice and injustice, equity and inequity, and inclusivity and exclusivity. For Teaching Tolerance, an exploration of justice is an exploration of fairness, on both the individual and institutional levels, and a recognition of the impact of unfairness. Through this phase, we question who has power in the world and how they use that power to create a just or unjust society. We explore who is disempowered and marginalized in society and consider how they find empowerment and voice. We ultimately study the world in an effort to discover compassion for humanity as a whole. 

Just like developing social-emotional strengths, the pathway to acquiring an understanding of social justice is not a straight trajectory. We continue to cycle through the spheres, spiraling through them—self, other, world—never feeling like our knowledge of the concepts is solid, always questioning, always seeking to understand. Inquiry is at the heart of this journey. Fueling this odyssey of understanding is Graland’s imperative to create a more just and peaceful world. Graland commits to teaching students to explore topics thoroughly, to follow their own intellectual path, and ultimately to find their own voice, all in an effort to prepare them to be engaged citizens and thoughtful leaders. 

Though the Character Task Force’s building blocks draft includes many important elements of social-emotional growth, there is one element that is most closely linked to social justice and to the final lines of our mission: civic responsibility. To promote civic responsibility, educators commit to ask questions, foster civil discourse, and provoke deeper thinking. From this inquiry, dialogue, and discovery, action may arise in our students. In fact, the Teaching Tolerance standards under “Action” include examples, such as “Students will recognize their own responsibility to stand up to exclusion, prejudice and injustice.” Then, the twentieth and final standard speaks of “collective action against bias and injustice in the world.” At Graland over the past few years, we have had two examples of this student-initiated collective action during the walkout against school violence after the Parkland Shooting in 2018 and the celebration of Pride Day in 2019.

In addition to ensuring that those organic examples of collective action are constructive, educators also have specific curricular elements that help students fully understand civic engagement. For example, the history curriculum in seventh and eighth grade specifically guides students to understand how best to engage in society in a positive and effective manner. In seventh grade, students delve into the history of our country and study the foundational documents—the Constitution and Bill of Rights—that form the basis of our democracy. From this understanding of the principles that bolster American democracy, they then examine how those ideals meet reality in seventh grade when they study American Slavery and in eighth grade when students study historical events, such as the Civil Rights Movement, and prepare for their Capstone Project. This project encourages civic engagement for all of our upcoming graduates, where the focus moves from understanding to problem-solving. Using the United Nations Sustainability Goals as a catalyst, the project requires students to research a self-selected topic related to those objectives, to investigate that issue thoroughly, to present it in a variety of media, and to take action to educate and help solve that specific global dilemma. This project is a model example of how we can culminate a student’s understanding of self, other, and the world with compassionate and constructive action. To prepare students for this culmination, we have opportunities, mostly through our service learning program, to engage students in age-appropriate civic engagement at every grade level. Now we need to build on these activities and intentionally guide students to a deeper understanding of themselves and society.

The more intentional we can be with our social-emotional and social justice curriculum, the more engaged and thoughtful our students will become. They will, as our guiding principle, Honor Individuality, states, “learn to value individual difference and divergent thinking. As they grow, they seek inclusiveness and justice in a multi-faceted and diverse world.” As the entire world grapples with its responsibility to create justice, we must do our part and further commit to developing both social-emotional skills and social justice understanding in our students. This impactful convergence will promote constructive civic engagement in our students as they become purposeful leaders today and into the future. 
 
 
Graland’s Diversity and Inclusivity Philosophy Statement Revised January 2021
Excerpt from a letter written to the Graland Community in January 2021 from Bernie Dvorak, President of the Board of Trustees

Graland Country Day School and the Board of Trustees are committed to diversity, equity, inclusivity, and social justice in order to prepare our students to achieve intellectual excellence and to build strong character. As we continually strive to climb every mountain, we have updated our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity Philosophy Statement. First adopted in 1994 and then revised in 2014, the DEI Philosophy Statement guides our initiatives. Given the ever-evolving landscape of the world we live in, we’ve recently adopted a revised statement in order to better align with our commitment to diversity, equity, inclusivity, and social justice. 

Click to view the full letter and read the revised philosophy and policy.
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Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1924, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.