Tag Archives: social awareness

Using Visuals to Cultivate SEL

Photo by Mpumelelo Macu on Unsplash

For ten years, the New York Times has published “What’s Going on in This Picture?” (WGOITP) every Sunday night during the North American school year. It is an excellent activity asking students three questions:

What’s going on in this picture?

What do you see that makes you say that?

What more can you find?

This is a wonderful literacy strategy for students of all ages to hone their observation skills important in both the sciences and humanities. It can be stretched into creative writing by having student write or tell a story about what they think is happening in the picture. Or throw a twist in and ask students to guess what happened leading up to the picture or predict what will happen next.

Recently the Times featured Twenty Puzzling Photos Featuring Kids and Teens From Around the World showcasing some of their all time favorites. I started thinking about how WGOITP could be more than an observation and literacy strategy, but also teach the Social and Emotional Learning competencies of Self-Awareness and Social Awareness. Many of the images feature people expressly strong emotions so they are perfect to help younger (and older!) learners identify feelings in others. I tweaked the Times’ prompts for an SEL focus:

What emotion do you think they are feeling?

Why do you think that? (evidence)

Think of a time that you felt that way.

Identifying Emotions

The Times WGOITP images are great because they include the backstory for the pictures to expand upon what students observe. But teachers could also use free Creative Commons 0 websites such as Pixabay or Unsplash to find their own images. Try searching for an emotion such as joy or pain to prompt students to talk about what that specific feelings look like.

My first two discussion questions focus students on interpreting the picture with a focus on emotions expressed. The last question is an opportunity for students to connect the emotion to themselves and perhaps confidentially share with an elbow partner or small group. We want to make discussing one’s feelings a normal part of our classroom culture, and this is a great way to practice it.

As a next step educators could have students look for their own pictures to demonstrate a certain emotion or feeling. Or ask students to take pictures of themselves demonstrating a certain emotion. Create a shared presentation in Google Slides or other platform with each student contributing one picture. Then have the class guess what emotion is on each slide and see if there is agreement. When students disagree, discuss how emotions and feelings are sometimes hidden.

Students could share their needs when they are feeling a strong emotion such as private space, a friend to talk to, physical comfort, or physical activity to blow off steam. They should recognize that different people process feelings in different ways and may have different needs for the exact same emotion. Students will now be equipped to support a classmate who is angry or sad by asking what they need to feel loved and safe.


WGOITP is a great protocol to cultivate empathy. Choose images from other cultures or regions than where your students live. After processing the feelings of the people, have students find the true story behind the image. Use this opportunity to be culturally responsive and build empathy by having students learn about customs and traditions from other parts of the world. By focusing on young people, the images can connect to the common themes, experiences, and interests that all youth have -music, sports, where and how they live, food, holidays, school, and their families.

For example the image at the top of this post is of people from Mamelodi, a former apartheid township in South Africa. This picture could lead to a discussion comparing the end of apartheid in South Africa to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Or students could research the history and culture behind face painting in different African societies. Students might contrast African traditions with makeup in Western cultures and look at the similarities and differences in what is considered “beautiful.”

Learn with me!

If you are interested in how your school can use a PBL framework to teach SEL skills. I would love to have a conversation on how I can help. I have limited availability for PBL & SEL workshops during the school year so contact me early. Check out my workshop page or drop me an email at mikejkaechele@gmail.com. I would love to chat and co-plan meaningful PD for the educators at your school.

Pulse of PBL

Change the Setting to Change the Mindset

When we start talking about hot topics, people immediately take sides and get defensive. Most people, let alone students, struggle being truly empathetic and looking at a situation from multiple points of view. Everyone understands their own point of view and oftentimes think that they grasp the opposite side, but usually they don’t. This leads to emotional debates that only entrench people more deeply in their positions. Teaching the SEL competency of Social Awareness is vital if we want to heal divisions in our country and world. We need to build empathy in all of our students.

How can we talk about important issues without the conversation breaking down into unproductive arguments?

Once I shared a news article with my students about U.S. soldiers torturing Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison. But instead of giving them the actual article, I copied and pasted it into a GDoc and changed the setting of the story. I substituted China for the United States and Tibet for Iraq. We read and discussed how horrible the Chinese actions were. I wanted students to commit emotionally to judgement before I revealed that there was something not true about it. Eventually I told them that it wasn’t really about China in Tibet, but the U.S. in Iraq, and gave them the link to the actual article online. Then we looked online at the disgraceful pictures of Abu Ghraib (warning many are graphic). Since I teach thematically, students immediately made the connections to other U.S. atrocities that we had previously studied in the Moros Massacre (Samuel Clemons’ commentary) and My Lai Massacre.

This bit of deception helped open the minds of some students who initially would have been resistance to any critique of the U.S. military. It allowed them to take their jingoism out of their first impression of the event and evaluate the facts without their instinctive bias. In the end, students were able to more deeply understand why America is unpopular in certain parts of the world.

A while back, I heard about (don’t remember where) teachers in Israel using “The Troubles” in Ireland to build empathy in their students by studying the complexities of religious (Protestant vs. Catholic) and ethnic (Irish vs. British) strife in another part of the world. The conflict in their own country was too personal and close at hand for students to consider objectively. But by first looking at similar issues abroad, students were able to apply it back to themselves. I think this is a genius approach to teaching empathy.

This week I listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History Presents: The Limits of Power, an excerpt from his book David and Goliath. This podcast episode focuses on the very topic of escalation between the the Protestants and Catholics in 1970’s Ireland and how the British got involved, and I think that it can be applied to more than Israeli / Palestinian conflict.

Gladwell explains that a paper, Rebellion and Authority from Leites and Wolf argued that economics was the key factor in dealing with rebellions. It was (still is???) the primary viewpoint of governments and law enforcement at the time. Basically use force to make insurgents feel pain, and they will comply. The feelings and emotions of the people are irrelevant. Gladwell’s excellent storytelling demonstrates the fallacy of this theory (Sidenote: this theory also was behind the U.S. strategy in Vietnam).

Of course, he has the American struggle for equality and full civil rights in mind, when he wrote this chapter of his book and the parallels are obvious. This podcast would be great to use with students and have them first analyze “The Troubles” and then apply their conclusions to the Black Lives Matter movement and other resistant movements.

Sometimes we need to change the setting to change the mindset!

CASEL has recently updated its competencies to reflect the importance of equity. Social Awareness now includes sub categories:

  • Taking others’ perspectives
  • Recognizing strengths in others
  • Demonstrating empathy and compassion
  • Showing concern for the feelings of others
  • Understanding and expressing gratitude
  • Identifying diverse social norms, including unjust ones
  • Recognizing situational demands and opportunities
  • Understanding the influences of organizations and systems on behavior

I think one of the most important additions is the last bullet point. We need to teach students the legacy of systematic racism. History is not just individuals making decisions, but huge, powerful systems that control and limit options for the disadvantaged. In the United States, public schools are one of these systems. And when it comes to “identifying diverse social norms, including unjust ones,” it is often easier to critique another country than one’s own. Try using “neutral” international settings to build consensus before engaging in partisan domestic issues. The future of democracy may depend on our ability to develop Social Awareness in the next generation!