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Making Connections That Count

Roberto Rivera explores the vital connection between social and cultural competence—for both students and teachers

My father is from Nicaragua, and when I was growing up, he brought several of his siblings to the U.S. to live with us. We mostly spoke Spanish at home, and there was a disconnect at school, because my teachers believed my “learning acquisition” in English was delayed. They ran a bunch of tests on me, and no one had the cultural sensitivity to ask if I was learning a new language. So I got labeled LD, and I deeply internalized that label. Even when we moved and it took my transcripts a while to catch up, I self-selected to be in remedial classes.

I got into a lot of trouble in my middle school and high school years. I barely graduated, and it was not until I started working with the community and volunteering at hip-hop arts programs that I realized that I was not stupid, I just learned differently. In community college, I started to apply my “learning difference” to school and connected my creative communication and community-organizing gifts to what I was learning in the classroom. I was not even trying to get good grades; I just wanted to gain knowledge that I could use to serve my community—and I got all As in the process. When I graduated from UW-Madison with a major I had created, entitled “social change, youth culture, and the arts,” it was bittersweet because I was the only one from my community who had not ended up in jail, dead, or addicted to drugs. I was determined to let youth like me in middle school and high school know that they are smart, that there is a difference between schooling and education, and that they can take a lead in their own education.

So, I created the Fulfill the Dream program. The activities in the Fulfill the Dream social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum come from a bottom-up approach of working with youth in underresourced schools and marginalized communities for the better part of 20 years. The curriculum has been iterated and co-created with youth, which is why it is so engaging and relevant.

Redefining Rigor

Our aim is to redefine what constitutes academic rigor. For us, helping kids to solve problems on a test is not rigorous enough if it is not also helping them to solve problems in their lives and in the world around them. In the words of Paulo Freire, we want young people to “read the word and the world.” We want them to cultivate social and emotional competence but also to be socially aware of how their social and political contexts impact their development. We take a culturally relevant approach that lets the youth know that we honor the social and emotional competences that are already embedded in their cultures and experiences. We start with an asset-based frame and build from there. We find that students are much more motivated to participate and put in the effort if they feel like they already have some strength in these areas.

For example, in working with students whose families have recently immigrated to the U.S., we have to honor their resilience, grit, and ability to exercise extreme competence in the face of great challenge, and we build from there. The best teachers are students of their students. If we agree that academic rigor is more than just having students regurgitate information on a test, if it includes them being able to think critically and creatively about complex problems, then educators need to know what is going on in the lives of their students.

Once educators have this information, they can incorporate this context into their lessons and make them more effective and engaging. In my experience, students are hungry for knowledge that is relevant to their lives socially and culturally.

The ELL Advantage

SEL is important because communicating and collaborating are important skills that youth need to have to thrive in the 21st century. ELLs have an advantage because, through the proliferation of technology, the world is shrinking and the millennials and generation Z have the potential to develop a global citizenry and professional network that is unprecedented. The multilingual students will have the greatest advantage as it relates to careers and global service opportunities.

Being multilingual, as well as socially and emotionally competent, positions them to succeed in careers that do not even exist yet. Further, this ability to communicate and collaborate with people around the globe in ways that others cannot builds their confidence, stimulates resilience, and promotes hope that there are other options for them.

Bringing a Community Together

ELLs, like all students, have different passions and learning styles. By using a variety of modalities to engage youth and allow them to process information through movement, media, and music, we see genuine learning taking place while they also reinforce their racial and cultural identities.

Some of the projects I have seen over the years include block parties to rebrand communities; workshops to empower younger youth; town hall meetings to hold political leaders accountable; youth-developed documentaries; and youth-led books, apps, and albums. My favorite thing is when youth start to take a leadership role in teaching and mentoring their younger peers.

My philosophy is that the walls of the classroom are the community and the community is the classroom. My advice to educators is to become students of your students. The more we can learn about their cultures and languages at home in the community, the more we can use this knowledge to make our curriculum and lesson plans more engaging. This allows us as educators to reclaim the art of teaching, and not just the science. When we only focus on the scope and sequence of what we have to teach, we are not being creative and we lose the joy and fun of teaching. It is time to reclaim that so our youth stay engaged—and so we do not burn out.

Teacher, Teach Thyself

I believe that we teach who we are. If we are not passionate about life, it is hard to teach youth to become passionate. If we are not socially and emotionally competent, it is hard to teach youth these skills.

Asking educators to engage in the same SEL activities as their students gives them greater credibility and authenticity in engaging their classes. With online SEL programs, we have the ability to connect with teachers in culturally relevant ways and the ability to help them connect with youth from diverse backgrounds in ways that appeal to different learning styles.

The Future of SEL

As our population changes, the notion that educating students is only the responsibility of teachers or parents is going to need to change. The future of SEL is creating an ecosystem where all of our youth can thrive and everyone in the school, home, and community plays a part. If we are not willing to come together and model these things, then the media will turn our children into hyperindividualistic consumers with no concern for democracy or diplomacy.

We are at a critical juncture in our nation, where we are realizing that bashing each other is not getting us where we need to go. We need to come together, and what better reason than for our children? In the future, being socially and emotionally competent will need to become synonymous with being multiculturally competent and having the personal and collective empathy to ensure that no one is marginalized, oppressed, or excluded because of their race, language, gender, or ability. Our youth are watching more of what we do than what we say, so we cannot be like the parents who smoke in front of their children and then tell them not to smoke. The change has to start with us, and as we know from new research into neural science, it is never too late to change our mindsets or behavior.

Roberto Rivera is the chief empowerment officer at 7 Mindsets, which publishes multimedia educational tools and trains educators around the nation. Rivera is also a predoctoral fellow with the Social and Emotional Learning Research Group at the University of Illinois at Chicago, specializing in the relationship of youth voice to social and emotional learning. He can be reached at [email protected].

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