74 Interview: Curriculum Designer Christina Riley Teaches Students Compassion and Empathy Alongside Literacy. Here’s How She Does It

When Christina Riley moved from the U.K. to Japan, she didn’t realize she was transitioning from teaching in a country with a nationally recognized curriculum to an international school without one. All she had in this new role was a set of standards and a shelf full of novels, and this sparked a wave of compassion for teachers who had the formidable task of teaching while inventing their own curriculum.

Riley turned that compassion into a career and is now the director of curriculum design at EL Education, an education model formerly known as Expeditionary Learning that emphasizes project-based learning and character development in students. The model itself is used in 160 schools, impacting nearly 1 million students over 25 years. The K-8 literacy curriculum the EL team designed reaches nearly 150,000 students through what the organization calls literacy partnerships in districts like Detroit and Wake County, North Carolina.

But the curriculum isn’t just about teaching students how to read. Integral to the EL Education model are social-emotional skills like collaboration, self-management and empathy. The design team is responsible for embedding these skills into the curriculum, so students are learning how to be good listeners at the same time they’re learning how to discuss a work of fiction.

Teaching these soft skills, as they’re sometimes called, alongside academic content is part of a new push in the field of social-emotional learning. A recent report that gathered input from scientists, educators, parents and students recommended that social-emotional learning be embedded throughout the school day, rather than standing alone as a separate program.

But to make this work, curriculum designers have to consider how to help students learn concepts as abstract as empathy. When it comes to designing curriculum for English class, for example, this involves teaching students how to work together and be respectful. It also involves finding both fiction and nonfiction texts that are engaging and representative of diverse students across the U.S. The designers visit classrooms constantly to see how the work is progressing outside the curriculum playbook.

Researchers have found that when students are taught skills like self-regulation, compassion and social awareness, they perform better in school, are more likely to graduate and can even be physically healthier as adults.

“Social-emotional learning helps students feel more comfortable making mistakes, talking and listening to one another, and giving them the language to do that confidently,” Riley said on a social-emotional-learning panel at this year’s SXSWEdu Conference in Austin, Texas.

We caught up with Riley to learn what goes into designing academic material that teaches students character in addition to content.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: What specific social-emotional skills does the EL Education literacy curriculum teach?

Riley: The way that we look at social-emotional skills is through “habits of character.” We have three habits of character that we use in the curriculum: working to become effective learners, working to become ethical people and working to contribute to a better world. Within the bucket of “effective learning,” we have collaboration. Within “ethical people,” we have respect and compassion. In “contributing to a better world,” we have habits like applying learning to improve something in the community.

Can you talk about how you embed social-emotional learning skills into curriculum?

We begin with the four Ts of instruction: topic, task, target, text. We think … what would be an engaging topic that would make [students] want to contribute to a better world? Then, what texts would help them to understand that topic, would inspire them and engage them? Then students can analyze characters’ or real figures’ reactions to situations to see how they responded and use those as models of their own behavior, or even as [bad] examples — “What happened with a character there — he exploded in a fit of rage. Did that get him what he wanted or needed?”

The students make a connection between what’s happened in their own lives or things that have happened to their families, and they have an emotional connection or reaction to that. So that’s a really good opportunity to help other students show empathy and respect, as students are reflecting and sharing on what they’re reading that might have some kind of connection to their own life. Students learn how to respond in a way that is supportive of the students in their class. … I do say we’re very cautious with it. … We give them the opportunity to share with other students should they wish to, but it’s not an expectation.

We’ve talked about the topic and the text. The targets obviously are standards. The standards dictate the literacy skills students are going to learn. The tasks we also design to encourage students to take action and then sort of focus on that social justice element of it. For example, at the end of every one of our modules [a unit lasting eight to nine weeks], students participate in a performance task. The task is a celebration and culmination of learning and is often a task that is for the school or the community to apply their learning to make a difference. Some examples: By the end of a grade 5 module, students create disaster emergency supply kits. They’ve learned all about natural disasters, they’ve dug into the science there, they’ve read about personal experiences with natural disaster, and analyzed poems and literature written by people who have been through natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. They’ve built that empathetic connection to the content.

For [students] to connect with the characters and what’s happening, it’s important that the text reflect who the students are. We try and make sure that we include diversity in terms of characters in the book. One of my favorite examples is in grade 5, they do a human rights module and they begin with Esperanza Rising. Then they read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and they make these connections between the threats to human rights that Esperanza’s facing to the declaration. [Students] care so deeply about the fact that Esperanza and her friends and family are experiencing these threats to their human rights because Esperanza is about their age. They really start to relate to the characters in the text, and they’re furious about this, and it makes them want to do something about it. At the end of the module, they investigate where there are these threats to human rights still happening in the world. They create a performance, a monologue performance, with a director’s note that outlines how this monologue performance is relevant to human rights threats happening right now.

If I were to walk into a classroom and watch this curriculum in action, what would I see in terms of students learning these skills?

A big piece is collaboration. Students are working together, they’re discussing. We focus on this structure of read, think, talk, write. Students read about something, they have time to think about it, analyze the text, then they talk about it in groups or pairs, and we provide steps so that all students get the opportunity to talk. It gets them up and moving around the classroom. When they talk to one another, we provide them with some support — sentence starters — so they can speak to each other in a way that is respectful and so they listen. [For example:] “Can you tell me more about that?” “I would like to respectfully disagree with you.” Then give them a chance to reflect on how that went for them.

It’s really hard for students to understand what empathy is. The texts provide a good opportunity for students to analyze characters showing empathy, and they also give students the opportunity to show empathy to their classmates or to the characters. The way we help students understand empathy is we introduce the language directly, so we tell students about empathy, and we encourage students to think about what empathy looks like and what empathy sounds like. We have charts around the room [created by the teachers and students] that list what the habits of character look like and what they sound like so students can really have a concrete understanding of what empathy actually is. Otherwise, it’s just a very abstract term.

How are you able to tell if the social-emotional skills you’re embedding in the curriculum are having an effect on students?

We regularly visit schools implementing the curriculum and we speak to teachers, we see the students working together, we speak to school leaders, and we speak to district leaders. The dynamic in the classroom is very different when the curriculum is being implemented because students are talking to each other in a productive way. What we hear from school leaders is that the classroom culture changes if teachers are implementing the habits of character with integrity. But I will say that is a challenge because for teachers, often when they’re on tight timelines and they’re trying to make sure students have achieved all of the standards, when you’re looking at a lesson and where to cut, you’re most likely to cut the social-emotional skills in terms of time to [give] preference [to] the literacy skills. When school leaders and district leaders understand the importance and the habits of character and emphasize this to their staff, we really see this cultural shift. But when that’s not a priority of the leader, when the focus is on the academic skills and getting students ready for the literacy tests, we see the habits of character being kept out.

Is there anything you’ve learned from your classroom visits or feedback you’ve received that have led to updates in the curriculum?

We’re constantly listening to feedback from the field. I think it’s important for all my designers to constantly be going out to see the curriculum in action and listening to students. Involving parents and involving the community in the curriculum are really important. We have a review cycle, like many curriculum publishers, and we try and update every few years.

We had some feedback that we weren’t drawing on the text enough — I believe it was a grade 7 text, A Long Walk to Water. We had drawn on the text somewhat, but teachers and students told us that there were so many rich examples of habits of character in the text that they wanted to see us draw from those more.

The EL Education model is used across geographies and classrooms with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. How do you design a curriculum that is going to serve all these students?

We make sure that we hear diverse voices in the design, so we hire diverse designers from various backgrounds. Our design teams always have a teacher who is just out of the classroom; they actually stay contracted with their school to work for us four days a week and they work with their school one day. They provide that teacher lens and take pieces of the design back to their schools and get feedback from teachers and students. We also make sure we have staff and teacher reviewers who look over things as we’re designing. When we’re choosing topics and text, it’s important they are nationally relevant so that all students can connect with them. It’s also important that we choose texts that feature as many students as possible so that as many students see themselves represented.

Some schools practice social-emotional learning as a separate program. What’s the case for incorporating it into the curriculum?

Of course, time. But I say the biggest piece is, it’s a missed opportunity if you don’t. When you’re working with these engaging topics and texts that lend themselves to learning how to be effective learners, learning how to be ethical people, learning how to contribute to a better world, it would be a terrible miss not to make use of the context of their learning to teach them these additional skills. Anything in context is always going to make much more sense for students if it’s in a context that is meaningful and engaging to them. We focus on three dimensions of student achievement when we’re designing curriculum at EL: the mastery of skills and knowledge, habits of character and high-quality work. We put the three together within the curriculum because in the real world, that’s how we have to work.

Some people criticize social-emotional learning for having a heavy hand in the development of students, or they argue these things should be left to parents. What is your response to those critics?

Teachers spend an awful lot of time with students. When the learning presents the opportunity to help students understand and practice social-emotional learning, it’s a missed opportunity not to. Students come from all different backgrounds and from all different families, and not all families have the opportunity or the time to focus on these social-emotional learning skills. Ensuring that this happens in school gives more students access to becoming effective learners and ethical people who can contribute to a better world.


Disclosure: Walton Family Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative provide financial support to EL Education and The 74.

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