Using Writing and SEL Stories To Emotionally Empower our Stay At Home Students

Saddleback Educational Publishing conducts a Webinar Series to spread information and resources for online learning programs. The following article is an enhanced summary based on our webinar Using Writing and SEL Stories to Emotionally Empower Our Stay At Home Students hosted by Dorina Sackman-Ebuwa on May 27th 2020.

So social-emotional learning, or SEL. Everybody talks about it, everybody hears it, everybody sees it, but do they really know what it is? So what is SEL? Is it just being kind? Is it just embedding kindness and empathy, and compassion? Well, actually, there are competencies in the SEL world. I got this information from I’m not going to read it to you, but I want you to read it for yourself and understand what it is.

It’s not just being kind, it’s not just about compassion. It’s about embedding lessons of self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, relationship skills and social awareness within schools, classrooms, and communities. It’s transformative social-emotional learning. It just doesn’t happen within your classroom. An entire culture is created within your schools, your districts, and your communities. That is the goal of SEL, to bring forth empathy, compassion, and kindness. That’s another reason I wanted to show you this. Here is the big breakdown of the social and emotional learning competencies.

Self Awareness and Social Emotional Learning

I really want you to see that we’re going to talk about self-awareness first. Take a look at that but also skim all of the five SEL competencies that we would love to see district wide in all of our schools. Right now, we’ll just focus on our hearts, our heads, our kids, and our classrooms. Take a look at self-awareness. I’m looking at this stuff myself going, I don’t know if I feel comfortable embedding this in lessons when I, myself have to work on my own self confidence or self-efficacy. Right? I’m tired. I’m so webinar out. Webinars are my strength, and I get so passionate, I love it. You fuel me, everyone watching, and I love every minute of it. But it can get tiresome and overwhelming, but we can still be fantastic and happy. That dichotomy is something we have to rein in, and we have to pull in and say, how do we embed all this in our lessons while still doing standards based, rigorous stuff?

There are kids coming to this United States from various countries with trauma, with some issues or with never learning true optimism and compassion because of what they’ve been through. We’re not talking little pre-K. This is geared towards 6 through 12, and our 6 through 12 worlds need to be taught this as well.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

In my research, I’ve been looking for social emotional learning books for middle to high school. You can take a novel and you can make it social and emotional. For example, one of my all-time favorite books that I believe should be taught K through 12 in various forms is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.

With virtual learning, it’s available to you online on YouTube by Shel Silverstein himself where he reads it to everybody. It is a beautiful story. It really can talk about SEL and get into those five competencies, especially when we’re talking about self-awareness.

Social Emotional Learning Books

So, that is an idea, but when I researched and started to look at things for various high school SEL, it wasn’t there. There are novels, and we can use our expertise to try to embed it, but really nothing at levels for English language learners and struggling readers.

So all of a sudden, I googled it again, and up comes Saddleback. Disclaimer: I do not work for Saddleback. I just love the company and I love the products. How much? I bought them all just to share this with you and to pitch it to districts, because that’s what I do. I look at different curricula.

I look and make a curriculum, and I recommend things so that I can see equitable education in my walkthroughs of different districts that I serve around the country. I fell in love with this. This session is not just for SEL Saddleback books. There are many other references within this PowerPoint, so that I want you to know I am just talking about these books, because that’s what I see. There are other references to give an example of what quality SEL should be.

Self Awareness Books: Non-Fiction and Fiction Books

We have the five competencies and then there are the books that coincide with it. So if you look at the top left, you can see self-awareness. Here’s a book on self-awareness that’s freaking brilliant, and culturally responsive and relevant with so many images of children that are represented well here. You have the non-fiction book. Then after, a fictional story that the students connect with on the basis of their own experiences of self-awareness. So we are going to focus on self-awareness today, but this is an example of how you could put this all together. You just don’t need Saddleback books. I will teach you different ways you can do it. Here are some examples of other books. You can see their summaries and see it’s all about SEL, under the five competencies that you just learned about.

Creating a SEL based Curriculum

I want you to know it’s not just because I’m obsessed with this. I do find this very good, especially for people looking for a SEL curriculum that you can embed in your ELD classes or ELA classes that are standards based, and teach reading, writing, listening, and speaking. This stuff is all right there for you. This is an example.

These are all the books of non-fiction and fiction that you would do the first year. You would take August or September until December, before the holiday break, and you would actually see all of these and really work on focusing from within and put that all in with the lessons that you’re doing in your classes. I love this as a separate ELD class or English language Development, because it really can get into deeper conversation. Then the second half would be looking outside yourself and learning the other wonderful things, such as social awareness, relationship management, communicating, kindness, problem solving, and finding help. All of it could be put together. But again, I love the idea of starting from within, just like we do as teachers.

So I tried this out in a district, and I loved teaching it.

First, I introduced, for example, a book like this, or you can introduce one of the books that I recommended, or The Giving Tree. You would introduce a book and you can do fiction or non-fiction, but I would first do an article on what possibly self-awareness is. They would read an article about it or read a book like this. Then there’s specific vocabulary that you would do. So I’m going to again use this book as an example, and in the back, there’s all this vocabulary.

It’s awesome, because it’s only about 5 or 6, and I love about 7 to 10 words, so I would add a little bit more words with this. We would connect these words with the real world, and I’m going to show you how to do that. Then we go chapter by chapter. In these books, there are four chapters each. Now, we’re going to put this in writing. ELL kids need to do five paragraphs to understand the structure. They need to think in structure first, hence the reason for the writing recipe. But if you have all these chapters, imagine, they can pick three of the four chapters and write about it.

Guided Questions and Free Write Topics

Then there’s a bunch of guided questions in the actual book. Then you could read, discuss, think, and connect. Then one of the biggest parts of SEL is free journal writing. If there’s anything you get out of this webinar, start thinking about free journal writing and heritage language for the students. They just have to write. That’s all I want them to do. Eventually, children learn, young adults, tweens, teens, and adults learn.

I have to write. I have to free write. I have the freedom to do it in my heritage language. I’m going to write how I feel, and it’s very powerful. Then I’m going to introduce you to something called spider writing. I learned this from something called Great, great activities. Then we would introduce the writing recipe, so let’s do it.

SEL Activities In The Classroom

Traditionally, in a class I would do an emotion activity. This is very powerful, I learned this from Teacher of the Year and my friend Jessica Solano, who did this beautifully with new teachers. She actually put all these different cards down and this is what we did as an activity to understand, a very important piece on equity and white privilege. We did this amazing thing, where we put all these pictures and emotions and everything, and people would pick and talk about it. Well, this particular activity is about emotion, and culturally responsive. You can see, you don’t have to use these cards, these 60 emotion cards from Saddleback. You could choose your own cards or ask the students to make their reactions and use them virtually. But when I did it in the classroom, I would have the students just pick a card and they would be attracted to a certain card. They would have to imitate the card, and then they would turn the card over, and that would be the actual emotion that was happening with the definition.

Finding “Sole-Mates” and Other Games

Then, I would have the student’s team up with one of their soulmates, because their feet would match, and it would be a sole-mate, and that person would either match with the person to discuss each of their pictures and an experience where they felt fear. This particular person had an experience where they felt excitement and they would match up and just talk. That’s all they would do. Then they would put this back and create their own cards in their own little emotion cards. Now that it’s virtual, it’s a little bit different. So this is what I would have done.

Here are the cards on the back and here are the cards on the front.

On either your choice boards or on the actual PowerPoint, the students would get it and they would be able to manipulate the emotion of the word with the picture. It would be almost like a game of memory, but this is not childlike. This is important for them to match up what it is. Then they have to give a personal experience of when they felt discouraged, or when they had fear, and they can orally discuss it. They could write it. They could conference with you, but those vocabulary words are the front loading before they start actually reading these stories. You could do it with any story to make sure that you have those emotional words ready for those kids. Talk about academic literacy and building vocabulary.

Spider Writing – Writing Brainstorming Techniques

Another way in which I asked the students to do this, and we tried this virtually, is the students then would get their word. Here’s the word excitement, and the student would get it and they do something called spider writing. You take a word and then you have a stream of consciousness about how that word inspired you. So for example, the word excitement inspired me. Excitement to me is happy kids and that stream of consciousness brought me to no kids.

So I went from excited to happy. I’m happy when I see kids and I’m excited when I see happy children, all the way to no kids, because I don’t have children, which led me to sadness, which led me to conflict, which also led me to…. And it’s telling a story where I could write and journal right now, just about the fact that the word excitement and happy children led me to a story about myself.

I went, whoa, this is a stronger emotion than I thought. It came out immediately. Down on the bottom, chocolate made me excited because chocolate made me excited. I thought about it and serotonin levels. And serotonin made me think of Thanksgiving, turkey dinner, which led to talking about my parents, which made me think about my parents and how I want to buy them a golf cart, which made me think about golf, and how I would like to go out and golf, and a story about golf. As you can see, spider writing leads to so much. Now it’s a stream of consciousness but it’s done by little bits and pieces and then they circle the little branches that they feel they want to journal about or talk about when it coincides with their word. They went from excitement to sadness and they want to write about that.

This is a very powerful way in which you can do spider writing virtually, and when they share it, it’s wonderful. It’s so powerful. This is really a wonderful way for you to see how I fell in love with these books, and how we can put that together.

Emotional Writing

So, when you see how we can put emotion vocabulary words all together with books that we wind up reading, we can start writing about what we’re feeling and what we read. Let’s just say, for sake of argument, we took this book on self-awareness, and we understood the four chapters of self-awareness in this particular book over here.

The four things are looking inside myself, listening to my own thoughts, choosing how I react, and accepting yourself.

The chapters alone can help you with the writing recipe. Now, I’m totally excited, but before we go into the writing recipe, if anybody just has comments about how they’re feeling, about embedding things, just things like, OK, I get what you’re saying, or, this book would be good, or, I have an idea. Just put any thought, your own stream of consciousness, in the question box right now, and Liz is just going to answer a few.

How Does Spider Writing Work With ELLs and Limited Vocabulary?


So I’ve got a couple of people here who, their immediate thoughts are more questions actually, about the spider writing exercise, and how does that work exactly with ELLs and limited vocabulary? Also, someone has some questions about how you did the spider writing virtually.


What happens is, even if they’re limited, they can still use heritage language. This is a brainstorm for them. Whether they need to actually then work on translating their thoughts, that’s OK. We want students to really think about why and how something leads to another. As brand new newcomers, you are a little bit limited and that’s okay. I would encourage heritage language. But, of course, look at the scores of our students and see where their academic language is and see how well they’re expressing themselves in another language, such as English. Then what you would do is you would ask them to branch off. So, you have, again, the picture of the one word.

Any word that you’re choosing, or the word that is chosen, perhaps, you just choose one of the seven words that you would like to discuss, seven emotional words that are specifically within the book that you’re going to read. Perhaps you’re doing The Giving Tree and there is let’s see, selfishness or perhaps there is kindness or, there is love.

What happens is, from the circle, you just simply draw a line, and you write something that makes you think about it. I would love teachers to try this and try this activity on their own, like I just did, where you actually take the words that you would like to use, choose one, and then make a line and simply think about. what am I thinking about when I think of the word fear?

I’m afraid of getting COVID, I’m afraid it’s going to branch off, COVID stops me from going out. I used to go out all the time. You would do these certain things and that would lead to stories. All of it connects and it becomes so powerful. I Learn America did it with identity. It’s just connecting to a story of SEL about emotion. From this one word, all of these emotions come about and all of this stream of consciousness comes about.

Writing Recipe

With spider writing and with everything else, I do want to get into the Writing Recipe because that’s a real big focus as well.

Traditionally, in a brick and mortar class, I made 77% learning gains with my English learner students. We did something called the Writing Recipe, and we used 5 by 7 index cards. We taped them from the back. It is very simple. I discussed the black, black, red, yellow, green, and what it is trying to teach them is that black and black go together because the intro goes in the first box and conclusion in the other. For English language learners, they are the same.

Red stops and thinks of your first answer. Yellow is kept on going. The green is the best answer and the last one. This is the writing recipe. This used to be manipulative. The kids would fold it and they would put it in their backpacks and practice every day. We would laminate them. We’d put the cheat sheet on the back with sentence frames and it would be wonderful. Now that it’s virtual, I still do it like this, but they only do it in small cards themselves. They do each section specifically. Then they put it together, and then they write the final piece.

Every kid had a cheat sheet like this, and this explains exactly what to do. It says rewrite the prompt, but it’s really rewriting the question that is being asked of you. You can see there’s a lot of transition words. Is every kid going to have the exact same thing then? Is this formulaic? Yes! Yes it is! When you have kids who are learning to write, and you want them to express themselves and they are unable because they don’t have the power yet, you want to give them something formulaic.

It’s very simple. Imagine you go to the dollar store because you don’t know how to make a cake from scratch. I’m going to go and get Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines, or Pillsbury. I read the directions on the back: three eggs, a quarter cup of oil. I put the stuff in the thing, mix it, put it in the oven, boom, it comes out. If I do it, if you do it, if Tim does it, if Joe does it, 98% of the time that is going to be the exact same thing. No doubt. But once you feel confident in making that cake, what are you going to do? I might add some chocolate chips. Tim might love raisins and natural things like chia seeds. Right? So you do those things where you are adding the different pieces of your own recipe and it becomes your own. I promise you when giving something in a manner in which students feel comfortable, they’re going to write. I also go very high in academic language and then the students can get where they need to go. I don’t start with simple little frames.

Over here is exactly what I want them to do. Write an essay explaining why self-awareness is an important part of learning and growing. Then I give them the checklist. This is not a formative assessment. This is just what my expectation is for them. It’s kind of like, I got this from doing my doctorate. I have to actually do a checklist to make sure I have everything. I want this for the kids, too. I don’t assess them on this. This is just for them. I also teach them, you don’t own me, I own you! Students are intimidated by writing. So I always teach them, you don’t own me, I own you, and they slam their hands down and they feel really good about it!

Why is self-awareness an important part of learning and growing?

I started the whole thing for them. Let’s go back real quick and see what the question is. Why is self-awareness an important part of learning and growing? Now, take a look.

There are so many ways students learn and grow. However, there is one particular way that helps students grow and learn from inside their hearts and minds.

What do you think I want where it says their hearts and minds? I need an adjective. So I would probably tell them, and I would color code the line to represent blue for an adjective. What’s the title of the book?

Self-awareness is important for students to thrive. What do you think is missing? It’s the three reasons. Guess what you do when you’re reading a chapter book like this? Whether it is looking inside, listening to your thoughts or accepting yourself, self-awareness is important for students to thrive. You have choices. The student does a chapter and they do the intro and one paragraph, then the conclusion and they’re done. You differentiate it based on the student’s levels.

I promise you it isn’t hard to fill out. Brand-new ninth grade newcomers at Bay District schools absolutely were obsessed with this. They didn’t want to do it any other way.

So that was the intro. Don’t forget: black, black, red, yellow, green. So what did I say? Black, black first. Because intro and conclusion are almost the same thing. When you look back at the PowerPoint, you will be able to see the comparison of the two and we can do it very quickly.

Looking back, one can see that self-awareness is needed for all students to thrive.

Whether it is blank, blank, or blank, choose your same chapters because you’re rewriting it, self-awareness helps students grow and learn from inside. There’s another adjective. Change it! Don’t do the same one from the intro. Self-awareness is, and then that’s the mic drop. That’s one thing I want the kids to do themselves. Give me something! If they go, self-awareness is good, I’m going to accept it for my little newbie babies, no doubt. But then I’m going to do my RIP words, make a list of the rest in peace words that they’re not allowed to use, and good is one of them.

Maybe they want to take one of these words, like self-awareness is excitement to the soul, and they’re using the words that they’ve already learned. So, this is the intro and conclusion, they’re done.

I just want to wrap up. You always must believe as English teachers and teachers of our children who are just going to be so empowered by you. Believe: Be the Educators who Lead to Inspire and Empower Via Empathy. When you do that, social emotional learning happens. Learn about the competencies of SEL. Learn about your own emotional intelligence. Join me on #BELIEVE_Cafe. Connect with me any time