Hewitt News

Reading with Care: Developing Habits of Mind and Social-Emotional Learning in Upper School English 
Olivia J. Robbins, Learning & Innovation Program Associate & Maureen Burgess, Assistant Head of School for Learning & Innovation

At Hewitt, we embrace the ever-growing body of research on what students need to be successful in school and as they navigate college, career, and life. As a school committed to student-centered learning, we are especially interested in the research that shows how we can empower students to take control of and make decisions about their own learning by providing them with standards articulating specific learning goals, as well as feedback that speaks directly to those standards. Inspired to provide Hewitt students with new opportunities to lead their learning, Hewitt faculty have developed standards that clearly define what students should be able to know, understand, do, and value in each course. While every Hewitt course previously had learning objectives, our new approach features concise standards composed in student-centered language (e.g. “I can draw logical conclusions about a character based on textual evidence so that I can support claims in discussion and writing”) to provide students with a clear sense of each course’s learning goals and give them ownership over achieving those goals. 

In our new high school English elective, The Uncanny in Literature and Society, we are thinking about how learning standards can communicate not just the reading and writing skills we hope to develop within our students, but also the broader habits of mind and social and emotional learning (SEL) skills that will serve them well in school and beyond. The entire Hewitt community recognizes the role SEL plays in our ability to regulate our emotions, build healthy relationships, and overcome challenges to achieve our goals, and research shows SEL and emotional intelligence can lead to an improvement in students’ academic performance, attitudes, and overall school experience. Through our work with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program, our students, families, and professional community have come to understand how fostering emotional intelligence and developing the ability to notice, name, and regulate a full range of emotions helps us all learn effectively and thrive in a range of life situations. 

In The Uncanny in Literature and Society, we explore landscapes—both real and literary—where the nefarious lurks amidst the comforting and where the familiar becomes frightening. Using a range of fiction and non-fiction, students come to recognize the uncanny in eerie landscapes, haunting ghosts, imaginary friends, and unsettling secrets. Together, we study transdisciplinary, interconnected problems through this lens of the strange and mysterious, ultimately exploring what is revealed when what has been long repressed (individually, socially, historically, politically) returns. Because our students are learning to hone and articulate their own understanding of what is unsettling about the uncanny, we see our course as particularly well suited to the inclusion of SEL-focused standards that encourage students to consider how their feelings and emotional states contribute to their learning. One such standard—“I can identify my strengths, challenges, and needs as a classroom participant, reader, and writer in order to gain self-awareness and verbalize the support I need” speaks to Hewitt’s K-12 focus on preparing students to lead their own learning. 

In our English elective, we guide students toward being able to “identify [their] strengths, challenges, and needs” in a variety of ways. For example, we ask them to write cover notes to accompany their essay drafts in which they describe the current status of their writing, where they feel they are succeeding, and where they are in need of further support. This requires students to take stock of their work and determine their next steps in the editing process. After receiving peer and instructor feedback on their final drafts, students then create personalized writing checklists so they can practice synthesizing the feedback they receive into practicable strategies they can apply to future assignments. In this way, students have the opportunity to demonstrate self-awareness about their successes and spend time considering what they need to improve their writing. 

Another SEL-related standard for our course, “I can leverage feeling words and rich descriptions in order to describe the uncanny, explain its effect on me, and differentiate the feeling from other feelings,” speaks to the emotional literacy we want our students to develop both in relationship to our specific course but also more broadly. Emotional literacy—the ability to productively read, label, and respond to a range of emotions—is a critical life skill that is intrinsically connected with the close reading of literature. In order to thoughtfully and critically analyze text, students need to be able to identify tone, mood, and conflict with precision. Of course, we know that emotional literacy will enable our students to read and write with more nuance and compassion, but it will also help them be better classmates and friends, and eventually, colleagues in the modern workplace. In our English course, by prioritizing social and emotional learning and the complexity of the lived experience of others, we hope to make explicit for our students how we all benefit— as readers, writers, and human beings—when we can treat others with empathy.

Since the start of the school year, we have been impressed by the progress our students have made as self-advocates, empathetic readers, and self-aware discussion participants. Through our course’s learning standards we are teaching students to relate a given text to themselves, others’ ideas, other texts, and the world around us, a skill that enables them to meaningfully build connections and demonstrate the relevance of their ideas. Our practice of giving standards-aligned feedback on particular discussion skills has redefined what strong participation looks like, moving students away from the idea that they need to be the loudest voice in the room and toward a more subtle and nuanced understanding of how to both speak and listen in a meaningful way. 

We’ve also noticed an increase in students’ willingness and ability to evocatively bring themselves into their writing. In a recent assignment in which they were asked to create their own pandemic narrative, students wrote with candor and precision about the various educational, social, and emotional impacts the pandemic has had on them, demonstrating an understanding that strong personal narratives require not just a detailed recounting of events but also an honest communication of one’s emotional trajectory. By incorporating SEL-standards into our English elective, we are building a classroom culture that recognizes how much feelings enrich our lives as readers, writers, and citizens and prepares students to apply their developing emotional intelligence to the academic, interpersonal, and, eventually, professional areas of their lives. 

Interested in Learning More?

To learn more about delivering standards-aligned feedback, read Redesigning Learning: Delivering Effective Feedback.

To learn more about social-emotional learning at Hewitt, read Fostering Emotional Intelligence with the RULER Approach

Eight high school students and their teacher sit at desks and hold up their class novel, Annihilation

In The Uncanny in Literature and Society, high school English students thoughtfully and critically analyze texts in order to identify tone, mood, and conflict with precision

Six high school students sit in a classroom, wearing masks and holding up copies of Beloved

Students learn to relate a given text to themselves, others’ ideas, other texts, and the world around them, a skill that enables them to meaningfully build connections and demonstrate the relevance of their ideas