There’s a lot of conversation these days around the concepts of global learning and SEL (social-emotional learning).

Both are vital approaches to helping students grow into fully engaged young people, and there are creative ways teachers can combine global learning and SEL approaches to powerful effect.

Related content: How to bring global learning to your classroom

Global learning starts with investigating the world, recognizing perspectives, and then communicating ideas to take action to make the world a better place. For example, the United Nations has 17 Sustainable Development Goals that range from supporting endangered species to responsible consumption to ensuring that everyone has access to a quality education. I use these goals as a framework for global learning in my classroom.

Social-emotional learning is truly my passion. I don’t think that kids can reach their full academic potential unless they understand their social-emotional selves. You can be highly intelligent, but if you can’t relate to people, or be self-aware or socially aware, you’re not going to get very far on just book smarts alone. I put SEL front and center in my classroom.

If you were to look at a Venn diagram of global learning and SEL, the convergence in the middle would be around self-awareness and recognizing perspectives. If your kids are developing their social- emotional skills, they are learning to be aware of what’s happening around them with other people, to be aware of their own emotions, and to be aware of what a particular situation requires—which can be different day-to-day. And if they’re engaged in global learning, they’re aware of themselves as global citizens; they will ask themselves, “What is my role in my community and, ultimately, in the world?”

So, how does a teacher integrate global learning and SEL?

Make real connections: Last school year, we connected with a fourth-grade classroom in Ota, Nigeria through Empatico, a free, easy-to-use digital platform that connects 6-11-year-old students around the world through live video exchanges with a focus on social-emotional skills. There was a feeling of instant joy around connecting with other human beings. My kids had no idea you could have a video chat with kids 5,000 miles away. That opened up an insatiable curiosity about Nigeria, in particular, and about Africa, and other cultures, in general.

While my students enjoyed learning about Nigerian culture and traditions, they were really struck by the commonalities they shared with their Nigerian friends. They enjoyed learning, for instance, that we like to dance and so do the students in Nigeria. We hold elections and they hold elections. We all say a pledge in the morning. We all have classroom jobs. There were so many things that brought us together.

Enable classroom empathy: Over time, I began to see my students were more empathetic with each other in the classroom.

For example, we get fruit and vegetable snacks three times a week at our school. When there were extra apples, the kids used to argue over them. It was, ‘I want the apples. No, I want the apples.’ I told the class, ‘I’m not going to figure this out for you. So, what is our plan?’ Over the course of the year, they figured out a solution—that came from the suggestion of one girl, to give apples to the kids who didn’t have any at home. So, my kids were putting themselves in the mindset of someone who didn’t have an apple at home. I mean, wow. That’s a small moment, but it showed someone engaging in perspective-taking. For 7- and 8-year-olds, it was pretty cool to see.

This perspective-taking ability can then translate to the challenges the world is facing today. For example, endangered species around the world are threatened by climate change. Our class researched an endangered bird, the Guam Kingfisher, and thought about what we could do to reduce plastic waste and reduce climate change. My class successfully lobbied our district nutrition staff to change the way school breakfast was delivered this year. We moved from using single-use plastic bags to reusable caddies. This local change benefited the Guam Kingfisher as well as other endangered species around the world. By adopting the perspective of global citizens and saying, “What can I do to help?” my student citizens took action and made a difference.

Related content: The whys and hows of SEL implementation

Read globally: Another way you can apply global learning and develop social-emotional competencies in your students is through literature. By reading stories from around the world, you can ask kids to think about emotions characters are feeling while exposing them to different countries and cultures through the story settings.

I did a unit on folk tales—that directly addressed Delaware’s Common Core standards—in which we read a Nigerian folk tale. Then, we connected with our Nigerian class, and we shared our thoughts and learnings around folk tales in a video exchange.

You can also encourage empathy by learning about social justice issues like refugees, or people who have suffered discrimination. As a teacher you may be working on literature standards, but you’re opening up your students’ eyes to real stories that happen around the world. That’s how you build global citizens. (There is a great social justice book list from the National Network of State Teachers of the Year.)

I will be in South Africa this month on a global learning fellowship with the NEA Foundation. My Empatico partner teacher, Oluwaseun Kayode, and I plan to connect through a live video link to share our experiences in a forum for local teachers. We are both passionate educators and we have become friends. Getting to know Oluwaseun and his class has opened my eyes to education in different parts of the world. I’m now friends with a lot of Nigerian teachers on Facebook. This connection has helped me grow as a human being.

Remember, SEL and global learning starts with the teacher in the room. If we want our kids to learn empathy and emerge as global citizens, we must model those qualities ourselves.

About the Author:

Wendy Turner is a 2nd grade teacher at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School in Wilmington, DE. She is 2017 Delaware Teacher of the Year, a 2016 Presidential Awardee for Excellence in Teaching Science, and a 2019 NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellow. She is an Empatico Empathy Project Fellow. Find her @mrswendymturner.


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