I think art teachers have always helped students manage their emotions and develop empathy for others. Considering the emotional trauma created by COVID-19 in our nation’s schools, SEL offers an approach that is much needed. It may be best implemented by art teachers because students may be more likely to express feelings and concerns through their art rather than through talking about it.
The Inside Out Project is a worthy example of a focus on social awareness. Started by the French artist JR, this participatory platform helps individuals and communities make a statement by displaying large-scale black-and-white portraits in public places. Pictured: Retired art educator Rhonda Sherrill with her portrait.
When I taught middle-school art, the school’s counselor would often ask me about individual students’ emotions, behavior, and relationship to others in my class. He told me he always talked to the art, music, and physical education teachers about individual students because we related to our students in ways the classroom teachers did not. He felt he got a more empathetic and comprehensive view of a student that way.
This was long before social-emotional learning (SEL) was developed, but I think art teachers have always helped students manage their emotions and develop empathy for others. Considering the emotional trauma created by COVID-19 in our nation’s schools, SEL offers an approach that is much needed. It may be best implemented by art teachers because students may be more likely to express feelings and concerns through their art rather than through talking about it.
Introduction to SEL
SEL is an educational practice that integrates social and emotional skills, helping students better understand their emotions and develop empathy, respect for others, and positive relationships. Though SEL was not developed specifically for art education, there are SEL practices that make clear the appropriateness of integrating SEL in the art class. According to “Developing Curricula for SEL and the Arts,” an article by Maurice J. Elias published in Edutopia:
Many arts educators I know informally and pragmatically seek to build social and emotional learning skills to help their students appreciate the nuances of art, often by attending to the way emotions are expressed in painting, sculpture, drawing, music, and dance. Teachers of the arts know that observing, analyzing, and understanding art and its production and context builds many SEL competencies.
One resource you may find helpful is ArtEdSEL: The Center for Arts Education and Social Emotional Learning. The framework developed by the New Jersey SEL/Art Education Taskforce is “designed to illuminate the intersection between arts education and social-emotional learning to allow for the intentional application of appropriate teaching and learning strategies, with the overarching goal of enhancing arts education.”
Many thanks to Paula Liz for her help in recruiting new authors for this issue. She is an art teacher at Oakland Terrace Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland, the founder of Anti-Racist Art Teachers, and author of the article “Celebratory Self-Portraits” (SchoolArts September 2021).
Art teachers develop lessons that encourage students to explore their emotions, develop empathy, and nurture positive relationships. Young students use paper shapes to create scenes that interpret their feelings about a special place, elementary students share personal stories through clay and shrink-film treasures, middle-school students express a chosen emotion through paper and cardboard masks, high-school students connect to the Indigenous histories of their community, and more.