New Tisch initiative explores social-emotional learning in the Tufts classroom

Professor Deborah Donahue Keegan speaks with junior Alex Fognani about the social-emotional learning initiative outside of Lincoln-Filene Hall on Sept. 30. (Rachel Hartman / The Tufts Daily)

Emotions are often hidden away from the college classroom, even when discussing emotionally charged or sensitive topics. A new Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life initiative, funded by alumnus David T. Zussman (A ’53) and his family through the Zussman Fund for Social and Emotional Learning, aims to change that. The fund will work with faculty across the university to incorporate social-emotional learning (SEL) practices in their teaching and spearhead research on SEL in higher education.

The cornerstone of the Tisch College Social-Emotional Learning and Civic Engagement (SEL-CE) Initiative, which was launched last spring, has been its year-long faculty development program, which is in a pilot for the 2017–18 academic year, according to Deborah Donahue-Keegan, the associate director of the SEL-CE Initiative.

Donahue-Keegan explained that this focus on faculty development was deliberately chosen to complement existing programs that promote emotional health and wellness in students.

“What we are trying to do with this initiative is to bring emotion from the sidelines to the center and to see emotion and cognition as inextricably linked … to bring in [emotions] in a full way that is not just student life, or health and wellness, but across the whole life of a student on campus,” Donahue-Keegan, who is also a lecturer in the Department of Education, said.

Historically, there has been little concern or research about SEL in higher education, especially its relationship with civic engagement or diversity and inclusion, according to Donahue-Keegan and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the Tisch College.

For instance, the 2013 report by the Tufts Council on Diversity only mentioned “emotion” in the context of emotional distress or problems. Donahue-Keegan cited this as an example of how emotions are seen more as a hindrance, rather than as leverage for supporting students, especially those who are marginalized or underrepresented, in their community work.

“Being able to become emotionally literate in terms of recognizing the role of emotion, developing an understanding of the nuanced emotions that we can experience, seeing their influence on our behavior — it’s all part of our initiative and development,” Donahue-Keegan said.

Kawashima-Ginsberg, who is a member of the SEL-CE Initiative planning committee, highlighted that the Tisch Colleges work to encourage civic engagement in students would be incomplete without facilitating opportunities for emotional growth and development.

“We know that our students are experiencing a lot of emotions that are sometimes hard to manage, because they see really difficult things — they may volunteer as a mentor in a public school in Boston and realize how much hardship some of the public school students go through,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said. “Civic engagement brings up a lot of emotions.”

Kawashima-Ginsberg added that by developing faculty competencies in social-emotional learning, the SEL-CE initiative can create a more “democratic learning environment” where students can reach their full potential, especially in civic engagement.

“Professors have enormous influence on the tone and climate of the learning environment the students are in,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said. “When students of all backgrounds and perspectives can have a voice and contribute, they get to bring their whole selves to the classroom. There’s a synergy there in thinking about the classroom as a really key environment in which students can either thrive or perish.”

According to Donahue-Keegan, all 18 faculty members who applied for the pilot faculty development program were accepted as SEL-CE faculty fellows for the 2017–18 academic year. The faculty fellows attended a summer institute in May and meet once a month during the year, having met twice this semester so far.

Donahue-Keegan said that, in all their meetings, faculty fellows hear from experts in the field of SEL or engage in an open dialogue about their teaching. She underscored that the faculty fellows are asked to embrace vulnerability in their reflections.

“This is a community, this is a holding environment where there is going to be a balance of support and challenge, and this is a developmental process for faculty,” Donahue-Keegan said.

Faculty Fellow Sara C. Folta, an associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and the Tufts Clinical and Transnational Science Institute, shared her appreciation for how the initiative has brought together faculty from across the university, representing all but the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

Folta, whose current focus is on community-based strategies to tackle inequities in health and nutrition, said that the other faculty fellows have been generous in sharing their varied experiences with using emotions in the classroom. This sharing has encouraged Folta to incorporate a greater number of SEL strategies into her teaching and research.

Jonathan Garlick, a senior fellow for civic science in Tisch College and a member of the SEL-CE Initiative planning committee, emphasized that beyond just acknowledging the diversity of disciplines represented in the group, the faculty fellows have also examined how their own identities as instructors and individuals can affect students’ learning in the classroom.

“The work that has been done in this initiative has facilitated opportunities for faculty to explore openly what they represent to their students, based on their own identities and their own position as a professor in a classroom,” Garlick, who is also a professor at the School of Dental Medicine and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences, said. “They have become open to learning about the identities of their students as a result.”

Faculty Fellow Penn Loh, a senior lecturer and director of the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP), also shared that his interest in cultivating students’ civic engagement skills stems from his experience in community practice and environmental justice work.

Loh said that while he has consistently applied elements of social-emotional learning in his teaching and practice, the SEL-CE Initiative has equipped him with knowledge about the latest research in this field and ideas for new strategies that he can bring into the community practice work UEP students are involved in.

Garlick added that he helps to facilitate such conversations among faculty fellows through the use of “intentional dialogue,” a strategy that Garlick himself adopts in his teaching and in his practice as a civic scientist.

“I do a lot of work with very intentional dialogue, where students learn to ask questions of curiosity and to listen with empathy and resilience,” he said. “We have implemented some of that through these workshops, where faculty have had a chance to explore what allows them to create classrooms and learning experiences where students can thrive.”

While this initiative is still in its infancy, Donahue-Keegan expressed her hope that it will grow to have a transformative impact on the way faculty at Tufts and beyond utilize emotions in their teaching practice, and it will better support the civic engagement work that Tufts students are deeply involved in.

“[Many faculty] come into teaching in higher education, and they don’t go through training on pedagogy. It’s so focused on their research and on content knowledge,” she said. “What we find is that faculty are so glad that they are involved in this initiative, that this is going to add a whole new dimension and meaning to the teaching that they are doing.”


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