A recent article in the School Library Journal, titled "How Social-Emotional Learning
Transforms Students and Schools" caught my teacher eye as well as my author eye. Prior to retiring from teaching Middle School in 2012, SEL (Social-Emotional Learning) was a concept discussed at more than one teacher training session, but sadly, not one that found regular application in the classroom. Simply defined, it is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. Some experts argue that the EQ (Emotional Quotient) may be more important than the IQ (Intelligence Quotient) and a better predictor of success and overall happiness in life.
Flash forward to my current status as an author of two YA novels in verse that deal with topics and themes that, at the least, dredge up significantly deep emotions associated with mental and physical conditions. Crazy, (Eerdmans/2014) is the story of a teenage girl coming to terms with her mother's mental illness. It is loosely based on my own experience growing up with a mother who had bipolar disorder. Behind These Hands (Light Messages/2018) is based on the true stories of two students I knew during my teaching career who had a rare neurodegenerative disease called Batten. In both books, the teen protagonists grapple with life circumstances in their family that challenge their ability to identify and manage their own emotions and those of their closest family members.
Daniel Goleman's science reporting in the New York Times led to his 1995 best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ. It was likely part of the conversation during those teacher training sessions I once attended. Goleman's ideas and research has evolved into SEL programs centered on five core competencies:
Districts throughout the country are incorporating SEL standards that educators are teaching in direct classroom instruction. Some elementary schools make depression tool kits available in the school library, bags that can be checked-out which include writing and drawing activities to help students cope with depression within the family. Middle Schools are using digital tools to teach lessons that address topics such as empathy, impulse control, gratitude, bullying, and goal-setting. And the trend has spilled into the public library system, where it is not uncommon to find whole-family workshops that focus on building empathy and compassion for those who are different from you.
That brings me back to my own books, Crazy and Behind These Hands, and I might add, a plethora of others that are on the shelves in increasing numbers these days. (contact Linda at https://www.lindavigenphillips.com) Books whose main character experiences a difficult emotional or physical issue appeal to readers going through the same thing. Bibliotherapy, or the use of books in the treatment of mental or psychological disorders, has been around for centuries. A teen reader, guided by a caring and knowledgeable teacher or librarian, can reap great therapeutic benefits by identifying with a character who is dealing with something similar to his or her own situation.
As an author with a passion for writing realistic fiction, I am
delighted that social and emotional learning is transforming our classrooms, taking hold in our libraries, and spilling into areas of need in our communities. Recently I have enjoyed using my books in author visits through Skype in the Classroom. In my virtual tour around the world, from Bahrain to Dubai, Toronto to Albania, it didn't take me long to discover the universal appeal for exploring compassion and empathy through the written word. Students, sometimes in broken English, make comments and ask questions that indicate both a hunger and a need to bring the power of emotions into the classroom dialogue.
I also teach a writing class to a group of adults with mental health issues through a NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) based program called Providence Place. In collaboration with a gifted artist who is a high-functioning person with schizophrenia, participants apply art and writing techniques to work through emotions related to their diagnosis. For many, this is a bold new step into unexplored emotional territory.
As an author who continues to learn about SEL, I want my books to be part of a trend that is transforming students and schools. A fan letter from a high school boy brings a smile and the feeling I am on the right track: "The way you show your emotions and express your feelings in Crazy make me cry inside (not in a non-manly way, of course.)"
Linda Vigen Phillips has a passion for realistic fiction that offers hope and encouragement to young adults and families facing mental or physical health crises. Her debut book, Crazy, depicts the struggles of a teenage girl in the 1960’s coming to terms with her mother’s bipolar disorder. Like Crazy, Behind These Hands is a Young Adult verse novel. In its starred review Kirkus said, “Free verse evokes the myriad emotions brought up by the story's numerous well-balanced themes. The result is a richly woven, unforgettable symphony of feelings and words.”