Emotional Learning - Tips for Teaching Teens


tips for teaching teens
When I was in high school, I remember sobbing in my guidance counselor’s office on several occasions. One time, it was because I was in trouble in my chemistry class. Looking back on these experiences as an adult, I feel silly. But the truth is that as a teen, I didn’t have enough life experience or the skills to manage my emotions.

Sometimes, as a teacher of high school students, I forget the intensity of those feelings. I’m so intent on delivering course content that I may not notice a student’s exhilaration because it’s her 16th birthday, or I may neglect her distraught look after a fight with her boyfriend. This is a mistake.

We teachers cannot ignore the importance of emotion when instructing teenagers. At the 2017 Teachers Pay Teachers Conference in Anaheim, University of Southern California Associate Professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang said, “emotions are a critical piece of learning.” Her neuroscience research shows that social and emotional factors affect students’ academic success. But how can teachers use emotional learning to improve academic success? Twenty years of classroom experience helps me surmise some ways. 

Create an Inviting Classroom

At the beginning of the school year, it’s important to create a positive classroom culture.  Team builders and icebreakers are effective teaching strategies. On the first day of school, students will likely experience myriad emotions- excitement to see friends, anxiety over class expectations, and perhaps, mourning for the end of summer. (I know I do.) Even though teachers may want to dive into curriculum, it’s vital to create a positive classroom atmosphere where students know their feelings will be respected. This facilitates student participation in class discussion and meaningful cooperative learning.

Use Class Texts

Helping adolescents
In English classes, teachers can capitalize on the emotional responses texts provoke in readers. Poems and books make us laugh, cry, or even react with anger. Consequently, we need to be sensitive to our students’ emotional needs when we teach controversial literature. 

For instance, a book such as To Kill a Mockingbird may require thorough preparation and discussion before reading even begins. When I read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school, I remember being devastated that Tom Robinson was unfairly convicted by a prejudiced jury. Many teens haven’t personally experienced such unfairness in their lives yet, so teaching literature that focuses on injustice in the world may be a good strategy for helping them develop more empathy.

Use Writing


In addition to feeling strongly about literature, English class provides students with opportunities to express their feelings through writing. Students should have time to write informally and personally. Journals, poems, and narratives can be incorporated into class on a regular basis. In creative writing class, I provide prompts each day to inspire students for their journal writing but always give them the option for a "free write" on a topic of their choice.  

Furthermore, I'm careful when grading these assignments.  After several writing sessions, I will ask each student to select one response that they want me to read.  I'll provide them with feedback and engage in conversations for their selected journals but simply give participation points for the ones they don't ask me to grade.  These writing assignments also help students develop their voices, so they're meeting language standards, too. 

Acknowledge Life Events


Sometimes, when there is a crisis in the school or community, teachers must put a planned activity or lesson on hold while we acknowledge the emotional impact of the event. It might be worth coordinating a program with the guidance office or local agency. For instance, many schools now incorporate therapy dogs during times of trauma and for a variety of other purposes. By doing this, teachers respect students’ feelings and accept the reality of their worlds. This also helps to form deeper bonds and relationships with students.

Recognize Milestones

Lastly, it’s important to be aware that life milestones for teens– getting a driver's license, working a first job, attending prom, applying to college- will impact their moods. Teachers can nurture students and



improve learning by planning lessons that connect to these developmental events. Furthermore, it benefits both students and teachers when teachers accept the excitement and distraction that accompany spirit weeks, class elections, and other extracurricular activities.

No doubt, some teachers will worry that facilitating emotional learning in the classroom will require them to sacrifice academic rigor, but this doesn't have to be the case. It simply requires balance between content and compassion. Ultimately, emotional learning helps strengthen student motivation, problem-solving skills, and social intelligence, guiding them toward leading healthy, productive lives.

How do you address social and emotional learning in your classroom? I'm always looking for new ideas, so please share your strategies in the comments below!

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TED Talks for American Literature

TED Talks

Do you want to enhance your teaching of American Literature? Then use TED talks to teach valuable listening skills and make connections to relevant topics and themes. Of course, it can be time-consuming to select the best TED talks to use with your students, so I’ve selected a few that will engage your students and make meaningful connections to American Literature.

For each talk below, I’ve included recommended literature connections, but I'm certain there are innumerable texts that may apply to each talk. Be sure to add your suggestions in the comments below. Also, keep in mind that you can print transcripts of the talks to prepare for technology glitches or if you want students to take a closer look at the texts of these speeches.

1. Does Money Make You Mean? By Paul Piff
Date Given: 2013
Length: 16:35
Summary: This talk argues that the more entitled and privileged one is, the less likely a person will demonstrate empathy. Piff also discusses the detrimental impacts of the growing economic inequality in America. He uses interesting, relatable scientific experiments to provide evidence for his ideas.
Relevant connections: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and “The Devil and Tom Walker” by Washington Irving

2. America’s Forgotten Working Class by J.D. Vance
Date Given: 2016
Length: 14:41
Summary: The author of the popular novel, Hillbilly Elegy, starts by saying that upward mobility is at the heart of the American Dream; unfortunately, many lower-class Americans face obstacles such as substance abuse, family dysfunction, and a lack of “social capital.” Furthermore, they develop a sense of hopelessness that contributes to their beliefs in conspiracy theories and prevents them from taking advantage of educational opportunities.  Recently, Vance has received criticism for his portrayal of Applachian communities and it would be worth asking students to read some of the reviews. Then, ask students to contribute their opinions with text evidence.
Relevant connections: “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

3. Why I Love the Country That Once Betrayed Me by George Takei
Date Given: 2014
Length: 15: 58
Summary: The popular activist and former Star Trek actor tells his story of imprisonment in an internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In vivid detail, he describes the painful time for his family and explains how his experience was influenced by his youth. Despite being discriminated against and treated unfairly, he says that he learned that “democracy can be as great as the people can be, but it is also as fallible as people are.” Ultimately, he retains hope for the American Dream and works to ensure our government is a better democracy.
Relevant connections: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, Farewell to Manzanar by Jane Wakatsuki Hudson and James D. Hudson, Hiroshima by John Hershey, and “I, Too” by Langston Hughes


Real-World Learning
4. The New American Dream by Courtney Martin
Date Given: 2016
Length: 15:32
Summary: According to Martin, our country needs to redefine the American Dream and consider what makes it great. She argues that community and creativity are what contribute most to a person’s happiness, not the pursuit of wealth. In this thoughtful talk, she claims that “the biggest danger is not failing to achieve the American Dream. The biggest danger is achieving a dream that you don't actually believe in.”
Relevant connections: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, and Brighton Beach Memoirs by Neil Simon

5. Can a Divided America Heal? By Jonathan Haidt
Date Given: 2016
Length: 20:14
Summary:  This talk deals with the vitriol and partisanship that has occurred in the most recent presidential election, and Haidt suggests that this behavior is reflective of our tribal natures. Taking a psychological approach, he suggests that to end some of the division, America needs to improve its capacity for empathy.
Relevant connections: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, “The Gettysburg Address” by Abraham Lincoln, and "Let America be America Again" by Langston Hughes

6. Meet the Women Fighting on the Front Lines of an American War by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Multimedia in American Literature

Date Given: 2015
Length: 11:25
Summary: In this powerful talk, Lemmon reveals that a band of female soldiers was recruited and trained by special operations to assist male soldiers in the war on Afghanistan. Even though they were officially banned from combat, these women fought on the front lines. Lemon shows how the women celebrated their strength and femininity and earned the respect of their male counterparts, ultimately paving the way for future girls and women.
Relevant Connections: “Ain’t I a Woman?” by Sojourner Truth and The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

7. Less Stuff, More Happiness by Graham Hill
Date Given: 2011
Length: 6:14
Summary:  Do we need material things to be happy? In this short talk, Hill claims that we need to edit our lives, freeing ourselves from stuff. He gives three rules for accomplishing this task and shows how he has simplified his life with his unique apartment design.
Relevant Connections: Walden Pond  and other transcendentalist essays by Henry David Thoreau, selected Native American myths, and The Great Gatsby

8. A Passionate, Personal Case for Education by Michele Obama
Date Given: 2009
Length: 12:29
Summary:  Obama makes the case that hard work and education help people to succeed, particularly women. Furthermore, women have a vital role in creating thriving communities and they must teach important
 values such as compassion and integrity. Obama uses herself as a role model and explains that education leads to control of one’s destiny.
Relevant connections: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass, A Raisin in the Sun, “The Story of an Hour” or The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Are your interested in more TED Talk recommendations for American Literature?  Recently, I've created another post with additional suggestions.

And of course, please share your recommended talks in the comments below!  You may also be interested in handouts that help your students practice their listening and analysis skills as they watch.

Happy Teaching!

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