Transformative SEL

Transformative SEL in the Music Room

Transformative SEL in the Music Room:
Thoughts on Equity and Anti-racism

“It’s the SEL for Me”

The world of education can be trendy like Bitmoji virtual classrooms and boho rainbow decor. One prominent “buzzword” in the world of education, especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic is SEL (social-emotional learning). The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines five core SEL competencies, including self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. 

While SEL is not a new concept, the effects of COVID-19, racial injustice, and tension related to the mess that was 2020 has convinced teachers and education leaders that tending to students’ mental health needs are more important now than ever. It has amplified the inequities that have always existed in our educational systems, which has led to the definition of Transformative SEL

Many music educators will wholeheartedly agree that nurturing students’ wellbeing is a part of teaching, but some may have a hard time grappling with what that specifically looks like in SEL, especially when there is “not enough time” to teach “all the things” through virtual classrooms and consistently shifting teaching schedules. Some teachers may see it as “another thing to DO” that is not relevant to “doing real music” when in reality, it must be something that we do WITH our students in conjunction with active music-making. SEL is another example of good teaching, and when it is naturally woven within our teaching practice, students are not seen as data. SEL in music, now more than ever, must point towards equity, which is not referring to resources but instead, identities. BBIA (Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian) students walk into our rehearsal spaces with their lived experiences, and dismissing them is essentially dismissing who they are as humans.

Musical SEL through a Racial Justice Lens

I saw a meme about how in 2018, people were “flexing” (showing off) their new Airpods. It’s 2021, and I’ve been seeing that the new flex nowadays is showing off a vaccination card. But according to Kamala Harris, there is no vaccine for racism

I will say it like it is – SEL was not initially designed to be tailored for all students regardless of race, nationality, class, gender identity, immigration status, and other parts of intersectionality. In Musical SEL, we must be cognizant of how shallow implementation of SEL through a whitewashed mindset continues to perpetuate assimilation for our BBIA folks. Dena Simmons said it best. If we are not careful, our SEL strategies could basically end up being “white supremacy with a hug.” Combined with a learning environment that only worships one style of learning music, ignores student agency, and limits creativity, the music room could end up causing students, especially those who have been historically marginalized, to not feel completely safe and seen. What we teach will not matter to students if students themselves do not feel that they matter. 

At the time of writing this, I have been teaching virtually for more than a year now since March 2020. Although schools are reopening, I am still assigned to deliver live Zoom music classes and post asynchronous work due to the nature of our “hybrid” schedules. While implementing SEL has been a challenge, it has not been impossible. It was and continues to be of utmost importance that I remain fluid and flexible when it came to teaching virtually. This also included leaving areas in my lessons to tailor my lessons to best fit students’ needs throughout the year. 

Music teachers – if you are hesitant to incorporate Transformative SEL, I ask you all to think about why we are not comfortable creating the time and space for students to be more than robots of written standard notation. Many of us will say that music is a space where we want students to connect with their humanity, and SEL through a lens of equity and antiracism can be a catalyst for that. 

Reflection Questions for Musical SEL through an Anti-Racist Lens 

  • Who am I? What privilege and power do I hold? What musical biases do I have
  • Am I observing and embracing the discomfort that happens when I learn about topics such as race? Am I giving myself space to reflect instead of reacting defensively? 
  • How do I build a safe and brave space throughout the school year? Or is my learning environment causing BBIA students to be in fight or flight mode? 
  • Are my students honestly able to tell me they see diverse voices represented throughout the year (besides on “national holidays”, such as only talking about Hispanic musicians during Hispanic Heritage Month)? 
  • Are the narratives you surround the stories of BBIA musicians centered on oppression? Or are you highlighting joy and excellence? 
  • There is power in the word “and”. How can I showcase a national music standard AND an SEL competency skill? How can I make music AND build responsible decision-making and self-management skills?
  • Do we welcome students’  musical tastes in our classroom and discuss how it ties to our identities, beyond just our preferences? How do we guide students to connect with other musicians they may not agree with?  
  • Does my incorporation of SEL enable students to speak up against injustice…or does it silence the voices and lived experiences of BBIA people? 
  • How do we empower students to continue to see themselves as music makers in their communities? 
  • Am I allowing opportunities for students to make their own music that represents social change?
  • Do I display my cultural humility in regards to understanding music? 

When my students graduate from elementary school, I would not want students to be their only takeaway of being in my class is knowing the fingering for treble clef B on the recorder. My hope is that they feel seen, affirmed, and empowered for who they are and what they bring to the classroom. My hope is that they feel more equipped to break down barriers and lead others towards love, empathy, and peace.

Darlene Machacon

Darlene is a TK-6th grade elementary music educator, chorus director, private piano teacher, and podcaster in Orange County, California with more than a decade of music teaching experience. She is passionate about creating learner-centered spaces that are culturally responsive and anti-racist. She holds two Bachelor’s of Music degrees in Music Education and Piano Performance and is currently pursuing a Master’s of Music Education. You can learn more about her work on her website or on Instagram and TikTok @thedarlingmusicteacher.

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  1. Danyelle Harris on March 26, 2021 at 9:09 am

    This article is very well thought out and I have a lot to think about. But my question is what specific activities and songs incorporate SEL learning? Or how do I take what I am already using to make it SEL?

    Thank you,
    Danyelle Harris

  2. Shelley Droe on March 27, 2021 at 8:56 am

    Great article. I can appreciate you not giving specific activities and songs. It’s deeper than finding activities that work and sometimes I get stuck in that mode. I think we need to take a hard look at the questions (I will be posting them near my desk) and understand we need to do our own work in this area in order to best serve the needs of our particular students. Modern Band is something that has really been helping me reach more BBIA students more authentically.

    Also, I’ve never heard of transformative SEL so I’ll be looking into it. I think the description of “white supremacy with a hug” is possibly the feeling I’ve had while doing a recent book study.

    Thank you so much!

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