Social-Emotional Learning Through Media: Ideas and Resources



At a time when teachers feel increasingly pressed to spend valuable instructional time on knowledge and skills that specifically tend to “the test,” many essential programs, such as social-emotional learning (SEL), also known as character education, are cast aside. Although media literacy (ML) is well represented in Common Core Curriculum Standards, it too is often relegated to a “just-not-enough-time-for” status. Despite evidence that both are instrumental in advancing reading, writing, and critical-thinking skills, not all educators feel strongly committed to including such interests in already overcrowded courses.
However, those educators who feel compelled and committed to somehow finding room for them, can embed facets of SEL and ML in each other quite successfully, at the same time utilizing reading, writing, and critical-thinking skills. Andrew Burn and James Durran are among many who see social functions as central to ML’s emphasis on cultural, critical, and creative functions (Burn and Durran, 2007, p.11). Combining SEL and ML seems a fitting match, conducive to such aims. Although there are myriad of ways to do so, many ideas can be fitted into five useful categories to examine: 1) the use of simple radio and television PSAs, 2) the use of televised scenarios to observe how others respond and ask how we might respond, 3) the use of films/clips to analyze how characters handle life’s difficult challenges, 4) the application of film narratives to broad social/political issues in order to analyze how characters involve themselves in such issues, and 5) the study of documentaries to encourage and inspire service learning and civic participation.
While in some ways each category builds on the previous, each digging more deeply into the individual self, then branching out from the individual, placing him/her in increasingly complex social situations, any approach could be used independently or in combinations with others in whichever order best fits students’ needs and course materials and objectives. However, if this collection of SEL and ML ideas is envisioned as a potential unit in itself and not as enriching side trips coinciding with relevant course material, then the above order has benefit.


For instance, the radio or television public service announcement (PSA) is an apt early entry into discussions of both SEL and ML. By listening to/watching PSAs, students can hear someone’s perspective on an issue, a perspective they may or may not share, allowing them to critique the opinion as well as the PSA itself. (Whom does it address, is it effective, why or why not, what is my own response...?) Particularly useful are PSAs that examine teen culture and language, such as a current PSA getting loads of attention, Jane Lynch’s (and others’) “Spread the Word to End the Word” PSA, urging an end to the use of retarded as a derogatory slur. This PSA can be viewed at

where much else is also available: options to take the pledge, follow on face book/twitter/youtube, host a Youth Rally for Respect, volunteer for Special Olympics, spread the word locally, buy merchandise, write Congress, and more. Those moved by the PSA can become involved in change. Those opposed to the message (there are many oppositions posted online) can debate those who agree, an exercise that can jump-start important work on perspectives and empathy while helping students articulate and support their own thinking. Such lessons are vital in shaping the identity of teens and in debating the importance of language and its role in relationship building. Evaluations for this type of learning might include 1) reflection pieces in which students articulate, critically analyze, and evaluate the thoughts expressed in the PSA as well as their own, 2) participation in debates, and 3) designs for original PSAs.
Other PSAs, such as GLSEN’s ThinkB4YouSpeak messages, address the derogatory use of the word gay. An especially helpful clip (4:51) features a CNN commentator speaking with actress Hilary Duff, who appears in one of the PSAs, and a lesbian teen named Lynette, who discusses the effects the word’s use has on her. The PSA featuring Duff is included as well as a second, featuring comedian Wanda Sykes. This clip is available at

These PSAs are especially useful because they actually model ways that people can effectively speak up when they hear others saying things like That’s so gay.


The second useful approach specifically focuses on questioning how students would respond in hypothetical, but concrete, social situations. Excellent resources are television programs such as ABC News’ What Would You Do, featuring actors in hidden-camera scenarios at real places among real bystanders. The quandary for these witnesses is Should I intervene, and if so, how? That quandary is shared by viewers, who are asked to put themselves in witnesses’ shoes and those of the victim, again critical activities for understanding perspective and building empathy. A variety of episodes can be selected for viewing at

Because the show’s primary ESL value lies in asking students to hypothetically place themselves inside the narrative to imagine how they could or should respond, the best scenarios to choose from are those that teens might most likely face. One such episode, “Mean Girls,” depicts three teenage girls verbally bullying a fourth teenage girl in a public park. Other good selections might include “Interracial Couple Harassed,” “Baby in a Hot Car,” and “Shopping While Black.” After discussions and written activities that analyze and evaluate various responses, students might benefit from categorizing various responses, such as “bystanding,” “stepping in,” or “standing up,” providing criteria for each category, and suggesting guidelines about when each response is or isn’t appropriate. A good final evaluation might be for small groups to write scripts for their own What Would You Do episode, then perform the scenarios, using students from other groups as witnesses to the scene. After each “episode,” students in the “audience” could write reflective pieces analyzing the scenarios and evaluating responses.


The third suggested approach goes beyond the simple scenario to explore how characters in fiction films deal with some of life’s most challenging situations. By examining how developed movie characters find integrity, fortitude, or compassion within themselves, students can analyze how such actions spring from a solid sense of self and/or a compelling connection to others. At this point, students are facing hard identity work, but work that is essential to engagement and learning. James Paul Gee addresses the importance of recognizing that we are “fluid creatures in the making” (Gee, 2003, p.4), taking on and transforming identities through social participation with others. There is no identity or learning without a social context. Two outstanding resources for such an approach include Stephen Simon’s book The Force Is With You and Film Clips for Character Education, a program which features a total of eighty-nine clips on eight DVDs and sample lesson plans. Simon’s book revolves around the premise that a genre of film could be considered “spiritual” (Simon, 2002, p. 6) because they contain messages that challenge and encourage us to be "the people we were be” (Simon, p. 4). These films help us make sense of our world, see possibilities and hope, and thereby change our inner realities. The chapters are organized thematically, e. g., “Reality and Time,” “Visionary Adventures,” “The Power of Love,” with up to a dozen films discussed in each chapter. For instance, Forrest Gump, Cast Away, and It’s a Wonderful Life are exemplars of the power of love. Students could discuss Forrest’s rescue of Captain Dan, Captain Dan’s ungrateful response, and the ongoing development of their relationship. Why does each respond in the way he does, and how and why does Captain Dan’s outlook change? How does the film illustrate all of this effectively, and what is the message for us and reader-viewers? The objective is for students to ponder whether and how their actions, big and small, affect others--to consider that they, as individuals, matter in a great big world and make a difference in the lives of others, as is beautifully depicted in It’s a Wonderful Life. The Force Is with You not only suggests great movies and their messages; it will further stimulate your own ideas for how other movies and their messages may be used.
More specific and to the point, however, is Film Clips for Character Education, a program designed specifically for SEL through film. Although this program costs $400 for all eight DVDs and the study guides, or $50 per DVD and study guide, it is also available through site server at a cost of $2 per student. Additionally, however, the site at

includes a number of episode descriptions and study guides to be downloaded. Each DVD (episode) deals with several subjects such as honesty, cooperation, and respect. Under honesty, for instance, four film clips are used. A clip from Liar, Liar explores the issue of white lies, a clip from Cool Runnings explores winning at all costs, a clip from Shrek explores hiding in fear from the truth about oneself, and a clip from Big Fat Liar explores the issue of credibility. Focus questions are also supplied. Apollo 13 (teamwork pays off), LOTR (taking the lead). Antz (doing your part), and Ice Age (when trust is gone) are used to explore cooperation; respect is presented in Remember the Titans (getting to know you), Babe (earning the right to lead), X-Men (fitting in), and Boundin’ (self-respect). Study guides include suggestions for introducing clips and listening to discussions, teaser questions and “getting deeper” questions, word walls, diaries, ways to put thoughts into action, and a very thorough listing of standards addressed. The guides also suggest compelling language arts and social studies connections.


Social studies connections are paramount in the fourth approach, using film to explore important social and political issues. Mr. Chase, a teacher of Participation in Government and Economics at Edmeston High School has established a wiki-space that showcases much of his students’ work in this area. This wiki, found at

is peppered with inspiring quotes, political ads, and community service reports. Most relevant perhaps is his study of change agents, dramatized in the award-winning movie Norma Rae, based on the life of a small-town factory worker who joins with a New York union organizer to improve labor conditions for herself and the people of her community. Chase begins with various readings and discussions about change agents, then shows and discusses Norma Rae, and assigns a critical essay. This essay must address lessons learned in movie--including the social, economic, and political influence of change agents--and discuss the concepts of change, empathy, power, and justice. A related activity centers around the movie’s Oscar-winning theme song, “It Goes like It Goes.” In this critical and creative 100-point assignment, students post wikis in which they explain how this song specifically fits the movie, choose an alternate theme song and explain how it specifically fits the movie, choose a literary quote and explain how it specifically fits the movie, and tie all this work to lessons they have learned from Norma Rae. Those interested in pursuing the roles of theme songs in SEL and ML may wish to visit

Mr. Chase’s wiki in general, and his use of Norma Rae in a study of change agents in particular, serve as wonderful models for teachers anxious to tie SEL and ML to social/political change and civic engagement.


The final approach discussed here also relates to social change and civic engagement, but does so using documentary film. This approach can perhaps best be illustrated by an examination of PBS’s Not In Our Town: the Billings, Montana Story, which can be viewed at

This film documents events in 1995, when several Jewish families in Billings, Montana, were targeted with hate graffiti and bricks thrown through windows in which menorahs were displayed. Response came swiftly from many corners of the town--police, churches, newspapers, and neighbors. Residents stood up to hate with candlelight vigils, forums, and 10,000 menorahs printed by the newspaper and displayed in Billings homes and businesses. In such a portrayal, there is a swift return to discussions of when, why, and how we choose to be bystanders or upstanders (those who stand up for others whose rights are not being respected). Most fascinating, however, is that this particular documentary, the original NIOT, inspired a series of related documentaries and a NIOT movement across the country. A quick perusal of the web site at
reveals links for public screenings, conference workshops, and tools and resources for planning forums, public proclamations, and NIOT events. Here is an opportunity for students to discuss and analyze the great appeal of this documentary and its power to inspire. From that point, students can discuss how media can be used for individual expression, but also as powerful change agents. Students may choose to become involved in some aspect of the NIOT movement, begin a Not In Our School chapter, or plan/design a similarly compelling documentary/movement about a topic close to their own hearts.

Such approaches help students explore a full spectrum, from considering their own identities, values, and roles, to imagining themselves in relation to others, and perhaps ultimately becoming agents of change. SEL in this regard ties wholly into the idea of fluid identities that evolve, mature and flourish as we engage in social acts of reading, writing, listening, discussing, viewing, critically thinking, and ultimately engaging in civic participation, all with the powerful tools and resources that ML brings to the forefront as it also evolves, matures, and flourishes in social contexts.


Burn, Andrew, & Durran, James. (2007). Media literacy in schools: practice, production,
and progression. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Gee, James Paul. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy.
New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Golden, John. (2001). Reading in the dark: using film as a tool in the English classroom.
Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Hobbs, Renee. (2007). Reading the media: media literacy in high school English. New
York: Teachers College Press.

Simon, Stephen. (2002). The force is with you: mystical movie messages that inspire our
lives. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc