Curriculum Approaches

The Art of SEL, Episode 4: Social Awareness

In the fourth episode of The Art of SEL, Jonathan explores the topic of social awareness. Social awareness can be our ability to foster awareness of others, the world around us, and experiences that are quite different than our own. Jonathan discusses these topics with Mikela Thomas and Evelyn Davis-Walker, and they explore how our art rooms can be a space to share connections and ask questions with respect and empathy.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Jonathan: When was the first time you had a teacher of color? Have you ever even been asked that question before? Well, in a meeting about diversifying the teaching force in Ohio, this question was posed to those of us in the room. My face scrunched up, as I thought through all of the teachers that I have ever had. And I shared with the table of educators that I was sitting with, that this is something I had never thought of before. A kind university professor, a black woman took my hand, looked into my eyes and said, “This is your privilege showing.” That I had never even thought of this topic before, and she was right. Each educator of color in the room could tell you how having a teacher of color made them feel, how it impacted their life’s trajectory. I listened for the new perspective, but now that I’m aware of this topic, what do I do with that awareness?

I begin to think of my own children and the diverse preschool and elementary teachers that have been a part of their formative school experiences. Having an awareness of ourselves is fundamental, but we also must foster an awareness of others, of the world around us, of experiences that are quite different than our own.

Hi, I’m Jonathan Juravich, and today we’ll be exploring social awareness on this episode of The Art of SEL. I’ve shared previously that my favorite simplified definition of awareness is a noticing of what is happening in and around you so that you can make a choice. More specifically, a definition based on CASEL’s guidance for social awareness is, “the ability to understand the perspectives of others and empathize with them, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and contexts.” So let’s talk food. Food is often a significant aspect of community building, and it’s a distinct part of our individual and shared cultures. Several years ago at my elementary school, we started to see a rise in negative behaviors in the cafeteria. There were several students who were making fun of the beautifully packed lunches that other students were bringing to school, that consisted of rice bowls or curry dishes. We heard from parents who said that their kids were hesitant to bring their food from home and refused to open their lunch boxes in front of other students.

What began were major discussions among students and staff about the need to have an awareness and appreciation of the food choices of themselves and others. The experiences in the cafeteria were the jumping-off point for a school-wide program that now focuses on awareness, empathy, respect, and perseverance. But consider, when was a time that you turned to your nose up at food or a cultural experience that you just didn’t understand? See, just because we have these conversations in elementary school, doesn’t that students all grow up to be understanding and empathetic young adults. Like any other competency this is a process, an ongoing process.

In this episode, I will talk with Mikela Thomas, an assistant director of equity and inclusion, and Evelyn Davis-Walker, a university Design Professor. They’ll share about social awareness from their unique lenses. First let’s hear from Mikelah Thomas, the assistant director of equity and inclusion with Olentangy local schools in Delaware County, Ohio. This just happens to be the school district in which I teach. Mikela is a former first-grade teacher and speaks of her understanding of what it means to be socially aware. Hey Mikela, can you give me a descriptive word for how you’re feeling right now?

Mikela: Right now? I feel very optimistic is the word that I’m going to use. We’ve had a hard hit this year with COVID, and committed distance learning, and just everything… the racial injustices, and it just took something out of all of us, but it’s a new year, it’s a new time, and I’m feeling optimistic about where we’re headed.

Jonathan: When we talk about social awareness, what does that mean to you exactly? This competency that we really want our kids and us to understand, so what does that actually mean to you?

Mikela: Social awareness to me is being able to relate and interact with people and communicate effectively with people that you don’t know. It’s deeper than just understanding or saying I tolerate someone. It is like, I’m seeking to understand, I want to get to know who they are, I want to know their life, their perspective, how they feel, why they feel about a certain thing. It’s empathy, it’s collaborative, it’s not just a ‘me, you, them, they’ type of thing. It is us, it’s we, it’s how we work together in this world, and how we make it better.

Jonathan: Why is it so important that teachers focus on social awareness, when they have so many other things to cover, all of their standards and content areas. Clearly, you and I believe that this is important, but why is that?

Mikela: We have to provide atmosphere and opportunity. Your atmosphere needs to be this equitable, safe space where kids can be free to be who they are. Then also you’re providing these opportunities for these learning opportunities, through the texts that we read and the interactions that we have with each other, to see the world differently. Right? And just to give them a space where they feel free to take risks. Our job is to de-center ourself and just let them flourish basically.

Jonathan: And flourish together, and with people that aren’t necessarily their neighbor, but all of these students coming together. So then if it’s important for us to create these opportunities for students to be socially aware, then why is it important that teachers themselves focus on their own social awareness?

Mikela: Yeah, first of all, we’re going to be interacting with so many different types of kids, different learning styles, abilities, come from family situations that are different that we may not be used to. If we are more aware, we’re more open, we’re more empathetic, we’re great listeners, we’re actively engaged in that process, then it’s just going to make the learning experience better for the student. It’s going to, not only allow for them to say, “Okay, I can succeed here,” but we, as teachers can learn something from them. It’s just like I said, it’s that collaborative thing, and it helps us how we interact with people outside of the classroom too.

I know the more that I learn about others and that I actively seek to get to know them and what their story is, It just… when you hear someone else’s story, it makes you want to tell your story. It makes you want to change the world. Honestly it really is a game changer when you are like, “Okay, I’m intentionally seeking to get to know someone else.” I think it’s all about too, inclusion. Everyone wants to feel that they belong, they want to feel a sense of belonging, they want to be a part of it. The only way that you can do that is when you truly get to know others and become, have this exchange of ideas. An exchange of this is my background, what’s your background. Just have that. It’s that cultural exchange, it’s getting to know someone and having empathy, and using that in all aspects of our lives.

Jonathan: Well, and I think about what you just said, that has been so true for me with recording this podcast is the moment you hear someone else’s story, you start thinking about your own and your connections to it, and then your desire to share your story with somebody else. That’s what I’ve done with every interview. It’s like something sparks where you’re like, “Yes, that is my experience,” Or, “Wow, that’s so different than my experience, but I hear what you have to say and I also want to share what I have to say.”

Mikela: Right, yeah.

Jonathan: Is there something that teachers can focus on as they begin into this work of becoming more socially aware?

The bit of advice I would say is first, you always start inward first. Before we’re trying to educate anyone else we need to learn about ourselves. I would say take an inventory of your life, who you surround yourself around. Is it the same type of people, are you expanding your horizon, your friendships, are you getting to know other people? Are you taking your family into places and spaces that maybe are a little unfamiliar, but you’re learning? I think about, we have our one community conference that we do every year, and this year specifically we have a service day where the whole district came together and we actually wanted to do service learning. We called it the district plunge. Part of this service learning experience was not just, oh, I want to donate something to an organization.

It was, I want to go out into places and spaces that maybe I’m unfamiliar with, but I want to get to know people’s stories. I want to build that empathy. Just participating in little things like that. Of course, reading and learning more about other cultures is a great way, and as a teacher, I do have one tip that I did that I felt like helped me to become a little bit more socially aware at the beginning of the school year when you get your list of kiddos, let’s try not to have any preconceived ideas or anything like that. It’s easy to go back to maybe the teacher from the year before and say, “Hey, tell me about this kid, I need to know how we’re going to interact,” but you just don’t know the dynamics that’ll be different in your classroom and how you may interact.

Not having those preconceived ideas, just kind of getting to know your students with this Tabula rasa, the blank slate. You are coming in there with the idea that I want to get to know this kid, regardless of what else has been said, and I’m going to do that with my students as well. We’re all coming with this blank slate and how are we going to paint this beautiful picture together.

Well, and I think about us as art teachers, so often we see the same kids year after year, after year. However, there’s beautiful positives in that, because we build these strong relationships, but then there’s also, like you said, there’s preconceived notions that follow this child. When really, if we can stop and consider each year as a new beginning, that could be really powerful and important for the kid, but then for us as well to start fresh.

Mikela: Absolutely. Start fresh. Everyone loves a fresh start, a new beginning. It’s like, I can reinvent myself, and I can have a chance at a better day, I can make some different choices, and everybody wants. Everyone wants that. I think in order for us to truly be socially aware is understanding that everybody comes with something, but let’s not let that affect the relationship that we’re going to have, this culture that we’re going to have in our classroom. I always say we are a family. You know how families, we argue, we do… everyone has different likes and dislikes and all that, but we come together and we really truly try to seek to understand each other.

Jonathan: Evelyn Davis-Walker is the Associate Professor of Graphic Design at Valdosta State University in Valdosta Georgia. She shares how social awareness guides her interactions with undergraduate art students, as well as informs her own work as a graphic designer, artist, and mom. Evelyn uses the terminology BIPOC within our conversation, which is an acronym for black indigenous and people of color. So, Evelyn, if you could pick a descriptive word to tell me how you’re feeling right now, what would that descriptive word be?

Evelyn: Let’s see, in general with the state of society right now, I would probably say annoyed or concerned, but for the interview, I’m very motivated. There’s a lot of things to fix, and so right now I feel very motivated during the interview.

Jonathan: That’s good. I love that, that is a new one for me. As we’re talking about social awareness, what does it actually mean to be socially aware?

Evelyn: To me being socially aware means to be keenly aware of your past, your present, and your future identities. That there’s an understanding that there is something bigger than yourself and bigger than you, but you are still having to be a part of society in some kind of way that requires some level of participation. You cannot be on the sidelines, you must engage, but what levels of engagement, that’s where the real change is going to happen, but people can no longer be on the sidelines.

Jonathan: With that, becoming socially aware, we don’t want to sit on the sidelines. We step in and start learning from other people, learning about other people, which in turn teaches us about ourselves, right?

Evelyn: Correct. Yes, absolutely, and many cases, it’s an uncomfortable situation. The reason why people do not outwardly want to be socially aware because they feel like they have to, those are the individuals that should, because they feel a level of uncomfortability and that’s okay. The more you’re uncomfortable about something you then grow from that experience and then you become even a stronger individual because you took the time to understand the perspectives you do not know about. That you have no clue based on your upbringing, what these individuals have gone through. You can kind of assume, but assumptions are definitely not the way to engage and interact with folks who require your engagement. It’s okay not to know everything. It’s not okay not to engage in that, because you want there to be that sense of involvement that you have contributed to that person’s life in a positive way.

Jonathan: Well, I think about art educators with their students at all levels. Me maybe with kindergarten art and then you with college students, how can art educators foster this social awareness for their students?

Evelyn: To me, I believe that there needs to be a space, and I think space is imperative whether it’s kindergartners all the way up through college. People can have an opinion, but if they cannot share that opinion in some sort of space, be it physical or emotional space, then their ideas just keep bottled up. Or, what they’re feeling in their emotions will not be able to be expressed if there’s not a platform for that. To me, most importantly, there needs to be a platform for students at any age, to be able to express their voice and their, basically, life experiences. For me also in the classroom is where I have my students be able to have those spaces through their assignments to be able to express themselves. Because many of the times I give assignments that are very open-ended, intentionally open-ended, because personal identities, personal frustrations, they leak out in all of our facets of our lives. It’s inevitable, right?

Jonathan: Yeah.

Evelyn: People can’t go to a job without having some personal baggage come along with it.

Jonathan: Right.

Evelyn: Same thing, right? Here, If I give them an assignment that is more open-ended, then they may take the initiative to use that assignment, to express something that they have wanted to express, and they have not had the appropriate place to do so. For myself, as a designer within graphic design, my area’s been non-profit design. Even from my very first professional career, it has always been non-profit oriented, because naturally I want to communicate to help others through graphic design, and so I naturally want to visually communicate passion projects or community-based initiatives to those that need them. And it’s no different as a professor. I simply teach my students how to discover their passion and successfully share that with others, by giving them those open-ended assignments, that way they can share their life experiences.

Jonathan: Well, I love what you said about it being a dialogue. That this social awareness is a dialogue, because it’s one thing for a kid to become fully, and I use kid openly, be alright because we all are. For someone to make work, that is fully self-aware, but it’s another thing then to engage in dialogue with someone who may be different or someone who comes from a different circumstance or different context to be able to engage and learn and to come to understandings. And that’s kind of what you’re fostering within these spaces.

Evelyn: Right, and some of the projects that I give, while they can be independently specific to their passion, like there was one for February that we re-contextualized what Black History Month was. We tried to connect… This one project in particular was for my advanced graphic design students, and their project problem was that they had to basically communicate what they believe Black History Month is in today’s society. But they had to use the style of one of my all-time favorite artists, Emory Douglas, who was a Black Panther 1960s protest artist. They had to research what, during the civil rights movement, was Black History Month, or it hadn’t been a really a month at that point, but having the civil rights engine behind them, they needed to then create something new and modern, but using the style of Emory Douglas so that they can then do a basically a stop motion project.

Jonathan: Wow.

Evelyn: Yeah, Yeah, and it was amazing. Honestly, hands down was amazing because of this exact thing. It was a very raw and very emotional project because I have in that class almost equally, half of my students were white, half African-American, and there were about three international students from South Korea. I have an entire class makeup that is from varying backgrounds, but I have… You know how you asked me at the beginning, what mood I was in or word? Right? Well, every day I have my mood-meter and I basically tell my students, I ask my students at the end of every class, “How are you feeling? Give me a sense of what’s going on.” When I introduced this project, half of the students, I received things such as motivated, excited, ecstatic, the other half nervous, anxious, uneasy.

Well, guess what? It was the white students who were nervous, anxious, and uneasy. And it was the African-American students who were motivated, excited and ecstatic because we were able to have the dialogue that they were craving for, that they could not have in any other spaces. It wasn’t just that I left that alone. I went back to each student who was anxious, nervous, and uneasy, and I asked them, “Why is this personal, or is this based on the project?” Every single one of those students, who were all of Caucasian descent, all said that I did not want to mess this up. I did not… I want to do it justice.

It wasn’t that they were unwilling to be part of the conversation. They did not want to put a message out there that seemed disingenuine, or that seemed flippant or seemed like it was not their voice to use or say. I absolutely loved the fact that by the end of that project, allies were formed. Conversations were had that no one had had before, but they felt like they then had a bond that they could then have additional confidence to talk about outside of the classroom. Everyone had an extremely high energy level and we were all crying. We’re not going to pretend here.

Jonathan: Yeah, right. It’s real, it’s real.

Evelyn: It was, I was crying, my BIPOC students were crying, and it was because they, it was one of these spaces that they never had a chance to use, and that they were fortunate enough and they were thankful that they had that space to use them. So, it’s just those one or two small assignments that can help generate that change.

Jonathan: I think about the amount of growth and trust that happened within that space for these students, and then I think about ourselves as art educators, because it’s important. There’s always room to grow, right? I know that there are so many art educators that are hesitant, that are nervous, all of those things on the mood meter because they want to get it right, so sometimes they don’t do anything, right? How can we work to foster our own social awareness?

Evelyn: Yeah, that’s absolutely critical, and you’re right it is difficult for me. Perhaps it’s age, perhaps it’s just not having people within the BIPOC community that have been in their spaces of education or college or just friends. They feel like they do not have the right to be part of that discussion, and to me, it’s like, “Oh gosh, no, you are the person that needs to be in this discussion.” The pedagogy that I employ as an art teacher is a lot different than others. I’m a collaborator with my students and that’s where I build that trust. I want to learn from my students. My students are not the only students in the classroom. I am the student in the classroom, especially when I am trying to build that trust. To me, if more educators have that mentality, it’s going to be so much easier to have these difficult conversations.

Jonathan: Right, and I think about what you said about conversation. So often, especially with little ones, we’re quick to be like, “Let’s move on,” or “maybe if I don’t address it, they won’t ask it again.” Not only with children we work with, but then also children we may have at home. Because it’s like, “Oh, this is challenging I don’t have the right words.” Well, so interestingly, I was reading Mo Willems classic can Knuffle Bunny the other day to a group of kindergartners

Evelyn: Love it.

Jonathan: Beautiful, love everything about it, but I’m in a class with suburban students and they were talking about a laundromat.

Evelyn: They’ve probably never been to one.

Jonathan: My kids they’ve never been to one, they didn’t know they still existed, they thought they were from the old times. I had to explain that a laundromat is a real part of people’s lives, and it’s not just in the old times, it’s not just for people that can’t afford a washing machine, because that was one of the things that kindergartners said. It’s like, there are people that live in different places that need them. There’s one, a block from my own home, but opening up the space to have that conversation that almost had nothing to do with the story of Knuffle Bunny. Yeah.

Evelyn: Exactly, that was not the overarching moral of the story, but you’re absolutely right. Young kids pick up on environment like instantly, whereas adults, we just assume the importance is based on the antagonist, the protagonist, the conflict and all this stuff as part of storytelling, we’re just like all focused in. What they pick up on is the most critical component for their understanding to know that there are other people that have different ways of their everyday lives.

Jonathan: Yes.

Evelyn: I find that fascinating.

Jonathan: It is so fascinating.

Evelyn: I’ve got chills.

Jonathan: They could tell me where the nearest dry cleaner was.

Evelyn: They could?

Jonathan: Yeah, they could. They’re like, “It’s only like a mile away,” and I was like, “Oh, okay.” But a laundromat, no. It was something they just assumed in the story until that moment, and I think how many times have they maybe read that in the library or at home, and have just gone along with the story, it’s from olden times.

Evelyn: Sure, oh yeah, oh yeah. I have conversations with my daughter all the time when we read and my husband and I ask, this is like the 10th time we read it, so we say, “Hey, do you know what this word means?” Or, “Hey, do you know, what’s going… I know you know the story, but do you know any of this other stuff?” And she’ll say, “Oh, no, I didn’t, so what’s that about?” She’s not even six yet, but she’ll ask the questions just like you had that make no major difference in delivery of that story. Then there’ll be times where we have that conversation, then say, timeout button. What are you noticing here? What’s the difference here? That very interesting, I like that.

Jonathan: There’s so many layers to this and I think that’s why so many people are like, “How do I start?” Well, like you said, we start by listening, we start with a conversation, we start by sharing.

Evelyn: Yes, and when people feel as if they can not be part of the conversation, that’s when they shut down. And to me, you have to, and I credit this too, to the graphic design aspect of my life, I have to be able to communicate visually to a particular audience. In some circles I can use the academic vernacular and all that fun stuff. That’s cool for that group. I cannot do that for another group that I want to really hit home on a particular issue or subject matter about, I have to bring it in from a completely different standpoint.

It’s not dumbing down, it’s not doing anything of that nature. It’s coming at it from a different perspective. Because of my graphic design requirements to be able to communicate to a variety of different populations that I think in combination with my liberal arts background provides me with that amplified voice that somehow cuts through all the confusion.

Jonathan: Oh my goodness. Yes, graphic design. The whole idea is appealing to different audiences, broader audiences, so really getting… This is hitting me, like this is the most profound thing that I’ve ever heard, but like, it’s like the idea of it… It is understanding other humans and being

Understanding other humans and being socially aware as a graphic designer.

Evelyn: It is.

Jonathan: And in many cases, people that are quite different from you and your context. W

Evelyn: Absolutely, absolutely. Yes, yes. To me, I love it when I get to students who are actually never going to be graphic designers. They are taking my introduction class because it is part of our curriculum. I always tell them, I am not going to try to convert you to be a graphic designer. That is not my interest whatsoever. My interest is so that you can communicate visually whatever the job is. You can be a veterinarian because that’s what I was going to be. I was going to be an oceanographer, I was going to be a veterinarian, I was going to be an art therapist. Ended up going just in graphic design, but my pathways changed immensely, but I told them no matter what, even if I went and did more of the science-related things, I have to be able to communicate science to people who do not know science.

To me, I said, if that is the biggest thing that I can give you in this introduction to computer as an art, then I’ve done my business, because you will now know how to use words, use images, and to talk to a particular person in a way that you are trying to express your thoughts and feelings to, and that’s it. Some say, “Oh, I like it, I want to continue on with it.” Some say, “I got it. I’m good,” and they have no additional interest in art whatsoever, but I can guarantee you they’ll be able to say what they need to say within whatever industry that they end up going into a little bit easier.

Jonathan: Well, You mentioned a little bit about your sweet daughter, but how has this social awareness impacted your personal life? Outside of art making and university in the classroom with your spare time.

Evelyn: I have no life. I have absolutely no life, but I have a wonderful family. Yeah, social awareness is actually very important for my family. For those that do not know my family is mixed. My husband is a black male artist, I’m a white female artist. We have a biracial five-year-old daughter who will most likely be an artist based on her current and past experiences. We also live in the deep south. For those of you who do not know where in Georgia, I live almost right at the border between Georgia and Florida. It’s been fine. Nothing at all of danger or any kind of threats or anything like that. It’s just, we’re more aware of other people being aware of us. If that makes sense.

Jonathan: No, that makes perfect sense.

Evelyn: Yeah, our awareness of who we are, we are now more aware that people are seeing us. Our past experiences, my husband’s and mine, and then or identities, are going to basically be influencing how we participate in this world today. You know how I was mentioning being keenly aware of your past, your present and your future identities? Well, this [crosstalk 00:32:37] is like all of it kind of wrapped up. The past experiences that we have had, both Stephen and myself, we have brought together. What we are doing as a family and how we participate in this world today, that’s basically how we’re going to be shaping our daughter’s future, so we live social awareness. If that makes sense.

Jonathan: Yes.

Evelyn: Whether or not we intend for that to be the case or not, it’s how we have decided to live our life.

Jonathan: In follow up conversations Evelyn and I discussed how often the dialogue about social awareness leans into topics of race. Yet being socially aware also means learning about and seeking to understand the experiences of others, including gender, sexual identity, neurodiversity, those from rural or urban settings. Being aware of other humans. So what now? What do you do with this information? Here are three things to consider.

One, think about your own educational context, your art room. Is your space viewed as a safe space to explore identities and learn from one another. If so, what are you doing really well? Celebrate it, share it with others. If not, what small changes can you start to make to encourage social awareness and engagement amongst your learners?

Two, what authentic opportunities do you have to stop and learn about someone else with someone who is different than you? Remember that social awareness starts with the noticing and then a conversation where both parties are learning about one another. Share connections and ask questions with respect and empathy.

Three, think about that student or coworker that you have a preconceived notion about. How can the next time you share a moment with them, be a fresh start? A new opportunity to learn about them as a learner and as a human. How am I feeling right now? Restless. I know that there’s so much more learning that I need to do about the students in my classes, their families, and the coworkers I spend my day with. I guess it can’t wait to get started, while also feeling uneasy about how and where to actually begin. So yeah, I’m restless.

When we learn about others, we may begin to forge relationships, and that is exactly what we’ll be talking about in our next episode. I hope you’ll join me for a conversation about the competency of relationship skills. This has been The Art of SEL, part of The Art of Education University Podcast Network. Tim Bogatz is our producer, and Amanda Heyn is our executive producer, and all of our episodes are engineered by the efficient Amy Juravich. Thank you so much for listening. If you like, what you hear, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you want more information on art and social emotional learning or anything else art education-related, please check out

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.