The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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Five Ways to Support Social and Emotional Learning with Children’s Books

The fifth-grader’s voice was full of emotion as he shouted, “That’s not fair! What a mean thing to do!”

He wasn’t upset about an event on the playground, or on the school bus. This student was reacting to an incident described in a picture book entitled Yoon and the Jade Bracelet, by Helen Recorvits. As other students chimed in, the teacher took the opportunity to facilitate a discussion about peer mistreatment, how it feels to be left out, and the role of bystanders. Students expressed genuine concern for Yoon, the main character in the story. Throughout this time of authentic connection to each other and the story, the teacher and his students focused on some key social and emotional skills, such as recognizing and naming feelings, perspective-taking, and empathy. The combination of the book, the teacher, and the children created the equivalent of an electrical current that energized an authentic conversation about how people choose to treat each other.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) identifies the following social competency skills as keys to success in school and beyond: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness/empathy, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Social and emotional learning (SEL) skills can be taught to children in schools through programs such as Open Circle, a program of the Wellesley Centers for Women, which uses children’s literature as a vital part of its curriculum.

Whether books are shared in a classroom, a public library, or a living room, there are some specific ways that educators and caregivers can leverage the emotional connection between children and literature to reinforce SEL skills, including empathy. Some people may make a New Year’s resolution to read more books; I encourage us all to include children in this goal. Here are five ways to support SEL skills through children’s literature:

1. Help children build their feelings vocabulary.

The most basic building block for social competency is self-awareness, being able to recognize and name your emotions. Sharing picture books that highlight a range of emotions, such as Lots of Feelings, by Shelley Rotner, or Yesterday I Had the Blues, by Jeron Ashford Frame, helps children expand their feelings vocabulary and recognize that it’s normal to have many different feelings, including negative ones.

2. Model and reinforce self-management strategies.

It’s important for children to know that they can learn some ways to calm down when they are upset. Books such as Sometimes I‘m Bombaloo, by Rachel Vail, or Mouse was Mad, by Linda Urban, illustrate effective self-management strategies. As you read aloud stories like these, share your own experiences with challenging feelings and describe your coping strategies. Encourage children to find strategies that work for them.

3. Choose books with diverse content.

Emily Style, a co-founder of the National SEED Project at the Wellesley Centers for Women, has written about how curriculum serves as both mirrors and windows for students. Sharing literature that is culturally diverse ensures that all children can see themselves reflected in books, and can see beyond their own world and experiences. Encourage children to explore the perspective of characters who are different from themselves in order to build their capacity for empathy. Books such as the Anna Hibiscus series by Atinuke, or Jingle Dancer, by Cynthia Leitich Smith, can dispel stereotypes and pave the way for building positive relationships and making responsible decisions about how we treat each other.

4. Use an interactive approach.

Megan Dowd Lambert, author of Reading Picture Books with Children: How to shake up storytime and get kids talking about what they see, emphasizes the importance of “reading with children as opposed to reading to them.”

Lambert suggests asking open-ended questions, such as: “What’s going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that?” Open-ended questions also help children connect to their experiences and feelings. For example, you might ask: “How do you think the character feels? What are some things that make you feel angry? (scared, upset, happy, etc.) or, “What might you have done differently if you were this character?” To help children develop consequential-thinking skills, ask them to predict what might happen when a character behaves a certain way or makes a particular choice.

5. Choose books children can connect with.

Anyone who has read with one child, or a group of children knows that literature engages both the heart and the mind. Pairing the right book with a child, and helping her explore personal connections to the story completes the circuit to power up social and emotional learning. For inspiration, get started by looking at Open Circle’s list of children’s books connected to SEL.

Peg Sawyer is a trainer and coach at Open Circle, a program of the Wellesley Centers for Women, that provides a unique, evidence-based social and emotional learning program for grades K-5.

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Seeking LGBT Parents in History

Opponents of LGBT equality often try to make LGBT parents seem like a new and untested phenomenon, and therefore something to be avoided. The history of LGBT parents and our children, however, goes back further than one might think.

The Greek poet Sappho, whose island home of Lesbos gave us the term “lesbian,” may have had a daughter named “Cleis.” That would mean that the history of LGBT parents goes back to around 600 BCE.

The existence of her daughter is only attested through a few fragments, though, making it far from certain. It’s also anachronistic to apply modern identity terms to historical figures, even such a lesbian icon as Sappho. The possibility of her existence, however, should encourage us to reflect that the history of parents who fall under a broad LGBT umbrella (not tied to modern conceptions of the terms) likely goes back as far as the history of LGBT people as a whole. They may not have been “out and proud” like many modern LGBT parents, but we can still see them as their forebears.

Sticking with better documented cases, Oscar Wilde was the father of two boys with his wife Constance Lloyd, and apparently a loving one. His son Vyvyan, in his book Son of Oscar Wilde, wrote about Wilde’s relationship with him and his brother, “He was a hero to us both. . . . a real companion to us. . . . He would go down on all fours on the nursery floor, being in turn a lion, a wolf, a horse, caring nothing for his usually immaculate appearance.” Alas, when the boys were eight and nine, their mother took them to Switzerland after Wilde’s trial for “gross indecency” (having same-sex relations) and they never saw him again.

Vita Sackville-West had relationships with several women, including fellow writers Virginia Woolf and Violet Trefusis, and had two children with her husband, Harold George Nicolson (who also had same-sex relationships). Her son Nigel Nicolson later used her account of the affair with Trefusis as the heart of a book about his parents, Portrait of a Marriage. There, he called his mother’s description of the affair “one of the most moving pieces that she ever wrote.” While he acknowledged both parents’ same-sex relationships, he also said their marriage “became stronger and finer as a result.” Their love affairs were mere “ports of call,” but it was “to the harbour that each returned.” Nevertheless, it is easy to see Nicolson as the product of parents who fall under the broad LGBT umbrella, and to place another brushstroke in our picture of LGBT family history.

Looking only at parents who had a more modern sense of their LGBT identities, out LGBT parents go back to the very start of the LGBT civil rights movement. Most still had their children within the context of different-sex marriages, but were more likely than in earlier times to leave those marriages, even though this often meant losing custody of their children. Del Martin, one of the founders in 1955 of Daughters of Bilitis, the first national lesbian rights organization in the U.S., was one such parent. Not surprisingly, her organization held some of the first known discussion groups on lesbian motherhood—way back in 1956. (See Daniel Winunwe Rivers’ Radical Relations, which I reviewed in the Women’s Review of Books earlier this year.)

Even the term “gayby boom”—referring to same-sex couples starting their families together—is already over two decades old, dating to at least March 1990, when Newsweek reported, “a new generation of gay parents has produced the first-ever ‘gayby boom.’” That means that many of the children from that boom are themselves now adults—while many of the first generation of out parents are becoming grandparents.

Think of it this way: the fictional Heather who had two mommies was in preschool in Lesléa Newman’s classic 1989 children’s book. If she were real, she’d now be in her late 20s.

Those who continue to insist that LGBT parents are not good for children have failed to realize that if that were true (even leaving aside the extensive social science research to the contrary), there would be many more maladjusted adults running around. Analyses from UCLA’s Williams Institute have found that currently, between 2.3 and 4 million adults have an LGBT parent. If they suffered harm because of that, someone surely would have noticed the connection by now.

As a lesbian mom, I believe that learning the history of LGBT parents and their children can also help us feel less alone, less like we are the first to face each challenge. Having confidence that others have succeeded before us can translate into confidence in our parenting skills, which in turn can positively impact our children.

Knowing the struggles—and triumphs—of LGBT parents in the past can also give us hope and strength in overcoming the challenges—legal, political, social, and emotional—that we still face.

And seeing how the early organizations for LGBT parents helped shape the overall LGBT rights movement of today (a story told in Rivers’ book and in the 2006 documentary Mom’s Apple Pie: The Heart of the Lesbian Mothers’ Custody Movement) can inspire us to keep contributing to that broader effort, even as we balance the demands of work and family.

LGBT History Month for this year may be drawing to a close, but the work of exploring our history must continue.

Dana Rudolph is the online content manager for the National SEED Project at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She is also the founder and publisher of Mombian, a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and associated newspaper column for lesbian moms and other LGBT parents. She has a BA summa cum laude from Wellesley College and an M.Phil in Modern History from Oxford University.

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Women's Review of Books: Now We Are Thirty

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Reprinted from the January/ February 2013 Women's Review of Books.

Longevity, I tell people who compliment me on my age (sixty) and youthful (apparently) looks, is not a sign of virtue. In my case, it’s simply dumb luck: a combination of good genes, a middle-class upbringing, and a job that provides me with health insurance. Yet for a small-circulation, special-interest publication like Women’s Review of Books, reaching a great age is an achievement. The year WRB was founded, 1983, was a boom time for feminist publishing—of books, newspapers, magazines, and journals, as well as ’zines, leaflets, manifestos, and graffiti. Little of that survives, but Women’s Review of Books is still hanging on.

I attribute this to many factors. For one thing, WRB is, for better or worse, still necessary. Disgracefully, even after forty years of the contemporary women’s movement, feminist scholarship and critical analysis, and women’s creative writing, receive little more attention in the mainstream media in 2013 than they did in 1983. Unlike in 1983, when WRB and our sister publications could cover just about every feminist work that appeared, these days university, small, and even trade publishers are releasing an outpouring of interesting, challenging, original books by women. Yet most of this is ignored by daily newspapers, glossy magazines, and book review publications like the New York Review of Books. When it’s not ignored, it’s often treated fleetingly or dismissively: and the well-deserved prizes and recognition that writers like Joan Didion (an NYRB regular), Adrienne Rich (lauded more enthusiastically after her death last year than she often was in life), or Louise Erdrich (winner of this year’s National Book Award) do not mitigate the situation. WRB is just about the only place where you’ll find long-form, review-essays by expert, excellent writers that thoughtfully consider the newest women’s studies scholarship and analysis. I’m regularly surprised by the lack of overlap between WRB’s coverage and that in the New York Times, for example. And WRB is by no means comprehensive: we do what we can in six issues per year, 32 pages per issue. There are a lot of worthy books out there that we miss, and getting old doesn’t mean we are getting complacent. We are always striving to do better.

Secondly, like me, Women’s Review of Books has been lucky in its parentage. Since we were founded, by Wellesley College Professor Linda Gardiner, we have been housed at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW), a gender-focused, research and action organization located at the college. WCW not only provides office space, computers, and other invaluable infrastructure; the organization has also come to our rescue during financial crises, offered personal support to the staff, and cheered on our accomplishments. In 2005, when we had to suspend blogpullquoteWRB WeAreThirtypublication because we had, basically, run out of money, WCW partnered with Old City Publishing, a publisher of scholarly journals, to get Women’s Review of Books back on our feet and to restructure financially.

Since WRB’s founding, we have been developing an extensive network of writers and informal advisors among feminist scholars, activists, and journalists. As a result, as editor, I can always find a writer to say something interesting, intelligent, and even illuminating about any book we decide to assign. The journal’s reputation is such that I’ve discovered I can cold call just about any feminist, no matter how exalted, and she will take seriously my invitation to review for us.

Of course, this is in part because at WRB, our terrific writers encounter a high-quality audience of activists and avid readers, one that appreciates their ideas, grapples with them, applies them in the world, and even extends them further.

So, the sources of WRB’s fountain of youth have been our relevant mission and the support of our parent organizations, our writers, and our audience. Perhaps one day a book review publication dedicated to women’s studies and creative writing will no longer be necessary—but until then, Women’s Review of Books is here to stay.

Amy Hoffman, MFA, is editor-in-chief of the Women’s Review of Books at Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. A writer and community activist, her newest book, the memoir entitled Lies About My Family, will be published this spring by the University of Massachusetts Press.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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