Guest Post: The Value of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in the Wake of the Pandemic by Laura Shovan

Today, we have a guest post from Laura Shovan regarding social emotional learning in the wake of the pandemic. Shovan is the author of Welcome to Monsterville. Before we get to her guest post, let’s learn more about her new poetry book to help young readers with their emotions.

Please welcome Laura Shovan:

I don’t remember when I began transcribing quotes about writing and creativity onto index cards. Long enough ago that I now have my own, customized version of a Page-a-Day desk calendar, hold the cat trivia. (If you’re curious, I often post the cards on my Instagram account.)

Some of the quotes are from colleagues: “A poem returns us to curiosity,” according to Steven
Leyva, who became editor of the journal Little Patuxent Review when I stepped down. Some are reminders that, as poets, our greatest tool is observation: “Let us come alive to the splendor that is all around us and see the beauty in ordinary things,” said theologian and poet Thomas Merton.

Today, the card on the top of my deck is from writer Bonnie Friedman. “You might begin by trusting what your own psyche is telling you, the shapes and images and emblems that flash up.

They may point to a larger truth,” she writes in her essay “What Happens When I Don’t Understand My Own Novel? Bonnie Friedman on Taking Clues From Your Own Manuscript.”

Trusting your own psyche. That’s the stuff of social emotional learning.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes” to do such things as develop a healthy sense of self, demonstrate empathy toward others, and manage emotions. Poetry has always been part of my SEL toolbox. Writing was how I processed experiences as a child. I recorded events, observations, and emotions in order to understand and manage them. That is still part of my writing practice today.

But what happens when that processing gets weird? When, as Friedman says, unexpected shapes flash up? Over time, I’ve learned to trust “Where did that come from?” moments, to follow them into the forest and see where they lead.

A few years ago, poet and avid bicyclist Michael Ratcliffe pulled ten words from an article about Maryland’s Bicycle Master Plan. The challenge: incorporate the words into a poem. The words were: around, bicycle, conceive, detail, exercise, four, grants, huge, interest, and juggling. While my initial draft was focused on squeezing in the vocabulary Mike had selected, a compelling emblem flashed across the opening lines:

I was conceived on a bicycle—
two people riding naked
around midnight, four limbs
juggling for balance.

If I followed that strange image, what might I learn? After many drafts, here is the published
poem, as it appears on Unfortunately Lit Mag’s website.

Alternative Facts

I was conceived on a bicycle,
two unclothed human forms
riding at midnight,
four limbs juggling for balance.
The heat was huge that summer.
Tomato plants reached green fingers
out of their cages, ready to sprout arms
and drag themselves away.

There was a crash: my parents,
the bike, a row of unripe tomatoes.
Seeds and spokes broke
across the roadside. Imagine
These two young people stand up,
brush leaves from their knees,
restart that naked bike ride,
pedals pumping. Watch them
sink into the dark
while I slip away with the truth.

Underneath the nudity, awkward sex, and squashed tomatoes, this poem is about truth and lies. For me, it speaks to growing up with parents who mythologized our family life. The couple in the poem work together, spinning a fable where they create a happy family that doesn’t actually exist. The narrator who escapes at the poem’s conclusion is me—the child who views the facts of this family’s origins with a sense of clarity.

My latest collection of poems, Welcome to Monsterville, would not have been written without trusting not only my own psyche, but my collaborator’s as well.

My dear friend, the late poet and activist Michael Rothenberg, was unable to write. It was 2020 and he was in a state of deep grief after the death of his only child. The only creative outlet where he found solace was art therapy. Michael’s abstract illustrations were all “shapes and images and emblems.” That changed the day he sent me a drawing of a blue-jean colored, bulbous, bubble-blowing creature. To brighten Michael’s day, I wrote a poem about the monster, made a voice recording, and sent it back.

Over the next several months, the monster drawings kept coming. Through the poems I wrote in response, Michael felt I was doing something he could not—at least not in that moment. I was translating what his psyche, what those monsters, were trying to express.

With Michael’s whimsical, strange creatures as prompts, I had no choice but to let go and trust the images (and sometimes, even the nonsense words) that emerged as I was writing. As a result, the creatures in Welcome to Monsterville speak to outsized emotions. A monster called “Bubblegum Head” has an epic tantrum. A trio of rooster-like monsters terrorize a chicken coop until their true nature is recognized. The poems explore self-love, empathy, and grief.

Perhaps it was this monster’s third eye that led me down the path to a poem. The mountains there show up in the first line. And there was something about the compression in this image—most of Michael’s other monsters have arms, legs, tails—that spoke to solitude.

This was one of those rare poems that arrived on the page in its finished form.

The Monster of Costavablink

High on a mountain
called Costavablink,
there lives a shy monster
who knows how to shrink.

Disguising herself
as a round, speckled pebble,
she holds in her breath
and tries not to tremble
when humans pass by
on their bikes, in their cars,
hiking and shouting,
ignoring the stars.
She waits till they’re gone,
then with a soft sigh
she grows herself huge
and opens one eye.

High on a mountain
called Costavablink
a monster needs quiet
and starlight to think.

Michael passed away in November. I am still processing the larger truths of that loss.
Collaborating with him taught me, as Bonnie Friedman also says in her essay, “there is
something beyond your own conceptualization of reality. There are other resources, some of
them already inside you.”

Thank you, Laura, for sharing this with us. We all face these kinds of losses, and we wish you well.

About the Author:

Laura Shovan is a novelist, educator, and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. Her work appears in journals and anthologies for children and adults. Laura’s award-winning middle grade novels include “The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary,” “Takedown,” and the Sydney Taylor Notable A “Place at the Table,” written with Saadia Faruqi. An honors graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (BFA Dramatic Writing) and Montclair State University (Master of Arts, Teaching), Laura is a longtime Maryland State Arts Council Artist-in-Education, conducting school poetry residencies. She teaches for Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. To learn more about her life and work, visit: www.laurashovan.com