Engaging a Writer’s Emotional Awareness

I often find when I become interested in a topic, I develop an urgency that seems to take over and distract me from potentially important things going on around me. For instance, laundry, dishes, a sibling argument. Sometimes I am so immersed in a topic of reading, watching, or listening that it feels nearly impossible to pull myself away for fear of losing my momentum of thought. I recognize this in myself. These topics–engagement, immersion, urgency–they’ve been on my mind a lot the past couple of years. 

I’ve dedicated a large part of my life to children and their development since I began working alongside educators and learners in 1997. My awareness of the importance of engagement and what it looks like hasn’t always been at the forefront of my every move as a teacher. It has, however, become my intention to put it at the forefront of every decision I make as a teacher. As I read, listen, and think across the importance of engagement, I have been drawn toward the network and connections associated with students’ ability to be self-aware of their social-emotional being and my awareness of how this impacts their learning. I recently found myself on a journey of discovery and was reminded of how engagement feels personally. As well as how much I desire to recreate this for my students as both writers and as learners. 

The journey restarted when I found myself repeatedly reading a section in Engaging Children by Ellin Oliver Keene, particularly page 107 where she quotes Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, an affective neuroscientist and educational psychologist, from the article titled, “We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education.” 

The quote reads:

The neurobiological evidence suggests that the aspects of cognition that we recruit most heavily in schools, namely learning, attention, memory, decision making, and social functioning, are both profoundly affected by and subsumed within the processes of emotion.

Now, if your brain hurts a little already, stay with me a minute. I realize it’s Monday, and we may not all be ready to dip our toe into neuroscience. That’s just it, though, as teachers, we are there whether we know it or not. We are observing, initiating, and creating experiences every day that become catalysts for brain activity. 

Ellin Oliver Keene later poses multiple questions related to whose job it is to help students become aware of their emotions and the role of their complexity in the learning process. She states: 

I’m not suggesting that we discuss emotion for emotion’s sake, but that we help students realize that they can understand more deeply, remember, and reapply more effectively when they learn to ask this simple question of themselves: What do I feel? Children can be taught and subsequently can choose to invoke that question as a way to enhance their learning across the content areas, and not incidentally, reengage with that content (p. 124).

As I think about the connections this has to writing, I can picture students. The students who get stuck. The ones who have made up their mind about writing. Those who don’t believe they have stories. Learning? Progress? Success? We already know emotions play a part, but what part? 

I wanted to share some progressive resources that will potentially provoke some thinking for you as a teacher of writers and learners. Read, watch, think, and listen. Perhaps they will stir new thinking for you and the writers you work to engage each day.


“We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education” By Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio





“Brain Images Used to Tease Out How Top Teachers Connect With Students”