Build Brains by Building Relationships This February!

Newsflash: Learning happens in the brain! And, brains need other brains to learn! Human brains do, at least, along with many other species, like fruit flies, elephants, and dolphins. In fact, every single person you’ll meet this February has a human brain that is seeking to learn and connect.

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Practices Foster Connection and Learning

As Zaretta Hammond says, “relationships are the on-ramp to learning;” and, more and more research backs this up. For instance, oxytocin is a chemical in the brain that is associated with positive social relationships and feelings of trust and connectedness. Studies show that systems and practices that foster relationship-building within the classroom community increase oxytocin levels for all involved. Why is this important? Well, it’s because increased positive connections in educational environments result in deeper, more authentic learning.

 

Relationship-building practices that increase oxytocin aren’t just for the classroom, either. Adults who experience positive social connection among colleagues are better able to hear and act on constructive feedback, generally perform better in the workplace, and experience a host of beneficial physiological effects. We know this intuitively, and with new developments in the ability to study the living brain, scientists are able to produce more and more research to confirm how true it is.

 

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Relationship Building Resources

Our February theme of relationship-building invites educational communities to establish and grow practices that foster trust, connection and learning.  How do we do it? Together, of course! Check out these resources for some great ideas:

 

 

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How are you building relationships?

February traditionally is all about Valentine hearts; let’s raise the bar and launch a year-round campaign to increase heart-full, authentic, and connected learning communities in education. From a literal and physical perspective, February is American Heart Health Month – the one beating in your chest right now! Taking care of your heart means moving more, stressing less, and practicing intentional self-care and self-compassion.  One way to do all of those healthy heart things is to cultivate positive, supportive relationships professionally and personally. February is also Black History Month; instead of just one month, let’s commit to creating welcoming, culturally-responsive educational environments where all students are truly seen, heard and respected all year long. What are you doing out there in the world to build positive relationships, boost oxytocin and be culturally responsive? Let us know in the comments! Or, tweet @austinisdsel using #AISDgot♥!

Austin ISD Circles Up!

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This image represents a harm-focused, reactive approach popularized by the Criminal Justice System. Austin ISD is taking a proactive, education-focused whole child, whole adult, whole community approach to Restorative Practices. #RPAustinISD

Austin ISD is planning for a Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices (RP) approach in its schools. The district recognizes  the need to address systemic inequities and improve campus climates and cultural proficiency. The faculty, staff and administrators in the Akins vertical team, for example, have received basic training in Culturally Responsive RP to begin their restorative journey. Other schools around the district are exploring community-building circles in classrooms and with faculty and staff to deepen connectedness and build campus culture.  So what exactly are Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices, and how do they fit into our district’s push to increase student voice, close achievement gaps, and address disciplinary action inequities?

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In Austin ISD, Culturally Responsive RP are rooted in these Core Assumptions for the whole child and whole adult:

THE TRUE SELF IN EVERYONE IS GOOD, WISE AND POWERFUL

The core self may not be reflected in how people behave, but beneath the masks we adopt is a deeper, healthier self.

THE WORLD IS PROFOUNDLY INTERCONNECTED

What we do to others, we are also doing to ourselves although we may not always be aware that this happening.

ALL HUMAN BEINGS HAVE A DEEP DESIRE TO BE IN GOOD RELATIONSHIP

All people want to love and be loved and all people want to be connected.

ALL HUMANS HAVE GIFTS; EVERYONE IS NEEDED FOR WHAT THEY BRING

All gifts are indispensable to the well-being of the whole.

EVERYTHING WE NEED TO MAKE A POSITIVE CHANGE IS ALREADY HERE

There are rich reservoirs of talent and wisdom within our communities waiting to be accessed.

HUMAN BEINGS ARE HOLISTIC

There is a connection between the mind, body, and spirit in all that we do.

WE NEED PRACTICES TO BUILD HABITS OF LIVING FROM THE CORE SELF

We need practices which help us connect to our core self so we can live in alignment with our values and build healthy relationships in families and communities.

Adapted from: “Heart of Hope Resource Guide” Suffolk University, Center for Restorative Justice Carolyn Boyes-Watson and Kay Pranis 2009

 

Because the very nature of Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices is doing it with, rather than to, an individual or community, schools exploring RP are introducing it authentically in ways that best serve that campus. Community circles are generally done with a centerpiece, to focus thoughts and words, and a passed-around talking piece, to hold space for equity of voice. However, circles can look lots of different ways!  Here are some pictures of how Restorative Practices look around our district right now.

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Ms. Polk facilitates a circle with 7th graders in her classroom at Martin Middle School.

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Secondary and elementary staff from the Discipline Alternative Learning Placement campuses debrief a professional development activity in community circles.

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Staff from the Akins Vertical Team model a community circle during an RP training (for the whole vertical team!)

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Ms. DeLaTorre at Walnut Creek Elementary facilitates a circle with her 5th graders.

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Though these pictures are from all around our district, every one of them shows people talking to each other in circles. The circle is the hallmark of Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices, which is rooted in the ancient indigenous tradition of forming circles to communicate effectively in community. Austin ISD is exploring a whole school, whole child, whole adult Culturally Responsive Approach to Restorative Practices. Although circles are the most visible piece of the process, restorative practices is #MoreThanCircles. Restorative practices provides a framework that helps us create a school culture and climate that is safe, welcoming and inclusive. The AISD Social and Emotional Learning team supports Culturally Responsive RP community-building circles. We are excited about the deep Restorative Practice work beginning in Austin ISD, and look forward to seeing it serve the social and emotional needs of all our students and staff! We are #AISDProud that we are continuously working on #AISDEquity!

Check out this Restorative Practices Twitter chat from December 2016 to experience part of the larger, real conversation that is helping to move our Culturally Responsive RP journey forward. For more information about Austin ISD Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices, contact Angela Ward (cultural.proficiency@austinisd.org), who collaborated on this blog post!

 

Do Some Radical Self-Care for the Holidays!

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The end of the first semester has arrived, and the winter holidays are either in progress or fast approaching! This festive time of year can also be a rather “stress-tive” moment in our lives. There is a lot of professional and academic pressure at the end of the fall semester–grades to enter, finals, projects and papers due, data to analyze, goals to set for the spring.  There’s social pressure too…gifts to buy, meals to cook, events to juggle, parties to attend, family gatherings. Just those “regular” stressors are enough to often cause exhaustion and burn-out. And for some folks, additional factors like Seasonal Depressive Disorder, grief, anxiety, and loneliness can create a particularly strong cocktail of holiday-associated negative feelings and depression. Though we hope that feelings of love and happiness permeate the holiday season, it’s important to remember that all kinds of complex feelings brought up at this time of year are valid and real.

Therefore, it’s critically important that we take care of ourselves, regardless of our personal, social, academic, or professional status.  Ever seen this on an airplane safety card?

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If the adult doesn’t put the oxygen mask on first, then they might pass out and be unable to help anyone else.  It’s a beautiful example of how taking care of ourselves is a crucial piece of being able to take care of others in our lives. Almost every relationship has an aspect of care-taking, even the ones outside the usual associated with direct care-taking, like teaching or parenting.  People in our lives often need us to show up in different ways, and if we don’t have enough self-care oxygen, it’s hard to do that. So put your own oxygen mask on!  Here are some ways to do it!

THIRTY SECONDS TO THREE MINUTES

Take three deep, intentional, cleansing breaths. Take three more. Notice how the air moves through your nose and lungs. The breath is always there, and coming back to the breath is one of the most basic, essential self-care activities that is always available.

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Notice feelings that are behind a stressed out, upset state of mind. Remember HALT–am I Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? A combination? Take a moment to observe the feelings coloring the present experience. Where do I feel them in my body? How do I know I’m feeling __________? Even say them out loud: Wow, I’m really angry right now. I’m feeling sad and frustrated right now. As Dr. Dan Siegel says, name it to tame it! (Check out his website for LOTS of ideas for self-care!)

Stretch! When was the last time you moved your body? Stand up, reach for the sky, do some gentle forward bends, roll shoulders, massage out the neck.

Kristin Neff, that perpetual champion of self-compassion, suggests that we mammals are programmed to respond positively to nurturing touch. So clasp the hands together warmly, gently squeeze opposite upper arms, hug the knees to the chest sitting down or lying on the back. Get that mammalian comfort!

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10-15 MINUTES

Take a walk, outside, no electronics. Notice all the sensory input–smells, sounds, physical sensations that come from being here now, outside. Keep breathing.

Take a warm shower!

Call someone who is a positive influence in your life, and express gratitude for them or for anything. Gratitude creates positive feelings.

Eat a mindful snack or meal. Do nothing but eat something delicious, slowly and intentionally. How does it smell? How does it look? What does it feel like in your mouth, between your teeth, on your tongue, as you swallow? How slowly can you eat each bite?

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30-60 minutes and beyond…

Exercise! Yup. A brisk walk. A yoga class. A jog. A work-out video. Dancing. Moving the body in an intentional, nurturing, even vigorous (as possible and desired) way has been shown over and over to create and increase positive feelings in the brain.

Schedule something you’ve been meaning to do for your body–a massage, or a physical, or a dentist appointment.  Our brains are part of our physical body, and so taking care of our body is taking care of our brain.

Try out a new – or revisit a favorite – creative activity, especially one that engages the hands. Knitting or playing an instrument, working with clay or play doh, painting, drawing, coloring, writing by hand–all of these and many others can help integrate the physical self and the brain, and create positive feelings. Art Works! Creativity is for everybody!

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There are many resources for self care out there, almost as many as reasons to find your favorite self-care activities and start doing them right away.  Take sweet care this holiday season, and keep your oxygen mask on…#SELfcare for the win! See you in 2017!

 

 

 

 

Post-Election Resources

American election season has always been a highly charged time, and this particular election has brought up a lot of feelings for a lot of people. School communities can feel this very deeply. Students may have many questions and big worries, and school leaders may wonder how to support them and ensure that their campus remains a safe, welcoming and inclusive learning environment.  Students have the right to feel safe at their schools, and it’s the job of the adults on campus to create and maintain that culture of safety.

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This article from Teaching Tolerance discusses how teachers can help students process their feelings and concerns regarding the outcome of the election, while maintaining a safe, welcoming and inclusive classroom environment.

Here is Austin ISD’s district anti-harassment and discrimination policy, and our anti-bullying policy. School leaders can use these as a basis to ensure that any kind of hateful acts or language are met with swift and unequivocal administrative action.

Here is a lesson designed with middle school students in mind that can be adapted to class time constraints and needs.  Learning intentions include helping students understand how the three branches of the United States government check and balance each other, and inviting students to share their views, concerns, and voices for the next president in respectful, powerful ways.

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Young people on campuses may be worried about issues surrounding immigration and deportation. Resources that schools might share with students and families include:

American Gateways, which “provides free and low-cost legal services and education to promote justice for immigrants and refugees in Central Texas.”

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which also distributes these Red Cards so that families can know their legal rights under the US Constitution, which apply to everyone currently in the United States regardless of immigration status.

The Immigrant Defense Project, which works to protect and expand the rights of all immigrants.

Catholic Charities of Central Texas and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid also provide free and low-cost legal aid to immigrant families.

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When educators, school leaders and communities pull together for safe educational environments, our children thrive and learn.  Thank you for being safeguards of learning and powerful allies to AISD students and families. We are #AISDProud of all our students, and #AllMeansAll, all the time!

 

T.A. Brown Elementary School is a Resilient Education Family!

When our district discovered that T.A. Brown Elementary School’s building was not structurally safe, our leaders had to move quickly to ensure that teaching and learning could continue with as little disruption as possible. Reilly Elementary opened their arms and school to T.A. Brown’s Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten students and staff unreservedly,  and Allan Elementary gladly made space for 1st-5th grades, just like it did for the Palm Elementary community last year. However, change is rarely easy, and big change involving physically moving all the stuff and people away from a beloved building for the rest of the year can cause lots of big feelings!

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T.A. Brown students and staff pulled together as a resilient education family to weather the storm of changing locales, and community partners and district resources rushed to help take care of them. Social and Emotional Learning Specialists partnered with elementary counselors from across the district to lead a special lesson on the first day in all the T.A. Brown classes at Reilly and Allan, working with students and teachers to process feelings, share hopes, and reinforce the strong education family ties that keep the T.A. Brown community together through thick and thin.

leadersThis slideshow features photos from the first day of T.A. Brown at Allan and Reilly. Community partners and district employees enthusiastically helped teachers move their classrooms into the new spaces and provided lunch for them. Students and teachers participated in community circles and created paper name chains of support and connection to decorate their new classrooms. School leaders and collaborators greeted students and teachers at the door with balloons and welcoming signs.  We are so #AISDProud of the T.A. Brown resilient community of learners!

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SEL: It’s a Big (Data) Deal

Austin ISD’s Social and Emotional Learning plan was recently cited in a grant guidance report from the Department of Education. Yes, the national Department of Education, dot gov. Know why? Because research keeps rolling in on multiple levels, showing that what we are doing really, really works for students. From the federal report:

SPOTLIGHT: Many schools are incorporating SEL into their programs and services. For example, the Austin Independent School District (AISD) has succeeded in developing a model for systematic and systemic SEL for all of its 83,600 students focused on four core practices: explicit skills instruction, SEL integration, school climate and culture, and family and community engagement. SEL coaches are deployed throughout the system to support implementation of SEL.  Using a vertical structure, Austin started with two high schools and their feeder schools. As of 2015-16, all 130 schools in the district are receiving professional development in implementing SEL. Evidence-based SEL programs are one important part of AISD’s implementation strategy. Elementary and middle schools are using explicit instructional materials and lessons are generally taught weekly by the classroom teacher and reinforced and integrated into instruction in all areas of the school. In several high schools, ninth-graders attend a Methods for Academic and Personal Success (MAPS) class to develop skills to help with their transition to high school.  Results show those teachers’ ratings of their 3rd grade students’ SEL competencies were positively related to students’ performance in STAAR reading and math. Also, secondary schools with more years in SEL showed greater improvement in attendance and greater reduction in campus discretionary removals than did schools with no years in SEL.

This spotlight highlighting our work appears as an example for educational communities interested in applying for a federal grant to build Social and Emotional Learning programs. Our district’s process and structure for Social and Emotional Learning is held up as a beacon to others wishing to begin or deepen their own SEL journey, because our leadership has had faith in what solid research is starting to show: it is the equal teaching of SEL skills and academic skills that grows students into whole, educated, contributing members of society.

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The faith factor is important, because the field of SEL in education is relatively new, and longitudinal research is only just beginning to show concrete evidence of positive impacts. Of course, teachers teaching Social and Emotional Learning skills to their students is as old as humanity itself. However, defining the nature of social and emotional skills, exploring how to teach them effectively, devoting significant resources to high-quality systemic implementation, and scientifically evaluating that implementation, takes a lot of time. More time, in fact, than the current educational system is traditionally willing to devote to a focus largely considered “non-academic.” While often various educational interventions and initiatives are expected to demonstrate positive student results within a year or two, “Research on systemic efforts in education suggest that this process takes a minimum of 5–7 years to realize impact at the student level (Aladjem et al., 2006; Borman, Hewes, Overman, & Brown, 2003).” Austin ISD is just now getting to our 6th year of SEL implementation, and indeed, we are starting to see positive outcomes.

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Our district’s most recent internal evaluation of our innovative SEL work has shown several important improvements.  For example:

–Secondary schools (middle and high schools) have experienced a reduction in the number of official disciplinary actions taken on students (like suspensions in-school or out-of-school, or removals to an alternative campus);

–Both elementary and secondary schools experienced a reduction in the number of students who are absent 15 or more days during the school year (chronic absenteeism);

–Students on all levels have self-reported feeling safer at school on district-wide surveys;

–Schools with high levels of SEL implementation have seen significant improvements in math and reading standardized test scores.

Check out the research brief and full report for even more SEL data on the good work we’re doing!

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These results are consistent with recent findings on the national level. Transforming Education, an organization devoted to supporting Social and Emotional Learning at district, state and federal policy levels, recently published a working paper giving the “Research Case for Education Policy Action on Non-Cognitive Skills.” (‘Non-cognitive skills’ is another term for Social and Emotional Learning, akin to ‘soft skills,’ or ’21st Century skills.’ Transforming Education refers to these skills as “MESH,” or “Mindsets, Essential Skills, and Habits.”) They posit the following nine assertions, supported by data from several large national longitudinal studies:

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With national data to back up each one of these compelling statements, Transform Education offers a look at the larger picture supported by our own local data: teaching SEL skills puts students on track to positive adult outcomes.

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The Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) keeps tabs on national research around SEL, and recently cited a report from the American Enterprise Institute and and Brookings Institution about the impact of Social and Emotional Learning on Equity and Poverty:

This report was developed by a group of bipartisan experts who agreed to set aside their differences and create a detailed plan for reducing poverty and increasing economic mobility. The authors noted that major educational and school reforms over the past few decades have not sufficiently focused on the SEL factors that are necessary to education, employment, and family life. The report also recommends an effort to scale up high-quality, evidence-based SEL programs as a core component of education for children. It made three recommendations to the federal and state governments:

(1) scale evidence-based SEL practices and policies;

(2) implement high-quality state SEL standards, preschool through high school; and

(3) establish SEL centers of excellence.

Our very own Austin ISD has done concrete work on each of those three recommendations so critical to improving economic equity and addressing the national poverty crisis, according to this bipartisan report. We already use evidence-based SEL curricula and practices, and we are exploring even more. We wrote high-quality SEL standards in collaboration with teachers and stakeholders that are already being incorporated into district core content curricula and exemplar lessons. And we established a “SEL Demonstration School” designation, inviting schools who have truly adopted SEL as a campus culture and driving force to show off their structures within the district and around the country. We are truly on the leading edge of transformative SEL work!

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Due to Austin ISD’s dedication to broad high-quality implementation of Social and Emotional Learning, we are using the most recent data-driven findings to serve our 86,300 students. We are also contributing to the growing body of research on how SEL skills taught in public school positively affect individuals and society as a whole. We are #AISDProud to be leaders in the national Social and Emotional Learning movement!

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Other references and research articles of interest:

CASEL/NoVo Collaborating Districts Initiative: 2015 Cross District Outcome Evaluation Report: Executive Summary

Previous Blog Post: Data Backs our SEL Movement

Previous Blog Post: New Year SEL Research Round Up

 

 

 

 

#AISDProud of #AISDPride

Last week (Oct. 10th-14th), Austin ISD celebrated its annual AISD Pride Week, timed to coincide with National Coming Out Day on October 11th. Once again, schools from all over our city showed up to celebrate and honor the LBGTQ+ faculty, staff, students and families that are members of our vibrant education community!

The Akins High School Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA-formerly Gay Straight Alliance) started mass producing ally stickers and buttons for distribution across the entire campus!

Reagan High School teachers and students filled the #AISDPride photobooth in the library.

Consuelo Mendez Middle School students created a pledge committing to help generate a safe, respectful, and welcoming environment for all, and got as many of their peers to sign it as possible–resulting in hundreds of signatures collected and courtyard lunch privileges! 8th Grader Corey collected 74 signatures just by himself.

Cowan Elementary made a welcoming billboard full of love for the school community…

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And Patton Elementary had their own bilingual display of love and welcome!

These four schools are just a few glowing examples of how AISD showed our pride!  Twitter blew up with all kinds of celebrations of AISD Pride Week:

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We are #AISDProud of our school district working to serve and celebrate our whole community in all its beautiful diversity…#AllMeansAll!