Last week in our “SEL in Action!” series, we explored the Social and Emotional Learning opportunities inherent in football. We spoke with a high school administrator who has taken his coaching and player experience into his academic leadership role, and a Social and Emotional Learning Specialist whose administrative work and current position continue to be informed by his history as an athlete and coach. This past week I had the chance to spend some quality time with some quality coach-educators at Consuelo Mendez Middle School, and let me tell y’all, the SEL happening over in Maverick Land is exemplary.
Michelle Friede (back-center, pink shirt/shoe!) is not only the long-time dance coach at Consuelo Mendez–she also happens to be the Social and Emotional Learning Facilitator on campus, so she knows a thing or two about SEL. Stand in her gym for five seconds, and you can feel the relationship-building work and positive, safe environment she has built. Dance class is not easy; not only is it challenging physical exercise, it also requires huge confidence and risk-taking as one learns new body movements and practices them in front of peers and teacher. For dance instruction to progress, it is critical that each dancer feels safe in the gym and connected to each other and the coach–this is no place to fear mistakes, criticism or ridicule. Friede says that the success she enjoys with her classes flows from the positive, process-based focus she models for and instills in each participant. By pointing out the hard work and genuine effort they display in each stage of learning a new move or choreography, she is able to inspire her students to accomplish advanced, complex pieces. When I (an unusual presence in the gym) asked to take a picture for this post, Friede called to her 6th graders, “OK girls, let’s strike that final pose!” Every young lady enthusiastically ran to her spot and fearlessly struck that final pose, Friede right there on the floor with them. The fact that these young people had the confidence in themselves and trust in their instructor to spontaneously perform for a near-stranger speaks volumes about the Social and Emotional Learning happening in dance class at Mendez.
When I asked for anecdotes about extracurricular SEL while hanging out in the instructional coaches’ office, Roxanne Walker, the literacy specialist, delightedly brought up the running club that has evolved out of a homegrown teacher-student mentoring program. Ms. Walker said this club came to be when the teacher mentors, including herself, listened to their students’ budding interest in running, and agreed to challenge themselves (even if they weren’t runners before!) while encouraging their “mentee’s” engagement. Simply called “Running Club,” about 12 students and their teacher mentors have started training for 5k races after school, and participating in various weekend running events around town. Ms. Walker told me that the sometimes difficult relationships between these teachers and students began to change for the better, as students felt that adults were hearing their voices and striving to meet their needs for positive connection and belonging. These new attitudes learned and practiced in after-school Running Club have spilled over into the school day, where teachers and students use their positive connection skills to heal and improve relationships and create a safer, more trusting culture within the classroom and school. The picture above shows Consuelo Mendez middle schoolers and teachers getting close to the finish line in a recent 5k. The English Language Arts teacher in black in the middle, Ms. Helmink, finished the race with these students, then jogged back into the race to cross the finish line with the rest of the student participants. Talk about building a culture of belonging and connectedness!
Speaking of belonging and connectedness, this 8th grade ELA teacher, Ms. Michelle Thomas, knows first-hand how critical those components are in building a winning team and a winning classroom. As a sophomore at Texas Tech university, Thomas and her team rose to win the 1993 NCAA Women’s Division I Tournament, earning the Red Raiders their first NCAA title. In addition to her basketball prowess, Thomas was an academic all-star at Texas Tech–she completed her bachelor’s with a major in English and went on to earn her law degree, both proudly displayed alongside the Red Raider basketball swag. Her background of elite athleticism combined with her commitment to academic success has given her a unique social and emotional learning lens, which she uses to create a palpable culture of trust, belonging, and connectedness in her classroom.
As students come into the room, they deposit their backpacks in a corner and find their seats. Ms. Thomas runs down the agenda for the day, and a student passes out the books for an ongoing novel study. They take turns reading paragraphs from the chapter, each reader trying his or her best with occasional help or word of encouragement from Ms. Thomas. She then facilitates a full-class discussion of the reading, addressing each student respectfully as “Mr. Martinez” or “Ms. Smith.” As class members give thoughtful answers to the questions she presents, she addresses the whole class: “…And what do we say?” The class turns to the student who answered and says, in unison and with feeling, “Good Job!!” Partner work is next, and Ms. Thomas answers questions as they arise with encouragement and an easy smile–the students feel comfortable asking for help, and everyone is engaged. And finally, in the last few minutes of class, pencils are put down, books are collected: it’s time for the Class Motto and Jammy Jam.
Ms. Thomas told me that her experiences on a winning team inform her teaching practice every day. She understands the importance of building positive relationships with each individual student, between individual students, and between herself and the class as a whole, much as her college basketball coaches did. She says that she tries to “teach like a coach.” She uses predictable routines and daily “rituals” like the Class Motto and Jammy Jam to reinforce the class culture of safety and connectedness, and she strives to attend to each student’s academic and emotional needs, because the class “team” depends on the academic and emotional strength of each individual member to effectively learn and thrive. So at the end of class, Ms. Thomas and every student stands up and recites together the Class Motto in one strong voice: “Shoot for the moon! Even if you miss, you will land among the stars!” And then, of course, the Jammy Jam:
‘Nuff said. Thanks for being so SEL awesome, Consuelo Mendez Middle School! Tune in next week for more SEL, sports, and extracurriculars!