SEL Symposium 2020

The idea of hosting an SEL-focused peer-to-peer collaborative learning experience formed from a small but meaningful, collaborative summer gathering of SEL-focused leaders and educators in June of 2015, known as the Whole Child, Every Child Summer Learning Institute. Held at Sadler-Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy, the team who gathered in the cafeteria to debrief after the nascent event only dreamed of what the Symposium would become over the next five summers.

Growing a Symposium

2016 was the inaugural SEL Summer Symposium at McCallum High School, with 325 participants, facilitators and school leaders in attendance. We did ourselves better with even more attendees in 2017 [Akins High School] and 2018 [Austin High School], and then in 2019 [McCallum again] we topped out at around 500 participants. Amazing! Unprecedented! So many educators positively impacted by systemic social and emotional learning!

As 2020 started, we were planning for our biggest Symposium yet, once again at McCallum – SEL Symposium 2020: Creating Everyday Brave Spaces! The theme this year represented our district’s growing awareness that educational equity is central to social and emotional learning for all. Investigating how we make sure we’re creating classroom communities where all our students can show up with all their identities, and be seen, heard, and welcome, we wrote an article to crystallize our Symposium philosophy:

A brave space is not a risk-free “safe” zone; instead, it is an intentionally crafted educational environment in which learners feel both physically safe and identity safe. These are classroom and school cultures in which students can view taking learning risks as opportunities to stretch their capacity. Mistakes are welcomed as growth, and each child feels heard and seen for the unique, talented, and capable learner they are.

In other planning, we were trying to figure out how parking would work, and snacks, and technology, and all the normal stuff that you organize in preparation for an event.


The COVID-19 novel coronavirus shut down schools and the city. Shortly thereafter, the largest civil rights anti-racism movement in human history began, in the wake of gruesome videos and revelations demonstrating fatal police brutality, highlighting the systemic racism that has plagued America for 400 years.

We knew our Symposium had to go on. With the theme of Creating Everyday Brave Spaces, we publicly commit to creating anti-racist, anti-biased learning environments, which are identity-safe containers for risk-taking and learning for our students and adults. So, we made our Symposium a virtual experience.

Virtual Symposium Reality: 6/11/2020

Dr. Ault

Dr. Stacey Ault, our electrifying keynote speaker, inspired us from her home in California as we launched our day; and, powerful local artists, Riders Against the Storm, engaged us in interactive storytelling as our optimistic closing. The three hours between Dr. Ault and RAS held live, synchronous learning sessions facilitated by over 60 professional educators from our district and beyond, including sessions from our Seed Model Campuses. All sessions centered around creating learning environments in which learners can show up as their full selves in identity-safe, brave spaces.

Riders Against the Storm

In the afternoon, a self-paced online course offered more than 10 modules to continue the Symposium learning through the weekend, with content from Seed Model Campuses, SEL Specialists, and a diverse group of teachers and school leaders. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive for both the live sessions in the morning and the asynchronous sessions in the afternoon, even with the occasional ZOOM glitch or technology hiccup.

Biggest Symposium Ever

Even though pivoting to an online format was not the original plan, over ONE THOUSAND educators participated in our equity-centered SEL professional learning event! Fully one-sixth of Austin ISD teaching professionals gathered to share their experiences and expertise, pushing the capacity of the Symposium to positively impact the students and families in our district beyond our wildest imaginings. Victoria Birkeland and Angela Bailey, with support from the Symposium development team and the rest of the SEL department, pulled off a massive online undertaking in under two months.

As a department, we are humbled to get to work with the incredible equity-centered educators in our district and community. We are proud that Austin ISD is taking an unequivocal stand against racism and systems in education that oppress and silence. Together, we are working to “…[remove] the predictability of success or failures that currently correlates with any social or cultural factor” in our district, and the 2020 SEL Symposium moved that work forward in a tangible, exciting way.

Did you participate? What did you think? Have ideas for the future? Leave us a note in the comments! Also, check out the tweets from #EquityCenteredSEL and #SELSymposium to see reactions and reflections from that day. See y’all at the SEL Symposium in 2021!

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