School Year 20-21: Bring It On!

School would have started August 18, but it didn’t, and we all know why: Covid-19, the novel corona virus that has wreaked havoc and taken lives and livelihoods across the globe, is still in full swing. For the safety of everyone, and to give educators and district leaders the chance to organize high-quality virtual learning experiences for every single student, school will now start on September 8.

Creating Virtual Space for Community

Austin ISD has publicly committed to creating safe, inclusive, culturally responsive, academically engaging, and equitable learning environments, and now we’re navigating the logistics of doing that virtually. Luckily, as we highlighted back in April, educators are some of the most resourceful and creative people in the world. Teachers and school leaders all over our district have been working literally to around the clock get ready to welcome students back virtually, and are finding novel, intentional ways to foster connection and community in their learning spaces:

Ultimately, as we all move through this historical moment together, the goal is to create space in our learning environments to encourage story telling: building community creates brave space in which learners can tell their stories, and hear the stories of others. In the article “Strengthening Resilience Through the Power of Story,” the author discusses how

Stories — both sharing our perception of experiences and listening to those of others — are at the heart of working this [resilience] muscle, and not just for kids. Through story, we can come to terms with, and make meaning of what happened and must be faced, and this applies to people of any age.

Though it was written in 2017, the concept of using story-telling to help each other make meaning of what is happening in our world right now has never been more relevant. The article also shares some rich ideas for story-telling in the learning environment for both students and adult learners, with the ultimate goal of building resilience, increasing empathy, and deepening communal connection.

The richest resource we have to navigate this uncharted educational territory is the lived experiences, expertise, and compassion of the talented professional educators in our district. How are you making space for stories in your learning environment? How are you building community during distance learning? What stories are giving you hope? We want to hear how you’re doing out there, as we move through this shared reality. School Year 20-21, bring it on!

Leave us a comment here, or tag us on social media @austinisdsel! #WeAreSEL #InThisTogether

SEL Seed Model Campuses Shared at Symposium 2020!

Congratulations to our 72 Seed Model Campuses who presented at our SEL Symposium 2020: Creating Everyday Brave Spaces! Being a Seed Model Campus means setting concrete SMART goals and working toward deeper, systemic Social and Emotional Learning implementation, hosting tours from leaders and educators from around Texas and the nation, and presenting at the annual SEL Symposium.

Seed Model status means being open to vulnerability, and showing the process of deepening social and emotional learning through integration and implementation on a campus – in all its sometimes messy, sometimes frustrating, always transformative glory. Check out the Seed Model Campus Symposium 2020 BLEND Course to see some of the incredible work from these schools!

Even though school year 2019-2020 got interrupted in a most unprecedented way by novel virus COVID-19, Seed Model Campuses pivoted with agility to apply their SMART implementation goals to suit a new virtual learning environment. They applied these new skills to their presentations at our Symposium too, showing up with live, facilitated sessions and panels, EdTalks, and written statements exploring their challenges and successes. We are so happy to recognize the incredible 2020 Seed Model Campuses!

Thank you all for all your hard work – you rocked it, even under such strange circumstances. Are you a member of one of these Seed Model Campus educational communities? What has your experience been? Leave us a comment, and tag us @austinisdsel on social media! Thank you for your essential role in helping move equity-centered Social and Emotional Learning work forward in Austin ISD!

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.

AND THEN… THINGS CHANGED.

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!

May Oh My: Time to SELebrate!

As strange as it’s been lately, there is a LOT to SEL-ebrate!

For starters, we see you out there growing your SEL competencies! Understandably, we all have had to do a lot of growing in our self-awareness in order to do the self-management necessary to stay socially aware in times of spatial distancing. We’ve also had the opportunity to practice new ways of building and maintaining relationships, while managing work, possible parenting and household responsibilities, all taking our executive functioning to the next level. And, in order to accomplish everything on our plates right now, it’s imperative to make responsible decisions around time, resources and health/safety management.

That’s right, y’all! We are really working the whole SEL wheel right now. And, for some of us, we’re practicing our competencies in ways we may have never explored before. Now, THAT IS WORTH CELEBRATING!

We’re in this together!

When it comes to the foundation of our SEL wheel, our Austin ISD teachers and support staff are out there inventing new ways to create safe, culturally responsive, academically engaging, and equitable learning environments – WITHOUT ACTUAL CLASSROOMS. The district has devised a locally curated AISD Learning At-Home resource, supplemented and supported by our very own department’s SEL At-Home site. We are also distributing printed materials and technology to families, to increase access and help provide continuous learning while we practice spatial distancing. Additionally, district staff, community members, volunteers, and donors from across our city have ensured that families continue to get healthy food and resources.

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay 

May is traditionally Teacher Appreciation Month, and this May of all Mays is a unique time to appreciate our teachers and educators who have worked so hard to provide not just innovative academic content, but genuine care, connection and help for students and families. Follow #ThankYouTeacherStories and add your own all week this week [May 4th-May 8th] to celebrate Austin ISD educators!

Of course, May is also the last month of school before summer break, and traditionally time for classrooms full of students and teachers to celebrate their learning and accomplishments over the course of the school year. Sure, 2019-2020 got interrupted in that regard, but teachers and students are always coming up with innovative ways to celebrate and connect with each other!

We encourage you to take a moment to pause, recognize, and appreciate ourselves and those around us.

What are you doing to SELebrate yourself, your students, your school, or anything these days? How have you appreciated an educator lately? Let us know in the comments, and tag us on social media @austinisdsel! Even though we are spatially distanced, we sure appreciate the education journey we are privileged to share with all y’all. Thank you for you!

Making Responsible Decisions in Uncertain Times

Responsible decision-making skills, aligned with closely-related executive functioning skills, help us stay grounded in our core values and beliefs as we move through times of uncertainty. For many, many people all around the world, 2020 has been an historic, unprecedented anxious time, filled with disruption and uncertainty.

Rooting Down, Staying Connected

When our department first met to discuss our response and responsibilities around the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Angela Ward, administrative supervisor of AISD’s cultural proficiency and inclusiveness team, suggested that we use “spatial distancing” instead of “social distancing” when we talk about the critical practice of staying physically away from other people during this time. In a time when we might find ourselves feeling quite physically isolated from our friends, families, loved ones, colleagues, and neighbors, meaningful social connection across the safe distances becomes more important than ever. Our human mammal brains are wired to be social, and a forced loss of “togetherness” can result in unique discomfort – indeed, in an interview with the Harvard Business Review, grief expert David Kessler says:

The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.

Responsible decision-making for us as individuals and for our community leaders in the current context compels us to practice spatial distancing from one another in order to slow the spread and damage of the novel coronavirus. As we collectively grieve the loss of our regular routines and movement through life for awhile, another responsible decision we can make for ourselves is to find creative ways to stay socially connected and practice radical self-care.

Concrete Connections

Luckily, humans – especially educators! – are a scrappy, innovative bunch, and already there are myriad tools and resources available out there to help us maintain crucial social connection while we’re spatially distanced!

  • Before delving into the content of any kind of organized collective learning experience or meeting, welcoming rituals invite connection and trust building. This can happen online in virtual classrooms and ZOOM meetings too! Check out this Smore full of welcoming rituals to foster meaningful connections across cyberspace.
  • Lynn Lyons, a psychotherapist and Licensed, Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW), specializes in helping families and children with anxiety. She posted this 22-minute Facebook Video with lots of concrete ideas around managing the worry and anxiety families and young people may be experiencing as a result of COVID-19.
  • Our Austin ISD Mindfulness Specialist, James Butler, has once again published a timely and engaging newsletter with lots of ways to employ self-care and mindful activities, specifically for observing and coping with our experiences and feelings during this uncertain moment.

What resources and tools have helped you as a person and a professional educator lately? How have you used your responsible decision-making skills to navigate this unprecedented situation? Your experience and expertise are particularly useful to your colleagues and fellow humans during a period that can feel strange and stressful. Let us know in the comments, and tag us on social media @austinisdsel! We are here for you, we are all here for each other. Social connection in a time of spatial distancing grows hope for all of us.

MARCHing Orders: Executive Functioning!

Go ahead and put your index finger horizontally right above your eyes, straight across your brow line. It’s okay, nobody’s looking. Like this:

Got it? Great! Your index finger is less than an inch away from your frontal cortex – the seat of your executive functioning. Think about that for a moment: one inch, 2.2cm, 1/12th of a foot. Then, see if you can count how many windows are in your home by memory. Think for a moment about the last conscious decision you made, or choice to calm yourself down in a heated moment, or to-do list you wrote down, or events on your calendar. Whew! That’s a lot of cognition you just did! [Thinking = cognition] You also just did a lot of meta-cognition. [Meta-cognition = thinking ABOUT THINKING] You did all that in the executive functioning part of your brain!

You may now feel free to take your finger off your forehead.

Executive Functioning: What is it?

There are many definitions of executive functioning out there, and for our Austin ISD Social and Emotional Learning purposes, we stick to this one:

These are considered the kinds of brain functions that are unique to humans; the “higher order” cognitive activities that represent our capacity to actively make decisions based on data synthesized from our senses, emotions, and experiences. When we feel like we are thinking really hard, or when we practicing self-management, we are using our executive functioning skills; and these skills can be developed in both adults and young people!

How can we grow executive functioning functionality?

Great question! Since we are in the business of educating young people first and foremost, the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child offers this perspective:

Adults can facilitate the development of a child’s executive function skills by establishing routines, modeling social behavior, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships. It is also important for children to exercise their developing skills through activities that foster creative play and social connection, teach them how to cope with stress, involve vigorous exercise, and over time, provide opportunities for directing their own actions with decreasing adult supervision.

https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/

The Harvard CDC offers these activity guides to help educators plan for executive function development in classrooms from early childhood through adolescence! Furthermore, they even offer this guide to building adult executive functioning skills, since we’re the ones who are supposed to model these things for the young people we have the privilege of teaching. Thanks Harvard!

If you need a super concrete, quick guide to classroom systems and structures that support executive functioning, here’s a great list of 10 tools from Edvocate. And, if you’re sitting there, maybe with your finger still stuck to your eyebrows, wondering how you personally handle various aspects of executive functioning, don’t worry – here is a self-assessment that breaks it down, so we might gain some insight on our own strengths and growth areas.

[A personal aside from your devoted SEL blogger – Bullet Journaling has helped me get my own executive functions in better order! My brain needs systems, and this is a system that works for me! PLUS it gives permission to doodle, which can help some folks, like me, with focusing attention, which is – you guessed it! – an executive functioning skill.]

How do you plan to March into executive functioning this month, for your students and yourself? Let us know in the comments, and/or tag us on social media @austinisdsel! In closing, we offer the musical insight of that international expert on executive functioning, Cookie Monster, to help summarize our topic:

See y’all next month, functioning executives!

Explore Your Emotional Intelligence in February

You were wondering how to say “I love you” in four different languages from countries in Africa, weren’t you? 🙂

We are always happy to provide our readers with novel linguistic information, cheesy sonnets about self care, impassioned compassion posts and earnest treatises on the power of relationships on human [and other] brains. And this month, we shall be considering…

Emotional Intelligence! What is it?

Learning about how you connect with others, and considering how others connect with you, is working on emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is associated with the core SEL competencies of social awareness and relationship skills on our SEL wheel! Daniel Goleman coined the term “emotional intelligence” back in 1995; check out his framework!

Emotional Intelligence Applies in Many Contexts

This Positive Psychology article outlines several different emotional intelligence frameworks and skill sets for both personal and professional situations, while this Harvard Extension resource provides four curated emotional intelligence self-assessments! The Compass Points activity from The School Reform Initiative gives participants the chance to examine their emotional needs and preferences in group work situations, and is appropriate for students as well as work colleagues. And, here is a concrete compilation of resources to grow emotional intelligence in the classroom from Edutopia.

Showing Appreciation is Emotionally Intelligent!

But for all this scholarly emotional intelligence talk, it’s February after all: the month associated with expressions of appreciation and care. How about printing a set of affirmation cards to hand out to students and colleagues? Or, you could show appreciation for the world and check out Nice Things to Do, a site full of free or inexpensive ideas for to just generally doing nice things!

But Wait, There’s More!

Part of developing emotional intelligence is understanding how we move through layered perspectives, cultures and stories in a diverse society with complex socio-political and racial dynamics. That goes way beyond just commemorating black heroes and reviewing history lessons during a single month out of the year!

February, as Black History Month, offers the opportunity to consider our cultural proficiency within the context of our emotional intelligence, and examine our classroom and personal practices. Check out Zaretta Hammond’s Four Must-Haves during BHM, and consider this list of 28 concrete action items from the NAACP, one for each day of February. Also, from Zaretta Hammond comes an article warning against some classroom pitfalls during Black History Month, and providing some more ideas of how to create a welcoming and culturally-responsive classroom all year round. If you’re in Austin, consider attending Austin Justice’s Black Art Matters event to support and showcase local artists of color! And, if you’re an educator, don’t miss out on the upcoming cultural proficiency and inclusiveness trainings.

Show Us Your Emotional Intelligence!

How will you discover and grow your own emotional intelligence this month, and show appreciation for your students, colleagues, and world? Let us know in the comments, and tag us on social media @austinisdsel! We appreciate y’all!

January 2020: Be a Relationship Skills Visionary

Welcome to the 2020 Spring Semester, SEL fans! Coming back into the classroom community in January after the holiday break is the perfect time to consider our next core competency: Relationship Skills. Per CASEL:

Social Beings Learn Relationship Skills

Since humans are hard-wired to be social animals, the idea that we have to intentionally learn and practice relationship skills might seem a little bit counter-intuitive. I mean, aren’t we just in relationship naturally? Well, truth is, we participate in relationships for better and for worse! But, growing our relationship skills purposefully via our self-awareness, self-management, and social awareness can help create meaningful connections with important people in our lives. In the context of education, cultivating and modeling relationship skills in the classroom is a crucial aspect of building a safe, inclusive, culturally responsive, academically engaging, and equitable learning environment.

Growing Relationship Skills

Since the core of relationship skills is building trust, this summary of Zaretta Hammond’s ideas for tapping into the brain chemistry of connection are some concrete ways that educators can hone their own practice of relationship-building with students. And, Edutopia’s series of four video interviews with neuroscience researcher Patricia Kuhl addresses various aspects of developing relationship skills in the classroom environment. Further, this collection of practices and resources from ASCD [Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development] provides insight into classroom management, class culture-building and student-family interactions, all with a relationship skills lens.

Relationships = Learning = Human Being

Learning is an essential element of being a human, as is connecting with other humans. Therefore, teachers continue to be the visionaries for humanity, exploring how learning and relationship skills are intricately enmeshed. How will you work on your own relationship skills in 2020 and help your students to build relationships among each other? Let us know in the comments, and tag us on social media @austinisdsel! Happy New Year!

Social Consciousness Leads to Connection

Social Awareness is important for December social outings.

Happy December SEL fans, and welcome to the Fall 2019 homestretch! We invite you to explore Social Awareness with us this month, as it is perhaps the most party-full time of the year. Cultures all over the world have celebrations and festivals around the Winter Solstice and to mark our next trip around the sun. Practicing our social awareness skills can help us navigate these gatherings and prepare us for yet another year of interacting with each other!

What are these social awareness skills?

The definition from CASEL above frames our district’s work to build social awareness capacity for students and staff, and these skills are crucial in creating culturally-responsive learning environments where all students feel seen and welcome. Even beyond the classroom, social awareness skills are increasingly the most valuable professional skills around. According to Forbes, fully six of “The 12 Most Important Skills You Need to Succeed at Work” are directly related to social awareness. More than ever, companies are hiring based on capacities like leadership, communication, negotiation, and empathy. In an age where many jobs are becoming automated, it’s the people-to-people skills that require – well, highly-skilled social humans!

How can we build student and adult social awareness?

Consciousness is at the core of social awareness, and the ability to be truly present with other people, as well as with the self, can be practiced through mindfulness exercises. Empathy, perspective-taking, and cultural proficiency and responsiveness are all skills which can grow by practicing mindfulness.

Restorative practices are community building structures that support student and adult social awareness skills. Restorative community-building circles encourage deep listening to others’ stories and encourage participants to speak their own truths by creating brave spaces in which to hear and see each other. These practices have ancient indigenous roots, and are currently used in schools and other community spaces around the world to build social awareness and promote listening and healing – including here in Austin ISD!

Check out these fantastic, concrete strategies for creating a classroom practice for social awareness skills. The Parent Toolkit has a whole section dedicated to helping develop social awareness skills for each grade level, great for caregivers and educators! And, don’t miss this list of 8 Steps to Improve your Social Awareness from LinkedIn, for adults out there trying to be social in the world. Because let’s face it, we all are at some point!

Connecting and Self-Caring

If we can grow our own social awareness, and then teach and model social awareness skills for young people, we help ourselves and each other build a strong foundation for essential human connection.

How do you plan to work on social awareness skills through December and into 2020? Let us know in the comments, and tag us on social media @austinisdsel! Happy, merry everything! We encourage you to practice radical self-care this season. See you in the new year!

Cultural Proficiency and Responsiveness: Know about it in November

In Austin ISD, our definition of cultural proficiency is “…when an adult understands that their personal culture and background impacts the students they work with.” Our definition of inclusiveness is “a way of being that shows respect, understanding and acceptance; in which diversity is valued as an asset within the AISD community.” Austin ISD has made a public commitment to cultural proficiency and inclusiveness throughout our district; indeed, it is the foundation of our SEL wheel.

Cultural proficiency is an inside-out approach to examining classroom practices and educational environments; it is the professional educator’s process of examining biases and lived experiences that filter interactions with students, families and colleagues. As we grow our cultural proficiency, we can create ever more culturally responsive classroom environments; working to ensure that every student who walks into our classrooms and schools throughout our district will find safety, connection, engagement, and challenge. Per the National Equity Project‘s definition of educational equity, we strive to:

  • [Ensure] equally high outcomes for all participants in our educational system; removing the predictability of success or failures that currently correlates with any social or cultural factor
  • [Interrupt] inequitable practices, [examine] biases, and [create] inclusive multicultural school environments for adults and children
  • [Discover] and [cultivate] the unique gifts, talents and interests that every human possesses.

So, how do we do it?

Cultural proficiency is a complex personal journey, one that Austin ISD supports with a series of professional learning opportunities presented by and in collaboration with our Office of Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness. There are many relevant books that address cultural proficiency for educators, like this excellent list from the Corwin Press. And, of course, Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain offers a framework for developing classroom practices via self-reflection and a working understanding of neuroscience; check out her teaching style self-assessment chart!

Hammond also suggests classroom systems and practices that create the foundation for positive relationship building and safety. By increasing the brain’s connecting hormone, oxytocin, and decreasing its stress hormone, cortisol, we create environments conducive to learning with these trust-builders:

Want more concrete ways of building cultural responsiveness into your classroom? Check out this resource on designing a relationship-based learning environment!

Looking for more information on building cultural proficiency, increasing educational equity and actively working toward becoming an anti-racist educator?

How will you build your own cultural proficiency and increase cultural responsiveness in your own educational environment? Let us know in the comments, share your favorite resources, and tag us on social media @austinisdsel! We’re grateful for you – Happy Thanksgiving!