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

 

 

 

 

Mindful Brain First-Aid for Test Season

breathing1Well, we’ve made it to Spring Test Season ’16! Students, teachers, administrators and parents experience this part of the school year in many different ways, but most would agree that it can be a high-pressure moment in our educational lives.  We all know about getting enough sleep, eating a good breakfast, and having our lucky socks and pencils on those upcoming test days, but what are some other ways we can prepare our brains and bodies to set ourselves up for success?

Practicing a bit of mindfulness at different points before and during the testing sessions can help us feel more calm and grounded, both good states to be in when we’re asking our brain to perform at high levels. What is mindfulness? How about a definition from a leading expert on it, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn:

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Notice the words “paying attention” and “non-judgementally” in particular.  The term ‘mindfulness’ is thrown around quite a bit these days, and often people think that it means working hard to make one’s brain completely empty and free of thoughts–if your brain isn’t perfectly clear and empty, you’re not doing it right!  This is simply not true, however; our brains are wired to think all the time.  Practicing mindfulness is learning to pay attention non-judgementally to all those thoughts, giving us some space and perspective to really notice and honor them.  Here’s an example of a simple mindfulness practice that can help us pay attention to our thoughts before or during a stressful testing situation…when we feel our bodies getting nervous and our brains buzzing with anxiety, try this strategy:

Describe 5 things you see in the room/area. (“The walls are light blue.” or “The trees outside the window are green and lush.”)

Name 4 things you can feel. (“My feet in my shoes, and my shoes on the floor.” or “The air in my nose.”)

Name 3 things you can hear. (“Traffic on the highway.” or “My own soft breathing.”)

Name 2 things you can smell. (“New pencil smell.” or “fabric softener.” Or remember 2 smells you really like.)

Name 1 good thing about yourself. (“I’m a thoughtful friend.” or “I’m feeling stressed, but I’m handling it.”)

Doing an exercise like this can help us take a step back from our buzzing brain, bring us back to the present moment, and allow us to gently observe and name our feelings. If we’re feeling a measure of panic or powerlessness due to test anxiety, being able to say “wow, I’m feeling pretty stressed! I can take a moment to remember where I am right now and give my brain a break” can help  us back into the thinking, logical, frontal part of our brains and out of our fear-feeling amygdala and mid-brain.  The strong feelings coming from our amygdala during stressful situations can help keep us safely out of physical and emotional danger, but it’s not the best place to stay when we’re trying to get our brains to work logically!

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One of the best, simplest ways to come back to the present moment and pay attention non-judgementally to our thoughts is to intentionally notice our breathing.  Here is a basic breathing exercise adapted from Calm Classroom:

Sit up straight and comfortably in your chair.  Rest your hands on your desk or in your lap.  Close your eyes.  Feel your feet flat on the floor.  Relax your shoulders back and down.  Let your whole body be still.

Feel the air moving in and out of your nose.  [wait 10 seconds]

Remember, when you breathe in, you will fill your lungs completely.  Make each breath slow, smooth, and deep.

Now, breathe in for a count of 1….2….3….hold.  Breathe out for a count of 3…2…1…hold.

Breathe in for a count of 1….2….3….hold.  Breathe out for a count of 3…2…1…hold.

Breathe in for a count of 1….2….3….hold.  Breathe out for a count of 3…2…1…hold.

Breathe in for a count of 1….2….3….hold.  Breathe out for a count of 3…2…1…hold.

Now breathe normally and relax.  Feel the air moving in and out of your nose.  [wait 20 -30 seconds]

Now, take a deep breath in, hold and exhale slowly.

Notice how you feel. [wait 10 seconds]

Slowly open  your eyes.

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The beauty of exercises like these is that they require no special preparation, space or equipment; they are tools at our disposal any time we need them, and they are highly effective at inviting our brains back into a calm, logical space.  For a special treat, however, definitely check out Calm.com for some peaceful sounds and visuals anytime you have access to a mobile device or computer with the internet!

Even though testing time can be a stressful time in school, practicing a little mindfulness can help us all get through it with a little more awareness and self-compassion. Take good care of those brains and bodies, Austin ISD SEL fans!

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Austin High’s Youth in Government Club Makes SEL Waves at State Conference!

capitol_dome2The weekend of January 30th and 31st, hundreds of high school students descended on the Texas State Capitol to participate in the 69th annual YMCA Youth and Government State Conference. The conference is designed to gather young leaders from all over the state and provide a hands-on, real life government experience, fostering interest in the democratic process and excitement in the potential of political engagement. This year, Austin ISD’s Austin High Youth in Government Club brought a high-impact team to the YAG State Conference, finishing with two distinguished delegates and a State Affairs proposal aimed at improving the Texas high school graduation rate via statewide implementation of freshman MAPS classes.

From hundreds of peer-reviewed proposals addressing 30 pre-selected state affairs topics, Miranda Gershoni and Madison Perry’s MAPS (Methods for Academic and Personal Success) class proposal was ranked among the best in the state by the conference participants, winning a chance to be viewed by Texas Governor Greg Abbott and affect actual state legislation.  That’s right…youth leaders from all over Texas thought Austin High’s MAPS class model, which explicitly teaches freshmen Social and Emotional Learning skills to help set them on a successful path for high school and beyond, should be a state-wide requirement to raise graduation rates!

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Ms. Gershoni and Ms. Perry present their proposal

Ms. Gershoni, who led the development of the proposal, drew upon her freshman experience in the MAPS class at Austin High and the organizational and interpersonal skills it helped her develop. She was also inspired by her participation on a student team that helped to facilitate a workshop on MAPS-style student engagement activities at last October’s National Dropout Prevention Network Conference.  Armed with her passion for helping her peers succeed and her experience with presenting at this national conference, Gershoni led her team in convincing other youth leaders that SEL skills taught in MAPS classes statewide could lead to more Texas high school graduates ready for career and life. District data backs up their proposal’s claim: At high schools with high MAPS class implementation rates, administrators have seen positive indicators like a 50% reduction in suspensions, a 71% reduction in discipline referrals, and a 41% reduction in freshman failures.

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Distinguished Delegates Mr. Symonds and Mr. Smith-Klein

Mr. Steven Wnorozski, Austin High’s sponsor of the Youth in Government Club, was proud of Ms. Gershoni and Ms. Perry’s winning proposal, and the recognition of distinguished delegates Mr. Theo Symonds and Mr. Joseph Smith-Klein. Participating in the club, and preparing for experiences like the district and state-level YAG conferences, help build the Social and Emotional Learning skills of time management, organization, collaboration, and self-efficacy. “Our club is small, but we’ve been before the school board and have been recognized for our achievements,” he says. “It allows students to be active in politics and try to solve problems that really exist.” The Youth in Government club will send delegates to the Youth and Government’s Conference on National Affairs, and is also considering participation in the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life’s Speak Up! Speak Out! event in May.

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Ms. Gershoni said that her experience at the state Youth and Government Conference has inspired her to consider a career in public policy. She also found that just being present at the conference was inspiring in another way: “Sometimes high school just seems like a big swimming pool, with everybody just trying to swim to the top to graduate and get on with their lives like you know you’re supposed to,” she said. “It was great to feel like I was poking my head up out of the water, and seeing all these other young people like me who were poking their heads up too, who are concerned about the big picture-the future of the state and country-and who have big ideas to help affect it.”

Congratulations to Miranda Gershoni, Madison Perry, Theo Symonds, Joseph Smith-Klein, Mr. Wnoroski, and Austin High!  We are sure #AISDProud of these #SELSmart, engaged young people on the fast-track to making big changes in their world!

 

Amplify Austin ISD SEL and Whole Child Education!

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Today is the day!  Amplify ATX is 24 hours (March 8th 6pm-March 9th 6pm) of community giving to local non-profits all over the Austin area, and once again Austin Ed Fund is participating to raise funds to support Austin ISD’s innovative whole-child education initiatives!

From Austin Ed Fund:

Help us support excellence and innovation in Austin Independent School District (AISD)! Your investment in our urban district, serving more than 83,000 amazing students at 130 campuses, ensures that every student has access to innovative opportunities and enriching experiences.

Your generous contribution will:
• Fund teachers’ creative project ideas for their classrooms or campus through our Innovation Grants program
• Expand AISD’s nationally-recognized Social and Emotional Learning program, which teaches students the skills to resolve conflict, manage emotions, and succeed in the classroom, career, and life
• Fund economically-disadvantaged and first-generation students through our Student Opportunity Fund.

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AISD’s Social and Emotional Learning team works with every single campus in the district to create safe and welcoming learning environments, foster meaningful relationships between students and teachers, and teach 21st century skills like collaboration, communication, time management, and self-efficacy. Funding that supports AISD’s Social and Emotional Learning comes largely from individual donors, partners in the Austin community, and national donors and foundations, so your Amplify AISD donation really does make a huge difference!

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Schedule your donation now, or participate today (March 8th) starting at 6pm through 6pm tomorrow (March 9th) , by visiting:

Austin Ed Fund’s Amplify Overview Page

Katie Cameroneil’s Amplify Whole Child Education Page

Caroline Newman’s Amplify Our Students, Our Teachers, Our Future Page

Thanks so much for being a part of AISD’s Whole Child, Every Child education movement!

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Follow along on Twitter too: @AustinISDSEL @AustinISD_OID (Office of Innovation and Development) @AustinEdFund and keep up with the hashtags #AmplifyATX and #InvestinAISD!

 

Real Teachers Talk Part II: Spring Semester SEL

Austin ISD is chock-full of passionate, compassionate, talented educators bringing Social and Emotional Learning to their students in every part of our fair city, every single day. Last time on the blog, two amazing teachers from Bedichek shared their insight on the importance of intentional self-care during the stresses of the spring semester.  Today, seven more outstanding teachers lend their thoughts and practices from around the district.  They are all at different schools in different capacities, and they have this in common: they know their students, and they know SEL!

Mr. Howard, 6th-8th Grade Math Teacher, Learning Support Services

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Mr. Howard works one-on-one with students experiencing long-term in-school suspension, teaching math and being a strong, positive, compassionate adult connection. He works hard to engage with each student authentically, so that their relationship facilitates lasting learning. He says that he does his best to stay relaxed and focused on one task at a time, so that he doesn’t get overwhelmed.  “I try to know about and anticipate obstacles and challenges, so that I can make a response plan,” he says.  “You can’t always predict what’s going to happen, but thinking through some possible responses to challenges that may arise helps me avoid feeling worried and reactive. This allows me to stay calmly focused on my students.”

Ms. Williams, 3rd Grade ESL Teacher, Linder Elementary

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Ms. Williams is a big fan of the Peace Area, a special place in classrooms where students can choose to go to manage strong emotions, resolve interpersonal conflicts, or just take a self-care break.  Many teachers like Ms. Williams have experienced professional development dedicated to the creation and effective use of Peace Areas in the classroom environment, and she even has one she can take with her wherever her students might end up!  “The Peace Area is a great tool to use in de-escalating and problem solving. I grab it and take it with me as I’m walking out the door with the kids. Since it’s portable I can bring it to recess or other places. It’s just a wonderful tool for me to use when modeling [social and emotional skills] for the kids.”

Peace Areas often contain soft stuffed animal friends, squeezy stress-balls, “calm down” bottles full of slow-settling glitter to watch, pictures of faces for emotion identification, paper and art supplies for self-reflective writing or drawing, and many other creative ideas for peace-making.  Many include a “peace path” and conflict resolution script for students to practice interpersonal assertive communication.  

Mr. Light, 9th-12th Grade English Language Arts Teacher, Alternative Learning Center

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Mr. Light covers his desk and classroom in quotes from famous folks addressing kindness, self-efficacy, and inspiration for learning. One in particular, from Oscar Wilde, serves as an important daily reminder: “Life is far too important to be taken seriously.” He builds and draws on his sense of gratitude as a self-care practice. “When the everyday drudgery settles in, when students become ‘snarky’ and push the buttons they know so well, when the work seems to keep piling up and you might wonder, What am I doing here? . . . These are the times to remember to set your mind on the bigger pictures (your dreams, your passions) and not merely what is in front of you. It helps you remember to enjoy life and to be thankful. It helps you remember to enjoy your students and to be thankful for them. It helps you. It helps them.”

Ms.Gandomi, 2nd Grade Teacher, Blackshear Elementary Fine Arts Academy

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Ms. Gandomi has found ways to weave her Social and Emotional Learning knowledge straight into challenging learning experiences for her scholars. “Subtraction with regrouping was really frustrating my students. I needed to find a way to teach my students to be kind and patient with themselves,” she says. “I created a lesson to teach them a more positive approach toward learning. First, we had a class discussion about neuroplasticity and my students learned how neurological pathways develop in the brain as we learn something new. This was a game changer! My students got excited when a lesson or strategy was difficult because they knew their brains were growing. I have overheard my students say, ‘This is hard! It’s okay because I’m creating a new neuropathways in my brain!'”

Neuroplasticity is the process by which the brain physically grows and changes in response to learning new information and trying new things.  Many teachers in AISD have participated in professional development around neuroplasticity and growth mindset, helping their students foster intellectual resilience and positive self-talk to help work through challenging learning experiences.

Mr. Sikes, 8th Grade Math Teacher, Fulmore Middle School

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Mr. Sikes makes sure his students feel safe and welcome in his classroom by teaching about stress management, and also by helping each student feel heard and seen. “I like to show my kids what types of stress triggers I have during second semester and how I know to read my bodies warning signs. We can’t avoid stress, but how can we cope with it when it arises?”  Mr. Sikes teaches from all parts of his classroom, checking in and reinforcing connections with each young person as he moves between the groups of seated students. “There is a lot of [student change and movement] as well at the beginning of a semester, so we take time every week to reintroduce ourselves and share things about ourselves that makes us unique, so that all students feel heard and valued no matter how ‘new’ they are to the school, or city, or state.”

Mrs. Roberts, 4th Grade Science Teacher, Widen Elementary

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Shown here among emotion identification words and steps for calming down in her classroom, Mrs. Roberts takes time each day to take care of Social and Emotional Learning business before getting down to the business of learning science. “SEL allows me to internalize and model emotional management skills throughout the school day, and transfer those to the kids,” she says. Like many teachers throughout AISD, Mrs. Roberts is skilled at using SEL concepts and practices to maximize learning time. “I love the rituals of Morning Meeting and breakfast in the classroom and the sense of community it instills. Words can’t describe how beautiful it is and the impact it has on our community.”

Mrs. Lozano-Studstrup, 6th Grade English Language Arts, Mendez Middle School

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Mrs. Lozano-Studstrup works hard every day to create a warm, engaging, culturally-relevant, connected learning environment.  Student work and drawings adorn the walls, and each class’ social contract is prominently displayed. A large portion of her classroom is dedicated to a cozy space with a bookshelf full of diverse books, a colorful floor lamp, and a comfortable area rug primed for the unhurried enjoyment of reading for fun. “I love my students, and I try to connect with each one of them every day they are with me,” she says. “I try to make sure each of them feels seen and heard and valued. When students feel safe and connected, that’s when authentic learning takes place.”

These amazing educators represent how Social and Emotional Learning is infusing lessons, classrooms, practices and schools across our district. To all seven talented teachers who shared their faces, expertise and insight for this post, thank you! With your dedication, compassion, and unique style, you are demonstrating the very best of SEL and Austin ISD!

REAL TEACHERS TALK: Second Semester Self-Care

Let’s be real: Teachers know Social and Emotional Learning.  Teachers have been creating safe classrooms, welcoming students, building in 21st-century skills, and modeling healthy adulthood since schools were invented.  We invited teachers from around the district to share their best SEL tips and advice for managing the stressful second semester, and so this post and the next one will be dedicated to showcasing the voices of competent, compassionate educators from our Austin ISD. For this one, dynamic duo Hannah Vaugh and Jenna Conde of Bedichek Middle School guest blog on the crucial topic of Teacher Self-Care.

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Treat yo’ Self – brunch, happy hour, baths.

In our line of work, it’s easy to let your emotional well-being fall to the wayside. We give everything we have to our kids, and by the weekend we’re faced with mounds of papers to grade (why did I give this many short-answer questions?!), seating charts to re-arrange (there’s got to be SOME place to put Billy where he won’t be a vortex of chaos!), and bureaucratic nonsense filled with so many acronyms that by this point we don’t even remember what all those jumbled letters stand for. We are convinced that our work will never end, and with good reason: it doesn’t.

That’s why we need to make it a point to purposefully carve out our hard-earned “me time.” Put down the pen, close your laptop, and give yourself a second to grab half-priced appetizers (and other delicious things!) at happy hour on Friday. Give yourself a few hours to grab brunch with your long lost friends. When is the last time you soaked in the tub with your favorite record playing in the background? If you absolutely MUST do work, bring it with you to your favorite coffee shop for a change of scenery and a guaranteed morale boost. Look at you, grading those papers with your chai tea latte and a mouthful of eggs benedict, you rock star!  It’s time to turn some of that unconditional love you’re always doling out back onto yourself. You deserve it!

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Mentors/Cohorts

Everybody needs a hero. Even us heroes. A teaching mentor is a wonderful resource for both classroom and personal needs. A mentor is your go-to person on campus who can answer all your questions, provide classroom support, and comfort you when that lesson you planned so hard for fell flat on its face (you turned your back for one second…)

A group of trusted amigos on campus is another invaluable resource for emotional refreshment and well-being. Finding a person or group of people you can trust can be difficult in a workplace setting, but we promise that it’s worth investing time in the good ones. Knowing you’re not alone on those tough days, with people who will genuinely empathize with you, makes the struggle less real. Having a group of people to celebrate your accomplishments with, who will be genuinely happy for you when you are rocking it, leaves you feeling on top of the world.

Find people who will build you up, and who you can build up in return. It’s a beautiful thing!

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You can say no sometimes.

This one goes out to all the first-year teachers, but it’s applicable to teachers of all experience levels.

It’s going to happen. You’re going to be minding your own business, probably in the middle of teaching a lesson, when an administrator or teacher will walk through your door. “Sorry to interrupt but…” Now they throw out a compliment, appealing to your vanity. “You did such a good job with x,y,z, and…” Here it comes. It’s a thing, and they want you to do/join/spearhead/tackle/organize. Sometimes you’ve got the energy, in which case FANTASTIC! Grab your clip board and get to work, you magical unicorn of a person!

But here’s the deal: if you don’t have the energy, or you can’t focus on whether or not you think you could handle it, or if you are already on six other committees and you don’t think you’d be productive on another one, IT IS OK TO SAY, “NO.”

Allow me to repeat myself.

IT IS OK TO SAY, “NO.”

And yes, they may try to persuade. “Well, you have to do SOMETHING.” (Guess what? You’re dedicating your time to molding the minds of children. You ARE doing something!) or “Oh, we just want to hone your leadership skills.” (Since when did you say you wanted to be a leader?) Don’t give in.

Somewhere along the road, our occupation became more than just teaching. Not only are we educators, therapists, moms and dads, advocates, social workers, and a whole other slew of emotionally exhausting professions, we are also expected to be superhuman. At some point a line has to be drawn, and you’re the only one who knows when to draw it.

By the way, saying “yes” can be amazing sometimes. It can be especially fun if you say yes and then drag someone into it with you, so you have all kinds of fun while you plan together.

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 Want to remember why you teach and make a bunch of people’s day? Positive Parent Phone Calls.

95% of our students are darlings. 95% come in, ask questions, have their binder, agenda, ISN, pencils, every single day—and yet, we spend the majority of our energy on our 5-10 challenging students that require frequent parent contact, one-on-one relationship building time, bargains, rewards, and unfortunately, consequences.

Look at your rosters and put some dots next to the students you forget to worry about—they’re so self-sufficient! Self-motivated! Next, of those, pick out the ones that are in the middle of the pack—grades, behavior, everything. Call those parents one after the other with a short and sweet “I appreciate your child’s hard work EVERY day. I am so impressed with their [participation in discussion/organization/perseverance when things get difficult].” The parents are so appreciative, excited, and grateful that they got some news from school that their student rarely warrants. Not only will this amp up your parent support and involvement, it will also remind that student that you NOTICE their effort, and possibly, keep them from turning to the dark side in May. On top of that, you feel great.

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 Laugh often and let it happen.  Make like an improv class: Embrace your failures and literally have your class clap for you.

One of the first exercises that you do at an improv class is an exercise where you stand in a circle. Whenever you feel so inclined, you shout out to the group a recent failure of yours (i.e., last night I dropped an ENTIRE carton of eggs on the kitchen floor), and take a deep bow as everyone claps for you ecstatically. Then, someone else shares. It is no surprise how cathartic and humorous this practice is.

Next time you forget to make a set of copies, forget to project the Essential Question on the screen and then get mad when no one is writing it down, or call a student by the wrong name, just take a deep breath, say “I’m so sorry guys. I’m only a human.” Take a bow and have a round of applause.

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Thanks, Ms. Vaugh and Ms. Conde, for your fabulous ideas, engaging writing, and rockin’ pictures! Stay tuned next week for more great thoughts and tips from even more amazing AISD teacher super heroes!

Spring Semester 2016!

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Welcome to your brand new semester, Austin ISD SEL fans!  Happy 2016! As a new year begins, it’s a great time to get back in touch with the five competencies of Social and Emotional Learning. These are the concepts we explicitly teach and practice with all 83,000+ students in our district, helping guide their paths toward engaged learning, positive citizenship and rich lives. Here is the Wheel of SEL Competencies, explained by an American luminary leader we also celebrate this week!

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As we remember the legacy of Dr. King in our hearts and classrooms, we revitalize the journey of growth, compassion, and learning for our students and ourselves. Here’s to new beginnings!

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Keeth Matheny and His Austin High School MAPS Students Were Stars at a National Conference!

Wouldn’t it be cool if a group of Austin ISD students got to share their Social and Emotional Learning experience with educators from all over the country–even the world?  Say, at a national conference dedicated to defining and refining the kinds of educational practices that keep kids in school and prepare them for career and life success?  Picture it: high-level professionals dedicated to figuring out what works best for young people in schools, listening to actual young people talk about what works best for them and their school.  And the whole topic is Social and Emotional Learning.  Sounds good right?

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Well guess what…IT ACTUALLY HAPPENED.  On Tuesday, October 27th, Mr. Keeth Matheny of Austin High School took a group of 23 AHS students to facilitate a session with 180 educators at the National Dropout Prevention Network‘s annual conference. Mr. Matheny has been an active participant and frequent presenter at many NDPN conferences in years past; however, the national events have been held in places like Kentucky, Minnesota and Florida.  When the 2015 conference was slated to be held in San Antonio, Mr. Matheny recognized a unique opportunity–it was time to get student voice in on the national education conversation!

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Current and former MAPS students interact with educators during the session, called “School Transformation Through a Social and Emotional Learning-Based Seminar Course.”

The National Dropout Prevention Network paid for the transportation and registration of the 23 current and former MAPS students for that Tuesday.  They attended plenary and break-out choice sessions alongside teachers and administrators, social workers and superintendents.  Then, from 1:30-3:00, those students sat at the round tables among 180 adult participants from all over the country and world, and facilitated activities and discussions while Mr. Matheny led the presentation.  The session was designed to provide educators with concrete student engagement strategies and authentic class experiences from the freshman seminar MAPS (Methods for Academic and Personal Success) course. This course has enjoyed such success at Austin High, other high schools in Austin, and even several in other parts of the country.

Mr. Matheny has been instrumental in designing and implementing MAPS, which uses a research-based Social and Emotional Learning curriculum to prepare freshmen for the personal and organizational challenges associated with high school and beyond. The AHS students represented cutting-edge Austin ISD Social and Emotional Learning tactics by facilitating activities from the MAPS class itself with the session participants. They also shared ways they have personally benefited from the course.  This kind of student voice and involvement embedded in the session gave attendees an unprecedented and informative experience at the NDPN conference.

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Many of the students who participated in and facilitated activities at the conference had been out of MAPS for years, but still could teach the lessons and speak to the impact that the course has had on their lives.

It takes a special kind of educator to recognize how valuable student voice would be in this national venue, and Keeth Matheny is a special kind of educator.  In fact, as if getting students to the National Dropout Prevention Network conference wasn’t awesome enough, there is another reason why the 2015 conference was particularly exciting–Mr. Matheny received the highly prestigious National Dropout Prevention Network’s Crystal Star Award of Excellence.  According to their website,

“The purpose of the National Dropout Prevention Network (NDPN) Crystal Star Awards of Excellence in Dropout Recovery, Intervention, and Prevention is to identify and bring national recognition to outstanding individuals who have made significant contributions to the advancement of the mission of the NDPN.”

The fact that Mr. Matheny received this award that morning in the presence of his family, colleagues, administrators and students represents the best of Austin Independent School District.

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(l-r) Amy Taylor, AHS Principal; Keeth Matheny; Julea Douglass, School Connect representative; Aaron Vohl, AHS Asst. Principal. Diana Trimino, the AHS graduation coach, also attended the conference and awards ceremony.

Student voice at a national education conference? Prestigious awards of excellence?  Just another Tuesday in October for AISD.  We sure are #AISDProud of Mr. Matheny and his #SELSmart MAPS students!

Trust, Empathy…and John H. Reagan Raiders Football

DSC_0089-LThe John H. Reagan Raiders football team had a record of 9 wins to 71 losses between the years 2004 and 2011.  In the past 2 years, they have won 9 games (2 games still left in the 2015 season)! This is a team surging forward in a massive comeback.  What could be driving this powerful #ReturnofReagan? Fresh talent? Harder workouts? New strategies?

Try trust and empathy.  Head Coach Keith Carey joined the team in February 2012, with the quote “The sooner that we can earn each other’s trust and start caring about each other, then the Xs and Os will take care of themselves and the wins will take care of themselves.”  From the moment he first stepped onto the Raider home field, Coach Carey has been steadfast in his goal to build a team rooted in care and trust and growing in success–on that field, in school, and in life.

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Traditionally, the words “caring” and “empathy” seem out of place within the context of full-body contact, earth-shattering tackles and clashing helmets. A football field doesn’t usually leap to mind as a place to get in touch with emotion. Football players have been expected to act like “men,” based on a negative definition of men as invulnerable people unaffected by feelings. Coach Carey is working with the young men on his team to change the very core of this traditional attitude about football. He says, “Now we understand that we can use the idea of a real team–made up of men who share their feelings, fears, and care for one another–to redefine manhood.”

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The team engages in intentional exercises to tell their stories, share their fears, communicate their feelings and openly appreciate each other. “The truth is that young people are struggling every day with terrible fear, insignificance, sadness, pain. We acknowledge that we are all struggling with deep pain.  Then it’s easier to share it,” says Carey. For many students that Carey coaches, football practice may be the only venue to share authentically about their painful struggles. Holding a team space that is safe, respectful, non-judgmental, positive and open has been Carey’s mission. This is how he is building his powerhouse of a cohesive team. “We talk every day about how the #1 predictor of success for our team is how much we care about one another.”

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The mission is even bigger than that, though, for the Reagan Raiders: By redefining the idea of men as caring, open team members who speak about their emotions, they are growing social and emotional leaders of the school and the future. “We address that it can feel awkward to talk to each other in an emotional way. But we keep telling these kids that they will be the generation that changes traditional ideas about male identity and even breaks the cycle of domestic violence by learning to express their feelings in appropriate, authentic ways.”  When the team faces challenges and setbacks, Coach Carey frames them in terms of the greater purpose–learning to be resilient and successful in life. “Every setback prepares us for situations that will arise as we take on the most important roles in our lives, like being husbands and fathers.  That is our mission as a team; it is bigger than any setback.”

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Coach Keith Carey and the John H. Reagan Raiders are doing impactful work both on and off the football field. This video, which shows core team values juxtaposed with spectacular Raider football plays, sums it up nicely:

We are #AISDProud of the Reagan Raiders! Keep it up! #NotWithoutHonor

More about SEL in school athletics:

SEL in Action! Part I

SEL in Action! Part II

SEL in Action! Part III

SEL in Action! Part IV

SPOTLIGHT: Mr. James Butler and Gullett Pre-K Namaste

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 12.04.53 PMEarly on a weekday morning, we step into a group meditation session.  The space is silent except for the soft whisper of breath flowing in and out of 16 four-year-olds seated on the floor all around, each deep within his or her own experience. After allowing enough time for this morning quietude to fully engulf the collective consciousness, the instructor gently invites the group of children to transition from stillness into a series of yoga poses–connecting the internal to the external, raising the energy of the space, preparing minds and bodies for today’s learning.

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Where were we just then? In a remote monastery, high in the Himalayas?  Wait a second…this is the Austin ISD Social and Emotional Learning blog!  We were in Mr. James Butler’s Pre-Kindergarten classroom at Gullett Elementary, right here in the ATX!

This story does wind up here in Austin ISD classrooms, it’s true–Mr. Butler came to Gullett Elementary after teaching Kindergarten at T.A. Brown Elementary, where he started integrating mindful breathing and movement into his daily teaching practice.  However, the roots of his mindfulness pilot curriculum were planted during his year teaching English and Math to high school students in Namibia.  In that tumultuous environment, he found that trying out breathing and stretching activities with his students brought a deeply-needed sense of calm and safety to his classroom. As a result, more teaching and learning occurred. At that point, there wasn’t a curriculum or particular plan–it was just a way for him and his students to connect within themselves, with each other, and with learning.

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He brought that teaching experience back with him stateside when his time in Namibia was up–and found that re-entering loud, high-tech, consumerist American society from a Namibian hut with no electricity was a jarring and difficult transition. By deepening his own mindfulness practice, he was able to regain vision and purpose, leading him to start teaching again here in Austin. With his experience in Namiba and strong personal commitment to mindfulness, Mr. Butler started to turn it into a lesson plan, building it in right around academics.  His subsequent success garnered the attention of his fellow teachers, his administrators, and ultimately the AISD superintendent.  In 2014, he was named AISD Teacher of the Year.

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James Butler now helms a pilot program of Pre-K mindfulness, with 45 participating classrooms in 15 elementary schools. He creates and distributes a curriculum each week, providing age-appropriate activities and lessons to raise self-awareness, build mindfulness, and increase confidence.  The curriculum’s activities come from various resources, with modifications to create relevance for all students from Pre-K through 3rd grade. He presents to schools and trains teachers in the curriculum, encouraging each teacher participant to build their own mindfulness along with their classes, and adapt curricular experiences to their own personality, class needs, and school structures.  Mr. Butler’s mindfulness curriculum includes breathing and stretching activities designed for multiple times during the day, and recommends 1-3 minutes of mindful breathing and 1-3 minutes of mindful stretching at the very beginning of the class.  All the activities in the curriculum are 1-3 minutes long, and can be used together or one at a time, depending on time considerations and class structures.

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Mr. Butler and the teachers who are testing out the mindfulness curriculum report significant positive outcomes, even if mindfulness activities comprise just 2-5 minutes out of the school day. Because students learn how to check in with themselves and observe how their bodies and minds feel, they are better able to manage strong emotions and address academic challenges.  Instead of tattling, Butler’s students give him “Teamwork Reports” of problems solved and lessons learned during group work and social situations.  It’s not unusual to see a pre-kindergartener using belly breathing techniques to calm herself down on the playground.  And teachers using the program have told stories of students using mindfulness practices at home, when stressful situations with parents or siblings arise.  Indeed, these students often become the teachers for their families, modelling and describing mindfulness activities that benefit everyone!

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James Butler is grateful for the opportunity to work on mindfulness with the youngest students in our district, because the benefits, even from mere minutes a day, can teach valuable life-long skills. He says that beginning his own mindfulness practice as an adult has helped him work though years of issues that beset him as a young person.  He truly believes that learning these skills earlier can profoundly increase quality of life and reduce the negative effects of trauma and adversity. They also improve focus and resilience for academic learning, and create a classroom culture of safety and connectedness.  Mindfulness for the win!

Speaking of the win: it should be noted that Mr. Butler’s class voted to collectively self-identify as the Bubbles, which narrowly edged out the Squishy Crystals in the process of class-name choosing.  Congratulations, Butler’s Bubbles–y’all are leading the district on the quest for mindful classrooms!  Namaste!

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Photo Credit: Stephanie Friedman