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

SEL Word of the Year: INTEGRATION

4legstoolSocial and Emotional Learning has gone district-wide: Explicit SEL instruction is happening, positive school cultures and climates are growing, communities and families are involved and engaged…and INTEGRATION, the fourth leg of our SEL Stool, is the word of the year!  Integrating social and emotional skills and concepts throughout the school day is a crucial way to deepen SEL implementation on our campuses–indeed, it’s how SEL shifts from “what we DO” to “who we ARE.”

Data from our district and around the country suggest that students who practice their SEL skills in as many school contexts as possible show higher academic success and self-report more personal benefits. In core classes, extra-curricular activities, and out-of-school time, Social and Emotional Learning integration happens in diverse ways.  Broadly, it can be divided into two categories: behavioral, in which students intentionally practice learned SEL skills in various classroom/common area situations, and academic, in which students create an artifact of learning which intentionally addresses SEL concepts.

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Let’s check out some beautiful examples of SEL integration ALREADY HAPPENING around our district!

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Behavioral integration: Kindergarteners at Pillow Elementary use their “attentoscopes” to practice active listening while reading a book together.

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Academic integration: Students at Guerrero Thompson practice identifying emotions during a health lesson.

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Behavioral integration: A kindergartener at Cowan elementary reminds her classmates (and Snail!) about skills for learning during instructional time.

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Academic integration: Second graders at Pillow Elementary practice writing skills while reflecting on respect after reading a story.  Check out the explicitly-stated SEL and TEKS standards!

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Academic integration: Students at Blanton Elementary practice writing and emotion identification after reading a story.

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Academic integration: Fourth graders at Padron Elementary practice self-awareness and math skills.

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Behavioral integration: 5th Graders at Cunningham Elementary participate in a Morning Meeting circle to connect with each other at the beginning of the school day.

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Behavioral integration: A teacher at Fulmore Middle School regularly engages her class in “brain breaks,” movement activities that build class community while keeping the learning mind activated!

gusgarciaBehavioral integration: Students at Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy participate in a school-wide assembly reinforcing the Social and Emotional Learning skills they have absorbed during explicit instruction.

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Academic integration: Students at Reagan High School practice journalism and self-awareness skills in an English class.

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Behavioral integration: Algebra students at McCallum High School practice self-management skills and cheer each other on during an online math quiz.

In all corners of AISD, and at all levels, our amazing schools are ramping up the academic and behavioral integration of Social and Emotional Learning.  We will continue to celebrate examples of SEL integration throughout School Year 15-16! See some awesome SEL integration on your campus? Tweet about it and use the hashtag #SELintegration…you and your school just might become SEL blog-famous!  Remember: The SEL word of the year is INTEGRATION!

Happy First Day! Let’s Build Caring Learning Communities!

life itselfFor Austin Independent School District, Monday the 24th is that most hallowed of days in education–the First Day of School!  Welcome to School Year 2015-2016, everybody!

The beginning of school represents a unique opportunity to start building engaged learners, compassionate problem-solvers, and connected classrooms.  Here are a few activities that kickstart community-building and can get students and teachers talking, learning about each other, and laughing together!

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Partner Greetings (1-5 minutes total)

Participants turn to the partner on their left/right, say, “Good morning/afternoon, ________ (partner’s name)!” and then respond to a specific prompt.  This can be done in a Think-Pair-Share format, in which everyone shares at once with just their partners, then the group comes back together and various volunteers can share their answer (or their partner’s!).

Example Prompts:

  1. If I were an animal I would be a ______.
  2. Today is a good day because ______.
  3. If I picked a color to describe my day today it would be ______ because _______.
  4. I saw you doing ___ today and that was great.
  5. I saw a teacher/student doing ____ today and that was great.
  6. I’ll think about you this (afternoon/weekend/etc.) while I’m ______.

Consider giving direction as to which partner shares first, like “the partner with the longest hair shares first!” or “the partner whose head is closer to the ceiling shares first!” This can make sharing more efficient, and even inspire some community-building giggles.  Giving one minute (or some other time amount) to each partner, and calling “Switch!” when the time is up, can also remove some ambiguity in activities like this.

Whole-Group Partner Greetings (1-5 minutes total)

These follow the same basic format as the partner greetings above, except that everyone in the group has a moment in the spotlight.  Participants sit in a circle and are given a prompt like the ones above. Moving around the circle one by one, participants turn to the person on their right and give just that person the greeting, but loud enough for everyone in the group to hear.  This activity works best after a little practice with partner sharing!

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Whole-Group Seated Greetings (1-5 minutes total)

All of these greeting activities follow the same format.  Participants are seated.

  1. Moving around the group in a circle, each participant introduces him/herself, “Good morning/afternoon, I’m Ms. ____,”  and then the group responds in chorus, “Good afternoon,  Ms. ____!”
  2. Next, the speaker responds to a prompt.  (Some of them involve imaginary events – the point is to get folks to share about themselves in creative, non-threatening ways.)

Example Prompts:

    1.  If I had a superpower, it would be ______.
    2. I smiled today when ______.
    3. Today I’m feeling _____ because ______.
    4. If I were coming to a group picnic, I’d bring the ____.
    5. When it’s my turn to sing at our staff/class karaoke party, I’ll sing _____.

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 Whole-Group Standing/Moving Greetings (3-8 minutes total)

These activities allow participants to connect visually and kinetically, and discover commonalities!

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All participants stand.  Participants take turns  introducing themselves and then demonstrating a movement that represents themselves (wave hands, jump, brush hair, etc.).  The rest of the group then mirrors that movement.  BONUS: Once everyone in the circle has shared their name and movement, go around the circle without speaking and just do the moves!

The Beat Goes On

Moving through the circle, each participant says his/her name, “______,” and the group responds, “Hi _____!”   Next, the participant creates a unique sound (ex: drums on table with hand, trill, whistle, snap, etc.).Once a participant starts making his/her sound, s/he must continue until all participants have contributed their version of that sound.

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Four Corners

Label each corner/wall of a room with a different word (ex: 4 different animals, 4 different verbs, 4 different foods, 4 different cars, 4 different vacation spots, 4 different items of clothing, etc.).  Tell participants to stand at the corner/wall that they feel best represents themselves at that moment.  Offer time to share.

Would You Rather

Have participants stand in a line.  Participants move to one side of the room or the opposite side of the room, based on a binary choice:  “Would you rather ____,” (leader points to one side of the room), “or _____” (leader points to the other side of the room).  Repeat several times, moving quickly through the choices to maintain momentum.

Examples of choices:

    1. Would you rather eat spaghetti all day, or mashed potatoes all day?
    2. Would you rather go to the mountains or the beach?
    3. Would you rather be a cat or a dog?
    4. Would you rather drink coffee or tea?

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Activities like these can help build connectedness in classrooms and schools.   What exactly is connectedness?  What a great question! Let’s ask the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention(!):

School connectedness—the belief held by students that adults and peers in the school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals—is an important protective factor. Research has shown that young people who feel connected to their school are less likely to engage in many risk behaviors, including early sexual initiation, alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use, and violence and gang involvement.

Two of the strategies that the CDC recommends on its School Connectedness page are to “provide students with the academic, emotional, and social skills necessary to be actively engaged in school, [and to] use effective classroom management and teaching methods to foster a positive learning environment.” Activities like the ones described above work toward exactly those two things. Want even more connectedness-building activities? How about a searchable, sortable online database full of hundreds of them, all with concise directions and debriefing questions? Check out the PeaceFirst Digital Activity Center, and teambuild away!

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Here’s wishing a connected, engaging, exciting First Day of School to all Austin ISD students, teachers and families!  Let’s make this one the best year yet!

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Thanks to Social and Emotional Learning Specialist Hilary Simon for contributing to this post!

Success, Failure, and Growth Mindset

We all want to be successful, right?  With the new school year right around the corner, success and failure may be starting to weigh on the minds of students, parents and teachers.  Society tends to tell us that failure is bad and success is good. But there is a critical difference between success and failure: success may have been achieved by any number of factors, both intrensic and external, while failure usually has a more narrow range of causes. This allows us to more easily identify the reason why we failed, and therefore be able to improve on it. According to Drs. Art Markman and Bob Duke of the KUT spot Two Guys on Your Head,  “By focusing people on the idea that mistakes are a bad thing, we’re actually focusing people away from the very piece of information that is going to help them succeed in the future.”

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Click here to hear the whole KUT spot!

“The role of society, the role of teachers, is to create an environment that gives us some scaffolding, that gives us training wheels, in order to allow us to do that set of things that’s currently just beyond our reach.  So that we fail in the process of doing that, but so that we don’t fail spectacularly.” The process of learning is often fail – improve – stretch – grow – succeed!  According to the Two Guys, our brains are wired such that failure is a key aspect of eventual success.  Yes, failure often results in negative feelings, and success often results in positive feelings.  Our reward-seeking brains naturally want the good feelings that come from success.  But the feelings that arise from failure aren’t designed to deter us from trying anything at all…they are “learning tools,” designed to inspire the desire to improve, so that we do eventually experience the positive rewards of success.  The biggest mistake, therefore, is not trying in the first place.  We are wired to learn and grow our whole lives!

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In Social and Emotional Learning, we talk a lot about growth mindset–the idea that our brains remain plastic our entire lives, and with practice and work, we can learn new skills and get smarter no matter how old we are. The Two Guys are talking about failure in terms of growth mindset–instead of seeing failure as a signal to give up, failure is the impetus to keep working toward our desired outcome.  Let’s start this school year off committed to nurturing our growth mindset during teaching and learning–our brains, ourselves, and the world will be better for it!

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SEL Summer Work In Pictures

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SEL curriculum writers linking it up at Curriculum Writers Cadre 2015

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Brain breaks on the brain at CWC 2015

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Considering classroom community culture at CWC 2015

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Our delightful doorsign at McCallum for CWC 2015

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Dr. Darla Castelli at Whole Child, Every Child Summer Institute 2015

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Dr. Teri Wood at WCEC Summer Institute 2015

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Feeling Speedometer from WCEC Summer Institute 2015

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Dr. Paul Cruz reads The Jolly Postman at WCEC Summer Institute 2015

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Learning is…

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Dr. Raphael Travis at WCEC Institute 2015

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Practicing intentional SEL academic integration at the Anderson SEL Vertical Team Training

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There ARR always opportunities to Anticipate-Reinforce-Reflect SEL skills and concepts!

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Practicing self reflection

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Double-Double-This-This brain break

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What Self-Management looks like/sounds like for students and adults at Anderson VT SEL training

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Lanier Vertical Team SEL training at Padron Elementary!

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Implementation next steps

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Illustrating hope

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Collaboration and contemplation at Lanier VT SEL traning 2015!

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such brainstorming!

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Aleza Berube at Summer Science Institute 2015, blowin’ our minds with growin’ our minds

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SumSci15 participants learning the ropes of Growth Mindset!