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Last year around this time, everyone’s favorite AISD Social and Emotional Learning blog offered up this Ode to Gratitude, a short (and slightly silly) rhythmic rhymer with links to compelling research on the benefits of bringing more gratitude into daily life. More and more studies, even just within the past year, show how an intentional gratitude practice can increase positive feelings, improve physical and mental health, generate heightened awareness (mindfulness), and lots of other concrete good things (Better sleep! Deeper relationships! Better sleep!). “Great!” you say, ” It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m ready to sleep better! How do I start a gratitude practice?”
In answer to that question, the students, faculty and staff at the Austin ISD Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA) have taken on a Gratitude Challenge this season. Inspired by Austin Mindfulness Center’s recent post on gratitude, Wellness Counselors Marissa Rivera and Meagan Butler invited grownups and students at LASA to use a smartphone app (iTunes: GetGratitude, Google Play: Attitudes of Gratitude Journal) or paper journal with prompts to keep a daily log of gratitude experiences. Members of the school community are running with it–one English teacher has made it a daily part of her class; another educator plans to share her gratitude observations with family on Thanksgiving Day. And dozens of students have been participating, posting their experiences on the two gratitude trees now growing up the walls of the school.
“After the first 2-3 days of the Gratitude Challenge, the students actually took a lot of initiative with getting each other involved,” says Ms. Rivera. “As counselors, it’s been a great daily activity to share with our students. In addition to challenging everyone in our community to pause each day and reflect on positive aspects of life, there have been times we’ve witnessed people just stopping for a few moments to read what others had posted to either of the gratitude trees and smiling. Even small moments like that can help foster a more thoughtful community.”
The responses to the LASA gratitude challenge posted on the trees have demonstrated the wide diversity of gratitude experiences among the staff and students. “Responses have ranged from the expected (family, friends, etc.) to some really touching, personal anecdotes. In between those two ends of the spectrum, there were lots of teacher/counselor shoutouts, some very LASA specific tributes (Robotics, Bruce Wayne the therapy dog, etc.) and some silly ones that brought the laughs (e.g., no more dinosaurs, and Drake’s dancing).”
Students and teachers at LASA are really walking the gratitude talk. With this kind of intentional practice, gratitude can physically re-wire the brain to experience more positive feelings and adopt a more hopeful outlook. LASA is building a more connected, empathetic school culture with their gratitude challenge. With or without Drake’s dancing, a focus on gratitude can increase personal feelings of happiness and therefore help foster deeper connection within groups of people.
So give it a shot! Since it’s called Thanksgiving, let’s all come up with one way we can bring awareness to our gratitude. Thanks for the inspiration, LASA! And thanks to you, Dear Reader, for your precious time and attention given here…have a relaxing holiday!
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?
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!
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.
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.
October 30th brought thunderstorms, sideways rain, tornado warnings and flash floods all over Austin. AISD schools had to draw on their reserves of resilience and positivity to manage the repercussions of hazardous weather conditions: power outages, hours of sheltering-in-place protocol, flash flooding. Local news and social media were filled with stories of teachers and school staff keeping students safe. In some areas, school property and the personal belongings of staff and students were lost or damaged. Unfortunately, Palm Elementary in southeast Austin was hit hardest: 23 classrooms in an entire wing of the school were flooded. Palm was closed on Monday, November 2nd on account of clean-up efforts, and so that Pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten and 1st Grade teachers could prepare to hold their classes somewhere else for the next month.
“Somewhere else” turned out to be the Allan Center, a former elementary school and multipurpose AISD facility. Palm students and teachers met at their home school on Tuesday morning to ride buses over to Allan, where they were greeted by Principal Coleman and the administrative and counseling teams. Even though the displacement situation was tough, the attitude from teachers and administrators was cheerful and upbeat! From high-fives at Allan’s entrance to maintaining daily closing circles before heading back to Palm for dismissal, everyone involved drew upon their own resilience, positivity, and sense of connectedness to forge ahead with learning.
Of course, all this resilience can make you hungry! Luckily, helping out schools in need is second nature to the Austin community. Three local businesses—THREE!—donated lunch to the displaced Palm teachers and staff. Gourmand’s donated delicious sandwiches and their house-made pickles and chips. Gino’s East gave several decadent deep-dish Chicago-style pizzas. And East Side Pies provided a stunning array of their large specialty thin-crust pizzas! The wide variety and deliciousness of the food donated without hesitation by these local eateries lifted the spirits of the school community—there was even enough food left over to bring back to Palm at the end of the day!
This is a story about the strength, grit and positivity of Palm elementary students and staff in the face of disaster, and the outpouring of generosity from the community at large. This is an illustration of how compassion and community can concretely make the world a little bit better than it was the week before. We are #SELGrateful for Gino’s East, Gourmands, and East Side Pies, and #AISDProud of Palm Elementary.
The 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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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:
More about SEL in school athletics:
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Early 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
Photo Credit: Stephanie Friedman