Palm Positivity!

walkingupOctober 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.

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“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. principalwelcome2Even 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. circle2

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!

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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.

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Want to help out the Palm recovery effort? Click here to make a donation!

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

Campus Highlight: O. Henry Middle School

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“O. Henry places a high priority on Social-Emotional Learning,” writes Peter Price, Principal for the past 15 years. “Yes, academics are absolutely critical. But, at the end of the day, our kids’ social and emotional well-being trump academics. We must shower each and every student with love and affection, so that they feel valued, secure, and confident.”

This quote from Mr. Price of O. Henry Middle School (Sara Marler, West Austin News, November 2013) gets to the kernel of what makes O. Henry an outstanding example of Social and Emotional Learning implementation.  Mr. Price has worked with his faculty and staff to build a campus climate rooted in empathy and trust, and centered on high-quality student learning.

This connected community of learners has created ACES, which stands for Academics, Curriculum, Enrichment and Support.  This advisory structure creates a flexible learning environment in which each individual student receives the most effective learning opportunity tailored to their needs.  Need a little extra reading practice? Join a book club and read The Hunger Games!   Is a bit of extra support in math your cup of tea? Explore real-world math problems and play engaging math games!  Feeling okay about math and reading, but wondering about Quidditch?  Have a burning desire to try out fantasy football?  Need to dig into some hands-on, in-depth, serious business science?  ACES has O. Henry Mustangs covered, and teachers choose and create these enrichment classes based on personal interest and expertise.  But wait! What about explicit Social and Emotional Learning instruction?

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Every other week, in every ACES course across the whole campus, everyone participates in an SEL lesson.  Students and faculty engage with each other around topics like assertive communication, collaboration and group work, empathy, and handling issues like cyberbullying, the focus for the ACES SEL lesson this week.  Lessons are based largely on the evidence-based Second Step curriculum, and often include extensions and supplemental materials presented by teachers to make the topic at hand relevant and engaging for each class.  This commitment to Social and Emotional Learning, coupled with a focus on developmentally appropriate academic and enrichment opportunities, has created a powerful vehicle for rigorous learning and school community.

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This sense of community and engagement permeates O. Henry and contributes to its positive campus culture.  The school has enjoyed high academic success rates and recognition on both state and national levels, in large part due to the focus on meeting each individual learner’s academic, social and emotional requirements. Principal Pete Price and his dynamic staff have been willing to seek out successful structures from other schools and districts, take risks, and implement innovative learning techniques, all in the name of creating the best possible learning environment for the diverse needs of the Mustangs that come to O. Henry.  We are #AISDProud of the faculty, staff and students at O.Henry Middle School for their commitment to SEL and their vision of high-quality academic, social, and emotional learning for all!

Thanks to Sarah Stone, Social and Emotional Learning Specialist, for her contributions to this post.

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!

SEL Strong to the Finish!

For the past few weeks we’ve been blog-sploring how sports and other extracurricular activities present natural Social and Emotional Learning experiences, particularly in the hands of the right teacher-coaches and mentors.  We now interrupt this series to remind everyone that, though the school year is winding down, SEL in AISD schools is going strong until that last bell rings! Campuses are already setting the stage for next year as well!

SimsolympicsAt Sims elementary, students and parents participated in an end-of-year Sims Olympics day, which saw SEL resources for families promoted alongside active sporting events like awesome hallway broom curling!

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Note the opportunities for practicing turn-taking, perspective taking and self management skills! Not to mention just having some good ol’ hallway fun.

Cunningham Elementary dedicated a whole bulletin board to reflect on growth mindset, and celebrate the growth that third graders have made this year!

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Check out how students and staff alike are encouraged to consider not only what new skills they’ve gained this year, but also how keeping a growth mindset has allowed those beautiful brains to expand.

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Speaking of bulletin boards, check out the Hart Elementary SEL bulletin boards that feature Social and Emotional Learning strategies in three different languages!

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Middle schools are taking their Social and Emotional Learning to the very last minute as well.  At Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy, real live young male leaders are honing their 21st Century SEL skills by hosting campus budget meetings.  Talk about dress for success!

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Over at Lamar Fine Arts Academy, students participated in an end-of-year SEL lesson to practice and refine their ever-important and relevant group work skills.  Each member of the group had a different challenge to overcome during the group tower-building project, opening up the conversation about natural challenges that arise in group work situations and how to handle them effectively.  They will be using these skills for the rest of their lives!

lamarSELWebb Middle School has created a beautiful bulletin board celebrating the students’ commitment to building and maintaining a peaceful school environment.  Each leaf holds a peaceful, positive message written by a student.

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Social and Emotional Learning flows through our district from elementary to high school, and there is amazing SEL happening at the high school level.  Check out these Travis High School Rebel football players giving their time and energy to the children at Dell Children’s Hospital.

travisdellchildrens These students are applying all the perspective-taking and empathy skills that we talked about in our first post about SEL and football, and making positive waves in their community.  And how about the Mr. Maroo challenge at Crockett High School, inspired by Archer Hadley and his campaign at Austin High?  Students and staff are working to raise money to install push-button wheelchair-accessible doors at Crockett!

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As a final example of how SEL skills are part of academic and personal growth over the course of a school year, MAPS students at Reagan High School use a Venn diagram to compare their mindset at the beginning of the year to how they feel now about their school and themselves:

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These examples show just a fraction of the Social and Emotional Learning and growth experienced by AISD students over the course of the 2014-2015 school year.  The explicit SEL instruction, curricular integration, and culture and climate built and maintained by schools all over our city are truly helping students prepare for higher learning, careers, and life in the 21st Century world.  Just think: next year, every single school in the Austin Independent School District will have intentional Social and Emotional Learning on campus!  We are truly #AISDproud and #SELsmart!

Social and Emotional Learning in Action! Part IV: Archer Hadley

Our series continues this week with another football story. More accurately, this story starts with middle school football and expands to include the winning Austin High Maroons football team, the whole of Austin High becoming more accessible for people of all abilities, and a winning short documentary film that saw its subjects and creators honored recently by President Barack Obama in Washington, DC.  Intrigued? Prepare to be inspired!

Archer Hadley, an active member of the Austin High Maroons football team and graduating senior, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.  His career in athletics began in 7th grade at O.Henry Middle School, where he recently returned as the keynote speaker honoring student athletes.  Pease Elementary principal Matthew Nelson, former assistant principal and football coach at O.Henry, introduced Archer with this story:

Six and a half years ago, two days before Archer was to start his 7th grade year here at O.Henry, his mother came to campus to meet the staff and inquire about the possibility of her son participating in sports at O.Henry.  I was the 7th grade football coach at the time and spoke with her about the possibilities.  She spoke of how he loved football and how he wanted to participate in some way.  Participation not fully defined yet.  I told her to have him at the football field at 6:45 am the 2nd day of school and we would get to work.  And man, did we get to work.  Archer showed up every morning bright and early with a smile and enthusiasm and went about passing out pennies, counting pushups, leading the team in warm-ups, calling plays in the huddle, picking up kicking tees, counting players on special teams, all the while motivating and encouraging and ensuring each and every student out there, coaches included, gave their very best.  Because if not, as Archer would yell, what’s the point of even coming to practice.

The game became not “what can Archer do?” but rather “what can’t Archer do!”  And the possibilities were endless.  We, myself and the coaches, pushed Archer just as hard, if not harder, than the other students, but not nearly as hard as Archer pushed himself.  Archer and I would time how long it would take him to pick up the kicking tee after kick off, then try to beat it every time.  We then took the same mentality of practicing perfectly and trying to improve each time into school settings.  We spent hours upon hours perfecting the art of opening the doors in the library and would video tape our results.  Not only to send to his mother and father, but to also look at as “game film” to see what we could improve upon.

Which leads us to today: Archer Hadley can open any door in the world, literally and metaphorically, that he wants because of his work ethic, his attention to detail, and most of all, his “stick-to-itiveness.”   This young man, who began his athletics career at O.Henry, who has continued to be involved in athletics for 6 years after, and has probably inspired more students, coaches, parents and fans over the years than anybody I can think of, has made it his goal not to just open doors for himself, but to open doors for others.  Archer will never be daunted by society’s inability to accept the fact that he can do anything.  He will not be deterred by people who say “he can’t.”  Nobody who has ever spent more than 30 seconds with him will ever say “he can’t.”  He can.  He will.  Austin High now has wheelchair accessible doors for the first time in 130 years due to this young man’s dedication and heart.  The doors aren’t for him, his time there is ending–but rather for future generations of Archer Hadleys so they can have access to everything and anything they put their sights on.  Doing what Archer did wasn’t easy, and it didn’t happen overnight.  The lessons he learned about positive thinking, dedication, perseverance, and never giving anything less than 100% effort were helped developed here, many years ago, in this same school, in this same gym where you sit now.

I can’t think of any better person to speak to you wonderful student athletes today than Mr. Archer Hadley.  At this time, please put your hands together for the student to my teacher, the athlete to my coach, the Padwan to my Jedi, the Robin to My Batman, and, and I feel very fortunate to say this, my Friend…Archer Hadley.

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 Archer has used the same grit and determination that he has applied to his successful football coaching career to create the “Mr. Maroo Challenge” campaign, which raised $87,000 in two months to purchase and install five automatic push-button doors on the Austin High campus. The door installation occurred over the December ’14 holiday break.  At a January celebration to fete this achievement and installation, Texas governor Greg Abbott, another person who uses a wheelchair, greeted Archer and spoke about how his story inspires Abbott personally and reaches out from Austin High into the greater Austin community and beyond.  Indeed, several other Austin high schools have taken on the Mr. Maroo Challenge to raise funds toward push-button accessible doors on their own campuses.

And to top it all off, Archer and a few other Austin High students created a short documentary film:

This film, telling the story of Archer and the Mr. Maroo campaign, was one of fifteen selected from over 1500 entries in the second annual White House Student Film Festival.  So, in keeping with our blog series on the power of extracurricular activities to build social and emotional skills in student and adult participants: Archer Hadley honed his grit and determination in the football programs at O.Henry Middle School and Austin High, kicked off a campaign to make his high school more accessible to all, made a winning short documentary film about the process with friends and allies, and inspired everybody from his middle school football coach to the President of the United States.

How’s that for 21st Century Social and Emotional Skills? #AISDproud! #SELsmart!

Thanks to Sarah Stone, SEL Specialist, for contributing to this post.

Social and Emotional Learning in Action! Part II: Consuelo Mendez Mavericks

Last week in our “SEL in Action!” series, we explored the Social and Emotional Learning opportunities inherent in football.  We spoke with a high school administrator who has taken his coaching and player experience into his academic leadership role, and a Social and Emotional Learning Specialist whose administrative work and current position continue to be informed by his history as an athlete and coach.  This past week I had the chance to spend some quality time with some quality coach-educators at Consuelo Mendez Middle School, and let me tell y’all, the SEL happening over in Maverick Land is exemplary.

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Michelle Friede (back-center, pink shirt/shoe!) is not only the long-time dance coach at Consuelo Mendez–she also happens to be the Social and Emotional Learning Facilitator on campus, so she knows a thing or two about SEL.  Stand in her gym for five seconds, and you can feel the relationship-building work and positive, safe environment she has built.  Dance class is not easy; not only is it challenging physical exercise, it also requires huge confidence and risk-taking as one learns new body movements and practices them in front of peers and teacher.  For dance instruction to progress, it is critical that each dancer feels safe in the gym and connected to each other and the coach–this is no place to fear mistakes, criticism or ridicule.   Friede says that the success she enjoys with her classes flows from the positive, process-based focus she models for and instills in each participant.  By pointing out the hard work and genuine effort they display in each stage of learning a new move or choreography, she is able to inspire her students to accomplish advanced, complex pieces. When I (an unusual presence in the gym) asked to take a picture for this post, Friede called to her 6th graders, “OK girls, let’s strike that final pose!” Every young lady enthusiastically ran to her spot and fearlessly struck that final pose, Friede right there on the floor with them.  The fact that these young people had the confidence in themselves and trust in their instructor to spontaneously perform for a near-stranger speaks volumes about the Social and Emotional Learning happening in dance class at Mendez.

Photo 2When I asked for anecdotes about extracurricular SEL while hanging out in the instructional coaches’ office, Roxanne Walker, the literacy specialist, delightedly brought up the running club that has evolved out of a homegrown teacher-student mentoring program. Ms. Walker said this club came to be when the teacher mentors, including herself, listened to their students’ budding interest in running, and agreed to challenge themselves (even if they weren’t runners before!) while encouraging their “mentee’s” engagement. Simply called “Running Club,” about 12 students and their teacher mentors have started training for 5k races after school, and participating in various weekend running events around town.  Ms. Walker told me that the sometimes difficult relationships between these teachers and students began to change for the better, as students felt that adults were hearing their voices and striving to meet their needs for positive connection and belonging.  These new attitudes learned and practiced in after-school Running Club have spilled over into the school day, where teachers and students use their positive connection skills to heal and improve relationships and create a safer, more trusting culture within the classroom and school.  The picture above shows Consuelo Mendez middle schoolers and teachers getting close to the finish line in a recent 5k.  The English Language Arts teacher in black in the middle, Ms. Helmink, finished the race with these students, then jogged back into the race to cross the finish line with the rest of the student participants.  Talk about building a culture of belonging and connectedness!

2015-04-24 14.03.39Speaking of belonging and connectedness, this 8th grade ELA teacher,  Ms. Michelle Thomas, knows first-hand how critical those components are in building a winning team and a winning classroom.  As a sophomore at Texas Tech university, Thomas and her team rose to win the 1993 NCAA Women’s Division I Tournament, earning the Red Raiders their first NCAA title.  In addition to her basketball prowess, Thomas was an academic all-star at Texas Tech–she completed her bachelor’s with a major in English and went on to earn her law degree, both proudly displayed alongside the Red Raider basketball swag.  Her background of elite athleticism combined with her commitment to academic success has given her a unique social and emotional learning lens, which she uses to create a palpable culture of trust, belonging, and connectedness in her classroom.

As students come into the room, they deposit their backpacks in a corner and find their seats.  Ms. Thomas runs down the agenda for the day, and a student passes out the books for an ongoing novel study.  They take turns reading paragraphs from the chapter, each reader trying his or her best with occasional help or word of encouragement from Ms. Thomas.  She then facilitates a full-class discussion of the reading, addressing each student respectfully as “Mr. Martinez” or “Ms. Smith.”  As class members give thoughtful answers to the questions she presents, she addresses the whole class: “…And what do we say?” The class turns to the student who answered and says, in unison and with feeling, “Good Job!!” Partner work is next, and Ms. Thomas answers questions as they arise with encouragement and an easy smile–the students feel comfortable asking for help, and everyone is engaged.  And finally, in the last few minutes of class, pencils are put down, books are collected: it’s time for the Class Motto and Jammy Jam.

2015-04-24 14.12.57 Ms. Thomas told me that her experiences on a winning team inform her teaching practice every day. She understands the importance of building positive relationships with each individual student, between individual students, and between herself and the class as a whole, much as her college basketball coaches did. She says that she tries to “teach like a coach.” She uses predictable routines and daily “rituals” like the Class Motto and Jammy Jam to reinforce the class culture of safety and connectedness, and she strives to attend to each student’s academic and emotional needs, because the class “team” depends on the academic and emotional strength of each individual member to effectively learn and thrive.  So at the end of class, Ms. Thomas and every student stands up and recites together the Class Motto in one strong voice: “Shoot for the moon!  Even if you miss, you will land among the stars!” And then, of course, the Jammy Jam:

‘Nuff said.  Thanks for being so SEL awesome, Consuelo Mendez Middle School!  Tune in next week for more SEL, sports, and extracurriculars!