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

Keeping October Optimized

october1Here in Texas, October is a special month.  The number on the thermometer starts to sink south of the triple digits…and is that even an autumnal breeze we feel some mornings?  There are important, well-known holidays like World Octopus Day on 10/8 and Teaching Tolerance‘s Mix-It-Up Lunch Day on 10/27. (Am I forgetting one?) It’s also a transitional month, both weather-wise (maybe freezing or maybe still 90 degrees by the 31st, you never know) and culturally: we move from summer mode to winter mode, with the holidays ahead and most of the year already in the past.

This transitional month has traditionally proven to be a bit of a challenging time in education. The freshness of the beginning of the school year gives way to the serious meat of core curricula, with testing and grade pressures starting to mount. Sometimes the pressure can cause morale and enthusiasm to flag a bit for teachers, students, and administrators alike.  That makes October a great time to remember brain-breaks and community-building in class, and good self-care practices as well!

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Luckily, Austin ISD’s Physical Education and Health Department has got Brain Breaks covered for every subject.  Want to review some vocabulary?  Get everyone standing up and tapping opposite elbows or knees while taking turns discussing definitions! Need a new way to facilitate a class discussion? Ask a polarizing question, and have students move to designated “agree” or “disagree” sides of the room to represent their opinion.  Then invite individual students to explain their position, and allow students to change sides of the room to show that they’ve changed their minds! Love to freshen up some partner talk? Have students find a “Hi-Five,” “Lo-Five,” and “Fist Bump” partner before beginning the activity, then invite them to re-visit those partners to discuss each question.  Oh yeah, need to establish or re-establish an attention signal so you can get them back after all these engaging movement activities? Find some tips here! Also, search the archives of this very blog for Brain Break Wednesday ideas like this one, this one and this one!

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While brain breaks and movement activities can be good energizers and refreshers for the classroom, as educators it’s also important to practice and model self-care and stress relief techniques.  Teachers and administrators benefit from remembering to take care of themselves, and students benefit from learning critical self-care and stress-reduction skills.  Here are 15 stress-busting tips from Scholastic.com, and The Guardian teacher network offers some more detailed ideas to help with teacher work-life balance.

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One simple idea to try is to put one little sticker on each area at home or in the classroom which might inspire some stressful feelings.  Put one on the bathroom mirror, the car steering wheel, the innovation station, the gradebook, the laptop, the phone.  Every time you see one of the stickers, pause and take three deep, slow, relaxing belly breaths.  In through the nose, out through the mouth, long inhale, longer exhale. Hand out stickers to your students and invite them to do the same–and notice when they actually do it!  Then do it as a whole class!  Sometimes, three deep belly breaths can be just the healing thing to get through a tough moment.  Or day. Or week. Or…

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October is a great opportunity to try state-changing brain breaks and movement strategies in class, and to practice self-care and stress-reduction techniques.  Here’s another post full of calming-down ideas for the end of the school year, a similar time of transition.  And finally, here’s my all-time favorite, most aptly-named website for an instant infusion of peace and calm at any moment, anywhere with a screen, for one person, a classroom full of people, or even a cafeteria or auditorium: www.calm.com

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Enjoy your October, with the falling leaves, cooler weather, and nifty gourds.  It’s a great time in Texas, and a great time to be energized, calm, and #AISDProud!

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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!

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!

Whole Child, Every Child Summer Learning Institute

Last week, the Social and Emotional Learning team presented the first-ever AISD Whole Child, Every Child (WCEC) Summer Learning Institute in collaboration with the Creative Learning Initiative, Coordinated School Health, and Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness.  With the current district-wide focus on the integration of whole-child classroom practices, this institute engaged some of the most innovative educators and community members in three days of powerful collaborative learning.

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Dr. Paul Cruz, AISD Superintendent, gave the opening keynote address.  He spoke of the essential role that Whole Child, Every Child practices play in re-inventing the urban public school experience, and challenged AISD educators to take full responsibility for educating each unique individual that makes up the district’s 85,000 student base. He thanked the Institute’s dedicated attendees for leading the way!

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Dr. Paul Cruz, AISD Superintendent

The rest of the first day was devoted to learning the importance of physical movement and mental state in the classroom, and how deepening our understanding of the student brain can help improve attention, increase retention, and maintain or bring on engagement.  Dr. Darla Castelli of the University of Texas shared her expertise on the neuroscience of student movement in a dynamic keynote presentation, which underscored new research supporting how important physical activity is to mental health and quality learning.

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Dr. Darla Castelli

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Dr. Teri Wood

After lunch, Dr. Teri Wood (also from UT and AISD) gave an emotionally compelling presentation on creating trauma-informed classroom practices.  After demonstrating how traumatic experiences compromise learning and can negatively affect student success, she shared concrete strategies for improving classroom climate with trauma-informed teaching.  And to wrap up a day of intense learning, the ever-engaging Michele Rusnak and Sherrie Raven duo presented on the physical, psychological and social/emotional benefits of taking brain breaks during classroom learning.  We broke a sweat learning more concrete strategies!

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Michele Ruznak (l) and Sherrie Raven

The second day of the WCEC Summer Learning Institute was dedicated to the Creative Learning Initiative.  Dr. Brent Hasty of MindPop gave the opening keynote, emphasizing the critical importance of using experiential creativity in the classroom to create safety, build community, and increase learning.

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CLI presenters Yesenia Herrington and Ruthie Fisher facilitated drama- and movement – based activities designed to increase engagement and retention for concepts in all four core subjects.  Participants actively practiced strategies like Statues, Build-A-Phrase, and Town Hall Meeting for use in teaching and coaching.  Much learning and laughing was had by all!

Yesenia Herrington facilitating the building of a Friendship Machine

Yesenia Herrington facilitating the building of a Friendship Machine

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Dr. Anthony Brown

On the morning of the final day, we turned our attention to Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness.   Dr. Anthony Brown of UT gave an historical rundown of the different narratives told about Black men in the United States, and how they have shaped the policy and design of the education system.  Healing the inequity that has resulted from racist historical narratives is a large, complex and critical challenge–Dr. Brown invited us to ask the right questions in education and change the discourse on a local, state and national level.  His enlightening talk was followed by Dr. Raphael Travis of Texas State University, who guided our thinking about the critical nature of building classroom community.  He spoke about how learning flourishes in classrooms and schools where belonging, connectedness and safety have been intentionally established.  When students feel that their experiences, backgrounds and voices are heard and valued, and that they are seen, known and trusted, strong relationships and rigorous learning take root and grow vigorously. Lunchtime arrived with participants feeling a renewed sense of mission and vision.

Dr. Raphael Travis

Dr. Raphael Travis

The afternoon of day three saw breakout sessions with Social and Emotional Learning coaches presenting sessions on Effective Teacher Language, Growth Mindset, and SEL Curricular Integration, and a teacher team from Covington Middle School shared their expertise in a session on service learning. Participants from different levels and with different interests chose the sessions that were most relevant to them as educators, and everyone had the chance to discuss new ideas and try out new practices that had been offered over the course of the Institute.  Door prizes were awarded, applause was enthusiastic, and we parted ways looking forward to the fast-approaching school year. Thanks so much to our collaborators, to the SEL Professional Development Committee, and all our participants for making such an engaging and enlightening Whole Child, Every child Summer Learning Institute!

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Writing Curriculum for the Whole Child, Every Child

School’s out for summer, right? Vacation time, umbrellas by the pool, studies and lessons far-flung from student cwcseland teacher consciousness, right? NOPE! Quite the opposite, actually, at AISD’s annual Curriculum Writers Cadre! Teachers, instructional coaches, and curriculum specialists gather annually to develop and vet curricula, exemplar lessons and assessments for the nearly 85,000 students served by the Austin Independent School District. Developing curriculum is a complex process–there are many factors to consider when crafting quality learning experiences for each of our students.  To ensure that curriculum writers have access to the best and most current resources, organizers of the Curriculum Writers Cadre have created four on-site professional development/advocacy strands to continuously inform curricular creation: Assessment, Differentiation, Instructional Strategies and Whole Child, Every Child.  Specialists from each strand present to groups of curriculum writers, who then use that lens while writing and vetting new lessons and assessments.

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The AISD Social and Emotional Learning team is privileged to partner with Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness, Coordinated School Health, and the Creative Learning Initiative to create the Whole Child, Every Child strand. The theory: Students learn best when all facets of each young person–mind and body, culture and creativity, intelligence and emotions–are equally engaged in academic environments.  The goal: To ensure that every single student in the Austin Independent School District receives high-quality academic instruction presented in relevant, active, culturally-sensitive and emotionally healthy ways.

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SEL made an engaging presentation with Coordinated School Health, emphasizing the value of movement-based “Brain Breaks” to get the blood flowing while practicing academic vocabulary and concepts.  For the SEL aspect, we incorporated the Committee for Children‘s ARR strategy (Anticipate-Reinforce-Reflect) to take advantage of any moment during an academic class, Brain Break or otherwise, to reinforce and practice social and emotional skills like turn-taking, active listening, and empathy.  CWC writers found standing partners and touched opposite elbows and knees while sharing the answers to questions, engaging both halves of the brain while practicing concept recall.  They played modified rock-paper-scissor type games involving quick mental math to exercise the logical frontal cortex, all while managing emotions that arise from learning new skills and winning or losing.  The more brain we can engage in our students, the more our students will engage with learning!

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The Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness presentation modeled activities designed to give every student academic choice and opportunities to share their perspective on a topic, either aloud or written.  CWC participants read different passages from the book Teaching with Vision: Culturally Responsive Teaching in Standards-Based Classrooms (Christine E. Sleeter and Catherine Cornbleth) and “jigsawed” their impressions and reactions on a piece of paper divided into four sections, so that each reader received information and brain power from others in their group.  We then did an interactive gallery walk, where thoughtful questions on posters prompted group members to discuss their answers and share them on post-it notes left on the poster for the next group.  Such strategies encourage equal participation from all members of a class, and invite each student to share their unique perspective based on their own life experiences, cultural background, multiple identities and learning style.  Ensuring that every single student learns in a safe, inclusive, respectful, and culturally-aware environment is the ultimate goal of Cultural Proficiency and Inclusion!

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The Creative Learning Initiative ties it all together, bringing visual art, music, movement- and drama-based strategies to reinforce learning and provide multiple ways of practicing, sharing and applying academic concepts.  For example, activities such as “Machine” and “Build a Phrase” lend themselves to teaching about cycles and systems. In “Machine,” students choose and physically act out different components of a system, like a business, body system, or actual machine.  They then must act out how the different parts would go together, and brainstorm what would happen if parts malfunctioned, disappeared, or changed speed!  In “Build a Phrase,” students create and agree upon movements that represent different parts of a cycle, and then perform the result. Our group represented the water cycle, and the modern dance that emerged thrilled us all!  These and other creative learning strategies (Hot Seat!  Town Hall!) help CWC writers include unique and exciting activities that reinforce academic goals.

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The “old school” idea of public education–students sitting in desk-rows, listening to the teacher lecture for 45 minutes–is changing quickly as more and more research shows that students learn best when their bodies, intellects, emotions and experiences are engaged in the classroom.  The Whole Child, Every Child strand at AISD’s Curriculum Writers Cadre has provided myriad whole-child options to incorporate into the district’s curricula, keeping AISD on the leading edge of education design.  It may be summer vacation, but we are #AISDproud and #SELsmart, year-’round!

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