Austin ISD Circles Up!


This image represents a harm-focused, reactive approach popularized by the Criminal Justice System. Austin ISD is taking a proactive, education-focused whole child, whole adult, whole community approach to Restorative Practices. #RPAustinISD

Austin ISD is planning for a Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices (RP) approach in its schools. The district recognizes  the need to address systemic inequities and improve campus climates and cultural proficiency. The faculty, staff and administrators in the Akins vertical team, for example, have received basic training in Culturally Responsive RP to begin their restorative journey. Other schools around the district are exploring community-building circles in classrooms and with faculty and staff to deepen connectedness and build campus culture.  So what exactly are Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices, and how do they fit into our district’s push to increase student voice, close achievement gaps, and address disciplinary action inequities?


In Austin ISD, Culturally Responsive RP are rooted in these Core Assumptions for the whole child and whole adult:


The core self may not be reflected in how people behave, but beneath the masks we adopt is a deeper, healthier self.


What we do to others, we are also doing to ourselves although we may not always be aware that this happening.


All people want to love and be loved and all people want to be connected.


All gifts are indispensable to the well-being of the whole.


There are rich reservoirs of talent and wisdom within our communities waiting to be accessed.


There is a connection between the mind, body, and spirit in all that we do.


We need practices which help us connect to our core self so we can live in alignment with our values and build healthy relationships in families and communities.

Adapted from: “Heart of Hope Resource Guide” Suffolk University, Center for Restorative Justice Carolyn Boyes-Watson and Kay Pranis 2009


Because the very nature of Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices is doing it with, rather than to, an individual or community, schools exploring RP are introducing it authentically in ways that best serve that campus. Community circles are generally done with a centerpiece, to focus thoughts and words, and a passed-around talking piece, to hold space for equity of voice. However, circles can look lots of different ways!  Here are some pictures of how Restorative Practices look around our district right now.


Ms. Polk facilitates a circle with 7th graders in her classroom at Martin Middle School.


Secondary and elementary staff from the Discipline Alternative Learning Placement campuses debrief a professional development activity in community circles.


Staff from the Akins Vertical Team model a community circle during an RP training (for the whole vertical team!)


Ms. DeLaTorre at Walnut Creek Elementary facilitates a circle with her 5th graders.

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Though these pictures are from all around our district, every one of them shows people talking to each other in circles. The circle is the hallmark of Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices, which is rooted in the ancient indigenous tradition of forming circles to communicate effectively in community. Austin ISD is exploring a whole school, whole child, whole adult Culturally Responsive Approach to Restorative Practices. Although circles are the most visible piece of the process, restorative practices is #MoreThanCircles. Restorative practices provides a framework that helps us create a school culture and climate that is safe, welcoming and inclusive. The AISD Social and Emotional Learning team supports Culturally Responsive RP community-building circles. We are excited about the deep Restorative Practice work beginning in Austin ISD, and look forward to seeing it serve the social and emotional needs of all our students and staff! We are #AISDProud that we are continuously working on #AISDEquity!

Check out this Restorative Practices Twitter chat from December 2016 to experience part of the larger, real conversation that is helping to move our Culturally Responsive RP journey forward. For more information about Austin ISD Culturally Responsive Restorative Practices, contact Angela Ward (, who collaborated on this blog post!


T.A. Brown Elementary School is a Resilient Education Family!

When our district discovered that T.A. Brown Elementary School’s building was not structurally safe, our leaders had to move quickly to ensure that teaching and learning could continue with as little disruption as possible. Reilly Elementary opened their arms and school to T.A. Brown’s Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten students and staff unreservedly,  and Allan Elementary gladly made space for 1st-5th grades, just like it did for the Palm Elementary community last year. However, change is rarely easy, and big change involving physically moving all the stuff and people away from a beloved building for the rest of the year can cause lots of big feelings!


T.A. Brown students and staff pulled together as a resilient education family to weather the storm of changing locales, and community partners and district resources rushed to help take care of them. Social and Emotional Learning Specialists partnered with elementary counselors from across the district to lead a special lesson on the first day in all the T.A. Brown classes at Reilly and Allan, working with students and teachers to process feelings, share hopes, and reinforce the strong education family ties that keep the T.A. Brown community together through thick and thin.

leadersThis slideshow features photos from the first day of T.A. Brown at Allan and Reilly. Community partners and district employees enthusiastically helped teachers move their classrooms into the new spaces and provided lunch for them. Students and teachers participated in community circles and created paper name chains of support and connection to decorate their new classrooms. School leaders and collaborators greeted students and teachers at the door with balloons and welcoming signs.  We are so #AISDProud of the T.A. Brown resilient community of learners!

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Real Teachers Talk Part II: Spring Semester SEL

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Winter Celebrations!

Human beings love to celebrate–in fact, it’s critical to our well-being and good for our brains. From the very beginning of civilization, we humans have found cause to celebrate around the time of the winter solstice. Indeed, between the end of October/beginning of November, all the way through the end of January (in the northern hemisphere; June-July in the southern hemisphere), there is a high concentration of celebrations, holidays and religious observations from most of the world’s religions and cultures.  Many of these involve families, friends and communities coming together around food, light, and love. We’ve generally heard of some big ones, like Christmas and Hanukkah–what other celebrations are observed around the world?


Muhammad’s Birthday, or Eid Milad ul-Nabiis celebrated by many Muslims.  Because the Islamic calendar is lunar and days are measured from sunset to sunset, dates vary from year to year. In 2015, the Prophet’s Birthday was celebrated on January 3rd, and in 2016 it will fall on December 12th. Observances of this holiday range from quiet meditation and prayer to exuberant parades and parties. Some Muslims choose not to celebrate this holiday at all, and in some countries it’s a national holiday.


Kwanzaa was established in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor at California State University.  It has roots “…in the first harvest celebrations of Africa from which it takes its name. The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase ‘matunda ya kwanza’ which means ‘first fruits’ in Swahili, a Pan-African language which is the most widely spoken African language.” Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday celebrated by African-Americans and Africans worldwide from December 26th through January 1st, and often involves family gatherings, home-made food, and meaningful gift exchanges. It was created to reinforce and celebrate the traditional African values of:  Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).


Soyal (or Soyalangwul) is a major winter solstice celebration and feast observed by the Native American Hopi and Zuni people of the Southwest. It starts on the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, which is usually between December 20th-22nd, and is marked by nine days of kiva rituals, communal meals, dances, and festivities. A major aspect of Soyal is the return of the Katsinam, or Kachinas, who “…remain with the people for the first half of the Wheel of the Year until the summer solstice, when they return to their home in the mountains. The kachinas are benevolent anthropomorphic beings, who can be male or female, and represent a host of animals, plants and natural phenomena. They are greatly celebrated and revered and their presence is associated with rain, crops and healing the sick.” In some traditions, the Kachinas arrive with gifts for the children in the community.


Omisoka is the Japanese New Year celebration.  It is observed starting on December 31st with thorough house cleaning and cooking traditional foods, followed by 3 days of resting and welcoming the brand new year. Families and friends gather to clean, eat and party together, usually enjoying soba buckwheat noodles to represent longevity and decorated mochi rice cakes for luck.  As midnight approaches on December 31st, Buddhist temples begin to ring their large brass bells 108 times.  According to Shinto tradition, each ring of the bell purifies the soul of one of the 108 worldly desires that humans must overcome to reach enlightenment.  During Omisoka, Japanese people literally ring in the new year!


Yule is an ancient winter solstice celebration with origins in northern Europe, and still celebrated by many people all over the world. The word “yule” translates from Celtic languages to mean “wheel,” and the observance of Yule celebrates the cycle of the sun and the seasons.  It traditionally involves lighting candles to represent the return of the sun, adorning evergreen trees, putting up red, green and gold decorations in the home, exchanging gifts among family members, and feasting on turkey or pork.  Special songs are often sung during the Yuletide, and a Yule log is ceremonially burned to welcome the sun back to the northern hemisphere.

Intrigued by these global holidays and observances? AISD students Claudia Durand, Natalie Bennett, and Lily Harris of Austin High created a special Google Slides presentation about diverse winter holidays as a Anti-Defamation League No Place for Hate activity!  Check out even more information about worldwide celebrations (Bodhi Day! Boxing Day!), and share with your students and/or family! May your winter days be merry and bright!


December Homestretch!

We’re in the homestretch of the first semester!  These next few weeks before winter break are often full of excitement and celebration, but they can also be stressful and anxiety-provoking for all the members within a school community.  Luckily, there are plenty of resources out there to help our students and ourselves stay calm and mindful before the holidays.


The Devereaux Foundation and its affiliated Devereaux Center for Resilient Children has these 7 Tips for Holiday Resilience, which are aimed at adult seasonal sanity, and also offers these ideas to foster social awareness in classrooms:

Holiday Tradition Quilt: Each student comes from a different culture and has his or her own customs. Use this time to allow students to share their holiday traditions with classmates. This can be done in multiple ways. One way is for each student to be given a square piece of construction paper as their “quilt” piece. On this they will draw or write a brief explanation of a custom or tradition that their family has over the holidays. When all pieces are completed, students can share aloud, if they choose, and discuss differences and similarities among themselves. This gives students a chance to reflect on their attitude towards others’ traditions in relation to their own. Another option is to partner or group students together. Each student will individually discuss one tradition that his or her family has (verbally or on paper). Then partners or groups will create one “quilt” piece together that reflects some combination of both or all traditions. This shows students how to listen to other ideas, and compromise on final solutions.


Help an Outside Organization: This can be a classroom or whole school effort. The holidays are a time that many people donate extra supplies, or time, to people or organizations in need. Classrooms can discuss why it is important to provide this care to people in need, and how they might feel over the holidays. Some sort of donation effort could be made by the students such as a canned food drive, collecting pet supplies for an animal shelter, or sending holiday cards to a local hospital or nursing home. This will give students a sense of doing good for others during this time.

Random Acts of Kindness Poster: Create a Random Acts of Kindness Poster for your classroom. Explain to students that a random act of kindness refers to a positive action done for them or to them unexpectedly. If students experience a positive interaction with a classmate they can add it to the poster. Younger students can draw a picture and explain it to the class. At the end of each week read over the poster with the class and recognize these positive interactions between students!


Team-Based Games: When reviewing for a test, or practicing a new skill, turn questions into a game format. Students can be put in teams and instructed to work together in order to come up with an answer to the question or problem. Before beginning the game, explain to students that they will need to cooperate in order to figure out the final answer. You can also add a bonus point for the team that works together best on each question. This will ensure those positive interactions are being recognized as well as the academic content of the game. Award a team winner based on correct answers, as well as the team who has the most points for working effectively as a team. This is a great way for students to experience authentic relationship skill building.

Speaking of team-based games and community-building opportunities, the Digital Activity Center from PeaceFirst is one of the most comprehensive, searchable resources for finding relevant connection experiences for students.  This time of year is perfect to restore and revitalize classroom culture ahead of the academic pressures of the spring semester.


Finally, amazing educators from around Austin ISD share their advice and encouragement for these December weeks:

“Every year, at this time of year, when my students come in for class they are relieved to come into a consistent routine.  They know exactly what is expected of them and what they need to accomplish via their agenda and objectives for the day, and the routine remains the same, as do the expectations.  And while I might supplement a lesson with a sponge activity (regarding the season,) we mostly remain on track.” –Middle School Choir Director

“This is the time of year where I go through old notes students have written me to remind me why I do what I do. What we need to remember is that these students who give us a “run for our money” during the year are the students who, on the last day of school, are always the ones that surprise us with their appreciation. This can rejuvenate our passion as educators to keep on fighting the good fight.”–Middle School Assistant Principal


“Introduce something completely new and utterly engaging. For example, this week, we are doing a modified version of Dungeons and Dragons to illustrate the way the Battle of Yorktown could have turned out.  Hey, I know I am going to have fun with it! And, when I have fun, my students tend to have fun!”–Learning Support Services Teacher

“1. Be kind, patient, and welcoming to other students and staff. EVERYBODY is stressed and people will GREATLY appreciate your calm demeanor and positive vibes.

2. SMILE as much as you can. Remember the reason you’re at work everyday, and keep that in mind when things get frustrating, complicating, and stressful.

3. Love your kiddos! Ask them about their holidays (or to be extra sensitive, ask how their break was or what they’re planning to do during their break!) They’ll love you for asking, and they’ll love to share. If this doesn’t work or apply to your situation, remind them of how much YOU love them and care about them. That’ll generate some warm, fuzzy feelings in their hearts.

4. Teach what you can in the best way that you can. The holidays are approaching and it is inevitable that students know and feel it (whether they want to or not). Do the best you can, trust me, they will appreciate you for it!” –High School Social Studies Teacher


Here’s a post from October with even more resources for staying calm and connected, as that is a similar time of transition and stress.  And if all else fails, stay with your breath! You are doing a great job!

Happy December!


Get Your Gratitude On!

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!






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.


“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!