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.

DSC_5806-L

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.”

DSC_2096-L

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.”

image5 (2)

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.”

DSC_1123-L

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.

2015_butler_mindfulness_18

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.

2015_butler_mindfulness_24

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.

2015_butler_mindfulness_03

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.

2015_butler_mindfulness_29

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!

2015_butler_mindfulness_31

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!

2015_butler_mindfulness_37

Photo Credit: Stephanie Friedman

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!

circle-of-friends

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!

people-005

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 _____.

logo-heart-370x370

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

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

The New Wave

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.

star

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?

296670e

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!

commbuild1

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!

dr-seuss-quote

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