Equity New Year to You!

Happy 2019 y’all!  The new year represents a moment to examine ourselves and our practices – personally and professionally, individually and collectively.  As educators working to create the best possible learning environments for ALL students, the turn of the year provides an important opportunity to consider how we create equity in our schools.

Skills learned through social and emotional learning support positive student outcomes and district equity initiatives. Check out the AIR researcher Jameela Conway-Turner discussing the link between social and emotional learning and equity:

How are we growing our capacity for equity work locally?

In recent years, our diverse district has deepened its commitment to intentional equity work in our schools, and examining and disrupting systems that perpetuate inequity, specifically racism, and the oppression of marginalized populations.  Our cultural proficiency and inclusiveness department, run by Angela Ward, Administrative Supervisor of Race and Equity, recently received a major Educational Innovation and Research (EIR) Grant to implement culturally responsive restorative practices in 10 schools.  This grant, from the US Department of Education, seeks to examine how our district’s commitment to restorative practices impacts glaring inequity in disciplinary actions and academic performance in schools.

From the AISD press release:

“With the restorative process, we’re aiming to build a positive classroom and school environment that helps students cultivate a high level of belonging and trust to engage with peers and adults in the school,” said Angela Ward, Administrative Supervisor of Race & Equity.

“The grant aims to lessen the use of suspensions and expulsions and their disproportionate impact on students with disabilities and students of color. Restorative practices build upon the district’s ongoing efforts to address equitable outcomes for our diverse student body,” said Michelle Wallis, Executive Director of Innovation and Development.

The 10 campuses participating in this grant have a dedicated Restorative Practice Associate based on-site, whose job is to work with campus leaders and staff to build a restorative culture rooted in each school’s unique environment and needs. This intentional focus on building culturally-responsive, restorative schools that cultivate positive relationships between all the members of the educational community will profoundly affect behavior and academic outcomes.

Walking the Talk

Educators and school leaders in our district have increasing opportunities to engage with professional development around educational equity, anti-racism work and cultural proficiency. In recent years, three CP&I cohorts have been held in which participants engage in personal and collective work on cultural proficiency. These cohorts continue to work on building professional learning experiences for colleagues to deepen understanding around the importance of culturally-responsive, anti-racist teaching and learning.  New teachers and teachers new to our district receive intentional cultural proficiency professional development as part of our August on-boarding process, and many campuses have participated in book studies of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond, a profoundly influential figure in our district’s ongoing work.


Keep it up!

There is so much work to be done! We continue to move forward together as a district, as an educational community, and as a part of a growing, crucial national conversation around disrupting inequitable and oppressive systems and practices in public schools.  Ready for more? Check out these resources!

American Institute for Research Equity Project

US Department of Education Equity of Opportunity

Center for Public Education article: Educational Equity: What Does it Mean, and How Do We Know When We Reach It?

Educational Equity Resources from EduTopia

Civil Rights in Education Database: look up any school to see discipline and academic data!

EdWeek Article on the relationship between SEL and educational equity/anti-racism work

Greater Good Berkeley article on SEL skills needed to discuss race in the classroom

How will you disrupt oppressive systems and move educational equity work forward in your sphere of influence in 2019? Let us know in the comments, and tag us on social media: @austinisdsel!

December: Spotlight on Service


The last month of the year in the northern hemisphere is filled with celebrations from many cultures, often honoring the winter solstice, the turning of the seasons, and the connection with family and community.  It can get hectic, of course, and pressure to buy presents and attend social events can narrow our focus toward material concerns and stressful experiences. Because of this, December is a great time to recenter our attention on the deep origins of myriad global holidays: celebrating love and life, and our human connection to one another. One way to reshape our focus is to consider ways we might serve our fellow humans.

Serving You Serves Me Too!

Most people who have participated in acts of service and volunteerism for causes they care about will report that they feel good, and maybe personally fulfilled, during and after the service. But, could it be that authentic altruistic service to others has measurable physical and emotional health benefits? This article from the New York Times explores this idea for young people, and this post from Harvard Health Publishing looks at it for adults in general. This post from HHP examines studies about volunteerism and specific benefits to heart health and lowered blood pressure. Although there is no medical evidence of a direct link between volunteerism and better health, the correlations found in current research are intriguing and promising.


Learning Through Service

There is no doubt that communities generally benefit from service-oriented individuals, and schools offer students, faculty and families unique opportunities to do intentional, authentic service within their community.  When carefully scaffolded and crafted, service learning experiences can be deeply educational for students and teachers.

Best practices in education often mention making “real-world” connections to subject matter presented in classrooms, as well as giving students choice and voice to engage with content in ways that are relevant to them.  Well-presented service learning projects are rich opportunities for students to make those real-world connections to learning, and have that learning be personally meaningful and lasting.

Vanderbilt University gives an excellent definition and breakdown of the benefits of service learning in educational environments, including:

Learning Outcomes

  • Positive impact on students’ academic learning
  • Improves students’ ability to apply what they have learned in “the real world”
  • Positive impact on academic outcomes such as demonstrated complexity of understanding, problem analysis, problem-solving, critical thinking, and cognitive development
  • Improved ability to understand complexity and ambiguity

Personal Outcomes

  • Greater sense of personal efficacy, personal identity, spiritual growth, and moral development
  • Greater interpersonal development, particularly the ability to work well with others, and build leadership and communication skills

Social Outcomes

  • Reduced stereotypes and greater inter-cultural understanding
  • Improved social responsibility and citizenship skills
  • Greater involvement in community service after graduation

The Gift of Service

Need ideas for how to get more service and volunteering in your life? The internet is full of them! Check out this list of 10 kid-friendly service projects! Read more about service learning and get some great inspiration from Edutopia! Fill your soul with the power of young people doing all kinds of great things at DoSomething! Explore family-oriented service projects from Doing Good Together! What thoughts do you have about incorporating service into your life or classroom practice?  Let us know in the comments, or tag us @austinisdsel!  We wish you warmth and happiness this holiday season, and look forward to 2019 together!


Speak Gratitude in November!

With November, we head into the holiday homestretch of the year. This is the time when life can start to feel pretty hectic! (As if it wasn’t already in October….) The building of  anticipation for the holiday season can be a reminder to mindfully slow down, take a pause, and consider gratitude.


Growing a sense of gratitude is certainly a relevant topic, as it is a big part of social and emotional learning (not just a theme in November!). Per the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence,

Gratitude acknowledges connection….When we contemplate our place in the intricate, interdependent network of life, we feel wonder and joy. That realization can lead us to express thanksgiving.

And you know how much the Austin ISD Social and Emotional Learning team loves to talk about connection, right? It’s one of the most fundamental aspects of authentic learning! Gratitude also has documented benefits for the physical body; again from the YCEI:

Not only is gratitude a warm and uplifting way to feel, it benefits the body as well. People who experience gratitude cope better with stress, recover more quickly from illness, and enjoy more robust physical health, including lower blood pressure and better immune function.


Let’s Get Grateful!

For something with so many concrete physical and psychological benefits, trying out a gratitude practice can be as simple as writing down, or even just intentionally saying out loud, something you’re grateful for each day.  Really. It can be that simple. But, of course, the internet is full of ideas for gratitude practices for every walk of life:

We often think of gratitude as an externally-directed emotion, but intentionally practicing thankfulness and compassion toward ourselves is just as important:

Practice the Practice

How will you invite more gratitude into your family, classroom and/or life this November? Do you hope to start a practice that can be taken into 2019 and beyond? Let us know by tagging @austinisdsel around social media, and dropping us a comment!  We sure are grateful for you!


October Balance

We’ve made it to October, SEL Fans – the month in which Fall really begins to begin here in Central Texas. Educators everywhere are presenting the core of their content, and often managing myriad tasks both personally and professionally.  It’s a lovely time of year, but it also can be one of the most stressful times. Therefore, it’s the perfect moment to consider balance in our lives.


The concept of work-life balance can be challenging–we all have so many things to do, and now we’re also supposed to make sure we’re prioritizing self-care, being mindful, and all that other stuff?  How do we even start to think about work-life balance?

Let’s Get Balanced!

Luckily, teachers are resourceful and willing to share, and two dynamic educators from Bedicheck Middle School wrote this article as a guest post all about how to infuse our school lives with more balance!

Christine Carter, author, sociologist, and life coach, offers these concrete tips for ways to feel more loved and connected, enjoy today more, and ease feelings of overwhelm.  She also suggests the following about the idea of “multi-tasking:”

The human brain did not evolve to focus on many things at once; it evolved to focus on one thing at a time. And so the brain does not actually ever multitask. It can’t actually run multiple apps at any one time; it can only switch rapidly between tasks. This is a giant energy drain for your brain.

Her whole premise is, if we give ourselves permission to do less, we actually become more productive. How about that for work-life balance! She even has a whole free online course about it! (For when you have the time. ;))

Bringing it back to education specifically, check out some online resources about teacher work-life balance here, here, and here.  And this article presents ideas for teachers, by teachers, especially about balancing school and family life.

Being an educator is hard work, and heart work, and can certainly be stressful. It’s often hard to see the impact of the effort we put in every day.  Remember that you are indeed making an impact, more than you may ever know, and that you deserve care, rest, and joy!


How will you invite some balance into your life this October? Let us know by tagging @austinisdsel on social media, and leaving your thoughts in the comments! We are so glad you are out there.

The Power of Connection

September is here, and educators are starting to deep dive into their content – the meat (or tofu) of the academic year, if you will. We’re working on building a welcoming, relationship-based learning environment; we’ve introduced and practiced classroom expectations and agreements; maybe we’ve even devised a collaborative social contract with our students. Now it’s time to start in with the real learning, right?


Teaching All Brains

Our students show up to our classrooms immersed in experiences – some great, some not so great, and some traumatic. Our students’ brains are looking at academic content with all those experiences as well. Some days, they might be 100% ready to learn, and other days not so much.

We adults can relate. Consider the days you come to work after a bad commute, a family argument, or lost phone/keys/backpack. It can be difficult to switch gears and get focused.

Well, for those children who experience deep and consistent trauma (food insecurity, family illness, transient living situations, institutional racism), they can have a hard time feeling safe enough to connect someone in the room, let alone connect with academic content.

psychology-2146166_1920It is our job and calling as professional educators to teach everyone who walks into our learning environment. We know that learning happens most effectively when teachers and learners have authentic connection. So, how can we take steps to foster this authentic connection with each of our students, considering their diverse experiences  and fluid brain states (and ours!)? How do we meet our students where they’re at, and invite them to reach their full learner potential?


Neuroscience For The Win!

Since teaching and learning happens in human brains, it’s helpful to know a little bit about brain science. Zaretta Hammond, educational equity advocate and author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, explains it this way:

There’s real science behind this idea of caring as the on-ramp to learning. When we feel cared for, our brain is flooded with neurotransmitters and hormones like oxytocin, the same hormone that makes moms fall in love with their babies even after the pain and effort of labor. These “happy chemicals” tell our pre-frontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain, that all is safe socially, emotionally and physically. All systems are a go for learning.

What happens if you don’t feel safe or cared for? Ain’t no learning happening. The flood of stress hormones like cortisol divert blood from the pre-frontal cortex to the amygdala, an almond-shaped organ in our reptilian brain, in preparation for fight or flight. Not the time for learning. The brain is signaling us that it’s time to respond to threats, not lay back and chill.

In order to lower cortisol levels (not good for learning) and increasing oxytocin (very good for learning) in the brains of our learners, we need opportunities where we can demonstrate care. A great place to start is developing intentional practices that foster connection.  Here are some ideas!

Hammond’s Trust Generators:

trust generators

Hammond, Zaretta. Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Thousand Oaks: Corwin, 2015

This Common Sense Education post talks about the theory behind games which are specifically designed to foster connection in the classroom!

Here is an Edutopia article with a list of six concrete connection-building activities to grow a caring learning community, with a special focus on English Language Learners.

Incorporating Austin ISD’s Three Signature SEL Practices (welcoming rituals, engaging pedagogy, optimistic closures) into classroom routines creates opportunities for ongoing connection-building!

Exploring how to introduce culturally-responsive restorative practice community building circles into learning environments is a powerful way to foster authentic care in learning environments.


There are all kinds of ways to build intentional connection practices into teaching and learning relationships, and educators have often been using their own methods for years. What are some ways you will build authentic caring and connection in your classroom this year? Let us know in the comments, and tag us in social media to keep us posted at @austinisdsel!

Welcome Back! Welcome Home! Welcome to August!

Happy August, Austin ISD Social and Emotional Learning fans! We are so excited for the potential and promise of a shiny new school year. Effective teaching and learning is rooted in building positive classroom relationships, so let’s hit the relationship-building ground running!


Sounds Great! Where Do We Start?

Teachers have been creating visuals, structures and systems in their classrooms that facilitate relationship-building since teaching was invented. Here are some tried-and-true ideas to consider for your learning space:


Of course, these are just a few ways to craft a relationship-based learning environment. Another idea is to consider incorporating the Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)‘s Three Signature SEL Practices:

signature practices

Check out this resource for more details and examples!

Okay, I’m Ready! Let’s Get To Work!

Creating a relationship-based classroom is one of the key ways we welcome our students back to their learning environment home. What relationship-building ideas are you inspired to try this year?  Let us know in the comments, and keep us posted on social media by tagging @austinisdsel and using the hashtag #WelcomeHomeAISD!


Build Brains by Building Relationships This February!

Newsflash: Learning happens in the brain! And, brains need other brains to learn! Human brains do, at least, along with many other species, like fruit flies, elephants, and dolphins. In fact, every single person you’ll meet this February has a human brain that is seeking to learn and connect.



Practices Foster Connection and Learning

As Zaretta Hammond says, “relationships are the on-ramp to learning;” and, more and more research backs this up. For instance, oxytocin is a chemical in the brain that is associated with positive social relationships and feelings of trust and connectedness. Studies show that systems and practices that foster relationship-building within the classroom community increase oxytocin levels for all involved. Why is this important? Well, it’s because increased positive connections in educational environments result in deeper, more authentic learning.


Relationship-building practices that increase oxytocin aren’t just for the classroom, either. Adults who experience positive social connection among colleagues are better able to hear and act on constructive feedback, generally perform better in the workplace, and experience a host of beneficial physiological effects. We know this intuitively, and with new developments in the ability to study the living brain, scientists are able to produce more and more research to confirm how true it is.



Relationship Building Resources

Our February theme of relationship-building invites educational communities to establish and grow practices that foster trust, connection and learning.  How do we do it? Together, of course! Check out these resources for some great ideas:




How are you building relationships?

February traditionally is all about Valentine hearts; let’s raise the bar and launch a year-round campaign to increase heart-full, authentic, and connected learning communities in education. From a literal and physical perspective, February is American Heart Health Month – the one beating in your chest right now! Taking care of your heart means moving more, stressing less, and practicing intentional self-care and self-compassion.  One way to do all of those healthy heart things is to cultivate positive, supportive relationships professionally and personally. February is also Black History Month; instead of just one month, let’s commit to creating welcoming, culturally-responsive educational environments where all students are truly seen, heard and respected all year long. What are you doing out there in the world to build positive relationships, boost oxytocin and be culturally responsive? Let us know in the comments! Or, tweet @austinisdsel using #AISDgot♥!