Spring Semester 2016!

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Welcome to your brand new semester, Austin ISD SEL fans!  Happy 2016! As a new year begins, it’s a great time to get back in touch with the five competencies of Social and Emotional Learning. These are the concepts we explicitly teach and practice with all 83,000+ students in our district, helping guide their paths toward engaged learning, positive citizenship and rich lives. Here is the Wheel of SEL Competencies, explained by an American luminary leader we also celebrate this week!

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As we remember the legacy of Dr. King in our hearts and classrooms, we revitalize the journey of growth, compassion, and learning for our students and ourselves. Here’s to new beginnings!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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

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“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

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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?”

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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.

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“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.”

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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).”

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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.

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

Keeth Matheny and His Austin High School MAPS Students Were Stars at a National Conference!

Wouldn’t it be cool if a group of Austin ISD students got to share their Social and Emotional Learning experience with educators from all over the country–even the world?  Say, at a national conference dedicated to defining and refining the kinds of educational practices that keep kids in school and prepare them for career and life success?  Picture it: high-level professionals dedicated to figuring out what works best for young people in schools, listening to actual young people talk about what works best for them and their school.  And the whole topic is Social and Emotional Learning.  Sounds good right?

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Well guess what…IT ACTUALLY HAPPENED.  On Tuesday, October 27th, Mr. Keeth Matheny of Austin High School took a group of 23 AHS students to facilitate a session with 180 educators at the National Dropout Prevention Network‘s annual conference. Mr. Matheny has been an active participant and frequent presenter at many NDPN conferences in years past; however, the national events have been held in places like Kentucky, Minnesota and Florida.  When the 2015 conference was slated to be held in San Antonio, Mr. Matheny recognized a unique opportunity–it was time to get student voice in on the national education conversation!

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Current and former MAPS students interact with educators during the session, called “School Transformation Through a Social and Emotional Learning-Based Seminar Course.”

The National Dropout Prevention Network paid for the transportation and registration of the 23 current and former MAPS students for that Tuesday.  They attended plenary and break-out choice sessions alongside teachers and administrators, social workers and superintendents.  Then, from 1:30-3:00, those students sat at the round tables among 180 adult participants from all over the country and world, and facilitated activities and discussions while Mr. Matheny led the presentation.  The session was designed to provide educators with concrete student engagement strategies and authentic class experiences from the freshman seminar MAPS (Methods for Academic and Personal Success) course. This course has enjoyed such success at Austin High, other high schools in Austin, and even several in other parts of the country.

Mr. Matheny has been instrumental in designing and implementing MAPS, which uses a research-based Social and Emotional Learning curriculum to prepare freshmen for the personal and organizational challenges associated with high school and beyond. The AHS students represented cutting-edge Austin ISD Social and Emotional Learning tactics by facilitating activities from the MAPS class itself with the session participants. They also shared ways they have personally benefited from the course.  This kind of student voice and involvement embedded in the session gave attendees an unprecedented and informative experience at the NDPN conference.

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Many of the students who participated in and facilitated activities at the conference had been out of MAPS for years, but still could teach the lessons and speak to the impact that the course has had on their lives.

It takes a special kind of educator to recognize how valuable student voice would be in this national venue, and Keeth Matheny is a special kind of educator.  In fact, as if getting students to the National Dropout Prevention Network conference wasn’t awesome enough, there is another reason why the 2015 conference was particularly exciting–Mr. Matheny received the highly prestigious National Dropout Prevention Network’s Crystal Star Award of Excellence.  According to their website,

“The purpose of the National Dropout Prevention Network (NDPN) Crystal Star Awards of Excellence in Dropout Recovery, Intervention, and Prevention is to identify and bring national recognition to outstanding individuals who have made significant contributions to the advancement of the mission of the NDPN.”

The fact that Mr. Matheny received this award that morning in the presence of his family, colleagues, administrators and students represents the best of Austin Independent School District.

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(l-r) Amy Taylor, AHS Principal; Keeth Matheny; Julea Douglass, School Connect representative; Aaron Vohl, AHS Asst. Principal. Diana Trimino, the AHS graduation coach, also attended the conference and awards ceremony.

Student voice at a national education conference? Prestigious awards of excellence?  Just another Tuesday in October for AISD.  We sure are #AISDProud of Mr. Matheny and his #SELSmart MAPS students!

Palm Positivity!

walkingupOctober 30th brought thunderstorms, sideways rain, tornado warnings and flash floods all over Austin. AISD schools had to draw on their reserves of resilience and positivity to manage the repercussions of hazardous weather conditions: power outages, hours of sheltering-in-place protocol, flash flooding.  Local news and social media were filled with stories of teachers and school staff keeping students safe.   In some areas, school property and the personal belongings of staff and students were lost or damaged.  Unfortunately, Palm Elementary in southeast Austin was hit hardest: 23 classrooms in an entire wing of the school were flooded.  Palm was closed on Monday, November 2nd on account of clean-up efforts, and so that Pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten and 1st Grade teachers could prepare to hold their classes somewhere else for the next month.

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“Somewhere else” turned out to be the Allan Center, a former elementary school and multipurpose AISD facility.  Palm students and teachers met at their home school on Tuesday morning to ride buses over to Allan, where they were greeted by Principal Coleman and the administrative and counseling teams. principalwelcome2Even though the displacement situation was tough, the attitude from teachers and administrators was cheerful and upbeat! From high-fives at Allan’s entrance to maintaining daily closing circles before heading back to Palm for dismissal, everyone involved drew upon their own resilience, positivity, and sense of connectedness to forge ahead with learning. circle2

Of course, all this resilience can make you hungry!  Luckily, helping out schools in need is second nature to the Austin community.  Three local businesses—THREE!—donated lunch to the displaced Palm teachers and staff.  Gourmand’s donated delicious sandwiches and their house-made pickles and chips.  Gino’s East gave several decadent deep-dish Chicago-style pizzas.  And East Side Pies provided a stunning array of their large specialty thin-crust pizzas!  The wide variety and deliciousness of the food donated without hesitation by these local eateries lifted the spirits of the school community—there was even enough food left over to bring back to Palm at the end of the day!

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This is a story about the strength, grit and positivity of Palm elementary students and staff in the face of disaster, and the outpouring of generosity from the community at large.  This is an illustration of how compassion and community can concretely make the world a little bit better than it was the week before.  We are #SELGrateful for Gino’s East, Gourmands, and East Side Pies, and #AISDProud of Palm Elementary.

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

Trust, Empathy…and John H. Reagan Raiders Football

DSC_0089-LThe John H. Reagan Raiders football team had a record of 9 wins to 71 losses between the years 2004 and 2011.  In the past 2 years, they have won 9 games (2 games still left in the 2015 season)! This is a team surging forward in a massive comeback.  What could be driving this powerful #ReturnofReagan? Fresh talent? Harder workouts? New strategies?

Try trust and empathy.  Head Coach Keith Carey joined the team in February 2012, with the quote “The sooner that we can earn each other’s trust and start caring about each other, then the Xs and Os will take care of themselves and the wins will take care of themselves.”  From the moment he first stepped onto the Raider home field, Coach Carey has been steadfast in his goal to build a team rooted in care and trust and growing in success–on that field, in school, and in life.

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Traditionally, the words “caring” and “empathy” seem out of place within the context of full-body contact, earth-shattering tackles and clashing helmets. A football field doesn’t usually leap to mind as a place to get in touch with emotion. Football players have been expected to act like “men,” based on a negative definition of men as invulnerable people unaffected by feelings. Coach Carey is working with the young men on his team to change the very core of this traditional attitude about football. He says, “Now we understand that we can use the idea of a real team–made up of men who share their feelings, fears, and care for one another–to redefine manhood.”

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The team engages in intentional exercises to tell their stories, share their fears, communicate their feelings and openly appreciate each other. “The truth is that young people are struggling every day with terrible fear, insignificance, sadness, pain. We acknowledge that we are all struggling with deep pain.  Then it’s easier to share it,” says Carey. For many students that Carey coaches, football practice may be the only venue to share authentically about their painful struggles. Holding a team space that is safe, respectful, non-judgmental, positive and open has been Carey’s mission. This is how he is building his powerhouse of a cohesive team. “We talk every day about how the #1 predictor of success for our team is how much we care about one another.”

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The mission is even bigger than that, though, for the Reagan Raiders: By redefining the idea of men as caring, open team members who speak about their emotions, they are growing social and emotional leaders of the school and the future. “We address that it can feel awkward to talk to each other in an emotional way. But we keep telling these kids that they will be the generation that changes traditional ideas about male identity and even breaks the cycle of domestic violence by learning to express their feelings in appropriate, authentic ways.”  When the team faces challenges and setbacks, Coach Carey frames them in terms of the greater purpose–learning to be resilient and successful in life. “Every setback prepares us for situations that will arise as we take on the most important roles in our lives, like being husbands and fathers.  That is our mission as a team; it is bigger than any setback.”

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Coach Keith Carey and the John H. Reagan Raiders are doing impactful work both on and off the football field. This video, which shows core team values juxtaposed with spectacular Raider football plays, sums it up nicely:

We are #AISDProud of the Reagan Raiders! Keep it up! #NotWithoutHonor

More about SEL in school athletics:

SEL in Action! Part I

SEL in Action! Part II

SEL in Action! Part III

SEL in Action! Part IV