News! …and the Return of the Blog!

Hello again, Austin ISD SEL fans!  Happy October! We’ve been hard at work on SEL 2.0, with new team members, new opportunities, and a refreshed commitment to helping build a district where truly #ALLMEANSALL!


This summer on June 16th, McCallum High School hosted the first-ever SEL Summer Symposium, with presenters and participants from all over our district and city.  With over 40 break-out sessions and a dedicated leadership strand, 325 members of our AISD community learned and shared together about the most cutting-edge topics in Social and Emotional Learning.  Sessions topics ranged from “Frank Lloyd Wright and Restorative Classroom Management” to “The Neuroscience of Mindfulness;” “Color Blind or Color Brave?” to “SEL in Children’s Literature.” The sheer number of folks who showed up for the inaugural SEL Summer Symposium demonstrates how deeply Austin ISD educators believe in Social and Emotional Learning.

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(Photos by Eli Roberts)

Another significant first for the SEL Team was presenting at the Leadership Institute for about 400 administrators before school started.  With the focus on the overarching SEL theme “All Means All,” SEL Specialists presented a workshop on creating trauma-sensitive schools. The level of commitment from district leadership for Social and Emotional Learning work is the highest it has ever been!



(L-R) James, Angela, Lynne and Darla presented at the Leadership Institute.

In fact, SEL was the topic of the 10/7 “News from Dr. Cruz.”  Our superintendent had this to say about SEL 2.0:

Resiliency, positivity, grit and determination—these are just some of the skills that are foundational to Social and Emotional Learning. Now that AISD has implemented SEL at all of our schools, we’re moving on to SEL 2.0. This next iteration includes new practices that are integral to ensuring student success.

Mindfulness activities like breathing exercises help kids focus. Restorative practices counter old discipline techniques that don’t work and replace them with a relationship-based approach. Moreover, trauma-informed care is helping staff support students who are suffering from intense negative experiences.

Students need to learn about the five SEL competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships skills and responsible decision making. They have been described as soft skills, but I see them as essential skills.

Transitioning from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset is a major tenant of SEL 2.0 and one we need to embrace. A fixed mindset is the approach that individuals have “fixed” skills—that their capabilities are limited and finite. A growth mindset takes into account that the brain is constantly evolving, and that individuals can develop all kinds of new talents. This approach helps us reframe a student’s potential.

I’m proud of the positive, resilient people on our team who are preparing our students to excel. Thank you for the amazing work you’re doing now and for your exceptional commitment to our students.

Finally, our team is happy to welcome our new members, each of whom bring their unique experiences and gifts to support Social and Emotional Learning all over our district:


Theresa Garcia


Elena Rodriguez


Alonzo Blankenship II


Emily Hoaldridge-Dopkins


James Butler

Stay tuned…our blog is BACK!  See you soon with more Austin ISD SEL news!


Teachers, We Thank You.

Each beginning of May, at the academic and testing homestretch of the year, communities around the country observe Teacher Appreciation Week (5/2-5/6 2016). It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this, because:


It’s true.  Plumbers, lawyers, auto mechanics, surgeons, gardeners, rocket scientists all have one thing in common: Someone, at some point, taught them something about their chosen job or vocation, and it’s likely that the teaching and learning happened in some kind of educational environment. So we can also say that:


because teachers everywhere come to school every day to teach every kid that walks into their classroom, no matter what.  Each child who learns something from a teacher has been given a irrevocable gift: education is one of the few things that cannot be taken away from an individual. Teaching is one of the most literal, actual ways of affecting the future of a person, the future of a community, and the future of humanity.  What do some other influential people say about teaching?

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So we are so grateful for you, all you Austin ISD educators, and we are so proud of you.  And we want you to keep on keepin’ on, because you are doing the best, hardest work in the world.  Remember this post and this post about your colleagues sharing their own ways of doing intentional self-care? Well go back and look at those, and here are some other ideas as well:

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Thank you for your work, thank you for your passion, thank you for your perseverance. Humanity wouldn’t be itself without teachers.

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Much love to y’all! Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!



Peace Through Pie Through Pictures

On Monday, January 25th 2016, Lamar Fine Arts Academy hosted their annual Peace Through Pie event as part of their school-wide No Place for Hate yearly campaign. AVID students and student council representatives helped to put the program together.  They were guided by ELA teacher/NP4H Coordinator Dorothy Winburne, and Social and Emotional Learning facilitator/AVID teacher Constance Ledesma.   Kerren Campa, active parent and member of Lamar’s SEL Steering Committee, took on a leading role as well, getting pizza and pies donated from local businesses and taking care of logistics like cups, plates, water, and pie slicers.  She also managed the mild chaos of middle schoolers serving pie to other middle schoolers with effortless grace.  Check out all the awesome that happened on that peaceful evening!

Beautiful pies created and donated by Lamar parents and community partners–before the peaceful devouring

The devouring begins…peace can come through sharing all kinds of pies, including pizza pie!


Mr. Andrew Bennett, Assistant Principal and SEL Administrator Extraordinaire, enjoys a peaceful pie piece.

The program for the event

Beautiful mandalas created by 6th grade Lamar art students…

20160125_172853…Encouraging event participants to create their own mandalas for peace.

Student leaders got into peace promotion by wearing, singing, and reading for the theme…

…And performance groups lent their multitude of talents to the evening.


Parents, teachers and students added the names of famous peace promoters to this banner…


And Ms. Dorothy Winburne had the last word, sharing Lamar’s dedication to increasing the peace on the planet.

Thanks for another successful, delicious Peace Through Pie, Lamar Fine Arts Academy! We sure are #AISDProud of y’all!

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!


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?


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!


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.


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.


(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.


“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!

ginos gourmands eastsidepies

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!