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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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Photo Credit: Stephanie Friedman

Campus Highlight: O. Henry Middle School

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“O. Henry places a high priority on Social-Emotional Learning,” writes Peter Price, Principal for the past 15 years. “Yes, academics are absolutely critical. But, at the end of the day, our kids’ social and emotional well-being trump academics. We must shower each and every student with love and affection, so that they feel valued, secure, and confident.”

This quote from Mr. Price of O. Henry Middle School (Sara Marler, West Austin News, November 2013) gets to the kernel of what makes O. Henry an outstanding example of Social and Emotional Learning implementation.  Mr. Price has worked with his faculty and staff to build a campus climate rooted in empathy and trust, and centered on high-quality student learning.

This connected community of learners has created ACES, which stands for Academics, Curriculum, Enrichment and Support.  This advisory structure creates a flexible learning environment in which each individual student receives the most effective learning opportunity tailored to their needs.  Need a little extra reading practice? Join a book club and read The Hunger Games!   Is a bit of extra support in math your cup of tea? Explore real-world math problems and play engaging math games!  Feeling okay about math and reading, but wondering about Quidditch?  Have a burning desire to try out fantasy football?  Need to dig into some hands-on, in-depth, serious business science?  ACES has O. Henry Mustangs covered, and teachers choose and create these enrichment classes based on personal interest and expertise.  But wait! What about explicit Social and Emotional Learning instruction?

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Every other week, in every ACES course across the whole campus, everyone participates in an SEL lesson.  Students and faculty engage with each other around topics like assertive communication, collaboration and group work, empathy, and handling issues like cyberbullying, the focus for the ACES SEL lesson this week.  Lessons are based largely on the evidence-based Second Step curriculum, and often include extensions and supplemental materials presented by teachers to make the topic at hand relevant and engaging for each class.  This commitment to Social and Emotional Learning, coupled with a focus on developmentally appropriate academic and enrichment opportunities, has created a powerful vehicle for rigorous learning and school community.

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This sense of community and engagement permeates O. Henry and contributes to its positive campus culture.  The school has enjoyed high academic success rates and recognition on both state and national levels, in large part due to the focus on meeting each individual learner’s academic, social and emotional requirements. Principal Pete Price and his dynamic staff have been willing to seek out successful structures from other schools and districts, take risks, and implement innovative learning techniques, all in the name of creating the best possible learning environment for the diverse needs of the Mustangs that come to O. Henry.  We are #AISDProud of the faculty, staff and students at O.Henry Middle School for their commitment to SEL and their vision of high-quality academic, social, and emotional learning for all!

Thanks to Sarah Stone, Social and Emotional Learning Specialist, for her contributions to this post.

#AISDPride Week 2015 an Iridescent Success!

pridestickerThis past week (Sept. 21-25 2015), Austin ISD observed #AISDPride Week in celebration of inclusiveness and in support of our students and staff who identify within the LBGTQIA rainbow spectrum.  And celebrate we did! From pre-K to high school, all over our city, campuses showed off colorful evidence of safe, welcoming cultures.patton21

This marquee proudly notified Patton passers-by of #AISDPride Week plans…

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…while Patton counselors showed off their official #AISDPride Week posters, stickers–and, of course, spectacular spectrum socks!

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Chihuly-inspired rainbow art adorned the halls at Blackshear Elementary…

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…Gullett Pre-K created a handy dandy welcoming rainbow…

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…And TA Brown had all hands on deck for diversity and inclusiveness!

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Bedichek Middle School Cheerleaders cheered us on to cheer ourselves…

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…Small MS put up a bulletin board celebrating students, faculty and staff…

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…and Martin MS put their hearts where their tweets are to spread the word about welcoming, inclusive language.

Speaking of hearts,

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McCallum High School students in the campus’ Gay/Straight Alliance spread this message of love all around their campus, recruiting heart-givers along the way until nearly every McCallum student either gave or got a Pride Week Heart!

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Bowie HS counselors showed their #AISDPride with this fabulous United, Welcoming and Inclusive States of America Flag…

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And Reagan HS teachers put a twist on football spirit facepaint to show their #AISDPride!

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Reagan also hosted a FABULOUS photo booth where everyone could show their #AISDPride self-expression.

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Basically, the #AISDPride hashtag blew up all last week from all corners of AISD, as schools showed the world their commitment to creating safe, welcoming and inclusive learning environments for every student and staff member.  And of course, the Social and Emotional Learning team couldn’t help but  take their #AISDPride and SOCK it to ’em…

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…and need we say more about Chief Schools Officer Edmund Oropez and Superintendent Paul Cruz?

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We are #AISDProud of our #AISDPride, and all the schools across our district who participated to make a brilliant Pride Week 2015!  Can’t wait for next year!

September 21st-25th is AISD Pride Week!

Next week, the Austin Independent School District will embrace the LGBTQIA rainbow by celebrating Pride Week, unequivocally supporting our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, and Asexual-identifying members of the AISD community.  Rainbow stickers will abound!  Students will engage in thought-provoking, community-building activities!  LGBTQIA allies will come out of the woodwork, panels will speak on local LGBTQIA issues, and schools will show their pride in diverse ways that represent the multitude of campus cultures across our city.  AISD’s Number 1 Core Belief from our Strategic Plan Framework is that “All students will graduate college-, career-, and life-ready.” And, as Superintendent Dr. Paul Cruz often reinforces,

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Studies show and people know that students who feel heard, seen, and safe at school learn more and enjoy better academic and personal outcomes.  This safety and inclusiveness is critical for students who identify as LGBTQIA–these are the students who suffer the most bullying, miss more school days due to fear of harassment, and tragically represent high rates of attempted and completed suicide.  Since some reports suggest that as many as 1 in every 9 American students identify as LGBTQIA, intentional focus on creating safe, welcoming and inclusive school environments is a critical issue.  In the wise words of our own Pam Martin, Social and Emotional Learning Parent Support Specialist,

“As humans we all have a need to belong. When students don’t feel as though they belong, they do one of two things: they act out or retreat. Sometimes they retreat in the ultimate way, and none of us want that for our children.”

This year, the Austin Independent School District debuts an online Pride Week Toolkit full of resources and activities, like this lesson plan from the Anti-Defamation League addressing this “Love Has No Labels” video by AdCouncil:

There are posters to put up all around campus:

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And helpful resources from the Human Rights Campaign‘s Welcoming Schools program about learning how to handle negative language toward the LGBTQIA community:

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We are #AISDproud to be a school district that leads the way in creating welcoming, safe, inclusive educational environments for every single student, every single day.  Stay tuned to the #AISDpride hashtag on Twitter, and your favorite AISD Social and Emotional Learning blog, for AISD Pride Week updates from around the ATX!

SEL Summer Work In Pictures

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SEL curriculum writers linking it up at Curriculum Writers Cadre 2015

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Brain breaks on the brain at CWC 2015

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Considering classroom community culture at CWC 2015

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Our delightful doorsign at McCallum for CWC 2015

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Dr. Darla Castelli at Whole Child, Every Child Summer Institute 2015

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Dr. Teri Wood at WCEC Summer Institute 2015

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Feeling Speedometer from WCEC Summer Institute 2015

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Dr. Paul Cruz reads The Jolly Postman at WCEC Summer Institute 2015

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Learning is…

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Dr. Raphael Travis at WCEC Institute 2015

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Practicing intentional SEL academic integration at the Anderson SEL Vertical Team Training

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There ARR always opportunities to Anticipate-Reinforce-Reflect SEL skills and concepts!

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Practicing self reflection

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Double-Double-This-This brain break

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What Self-Management looks like/sounds like for students and adults at Anderson VT SEL training

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Lanier Vertical Team SEL training at Padron Elementary!

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Implementation next steps

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Illustrating hope

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Collaboration and contemplation at Lanier VT SEL traning 2015!

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such brainstorming!

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Aleza Berube at Summer Science Institute 2015, blowin’ our minds with growin’ our minds

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SumSci15 participants learning the ropes of Growth Mindset!

Whole Child, Every Child Summer Learning Institute

Last week, the Social and Emotional Learning team presented the first-ever AISD Whole Child, Every Child (WCEC) Summer Learning Institute in collaboration with the Creative Learning Initiative, Coordinated School Health, and Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness.  With the current district-wide focus on the integration of whole-child classroom practices, this institute engaged some of the most innovative educators and community members in three days of powerful collaborative learning.

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Dr. Paul Cruz, AISD Superintendent, gave the opening keynote address.  He spoke of the essential role that Whole Child, Every Child practices play in re-inventing the urban public school experience, and challenged AISD educators to take full responsibility for educating each unique individual that makes up the district’s 85,000 student base. He thanked the Institute’s dedicated attendees for leading the way!

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Dr. Paul Cruz, AISD Superintendent

The rest of the first day was devoted to learning the importance of physical movement and mental state in the classroom, and how deepening our understanding of the student brain can help improve attention, increase retention, and maintain or bring on engagement.  Dr. Darla Castelli of the University of Texas shared her expertise on the neuroscience of student movement in a dynamic keynote presentation, which underscored new research supporting how important physical activity is to mental health and quality learning.

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Dr. Darla Castelli

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Dr. Teri Wood

After lunch, Dr. Teri Wood (also from UT and AISD) gave an emotionally compelling presentation on creating trauma-informed classroom practices.  After demonstrating how traumatic experiences compromise learning and can negatively affect student success, she shared concrete strategies for improving classroom climate with trauma-informed teaching.  And to wrap up a day of intense learning, the ever-engaging Michele Rusnak and Sherrie Raven duo presented on the physical, psychological and social/emotional benefits of taking brain breaks during classroom learning.  We broke a sweat learning more concrete strategies!

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Michele Ruznak (l) and Sherrie Raven

The second day of the WCEC Summer Learning Institute was dedicated to the Creative Learning Initiative.  Dr. Brent Hasty of MindPop gave the opening keynote, emphasizing the critical importance of using experiential creativity in the classroom to create safety, build community, and increase learning.

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CLI presenters Yesenia Herrington and Ruthie Fisher facilitated drama- and movement – based activities designed to increase engagement and retention for concepts in all four core subjects.  Participants actively practiced strategies like Statues, Build-A-Phrase, and Town Hall Meeting for use in teaching and coaching.  Much learning and laughing was had by all!

Yesenia Herrington facilitating the building of a Friendship Machine

Yesenia Herrington facilitating the building of a Friendship Machine

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Dr. Anthony Brown

On the morning of the final day, we turned our attention to Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness.   Dr. Anthony Brown of UT gave an historical rundown of the different narratives told about Black men in the United States, and how they have shaped the policy and design of the education system.  Healing the inequity that has resulted from racist historical narratives is a large, complex and critical challenge–Dr. Brown invited us to ask the right questions in education and change the discourse on a local, state and national level.  His enlightening talk was followed by Dr. Raphael Travis of Texas State University, who guided our thinking about the critical nature of building classroom community.  He spoke about how learning flourishes in classrooms and schools where belonging, connectedness and safety have been intentionally established.  When students feel that their experiences, backgrounds and voices are heard and valued, and that they are seen, known and trusted, strong relationships and rigorous learning take root and grow vigorously. Lunchtime arrived with participants feeling a renewed sense of mission and vision.

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Dr. Raphael Travis

The afternoon of day three saw breakout sessions with Social and Emotional Learning coaches presenting sessions on Effective Teacher Language, Growth Mindset, and SEL Curricular Integration, and a teacher team from Covington Middle School shared their expertise in a session on service learning. Participants from different levels and with different interests chose the sessions that were most relevant to them as educators, and everyone had the chance to discuss new ideas and try out new practices that had been offered over the course of the Institute.  Door prizes were awarded, applause was enthusiastic, and we parted ways looking forward to the fast-approaching school year. Thanks so much to our collaborators, to the SEL Professional Development Committee, and all our participants for making such an engaging and enlightening Whole Child, Every child Summer Learning Institute!

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