SELebrations Newsletter May 2016

Congratulations Social and Emotional Learning fans, we made it to the last week of school! Don’t forget to appreciate all the amazing teachers that make our district an incredible learning environment, and take these trusty summer sanity tips with you into these next few months.  Oh yes, and enjoy our latest SELebrations newsletter, featuring our first 11 SEL model schools, some solid SEL science, things to think about for School Year 2016-17, and lots more! Read it below, or click each page to be taken to the “live” version for links and zoomable pictures. (Use ‘Ctrl + ‘ to zoom in here or there for easier reading!)

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Thanks so much for reading!  See you soon!

Real Teachers Talk Part II: Spring Semester SEL

Austin ISD is chock-full of passionate, compassionate, talented educators bringing Social and Emotional Learning to their students in every part of our fair city, every single day. Last time on the blog, two amazing teachers from Bedichek shared their insight on the importance of intentional self-care during the stresses of the spring semester.  Today, seven more outstanding teachers lend their thoughts and practices from around the district.  They are all at different schools in different capacities, and they have this in common: they know their students, and they know SEL!

Mr. Howard, 6th-8th Grade Math Teacher, Learning Support Services

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Mr. Howard works one-on-one with students experiencing long-term in-school suspension, teaching math and being a strong, positive, compassionate adult connection. He works hard to engage with each student authentically, so that their relationship facilitates lasting learning. He says that he does his best to stay relaxed and focused on one task at a time, so that he doesn’t get overwhelmed.  “I try to know about and anticipate obstacles and challenges, so that I can make a response plan,” he says.  “You can’t always predict what’s going to happen, but thinking through some possible responses to challenges that may arise helps me avoid feeling worried and reactive. This allows me to stay calmly focused on my students.”

Ms. Williams, 3rd Grade ESL Teacher, Linder Elementary

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Ms. Williams is a big fan of the Peace Area, a special place in classrooms where students can choose to go to manage strong emotions, resolve interpersonal conflicts, or just take a self-care break.  Many teachers like Ms. Williams have experienced professional development dedicated to the creation and effective use of Peace Areas in the classroom environment, and she even has one she can take with her wherever her students might end up!  “The Peace Area is a great tool to use in de-escalating and problem solving. I grab it and take it with me as I’m walking out the door with the kids. Since it’s portable I can bring it to recess or other places. It’s just a wonderful tool for me to use when modeling [social and emotional skills] for the kids.”

Peace Areas often contain soft stuffed animal friends, squeezy stress-balls, “calm down” bottles full of slow-settling glitter to watch, pictures of faces for emotion identification, paper and art supplies for self-reflective writing or drawing, and many other creative ideas for peace-making.  Many include a “peace path” and conflict resolution script for students to practice interpersonal assertive communication.  

Mr. Light, 9th-12th Grade English Language Arts Teacher, Alternative Learning Center

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Mr. Light covers his desk and classroom in quotes from famous folks addressing kindness, self-efficacy, and inspiration for learning. One in particular, from Oscar Wilde, serves as an important daily reminder: “Life is far too important to be taken seriously.” He builds and draws on his sense of gratitude as a self-care practice. “When the everyday drudgery settles in, when students become ‘snarky’ and push the buttons they know so well, when the work seems to keep piling up and you might wonder, What am I doing here? . . . These are the times to remember to set your mind on the bigger pictures (your dreams, your passions) and not merely what is in front of you. It helps you remember to enjoy life and to be thankful. It helps you remember to enjoy your students and to be thankful for them. It helps you. It helps them.”

Ms.Gandomi, 2nd Grade Teacher, Blackshear Elementary Fine Arts Academy

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Ms. Gandomi has found ways to weave her Social and Emotional Learning knowledge straight into challenging learning experiences for her scholars. “Subtraction with regrouping was really frustrating my students. I needed to find a way to teach my students to be kind and patient with themselves,” she says. “I created a lesson to teach them a more positive approach toward learning. First, we had a class discussion about neuroplasticity and my students learned how neurological pathways develop in the brain as we learn something new. This was a game changer! My students got excited when a lesson or strategy was difficult because they knew their brains were growing. I have overheard my students say, ‘This is hard! It’s okay because I’m creating a new neuropathways in my brain!'”

Neuroplasticity is the process by which the brain physically grows and changes in response to learning new information and trying new things.  Many teachers in AISD have participated in professional development around neuroplasticity and growth mindset, helping their students foster intellectual resilience and positive self-talk to help work through challenging learning experiences.

Mr. Sikes, 8th Grade Math Teacher, Fulmore Middle School

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Mr. Sikes makes sure his students feel safe and welcome in his classroom by teaching about stress management, and also by helping each student feel heard and seen. “I like to show my kids what types of stress triggers I have during second semester and how I know to read my bodies warning signs. We can’t avoid stress, but how can we cope with it when it arises?”  Mr. Sikes teaches from all parts of his classroom, checking in and reinforcing connections with each young person as he moves between the groups of seated students. “There is a lot of [student change and movement] as well at the beginning of a semester, so we take time every week to reintroduce ourselves and share things about ourselves that makes us unique, so that all students feel heard and valued no matter how ‘new’ they are to the school, or city, or state.”

Mrs. Roberts, 4th Grade Science Teacher, Widen Elementary

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Shown here among emotion identification words and steps for calming down in her classroom, Mrs. Roberts takes time each day to take care of Social and Emotional Learning business before getting down to the business of learning science. “SEL allows me to internalize and model emotional management skills throughout the school day, and transfer those to the kids,” she says. Like many teachers throughout AISD, Mrs. Roberts is skilled at using SEL concepts and practices to maximize learning time. “I love the rituals of Morning Meeting and breakfast in the classroom and the sense of community it instills. Words can’t describe how beautiful it is and the impact it has on our community.”

Mrs. Lozano-Studstrup, 6th Grade English Language Arts, Mendez Middle School

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Mrs. Lozano-Studstrup works hard every day to create a warm, engaging, culturally-relevant, connected learning environment.  Student work and drawings adorn the walls, and each class’ social contract is prominently displayed. A large portion of her classroom is dedicated to a cozy space with a bookshelf full of diverse books, a colorful floor lamp, and a comfortable area rug primed for the unhurried enjoyment of reading for fun. “I love my students, and I try to connect with each one of them every day they are with me,” she says. “I try to make sure each of them feels seen and heard and valued. When students feel safe and connected, that’s when authentic learning takes place.”

These amazing educators represent how Social and Emotional Learning is infusing lessons, classrooms, practices and schools across our district. To all seven talented teachers who shared their faces, expertise and insight for this post, thank you! With your dedication, compassion, and unique style, you are demonstrating the very best of SEL and Austin ISD!

REAL TEACHERS TALK: Second Semester Self-Care

Let’s be real: Teachers know Social and Emotional Learning.  Teachers have been creating safe classrooms, welcoming students, building in 21st-century skills, and modeling healthy adulthood since schools were invented.  We invited teachers from around the district to share their best SEL tips and advice for managing the stressful second semester, and so this post and the next one will be dedicated to showcasing the voices of competent, compassionate educators from our Austin ISD. For this one, dynamic duo Hannah Vaugh and Jenna Conde of Bedichek Middle School guest blog on the crucial topic of Teacher Self-Care.

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Treat yo’ Self – brunch, happy hour, baths.

In our line of work, it’s easy to let your emotional well-being fall to the wayside. We give everything we have to our kids, and by the weekend we’re faced with mounds of papers to grade (why did I give this many short-answer questions?!), seating charts to re-arrange (there’s got to be SOME place to put Billy where he won’t be a vortex of chaos!), and bureaucratic nonsense filled with so many acronyms that by this point we don’t even remember what all those jumbled letters stand for. We are convinced that our work will never end, and with good reason: it doesn’t.

That’s why we need to make it a point to purposefully carve out our hard-earned “me time.” Put down the pen, close your laptop, and give yourself a second to grab half-priced appetizers (and other delicious things!) at happy hour on Friday. Give yourself a few hours to grab brunch with your long lost friends. When is the last time you soaked in the tub with your favorite record playing in the background? If you absolutely MUST do work, bring it with you to your favorite coffee shop for a change of scenery and a guaranteed morale boost. Look at you, grading those papers with your chai tea latte and a mouthful of eggs benedict, you rock star!  It’s time to turn some of that unconditional love you’re always doling out back onto yourself. You deserve it!

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Mentors/Cohorts

Everybody needs a hero. Even us heroes. A teaching mentor is a wonderful resource for both classroom and personal needs. A mentor is your go-to person on campus who can answer all your questions, provide classroom support, and comfort you when that lesson you planned so hard for fell flat on its face (you turned your back for one second…)

A group of trusted amigos on campus is another invaluable resource for emotional refreshment and well-being. Finding a person or group of people you can trust can be difficult in a workplace setting, but we promise that it’s worth investing time in the good ones. Knowing you’re not alone on those tough days, with people who will genuinely empathize with you, makes the struggle less real. Having a group of people to celebrate your accomplishments with, who will be genuinely happy for you when you are rocking it, leaves you feeling on top of the world.

Find people who will build you up, and who you can build up in return. It’s a beautiful thing!

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You can say no sometimes.

This one goes out to all the first-year teachers, but it’s applicable to teachers of all experience levels.

It’s going to happen. You’re going to be minding your own business, probably in the middle of teaching a lesson, when an administrator or teacher will walk through your door. “Sorry to interrupt but…” Now they throw out a compliment, appealing to your vanity. “You did such a good job with x,y,z, and…” Here it comes. It’s a thing, and they want you to do/join/spearhead/tackle/organize. Sometimes you’ve got the energy, in which case FANTASTIC! Grab your clip board and get to work, you magical unicorn of a person!

But here’s the deal: if you don’t have the energy, or you can’t focus on whether or not you think you could handle it, or if you are already on six other committees and you don’t think you’d be productive on another one, IT IS OK TO SAY, “NO.”

Allow me to repeat myself.

IT IS OK TO SAY, “NO.”

And yes, they may try to persuade. “Well, you have to do SOMETHING.” (Guess what? You’re dedicating your time to molding the minds of children. You ARE doing something!) or “Oh, we just want to hone your leadership skills.” (Since when did you say you wanted to be a leader?) Don’t give in.

Somewhere along the road, our occupation became more than just teaching. Not only are we educators, therapists, moms and dads, advocates, social workers, and a whole other slew of emotionally exhausting professions, we are also expected to be superhuman. At some point a line has to be drawn, and you’re the only one who knows when to draw it.

By the way, saying “yes” can be amazing sometimes. It can be especially fun if you say yes and then drag someone into it with you, so you have all kinds of fun while you plan together.

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 Want to remember why you teach and make a bunch of people’s day? Positive Parent Phone Calls.

95% of our students are darlings. 95% come in, ask questions, have their binder, agenda, ISN, pencils, every single day—and yet, we spend the majority of our energy on our 5-10 challenging students that require frequent parent contact, one-on-one relationship building time, bargains, rewards, and unfortunately, consequences.

Look at your rosters and put some dots next to the students you forget to worry about—they’re so self-sufficient! Self-motivated! Next, of those, pick out the ones that are in the middle of the pack—grades, behavior, everything. Call those parents one after the other with a short and sweet “I appreciate your child’s hard work EVERY day. I am so impressed with their [participation in discussion/organization/perseverance when things get difficult].” The parents are so appreciative, excited, and grateful that they got some news from school that their student rarely warrants. Not only will this amp up your parent support and involvement, it will also remind that student that you NOTICE their effort, and possibly, keep them from turning to the dark side in May. On top of that, you feel great.

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 Laugh often and let it happen.  Make like an improv class: Embrace your failures and literally have your class clap for you.

One of the first exercises that you do at an improv class is an exercise where you stand in a circle. Whenever you feel so inclined, you shout out to the group a recent failure of yours (i.e., last night I dropped an ENTIRE carton of eggs on the kitchen floor), and take a deep bow as everyone claps for you ecstatically. Then, someone else shares. It is no surprise how cathartic and humorous this practice is.

Next time you forget to make a set of copies, forget to project the Essential Question on the screen and then get mad when no one is writing it down, or call a student by the wrong name, just take a deep breath, say “I’m so sorry guys. I’m only a human.” Take a bow and have a round of applause.

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Thanks, Ms. Vaugh and Ms. Conde, for your fabulous ideas, engaging writing, and rockin’ pictures! Stay tuned next week for more great thoughts and tips from even more amazing AISD teacher super heroes!

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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Keeping October Optimized

october1Here in Texas, October is a special month.  The number on the thermometer starts to sink south of the triple digits…and is that even an autumnal breeze we feel some mornings?  There are important, well-known holidays like World Octopus Day on 10/8 and Teaching Tolerance‘s Mix-It-Up Lunch Day on 10/27. (Am I forgetting one?) It’s also a transitional month, both weather-wise (maybe freezing or maybe still 90 degrees by the 31st, you never know) and culturally: we move from summer mode to winter mode, with the holidays ahead and most of the year already in the past.

This transitional month has traditionally proven to be a bit of a challenging time in education. The freshness of the beginning of the school year gives way to the serious meat of core curricula, with testing and grade pressures starting to mount. Sometimes the pressure can cause morale and enthusiasm to flag a bit for teachers, students, and administrators alike.  That makes October a great time to remember brain-breaks and community-building in class, and good self-care practices as well!

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Luckily, Austin ISD’s Physical Education and Health Department has got Brain Breaks covered for every subject.  Want to review some vocabulary?  Get everyone standing up and tapping opposite elbows or knees while taking turns discussing definitions! Need a new way to facilitate a class discussion? Ask a polarizing question, and have students move to designated “agree” or “disagree” sides of the room to represent their opinion.  Then invite individual students to explain their position, and allow students to change sides of the room to show that they’ve changed their minds! Love to freshen up some partner talk? Have students find a “Hi-Five,” “Lo-Five,” and “Fist Bump” partner before beginning the activity, then invite them to re-visit those partners to discuss each question.  Oh yeah, need to establish or re-establish an attention signal so you can get them back after all these engaging movement activities? Find some tips here! Also, search the archives of this very blog for Brain Break Wednesday ideas like this one, this one and this one!

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While brain breaks and movement activities can be good energizers and refreshers for the classroom, as educators it’s also important to practice and model self-care and stress relief techniques.  Teachers and administrators benefit from remembering to take care of themselves, and students benefit from learning critical self-care and stress-reduction skills.  Here are 15 stress-busting tips from Scholastic.com, and The Guardian teacher network offers some more detailed ideas to help with teacher work-life balance.

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One simple idea to try is to put one little sticker on each area at home or in the classroom which might inspire some stressful feelings.  Put one on the bathroom mirror, the car steering wheel, the innovation station, the gradebook, the laptop, the phone.  Every time you see one of the stickers, pause and take three deep, slow, relaxing belly breaths.  In through the nose, out through the mouth, long inhale, longer exhale. Hand out stickers to your students and invite them to do the same–and notice when they actually do it!  Then do it as a whole class!  Sometimes, three deep belly breaths can be just the healing thing to get through a tough moment.  Or day. Or week. Or…

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October is a great opportunity to try state-changing brain breaks and movement strategies in class, and to practice self-care and stress-reduction techniques.  Here’s another post full of calming-down ideas for the end of the school year, a similar time of transition.  And finally, here’s my all-time favorite, most aptly-named website for an instant infusion of peace and calm at any moment, anywhere with a screen, for one person, a classroom full of people, or even a cafeteria or auditorium: www.calm.com

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Enjoy your October, with the falling leaves, cooler weather, and nifty gourds.  It’s a great time in Texas, and a great time to be energized, calm, and #AISDProud!

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SEL Word of the Year: INTEGRATION

4legstoolSocial and Emotional Learning has gone district-wide: Explicit SEL instruction is happening, positive school cultures and climates are growing, communities and families are involved and engaged…and INTEGRATION, the fourth leg of our SEL Stool, is the word of the year!  Integrating social and emotional skills and concepts throughout the school day is a crucial way to deepen SEL implementation on our campuses–indeed, it’s how SEL shifts from “what we DO” to “who we ARE.”

Data from our district and around the country suggest that students who practice their SEL skills in as many school contexts as possible show higher academic success and self-report more personal benefits. In core classes, extra-curricular activities, and out-of-school time, Social and Emotional Learning integration happens in diverse ways.  Broadly, it can be divided into two categories: behavioral, in which students intentionally practice learned SEL skills in various classroom/common area situations, and academic, in which students create an artifact of learning which intentionally addresses SEL concepts.

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Let’s check out some beautiful examples of SEL integration ALREADY HAPPENING around our district!

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Behavioral integration: Kindergarteners at Pillow Elementary use their “attentoscopes” to practice active listening while reading a book together.

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Academic integration: Students at Guerrero Thompson practice identifying emotions during a health lesson.

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Behavioral integration: A kindergartener at Cowan elementary reminds her classmates (and Snail!) about skills for learning during instructional time.

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Academic integration: Second graders at Pillow Elementary practice writing skills while reflecting on respect after reading a story.  Check out the explicitly-stated SEL and TEKS standards!

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Academic integration: Students at Blanton Elementary practice writing and emotion identification after reading a story.

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Academic integration: Fourth graders at Padron Elementary practice self-awareness and math skills.

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Behavioral integration: 5th Graders at Cunningham Elementary participate in a Morning Meeting circle to connect with each other at the beginning of the school day.

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Behavioral integration: A teacher at Fulmore Middle School regularly engages her class in “brain breaks,” movement activities that build class community while keeping the learning mind activated!

gusgarciaBehavioral integration: Students at Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy participate in a school-wide assembly reinforcing the Social and Emotional Learning skills they have absorbed during explicit instruction.

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Academic integration: Students at Reagan High School practice journalism and self-awareness skills in an English class.

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Behavioral integration: Algebra students at McCallum High School practice self-management skills and cheer each other on during an online math quiz.

In all corners of AISD, and at all levels, our amazing schools are ramping up the academic and behavioral integration of Social and Emotional Learning.  We will continue to celebrate examples of SEL integration throughout School Year 15-16! See some awesome SEL integration on your campus? Tweet about it and use the hashtag #SELintegration…you and your school just might become SEL blog-famous!  Remember: The SEL word of the year is INTEGRATION!

Happy First Day! Let’s Build Caring Learning Communities!

life itselfFor Austin Independent School District, Monday the 24th is that most hallowed of days in education–the First Day of School!  Welcome to School Year 2015-2016, everybody!

The beginning of school represents a unique opportunity to start building engaged learners, compassionate problem-solvers, and connected classrooms.  Here are a few activities that kickstart community-building and can get students and teachers talking, learning about each other, and laughing together!

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Partner Greetings (1-5 minutes total)

Participants turn to the partner on their left/right, say, “Good morning/afternoon, ________ (partner’s name)!” and then respond to a specific prompt.  This can be done in a Think-Pair-Share format, in which everyone shares at once with just their partners, then the group comes back together and various volunteers can share their answer (or their partner’s!).

Example Prompts:

  1. If I were an animal I would be a ______.
  2. Today is a good day because ______.
  3. If I picked a color to describe my day today it would be ______ because _______.
  4. I saw you doing ___ today and that was great.
  5. I saw a teacher/student doing ____ today and that was great.
  6. I’ll think about you this (afternoon/weekend/etc.) while I’m ______.

Consider giving direction as to which partner shares first, like “the partner with the longest hair shares first!” or “the partner whose head is closer to the ceiling shares first!” This can make sharing more efficient, and even inspire some community-building giggles.  Giving one minute (or some other time amount) to each partner, and calling “Switch!” when the time is up, can also remove some ambiguity in activities like this.

Whole-Group Partner Greetings (1-5 minutes total)

These follow the same basic format as the partner greetings above, except that everyone in the group has a moment in the spotlight.  Participants sit in a circle and are given a prompt like the ones above. Moving around the circle one by one, participants turn to the person on their right and give just that person the greeting, but loud enough for everyone in the group to hear.  This activity works best after a little practice with partner sharing!

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Whole-Group Seated Greetings (1-5 minutes total)

All of these greeting activities follow the same format.  Participants are seated.

  1. Moving around the group in a circle, each participant introduces him/herself, “Good morning/afternoon, I’m Ms. ____,”  and then the group responds in chorus, “Good afternoon,  Ms. ____!”
  2. Next, the speaker responds to a prompt.  (Some of them involve imaginary events – the point is to get folks to share about themselves in creative, non-threatening ways.)

Example Prompts:

    1.  If I had a superpower, it would be ______.
    2. I smiled today when ______.
    3. Today I’m feeling _____ because ______.
    4. If I were coming to a group picnic, I’d bring the ____.
    5. When it’s my turn to sing at our staff/class karaoke party, I’ll sing _____.

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

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

The New Wave

All participants stand.  Participants take turns  introducing themselves and then demonstrating a movement that represents themselves (wave hands, jump, brush hair, etc.).  The rest of the group then mirrors that movement.  BONUS: Once everyone in the circle has shared their name and movement, go around the circle without speaking and just do the moves!

The Beat Goes On

Moving through the circle, each participant says his/her name, “______,” and the group responds, “Hi _____!”   Next, the participant creates a unique sound (ex: drums on table with hand, trill, whistle, snap, etc.).Once a participant starts making his/her sound, s/he must continue until all participants have contributed their version of that sound.

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Four Corners

Label each corner/wall of a room with a different word (ex: 4 different animals, 4 different verbs, 4 different foods, 4 different cars, 4 different vacation spots, 4 different items of clothing, etc.).  Tell participants to stand at the corner/wall that they feel best represents themselves at that moment.  Offer time to share.

Would You Rather

Have participants stand in a line.  Participants move to one side of the room or the opposite side of the room, based on a binary choice:  “Would you rather ____,” (leader points to one side of the room), “or _____” (leader points to the other side of the room).  Repeat several times, moving quickly through the choices to maintain momentum.

Examples of choices:

    1. Would you rather eat spaghetti all day, or mashed potatoes all day?
    2. Would you rather go to the mountains or the beach?
    3. Would you rather be a cat or a dog?
    4. Would you rather drink coffee or tea?

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Activities like these can help build connectedness in classrooms and schools.   What exactly is connectedness?  What a great question! Let’s ask the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention(!):

School connectedness—the belief held by students that adults and peers in the school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals—is an important protective factor. Research has shown that young people who feel connected to their school are less likely to engage in many risk behaviors, including early sexual initiation, alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use, and violence and gang involvement.

Two of the strategies that the CDC recommends on its School Connectedness page are to “provide students with the academic, emotional, and social skills necessary to be actively engaged in school, [and to] use effective classroom management and teaching methods to foster a positive learning environment.” Activities like the ones described above work toward exactly those two things. Want even more connectedness-building activities? How about a searchable, sortable online database full of hundreds of them, all with concise directions and debriefing questions? Check out the PeaceFirst Digital Activity Center, and teambuild away!

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Here’s wishing a connected, engaging, exciting First Day of School to all Austin ISD students, teachers and families!  Let’s make this one the best year yet!

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