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.

Dr. Raphael Travis

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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Writing Curriculum for the Whole Child, Every Child

School’s out for summer, right? Vacation time, umbrellas by the pool, studies and lessons far-flung from student cwcseland teacher consciousness, right? NOPE! Quite the opposite, actually, at AISD’s annual Curriculum Writers Cadre! Teachers, instructional coaches, and curriculum specialists gather annually to develop and vet curricula, exemplar lessons and assessments for the nearly 85,000 students served by the Austin Independent School District. Developing curriculum is a complex process–there are many factors to consider when crafting quality learning experiences for each of our students.  To ensure that curriculum writers have access to the best and most current resources, organizers of the Curriculum Writers Cadre have created four on-site professional development/advocacy strands to continuously inform curricular creation: Assessment, Differentiation, Instructional Strategies and Whole Child, Every Child.  Specialists from each strand present to groups of curriculum writers, who then use that lens while writing and vetting new lessons and assessments.

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The AISD Social and Emotional Learning team is privileged to partner with Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness, Coordinated School Health, and the Creative Learning Initiative to create the Whole Child, Every Child strand. The theory: Students learn best when all facets of each young person–mind and body, culture and creativity, intelligence and emotions–are equally engaged in academic environments.  The goal: To ensure that every single student in the Austin Independent School District receives high-quality academic instruction presented in relevant, active, culturally-sensitive and emotionally healthy ways.

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SEL made an engaging presentation with Coordinated School Health, emphasizing the value of movement-based “Brain Breaks” to get the blood flowing while practicing academic vocabulary and concepts.  For the SEL aspect, we incorporated the Committee for Children‘s ARR strategy (Anticipate-Reinforce-Reflect) to take advantage of any moment during an academic class, Brain Break or otherwise, to reinforce and practice social and emotional skills like turn-taking, active listening, and empathy.  CWC writers found standing partners and touched opposite elbows and knees while sharing the answers to questions, engaging both halves of the brain while practicing concept recall.  They played modified rock-paper-scissor type games involving quick mental math to exercise the logical frontal cortex, all while managing emotions that arise from learning new skills and winning or losing.  The more brain we can engage in our students, the more our students will engage with learning!

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The Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness presentation modeled activities designed to give every student academic choice and opportunities to share their perspective on a topic, either aloud or written.  CWC participants read different passages from the book Teaching with Vision: Culturally Responsive Teaching in Standards-Based Classrooms (Christine E. Sleeter and Catherine Cornbleth) and “jigsawed” their impressions and reactions on a piece of paper divided into four sections, so that each reader received information and brain power from others in their group.  We then did an interactive gallery walk, where thoughtful questions on posters prompted group members to discuss their answers and share them on post-it notes left on the poster for the next group.  Such strategies encourage equal participation from all members of a class, and invite each student to share their unique perspective based on their own life experiences, cultural background, multiple identities and learning style.  Ensuring that every single student learns in a safe, inclusive, respectful, and culturally-aware environment is the ultimate goal of Cultural Proficiency and Inclusion!

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The Creative Learning Initiative ties it all together, bringing visual art, music, movement- and drama-based strategies to reinforce learning and provide multiple ways of practicing, sharing and applying academic concepts.  For example, activities such as “Machine” and “Build a Phrase” lend themselves to teaching about cycles and systems. In “Machine,” students choose and physically act out different components of a system, like a business, body system, or actual machine.  They then must act out how the different parts would go together, and brainstorm what would happen if parts malfunctioned, disappeared, or changed speed!  In “Build a Phrase,” students create and agree upon movements that represent different parts of a cycle, and then perform the result. Our group represented the water cycle, and the modern dance that emerged thrilled us all!  These and other creative learning strategies (Hot Seat!  Town Hall!) help CWC writers include unique and exciting activities that reinforce academic goals.

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The “old school” idea of public education–students sitting in desk-rows, listening to the teacher lecture for 45 minutes–is changing quickly as more and more research shows that students learn best when their bodies, intellects, emotions and experiences are engaged in the classroom.  The Whole Child, Every Child strand at AISD’s Curriculum Writers Cadre has provided myriad whole-child options to incorporate into the district’s curricula, keeping AISD on the leading edge of education design.  It may be summer vacation, but we are #AISDproud and #SELsmart, year-’round!

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Keep It Cool as Summer Heats Up!

The last weeks of school before summer break are often emotionally charged for everyone!  Students, teachers, and parents alike are processing the growth and challenges of the whole school year, as well as mentally preparing for the great shift into summer mode.  For many, it’s a mix of complex feelings–excitement about upcoming plans, dread of isolation or boredom, gratitude for friends, sadness around goodbyes, uncertainty about the immediate future, pride of accomplishment, and myriad more.  For some, who appreciate and need the structure and security of school, the idea of impending summertime can create a lot of anxiety.  All of us can benefit from having some calming-down strategies in mind to manage all these big emotions!

Here you will find a few resources dedicated to calming down and changing brain states, to inspire further exploration into personal peace-bringing.

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Check out Stop, Breathe and Think for some practice with mindfulness.  The website and mobile app (android/iOS) invite the participant to do a guided self check-in.  The site suggests some curated meditations based on the answers to the check-in, or offers a meditation timer for self-guided practice.  The site is easy to use and…well, not at all stressful!

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Calm.com is perhaps the most aptly named website ever encountered by this writer.  It continuously displays beautiful audio/video images of the calmest, most soothing scenes and sounds most people can dream up.  Visitors can choose to simply watch and browse different images, or participate in a guided or open timed meditation.  There are also android and iOS apps for it.  Lovely, really.

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For a brain break/state change, head over to Incredibox.  The web-based app invites participants to create layered beatbox audio loops by pointing, clicking and dragging different voices and effects into place.  It is mesmerizing, surprisingly complex, and fun–the perfect way to help restore balance between left and right brains, especially when the left has been in overdrive.

peacefirstSometimes a whole group or class can benefit from a state change–a chance to move, interact, and switch up the emotional state.  Well-chosen and debriefed team-building activities can serve to release tension and foster connectedness.  peacefirst, a national non-profit dedicated to helping young people grow into peaceful leaders, offers a beautifully searchable Digital Activity Center.  Populated with hundreds of different activities, the Digital Activity Center allows a search to be tailored to the age of the group, the desired theme, the type of activity, and/or the skill focus.  Each activity includes materials lists, handouts and excellent debrief questions.

Of course, if you’re not near a computer or don’t have your smartphone handy, there is the old tried-and-true belly breathing–no technology required.  Here is a 2.5 minute reminder about the simple de-monstering merits of belly breathing with Common and Colbie Caillat…also Elmo.

Hang in there for this last week, amazing AISD teachers and students…we are #AISDproud of all of you!

(Thanks to the SEL team for contributing resources and ideas for this post!)

Social and Emotional Learning in Action! Part II: Consuelo Mendez Mavericks

Last week in our “SEL in Action!” series, we explored the Social and Emotional Learning opportunities inherent in football.  We spoke with a high school administrator who has taken his coaching and player experience into his academic leadership role, and a Social and Emotional Learning Specialist whose administrative work and current position continue to be informed by his history as an athlete and coach.  This past week I had the chance to spend some quality time with some quality coach-educators at Consuelo Mendez Middle School, and let me tell y’all, the SEL happening over in Maverick Land is exemplary.

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Michelle Friede (back-center, pink shirt/shoe!) is not only the long-time dance coach at Consuelo Mendez–she also happens to be the Social and Emotional Learning Facilitator on campus, so she knows a thing or two about SEL.  Stand in her gym for five seconds, and you can feel the relationship-building work and positive, safe environment she has built.  Dance class is not easy; not only is it challenging physical exercise, it also requires huge confidence and risk-taking as one learns new body movements and practices them in front of peers and teacher.  For dance instruction to progress, it is critical that each dancer feels safe in the gym and connected to each other and the coach–this is no place to fear mistakes, criticism or ridicule.   Friede says that the success she enjoys with her classes flows from the positive, process-based focus she models for and instills in each participant.  By pointing out the hard work and genuine effort they display in each stage of learning a new move or choreography, she is able to inspire her students to accomplish advanced, complex pieces. When I (an unusual presence in the gym) asked to take a picture for this post, Friede called to her 6th graders, “OK girls, let’s strike that final pose!” Every young lady enthusiastically ran to her spot and fearlessly struck that final pose, Friede right there on the floor with them.  The fact that these young people had the confidence in themselves and trust in their instructor to spontaneously perform for a near-stranger speaks volumes about the Social and Emotional Learning happening in dance class at Mendez.

Photo 2When I asked for anecdotes about extracurricular SEL while hanging out in the instructional coaches’ office, Roxanne Walker, the literacy specialist, delightedly brought up the running club that has evolved out of a homegrown teacher-student mentoring program. Ms. Walker said this club came to be when the teacher mentors, including herself, listened to their students’ budding interest in running, and agreed to challenge themselves (even if they weren’t runners before!) while encouraging their “mentee’s” engagement. Simply called “Running Club,” about 12 students and their teacher mentors have started training for 5k races after school, and participating in various weekend running events around town.  Ms. Walker told me that the sometimes difficult relationships between these teachers and students began to change for the better, as students felt that adults were hearing their voices and striving to meet their needs for positive connection and belonging.  These new attitudes learned and practiced in after-school Running Club have spilled over into the school day, where teachers and students use their positive connection skills to heal and improve relationships and create a safer, more trusting culture within the classroom and school.  The picture above shows Consuelo Mendez middle schoolers and teachers getting close to the finish line in a recent 5k.  The English Language Arts teacher in black in the middle, Ms. Helmink, finished the race with these students, then jogged back into the race to cross the finish line with the rest of the student participants.  Talk about building a culture of belonging and connectedness!

2015-04-24 14.03.39Speaking of belonging and connectedness, this 8th grade ELA teacher,  Ms. Michelle Thomas, knows first-hand how critical those components are in building a winning team and a winning classroom.  As a sophomore at Texas Tech university, Thomas and her team rose to win the 1993 NCAA Women’s Division I Tournament, earning the Red Raiders their first NCAA title.  In addition to her basketball prowess, Thomas was an academic all-star at Texas Tech–she completed her bachelor’s with a major in English and went on to earn her law degree, both proudly displayed alongside the Red Raider basketball swag.  Her background of elite athleticism combined with her commitment to academic success has given her a unique social and emotional learning lens, which she uses to create a palpable culture of trust, belonging, and connectedness in her classroom.

As students come into the room, they deposit their backpacks in a corner and find their seats.  Ms. Thomas runs down the agenda for the day, and a student passes out the books for an ongoing novel study.  They take turns reading paragraphs from the chapter, each reader trying his or her best with occasional help or word of encouragement from Ms. Thomas.  She then facilitates a full-class discussion of the reading, addressing each student respectfully as “Mr. Martinez” or “Ms. Smith.”  As class members give thoughtful answers to the questions she presents, she addresses the whole class: “…And what do we say?” The class turns to the student who answered and says, in unison and with feeling, “Good Job!!” Partner work is next, and Ms. Thomas answers questions as they arise with encouragement and an easy smile–the students feel comfortable asking for help, and everyone is engaged.  And finally, in the last few minutes of class, pencils are put down, books are collected: it’s time for the Class Motto and Jammy Jam.

2015-04-24 14.12.57 Ms. Thomas told me that her experiences on a winning team inform her teaching practice every day. She understands the importance of building positive relationships with each individual student, between individual students, and between herself and the class as a whole, much as her college basketball coaches did. She says that she tries to “teach like a coach.” She uses predictable routines and daily “rituals” like the Class Motto and Jammy Jam to reinforce the class culture of safety and connectedness, and she strives to attend to each student’s academic and emotional needs, because the class “team” depends on the academic and emotional strength of each individual member to effectively learn and thrive.  So at the end of class, Ms. Thomas and every student stands up and recites together the Class Motto in one strong voice: “Shoot for the moon!  Even if you miss, you will land among the stars!” And then, of course, the Jammy Jam:

‘Nuff said.  Thanks for being so SEL awesome, Consuelo Mendez Middle School!  Tune in next week for more SEL, sports, and extracurriculars!

SEL Standards Assessment: Break It Down!

What do you get when 25 teachers, counselors, administrators and SEL specialists converge on the Sanchez elementary library for 6 hours on a Saturday?  Jazz hands, of course!

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Also, intense and effective collaboration to crank out innovative Social and Emotional Learning work.  This diverse cadre of educators tapped a profound well of expertise around social and emotional learning, classroom dynamics, and visionary planning to devise and revise SEL Essential Knowledge and Skills.

Does that sound like official Texas Education Agency language?  You bet it is!  The goal of this on-going process is to create SEL standards that will eventually become official Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS–the basis of Texas public school curriculum as required by TEA.

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One example of our standards assessment dry-erase posters showing the student learning objective, supporting knowledge and skills, and our process questions. (Before the Vis-A-Vis storm!)

Small groups of teachers, administrators and counselors from across AISD convened in their grade bands to address the EKS that the SEL department has used since the beginning of the SEL roll-out three years ago.  Those standards, based on official language from the national Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning and tailored to serve Austin schools, have served us well.  But now, since SEL is widely taught throughout AISD and is poised to reach every student in all vertical teams as of academic year ’15-’16, it is time to utilize the diverse experiences and skills of Social and Emotional Learning educators to revise, update and further tailor the EKS language.  This process ensures that common vocabulary and collective vision inform these standards, so that all district SEL content is high quality, authentic, relevant and measureable.

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Wielding large laminated posters and Vis-A-Vis pens, SEL specialists facilitated the small group discussions that resulted in approving, revising or devising the standards’ language.  Each SEL student learning objective and its supporting skills were “posterized” for collective consideration, and the groups talked, wrote, doodled, marched, chewed and cheered about them until the posters were covered with changes and notes.  Participants considered six key questions while examining each student learning objective, with emphasis on the cultural relevance and appropriateness of each standard, and how it could be demonstrated or measured.

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In the next few weeks, the SEL department will compile all the thinking and vision represented on each poster into a new draft of the standards.  These will become the foundation of the high caliber SEL content, lessons and professional development that are hallmarks of Austin Independent School District.

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The aftermath! For each student objective, the groups had to decide how the supporting skill standard would be measurable: via Factual Knowledge (FK) recall, a demonstration of a Skill or Process (S/P) learned, or a demonstration of Understanding (U) the objective.

The SEL department is deeply grateful to the dedicated educators who gave a Saturday to help keep AISD SEL on the cutting edge of the national Social and Emotional Learning movement.  With this kind of innovative collaboration, Austin ISD is continuing to work toward giving each and every student the skills they need to succeed in 21st Century careers and global society.  We are #AISDproud and #SELsmart!

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Dawson Elementary Super Science Spectacular Day: SEL Integration At Its Finest

One of the highest goals of Social and Emotional Learning is to integrate concepts and behavior practice into regular classroom curriculum.  Thus, when two SEL specialists were invited to present at Dawson Elementary’s Super Science Spectacular Day, we jumped for joy!  We immediately drew a huge brain…

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…and made a bunch of fuzzy amygdala models…

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…and prepared to present the science of calming strategies to first and second graders.  The goal was to have each student learn about the amygdala and its role in generating big feelings, and to learn how the frontal lobe manages the feelings from the amygdala and helps us make good choices when we are calm.  We talked about how sometimes feelings are so big that the amygdala takes over and the frontal lobe can’t help us think!  The students learned how to use their hand to create a model of the frontal lobe and the amygdala, and show how we “flip our lid” when the amygdala takes over and the frontal lobe is disengaged.

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Hand-Brain Model step 1

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Hand-Brain Model step 2

We then discussed calming-down strategies that re-engage the frontal lobe so that we can make good behavior choices even when our feelings are big.  Each student then created a take-home personal portable peace box. The boxes included items to help re-engage the frontal lobe by activating the five senses, like a maze for quiet focus, pipe cleaners for fiddling, a pencil to write or draw, a mandala for coloring, some cards showing calm-down strategies, and of course a cuddly amygdala model!  Students were encouraged to add their own personal calming objects at home.  Check out the science-y, SEL-y fun we had!

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Adding items to the peace box

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Choosing calming strategy reminders

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Practicing deep breathing