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!

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?

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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!

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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!

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Brain Break Wednesday: Sing a song!

Music is a great way to mix up the day and help students refocus.  Songs with movements are a double win!

Check out these camp songs that are great for the classroom.

One of my favorite songs is A Roosta Sha. It is simple and involves lots of silly movements.

A Roosta Sha

(Chorus)
A roosta sha, a roosta sha, a roosta sha sha-hey
A roosta sha, a roosta sha, a roosta sha sha-hey

The Chorus is repeated, adding a new action each time until you are doing all the actions at once.

  • Thumbs up
  • Knees Together
  • Elbows Back
  • Chin Up
  • Bottom out
  • Head to the side

*You can always add or subtract motions if you want.

Brain Break Wednesday: Ball Toss

Today’s Brain Break is adapted from a Responsive Classroom greeting idea. We used it as a brain break during our last SEL team meeting!

Ball Toss:

1. Have participants stand or sit in a circle.

2. Take a ball (or if you don’t have one, wad up a scratch piece of paper) and tell students you will say someone’s name and toss him/her the ball.

3.  Ask participants to remember who threw them the ball and who they threw the ball to. Toss the ball around the room until everyone has had a turn.

4. Repeat the toss in the exact same order as the first round and don’t say the person’s name before you throw the ball.

Added challenges and variations!

A. When you toss the ball, say something positive about the person you are throwing it to.

B. Repeat the toss in the same order and add a second ball going in the same order.

C. Repeat the toss going in reverse order (throw it to the last person first).

D. Repeat the toss, but say the person’s name backwards (Say “Xela” instead of “Alex”).

E. Start one ball in the original order and a second ball going around the circumference.

F. Start one ball in the original order and a second ball going in reverse order.

What other variations have you tried?

Brain Break Wednesday: Palming

Palming is a calming exercise that helps you refocus your mind. It is a wonderful technique to teach children as it is something they can easily do at their desks.

Start by rubbing your palms together as fast as you can for at least 15 seconds to build up friction and warmth. Now place your palms on your closed eyes and take a deep breath. Keep your palms on your eyes for as long as you like.  You can use this time to envision a calming place or a goal being achieved.

What do you do to help you stay calm and focus your mind?  When would palming be useful in your day?

Brain Break Wednesday: Brain Yoga

On a recent visit to Sims Elementary in AustinISD, I saw a teacher doing “Brain Yoga” with her students.

Brain Yoga

I hadn’t heard of brain yoga before so I did a little investigating.  The concept comes from a book called SuperBrain Yoga by Choa Kok Sui. The idea is to harness yoga techniques to increase students’ ability to focus and learn.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Hold your right earlobe with the index finger and thumb of your left hand. Make sure that the thumb is facing away from you. (Or touch your left hand to your right shoulder.)
  2. Hold your left earlobe with the index finger and thumb of your right hand. Once again, make sure that your thumb is facing away from you. (Or touch your right hand to your left shoulder.)
  3. Press your tongue to the roof of your mouth.
  4. Inhale through your nose, and slowly lower yourself into a squatting position.
  5. Exhale as you slowly stand back up.

Would this work in your classroom? Share your thoughts below!