T.A. Brown Elementary School is a Resilient Education Family!

When our district discovered that T.A. Brown Elementary School’s building was not structurally safe, our leaders had to move quickly to ensure that teaching and learning could continue with as little disruption as possible. Reilly Elementary opened their arms and school to T.A. Brown’s Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten students and staff unreservedly,  and Allan Elementary gladly made space for 1st-5th grades, just like it did for the Palm Elementary community last year. However, change is rarely easy, and big change involving physically moving all the stuff and people away from a beloved building for the rest of the year can cause lots of big feelings!

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T.A. Brown students and staff pulled together as a resilient education family to weather the storm of changing locales, and community partners and district resources rushed to help take care of them. Social and Emotional Learning Specialists partnered with elementary counselors from across the district to lead a special lesson on the first day in all the T.A. Brown classes at Reilly and Allan, working with students and teachers to process feelings, share hopes, and reinforce the strong education family ties that keep the T.A. Brown community together through thick and thin.

leadersThis slideshow features photos from the first day of T.A. Brown at Allan and Reilly. Community partners and district employees enthusiastically helped teachers move their classrooms into the new spaces and provided lunch for them. Students and teachers participated in community circles and created paper name chains of support and connection to decorate their new classrooms. School leaders and collaborators greeted students and teachers at the door with balloons and welcoming signs.  We are so #AISDProud of the T.A. Brown resilient community of learners!

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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!

Teachers, We Thank You.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Mindful Brain First-Aid for Test Season

breathing1Well, we’ve made it to Spring Test Season ’16! Students, teachers, administrators and parents experience this part of the school year in many different ways, but most would agree that it can be a high-pressure moment in our educational lives.  We all know about getting enough sleep, eating a good breakfast, and having our lucky socks and pencils on those upcoming test days, but what are some other ways we can prepare our brains and bodies to set ourselves up for success?

Practicing a bit of mindfulness at different points before and during the testing sessions can help us feel more calm and grounded, both good states to be in when we’re asking our brain to perform at high levels. What is mindfulness? How about a definition from a leading expert on it, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn:

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Notice the words “paying attention” and “non-judgementally” in particular.  The term ‘mindfulness’ is thrown around quite a bit these days, and often people think that it means working hard to make one’s brain completely empty and free of thoughts–if your brain isn’t perfectly clear and empty, you’re not doing it right!  This is simply not true, however; our brains are wired to think all the time.  Practicing mindfulness is learning to pay attention non-judgementally to all those thoughts, giving us some space and perspective to really notice and honor them.  Here’s an example of a simple mindfulness practice that can help us pay attention to our thoughts before or during a stressful testing situation…when we feel our bodies getting nervous and our brains buzzing with anxiety, try this strategy:

Describe 5 things you see in the room/area. (“The walls are light blue.” or “The trees outside the window are green and lush.”)

Name 4 things you can feel. (“My feet in my shoes, and my shoes on the floor.” or “The air in my nose.”)

Name 3 things you can hear. (“Traffic on the highway.” or “My own soft breathing.”)

Name 2 things you can smell. (“New pencil smell.” or “fabric softener.” Or remember 2 smells you really like.)

Name 1 good thing about yourself. (“I’m a thoughtful friend.” or “I’m feeling stressed, but I’m handling it.”)

Doing an exercise like this can help us take a step back from our buzzing brain, bring us back to the present moment, and allow us to gently observe and name our feelings. If we’re feeling a measure of panic or powerlessness due to test anxiety, being able to say “wow, I’m feeling pretty stressed! I can take a moment to remember where I am right now and give my brain a break” can help  us back into the thinking, logical, frontal part of our brains and out of our fear-feeling amygdala and mid-brain.  The strong feelings coming from our amygdala during stressful situations can help keep us safely out of physical and emotional danger, but it’s not the best place to stay when we’re trying to get our brains to work logically!

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One of the best, simplest ways to come back to the present moment and pay attention non-judgementally to our thoughts is to intentionally notice our breathing.  Here is a basic breathing exercise adapted from Calm Classroom:

Sit up straight and comfortably in your chair.  Rest your hands on your desk or in your lap.  Close your eyes.  Feel your feet flat on the floor.  Relax your shoulders back and down.  Let your whole body be still.

Feel the air moving in and out of your nose.  [wait 10 seconds]

Remember, when you breathe in, you will fill your lungs completely.  Make each breath slow, smooth, and deep.

Now, breathe in for a count of 1….2….3….hold.  Breathe out for a count of 3…2…1…hold.

Breathe in for a count of 1….2….3….hold.  Breathe out for a count of 3…2…1…hold.

Breathe in for a count of 1….2….3….hold.  Breathe out for a count of 3…2…1…hold.

Breathe in for a count of 1….2….3….hold.  Breathe out for a count of 3…2…1…hold.

Now breathe normally and relax.  Feel the air moving in and out of your nose.  [wait 20 -30 seconds]

Now, take a deep breath in, hold and exhale slowly.

Notice how you feel. [wait 10 seconds]

Slowly open  your eyes.

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The beauty of exercises like these is that they require no special preparation, space or equipment; they are tools at our disposal any time we need them, and they are highly effective at inviting our brains back into a calm, logical space.  For a special treat, however, definitely check out Calm.com for some peaceful sounds and visuals anytime you have access to a mobile device or computer with the internet!

Even though testing time can be a stressful time in school, practicing a little mindfulness can help us all get through it with a little more awareness and self-compassion. Take good care of those brains and bodies, Austin ISD SEL fans!

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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!

Thank You Teachers

Teachers have been infusing Social and Emotional Learning into their curricula and classrooms far longer than we’ve been calling it “Social and Emotional Learning.” Indeed, teachers are really the ones who invented it.  The relationships that teachers build with their students, from day 1 in August to the last day in June, are the catalysts that cause academic knowledge and understanding to take root and grow in the minds of young people.  Let’s just take a moment to mentally thank a teacher that has influenced our lives.

Listen up teachers,

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You are doing that, amazing advocates!  Also,

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dear teachers, you are truly touching the future of the world.

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Futhermore,

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that whole thing about educating young people to function in jobs that don’t exist yet?  YOU ARE DOING IT.

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All those hours spent crafting questions, generating lesson plans, differentiating, creating just the right experience to allow each student to find the knowledge and meaning in his or her unique way: teachers are masterful architects of learning.

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You are teaching whole people, and these whole people deeply appreciate your far-reaching influence on their lives.

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Thank you, teachers, for your strength, creativity, dedication and love of your craft.  Thank you for being the champions.

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We are #AISDproud and truly grateful for our teachers.  Have a most spectacular summer!