Author Archives: Michael Kaechele

10 Ways to Introduce SEL & PBL Culture

What would it look like to intentionally plan our first weeks of school to introduce SEL competencies and PBL structures?

Some of us are already back in school, and the rest will be starting soon. This is the sixth and final post about how to plan for SEL and PBL as we hopefully return to face-to-face learning this fall. 

Summer is a glorious time to rest and reflect on last year. As we head toward school reopening, PBL is the answer for how to address the diverse needs of students after this trying year. First, you make some big picture plans of your scope and sequence for projects, and then build your network connections for community partnerships. Now you are ready to plan the first week…

Every teacher knows the power of relationships in the classroom, and there is a heightened awareness of the importance of Social and Emotional Learning. As we launch into yet another year of Covid teaching, the safety and health-both physical and mental- of our students are at the forefront of everyone’s minds. The first weeks of school are a time to get to know students and build community. This is vital work that should be considered through the lens of the entire school year.

Teachers around the world launch new classes with icebreakers, team building activities, and the sharing of personalities and passions. In the past, some might view this as ‘just fun’ or wasted academic time, but it is the critical work of building a classroom community. One result of the pandemic is a greater appreciation for people’s mental health and the need for a supportive environment before deep learning can take place. While this alone is rationale for starting school with a child-centered focus, SEL and PBL teachers have always approached school this way. They realize that these activities have a dual purpose: building culture and community while at the same time establishing PBL routines and introducing SEL skills that will be cultivated the rest of the year. Consider these 10 ways to accomplish both goals this fall.

1. Checking In

Let’s start at the beginning, when kids enter the room. I have always been an advocate of greeting students at the door. It gives the teacher a chance to connect with them on a personal level and check in on their emotional state. There are many ways to do this. One way is to explicitly teach students to self-identity their emotions with a mood map as shown above. Elementary students might choose to wear mood bracelets to identify their feelings. These are great ways to teach Self-Awareness. Other teachers may choose customized handshakes for each student. How you greet kids is less important than making it a priority. What’s vital is that students know that they are welcomed and recognized daily.

2. Identity Activities

Many ‘get to know you’ activities focus on students’ families, likes, and passions at a surface level. Create a stronger community when students reflect on their unique identity background. There are a myriad personal identity wheels available appropriate for students of all ages. Or check out this great Identity portrait idea from Shana V. White. Make sure you model for students by sharing parts of your identity. Then students can choose to share a part of their identity in small groups. Be careful not to make this mandatory or intimidating in any way. Many students may not feel comfortable sharing openly at the beginning of the year, and we need to respect this.

3. Team Building Activities

You are probably already doing these but are you getting maximum impact? Team building activities allow students and teachers to meet one another in an enjoyable fashion. They demonstrate that learning can be engaging and fun. But the greatest value comes in the debriefing stage.

Students should reflect individually on what skills they used to complete the challenge. Then have them share with a partner or in small groups. Project the CASEL competencies on the wall and show the connections between their answers. Instruct students that they will be working in groups often in your class and developing these same skills everyday. You may want to follow up by creating some class agreements for how to work successfully in groups. For the next few weeks, remind students that they will need to use specific SEL skills and tie it back to your team building activity. For example:

Remember how we needed to listen to each other and take turns during the marshmallow challenge? We will need those same skills today as your team works on their final product. Let’s focus today on making sure everyone has a chance to share their thinking before we make a decision.

4. Video Clips

Is his feedback specific, helpful, and kind?

Share a video clip of a group of people working together to create something amazing. Similar to team building, project the CASEL competencies on the wall and have students reflect on which ones were used to create it. This is another opportunity to introduce and define SEL skills while encouraging students to practice them.

Another way to use video clips is to show part of a TV show and evaluate people with a rubric. Contestants could be scored for collaboration or communication skills. Choose one of the many shows with judges and have students evaluate the feedback given to participants. This is a non-threatening way to teach students to use a rubric to reflect on their own work.

5. PBL Routines

PBL is full of its own protocols and terminology: Entry Event, Driving Question, and Need to Knows to name a few. Start teaching students the vocabulary immediately, especially if they are new to PBL. The human brain cannot learn a new process and new content at the same time. So giving students a chance to experience the process without pressure helps them become comfortable with it. Take simple things like introducing themselves or learning how to use technology and turn it into a one hour ‘project.’ Students can present about themselves and offer each other some basic feedback.

Never expect a routine to go smoothly the first time. Students need space to practice and learn it first.

6. PBL Tools

In addition to the routines, there are many tools that help students develop SEL skills such as Self-Management and Relationship Skills in PBL. Teach students to write group agreements and fill out scrum boards to manage their groups. Elementary students might build a PBL wall to monitor their progress whereas secondary students might use Trello. For how to use these tools check out the post: How to Teach Students to Manage Themselves.

7. Content

There is no reason that you can’t start teaching content at the same time as building relationships and introducing SEL. Demonstrate that working in groups, problem solving, and practicing SEL skills is how your class will function all year long, not just during the fun, first week before ‘real’ school begins. Launch a mini-project with simple final product choices and low stake community connections to model the PBL process.

8. Discussion Protocols

A vital part of Relationship Skills is for students to explore controversial topics with diverse perspective in an empathetic and safe way. Protocols such Socratic Seminars, Harkness Protocol, and Talking Circles provide the structure. Before using any discussion protocols make sure that there is clear understanding that respect and civility are expected at all times. Introduce a new protocol with a fun round of an engaging topic at first so that students can practice the procedures without any pressure of difficult content.

9. Visible Thinking Routines

The middle of a project can get bogged down in research and traditional assignments unless we plan for rich student engagement with the content and each other. Harvard Project Zero’s Visible Thinking Routines provide many structures for student interactions throughout the project process. Don’t try to use them all, but rather pick 2-3 for specific purposes and use them throughout the year. You can access my templates for them at this post.

10. Create Class Rituals


One of the strongest cultural bonds is rituals. All cultures have their unique ways of celebrating important events such as birth, coming of age, marriage, and even death. Schools have rituals too. They may be tied to athletics, the arts, or community history and values. You can intentionally create rituals with your students that honor their identities and establish a culture of belonging.

Interested in more SEL and PBL tips? I offer virtual and in person coaching and workshops.

Why Teachers Should Network Beyond Education

This has been a year like no other, and this summer teachers need to first take care of themselves and then prepare for next year. This is the fifth of a series of posts about how to plan for SEL and PBL as we hopefully return to face-to-face learning this fall. 

Summer is a glorious time to rest with your family and reflect on last year. As we head toward school reopening PBL is the answer to how to address the diverse needs of students after this trying year. First you have made some big picture plans of your scope and sequence for projects, and now is an excellent time to build your network connections for community partnerships.

Community Network

We are not talking about your PLN (Personal Learning Network–Does anyone still use that term?) Anyway this is not about connecting with other teachers or trying to become edu-famous. PBL teachers need to network with their local community. Designing projects that are seated in local issues and people is key to making your content authentic. Reach out to businesses, non-profits, higher ed institutions, and experts in fields that cross over into your content standards.

Look at the projects that you have done in the past and consider who in your community could connect with the project. What professionals or careers correspond to your content standards? What experts could help you launch a project or critique a final product? Start making a list of all the possible people who might help. Consider friends and family. Ask your co-workers who they know in specific fields of work. Leave no stone unturned.

Community connections are the key to taking PBL to a higher level by making the work authentic.

Another idea is to join some local groups in real life or on Facebook related to your content. You could join a geology club to connect to earth science or attend functions at the public museum to meet people passionate about local history. Nowadays there are groups for just about anything that you can think of. Don’t be afraid to move beyond local connections to national or world experts. Due to Covid, everyone knows how to use video conferencing. It’s actually easier than ever to connect with people from anywhere. Aim big, the worse that can happen is you either get ignored or politely declined. Then you can ask someone else with the same expertise.

How to Make a Cold Call

Summer is a great time to make a call or send an email to ask businesses to partake in your project. If you already have a contact then writing an email or making a phone call is fairly easy. If you know someone who “knows someone” at an organization, have your contact send an introductory email with a brief explanation that you are looking for community partners for a project.

Unlike the business world where social mixers happen all of the time, most educators do not see networking as part of their job. Sometimes you will need to cold call to find the right community partners. To be clear, I do not enjoy doing this. I lean toward the introverted side and am uncomfortable meeting new people. Mixer parties are not my thing. I would rather hang out with a few friends than a large group of people. But I have learned how important community connections are, so I push myself to make them.

After you have determined who you want to cold call, have a specific pitch prepared. Remember that you will only have their attention for a short time so be prepared with short explanation of how you use PBL and a specific request. Ask for a problem that your students could solve for them. Be clear about your expectations and limits. For example, “We need 1 day or 12 total hours of your time.” Give an outline of what they can expect to provide in terms of time commitments, topics, and support. Clarify what they can expect students to give back to them. Let them know that you will not be asking for any money from them, just their time and expertise.

If they agree, then it is your job, not theirs, to figure out how their problem or expertise fits into your curriculum. Create a Driving Question and have your partner deliver it to students during a field work visit, in a recorded video, or during a live video conference. Having students hear about their project directly from the source is powerfully motivating. It also give them an opportunity to ask questions to help define the problem.

The other obvious time that networks is for critiques of the final product presentations. But it can be even more meaningful to have them provide feedback to groups along the way, rather than waiting to the end. They can be mentors to students and expose them to career choices that they may never have considered. When students are truly partnered with adults, they learn not only the content but the SEL skills that are used daily to complete work in a collaborative environment.

During the project, design a plan to advertise the partnership with parents and the local media.

Give them a shoutout in your school’s newsletters and social media. Contact print, TV, and radio news stations to notify them of the project and invite them to view key stages of it. They are looking for local stories to tell, and you are helping them by sharing your students’ work. This is not only great advertising for your business partners and builds up your school’s reputation in the community.

Now is the time to make these connections before you get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the school year.

Interested in more tips on how you can network for authentic PBL? Signup for my newsletter so that you never miss a post. I am booking workshops with schools across the country on PBL and SEL.