Tag Archives: empathy

We Need SEL Leaders, not Heroes

Little Miss Flint

This past Thursday was Earth Day and I came across two inspiring stories. The first was Mari Copeny, “Little Miss Flint” and “Future President.” Mari is 13 years old, but has been an advocate for clean water in Flint, Michigan and against environmental racism for years. Seriously go read her bio on the link to see a long list of accomplishments. Mari’s activism started when she wrote a letter to President Obama when she was eight years old. Five years later she continues to fight and expand her influence. Last week she reached a goal of raising over half a million dollars for water filters to be distributed across the country. She is an amazing kid with a motivating story!

I have often contemplated what are the factors that lead to someone becoming Mari, Greta, or Malala. They often have strong family support to help them navigate traditional and social media to get their voice heard. They have compelling stories to share that connect their personal experience to global issues. Being young, they are powerful spokeswomen for their cause in ways that tug at people’s emotions. These girls exhibit so many of the competencies of Transformative SEL:

  • The confidence of Self-Awareness to speak their truth
  • Social Awareness of the injustice in their community and the structures that maintain it
  • Self-Management through setting goals and taking initiative to not only achieve significant change but inspire others
  • Networking, publicizing, and speaking with power demonstrating Relationship Skills
  • Leadership in demanding change, not lip service from adults in Responsible Decision-Making

Leaders, not Heroes

These girls are not just learning about inequity and injustice in the world around topics like race, gender, and the environment, but are taking significant action to make real changes. They exemplify what I like to say:

We don’t need to prepare students for ‘someday.’ They can do meaningful work right NOW!

But I think that there can be a danger with how our society portrays these girls and others like them. They are not heroes, but leaders. Too often they are portrayed as exceptional young people and it comes across as though they have magical powers; that they are special in ways that other children are not. I believe the most important factor in their success is not exclusive abilities but that these girls choose themselves to make a difference. They are willing to speak out and take action. To be clear, the misconception is not with them, but with how we regard them. We treat them as superkids, “othering” their accomplishments so that the children in front of us can’t see themselves making a difference. I think the message of educators needs to be that Mari and others like her with a large platform are not exceptional, but normal kids who choose action. Leaders choose themselves! And most importantly, we should tell our students that they have the power to take action too! It is vital that our students see themselves in young activists as models for their own decisions.

Finding your Niche

The second inspiring story from last week comes from Sydnee Dawson, a former student of mine. I am reminded of two moments with Sydnee in my classroom. The first instance was during an essay assignment Sydnee had her head down on her table, not working at all. This was unusual behavior for her and after a short conversation, I realized that she doubted her ability to write and was giving up. I helped her get started, and she was fine to finish the assignment on her own. I remember this moment because she taught me how important giving encouragement can be to grow student confidence. The second moment was a project on propaganda. For her final piece Sydnee created a 3D representation of Hotel Rwanda. From the one side, it showed a respectable business that looked great to the outside world, but on the other side the violent genocide against the Hutu was happening. Sydnee recognized historical injustice and wanted to prevent it from happening again.

Upon graduating, Sydnee worked as a waitress to pay for college. On the side, she started making health and beauty products in her apartment. She used basic jars and printed homemade labels, selling to family and friends. She had a poorly designed website, that was dark and uninviting. Truth be told, Sydnee didn’t know how to run a business. So she reached out to mentors and worked hard. She updated her logo and redesigned her website. She started making Facebook videos demonstrating how she makes her product. Today she has a successful small business and no longer needs to work other jobs. She even gets paid to design websites for other businesses.

I know that Sydnee’s experience at our PBL school didn’t necessarily give her all of the tools that she needed to run a business. I doubt if she remembers all of the history that we investigated or that essay assignment at all. But I know that we cultivated her SEL skills to confidently persevere and find success. Sydnee practiced getting up in front of an audience and boldly pitching her ideas. She learned how to empathize with others through projects like her Hotel Rwanda propaganda art piece. She collaborated with other students from all kinds of backgrounds and learned how to compromise to complete projects.

Serving the Community

So last week Sydnee popped up on my Facebook feed with another project that she created. Previously she organized a large clothing drive for homeless folx and this past year she focused the drive on giving free clothes to young girls in her community. On this Earth Day, she hosted an event planting flowers at a local, Black owned business. She showed young children how to plant flowers and brought beauty and exposure to the business. You see, Sydnee is a leader who knows how to pay back. She may not be as famous as Mari, Greta, or Malala, but she consistently impacts Grand Rapids. Our students need to recognize that fame is not a prerequisite to making a difference. Fighting injustice is the responsibility of all citizens, young and old.

Our students are ready to make a difference. Are we ready to give them opportunities in our class?

From what I can see, these girls and many others like them are primarily advocating on their own time, outside of a traditional school day. Although Mari has started groups at her school in Flint, it feels extracurricular rather than part of the daily classroom. Why wouldn’t we as teachers harness this energy and passion to drive student learning in our class? What local issues around justice might your students study and advocate on? How are we developing Responsible Decision-Making skills, not just around personal behavior, but by making a meaningful impact on the community? How are we cultivating Social Awareness around the varied needs of those around us and how students can serve today?

Interested in learning how you can develop SEL skills integrated in your classroom? Check out my virtual workshops this summer! I am also booking workshops with schools across the country on PBL and SEL.

ABC’s of School Culture


My friend James threw out this question in a tweet this week and received many intriguing responses. As I personally know many of the people who responded (not @FLOTUS obviously and am curious why @DairyQueen was included), I could see their personalities and passions reflected in their answers. I added a list of my own thoughts, but Twitter is never the place to flesh out complex ideas.

What I really wanted to say was just culture, that’s it. And if you have ever read my blog before, you know that I am passionate about integrating Social and Emotional Learning into Project Based Learning. But those are actually pedagogical frameworks to structure the ideal culture. And without the proper culture they fall flat and are ineffective.

Of course, there are many aspects of education that are complicated, nuanced, and attached to huge systems. But oftentimes what most holds educators back is a culture of fear of rejection based on the traditional perspective of how schools should function. If you have ever visited a school or class that was truly mind blowing in what students were doing, I can guarantee it had a strong culture that allowed it to deal with many of the systems and adversities that hold other schools back.

Every school has a culture, but what are the key ingredients of successful culture that should be adopted by all schools? One of the first things that young children learn are their ABC’s, as a basis for reading. Here are my ABC’s that are the foundation of a powerful school culture.

  • Action
  • Bravery
  • Curiosity
  • Caring

Culture of Caring

I know it starts with “C,”but we have to begin with caring. Kids first. Not the needs of adults in the system: control and compliance that squash individualism. Not the needs of the state: high standardized test scores that reject creativity. Not the needs of business: the economy above all else while neglecting inequities. Not the needs of curriculum: covering all of standards while boring students to death. All schools say that they care for children, but actions and school policies speak volumes.

Evidence of Caring? When it is obvious that students and adults in the building enjoy working together.

Successful schools value community and relationships above all else. Students are the customers that school is designed for, not passive objects that school is done to. Adults value empathy, not only as something to be taught to students, but modeled by involving students in all decision-making processes.

In caring schools, students and adults watch out for each other. They check in on mental health. They laugh at inside jokes. They geek out about passions and create class rituals. Social and Emotional Learning is not an add-on activity, but is integrated into the day with kids developing the competencies through authentic work. Caring is the bedrock that the rest of school culture is built upon.

Culture of Action

I am a firm believer that whoever is doing, is learning. Listening to a lecture and taking notes is NOT doing. Active learning means kids are moving, creating, experimenting, going outside, brainstorming, observing, speaking, collaborating, solving problems, asking their own questions, exploring, and making. SEL skills aren’t just being discussed, but actively practiced in their project teams.

Action means noise, not silence. Classroom management means the teacher is facilitating multiple groups doing different tasks, not watching quiet rows of compliant kids. Students aren’t “locked” in the classroom but spill into the hallways and outdoors. The room doesn’t look like a Pinterest picture, but shows evidence of student learning artifacts scattered throughout. Students are engaged in their work not bored by stale textbooks. They are creating meaningful products that reflect their learning, not cramming facts for tests.

Culture of Bravery

The overarching culture of traditional schools is control and compliance. Administrators demand it from teachers, who in turn require it from students. Great schools flip this model on it’s head and practice freedom. A culture of bravery means that districts reject everything that is not aligned to holistic student growth and learning. District level administration bravely rejects cultural and political pressure for high test scores, accountability measures, and standardization. They empower principals and teachers as professionals to design learning experiences based on students, not curriculum.

There is no fear of failure, only joy in pursuing passions.

Building principals bravely trust their teachers and support innovations that are student-focused. Flexibility is valued. Traditions are cherished when they build community, but rejected when they are only about controlling young people. Adults place student voice over compliance. Administrators are in the habit of saying “yes” to teachers and students who want to experiment and try something out of the box.

A culture of yes, also means saying “no” to harmful practices that value systems and adults over children. It means either skipping standardized tests or de-emphasizing them to the point of ignoring them; getting rid of punitive punishments and replacing them with restorative practices; and searching out and eliminating inequitable practices that harm our most vulnerable students. Based on the culture of caring, anything that gets in the way of student-centered learning is bravely eliminated.

Before every new initiative, students should be asked for input and it should be valued as the most important viewpoint. Not the placement of a token student on the school board, but actually listening to what kids think, say, and want for their education. Schools that move beyond limited choices for students to truly empowered student voice in changing their communities.

Culture of Curiosity

With the removal of so many systemic constraints, students are encouraged to pursue their passions. They ask meaningful questions about their community, engage in authentic inquiry, and seek out practical solutions. They are not preparing for the future, but contributing right now! Project Based Learning is the philosophical framework that structures and guides student curiosity around issues seeded in their community and the world.

Teachers aren’t seen primarily as content experts (although they are) but designers of master learning experiences guiding students down paths that they might not discover by themselves. Teachers are learning experts who model questioning, experimenting, and failure for students. Through PBL, students practice Transformative SEL skills as they address complex problems of the world to bring about justice. Curiosity leads to empathy of multiple viewpoints rather than one dogmatic approach. Students develop into self-directed learners who have the tools to investigate and propose solutions to any problem that they come across. They become curious leaders who never stop learning.

Questions? Interested in an SEL infused PBL workshop or consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele on Twitter.