Tag Archives: Identity

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

via GIPHY

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.

10 SEL ideas to launch the year

Identity Wheel

Whether you are remote, hybrid, or face-to-face to start the year, educators are realizing that the only way to begin this year is by focusing on Social and Emotional Learning. This really isn’t new as most teachers start off any school year with team and culture building activities. But 2020 brought Covid and a refocusing of black lives with the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (among others). On top of this is the trauma of poverty that twenty percent of the children in the US experience daily. Educators are reflecting more than ever on the mental psyche of their students due to national or personal trauma.

So here are ten ideas for how to start the year with SEL…and maintain a focus on SEL throughout.

1. Mood Meters

One simple way to “check in” with students is to use a Mood Meter to have students describe their feelings at the moment (I like the image in this post). This is teaching students to identify their emotions, which is the first step before they can regulate them. It also is formative assessment for the teacher on where students are at before jumping into an activity. An alternative is to use Rubber Bracelets, which could be adapted online by having students use a color wheel.

2. Highs and Lows

We always start class by having students share “highs and lows” which means basically anything that they want to share from important life events to “I had Taco Bell last night.” We used to call this “Good News” in our class and focused on sharing positive, uplifting things, but then we noticed students wanted to share painful things and would say, “This isn’t really good news, but my grandmother is in the hospital.” We realized that what was important for building safe community was sharing any news that was important to students. I truly believe this first few minutes of every day created the culture for the year.

3. Identity Reflection

There are many ways to get to know students and for them to learn about each other. If we want to go deeper than the typical icebreaker questions and be culturally responsive than we need to talk about student identities. Two excellent ways to explore identity are the Social Identity Wheel (example pic at the top of this post) and The Paseo or Circles of Identity These activities call for deep reflection on how students see themselves and the influences in their life. These may be too personal to share out loud, especially during the first week, but it may be appropriate to ask for volunteer sharing with you (never mandate it).

Another way to talk about identity is to show how visually biased we can be. Use 10 pics before and after people were asked to smile and 6 photographers, one man to discuss how what we see and how people portray themselves is only a small part of who they are.

4. Build Relationships

As we get to know our students and community, we can go deeper by helping students realize how they prefer to work in groups and with each other. You can use an online version of Meyers Briggs personality test or the Compass Points activity. This further builds their Self-Awareness of who they are, but also leads to Relationship Skills as they can communicate how they work with team members BEFORE conflict arises in their groups.

As the teacher my main goal at the start of the year is to get to know each student. This can be challenging at the secondary level with so many kids. This 360 Spreadsheet is a way to track the data that you learn about your students so that you can use it to guide your instruction. A quick visual check will show you which students you are not spending enough time getting to know.

5. Mini-PBLs

While addressing SEL, we should also be introducing some protocols and procedures so that students become familiar with them. The Selfie Project is a way to get to know students and model the PBL process in only 1 hour. Start off with an entry event of sharing slides about you; introduce the Driving Question: “Who am I?”; spend 2 minutes on Need to Knows; and then turn the kids loose to create their own selfie slides (inquiry). End class with 30 second presentations of who they are. You have just modeled the PBL framework so that when you use it with content, students are already familiar with it.

Whether you are remote or in person you are going to use some technology tools. Instead of direct instruction, use a mini-project like above to introduce it. Here is an example for GDocs Mini-Project. This process can be used for any tech tools that you will use with the DQ of “How do I use….?”

6. Connect with Parents

Whether you are in the same room or far away from students, it is important to make early positive communications with all parents. Especially this year make it a priority to have regular communication with all parents. Take the first step of a personal phone call for each student within the first month of school. Find strengths to share early in the year to build a positive rapport with parents and let them know that you are working with them.

7. Team building

Most team building involve students either touching each other or sharing materials, which is not going to work with Covid. Here’s a couple of activities with no contact at all. Write it / Do it has one student observe an object and then describe (verbally or in writing) it to a partner who has the materials and must build it. Materials are usually things like Legos or classroom supplies. To adapt for Covid, use colored pencils or crayons and have students draw on graph paper printed colored designs.

Another favorite of mine is to tell a One Word Story I ask students to respond to the question: “What is the meaning of life?” Math teachers might try Bing, Bang, Buzz. Count to 20 is another non-contact icebreaker that can be particularly challenging in a video call.

No matter what option you choose, it’s just a fun activity unless you have initiate a reflective debriefing. Show students an image of the CASEL competencies with the subcategories. Ask them which of these skills they needed to use to be successful at the challenge. Discuss how they will need to use these same skills for projects in your class through out the year. Importantly, come back to the activity as a reminder when students are struggling with a group problem.

8. Create Class Norms

Many teachers do this, but I am not convinced that they do it well. This process has to be focused on the kids and honor their voices. Creating and posting class norms is only a piece of the process. What is vital is referring to them whenever necessary, reviewing them weekly, and modifying as required. Class norms should be a living document that grows as students get to know each other.

Another option to consider is using talking circles (can be done virtually) to Create Group Contracts. This is one of the first steps of Self-Management and building Relationship Skills in your class.

9. Introduce Routines

Introduce whatever structures that you plan to use this year. A simple See, Think, Wonder can be used at any grade level and content area to help students be more observant and break down a problem. Students are equipped with a process for Responsible Decision Making.

I have made some templates for Visible Thinking Routines from Harvard Project Zero in Google Docs and Slides that work great for remote use. Check out this post for more info. and free access to the templates.

10. Teach Content

I see many teachers making comments like, “I am not touching content for two weeks.” I think that they are missing an opportunity. One of the dangers of SEL instruction is to treat it as an add-on to your classroom. Don’t treat it as something separate from learning. SEL and content can and should happen at the same time! This doesn’t mean that you can’t do some fun team building activities. What it does mean is that you should attempt to frame everything as essential to your class.

Connect the skills that students are learning to how they will help students be successful in your class. Identity could be the basis of your first project in English Language Arts. Consider a culturally relevant project addressing Antiracism in social studies. For math, you might introduce a tool like Desmos through a Getting to Know You activity. Some open ended experiments can teach students the scientific method and build community.

You can teach routines, build community, and establish procedures while starting to introduce the standards of your curriculum. Don’t fall into the trap that content can’t be fun or student-centered. This will be a year like no other, but no matter where and how your class takes place this year, you can address SEL in meaningful ways.

Let’s Connect

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL workshops or consulting on remote learning?  Connect with me at  michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele.