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.

Remote Reflection in PBL

Fake Dewey quote that we all love…

This is the ninth of a series of posts about what Project Based Learning infused with Social and Emotional Learning looks like when teaching remotely. Is it the ideal situation? Probably not, but it is the reality that many of us are dealing with. I will share my ideas and what others are doing to hopefully inspire you to action.

Velcro Moments

Reflection is an act of metacognition, thinking about one’s one thinking. Although the quote on the top of this post can’t be directly attributed to John Dewey, it’s an accurate portrayal of his ideas. I am a huge proponent of active, hands-on learning. I believe whoever is doing, is learning. If the teacher prepares an engaging lecture, the teacher is the primarily benefactor from the research and preparation of it. Students who passively listen to the lecture gain only slight knowledge. But as Dewey advocated, we need students to be actively engaged with their hands and their minds. Word searches, crafts, or even projects without direct ties to content concepts can just end up being busy work.

Taking time out for student reflection creates velcro moments where the learning sticks.

Slowing down, silently thinking, and sharing thoughts with each other cements moments of clarity in learner’s minds. In Constructivist theory, reflection gives mental space for learners to place their new knowledge or skill in relationship to what they already know.

Reflect on What?

Reflection is about self-assessment of one’s knowledge, performance, abilities, or state of mind. It is important to be clear on what we want students to reflect on. The kinds of reflection topics should mirror the Areas of Assessment. Reflection should not be limited to only one area but be balanced between the social-emotional state of the learner, content, and SEL skills.

It’s important that teachers check in with each student daily to build relationships with them. We are gauging the state of the learner and making sure that they are ready to learn. But we should teach students to reflect on their own emotional state. For example, when students enter the classroom we might use a mood meter to have them consider their social-emotional state and ask themselves if they are ready to learn. Some teachers use a calm corner as a designated spot for students to reflect or decompress if they are upset. It is important for students of all ages to recognize their emotions, how they affect their feelings, and to develop coping skills for when they are upset or unhappy.

Mood Meter

Other times we want students to reflect on new concepts or skills that are the purpose of the day’s activities. Consider prompts that ask them to analyze problems or situations, evaluate evidence and sources, rate their confidence with a newly learned skill, or connect to previous learning. Creating their own concept maps is an excellent way for building content connections. Reflection builds bridges between the different schema in our brains connecting new learning to old knowledge.

Lastly, sometimes we should have students reflect on their Social and Emotional Skills. How is their group functioning? What personal areas of strength are they contributing to their team? How might they function more efficiently? What are their next steps in their project? How have they shown empathy with their audience? What is their SEL goal and how are they achieving it? You may choose to focus on one competency at a time or have students reflect on all of the competencies at different times throughout the project cycle. Reflecting on SEL practices is essential part of teaching, practicing, and assessing the competencies.

Mixing in a variety of all three types of reflection throughout the day or week leads to consistent improvement in all areas. Ultimately all three areas are connected and addressing each one in turn leads to the greatest growth in both content knowledge and development of the entire child.


In the classroom, reflection takes on many forms and does not need to be time consuming. It can be a private, written reflection such as a 3-2-1 exit ticket.

  • 3 things I learned
  • 2 things I wonder
  • 1 area where I am stuck

Other written approaches are a quick response on individual whiteboards or in a journal as part of a daily warmup routine. Mixing up topics and focus areas keeps reflection fresh.

Reflection can be verbal and communal as well with a Think, Pair, Share or Turn and Talk with an elbow partner. Something as simple as 1 minute of silent think time before allowing responses in a class discussion integrates reflection into classroom culture. This is an equitable practice because it accommodates slower processors. Each of these protocols starts with individual thinking and then adds social aspects of sharing with a partner or small group. Students build upon their own knowledge with the reflections of others.

Reflection can be a simple, non-verbal checkin with Thumbs up/Thumbs down or Fist to Five. These formative assessments instruct the teacher on how students are feeling about their understanding of a topic or a skill, revealing vital information from students self-assessing their current level.

Other times, like at the end of a project, reflection might be longer, with a paragraph of writing. I like to use open-ended questions on a Google Form to have student evaluate me, the entire project, and their group collaboration. I also have a class discussion on the same topics. Some student will write things that they would never say out loud, while others will share verbally what they wouldn’t write so everyone reflects and gives feedback in ways that they feel comfortable.

Remote Strategies

All of these areas of reflection and the protocols translate easily online. I often use a mood meter or “On the scale of…” to checkin with students as they enter the virtual room to check on the emotional state. Even my students who don’t want to turn on their cameras or unmute themselves will share in the chat.

There are probably a thousand apps and tools to collect answers from students. As I have said before, it’s not about the tools, but picking a few that you and your students are comfortable with. I like to use Google forms and Padlet for students to submit exit tickets. Flipgrid is great for students to record talk alouds of their verbal reflections. I use protocols such as Visible Thinking Routines with Google Slides. Concept mapping can be done in Jamboard or other online whiteboards.

The built in features of video conferencing work great. Students can click on Thumbs Up/Down emojis to share their current level of confidence or submit Fist to Five as a private message to you in the chat. Small group reflections such as Turn and Talk or Think, Pair, Share can be done in breakout rooms.

In many ways, reflection is easier online as students are already isolated from each other so they have physical and mental space without distractions. Be aware that some homes may not have this advantage with multiple siblings or other interruptions beyond their control.

The most important takeaway on reflecting, whether virtual or face-to-face, is that it is vital for deeper learning. Teachers need to intentionally plan it into their lessons daily and make it a part of the culture of the classroom. Reflection builds thoughtful students who can solve problems with empathy and creativity.

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