Tag Archives: Self-Awareness

Unlocking the Power of Student Confidence

A Conflicting Gift

Before winter break I received an amazing gift. No, it wasn’t a teacher mug or Starbucks gift card, although I received several of those too. It was a heart felt thank-you letter from one of my students. I didn’t even place it in the “good feelings” file where I put things to read when I am feeling discouraged to remind myself why I teach. It currently stays right on my computer podium so that I re-read it often.

This is not the first time that I have gotten a student note of appreciation, but this one hit different. The student shared that they never believed they were good at math until this year. Part of me felt gratified for helping this student see what I see in them every day, but part of me felt very sad that none of their previous six elementary teachers had unlocked this student’s belief in themself.

My school has advanced math classes (which I do not teach), and I highly suspect that many of my students downgrade their mathematical self image based on the fact that they are not in advanced math. My classes are not remedial, just regular 6th grade math, but many students see this class as a negative academically, especially if they are highly successful in their other subjects. They believe that they are “bad at math” or in the “dumb class” (their words, not mine).

I was surprised because the student who wrote this heartfelt note is one of my stronger math students. They are not a struggling student at all. Many students in their particular class have much lower skills and number sense requiring extra support and re-teaching. But this student is attentive, a creative problem-solver, a leader with their group at whiteboards, and performs well on assessments. Honestly, they are easy to teach.

Developing Confidence

Middle and high school is a time when most students are constantly attempting to figure out themselves. It’s a time concentrated on activities such as sports, arts, or passions. Friendships are often centered around similar interests and goals. Students may not articulate it, but sub-consciously they are determining their strengths and weaknesses creating value in who they believe they are.

I believe that a critical part of my job is to teach kid’s confidence in who they are as a person. Maybe in math too, but definitely in how they see themselves. An integral part of growing into adulthood is developing a positive self-image. I refuse to accept students’ statements that they are “not good at math.” I reframe it to “you don’t know how to do this yet.” I cannot force students to love math as I do, but I reject any negative comments about themselves.

Academically self-image is a huge factor in how students perform in school, especially when it comes to math. So many students don’t see themselves as mathematicians. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Student struggles in math.
  • “I am a poor student.”
  • “I can’t do math.”
  • Lowers self-image.
  • Quits paying attention.
  • Quits doing practice work.
  • Fails next assessment.
  • Repeats cycle.

One of the most influential things that a teacher can do is to break this negative cycle and help students see that they can be successful. Of course one of the most powerful ways to do this is through the meaningful work of Project Based Learning. When students address real problems in their community, they begin to shift how they see themselves. They are motivated by work that is purposeful, instead of a worksheet. Students realize that they do have a voice and what they say matters, viewing themselves as powerful agents of change.

As students build their confidence, it leads to academic risk-taking, higher self-esteem, active goal-setting, and perseverance through struggles. They stop giving up easily but actively work through challenges. The self confidence of the SEL competency of Self-Awareness is the necessary first step toward self-efficacy. A student cannot be self-sufficient until they have a self belief in their abilities.

Building student confidence is hard work and takes time, effort, and building relationships with each student. It is probably unrealistic to expect to radically shift the confidence of every student in our classes, but we can nudge them incrementally on the spectrum toward self-belief.

How are you building confidence in your students? What meaningful work are they doing? How might PBL be the ideal framework for students to develop confidence on a path toward self-efficacy.

Learn with me!

If you are interested in how to use PBL to build your students’ confidence, I would love to have a conversation on how I can help. I am now scheduling workshops and book studies for spring and summer. Check out my workshop page or drop me an email at mikejkaechele@gmail.com. I would love to chat and co-plan meaningful PD for the educators at your school.

Pulse of PBL

Using Visuals to Cultivate SEL

Photo by Mpumelelo Macu on Unsplash

For ten years, the New York Times has published “What’s Going on in This Picture?” (WGOITP) every Sunday night during the North American school year. It is an excellent activity asking students three questions:

What’s going on in this picture?

What do you see that makes you say that?

What more can you find?

This is a wonderful literacy strategy for students of all ages to hone their observation skills important in both the sciences and humanities. It can be stretched into creative writing by having student write or tell a story about what they think is happening in the picture. Or throw a twist in and ask students to guess what happened leading up to the picture or predict what will happen next.

Recently the Times featured Twenty Puzzling Photos Featuring Kids and Teens From Around the World showcasing some of their all time favorites. I started thinking about how WGOITP could be more than an observation and literacy strategy, but also teach the Social and Emotional Learning competencies of Self-Awareness and Social Awareness. Many of the images feature people expressly strong emotions so they are perfect to help younger (and older!) learners identify feelings in others. I tweaked the Times’ prompts for an SEL focus:

What emotion do you think they are feeling?

Why do you think that? (evidence)

Think of a time that you felt that way.

Identifying Emotions

The Times WGOITP images are great because they include the backstory for the pictures to expand upon what students observe. But teachers could also use free Creative Commons 0 websites such as Pixabay or Unsplash to find their own images. Try searching for an emotion such as joy or pain to prompt students to talk about what that specific feelings look like.

My first two discussion questions focus students on interpreting the picture with a focus on emotions expressed. The last question is an opportunity for students to connect the emotion to themselves and perhaps confidentially share with an elbow partner or small group. We want to make discussing one’s feelings a normal part of our classroom culture, and this is a great way to practice it.

As a next step educators could have students look for their own pictures to demonstrate a certain emotion or feeling. Or ask students to take pictures of themselves demonstrating a certain emotion. Create a shared presentation in Google Slides or other platform with each student contributing one picture. Then have the class guess what emotion is on each slide and see if there is agreement. When students disagree, discuss how emotions and feelings are sometimes hidden.

Students could share their needs when they are feeling a strong emotion such as private space, a friend to talk to, physical comfort, or physical activity to blow off steam. They should recognize that different people process feelings in different ways and may have different needs for the exact same emotion. Students will now be equipped to support a classmate who is angry or sad by asking what they need to feel loved and safe.


WGOITP is a great protocol to cultivate empathy. Choose images from other cultures or regions than where your students live. After processing the feelings of the people, have students find the true story behind the image. Use this opportunity to be culturally responsive and build empathy by having students learn about customs and traditions from other parts of the world. By focusing on young people, the images can connect to the common themes, experiences, and interests that all youth have -music, sports, where and how they live, food, holidays, school, and their families.

For example the image at the top of this post is of people from Mamelodi, a former apartheid township in South Africa. This picture could lead to a discussion comparing the end of apartheid in South Africa to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Or students could research the history and culture behind face painting in different African societies. Students might contrast African traditions with makeup in Western cultures and look at the similarities and differences in what is considered “beautiful.”

Learn with me!

If you are interested in how your school can use a PBL framework to teach SEL skills. I would love to have a conversation on how I can help. I have limited availability for PBL & SEL workshops during the school year so contact me early. Check out my workshop page or drop me an email at mikejkaechele@gmail.com. I would love to chat and co-plan meaningful PD for the educators at your school.

Pulse of PBL