Recess // Our New Playground!

The first few weeks of recess was full of perseverance and curiosity. Students watched through a closed gate as workers in bright green vest, drove big trucks and plowed mounds of dirt where our old playground once stood. Many questions were asked. “What are they doing?” “What happened to the playground?” “Are they building a new playground?” and the biggest question of them all, “Will we be allowed to play at the new playground?”

As the weeks passed, students continued to watch tirelessly through the closed gate. Finally, the playground was coming to life. Up went the swings set, then the slides and jungle gym, then the see-saw, rocking animals and two unfamiliar pieces of equipment that spun around in circles. At last! The day has come, DAA gets the okay to utilize the new playground. But, we couldn’t just let the students enjoy the new beautiful park without setting some ground rules. Teachers and staff collaborated on setting norms and modeling what recess should look, sound, and feel like for students.  

The first few days did not go as planned because students did not understand how to properly use some the equipment and how to show self control when playing on the equipment, it took a little more modeling and going over recess/playground norms to get it right. We finally came up with the perfect solution, alternating times and days between grade levels. So, some days Kindergarten and 1st grade would stay on DAA’s home field where they can play soccer, play on the monkey bars and other recess equipment, while 2nd and 3rd grade played on the new field and vise versa. This solution worked best for everyone including 4th and 5th grade and now, the new playground as well DAA’s home field is where we get out all of our wiggles and sillies, so when it’s time to get back focused on the joys of learning students will be calm and ready.


Social Work // Just Take a Deep Breath

“Just take a deep breath.”

This is a piece of advice that we all have heard. Maybe you have even given this advice to your child or a loved one while they were feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, sad or angry.  

There is a reason why this piece of advice is tried and true; it works. Deep breathing releases endorphins throughout the body, slows heart rate, promotes blood flow, promotes better sleep and stabilizes blood pressure. Deep breathing is an effective method to control emotions and regulate problematic behaviors.

This is more than just huffing and puffing. It is being intentional, mindful and thoughtful with your breathing.

Here are some of the basics of deep breathing:


Posture: One of the most important aspects of deep breathing is the how your body is set before you begin taking your deep breaths. If you are sitting, standing or lying down your spine should be straight. Think of the top of your head and your tailbone point A and point B. Draw as straight of a line as possible between those two points.

Belly Breathing: Now that you are in the correct posture, it is time to take a few deep breaths. Place one or both hands on your abdomen (between your belly button and rib cage). Take a slow deep breath through your nose and exhale through your mouth. You should feel your hand rise and fall with each breath. If it helps, you can imagine there is a balloon in your abdomen, with each breath in it should inflate and deflate. Repeat the cycle 5-10 times.









Variations: Now that we have the basics down we can throw in some different variations to more effectively take deep breaths.

  • 4-7-8 Breathing: Check and correct your posture. Breath in through your nose for 4 seconds. Hold for 7 seconds. Breath out through your mouth for 8 seconds. Do this cycle for around 5-10 times. Note: it is difficult for some children to breath out for 8 seconds. Encourage them to breath out slowly and “empty their balloon.”
  • Bumble Bee Breathing: Check and correct your posture. Take a deep belly breath through your nose. Exhale slowly while making a loud “Hummmmm” or “Buzzzzzzz” sound. Try again with your eyes closed. Focus on the sound. Notice how the vibration feels on your mouth. Do this for 3-4 times. Next, close your eyes and block your ears. Notice how this changes your experience. Continue to repeat a 3-4 times. You can try different sounds when breathing out. This is a good introduction to feeling all the different senses and general mindfulness.
  • Mantra Breathing: Check and correct your posture. Begin with a few deep slow breaths. As you breathe in say, “Breathe in Compassion.” As you breathe out say, “Breathe out Hate.” This can change to any skills you would want to be working on (i.e. Calm / Anxiety, Peace / Turmoil) Another alternative, as you breathe in say, “I change my thoughts.” As you breathe out say “I change my world.” The selection of your mantra is personal. Whatever has meaning to you, will work best.  



Hopefully now the next time you hear or say “Just take a deep breath” you will know exactly how to best take that breath.

1st Grade Crew // Morning Crew


Every day starts the same in first grade. The predictability of our morning routine gets students excited and prepared for our day. We begin our day with a 30-minute morning meeting, called morning crew. While its structure and essential components remain the same, the lessons and students’ deeper understanding vary.

Morning crew is a great time to teach DAA’s Habits of Character- responsibility, compassion, cooperation, curiosity and creativity, integrity, and perseverance. These Habits of Character are embedded into learning targets specifically created for our crew. These “I can” statements give students an understanding of the desired outcome. Each week we have one learning target that allows students to really understand, experience, and by the end of the week, articulate the more specific aspects of the very general Habit of Character.

We are spending the entire month of November focusing on responsibility. Each week through various learning targets, students gain knowledge about the different components that encompass responsibility. An example of one of our weekly learning targets is: “I can show responsibility by staying focused and resisting distractions.” While the learning targets change from week to week, they build on each other and are continuously referred to and talked about.

The routine of our Crew meeting remains the same. We begin each morning crew meeting with a greeting. The greeting allows students to name each person in our circle, while at the same time, have fun. Greetings vary from a singing to a chant, to a creative animal greeting, to even showing off a dance move! Greetings are a fun way to engage, energize, and entertain.

Following the greeting, we have a share. In our room, share time lets students at each table have their own day to bring in something special from home to share with our crew. It’s a modern-day “show and tell.” Students are really thoughtful about the items they bring in and complete a questionnaire before their share to get their minds thinking of why they chose their specific object and the details they might want to share about it. So far students have brought in books they have created at home, their favorite toy, a special stuffed animal, and even a family photo! After a student presents his or her share item, they are able to respond to three questions from the crew. This opportunity allows students to make connections and learn more about their classmates.

Next up in our meeting is our initiative (the main activity). It is during this time that students can display their understanding of the habit of character we’re focused on. For example, during our Statues initiative, students found ways to show responsibility. The class split up into two groups, movers and statues. Statues have to stay perfectly still without laughing, while movers try everything they can to distract the statues and get them to lose focus, laugh or move. Students who are statues realize they need to put their imaginary blinders on and resist distractions. Before we switch roles, we think of additional ways we can resist our movers distractions. Some suggestions students come up with are; staying laser focused on an object, picking a comfortable position, and thinking about being the last one standing. These suggestions require students take responsibility for their actions.

Following our activity we debrief and discuss what went well and how a can improve. We also connect how our activity relates to the classroom. Students learn that they can resist any distraction that might happen in our classroom by putting on their "blinders", staying laser focused, and by thinking about what's important--in this case, taking responsibility and learning!

We finish our morning crew meeting with a short written message letting students know what they can expect throughout the day ahead! Overall, our meeting serves as a classroom community builder and definitely sets the tone for the day!

Professional Development // EL National Conference


This past weekend, Lead Teachers and Principal Monge headed to the Windy City for EL National Conference. Hundreds of other educators met us there on a mission to improve the quality of education for all of our students. For many of us this was our first EL Conference and we all left blown away. We had the pleasure of picking the brains of Master Teachers, hearing the success stories of EL students, and collaborating with other educators from across the country.

We were able to choose from several topics that ranged from group work in mathematics, to creating meaningful mindfulness experiences, building blocks of building culture, and how to use exemplary student work to elevate our students’ learning. These sessions allowed us to expand our “teacher tool box” in a way that is sure to impact the DAA community.

Because all of the Lead teachers at DAA attended the conference, we were all able to attend several different sessions and share the resources. These Master Teachers shared their ideas, experiences, projects and resources with us. Furthermore, we were able to debrief amongst our grade level partners and many of us are in the planning phase of getting these new ideas up and running here at DAA.

One of the sessions that I attended was focused on how to meet students on their independent achievement level. This session helped me to think about how to individualize the work that students are currently doing. One teacher at the session shared resources on the Khan academy website with us. This website is a free online resource that allows students to learn anytime, anywhere, with material that is uniquely appropriate for them.  Students can explore new topics and strengthen their math skills by using interactive practice and tutorials. I am so excited to implement this into our daily practice. Feel free to roam the site and create a parent account for your child. Don’t worry, Khan academy isn’t just for math. Check out all of their available subjects today at!

3rd Grade Crew // Brain Breaks!

It’s 10:45 am. While some people may just be starting their day, the leaders of Crew 313 have already welcomed each other in Crew, participated in either Art or Capoeira, read a text, analyzed a text, written a paragraph and provided feedback to each other. And that’s not including our 6 different transitions and countless materials.  

Needless to say, even before lunch, our brains are already full with knowledge, facts and questions. So how do we take a moment to regroup before our next lesson? Brain breaks!  Brain breaks are a fun way to break up the day and add joy in the classroom. Here in Crew 313 we love taking just a few minutes to play a quick game, watch a video or do a quick exercise. It’s natural to want to move so let’s give in to our instincts and use them to our advantage!

There are a few great go to Brain Breaks we like to do. The best part is you can do them almost anywhere! Some of you may have heard about Flocabulary videos. For those who aren’t familiar, they are educational hip hop videos either telling a story or reviewing content. The coolest part about these videos is that they use the vocabulary and terms that students need to know, according the Common Core State Standards. One of the ways we use them is to introduce a new lesson or allow students to follow along. You can view a free one here:

What if you only have a couple minutes and can feel yourself or child feeling antsy? Try a quick math brain break! A quick one to get the blood flowing is quick and easy to do. Here’s how it goes: Have everyone stand up. For us, we’re practicing skip counting and counting by 2’s. With your hands in the air above your head, shake them as you count up to 20: “2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20”. Then shake them to your sides, this time, only going to 18: “2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18”. Repeat this with any action that seems like fun: jumping, running in place, cross-body stretches, etc. This not only gives children a little bit of exercise and gets their blood flowing, but also helps them with their math fluency. You can do this with a lot of different focuses: ABCs, counting, counting backwards, etc.

The last popular brain break we break up the day with is a breathing exercise. One we just started using that allows us to calm our minds is by having students slowly tracing their hands. As their fingers go up one finger, breathe in. As it falls down the other side, breathe out. This is a brain break used when the energy is really high or we need a focus break.  

Again, brain breaks are a great opportunity not only to get some extra energy out or to refocus, but also to quickly practice academic skills. If you have any suggestions, let us know! We love to keep moving :)

Benefits of Journaling

The benefits of journaling have been well known for some time now.  The Huffington Post mentions ten benefits for journaling backed up by research:

  1. Journaling seems to be positively correlated with intelligence according to the University of Victoria.

  2. Journaling brings one into a state of mindfulness

  3. Journaling increases the likelihood that you will achieve a goal.

  4. Journaling increases emotional intelligence; being able to understand the emotions of yourself and others.

  5. Journaling boosts memory and comprehension

  6. Journaling increases self-discipline as journaling itself consistently requires discipline!

  7. Journaling improves verbal communication skills

  8. Journaling can help to heal traumas by making an overwhelming experience more understandable

  9. Journaling can help increase creativity

  10. Journaling can increase self-confidence

Modifying an intervention designed by Philip Kendall PH.D and Kristina Hedtke M.A. called Coping Cat I have found that journaling can be surprisingly profound for children.  Amazingly this happens even if they cannot write a word since in that case pictures can be substituted in to tell a story or memory.  I bolded example four above to emphasize what results I’m seeing with children who get really into journaling.  

Basic Method

In an attempt to increase emotional intelligence in children the essential method of journaling can be broken into three basics fundamentals:

  1. Describing an event or experience

  2. Identifying the somatic (in the body) sensations experienced during the event

  3. Relaxation training

I typically ask the children I work with to describe one time in the past week they felt positive and one time they felt negative.  After journaling each description I then ask them to put into words how their body felt during that experience; this can be quite a challenge at first.  To describe our emotions in words and specifically in terms of what actual sensations occur in our body (hot, cold, tingling) is a new process and takes some time to get used to.  This knowledge, however, proves invaluable as the person continues on in life as it is the essential key to emotional intelligence.   The more difficult this step is for someone the more this skill needs to be developed.  The third step, relaxation training, is built on the ability of being able to notice the bodily sensations that a person associates with a negative state as they begin to arise!   It’s of paramount importance for a child to notice right at the beginning of getting upset because it’s really only at this mild level of anxiety that a coping strategy (journaling, mindfulness, taking a break, breathing etc.) can help the person self-regulate back to a positive state.

I hope that you’ll try this method with your own children or any children you may work with. This practice can really reap huge rewards and not just for children that may be having difficulties with behavior or anxiety.  In fact, I hope you start journaling so that you can verify the benefits for yourself!  

Chess Club // Finding Compassion in Competition


Over the past two months I’ve been tracking and encouraging the use of compassion in DAA’s chess club.  Compassion is one of our school’s “Habits of Character;” meaning that these are traits or habits that we want our entire community to embody.  As a social worker and chess coach I started to wonder, “How could I encourage compassion in the realm of competition, in the realm of chess?”  Long story short: I just had to look a little closer and then ask the students themselves…

The typical attitude of competitive chess can be summed up with this quote from current chess world champion Magnus Carlsen, “Some people think that if their opponent plays a beautiful game, it’s OK to lose. I don’t.  You have to be merciless.”  It seems almost obvious that if you are playing a game against another person then the most important part is trying to win, to be merciless as a route to becoming victorious.  The real issue, in my opinion, is not winning or losing but how you win or lose.  This ability, to win well or lose well, is a teachable skill and is a big part of being able to improve in chess or any competitive arena.   Also, it’s not an easy skill to learn or teach!  Shaking hands and saying good game are already things we do in chess but what would happen if we started looking for compassion in chess club?

As the students got settled on a Tuesday afternoon I told them, “Today I want to try something new; we are going to have a compassion prize!  In addition to tracking who does well on your daily tactics worksheet and who can stay quiet during challenge time (The last 10 minutes of chess club is silent) I want you to pay attention to anyone who shows you compassion and then vote for them at the end of class.”  The kids were definitely interested but I didn’t really know how this was going to work in a competitive environment—I was certainly never encouraged by my coaches to show compassion or to watch for it in others that I may be competing against!

The end of class came and we all came to the rug to debrief.  Students scoring 7 or more correct tactics puzzles were named and then I asked the question that is now a standard part of our chess club debrief, “Ok, time to vote for compassion leaders, raise your hand if someone was compassionate to you today and tell us what that person did.”  I wasn’t sure what would happen but immediately a bunch of hands shot up and what I found out is that our students had found compassion all around them.  Here are some common ways students found compassion in competition with each other:

  • ‘VP helped me with my worksheet tactic I couldn’t figure out.’ (this is a common one as I let students work together with the sometimes very tricky worksheets and one gifted student in particular is the go-to for help)
  • ‘KT helped me log into my computer.’

  • ‘CE let me take back a move when we were playing.’

  • ‘EM helped me find a good move when I was playing online.’

  • ‘I’ve noticed how IM has been improving so much lately.’

  • ‘Even though JG beat me he still helped me find good moves.’

  • ‘JH and I teamed up to battle someone online together.’

We had discovered something kind of ironic; that compassion can be found in a competitive environment by turning being compassionate and noticing compassion in others into a competition itself!  Now being voted for being a compassion leader at the end of chess club is just as desirable as making it onto the chess worksheet Hall Of Fame or for moving up the chess ladder by winning games or for being silent during challenge time.  The lesson I learned as a teacher is that if I look closer at interactions between children wonderful, amazing, and sometimes very subtle character traits are being exhibited in each exchange.  I also learned that by simply asking students to become aware of something, through the slight excitement of a competition, they can become gifted at noticing, naming, and praising traits in others that typically get overlooked in the competitive world that typically values merciless winning above other traits.

2nd Grade Crew // Guided Reading

One important aspect of any literacy program is guided reading!  Students are put into small groups based on skills and levels to help differentiate and individualize instruction.  These groups meet with a teacher during centers.   Students love the hands on learning, feel connected with the members of their group, and enjoy being able to learn so closely with their teacher.

Groups are often given color, shape or animal names.  This helps identify groups with giving stigmas or labels that might discourage below grade level groups.   In our second grade crew we have a red, green, blue and yellow group!

Groups typically have 3-5 students.  Small sizes ensure that students receive highly individualized instruction and work with books that are exactly at the appropriate challenging level.     Typically there are several structures set in place.

First, all the students read quietly to themselves.  Studies have shown that round robin reading, where one student reads at a time while others listen, is one of the least effective ways to teach reading.  Choral reading is something that is sometimes beneficial, but doesn’t allow students to create and understand their own reading rhythm.  Rather than reading one page and listening to three other students, all the students read as many pages as they can, at their own pace and speed. In our crew, all students read quietly to themselves for three to five minutes.  While they are reading, the teacher focuses in on one student in particular each day, taking anecdotal notes and a running record to find specific strengths and weaknesses.   This helps identify future teaching points to ensure every student is growing and receiving differentiated instruction, no matter their level!

Depending on the level, we then discuss the text and finish it together, discussing important genre elements.  We then go over a specific reading strategy, like monitoring comprehension, and the students model and practice with each other.

Higher level groups may focus on vocabulary words, while younger groups focus on spelling patterns, sorting, and phonetics.   In our second grade crew, all students love using our whiteboard table!  It’s fun and educational for our crew members to be able to draw on a table.    

One of the last structures is to play a game!  Lower level groups may play sight word games, while higher level groups may play games with character traits and academic vocabulary.  Students absolutely adore playing these games and being in these groups!  Incorporating fun into reading is a must.    In the game below, students are playing the sight word game “Go to the Movies”.   They pick up and identify sight words.  If they get it right, they get to keep it!   If they get a soda pop, they lose their turn, and if they get a movie night, they get an extra turn.    Simple games can turn routine learning into energizing and motivating experiences.

Having a variety of experiences in these highly individualized groups helps students to be appropriately challenged at their own level, while becoming stronger readers and find the joy of reading.

1st Grade Crew // Authentic & High-Quality Work

EL education determines high-quality work through the lens of authenticity, craftsmanship, and complexity. When planning the final product for our expedition for kindergarten and first grade, we kept these three attributes in mind. We hoped to ensure our final product allowed students create a beautifully detailed and accurate piece of work that included higher-order thinking, while also being authentic for students. In an EL environment, “Authenticity gives a purpose for working--work matters to the students and ideally contributes to a larger community.”

Once our first case study about soil had ended, kindergartners and first graders were excited and energized about what they would be learning next. As students gained an understanding of the importance of soil for the growing process of a plant, they were motivated to learn more. We spent the next couple of weeks learning about plants—plant parts, plant part jobs, plant needs, and the life cycle of a plant. Students learned the scientific terms and content through songs, drawings, videos, and observations!

Students realized we had 5 beautiful garden beds outside of our school built to raise crops. They proposed planting seeds in the gardens to watch their seeds grow into seedlings, sprouts, and mature crops (terms they have learned throughout our expedition). We determined it would be really neat to observe and document crops’ growth over time. The only problem: we didn’t know the first thing about gardening.  

We enlisted a local gardening expert, Ms. Billie Hickey, to teach us the ins and outs of gardening and how to take care of our crops, so we could become successful gardeners our own. Students took a trip to Billie’s garden in nearby Brightmoor, where she showed us the many different crops she grows and explained how she cares for them. Watching and listening to Ms. Billie encouraged students to think about how they could become expert gardeners at our school!

When we came back to school that afternoon, we realized it was hard for us and other visitors to know which crops were growing where in Billie’s garden. We also had a difficult time knowing whether if we were walking on crops that hadn’t started growing yet! Because we had read several books about gardening, students realized Ms. Billie didn’t have any crop markers in her garden! We decided we were going to help Ms. Billie improve her garden for future visitors. We would create plant crop markers so Ms. Billie and visitors would know which crops are in the garden. We decided we would also make these markers for our DAA garden! The authenticity piece of for our high quality final product couldn’t have been more apparent!

Students are now in the process of creating a two-sided plant marker: one side included a scientific drawing of a crop (for which they are becoming experts) with its care instructions on the other. Students will share their plant markers with their families at our Celebration of Learning in our DAA garden, before giving them to Ms. Billie for her garden. Students’ drive to complete their writing and revise their scientific drawings is really strong. Knowing their finished product will help a leader and expert in our community keeps the students motivated and energized!


1st Grade Crew // Author’s Chair Share

Writing time in first grade is serious business. Not only are we learning basic grammar, practicing spelling patterns, writing in different styles, expanding our expedition mastery, we become published authors! There are many steps along the way to publish our work, like editing, revising, conferencing, giving and receiving feedback, but one of the most important parts is the continual opportunity to share our work.

In most of our writing, each week represents one of the stages of writing: brainstorming, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing! During each stage, students are given the opportunity to share their work with the crew. Not only does this give students incentive to do their best work throughout the entire process, but it also provides opportunities for the students to authentically learn from each other. One of the most important aspects of teaching writing is having high-quality examples to show the crew.

We as teachers could spend hours making lots of examples to show students, but why do that when there is usually a goldmine of high-quality examples right in the four walls of the classroom? When students share their work with the crew (which is oftentimes a confidence booster for our writers), the sharer receives feedback on their writing, and they all learn what good writing is by pulling out criteria of what makes the writing high-quality as they move forward through the writing process!