Social Work // To Be Mindful or To Not Be Mindful….That is the Question

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Living in the current fast paced/instant gratification type of society, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to remain mindful of our present moments and current states of being. Subsequently, it is easy to get overwhelmed with the hustle and bustle of life. Our various responsibilities, jobs, and other social and family duties consume us. Research suggests that such high paced, rudimental behavior causes people to have higher stress levels. On the converse, the American Psychosocial Association complied various studies that identified some benefits of people making an intentional effort to remain mindful. Such benefits include (but are not limited to) reduced stress, increased focus, and boosted working memory. Having a strong understanding of the importance of practicing, we as a school community realize that we all (staff and students) need to spend time being mindful daily.

At DAA, we value the time spent during the day to be more mindful, so much so, that we have designated times allotted for staff and students to practice mindfulness. Each crew leader provides time for students to regain focus and engage fully in various activities that make them more aware, and thoughtful young scholars. While the specific mindfulness activities may vary across each crew, each experience is intended to help students calm down after lunch, reflect on their day, and essentially reset for the afternoon. Such experiences are not only a best practice in schools nation-wide, but they also tie together nicely with our Habits of Character. DAA regards Character Development as a high priority for our school community. Therefore, we believe that allowing students to begin practicing mindfulness at this early stage of their lives, will ensure that they will grow into more thoughtful, compassionate, productive, well-rounded citizens of the world.

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Mindfulness in not a new idea. In fact, it is an ancient practice that spans across various cultures and religions. At DAA, we LOVE our mindfulness time. Students actually look forward to such time, and often are disappointed if they think they will miss out on that time. As we encourage our young scholars to remain mindful, we invite them to find time to be mindful at home with their loved ones. Below are a few mindfulness activities you can try at home with your family:



Stay Mindful My Friends,

Mr. Lemons

Kindergarten Crew // Problem Based Tasks in Math

This year at DAA, we have added a new component to our Math Block called Problem Based Tasks, which is a time for students to grapple with a challenging, open-ended math concept in a real-world context. Teachers purposely design the tasks to have multiple solutions or involve multiple strategies so that students can think outside the box and explain why something works!

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At the start of a problem based task, we read the problem together and then fill out a K-W-I Chart, which stands for “What do we already know?” “What do we want to find out?” and “What ideas do we have?” During this section kids can work with a partner to plan strategies based on what they’ve already learned in math class. Unlike traditional math lessons, teachers don’t confirm or deny whether students’ ideas or strategies are right--we let them plan and test their ideas to see what works! After students think of ideas, they choose one strategy they would like to use and find a partner that wants to use the same strategy. They then work together to solve the problem!

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In Kindergarten, we have recently been learning about comparing numbers using more than, less than, and equal to, as well as comparing measurements like capacity, volume, and length. For our capacity problem based task, students were tasked with creating a snack mix, using different amounts of snacks. The snack mix had to have a greater volume of some snacks and a lesser volume of other snacks. Students worked with a partner to come up with strategies (ex. “We can use bigger cups for the snacks that need a bigger volume!; “We can use lots of cups to measure snacks with a smaller volume and only one or two cups for the snacks with a lesser volume!”) They then went to their tables and started implementing their strategies! Teachers circulate during the work time and ask students open-ended questions that allow them to explain their thinking and make sense of the math concept (i.e. “How did you find out that ___ was more than ___?” “Which one holds a greater volume? How do you know?”) This was such a fun and interactive way to find different volumes and to understand more and less (not to mention, it was tasty!) 

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At the end of a Problem Based Task, we have a debrief where students can share out what strategies worked, what strategies didn’t work, and what they learned about the math topic. This allows teachers to see what misconceptions students had during the task and allows us to adjust future lessons to include direct modeling, more vocabulary around the math topic, etc. Although Problem Based Tasks are sometimes challenging because they are so open-ended and don’t have a clear step-by-step process for students to use, they allow students to take risks and try new strategies to see what works and to develop a deep conceptual understanding of the concept. 

2nd Grade Crew // Using a RIRA (Repetitive Interactive Read Along) to Inspire a Love for Books

In 2nd grade, we have a special time built into our day that is used strategically to facilitate a love of reading, while also building on other vital early reading skills. Before we dive into labs, we do a close read of a story, also referred to as a Repetitive Interactive Read Along or RIRA. Why add even MORE read alouds to our day? Studies show that having a teacher read aloud to students helps to increase their reading level because it models fluent reading. By following along and seeing how the teacher emphasizes different words, pauses at commas and periods, and pronounces difficult words, students can increase their own reading fluency. When students are exposed to complex texts that spark their interest, it inspires them to reach for more! Teachers are able to scaffold students’ understanding of a text because it is dissected over multiple days. Throughout the week, students are introduced to context specific vocabulary, new and interesting concepts, and are given the opportunity to make connections and inferences with the text. 

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The most effective read alongs happen when students are in the driver’s seat- making predictions, sharing inferences, answering text specific ‘why’ questions, and grappling with new vocabulary. By giving them a guide, such as a graphic organizer, students are able to organize story elements into a chart, and then discuss connections. While reading, I make sure to ‘think-aloud’ frequently, to model reading strategies for decoding as well as comprehension. While students could potentially find a central message or theme in just any book, it is highly beneficial to expose them to pre researched books rich in vocabulary, of high interest, just above their reading level, and with a variety of text features. The benefits of repeated exposure to stories in a RIRA structure show not only their reading development, but also in their confidence as a reader. As teachers, parents, and school leaders, we can ALL facilitate a love of reading by picking up more books kids love, and just reading to them.

To read more about the benefits of read alouds, check out http://www.readingrockets.org/article/repeated-interactive-read-alouds-preschool-and-kindergarten 

Special Education // Color-Coding: Above & Beyond Art Class

I remember when I was in 1st grade and my teacher told me she loved they way I colored. I was so proud of myself after that and felt so good that all I wanted to do was to color. Lucky for me, this passion grew into an organized chaos in which helped me learn best in school.

A lot of the accommodations that I use with my students is color coding words, phrases, texts, and anything that may help them organize their thoughts and keep everything in order.

Color coding can be beneficial to any student from any age. Did you know that color-coding improves recall time and can be an effective performance factor? It’s amazing really, what a little bit of color can do to help your child stay organized and on track with their assignments. Although we use it a lot at school, there are definitely some things you can try at home:

Color-code To Do’s: Do you have a system in place for after school activities but your child has a hard time keeping on task? A few colored sticky notes, or highlighted tasks  can help them remember when it’s dinner time, homework time, and play time!

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Rainbow Spelling: At school, a lot of our spelling words involve color! With just 2-4 different colors, you can have students learning to spell words correctly. First start with a light color then build up colors spelling that word. It’s a fun way to switch things up!

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Highlighting key words/symbols in word problems: This one would help everyone doing any basic computation! Start by highlighting math symbols so you know your student is computing problems correctly. At school, I usually highlight the subtraction sign for students who struggle to compute subtraction problems to remind them that it’s a “take-away” problem instead of addition. Sometimes they just need a little reminder. For word problems, I have students highlight key words that may help them solve the problem. For example,

“De’Andre had 8 markers. Liza borrowed some markers. De’Andre now has 3 markers. How many markers did Liza borrow?”

In this problem, we highlight the word ‘borrow’ as well as any important numbers we
need to solve the problem. This helps keep their thoughts organized while knowing
which operation to use. In this case, students would use subtraction.

It’s always fun to add some color to get away from the ordinary. Enforcing these habits early on might help them in the long run when they are more independent with their learning!

1st Grade Crew // Mindful Moments

Take 5 deep breaths. How do you feel? Do you feel calm? Were you able to focus and ignore distractions? Taking moments throughout the day to clear one’s mind and reset helps our students stay focused during the action-packed, content-rich first grade school day.

Practicing relaxation techniques, which we call “mindful minutes”, are a valuable and integral part of our day. For example, after our 50-minute recess/lunch period, the daily practice helps students gain self-regulation and relaxation. When our first grade students come back to the classroom, they go straight to the carpet and as a crew we take 2-3 minutes to focus on various breathing techniques including: “balloon breath” (deep breath in, deep breath out pretending to have a balloon to blow up in one’s hands); “bunny breath” (3 short breaths in like a bunny, 1 deep breath out); “bee breath” (deep breath in, gentle buzzing sound out), etc.

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Once I see that all students are resetting, they may choose their next “mindful” activity. For example, they can get a pillow from our calm corner to place on their desk or the carpet to rest their heads, they can get a coloring sheet to color independently, or even participate in yoga from one of our favorite websites—Cosmic Kids Yoga!

This month our crew will begin using another powerful calming technique called “Smell and Tell”. I will pass around something fragrant, such as an orange peel or lavender sprig for students to close their eyes and breath in the scent.

In addition to our set time, we take various “brain breaks” throughout the day to get our “wiggles” out. These brain breaks are a great way to release energy and have fun in a productive way. We typically use a variety of brain breaks from GoNoodle.com such as dancing, call and repeat singing, or meditation.  

Regardless of which of technique we choose, a different tone exists in the classroom after taking a mindful minute--one in which students are clam, focused and engaged. The time we carve out to reset sets the tone for our afternoon and the work we have left to do.

Social Work // An Introduction to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

When students are referred to me for behavioral or social / emotional support one of the most common tools I will use is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT has been proven to be successful in treating students suffering from anxiety, depression, lack of assertiveness, poor diet, specific phobias, grief / bereavement and many other common problems for children.

CBT is different from traditional “talk therapy” because it does more than offer advice to the client; it builds skills. A key component to CBT is it is a collaborative process in which the students are asked to test their learning or understanding of the skills in the real world.

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The basics of CBT is teaching how feelings, thoughts and behavior influence each other. By working on recognizing their thoughts, and challenging unhealthy or problematic thoughts, students are able to better their emotional state and improve behaviors.

Through the collaboratively setting goals and outlining agendas students have an opportunity to identify cognitive distortions, maladaptive thoughts and beliefs. After they have identified these pitfalls, we work to put them on trail, challenging the way the student thinks. We activate positive behaviors and see behavioral change.

CBT is just one tool that can be utilized when students receive extra social-emotional or behavioral support. It is proven effective and holds students to a high standard of being in charge of their change.  

4th Grade Crew // Field Study!

As part of the second module of our 4th grade curriculum, the 4th grade crew has been studying animal defense mechanisms. We began our time as researchers and scientists by learning more about various animal defense mechanisms. Then, the crew broke into four “expert” groups to research more about the defense mechanisms used by the ostrich, monarch butterfly, springbok gazelle, and three-banded armadillo. Students researched about their animal’s habitat, physical appearance, predators, and, of course, their defense mechanisms. They then wrote an informative piece that included all their research and explained how their animal uses its defense mechanism.

After we had done our research and become experts on our animal, it became time to work on our final product -- “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” narratives featuring our expert group animals as the main character! Not only did we need to transition from informative writing to narrative writing, but we also needed to learn more about the “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” format. This was a new format to us, and is very unusual -- we would have to write in the second person point of view and come up with multiple choices or “paths” for our animals to take throughout the narrative.

In order to become experts of the “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” format, we traveled to 826 Michigan’s Robot Factory in order to learn more! When we arrived, Jose showed us around the Robot Factory and demonstrated their “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” generator, which allowed us to read an example “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” narrative written by other students! Jose led us in a discussion of our animals, and as a group we wrote an exciting introduction that included all four of our animals. After our crew came up with two exciting choices for our animals, we split into two different groups and wrote with next pages with the help of the Robot Factory experts. Then, we split again and continued to add more twists and turns to our animal narrative. The crew was excited to share all their expert knowledge with our hosts at the Robot Factory, and our hosts were very impressed with the crew’s knowledge -- our hosts never knew that ostriches make a “booming call” sound to scare away predators! Finally, each student showed off their creativity and wrote their own individual ending to our narrative.

At the end of the trip, each member of our crew got their own copy of the “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” narrative we had written -- with all of our different choices and endings! We know that these narratives are going to be an excellent guide for us as we continue our own “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” narratives in class!   

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Special Education // Disabilities vs. Differences

A Habit of Character at our school I absolutely love is compassion. We intentionally put time and effort into teaching and demonstrating how compassion looks, feels, and sounds. We find amazing ways to celebrate each other’s differences! Not one student is the same, not even twins! The same goes for students who qualify for extra support under the special education umbrella.

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There’s always an initial shock when schools or outside services tell a parent their little one qualifies for special education under a specific disability (learning disability, autism, emotional impairment, etc). We understand the anxiety these words may cause due what most of us have experienced in education. Disability is defined as “a physical or mental condition that limits a person's movements, senses, or activities”  but the special education world is constantly evolving towards the student and how we can help them be successful as we support them through their school journey. At our school, we believe every student can achieve beyond what they think they are capable of and our students are capable of doing their best and more- there are no limitations of what they can do and our students are always surprising us! Which is why we use the term differences instead of disabilities. This may be a shift for a lot of educators and our community as special education has grown so much over the past few years, but we still have a ways to go.

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In the mid-18th century, people with disabilities were seen as a liability in social and economic participation but in the early 19th century, the French brought pioneers on special education to the US and Canada and soon enough, institutions began developing new ways to help people with disabilities, in other words,  exceptional individuals. In those days, however, the goal of these institutions was to protect the “vulnerable” children with needs from the world, which in a way, was very limiting. Move forward to the 1900’s and we see the development of special classes in which many of us grew up seeing in schools. Then in the 1980’s, education was going under major waves of reform and special education began to shift from special education classes to mainstreaming and inclusiveness which is where we are today.

Although those special classes still exist in some schools, the beauty of what we do here is that we are helping our special friends be in the least restrictive environment. We help them be part of their community without hindering their talents and special abilities. Together, we are making our world a more inclusive one that celebrates each other instead of ostracizing those who are different than most of us.

1st Grade Crew // The Importance of Teaching the Habits of Character

Detroit Achievement Academy emphasizes the importance of the whole child. This means while we focus strongly on academic content learning we place equally high importance on social and emotional learning. This focus (social and emotional learning) helps nurture students into empathetic, caring, responsible individuals capable of building lasting relationships and becoming civically engaged, successful adults. We teach six habits of character and embed their meaning throughout the day. As students grow and move from grade to grade, they learn another facet and deeper meaning of each specific habit of character. The habits of character DAA teaches include: compassion, cooperation, integrity, curiosity and creativity, responsibility, and perseverance.

Each day when we come together for morning crew we read our habit of character focus, which remains the same throughout the week to help students deepen their understanding. Students participate in discussions and initiatives relating to the habit of character. These initiatives push students to think critically about the specific habit of character and drive discussion and reflection for the day and week.

For example when we focus on cooperation, a learning target might be ‘I can show cooperation by working with others to overcome a challenge.’ The goal is for students to resolve conflict independently and respectfully through cooperative process. Students will act out various scenarios (i.e., someone took a pencil from another student, someone doesn’t want to play with someone else at recess) to practice what it feels like to go through the cooperative process. This role-playing helps students when they need to resolve a conflict with others independently in a cooperative manner.

In addition to morning crew, students reflect on how they show their habits of character during lesson debriefs and closing crew. During lesson debriefs teachers generate questions relating to how students showed any of their habits of character. For example, how did they show perseverance when they faced challenging work or how did they show compassion and cooperation within a small group?  In thinking about their answers, students make connections between their interactions throughout the day and their habits of character.

Providing a space to have “teachable moments” relating to habits of character helps students recognize, relate, understand, and practice our habits of character.

6th Grade Crew // Middle School Advisory

This year, DAA expanded to have a 6th grade crew, which means we officially have a middle school! These middle schoolers are spending an hour of their day in an “advisory” class. Depending on the day, middle school advisory is spent in many different ways: some advisory periods are split by gender, others by preference, and each span a range of topics which interest and appeal to a middle school student body. These topics could range from personal finance to health and hygiene. Etiquette may be explored one week, while stereotypes and societal norms will be discussed the next. Many of the middle school advisory topics were selected by the students. In expanding their curiosity and responsibility, our students chose topics that would be relevant to their experience not only as middle schoolers but as future high schoolers and active members of our Detroit community. 

In a recent middle school advisory meeting, students explored elements of cooperative play - an element of middle school in which students practice, discuss and discover sports which they may experience in high school. This has become a time when our middle school students have been able to express themselves, push their comfort zones and feel safe and comfortable in the presence of adults (outside of regular crew meetings). These meetings are intentionally geared towards the mindset, skill-set and unique stage of life of the middle schooler. The focus remains on relationship building between students and also with their teachers. 

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With high school and college on the horizon for our middle schoolers, we hope to be teaching the whole child to achieve in the range of settings in which they will be placed. Middle school advisory teaches, challenges and practices the social, emotional and fundamental pieces of maturing into adulthood, and is a treasured time in the day of students and staff.