6th Grade Crew // The Module Launch

Over the course of the year each student at DAA become an expert in 4 different topics during their ELA class. The topics are split up into what we call modules and are based on the EL Education ELA curriculum. Students engage in meaningful and authentic research throughout the each module including reading complex text, interviewing experts and field study. By the end of each module, students create an authentic final product and present it at our celebration of learning. Final products push students to do more than they ever thought was possible. In the past DAA students have published books, organized voter registration and produced podcasts. In order to invest students in this deep and authentic learning, we have to get them excited as soon as the module begins.


At the beginning of each module every crew participates in a series of activities called the module launch. Launches can last from one class period to several days. During a module launch students engage in activities designed to spark their sense of curiosity. They explore resources related to the learning that they will do. They solve mysteries about their topic. Sometimes, they even start to analyze models of the final products that they will eventually create themselves. These launch experiences not only engage our students, but they also promote equity. Kids come to crew with a variety of experiences and interests. This means that they have varying levels of background knowledge related to any given topic. Participating in a module launch allows all learners to access the content and start to become experts regardless of prior knowledge on the module topic.


During the first module, our students studied Greek Mythology, a topic that most students were unfamiliar with. Students started their launch week with an amazing race. They were split into teams. Each team had to discover which figure from Greek Mythology represented their team. They completed a series of challenges designed to introduce them to common myths. After completing each challenge, they received a clue. During one challenge, students read about the myth of Arachne’s Web and completed the spider web challenge on our new low ropes course. In another challenge, they had to complete a team building activity to make their way to Mount Olympus.


After each team completed the amazing race we celebrated with a few chants and cheers. Then students immediately dove into analyzing what would eventually be their final product, a myth that represents one our our DAA habits of character.

Module launches are really powerful experiences. They spark academic conversation, expose students to rich content and allow us to continue to maintain a strong sense of crew. Our first launch of the year was in September, and still, students are talking about as they finish our their first module.


Kinder Crew // Working with Experts to Deepen Our Knowledge

In our Kindergarten crew’s first literacy module this year, we have been working to become experts about toys and play. We explored the questions: What can we do to make playing together fun? And What toys do others prefer? Why do they prefer them? We started our study by exploring different types of toys and describing attributes of toys. We then learned about what toys others prefer, first by learning about toys that kids from long ago played with and then by working with a partner to discover what toys they prefer playing with. To culminate our study of toys, we organized a school-wide toy drive to collect toys for the Children’s Hospital of Michigan, and created tags to go with the toys that include a picture of the toy and two sentences of writing about how to play with that toy.


One way that we were able to learn about and become experts on toys and play was by talking with and interviewing experts about toys and play. We started our module by interviewing a Child Life Specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan, Ms. Sinead. This interview helped us understand about why kids in the hospital need toys and what kinds of toys they like to play with. We learned that children in the hospital have a play room that they go to to ease the stress of their treatments and to feel less lonely when they are away from their friends, family, or school. After we interviewed Ms. Sinead, we were able to come up with a list and create posters  for our toy drive of which types of toys the Children’s Hospital needed and requested.

We continued to learn from experts throughout our module! When we learned about what toys others prefer and toys from long ago, we interviewed a classmate’s parent, who brought in two toys she had when she was a child! This helped us to understand what toys others prefer to play with and how toys have changed from long ago to today. Finally, we interviewed a student at DAA who spent some time at the Children’s Hospital a few years ago. He told us about what the toy room at the hospital was like and how going to the toy room helped him get through his illness and bring a smile to his face when he was away from his toys at home. Kindergarten students asked good questions to get a feel for why it was important to donate toys to kids who don’t have any, and throughout the writing and drawing of their toy tags, were passionate about making their work the best it could be to be able to support a real purpose.


Learning from and interviewing experts is one of the best ways to deepen our learning at DAA. Not only does it help students practice speaking and listening skills, but it also brings a real purpose to what we are learning and helps students make connections to the real world!

Social Work // 8 Takeaways From The International Institute for Restorative Practices World Conference

On October 24th - 26th, we (Tommy Anderson, School Social Worker, and Mario Lemons, Behavior Interventionist) were able to attend an international conference on restorative practices. Conferences run by the International Institute for Restorative Practices have been held all over the world, we were lucky enough to have this years occur here in Detroit. Participants came from far and wide, representing nearly every state and over 25 countries!

Breakout sessions ranging from “The Critical Role of Youth in Building Restorative Cultures at Schools” to “Using Restorative Practices and Mindfulness to Build Relationships and Heal Trauma” to “Bridging ‘Behavior’ Gaps: Strategies and Interventions for Challenging Students” informed and enlightened us along the way.

We had 8 big takeaways from our time at the conference:

1. Restorative Practices Work!

Nearly every session began with data. Schools across the nation are reporting a reduction in serious infractions, a reduction in recurrent problematic behaviors, a reduction in suspensions and an increase in prosocial behaviors. Furthermore, Restorative Practices is equitable. It has been proven to reduce racial gap in defiance and misconduct referrals. In an educational climate where Black students are 3x more likely to be suspended as their White counterparts, the importance in making our practices more equitable is paramount. If you’d like to see more data surrounding Restorative Practices, follow this link.

2. Restorative Practices is one piece of the puzzle.

Restorative Practices are best utilized in schools alongside Positive Behavior  Interventions and Supports, as well as social-emotional learning. In the school setting restorative practices do not live in a silo. They interact with other systems to help manage and respond to behaviors. Allowing Restorative Practices to interact and be a part of other systems of the school are when it becomes most effective.

3. Proactive Practices are key.

A common theme throughout the conference was the importance of establishing norms and relationships with those you work with. Proactive circles are key in building community. Building trust and getting to know those in your class before you need a responsive circle increases the effectiveness of the circle.

4. Data collection is an integral part of the process.

How do you know if something is working? How can we replicate our success year after year? Data collection! Not just outcomes, but collecting information on the fidelity of the implementation of programs. As we continually refine our restorative practices data collection will be an integral part of knowing what adjustments need to be made.

5. Restorative Practices should live in every inch of the school.

Restorative Practices in a school does not work unless it is present in the very fiber of the culture of the building. All community members must buy into it. It cannot only be the way that student off-culture behavior is addressed, but it has to also be what guides staff to student relationships, informs staff to staff interactions, as well as the way that schools engage families and the community as a whole. It is when (and only when) schools adopt restorative practices school-wide that one will see a genuinely restorative community.  

6. Restorative Practices take time, reflection and patience.

The ideas of restorative practices are not a new concept for various communities historically and abroad. However, the movement to fully incorporate such practices into schools has been the buzz in the educational sectors more recently than not. As a result, the implementation thereof doesn’t come without both unintentional and intentional resistance. Traditional educational systems are innately punitive in their response to off-culture behaviors, therefore, the transition to a more restorative environment takes time, thoughtful reflection, and patience from all stakeholders in each school community.    

7. We are doing a lot right!

The International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) conference was very informative, engaging, and thoughtful in its execution. As we participated in the various discussions and breakout sessions, it was clear that the work that we have already done at DAA aligns well with the best practices globally. We learned a lot, and we contributed a lot as well. We were able to again several very tactical restorative strategies to bring back to the DAA community. We also found it interesting that we were able to add value to the diverse conversations in many ways during the conference because we have already been doing this type of work at DAA. It confirmed that we as a school community are not perfect, but, in the restorative community, we are doing a lot right! For that, we are extremely proud! :-)

8. Our work is never done!

Similar to the way that professionals in the medical field consider themselves practitioners of medicine- the very essence of becoming a restorative community is rooted in the idea that it’s an ever growing a developing process. It takes constant reviewing, reflection, readjusting to meet the specific needs of the community. This is why it is said to be Restorative Practices. It embodies the thought that “our work is never done!” Because this philosophy is human relationship focused, it is innately a journey- a commitment, and a process that never ends. But the potential outcomes of a completely restorative community is worth it all.

4th & 5th Grade Crew // Math Lab

Math lab is our designed time to work on skills at our individual levels. Using a combination of NWEA Test scores, Math Benchmarks and Unit assessments groups are designed. Students are paired and grouped with student who are working at the same levels as themselves. While students work in pairs or with their groups, I am able to meet with small groups to review, reteach or introduce new skills. This year I have been concentrating on how to hold students more accountable, make station materials more durable and more organized. 


 Students receive weekly trackers that include their objectives for the week, a schedule of their centers, an end of the week exit ticket and a reflection. Students use this tracker daily to record, compare and reflect on their progress throughout the week. This tracking system increases my ability to identify the exact needs of the students. It gives me immediate insight about how objectives should be adjusted for the following week. With the combination of trackers and weekly exit tickets I feel more confident to address the immediate needs of my students. 


 Throughout the week, students have the opportunity to grapple with and work on expanding their understanding of their objectives. Recently we have begun to use Khan Academy to address our current unit. Khan Academy compliments our EngageNY curriculum, it allows for students to watch videos of the skill we’ve learned and then they are given the opportunity to practice them. This year, in addition to using Khan Academy to compliment our curriculum, I am now assigning students more individual assignments to helps with filling in the gaps of their previous school year. While we aim for our entire day to be intentional, lab time is the most focused and individualized time of the day. Check out how we organize our stations and whats in each bin. 


3rd Grade Crew // Mindfulness

Maybe, as an adult, you’ve heard of how valuable a daily mindfulness practice can be. It seems as though new mindfulness apps and websites are emerging at a rapid rate, for both adults to use in their own practice, as well as for children to practice self-regulation and deep breathing (More examples can be found here and here).

But students don’t need a fancy app or an expensive subscription service to make the most of their daily mindfulness practice. All it takes are a few minutes, a set of agreed-upon crew norms, and some deep breaths.

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In the 3rd grade crew, our mindfulness practice occurs right after lunch. This is a great time for us to slow down and breathe, or just focus quietly on a spot in the room. Some of us enjoy drawing during mindfulness. Others like to close their eyes and meditate. One day, a group of students formed a meditation circle with a lava lamp as a centerpiece. Their energy was calm and still, yet palpable. You could tell that they were getting prepared to take on the rest of the day, which is filled to the brim with academic and social activities.

The built-in structure of mindfulness into each day allows us to take a few moments to reflect and think, set an intention for the rest of the day, or just enjoy a quiet activity like reading or writing.

In addition, sometimes we incorporate a mindfulness exercise into our day when the class as a whole could benefit from a brain break or “reset.” In these times, we gather into a circle and do a guided breathing activity, such as Bee Breathing, shown below. We imagined that a swarm of bees had invaded the classroom and we needed to take deep breaths, make the “zzzzz” sound with our mouths, and push the breath out through the buzzing sound. After we finished, the whole room was calmer, more focused, and ready for our next class activity.

Having mindfulness as a school-wide initiative at DAA is a wonderful way to ensure that all members of both our student and adult crew are getting a few minutes throughout the day to calm our minds and reset our intentions!

Art // Exploring Art & History at the DIA

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One of my greatest joys as an art teacher is bringing my students each year to visit the Detroit Institute of Arts. The DIA not only offers Wayne county residents free admission but they also provide complimentary bussing for schools as well! This year our sixth graders started out their first module by diving deep into greek mythology. I knew that the DIA’s ancient Greek and Roman art collections would be the perfect place to bring our learning to life! In their studies in ELA class students read classic myths and learned how to write their own narratives about a hero's journey. As a cross-curricular art component we studied the importance of ancient greek pottery and looked at detailed vase paintings that have been used to tell stories of greek life for centuries. By taking our learning from the art room and into the museum, students were able to apply their knowledge of art history and vocabulary to actual artifacts and make first hand observations in the real world.

Through teaching at an Expeditionary Learning school I am able to collaborate closely with each grade level teacher to help plan, facilitate, and present student work. I help students create authentic and high quality final products that are directly aligned with their learning at the end of each module. Through our work in the art room and from our visit to the DIA, sixth graders created some truly beautiful examples of excellence! This type of curriculum encourages students to become experts on each subject and relies on the importance of fieldwork to guide them. Sixth graders were eager to do research for their art projects in the real world. It was pretty evident throughout their adventure at the Detroit Institute of Arts that the students were more engaged than they may have been spending the hour at school seeing only pictures of the artwork from their desks.

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1st Grade Crew // Authentic Learning

EL education determines high-quality work through the lens of authenticity, craftsmanship, and complexity. When planning the first-grade bird module, we kept these three attributes in mind. As a school we really wanted to focus on bringing the authenticity piece to the forefront, specifically, incorporating fieldwork, local experts, and service learning with students. These three facets truly bring to life work from the classroom because student’s work has a purpose. Our students meet with local experts who study or work in the specific field students are learning. They visit local spots connected to their academic content and produce an artifact that has a purpose in the outside world.

Once our first graders finished their first unit on birds’ physical characteristics and behaviors, they were excited and energized about what they would be learning next. We invited a local bird expert, Mr. Anderson, who is the father of our beloved social worker—Mr. Anderson, to teach us about what he knows about the ins and outs of birds. He visited our first-grade classroom and shared photographs of birds he has seen on his travels throughout the world. Students viewed real-life images of birds that they have studied for months. They asked Mr. Anderson interesting questions that only a bird aficionado could answer and were so excited to share their knowledge about what they had learned with him. Watching our students get so enthusiastic about recognizing a bird in a photograph and seeing 100% of the Crew raising their hand to answer a question about a bird that Mr. Anderson posed, was truly magical!

The fieldwork first grade went on is directly connected with what we are learning in the classroom. The purpose of our visit was to observe local birds in their natural habitat and understand different ways we can take care of birds. The experience of going on fieldwork to gather information with so much background knowledge is empowering and thought-provoking. Students put their knowledge to the test by “showing off” what they learned about birds. We invited Mr. Anderson to join us on our fieldwork to Kensington Nature Center, a park he knows well, to help us notice, observe, and learn even more birds! This fieldwork allowed students to take off their “student hat” and put on their “research hat”.  They took observational notes and wrote specific interview questions. This research stimulated our thinking for our final product and helped us answer our guiding question—how can we take care of birds to help them live and grow?

Using the information and experience gained through our expert, fieldwork, and classroom learning we created a final product to benefit birds in our community. Students used the research of local birds and work in expert groups to design and create a bird feeder with specific characteristics to appeal for their local Michigan bird. Each bird feeder included a high-quality scientific drawing of their local bird and include a convincing paragraph for a local business explaining why they should put the bird feeder outside of their place of work. Students also justified why the design of their bird feeder is best for the features of their specific bird. First graders planned, created, and revised their design using Legos! We also asked Mr. Anderson to use his expertise and give feedback and critique on our final products. Our final product mirrored a real-world format and served a real community need! It’s a win-win for the kids, the community, and the birds!

2nd Grade Crew // Supporting Lessons with Field Study

In the final module in our second grade curriculum, we explored the guiding questions, “Why should people help pollinators to survive?” as well as, “How can I take action to help pollinators?”. Through research with fiction and nonfiction texts, students were swiftly becoming experts in pollination. Certainly, if you know second grade then you’ll know how inquisitive and naturally curious they are! Throughout this module of study, students have been exploring texts that encourage them to take action and gives them examples of brave, integrous characters whom, no matter how small, make a difference. As the facilitator of their learning, I am always on the lookout for authentic, local learning experiences I can organize for my crew, to support the lessons I teach and also supports the social emotional aspect of working to contribute to a better world.

Recently, I learned about a local nonprofit that works to transform vacant lots in Detroit into sustainable habitats for bees and other pollinators. They are also connected with many city organizations that support the education and conservation of bees. Since we’re studying the importance of pollinators in our class, I didn’t hesitate to setup a field study at Detroit Hives. In order to make the trip more authentic, we incorporated a Field Guide Journal for students to draw pictures and capture their thoughts. They spent the trip asking endless questions, and persevering through initial fear to eventually wishing for their own beehive!

While on the trip we met Timothy, Nicole, and Skylar (Junior Beekeeper). She held the frames herself, answered many of the student’s questions, and was excited to share facts and information with all of the guests about the bees. This bubbly, eager expert shocked us all; at a mere 5 years of old, she was doing it. Students were motivated and encouraged to be involved in the conservation of these precious insect pollinators! Seeing Skylar lead with confidence and excitement was a teaching moment I wouldn’t have been able to facilitate for them in our  classroom. These invaluable lessons field studies provide can remain with students for generations and prepares students to be citizens of a larger world; they give them the confidence to go out and take action to improve the world in which they live.

5th Grade Crew // Socratic Seminars

In ELA our 5th grade crew studies athletes as leaders of social change. As a crew, we completed a case study on Jackie Robinson and what led to his success in creating social change. Students also conducted independent research on other athletes who have chosen to take a stand to change society. Because students had studied so many different eras and athletes, we needed a way to come together and learn from one another. So we hosted a Socratic Seminar. A Socratic Seminar is a formal conversation based on research.

There is a lot of prep work that goes into hosting a successful Socratic Seminar. One of the most important preparations in explicitly teaching conversation skills. For several weeks before our Socratic Seminar we spent crew time participating in initiatives that promote positive conversation skills. We started by brainstorming what it really looks like and how it feels when someone is truly listening to you. Students narrowed this list down to 3 key norms for conversation: eye contact, responsive body language, and waiting your turn to speak. We then debriefed daily on how we did with these norms. Students also gave me feedback on norms that I identified I needed to work on.


After establishing basic conversation norms for our crew, we had to distinguish between informal and formal conversation. Students then worked together to create norms for professional conversation. These norms included speaking loud and clear, responding respectfully, using academic language and citing evidence to prove your claim.  We then went into clearly defining what respectful responses would sound like. Students created a list of sentence stems that they could use to guide their response, and we practiced using the sentence stems in our daily discussions so that students felt comfortable using them.

In the days leading up the Socratic Seminar students had to prepare their claims and supporting evidence. Students were asked to form an opinion about which factor is the most important in making successful social change. Students were able to look back at their annotated text, speeches by athletes and notes documentary clips. They selected the strongest evidence, cited their sources and explained how they supported their opinions. They used this to create notes to help them in discussion.


When the day of our first full Socratic Seminar came, students facilitated the discussion. They listened to their crewmates and responded. Afterwards students were given time to reflect on key points that came up in discussion and draw final conclusions. Finally, we debriefed our norms, rating how we did using conversation skills that we had established together.

Restorative Practices: Responding to Off-Culture Behaviors

Creating a strong culture in which every member of our crew embodies the habits of character is an ultimate goal for our school. What do we do when a member of our crew isn’t using the habits of character? What do we do when a member of our crew is causing harm?

Our responses to these off-culture behaviors are grounded in restorative practices. Our aim is to respond to the off-culture behaviors in a way that builds community, fixes the harm that was done, helps students learn from their mistakes and empower students with the skills to resolve conflicts.

Daily Crew and Community Building

Every morning and afternoon we circle up. This is part of our intentional community building.

Our morning crew starts with a greeting, followed by a share, and lastly an initiative.

The greeting is a way to say good morning to the crew. This could be a one minute greeting-- where each member of the crew greets each other with a handshake, a high five or a hug for one.

Next up would be a share. Often times shares are grounded in our habits of character [link to blog post outlining the habits of character]. We will turn and talk or share out to the whole group about certain topics.

Lastly is the initiative. Initiatives are team games designed to create teachable moments surrounding our habits of character.

In the afternoon, we circle back up for announcements and appreciations.

The idea behind these circles are intentionally building community and teaching social-emotional skills. This is preventative work and is truly a foundation of our school.

Harm Was Done: Now What?

Inevitably students will have some actions that are not aligned with our culture. Members of our crew will hurt other members. Harm will be done. So, how do we respond when harm is done?

Restorative Conference
When students have conflict we bring them together to fix the harm that has been done.
A series of questions are asked, for example:

For offenders:
What happened?
What were you thinking at the time?
What have you thought about since?
Who was affected by your actions?
How have they been affected?
What can you do to make things right?
How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again?

For Victims:
What did you think when you realized what happened?
How has this affected you and others?
What has been the hardest thing for you?
What should happen to make things right?
How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again?

Guiding the students through this restorative practice allows them to be a part of the solution, feel heard and take ownership over the school culture.

Peace Path
Another avenue to empower students is a peace path. This is a process that can be taught to students. After a few rounds of the peace path students should be able to walk the path by themselves!

The path goes as follows:

Student A: I feel _________ when you _________ .

Student B: I know you feel _________  when I _________ .

Student B: I feel _________  when you _________ .

Student A: I know you feel _________  when I _________ .

Student A: Next time, I need _________ .

Student B: Next time, I agree to _________ .

Student B: Next time, I need _________ .

Student A: Next time I agree to _________ .

Student A and Student B agree on a handshake, high-five or hug.

Giving students this framework empowers them to solve issues other members of the crew.

Restorative circles allow students to speak freely and openly while working towards resolving a problem.

A circle views of-culture behavior as a teachable moment, separates person from the deed, focuses on fixing the harm done, encourages authentic participation and allows for successful reintegration.

A few elements I find are common in highly successful circles are:

  • Use of a talking piece to allow for equal voice

  • Speak from the heart

  • Listen from the heart

  • No need to practice or rehearse

  • Without being rushed, just say enough

  • Work is ongoing, things won’t be fixed after one circle

Restorative practices take more time and effort than more traditional discipline models. The reason they are worth the extra time and effort are because they create students who are empowered by being a part of the process, enable crew members to restore and build community.