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  • 30 Mar 2023 9:22 AM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

    By: Lynne Eddis and Duane Moyer

    If you ask an adult to remember their favorite teacher, it probably won’t take them long to recall that special person and what the educator did for them. Whether the teacher recognized their strengths or supported their passions, the best educators believe in their students and leave them with a long-lasting impression of what is possible for them in school and in life. 

    Many educators today are at risk of losing faith in their ability to make those connections with their students—and make a difference in young people’s lives. The three years since the pandemic began have been challenging and destabilizing for educators, and their belief in themselves and in the profession may have faltered. Many educators report that students do not have the stamina they once did. They see their colleagues struggling or deciding to leave the profession altogether. These realities have left educators wondering if their hard work matters and if they can still be someone’s favorite teacher someday.

    Administrators, education leaders, and educators themselves must recognize this challenge and focus on rebuilding educator agency, that belief that educators can set and reach goals and have a real impact on their students. 

    Educators cannot pour from an empty cup. The following strategies can go a long way toward helping them regain a sense of efficacy and hope about their work with students. 

    1. Focus on what you can control. An educator’s confidence and sense of agency can be undermined by fears and worries about their students. But research on worrying shows that people spend a lot of time and energy worrying about the past or things that never actually happen. Instead of focusing on next year’s test scores, notice what you are doing for students every day; it’s important to challenge and reframe your thoughts about your students and stay focused on what is within your control. 
    2. Feed the feedback loop. An educator’s belief in themselves is improved with feedback. That is not the same as an evaluation, which occurs infrequently. Feedback has a positive influence on students and adults alike. When administrators give feedback, they can switch from “you” statements to “we” statements and offer to do things like visit other classrooms together to observe. This helps teachers hear feedback more willingly. Strong feedback helps teachers learn, grow, and feel supported in their environment. 
    3. Foster collaboration. Teachers benefit from opportunities to share their stories and discuss their practice. If they can talk about what they did in class, how students responded, and hear the experiences of other teachers, their sense of efficacy grows. They can discuss examples of modeling thinking or problem solving for students and how it improved their teaching. Education leaders should find ways to create more spaces for these conversations.
    4. Celebrate small wins. Some educators are missing the connection between successes they see with students and the efforts that went into the success, i.e., between effort and impact. It is important for teachers and their peers to recognize even the small wins and connect those wins with the work that went into them. 
    5. Encourage self-care. Chronic stress and anxiety have become the norm in many schools since the pandemic. They are normal responses to an abnormal situation. The good news is that it is possible to build a sense of agency despite these adversities. It’s important for teachers to take care of themselves. One way to engage in self-care is to acknowledge vulnerability. Additional strategies are to strive for balance outside of work and develop a wellness plan that includes healthy eating, good sleep, and exercise. 
    6. Create a community of care. Research also shows that efficacy is built through meaningful gatherings with others and taking care of others. Teachers and administrators can create cultures of care within their buildings. With a little extra time, a school leader can offer to help a teacher in need run an errand or grade papers. This strategy encourages noticing when a colleague is struggling and paying it forward as well. It also establishes a sense of collective responsibility for the challenges that many students and teachers are facing now. As a school, come up with a list, such as “5 Ways to Show Up for Each Other,” share it in meetings, and post the list throughout your school. 
    The strategies above are only some of the ways to help educators regain their sense of efficacy and hope about their work with students. Administrators, school leadership teams, and educators can gain more understanding and learning additional strategies in the webinar, Building Educator Agency and Optimism: How Strength-based Approaches Can Help Educators Rediscover Joy in Their Work and Unleash Their Full Potential, presented by Doug Fisher. 

    7 Mindsets, a social-emotional learning and mental health solution provider for schools and districts across the country, offers multi-tiered SEL curriculum, professional development, and assessment that ensure safe and supportive learning environments. Our monthly Leading Minds webinar series features conversations with educational leaders on current topics in education.

  • 19 Mar 2023 9:31 AM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

    By: Courtney Adams

    Do you know about sketchnoting?  Have you ever considered using it in yourclassroom with students as a way to plan writing assignments?  I firstlearned about sketchnoting at the ISTE conference in 2016 and immediately became excited to get started. After dabbling with it myself for a few years, I wrote an application to my school district to create and pilot a sketchnoting course with students.   I now teach a sketchnoting elective class for 7th & 8th graders at Longs Peak Middle School in St. Vrain Valley Schools.  Along my sketchnoting journey, I have also had the opportunity to work with the staff at my school, the technology support specialists for SVVSD, as well as educators at various professional learning courses.  Sketchnoting is for everyone!  This school year, I started taking our sketchnoting projects to the next level by being cross curricular to help students plan for writing assignments in their core classes.  

    Sketchnoting is a visual form of note-taking that combines words with visuals and uses various types of lettering styles to emphasize important words.  Sketchnotes can be done freestyle (lacking organizational structure) or be organized in a way that fits the purpose of the information.  Here at LPMS, we are a school that uses Thinking Maps as a way to process new learning and plan for writing.  Whether you use Thinking Maps or other types of graphic organizers with your students in the classroom, research is showing that adding a visual component can help to solidify ideas, make connections to information, and increase memory retention.1  

    As students in my class have been working on writing tasks such as persuasive essays, personal narratives, expository writing on topics being studied in science and social studies, and descriptive writing about personal values, I have partnered with core teachers to sketchnote out their thoughts and ideas on their topics.  While for us, this is happening in two separate classrooms at times, this could be done as a seamless single process with one teacher.  Based on the purpose of writing the students are working on, we match the structure of sketchnote/Thinking Map/graphic organizer to go best with their task.  I encourage my students to sketchnote in a combination of English when they can and their native language when they need to so that all their ideas get represented.  So far I have loved seeing projects come in that include Spanish and Traditional Chinese and I look forward to seeing what my students from Ukraine and Afghanistan sketchnote in the future!

    SVVSD is a 1:1 iPad district.  In my sketchnoting class, students use the Notability app with Logitech Crayons.  I find that there is a lot of power in having an undo button for kids that fear making mistakes and are challenged in getting started on a task.  With technology, in addition to the undo button, students are able to cut/move/resize objects that are drawn.  While these tools all help in sketchnoting efficiency, none of them are required for sketchnoting!  Using blank paper  (or papers already organized with a various graphic organizer structure) and colors, students are able to access the same higher level of thinking and connection to their work.  

    To get students started with sketchnoting, I usually try to pair up a sketchnoting structure that we will use academically with a more fun choice topic.  For example, when I want kids to prepare for a compare/contrast type of task, I will first have them sketchnote PE vs. Art, computers vs. books, or eyeglasses vs. braces.  When I want them to prepare to sketchnote main idea and supporting details, I will first have them choose a topic they are interested in and use the same bubble map/core structure.  By using a more fun, high-interest topic to get started, all students have a point of entry and a chance to engage before the assignment increases in academic difficulty.  

    Students are remarkably creative when it comes to making their thinking visual.  I am constantly amazed and impressed by the things they come up with and the ways they show what they know.  Perhaps, for an upcoming writing task,  you may try introducing sketchnoting as a way for students to plan out their ideas!  Or maybe you have 5 extra minutes and need some filler.  You could try drawing some common icons or characters like globes, light bulbs, animals, school supplies, modes of transportation.  When you have even just a few minutes to spare, start sketching.  Perfection is never the goal, being creative and making connections between ideas is!


    1. Fernandes, M. A., Wammes, J. D., & Meade, M. E. (2018). The Surprisingly Powerful Influence of Drawing on Memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(5), 302–308.

    Courtney Adams teaches Creative Technology electives at Longs Peak Middle School, and is in her 15th year of teaching. She loves sharing out the amazing things students can do with technology! Her personal interests include reading, traveling, iPhone photography, baking, greyhound rescue, and Coke Zero.  Find amazing student creations tweeted at @CAdamsLPMS.  

  • 5 Mar 2023 8:27 AM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

    By: Seth Krebill (Western Region Unified Champion Schools Manager), Sam Parker (Southeast Region Coordinator) and Maricela Shukie (UCS Urban Schools Manager)

    Middle school is often associated with the challenges of growing through an “awkward” phase - both socially and physically.  We often hear about a culture of cliques, bullying, and students struggling with their evolving identity. However, there are great attributes of middle school too! Students are growing, changing and learning. With the right support, a socially  inclusive school environment can make Middle School go from awkward to accepting.

    We believe that the Special Olympics Unified program belongs in every middle school because of its ability to create socially inclusive environments. Through this programming, we build Unified teams where everyone feels safe and that they truly belong. Currently, there are 573 Unified Champion Schools (UCS) in Colorado, and 108 of them are middle schools. Research conducted across the country shows unified programs reduce bullying, increase self-confidence, decrease the use of hateful speech like the “R-word”...  and all while practicing healthy activities and building teams:

    93% of UCS liaisons believe Unified programming has created a more socially inclusive environment that helps students with disabilities become a part of the school community. 

    94% of UCS liaisons reported reduced bullying.

    63% of school staff feel that students are open to and accepting of differences, and that the program has increased the sense of community in the school. 

    Students who have heard the “R-word” dropped from 83% to 54% where an Inclusion Campaign has been implemented.

    96% of athletes experienced improved self- confidence.

    99% feel the UCS program is valuable for their school as a whole.

    There are so many ways to start Special Olympics programming at your school! The Special Olympics Colorado Unified Champion Schools program consists of four pillars:

    (1) Unified Sports - students with and without intellectual disabilities play on the same team. These teams consist of athletes, those with an intellectual disability, and Unified partners, peer students without an intellectual disability. The Unified concept brings to light the idea that training and playing together provide a quick path to friendship and understanding.  

    (2) Inclusive Youth Leadership & Advocacy - empowers students to be the voice of change within their schools and communities. Colorado’s Youth Activation Committee (YAC) works to plan and implement unified opportunities throughout the state including the annual youth summit as a call to action for thousands of students to promote inclusion in their own schools.  

    (3) Whole School Engagement - fosters understanding and respect by engaging all students, staff, and faculty in school-wide opportunities. Pep rallies, assemblies, and sporting events that promote inclusion, respect and the UCS program.

    (4) Health & Wellness Programming (Healthy LEAP) - provides a curriculum written by Special Olympics Colorado aligning with Colorado’s Department of Education Academic Health Standards. This curriculum provides students with and without intellectual disabilities information covering physical and personal wellness, social emotional health and prevention and risk management. 

    Not sure where to start?  

    We suggest you host a Whole School Engagement event in conjunction with our annual Spread The Word: Inclusion campaign that kicks off March 1st.  We encourage schools to be creative in how they can help build more inclusive communities on their campuses.

    Once you register as a UCS school, you qualify for a free Inclusion kit that consists of t-shirts, bracelets, posters, and a banner for the whole school to sign and pledge to be inclusive.  Please note: The store closes April 1st, so order your free kit now!  This video is an example of how your school can talk about Inclusion. 

    If you are looking to make your middle school socially inclusive, Special Olympics Colorado Unified Champion Schools is a strategy to activate youth, engage educators, and promote school communities of acceptance and inclusion.  Please contact us with any questions about how to get involved!


    Special Olympics North America, The academic and Social-Emotional Impacts of Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, Andrea Cahn, Jacquline Jodi PhD, Michelle Tin PhD, and AShlyn Smioth, PhD, Special Olympics Global Center for Inclusion and Education, May 2022 

    Special Olympics North America  Unified Champion Schools:

    Written by Special Olympics Colorado (SOCO) Unified Champion Schools (UCS) Staff from across the state: Seth Krebill (Western Region Unified Champion Schools Manager), Sam Parker (Southeast Region Coordinator) and Maricela Shukie (UCS Urban Schools Manager)

  • 5 Mar 2023 8:13 AM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

    By: Lulu Buck  

    With systems getting more restrictive, aggressive community involvement, and politics entering our classrooms, DEI work is becoming a bigger challenge. DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), also called DEB (Diversity, Equity, and Belonging) work is necessary and can be exhausting for educators and administrators.  

    DEI/DEB work is human work. It can get very complicated when working with human emotions, human beliefs, and human experiences, to name a few. Navigating the content of issues can battle your values and how to balance those within a system can sometimes conflict with what our emotions tell us. This work requires patience, grace, persistence, and strategy. As educators, we want the answers, and getting the answers in time doesn’t always happen. We are accustomed to working quickly. DEI/DEB work moves slowly, and for some, not at all. There are many moving parts to this work when working at all levels, whether it’s in the classroom, a school building, and/or the district level.  

    The approach to this work is one of the key factors in keeping DEI/DEB working moving forward. Evolving through the 3 As of this work is a personal process. I began my educational career as an “activist”. Growing up an English Learner and constantly being frustrated with school are the main reasons I became an educator. I would take the activist role in what injustices I saw within the schools and districts I worked for. My young mind didn’t understand the bigger systems that impacted this inequities. I would often take them out on the administration and blame the district level for these inequities. I was also never tenured.  I evolved into more of an “advocate” in the middle of my career. But if you look at the definition of an advocate it is still someone who argues and defends. It is still someone that takes action on the opposing side. Now, 24 years into education, I’ve learned to be an “ambassador” of equity.  An ambassador is a trusted diplomat to carry the message of equity. Within a system, one must be trusted with the work from all sides. An ambassador works slow and takes their time in investigating. An ambassador is an excellent listener. An ambassador models kindness with everyone around them.  

    To “blow up” the system with our emotions, personal morals, and what we think is best for students, isn’t always what is best for students. Our students want stability, safety, belonging and a thriving learning environment. Students don’t seem to have an issue with what adults perceive is an issue. To move DEI/DEB work within a district system an educator must move through one's self to be an ambassador to find success in this complicated work and to keep the work moving forward. With the complex dynamics of equity work one can’t “blow up” the system with aggressive approaches. We must model the inclusiveness we want to see in the system and oftentimes it is slow. Our impatience and emotions are what gets the best of us.

    What makes this work even more challenging is knowing your community and timing of moving this work. Strategies that may work in one district, school or classroom, may not work in another. The timing of events and where communities are with this work also affect movement.  If you are the type of person that constantly loves to study, investigate and find the challenge of DEI work fascinating then you have the right attitude. This is why you will always hear me say, “there is no such things as an expert in the work of equity.” One can be extremely knowledgeable and bring forward their experience, but to say they are an expert, it just isn’t possible. When you think you know what you are doing in this work, an event, comment, situation or something will blindside you and flip everything you thought you knew. Therefore, you have to love this work and know that you will make mistakes since it is human work. This work will humble any educator that engages with it.

    This is how the development of the children’s book “Sue’s Sky” came forward. I believe it has an “ambassador” approach to diving deep into DEI/DEB work without feeling aggressive to school communities and classrooms. Teachers often tell me, “this doesn’t feel like an agenda and allows students to explore and bring forward things that they are wondering about.” I know that it has a unique approach to bringing these conversations to our students without “blowing up” our classrooms and systems we have to work within and still fulfill our personal values and morals. It has been extremely rewarding to work with educators to broaden the ideas and impact classroom spaces for our students to move our classrooms to be more inclusive and accepting. I’m excited and extremely honored to conduct a book study and DEI/DEB project development course with participants. My hope is that this course brings forward the wonderings, challenges and solutions we have about equity. I know that we will have deep discussions and project developments, implementations, questions, and reflections. I look forward to facilitating this course and working with educators that need a place to start with the work of equity or continue their journey with educators that engage in this work on a regular basis.  

    Bio - Lourdes Lulu Buck is the Coordinator of Educational Equity, Family Engagement and CWEL Child Educational Welfare Liaison for St Vrain Valley School District. She is the children’s book author of “Sue’s Sky” and Spanish version of the book “El Cielo de Susana”.
  • 4 Mar 2023 5:19 PM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

    By Wendi K. Oster, Visual Arts Teacher at Platte Valley Middle School

    It is a profound privilege to be teaching at the school I attended as a student. In the beginning, there was a shift of mindset and perspective as I transitioned from the experience of being a student to the reality of being a teacher. It was a hard truth that this was not the same school I had attended because the school culture seemed to have changed. I knew that I needed to be intentional in contributing to the change and promote a positive experience for students.

    After a year of observation and reflection, I realized that there was something missing; there was not a presence of student voice or perspective to help encourage and promote student presence in the culture. At a fall conference for Colorado Art Education Association, I attended a keynote presentation by Steve Wood, from the Concrete Couch in Colorado Springs. During this presentation, Woods shared how effective collaboration exists when each person is allowed to bring their individual strengths, ideas, and aesthetics to the table when creating a collective work of art. He also shared that when people feel valued in their contributions, they are happier and have a stronger connection to their community. Concrete Couch projects range from public sculptures, murals, community events, etc. No matter what the project is, the cause becomes even more fruitful because it accentuates the value and skills of each member by providing a safe space to honor all ideas and abilities of those contributing to the project. Furthermore, it is because of this investment that the collaborative space becomes embedded with a sense of belonging, appreciation, and pride.

    The words of community, collaboration, and legacy resonated with me, so I was faced with a few questions. How might integrating a collaborative art project foster a sense of belonging, appreciation, and pride while enriching the community amongst students, staff and the school? How might transforming the appearance of the school walls enliven the energy of the school culture? That is when it dawned on me that implementing a legacy project for the 8th grade students might be such an avenue for transformation of school community, culture, and creative expression that heightens awareness and voice.

    One of my ultimate goals was that this experience be student generated, so I adopted the ideation process I had personally experienced during a collaborative art class I took during my Master’s program at the University of Northern Colorado. During this class, students contributed and assisted street artist Alice Mizrachi on a mural for the Colorado Model Railroad Museum. The ideation process began with an introduction to street art through visual exploration of design, aesthetics, interaction, and setting. Then we moved into identifying personal preferences by sharing out our top three street art examples that resonated personally. During these oral share outs, we were able to comment on what we thought was a strength in visual communication. It was during this process that we made a list of key words that led to a subliminal theme. Once a theme was collectively agreed upon, we were charged with the task of interpreting the meaning of the theme and how to represent it visually. At our next round-robin share out, we presented our interpretations and Alice noted key features of our composition that she then adapted into a new design that fit our theme. She created the sketch that served as our direction and layout for the large mural.

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    I mirrored this process for my students as we met at lunch to explore street art, discuss aesthetics, identify themes, interpret the meaning through visual representation, and express their thoughts through their customized message. I served as the recorder during these meetings, and I noted what was being shared about key features that stood out to the students about each person’s ideas. It is always rewarding to hear the rich conversation and discover the metaphoric thread that tends to be present in each student’s ideas. Then it was my job to plan out the composition based on the sketches of each student. This usually takes a weekend to process; then produce the final sketch. I incorporate visual elements and style from each student’s ideas into the final composition. This has allowed the project to be conceptually based on students’ ideation.

    In our school, we have a beloved thoroughfare, a hallway that jogs through the middle of the school and tends to be a little hectic during passing periods. We have deemed it the “Crooked Hallway” which seems to be a place of contention due to its blind spots, making it an easy place for inappropriate choices and behaviors. This made the hallway a perfect setting to transform through a tunnel of murals utilizing eclectic collections of different styles, concepts, and processes. Rather than this area being a space of negative behaviors, I aimed to embed it with a sense of pride.

    Our school has a Positive Behavior Intervention System and functions on Colt P.R.I.D.E. Each letter stands for a desired character trait we hope to empower our students to possess: positive attitude, respect, integrity, determination, and excellence. By using this conspicuous part of the school to house the mural, we are sending positive messages, promoting change, and encouraging expression of perspective. Thus, creating a sense of pride and honor as only a selected few are given an invitation to contribute to the Legacy Murals. This pride is founded on the source of personal contribution and voice, empowering students to take an active role in being a part of shifting the school culture. 

    I have worked to grow the mystery and celebration as each mural is revealed. We begin the mural on a Friday night and paint the majority on a Saturday. Then we cover the nearly finished mural with a sheet as classes resume on that following Monday. After school, on Monday, we add the finishing touches and sign it in time for an artist reception. At the artist reception, I have the students share how they contributed to the composition, what it means to them personally, and how having this opportunity of participating in a Legacy Mural impacts them. Parents, grandparents, teachers, and administration are present to acknowledge the success of the students. To date, we have explored the following themes:

    • Nature of Us- breaking through and asserting presence is represented in a tree overtaking lined paper.

    • To Be or Not to Be CHANGE- We all have the power and choice to take part in being the change we want to see. This is shown through the symbolic transformation of a phoenix taking off through the knowledge gained from experience and discovery. 

    • Dreams Take Flight- we can explore dreams and allow them to carry us and motivate us. Demonstrated through a bird of many colors and contrasting from the darkened wall.

    • No Elevator for Success- hard work and effort pays off… there is no easy way through; the journey is illustrated by a panda navigating through obstacles and faced with climbing a mountain of stairs.

    • Embrace Joy- we have overcome the heaviness of Covid-19 and we can choose to participate to find joy and reconnect which is illustrated through the heavy weight of a dark dripping background, but we are being lifted through our connections and moments of joys like balloons.

    • Diversity in Unity- it is okay to be different and still work together; we are all unique and have something to contribute which is seen in the rainbow lettering of the theme and how standing together offers strength and power.

    • Explore Culturas- the more we step out and explore people who are different than us the more understanding we experience and can appreciate traditions of other cultures…we might even find that there are some correlations in our differences. This is represented through a Calaca sugar skull from Día de los Muertos looking into a mirror supported by books to gain perspective. 

    • Speak Up- we all have a voice that deserves to be heard in classes, on the court, and in the community. We should not be silenced when we try to share our perspectives. This is shown through an otherworldly setting of a person being caged or silenced by the taunts of others but then finding the courage to take a stand and share thoughts anyway.

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      It has been rewarding to see the evolution of the hallway as it creates an appearance of a patchwork quilt documenting time and classes. I hope that the students who participate will experience a sense of relevance and resonance as they prepare for the transition to high school as well as reflect on the legacy they would like to leave behind for future classes. It has been years in the making yet there are still years to come; however, this is what it takes to build a right of passage that leaves a mark on our middle school.

      Wendi K. Oster is an art educator at Platte Valley Middle School where she has taught for almost thirteen years, with the last eight years transforming her practice through the lens of Teaching for Artistic Behaviors (TAB). Empowering students is a focus for Wendi as she challenges students with critical and creative thinking through guiding questions, personal inquiry through cognitive coaching, and accessing contemporary artists to build community and foster empathy. She obtained her Undergraduate (2009) and master’s (2016) degrees from the University of Northern Colorado. Wendi has contributed to the art education community through independent presentations like Providing Feedback through Cognitive Coaching and the Creative Process (2018), Sharing heART to heART (2019) and Getting to the heART of Meaning: Making Thinking Visible, (2019) at the Colorado Art Education Association winter conference and Colorado Teaching for Artistic Behaviors Conference.

  • 4 Mar 2023 5:07 PM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

    By; Tanya Over 

    Resilience is the ability to bounce back from situations. Being a teacher of middle school students for twenty years, I notice certain trends that have been happening. I notice that the neediness, anxiety, stress, and inability to deal with change or friendship drama is on the rise. Students need to learn to adapt and cope in all of these situations. A number of factors contribute to how well people adapt in these situations. The ways in which individuals view and engage with the world and specific coping strategies are the focus of Journaling to a Better Me.

    I decided to develop something that could help students grow in finding out who they are and who they want to be. This journal is something that will give them skills for dealing with everyday life and options of things to try if something does not go their way. 

    Based on data from my school’s counseling office and administration, conflict resolution is the number one problem. A quick survey found out that my students, a class of 26, on a scale of 1-5, one low and 5 high, 65% rate their anxiety as 5, 4 or 3.  This leads me to believe that they are quite anxious or they don’t know strategies for helping to ease their anxiety. I also found out 77% find themselves confident in dealing with conflicts with friends. This information contradicts what the administration and counseling are reporting that the majority of the visits to their offices are dealing with conflict management. I am intrigued to dive deeper into this area with the journaling. 65% do not feel they are able to bounce back from difficult situations. As expected, 61% had not journaled before. 

    I began with a note home for the optional purchase of a bullet journal. If they cannot get a bullet journal, these lessons are adaptable with a spiral notebook or Notability, an iPad app. I find when the students begin working on their journals, when they pick up the pencil or marker it calms them. They work quietly and intently. The “vibe,” as my daughter says, is happy and relaxed. As they will find later on, journaling is also a self-care technique that many have not accessed previously.

    In the beginning, I had about 33% of my students with bullet journals. Now, a month in, 90% of my kids have bullet journals. I have given away 24 journals, some to students not even in my class who want to join us. I am finding the kids are loving the lessons and drawing. Most are off screens for 30 minutes. They are happy in the class and giving compliments to each other about creativity and their pages. I see many asking to work in journals when they have finished classwork. 

    Currently, we are working on Who Are You? Chapter.  They are learning about themselves and completing  activities to build connections with others. I am hearing comments like “Wait. You too?” “ I did not know that about you.” We are tracking how we are confident each day based on the 7 ways to build confidence that I developed. We are discussing which is the hardest and which is the easiest way to build confidence. They have even corrected me by saying, “Mrs. Over, is that positive self talk? How can you change that to use yet or and ?” Yet/and are words we have added to our vocabulary to build confidence. For example: I did not do well on the math homework AND I have asked for help to gain better understanding.  It is exciting to see them use the skills outside of the lesson time.

    Our next step is to look in detail about what they are good at and how they can develop those skills even further. We will make a tracker for that as well. 

    Lastly, we will dive  more deeply into what we can control, options of what to do when we can not, and to start tracking our choices in daily situations. We will be looking at methods of self care and what is the difference between anxiety and stress. 

    Throughout this unit, I also have been introducing optional pages for them to design. Some pages they have chosen to create are migraine trackers, sleep trackers  and phone usage trackers. Some are combining all sorts of things for them to work on in a monthly tracker.

    While I do not grade the pages, I do look over them to see if they have been attempted. We do activities on Tuesday and Thursday but many work on their book on the other days as well. 

    This is their journey to discover and better themselves.

    My hope for this project is to help students realize for themselves what positive attributes they have, how to build on them, and what to do when things don’t go their way. Let’s face it, sometimes we all have bad days….even in Australia.

    For further information or questions please email: 

    Tanya Over has taught for twenty years, mostly middle school math and fourteen years at Erie Middle. As a wife, mother, daughter and teacher, she is continually working on developing good self-care.

  • 4 Mar 2023 4:48 PM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

    By: Andrea Smith, Ed.D.

    I am in a long line at the pharmacy and the person in front of me turns around to make small talk to pass the time. Inevitably, the conversation turns towards the polite question of “what do you do for a living?” I have learned that this question is a crossroads in a surface conversation with well-meaning people. I know that once I utter a certain answer, I am in for a more in-depth conversation. And I also know that it is my duty as a middle level educator to step right up into that discussion. So, I internally grimace and brace for the typical reaction as I reply, “I am a middle school principal.”

    If you are a middle level educator and have ever encountered this type of situation, then you know exactly what comes next. Empathetic head tilt. Knowing glance. Slight wince followed by a smirk. Then, the usual reply. Something along the lines of, “Ooooh, wow. Middle school is the worst! You couldn’t pay me enough to have to work with kids that age.”

    I could easily avoid this type of interaction. I could simply say “I work in education” or “I am a principal.” However, I intentionally choose not to because I have come to LOVE having these types of conversations. They used to bother me a bit as I would find myself frustrated that others thought so negatively about students in their adolescent years. However, now I see these conversations as an opportunity to impact public perception of working with adolescents. I see these interactions as a way to push back against the negative assumptions people often make about the young people that I love and adore. I see myself as a change agent. As a middle school principal, I now see that it is my duty to not only find the joy in these often-tough years for students but to then share that joy with the world.

    Here are ways that I think we can find and share the joy in the work we do:

    Make Room for Laughter

    How often do you truly laugh with students? We have so many obligations pulling on us each day that it is easy to not make room to connect and laugh with our students. Whether it is laughing at your own mistake, a corny joke of the week, or even a silly Super Bowl ad. Take time each day or week to build in an opportunity to laugh with your students. And take it further than your classroom walls. Share one of those funny moments with a colleague when you are in the hall or on lunch duty. Create collegial connections of joy and laughter. Be a source of humor within your school culture.

    Embrace the Stage

    We work with 10-14 year olds. Their brains are changing and growing every day. They can be forgetful. They can be impulsive. They can forget things from one day to the next. They can have a completely different understanding of how time and deadlines work. And they can also be delightful and goofy and utterly unique. It is easy, especially this time of year, to get caught up in the frustrating aspects of working with adolescents. However, creating space to recognize that what these young people really need is someone that can meet them where they are and embrace them for exactly who they are. This full and absolute acceptance and delight of what it means to educate adolescents is what truly helps us find the joy in what we do. Be a champion of delight in the middle school years.

    We Can Expect Better

    We all know that the middle school years often include incidents of relational aggression, social power dynamics, name-calling, and put-downs. However, we must remember that we should continue to expect more. When we lower our expectations to “that’s just the way middle school is,” we forget how much of an opportunity we have to teach key social skills and support healthy relationships. Be the educator that continually digs in and works with students to find better ways to solve problems or resolve conflict. This investment can lead to a shift in what students expect of themselves. Be the voice that expects more.

    Reject the Narrative

    We all know that these adolescent years can be challenging, but that doesn’t mean that negativity needs to be the headline. There are so many amazing things happening in our schools every day, and we have to be sure that those things are part of the narrative as well. We have to share these amazing moments with the world however we can. Be a positive voice in the narrative.

    As we start the final three months of the school year, challenge yourself to look for the joy in each day. Enjoy laughter and embrace the craziness and fun that is middle school. Next time you have that inevitable small-talk conversation, proudly declare “YES! I do work with middle schoolers…and I LOVE it!”

    Andrea Smith, EdD, is the principal of Erie Middle School in St. Vrain Valley School District. Andrea has worked in public education for over 20 years and enjoys that every day working with middle school students is different and full of new challenges.

  • 5 Feb 2023 8:03 AM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

    By: Shane Saeed    

    In education we are consistently talking about relationships. How to build relationships, how to mend relationships, and how to leverage relationships all in the name of learning. In his book I Love It Here, author and researcher Clint Pulver discusses the two things needed to be a high-yield mentor teacher: the ability to build strong positive relationships and hold high expectations for students. These are the teachers that see the most results both social-emotionally and academically in the classroom. In Zaretta Hammond’s culturally responsive practices work, she describes this balance within a teacher as being a warm demander. A warm demander is a teacher who focuses on building rapport and trust with students and in turn earns the right to hold students to high expectations and hold them accountable for effort and engagement (Hammond, 2014). The foundation for holding students to high-expectations is having strong positive relationships. 

    As a student, I had an algebra teacher who gave a speech on the first day of school insisting that he refused to let us fail. Unfortunately, my number sense and conceptual understanding of math did not kick into gear until I was in college. A month into school, my algebra grade had dropped significantly. My teacher sat me down and explained he would not allow me to go through the rest of the semester attempting to fly under the radar when I very obviously did not understand the content. Even as an apathetic student, I could tell my algebra teacher cared about me as a human and wanted my grade to improve. He invited me to the math lab and tutored me for the next few weeks during his planning period until it all clicked and I could balance algebraic equations on my own. The warm demander in him refused to allow me to fail that year which supported my academic success in math the following years. 

    Knowing strong relationships are the foundation to our academic work, how do educators build relationships, encourage trust, and cultivate an environment where students feel safe to learn and take risks? Educators can start small with their everyday interactions to build rapport and trust. In Dare to Lead author Brené Brown describes the process of building trust using the analogy of a marble jar. Trust is built in little moments over time, each action adding a marble to one’s marble jar of trust (Brown, 2018). Trust is pivotal in a positive relationship as it creates a mutual understanding of positive intent. Embedding meaningful connections with students can be as simple as greeting each student by name and with a smile as they enter the classroom. Better yet, ask students about their interests outside of class and then follow up with a question about their interests at a later time. Every follow up question shows a teacher both listened and cared to follow up. Another simple way to let your students know you care is writing a note noticing their growth or sending a positive email home to their family or caregiver. Every small positive action lays the foundation for teachers to have high expectations. 

    If a teacher is realizing they are either stagnant or declining in a relationship with a student, they can track their positive-to-negative interaction ratio. Hammond (2014) explains that for every individual negative interaction, the teacher must have at least two positive interactions with the student in the form of individual praise, validation, or affirmation. The tracking of these specific interactions may help the teacher realize if they are having more negative interactions than positive. I tracked my interactions with a student I realized I was in a declining relationship with and was shocked to realize that my negative interactions with them outweighed the positive by far. After this realization, I intentionally sought out positive interactions with this student and within a week I saw an improvement in engagement and rapport. Although tracking interactions with all students is not feasible, focusing on one relationship that is not where we want it to be per class period could be transformational.  

    One-on-one relationships, though an important part of the learning environment, are not enough to create a space where students feel comfortable to learn. Especially in middle school, students feel as if everyone is judging them at all times. It’s critical that a strong and trusting community is created among the students to support risk taking and mistake making. Community building activities throughout the year can help build and reinforce relationships between your students. One specific activity I recommend for building community would be the STEM Paper Chain Challenge where teams of students are tasked with creating the longest paper chain with the same amount of materials. Through this activity, the teacher is able to see which students take the lead, which students work collaboratively, which might need support with collaboration, and their ability to problem solve. Then, task the teams to do the challenge twice. After the first attempt, the teams discuss what part of their process they want to keep and what they want to change based on their outcome or even what they noticed other groups did. This activity normalizes that we rarely do anything perfectly on the first try. Rather, the learning process is about garnering feedback, reflecting, and trying again for a better outcome. 

    There is so much more I wish I could discuss in this newsletter, however, the art of building relationships and community is more than I can explain in a single blog post. Therefore, I invite you to join me in my author-led book study on Be the Flame: Sparking Positive Classroom Communities where you will dive into the how of building strong relationships with students, among students, with families, with coworkers, and even with educators around the world. It begins on February 13th and runs through March 30th and you have the opportunity to earn 0.5 credit from Adams State University. Join me in diving into building community with the stakeholders that you interact with the most. Looking forward to partnering with you on building strong relationships in the classroom! 


    Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead. Random House Publishing Group.

    Hammond, Z. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin. 

    Pulver, C. (2021). I love it here. Page Two.

    Shane Saeed is a district instructional coach and professional development facilitator in St Vrain Valley School District. She is also a doctoral student working towards a doctorate in executive leadership with a focus on educational equity, an author of Be the Flame: Sparking Positive Classroom Communities, and a national presenter on building community, the science of learning, and the science of reading in the upper grades. Add to your PLN and connect with Shane via Twitter (@saeed_shane), Instagram (@fantasticallyfourth), and on TikTok (@thefantasticallyfourth).
  • 4 Feb 2023 9:49 AM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

    Relationships to Resilience

    By: Ramone Sanders

    It was the winter of 2015—a weekend in February, to be more specific. I was a service member working as an education specialist with Public Allies Milwaukee, now known as Public Allies Wisconsin, and we found ourselves in a lodge nestled in the woods of Sister Bay, WI. Public Allies was my first introduction to restorative practices and the art of circle-keeping, and we had begun our term of service in September 2014 and now found ourselves at our mid-year retreat. 

    At this point of our service, we had engaged in restorative practices as a relationship/community building, low-stakes approach. Conflict began to occur through our work together and with our host organizations, as it naturally does. Prior presentations of learning that incorporated guided rounds of questions allowed for dialogue and critical thinking, which helped to prepare us for the collective challenges we would face that weekend.

    Our first circle of the weekend quickly exposed our discomfort and resistance to an intentional space for conflict transformation laying the foundation for repair. The “circle keeper” and co-facilitators led us through a circle-opening ritual that was familiar to us all. We agreed to the community guidelines, and the circle was open to those to speak if and when they felt moved to speak. At first, there was an uncomfortable silence; we had no prompt, no guidance, just silence. A brave person began to speak; he was familiar with this type of process, but he was our peer. Therefore a couple of peers soon became agitated with our colleague attempting to direct the circle. As folks became more vocal about each others’ critiques, the circle devolved into a snowball effect of addressing conflicts that had lingered and patterns of behavior and disagreement. The “circle keepers” allowed the conflict to occur only by interjecting to remind us of group agreements breached. 

    We fought, we blamed, we shamed, we projected, we made assumptions, and we cried. That first day of circles (there were three extensive circles per day, from Thursday through Sunday) was exhausting; the cliques remained, and nothing seemed resolved. There were whispers of this particular process causing harm and not worth it. Folks weren’t ready to take responsibility for how they showed up within our community. The second day of circles seemed to shift the energy. During opportunities to reflect, guided by our circle keepers, we began cultivating a brave space as a community; a brave space to share pieces of ourselves that we dared not before. Guided by prompts carefully crafted out of the common themes of our collective conflicts, we began to feel less defensive. The cliques dissolved, and we cried, we laughed, we inspired, we apologized, we made commitments, we validated, we affirmed, we reflected, and we loved. We cultivated a “Beloved Community.”

    Our final circle incorporated a group dance session on Sunday afternoon to close out our experience. This was a cathartic release to help ground us as we prepare to leave and commit to more authentic and vulnerable relationship goals. We left Sister Bay, WI, with newly formed connections, deeper existing connections, commitments towards repair, and a stronger sense of self and community. 

    Following our mid-year retreat, there was an open invitation for folks to participate in a circle-keeping training led by the practitioners we had become familiar with over our weekend experience. I jumped at the opportunity to learn how to facilitate circles with my friends, family, and the young folks I served. This was when I learned about restorative practices. I learned the “magic” of circles manifest from  intentional processes and rituals relevant to those involved in cultivating authentic community and conflict transformation.

    Without the intentional efforts to implement restorative processes and rituals every Friday for eight hours leading to our mid-year retreat, none of the repair work would have been possible. The way folks chose to navigate conflict within relationships and the support we offered each other would likely not have manifested in the way it did. Our relationships extended beyond our proximity; we were engaged in an authentic community willing to address our differences and take responsibility for our roles within our community. We began to demonstrate remarkable resilience throughout our relationships. 

    I continued learning restorative processes and rituals, which led me to restorative practices in schools. It was first with the Milwaukee Public Schools District restorative practices initiative. As a volunteer, I identified the connections between restorative practices and social and emotional learning theories. The concepts of "educating the whole child,” peaceable schools, restorative learning communities, liberatory education, and so on became my passion. 

    I am now the restorative justice training manager at Longmont Community Justice Partnership. Our professional development course, Relationships to Resilience, offers restorative tools for the classroom and school communities. The goal or outcome is to cultivate student leadership through restorative processes and rituals, to complement the learning environment. Proactively using restorative tools within learning environments assists all the folks involved by becoming more familiar with restorative processes and language. The benefit of a restorative culture of understanding allows for an exploration of alternatives to punitive forms of discipline, like suspensions or incarceration.

    The continuum of restorative practices swings from prevention to intervention, utilizing restorative processes to cultivate relationship building to restorative processes addressing more specific situations.  This particular restorative tools series lands in the prevention spectrum.The prevention spectrum focuses on restorative processes that aim to cultivate authentic relationships and familiarity with restorative language and processes.

    With the support of Matt Hoffmiester, a national trainer for Sources of Strength (a social and emotional learning framework), we co-facilitate a participatory learning opportunity focused on developing relationships and the core restorative skills for facilitating restorative processes. We dive into facilitating connection circles and restorative conversations; we practice the core restorative skills within these two particular processes. 

    The use of connection circles assists with developing and deepening relationships among students, educators, support staff, and administrators. The proactive use of formal or informal circles also develops a greater understanding of restorative practice processes. Relationship is the foundation for restorative practices in learning communities. Authentic relationships are crucial when cultivating buy-in from students to engage in more formal restorative processes that address maladapted behavior. Circle facilitators can model authenticity and vulnerability, allowing space for students to reflect, relate, and actively listen to one another. Proactive circles set the stage for a multitude of dynamic restorative processes.

    Additionally, our facilitation of restorative conversations focuses on an intentional one-on-one process to address a concern directly. These conversations utilize a series of restorative questions to discover or understand what needs are communicated from the behavior presented, creating an opportunity for students to regulate. Restorative conversations can address conflict and miscommunication directly in a way that attempts to remove the behavior from the person to mitigate shame and blame. The goal of a restorative conversation is to establish relevant verbal agreements that focus on repair and a plan for moving forward. Using restorative skills, such as affective questions and affective statements, allows participants to lean in with curiosity and address unmet needs. Restorative conversations can be used peer to peer, student to student, student to educator, with parents, support staff, and supervisors.

    These foundational processes promote a dynamic cultural shift to learning environments if modeled authentically and ethically. The use of circles allows for equal voice and establishes a versatile process that could be used to establish group agreements; navigate challenging curricula; community healing; celebrations; departures; and reintegration. Restorative conversations assist in setting, resetting, and reinforcing boundaries. Restorative conversations allow for addressing concerns or reminders that don’t elicit shame. The restorative skills needed for these foundational processes lead us to cultivate relationships “with” all our learning community members. 

    Relationship is the foundation that leads to resiliency. 

    For more information or opportunities to learn about restorative practices processes or volunteer with LCJP, visit here:                          

    Ramone Sanders 

    Restorative Justice Training Manager 

    Longmont Community Justice Partnership

  • 7 Jan 2023 9:47 AM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

    By: Susan Davis

    The middle years can be challenging as students face many physical, psychological, social, and intellectual changes that come with adolescence.  Schools can support students by implementing social and emotional learning (SEL) curriculums and practices and incorporating equity.

    SEL is a process by which individuals develop their knowledge and capacity to incorporate behaviors, thoughts, and emotions to support social interactions (CASEL, 2003). Transformative SEL addresses issues such as power, privilege, and discrimination (Jagers et al., 2019) and centers equity through identity, agency, belonging, collaborative problem-solving, and curiosity (Jagers et al., 2021). It is essential that SEL and equity work together to be truly effective.

    Mindfulness is one approach to SEL and is defined as non-judgmental, present-moment awareness (Kabat-Zinn, 2015). This article outlines actions that educators can use to create spaces that integrate SEL, mindfulness, and equity into the fabric of our system.

    Identity Development

    “Who am I?” “Where do I fit?” Educators often tell students what to learn, how to behave, and where they fit. Awareness of self and how we affect each other leaves us less likely to cause harm. Identity development is understanding and valuing one’s sense of self, and for many, positive identity development relates to their race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. Identity indicates understanding and discernment associated with various intersectional personal and social group statuses. The following are ways educators can facilitate identity and belonging in schools:

    1.Recognize our own beliefs.

    2.Do the inner work first.

    3.Be open-minded.

    These practices set the stage for others to feel safe to be themselves around us and with us to create an environment where everyone can shine with their authentic selves.


    Mindfulness explores a focus on the now with openness, curiosity, and acceptance, and strengthens our sense of belonging. Ironically, our awareness of self leads us to compassionate action towards others through the awareness of our interconnectedness. Unifying staff through collaborative learning teams can be a great way to foster belonging. Teachers can translate this practice into group work within classrooms. Bringing a non-judgmental, present-moment awareness to group dynamics sets the stage for safety and belonging.


    Educators can facilitate agency by providing opportunities for voice and choice in educational spaces. Rather than beginning from a teacher-led, educator-centered practice, co-constructing a safe space through group agreements allows students to explore student agency (Duane et al., 2021). One example of a co-opted agreement adapted from East Bay Meditation Center (2022) is the following:

    ·   Try it on: Be willing to “try on” new ideas or ways of doing things that might not be what you prefer.

    ·   Practice self-focus: Attend to and speak about your own experiences and responses and not speak for a whole group.

    ·   Understand the difference between intent and impact: Try to understand and acknowledge impact. 

    ·   Practice “both /and”: When speaking, substitute “and” for “but.” This practice acknowledges multiple realities.

    ·   Move up /move back: Encourage participation by all present. Take note of who is speaking and who is not. If you tend to talk often, consider “moving back.” 

    ·   Practice mindful listening: Avoid planning what you will say as you listen.

    ·   Confidentiality: Take home learnings, but don’t identify anyone other than yourself, now or later. 

    ·   Right to pass: You can say “I pass” if you don’t wish to speak.

    Collaborative Problem Solving

    Collaborative problem-solving is an essential skill set rooted in relationships and is a critical 21st-century skill.  Project-based learning provides an excellent opportunity for schools to practice collaborative problem-solving. The following are some tips to be more mindful during collaborative problem-solving (Baker, 2022):

    • Put feelings or thoughts into words. Articulate your feelings; don’t engage in a long conversation about the details of the emotion. This allows you to objectively state your opinions without getting hung up on the emotions surrounding the core problem.

    • Understand that your beliefs may be emotionally driven. They are subconscious, automatic thoughts that can be illogical, invalid, or biased.

    • Accept that your perception is limited.Your understanding of the situation is only one side of the story. Try to interpret the situation differently, change its meaning, or view it from another person’s perspective.

    • Be solution-focused rather than wanting to win the fight.

    • Keep in mind thatnot everyone wants to reframe conflict as an opportunity – it’s comfortable to ignore problems in the short term, but leaving conflicts unresolved will lead you to similar situations in the future.

    • Allow all voices to be heard. 

    • It is helpful to have a mediator involvedif tensions are high. This creates safety and an opportunity for all voices to be heard.


    Curiosity mirrors a core need in the iterative process to share information about self and the surrounding world. Get curious about emotions When we get curious about our emotions, it gives us a moment to pause with nonjudgement. We can facilitate opportunities for students to get curious by:

    • Practicing Intellectual humility: acknowledge that as the educator, you do not hold all the answers. Allow students the opportunity to seek solutions for themselves.

    • Looking beyond standardized tests and grades. Allow students to get innovative and remove these boundaries.

    • Asking open-ended questions. Explore reflective journal writing or classroom discussion. Create opportunities to discuss questions where there is no right or wrong answer.

    • Celebrating mistakes. Growth happens when we make mistakes.

    Mindfulness can transform education: superintendents while setting organizational direction; principals while working with students on discipline issues; teachers while navigating the complexities of being a teacher; students in dealing with each other and their differences. Not one individual does not affect another. We are connected, and our actions affect the whole.

    SEL or mindfulness is not a short-term fix to all the social imbalances the education system faces but a long-term commitment. Imagine a world where SEL and mindful practices crystallize in our relationships at work, grocery stores, on social media, or while waiting at a traffic light. Mindfulness is a practice that changes hearts and minds and leads to living a more meaningful life.

    Susan J. Davis is an SEL coordinator in the St. Vrain Valley School district. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of Colorado Denver with a research focus on equity and social and emotional learning.


    Baker, K. (2022). 7 ways to use mindfulness in problem-solving. Retrieved July 11, 2022, from

    Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2003). Safe and sound: An educational leader's guide to evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) programs. Dept.

    East Bay Meditation Center. (2022, March). Agreements for multicultural interactions at EBMC. East Bay Meditation Center. Retrieved from

    Jagers, R., Skoog-Hoffman, A., Barthelus, B., & Schlund, J. (2021, June 3). Transformative Social and Emotional Learning. American Federation of Teachers.

    Jagers, R.J., Rivas-Drake, D., & Williams, B., (2019) Transformative social and emotional learning (SEL): Toward SEL in service of educational equity and excellence, Educational Psychologist, 54, 162-184, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2019.1623032

    Kabat-Zinn, J. (2015). Mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6(6), 1481–1483.

Colorado Association of Middle Level Education


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