Hopefully #mindfulAISD is here to stay

Coronavirus has given us a better form of SEL. When the virus leaves, the new method shouldn’t

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Ellen Fox

MINDFUL MOMENT: Anna Fox practices one of James Butler’s techniques featuring mindful stretching. In the video, Butler, an AISD mindfulness and SEL specialist, explains that this stretch, called the “pretzel/crossing the mid-line,” aims to “get the right and left sides of our brain to communicate” and “releases oxytocin in our brains which helps us feel calm and happy.” The video and many others can be accessed on YouTube under the hashtag #mindfulAISD. Photo by Ellen Fox.

Ellen Fox, for the editorial board

Before we were under COVID-19-induced quarantine, you’ll remember that McCallum had begun to implement Social and Emotional Learning classes during flexible instruction time, or FIT, and class time. Students responded to these lessons with varying degrees of enthusiasm; some students poured out their hearts leading to a whole-class discussion and moment of connection while other students were made uncomfortable by the whole experience. It was a good idea that needed to find its footing in terms of execution. The quarantine and resulting switch to distance learning, however, have produced a much better SEL delivery method in the form of online SEL YouTube videos.

When Mindful Moments began to appear on BLEND notifications, it was the beginning of what should be the new normal for SEL at McCallum.”

There were a couple of problems with in-person SEL classes, a major one being the social pressures of high school. For many students, being in a classroom full of acquaintances is not the best environment to promote the kind of growth that SEL is aimed at achieving. As much as students seem to be open to the idea, there is always an air of judgment around sharing about yourself in front of a jury of your peers. The switch to online delivery, however, makes SEL sessions private. The online classroom is a much better place to encourage mindfulness because it removes the social pressure and enables students to reflect freely and without interruption.

Another problem with in-person SEL was having to fit it into the crowded bell schedule. There was a lot of confusion and stress surrounding SEL while school was in session, especially among seniors who had their first period off. Oftentimes, it was mistaken for FIT and seniors, who had not heard the announcements, ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time due to that confusion. There was also the issue of teachers having to dedicate a certain amount of class time to SEL. At times, having SEL induced the very stress the lessons were intended to relieve. For example, in art classes, where class time is used to complete projects, SEL would sometimes come on the same day that a project was due, and the lost work time on said project induced stress, both worsening the student’s mental state and their ability and willingness to focus on and participate in the SEL activity.

The online classroom is a much better place to encourage mindfulness because it removes the social pressure and enables students to reflect freely and without interruption.”

When the pandemic struck, obviously the old form of SEL was not viable as there could be no in-person meetings. The district was wise to realize that because the pandemic increased the sense of social uncertainty and dissociation that many are feeling, the lessons about self and community are more important than ever. Whether the district and the McCallum SEL team considered that the new delivery method was an improvement over the old way doesn’t really matter. When Mindful Moments began to appear on BLEND notifications, it was the beginning of what should be the new normal for SEL at McCallum. These moments are videos uploaded onto YouTube featuring teachers and speakers from all over AISD, each day giving a mini-lesson on mindfulness and SEL, and can be found on YouTube under the hashtag #mindfulAISD. The videos include stretches, breathing techniques, introspective questions and more, all relating to mental health and self management.

Having SEL online eliminates all of the issues of the former version. There is no judgment, no air of ridicule, and no confusing time issues, only you and a guided moment of reflection. This method also allows students to have as much or as little SEL as they want. In the classroom, some students wanted to take SEL seriously and others simply didn’t, which made it that much harder for the ones who did want to get something out of the session. When the students choose to participate, the online version guarantees that students will be able to get as much out of it as they wish to get.

As much as the new SEL is better suited to McCallum life than the old one, it’s not perfect. It’s a great substitute, especially while in quarantine, but it is missing the element of other people that was a strength of SEL. Perhaps a small group, or an anonymous message board could be made available for people to answer questions that would usually be posed during classroom SEL lessons to form that feeling of a connection with peers. Regardless, with all of the bad that has come out of coronavirus, the new form of SEL class is a very good thing, and when we all march back to school we are hoping that it is remains in place and does not leave us when COVID-19 finally does.