Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Power of Teamwork

Most people have heard the acronym for TEAM,
Together Everyone Achieves More.
PMS Student Council Members
I was struck by the overwhelming truth of this statement as I enjoyed the Pleasantdale Middle School spring pep assembly this past Tuesday.  Under the leadership of Mrs. Driscoll, the PMS Student Council worked hard to make our "American Ninja Warrior" themed pep assembly a wonderful celebration of our students who have participated/are participating in springtime sports, clubs, and performing arts.  While it is wonderful to celebrate individual accomplishments, there is something extra exciting about celebrating the success and growth that results from the time and effort spent learning to work together as a team.

8th Grade Girls Volleyball
Scholastic Bowl Team

PMS puts on The Lion King
In my blog post last week, I explained the five components of Social Emotional Learning (SEL). These five components of self-management, self-awareness, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness play an integral part in the team building process, whether it is a group of students working together to put on our school musical The Lion King, the members of the Scholastic Bowl team working together to combine their knowledge in the most powerful way possible, or the athletes on the volleyball/soccer/softball team working together to strategize and outmaneuver their opponents.  Everyone has different strengths, and when students work to compliment each other's strengths, the sum of their efforts is certainly greater than one person working alone.  Lessons in problem-solving and communication must occur throughout the process.  In addition, learning how to acknowledge and appreciate the unique contributions of others makes for a more rewarding celebration as teams achieve success.

For us as adults, there are frequently opportunities at work, within a family setting, and socially to engage in teamwork.  I encourage you to share stories of these opportunities with your children to help them understand how many of the lessons they are learning about teamwork will remain valuable as they grow older.  As Hellen Keller reminds us, "Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much."  Thank you all for teaming up with us to help our children learn how valuable teamwork can be!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Social-Emotional Learning at Pleasantdale Middle School

Springtime flowers at PMS
The sunshine earlier this week has brought a welcome dose of Vitamin D, as well as the blooming of the beautiful tulips and daffodils our PMS Garden Club has planted around our school building and the district office.  Often times, the season of spring elicits thoughts of growth, which is also what District 107 hopes to promote in our students by incorporating social-emotional learning (SEL) activities into our classes.

CASEL, the Collaborative for Social-Emotional Learning, defines SEL as the "process through which children and adults effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions."  In short, there are five components of SEL: self-management, self-awareness, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness.
The benefits of promoting SEL are clear.  This article from Edutopia does a nice job of summarizing just a few of the benefits, namely that SEL improves academic achievement, increases positive behaviors like kindness, improves student attitudes towards school, and reduces depression and stress in students.  Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post about how Pleasantdale Middle School incorporates the teaching of empathy into classes and school activities, which is a component of social awareness.  However, our teachers make a conscious effort to integrate SEL lessons into their classroom on a regular basis so students receive ongoing training in these areas.
8th grade fashion show!

The fifth-grade team, for example, has a different theme each month for their SEL activities, and the students engage in three or four SEL activities related to the month's theme.  Teamwork, stress management, responsibility, gratitude, and kindness are a few of the monthly themes the team has used this year.  Mrs. Driscoll, our health teacher, regularly has students participating in SEL activities for her 6-8 grade classes.  Emotion learning stations, a beach ball self-esteem demonstration with corresponding journaling exercises, and activities related to handling peer pressure are a few of the SEL activities her sixth-grade students do.  As seventh graders, students have the opportunity to regularly engage in conversations related to topics like empathy, bullying, peer pressure, and decision making through the texts read in English/Language Arts.  The Holocaust unit provides our eighth-grade students with myriad opportunities to have in-depth conversations about social awareness and empathy.  Plus, the eighth-grade fashion show team building activity is always a hit with staff and students alike (and it provides invaluable photo ops!).  PE teachers also regularly use team sports as an opportunity to integrate SEL conversations related to teamwork.  At all grade levels, students regularly engage in both academic and personal goal setting, and they review these goals on a regular basis during class time.  We also have a plethora of extracurricular activities that incorporate SEL into their meetings/practices.  One club in particular, the Kindness Club, meets regularly to brainstorm and implement new ideas which spread kindness around our school.  At their most recent meeting, they created "You Are" posters to hang around the school, an idea they got from this "Today Show" article.  We are so grateful for their efforts!

The Dalai Lama reminds us, "When educating the minds of our youth, we must not forget to educate their hearts."  We are so fortunate in Pleasantdale District 107 to have a balance of academic and social-emotional learning happening in our schools which will help our students become the embodiment of the portrait of a Pleasantdale graduate!
PMS Kindness Club!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Spotlight on Our Social Worker

As I mentioned in my last blog post, April is "Stress Awareness" month, which was brought to my attention by Mrs. Castaldo, our social worker at Pleasantdale Middle School.  Mrs. Castaldo is such an asset to our building, helping staff, students, and parents navigate a plethora of situations that impact student learning.  I want to take this week to both acknowledge and celebrate her contributions to our school community, as well as provide our community of learners with some insight into what Mrs. Castaldo does on a regular basis to help Pleasantdale Middle School be a great place to learn.  Read the interview below to find out more about Mrs. Castaldo and her role as our school social worker...

Mrs. Knapik: How would you describe what you do as a school social worker?
Mrs. Castaldo: I work with students and families who may be struggling with something that impacts the student's social and emotional functioning and/or their academic performance. When doing this I may talk with the student, their parents, and teachers. I also sometimes plan events or lessons that help students learn important life skills such as decision-making and perspective taking.

Mrs. Knapik: What do you feel has been your most valuable contribution to our school in the 3 years you have been here?
Mrs. Castaldo: I feel good that the kids have someone they know they can go to when they don’t know what to do about a situation.  I am able to help them when they are having difficulty dealing with emotions or relationships with others.

Mrs. Knapik: What is something you do as a part of your job that others may not know about?
Mrs. Castaldo: Send 100 emails a day, haha!  On a more serious note, I create a lot of behavior plans for students and come up with interventions and strategies for teachers and/or parents to use their kids.  I am not just working with the kids; I am working with the adults as well.  I am doing a lot of sharing of information so others know how they can help kids who may need guidance. Sometimes I help organize school-wide events as well like the Erin’s Law presentation and Career Day.

Mrs. Knapik: If you could give one piece of advice to every middle schooler, what would it be?
Mrs. Castaldo: Try to put yourself in the shoes of other people.  Realize that how you might feel about something might be completely different than how someone else feels about something.  I talk to kids a lot about making mistakes and help them to understand that everyone makes mistakes.  There is always something positive to be learned from every mistake, and mistakes are a part of life.  I also think it is important that they learn that everyone is different and that although they do not get a grade for how they treat others it matters a lot!

Mrs. Knapik: And if you could give one piece of advice to a parent of a middle schooler, what would it be?
Mrs. Castaldo: Try really hard to keep the lines of communication open with your kids so that they know they can come to you if they need help.  Be willing to let them know that you make mistakes also.

Mrs. Knapik: Any final words you would like to share with our community of learners?
Mrs. Castaldo: I feel lucky I get to develop positive relationships with the kids here.  Although being a social worker can be stressful at times, it is so rewarding to know the kids feel comfortable coming to me.

Mrs. Castaldo, we thank you wholeheartedly for everything you do to make Pleasantdale Middle School a positive learning environment for our students, parents, and staff!  

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Balance is the Key

Welcome back from Spring Break!  The month of April may bring rain showers (as we have certainly seen this week!), but it also ushers us into the home stretch of the school year.  Many happy students greeted me this week who were eager to share stories of their spring break adventures.  So after a restful week off of school, the question is how to we keep this positive momentum going for the rest of the school year?  How do we sustain the energy we have after a relaxing week off?

The key is balance.  In a past blog post, I talked specifically about how to have a "balanced technology diet".  However, I am talking more generally now about maintaining overall balance in life, both for us as adults and for our children.  Coincidentally, the timing of this post coincides with well with April being "Stress Awareness Month".  How appropriate!

There are a plethora of resources online with tips for adults on how to achieve work/life balance.  This article from Forbes, for example, offers six tips:
  1. Let go of perfectionism.
  2. Unplug.
  3. Exercise and meditate.
  4. Limit time-wasting activities and people.
  5. Change the structure of your life.
  6. Start small, and build from there.
While this article is targeted at adults, much of the advice is transferable to our children as well.  Take the first one, "Let go of perfectionism."  While setting goals and being conscientious about making progress and growth are important, it is equally critical that we help children understand that perfectionism is not realistic.  Mistakes will inevitably be made, and promoting a growth mindset to will help students understand how to overcome obstacles and use failure as learning opportunities.  Likewise, the benefits of regular exercise and meditation for children are widely publicized.  Exercise helps reduce stress in children, and according to this website it eliminates stress hormones and instead produces endorphins which help your child feel good.  Similarly, according to this article, student meditation provides a plethora of benefits like increased attention, better mental health, a reprieve from outside stress, and improved self-awareness and self-regulation.  Mrs. Castaldo, our middle school social worker, recently passed along this article to staff "10 Mindfulness Ideas for Stress Awareness Month" which provides additional ideas for achieving balance, staying in the moment, and not over-worrying about the past or the future.

As District 107 strives to "create a community of inspired learners", our goal is to help all stakeholders find a positive balance in their lives.  Keep in mind that the Community Resources page on our website provides a variety of local resources for parents which can help you find balance for yourself as well as support your child in finding balance.  We appreciate your partnership as we strive to help all learners achieve balance in their lives!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Learning Doesn't Stop Over Spring Break!

As I know I have mentioned before, learning does not stop when a child leaves the classroom, and spring break is the perfect time to create unique learning opportunities for children.  With our families and students looking forward to spring break next week, I cannot help but reflect on many of my own spring breaks as a child.  Every year until I was in eighth grade, my mom, dad, two sisters and I would pile into the family minivan and drive to Ohio for a week-long stay to visit family.  Having grandparents in a suburb of Dayton as well as in Sidney, Ohio, a small town about an hour north of Dayton, made for some less-than-exciting stories to share in comparison to some of my peers who went to Disney World, Arizona, and other exotic places.  However, I always truly enjoyed the time I spent with my family during that week in Ohio.  I would get to read books (still one of my favorite parts about having a day off school!), play checkers with my grandpa, and get frozen yogurt from TCBY with my grandma.  We would go visit the farm where my dad grew up and explore local parks.  When I was younger, I would keep a spring break journal to document these different activities, which was a great way to hone my writing skills and now provides some good laughs when my family and I look back at the journals together.

So how can spring break be an opportunity to further your child's learning, whether you are staying around home or traveling afar?  Here are a few ideas!
  • Traveling over spring break?  Have your child write in a travel journal to document adventures, or perhaps he/she can create a photo journal if a camera is readily available.
  • Read, read, read!  Encourage your child to use car rides and/or time on airplanes to cozy up with a good book.  This Huffington Post article provides some ideas for how to keep your kids reading over spring break as well.
  • Experience another culture.  Whether it is listening to music, taking an art class, or trying a new type of food for the first time, there are always great learning opportunities embedded in exploring new points of view. has some itineraries compiled to help you to plan a fun cultural day in the city.
  • Go for a walk or a hike to explore the great outdoors!  The Forest Preserves of Cook County have a helpful website with hiking trails for more information or check the DuPage County Forest Preserve website for upcoming activities.
  • Visit museums.  Here are a few Chicago favorites:

Finally, I need to make one more plug for our Summer Academy program!  We have extended the registration deadline to April 7 in hopes that more students will take advantage of the fun classes our talented teachers have created this year.  Please take a look at the program book with your child over spring break to see the learning opportunities available for this summer!
What: Pleasantdale District 107 Summer Academy
Who: Pleasantdale 107 students currently in grades PreK - 7
Where: all classes held at Pleasantdale Middle School
When:  June 12 - July 7 (no class July 3 or 4 in observance of Independence Day); courses offered between 8:30 - 11:45 AM
Why: "To create a community of inspired learners"

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Fostering a Growth Mindset at Home

One of my most vivid memories from my late elementary school days is the day I got a math test back from my fifth-grade math teacher, Mrs. Johnson, with an F on the top of the paper.  To say I was devastated would be an understatement.  At the age of 11, this was quite possibly the most traumatizing event that had happened to me in school.  Fast forward eleven years later, and I ended up graduating summa cum laude from Miami University (OH) with a degree in Middle Childhood Education, with concentrations in math and English, and a job teaching sixth-grade math and reading.

So what happened following my moment of failure in fifth-grade math that allowed me to bounce back rather than continue down a path of academic strife?  Although the term "Growth Mindset" had not yet been coined, that is exactly what my parents and teachers helped me employ to move past my mistakes and to realize I had the great capacity to learn and grow, despite what I felt was a tragic setback at the time.

Carol Dweck, PhD., a professor of psychology at Stanford University, coined the phrase "growth mindset" after spending years researching students' attitudes about failure.  Ultimately she and her colleagues found that students who rebounded from failure and were resilient did so because they embraced failure as an opportunity for learning, which is now known as having a growth mindset.  On the other hand, students who seemed devastated by setbacks and struggled to bounce back had what is called a fixed mindset approach, meaning they believed their learning potential was fixed.  The sketchnote above by Sylvia Duckworth  shows a great comparison between statements showing a fixed versus growth mindset.

Many teachers now integrate growth mindset conversations into their classroom in conjunction with goal setting and reteaching opportunities.  But how can a growth mindset be supported at home?  There are so many learning opportunities presented outside of school, which means there are a plethora of ways that parents can help promote a growth mindset in their children.

Parenting "Say This Not That" from MindsetWorks
As a starting point, it is important to let children make mistakes, whether this is related to chores, homework, or handling conflict.  Providing guidance and support through mistakes, as well as praising efforts for improvement and hard work, are all opportunities for parents to foster a growth mindset in their children.  The MindsetWorks website provides a helpful parent resource page, including an interactive list of "Say This Not That" statements that can immediately begin to transform the way conversations occur at home.  When you hover over each statement on the list, an explanation appears of why each statement may be helpful or a hindrance.  In addition, it is important for parents to model how they work through mistakes and setbacks for their children since it is important for kids to understand the growth process continues into adulthood as well.  MindsetKit offers a free 30-minute "course" for parents on the Growth Mindset, which consists of 10 online lessons to provide additional information on the topic, as well as how to model mistakes and how to use growth mindset language in conversation with children.

I am going to leave you this week with the video below of Carol Dweck's 10 minute TED talk, titled "The Power of Believing that You Can Improve."  It is a great starting point for understanding some of the basic brain research behind the growth mindset, as well as an overview of how to start transforming fixed mindsets into growth mindsets.  Pleasantdale District 107 appreciates the partnership we have with our parents as we strive "to create a community of inspired learners" together!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

All a Part of a Balanced Diet

Every few weeks, we like to revisit the topic of technology use.  Technology is so prevalent in our daily lives, ranging from work and school to personal usage, that it seems critical to constantly reevaluate how we and our students are leveraging the benefits of our devices while also maintaining a healthy balance.

In a recent conversation, the comparison was made between technology and food.  The key to a healthy nutritional diet lies in prioritizing the nutritious foods that sustain our energy and promote physical and mental health while limiting those treats that, while tasty, ultimately are harmful when consumed in excess.  The same goes for technology.  We need to prioritize technology usage that is beneficial to our minds and bodies, which may entail using a device for learning purposes or to track a workout, while limiting technology usage that may be detrimental in excess.  Essentially what we need is a "healthy technology diet".

This balance is important for both us, as adults, and our children to learn.  Upon Googling a "Healthy Technology Diet", I found there were quite a few articles on the topic!  The Huffington Post suggests treating technology as you treat food.   Moderation is the key, the author believes, and she suggests leveraging techniques like setting a timer for 20 minutes when going on social media if you notice you have been spending too much time browsing social media sites.  The Chopra Center, which is dedicated to health and wellness, gives tips on "5 Ways to Start a Healthy Technology Diet" with ideas like taking a technology vacation for a window of time each week, turning off your phone for short time periods, putting your phone on airplane mode for a period of time when you need to be productive, turning off notifications, or even simply creating a "device-free" zone in your home for times like when the family is gathered together at the kitchen table for a meal.

In Pleasantdale District 107, we are conscious of the fact that providing our students with access to technology also means teaching responsible usage of the tools.  However, it is important for us as we strive "to create a community of inspired learners" that we also educate our parents, too, on the tools we use with our students!  Therefore, on Thursday, March 16, from 6:00 - 8:00 PM we will be hosting our first Parent Tech Night in the Pleasantdale Middle School library.  Our library director, Mrs. Steinmetz, and our Innovative Teaching Coach, Steve Braband, will be leading the night.  All parents in the district are encouraged to attend to learn more about the websites and apps our students are using in school, as well as the online educational resources available to access outside of school.   Please mark your calendars and RSVP today!