Monday, December 3, 2018

Google Expeditions - Virtual College Tours

As a school counselor, my purpose is to connect with my students so I can connect them to their current and future education. So,each year, I coordinate our Reach Higher Week, where we focus on post-secondary opportunities for our students.
It's important that we use the week to expose our middle school students to post-secondary terminology and the variety of opportunities available after high school.  I always look for new ways to build on our Reach Higher Week and last school year, I began guiding students in virtual college tours. 

Our Local School Technology Coordinator and Technology Support Technician applied for and won a grant to get the class set of  30 Google Expeditions Virtual Reality Kit. Here'is a link to the  different kits: Google Expedition Kits at Best Buy Education.  

Google Expeditions, however, is an app you can download to a smart phone And it can be used with any VR headsets, such as Google Cardboard. The Google Expedition Kit that our school has includes the viewers/headsets for 30 as well as phones with the app to put into the viewers/headsets. The kit also includes a teacher device to guide the tour and wifi router that allows the students to find and follow the teacher guide for the tours. 

I love the idea of virtual reality and being able to access and experience moments, events, environments that you may not otherwise get to experience. I immediately wanted to figure out how I could enhance our school counseling program through the use of the VR kit. A simple online search about Google Expeditions and I was able to begin learning what Google Expeditions had to offer. 
Find more information about Google Expeditions here: Google Expeditions
And a list of available expeditions here: List of Available Expeditions

I very soon discovered that there were expeditions in a variety of careers as well as colleges. You can download the app on your own phone and play around in the expeditions yourself to get an idea of what they look like. 

I've never used anything like these VR kits before and it was very easy to learn. I chose which colleges we will tour and what scenes in the college the students view. Then on my guide device, I can read information about what the students are seeing and facts about the school, so I act as their tour guide through different scenes of the college.  There are scenes outside on the campus, inside classrooms, dining halls, dorm rooms, and more. 
I originally wanted to show my students schools in our state of Georgia but there are no Georgia colleges in google expeditions. However, I am able to show my students different types of colleges. That may be one of my favorite things about the virtual college tours. We can look at the larger 4-year universities, but we can also look at community colleges or schools like Berklee School of Music that specialize.  I love this because I get to help dispel negative myths about community colleges and technical schools. They can experience and see in their viewers the amazing facilities and hands-on labs that community colleges have available.  I can also relate some of the expeditions we go on to local schools to give them an idea of what post-secondary opportunities we have in Georgia that are similar. 

I simply send out an email to all of  the teachers at my school with a link to a Google Sheet to sign up during time slots that I have prepared. Last year, I had time slots of about 15 minutes and we only were able to tour one and half school or two schools very, very quickly. We toured Clemson University and Howard Community College.  This year, I created 30 minute time slots, which was perfect. We were able to  tour  three schools. We toured Berklee School of Music, North Carolina State University, and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.  There are a variety of scenes in each college tour that allow you to add in your own information about  various degree levels, admissions processes, financial aid, etc. 

Not all of my teachers are available to sign up for virtual college tours, but those who are able to, their students get exposure to different types of post-secondary education that they may not otherwise be exposed too. I have general education teachers sign-up as well as connections teachers (my art teacher is sign up this year!) and special-education resource teachers sign-up. Some classes are small with 8 students, small classes are larger with 35 students (which means they have to do some sharing of VR headsets), but the virtual college tours work well with all the different types and sizes of classes. 
I'm excited to continue with virtual college tours each year as a unique way to expose our middle school students to what their future education can look like. 

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Power of a Puzzle

Sometimes it is that simple spontaneous idea that you aren't sure will even work that can actually be quite powerful! 

A few years ago, I was trying all sorts of tools to help a student with anxious feelings get distracted from the fear and worry they had. We were looking for a good distraction to help the student switch up  their thought process and get back to more positive and productive thoughts. 
One of the things we tried was a puzzle. I had several puzzles in my office from a lesson I did on one of the 7 Habits: Begin with the End in Mind. I emptied my table, dumped out hundreds of tiny puzzle pieces, and we began putting together the puzzle... and it worked! For awhile, this was our go-to distraction for whenever the student needed it, which in the beginning was often. As we began the puzzle it was easy to move the few pieces we had put together onto a box lid or poster board and set it to the side. However, as the puzzle began to come together, it ended up staying on my table full time and it was always available when the student needed a distraction. 
At the same time that  I worked quite frequently with this student, I was facilitating a weekly lunch group with several 7th grade boys. All the boys were receiving special education services and all the boys had multiple discipline referrals. (I know! I know! Not the best idea in forming a group!) Needless to say, I became quickly frustrated and at a loss of what to do with this weekly lunch group that wasn't going so well. I actually paused having groups for about 3 weeks so I could regroup (haha!) and rethink how I was engaging these students. After the second week of the hiatus from group the boys came to my office to find out when we would be having lunch group again. That is when it happened! 
They noticed the puzzle on my table and immediately wanted to be a part of putting it together. Each afternoon during dismissal the group of boys (plus some) would come to my office to talk and help put the puzzle together. I actually took one more week off from the lunch group so I could keep building this rapport with the boys each afternoon. It was casual conversation and laughter and puzzle work...that's it! We were connecting in a way that then overflowed to that lunch group. They were more engaged in the lunch group discussions which I completely revamped AND they would also stop by my office when angered or frustrated or just needed a comfortable place to talk. One of the boys even began referring to me as his "School Auntie!" (You just gotta love that!) 
Even though the lunch group had resumed, the afternoon puzzle time continued which was perfect because it kept us connected and it kept them from wandering the halls and getting disciplined by other staff. The icing on the cake was the excitement and pride and sense of accomplishment they felt when we finished the puzzle. There were cheers, high fives, fist bumps, and "let's do another one!"

I never would have thought that spur of the moment idea to dump out hundreds of tiny puzzle pieces on my office table would have been beneficial in so many ways but I'm grateful for how powerful hundreds of tiny puzzle pieces can be when connecting with my students! 

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Office Extras: Tools that Help Students Talk

Okay.... confession: I am a hoarder! I admit it and I'm actually okay with it because it helps me do my job. I have MANY "extras" in my office. (Most of which have a purpose and for the things that don't have a purpose.... I'll find one! I can get very creative!) Much of the "extras" in my office are there to help me to connect with students. 
Middle school students can be hesitant to just talk to an adult. Building connections with them is key, but even then when it comes to sensitive, emotion-filled topics sometimes you need those "extras" to help with the talking part. So I have a wide variety of items that can help put my students more at ease when it is time to share and open up. 

First, what I've learned about my "extras" is this:
1) not everything works for every student so variety in the "extras" is important .
2) you never know which student is going to respond to which "extra," so make them all available to everyone.
3) the right "extra" can create a wonderfully safe and comfortable space for your students and that makes all the difference in connecting with them.

Here are a few of my favorite "extras" and why...

Fidgets. I have several different fidgets in a basket that students love to dig through and play with while we talk. It helps with the nervousness they may feel when sharing or having difficult conversations. The basket includes the fidgets pictured above plus a tiny lego set, koosh balls, slinkies, stress balls, bubbles, a pinwheel, etc. The tangle fidget above on the left was found at the Therapy Shoppe (link at the bottom)  but I have also found some smaller ones recently at Walmart. The other fidget above, I found in a plastic version in the Walmart toy section.

Art Supplies. I have a tray in the middle of my table that includes markers and colored pencils as well as blank paper (nothing fancy). A lot of my students love to draw. Sometimes it helps them calm down. Sometimes it helps them communicate. Sometimes it helps them process and problem solve what is going on. I can relate to that last one especially. Doodling helps me process, problem solve, plan, and make sense of all the ideas running through my brain.

Coloring Pages.  Coloring pages have become all the rage lately and I LOVE IT! I have never stopped coloring since I was young. I always had coloring books and crayons in high school, college, and still do. You know the old school soft grey pages of cartoon characters type of color books. I love the mandalas and abstract "adult" coloring books that are everywhere now. My students seem to like them too. It helps calm them. It helps distract them. It helps them open up and share. 

Buddha Board. I discovered the Buddha Board at the beginning of this school year and immediately knew that my co-counselor and I each needed one in our offices. (We both have used them frequently this year). The Buddha Board has been especially helpful for my students with anxious feelings who need  the time to clam down and process before they can talk. The Buddha Board tray holds water that you dip the brush in and use to "paint" on the board. After a few minutes what was "painted" disappears. It's also a great to have students "paint" their worries and fears and let them fade away.  You can order from their website (link at the bottom) or another site that sells them like Amazon or Barnes and Noble, but you should at least check out their website for the calming graphics and sounds! 

Puffer Balls and Emoji Pillows. I have several emoji "extras" in my office because middle school students love and speak emoji.  Four of those emoji "extras" are emoji pillows. Middle school students also love a puffer ball! (They love it way more than I ever could have imagined, actually). Both of these extras work like giant stress balls for my students. They squeeze them. They hug them. They don't want to let them ago. They occasionally try to sneak them out of my office. It helps them feel secure and when they feel secure they open up.

 Mermaid Pillows. Speaking of pillows...If you don't have one of these in your office, you are missing out! Students and staff alike love these pillows. I love these pillows! (To be fair, I love anything that sparkles though.) Students stop by just to rub their hand across the pillow providing me spontaneous chances to check in and connect.  Some students actually leave messages for me in the pillows. I watched a student one day in my office, who is diagnosed with ADHD, standing there hugging one of my mermaid pillows just strumming the sequins back and forth like a guitar while we talked. I don't even think he noticed he was doing it but he was focused and present in our whole conversation. These pillow are all over but I found mine at Walmart.

Connect Four. I have only a couple of games in my office. (Connect Four & Jenga. I used to have others as an elementary school counselor, like Candy Land). Connect Four is my go-to. This game has actually worked really well for some of my students with anxious feelings. It provides a distraction for them from their worry or fear. (They have to think to play but it's not over complicated or stress-inducing). A few years ago I had a student who had a lot of anxious feelings. That student and I explored many different things to help cope with the anxious feelings. And although the student was receiving counseling outside of school and the student's parents were exploring medication, the reality was that the student still needed support at school. We finally discovered that several games of Connect Four provided the perfect distraction. Over a little time, it only had to be one or maybe two games. Other staff members that saw the student frequently like our clinic worker were told about what we discovered and were able to come borrow the game and use with the student if I wasn't available. 

Nerf Basketball. I have always had a Nerf basketball set in my counseling office in elementary school and middle school. Some of my students need to be active to feel comfortable and this "extra" is very helpful with that. Many of my students start opening up while making shots and chasing the Nerf ball all over my office. They especially love (and by love I mean they find it hilarious) when I show them my (lack of ) basketball skills. I did have to add a "no dunking" sign though.... I just was tired of replacing the goal that was ripped off the wall. For my students who are avid basketball or sports players, I love using this to talk about their strengths in sports and how those strengths can be used to be successful in other places like academics or relationships....strengths like patience, problem-solving, growth mindset, responding to feedback, teamwork., etc. 

Blank Books and Journals. Some of my students are writers. They write poems, stories, raps, and more. It's a great way for them to express their thoughts and feelings. It's a great way for them to problem solve a situation. It's a great way for them to gain perspective about what is going on in their world. I always have a supply of small journals/notebooks and blank books. Sometimes I suggest writing as a coping tool for students so I want to be able to supply them with the tool I am suggesting. I find blank books at the Target Dollar Spot at the end of each summer and journals at the dollar tree. 

Wire Fidget Rings and Zipper Bracelets. I practice a lot of coping strategies with my students who self injure. (and of course I  am in communication with parents and recommending outside treatment, etc.) Some of my students still feel urges to self injure even when at school. They want (and need) some sort of replacement behavior to help them calm a bit so that they can use their other coping strategies. I shy away from suggesting popping a rubber band on their wrists because for some students this becomes another self injury behavior. They pop the rubber band so hard it leaves huge welts on their wrists. I offer zipper bracelets for students to wear because it mimics the behavior some students do when they cut their wrists without actually injuring themselves. It helps to soothe them and then we talk about what coping strategy to use next. I have had several students love the wire fidget rings because again it  gives them a behavior to help soothe and the wire rings feel rough on their hands so it gives some of that sensation they desire but again without injuring themselves. These tools have helped me connect with my students who self injure because I think it helps them feel understood by me and then they are more open to other coping strategies. I found both of these "extras" at the Therapy Shoppe (link below). 

I found most of my "extras" at Walmart, Target, or the Dollar Tree. A few of the things like the Buddha Board, Tangle fidget, wire fidget rings and zipper bracelets, I found at other websites. These websites are listed below.

Tangle Fidget, Wire Fidget Rings, Zipper Bracelets:

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Mobile Office - Connecting on a Cart

Not long ago I saw an Instagram post from another school counselor who had a "mobile office" day. She spent the day moving around the school with her desk on wheels.  (I would love to give her credit for the idea if anyone knows who she is! I tried to look but it was impossible to find her through all the posts.) 
I was instantly inspired by her post though! One of the reasons I love connecting with school counselors and other educators on social media is for the amazing ideas that are shared that make us all better educators. Once I saw the post, the ideas started flowing of the amazing things I could do with a mobile office. 

First...what would I use? I didn't have a rolling desk but I did have an old hand-me-down cart on wheels that I used for a wide variety of things. It would be perfect with my laptop on the top and a few supplies. Plus some extra supplies, my water, and walkie talkie on the other shelves.   

Second...who will I see? I needed to do several academic check-ins with some 8th graders. These are often quick conversations focused on setting goals and a plan, but when appointment pass are given out for them to come to my office the process ends up taking more time than necessary and I wanted to reach as many students as possible. Plus some students don't show to their appointment times, so by going to them, they had to see me. 

Third...when would I see them? I ended up going mobile the last hour and half of the day for a couple of days. I pulled them from academic classes, which can sometimes be tricky. Why it worked for me? The conversations didn't take long. I have great relationships with my teachers and they know that if I pull a student from class there is a good reason. I avoid quiz and test times. I gave my teachers notice ahead of time of what was going to happen and why, so again they knew what I was doing was to help support students in their classes. 

Fourth...what would I need on my cart? I posted on social media right after I went mobile because I was so excited about how awesome the experience was. (If you don't know by now, I get really excited about ways to connect with my students). So since I have posted on social media, a few people have asked about some of the things on my cart. I had my laptop to look up grades since I was doing academic check ins. I printed out a few grade reports of students  I knew I was going to talk to who had several NTIs (Not Turned In assignments) because I wanted to highlight those assignments and give them to the students so they wouldn't be guessing about what they needed to do.  There was a container of pens, pencils, and highlighters. Some reminder tools: Agenda sized to-do lists, reminder wristbands, and post it notes...whatever may work for the students to remember their plan and what they needed to do! I also had a clipboard with a very quickly created goal sheet. The goal sheet had three areas for the student to write. 1 - Their goal. Most were super simple: Pass Language Arts or Pass Math. 2 - Their plan. Their plan was usually what we discussed in our quick conversation about their grade...any NTIs that needed to be completed, reassessments that needed to be taken, attendance at Saturday School, etc. The students usually came up with these on their own. They already knew what they needed to do. I was just their to remind them and be a support for them to do it. 3 - How to celebrate. If they reached their goal, how would they celebrate with me. Students chose things like with a sprite or candy. A few students chose nothing, they just wanted to reach their goals and pass classes. Here's a link to the form I used as well as the to-do lists: To-Do Lists and Goal, Plan, Celebrate Forms  The reminder wristbands, by the way,  were a fun find a the Target Dollar Spot a few years ago. (I bought all that I could find!)  I've never found them again. I plan to just use blank ones when I run of these. 

Bonus...Why did I love going mobile so much? Y'all know my focus is on connecting with my students and at first I thought this mobile office thing was just a huge benefit to me. I get to see more students, more quickly. I'm visible to teachers, administrators, and students so they see the counselor out and about. However... what happened was a new way of connecting with my students. I went to them. I'm going to repeat that. I went to them! That made all the difference! We had quick conversations, yes. But we had honest conversations. I saw looks on my student's faces that said "wow, you care about what I'm doing!," "you're paying attention to what is going on with me," "you want what is best for me."  I also had some students open up about their stress levels, their low self confidence in their academic abilities and more. All because I went to them and essentially said  'Hey! I'm paying attention to you! I see you. Let me support you! I know you can be successful!"  Because why else would I have them set these goals and make plans if I didn't think they could reach them?! And before you think it is because of the celebratory treats. That is the very last thing that I bring up in the conversation. Through the goal setting, planning, and honest sharing they have no idea that any sort of treat is coming. In fact, I think I could do these check ins without it completely. 

The other thing that happened....just carting around the hallway made me visible and apparently approachable to students. It's not as if I'm not ever in the hallway during class changes or other times.... I think there is something about that cart! Anyway... almost every student who came into the hall to get water or go the restroom or visit the 8th grade office stopped to talk to me, usually about nothing in particular but I didn't matter because sometimes making connections with students looks like nothing in particular at first! 

I'm so excited about incorporating this idea of a mobile office or connecting cart into my work as a school counselor! It has been a surprising and exciting experiment that will become a regular part of my program. And the cart is getting a very necessary makeover this paint and new fabric! I will share pics once it is complete. 

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Tales from the Crate: Motivational Interviewing for School Counselors

I love to read...non-fiction mostly. I especially love to read non-fiction that relates to my love of school counseling and connecting with students. As many of my friends know, I have a crate of books that lives in my bedroom and at times is overflowing with books, because I just can't seem to  stop myself from buying more! 
So I am sharing with you all some of the amazing books I've read that relate to connecting with students and what I love about them in a series called "Tales from the Crate"

At the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) Conference in 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana, I attended a session about motivational interviewing presented by Reagan North, a high school counselor from Seattle, and I immediately became interested in motivational interviewing. I bought two other books on motivational interviewing that I will go back and read now that I have a better understanding of it all, but Reagan North's book, Motivational Interviewing for School Counselors, has been the best place for me to start, so I want to highlight for you parts of the book that resonated with me. 

1 -  I loved hearing from a practicing school counselor about what was working for him in daily practice.   
2 - I love that MI is based in the counseling theory I practice which is a Rogerian person-centered approach. MI is grounded in empathy and as North quotes Miller and Rollnick in his introduction, MI "is about arranging conversations so that people (students) talk themselves into change, based on their own values and interests." (William R Miller and Stephen Rollnick helped develop the motivational interviewing approach).
3 - MI is about the student. It gives the student voice and control in their own lives and their own change. Many of my middle school students don't feel they have their voice heard and that they don't have control over what is going on their lives. Using MI is all about the student's voice and their own choices. In Chapter 1: Simple Reflections & Open-Ended Questions, North highlights that "people listen to themselves." And most of us who work with students and have made the mistake of launching into a lecture about what we think a student needs to do knows that this statement is true. Students listen to themselves and MI is a great way to help students do so.
4 -  The techniques and questions used in MI are simple and easy for anyone to use. I often look back on a reminder list of questions I have made from North's book and the more I use them the more natural it becomes in my conversations with students. 

There are certain techniques and questions that I have used from North's book that  have changed the way I have connected with my students instantly! I LOVE anything that helps me create connections with students and MI definitely does and it does so quickly!
 Here are a just 3 pieces of magic from MI....

1. Open Ended Questions. Of course school counselors know that open-ended questions are important to use in talking with students, but I love the way North describes open-ended vs. closed-ended questions..."closed-ended questions make a person feel less understood."  "open-ended questions give them the space to explore..."  Several of the questions/techniques from MI do exactly that. Magically students begin talking and exploring their situation themselves and start to make their own decisions and conclusions about what they understand and what next steps they will take.

2. Give Away Power. Phrases and questions in MI that give power to the student and ask permission from the student are the beginning of the MAGIC of MI! I use  them all the time now and it has made all the difference in how open students are in our conversations. Chapter 3 in North's book, Autonomy & Asking Permission, breaks down how to use questions and phrases such as "I called you down because I have something I'd like to talk to you about, but I want to know what is on your mind first. How have you been? How's life?" or "Hey, thanks for coming down to my office. Your Algebra teacher asked me to check in about how you're doing in her class. Before we get to that, though, what's new with you?"or "Would it be ok if we talk about that for a few minutes?" These questions are simple. but powerful. Magical even! They empower the student and make them feel heard.

3. Change Talk. A large part of MI is growing the change talk students use and decreasing the sustain talk they use. Using questions like "How important is it for you to make this change?" and "What do you think you'll do?" among other questions listed in Chapter 5: Fun with Change Talk are simple and magical ways to help students continue their focus on their own change in their own ways. In North's book, Chapter 6  gives strategies and techniques for Responding to Sustain Talk. In MI, decreasing sustain talk can be even more important than growing change talk. As North notes in this chapter, "the goal is essentially to turn Sustain Talk into a dead end while growing Change Talk into a vast adventure." 

I could go on and on about the incredibly "magical" approach of motivational interviewing but instead I just recommend you pick up Reagan North's book, Motivational Interviewing for School Counselors (link below), and experience for yourself how these questions and techniques work with your students.
My focus is connecting with students so I can connect them to their education and motivational interviewing definitely has helped me in this endeavor. My conversations are more real for the students. They feel more connected to what we discuss and they are more connected to their education because they are motivated and making changes that they have chosen are invested in.

Order Motivational Interviewing for School Counselors by Reagan North Here: