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How Along helps with life skills program: portrait of an Iowa middle school

Today’s students benefit from school environments that focus on the whole student, encompassing both academic readiness and future-ready life skills such as stress management, self-awareness and regulation, and resilience. 

At Sioux Center Middle School in Iowa, this vision and mindset comes to fruition through their “Portrait of a Graduate” program, which helps prepare students for life in the real world by addressing problem-solving skills needed for adulthood. The program focuses on both academic proficiency and what’s called “soft skills,” the personal attributes that allow us to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people. 

In a recent webinar, Sioux Center educator Stephanie McEldowney shared how, as part of the program, she uses Along to support her 6th-grade students in her homeroom and English language arts classes. McEldowney said creating strong connections with her students at the start of the school year is key. With a portion of the student body having limited English proficiency, these connections are a critical step to creating an engaging and cohesive classroom.

“Relationships are the foundation of my classroom,” said McEldowney. “It helps me with classroom management, but I also have high expectations for my kids’ learning with reading and writing. They may come in saying they hate it, but if I build a relationship, it helps. Many of my students aren’t having conversations with their families. They may be getting home and taking care of siblings. I wanted to create connections on Along that would carry into our connection in person.”

A consistent strategy for building connections

After piloting Along in homeroom classes initially, now the entire school uses the teacher-student connection builder across all of their classes. McEldowney and her grade-level team find that Along syncs well with academic units and school-wide priorities. She creates a weekly schedule of Along reflection questions and activities unique to her classroom and grade level, and works with her team to also connect back to larger school initiatives. 

“Every Monday, for example, I’m going to ask a reading reflection question [on Along] that relates to all of my reading groups,” she shared. “Every Wednesday, I ask a character question. And every Friday, I could do an exit ticket. With Along, you don’t spend extra energy on how to do it.”

Using a Google Doc, she shares a weekly agenda of Along content with her 6th graders. An example of a Monday reading question she used recently involved asking a multiple choice question geared to the books that four different groups are reading. She asked, “If you had to move, you have the option of these four places. Ontario, which is from ‘The Incredible Journey,” Los Angeles, which is from ‘The Right Hook of Devin Velma,’ and two others. I looked at the answer graph from my Core 3 group and then typed a reply all message: ‘Hey Core 3, it looks like most of you are loving Canada. Pack those hiking boots and mittens.’ It gets the kids engaged and they like to compete with other Cores.” 

For the weekly character questions, McEldowney often picks something that can lead to class discussions in small or large groups. She recently asked students to share a story about moving in their own lives, extending the content related to their reading groups. “I might ask a question on Along, and then the next day or later, I will let them choose a classmate to share with,” she explained. “They might not feel comfortable sharing their story about moving from Guatemala to the whole class, but with one friend, they might want to share. Then we open up to a classroom discussion and they can volunteer.”

And, she also picks Along questions or activities that are connected to their district’s standards. “This winter, we are talking about bullying and there’s a whole section [in Along],” she shared.” I used an activity called ‘Treat Yourself with Compassion’ because we can’t always control other people, but we can control how we react.”

Creating more engagement with class-wide activities

McEldowney likes to use the Along activities to supplement her lesson plan and the “Portrait of a Graduate” initiative. She chose the “Imagine Your Best Possible Self” activity recently and asked students to think through what their life would be like when they are 40 years old. She connected it to a current reading activity and soft skill building, asking the students to write quick answers or create sketches about their vision. McEldowney suggested that students think about what would be most important to them, their goals, and what they will be passionate about at this future age. “I made a quick sketch to myself using Post-Its and then took 5 minutes to make some slides to share out with my students,” she said. “It led to an amazing conversation. Let’s talk about what will bring you happiness.”

She makes sure to start off the school year with fun questions that are easier and lighter to answer, bringing in deeper questions and activities as the year progresses. “I’m always surprised with how honest and candid the kids are,” she said. “I recently asked ‘What do you usually do after school?’ One student said, ‘I really like seeing my mom when I get home. And sometimes when I’ve had a really stressful day, I’ll just look at the dolls in my room. I know I’m too old to look at them, but it makes me feel calm.’ No way are moms or dolls cool in middle school. She was so honest with me, and we talked in person about playing with dolls and growing up. It was a really sweet moment.” 


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