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Wayfinder ignites SEL in a Dallas Middle School

AUG 2020 | By Dr. Michael Gayles, Principal of IGNITE Middle School

COVID has rocked our world. And despite the enormous challenge, my team at IGNITE Middle School (Dallas ISD) stepped up like rock stars to provide distance learning to finish out the 2019–2020 academic year last spring. Our students were grateful. Our families were grateful. Under the circumstances, we did the best we could.

From that perspective, we deserve a pat on the back. However, stepping back, I am not nearly satisfied. The fact is, we are not trying to give our students an “under the circumstances” education, to prepare them for an “under the circumstances career,” and an “under the circumstances” life. No! No matter what the circumstances, I am in this business to help kids become the best versions of themselves and to live their best lives!

When the Coronavirus Pandemic and the transition to distance learning was announced in March, IGNITE committed to aim for the optimal admixture of fidelity to our school model and practicable usability of our new distance learning systems. As a community, we went through a range of emotions.

First, IGNITE staff experienced the stress of launching a completely new teaching and learning system, with only a few days to prepare. Students were ambivalent about learning in new ways and doing so from home. Parents were rattled by being thrust into the role of homeschool teachers. Everyone felt the unnamed grief losing connection with each other and letting go of a sense of normalcy and safety. And . . . some were quietly happy. Some teachers realized they could now live the dream of teaching without the burden of classroom management. Students couldn’t believe their luck, that this year summer vacation begins two months early. Parents were so grateful that their children were relieved from institutional burnden of standardized testing. Everyone quietly wondered if, maybe, just maybe, we can all just take a deep breath and relax without the normal hustle and bustle of school, for once. Ha!

After experiencing the real rigors of distance learning, many schools are now considering the question: should we keep our non-academic initiatives going during Distance Learning? There are too many changes, too much stress for everyone. People are so anxious already. Let’s keep it as simple as possible. Our thinking should be exactly the opposite! It is because of the changes, stress, and anxiety that we must commit to SEL. In other words, we must equip our students and adults to survive and thrive through these challenges. In fact, I think this is the time to make SEL (and PE, arts, etc) centerpieces of our teaching and learning. If we don’t, our children, families, and staff may not have the social and emotional depth to do the rest!

In its very name, IGNITE holds our commitment to care for and activate the whole child. Before COVID (and even before IGNITE was launched), I searched for an SEL curriculum with the content and heft to match our desire to IGNITE the potential in every child.

Dr. Gayles training at the Stanford d. School in 2018

When I encountered Project Wayfinder two to three years ago, I found it. I knew IGNITE had to adopt this purpose curriculum. After 2.5 months of Distance Learning, I am more convinced than ever of the importance of SEL in general, and Project Wayfinder in particular. SEL is about knowing and managing yourself, navigating and relating to the world around you, and charting your course in life. This is challenging terrain for any adult. It can be even more mysterious for a child. When you add the strange deadliness and complexities of COVID, our children can be severely outmatched, socially and emotionally.

It takes a true wayfinder to navigate the current storms of this pandemic, the winds of distance learning, and the waves of racial disease (I wax poetic). To rephrase, I am extremely excited about using Project Wayfinder in both the distance learning and brick & mortar context. I am even more excited about the ways Wayfinder has evolved. Learning activities are now digitized. And the brand new Belonging curriculum is so well aligned to the development stage of my middle school scholars.

To incorporate Wayfinder’s Belonging curriculum into IGNITE’s culture, this fall teachers will first experience each lesson as a learner. This is a simultaneous investment in our teachers’ wellness and training for them to turn around and deliver the same SEL lesson to their scholars. Our scholars will experience their Wayfinder lessons at designated times during the school week — longer Friday afternoon SEL classes and briefer morning Advisory classes each day.

Probletunity. Necessity is the mother of invention. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. No pain, no gain. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted our need for Wayfinder’s Belonging and Purpose Curricula. It has forced us to refine our systems and strategic priorities to ensure effective delivery of Wayfinder. COVID has forced us to become stronger SEL practitioners for this era, and for whatever new normal the future holds.

Gayles pictured here with Adrian Michael Green, Wayfinder’s Director of School Support.



Designed at Stanford University’s d.school, our curriculum uses a wayfinding metaphor to equip our next generation with tools to unleash purpose in their lives and meaningfully contribute to the world they are a part of.

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Helping Schools Build Belonging, Purpose, and 21st Century Skills since 2015