What’s SEL got to do with PBL? – NTAC 2019 Reflections

I had a great time. Perhaps better than last year (review here) and I learned lots. Workshops, a great keynote, and relationship building with my team. Read about what SEL has got to do with PBL.

First things first. It was hot as hell (like 99 degrees) in Orlando, FL, but AC worked fine inside so it was enjoyable. Ok, let’s get to the review.


read my review of the 2018 Conference here

Building Capacity, Knowledge, and Culture

This was my second trip to the New Tech Annual Conference (NTAC) and our school’s 3rd trip. We have now sent 20 staff to the summer conference, 4 more to NTN Leadership Summit, and 2 more to NTN schools. I have visited 7 NTN Schools and set up visits for more staff. This PBL tree is growing for sure and it takes time. For real!

It is about encouraging learning, getting folks on the same page, and inspiring innovation. We need to see schools and hear educators speak about the journey of deeper learning. This is how we grow our practice and fill our hearts.

NTAC, similar to some other offerings from High Tech High, PBL Works, or Envision Schools, is a good place to learn about Project Based Learning and Deeper Learning.

Keynote Genius

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, our keynote, was so awesome. She is the author of several books including The Whole-Brain Child, and she knows her stuff. She broke down a lot about Social Emotional Learning. She talked about the various physiological levels of the brain and how we need to promote integration between them. I made some connections to Zaretta Hammond’s work, as well as the work of Susan Craig’s (author of Trauma-Sensitive Schools).

She spoke of the green zone, where optimal learning occurs. Here, the brain is not under the social threat of microaggressions, white supremacy culture, or blatant oppression. This is the space we need to create and maintain for students in our schools. Then we can get to the deeper learning.

It’s disappointing that many times we introduce SEL as another fix for poor brown children. As if biased academic skills and white normed behavior isn’t enough, now we need to work on managing how IBPOC children manage themselves. Bettina Love writes about the racist fallacies of grit, growth mindset, and perseverance.

Sure, we all have to grow but based on which standard? SEL is needed for everyone, rich-poor, black-white, and boy-girl. However, we must be focused on what Paul Gorski calls #FixInjusticeNotKids. It’s the system stupid. It not the kids. It’s us. It’s not the kids. We can help a little, but our schools and classrooms must be safe havens in the sea of subjugation. We must also prepare students to address the system.

Yo, but I gonna need a lot more Diversity

It was pretty white. Correction, it was really white. This was hard for me. I mean, sure I’m used to that shit, school, leadership, college. I been a minority in many places. But I forgot. My kids are brown and at least half of my staff is brown. As a black man, I appreciate that mixture. That being said it’s hard on me to be the pepper sprinkles in a sea of salt. It makes me uncomfortable, judged, and a reminder of the racial hierarchy that runs our country.

I mean, how can we can make access for more IBPOCs in education? How can we remove the barriers? At a minimum, school staff should mirror the racial demographics of the United States. At a maximum, staff should reflect the students served. We need to get closer. Otherwise, we will always be trying to compensate for white privilege, implicit bias, and white supremacy culture.


Learning Opportunities

It was nice to see a variety of options for workshops. Some notable ones were infusing social issues into PBL from the Women’s STEAM Academy (visited them once) and Social Justice and PBL from LA Global Studies and Matt Thompson. The Equity Through Literacy from Anna Owen in Cincinnati was also strong (look out for them). There was plenty of academic and climate focused workshops. They overlapped which was an interesting feature, meaning that you might miss one, but it meant more options.

Though I noticed social justice, disability, and immigration named, there was no clear mention of addressing patriarchy and racism. We must be leaders focused on our work in these areas. Beating around the bush, calling it “closing the opportunity gap” or equity isn’t going to cut it. NTN is moving in the right direction but we gotta go further. Especially for folks in more moderate or conservative areas. We have a responsibility, not just to build technical skills, but also mindsets.


My Workshop

I was lucky to have space to talk about Culturally Responsive Teaching, Social Justice, and Project-Based Learning. And a little White Supremacy Culture. This might have been my biggest group so far. 50. I’ll take it. The screen was big too, so it felt like big time.

People were from Iowa, Ohio, D.C., California, Texas, and North Carolina. It was nice to have such a mix of folks.

How bout this? Staff from my school, who attended NTAC with me, came through to support. I was moved beyond words. I figured they would attend something else since it wouldn’t be new content but they wanted to show love and hang out. It was so cool to talk about their hard work with my crew present. People were asking them questions. It was beautiful. As it should be.

I tried a new activity where participants tried to synthesize the many topics using a flow chart. They made some cool images and I think it helped to make more meaning. I wasn’t able to get to action planning by there was a hum of learning, conversations, and metacognition going on. Magnificent.

untitled design

If you missed it here’s a link to the anti-racist resources we looked at.

Bonding with my Falcon Family

This is what it’s really all about. We rolled somewhat deep, with 5 teachers from my VVMS school and 2 staff from Willie Brown Middle School, a nearby PBL school. I love connecting, the random conversations over a plate of chicken mole or questions in the Uber. We got to shoot the shit and slowly talk about work. I learned more about people’s history, personal life, and interests.

Conferences, outings, and workshops are my favorite times to build. We went to some restaurants, took long walks in the Orlando heat, and chilled out. It was great to meet new teachers and new folks to meet veterans. Special shout out to our activities and evening dinner coordinator, Barry O’Driscoll.


  1. SEL and brain science was a great thing to have on my mind as I get back to work in 2019-2020. It’s easy to get technical and forget that we are talking about children and their developing brains.
  2. Exploring White Supremacy Culture is like going down a rabbit hole and I’m diving in like Jacque Cousteau. There are so many ways to make meaning and so many angles to explore.
  3. Project-Based Learning is still the ticket to win it. Skills, depth, application, and hands-on learning. I want to find better ways to support teachers to support students. I also want to triple down on my commitment and expectations.
  4. I love being in spaces of learning. Reading, quotes, diagrams, and discussion. I love that shit.
  5. I love traveling and seeing new places and spending time with my family. Baby girl is getting so big. It’s crazy.


Until the next conference, book, or interesting idea. Keep engineering for equity folks.

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