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Lee Elementary School Teachers Promote Inclusivity through Door Decorating Contest

17 January 2024

This contest directly reflects Lee's schoolwide focus on social-emotional learning. 

Lee Teachers

Ms. Karina Garcia and Ms. Jennifer Sandoval grew up on Chicago’s Southwest Side, so they didn’t have to go far to become teachers at Lee Elementary School in West Lawn. Both of them felt it was important to serve families in the same part of Chicago where they were once students. Ms. Sandoval even completed her student teaching at Lee before working there full-time. 

Middle school students learn English language arts from Ms. Sandoval in sixth grade and then transition to Ms. Garcia’s classroom for seventh and eighth grade. The two of them have become close colleagues and good friends. They note that this school year has been a promising step forward in terms of their students growing socially as well. 

“I actually deferred my student teaching a year because I wanted an in-person experience, and it’s been nice to build on that and finally get back to a more normal time,” said Ms. Sandoval. “I’ve been seeing student voice really shine and watching my students becoming more comfortable interacting with each other.” 

Ms. Garcia also believes that coming back from the COVID-19 pandemic has led to more mental health awareness at her school. She has been focused on contributing to this progress by strengthening the focus on social-emotional learning (SEL) in her classroom. She holds daily check-ins to help ensure that she is meeting their needs. This reflects Lee’s schoolwide focus on SEL to ensure that students feel supported from the moment they arrive in the morning to when they head home in the late afternoon. 


Gone to the beach


“I thought my students were going to get sick of the check-ins because we do them every day, but, if anything, they’re opening up even more now,” said Ms. Garcia. “It’s been neat to see them use each check-in as an outlet to share how they're doing.” 

While consistent, structured practices like these daily check-ins are an important part of incorporating SEL into the classroom, Ms. Garcia and Ms. Sandoval have found that activities that get everyone involved are just as helpful. Recently, the school held its annual holiday door decorating contest. 

Ms. Sandoval notes that student involvement in the contest varies by grade level. As students get older, they directly contribute more and more. She took a quick poll with her class to determine the theme of their door. Her students wanted to do something unique and selected “Santa at the Beach.” Putting the decorations together was all about teamwork, and she notes that she even stayed after school with her students a few times to bond with them over this project. 

“It was great to see my students shine in a different way outside of the classroom,” said Ms. Sandoval. “They did a great job of identifying their strengths. For example, if one of them wasn’t a great cutter, they would let someone else do that and focus on something they are good at.” 

Ms. Garcia’s students also wanted to select a creative theme, and they decided to decorate their door like a reindeer stable. She knew that some students would naturally take on more of a leadership role in the process than others, so she split students into groups to each take on a smaller part of the project. She noticed that students who were typically more reserved were extremely excited and engaged. 

Their finished creations instilled a deep sense of pride within the students—and a bit of friendly competition as well. Both teachers know that middle school can be a stressful time for students because of the more rigorous academics and the added responsibility of preparing for high school. They want their students to always remember to enjoy being in elementary school and the company of their peers and teachers. 

“This contest was a nice moment to pause from academics and help students sit down and talk to others who they might not talk with often,” said Ms. Garcia. “It was a great bonding experience and a great way to build community in our classroom.”


Mural outside school

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