Creativity, Caring, and the Ukulele Group (#88)

What’s better than an incredible, enthusiastic, and effective school counselor? The answer: two school counselors who share those attributes. Listen in on this first of a two-parter with middle school counselors Ricky Almeida and Rebecca Cohen from Portland, Oregon as they share stories AND resources that you’ll want to know about.

Inspiring School Counselors
Creativity, Caring, and the Ukulele Group (#88)

This Week's Storytellers

Rebecca Cohen has been a school counselor and special educator for over two decades.  She has worked in a variety of settings including Title 1, Dual Language Immersion, Private Boarding Schools, Public K-12 and as the Director of Disability Support at Reed College. Rebecca uses her experience and skills from one setting to help students in other settings. Rebecca says she loves being a school counselor and has endless enthusiasm and commitment to ALL students’ success in and out of school. She was also a finalist for School Counselor of the Year in 2021.

Ricky Almeida has been an educator for over 13 years. Throughout his career Ricky has placed a large amount of effort into helping students feel empowered and heard, including starting multiple racial affinity and leadership groups at his schools. In 2018 Ricky was a top 10 finalist for Onpoint Educator of the Year then, in 2019, he was awarded Oregon School Counselor of the Year and in 2021 Ricky was recognized as a “Hometown Hero” during a Portland Trail Blazers game.

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Rough transcript follows — full transcript coming soon!

Matt Fleck:
I don’t know how we did it,  but we’re now fully two weeks into the month of April. Are you exhausted or is the school year flying by – or both?! Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the Encouraging Words for School Counselors podcast again this week, and thanks for being with us. I’m Matt Fleck with Inspire Success.

When we talk each week to school counselors around the country, we start with basically one question: Can you tell us a story about one of your favorite experiences as a school counselor? This week, Aimee Portteus interviewed two school counselors with great stories and some fantastic resource ideas that you’ll want to hear about. 

Ricky Almeida and Rebecca Cohen work together at a middle school in Portland, Oregon because – as they say it – they  wanted to overhaul the counseling program and do some intentional work with students.  One of those efforts – which they began last year – was to begin offering anti-bias and anti-racism lessons to students, and they are already seeing an impact from their work.

Rebecca Cohen:
I talked to this young person who we invited to be in our equity group and yesterday she said, “Hey, can I come in and talk to you for a second?” And we talked and she said, “You know, I’ve had some addiction stuff in the past, and I’m really, I’m struggling to make life feel exciting and fun again.” 

And I said, “Well, what’s, like, really fun for you?”

And she said, “I love playing music.” 

So I said, “Wait a second.” I said, “What do you play?” 

And she said, “The guitar.” 

I said, “Hold on, hold on, hold on.” So I ran into the other room. I know that my assistant principal has a guitar. I brought it to her and she played me a song that she had written. And at the end of it, I said, “Thank you so much for coming in.” 

And she said, “I’m so grateful. I knew the minute you met me that you really saw me.” 

And I <laugh>. I was so – like, I have interactions like that on a daily basis. And I think that’s like, what makes Rick and I good at our jobs. We just really love kids. We tell them we love them. We sit with them when they need it. We provide opportunities for them to show themselves at school. And so I think that’s the best compliment ever: You see me. You know?

Creativity is one of the hallmarks of Rebecca and Ricky’s work too, like the way Ricky got students to engage in a small group to improve attendance.

Ricky Almeida:
You know, Rebecca bringing up music got me thinking about this intervention group I had. It was actually an attendance group, but we didn’t call it that. We called it Ukulele Group. And so what I did was, in trying to get some creative way to get students to come to school, we created goals around – all their goals happened to be around attendance. So it just so happened to be that way, magically, by me helping them guide their goals towards that direction. And I started it, um, it would’ve been five years ago, and I had a really good group of kids there. And there were some that really took off with the ukulele. They actually really played a lot. 

And at the beginning of this school year, I had one of my former group members reach out and she’s a senior now.  And she reached out just to thank me for that group, that she’s been playing a whole bunch. She basically said, “Mr. Almeda, you don’t understand how dark of a place I was in at that time and you really turned things around for me and ukulele has just been huge for me.” And she volunteered, or asked to volunteer, to come here to West Sylvan to work with some of our sixth graders who are currently in a music class. And that was great. That was super powerful, really sweet, because I feel like a lot of times in our job – especially I feel like counselors like Rebecca and I who are just so personable with the kids and just wanna build relationships and hang out – I think sometimes we do forget the impact we make. And even if it’s something that we feel is so small, or like we’re just doing it because we care, or we like ’em, or we’re just hanging out. We could have such a big impact and it’s pretty great. And it’s really nice to hear from old students.

When Aimee asked the pair what resources they would recommend for other school counselors – they were prepared with some great ideas.

Can I do a couple Ricky?

Go for it.  

I think Tiffany Jules’ This Book Is Anti-Racist and The Anti-Racist Journal is just an awesome resource. Last year I wrote a grant and got them for all the counselors in our district. So I’m super excited about it. They’re really colorful. I wish I had it – oh well, this is a podcast – but her work is so easy for kids and adults to access. So I think that is a great resource. I think all of Ibram Kendi’s work is really powerful. Ricky, who do you think?

I have one that I feel like I quote from on a daily basis. It’s for my personal life and for students as well. It’s The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz and the agreements, really quick, are: Be impeccable with your word. Don’t take anything personally. Don’t make assumptions and always do your best. And I feel like there’s so, so many times, I honestly would say daily, I will say one of those to a student, especially don’t take anything personally or don’t make assumptions. Because they might say, they’re staring at me and they’re talking bad about me. Well, it’s like maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, but if you’re making assumptions about it, it’s stirring around in your head and you are the one who’s being fed. And I feel like I use those a lot and I, I think I bought at least six copies of it to give to family and friends because it can be life changing. And I feel like as a counselor for ourselves, like just to make it through, I use those all the time, but for the students too, um, it, it can help quite a bit. 

Okay. I have another, can I do another? I forgot that. Um, I didn’t forget, but I just sat here listening and thinking and I did a se a diff a series of different things that all were to mindfulness. So I did, um, the mindful schools training. I did mind up peace in schools, training, um, yoga com all of these things that listed in the art of mind, facilitation with Moona and like all of the mindfulness work. I was at the elementary level when I did it. And I was in able to teach a circle a week in every class. So all of my elementary school students are now middle school students and they’re my students. So this, um, sort of creation of a mindfulness, the, the, the infusion of mindfulness into a school can really change the culture of a school. And when they grow up with it, the students can just shift right back into it. If you like, you know, if a kid comes into my office now and is super panicked, I just remind them like, let’s just sit and breathe together for a second. And I think it also really helps me as a school counselor, like, okay, you’re telling me something big, let’s breathe together, get settled. So, and any of the mindfulness work, and we’re so lucky to have that available to us.

I’ve heard Rebecca talk to other students. And so I’ll steal some of her stuff sometimes. And like I heard her say, where are we in this moment? You know? And I actually use that with a kid the other day, because there’s a lot going on and think about everything outside of school. And, and let’s just appreciate this moment real quick, you know, let’s where are we in this room? Let’s focus on this. And so the mindfulness stuff is amazing and it’s good for everybody. But I, I find I use it a lot with our neuro divergent students, you know, especially like for me, I really severe ADHD. And so with my students, I can relate. It’s super hard to do mindfulness, right? But then I say, Hey, why don’t we try it with sound or something where you can focus that way. And it can be huge for our kids  

If you’d like to hear more from Rebecca and Ricky – we have more – which you can hear on next week’s Encouraging Words for School Counselors podcast. In the meantime, check out our website at where you can find the list of books recommended by Ricky and Rebecca and some other helpful resources that allow you to share YOUR best stories and ideas with us for future podcasts. It’s all at

Thanks for listening! Hope you’ll join us again next week.