My Beliefs About Learning

Author Simon Sinek has extensively written and spoken that true leaders must start with why, i.e., being explicit about our beliefs, motives, purpose, etc. to lead a successful organization.  I think of this and Will Richardson's call to our MURSD community that we reflect upon what we believe how kids learn most deeply and powerfully.   I have several beliefs that I hold deeply, and all of them have been confirmed at multiple points in my 28 years as an educator.  So what do I believe?

Learning Is Messy.  I was blessed to work for a kind and wise principal who told me this during my first two weeks as a young high school science teacher.  He pushed me to always have my kids up and actually "doing" science, conducting laboratory investigations and hands-on activities as much as possible.  As a first-year teacher grappling with classroom management, it wasn't always pretty. There was plenty of broken glassware and an occasional item on fire. But I quickly learned that my students were learning more from their inquiry- their own trial and error- than from me lecturing them and disseminating content. I found that the learning progression is almost never linear... there are ebbs and flows that ultimately lead to cognition.

Every Child in Every Classroom Needs a Caring Adult.  If you think about a teacher that made a difference in your life, perhaps you will remember someone who inspired you because of the content he/she taught.  But chances are you'll remember a teacher who was invested in not only your learning, but also your well-being. You'll remember a teacher who took the time who got to know you as a person and tailored his/her practices so you would be challenged and successful.  Relationships are the key to success in our profession!  End. Of. Story.

Enthusiasm Goes a Long Way.  When I tell people that I was a chemistry teacher, the usual response is something like, "Good Lord! I couldn't stand that subject" or "I just barely got through it." I get it. Learning topics like stoichiometry or balancing reduction-oxidation reactions might not be everyone's cup of tea, but I tried to approach each day teaching chemistry with some gusto. Delivering instruction with energy and enthusiasm is one of the first building blocks in engaging students.

Students Should Pursue Their Passions.  The strand that runs through novel reforms such as Genius Hour, Maker Education, Connected Learning, et. al.  is that students pursue learning about topics that really spark their interest. Oftentimes their learning is project-based, where students can create new products that may or may not lead to clear answers to complex problems. This type of learning usually is fun and leads to a great deal of pride and investment by students. We should strive to provide these types of choices for students, however...

Kids Need Our Constant Encouragement.  I think of students who don't quite know yet what their passions are (particularly our youngest learners).  This is where a teacher who is enthusiastic about the content can shape a student's future passions.  I understand the recent push to emphasize areas where there is a need for qualified workers (e.g., STEM related fields); however we should always promote the classic liberal education where students may explore all content areas. The arts should never be given the short shrift, as they lead to well-rounded adults.

Our Families and the Community Must Be Our Partners.  Our students deserve a consistent message from the home and the classroom. When parents are engaged through active, two-way communication, they can understand our intent for their child's learning.  In a similar fashion, we should strive to engage the community to help us in providing meaningful opportunities (e.g., volunteerism, internships, job shadowing, etc.) for student learning. Our relationship must be symbiotic:  the community supports inclusive public education and we prepare future productive members of the community.

The Effect of a Great Teacher Is Immeasurable.  In looking at traditional means of measuring student achievement (MCAS, AP scores, SAT, etc.), the aggregate of results is generally highly correlated with socioeconomic factors. However, I believe our neediest students - our students who come from disadvantaged homes, those with disabilities, those struggling with physical or social-emotional health issues, or our English learners- are the ones who need us the most!  It has been my experience that a high quality teacher is often what makes all the difference in the world, and in several cases, is the best thing in the child's life!

So these are my core beliefs about learning... Am I on point?  Or have I missed something?  Do they align with your beliefs about learning?  If so moved, feel free to comment below!

Nuestros Nuevos Amigos (Our New Friends)

The MURSD and Santa Teresa student exchange planning teams
in the San Sebastián City Council Chambers w/San Sebastián
Mayor Eneko Goia (center).
Last week I had the incredible pleasure of traveling with a small team of MURSD educators and students to San Sebastián, Spain for the purpose of investigating a two-way student exchange program for Nipmuc students and their counterparts at the Santa Teresa Ikastetxea,  a PK-12 school in the beautiful coastal city in the heart of Spain's Basque Region.  After a great deal of dialogue and planning with our Santa Teresa colleagues, we are poised to start this exchange during the 2018-19 school year.  To say the least, I am very excited about this new opportunity for our students!  We will have more specific information to share for students interested in the exchange in the coming months.

So after having some 72 hours to decompress, I've found myself reflecting quite a bit about San Sebastián and Santa Teresa.  Here are some of my big takeaways:

It's All About Culture.  The MURSD could not have a better partner for an exchange than Santa Teresa.  Like the residents of San Sebastián, I found the Santa Teresa staff and students to be exceptionally warm, friendly, and generous.  Being a PK-12 school of approximately 500 students, the Santa Teresa faculty know their students well.  The staff is very nurturing, as it is clear that they give their students what they need.  There is an informal atmosphere (e.g., all teachers are called by their first names) yet it is one of profound mutual respect. There is a culture of expecting kids to do the right thing, and sure enough, they live up to expectations. Although Santa Teresa is a religious school, the teaching of any specific dogma is not the emphasis.  Rather, it is clear that teaching to the whole child is what drives the school in its mission.

The Culture of San Sebastián is Pretty Amazing Too.  This beautiful city is on Spain's northeastern coast, situated on Bay of Biscay.  It is also only twelve miles from the French border, as it is in the heart of the Basque Country, which transverses both Spain and France.  In 2016 San Sebastián was named (along with Warsaw) as a European Capital of Culture by the E.U.. This designation is understandable, with the annual International Film Festival and Jazz Festival being highlighted events for the city, along with housing the San Telmo Museo, the largest museum highlighting Basque culture.  What the city is also known for is its stunning beauty.  The focal point of the city is the expansive La Concha Bay, which encompasses two gorgeous beaches, La Concha and Ondarreta. Along both beaches there is a cobblestone walkway with many restaurants, shops, and high end real estate in close proximity.  San Sebastián is also known for its impeccable cuisine, as many restaurants serve pintxos, or small tapas-like dishes suitable for sharing.  Being a coastal community, fresh seafood pintxos are a mainstay at most restaurants.  Like many moderate-sized European cities, San Sebastián is very manageable.  It is clean, safe, and virtually everything is within walking distance.
A section of San Sebastián from Playa La Concha

Multilingualism is the Rule, Not the Exception.  The Basque people are remarkably proud of their heritage, culture, and language.  While Spanish is spoken is mostly all homes, Basque is commonly spoken on the streets and in the public schools.  At Santa Teresa, most courses are spoken in Spanish; however some subjects are taught in Basque.  Also noteworthy is the fact that English is taught to all children, starting in preschool (as shown in the video below).  The talented English faculty teaches students in an immersive environment, where nothing but English is spoken in their classrooms.  As a result, students grasp a basic command of the language by the late elementary/early middle school years.  Coupled with the fact that many high school students also elect to take French, the norm is that most Santa Teresa students are proficient in three or four languages.  I am certain that this is an enormous factor in the many positive outcomes (% that attend university, number employed in meaningful internships, etc.) that Santa Teresa graduates enjoy.

It's All About Perspective.  I should note that the culture among the Santa Teresa staff is also excellent.  A snapshot of this can be found each day during the 30-minute school-wide break, which occurs daily in the 11:00 am hour. During this time teachers flood the teachers' room and share coffee, pastries, and conversation in a warm, collegial manner.  On at least two days, I was in the room for break, and I had the pleasure of speaking to several teachers in both English and the best Spanish that I could muster.  A young economics teacher, John, remarked to me that he felt that some of the teachers may be reluctant to speak some English, because they would prefer to speak it with an American accent rather than their learned British accent.  I was surprised about this; but upon reflection, I thought of my own insecurity with speaking Spanish and wanting to get it right and sound "smart" at all times, even when I was way in over my head in Spanish.  It appears that some of my reticence was shared by the Santa Teresa staff.

This small anecdote might be the perfect metaphor of why this exchange project is so important for both the MURSD and Santa Teresa communities.  The number one goal is to give our students a larger perspective beyond Mendon-Upton, Massachusetts, and our nation.  A culturally rich place like San Sebastián will certainly do this for our kids. Conversely, Santa Teresa students are excited to immerse themselves in American culture.  They are enamored with Nipmuc student life/traditions (e.g., sporting events, Homecoming, Prom, etc.) that we take for granted.  I am confident that our exchange will allow all of us to experience the richness of a new culture.  However, after learning and living our counterpart's cultures, it is my hope that all involved will realize this simple conclusion:

Lo que nos une es mucho más que lo que nos divide.

What unites us is far greater than what divides us.

On Cultivating a Growth Mindset

It has been an exciting first week!

It's always great to reconnect with colleagues on that very first day, Teacher Orientation Day.  When we meet in the Nipmuc Auditorium as a district in the morning, I first introduce all of the new staff, then I deliver some comments regarding big ideas/themes that the district will be working toward in the coming school year.

This year, I chose to comment on notion of adopting a growth mindset toward all things teaching and learning.  Below is a portion of my comments.

While the additional funding is an enormous win, the heart of the matter is still what we do in our classrooms everyday.  I do want to touch upon a work that the district leadership team and I read and studied this summer, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. It was written by Stanford research psychologist Carol Dweck and recently, has been given a great deal of attention by educators nationwide because it has enormous implications for teaching and learning.  I know that Maureen and our principals will be using its ideas as a theme throughout the year.

In the book, Dweck’s basic premise is this:  we approach situations and people in our lives with one of two mindsets:  either the fixed mindset or the growth mindset.  The reality is that most of us are probably a mix of the fixed mindset and the growth mindset- and the mindset varies based upon the situation.

Dweck writes that an individual with the fixed mindset believes that all traits such as intelligence, abilities, personality, etc. are static… and they cannot be changed. People with a fixed mindset may be very smart and talented, but always wants to look smart… so they have a tendency to always want to prove themselves.  Her research shows that this tendency leads to a whole cascade of negative behaviors- such as avoiding challenges, giving up in the face of adversity, not believing in effort, ignoring constructive criticism, and always trying to find excuses or ascribe blame when things go wrong.

Think about it… You may know someone with a fixed mindset.  You might even work with someone with a fixed mindset!  You may have children in your classroom with a fixed mindset, who come from very fixed mindset parents.  What does it actually look like in practice?

In the book, Dweck likes to use famous athletes as examples.  If you’re my age or older, you probably remember watching Tennis Hall of Famer John McEnroe play many great matches in the 70’s and 80’s.  I remember his matches at Wimbledon and the US Open were must-see TV… to see some great tennis, but also to see his many meltdowns at referees, line judges, and even his opponents.  Even to this day, when you Google his name, the word “tantrum” auto-completes!  Here’s a brief snapshot of the types of tantrums he used to throw… 

Dweck says that McEnroe was the epitome of the fixed mindset in that he had an incessant need to always prove himself to be the best.  Look at some of the negative behaviors:  finding fault with the judges, expecting them to be perfect- they’re the blame for his poor shot, and so on.  She notes that while he experienced a great deal of success, McEnroe admits his playing years were the most miserable years of his life.

In contrast is the growth mindset.  With this mindset all traits- such as intelligence- can be developed.  Effort is seen as the key element of growth, and thus, there is a tendency to want to learn.  The growth mindset results in the types of behaviors that we as teachers want to see:  embracing challenges, persisting in the face of setbacks, reflecting on failure, and acting on feedback.   All of it hinges on the premise that EFFORT is a PROCESS, and that PROCESS is the KEY TO ACHIEVEMENT.  

Dweck uses probably the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, as the model for the growth mindset.   He has the mindset that every successful athlete who has had long-term success has. It says genetics may determine the starting line, but hard work determines the finish line.  Not as a surprise, 15 years ago, Nike ran with this growth mindset and made a commercial out of it.

With the growth mindset, failure isn't just accepted; it's expected. When you stretch yourself past your current limits, failure is inevitable. It spawns growth.

These are simple enough ideas to understand, but then I think of our schools and our students.  I think of structures and practices- such as tracking and the need to give so many mandated assessments- that lean more toward a fixed mindset rather than the growth mindset.   I also think of the statements that our students make in our classes.  Take a look at these…. Do any of them look familiar?  I know as a high school chemistry teacher, I heard at least 4 or 5 of them on a regular basis… I wonder if kids become more fixed in their mindsets as they become older… Note that all of these statements, even the one positive one, speak to the idea of the student having an innate ability that he/she believes cannot change.

In contrast, look at the same statements from students- now flipped to the perspective of the growth mindset.  Note that all of these statements speak to a process… one that involves effort to get to an outcome.   As Dweck notes, a growth mindset amongst students is likely to encourage them to develop feelings of empowerment – that they are in charge of their learning and hence are motivated. 

Throughout the year I have the honor to go in classrooms at Clough, Memorial, Miscoe, and Nipmuc where the growth mindset is the norm.  In these classrooms learning is predicated on risk-taking and mistakes.  They are safe learning environments where students are pushed to ask questions, research effectively, collaborate with peers, and present their work in a variety of ways.   

It is my hope that together we can build a district where the growth mindset is the norm… for every teacher, for every staff member, for every classroom, for every student.   This only can be achieved through tending to our own professional growth… and acknowledging that we all have a lot to learn to get better at our craft.  I know as superintendent I still have a LOT to learn, and that my mistakes are plentiful.  I am excited for our journey to begin tomorrow- our first PD Day- with an outstanding keynote speaker, Alan November, and then something new… an EdCamp model that will be completely driven by you and your learning needs.

Walking Through the PARCC

Earlier this month I gave a presentation to the Regional School Committee on the proposed field test this spring of a new state assessment known as the PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers).  This new assessment, which will be administered in 18 states plus the District of Columbia, will be taking the place of the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) tests in English language arts and mathematics.  The reason for this change is the conversion to the Common Core State Standards, a new, national set of standards that is replacing our state's existing curriculum frameworks in ELA and math.  The PARCC Assessment is aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

Below are the slides that were presented.  The presentation really focused on the latest timelines and details that the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is establishing for the transition to the PARCC.  Keep in mind, the majority of the slides were produced by DESE, not me:

PARCC Assessment Field Test Update November 4 from jpm66

Since this presentation, there have been articles in the Milford Daily News and the Upton-Mendon Town Crier that I believe accurately capture the discussion and questions that were posed during the school committee meeting.  Some of the concerns raised that are the heart of this matter include:

  1. The fact that the MURSD will get ZERO information from this field test.  None whatsoever.  Thus, no insight on how we've improved the curriculum or how individual or a group of students have grown academically.
  2. The timelines and plans for the PARCC seem to be a moving target.  Superintendents were originally told that the 2014-15 school year would the year of PARCC administration for all students in grades 3-11.  Now it will be optional; as during next school year all districts will have to choose either MCAS or the PARCC to administer to all students in grades 3-8.  Then the PARCC will be the only option in 2015-16. The latest plans also call for the MCAS to be administered to students in grade 10 (a graduation requirement) at least through 2016.
  3. The simple fact that this new assessment is still not "official!"  The State Board of Education will be voting to approve a transition plan tomorrow evening (November 19).  Under this transition plan, the Board will not decide to formally adopt the PARCC until the fall of 2015.  The lack of certainty and clarity is maddening to say the least.
  4. Perhaps the largest concern is the simple amount of time, effort, and resources that will need to go to this latest generation of testing.  The PARCC will be administered during two testing windows- one at the half-way point of the year (a performance-based assessment) and an end-of-year assessment in the spring.  By what is being presented, the amount of testing will be the following:
    • Elementary students:  220 minutes of End-of-Year Assessments and 300 minutes for Performance-Based Assessments in ELA and math:  Total = 520 min (8 hrs., 40 min)
    • Middle & HS students:  220 minutes of End-of-Year Assessments and 430 minutes for Performance-Based Assessments in ELA and math:  Total = 650 min (10 hrs., 50 min)

This takes high-stakes testing to a new level.  Think of the instructional time that is lost in order to administer these assessments!

To be clear, I am all for higher, more rigorous standards in our public schools.  I also believe that we must have a mechanism to assess how well our students are meeting these standards and how well our teachers are teaching to these standards.  All of us must be held accountable for results.  However, the reforms such as the PARCC as envisioned in the federal $4.3 billion Race to the Top (RTTT) program do not represent a reasonable approach to improving student achievement.  Much like its precursor legislation, No Child Left Behind, there is far too much emphasis on the testing of children.

Last week I was reminded of this quote from President Obama during a town hall meeting in 2011.  When asked about high-stakes testing for kids, he said the following:
"We have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with a standardized test being given occasionally just to give a baseline of where kids are at.  Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn’t even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time.  They didn’t study for it, they just went ahead and took it.  And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize."
Why does the current national agenda fly in the face of this smart, reasonable perspective?  What is good for the president's daughters should be good for all kids, no?

MCAS/Accountability Results for 2013

Last Monday night our new Director of Curriculum Maureen Cohen and I delivered the annual presentation on the latest round of MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) tests and each school's accountability rating to the Regional School Committee.  Here is the "10,000 foot view" in a screencast below:

Not to digress, but I hope you like the format of the "screencast," which was created completely on an iPad using the app Explain Everything.  It really is a nice way to add video, audio, and even animation to something like a PowerPoint presentation.

I would characterize this year's MCAS results as positive, but also mixed.  I am pleased that our overall proficiency levels in English language arts and mathematics continue to rise, as there was a 3% and 5% increase, respectively, in those tests across all grade levels within the district.  While our aggregate scores are showing incremental progress, we must do more to address the learning of our students with the greatest needs.

Under the state's accountability system, schools and districts must not only increase the scores (and meet established performance targets) of all students, but also those of significant "subgroups," e.g., various racial groups, students with disabilities, students from poverty, English language learners (ELLs), etc.   As the MURSD has a relatively small amount of students in these subgroups, the State Department of Education mixes the special education, high poverty, and ELL students into a larger subgroup known as "high needs."  It is in this subgroup where our district must focus greater attention, as across the various grade levels, we are not meeting the targets.

Below in this post you can access the PowerPoint that was delivered to the Regional School Committee on Monday.  It contains the district data for every grade level and every MCAS test.  Or if you would like to see the data broken down by each school, please visit our District Dashboard, which has been updated to reflect the 2013 State Assessments.

MURSD MCAS Results & Accountability Ratings for 2013 from jpm66

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them in the comment section below!

Welcome to Harvest for Students Week!

Fall is definitely in the air... and there isn't a better time of the year for the harvest of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Hence, the Massachusetts Farm to School Project, which the MURSD just joined, is sponsoring its 7th annual Harvest for Students Week 2013.  The week kicks off the larger National Farm to School month (October).  Both the national and state projects have the same mission:  to encourage healthy food choices by increasing students' exposure to seasonal fruits and vegetables while also supporting local farmers and heightening interest in school meals.

I am excited that the district has joined the Farm to School Project.  Actually, I feel as if it is a no-brainer, given what we want to accomplish in teaching kids life-long healthy eating habits and the proud farming tradition of our two communities.  Our entree into the program will start with the project's Harvest of the Month campaign, where a new, locally grown fruit or vegetable will be introduced in our four schools' cafeterias each month.  With this campaign a different Massachusetts-grown crop will be featured in a meal at least twice per month.  The featured crops for the next few months are:

September- tomatoes
October- pears
November- apples
December- kale/collard greens
January- butternut squash
February- carrots

The Farm to School Project will provide us with plenty of promotional material, recipes, etc. to publicize the crops.  They also have created partnerships with large local growers who provide participating districts with the produce at cut rates, ones that are typically better than the state's technical bids for food service programs.  For example, the pears and apples we will be serving are fresh from Lanni Orchards in Lunenberg.  Hence, it's a win-win situation.

Changing habits is never easy, and this is definitely true when introducing new foods to kids.  Apples? Probably no problem.... but kale???  This is where our Food Service Director Dianne Braga and her talented managers must meet the challenge.  Dianne tells me that they will be coming up with creative, kid-friendly choices that they will sample throughout the months.  (She shared with me the recipe for baked kale chips:  think of a healthier potato chip that is baked with a touch of olive oil and sea salt!) Whatever the recipe, the staff will first sample it to students before scaling to a full side for a lunch.

Kudos to Dianne and the cafeteria staff for bringing this worthwhile program to the MURSD!

State Senator Richard Moore, MURSD Food Service Director Dianne Braga and I
gave fresh apples, pears, and apple cider to Miscoe 6th graders today.

Devin McCourty & Clough Fuel Up to Play 60!

Patriots All-Pro Safety Devin McCourty
high fives all 464 Clough students!
We learn some of our habits at a very early age.  That simple fact is the premise of a 6-year old joint venture from the National Dairy Council and the NFL, Fuel Up to Play 60.  The program aims to promote students to take charge in making small, everyday changes at both home and school.  The changes are in the areas of healthy food choices and getting exercise, specifically committing to being physically active for at least 60 minutes everyday.

The longitudinal research throughout many years has been very clear:  poor nutrition and lack of physical activity are not only root causes of overweight and obesity, they are also factors associated with lower academic achievement.  Thus, it is paramount that we find new, tangible ways to instill healthy eating and exercise habits not only into our wellness curriculum but also our everyday operations.

With this program in mind, the wellness team at Clough- school nurse Tara Bellefontaine, PE teacher Dan Hayes, and cafeteria manager Mary Lee Siple, last year decided to enroll Clough in the Fuel Up to Play 60 program.  It started with a modest 90 students taking the FUP60 Pledge and based upon that success, they decided to pursue grant funding from the program, seeking the maximum amount, $4000 from their "Playbook" program, where schools must commit to one new nutrition initiative and one new physical activity.  In late summer, they got word that not only was their grant application fully funded, but a New England Patriot would be at the school in September for a kick-off event! Clough was 1 of 5 schools in the nation to win this wonderful prize thanks to our students' hard work in submitting their pictures for a the Scavenger Hunt challenge (part of the grant application). Significantly, the $4000 grant will be used for a new salad bar, new, innovative gym equipment, and kick off material to support the program.

The Patriot that visited Clough today was Patriots all-pro safety Devin McCourty.  He was an absolute delight, as he shared some fun and inspirational thoughts about his life as a Patriot, his workouts, and nutrition.  He took all types of questions, from ,"What do you eat on game days?" (A really big breakfast of eggs, bacon, and French toast.) to, "What was your favorite game as a Patriot?" (It's a tie:  when we beat the Lions on Thanksgiving and everyone was watching us as they ate their turkey and the AFC Championship game a couple of years ago... and when we beat the Ravens to get to Super Bowl we just got to win the next one!) to even, "Do you do ballet?"(I'd like to say that I have.... but, umm... no.)

A couple of final thoughts.  First, many thanks to Dan, Tara, and Mary Lee for securing the grant and putting all of this together.  You did an OUTSTANDING job and I am very proud of your efforts.  It was a terrific day for our children at Clough.

Second, it certainly was apropos when Dan introduced Devin and he told the students about his versatility and flexibility, citing how in the past, Devin's role on the Patriots was changed (from his natural position, a safety, to cornerback) for the good of the team.  Dan stated that Devin understands how important teamwork truly is, much like the "1 Team, 1 Goal, No Limits" core value at Clough.  Devin's comments played off of Dan's fine introduction and it was very apparent that he is a warm, genuine man.  It was also evident in the sincere way that he connected with our kids.

Thus... I know that many of you, like me, are die-hard Patriots fans.  Based upon my experience today, I would urge you to root even harder for Devin McCourty.  In my opinion, this fine young man is the real deal... as he is not only athletically gifted but he is also rich in character.  He deserves all the success he will no doubt earn in his promising career.

PE Teacher Dan Hayes introduces Devin McCourty during
today's assembly.  Also on stage is Clough nurse Tara Bellefontaine

A hallmark of the National Dairy Council, Devin proudly
wears his milk mustache in front of Clough!