The Sweet Stuff
There are few things that I get more excited about than ice cream. I particularly love gourmet ice cream where the flavors might be a little more exotic like Mexican Chocolate, Nutella Chip, Vienna Finger Cookie, Green Monster, and it goes on and on (I know you may be asking yourself, “why no strawberry or black raspberry?” You see I have a whole theory about how fruit is not dessert, but that is a rant for another day). However, this excitement for ice cream is similar to the feelings at the beginning of the school year where faculty members, students, and staff are filled with a sense of hope, possibility, and wonder.
To us, starting school is as exciting as that scoop of exotic ice cream and as comforting and compatible as that scoop of vanilla. The possibilities seem endless as we review our options for rainbow sprinkles, chocolate chips, or whipped cream or in the case of school, the endless possibilities for all of our students. As experienced back-to-schoolers, we hope to capture that back to school excitement for you through the lenses of our particular districts.
The Delivery Mechanism
How we start the year is as important and satisfying as how we deliver our ice cream treats. If you are an ice-cream fan, you may prefer yours with a certain cone or served with a certain sauce. Starting the year has several key delivery ingredients to it as well, which you will find represented across all four of our districts.
The After Effects
Like enjoying your favorite ice cream treat, there is joy in the eating and there is the joyous rush of having eaten it. In this issue, we not only provide an overview of how we started the year, but also some examples of how we intend to sustain it.
Milford Public Schools #MPSGreatThings #MPSLearns
We are in the second year of a three year strategic plan that focuses on Social Emotional Learning, Equity and Access, Growth Focused Instruction, and Continuous Learning. Instead of sharing data, targets, progress toward goals, and other similar topics on the first day opening presentation, we invited three retired teachers, a retired administrator, and two of our current administrators who had just beaten cancer to share their perspectives on education, the importance of the teaching profession, and why they love the Milford Public Schools. The educators did an amazing job that led to laughter, tears, and inspiration for our faculty.
One thing has become abundantly clear, as I start my sixth year in Milford, is that there is an incredible pride in the faculty for the critically important work that they do and this pride is paralleled in the community. I also believe that the more brief my remarks are, the better the whole program goes! On opening day we also honor the outstanding teacher of the year and nominated winners from each of our buildings. This nomination process and program has reminded me of what talented educators we have across all of our schools in Milford.
Our educators work tirelessly to provide a welcoming and predictable opening few days of school. We understand that many students walk through the door who are nervous and anxious about how the new school year will go. We provide a number of orientations, welcome events, open houses, and opportunities, so both parents and students can feel comfortable, whether they are starting kindergarten or entering Milford High School for the first time. This is a team effort and I always appreciate the support of our PTO parent volunteers and student ambassadors who work tirelessly to ensure the first days and weeks are both positive and a smooth transition for students.
The energy of the first days and weeks of the school year are a rare professional experience that I wish professionals in other fields could experience. I like to try to maintain the energy, enthusiasm, and positivity throughout the year because it make an immense difference for the climate and culture for the school year. When we are hiring faculty members we explore their mindset, outlook, demeanor, and personality. We want enthusiastic, flexible, and creative problem solvers who are focused on learning and growth and making the classroom experience positive for all of the students.
Mendon-Upton Regional School District #MURSDInspires
Prior to the return of our students, our district faculty and staff spend two days together as a district and in the schools in collaborative professional learning. This year’s opening of school was as exciting as opening day of our local ice cream shops, as our teachers gathered in the lobby, greeting each other with eagerness to begin a new year.
There was added excitement because the focus of our two days was the introduction of our new strategic plan Inspire. While in some districts, the launch of a new strategic plan might be met with skepticism or might be viewed as a document that comes out only once a year, this is not how it works in Mendon-Upton. Our strategic plan drives everything we do, every day, in every classroom, and our new plan Inspire is a result of a year’s worth of capacity building, visioning, and input from all stakeholders.
Our mission: We empower all students to thrive.
When we asked our teachers to describe what they need to do in order to create an environment where students thrive they shared the following:
Additionally, we laid out our vision for our students.
Our vision: In order to bring our mission to life, we will:
- Create programs, practices, and partnerships that value the whole child
- Lead innovation
- Inspire meaningful learning that ignites individual passions
- Reimagine education to align with our beliefs about learning
- Leverage technology to communicate, collaborate, and innovate
- Expand our definition of success beyond traditional metrics to celebrate the diverse talents, interests, accomplishments, and growth of the learner
- Engage students, parents, educators, and the community in an ongoing partnership focused on learning.
In keeping with our practice of introducing fun and engaging themes for our professional development days, we had a theme of movie premiere as we premiered our new plan. As our educators entered their opening day professional development, they were greeted with movie theme music (Indiana Jones, Mission Impossible, and Wonder Woman). They were assigned to vertical teams such as The Ghostbusters or The Terminators as they set out to complete many team challenges that engaged them with the elements of the strategic plan. For a full breakdown of the full PD Day, check out our PD Summary Webpage. In Mendon-Upton we work hard, but we play hard as well. The positive culture of camaraderie, laughter, and collaboration led to fantastic videos, reflections, and inspired artwork capturing the elements of our strategic plan.
The main highlight of our PD Day was hearing directly from our students. In our Portrait of a Graduate session, we had a student panel made up of students who volunteered to come in on their last day of summer to share their experiences in school with faculty and staff. They gave advice on how best to set up group projects. They answered questions from elementary teachers on what they found to be the most beneficial skills they learned in elementary school. They talked about their most meaningful learning experiences they have had in our district. It was the perfect combination of advice, reflection, and inspiration. If we want to empower our students to thrive, the first step is to ask them what they need.
Despite the heat, we ended the day with a district photo and a cooler filled with fudgsicles and creamsicles for our hardworking staff. It was literally a sweet ending to a positive day.
So how do sustain the enthusiasm past the opening day of school, especially when your classrooms lack air conditioning and the heat index is skyrocketing? Our educators and administrators greeted our students with open arms and smiles. Our teachers spent opening days establishing communities, building relationships, and providing engaging learning activities. The first three days weren’t about sign-offs and teacher-directed rules, but rather teachers embraced the new strategic plan and the enthusiasm of opening day and created environments where students came running back to school the next day. From exploding cans to magic carpet challenges, our students were engaged.
As we captured learning in action in our tours of the school with our #MURSDInspires Selfie Prop, the smiles on the students’ faces said it all: This year is going to be sweet!
Ashland Public Schools #APSLEARNS, #Connections, #Relationships, #Community
Our school year started back the week of August 13 when we had 30 teachers take a 4 days course on Responsive Classroom. Our District has made a commitment to have all K-5 teachers trained over the next three years. Prior to implementing the program I contacted several schools and all the feedback I received was that it was a fabulous program that has transformed and changed schools and cultures. Nevertheless, I was nervous to roll out such a comprehensive program, but after the first day, the feedback was incredibly positive. Teachers declared that it was the best PD they have ever attended. This message was repeated over and over throughout the next week.
For example, I met with a few teachers last week and they said that the training had transformed their classrooms, but the best thing I heard was when one teacher said that she knows more about her kids after 1 week than she did after 1 month because of the program. Additionally, this past week during I visited classrooms and watched morning meeting in action. It was great to see our teachers learning, making connections with students, building relationships, and establishing a sense of community in their classrooms.
On August 21 and 22 we welcomed our new teachers to the District. The message to each of them from everyone they interacted with was that they needed to make connections with students, build relationships, and establish a sense of community in their classrooms. It was an unscripted plan, but the message was the same from everyone, this needed to be done in order to have a productive and successful year.
Then our Superintendent gave the opening day address. He told the staff about his time growing up in Vermont and how if it was not for teachers who took the time to make connections, build relationships, and establish a sense of community with him he would not be where he is today. Those three pillars were important to him as a student and drive his actions as a superintendent.
To sustain the opening momentum, we spent the first few days of school walking the halls and checking in on classrooms. Yes, it was hot. But we both saw something that we have not seen in years; all teachers (every single one) was taking that extra time to make connections with students, build relationships, and establish a sense of community in their classrooms. It just happened and it was awesome to see that it was a common theme reflected across all classrooms PreK-12. As the two of us reflected it was nothing that we had planned, but all the work we had done in the summer and to start the school year all focused on those three themes and it all came together the first few weeks of school.
Dr. James Comer said, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” This is so true. All of us in Ashland are filled with optimism and hope for an amazing school year. We have a solid foundation set and are ready to build on it. Our waffle cone is our staff that holds everything together. We have added three flavors of connections, relationships, and community. And we are ready for the year!
Natick Public Schools #relationshipsmatter
In the wake of the district’s year of immense change in 2017-18, we (my school committee and I) held a series of community meetings (70) all summer long. These meetings and our constant reflection on our core values as a system helped us to decide to celebrate our greatest district asset: community relationships.
A summer of visits with community members reaffirmed our commitment to working together and building relationships in service to learning. Even in this age of technology and digital connections–around which Natick leads the way–it’s important to become recentered and reconnected with our students in service to personalizing their learning.
Our meetings made it clear that the district needed to refresh this commitment; our opening day meetings and trainings that teachers in particular appreciated being given the time and license to focus on building relationships with their students. In a digital district, personal relationships are even more important, prioritized and focused upon, since we use the technology to efficiently make more space for interaction time within the learning space.
As we started the school year, we sought to inspire teachers by acting as mentors in relationship building and did so in all of our opening day meetings–modeling the activities and ideas we hoped they would leverage to connect with their students.
Our cabinet team (central office division heads) spent all of our opening days visiting schools and reacquainting ourselves, or meeting new staffers in their classes. We also headed to all the buildings and to all the training meetings–from crossing guards, to librarians to nurses!
Finally, we met with all of our new and transfer students at NHS who were soon to meet with future trusted adults and student mentors within the school community, as part of our new peer mentorship program.
While the idea of building relationships in service to learning is not a new idea, it is one that needs refreshing and rebranding for the current era.
To that end, we invited Sam Lenson, NHS Alum, class of 2013, to share his story of learning in the Natick Schools. Sam, a student with learning disabilities struggled to find his way through middle school, but the connection of educators and administrators and their personal relationships with him pushed him along, helped him grow, graduate and eventually go on to University of Maine where he played kicker, but more importantly, he obtained degrees in sports management and education and a minor in special education. He recently passed him MTEL tests and has become a MA certified teacher. He also invented a play-based after-school program that has blossomed in use through the state of Maine.
Following Sam’s discussion, 6 mothers from the Natick community spoke to our staff about the big and small ways their work has changed the lives of their children and our community. These moving stories ranged from simply caring enough to get their children the “just right books” to intervening when children were failing or at risk, to kind word and coaching to the parents themselves.
The start of a school year sets the tone for excitement and core values and we hope we have set the expectation for living and working in a community that prioritizes connection and relationships in service to our academic learning outcomes.
We share these overview of how we start the year because, to us, framing the year with excitement and sweetness creates a positive momentum that can carry us through to the new year–it’s the common vocabulary, shared vision and experiences that allow us to work well as a district team. Like that sweet cone of ice cream, the start of the school year is pure joy and excitement.
Wishing you a sweet start to your school year. May you sustain it through relationships, community building, and a little bit of fun.