I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream…Back to School is Sweet

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.

ice cream 3Milford 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.

Milford2The 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.


ice cream 4Mendon-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.  mursd1

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:mursd3

Additionally, we laid out our vision for our students.

Our vision:  In order to bring our mission to life, we will:mursd2

  • 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.

mursd4In 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 Portraitmursd7 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.


mursd9So 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!

ice cream 5Ashland 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 thiashland1ng 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 ashland2each 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.  ashland5 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!

ice cream 6Natick 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 natick11together 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.

natick2To 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.


The Natick Leadership Team

Wishing you a sweet start to your school year. May you sustain it through relationships, community building, and a little bit of fun.

Innovating at the Secondary Level: Playing the “What If…Game” to Innovate Inside and Outside of the Box


When we are looking to innovate in our districts, we are often faced by internal and external constraints, the proverbial box that we can become stuck in.  Some might argue that we must therefore just “think outside the box” and sometimes that is the right approach, but in schools we still have the box and some schools are looking to also “think inside the box” and to innovate within the midst of these constraints.  One particular constraint at the secondary level is that parents, teachers, and colleges tend to expect a certain type of high school preparation and set of courses/outcomes that may or may not still be the best preparation for life and citizenship in jobs of the future.  One pathway to innovating within these constraints is to begin with the question: “What if…?” and see what possibilities lay ahead. Below is how we dream within realistic parameters for our district and students–and how courageous leadership is needed to try these innovations and work to sustain them.

Collaborating Across Districts

“What if we collaborated with our students across school districts using a virtual platform?”

Student VoiceEarlier this year a brainstorm occurred while a number of school leaders participated in a Zoom Session for The Inspired Learning Project hosted by the Mendon-Upton Regional School District.  Someone asked, “What if we used this same digital platform to have students from various school districts collaborate virtually?”  Everyone loved the concept, and decided on a topic; one that mattered and one that was on everyone’s mind: increasing student voice. During the cross-district collaboration students from four high schools will participate in 2 virtual breakout rooms and discuss the following questions:

  • What is student voice?  
  • What does it look like currently in action in your classes and in your schools?
  • Where on the continuum of student voice do you fall?
  • Why is student voice important?
  • How do we increase student voice in schools and classrooms?  
  • What advice would you give teachers/administrators to increase student voice?
  • What could you do on your own as students?

We are excited to see where this endeavor goes and what future ideas this can lead to for bridging conversations across schools.

Shifting Curriculum Paradigms

“What if we created an interdisciplinary course driven solely by student passion and inquiry rather than standards?”

Generation Think: In the 2017-2018 school year, at Nipmuc Regional High School one of our social studies teachers, Matt Merten, created a course that was designed to provide students with the ability to take ownership of their learning to explore topics of interest, to engage in deep inquiry that ignites their curiosity and creativity, and to build their capacity to innovate in an era of exponential change.  The course was called Generation Think and has provided a springboard for conversations on how to tap into student passions.

pasted image 0 (4)Building off of the single course of Generation Think, Nipmuc Regional High School is looking to expand opportunities for interdisciplinary project-based learning with the creation of a new course pathway called i3:(Interest, Inquiry and Innovations in Learning) for the 2018-2019 school year.  This course will be multi-disciplinary and theme-based.  It will include history (US II or History Elective) and focus on research, historical context, and civic/political action; English (English 11 or 12) with a focus on reading, writing, presenting, and communication and Science (elective) with a focus on research, data analysis, and problem-solving.  The course will take place over a three blocks and focus on student-led, project-based experiences. The goals of the course include providing students with increased student agency, opportunities for deep inquiry, and immersion in real work that matters.  The course design is still under development through collaborative, cross-disciplinary leadership from teacher leaders.

Empowering Students to Explore

“What if we allowed students the opportunity to explore things that inspired them?”

Literary Magazine:

pasted image 0 (3)This year several Ashland Middle School students partnered with Tammy Knoff, a middle school ELA teacher, and resurrected their literary magazine. Students met once a cycle during lunch with Ms. Knoff and discussed different topics. Earlier this year they published a magazine that was circulated throughout the town and these students also presented their successful relaunch of the magazine at a School Committee Meeting. The enthusiasm, joy, and passion these students had when they presented at the School Committee Meeting was felt by everyone in the room. It is evident that when students are able to direct and have a voice in what and how they learn, motivation soars.

Projects in the RTI Block:  At Natick’s middle schools, an RTI block was implemented in winrecent years.  While RTI blocks at the middle level are not innovations, exploring how teachers and students can explore different passion projects or Google’s 20% time-type ideas is.  In our RTI blocks, called WIN (What I Need) blocks, students who, for a 6-week period, have demonstrated mastery of unit math and ELA work, can be offered course options created around teacher interests such as art and architecture linked to grade 7 geography, Utopia novels, or computer coding, or, students can propose their own projects.  We are early in this work and have focused our early district time on training teachers how to design such projects to be effective and keep student choice and voice at the center. However, the future promises to engage students in proposing and leading their own projects with presentations to engaged community members who will serve as their critical friends for the project.

Doing What is Right

“What if we provided programming to students that we knew may be sensitive, but is the right thing to do?”

pasted image 0 (2)

Will to Live: In March, John Trautwein, from the Will to Live Foundation, presented his story to Ashland students about the tragedy that his family endured when his son took his life almost 8 years ago. John presented to students in the middle school and high school, along with a parent presentation in the evening. John mentioned in his presentations that VERY few middle school are willing to have this discussion with students because school leaders often feel it is too sensitive of an issue to tackle with middle school students. At the parent presentation, educators from other communities shared with John that their districts were not comfortable having this discussion with middle school students.

Seeking to Bust Old Paradigms

“What if we developed pathways to increase college access and completion while students are in the high school?”

Milford High School has been designated an Early College Program by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.  The goal of this designation and the Early College Program is partner with Framingham State University and Mass Bay Community College to create pathways that lead to greater access to college for underrepresented groups of students and lead to greater degree completion rates.  The guiding principles for the program include equitable access, guided academic pathways, enhanced student support, connection to careers, and effective partnerships. We see students earning both high school and college credit through dual enrollment, courses organized around a particular theme, and support for students to ensure success.  Students who complete even one early college course are significantly more likely to enroll in and compete college. This partnership allows colleges and high schools to work together to increase access and college completion. This is critically important as a recent New York Times article (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/25/opinion/college-graduation-gap.html) outlined how although more students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are attending college the gap between them and their wealthier peers in terms of college completion was increasing.  This is a trend that we want to reverse and believe Early College can be one strategy to accomplish this goal.

Massachusetts Early College Initiative Graphic 700x470

Natick has also been designated an Early College Program and we seek to reach students described as above, but also wanted to offer these students offerings in Computer Science as a part of the college block courses of English, Math and History.  In addition, we have implemented Michele Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative whose aims include:

  • Exposing students to college and career opportunities
  • Understanding financial aid eligibility that can make college affordability a reality
  • Encouraging academic planning and summer learning opportunities
  • Supporting high school counselors who can help more kids get into college


These students are cohorted at Natick High School–providing social and academic collaborative support and are engaged in key preparatory, skill building courses like a math course which includes Accuplacer testing and addressing of identified deficits.  The combination of this program, our RTI workshops, and the newly formed ACES program (Student description,  Teacher description), which targets Black and Latino students–encouraging them to participate in AP math and science courses at higher rates, are innovations at the secondary level that seek to break old patterns of achievement trends in placement.

While RTI programs are not necessarily an “innovation” at the secondary level, implementing RTI workshops as we have done at Natick High School does constitute a shift in messaging and execution around expectations for mastery, redo/reteaching at the high school level.  Each term, based on our departmentally identified and created common assessments, our teachers assess identified “power standards” for the grade level. Students who do not demonstrate mastery on the majority of the standards are referred to RTI workshops for the subsequent term.  In these workshops, students are given personalized coaching around the power standards identified as “not mastered.” Once they demonstrate mastery, they are released from the workshop class. So far, students who have participated have demonstrated greater success in subsequent terms, but school leadership and teachers are still figuring out how to track and quantify the impact of the RTI workshops. What we do know is that we have seen few models like this in the U.S. and we think it operationalizes our district core values of personalization, innovation and building growth mindsets.

Self Determination and Student-Led IEPs

“What if students led their own learning conferences, IEP and 504 meetings?”

Natick Schools set the following district goals for the 2017-2018 school year students receiving special education services will increase self-determined behaviors in order to increase their participation in the IEP Team process as measured by the following targets:
● By June 2018, 80% of students who have an Individualized Education Plan(IEP) will become aware of, and implement, the “Self Determination Learning Model of
Instruction” (SDLMI) goal planning and attainment process to incorporate one specific goal into their IEP.
● By June 2018, 10% of students with an IEP will increase active participation in their IEP by piloting the “Student Led IEP Process” (direct instruction around participation skills) to engage the IEP Team in discussions around their specific goal and/or other parts of their plan.

These goals were set in order to increase our district’s work in supporting student agency, choice and voice in more authentic ways.  Choosing to focus on self-determination in our special education students through our student services department has been a valuable step to ensuring that all types of learners and students are a part of the work as shared in this recent NYT article:  Looking into the Future Article.

image16What is Self-Determination?

Self determination is “A combination of skills, knowledge, and beliefs that enable a person to engage in goal directed, self-regulated, autonomous behavior. An understanding of one’s strengths and limitations together with a belief in oneself as capable and effective are essential to self-determination.” (Field, Martin, Miller, Ward, & Wehmeyer, 1998, p.2)  

Research indicates that students with disabilities tend to have lower self determination skills. (Mithaug, Campeau, & Wolman, 2003) that self-determination contributes to positive adult outcomes. (Algozzine, Browder, Karvonen, Test, & Wood, 2001); and many students with disabilities are not being taught self-determination skills prior to leaving high school. (Agran, Snow, & Swaner, 1999; Wehmeyer, Agran, & Hughes, 2000).

Self-Determination in a Nutshell

  • Goal Oriented
  • Self-Efficacy- Belief
  • Motivated
  • Addresses Challenges
  • Persists
  • Self-Awareness
  • Choice Making
  • Access Supports
  • Self-Advocate

Answer:  Different for every child

  • All Student will learn self determination skills
  • Most students will learn and complete Goal Attainment Process
  • These students will either:Have that goal incorporated into their IEP Team Meeting, or,
    • Discuss pieces of that process in the IEP team meeting by,At minimum talking about strengths, or more, or even…
      • Taking on the discussion of the whole goal
  • A small percentage of our students will learn to facilitate the IEP team process

This goal is in its infancy in Natick Schools and our first student-led IEP meeting at the high-school level will be held this month.

Engaging all Stakeholders in Leadership Conversations

“What if we transformed the hierarchical leadership structures into open conversations with all stakeholders in leadership conversations?

pasted image 0 (1)At Nipmuc Regional High School, just like with many traditional high schools, we have leadership structures in place where traditional faculty meetings are held, as well as department chair meetings.  This year our school leaders decided to evolve teacher leadership opportunities by transitioning department chair meetings into lead learner meetings. Instead of the traditional hierarchical, department-based form of leadership, the monthly sessions now called Lead Learner Meetings  became open to all teachers as well as students to attend.  The time was re-structured as workshop sessions involving all stakeholder input, instead of a sit-and-get meeting format.  So far this year the topics of the Lead Learner Meetings have included:  Authenticity, Student Voice, Community Partnerships, Curiosity and Creativity, and Beliefs about Learning.

Building Pathways to Careers of the Future

“What if we create our own internship opportunities to provide students with on-the-job training while here in school?”

At Milford High School we are in the first year of our Business and Banking Program and third year of our Hospitality and Tourism Management Program.  In the Business and Banking Program we have opened a fully functioning bank branch of Milford Federal at the high school and first year students spend part of their day working in the bank and learning about all aspects of the banking business.  Second year students will participate in an internship at a business and have a similar hand-on authentic experience. Our Business and Banking Program is modeled after our Hospitality and Tourism Management Program where students engage in active learning experiences at the Doubletree and Courtyard by Marriott.  Students also attend field trips to cruise ships, airports, travel agencies, casinos, and hear presentations from professionals in the field. Both programs emphasize applying learning to real world settings and combining classroom and site based experiences to ensure both college and career readiness. Students appreciate observing and participating in the operations of a major hotel and learning about all aspects of the travel and tourism industry.  Our graduates from this program have gone on to pursue this field in college and some of our students joined our partners directly after graduation. We are continuing to explore similar partnerships with other industries that provide potential career directions or pathways for students that lead to college programs or directly to employment. The goal is to position students for success and to provide authentic real world experiences to enhance the education and learning that occurs in the classroom.

Redefining the Senior Year with Competency and Project-Based Learning

“What if our students were able to engage in real work that matters?”

At Natick High School, we have a visionary leader at the helm:  Principal Brian Harrigan. With a background in private industry business, he leads a socially responsive and forward school with an eye toward allowing students to do, as he says, “real work.” What “real work” means to our HS principal is that students should be engaged in community service or work within the community that actually transforms and adds value to it. We don’t just study civics, we do civics.  We don’t just teach social justice, we live that way and support our students to do the same.

To this end, we are considering a redesign to the senior year that demands students to go out in the world and make an impact.  Different from our current senior year experience, we are looking to expand the senior year internship to include a research project, community panel and mentorship opportunities.  While we don’t have all the details yet worked out, we believe that the student and the board they choose to which to be accountable will design how the student will be graded and therein, create a personalized, competency-based senior year curriculum.


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Source: Collective Genius by Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback, June 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review

Innovation is the intersection of purpose, rules of engagement and shared values which allow for creative abrasion, agility and resolution to occur (Truelove et al, 2014).  This post demonstrates the ways that educational leaders who are clear about their district’s values and purpose can innovate to meet the demands of a changing college, career and secondary school landscape.

SEL is More Than a 3-Letter Word: District approaches to intentional integration


Most educators would agree that social-emotional learning (SEL) needs of our students have been increasing in the last five years.  As we cope with how to better support our students to better develop their competencies such as managing emotions, building relationships, solving interpersonal problems, and making effective decisions, it is important that the concept of SEL does not become one more acronym of an initiative that is placed upon our shelves or worked into the schedule once a week.  

Schools need to think of SEL not as a new or additional initiative, but something that is woven into the daily fabric of all that we do in schools. Peter Greene wrote, “Just as some teachers try to accommodate for different learning styles, it’s helpful to remember there are different social styles.” This notion is impossible to refute. Jeff Veal said, “Not every kid has the same experiences, but every kids wants to be loved, accepted, affirmed and challenged.” These are not things that are “add ons” but these are things that need to be a part of every classroom and school. This is the heart of what SEL is all about!

media-20180225 (1)Additionally, it is important to partner with parents and local community groups to address social emotional learning.  Social emotional learning cannot rest solely on the shoulders of the schools and, indeed, the school’s success in supporting staff and students in SEL is enhanced by community understanding and participation.

There are helpful procedures and steps that districts can take to work deliberately on strengthen SEL in their systems.  

Step 1–Self-Assessment:  How do we know what our staff and student needs are?

media-20180225 (6)In order for teachers to lay the groundwork for embedding social-emotional learning into their classrooms, they must first have a sense of their own SEL competencies, because their own competencies will have a direct impact on how they work with their students.  Furthermore, they must understand how to best implement effective strategies to support their students competences.  Therefore, beginning a district SEL implementation process typically should begin with some self-assessment activities.  Our districts have used a number of SEL self-assessment tools to set the foundation for future work such as K-12 Insight Climate and Culture survey (Mendon-Upton Regional School District), Metrowest Health Survey Data (Ashland Public Schools and Mendon-Upton Regional School District, Milford Public Schools), and Panorama Survey (Ashland Public Schools).  

If a district was looking to dive deeper into the competencies and teaching practices, one tool that comes highly recommended was created by the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders, and is a tool for teachers to self-assess social and emotional instruction and competencies.  This self-assessment helps educators to reflect upon their current teaching practices that impact student SEL, as well as their own SEL competencies. Through a series of self-ratings, teachers can self-reflect on their social interactions, as well as their own competencies.  Here are a few examples from the tool to illustrate questions that teachers would rate themselves:

Student-Centered Discipline Examples:

  • I have discussions with my students about how and why classroom procedures are implemented.
  • I ask my students to reflect and redirect their behavior when they misbehave

Responsibility and Choice Examples:

  • I let my students help plan how they are going to learn in developmentally appropriate ways
  • I arrange experiences that allow my students to become responsible (e.g., classroom aides or jobs, peer tutoring, specific roles in group work)

Self-Management/Emotion Regulation Examples:

  • I effectively use multiple strategies (e.g., breathing techniques and mindfulness) when I have a strong emotional reaction in the classroom (e.g. stress, anger) when implementing social teaching practices.

Classroom Discussions (SEL Instructional Practices):

  • I help my students identify how to listen (e.g., tracking the speaker, making mental connections)
  • I help students learn how to respond to and learn from their peers’ contributions during a discussion.

Step 2–Communicating a Vision:  How do we prioritize and communicate our SEL integration plan to all stakeholders?

media-20180225 (5)Communication is one of the keys to ensuring that all stakeholders have an understanding of the goals and rationale for social emotional learning in one’s district, school, or community. This can occur in a number of ways including presentations, through building-based weekly or monthly emails and newsletters, as well as through social media.  It is important to present SEL as part of what you do and not just another new initiative that will eventually go by the wayside.  Any communication should incorporate how SEL becomes a part of school culture, curriculum, and how you operate.  Districts need to identify why they are making SEL a priority?


 In the Milford Public Schools we emphasized SEL as one of our four strategic focus areas that drives our three year strategic plan:

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According to CASEL Social Emotional Learning competencies include self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, social awareness, and relationship skills. How are these competencies integrated into school or district-wide expectations, practices and policies, and curriculum instruction?  In the Milford Public Schools we focused on developing SEL competencies in faculty and staff to ensure a welcoming and supportive environment for all students; increasing communication with families and the community; and building SEL skills and competencies in students to support both their academic learning and growth and emotional well being.  Whenever there is an event, highlighted project, or program we share that information with the community and all of our stakeholders.  Additionally, we linked our school improvement plans and budget proposals to the four strategic focus areas to ensure continuity and the integration of SEL as well as the other three strategic focus areas.  Again, the objective is to integrate SEL into what we do and make SEL what we are about.


Ashland is not any different than Milford. We too have incorporated SEL as one of our 4 improvement priority areas in our Blueprint for Continuous Student Improvement.

Our Improvement Priorities remain consistent from year to year. However, every summer at our retreat we modify or strategic actions based on the needs of our students, staff, and community.  The following is an outline of the Ashland Blueprint, which includes SEL priorities:

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Similar to Milford and Ashland, the Mendon-Upton Regional School District also included SEL into our district strategic priorities and action steps.  In particular, for this school year we identified one of our goals to be solely focused on social-emotional factors in our schools.  As a result of this priority, we are also a member district of the ExSEL Network, which is a resource that is helping us to improve and refine our SEL goals for future planning. To support this SEL goal, our district has had several years of ongoing professional development opportunities to create a supportive SEL culture.  Below includes our current descriptions of our current district SEL goal:

Strategic Objective:  Instructional Excellence

Goal 2:  Review, develop and implement supports for all students to promote social, emotional, and academic success.

Key Actions:

  1. By October 2017, a revised District Curriculum Accommodation Plan (DCAP) will be disseminated to faculty and staff, reviewed at a faculty meeting, and implemented district-wide in classrooms, child-study meetings, and in the Response to Intervention (RtI) process.
  2. By December 2017, complete an audit of K-12 support services.
  3. By January 2018, review and revise, the K-12 Response-to-Intervention (RtI) process at each level as needed.
  4. By June 2018 ensure that growth mindset messages/reminders are implemented at all levels:  elementary, middle, and high school.
  5. By June 2018, provide at least three opportunities for parents and community members to increase awareness of and ability to support students’ SEL needs.
  6. Throughout the 2017 – 2018 school year, build partnerships at every school level with outside mental health agencies to provide services to students and their families.
  7. Throughout the 2017-2018 school year, provide professional development to teachers, staff, and paraprofessionals in social-emotional learning.
  8. Throughout the 2017-2018 school year,  the District’s Health and Wellness committee will identify resources to promote social and emotional behavioral health.


In Natick, SEL is approached in strategic ways, with a slightly different focus–embedding SEL to other work ongoing in the district.  With social justice and service within the community as core values for our students, we attach our SEL learning to these core values.  We work with our SPARKindness community partners to develop programming for teachers, students and staff / the larger community, designed to promote SEL for all and develop resilient parents and students http://www.sparkkindness.org/.  Our high school has decided to focus on identifying and connecting trusted adults to all students. Our middle schools use advisories and mentor programs to encourage relationships and provide a warm, supportive ecosystem for learning and the cultivation of social emotional skills.  In addition, our work in building resiliency and understanding, the district has prioritized personalized learning goals that allow student to take more responsibility for their own learning.  District goals around student self-determination and student-led IEPs work hand and glove with our work on personalized learning, project based learning and individualized competencies enhanced by our blended learning instructional model.  Social-emotional learning, therefore, is at the core of our instructional model–the growing medium that allows students the most access to their zone of proximal development–the sweet spot of learning.  It is important to note, that even in a highly digital district like Natick, there is no substitute for the learning accelerator that is trusted relationships between adults and students.  They are the basis of all learning and the core of SEL.

Step 3–Programming for Staff:  How do we embed ongoing professional development for our staff?

media-20180225 (4)Schools have been doing professional development for several years in order to help staff be better equipped to understand and deal with the ever changing issues that face out students.

Professional development can be broken down into these categories:

Social and Emotional Issues that Students Face -DBT Training

-How to Support Those at Risk of Suicide

-Book Studies

Social Thinking Conference

-Second Step Social Skills Curriculum

-Zones of Regulation

Dealing with Anxiety -Jessica Minahan, strategies for working with students

-Book Study:  The Behavior Code

-Anxiety and School Performance (1/12/18)

Mindfulness -Mindful Mondays in schools


Mindful Educator Essentials (MEE)

Guest Speakers -Jessica Minahan

-Ken Ginsburg

-Lisa White – Mindfulness in the Classroom

-Dr. Robyn Bratica – Diagnosis vs. Classification

-Rebecca McCall, LMHC – Trauma-informed classrooms

-Pam Garramone, Positive Psychology

Building resiliency with students -Ken Ginsburg

-Growth Mindset

-Grit/Drive/Flow research by Duckworth/Pink/Csikszentmihalyi

Promoting Positive Culture -Seeds of Happiness

Building Our Kids Success

-School-based faculty t-shirts

-Increasing student voice

-Highlight student and faculty accomplishments through recognition programs or social media

-Certificates in Positive Psychology

Teaching about Service and Justice -Facing History and Ourselves

-Anti-defamation league

-Teaching Tolerance

-Community Service Learning

-Problem-Based Instruction/Project Based Learning

Step 4–Programming for Students:  How do we integrate SEL into our curriculum and our classroom lessons?

The CASEL website provides a very good framework and rationale for working with students with clear and admirable outcomes:

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The behavioral and academic outcomes of positive social behavior, fewer conduct problems, less emotional distress, and improved academic performance support positive school climates and cultures, college and career readiness, and a focus on the development of the whole child or student.  The accountability movement in education had a number of positive outcomes, but in many places de-humanized the educational process and many school settings.  Students became data points instead of the complex children with diverse needs and goals that educators know them to be through countless daily interactions.  A school culture that emphasizes SEL supports students in both their academic and social development and growth.
The CASEL website (https://casel.org/) is a great resource for developing SEL programming in your school, district, or community.  The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education also developed Guidelines on Implementing Social Emotional Learning Curricula that has a number of fantastic ideas and resources (http://www.doe.mass.edu/bullying/SELguide.pdf).  

Step 5–Evaluation:  How do we know we have made a difference?

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According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Guidelines on Implementing Social Emotional Learning Curricula these are some of the key outcomes of effective SEL programming or work in schools:

media-20180225(p. 4)

Based on these four broad areas of impact it is possible to measure the impact of SEL on several potential academic, behavioral, and emotional metrics.  One resource to consider is to check out the article by Susanne Denham which includes  several resources for how schools can measure the effectiveness of their programs. There are different resources in the article and schools must find the one that best fits their needs.

In Summary…

Social Emotional Learning is a growing movement in education across the country.  The best advice we can give to our colleagues about SEL is that how SEL is executed in a district should be highly tailored to the environment and school system.  As in many aspects of school system leadership, sensitive execution of SEL–execution that is not just an “add on” –another initiative added to educators’ already-full plates–is done best with strategic stakeholder groups.  Group planning with representatives from district constituencies ensures that the SEL “curriculum” and programs is a way of life instead of an add-on led by school-only partners.  In most cases, the very SEL practices put into play for students also benefit teachers and all adults involved in the lives of our students. Investing in SEL is an investment in the total community and builds the foundation of a strong learning culture.

Student Agency: How Will You Answer the Call for Change?


What Do We Know About Student Engagement?

Administrators often talk about the importance of student engagement for student learning and growth.  When walking through classrooms there is an enthusiasm and engagement in the learning experience that is easily observable in early elementary schools that does not occur as frequently at the secondary level.  In a 2013 article Jung-Sook Lee examined the relationship between student engagement and academic performance and found that behavioral and emotional engagement “significantly predicted reading performance” (Lee, Journal of Education Research, 2013).  There are many other studies that make similar connections.  Students who put forth effort and showed perseverance and felt a sense of belonging in the classroom performed better than their peers who did not.  The chart below was based on data from a Gallup Poll and posted in an Education Week article.  Student engagement seems to decline as students progress through each grade in school.  Clearly we need to address this issue, but what variables drive this decline (secondary school culture, instructional strategies, curriculum, school structure, educator expectations, student development, parent engagement, etc.).  Why does engagement dip at the secondary level for students?


Interestingly, in a survey done by School Administrator in May 2017, 95% of kindergarteners said they loved school compared to only 37% of ninth graders.  This almost correlates exactly to the percentage of students who feel engaged in the table above.  There are a few factors that may contribute to the love of school and high level of engagement kindergarteners have, which if continued through all grades may make a difference such as:

1) ensuring the curriculum is relevant and making impactful connections between the students and the content

2) student centered learning where the students are actively and collaboratively working with the content

3) leveraging technology to support and enhance the learning experience. 

This is often easier said than done, but some of the most dynamic educators in middle and high school are doing many of these things effectively and it is having a positive impact on student engagement, a student’s sense of belonging, and ultimately their learning.  At the core of this work is capturing student’s passions and empowering them to have more agency in their own learning.

What Do We Mean by Agency?

According to Hitlin and Elder (2007), there are four types of agency that people can exhibit:

  1. Existential agency:  The idea that all human beings have free will to exert influence on our world and environment around us
  2. Pragmatic agency:  Instances when people make choices in day-to-day decisions rather than following routines
  3. Identity agency:  When people take actions to maintain their social identities or how they are perceived by others.
  4. Life-course agency:  When people take actions in order to affect our future outcomes

In applying these constructs of what agency should look like into education, student-centered learning environments are places when students have control and autonomy in their learning.  Authentic student agency places students in the driver’s seat in actively seeking learning experiences, and having choices about how and where they will show mastery.  When students have agency, they have identified their purpose in their learning.  A piece of student agency, which is really easy to increase in school environments is to capture student voice.

Student Voice is a Form of Agency


Grace Knewton writes:

“Student agency refers to the level of control, autonomy, and power that a student experiences in an educational situation. Student agency can be manifested in the choice of learning environment, subject matter, approach, and/or pace. Authentic assessment, experiential or project based learning, and mastery-based learning all provide opportunities to increase student agency. With more student agency can come higher levels of engagement and commitment to the learning process.”

So why is all this important?

important-2794684_960_720Russell Burt speaks to the fact then when students feel empowered and enabled, they perform at a higher level. Mark Osbourne refers to the Quality Teaching for Diverse Students in Schooling: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES), in pointing out that students achieve at a higher level when they are allowed to control their learning and have a voice in it. As the Raikes Foundation concurs, students feel a greater sense of belonging in a school when they have they have a sense of belonging in a class. The Values Centered Schools discovered school agency, refers to empowering students through curriculum approaches that; engage them, are respectful of and seek their opinions, give them opportunities to feel connected to school life, promote positive and caring relationships between all members of the school community, promote wellbeing and focus on the whole student, relate to real-life experiences, are safe and supportive.” Ultimately, schools want students to be successful and feel like they belong. Student agency accomplished both of these in an engaging and powerful manner.

18210221868_cb2f8b2d60_bStudent Agency is not about about removing structure in the classroom, minimizing the role of the teacher, or not teaching the standards. There is actually greater structure in the classroom, more dependence on the planning of the classroom teacher, and greater detail in following the standards.  Two examples of creating space and time for agency are through makerspaces and genius hour/20%time.

Makerspaces: Creating Space for Agency

We asked Ashland High School’s Makerspace Lab teacher some questions about his class and student voice and agency and his answers are below.  If you are interested in more information on Makerspaces, Edutopia provides a great example of what a Makerspace Lab looks like. 

Question: How these classes actually require more structure not less?

“The concept of structure is possibly misleading. Students do have more freedom of choice in some classes (Student Technology Assist Team-STAT) and more directed lessons in others (Engineering the future). However, in both situations, students are given clear expectations on what they are going to be doing as students: problem solving. In order to do this, students must have a clear understanding of the structure of problem solving, and must approach each day with the expectation on fulfilling on the goals at hand.”

Question: What is the role of the teacher in the classroom?

“With this type of structure in place, the role of the teacher is that of lead learner. We challenge students in ways that also encourage teachers to grow and learn. We can demonstrate what we know, but we can also take on the task of showing students how to learn more, how to research, and take chances. The classes are designed to be open ended. If the teacher can provide guidance, ask questions, and help push students to push themselves, then the teachers and students are often finding high levels of success in developing new skills and gaining new knowledge.”

Question:  How all standards are addressed?

“Our classes tend to cross many curriculum areas, but the key focus depends on the class. In most cases we are covering appropriate Science, Technology and Engineering standards. This is done through a series of project based, or challenge based assignments. We do not rely on lecture alone, if at all. Instead, we expect students to experience the content. Based on “Activities before Content, Concept before Vocab”. Following up key lessons by discussing and highlighting what students just experienced and learned, they will then better grasp the concepts we are trying to drive home from the standards. We also cover the newly for Digital Literacy and Computer Science standards in the appropriate courses. These new standards lay a strong foundation for all students to walk out of high school with a basic experience and framework for technology use and computer science.”

Question:  How does student voice increase engagement and achievement?

“Students are the centerpiece of these courses. They are often the ones asking questions, designing experiments and pushing into new knowledge. Not every course in the space is the same though, and each course brings a different challenge for teachers and students. Therefore, it is critical that the teachers take the enthusiasm and voice of the student and help shape their questions and insights towards the goals of each course. STAT and our future course MAKE are examples of courses where student voice is not only important, it is vital to the design of the course and experience for the students. In this model, students determine their own trajectory, and find their learning takes shape organically. From each prior day experience, students shape new experiences that may or may not match their classmates. They learn by asking new questions each day. The teacher helps shape their learning by asking key questions along the way, and helping the students develop honing skills as they focus in on one task at a time toward building the bigger picture.”

Question:  Why do students love it?

“I always ask students what they think of this class and classroom. The number one thing they love is having agency over their learning. Even our most reticent students want to learn. They just don’t always want to learn what we want to teach them. Given the opportunity to work in a space like the Ashland Innovation Center, students are more empowered to make those decisions and then put their hands and minds to use making it happen.”


Genius Hour/20% Time: Creating Time for Agency

In addition to having a Makerspace and instituting district maker challenges, another approach to increasing student agency that the Mendon-Upton Regional School District (MURSD) has taken has been to provide students time to pursue their own learning interests through instituting a genius hour or 20% time into courses.  Genius Hour originated with Google, who allows its employees to spend 20% of their time on projects they are interested in.  As their employees work creatively on their own passion projects, many outcomes such as Gmail or Google News resulted from the 20-time projects.  These principles have transferred to the classroom when teachers set aside an amount of time for students to take on passion projects.  

Some examples of this in the Mendon-Upton Regional School District include a third-grade teacher who begins each Monday with Genius Hour time for students when they return from the weekend.  In the 8th grade history classes, they are taking every class on Mondays for the next three months for students to work on Genius Hour projects.  At the high school, one teacher took it one step further and created a course called Generation Think where students are able to pursue their passions for the entire course.  

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How Will You Answer the Call?

The chart above is one of many examples of how school leaders and educators can begin to move practice for our students.  This chart displays a continuum of choice from compliant participants to bold entrepreneurial students.  Where would you like your students to be on that continuum?

One approach to look for making change is through the question posed by A.J. Juliani and John Spencer in their book Empower,  “What decisions am I making for students that they could make for themselves?  In their book, they described that all of the learning decisions were made by the teachers:  “I chose the resources.  I chose the content. I asked the questions. I wrote the instructions. I managed the project progress.  I chose the tasks. I wrote the objectives.  I picked the standards.  I decided on the format. I determined whether or not the work was any good.”  

Think about the power of switching that role.  What if we switched all of those tasks to students?  What if students determined the questions being answered, the resources gathered, or what mastery would look like?  What if students were the agents of their own learning?

We leave you with this one question, if as educators we want to feel empowered in our classrooms, why shouldn’t we want the same for our kids? We hope you empower your students, give them voice, and take that risk.



Leading with Inclusion in Mind

Students Come First in Building an Inclusive Culture

–A Milford Perspective, Kevin McIntyre

1280px-US_Navy_100227-N-0995C-010_A_Sailor_reads_to_a_class_of_kindergarten_students_at_Iroquois_Point_Elementary_SchoolAn inclusive environment is so important for ensuring that all students are welcome and supported.  Inclusion is a word that is bantered about a lot in education and can mean different things to different people. My view is that inclusion needs to be an important part of what we all do as educators.  Inclusion is not an initiative or a program, rather it is an approach, a mindset, and a culture.  

I want to talk about two ways that our schools have approached inclusion with students with special needs and English learners.  At the high school I want to focus on the Best Buddies program and how it has positively impacted the overall school culture, and at our elementary schools I will highlight how our hiring practices and instructional delivery models are supporting inclusion for English learners.

The Best Buddies Program fosters and supports friendships between typically developing beststudents and students with intellectual developmental disabilities.  High school can be a socially challenging time for all students and Best Buddies helps to create a positive climate that is easily observable in the cafeteria, hallways, and programming.  More than 200 students participate in the Best Buddies program at Milford High School where students attend monthly dances, events, and outings.  Students build authentic relationships that often continue after graduation.  Our Best Buddies Program at the high school not only benefits the students with special needs, but also significantly benefits their typically developing peers and the culture of the high school.  This program complements Special Olympics and Unified Sports and provides a number of social opportunities, athletic experiences, and friendships.  These experiences have changed the outlooks and trajectories for many of our students.  This program has built a sense of true inclusion and all of our students look forward to the events throughout the year.

For the past several years approximately 40% of our entering kindergarten classes are English learners.  Initially students received a great deal of their programming in pull out English language development classes.  A large number of our students were being pulled out throughout the day and it was having a disruptive impact on their learning and social membership in their elementary classrooms.  This has made us rethink how we provide services and inclusion for English Learners.  One move we made was on the personnel side by only hiring dually-licensed EL and elementary teachers to provide more opportunities for English language development directly in the classroom.  This also allowed us to develop some partner classes that allowed switch models where native speakers and English learners would learn and experience most subjects together.  These models are continuing to develop and evolve, but we are seeing students experience more success with more of their EL services being provided directly in the classroom.

Access and equity go hand in hand with an inclusive culture.  All students need to feel like they are an important and a valued part of the school community.  As a school district and educators we continue to incorporate more inclusive practices into our schools and classrooms.  These practices help us provide more welcoming, accepting, and supportive environments for all of our students.

Inclusive Cultures Demand Committed Leaders

–A Mendon-Upton Perspective, Maureen Cohen

“It is the principal who will ultimately make or break a school’s ability to be inclusive and to transcend from the rhetoric of inclusion to the reality of embracing the full range of students with and without disabilities as members of the general education learning and social community” (Causton and Theoharis, 2014, p. 2).

As Causton and Theorharis (2014) outline, establishing and sustaining an inclusive school culture demands strong leadership.  Whether you are the superintendent of schools and trying to build an inclusive culture in your district, or a principal at the building level, true inclusion will not occur without your leadership.  It takes strategic planning, a clearly articulated vision, and shared values to drive the decisions that build an inclusive culture.  The following are some steps that a building or district leader should take to lead a shift towards increased inclusion.

1.  Identify your Values about Inclusion

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The first step in leading with inclusion in mind is to identify your core beliefs and values about what inclusion means to you as an educational leader.  You will be tested in this process and these values will drive your decision-making moving forward.  In thinking about your own values consider the following questions and what you would need in your school environment to make these beliefs take hold:


  • Do you believe that every student can and will learn and succeed?
  • Do you believe that each student has unique contributions to offer other learners?
  • Do you believe that we are all enriched by diversity?
  • Do you believe that students are best served in the least restrictive environment?

2.  Setting an Inclusive Vision

The second step in leading with inclusion in mind is to expand those core beliefs, and to engage stakeholders in a visioning process for what your goals are for an inclusive school environment.  This is your “stake in the ground” moment as a leadership team because your values and decisions will be challenged along the way.  However, by having a well-communicated vision, your district will keep moving in the right direction for your students.  In my district, this has been part of our five-year district strategic action planning process and has driven our decision-making ranging from new staffing and professional development to related service providers and scheduling decisions.

3.  Examine your Current Structures and Staffing

Once a vision is established, the leadership team must examine current structures to identify whether it meets the goals for inclusion.  In our district, we examined our service-delivery grids, I.E.P. processes, room locations, and personnel.  In particular, we determined that we would develop co-teaching instructional teams of general educators and special educators.  As a result there we identified a need to both reallocate staffing and bring in new staffing.  We added a number of special education teachers over a few years to establish co-teaching teams across grade-levels.

4.  Build Capacity in an “All Hands on Deck Model”

handIn addition to adding or reallocating staff, it is important to look at all of your staff to identify new configurations that create an environment where all hands are on deck to support all of our students.  In the past, special education students were relegated to separate settings to only be supported by special education teachers, but through an inclusive model all students are our students.  We must move our cultures away from “your students” or “my students” to a culture where they are all our students.  In doing so, we look at all of our staff members including academic tutors and paraprofessionals to maximize our personnel resources and create an environment where we can reduce adult: student ratios and increase student support. For this to be effective, it requires a lot of capacity building and ongoing professional development in inclusive instructional practices.  In our schools we have co-teaching mentors who train new co-teaching teams, as well as ongoing inclusion professional learning communities that meet monthly to share resources.

It takes time, strategy and effective leadership to create a systemic shift towards increased inclusion, co-teaching teams, and ongoing professional development for teachers and staff, but the social, behavioral, and academic gains have proven to be immediate as a result of this shift.

Building Inclusion Throughout the Community

–An Ashland Perspective, Paul Vieira

Love, Inclusion, and Trust

Last month we had Jamele Adams come to speak to our high school students and parents. He delivered a powerful keynote address centered around an acronym he created L.I.T. which stands for Love, Inclusion, and Trust. He is a believer, as am I,  that when we come together we are truly limitless in what we can accomplish. In order to create an inclusive climate in our schools it is critical that we include our community in our discussions. During Jamele’s keynote, he highlighted the following:


love-2611967_960_720-Love is at the core of everything we do and feel passionate about

-If we have love we do not want to see anything or anyone fail

-We want to nourish it and see it succeed

-If there is a challenge we will meet it and work through it


-Inclusion is what keeps us togetherinclusion-2728130_960_720

-It does not feel good to be left out

-We must remember to include everyone



Trust-Trust is the byproduct when love and inclusion are present

-When you have trust you allow yourself to recognize that you are part of something much larger than yourself

-You feel valued and have a voice

-You are willing to sacrifice for the greater good

Regardless of our role in a District, we are all responsible for creating a LIT culture across our schools. Bus drivers, custodians, secretaries, cafeteria workers, para-professionals, teachers, and administrators all play a key part in creating this culture. As leaders we want our entire school community to feel included. That word “inclusion” is packed with meaning and some people may believe that it is overused and become somewhat of a cliche at this point. But I challenge you to think differently. At our core, we all want to be included and feel like we are a part of something. If that is true for us as adults, it is even truer for our kids. As we think about creating an inclusive culture in our schools, we must do so for ALL of our students, across ALL settings. It is our job and it is our responsibility. Our kids deserve it.

So, I ask each of you to create a L.I.T. culture in your schools. Love what you do and feel passionate about your beliefs and core values, include everyone all the time, no matter what, and have trust. With all three you are LIT and you can and will do great things! And remember that it does take a village.

Extending Inclusion into the Larger Community

–A Natick Perspective, Anna Nolin

Schools are strong purveyors of values in a community.  That is why, in the discussion of inclusion, the schools are often looked to take the lead in difficult times. The past year has been a challenging one for our country in terms of various, much-publicized incidents that involve issues of social justice. As the media swirls during these moments, school systems and other community outlets have often been called upon to make formal statements of values to counter these incidents and make local sense of the news cycle. It is important that the the school values around social justice, inclusion, and equity are made clear through such statements in difficult times. However, while we communicate when we believe it will assist in understanding or reducing fear, schools need to recognize the need to share a wider overview of work and values in social justice and inclusive education to demonstrate to all community constituents–on a regular and ongoing basis–what inclusion means to education every day.  Schools need to ask themselves if their messaging, curriculum decisions, hiring, and induction practices are steeped in inclusive values of the system.  

  • Can children hear inclusive messages in what they read? Study? In how they see themselves portrayed in media and texts?
  • Do they have a voice to discuss their concerns?
  • Can the community see your values in action beyond just being stated in your mission statement or on your district letterhead?  
  • Are your district school staff and principals collaborating with key constituents and groups in the community that inclusive practices can be observed?


Social justice education as part of the curriculum schools deliver every day and how leadership conducts its collaborative business plays a major role in sending a message about inclusive schools. The manner and method of teaching and involving the community in the teaching of humanities, civics, critical thinking, reading, and writing–and doing so in meaningful ways that resonate with our students–places inclusion at the heart of what we do:  teaching and learning.

Giving staff, students and community members alike training from organizations like the Anti Defamation League, Facing History and Ourselves, Northeastern’s MVP program, Open Circle and Primary Source ensure educators PK-12 are trained in cultural competency and social justice themes and ideas so they can live the inclusion ethic in how they structure conversations with students, how they address themes of social justice and conflict in students’ daily lives, and how they choose materials for use in their classes.  

Recently, during these difficult times in our education communities, two of us have begun partnerships with inter-faith clergy and community organizations to develop (Community of) United groups.  These groups serve to create a mechanism for schools to collaborate with other key community groups to systematically carry forward the message of inclusion and equity across our towns.  These are not small acts –joining together in this way takes the onus of responding off of any one cultural institution and aligns a community around inclusive core values.  

“If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.”

 African Proverb

Building Leadership Capacity One Teacher at a Time: Unleashing the Teacher Leadership Bench

“The giant resource of teacher leadership must be unleashed in support of school change.” (Katzenmeyer & Moyer, 2001, p. 16).

As district leaders, one of the most important functions of our roles is building leadership capacity across our school districts.  When we begin each school year, set goals, and therein set in motion the work of the year, it is important to consider how we will feed and fortify the culture while we ask the organization to implement new initiatives.  Each of us hopes that the work we do, the initiatives we implement and the culture we cultivate lives beyond our tenure or beyond the goal cycle on which we are currently working.  In order to do so, we must deliberately consider how to build leadership capacity in our organizations. To that end, we share some thoughts on the topic.  We plan to explore how to identify and select potential leaders, distributive leadership, creating a leadership ladder, modeling and mentoring, and women in educational leadership.


Selecting your Bench

Leadership capacity building begins with selecting the right people to take on formal leadership and support roles.  

As Jim Collins described in his book Good to Great, it is essential to get the right people on the bus, if you want to steer your organization in the right direction.  In considering future teacher leaders to be on your bench, have you considered what you value in a teacher leader?  Which of the qualities below are your own non-negotiables?  Are there currently people who are in those positions, who do not meet your criteria?  

The following are a list of typical qualities of effective teacher leaders:

  • Ability to collaborate with others
  • Consensus builders
  • Respected by peers for instructional skills
  • Open-minded
  • Has positive relationships with others in school
  • Optimistic
  • Enthusiastic
  • Confident
  • Display initiative
  • Expertise in specialized areas such as curriculum, assessment, instruction, content, data analysis, etc.
  • Understanding of adult learners

Superintendents often lament that it is difficult to find quality candidates for building leadership openings.  This is partially due to the fact that we want our leaders to have all of the qualities and strengths that we see across the best leaders, which is unrealistic.  It is also a function of the nearly impossible expectations we can have for our leaders.  Building a “bench” of potential building leaders is important work for a district so that the vision, mission, and strategic plan can move forward without the disruptive stops and starts changes in leadership can sometimes cause.

Identifying, selecting, and supporting future leaders can be a tricky business.  Effective teaching practice requires a skill set from educators that can be different than what is necessary for successful leadership of a department, school, or district.  Leading educators and providing actionable feedback to adults can be very different than teaching and leading students.  For example, Milford Public Schools runs a seminar series that allows aspiring educational and instructional leaders to explore the roles, responsibilities, and realities of building and district leadership positions.  The honest conversations with their building and district leaders provide a window into the principalship and assistant principalship.  These programs led some teachers to pursue an administrative license program and others to reflect that either this was not the right time or the right path for them.  Both are equally valuable.  They also support aspiring school leaders in one district (and in some cases other districts) by allowing shadowing and practicum experiences.  These experiences, seminars, and conversations can also provide a glimpse for both the aspiring leader and the district in terms of fit at the school, district, and leadership team levels.

Leadership development can require you to self assess or assess the team.  When selecting your bench it is also important to hire people that complement your weaknesses. It is only natural to want to hire people like you, who may not threaten or challenge the way you think and lead. However, it is critically important to change this mindset and do the opposite. Eric Bloom writes:

Regarding hiring to your strengths, it’s of course, extremely important to always hire great people. However, if you only hire people that are just like you, namely with your strengths, weaknesses, experience, and perspective then you open up yourself and your department to:  

  • Quality issues caused by overall skill set deficiencies  
  • Reduced possibility of innovation due to a lack of team diversity  
  • Experience and knowledge gaps in potentially important functional areas  
  • Reduced team flexibility caused by all of the above

As Lolly Daskel writes, “There is a great difference between knowing yourself and understanding yourself. Take the time to reflect on what your deficiencies are and what you need in a particular position on your team and go out and hire the best people to fill that role.”  This type of introspection can be challenging and requires vulnerability and honesty.


Distributing Leadership

Those on the bench and those who might have potential to sit on the bench in the future need to be given agency and opportunity to participate in leadership work even if they do not hold the “formal” role.  


In order to be an effective leader and grow an organization, you must build your bench and empower others. It takes a strong leader to get others to join your team and help you accomplish your mission and implement your vision. The above graphic helps to illustrate many attributes a leader must possess in order to create that capacity in a school to have others want to participate in the vision. What do each of these 10 traits mean do you? How do you personify them in your school day?

Outlining Your District’s Career Ladder

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 11.38.20 AM

All staff, from day one of their time in your organization, should know the leadership steps and ladders available to develop themselves in your district.  Is this discussion part of your hiring process?

Part of your new staff orientation?

Part of your on-boarding/induction programs?

If not, it should be!

Defining options for all types of leaders and learners in your district ensures that more people share the leadership vision for the district and see themselves as having a place and a future place within the organization.  

Defining options for growth and development mean that district leadership can be owned across more sectors and generations of the district.  When Collins talked about seats on the bus….people need to know what seats exist so they can understand where to sit!

Guiding Questions

In helping to build your district’s leadership ladder, it is important to provide guidance to your potential teacher leaders as they consider new opportunities.  Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf, in their book Lead Like a Pirate, talk about knowing when to take the leadership leap. Not only must you know the steps to take, but you need to know if you are ready for the leap; both go hand in hand. The following questions by Burgess and Houf are helpful guiding questions to consider before taking a leap:

  1. What is the purpose for wanting to make the leap?
  2. Are you moving into a situation that matches your passion and workstyle
  3. Who will this position change the quality of your life?
  4. Do you have supports in place to make this leap?
  5. Are you making the leap to have a greater impact of students or for personal gains
  6. What does your intuition tell you?
  7. How does your district systematically provide support for those making the leaps?

It is critical for teachers to answer these questions before moving up the ladder. Doing it for the wrong reasons can be disastrous to kids and to themselves personally.

Modeling and Mentoring

In the leadership realm, in corporate, creative and educational settings, the research literature on the power of modeling, mentoring and being “tapped” by a model leader for mentoring and leadership capacity building within an organization is deep.  

Modeling and mentoring are a deliberate process. It’s not enough to just have a newer leader observe and follow a more seasoned leader around.  There have to be conversations asking the leader to break down the layered and often internally-conducted processes of leading.  Demystifying the leadership process, having leaders break down their frameworks for thinking, ethics, sharing or decision-making help newer leaders use leadership templates from mentors to help shape their own emerging leadership repertoires.


Developing future educational and instructional leaders is important and essential work for current leaders both at the building and district level.  Schools require leadership focused on student growth and learning in positive and supportive school cultures. Identifying and providing opportunities for potential leaders within your district not only supports the career growth for these aspiring leaders, but it also can provide the continuity that supports success for your schools and district.  Allowing these leaders opportunities to engage in authentic tasks and make mistakes to reflect upon, further builds a culture of continuous learning, failing forward, and reflective practice.  

A Word from A Women’s Perspective on Capacity Building, Modeling, and Mentoring

      By Anna Nolin and Maureen Cohen

Research and popular media portrayals of women in leadership indicate that women are not tapped for leadership positions.  This is also true for women in educational leadership positions.

In fact, evidence indicates that at the superintendent level women participation is also significantly less than male counterparts. In a 2015 study of superintendencies by AASA, they found that only a quarter of superintendents were female.  Additionally, the study analyzed whether superintendents were hired from within the district or from a different district and determined that males were hired from inside their district at higher percentages than female counterparts.

Some reasons cited for this gap of women in leadership roles include:

  • Longer time spent by women in the roles as teachers than men, and a more diverse route taken to leadership positions than men
  • Many women choose to pass up opportunities to take on leadership roles due to a growing family
  • Underlying bias about what leadership should look like

Keeping all of this in mind, what can we do in our capacity building to ensure that we are encouraging and mentoring women to take on leadership roles?  

“Here is our story.” 

First, we had many mentors along the way who tapped us for leadership positions.  They literally tapped us on the shoulder and said, “You’d be great at this role, why don’t you try it?”  Maureen stills remember the moment one department chair handed her an application in the hallway and said, “You need to apply to be part of this leadership cohort.” Anna similarly remembers her director of human resources insisting she be included in principal training, leadership meetings and strategic planning conversations because he knew the district would benefit, even when her principal said he felt she should have children first and then consider leadership roles.

Second, women leaders need to build a network of support for younger women who might aspire to leadership positions.  

Maureen:  One of my greatest mentor is a colleague on this blog, Dr. Anna Nolin.  It was in my leadership cohort that she stood before me and shared her own research on how women can have a family and be a leader and be great at both.  It was because of her, that I learned that I did not have to put my career on hold just because I was having a family.  Men didn’t do that, why would I have to?

Anna:  Dr. Maureen Cohen and I have worked to capitalize on the network idea and have created a small women’s superintendent support network in our region.  This group is important to us and in our meetings, we are able to explore topics and needs we may not be able to explore within other state and district leadership meetings.

Third, women need to be offered a seat that the table.

Anna:  This is critical….like Maureen, I have been the beneficiary of many mentors who tapped me on the shoulder (men and women) and men who made a space for me at the right meetings, on the golf course and in training to lead in all aspects of the district.  Often times women suffer a confidence issue because there are not other women or few other women at the meetings to provide support or encouragement.  So being offered the seat and invited to participate, the confidence boost is there.  My current boss is masterful at this–he consistently puts me (and others he mentors) first to speak or points out the strengths we might have relative to the conversation or ideas at hand and generally makes it easier to be confident.

Maureen:  Not only do they need to be offered a seat that the table, but they also should be given a voice.  Sometimes a little bit of encouragement can go a long way in giving new women leaders the confidence they need to lean in and share their knowledge and opinions.  I have benefitted from people who have encouraged me after meetings by saying, “You should contribute more often to the conversation, as you have a lot to share.”  

We hope that you consider these personal reflections as a window into our personal experiences in leadership as you grow your own leadership ladders in your school districts, keeping in mind the importance of fostering women leaders in your process of unleashing your leadership bench.


The Power of Relationships

 “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” — James Comer

Coffee and Relationships:  Why Both Matter!

coffeeThere was an idea over morning coffee, maybe not a great one, but an idea; what if I was to get a group of colleagues to collaborate on a monthly blog. Would it work? Would people read it? Would there be value in it? Hey, at the very least it would be a reason to get together over dinner and exchange some ideas and catch up on the month. I had written a few blog posts throughout the summer and have read hundreds throughout the years. I have always found them to be insightful and thought-provoking and I always chuckle when someone would retweet or like one of my posts. It was an acknowledgement of what I said mattered or resonated with someone. So I floated the idea, and it was met with a resounding YES! We met over dinner, came up with a group name (very important), a catch phrase (Collaborative Reflections from Passionate Leaders), and decided on our first topic. What follows are our collective reflections on the importance of relationships as we start the school year.

The Power of What You Value

One of my tasks each year is to meet with new teachers at the start of the school year. Each of us in our roles as leaders has the chance to spend time with new teachers to kick off the school year. I truly enjoy this part of my job. It is an opportunity to welcome them to my district and community. They are eager to get to their classrooms and get started, but it is important for us to spend time as a group sharing our vision, team building, and getting them ready to start the school year off correctly. This introductory meeting is step one in building relationships with teachers and having them see the power of relationships.

How do you introduce your teachers to your district and school?  How do you share your values and beliefs with them?
'Worth' highlighted, under 'Value'Last week we had our new teacher induction program for almost 20 new teachers. As I spent time over the summer preparing for this introductory meeting, I made sure the focus of the time we spent together was centered around the importance of building relationships; this was critical to me. We did various team building activities to help staff get to know each other and also to help them begin thinking about what matters to them as teachers and educators. These activities helped people to get to know each other, think about their own core values and beliefs, provided them with some practical examples to implement with their students, but also focused on the importance of building relationships with kids. As we all know without those relationships being built and formed limited learning can occur. As Rita Pierson so bluntly put it, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”

How do you build relationships with you students on day 1…day 2…throughout the year?
importantAt the end of the first day,  I did an exit ticket with teachers and asked them for their takeaways. When I asked for a volunteer to share out, one hand went right up and said, “The Ashland Public Schools places significant value on building relationships with kids.” My mission was accomplished; they got it! As we start the school year, get to know kids, share something about yourself with them, show them you are human, make those connections, and build those relationships. The time you spend the first 3 days doing that will positively impact the other 177.

The Power of Your Name

Remember when you were in your own middle school years?  I can remember it like it was yesterday.  I was incredibly nervous upon entering my junior high school for the first time.  However, one person stood out, whose priority was making his students feel warm, safe, and welcomed, and that was our principal, Mr. Joseph Bishop.  He knew that the foundation of building a safe and welcoming environment for students was to connect with each student with intentionality, beginning with their name.

“Good morning, Mo!” he declared with a big smile as I entered school.

bishopYou see, Mr. Bishop used to stand outside my school entrance and every day as we entered the school as shy, slightly uncomfortable, awkward pre-teens, he would greet us with a big smile, give us a hello, and use our name.  I remember the first time he called me by my name,  and thought “How does he know who I am?”  When I realized he knew every student’s name…I was in awe.  Completely in awe. Thirty years later….I’m still talking about Mr. Bishop, a celebrated Gardner, MA  principal for over 25 years, because he took the time to learn my name.  

Many years later, at the age of 23, I started my own teaching career in an urban Massachusetts high school.  At this school, I had a morning duty in a hallway and was overwhelmed by the hundreds of students who passed me by and a veteran teacher provided me with some sage advice, which echoed the practice of Mr. Bishop years ago:

 “You have to learn their names, use their names, every time you see them, without fail.  It makes all the difference that you are noticing them and showing you are caring about them.  Even when they look away, or try to avoid you. Use their names. It shows that they matter.”

These stories came up in our new teacher orientation this week in Mendon-Upton, where we discussed the significance and impact of learning students’ names on the first day of school to build connections.  I asked our new teachers to picture in their mind someone who is really charismatic, warm, endearing, and fills the room with joy.  The kind of person you just want to be around.  Everyone closed their eyes and could quickly pinpoint THAT person in their mind.  

storyWhat qualities do these people exhibit?

  1.  They use your name, frequently.
  2.  They ask you questions about your life and they want to hear YOUR story
  3.  They listen with intentionality
  4. They provide positive feedback

What if we were THAT person for all of our staff and students?  What if we are Mr. Bishop standing at the doorway everyday greeting every student by name?  What if we are the teacher truly getting to know their students and take time to learn their stories? What if we are the building leader who listens with intentionality?  How far will a little positive feedback take our students?  

This year, the challenge is to be THAT person, for every child, on every day.

The Power of Community Learning

If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.

 –African Proverb

communityIn my role as assistant superintendent for teaching, learning and innovation, I am often asked what I do in my school system to help educators “innovate.”  The answer is not a sexy, shiny, high tech idea.  It’s a rather old-school one, but most important in a day and age when society defaults toward division, specialization and over-reliance on technology to do what people should still be doing.  Cultivate an authentic community of learning and you’ll find the ideal conditions to brew innovation–which I define to mean making adaptations in our profession that yield higher results for students in a more creative and satisfying manner than before.

There is no substitute for the learning relationship that exists between teachers and students and that relationship is enhanced when the teacher is part of a professional learning community (PLC) that moves beyond calling itself a PLC in name only.  The conditions for the highest quality teaching and the most innovative teaching are simple to recreate as noted in the graphic above.  A sense of community is established when, as Hill, Brandeau, Truelove and Lineback (2014) indicate, there is a clear sense of purpose within the learning organization, there is agreement on the what and why of shared values and the norms for engaging as professionals are defined.  These are simple ways to ensure that staffers can collaborate with each other in meaningful ways and in doing so create the most innovative learning environments for kids.  Innovation, therefore, rests on relationships.

Relationships Really Really Matter:  Treat People Well, Be Kind, and Listen

Relationships matter almost more than anything else.  Education at its core is a people business, and at the core of human interactions are relationships.  I once read somewhere that people do not really remember what you say (which in my case is often a very positive thing); they remember how you treat them.  It can be very powerful to purposefully treat everyone well.  This sounds easy, but when you are faced with competing priorities and multiple deadlines it can be challenging.  In education, particularly in larger schools or school districts, it can be very easy to forget that every student is the most important person in someone else’s life.  In the age of big data and data driven instruction the recent push for social emotional learning is a positive and important movement that is essential to teaching and developing the whole student. Every teacher is potentially a partner, parent, brother, sister, best friend, aunt, uncle, or grandparent.  This makes every teacher also the most important person in someone else’s life.  So the conclusion is clear, everybody is important and we need to treat them like they are important and treat them well.  If we all focused on this simple premise a little more our schools would be better places where positive interactions with others and customer service were an expected norm.  

The Dalai Lama said, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”  

Every interaction can be driven by kindness.  There are simple things we all can do to build relationships, make those connections, or show some kindness.  Sometimes we all forget a simple hello in passing, asking about someone else’s day or about some key aspect of their work can have an impact.  It does take a little effort, but the payoff is well worth it.  That being said, kindness should not be seen as transactional and a calculated game of quid pro quo.  This becomes quickly apparent if there is a lack of sincerity.  If you are kind to others the benefits will come back to you in building and supporting a positive climate and culture.    


In my role as superintendent I do a great deal of listening.  I regularly attend large, small, and individual meetings and listen to proposals, issues and problems, conflicts, new ideas, and for many other purposes.  It is very easy to become inattentive and drift to emails, texts, or social media.  It is much more effective and often more difficult to focus and listen attentively; but this is also when the best outcomes occur and the most positive relationships develop.  Active listening is becoming more challenging in the age of digital distractions.  As a leadership team we are all making an effort to be present and engaged during our meetings, and I am hoping this carries over into all meetings.  There are also times when the problem is not really solvable but just hearing someone can have a positive impact.  Sometimes just listening is enough and that is all a person needs.    

So to summarize, treat people well, be kind, and listen.  These three things can provide support and build positive relationships with others.  These are also things that are being taught in preschools and kindergartens across the country; the more we internalize those early lessons, the better off we will be.

Never Underestimate the Power of a Positive Relationship

I was lucky enough to spend the majority of my summer weekends on the Cape. Labor Day is always the symbolic end to summer. The air is different, days get shorter, nights get cooler, kids and teachers are back to school. This weekend was my “last weekend” on the Cape. Sitting with friends by the fire on Sunday night, they asked how the start of the school year had gone. I told them fantastic and gave them some highlights of the first week. As the conversation shifted, I had the moment to reflect on the start of the school year. Fresh starts, hope, optimism are just some themes that came to mind. But seeing the kids faces as they came off the bus, greeted by friendly and familiar faces of principals, assistant principals, teachers, staff, and faculty, I was reminded of the importance of relationships.

Good luck to everyone as we begin the 2017-2018 school year and remember to never underestimate the power of a positive relationship.