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?”

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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 ( 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.

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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.

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.