Margaret Raymond Driscoll is a nine-year Melrose School Committee member who is passionate about excellent teaching and learning for all public school students, and considers it a privilege to collaborate with others who share that passion. You can also follow her on Twitter at @MargaretDrisc. Just to be clear - opinions expressed here do not represent those of the Melrose Public Schools, the Melrose School Committee, or the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials - they are hers alone.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

City Wide PTO: 12/9/14

Tuesday morning’s City Wide PTO meeting began with the Superintendent’s report, and she spoke to issues as requested by members and placed on the day’s agenda. She provided a copy of the 12/8 letter to elementary parents that spoke to Ethics Commission regulations around gift giving to teachers. (Please see the principal if you have questions.) Gifting can be done in different ways, individually to a teacher, as a class gift to a teacher, or as a gift to the school. She is working with the Melrose City Solicitor to develop language around gifting, since school gifts must be accepted by the School Committee. Class or school gifts (not individual gifts) are the property of the school, not the teacher.

Next, Supt. Taymore addressed policy and practice regarding holidays and observances. She provided a copy of the Committee’s new policy (Policy IMD, posted in the District Policy Manual in the Committee portion of the school web site). She then addressed a question around middle school dances, indicating they are not school functions. Flyers distributed regarding the dances are no different from other flyers representing non-profit organizations and events – she approves most of those while declining to approve for-profit flyers for distribution to students.

Supt. Taymore then provided an Aspen update. Teachers are 90% trained in the “Pages” portion of the software, where there is a place for homework, etc. (If teachers already have web sites set up for students, they just need to link to them from Aspen rather than create an entirely new page.) It is intended that Pages will take the place of elementary newsletters since the newsletters are so time-consuming to create. All schools except for Horace Mann have an Aspen mentor to support teacher training and coaching in buildings. The ECC doesn’t use Aspen because student names aren’t in the system, but teachers there are doing an excellent job communicating individually. It is expected that technical issues around grading (e.g. a grade like 85% might be entered by a teacher, but Aspen could convert it to 100% so it is misrepresented for parents/students) will be addressed by Aspen technicians in January (who are likely finding this problem in other districts too).

Finally, Supt. Taymore addressed questions about communication in the district. She explained that it is a theme for the staff this year. Parents want consistent information about topics coming from all schools, e.g. if a teacher will be out for an extended period, please indicate what will happen, when, etc. The district works to balance confidentiality vs. helping parents understand how to support their child during a transition time and the Supt. will talk about this with the Leadership Team. The other theme for the year is cultural proficiency as we have a population that is growing in diversity. Administrators are working with teachers to support the embedding of thoughtfulness and proficiency in daily teaching, including lessons, materials, and current events (e.g. how do teachers respond to student/class questions about Ferguson?). There are strict laws (and moral responsibility) around non-discrimination including race, but also religion, economics, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. (Note: to see Committee Non-Discrimination Policy, please look in the Policy Manual for policies AC and ACA.)

After Supt. Taymore’s departure, members offered communication suggestions for the School Committee, including making more use of Facebook (for things like results of the school funding survey, notice of upcoming meetings and agendas, what kinds of things can parents impact like the Fine Arts Director, etc.). They said that the changes to last year’s budget process were helpful, and they would like even more information and understanding this year.

Calendar notes: The ECC is working to fund a new playground, jump-started by a $10K grant from the city. (Their goal is to raise $30K by 4/15/15.) Community Reading Day is scheduled for 3/4/15. Trivia Bee is 3/28/15.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Curriculum Materials Working Group: 12/8/14

In February 2013, Supt. Taymore initiated formation of the Curriculum Materials Working Group, facilitated by Asst. Supt. of Teaching Dr. Margaret Adams, and composed of elementary, middle, and high school teachers and administrators along with a School Committee member. Our charge was to review curriculum materials that were recommended for purchase (using both district and money that was bonded by the city) and vet them based on criteria such as curriculum documentation (like topic outlines), how assessments inform instruction (e.g. if students aren’t understanding, content needs to be taught differently), accessibility and implementation of technology components (is the book online? can students study using online quizzes?, etc.), professional development training and help (helping teachers learn how to make best use of the book/tests/etc.), and whether the materials support differentiation and advanced learner needs (is there help to modify teaching the topic to help students who struggle and also challenge students who need more rigor?). Content area department chairs presented their recommendations for the courses most in need of new materials, and after agreement that the recommendations met the criteria, they were purchased. Those materials are now fully employed in classrooms.

This year’s work has centered on instructional practices (e.g. teaching strategies). We met most recently this past Monday, and spent the majority of time working with Gr. 6-12 English Department Chair Angela Singer, who built on past information presented by Math Dept. Chair Christina Cardella, on Understanding By Design or UbD, a framework developed by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. (More info here: http://www.authenticeducation.org/ubd/ubd.lasso.) The primary goal of UbD is “student understanding: the ability to make meaning of “big ideas” and transfer their learning.” Teachers are “coaches of understanding, not mere purveyors of content or activity.” Lesson planning is done “backward from the desired results.” Ms. Singer shared staff work related to applying this philosophy and practice in 10th grade English; for example, looking at a unit on “Viewing Ourselves and Others” that includes learning new literary terms, “discussing how events in a person’s life affect his or her perspective,” reading a selected work like To Kill a Mockingbird, and then engaging in activities that might include writing an essay analyzing relationships in the book, annotating the text, writing a dialectical journal, and/or using a learning practice like “Turn and Talk” where pairs of students share thoughts specific to the lesson with each other. Learning in this way makes the work meaningful to students (engaging them and helping them become more responsible for their own learning) while providing them the skills and abilities required by the state. Teachers are working incredibly hard to develop lessons structured in this way, using planning time and staff meetings (and arguably some personal time!) in the interest of helping students maximize their academic potential. Outstanding work by our teaching teams and leaders!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Forum on Student Stress at MHS: 12/8/14

Good start to the discussion around student stress last night. Thanks to the MHS PTO for getting this issue on everyone's radar in a focused way and organizing; the panelists who added insight to concerns; and the parents, students, and teachers who attended and participated. Some highlights:

* Student stress is not just a Melrose issue - it is becoming more commonplace in all districts
* The community should have an opportunity to learn about the state/federal mandates that become criteria for determining how school schedules are built and courses are determined
* Winchester is employing mitigations that include things like raising awareness, incorporating information in health/wellness classes, and providing coping mechanisms like yoga instructors, meditation, etc.
* The goal for appropriate student scheduling should be based on student growth vs. competition between/among students or the desire to "get into a good college" (since that is subjective depending on what slots the college admissions office needs to fill based on their business model)
* The district is responsible for providing rigorous course and level opportunities, counseling students regarding appropriate course selections and placements, thoughtfully assigning and communicating homework, and suggesting resources if it's determined that a student needs more stress-related/emotional support
* Parents are responsible for exploring and prioritizing their child's needs and interests, working with school counselors to agree on a school schedule that balances those needs and interests, and watching for signs of stress that may be concerning
* Students are responsible for actively participating in decision-making around their schedules, saying yes to courses that reasonably challenge them, and saying no when they feel that the variety and/or depth of their participation in the sum of their activities needs more careful prioritization (e.g. a student might take a heavier course load and take on fewer outside activities, or a lighter course load and pursue a time-consuming passion outside the school day)
* Guidance will begin piloting small-group parent conversations on 12/16 - call MHS if interested
* Food for thought offered by administrators, parents, and students: * determine whether exams should be in full days or half days; * are there enough guidance counselors for the school population?; how does administration communicate expectations around rigor (the "why" in addition to the "what"); * administrators are learning that summer work for students taking many high-level courses is over-burdensome and are addressing it; * could school start later?; * students need help from parents to manage their time, get enough sleep, eat properly, socialize enough - most of all, parents need to listen to and talk with their kids; * could G block return to the rotation vs. being fixed?; * coaches/extra-curricular leaders should be consistent in their approach to supporting academics/not penalizing participants for choosing to see a teacher vs. being at practice on time, etc.; * can stress mitigations be built into students' days?; * middle school parents should understand what high school schedules look like and how to start thinking about appropriate choices
* This situation needs addressing by all parties, not just the school, the parent, or the student in isolation

My note: This forum focused almost entirely on academic stress, so when we continue this conversation perhaps we could expand our thinking to include complementary/different stressors students face, like economic pressures at home, dating and relationships, homelessness, and the unique challenges faced by METCO, new-to-America, military, and LGBTQ students.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Read this before you go to sleep.....

There are so many elements of the learning process that are out of parents' control, so it's nice to know there are a few left that are in our control. We need to get our kids to bed and to sleep in order to help them learn and remember.

This NYT's Motherlode blog post from 10/16 details what parts of the sleep cycle best support different types of retention - great advice when your child is finishing that last bit of homework (and simultaneously texting her BFF's) way after her regular bedtime.