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, April 28, 2016

Elementary School: Anxiety, Homework, Testing, Social Emotional Learning, and Play

Following my visit to the Early Childhood Center, I wanted to explore some of the same themes at the elementary level and had the privilege of visiting the Horace Mann School and talking with the principal, Dr. Mary Ellen Cobbs.

I asked Dr. Cobbs whether she’s seeing more anxiety in students than in the past and she said yes, explaining that when students struggle in this way, it’s often because of difficulty negotiating their environment (including challenges around social cueing). For Kindergartners, anxiety can be caused by not knowing the norms involved in a day’s schedule (particularly for children who have experienced a more flexible pre-K environment compared with children who experienced more structured early childhood routines). Some K-1 students are still trying to sort out the physical and psychological issues of a typical school day and can exhibit behaviors of tiredness or stimulation, although these behaviors tend to fade.  In that small population of older elementary students displaying anxiety, it’s often caused by outside stressors.

After discussions with parents at a PTO meeting last fall, Dr. Cobbs is establishing two new systems to help mitigate potential anxiety of incoming Kindergarten students and their families. First, she is instituting Kindergarten liaisons; a way for a more experienced parent to help acclimate a new parent and hopefully reduce some of the anxiety parents feel as they send their children to Kindergarten while helping children get to know some of the school norms.  Second, Dr. Cobbs worked with a team of kindergarten parents to design a “Frequently Asked Questions for Horace Mann Kindergarten.”  This collaborative document will be shared with incoming families and addresses everything from school routines/rituals to managerial issues such as adding money to a child’s lunch card. 

For students already in school, if parents are seeing anxiety at home around homework, she indicated that they should not insist on homework completion, but should contact the teacher and explain that the child struggled with the task.  “A general rule of thumb is to ‘call it’ after 20 minutes and contact the teacher so he/she can assist the child.  It is not the desire of our teachers to add additional stress or burden to the family, rather homework should be seen as a reinforcement and practice.” 

In the context of the anxiety discussion we talked about what kinds of testing elementary students currently experience. K-Gr. 5 teachers employ DIBELS (more here: https://dibels.org/dibels.html) to measure literacy skills three times per year, unless a student is struggling in which case they might be done more often. This testing takes approximately five minutes per student. K-Gr. 5 students also participate in a three times yearly common math assessment (i.e. the same math assessment across all grades in all schools). In the younger grades, the teacher reads questions to students to ensure understanding. In Gr. 1-5, students might have chapter tests in content areas; potentially a weekly spelling test etc. but Dr. Cobbs was clear that this is not like a high school test. The main purpose of these assessments is “progress monitoring,” which is used to check performance, measure improvement, and determine the effectiveness of instruction. The state-mandated PARCC testing occurs in ELA and math in Gr. 3-5 and science in Gr. 5 on a yearly basis.  While there is occasional anxiety noted around testing, the majority of students see these assessments as "just another test" and while encouraged to do their very best, are constantly reminded that success is not measured by one assessment.

Students receive instruction in social emotional learning (anxiety being one element) as part of the Incredible Flexible You curriculum, and students are supported by psychology and speech professionals as needed. As a district, a book study this summer will provide an opportunity for Melrose educators to learn more about anxiety in elementary aged students, and collectively discuss strategies around the issue in order to better support students in the future. 

Social emotional learning is also embedded in the school’s Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS), which is rooted in three core values: respect, responsibility, and safety.  (Student academic achievement as well as a celebration of these values occurs monthly in the whole school "What’s Up Wednesday Meeting.”) During the regular school day, if unacceptable behaviors are observed by staff members they may use teaching techniques to address them; for example employing a “recess round-up” to talk about a playground incident and help develop coping mechanisms. Educators may also combine elements of the Incredible Flexible You curriculum, the PBIS, and directed activities to address a situation, like reading a text that would invite the question “what could you do to avoid a conflict?” Teachers have learned these types of strategies in different ways including training by the school psychologist, having K- Gr. 2 teachers present PBIS lessons to Gr. 3-5 teachers, and peer coaching.

In the area of play, Dr. Cobbs noted that social skills are demonstrated and their development supported during various free play moments. Teachers can observe students and note how they are working together, etc.  For example, in the 10-15 minute “brain break” incorporated in a Kindergarten and Grade 1 day, children are coached in problem solving and turn taking, and provided examples of ways to deal with emotions, such as those around feeling left out. Coined “stealth learning,” students are constantly developing their skills and receiving ongoing constructive feedback as they play. The first few months of Kindergarten incorporate the shifting of students’ understanding between what might be acceptable in an individual setting vs. what might be necessary for a group in a school setting. (For example, a child with a parent might be alone on a playground and have unlimited access to a slide, engaging with it in any way the child chooses; while in a school setting with many children on the playground, the child must take a turn, move from the bottom so as not to block another child’s descent, etc.) In subsequent grades, morning “brain breaks” incorporate elements of structured play while unstructured play happens at lunch. Dr. Cobbs expressed much appreciation to the PTO, which has been very generous in their support of resources for play, including purchasing “recess bags,” some for indoors and others for outdoors. Another example of structured play, this time for K- 2nd graders, is the employment of singing and dancing to “amazing words”; typically three new words each day. Students learn the words to the tune of a familiar song, moving and processing at the same time allowing for a cross-curricular approach that supports content learning and recall. In addition, while not technically play, outdoor learning activities allowing more movement are incorporated into the school day when possible, for example, teaching young students how to make science observations through a neighborhood nature walk. Science instruction might also include an examination of tree bark or leaf structure, spending time in the Community Garden, or lying in the field sketching the sun’s position and shadows.

Dr. Cobbs and her peers are sensitive to the concerns of parents around anxiety, homework, testing, social emotional learning, and play/movement. Within the confines of covering necessary content within the context of an ever-changing landscape of state mandates, needs for teacher training in areas of social emotional learning, societal shifts, and other impacts on daily teaching and learning, administrators remain open to hearing the concerns of parents and welcome dialogue around children’s needs in order to successfully send them to their next learning adventure: Middle School.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Franklin ECC: Social Emotional Learning, Play, Homework, and Assessment

Over the past six months or so, I’ve heard questions and/or concerns about the role of social emotional learning, play, homework, and assessment in early childhood education. So I decided to find out more, recently meeting with Melrose’s Franklin Early Childhood Center (ECC) Director Donna Rosso.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Social emotional learning is the foundation on which education at the ECC is built. The Massachusetts Standards for Preschool and Kindergarten (http://www.doe.mass.edu/kindergarten/SEL-APL-Standards.pdf) are used as the basis for this teaching and learning, but the actual standards applied at ECC are higher than what the state recommends. The New Second Step Social-Emotional Skills for Early Learning curriculum is employed at the ECC and teachers and paraprofessionals have received training in its implementation throughout the 2015-16 school year. A Social Worker supports the staff and students 1 ½ days/week. All children at the ECC can benefit from SEL learning and practice – whether they have an identified disability or not. (For my other post referencing Second Step, please see 10/21/15.)

Play and Learning

There are different theories about teaching children, and the ECC in part uses a “constructivist” approach, which means that learners “construct” knowledge from their own experiences, applying their own interests. At the ECC, staff uses “intentional play” as a teaching approach. In all classrooms children have opportunities to engage in intentional play experiences throughout the day with many classes beginning their day with a 45 minute to an hour choice time. Among the many thematic play centers constructed each month in classrooms, students brainstorm together and talk about what their center should include. They agree on themes and find ways to explore them. For example, one classroom’s theme is outer space, so the children made a space ship out of a large appliance box, complete with inner workings made from a variety of household items (include everyone’s favorite household item – duct tape). Their art is space-themed and the books in the reading area follow the theme. One class decided to explore a “pet hospital.” Another class tackled a writer’s workshop, with one pair of students authoring and illustrating a book. Ms. Rosso says: “It is in play that children explore and learn about the real world.”

The outdoor playground is also focused on intentional play. Prior to its recent overhaul, staff observed that children were acting out behaviors they had seen in media. (Ms. Rosso commented that in America too much play is dictated by consumer driven media companies that focus on consumption of goods as opposed to productive play experiences, i.e. purchase a meal and receive a toy that already has a story to go with it; then the toy becomes stale because there is no imagination needed and a new toy must be obtained, at a cost, to replace the first). The playground was reimagined and built with each piece of apparatus designed to support the developmental needs of the whole child. There is a mini-theater where children can play at putting on a show, taking tickets or making popcorn. There are developmentally appropriate risk-taking experiences available that allow gross motor skills to be tested and improved (like apparatus that challenges balance in a safe and age-appropriate way).

In her community outreach, Ms. Rosso’s booth at the recent Birth to Five-sponsored New and Expectant Parent Expo provided “Alien Writers” to all children. On a bookmark-sized card attached to green net sparkly streamers, children could pinch the printed “alien” on the card between thumb and forefinger and use large arm motions to depict letters in the air, their movements waving the streamers. An engaging, developmentally appropriate, hands on writing activity like the “Alien Writer” is an example of play and learning together that is meant to avoid introducing young children to writing instruments and worksheets before they are developmentally ready. At the ECC, children are also provided opportunities to write letters in the sand, make them from Play-Doh, or “draw” them on a friend’s back, another way to use gross motor skills to learn until children are developmentally able to hold a pencil. These types of eye-hand coordination activities support the foundational skills of reading.

Unlike the past, many students now come to early childhood education with significant literacy and math knowledge but not all children have the same levels of understanding (and aren’t expected to). Whereas in the past, teachers held the philosophy that waiting until they were “ready” was the best approach to learning, the research shows that a better strategy is to employ “errorless learning,” where teachers help children find answers, then ask them again to assess recall and ensure understanding which reinforces content. Student use of letters and letter sounds is critically important to literacy growth. The phonics curriculum is Lively Letters, which incorporates a multi-sensory approach to letters and letter sounds and allows students to learn and show what they know in different ways. (ECC staff seeks and employs various ways to teach letters and recently parents got into the act. They dressed up as “vowel superstars,” with costumes including capes, star-shaped-sunglasses, etc. Students loved their active and engaging presentation, and eagerly had their programs autographed by the “vowels.”) Separately, when asked about homework assignments at the ECC, Ms. Rosso promptly responded: “reading every day for 20 minutes.”


When students enter the ECC, they experience different kinds of assessments, but not in the traditional way we think about assessments for older children. Ms. Rosso along with her Instructional Leadership Team has developed an Assessment Map, in other words, the baseline from which educators can target growth.  In their constant interaction, ECC educators observe things like whether a child recognizes letters, whether they recognize all the upper case letters enough to begin learning about lower case letters and letter sounds, etc. Simultaneously, educators look for patterns in social skills, pretend play, speech, and more. Progress reports (twice per year) reflect student understanding and progress, and ECC staff conducts conferences twice per year, partnering with families to support students in all areas of learning.

In sum, Ms. Rosso states that “the foundation of reading is through the development of oral language which often happens during play and social engagement,” and teachers and paraprofessionals are trained in this theory and practice through professional development funded by tuition and grants. By integrating social emotional learning into children’s days, students are developing routines allowing them to navigate classroom activities skillfully and more independently in order to improve their learning of content, and exercise more control over that learning, resulting in a more positive and productive transition to their next learning adventure: kindergarten.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Kindergarten Capacity, FY17 Meal Prices and Education Stations Fees, Budget, Business Management, and More: 4/12 School Committee Meeting

(Reminder: official minutes of the Melrose School Committee can be found on the melroseschools.com web site following approval by the Committee. My notes are below, and edits and errors are mine alone.)

Melrose Middle Schoolers kicked off the meeting for our monthly “School Spotlights” segment, speaking eloquently about their whole-school reading of Seedfolks (and resulting ELA work), along with a project-based learning approach to medieval manors including a “Gallery Walk” for students to view other students’ approaches to constructing a viable and sustainable manor.

The high school student representatives spoke to the many activities in progress or anticipated at MHS, including athletics, upcoming AP exams, Celebrate the Arts! showcase of visual and performing arts by all levels of Melrose students (tonight – 4/14!), and the upcoming performances of Les Miserables (tix here: https://melrosedrama.wordpress.com/.)

Under her Announcements, the Superintendent invited French teacher/French exchange program leader Mr. Morisseau to present a book received in friendship from the mayor of exchange location Saint-Witz to Mayor Dolan, inscribed with a personal greeting. She spoke to her unification of many Melrose logos into the Melrose “M” as an encircled block letter (as it appears on the football field, MHS front doors, etc.). In addition, she provided warm thanks to Ms. Annette MacPherson, Kindergarten registrar, for her tireless efforts to place incoming K students at their first choice school while balancing the many other complex elements of school placement (like ELL and special education services, geographic proximity, physical classroom sizes, sibling enrollment, etc.).

Educational Programs and Personnel
·               Dr. Adams, in concert with the elementary principals, presented their Kindergarten capacity study, recommended addition of two K’s at Lincoln and Roosevelt for FY17. There is no ideal situation for next year, but Principals Donovan and Maranto believe they will be able to provide incoming students with the same high quality educational services we’ve all come to expect, with the additional support of special education personnel in their buildings. Supt. Taymore made it clear that the buildings will be virtually out of classroom space after the incorporation of these classrooms.
·               The Secondary School Code of Conduct was presented, with changes noted in the areas of privacy, information security, digital citizenship, use of devices, and restorative justice.
·               The changes preliminarily voted on start times for the FY18 school year were affirmed. The district will now more deeply explore the details, like building access during the earlier morning hours to ensure students’ health and safety.

Finance and Facilities
·               Mr. Ken Dolce, Director of Food Service on behalf of our vendor, Chartwells, spoke to the need to increase school meal prices (breakfast and lunch) by ten cents in the FY17 school year (which was approved).
·               Discussion began around FY17 fees for Education Stations; with Dr. Josephson presenting competitive market pricing and potential percentage/dollar increases. That discussion will continue at the next meeting.
·               Based on new state regulations, the Committee transferred dormant graduating class monies (for those not already making arrangement for fund dispersal) into the High School Student Activity Account “for the benefit of all Melrose High School students.”
·               Supt. Taymore announced that the search for a new Director of Finance (given the resignation of Jay Picone effective later this month) has not been fruitful, and recommended employing the services of an accounting organization with whom we currently work to take on the critical duties that ensure continued smooth business operations. The Committee transferred the balance of Mr. Picone’s annual salary into a different category in order to effect this recommendation.
·               Melrose Chief Financial Officer Patrick Dello Russo presented a review of the disappointing financial situation faced by Melrose in that federal and state payments have declined precipitously while our city’s needs continue to grow. It was suggested that everyone carefully review the City’s Visual Budget (found here: http://www.cityofmelrose.org/mvb/). He spoke to the importance of maintaining the most favorable bond rating possible as a critical element of supporting a sound fiscal system. In addition, he noted the fact that Charter School financing regulations allow (this year alone) $2.7M of tuition assessments with only $.2M reimbursement for a net loss of $2.5M, of which the gain of even a portion could be invested in our city. Mayor Dolan commented that city officials are discussing health insurance opt-outs for employees as an option that may be mutually beneficial. He also noted that it is likely that we could lose some school positions, but that would be the last possible avenue for savings.

The Committee voted to add a meeting on Tuesday, May 17th (at 7:00 in the Aldermanic Chamber) in order to complete budget deliberations. (Please note that we will hold our Public Hearing on the budget – as mandated by law – on Tuesday, May 10th at 7:00.) We reviewed the recent MA Senate passage of the RISE Act (“enhancing reform, innovation, and success in education) and it was agreed that we would consider a letter in support of the bill’s basic tenets for consideration by the MA House of Representatives (should they choose to take up this issue) on 4/26. We expressed appreciation to Mr. Picone for his service to students and staff as well as the Committee, and wished him well in his future endeavors.

Next meeting: April 26th at 7:00 p.m. in the Aldermanic Chamber.

Have a great April vacation!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Elementary Enrichment, E-camp, Construction, Capacity Study, FY17 Budget: 4/12 Citywide PTO

The monthly meeting of City Wide PTO was held this morning. Supt. Taymore updated the group on the following:

·               Enrichment: In the interest of aligning elementary enrichment programs more closely to the curriculum, she was curious to know if City Wide representatives would be interested in engaging at least one program at all five schools in the coming year (or the following year, depending on booking schedules of vendors). She noted that there would likely be cost efficiencies, which would support PTO budgets. City Wide representatives agreed to support a meeting among all elementary principals and enrichment coordinators to discuss this possibility.
·               E-camp: Next year, students will attend e-camp after April vacation. All will attend for three days using the same vendor (Nature’s Classroom) although the actual locations will vary. Supt. Taymore noted that the “spike in price next year is considerable and concerning” as one reason for the alignment, as well as providing an equitable experience for all students.
·               Construction: The Learning Commons work continues at a fast pace with plastering beginning soon, and with the Administrative Suites beginning construction at the end of May. The new Hoover windows have been ordered with the expectation that they will be delivered on time. (The construction schedule is very tight.)
·               Capacity Study: In order to add class space at the elementary level, administrators, in collaboration with the fire chief, building inspector, and others, reviewed all building options. Next year we are out of space (should we need to add even more classes) and current space is already compromised.
·               FY17 Budget: Draft 2 is online for consideration by the Committee and the community. The difference between what the city can afford and what the schools require has been reduced from over a $1M delta to $471K.

Event-sharing included:
·               Roosevelt online auction continues. More info here: https://www.biddingforgood.com/auction/item/browse.action?auctionId=257968374&grouping=ONLINE.
·               Healthy Melrose Fair will be held on May 7th. More info here: http://www.healthymelrose.com/.
·               Rockland Trust’s Will Sullivan shared his company’s sponsorship of the Melrose Education Foundation Charitable Softball Tournament, scheduled for Sunday, May 29th with all proceeds going to the Foundation. Teams are forming now (high school aged students and adults only please). Their goal is to have 8-10 teams (10-15 people on each). Donations can be made to sponsor teams or to donate to the event. For more info, call Will at 781.665.3300 or e-mail at William.Sullivan@RocklandTrust.com.

o   Will also shared that he has spoken with Supt. Taymore and MHS Principal Farrell about encouraging accounting students to apply for a Rockland Trust scholarship that provides 4 years of free tuition to New England College of Business while working at the bank. Application due date is soon.

Friday, April 8, 2016

MHS/MVMMS PTO Meeting: Stress Management for Teens

Many parents came out this past snowy Monday night to learn more about helping their children and their children’s friends sort out and address responses to stress. The MHS and MVMMS PTO’s joint session focused on “Helping Teens Manage Stress and Painful Emotions” in an engaging and compassionate presentation prepared and presented by two of our own high school parents who are also psychologists, Lynda Field, PhD and Lisa Coyne, PhD. Also attending were Supt. Taymore, MHS Principal Farrell and Asst. Principal Fogarty, MVMMS Principal Conway, and Asst. Supt. White-Lambright.

Some quick facts:
·               Teens report symptoms of stress at about the same levels as adults in like categories (like “being irritable or angry” and “feeling nervous and anxious”) BUT they’re more likely to report that stress has no effect on their physical or mental health
·               35% of teens lie awake at night while 26% overeat or eat unhealthy foods, and 23% skipped a meal
·               Girls report stress more than boys (but it’s unknown whether they experience more stress or report more, since we socialize boys and girls in different ways)
·               Compared with adults, teens underreport stress, set aside less time to manage it, and when they do address it they generally do so by engaging in sedentary activities (leading to poorer physical health)
·               Of teens in Gr. 9-12 in the last 12 months: 17% considered suicide (22% of females and 12% of males), 13.6% made a plan (17% of females and 10% of males), and 8% attempted suicide one or more times (11% of females and 5% of males)
·               Warning signs = FACTS (feelings, actions, changes, threats, situations)

What is a loved one to do? Listen and voice concern. Indicate that you can get help. Seek that help. Let the teen know you care. (70% of all people who commit suicide give some warning of their intentions; 80% never attended counseling.)

What will help your teens cope?
·               Authentic connection with others (not social media since it is not authentic)
·               Validation (we need to truly listen to our children, make eye contact, and really hear them when they talk with us)
·               Purpose and value: connect them to options that help them find these things
·               Plans for the future
·               A safe environment
·               Stay away from caffeine since it’s an anxiety producer – substitute water instead
·               Assertiveness training since having a “voice” helps teens maintain control over situations
·               Take breaks from stressful situations
·               Employ sleep routines: get up at the same time every day, go to sleep at the same time every night
·               Practice mindfulness (great resources are available below)

What is the high school and middle school doing to address this issue? These topics are included in the health and wellness curriculum at MHS and there are discussions around yoga and mindfulness strategies in this year’s freshman seminar. They hope to share more techniques with staff next year so they can help students employ these strategies before a big test or assignment. The middle school also includes the topics in the health and wellness curriculum. Principal Conway also mentioned that there is a task force of twelve staff members who have met since December to talk about social emotional learning, and they hope to represent some of the results in this coming year’s School Improvement Plans.

What happens when students leave for life after high school? Have a conversation with the teen before he/she leaves regarding expectations around communication (What will the boundaries be? How often will you communicate, and what method will you use?). Find out about their dorm’s culture if at college, and also what services the health department provides.

Some districts have classes to provide coping mechanisms – does Melrose? The Middle School offers a fitness/yoga class. That’s not currently an offering at MHS, but they could potentially do clubs. Principal Farrell said that maybe there are simple (low cost) things they can do to help.

Explain crisis teams. Each Melrose school building has a crisis team (including an administrator, nurse, school psychologist, and staff members). There is also a district crisis team that learns about best practices and develops protocols for the schools. A group called “Educators Supporting Educators in Crisis” works together to support each other under circumstances such as the recent death of a local teacher, where some Melrose teachers and teachers from other districts provided substitute coverage so that staff members from the affected school could attend the late educator’s funeral.

What if families can’t afford mental health services for their children? The school works to help find support services for low or no cost. When critical, the school will excuse a student from class in order for him/her to receive services in the school from an outside agency.

Are there other ways that schools can help reduce unhealthy adolescent behaviors? Yes – one example at the middle school is offering “no homework weekends” about once per month. At the high school there is a grant-originated course called Mentoring Violence Prevention (MVP) in which students learn to empower bystanders to intervene and diffuse abusive situations.

The full presentation, along with resources, can be found here: http://melrosehigh.melroseschools.com/2016/04/caring-community-presentation/#sthash.Dq8Hz7KK.dpbs.