Attitude of Gratitude

British writer G.K. Chesterton once said, “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” All too often, we experience our day-to-day worlds in a way that conceals the ordinary and magnifies the extraordinary. We remember that which sticks out from the mundane and that which is stable and consistent is taken for granted. Like our water supply last week, when things are taken away, we realize how important their consistency and convenience are to our sense of “normal.”

The responses to the staff survey about gratitude yielded just this… a list of the ordinary, a list of that which surrounds us each day, but more importantly, a list dominated by people, without whom, our days wouldn’t be as consistent, convenient, or even as meaningful as we hope.

What was most impressive though, was what went unmentioned in the responses. I didn’t receive a list of responses about stuff. No mention of Chromebooks or Smartboards. No mention of textbooks or paper. No mention of calculators or microscopes. I received a list of actions and feelings that are generated from, with, and for people. Because that’s what our job is about – people. Working with people. Working for people. Working to create better people to honor those who have come before us and inspire those who will come after us.

With that said, here is a sampling of the most representative responses from the survey. Thank you to everyone at WHS who truly make coming to work each day the most pleasurable challenge we could each ask for.


“Colleagues and students whose words and actions challenge me to be a better version of myself.”

“When I enter my classroom and work with our students I know I am right where I belong.”

“I’m grateful for supportive colleagues who pick me up when a lesson doesn’t go as planned, a day is crazier than anticipated and celebrates the small wins together.”

“I am grateful for the students at WHS. I am constantly inspired by their abilities, generosity, and enthusiasm.”

(and some special shoutouts!)
“The Science department for being amazing!”
“Committee work (scheduling, advisory, etc) – they deserve commendation for that hard work!”
“Jodi Perrin for organizing Gingerbread Express”
“Colleen Johns for joining our team”

Have a wonderful and restful Thanksgiving. Even when our family members and friends are arguing over those precious turkey legs or the last piece of pie or the most comfortable seat on the couch or who gets the leftovers, take a deep breath and remember how lucky we are to be right there at that moment with those crazy people in this wonderful world. 🙂


Telling Our Story

The parlance of the moment in the Edu-sphere (and, quite frankly, any issue covered by the media) is about THE NARRATIVE. Products have narratives, services have narratives, celebrities request to be added or removed from “the narrative.” We need to tell our narrative, craft our narrative, share our narrative.  Narrative is just a fancy word for “story” but the word gives us the power to narrate the story for ourselves. We are the authors and the main characters. We have some control over the plot.  It isn’t a work of fiction, but a memoir written in the present tense.

But how do we do this in a way that people will listen? And how do we do it in a way that is truthful?

  1. Overshare
  2. Reflect
  3. Repeat

It should be quite clear from Dr. Garceau’s presentation at our opening convocation that he expects us to have a presence on social media. He touted the #BulldogEd hashtag and even breathed life into some variations of the word with his talk about “doggedness.” If you’ve scoured Twitter over the past two weeks, you know that the use of the hashtag has exploded throughout the district which is an awesome way to tell our story to the local community and engage in broader state or national conversations about teaching and learning. Check it out, you won’t regret it.

For those who might be uncomfortable about using social media, consider shifting your communication home to families or out to the community. Can you use Skyward to message home to parents and guardians about something awesome in class today? Can you mail student work home to show parents and guardians what kind of thinking students are doing? Can you email one parent per prep period to say something positive about their son or daughter? Looking more broadly, can we enlist local businesses to display student work? Can we use The Westerly Sun differently? Better yet, engage students in this communication. Take time in class or Advisory and have students email home one positive thing they learned from their classes this week. Have students reach outside the walls of WHS to share what they are doing. All of those practices help tell our story in a way that people may listen and begin to understand our organization a bit better.

Regardless of the conduit, we need a blitz… an overshare blitz. We need to make the great things that are happening something that the community cannot ignore. That’s step 1. Just get the good stuff out there, some way, somehow.

“The more reflective you are, the more effective you are.”

However, all that glitters is not gold. Right now, it’s easy. We do a fun getting-to-know-you activity, post a pic of smiling students or a motivational quote, and think we’re done. Then we start teaching. We start asking kids to do tough things. The weather gets yucky. We get tired. Our beginning of the year adrenaline runs out. This is when reflection is important. We must make every effort to reflect individually and collectively on our sharing, our classroom practices, the reactions (or nonreactions) we receive from our audiences. And then, we need to share our reflections, highlight growth and struggles, shifts and changes. We need to share this tough stuff with each other, with students, with families, with the community because that’s where the “gold” is and that’s what glitters. It’s what’s true – about us, about our profession, about our clientele, about our practices. Education is a constant iterative cycle and that’s what is most difficult for the broader non-educational community to understand. We’re never “done.” And while this truth is difficult for some, we should embrace it as an invigorating challenge, hence step 3, “Repeat.”

We have the power to tell an engaging and meaningful story about our value. If we don’t tell it, someone else will and we know down which roads that can lead. Whatever your comfort level, whatever your entry point, just start sharing the story of your classroom, of your students, of yourself as an educator. Then collectively we have a solid, truthful, district-wide story with a happy ending.

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Teacher Appreciation

“We were created for significance and one of the most dangerous things that can happen to us is the feeling that we don’t matter.” ~Angela Maiers

Each year we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week and are acknowledged as a whole for our contributions in our students’ lives. While it’s important to recognize that our profession and the professionals we work with make a huge difference on a daily basis, the individual gets lost in the mix. This year, we chose to recognize the whole but to celebrate the individual because we all matter, everyday, in making this a better place for each other and our students.

Take a look to see how you matter to your colleagues.

World Language
I appreciate Wendy’s instructional leadership
I appreciate Dora’s professionalism
I appreciate Ellie’s flexibility
I appreciate Nancy’s kindness
I appreciate Steve’s positive attitude
Sarah – relentless support for global education and competence

I appreciate Steve Scott’s wisdom and empathy
Sue Haik – Takes fitness to another level and truly leads by example
Teri West – Strong female role model for all students both in and out of school
Dave Federico – I appreciate that Fed takes an interest in getting students involved in extracurricular activities.
Rick Delicato – I appreciate Rick’s interest in creating a new course for the department and expanding choices for students in health
Matt Anderson – I appreciates Mat’s kindness to the students at WHS

Anne – unabashed support for kids and issues that are often invisible
Mary – flexibility and grace in dealing with Ptech
Andrea – patience with the toughest of students
Erin – sense of humor in the classroom
Lauren – steadfast support of the classics
Lori – ability to relate literature to life
Ryan – leadership with The Barker
Melissa – ability to weave the arts into her instruction and assessment
Denise – the extensive time she puts into feedback for students
Erica – I appreciate the way Erica always makes decisions in DH based on what’s best for students.

Justin – lover of Biology, running, gardens and chickens
Jed – promotes love of the Earth and its environment
Julie – has passion for teaching and knowledge of the human body
Bonnie – is generous, charitable, fair and adaptable
Matt – brings Chemistry to life in his classroom
Meg – is enthusiastic about teaching and learning everyday
Lesley – helps kids make connections between science and life
Bill – makes physics PHUN
Stacey – shares science knowledge with kids of all ages
MJ Utley – for never letting the status quo rule the day (and for free farm fresh eggs.)

Tony Walsh… for making his students feel connected to him through humor.
Joe Fusaro… for making each student feel like someone cares about them at WHS.
Jay Fusco… for always being willing to try something new in his classroom.
Judie McCann… for her passion for European history (especially Napoleon).
Matt Nichols… for imparting upon his students the importance of certain skills needed in the workplace.
Jeri Muccio… for choosing to share her knowledge of law with students when she could be getting rich in legal practice.
Amanda Murphy… for helping all of us understand the right balance for the use of technology in the classroom.
Steve Servidio… for infecting his students with the passion of learning deeply about American history.
Chris Luppe… for making each and every student feel successful.
Mike Gleason… for innovating new ways for students to learn history and current events.
Marianne Mirando… for her passion for information literacy and her willingness to share  that with her colleagues and students.
Tony… sees the big picture, listens patiently, strives to be fair and is a good friend

Fine Arts
Chris – “Make It Happen Captain” – he’s a think-outside-the-box creator.
Tara – she has amazing attention to detail and is a ray of sunshine.
Sarah – “$ahMoney820” Music Maker Extraordinaire
John – A pleasure to work with.  Creative, Productive, and Inspirational.  Westerly’s own ​Leonardo da Vinci

Business and Tech
Melissa Stoehr – ​Goes above and beyond. “Our ​Editor in chief”
Ed Hathaway – Endless energy and time for his students. ​Our​ CEO of Business
Jamie Finkelstein – Never too busy to help a colleague. ​Everyone’s ​Che​f Extraordinaire.
Bart Cerra​ – ​Has a Big heart. Our real life MacGyver.
Tim McLellan – Dedication to his students and fellow teachers. ​P-​Tech Master
Dan McKenna – ​”Builds”​great learning opportunities for his students. ​He’s a ​”cut” above.
Tom Albamonti – He’s our go to guy​. ​Can be counted on at any time to help a colleague or student. The Video Master!
Laurie Fortier​ – ​Students learn everything they need to know in HER ​
pre-school​ class. ​
​Sue Wood – She’s a straight shooter and super supportive

Jen – smart, honest, direct and rational. I respect that Jen is not afraid to play Devil’s advocate, often offering another perspective for us all to ponder while making decisions.
Pina Alferio works hard to create countless hands on actives to better her student’s understanding.
Mark Furano is extremely engaging and brings his lessons to life.
Alyson Gordon always smiling and energetically brings real life into the classroom.
Chris Hamre is well read and dedicated to math education and its history.
Jean Larson has a great rapport with her students and creates lasting relationships.
Karen Livingston unselfishly works with her to students to help them bring results home for AP!  Her results are historic for WHS, every student passed the AP test.
Caitlin Maguire has the great ability to teach and reach ALL students with patience.
Sandy Strafach is tremendously involved with school activities.  She always volunteer’s and is a mentor for her students.
Gary Sylvia is able to bring his tremendous content knowledge to the classroom.
Anna Xu tirelessly spends hours and hours to fine tune her excellent work inside the classroom and with the Math Team.

Special Ed
Michelle Azzinaro and her team are truly dedicated to our student’s success by insuring their emotional needs, social skills, life skills and academics are met where each student’s needs to be
Nicole Giguere- empathetic
Meghan LeForte- determined
Donna Welch- Dedicated
Deb Deion- passionate
Lydia Ezerins- endearing
Liz Sanfilippo- enthusiastic
Aurelia DeAngelis- motherly- caring
Trecia Pimer- resourceful
Jane O’Leary- pragmatic
Aleta Okolicsanyi- persistent
Nancy O’Keefe- personable
Becky Frueh- devoted
Cynthia Costa- dedicated to ALL students
Scott Simone- focused
Terry Castagna- resilient
Jodi Waranis- compassionate
Patti Gallagher- mindful
Anita Rolin- dependable

Art – Your ability to connect in a meaningful way with students through your sense of humor.
Heidi – The care you take in meeting with each student to be sure their needs are being met.
Lisa – The support you give students not only academically but  socially as well.
Amy – I respect Amy as a colleague and will seek her out for her professional advice. She is a dedicated counselor, who is extremely knowledgeable in all aspects of counseling students





Recently, Amanda and Erica were approached by Union leadership to speak to the Town Council about the need to fund technology for WHS. On Wednesday, April 17th, after Ryan Zemanek read an impassioned plea to put politics aside and fund the school budget appropriately, Erica and Amanda presented the following infographic to members of the Town Council. In an effort at solidarity, consider using this same language and talking points when speaking in the community about technology use, potential, and necessity.

As always, join the conversation using the hashtag #bulldoged.


Reflecting on #BPLC2017

Highlander Institute, the Learning Accelerator, and the Clayton Christensen Institute hosted the 6th Annual Blended and Personalized Learning conference this past weekend (check out the hashtag #BPLC2017 for the conversation). At first glance, one might assume the aim of the conference was to push platforms and products that can yield oodles of student data or adapt to all kinds of student and teacher needs. However, the overarching themes of the conference this year were equity, identity, and cultural relevance.

Equity – Do all students have access to models, strategies, resources, and programs that are fair and just? Remember, fair is not equal; equity and equality are not synonymous.

Identity – Are students’ complex identities explored, honored, and infused into instruction and assessment?

Cultural Relevance – Can students see themselves in what they are learning? Can students see others in what they are learning? Are differences among students explored with dignity?

In a recent staff survey about the challenges that surround designing personalized learning, “Student Know-How” was the bucket into which most respondents put their challenges. Folks questioned and commented about student tenacity, motivation, reticence to try something new or different, and general lack of inspiration.  We can’t help wondering if reflecting on and addressing concepts of equity, identity, and cultural relevance would yield different results in the “Student Know-How” category. That is, if students felt more connected to the work we are asking them to do and to the processes through which they complete it, would they be more willing and able to do it? 

As we continue our work with personalizing learning for all students, equity, identity, and cultural relevance are layers of consideration for instructional design. We all know the technology variable is one which we have limited control over. We do have control over our instructional design though. As any good researcher knows, controlling one variable at a time allows any effect to be attributed to the one thing that was manipulated.

Though manipulating solitary variables in our classrooms is a great starting point, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention that schools which are most successful with implementing blended and personalized learning at scale have a supportive, invested, cohesive and respectful school culture. These schools are united in their mission, their core values, their expectations of each other and expectations of students. They treat each other and all students with dignity and respect and believe that all students can do great things. If we want true change at WHS, we all need to work toward manipulating this variable together.

Thank you to May Toscano and Liz Sanfilippo for representing WHS with Amanda and Erica at the conference this weekend.

As always, join the conversation by tweeting to #bulldoged.

The Sisyphus in All of Us

From Reason and Meaning

In the myth of Sisyphus, the gods condemn Sisyphus to pushing a giant rock up a mountain as punishment. It swiftly becomes an exercise in futility, as Sisyphus and his rock consistently roll back down the mountain. As educators, we can all identify with this feeling – condemned to push the boulders of student motivation, increasing (and often ill-informed) top-down initiatives, budgetary restraints, and community pressures, only to roll back to the starting point time and again.

At this point, “personalization” may feel like a massive (and perhaps for some, even futile) task. To avoid feeling like Sisyphus, we want to acknowledge the feedback from the survey and chip away at the rock to remove unnecessary weight which will ease all of our journeys up the mountainous task inherent in our profession.

Weight #1 – Technology
“Limited technology is an issue.”
“Our district needs to recognize the need to go 1-1 in the high school.”
“If I had a few more computers in my class, it would make it a little easier.”
“I feel that a big push for personalized learning is being driven by technology companies.”
“Will each department have a common platform?”

Yup, perhaps, probably, yes but not here, nope. Those are the responses to those comments and questions in their respective order. Though our access to computers for students has increased, we all feel a frustrated crunch from time to time. Sometimes it’s a great idea you have at the last minute but the labs are all booked. Sometimes it’s when the network is funky and the log-on process takes longer than expected. However, we can’t assume that a 1:1 initiative is going to magically lead to personalized classrooms. There are many 1:1 classrooms where the computer is just a digital notebook – no net gain there. And if cell phones are our biggest gripe as a faculty, we need to be careful what we wish for because every kid with a computer takes a whole new level of purposeful instructional design and vigilant classroom management. Let’s remember – people have been personalizing learning for students for decades without technology. Just because tech companies use the word “personalized” to sell a product doesn’t mean you NEED a product to personalize learning.

We can’t let technology be our excuse or our obstacle. Every single one of us can begin to personalize learning in our classroom by giving students choices – a choice of which questions to answer on an assessment, a choice between assessment modalities or products, a choice about a narrow focus area in a larger conceptual unit. These are no-tech solutions applicable to any class or teacher and can mitigate the tech burden. And if a choice here and there is all some can muster without a deep technology commitment, it’s at least a starting point.

Weight lifted.

Weight #2 – Curriculum
“Teachers have to get in so much curriculum to prepare students for testing.”
“Do we need to cover our units in the scope and sequence to do well on PARCC?”
“It (personalized learning) is risky and open to problems with such a standards driven curriculum.”
“How can we personalize learning in the same classes that are supposed to be following the Common Core units of instruction that have been created and adopted by various departments?”

On the surface, common units and personalized learning seem to fight against each other. However, common focus standards can actually guide personalization. The units provide a structure and end-goal. Personalization happens in getting from Point A to Point Z. Some kids may need to go through the whole painstaking alphabet, while others may only need a hop-step-and-a-jump over K and Q. And if they can get to Z fairly quickly, you can give them the same end point with a new layer added – a new text that shakes their understanding, applying a new skill to a real problem, taking a new perspective, representing data in a different way, or connecting with a person outside of school who uses the information or skill the student just learned. Or better yet, ask the student “what next?” See what they say – it might be amazing.

We should not feel a tug-of-war between personalizing learning OR following the curriculum. The two things must walk hand-in-hand. One cannot be an excuse to ignore the other. Instead, perhaps we reframe the way we view the curriculum. Instead of a dictate, it becomes a structure which allows for multiple options and opportunities for students (and teachers!).

Weight lifted.

[And as for the test – wouldn’t we all want to have students enter into the testing situation confident in what they DO know rather than nervous about what they DON’T know? That’s a whole other conversation about the Culture of Accountability.]

Weight #3 – Time
“Would like more time training with various techniques.”
“I am concerned with my own time management.”
“I think we need additional conversations to make it real in all of our areas.”
“It is a significant paradigm shift…”

Yeah. Spot on. It’s going to take time. This initiative can make us feel like first-year teachers in some respects. There isn’t a soul in the Edu-sphere that denies this takes time. So we all need to hear and accept this – it’s going to take time to learn, practice, observe each other, share successes, document best practices, and figure out where our comfort zones are in terms of frequency, depth, style, and strategies.

The good news is, we have time. We have CPT time built into our schedule (Remember – that C can stand for Collaborative Planning Time – time where we collaborate around these practices and conversations). We have prep periods built into our days where we can prepare ourselves by watching another teacher do something we’re interested in trying. We need to reframe the time we have and view it as a structure to help ease the process.

Weight lifted.

Anyone feel lighter?

Hopefully these acknowledgements help us feel heard and validated.

Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 10.32.32 AMFull disclosure – We only addressed a slice of the feedback from the survey. The majority of respondents (31%) categorized their challenges as “Student Know-How.” We will address the many comments about the student experience of personalized learning, including motivation, apathy, reticence, and preference in future posts. It is a super-important chunk of the rock and we WILL NOT shy away from it.

Thank you to everyone who responded to the survey. Results were also discussed at the Leadership Team table and the need for clarification was heard loud and clear. Thank you also to Anne Barnhart, for the crash refresher course in Sisyphus. 🙂

Remember – tweet anytime to #bulldoged. Join the conversation.



Words and Actions

Educators swirl in a sea of buzzwords and sometimes it’s hard to keep track and make sense of this vocabulary. Oftentimes it feels like a new buzzword is just an old buzzword dressed in new clothes. After all, doesn’t “personalization” feel a lot like the push for “differentiation” a few years ago? In a recent EdSurge article, Michael B. Horn clearly delineates nuanced definitions for four buzzwords infiltrating and heavily influencing current educational practice – personalized, competency-based, blended, and project-based learning. Horn also puts these practices on a continuum of “hype,” challenging educators’ conception of what the practice is as well as if the practice lives up to its intentions. Here’s what he boils down:

Personalized Learning –
Horn suggests that instead of thinking of it as a noun, think of it as a verb. Then, the concept becomes an action and a skill set you tap into when the time is right, instead of an outcome that exists on its own, a destination, an event. Teachers are personalizing learning for and/or with students throughout our building. And they’ve been doing it for a long time. This might seem like differentiation dressed in new clothes, but it’s more than differentiating and on the continuum toward individualization. (See Barbara Bray’s 3-column chart distinguishing between personalized-differentiated-individualized.)

One big takeaway is to begin thinking of personalizing learning as a matter of degree instead of a binary “yes, my class is personalized” or “no, I don’t/can’t personalize this.” When planning or reflecting on your instructional sequence or assessments, think, “to what degree am I personalizing this for students?” (Remember – time, place, path, and pace are good starting points, as are varied content and mode of access.) And no matter what the answer happens to be, have a reason for it.

THE POINT – Ground your efforts to personalize in purposeful, student-centered, content-centered decision-making.

Competency-Based Learning –
Simply put, competency-based learning is when students do not move on until they have mastered key content and skills. In our current time-based system (time-based = bells, quarters, semesters, years), competency-based learning seems wonderfully impossible. We all know we have students in our classrooms who do NOT master key content and skills yet move on to what comes next for varied (yet sometimes irrational) reasons. However, there is a set of competencies that most educators agree on as crucial for success within and beyond high school. The Hewlett Foundation has defined those 6 competencies as:

  1. Master core academic content
  2. Think critically and solve complex problems
  3. Work collaboratively
  4. Communicate effectively
  5. Learn how to learn
  6. Develop academic mindsets  

Hmmm… sounds a lot like our Proficiency-Based Graduation Requirements and Work Habits work we’ve done at WHS.

THE POINT – Though we aren’t able to claim we are a competency-based institution, we can design curricula around and hold kids accountable to core competencies that will help them be successful in life.

Blended Learning –
Blended learning is a concept that seems easy to define – you blend offline and online learning to learn at deeper levels and/or achieve at higher levels. Blended learning can be a means to a higher degree of personalized learning (kids can move at their own pace and access content any place) as well as a means for accountability of core competencies (platforms such as Summit). Erica prefers to think of blended learning as “tech doing what a teacher cannot, and the teacher doing what the tech cannot.” Conceptualizing it this way honors the art of teaching and ensures that teachers will not (and should not) be replaced by computers. There are moments in all of our classrooms that probably should be replaced by online work. However, there are also moments that require human interaction and collaboration. In an increasingly-connected world, these offline learning experiences should be viewed and designed with the same lenses of citizenship, responsibility, and respect as online experiences.

THE POINT – Blend purposefully, not blindly. When is it effective to turn to a computer? What do YOU offer to students that cannot be replaced by a computer?

Project-Based Learning –
Project-based learning is one of those concepts easier understood by defining what it is not, rather than what it is. It is not learning assessed with a project (project at the end of a unit after all the learning is “done”). Rather is it learning acquired through a project. In PBL, the means is equally important, if not more important, than the end. The Buck Institute for Education is the premier resource for PBL. To search their projects or read more, click here.  

Project-based learning is a mode which can serve all the previously-mentioned “masters.” Blended learning programs often pair a project with the online learning (perhaps as a way to personalize the online experience). Students must also master certain competencies in order to engage in a rigorous project. And, because the project is the vehicle through which the learning is done, a teacher can personalize the learning required for each step of the project for individual students, based on strengths and weaknesses.

THE POINT – Projects are great. But learning through projects, even better. If you’re personalizing and blending learning with that project – you should take your show on the road.

“Moving forward, clarity is important. Confusion and conflation will only hurt educators trying to do what is best for an individual student in a particular circumstance trying to learn a particular concept—in other words, when they are trying to personalize learning for students.”
Michael B. Horn

At Westerly High School, over the past few years, we have all been asked to examine and shift our practice in the name of student achievement, engagement, and satisfaction. However, when we feel like we are working to serve a buzzword, it becomes increasingly difficult to even understand what we are doing, let alone why we are doing it. Hopefully this “digest” helps clarify what has been swirling around us so that we all speak the same language moving forward in our evolution as a system and organization.

Should you have an example of what any of these concepts look like in your classroom or content area, please contact us for a classroom spotlight visit.