Yearbook Caption: Class of 2021

To the Graduating Class of 2021,

During his 1963 radio and television address on civil rights, President John F. Kennedy reflected upon his hope for peace, unity, and equality in the midst of violence and rising tensions in our nation: “I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” Nearly sixty years later, JFK’s words still hold true, and they in ways capture the essence of all that we value as an IB World School.

The COVID-19 pandemic that was unexpectedly thrust upon you during the latter part of your junior year is something that will be studied and talked about for years to come. This period resulted in unspeakable loss for so many, including family members, friends, and renowned figures from around the world. For all of you, there was added loss as both junior and senior experiences, memories, and moments that are too often taken for granted were suddenly erased before they ever had a chance to happen.

Despite the loss, however, we saw people from every race, ethnicity, and culture come together as one to rally behind a common cause. We witnessed the true human spirit in full force, as workers on the frontlines risked their lives daily to help others, and as all citizens of the world played a role to help “flatten the curve” and then to ultimately get vaccinated. Amidst tragedy, we found love, we found connection, and we found selflessness. We also found hope, as Americans from across the nation came together in protest as we continue to strive for true equality. Although we still have much more work to do, our citizens continue to stand up against discrimination and bias and recognize that the “rights of every many are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” As graduates of an IB World School, it is incumbent upon all of you to lead this necessary change and to be true pioneers in the creation of a “better and more peaceful world.”

The legacy of this graduating class will be remembered for generations like none before, and it has been an honor to serve as your Principal during this unprecedented time. I wish you all the best for a life that is filled with health, happiness, love, unity, and peace.

Sincerely,

John J. Falino, Ed.D.

Principal

The Pandemic: Lessons Learned

I haven’t written a blog post in over a year. It’s actually hard to believe that over a year has passed since that day in March, 2020 when we were told that schools would be closing. At the time, I remember thinking that we would be closed for two weeks at the most, and the immediate challenge at that point was to figure out how to keep students engaged “asynchronously” so that they didn’t fall too far behind by the time we returned. Those two weeks, of course, turned into another two weeks, and then two more after that, until we were finally closed for the year and scrambling to come up with “reopening plans” for September. With that, the summer was lost and everyone, from administrators to teachers, and parents to students, were entirely burned out before the first day of school in September. In some ways, it felt like school never ended, and in others it felt like it would never really begin again. At DFHS, we opened with a “student need hybrid” which basically had our students remote most days with opportunities to sign up for in-person experiences as needed. We eventually transitioned to a more traditional “AM/PM” hybrid with cohorts, and we are finally planning a full reopening starting the week of April 12th. 

It’s been quite a road, and the truth is that there’s no way that I can even remotely capture all that happened day-to-day. A day felt like a week, a week a year, and a month, well, a career, and it was a constant battle of “putting out fires” while trying to be proactive enough to avoid future ones. In most cases this was to no avail. I did of course think about this blog from time to time over the past year, and even had a few moments where I thought “I should write about this.” But the time was never there, and the energy it would take to sit down and actually write was frankly better spent responding to emails, speaking with teachers and parents, or meeting to discuss the “next step” in an endless journey of steps. As I’m sitting here now, I am in no way under the false impression that we are at the end. Quite the contrary. While we are “reopening,” I’m also aware that cases are still abundant, there’s talk of a fourth “surge,” and we are about to encounter a whole new set of challenges once we have students in the building at much greater rates than we’ve had to this point. In some ways, I’m expecting the spring of 2021 to be as harried as it was in 2020. But this time around we are more hardened, and more prepared mentally, emotionally, and intellectually.

As I look back at where we were right when the pandemic started to where we are now, it’s hard not to think of not only the journey itself, but perhaps more importantly the lessons learned throughout that journey. That’s what I’m going to share here. The ten most important lessons in no particular order. In sharing these, I fully recognize that I can easily write 4,000 words on any one of them. At some point perhaps I will. Or maybe I won’t. I suppose we’ll see what the next year brings. 

For now, here’s my top ten:

  1. We were right about adaptability: About ten years ago we read The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner and since that time we’ve been talking about the 21st century skills that students need in order to be successful. Among those skills that led the way for us in Dobbs Ferry was adaptability, and boy did we need to put that one to use during this pandemic. For over a hundred years, school has been a certainty for all of us despite whatever uncertainty has come our way. During World Wars, terrorist attacks, national tragedies, and so much more, school has been the one constant that kids could count on, and that society relied on. This pandemic changed that. Or at least it changed the way we were accustomed to thinking about it. Virtually overnight, schooling shifted from the brick and mortar of our school building to the remote world of Google Classroom and Google Meet. There wasn’t time to prepare, there wasn’t even time to think. We all needed to adapt, and this pandemic showed us not only that we can, but also that we must continue to be ready to adapt for the foreseeable future and, perhaps, indefinitely.
  1. We were also right about technology: Dobbs Ferry was way ahead of the curve in 2013 when we transitioned to a full one-to-one program at our high school. Our teachers (and students) adapted quickly to this shift, and our school (and district) fully transitioned to Google several years ago, with all teachers using Google Classroom along with the seemingly infinite number of apps available to enhance instruction. A few years back, there was a growing voice in our community to basically eliminate technology and move back to traditional methods of the 20th century. The pandemic taught us pretty quickly that it was a good thing that we didn’t make that shift backwards. 
  1. We need managers after all: The past twenty years in education have seen a shift away from managers as a preferred leadership style to instructional leaders as being what is most needed and desired in our schools. While the latter is still undoubtedly true, schools that lacked true operational and managerial experts struggled mightily during this pandemic. At DFHS, we have a team of expert managers led by @careim2, and because of this we continued to transition and adapt smoothly as massive change was thrown our way seemingly on a daily basis. 
  1. Broken systems were exploited: Expanding on the point above, so many schools (and districts) look perfect on the outside. They are located in affluent neighborhoods, test scores are high, and the local and national rankings are right where they are expected to be. When you look inside of the walls of many of these schools, however, there’s sometimes a different story. There aren’t clear management systems, teachers feel isolated, there’s a clear divide between the administration and the staff, and toxicity seems to reign as a result. While many schools can “survive” those shortcomings under normal circumstances, all of that was exploited during the pandemic, and those schools struggled the most as a result. To those schools, the pandemic should serve as a wake up call to get the shop in order because a rainy day (or year) is always a day away. 
  1. It’s a matter of trust: When systems are broken, trust doesn’t exist, and schools without trust had a really hard time navigating the pandemic at a time when trust was needed most. The pandemic put our schools in a full blown crisis, and there were countless times when I just needed the teachers and staff to trust in what I was telling them and to trust that I’d always support them and have their back as we worked through the crisis. As in any relationship, trust isn’t just words that we use. Saying “trust me” just isn’t enough. Trust is built over time, through actions that are genuine and selfless, and it’s the most precious commodity of any relationship. We have that type of relationship at DFHS, and it made navigating this situation so much easier and productive. 
  1. You will please no one when you try to please everyone: This is my tenth year as the principal of DFHS, and my sixteenth as a school administrator. I learned long ago that it’s impossible to please everyone so I stopped trying well before the pandemic. However, this pandemic truly made it clear that not only was it impossible to please everyone, but in reality it seemed at times that it wasn’t possible to please anyone. No matter what decision we made as a team, we were barraged with emails that were at times highly negative and even personally insulting. The same held true during online community forums. As a leader, I’ve always had thick skin, I never take anything personally, and we make the best decisions as a team with the best and most current information that we have. That was certainly put to the test during the pandemic, and it was a true lesson in leadership, perseverance, and courage.
  1. Politics and schools don’t mix: It was fascinating how Covid became a political issue for so many people, and the political leanings of certain individuals often directed how they felt that schools should handle reopening. Some felt strongly that schools should fully reopen (“Covid is a hoax!”), others felt that schools should fully close indefinitely, and the majority were somewhat in the middle and didn’t know exactly what to think. For me, this was never a political issue, and my political opinions played no role in the decisions that were made. Instead, NYS essentially gave us a “playbook” of guidelines, and our job was to come up with the best solutions for the most people while playing by the rules of the respective game. In that way, it was objective decision making based on the information, and politics and “feelings” had no role whatsoever, as it never should. 
  1. Race and equity came to the forefront: Many years ago DFHS established itself as an “IB for All” school. Equity and access has always served as the bedrock of our belief system and philosophy as a district, and our school (and district) received local and national recognition for our success, including a National Blue Ribbon Award in 2020. When the pandemic hit, we were faced with new issues with regard to equity as students moved to full remote learning. This included the educational experiences of parents, students who had parents working from home vs. outside of the home, students who might or might not have a quiet place to work and/or meet with classes, and of course the inevitable self-consciousness that some students felt about the “background” that others might see during Google Meets. In late spring, the Black Lives Matter movement further illuminated issues around race and equity, and it became clear to everyone that we all need to do a better job of creating a truly inclusive school community. Our district has been dedicated to this important work since well before the pandemic and the new understandings that the pandemic brought forth have only increased our efforts. We all still have a long way to go. 
  1. Mental wellness also came to the forefront: Focusing on the mental and emotional well-being of students and staff has long been an emphasis for us at DFHS, and the pandemic brought many of those concerns further to the forefront. The start of the pandemic caused tremendous isolation and fear, and our teachers and staff were faced with the challenge of taking care of their students while simultaneously being concerned with their own well-being and that of their families. Despite challenges that are inherent whenever the focus is the human condition, as it was big time during the pandemic, our school was well equipped to handle these issues because of how much we focused on this area when things were “normal.” We emphasized mindfulness, meditation, staff and student wellness activities, and more structured programs that were designed by our Student Assistance Counselor and our school counseling team. Our forward thinking here made life more manageable for everyone when faced with a true crisis, and it allowed for much more level-headed proactive thinking when everyone was reacting to all that was happening around us. 
  1. Our students taught us all: The age old “concern” of older people is that the youth will lead to the downfall of America. We heard it with every generation, from the counterculture teens of the 60s to the millennials of this generation. We always think that our generation “did it best” when in reality that is the furthest thing from the truth. During this pandemic, we all learned pretty quickly that our kids are going to be okay, and with that so will we. While so many adults scrambled and, for lack of a better word panicked, our students and children for the most part rolled with the punches. They adapted to the changes, figured out how to navigate school, and they even offered help and support to teachers who were thrust into a whole new realm of virtual teaching. With so much taken away and lost, especially for our seniors, we saw our students rise up to the challenge, pivot, adjust, and find success in a world that was entirely different from the one they knew only a day before. Indeed, they were (and continue to be) a true inspiration to all of us.

There’s definitely a Part II to this pandemic as it relates to schools, and I’m sure a year from now I’ll look back again and reflect upon how schools have forever changed as a result. We already know that we can’t just simply go back to doing things exactly the way we did before March, 2020. To do so would be foolish. We’ve all been through so much and have learned, evolved, and grown as educators in ways we never thought possible. First year teachers became master teachers, and master teachers were in many cases turned back into rookies. It was a total upending of the system, and it forced all of us to rethink education not for what it is, but rather for what it can and will be. It is that concept that is most exciting, and it is the greatest gift that we all take away from this pandemic.

Our DFHS Story: The 1:1 Chromebook Program (#IBCHI2015)

One thing that I love to talk about is the history of our school. Since my first day as the principal of DFHS on July 15, 2011, I have been honored to be part of a wonderful “story” that has included so many milestones, changes, and accomplishments for our school. I share our “DFHS Story” with our faculty at the beginning and end of every school year. I do this so that our veteran teachers can be reminded of the wonderful work that they have been part of, and so our newer teachers can better understand the context of our current work and initiatives. History always informs our thinking, and it’s important that people recognize that our work today will also inform the work of future generations of DFHS teachers and students long after we are gone.

This blog, of course, is also part of that history, and tells part of what is our “Dobbs Ferry Story.” On Tuesday, I welcomed our faculty back “virtually” with an opening meeting that was held via Google Meet. As I sat in my office, I saw the faces of our faculty and staff in small boxes on my computer screen. Some were sitting in their classrooms, and others were in their homes. As I walked them through the presentation, I came to our familiar “DFHS: Our Story” slides, and asked them to take a moment to read through the list of our instructional journey as a school over the past ten years. From UBD to MYP, from the expansion of our IB DP to our long standing belief that a 1:1 technology program, when implemented properly, can truly enhance teaching and learning. It was this latter point that I emphasized, and reminded our staff of a time when we were pioneers with regard to 1:1 learning, and how the work that we began all the way back in 2013 has prepared us to once again lead the way as we now temporarily shift our instruction to a remote platform as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

With a cup of coffee in hand this morning, I took a look at some of the older blog posts that I’ve written over the years. I do this from time to time, and love to reflect on all that has happened for the same reason that I share these sentiments with our faculty each year. When scrolling, I came across a piece that I wrote in the summer of 2015 when we presented at the IB Conference of the Americas in Chicago (#IBCHI2015) on our new “cutting edge” 1:1 Chromebook program at DFHS. I remember our school being so ahead of the curve with this work, and our session quickly filled up as educators from all districts listened to our every word, took notes, asked questions, and prepared to take their findings back to their schools with hope and excitement. At DFHS, we were “all in” with the 1:1 Chromebook program at that point, we had just finished our third year, and I was also evaluating our program as the focus for my dissertation. The post that I wrote at the time is below, and it’s pretty cool to look at now because so many of the issues that we dealt with at the time are either irrelevant now or, in some ways, more pressing than ever.

The blog post starts with an opening sub-heading that asks, “Why Chromebooks?” and then shifts to a section on the academic skills that can be developed as result of a 1:1 program. At the time, some were skeptical about the idea of a 1:1 program, and thought that it was just another “thing” that looked good for administrators but would really have no impact on teaching and learning. Given that, a clear justification was needed in terms of academics, so in that section I talked about the CCSS (remember those?), and important skills like written communication, data analysis, and digital citizenship. These are all still so important, and so much of what I wrote at that time still rings true. However, what I never expected, and certainly didn’t list as a justification for a 1:1 program, was that five years later we would be in the midst of a global pandemic, that schools would be closed, and that instruction would be delivered using the very devices that DFHS was promoting all the back in 2013.

As we now embark on the next chapter of our story, “remote learning at DFHS,” I am fully confident that our years of work have prepared us for this moment. In ways it’s exciting, in others it’s both sad and terrifying. If there’s a lesson to be learned for schools throughout all of this, however, it’s that pushing the instructional agenda when times are “good” will better prepare everyone for when times are more challenging. Such is the case for us with regard to remote learning. We embraced this challenge years ago not knowing where the road was leading. Now that we are faced with the monumental task of essentially redesigning and reshaping all aspects of teaching and learning, both our teachers and students are ready because we have essentially been preparing for this moment for years. Will there be bumps along the way? Absolutely. Can remote learning ever replace the richness of in-person learning? Absolutely not. However, technology will provide us with the bridge, and this blog will continue to be used to share our work as we now prepare for this next chapter.


A look back at where we were on July 15, 2015

I’ve written numerous posts on the 1:1 Chromebook program at Dobbs Ferry High School over the past two years while continuing to evaluate the program for the dissertation that I plan (hope!) to finally defend this fall. I am also looking forward to sharing our school’s 1:1 story at the upcoming IB Conference of the Americas (#IBCHI2015) along with @meghalberg and @careim2. In preparation for our upcoming presentation, I have combined some of the “big ideas” from my previous posts and have added some additional insight based on my recent research. Here are the highlights…

Why Chromebooks?

  1. Practical Considerations: At first glance, the Chromebook has the look of a standard laptop. It has a 12.1-inch screen, a traditional keyboard, and opens and closes in the same way. But that’s pretty much where the comparisons end. The “web-based” Chromebook is extraordinarily light due to the absence of a standard hard drive and is also sleek in nature. This is critical for high school students who are already overwhelmed with large over-sized textbooks and book bags that weigh more than they do. In addition, the Chromebook is inexpensive as compared to even the most modest laptops that are on the market.
  2. Academic Considerations: While many of our students noted the value and benefits of using iPads as a primary device, they also noted that there is a connotation of “play” that is associated with iPads due to the thousands of non-educational apps that are available. Conversely, the Chromebook provides easy access to Google Drive and the growing number of educational apps that teachers and students are now using on a daily basis. In addition, the traditional keyboard makes much better sense than a touchpad for high school students who use the device for note-taking, paper writing, and overall collaboration.
  3. Access to Google Drive: Perhaps the greatest benefit of the Chromebook is the ease in which students can access the internet and, more importantly, Google Drive. Though still in its early stages, Google Drive has already changed the way that we think about “sharing” and is now on the cusp of changing the way that we think about teaching and learning. Through the various Google Apps for Education that are available in Drive, teachers and students can collaborate in “real time” on various projects and classroom assignments. This feature not only challenges all traditional thinking of assessing student understanding, but also how we provide ongoing feedback to students beyond the “brick and mortar” classroom.
  4. “The Cloud”: This once seemingly abstract concept has now singlehandedly changed the way that we think about accessing, saving, and sharing information. In the old days, files and documents were saved to a hard drive on a local computer or a laptop. Transferring or sharing of these files would require that we email them to another person (or ourselves) or save them to an easy-to-lose flashdrive. No more. By saving all information to “the cloud,” all files can be easily accessed on any device wherever there is internet access. With this concept in mind, the Chromebook was designed to allow users to quickly and easily access the web and their important files. Essentially, the files are available wherever you go. This is a critical for students as they can now access all documents from home or in school (or anywhere) while enjoying a virtually limitless amount of storage space.
  5. The CCSS: All of the talk these days seems to be around the new CCSS and the degree to which schools across the nation have made “the shift.” Among the many “college and career readiness” targets that our outlined in the CCSS, there is a shared expectation that students will use technology to produce, publish, interact, collaborate, and evaluate different forms of digital media. To further this point, the NCTM remarked that “unless technology is woven throughout these standards, the credibility of any claim that they will better prepare students in the 21st century is diminished.” Given these demands and expectations, the Chromebook provides easy access to databases, journal abstracts/articles via the “research tool,” and a variety of additional educational apps that are designed to enhance understanding and overall capability.

What skills have students gained as a result of the 1:1 Chromebook program?

  1. Written Communication: Teachers in all disciplines noted writing as the skill that has been most directly impacted by the 1:1 Chromebook initiative. By sharing documents both with peers and their teachers, students are now able to engage in the writing process like never before. Through formal assignments like the humanities interdisciplinary research paper (@MikeMeagh) and informal assignments such as shared journal entries (@Mrs_Fahy), students collaborate with one or more co-writers in real time through each phase of the writing process. In addition, Chromebooks allow teachers to provide ongoing feedback and targeted instruction by using the revision history feature and identifying the specific strengths and weaknesses of each individual student. In that sense, Chromebooks provide teachers with a practical tool for differentiation so that they may best meet the needs of all students.
  2. Accessing and Analyzing Information: The ease at which our 1:1 initiative has enabled students to access an unlimited amount of information on any topic via the internet has completely transformed teaching and learning in all disciplines. Teachers now play the role of facilitator on a more frequent basis while students are being encouraged to take ownership of their learning as they decipher between credible and non-credible sources on the internet. As an example, @AdamoBiology regularly has his students use the “research tool” in Google Docs to compare, contrast, and analyze abstracts, journal articles, and research studies that are available in various databases. Activities of this nature are not only in-line with both the Common Core and IB Learning Standards, but also help students to develop skills in research, evaluation, critical thinking, reading, curiosity, and self-direction.
  3. Data Analysis: In addition to the analytical skills that are developed through the activities noted above, the Chromebooks have provided our students with a new way to analyze and graphically represent numerical data through applications such as Google Spreadsheet. For example, @ANewhouse6 requires that all students share their Google “Sheet” with all of the groups in the class so that they can analyze both the validity and reliability of the data collected as well as the process and procedure that the students used to conduct their investigations. Furthermore, this feature makes it possible for students to receive instant feedback on their lab results, graphs, charts, and data analysis from both the teacher and other members of the class. As an extension, students have the ability to present their data through applications such as Google Slides. Given that, additional skills that are directly connected to data analysis include communication, organization, collaboration, and critical thinking.
  4. Initiative & Self-Direction: @sarahhmstern noted that the increased level of access to the internet has shifted the mindset of some students from feelings of  “helplessness” that come as a result of the limitations of textbooks to an understanding that all information is in fact attainable if the the proper search is conducted. This realization is especially critical when students are working independently outside of school. Similarly, teachers such as @ms_sardinia, @MicheleIrvine1, and @MegHalberg provide access to a variety of apps and websites that allow students to take control of their learning based on their specific strengths, weaknesses, and areas of interest. This includes websites such as Khan Academy and a library of Google Apps for Education.
  5. Digital Citizenship: While not a “skill” in the traditional sense, digital citizenship is critical for success in all academic classes as well as all “real world” endeavors. From an accountability perspective, students are responsible for taking care of their devices while having it in school with them each day. Furthermore, @addonam noted the importance of internet etiquette and digital citizenship with respect to searching for information and interacting with all people in a virtual setting. In that sense, the benefits for 9th graders go far beyond the classroom and indirectly connect to the development of other crucial skills, including organization, self-direction, and of course responsibility.

What are some of the issues that still need to be resolved?

  1. Instructional: Inconsistent use among teachers. While all teachers utilize Chromebooks, the degree to which they do so depends on the subject and the nature of the culminating final exam (state or local) that they are required to administer. In courses such as English, World Language, and ELL that do not end with a state exam, teachers feel a greater sense of freedom and take more risks with regard to integrating technology. Conversely, teachers in math emphasized that the end year NYS Regents exam requires “pen to paper skills” that cannot be developed via a Chromebook. Solution: Ongoing differentiated professional development that is subject specific needs to be provided. PD must always focus on the ways in which technology (and the 1:1) can enhance teaching and learning within the content areas while recognizing the specific obstacles that might exist.
  2. Instructional: Accommodating students who either forget their device at home or have a broken device. Solution: There is no perfect solution to this inevitable issue. The first and easiest solution is to have “extra” devices on hand for such situations (particularly students with broken devices). If this is not possible, teachers can find opportunities to either pair students or, if possible, allow students to access Google Drive via their phones.
  3. Instructional: Monitoring student use to ensure that all students are on task during class. Solution: In addition to the internal features in Google Drive that allow teachers to monitor student progress, our teachers noted that viewing student screens from afar is much easier with the HP Chromebook than it is with the Samsung device. We made the switch from Samsung to HP this year. There’s also a great deal to be said about the importance of teaching digital citizenship and responsible use. See “Why BYOD” (12/12/13).
  4. Infrastructure: As more students use their devices as a result of our one-to-one (grades 9-11) and/or BYOD (grade 12) initiatives, our WiFi has started to become overrun causing the internet (and downloading) to move much slower. Solution: Increase bandwidth and access points. In many ways this is still a work in progress for us as we determine the appropriate amount of bandwidth to support such a high level of activity. On our campus (MS/HS), we can have as many as 1300 devices connecting to the network at one time. Given that, we have moved from 40 MHz to 100 MHz and have installed 115 access points throughout the district. Despite these changes we still have instances when the internet moves slowly so it something that we continue to evaluate.
  5. Infrastructure: The battery often drains before the of the end of the day even if the devices are fully charged overnight. Solution: We are finding that some of the biggest battery “drains” occur during student “free” periods (lunch, etc.) when they access gaming and movie sites. Speaking to students about this issue is key and, if necessary, blocking sites as needed. In addition, charging stations need to be provided throughout the building and all student chargers should be labeled (name/grade level) so that students can use their chargers while at school.

For more information, we invite you to attend our session at 11:15 on Saturday, July 25 in the “Missouri” room!

What We Did On Our Summer Vacation…

The following guest post was written by DFHS teachers Marion Halberg, Sarah Stern, Sarah Grosso, and Mallory Cairo. All four led a powerful and important Allies of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) study group this summer for our staff. This is their reflection…

It’s been a summer like no other to say the least. A pandemic, racial reckoning, and strife around the world and at home have all contributed to the anxiety and uncertainty that we are feeling. In the traditional “how I spent my summer” reflection that is so familiar to those of us in schools, we thought we’d share what we have been doing. In the spirit of the IB Learner profile, we have spent this summer engaging in some hard reflection on the work we have done and inquiring on what we need to do to make our school a more equitable and harm-free place for all of our students, their families, and staff. It’s a principled approach to the serious issues we are all dealing with as we reopen school in whatever form that may take.

Many of you know that in June we put out a call for participants to join an Allies of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) study group. We formed with 20 people from the high school and Springhurst. We spent seven weeks exploring what it means to be White and how that influences our teaching and relationships with others, particularly with our BIPOC students. We delved into the kinds of harmful experiences our BIPOC students have had at school albeit unintentionally. We read and studied Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, and This Book is Ant-Racist, by Tiffany Jewell in addition to dozens of articles, podcasts, videos, websites, and more. As facilitators, we engaged in our own journeys and attended hundreds of hours of professional development workshops throughout the summer to understand systemic racism, racial harm in schools, centering of BIPOC students, and restorative and racial justice and more. These trainings were attended by educators from across the country and world and gave us an internationally-minded perspective.

To what end? Here’s what we learned and what we are understanding:

  • We do have a white-centered culture and curriculum and that needs to change.

  • We have caused harm to our BIPOC students. We have learned and need to challenge ourselves to understand that intent is not the same as impact.

  • We can state clearly and without hesitation that Black Lives Matter. They matter because until we center and understand BIPOC we simply cannot say all lives matter.

  • We know we are against racism but we have to actively be Anti-Racist.

  • Working to change and make things better isn’t a quick-fix. We know it will take time and we want to take the time to continue learning and changing.

We will be continuing the Allies of BIPOC study group as the school year begins. It’s an affinity group for white staff at school to examine our identity and role in our work with students and in relation to one another. It’s a journey that is not easy but it is worthwhile in so many ways. We are going to be working with Layla Saad’s book Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor which is a workbook of sorts to reflect, educate, and examine ourselves. We have a Google Classroom we began this summer with curated resources that we have gathered since June. We hope you will consider joining us.

For our BIPOC colleagues, there is a BIPOC Affinity group that has formed. Please reach out to Michelle Yang-Kaczmarek at kaczmarekm@dfsd.org (@michkkacz) if you are interested in joining or learning more. To join the Allies group please email Marion Halberg at halbergm@dfsd.org

We hope you consider joining us,

Mallory Cairo (@MsCairoHistory), Sarah Grosso (sarah_grosso2), Marion Halberg (@MegHalberg), Sarah Stern (@MsSarahStern)

Participants included: Jessica Bauer (@jessicabauer125), Lisa Brady (@YoleBrady), John Falino (@johnfalino1), Michelle Gerstle, Rachel Glynn, Megan Lois (@megan_lois_), Jillian Pallone (@PalloneMs), Elizabeth Pinkava (@pinkavae), Lauren Rodriguez, Josh Rosen (@JoshuaRosen2), Lynn Sudak, Currier Todd

Protests and Peace (Letter to Students)

The following email was sent to the students of DFHS following the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests across our nation…

Dear Students,

The recent death of George Floyd in Minnesota has prompted protests and cries for peace and equality throughout our nation. In some instances, the protests have turned violent, and this has further challenged our humanity as we are simultaneously entrenched in a devastating pandemic. I know that many of you are wrestling with the emotions that naturally come with all of this uncertainty, and not having the certainty of physically attending our school to discuss these feelings makes it that much more difficult.

Dobbs Ferry was way ahead of its time back in 1998 when the high school was first authorized as an IB World School. The IB mission of “creating a better and more peaceful world” attracted the program to Dobbs Ferry, and that same mission and message of peace is more relevant today than perhaps ever before. Always remember that all of you are IB students, and each of you is positioned to be true leaders who effectuate positive and lasting change in all corners of the world. Bringing forth positive change within a society first begins with all of us as individuals. Your individual actions serve as a model for others, and in turn inspire change at all levels within our society.

I also want to remind all of you that although we are not physically in school, we are still united as a school community and we are here for one another. Although this pandemic has many of us dealing with feelings of isolation, please remember that you are not alone and that you have deep network of support and resources at your fingertips. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us if you need support, have questions, or just need to process these challenging times. We are truly in this together.

Be well, and keep looking out for each other.

Sincerely,

Dr. Falino

Grading System: A Note to the Students of DFHS

Dear Students,

I hope that you are doing well and that all of your families are healthy and managing to get through this difficult time. Mr. Meagh reached out to me on Thursday and explained that some of the members of the junior class were asking for some clarification about the grading policy, and that there was concern about the reduction of “weight” that is being placed on Quarter 4. Our Legislative Branch has always done a superb job of identifying issues that impact our student body and our school as a whole. This time is no different. Typically, I would set up a lunch meeting with the members of the Legislative Branch to discuss an issue such as this one and to walk them through the steps that are taken when making decisions that impact the entire organization. Given the limitations that we have due to the current status of things, I’ll share some of that insight with you now via this note.

As you can imagine, we have so many students at our school who are struggling in this new format and are performing well below their norm due to so many circumstances, including inequity based on issues at home, illness, the need to work because parents are without jobs, emotional stress, and so on. We are getting emails daily from parents and students who have never needed assistance before, and the mental and emotional component of our work is at an all time high. In considering all of this, an approach to calculating final grades was needed to account for the distress that every family is feeling (varying degrees, of course) while fully recognizing that certain students are doing well and progressing academically. Of course we are thrilled about the latter; however, there’s also inequity in that as other students were not able to transition as easily to a distance learning format, not to mention the day-to-day struggle of essentially losing the only routine they’ve known since entering kindergarten.

Ultimately, the approach that we went with was based on feedback received over the past four weeks. The feedback came from teachers, building and district administration, the middle school, and with insight of how other districts in the county had decided to approach grading. In fact, several districts made quick decisions to go with a simple “Pass/Fail” for Quarter 3 and/or Quarter 4. While I fully understand the thinking and intent of this approach, my issue is that it somewhat diminishes the hard work and effort that so many teachers and students are putting forth during this difficult time.

In the end, no policy is going to work best for everyone and we can’t have individual policies for each student’s unique situation. However, we do feel that counting Quarter 4 as ten percent addresses the mental and emotional needs of students as outlined above, while still having a significant impact on final grades, including the overall GPA. Essentially, ten percent can mean the difference between at least a half and in some instances a whole letter grade. This is particularly the case with IB DP classes and the grade weighting system that we currently have in place

Please know that while academics are a clear priority at DFHS, our top priority will always be the health and emotional wellness of our students and families. Please do not hesitate to reach out to a school counselor if assistance is needed at any point. Ms. Reim and I are always available by email as well, 24/7.

A special thanks to all of you, including the faculty, for the wonderful videos, the non-stop activity on our new Instagram page, and the endless stream of supportive emails and notes. It is truly an honor to serve as the principal of this exceptional high school, and the way that our school has responded with this situation has truly been my proudest moment over the nine years that I have served in that role.

Be well,

Dr. Falino

A Note to the Class of 2020

Dear Seniors,

I hope that all of you are healthy and are doing well. I’ve been sending a number of emails to all parents and students but wanted to send a note directly to all of you. The pandemic that has been unexpectedly thrust upon you during what is the best part of your senior year is something that will be studied and talked about as one of the more devastating events in world history. It is resulting in unspeakable loss for so many, including family members, friends, and renowned figures from around the world. For all of you, there is added loss as senior experiences, memories, and moments that you have waited your whole lives for are being lost with each day that we are not in school. I wish that I was able to change all of that for you, but there is sadly no way to recreate lost experiences or replace the special memories that are being taken away.

I unfortunately don’t have any “inside information” about when we will return or what all of this will mean for events like the prom and graduation. I listen to the governor just as you do, and try to read between the lines with things that he says. I feel like every day my opinion about how things will shake out for us shifts based on his daily message. What I do know, however, is that we have a faculty, student body, and community that is dedicated to ensuring that we do whatever necessary to make the latter part of your senior year one that you will both remember and be proud of as you look back on it many years from now. Each senior class leaves behind a legacy. I say this every year at the opening grade level meeting for seniors. For this senior class, the Class of 2020, your legacy will be forever etched into the history of our school. We’ve already seen so many of you step up, from the many posts on our new Instagram page to the collaboration on virtual spirit weeks, including this week’s “Cooking and Baking Week.” I have no doubt that this class will continue to rally and join together, that all of you will remain united in ways that no other graduating class has before, and that these “new” memories are ones that you will carry forever.

One of the many aspects of our school that I hold most sacred is our history and tradition. Our school was built in 1934, and since that time each senior class enjoyed events like formals and proms as well as a graduation that in most years was held at the waterfront. Please know that we are determined to ensure that you get the chance to experience these same traditions, and that we are constantly evaluating the current and projected status of this pandemic so that we can adjust our plans as necessary. While this might mean postponing some events and/or adjusting the “look” of an event, it does not mean that we have any plans to cancel anything. In fact, it might ultimately result in a new tradition for our school, and that too will be part of the enduring legacy of this class. We are already seeing an example of this with the “senior experience” that we are putting together in lieu of our senior internship program. You will get much more information on that in the coming weeks. 

For now, please know that we are all in this together and that you have a school and a community that has your back. I wish you all of the best, and look forward to seeing all of you soon. 

Sincerely,

John Falino

The Power of Empowering: “Winning Ideas”

There is nothing more transformative and critical with regard to innovation and change than true empowerment. This is certainly not a groundbreaking concept, and it is one that I’ve written about many times over the years. School leaders often talk about the importance of empowering teachers and staff to lead true change, yet often pull back and/or do not provide the space for this type of change to occur. I’m never shy about sharing the great work that is happening daily at DFHS. I love to share not because of what I’m doing as a leader, but rather the great work that is being led by our teachers and staff. As a school that truly embraces an “IB for All” philosophy, what has set us apart is the fact that teacher voice is a very real thing. At DFHS, teachers are looked upon as the professionals who have the best perspective on what works and what change is needed. Teachers provide feedback, insight, and are given the space to take risks and create. Although there are far too many examples to list here, the many posts on this blog provide a small sample of how that has looked and turned out for us over the years. 

One “ritual” that I did away with during my first year as principal was the archaic faculty meeting that had an administrator standing at the front of the room reviewing procedures and information that could just as easily be shared in an email. Instead, faculty time at DFHS is used for teachers to work with colleagues on curriculum, assessment, and of course new learning initiatives that can further them professionally. We do set aside three full faculty meetings a year so that we may come together as a school community, reflect on our school-wide goals, and share the work that is happening across our school. We do this before the first day of school, after the first semester, and at the conclusion of the year. 

Prior to our most recent midyear meeting, teachers shared (via Google Docs) their work with regard to our school-wide goals around service learning and student wellness. The Doc was extensive! After taking some time to review these initiatives at the opening of our meeting, we transitioned to a group challenge using the following essential question: “How, if at all, does our school (and system) inspire staff and students to be independent thinkers prepared to change the world?” Based off our district-wide vision statement, this question became the jumping off point for the following group challenge:

  1. Review the Google Doc with your team (see above).
  2. Generate a new “winning idea” that will further inspire students and staff to be independent thinkers prepared to change the world. (10 minutes)
  3. Tweet the idea to #DFHSIB21
  4. Prepare a 1 minute elevator pitch. Select a speaker. 

The goal of the task was simple: to come up with new ideas for our school that would build off the work that we’ve done to this point. In doing so, each team was instructed to come up with realistic concepts with consideration to our existing system and resources, and to be “positive, practical, and purposeful.” Each team got to work immediately, and the results were pretty amazing: 

Group 1: Day of Service (CAS Field Day)(Tom, Sarah, Kelly, Marion, Georgia)

Each department brainstorms 2-3 service-based learning activities that can be offered to students. Students can sign up for these activities, similar to how they sign up for MAC Field Day activities. This can perhaps be done on a half day or during the first few periods (1-4) on MAC field day. *At an IB Training for CAS, we saw a variation of this. The Senior DP students planned an IB Field Day for incoming DP Candidates with team building activities and student-led info sessions to help the juniors get started. This counted toward their CAS portfolio as well.

Group 2: Enhanced Grading System (Paul, Kelly, Frank, Craig, Mallory)

Examine our numerical grading system in an effort to change numerical grades to rubric bands (perhaps A-F, or markband numbers aligned with MYP rubrics). Each teacher would set the expectations at the beginning of the year: “this is what an A looks like, this is what a B looks like.” Students could also have a say, increasing ownership in grades. This might alleviate some of the stress associated with grades, while allowing for a more holistic set of standards. 

Group 3: “Real World” Connections and Scheduling (Cristin, Danielle, Terence, Scott, Jim)

Invite former students or community members to DFHS to talk about different career paths.  Although we promote the traditional college path, there are many successful individuals in our families and in the community that have inspirational stories that did not include college. We might also explore the idea of flexible scheduling in the morning to allow more students to attend the BOCES program. 

Group 4: School-Wide Service (Adrienne, Maria, Will, Radene, Maureen)

Use our early release days to focus on a school-wide charity, building a sense of empathy, community and school spirit. The initial kick off would be MAC Field day and maybe an end of the year celebration at the CAS Field day. This concept was brought up by another group as well. 

Group 5: Interest-Based Learning (Michelle, Andrew, Mary Alice, Jillian, Adrianne)

Dedicate one day out of each month to create “pop up courses” for students to choose from a menu of topics to learn about/to teach themselves. This will allow students to interact with teachers collaboratively and for them to have a chance to learn about information that is an extension of our existing curriculum. In addition, it will allow for teachers to take the students out of a traditional classroom setting. 

Group 6: “Life Skills” Classes (Rebecca, Connor, Keith, Erica, Paulette, Liz)

Create a “life skills” class. This could run once a week or monthly. Topics would include stress management, gratitude, mental health, drugs & alcohol, resume writing, etc. 

Group 7: Leadership Elective (Megan, Michelle, Kim, Nicole, Richard)

Creation of a Leadership Course Elective. This course would give our students the tools needed to become “Independent Thinkers Change Worlds.” The course would cover what is needed to be a leader as an individual, in a group setting, and in a diverse and global world.  

Group 8: Extended Instructional Blocks (Laura, Justine, Neil, Stephanie, Danielle, Tim)

Use early dismissal days for extended instructional blocks. Teachers can use this time to develop hands on activities, passion projects, service learning, Edcamp, etc. During lunch periods, we can offer activities in place of having students sit in the commons because it is typically their lunch. This might include yoga, career day, senior alumni or a community service activity.

Group 9: Edcamp For Students (Michele, Maria, Jessica, Donna, Lisa) 

Use half days as an Edcamp for the students so that they may sign up for activities that they are interested in. This might include yoga, mindfulness, “Gym Guyzz,” aqueduct cleanup, making lunches for the homeless, organizing fundraisers for specific causes, etc.  This would further allow us to bring awareness to mindfulness and service learning within the school day while providing students with choice.  

Group 10: Service Learning (Mike, Sarah, Kelly, Dana, Serena)

Create an elective called Service Learning somewhat modeled off our special needs Life Skills class, where students will use the UN Sustainable Development Goals as the structure for the course.  Each year students could tackle four goals, one per quarter. All students can have an opportunity to select this course so that they are further inspired to serve beyond the walls of our school.  

As I planned the group challenge, my hope was that we would find one or two “winning ideas” to further develop as a staff. By the end of the meeting, my thoughts had shifted to thinking that there is no reason why we can’t do all ten. Our next step is to get back into teams to further develop these concepts. Empowerment and ownership are powerful, and the results can be extraordinary. It’s just what we do here at DFHS, and it’s why we continue to inspire staff and students to be “independent thinkers prepared to change the world.”

What is the role of the IB Head of School? (updated from 2013)

One of the first posts that I published all the way back in 2013 was written in the hotel lobby of the IB Conference of the Americas in New Orleans, LA. The focus of the piece was on the role of the IB Head of School, and my plan at that time was to maintain a blog that would attempt to answer some “essential questions” in education, particularly as they related to the IB program. Fast forward almost seven years and a lot has changed. Seven years is a long time, both personally and professionally, and my views have certainly developed, changed in some instances, and of course raised more questions in others. I’ve always viewed this blog as a place to flesh out and articulate my thoughts around many issues, and it has also been an invaluable tool for communicating these ideas with our school community. I admit that I do check out the blog statistics from time to time to get a sense of the posts that seem to continually get the most “views,” and am surprised at certain posts that either get or do not get lots of activity. The post “Why IB?” in 2013, for example, had over 1,500 views in a day, which was a surprise because I remember writing it as a small piece to get some much needed buy-in within our small community. I never imagined it would take off that day as it had. The same continues to happen with the short three paragraph post that I wrote on the “role of the IB Head of School,” which still gets around 20 views a day on average.  

To be honest, I knew very little about being an IB Head of School when I wrote that post in 2013. I was finishing my second year in the role, I was still getting my footing as a principal and a school leader, and the IB DP at our school was on the cusp of massive changes that would occur over the next several years. All of that has been well documented in this blog. Over the years, our school has hosted many site visits for the IB DP and now the IB MYP, and I often find myself discussing with principals what their role is as the IB Head of School. I generally find  that principals fall into one of two camps with regard to this question: they either don’t see themselves as being involved with the IB Program and leave the work to their IB Coordinator or they find themselves overly involved in the logistics of the program and fail to grasp that their role as a Head of School is a critical piece (I stress the word piece!) of a much larger puzzle that is needed for success. So after doing this for awhile now, I thought I’d take another look at this question and offer some clearly defined responsibilities of the IB Head of School:  

Communicate the Vision: Above all else, the role of the IB Head of School is to communicate the vision of the program with the school community and to set the course for all of the work that needs to occur in this regard. The Head of School is essentially the public “face” of the program, and is the person who speaks with parents and community members, articulates the vision and mission of the IB, presents the big ideas and objectives, inspires others, and generates excitement and enthusiasm for the program. This is especially important for schools that offer both IB and AP programs as well as other academic programs that might compete. This situation, while common, provides its own set of challenges for the IB Head of School and can often result in different people heading in different directions without a common vision. Regardless of the set up, however, the IB Head of School serves as the instructional leader from a big picture perspective and needs to provide clarity of purpose and a singular vision for a school. 

Build a Strong Team: In order for an IB Head of School to truly do what is needed from a big picture perspective, it is critical that a strong team is in place to handle each of the roles in the IB hierarchy. I’ve written time and again on the importance of the IB Coordinators and the necessity of having individuals in these positions who are smart, organized, detail oriented, and in support of the vision and mission of the program. There is absolutely no room for a weak link when it comes to the coordinators for either the IB DP, MYP, CAS, or EE. At DFHS, we have exceptional individuals in each of these positions and they are the ones who essentially “run” the nuts and bolts of the program on a day-to-day basis. The same holds true for a school’s IB Administrator, IB secretary, department leaders, and of course teachers. As a Head of School, I work closely with all of these individuals respectively and completely empower them to run their aspect of the program without any micromanaging from me. 

Maximize Resources: A key responsibility of the IB Head of School is to find ways (sometimes creatively!) to offer an IB Program that is robust in terms of offerings and is differentiated based on the interests and abilities of all students. This is especially the case with the IB Diploma Program. In its best form, the IB DP should provide an array of Standard Level and Higher Level options for students so that there are multiple pathways for students to acquire the full IB diploma. This is a challenge at a small school like ours so it has required us to maximize what we offer based on the strengths of our teachers, our IB budget, professional development needs, the courses that will generate the greatest number of student interest, and an overall academic program that supports “IB for All” starting in grade 11.

Professional Development: Ensuring that coordinators, faculty, and staff receive ongoing and current professional development is a given for any IB Head of School. In this regard, the Head of School must work closely with the IB Coordinators to identify teachers who are in need of formal IB training and/or who need to be re-trained based on changes to each respective subject area. In order to achieve the singular vision discussed above, it must be a priority that all faculty members receive IB training. Beyond IB training, all professional development and curriculum work at the school-level needs to be connected to an aspect of the IB Program to further support the idea of a clear and singular vision for all. Finally, the IB Head of School must also be dedicated to his/her own professional growth beyond the initial IB Administrator training that all heads are required to attend. The IBO now offers a series of different workshops that directly emphasize a specific aspect of IB leadership. Learning needs to be ongoing for everyone, and the Head of School is responsible for modeling this behavior for the entire school community. 

Communicate and Celebrate: Perhaps the best way to build excitement and support of the IB Program is to find opportunities to share what is happening with the school community and, if possible, the whole world. Social media makes this easy, and this blog is evidence of that. An IB Head of School needs to have an active presence on social media, a school-wide hashtag (#DFHSIB21), and a school Facebook page that celebrates the work of staff and students. There was a time when this concept was progressive. Now it’s just basic. So if a Head of School is not ensuring that this is happening, well I’m not sure what to say. In addition, the Head of School should take opportunities to present at IB conferences and invite faculty members to join these presentations. Our school presents annually at the IB World Conference and we often invite teachers to join when the topic is based on their work inside of the classroom. This approach is great for morale, bolsters the profile of a school, rewards teachers and students, and generates more buy-in within a school community. Again, this is pretty simple and common sense stuff. 

While the focus of this piece has been on the role of the IB Head of School, it should be noted that many of the ideas discussed can certainly apply to any building principal or school leader. Having a clear vision, strong communication, a commitment to ongoing professional development, and developing a team of empowered leaders are fundamental concepts for a leader in any role. In order to achieve this, leaders need to actively demonstrate those same IB Learner qualities that we work to instill in our students. We never stop learning, we never stop reflecting, and we never stop growing. Please feel free to share any other aspects of leadership that in the comments section below so that we can continue to learn, reflect, and grow together.

MAC Field Day: Community, Activity, Service (#DFHSIB21)

History and tradition. Two words that fully capture what Dobbs Ferry is all about. From the murals that adorn our hallways to the our football games at Gould Park, DFHS holds a proud history that truly sets our school community apart from all others. What has also historically set Dobbs Ferry apart is our ability to join together in times of need and for important causes that impact the lives of our students, families, and community members. At the core of the IB Program is the importance of compelling students to “think globally while acting locally,” and time and again our students have demonstrated this mindset in all areas of our community. As we gear up for our 14th MAC Field Day on October 18th, and in the spirit of the late Coach James “Coach Mac” Mackenzie, we are reminded once again of the importance of joining together to celebrate our history while bringing awareness to important issues in our community.

In May of 2006, tragedy struck Dobbs Ferry when we lost our football coach, teacher, mentor, and friend Coach Mac. This loss was not only difficult for his football players, but also the student body and faculty of our high school. Coach Mac made an impact on every individual he encountered here in Dobbs Ferry. His personality was infectious. He had a larger than life aura and it was impossible for any person he met to forget him. Many would say it was his unique look and the “handlebar” mustache. Others might say that it was the fact that he would be wearing shorts on a sub-zero degree day in January. Those that knew him best though would argue that it was because he made every single person he came across feel important.  He made people, no matter who they were, where they came from, what their situation may have been, feel they mattered. He represented caring, unity, togetherness, and community. He represented the very best of Dobbs Ferry. He represented what we are all about, and what we always strive to be.

Coach Mac was also legendary for his sayings. He may have been second only to the immortal Yogi Berra in this department. A favorite was “Do what I mean, not what I say.” His starting quarterback knew this one better than anyone. But the one we remember best here at DFHS is “Who’s better than you?” That saying summed up better than any other what Coach Mac was all about. No matter what anyone has told you, no matter what you might think, “you matter, you’re important, and I care about you.”

In the summer of 2006, just prior to the start of school, the students at DFHS wanted to do something to honor and thank Coach Mac for all that he had done for them and for this school. They decided to name our annual field day in his memory, and the following year, on Friday, September 21, 2007, Fox 5 NY had its morning show Good Day NY broadcast live from our turf during our second MAC Day. The school spirit could be felt everywhere throughout town. It was a fitting celebration of Coach Mac, and a wonderful way for our school and community to show everyone what Dobbs was all about.

Fast forward to present day and our school is now prepared for our 14th MAC Field Day. In past years, our students have used this occasion vehicle for supporting an important global causes within our local school community. In 2018, our students united to raise money for the victims of the hurricanes and chose the non-partisan “One America Appeal” because it spoke directly to what Coach Mac was all about–-togetherness, community, and helping others. This year, as we celebrate our 21st year as an IB World School (#DFHSIB21), our students are uniting once again to promote the importance of recycling and environmental awareness on a global scale.  As always, our mission is to promote service learning and civic engagement while emphasizing the development of student driven, student focused, and student run endeavors. Our current students are already part of our school’s rich history, and continue to find new ways to give back while aiming to inspire future generations in the same way that past generations have inspired them.