The IB Connection: DFHS Science Research

Guest Blogger: Erica Curran (@dfsciresearch) is the Science Research Coordinator at Dobbs Ferry High School in Westchester County, NY.

The science research program at DFHS continues to grow and is currently on par with the most competitive programs in Westchester County. We hired a new science research coordinator, Erica Curran, three years ago and the program has continued to reach new heights as a result. Each year, our students choose specific areas of scientific inquiry and design college-level research studies that are shared locally, nationally, and in some cases internationally. Recently, one of our graduates, Blake Hord, had his work published in The Astrophysical Journal. Please click on the link below to read Blake’s abstract:

http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/1538-4357/aa8fcf/meta;jsessionid=2D5DE4917DF7BF3395A42AFA323ABA5F.c1.iopscience.cld.iop.org

A few years back, Ms. Curran wrote a piece on the science research program at DFHS and the types of skills that students develop through the program. An excerpt from her original piece is below… 

As an IB World School with a science research program that continues to develop and grow, it was also immediately clear to me that students are not only prepared for the rigors of science research due to the IB, but are are also more able to get the most out of their science research experience due to the many “intangible” 21st century skills that they have developed along the way. Some of the specific 21st century skills that students develop through both programs are as follows:

Ownership and Problem Solving: The IB Program describes IB students and teachers as “lifelong learners who develop an intrinsic ownership of their own understanding of the world around them.” I have found that the Science Research Program is able to instill a sense of true excitement and ownership of learning in students as well. The ability of students to choose the topic that they wish to engage in from any number of areas allows them to investigate real-world issues that they find applicable and important. They are also able to delve deeply into areas that would not otherwise be addressed in their academic careers and become “experts” in their respective area by developing an understanding of their topic that rivals all but researchers specializing in their field.  

Critical Thinking and Creativity: While there is a solid structure in place to support and assist students in their skill development in science research, students are ultimately in charge of their own project. They develop their own questions and find their own resources while attempting to answer them.  No two projects are ever the same. Since students are developing their understanding of a different topic, they often become the person most suited to answer the questions that naturally arise. Again, there are mentors and instructors there to support and guide; however, the questions that arise in science research programs are not the kind that can be answered by Google. They are the types of questions that may never be fully answered, though tremendous knowledge can be gained just through the action of attempting to answer it.

Collaboration and Communication: The summer internship aspect of the Science Research Program is integral to the ultimate success of students. Giving the students the support and guidance of top researchers, scientists, and engineers in their field allows each student to have access to experiences that would not otherwise be available to them. Students are required to work closely and effectively with not only each other and their mentors, but often with graduate students and college administrators and other personnel involved with their project. The students learn that research cannot be accomplished in a vacuum or on one’s own, but that it requires significant cooperative work from large groups of individuals all looking at different aspects of the same large, global issue.

Additionally, a large focus of the course is focused on developing each student’s ability to present and communicate their ideas and findings in ways that multiple levels of audiences can access and digest. The student becomes a very real part of the global community that is investigating and researching their chosen topic. Learning how to become a true participant in the global scientific conversation that is occurring in the scientific community is an opportunity that is unique to this program.

Technology & Analysis: Science research students required to become experts in the most commonly used software in colleges and the workforce, such as Microsoft Word, Microsoft PowerPoint and Microsoft Excel. In order to compile and analyze data, generate reports, and present their findings, these tools are significantly depended on. Additionally, each student is exposed and often required to utilize cutting edge technology in their field of research. Tools such as FMRI machines probes that the students find necessary to answer the big questions they have found.

At DFHS, we are fortunate to run two exceptional programs that work in concert with one another. As a result, we find that our students develop into internationally minded individuals who not only posses strong skills in research, but also the necessary 21st century “survival” skills to excel in whatever path they pursue upon graduation. Does your school offer both the IB DP and Science Research? If so, comment below! We’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Remembering Coach Mac: “Do What I Mean, Not What I Say”

The following piece has been co-authored with DFHS Dean Scott Patrillo. Mr. Patrillo has taught middle and high school social studies in our district since 2001 and is currently our modified football, varsity basketball, and modified track coach.

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. In fact, our school Facebook page regularly welcomes comments and “likes” from so many of our former graduates and community members. Everyone wants to stay connected to Dobbs, and so many graduates choose to stay so that their children can walk the same streets and attend the same schools that they did as kids. There is truly no place like Dobbs Ferry, and perhaps no individual better captures what our town is all about than the late James “Coach Mac” Mackenzie.  

In May of 2006, tragedy struck the Dobbs Ferry Community 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 “handle bar” 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.”

So 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 twelfth MAC Day. This year, and in the spirit of Coach Mac, our students have united to raise money for the victims of the hurricanes from the past month. In doing so, they chose the non-partisan “One America Appeal” because it speaks directly to what Coach Mac was all about–togetherness, community, and helping others. Our current students are already part of our school’s rich history, and they hope to inspire future generations in the same way that past generations have inspired them.

Promoting Togetherness, Unity, and Acceptance in an IB World School

The results (and aftermath) of last year’s presidential election continue to prompt protest, division, and unrest throughout our nation and the world. Just yesterday, a number of players from the NFL refused to stand during the national anthem in a form of protest while other protests have sadly turned violent like the one in Charlottesville this past August. At DFHS, post-election emotions were also running high and our classroom discussions reflected that passion. Our students debated the various issues and, as true IB learners, remained open-minded and respectful of various perspectives and points of view. This is a regular occurrence at DFHS.

Soon after the election, several groups of students inquired about creating co-curricular clubs that espoused specific political agendas with allegiance to particular political parties. As the Head of an IB World School, I did not support the creation of these types of partisan clubs due to their exclusive and potentially divisive nature. As an IB World School, our focus is always on the IB mission of creating a “better and more peaceful world” and the events of this past year have provided us with an ideal opportunity to further promote that message. In doing so, the IB Learner Profile is deeply embedded into all aspects of our school, including our curriculum, behavioral intervention strategies, school events, co-curricular clubs, and the course offerings that we have for our students.

A point of pride for us at DFHS is the increasing diversity that we continue to see in our community. This trend is one that we welcome as it adds to the richness of our student body while allowing us to further promote international mindedness within our school. When talk of the elimination of DACA heated up a few weeks back, we took the opportunity to further support ALL of our students regardless of background. In addition, we invite all of our students to join one of our many co-curricular clubs, including our vibrant International Club, Friends of Rachel (anti-bullying club), Model UN, GSA, Political Debate, Fundraising, Habitat for Humanity, and many other student co-curricular clubs that promote togetherness, a safe environment, and the importance of embracing multiple perspectives and points of view. We are also proud to have been named a “No Place for Hate” school by the Anti-Defamation League for the past four years.

The Role of the School Leader

Perhaps the most important role of school leaders during these highly emotional times is to create a school environment that is fully inclusive, respectful of all points of view, and most importantly safe and comfortable for ALL students. While this clearly needs to be the mindset for school leaders each day of each year, the events of the past year have certainly placed some school leaders in uncharted waters given the complexity and nature of what has been happening. Here are a few tips on how to create a balanced and safe environment that is respectful of all:

  • Provide Leadership and Direction: While I will always trust the the professional judgement of the faculty and their ability to remain neutral and balanced despite their political views, it is important to provide a message to the staff that promotes unity and understanding. As the IB Head of School, I framed my message within the vision and mission of the IBO. A similar approach would work for any leader of a non-IB school as well. In addition, school leaders need to provide mentoring and guidance to teachers (particularly new teachers) about how to lead what can become volatile and emotional discussions so that no students feel ostracized or intimidated. This might also be a worthwhile professional development for the staff either immediately or at any time during the school year.
  • Avoid Politically Charged Narratives: While it’s important to spread a message that promotes peace, unity, and togetherness, it’s equally important to be mindful of politically charged statements that can be construed as coming from the “left” or the “right.” This is specifically the reason why I did not support the creation of partisan-based political clubs that support a specific political party. Following last year’s election, our students generated signs and quotes that were posted throughout the building to reinforce community and tolerance without identifying with particular political parties, groups of people, and/or causes. This non-divisive approach helps to unify all students around the core beliefs that we all hold as caring human beings as opposed to creating an “us vs. them” feeling throughout the school.
  • Capitalize on the Teachable Moment: Our students discussed the election results and their perspectives in their classes the very next day and the discussions are ongoing based on events that happen daily. I had the opportunity to sit in on several of these post-election classes and was proud of how respectful our students were toward one another. The most important reminder (and challenge) for teachers is to lead balanced and curriculum-based discussions around a topic that continues to generate a great deal of passion and emotion. Last year’s election was one of the best “teachable moments” that we have had in many years. Schools need to embrace the moment and not shy away.
  • Organize Events that Build Community: As part of our upcoming annual school-based “MAC Field Day,” all of our students have joined together to raise money for the victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma through the non-partisan charity “One America Appeal” that is directly backed by our past five former Presidents.  One thing that we know is that students always rise above and find positive ways to channel their energy and passion. Schools not only need to encourage this, but must also provide positive and tangible outlets for students to rally around.  
  • Address Negative Behavior: As always, any type of negative behavior by students needs to be addressed immediately so that it doesn’t fester and/or grow into something bigger. This is a basic tenet of behavioral intervention and student discipline. In the event that students do promote divisive rhetoric (whether it’s hate fueled or not), school leaders need to tackle these incidents right away and capitalize on them as teachable moments. The counseling department certainly needs to be included in these discussions as well as classroom teachers where applicable. What’s most important in this regard is that a safe environment is created with zero tolerance for hurtful words or behavior that is designed to instill a divided culture.

A school leader’s genuine attempt to unify, or to solidify, the culture within his or her school community during a challenging time will undoubtedly have a positive, long-lasting, impact on the organization as a whole.  Times like these require reassurance and acknowledgment of what makes a school great: the faculty, the staff, and most importantly our students.

What are some to the things that have been happening at your school to promote understanding and unity? Please share!

Surviving (and completing!) Your Doctoral Program

Ask anyone who has successfully completed a doctoral program about their experience and they will have a story. I know that I have one. Ask anyone who has not and they will also have a story. Their stories will probably be a bit longer. Maybe. The truth is that completing a dissertation is singularly the most challenging task in education. You don’t have to look far to find individuals who entered a doctoral program, failed to complete the dissertation, and now are going with the fall back title of ABD (All But Dissertation).

A recent study by the Ph.D. Completion Project estimates that the ten-year completion rate for doctoral students in the social sciences is 56 percent, and that the number of ABD students continues to increase worldwide. I was part of those negative statistics for a long time. After completing around 90 credits at Teachers College, I took on a new job and had my share of “life getting in the way” moments. Sure enough, the dissertation was put on the back burner and soon my TC career was a thing of the past. Thankfully, Manhattanville College created a program for individuals just like me who were ABD and were interested in finishing the dissertation once and for all. I enrolled in 2014 and successfully defended in January of 2016. In all, the process took me 12 years from when I started at TC in 2004. Phew.

So how can doctoral students avoid becoming just another negative statistic? Here are a few suggestions that I wish I had been told before I got started. Unfortunately I had to learn the hard way…

1) Understand The Doctoral Program: Perhaps the greatest obstacle for students entering a doctoral program is getting past the fact that they have gone through a lifetime of schooling, were likely overachievers all the way back to their first undergraduate class, and have been conditioned to do whatever necessary to earn an “A” on each paper and class. While that level of dedication can certainly be helpful if channeled correctly in a doctoral program, it’s important to recognize that getting an A in all courses will mean nothing without the successful completion of the dissertation. Period. When I started at TC, I didn’t realize that approaching my courses (and program) in the same manner as I had my courses at the master’s level was actually leading to a “hamster on a wheel” effect as I amassed credits but, ironically, made marginal progress toward the successful completion of the degree. When the time came for dissertation seminar, I was essentially starting from scratch and quickly realized that I was still miles away from the finish line. I wasn’t alone on this point, and not surprisingly I saw students pulling back and falling off one by one…adding to the long line of “non-completers” and becoming yet another statistic.

2) Take Courses That Build Your Base: Please don’t misunderstand the point above to mean that the courses that you take at the doctoral level are not important. They are critical! A strong core of courses will not only provide a deep understanding of research methodology, which will be vital when designing a study down the road, but will also transform you into thinking like a critical researcher. This last point is really what it’s all about. So the trick in the early stages is to choose courses that support what will potentially be your research base. In order to do that, you need to be thinking about your dissertation, reflecting upon potential “problems” and questions that need to be answered, and building a base of research that will serve as the potential underpinning of your study.

3) Start Building a Literature Review: Yes, start building your literature review on Day 1 and keep building it until you have narrowed your research problem and research questions to a point where you are heading toward developing your official proposal. The Literature Review is the heart of any research study. It provides the context, the rationale, and answers that critical “who cares?” question. It is also the most daunting part of the dissertation for any doctoral student because the sheer volume of studies can just be overwhelming. Professors often say to “just keep reading until the findings start repeating or trends can be identified.” While that doesn’t seem like very helpful advice, the truth is that it’s the only advice because there is no shortcut. A good literature review can take over a hundred hours to write so the key is to start building one right away. For every study read, log the bibliographic information along with the key findings in a table and keep building the document as you go. You will be happy you did when the time comes to develop and narrow your topic.

4) Stay Focused on the Dissertation: Perhaps the biggest (and most obvious) part of successfully completing a doctoral program is writing your dissertation, so make sure that everything that you do leads to that outcome! In addition to choosing courses and analyzing research that support the necessary academic base that is needed, it’s important to prevent (or limit!) distractions that might get in the way of its completion. Life always seems to get in the way for doctoral students. Whether it’s a new job, starting a family, or a million things in between, there are bound to be distractions that pull you away from writing. While it’s impossible to fully prevent these “life getting in the way” moments, the key is to compartmentalize them so that the dissertation is given its proper place and attention. A dissertation is singularly the most independent task that you will take on. There are no “due dates,” professors will not call you daily to see that you are working, and universities allow the process to drag on for years if that’s the path you choose.

5) Build The Right Committee: This starts with choosing a dissertation sponsor (“committee chair”) who has expertise that will directly support the writing of your dissertation. This can be with regard to content knowledge, methodology, or a combination of both. It’s also super important that you have a sponsor who is responsive with feedback so that you can keep going. The faster you get the feedback, the better off you will be. Once you have a sponsor in place, you should look to round out your committee with individuals who will fill in any gaps that may be lacking so that you are best supported. Just be sure to be thoughtful about selecting committee members. One bad choice can lead to lots of headaches.

And finally…

Just Do It.  

Stop reading this blog right now and start working on your dissertation. Stop procrastinating, stop asking questions, stop thinking, and start researching and writing. Be like Mike. “Just do it.”

Updated for 2017: What’s Most Important on Opening Meeting Days?

It’s hard to believe that the start of another school year is quickly approaching. As school leaders are putting the finishing touches on a summer that was filled with scheduling, staffing, professional development, and a multitude of other tasks that go along with ensuring the successful start of a new school year, teachers and staff are starting to return from a much needed summer break with renewed optimism and a high degree of positive energy as they prepare to meet their new students in only a few short weeks. For school leaders, the first official meeting days for teachers (prior to when students return) are viewed as a critical time to review important school procedures and for professional development that is in-line with the instructional agenda. But what do teachers need? This question is asked far too infrequently and, if unaddressed, can literally sap all of that positive energy in only a few short days. I’ve seen it happen. Last year I wrote a similar post on this topic and am now coming back to it as we prepare to welcome our staff back for another year.

Here’s a short list of some of the things to consider as we prepare to welcome our teachers back. Once again, the narrative has been updated based on the new initiatives and work that we are doing at our school…

1) Collaborate and Plan: Prior to the opening days, it is important to collaborate with leaders in the building to design a practical plan that is both in-line with the vision and mission of the school while giving teachers what they “need” for a smooth opening. This year, I met with our school’s department leaders to not only create a plan for the opening, but also to create departmental and school-wide instructional plans for the upcoming year. In the past, we looked to the work of @JohnCMaxwell since our department leaders’ ability to lead “from the middle”  plays a pivotal role in the overall success of our entire organization. This year, we examined Todd Whitaker’s (@ToddWhitaker) What Great Principals Do Differently and focused our discussion on the importance of making instructional decisions around the individual needs of our teachers, students, and community. 

2) Fulfill Basic Needs: School leaders too often get lost in all that “needs to be covered” and lose sight of the basic needs that teachers have in order to get the year started in a smooth and positive fashion. Think Maslow on this one. “Basic needs” include: supplies, enough desks, working computers and technology, working copiers, paper, textbooks, class rosters, working email, internet access, and of course a clean classroom.

3) Be Available: While this one might seem obvious, there are often a variety of issues and questions that staff members may have as they prepare for the first days of school. Therefore, it is critical that all school leaders (including teacher leaders) are “out and about” and highly visible to both welcome staff and address small concerns before they turn into big ones. While this a fundamental component of effective leadership all year long, it is especially critical on the first days of school.

4) Share the Vision: An opening faculty meeting to reconnect is essential for building a strong community and sense of togetherness among the staff. In doing so, it is important to lead the group in a discussion of past accomplishments while providing a renewed sense of excitement, direction, and purpose. A discussion of the “vision” of the district is also a good way to “connect the dots” for teachers so that they can make better sense of what may at first seem like competing instructional initiatives. At DFHS, for example, we are now a fully authorized IB MYP school, we have an ever-growing IB DP that is guided by our belief in the importance of equity and access, we continue to expand our  1:1 Chromebook program, and are now prepared to implement digital portfolios for the first time. In order to avoid what can easily be perceived as a “flavor of the week” situation within the school, it’s important to connect all of the smaller parts to the larger vision of the school (and district) so that they can be viewed interdependent as opposed to exclusive of one another.

5) Allow for Teacher Collaboration: The first days are a critical time for colleagues to collaborate as they prepare to meet their students for the first time. This one falls under the “basic needs” umbrella but goes beyond supplies to what is most important of all: students. During the opening days, teachers need to meet with co-teachers, counselors, and department members to review student IEPs, analyze student data, plan upcoming lessons, design pre-assessments, and a variety of other tasks. All of this “upfront” work is essential and will make a tangible difference for each student if it is done thoughtfully and carefully.

6) Time, Time, and More Time: The idea that teachers need (and want!) as much time as possible should not come as a surprise since there is such a high degree of preparation that goes into getting ready for the first days of classes (see above). Given that, it is surprising that school leaders often “miss the boat” on this and instead inundate teachers and staff with meetings that run too long and professional development that would be much better received a week or two into the school year. Think quality over quantity and plan accordingly.

Why IB? (#IBORL2017)

This year’s IB Global Conference (#IBORL2017) in the beautiful city of Orlando is buzzing with energy as IB educators are sharing their stories, experiences, and examples of best practice. As a school leader, it’s always rejuvenating to attend this conference and being here with colleagues from my home district only adds to the experience. In addition to “spreading out” to as many sessions as possible and sharing notes via Google Docs, we are also thrilled to present at this year’s conference on the topic of “IB for All” (Friday, 3:45, Palazzo C). It was an honor for us to be chosen and we are looking forward to adding to the “IB Story” while having the opportunity to expand our own professional network.

In 2013, I wrote a piece after the conference in New Orleans that attempted to answer the “Why IB?” question. Four years later, it’s not much of a question for me. It’s more of a no-brainer. Since that conference, our school (and district) has not only doubled our overall participation in the IB Diploma Program, but we are now fully authorized in the IB Middle Years Program (MYP). To put it plainly, we are “all in” with regard to IB and we believe that all of our students are better prepared as a result of attending an IB World School.

So “Why IB?” Here’s why…

It Promotes International Mindedness: The curriculum and pedagogy of the IB focuses on international perspectives while emphasizing the importance of students exploring their home culture and language. A fundamental IB principle is for students to “think globally and act locally.” In Dobbs Ferry, this mindset has prompted our students to make incredible contributions within our village while allowing them to focus on the implications of their actions on a global level. Over the past few years we have also seen a rise in both new students and exchange students from around the world who have chosen to attend our school because we are an IB World School. This new development has not added to the richness and diversity of our school community, but has further allowed our students to examine all core disciplines from multiple perspectives and respective “ways of knowing.”

21st Century Learning: The theme of this year’s conference, “Inspiring Communities,” speaks once again to the IB’s commitment to preparing students with the skills needed for success beyond the brick and mortar of schools so that they may make a difference in all corners of the world. Approaches to Learning and 21st century skills such as adaptability, problem solving, initiative, curiosity, communication, and collaboration are at the heart of the conversations at this year’s conference. The world that students are now entering is radically different from only a few years ago as this generation will now compete for jobs and services that are yet to exist and probably won’t for at least another ten years. The IB Program was ahead of its time from its inception and is now “taking off” due to the ever-changing demands and an increasingly interdependent global market.

Beyond the Common Core: While taking even a cursory look at the IB standards for learning, one would notice that the goals and core values of the IB are in genuine alignment with the aims and desired outcomes of the common core. In fact, the IB was one of five programs that the developers of the CCSS looked to as an example of exemplary learning standards. Both the IB and the CCSS are aligned in that both focus on inquiry, text complexity, evidence-based arguments, real-world application, and deep conceptual understanding. Interestingly, the CCSS are not a major topic of conversation at this year’s conference since the transition was such a smooth one for all IB World Schools. This was certainly the case in Dobbs Ferry as well.

The Program is Fully Inclusive: Perhaps the greatest quality of the IB Program is that all students receive meaningful and equitable access to the curriculum. At our school, for example, all students enroll in at least two IB DP courses, we have doubled the number of exams that we have registered students for over the past three years (average of 3 per student), and all students will fully access the MYP and complete a Personal Project. In addition, the qualities that are outlined in the IB Learner Profile are embedded in all classes in grades 6-12 and are central to the vision and mission of our district.

The Research is Growing: A great deal of research has been conducted by the IB and outside agencies to determine the degree to which students are prepared for success in the more competitive colleges and universities in the world. Findings repeatedly show that IB students are not only accepted at higher rates, but graduate within four years at a higher percentage and with higher overall grade point averages. This point has been verified to us by our own graduates who come back to our school each year to discuss the high level of preparation that they had as a result of the IB DP and how, in some instances, they felt “over-prepared.” Check out the post “Why IB: Student Perspectives” (12/20/13) for more on this.

The IB Community: IB teachers are members of a special community of educators from around the world. As such, teachers are able to network and collaborate with colleagues that are both local and overseas. This year’s conference is just another example of that. In addition to traditional “training,” all IB teachers participate in roundtable discussions with colleagues from local schools and have access to the Online Curriculum Centre (OCC). This resource provides IB teachers with resources, updates, support areas for special education, access to online subject specialists, and an opportunity to connect with other IB teachers.

IB for All: A Special Educator’s Story

Sarah Grosso is a Special Education (English) teacher at Dobbs Ferry High School, NY, and will be a member of our presentation team at #IBORL2017 on Friday in Palazzo C at 3:45 (“IB for All: The Dobbs Ferry Story”). As part of the DFHS mission of promoting IB for All, all students at DFHS enroll in a minimum of two IB DP courses with approximately 25% of our students pursuing the full IB Diploma. Sarah is a special education co-teacher in our IB English SL courses. Here’s her story…

My name is Sarah Grosso and I am a special educator at Dobbs Ferry High School in New York. I am dual certified in Special Education and English. I co-teach both year 1 and 2 of the Standard Level Language A: Literature course. I am honored to be here and enthusiastic to share with you my amazing and unique experiences working within the IB curriculum.

I began teaching at Dobbs Ferry back in 2008. This was a time when the IB program was isolated and included only a small elite group of students. Being that my role was as a special educator, it was foreign to me. In 2010 there was an open opportunity for all teachers to become trained in the IB. Two of my close colleagues in the English Department encouraged me to go to a training with them. We traveled to Toronto for my first immersion into the world of IB. The training was eye-opening. Sitting through close-reading exercises and grappling with literature in a multitude of ways was so relevant to the non-IB classes that I taught at that time. This experience strengthened my ability to be a true co-teacher in the classroom and also showed me how to make all of my students better prepared to analyze literature.

Bringing Language A: Literature at the standard level was presented at an English department meeting in 2013 by Dr. Falino (@johnfalino1) and Ms. Halberg (@MegHalberg). The English teacher part of me was excited to have the opportunity to finally teach an IB course. The Special Education teacher part of me was apprehensive due to our model of full inclusion. Would my students be able to successfully navigate this rigorous curriculum? Would I now co-teach courses that were both fully inclusive and IB?

My co-teacher and I launched the first year of the Language A: Literature SL course in the fall of 2014. Dr. Falino granted us paid summer professional development days to work together and break down parts 1 and 4 of the course in a way that would be meaningful for all of our students. We spent time looking for common language between the 10th grade non-IB curriculum this group of students had received and the new curriculum. We created homework menus that asked students to analyze the literature through the IB guiding questions. We created mini-writing tasks that modeled the World Literature Paper, and we created templates and models using the assigned 10th grade texts to model new ways of collecting and analyzing evidence from the literature.

During the year we spent our planning periods creating differentiated activities to make the material both manageable and challenging. I spent a great deal of time building templates for students with special needs so that they could access the curriculum and successfully complete the assessments. We had the students complete mini-presentations to prepare for the Individual Oral Presentations at the end of Part 4 (Semester 2). What I came to learn so quickly in this endeavor is that IB fits with special education masterfully. At the midyear point we had 100% of our students complete the World Literature paper at the Standard Level. At the end of the year we had 100% of the students successfully complete an Individual Oral presentation. The summer planning time and common prep time for my co-teacher and me were essential ways the administration supported us in this endeavor.

My favorite moment during that year as a special educator was watching one of my students complete his Individual Oral Presentation. He chose to demonstrate his knowledge of The Great Gatsby in an analytical format. This boy had been dealing with significant speech and language deficits his entire life. He put so much effort into organizing his information and also practicing to ensure that he scored well on the presentation portion. This particular student’s presentation outshined many of the general education students in the class. He was confident, funny, rehearsed, and knowledgeable. At the close of our first year I felt in my heart that this student truly and completely embodied the traits of an IB learner. I was ecstatic when I was scheduled to co-teach the second year and see these students through the second part of this curriculum.

Last year our IB Coordinator offered me the opportunity to attend a training on the IB Approaches to Learning. Here I gained a fresh way to go back and look at my current units and see how I could enhance them with 21st century skills.

This year I was asked to teach a section of Life Skills for students with significant cognitive needs. The Director of Special Education for the district encouraged me to include the IB style of teaching into this course in order to enhance our fully inclusive philosophy. I started the year teaching our students about the IB Learner traits. We created songs surrounding each trait and did posters of pictures that symbolized each trait. As we moved through units such as stress management, appropriate dress, and conversational skills, I asked the students to evaluate what type of trait they were currently demonstrating. My ATL training really came into play when planning lessons for this course. Thinking about these approaches as I designed a new course applied even to students with significant cognitive needs. When we started the year, no one in the class even knew what IB was. Now concluding our first year of this course, all of our students can tell you his and her strengths and weaknesses as they pertain to the IB Learner traits and are better equipped with 21st century skills due to lesson designs using Approaches to Learning.

One of my students from that class who is classified with Autism was also in my IB SL Language A: Literature Year 1 class. For his Individual Oral Presentation he chose to demonstrate his knowledge of Tennessee Williams’s play ​Cat on a Hot Tin Roof​ in a creative format. He started off by singing Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way”. He then did a presentation where he compared quotations surrounding the character of Big Daddy to each stanza of Sinatra’s hit. The class cheered when he was finished and he dropped the mic.

This is our third cycle of running the fully inclusive standard level English and we still have not had one single student with special needs fail to complete any of the assessments. Taking this course as well as the IB Math studies course has given our students more confidence to embrace challenges and to feel less isolated from their peers. It has also encouraged some students with 504 plans and IEPs to demonstrate the risk-taker learner trait by enrolling in other IB courses, such as TOK. So my apprehensions in my role as special educator have quickly faded. I enjoy attending IB roundtables in my unique role and sharing my experiences to others who may be nervous about embarking on a similar journey.

 

Preparing for an Option B

The following is the address that was delivered to the Class of 2017 during the 116th DFHS Commencement. 

Good evening once again, and welcome to the Dobbs Ferry High School Commencement of 2017.

Before we begin, there are a few others who deserve thanks that I didn’t mention in my initial opening. First, I would like to thank the administration and faculty of Dobbs Ferry High School. I know that I say it time and again that it’s a true honor and a privilege to serve as the principal of this amazing high school, it’s a dream job really, and part of the reason for that is our faculty and staff. I have the good fortune of working alongside a team of professionals who are tireless in their drive to ensure that every student maximizes his or her potential. There is no greater or more rewarding profession than teaching, and our teachers can see the result of their hard work in the exceptional graduates that are sitting before us today. I know that a number of our teachers and staff are here tonight, so I will ask that they please rise and join me in giving them a big round of applause.

Next, a special thank you goes to the parents and families of our graduating class. As a parent of three children myself, I know that there is no greater gift for a parent than watching your children grow up. And today, that gift is a point of pride for all of you, as parents, for it has been through your guidance, your love and support, and your cheerleading that your children have met and exceeded the requirements to graduate from Dobbs Ferry High School. So this day, and this milestone, is as much about you as it is the students who are sitting before us. So congratulations to all of you…and at this time, I ask that that our graduates rise, face your parents, and give them a big round of applause. They are certainly deserving of it!

And finally, I would like to recognize an invaluable member of our school community who has just completed his tenth year of dedicated service. You have all heard the phrase “it takes a village,” and in Dobbs Ferry that is certainly the case…as so many individuals not only have a hand in educating our students, but also keeping them safe. One individual who does this daily is Joseph Kevilhan, our school crossing guard. Joseph is out there every day, rain or shine, in the coldest and warmest of temperatures, making sure that our students are safe as they cross a busy Broadway. And he has been doing it for ten years now. Please join me in a round of applause for Joseph Kevilhan.

Writing my remarks for this year’s graduating class provided me of course with the opportunity to relive many of the great accomplishments of our graduating seniors. While our current school was built in 1934, this is now the 116th commencement of DFHS, and each of our graduating classes leaves behind a legacy that adds to a long and storied history of both our high school and this proud community. This year’s graduates are no different, and are an exceptional group of students who fully embody our school’s mantra of IB for All, and excellence in all areas. Sitting before us today…

  • We have 29 students who have pursued a full IB Diploma with 100% of our students having taken at least two IB classes. In fact, this is the first class where we have had every student successfully take, and complete, IB English.

 

  • We have 9 students who were named National Merit Scholars, with one semi-finalist and one National Merit Scholarship Winner.

 

  • We have a Siemens Finalist, a senior who participated in the prestigious ISEF science research competition, as well as fifteen science research students who competed at WESEF this year.

 

  • We have the fifth class of seniors who have taken the Blue Star Financial Literacy exam and have helped to give our school a Blue Star distinction.

 

  • We have the first group of seniors who participated in our one-to-one Chromebook for all four years,and learned alongside our teachers as we continued to find new ways to use technology as a tool for enhancing teaching and learning.

 

  • We have exceptional artists, filmmakers, and musicians who continue to not only bring culture to our school community, but also recognition and awards, to0 many to list, to our school for their exceptional work.  

 

  • And of course we have a senior class that will be attending some of the premier schools in the nation, including Amherst College, Bucknell, Cornell, Dartmouth, NYU, Stanford, Tufts, UCLA, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, GW, and West Point…to name a few.   

The accomplishments of our graduates never cease to amaze me, and as you know, there is no greater joy that I get than sharing those accomplishments with our community through our school Facebook page, Twitter, emails, and basically whenever anyone wants to talk about it.  To me, there is no place better than Dobbs Ferry and, in my opinion, it’s the absolute the best town to raise children. In Dobbs we’re like one big family, and we see time and again how our students and community members rally around causes to help others in need, and how they truly support and get behind one another, despite the fact that we may not always agree on all issues. To me, this is typical in any loving family. Many of our seniors have known each other since kindergarten, and they share a bond that was probably captured best when they paraded through the halls of Springhurst just the other day for one last time to the cheers of their former teachers,  and our current Springhurst students. There really is no place like Dobbs Ferry.

From an academic perspective, our high school distinguishes itself from most public schools due to the fact that we are a full IB World School, featuring both the IB Diploma Program and now the IB Middle Years Program. In fact, we were the first school in Westchester to be authorized as an IB School, earning this distinction all the way back in 1998. Dobbs Ferry has always led the way.

And as graduates of an IB World School, you have been prepared with the necessary skills for success in any endeavor that you choose to pursue, whether in the classroom or in the workforce. In the year 2017, we call these 21st century skills, but your parents can certainly tell you that skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, initiative, and probably the most important skill of all, adaptability, are age old skills that all individuals from past generations needed for success. And while the context and the career paths that you will choose to pursue in your lifetime may certainly differ from, say 1982, when many of your parents were just entering the workforce, the types of skills that you will need are pretty much the same, just as they were when this great nation was formed, all the way back to our forefathers.

So in past years I probably would have focused the remainder of this talk on the importance of working hard, developing the 21st century skills that I just spoke about, setting goals, and going on to a lifetime of wonderful accomplishments. And those things are certainly critical, and please don’t lose sight of their importance. But today, I am going to focus on something a little different, and perhaps a bit more personal to some of you. Because no matter how hard you work, how often you do the right thing, how many goals you set and reach, how well you plan, and how much success you ultimately enjoy, one thing that is certain is that you will, at some point in your life, endure a form of personal adversity, or worse, a real personal crisis. For some of you, this may have already happened, and for others you might be in the midst of one right now.

Now, I’m not talking about the kind of adversity that comes from feeling overwhelmed with papers in school, or the stress that can come from having a high pressured job. If you are doing the right things and have success as a result, you will face a degree of adversity on a daily basis.  

Instead, the type of adversity that I’m talking about is the life altering kind, the kind that forever changes the course of your life. These are the moments that when they happen, we know that life as we had known it will never be the same. Whether it is a death, an illness, a job loss, or something else, these moments typically come when we least expect them, they don’t discriminate, and are often immune to our best efforts to prevent them from occurring in the first place. And for all of us, they are inevitable.

In her book “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy,” Sheryl Sandberg points out that “Option A is not available. Life is never perfect. We all live some form of Option B.” On a personal note, I can point to several moments of adversity, and even crisis, that I have led me down the road of Option B. And while achieving some professional success, along with a dream job, and possessing those 21st century skills I talked about earlier certainly helped, the truth is that what was ultimately needed to come out stronger couldn’t be found in books, in a classroom, or even in that dream job. Instead, it was found in people. It was found in having strong personal relationships with others. So before you go off to what will be an awesome life with limitless possibilities, here’s some final advice, or perhaps one last lesson, that I’ll leave you with on how to prepare for the certainty of an Option B at some point in your life…

First, Stay Connected to Your Home. When we hear the word home, we often think of our town, our physical home, our bedrooms, and everything in between. But that’s not the home that I’m talking about. Home represents the people who we care most about, and who care most about us. It can be a mother, a father, siblings, other family members, close friends or for some of you in a few years, a future husband or wife. In his 1970s song “You’re My Home,” American songwriter Billy Joel uses the lyric “home is just another word for you” to characterize home as being beyond the physical space, and more about the person or people who matter most. Personal strength in the face of adversity, then, comes from our relationships with others. It comes when we are selfless, and give and receive without reservation, and without asking for something in return. It’s the individuals who we go out of our way for daily, and enjoy doing it when we do. So stay connected to your home. Always.

Second, choose Option A when it comes to love. Or more specifically, Choose Option A when it comes to pursuing what you love in terms of your passion, or who you love for the rest of your life, or ideally both. While an Option B (or C or D) might be inevitable in other areas, choosing Option A with regard to love will give you the greatest strength in the face of adversity. And when you choose love, or your passion, or both, you are choosing an honest life that gives the strength to endure any challenge that life will throw your way. You will also live with no regret, no matter what degree of adversity you face down the line, and you will rise to immeasurable heights of personal fulfillment and strength so that you can tackle whatever obstacles that come your way. So never, ever, settle in this area.

And finally, remember that you are part of a team. Each of you is now prepared to leave us to pursue goals and dreams that go beyond the streets of Dobbs Ferry. But always remember that no matter where you go, and what heights you soar to, you will always be part of the Dobbs Ferry team. And as members of that team, you have an eternal network of people who will support you, cheer you on, and look on with pride. So go out there, trust your talent, do your thing, and have a wonderful life. Thank you for an amazing four years that were fun, and always too fast. It has been a privilege. I will miss you all. Thank you.

Success Without Fulfillment Equals Failure

The following is an excerpt from the remarks that were made at the DFHS National Honor Society Induction on June 1, 2017.

This morning we have students who are being inducted into at least one, and in some cases two, honor societies: They are the Italian Honor Society, the French Honor Society, the Spanish Society, and of course the National Honor Society. Admission into any one of these Honor Societies is an extraordinary accomplishment, and is a recognition of the years of hard work and service of the students in this room.

So what does it mean to be a member of an Honor Society? For starters, we know that all of you are exceptional students in the academic sense.  You work hard, set goals, take action, and have maintained the exemplary grade point average necessary for admission. This is no small feat, and you undoubtedly deserve to be recognized and congratulated for your academic accomplishments.  So, congratulations to each of you.

But is being a smart person enough? No, it’s not. Is it only about grades? No, it’s definitely not. We can unfortunately point to many examples of highly intelligent people who achieved top grades in school but were ultimately not successful at all. Though they might be rich in terms of money,  or they may have top positions in their respective field, some of these same people are actually very poor. So there needs to be more. The Honor Society is built on four pillars: Scholarship, Service, Leadership, and Character. And while scholarship is certainly a component, it’s only 25 percent of what is truly needed for ultimate success and fulfillment. So let’s take a moment to consider the last three pillars: Service, Leadership, and Character. How are these qualities measured? How do we know if we are hitting the mark in these areas?  

The truth is that there is no true measure for these qualities, so the measure therefore lies within each of you. I always enjoy preparing opening remarks at events like this one because it requires me to pause and truly reflect on my own journey, and to hopefully share some insight based on what I have learned.  It seems that the older I get, the less I know. And each year I realize how little I knew the year before. Such is life. You may not know what I mean right now. But you will. Trust me on that.  

So the question that we are left to consider is what is truly required for personal fulfillment?  And is there honor in that? The answers to these questions again lie within each of you, but what I can tell you is that true fulfillment will come only through a commitment to ongoing personal growth and improvement. Remember, success without fulfillment equals failure. Success without fulfillment equals failure  (T. Robbins). So how do we achieve both of those states? By committing ourselves to constant growth. We need to grow. Sure, we need to grow in terms of scholarship, but more importantly we need to grow in terms of our quality as individuals. We need to be true to ourselves, honest in our approach, and connected to the people in our lives who matter most. And one of the ways that we do that is by being selfless in our actions, by leading through example rather than empty words, and by holding ourselves to the highest standard of character even though we may not always do the right thing. We are human and are not perfect. But it’s the commitment to learning from mistakes, reflecting, and growing that will bring true honor and fulfillment when all’s said and done.  

Always remember that induction to the Honor Society is a beginning, not an end. The principles that we are emphasizing today are guiding principles that will carry you through life. They are targets that we always strive for, and are ones that we should never truly feel like we have fully reached. They guide our journey as we strive to be the very best people we can be, and in doing so will propel us to inspire others and truly change the world.

Congratulations to all of you once again. Please continue to make your school proud, your teachers proud, your parents proud, and most importantly yourself proud. Thank you.

 

Leading Amidst Personal Adversity

There’s an awesome five-minute speech that Rocky delivers to his son in the movie Rocky Balboa (2006) that I often listen to. I even worked part of it into my graduation address last year. As an Italian kid who was raised in Elmont, a lower-middle-class Long Island town, I grew up a huge fan of all things Rocky, so to me his speech is as inspirational and “spot on” as they come. It probably also resonates with me because Rocky is the portrait of person who comes from basically nothing to accomplish things beyond the realm of possibility due to an unwavering belief that he had in himself and his own potential. Anyway, at one point Rocky said to his son, “life ain’t always sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.” He’s right. Life certainly doesn’t discriminate, and we are all potentially a day away from personal adversity, or worse a full out crisis. This isn’t a glass half empty outlook. It’s just the reality. As a Principal, it’s easy to lead when everything is perfect. It’s easy to lead when there is order and when all is well both personally and professionally. But what about leading when there isn’t personal order? What about leading amidst personal adversity and crisis?

I’ve had close friends in leadership positions who dealt with some real personal adversity while being charged as leaders to be “the rock” for everyone else. Leadership is lonely enough when everything is perfect, so I always went out of my way to support those individuals in any way possible when they were dealing with some “stuff” at home. Whether it’s a quick “check-in” text or helping to manage all of the moving parts, I know that little things can sometimes mean a lot and that everyone needs a helping hand from time to time. And I mean everyone.

When I first started as the Principal of DFHS in 2011, I recall a conversation that I had with @dfdcidberry about leadership and he echoed a statement that I heard @ToddWhitaker say years earlier about how we measure strong leaders. He said, “The best leaders create organizations that can both sustain and grow, at least for a period of time, in their absence.” I’ve witnessed both sides of this, both with myself and with others, and have seen organizations both flounder and flourish respectively as leaders have dealt with periods personal adversity.

So what do these healthy, self-sufficient organizations look like? And how do leaders go about creating them? Here’s some “musts” for leaders because, as I said, we are all just a day away…

1) Hire the best people. This is singularly the most important factor in determining the success of any organization. Take a look at any successful organization and you will find talented people who are creative, motivated, inspired, and on the cutting edge. Even with weak leadership, these individuals can “carry the ball” and accomplish amazing feats. Too often we see leaders who cut corners during the hiring process and don’t put in the necessary time and energy that is needed to recruit and hire the very best. This is a recipe for disaster. If the talent isn’t there, the team won’t win. Ever. It’s as simple as that.

2) Maximize Potential: Second only to hiring the best people is identifying places in the organization where each individual can maximize his/her potential and can be the most successful. While evaluating talent on the hiring side of things is certainly paramount, it is equally important to evaluate talent in terms of the places in an organization where each person can be the most successful. For school leaders, this includes identifying the best classes and grade levels for teachers, identifying individuals to serve in leadership roles, and creating a program and system that will thrive with the talent that is available. It’s differentiation at its finest. It’s assessing the strengths and limitations of each individual so that those strengths can be enhanced and highlighted while reducing and/or entirely negating any existing limitations.

3) Empower (and trust!) Others: At this point you are probably getting the point that the very best organizations have talented people who are provided with the necessary conditions to thrive. Too often, leaders feel the need to have their hands in everything and think that they need to “know” everything about everything. This is insecurity on the part of the leader at its worst and will only serve to stifle an organization. In schools, leaders need to give teachers the power to make decisions around curriculum and professional development. Decision-making not only needs to be distributed, but members of the organization need to be trusted to make those decisions, and supported if things don’t always go perfectly. From my experience, an amazing thing happens when people are treated like professionals. Yup, you got it…they act professionally.

4) Foster a Growth Mindset: While hiring and empowering the very best to lead at different levels of the organization is certainly critical, it’s equally necessary that school leaders foster an environment that encourages and rewards ongoing growth for both staff and students. As a school leader, I continually keep all members of our school community focused on the vision and mission of our school and work with all of the constituencies to design ongoing action plans to keep us moving in the right direction. The key here of course is for the action plan to come “bottom-up” so that there is ownership that comes from the degree of empowerment that was discussed above. At our school, teachers are empowered to create new courses and design new curriculum while students regularly propose new ideas for clubs and community service. The simple, yet complex, mindset that I always push to teachers is to always question (and research!) what the best schools (and academic departments) are doing locally, nationally and internationally so that we can continually grow and evolve. As Tony Robbins said, “if you’re not growing you’re dying.” This principle needs to be owned by everyone and not placed solely on the shoulders of the leaders. If not, an organization will not grow and is destined to fail.  

5) Find Balance: Awhile back I wrote a blog about what is most important for school leaders and provided a “keeping your eye on the ball list.” I still stand by that list and think that principals need to prioritize what is most important or else things will become so overwhelming that absolutely nothing will get done. That said, the importance of personal wellness cannot be understated for any leader. Leading others is a great responsibility that is often high pressured and is always 24/7. Like it or not, that’s just how it is. So if leaders don’t have personal balance it’s going to be real hard to lead others. Finding balance can be accomplished in so many ways, but the key is to find opportunities for personal exploration, growth, and most importantly fulfillment. It is only when personal balance is achieved that people can lead with higher degrees of clarity, focus, and of course empathy.

Toward the end of his speech to his son, Rocky willfully looks into his son’s eyes and says, “…it ain’t about how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. It’s how much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.” Adversity is going to happen to all of us. No one is immune or exempt. For me, it came at a time when I least expected that it would. And that’s exactly how it works. Thankfully, I had been intuitively guided with the mindset outlined above. Remember, if you’re not growing, you’re dying. At DFHS, we continue to grow each and every day.