Yearbook Caption: Class of 2018

To the Graduating Class of 2018,

During a 1958 speech at Loyola College, Senator John F. Kennedy stood before a group of alumni and spoke about the importance of remaining unified as a nation in order to bring positive change for future generations of Americans. In doing so, he urged “…not to seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past—let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”

As graduates of an IB World School, your voice is more important than ever, and you have been prepared with the necessary skills to flourish in an unpredictable and ever-changing world. In doing so, it is important that you think critically, thoughtfully, and consider all viewpoints with respect to each issue. The political party that you might affiliate with should not cloud your thinking, and it is my hope that you will instead strive to be true independent thinkers who are prepared to change the world.

This year our nation faced another unspeakable tragedy at Parkland High School in Florida. As true IB students, each of you joined together to have your voice heard in a way that was unified and extraordinarily powerful. Our peaceful protest, which included a student led walkout, speeches, letter writing, fundraising, and the creation of a quilt that was displayed in Washington D.C. were non-partisan efforts that served to bring our student body together as one community. It is my hope that experiences like this one will remain with you as you work to promote togetherness in a divided world while striving to achieve the IB mission of “creating a better and more peaceful world.”

It has been an honor to be your Principal for the past four years. I wish you all the best for a happy, healthy, and prosperous future.

Sincerely,

John J. Falino, Ed.D.

Principal

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ASCD Empower18: A Time for Reflection and Learning

I attended my first annual ASCD annual conference in 2000. I was a second year middle school English teacher at the time and was passionate about anything that would expand my knowledge and thinking about all aspects of education. I paid my own way to attend that conference in New Orleans, and I remember feeling that it was a small price for what was truly a “who’s who in education” event. This was before Twitter, before social media actually, so the only way to connect with the “big names” was at a place like the ASCD conference.

I remember seeing Todd Whitaker present at that conference. His focus was on “dealing with difficult teachers,” and as I took notes on my yellow legal pad I thought about how I aspired to be just like this inspirational principal from Illinois. Fast forward a few years later and @ToddWhitaker has made a pretty big name for himself. I also remember seeing some of the “newer” voices in education speak at that conference. People like Carol Ann Tomlinson, the late Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, and Robert Marzano were changing the landscape of education. I remember being mailed a full ASCD conference catalog, and I spent hours in advance reading the descriptions of every workshop for every session while carefully mapping out my days. My “ticketed session” of choice was “Interviewing for the Principalship.” Pretty gutsy for a second year teacher, but that was the type of young teacher that I was.

Fast forward to 2018 and while much has changed for me professionally, many things are still the same. I’m still drawn to ASCD because it simply represents the very best in terms of publications, professional development, and of course regional and national conferences. Add Boston to the mix and attending this year’s conference became a “no-brainer” for me. The areas of focus for this year are also compelling, and directly speak to me in different ways as I move toward the end of of my seventh year as the principal of Dobbs Ferry High School in Westchester County, NY.

As a high school principal, I spend time each summer creating school-wide goals and professional goals that build off previous years’ work. As a school leader and English teacher, I truly believe that in the importance of reflecting and “taking stock. ” It is especially critical for teachers and school leaders who are in positions that are incredibly multi-faceted, fast moving, and ever-changing. The annual conference allows for a perfect opportunity for this type of reflection, and the areas of focus (below) provide a jumping off point to do just that.

  1. The Whole Child: Focusing on the “whole child” is certainly not a new concept though the importance of doing so is now more important than ever. It seems that more and more students are facing some form of emotional crisis by the time they reach high school. Despite this trend, and a now national call to focus on the mental well-being of students in light of tragedies like the one in Parkland, schools continue to put the majority of their focus on academic skills and preparing for admission to college.

Questions for Reflection: How are resources allocated in the school budget to support the whole child? What type of professional development do teachers receive to identify students who may be in crisis? Is empathy embedded into the fabric of the school? How can schools integrate mindfulness on a daily basis for teachers and students?

  1. Transformational Leadership: The misconception by many is that transformational leadership falls solely on the shoulders of the principal. Sure, the best schools have dynamic leaders who push the instructional agenda while creating a culture that promotes collaboration, professional learning, open-mindedness, risk taking, and a true belief that all students can succeed. But show me the best schools and I will show you a staff top-to-bottom that has individuals who possess these traits and beliefs.

Questions for Reflection: Are faculty and staff truly empowered to make decisions? Are teachers empowered to take risks in their teaching and professional learning? Who sets the vision and mission for the school? How is a sense of ownership achieved by all? Is the principal a lead learner or a building manager?

  1. Global Engagement: The world is more connected than ever before, and words like “interdependence” are quickly replacing “old school” words like independence. Social media has certainly played a role in facilitating this shift. For schools, the implications have been tremendous as students are now developing the skills needed for success in potential careers that don’t yet exist in places well beyond our borders. It is no wonder, then, that more and more schools are looking to programs like the International Baccalaureate (IB) because of its focus on international mindedness and “real world” application.

Questions for Reflection: How is international mindedness emphasized in all aspects of the curriculum? What opportunities are students given to think globally and act locally? How is diversity and culture promoted in the school? How is technology used as a vehicle for promoting connection and understanding? Are students being provided with a 20th century or a 21st century education? (think hard about this last one)

  1. Poverty and Equity: There is inequity in every school, including the highest performing schools in the most affluent suburban towns. All schools have students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, all schools have students with special needs, all schools have students who require ENL services, all schools have students who struggle to “fit in,” and all schools have students “in the middle” who are most likely to fall through the cracks. Despite these inequities, all students deserve an education that allows them to maximize their potential while providing opportunities for all students to connect to the school outside of the traditional day.

Questions for Reflection: What programs and organizations are in place to level the playing field for all students? Are all students challenged with the most appropriate academic program? How are resources allocated to ensure access and equity? What co-curricular programs are in place to further connect all students to the school? Does the school truly offer the very best education for every student? What systems are in place to ensure that no students fall through the cracks?     

  1. Redefining Student Success: It is inspiring to see so many workshops at this year’s conference focusing on topics such as authentic learning, real world application, performance-based assessments, and “soft” 21st century skills. How we define student success in 2018 has certainly shifted significantly from 18 years ago when I attended my first ASCD annual conference. Despite this, too many schools are still defining student success through a quarterly number on a report card while operating within the old school paradigm of memorization, content regurgitation, and hours of homework each night.

Questions for Reflection: How do administrators, teachers, parents, and students define success? How is student progress shared with parents and students? Do assessments focus on application of understanding or a retelling of facts? Are assessments varied and ongoing? Do students have opportunities to apply their learning outside of the school building? Does the school truly support teachers who introduce alternative forms of assessment? How is student success communicated to parents and colleges?

6. Teaching and Learning: How a school defines student success will (or at least should!) directly impact all aspects of teaching and learning. The last few years have seen massive shifts in teaching and learning as many schools have transitioned to full one-to-one environments, an emphasis on independent research across the disciplines, and at least an equal focus on the development of 21st century skills over memorization of content. The workshops at this year’s conference certainly reflect this shift, and there is great hope that a renewed focus on teaching and learning will positively impact all of the “areas of focus” discussed above.

Questions for Reflection: Is the principal a true instructional leader? How do students learn best? Are teachers differentiating to meet the needs of all students?  How do teachers learn best? Is professional development differentiated to meet the needs of all teachers? Is technology truly enhancing teaching and learning? Are students being prepared with the skills necessary for success in jobs that do not yet exist?

The Empower18 “areas of focus” provide a wide (yet specific) lens for all attendees to design a conference schedule that is truly differentiated based on individual need and interest. ASCD represents the very best in curriculum and leadership, and this year’s conference provide a perfect opportunity for all educators to learn, reflect, and enjoy!  

The Principalship: Focusing On What Is Most Important

I wrote a post a few years back on the Principalship and the most important aspects of the position. As I move toward the end of my seventh year, the position continues to be multi-faceted, fast moving, and ever-changing. In fact, no one day is ever the same. The busiest days are typically the ones when the calendar is clear and I walk into school thinking that it will be an “easy” day. I’ve learned by now that there’s no such thing. The information comes a mile a minute and I can literally find myself in ten different conversations over the course of twenty minutes on topics and issues that are dramatically different yet critically and equally important. That happens all of the time. It’s the nature of the position.

@DrSpikeCook wrote an excellent piece on the Principalship in response to a friend who asked what a principal does all day. Click on the following list to check out his list:

http://drspikecook.com/2012/01/30/what-is-it-like-being-a-principal-are-you-in-meetings-all-day/#.USK3gx3IElh

Pretty incredible, huh? And, amazingly enough, he probably got at about 50% of what a principal actually does. But rather than putting together a “Part II,” I instead discussed some of the most important aspects of being a principal. To use a baseball analogy, it was my “keeping your eye on the ball” list. I have since gone back to my original list and made some updates.

1) 21st Century Skills: Take a look at any school’s vision and mission and you can be sure that it will be rooted in the belief that schools must prepare all students with the necessary 21st century skills for success beyond high school. “Survival skills” (@DrTonyWagner) such as problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, adaptability, and initiative are a major focal point at DFHS and they serve as the foundation of what we value instructionally as an IB World School. For principals, it’s perhaps even more important that these same 21st century skills are applied each day. As noted in the introduction, there is no day in the life of a principal that is exactly the same. In fact, the only certainty is that tomorrow will undoubtedly include “a twist” that is either unexpected or unlike anything that has happened before. So either you love that about the job, or you hate it. For me, that’s what I love best because it’s on those days that the “principal instructional manual” gets pushed aside and the real world skills come into play.

2) Focusing on Students: Principals can become so easily bogged down with issues and minutiae that they can lose sight of why we are really here in the first place. Don’t let that happen! A general “self-check” for principals is to consider how each issue either impacts or furthers the education of the students in that respective school. If it doesn’t, then chances are it is time to turn the wheel and head in a different direction. In doing so, principals (much like guidance counselors) must have a big picture view of all students and advocate for the whole child accordingly. This includes success inside of the classroom, the social and emotional well-being of all students, and of course involvement in extracurricular activities that enhance the experiences of all students. The best principals attend concerts, sporting events, academic competitions, and much more while working constantly to differentiate the school’s offerings so that there is “something for everyone.”

3) Safety & Security: No matter how you look at it, student safety is by far the most important responsibility of any school leader. When parents send their children off to school each morning, they do so with an ingrained trust that their children will be “safe” and protected. From lockdown drills to debriefing with key security personnel as “real world” scenarios unfold both locally and nationally, it is the responsibility of principals to ensure that everyone is prepared for any and all emergencies in order to protect all students in the best possible way. In doing so, principals must not only know their building and campus both inside and out, but must have clear protocols in place to ensure efficiency and immediate response during any emergency. For us, that means strategically placed security cameras, protocols for entering and exiting the building, and clear roles and responsibilities for all members of our staff and security team. Unfortunately an emergency is only a day (or minute!) away, so it is imperative that all members of the organization can respond with little to no warning.

4) Building Management: Unfortunately, “old school” managerial skills are too often overlooked when schools are looking to select a principal. This has been particularly true in recent years as more and more attention is being place on both classroom instruction and the shift that is occurring in all schools as a result of increased testing and the common core. While I’m not suggesting that instruction should take a back seat in any school, I’ve seen schools flounder with leaders who possess great instructional minds but little in terms of organizational and managerial skills. It is critical that principals have clear routines, procedures, and protocols in place for all aspects of building operations and to ask “what if” to all potential scenarios and adjust accordingly. Central to this is the importance of having a strong assistant principal (@careim2) as well as a staff who both carries out these tasks and makes sound recommendations for ongoing improvement.

5) Instructional Leadership: There was once a time when a principal’s primary function was to serve in a managerial capacity. That time has long passed. In fact, the paradigm has shifted so dramatically that it is now a general expectation that principals possess a broad and deep understanding of curriculum and instruction and act as “lead learners” in schools. This of course begins by establishing and articulating a clear instructional vision and includes all aspects of curriculum design, the CCSS, assessment, educational technology, and differentiation. Principals also need to negotiate the top-down push for increased standardization with the importance of teaching for meaning and the development of the “real world” skills that are needed for life in the 21st century. Schools with leaders who lack this skill-set are likely to remain stagnate while hovering in the realm of “bad” or at best “good.”

6) Getting Inside the Classroom: Visiting classrooms and supporting teachers with practical feedback is perhaps the best form of instructional leadership and professional development that a principal can provide. It is also the best way to get the true pulse of the school and the needs of the students. Too often, principals pay “lip service” to the idea of getting inside of the classroom and then spend most days dealing with issues behind closed doors. Of course, getting out of the office is sometimes easier said than done, so it is important to build time into the schedule each day to make sure that it happens.

7) Empowering Others: Perhaps the best advice that I ever received about the Principalship was from my former principal in New York City. As an assistant principal, I took on everything, micromanaged all aspects of the building, and basically had a direct hand in all tasks that required completion. She warned me at the time that this approach would ultimately sink me as a principal. While the adjustment was difficult at first, I have seen our school and organization rise to new levels in recent years as more teachers and staff members are empowered in all areas, including professional development, building protocols, and academic programs and initiatives. At DFHS, this has been especially critical as our school completes year five of our 1:1 Chromebook program while moving into our second full year of being authorized as an IB MYP School.  I’ve written several posts over the past years on this topic, including two on “the power of empowering.” Check them out!

Please feel free to comment and share some ideas of your own!

Gearing Up For The Job Search: 10 Tips For Interviewing (Updated!)

It’s that season again. The calendar has turned, spring is upon us, and schools are once again beginning the process of hiring for next year. I was reminded of this last night by a former colleague who called me for some advice as he begins the process of interviewing for a new position. Similarly, my school is filled with wonderful teaching assistants and permanent substitute teachers who are now in the midst of searching and interviewing for teaching positions for September. I wrote a post about this about a year ago and thought that it was worth going back and updating it with some new thoughts. For some, there is perhaps nothing more stressful than the daunting task of interviewing for a teaching or administrative position. While school districts continue to make budgetary cuts and many cities remain in a hiring “freeze,” we are seeing thousands of certified teachers who are without a position and hundreds of resumes for a single position. It’s certainly a “buyer’s market,” so it is critical that candidates distinguish themselves from the rest in order to land a coveted position. Above all else, the place where this happens is in the interview.

Over the years, I’ve been on both sides of the table and have met hundreds (thousands?) of applicants as both an assistant principal in New York City and now a principal in Westchester County. I’ve seen candidates who have “knocked it out of the park” and many others who have struggled mightily. There’s certainly a fine line, but what I’ve found is that those who struggle to present themselves in the best possible way typically do so because they are either under prepared, overly anxious, or unfamiliar with how to effectively interview for a position.

So as you prepare for your next interview, don’t go in “cold” or feel defeated before you even enter the room. Instead, consider the following ten tips and you will hopefully be well on your way to a position that is right for you…

1) Understand the Process: When interviewing for a teaching or administrative position, it is rarely the case that the first interview is the last interview. In most instances, candidates will participate in a process that will include an initial screening interview, a committee interview (parents, students, teachers, administration), a demonstration lesson (for teachers), a performance task (for administrators) a writing sample, and a final interview with district administration and/or the Board of Education (administrators). Of course, there are no absolutes and the process (along with the length) will vary based on the time of year, the location (suburban vs. urban), the degree of urgency on the part of the school, and of course how well you are doing in the process.

2) Know Your Interviewers: It’s always a good idea to get a sense of who will be conducting the interview as opposed to going in blind. By finding out who you will meet with in advance, you will get a sense of the different constituencies that may be represented (parents, students, teachers, etc.) so that you can better anticipate the types of questions that you will receive. Visualization is key and will absolutely help to reduce anxiety both before and during the interview.

3) Know Your Resume: Simply stated, do not put something on your resume if you are not prepared to talk about it. When conducting initial screening interviews, I will always work off the resume as opposed to a list of pre-determined questions. I can still recall the candidate from a few years back who noted on his resume that he was a member of ASCD. Interested since I too am a member of ASCD, I asked him to tell me about a piece that he recently read in Educational Leadership that had informed his practice as a classroom teacher. Instead of a response that focused on the latest in research and practice, I unfortunately received only crickets and a blank stare.

4) Prepare for the Interview: The biggest mistake that a candidate can make is to walk into an interview unprepared and with a plan to simply “wing it.” If this is your plan, there is an increased likelihood that you will stumble on certain questions, your thoughts will be disorganized, and you will leave out important points that may distinguish you from the other candidates. When interviewing for a teaching position, for example, you are absolutely going to get questions that fall under one of the following headings: curriculum and instruction, assessment, classroom management, student support, special education, and parental communication. Embedded in these headings will be questions that are specific to your discipline, including content-based questions, the CCSS, differentiation, educational technology, and examples of best practice. The best way to prepare is to go online and search for typical interview questions (there is no shortage) and begin to practice responses to different questions that you may receive. The trick of course is to know the “big ideas” of what you want to convey so that you can adapt to variations of these questions while not sounding rehearsed and robotic.

5) First Impressions: While this feels like one of those “goes without saying” pieces of advice, the truth is that candidates often blow the interview before it starts by showing up dressed in casual attire. As an interviewer, I’m instantly thinking that if the candidate arrives casual to the interview, imagine how s/he will dress after a year on the job. My advice on this one is to keep it simple. Invest in a nice dark colored suit (or two).

6) Opening Question: Regardless of the position, one certainty is that your first question will sound something like this: “Tell us a little bit about yourself, your experiences, and why you think that you are a good fit for our school.” Now that you know it’s coming, think about what you are going to say. Too often, I have seen candidates stumble over this seemingly innocuous question and never recover.

7) Answering Questions: There is a bit of an “art” to answering questions in an interview since only a certain amount of time is allotted and it’s likely that the attention span of the interviewer will be somewhat limited given the long list of candidates waiting to be interviewed. The best advice that I can give is to avoid long-winded answers that circle around the question and ultimately leave the interviewer wondering if the question was in fact answered. Instead, concentrate on remaining concise while connecting your ideas and thinking to specific examples and/or experiences. This is where the preparation comes in. Furthermore, don’t panic if you get stumped with a question and don’t be afraid to admit that you are unsure about a certain aspect of a question. If you come in well prepared (see #4), chances are you will be relaxed, confident, and able to respond to unexpected questions in a fairly reasonable way.

8) Asking Questions: You will likely be given an opportunity to ask some questions at the end of the interview, so it’s a good idea to come prepared with a few. This is also a good way to show the interviewers that you have done some research on the school and that you are genuinely interested in the school and not the idea of getting a job in general. During this final phase of the interview, it is important to avoid peppering the interviewers with too many questions that are either irrelevant or inappropriate given the respective stage of the process (see #1). Also, avoid questions about money or what your schedule will look like if you get the position. Again, inappropriate. Instead, ask questions that reveal something about you and your work ethic. Here’s a good one: “Do you have a mentoring program for new teachers?” Here’s another: “What types of professional development opportunities are available for teachers in the district?”

9) Be Yourself: Despite the temptation, it is critical to refrain from providing answers that you think the interviewer wants to hear if those answers are contrary to what you believe. This is a sure fire way to come off as disingenuous and, if you are truly unlucky, with a position in a school where you are not a good fit. This is especially critical for administrators.

10) The Intangibles: There’s so much more to getting the job than looking good on paper and having all of the “right” answers. As a Principal, I am always on the lookout for teachers who are smart, cutting edge, flexible, student-centered, growth-oriented, empathetic, articulate, approachable, composed, confident (not arrogant!), collaborative, organized, independent, dependable, and always professional. That’s about it. Is that you?

Parting Words…

It goes without saying that finding a full-time job in education is a challenge. You need to know your stuff, have great timing, and be a little bit lucky. As you go through the process, you will likely send out a countless number of resumes, will go on many interviews (hopefully!), and will find that looking for a job can quickly become a full-time job. If you are a teacher and have in fact advanced to a demonstration (“demo”) lesson, here’s some additional tips:

https://johnfalino.com/2015/03/19/gearing-up-for-the-job-search-the-demo-lesson/

Hopefully you will get the first job that you aim for and will be on your way to a long productive career. More likely, you will face some rejection despite your qualifications. That’s okay! Just stay positive, don’t give up, and proceed with the knowledge that your hard work will pay off and that you will ultimately land the job that is right for you. Good luck!

School Safety: Letter to Parents (#neveragain)

Dear Parents,

I met with our students and staff this morning to discuss school security and the national #neveragain movement that is now taking place to ensure student safety. The safety and well-being of our students has always been the first priority for us in Dobbs Ferry. To that end, we have implemented many security protocols and resources over the past several years and meet regularly to discuss additional measures that we may take as a school. Specific changes that have occurred include a full security plan that is re-evaluated on a regular basis, full-time security officers, security doors, reduced entry points, lock-down drills, a high school Dean, cameras throughout the campus, regular police presence in our schools, daily walk-throughs by the DFPD at various times each day, and much more.

This morning, I spoke with our students about the importance of having our voices heard with regard to the national discussion on school safety. As an IB World School, we strive to develop civic-minded citizens who “think globally and act locally.” This mindset is ingrained in the fabric of our school and puts us in a position of strength to make a real difference on both a local and national level. Our high school student-body president also spoke at this morning’s assembly and provided details of how all students can have their voices heard. The members of our student government (“Legislative Branch”) are now soliciting input from our students and will meet to generate ideas for how our school community can work to promote positive change both locally and nationally.

As a principal and parent of three children, I am fully aware that there is absolutely nothing that is more important than keeping our children safe. Please rest assured that our high school will always be dedicated to ensuring that this is our first priority. Dobbs Ferry is a small, close-knit town that can truly make a difference on a broader scale. It is my belief that our students are truly poised to lead the way in this endeavor.  

Sincerely,

John Falino

Authentic Intellectual Experiences: The IB MYP Personal Project

The following guest post was written by DFHS teachers Mallory Cairo (@MsCairoHistory), Connor Cohn (@MrCohn9), and Erica Curran @dfsciresearch) and is part of a larger series of posts around “authentic intellectual experiences.” DFHS is a true “IB for All” school and is looked upon as a model public school by the IBO for how to best promote student access to the IB DP. We present annually at the IB World Conference on this topic and regularly welcome guests from districts in the region who are interested in learning more about how to best implement the IB DP.

In 2016, DFHS became authorized as an IB MYP school and all sophomores completed the MYP Personal Project for the first time in 2017. The IB MYP has further allowed DFHS to promote access to the IB DP while providing our students with rich academic experiences that will prepare them for success beyond the walls of our school. This post was written by three of our “rock-star” teachers who have played a direct role in the implementation of the personal project.

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We live in a moment in human history in which we can access a mind-boggling amount of information, oftentimes with the small devices that live in our pockets and our hands. It’s not often enough that we stop to ask ourselves, as educators, but also as citizens, how do we engage with that information? How can a person begin with an idea or a datum and take it from a discrete piece of information to a logical conclusion? How can we assure that our students are able to confront the information they will be bombarded with for the rest of their lives in a meaningful, effective, and thoughtful way? Oh – and also – what do students actually want to do with their time?

Enter the MYP Personal Project (MYP PP). Dobbs Ferry High School implemented this aspect of the MYP curriculum for the first time during the 2016-2017 school year. At DFHS, all students complete the MYP PP while enrolling in an enrichment research course during their sophomore year. The Personal Project is the culminating task of the IB MYP.  Each part encourages students to reflect on or display a different component of the learning and research process, from identifying an inquiry question to researching the question, chronicling the information they find in the report, and somehow showcasing it in the product. The MYP PP is performance-based, authentic, and a true reflection of the the IB skills that students develop over the course of the MYP. It also prepares all students at DFHS to further access the IB Diploma Program (IB DP) starting in junior year.

The benefits of the MYP Personal Project Research Class:

When DFHS moved through authorization for the IB MYP, a great deal of consideration was given to how to best have all students complete the Personal Project while not overloading their workload and/or increasing stress in the sophomore year. The ultimate decision to enroll all students in a sophomore research course that was modeled after Science Research Year 1 proved to be a good one as students not only had time to complete the project, but also had an opportunity to learn research skills across the disciplines that moved well beyond the MYP PP.

There are additional benefits to integrating the personal project within a sophomore research class. The structure of an every other day class allowed the teacher to guide them in brainstorming, researching, and completing their projects.This class takes advantage of two current (research-based) trends in education: interdisciplinary study and student choice. The project gave our students and faculty a chance to collaborate across disciplines and grade levels as students conferred with faculty from both our middle and high school about the research questions they had formulated themselves.

Differentiation at Its Finest

Perhaps the greatest feature of the MYP PP is that it is truly differentiated based on student interest. As a result, it quickly becomes an endeavor that students care about, connect with, and ultimately “own.” Students not only work with faculty members to choose a topic, but also demonstrate their understanding by designing a product that best suits their learning style and areas of strength. In terms of topic selection, the flexibility that the MYP PP provides in terms of “choice” gives educators a great opportunity to scaffold “how to choose.” To students, bridging the gap between what they do in school and what they do at home was sometimes difficult. Lessons during the month of September were mainly exploratory, giving students an opportunity to grapple with their choice in order to create a research-based project around their interests.

The flexibility in terms of choice resulted in some truly amazing products from our students, including but not limited to: a video essay about Chance the Rapper’s impact on inner-city Chicago, a remade car engine, a live action lesson on American Sign Language, a live action dog show, and a video essay about “filler” words in the English language – all projects that attest to both the interdisciplinary and self-directed nature of the Personal Project. In May, we held our first IB Personal Project Expo for all of the members of the Dobbs Ferry community. It was a true “coming together” for our town and built even greater momentum around the amazing work that we are doing at DFHS.

Final Thoughts

The MYP PP provides a brilliant opportunity for students to choose something that interests them, grapple with informational sources, and to interact with the community to showcase their hard work. Having students design their personal project via an every other day class is an incredibly useful tool that allows a teacher to guide the research process. The skills from this project are highly transferable, from Global 10 to everyday adult life! Students build critical thinking skills that allow them to assess information and pursue long-term logical arguments. Allowing student choice will ultimately create more independent learners, and the Expo Night during which students showcase their work is a fabulous evening to celebrate achievement. We are already looking forward to our 2018 Expo in the coming months!

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!

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.”