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.  


Embracing IB for All: Our Story

The following piece is a guest post by DFHS IB Coordinator Marion Halberg (@MegHalberg) that was published on the IB Community Blog under the “E2 Excellence and Equity” category.

IB Learner Profile: IB Learners are Inquirers, Knowledgeable, Thinkers, Communicators, Principled, Open-Minded, Caring, Risk-Takers, Balanced, Reflective


Dobbs Ferry High School is a small public high school just north of New York City. Students who live within our village’s borders attend the schools in the district. The high school has approximately 440 students. Of these students, 13% receive special education services, over 3% are currently below English proficiency and receive ESOL services, a larger percentage are former English language learners and received ESOL in elementary and/or middle school, over 4% speak a language other than English at home (that’s an under-reported number due to recent changes in demographic data collection), and approximately 15% are eligible for free or reduced lunch (which is typically under-reported at the high school level).

When the IB Diploma Programme began in 1998, it was a small, elite program adopted to attract and enhance the high academic achievers in the district. It was very successful but really only engaged a small portion (approximately 10-15%) of the student body and didn’t address the needs of the school at large. Students as well as teachers who were not involved with IB didn’t relate to it and really didn’t understand why we had IB. In truth, we weren’t an IB World school at that time, we were a school with a small IB Diploma Programme. This continued for many years, with push-back often coming from the community asking why we weren’t offering A.P. courses and why we invested so much in IB. Today, every student in 11th and 12th grades takes IB English and IB Math because that’s all we offer. In addition, most students take at least one other IB course but usually more and approximately 25% of the graduating students each year are full Diploma candidates. In the May 2016 session, eight of our full Diploma Candidates don’t speak English at home, five were born outside the United States, two participated in our district’s ESOL program before high school and three entered our district in middle or high school. Our salutatorian, who earned the diploma, took ESOL in our elementary school.

How did this happen? Looking back it is clear that when we truly began to understand and embrace the IB Learner Profile, we were able to change and expand IB for all of our students. If you do that, everything else will follow. Here are some key steps we took on this journey.

I confess: When I began working at DFHS the year after IB was authorized, I was one of the teachers who would turn and stop paying attention when IB was discussed at faculty meetings. If we didn’t teach a course, we weren’t engaged at all with the program. And we really didn’t understand it either.

Although many things evolved along the way, one big change happened when school leaders practiced open-mindedness and encouraged me to become the Diploma Coordinator. I am an ESOL teacher and I also coordinate the district’s English Language Learning program. I was a most unlikely choice to be involved with our Diploma Programme because I didn’t teach an IB  course and most of the students with whom I worked did not access the program at that time. With my appointment, colleagues began to see that someone who wasn’t even marginally involved with the program could be very involved and interested in IB. As I began to attend training and develop my own understanding of IB, I realized how well the philosophy meshed with my own belief that all students deserve and should have equal access to what everyone else has. And that’s the belief of so many at DFHS. This open-mindedness really was the beginning of a complete expansion of IB at DFHS. That was about six years ago.

Coinciding with this, our school leaders, with the benefit of a donation to fund it, began sending teachers who weren’t teaching IB courses to training. This was perhaps one of the most important ways to build not only the strength of the school’s IB identity but also the strength of the academic program. Teachers in ninth and tenth grades began to see what they were preparing their students for when they got to the Diploma Programme.They became knowledgeable, really for the first time, about what the DP really is. In faculty meetings we began to use the language of inclusion. “We’re all IB teachers because every student we work with is going to be an IB student!” And we backed that up by sending just about all teachers 9-12  for training. New teachers to our school are sent for training. So are administrators. Counselors are the gatekeepers of the program and when they attend training they really learn about university recognition and how IB is good for all students. Counselors are the ones on the ground helping students and parents understand the courses and diploma offerings. They are key to helping students practice balance and recognize whether going for the full diploma or taking several courses will be a better match for the student. Dobbs Ferry sent our first counselor for training in 2011. We had already had the program for 13 years! Now, all of our high school counselors are IB-trained. And they are completely behind IB for our students.

Dobbs Ferry HS for a very long time has been a model as a full-inclusion district. Throughout the K-12 program there are classes and courses taught by co-teachers who work and collaborate for all the students with whom they work. Another decisive move was to send our special educators and content teachers together for subject training. In addition, some special educators have participated in the continuum three workshops on special needs.

This universal training of our educators allows us to support students with IEPs and 504 plans and gives them access to the Diploma Programme. In addition to a full inclusion model which means that IB English and IB Math courses have sections with co-teachers, we have taken advantage of IBO’s own evolution in terms of granting accommodations to those with special needs. We file for those accommodations and have worked with IBO on several cases recently that were more complicated but we wanted to give students the ability to access the program through taking the courses and completing the May papers. And that’s important: Accessing the program doesn’t necessarily mean being a full Diploma Candidate (although it might). Access means being able to take courses and explore interests through the taking of IB courses. Being balanced and caring and principled applies to all of us in the school community.

A couple of years ago when IBO opened TOK to students beyond Diploma Candidates, we jumped on board and have opened the course to all our students who are interested in taking it. Two years ago we added Spanish Ab Initio because we saw a need in terms of both students entering our district without the background knowledge to participate in our current Language B offerings and also an opportunity to allow former English language learners and special education students who may have been exempt from language in middle and early high school to participate. This move allowed a transfer student to access the full diploma which previously would not have been possible. We have already seen an increased demand and anticipate adding more sections in the future. The expansion of Group 6 subjects also makes the DP accessible to many more students. Our art and film students, although some may be gifted artists, is also open enrollment and many students take these courses with absolutely no previous experience.

We also began celebrating the IB Learner profile very openly. Throughout the year, a student-of- the-month ceremony celebrates students in different subject groups who, based on teacher endorsements, embodies some aspect of the IB Learner Profile. We use the language of the Learner Profile in other award ceremonies, at commencement ceremonies and as often as we can. Many teachers in ninth and tenth grades begin their opening days of the school year with activities that ask students to think about how they themselves connect to the Learner Profile.

Engaging the community was a very crucial piece on the road to becoming an all IB school. When our current Head of School and new superintendent arrived in 2011, we were at a crossroads. Although we had already set into motion the idea of “IB for all” and were saying it publicly, we hadn’t effectively communicated this to the community at large. Parents were very concerned because we would speak publicly about IB for all students but we didn’t explain the way we would support students who had special needs or those who were perceived as not academically ready for the rigors of IB. People really thought that we were just going to put all students in IB classes and let them sink or swim. Nothing was further from the truth but we didn’t effectively communicate how we were going to transition to an all-IB school and how we were going to make access possible for all students. On the other extreme, parents of students who were typical full Diploma students at that time were asking why we didn’t offer AP courses (which they were more familiar with) and how was attending an IB high school going to help their children.  We learned a lot from that. And the way we responded made all the difference. At that point, we could have moved forward or possibly lost hold of our goal to enhance and improve our IBness. So we listened to our community and encouraged them to ask us their questions. Our superintendent engaged community members in book chats around Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap. What came out of those and a very well-attended and hard-looking community forum at the end of that year was the agreement in the community about what we wanted for our school and for our students. And when we looked at the list of the things we wanted, we realized, all of us, that the IB Diploma Programme was the perfect fit to provide DFHS students with the skills and attributes of  a 21st Century learner. But we wanted to provide this education in a principled and caring way. And as an additional result of this inquiry and reflection, we also began to move toward adopting the Middle Years Program in grades 6 to 10. In October we will have our authorization visit for MYP. Obviously, we have strengthened our connection to IB and we truly will be an all-IB high school (and middle school). Engaging as both inquirers and communicators made this happen. It was difficult but very important.

Some important challenges to keep in mind:

Don’t just focus on the scores. Previously, most of our students going for the full diploma were easy to identify– we were usually sure they would be able to meet the demands academically. Of course, scores are important and community members are often focused on scores.  Now, that’s not always the case. Sometimes we have students who go for the full Diploma and don’t get it. But what those students got in the process will serve them ten-fold in the future. And, sometimes, taking two or three IB courses is taking a risk for a student. We are willing to take the risk to offer IB courses and the opportunity to be a Diploma Candidate to all of our students no matter the results. This helps our students become risk takers, too, in the best sense of the term.

We began asking our graduates how their IB experiences had served them in freshman year of college. We began looking at assessments and worked during shared collaborative time to understand where our students did well and where they had gaps. We mapped backwards to 10th and 9th grades so that by the time students were in their 11th grade courses, it wasn’t such a great difference from the kind of work/assessments that they had already been experiencing. Being reflective across the curriculum, across the school and with our alumni has helped us learn about the strengths and weaknesses of our work.

Another thing that helps us to reflect on our practice is the visits we receive from other schools hoping to understand IB better as they explore becoming authorized schools. Although we were the first, now our county has many IB schools. We receive frequent requests to host visitors from all over the New York Metro area from schools who are seeking information and first-hand knowledge of our Diploma Programme. Each time we receive visitors, we have another opportunity to reflect and communicate our beliefs and experiences. We also host a roundtable each year as part of the regional organization to which we belong (GIBS). These roundtables are a terrific way to share best practices with regional colleagues. We always learn something from these collaborations.

But reflection is ongoing. We are again looking back at this journey but also looking forward. We’re all thinkers, too. Where do we want to be in the coming school year, next year, five years (when we will have our next five-year self study)? We already some directions we want to take. We’d like to expand our CAS program and encourage more students (if not all) students to participate. We know there’s research that shows that students who are on the receiving end of community service get even more when they themselves participate in service to others. We want to make that happen and recognize that access and equity in CAS will be community building in many ways.

In addition to celebrating the Learner Profile for students, we plan to begin celebrating staff who also embody attributes of the profile. We want teachers and staff to know that we value their caring for their students and colleagues, their open-mindedness to try new things, their risk-taking even when sometimes outcomes aren’t what was anticipated. We don’t want our teachers to be reduced to scores and evaluations. They are whole people educating whole people.

And throughout our 18-year IB journey there have been many colleagues and experiences that have helped to move us forward. It’s not just one moment in time but rather different initiatives along the way (like aligning math 6-12 which led to the addition of Math Studies in 11th and 12th grades) and a previous self-study evaluation that cited us and moved us to offer most of our courses over two years that have all contributed to where we are today. And we will continue to evolve.

As we move toward full authorization of our MYP program, we are very excited about how being an all-IB school has become a reality for Dobbs Ferry High School. There are some links and contact information below. Please feel free to reach out. We love to share our story!

Here’s a link to our story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SV9Nkkj3KrY

Here’s a link to our Head of School’s Blog: “On Principal with John Falino” https://johnfalino.com/

Find us on Twitter:

Dr. John Falino, Head of School: @johnfalino1

Marion Halberg, Diploma Coordinator: @MegHalberg

Candace Reim, IB Administrator: @careim2

Dr. Lisa Brady, Superintendent of Schools @YoleBrady

Doug Berry, Asst. Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction: @dfdcidberry

Erin Vredenburgh @ErinVred

Jennifer Hickey, MYP Coordinator: @MsHM211


Placing Teacher PD in the Hands of Students

The importance of providing professional development for teachers that is varied in format and differentiated in nature cannot be understated. At DFHS, we are continually thinking outside of the box with regard to professional development in an effort to keep things fresh, keep learning relevant, and to build community within our school. This mindset has prompted us to get involved with a variety of formats and approaches to professional development, including EdCamps, menu-based workshops, subject specific training via departments, interdisciplinary planning, and of course outside training through the IBO and other professional organizations.

As an IB World School, we emphasize the importance of having students take ownership of their learning while developing the necessary 21st century skills to succeed at any task beyond the walls of our school. This message is implicit in our district vision of developing “independent thinkers that are prepared to change the world” and it is a mindset that we as a faculty have with regard to our own professional learning. Most recently, we pushed the professional development envelope a bit further by going directly to our students. Specifically, we asked a group of students from our Legislative Branch (student government) to design three professional development workshops for teachers in the area of educational technology based on the needs of students. The students identified the topics, planned the sessions, and then led the respective workshops. In doing so, the teachers became students and our students became teachers.

Prior to the workshops, I led the faculty in a mid-year reflection that focused on how our students, faculty, administration, and school community have embodied the vision and mission of our district during the first semester. It’s always good practice to “check-in” with teachers in this way and I typically do so at the opening, midpoint, and end of each school year. It allows the teachers to see how all of the smaller parts within the school contribute to the whole while helping to keep everyone working toward a common purpose and unified goal. At the conclusion of this meeting, I set the context for the upcoming student-led professional development workshops by connecting what our students (and teachers) would be doing to our district vision and mission. I also pointed  out that every teacher sitting in the room had at some point touched the lives of the students who would be presenting. These are all of our students, and our teachers have armed them with the necessary skills to make a true difference in their local community. This was an opportunity for our students to put those skills to use in a real world context that could make a difference for all students in our school.

The workshops that our students designed focused on areas such as Google Classroom, social media, educational gaming tools, iMovies, website design, and more! The sessions ran for 45-minutes and each teacher attended two. The feedback that I received has been overwhelmingly positive. Here’s some examples:

  • “I thought the PD was fantastic. It was great to hear about what they enjoy and how we could make class more interesting. Plus, they were VERY knowledgeable about the topics they presented!” (@AdamoBiology)
  • “The students were very honest with what they enjoyed and what other teachers have done to make learning more engaging for all students.” (@k_galante)
  • “The students were incredibly poised and prepared. It was clear that this was important to them. I was impressed with their critical thinking skills–even when presented with problems or issues they hadn’t considered. I would welcome more discussion and joint problem solving with this (or any) group of students.” (@MsSarahStern)
  • “The workshop on Google Classroom was very eye opening for us. More often than not, we tend to follow our own routines without being so mindful of how other teachers use technology. As useful as Google Classroom is, I did not realize how much confusion it caused our students. It was also great to get a student perspective on how to use it more effectively.” (Mr. Math)
  • “The students were spirited, well prepared and overwhelmingly engaging. I am excited to implement the ‘live’ option on Quizlet and I will use Kahoot to review vocabulary and literary terms. I also plan to play around with Canva and Weebly for presenting information to my students.” (@CastellanoD1)
  • “I actually wanted to find a new way to incorporate infographics in class and the first group introduced us to Canva, which I look forward to using. I was impressed that both groups I attended knew not just to deliver information but to give teachers the opportunity to play around with the technology. It was a positive experience and I was proud of our kids.” (@Ms_Confalone)
  • “The website building and iMovie session was great. All the guys were very knowledgeable and did a great job within the limited time they had. I have already put the learning into use at dfbasketball@weebly.com. (@ScottPatrillo)
  • “The students were prepared, creative, knowledgeable, risk-takers! It was an excellent opportunity to hear their perspectives on the dynamics of the classroom, and to offer some interesting alternatives to our methodology. Go students!” (@MicheleIrvine1)
  • “Research has shown that students perform better with teachers who gain a deeper understanding of how students learn best. It was also so empowering for these students to ‘show off’ their skills and bring knowledge of what they know to their own teachers.” (Ms. Social Worker)
  • “I thought the student-led PD workshops were great. It was beneficial to hear the students’ perspectives on how things work and what to use in the classroom. I am even going to use some of the new sites with my students on our next project.” (@HealthyWing)

Seeing our students in action and our teachers so enthusiastically supporting them was perhaps as good of a moment that I have had as a principal. Our teachers are open-minded risk-takers who demonstrate the very qualities from the IB Learner Profile that we work to instill in all of our students. This was a true community building opportunity for us as a school and it stressed the importance and belief that we can all learn from one another. This gets to the very heart of what it means to be an IB World School, and it is the driving force behind our mission to instill a passion in our students to think globally about issues so that we can lead change and make a positive difference locally.

To the Graduates of 2017…

The annual “yearbook caption” is always a challenging writing assignment.  I typically approach this task by identifying the theme of my final commencement address and then writing an abbreviated version for the yearbook. Space on the page is tight so it’s important to choose words thoughtfully.

This year’s theme of togetherness and unity is perhaps more pressing than ever. As the world seems to be even more divided following the presidential election, our students will now have a direct hand in creating a world that promotes peace, togetherness, and a better tomorrow. This will not only require creative solutions to complex problems, but also putting political affiliations aside so that we can attack each of these problems in a united way. There’s a great deal of work to be done, and I have no doubt that our graduates are up to the challenge.

With that, here is the latest draft of my “caption” to the Class of 2017…


To the Graduating Class of 2017,

The year 2017 is a significant one for not only you, the members of our graduating class, but also the nation as a whole. The results of the presidential election in many ways challenged the very fabric of our nation. Though we witnessed a peaceful transfer of presidential power, a long-standing tradition that sets the United States apart from most other countries, our citizens struggled to remain united as so many gathered in protest at countless political marches and rallies.

Despite the division in our nation, the graduates of Dobbs Ferry High School set an example of how a diverse student body with different political views could join together to build togetherness and unity within a school community. As graduates, you have been prepared with an international education that is rooted in the IB Mission of creating a “better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.” This mission is embedded into all aspects of our curriculum and has been at the heart of the education that you received. The urgency of this mission is now greater than ever, and it’s incumbent upon each of you to promote this message and to lead the next generation of global citizens in pursuit of world peace, harmony, and togetherness.

It has been an honor and a privilege to work alongside you for the past four years, and I’m looking forward to seeing the many great accomplishments that will come from the members of the Class of 2017. While a great deal is being asked of you, always remember that you have an entire community that stands beside you and believes that you can lead the change that is needed to promote unity. We wish you all the very best.

John J. Falino, Ed.D.

Why MYP? The Path to Authorization

I am pleased to share that our middle and high school recently received authorization to become an IB MYP school after a three year process that included a great deal of curriculum design, in-house professional development, and outside MYP training. Though our school has had the IB Diploma Program since 1998, the  shift in instruction and planning was both noticeable and immediate as teachers quickly transitioned to planning units and lessons using the MYP curriculum planner. In addition, all teachers now identify and communicate via an “opening slide” the following information for each lesson: Area of Inquiry (Essential Question), ATLs, Key Concept, Related Concept, and Global Context. In this respect, the MYP has provided further consistency across the disciplines while allowing students to better understand the connections between the different subject areas.

I wrote two posts last year that aimed to answer the “Why IB?” question by looking specifically at the IB learning standards, key skills that are emphasized, and of course the importance of providing a curriculum that is rooted in international mindedness and global awareness. In an effort to better align to the DP while aiming to best prepare students for an ever-changing global society, the IB recently introduced a number of changes to the MYP. In many ways, the changes to the MYP are a representation of what all schools should be doing, regardless of philosophy, both locally and abroad. There are countless reasons why a school should support (or at least explore) a shift to the MYP. Here’s the top five…

It’s Fully Inclusive: Perhaps the most validating and comforting aspect of the MYP is that it is driven by a philosophy as opposed to a set of content standards. Given that, the fully inclusive MYP is designed to provide all students with rich inquiry-based experiences regardless of the level of the courses (honors vs. non-honors) that they opt to take. All students in the MYP complete the personal project, assessments are authentic and varied, and support is provided both inside and outside of the classroom to ensure that all students are fully successful. This ongoing commitment to equity and access distinguishes the IB from other “college-level” programs.

The MYP “Core”: Similar to the Diploma Program, the MYP is driven by a set of “core” principles that are embedded into all aspects of the program. This includes the IB Learner Profile, key concepts, approaches to teaching, global contexts, and of course the all important community and personal projects. Whereas the community project is designed to engage students in community service that allows them to “think globally while acting locally,” the personal project is a culminating MYP experience that allows students to research and apply their learning to a specific area of study. This year, ALL sophomores at DFHS will complete an MYP Personal Project and they will be the first class to receive an MYP School-Based Diploma. In addition to providing students with “real world” opportunities that “round out” the educational experience, both the community project and the personal project mimic the DP CAS and EE requirements and will ultimately help to prepare more students for the Diploma Program in grade 11.

Coordination & Continuity: Too often, there is a lack of coordination and articulation among individual schools that make up a school district. Teachers typically have limited time to coordinate with colleagues in other buildings and, in some instances, different philosophies drive the respective schools based on the belief systems of the principals who lead them. In this regard, the MYP makes perfect sense. In Dobbs Ferry, it is our belief that the MYP will not only further align our middle and high school, but will also ensure that all students are regularly engaged with rich inquiry-based experiences that promote critical thinking, real world application, and deep understanding. Furthermore, it provides a specific framework in terms of content and skills so that all coursework is properly aligned in grades 6-12.

Focus on Instruction: When I started at DFHS six years ago, our first professional development session was guided by the following question: “What are the qualities of an effective lesson?” This simple yet loaded question prompted a good deal of debate at the time and ultimately served as the jumping off point for all future professional development at our school. As I’ve noted in past posts, there is nothing more important than what is happening inside of the classroom. For school leaders, this has shifted the paradigm of leadership from managerial to instructional and has prompted teachers to rethink how they approach all aspects of teaching and learning. While content acquisition is certainly important, the emphasis has shifted to include learning experiences that allow for self-direction, application, and problem solving. This concept is at the “core” of the CCSS and it’s what IB Schools have been doing since the program was founded in 1968.

Interdisciplinary Teaming: While interdisciplinary grade level teams can be seen as a “given” in most middle schools, the challenge is to find high schools that provide a structure that allows teachers to collaborate in this manner on a consistent basis. By moving to MYP, the high school schedule is designed with the understanding that students must be prepared for an “interdisciplinary” world that continues to change with each passing day. In doing so, MYP teachers connect their disciplines by identifying both key concepts and related concepts while having students examine the global context (“the why?”) of what they are studying. Transitioning high school teachers to this mindset does not occur overnight and requires a different degree of understanding from teachers who may have difficulty thinking outside of their discipline. At DFHS, we introduced interdisciplinary teams four years ago and have reached the point where we will have comprehensive interdisciplinary units in place for next year. See “Embracing Process in a Product Driven World” (Post on 11/11/13) for more on the importance of focusing on process when introducing teachers to the idea of interdisciplinary teaming.

Please feel free to comment! Your thoughts and experiences with the regard to the MYP are both valued and help

Mindset and Attitude

The following is a recent email that was sent to the faculty and staff of DFHS…

Dear colleagues,

I came across a great article in The New York Times over the weekend on the positive impact that instilling a growth mindset can have on students of all backgrounds in all disciplines. In some ways, the article resonated with me on a personal level since I had a “can’t” mindset in high school when it came to higher level math courses. When my daughter Evelyn was in first grade, I started seeing a similar mindset in her when it came to math. This wasn’t surprising since she comes from a language rich “arts based” home where reading, writing, and the arts always win out over numbers. Math homework that year (common core!) was always a struggle and she scored in the bottom percentile on the STAR assessment (we use these at Springhurst as well).   

Before the mindset of “not being good at math” could creep further, we shifted our language around math and her experiences with math whenever we sat down for homework and/or whenever we talked about the subject in general. In second grade, Evelyn had a teacher who was also super positive when it came to all things math. Not surprisingly, we started to see a noticeable shift in her confidence and attitude and with that a continued increase in her performance.  

Fast forward to her 3rd grade parent-teacher conference that I attended yesterday. Her teacher became wide-eyed when I said that she “disliked” math in past years and had struggled a bit as a result. She had just recently taken the STAR assessment in math and scored in the top percentile nationally. If you have seen the 80s movie Stand and Deliver, you may remember Jaime Escalante’s claim that “students will rise to the level of expectations that we set for them.” It all comes down to belief and mindset. I’m certainly not sharing this story because I’m a proud dad, but instead to emphasize the importance of the words that we use with our students and the positive impact that mindset and attitude can have with anything and everything in life.

The article can be accessed by clicking on the link below. Enjoy.




Approaching the Future by Reflecting on the Past

The following post was contributed by DFHS IB Coordinator Marion Halberg (@MegHalberg) following her recent attendance at the IB GIBS conference in Rochester, NY. 

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.–Frederick Douglass

WWIBSD? That’s how outgoing Guild of IB Schools president Art Arpin opened the GIBS Northeast (@GIBSIB) annual conference last week. He spoke in terms of our country’s media frenzy on the eve of an historic election and in terms of negotiating the world at large: What Would an IB Student Do? When I took my seat a few minutes prior to Art’s opening words, I thought I was here for the information I would gather to bring back to my administrators about the regional organization in which we participate and to engage in the Approaches to Teaching and Learning workshop to turnkey what I learned with my colleagues back at the Dobbs Ferry MYP and DP programmes. But that simple expression, WWIBSD, really got me thinking on a different level. It made me reflect on the vast responsibility I hold, that all of us educators hold, to engage and help form young people who will aspire to be all those things that we hope the IB Learner Profile inspires us to be. But, I thought, how does that happen? How do we engage students to be caring, thinking, mindful, principled? How?

This year’s conference was held in Rochester, NY most famous for being the home of two extraordinary people, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. I reflected on the the IBO’s ultimate mission, “to create a better world through education”. Amazingly, both Douglass and Anthony, in the 19th Century, were able to work together and collaborate for the rights of Blacks and women. Although the fact that the final adaptation of the 15th Amendment did not include women created a rift between them, they later were able to overcome their differences and continue to fight for the right for women to vote which neither of them was alive to witness with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

And that’s where the IB’s Approaches to Teaching and Learning (ATL) comes in. Although I had attended an excellent ATL workshop in May with several of my Dobbs Ferry colleagues, @KateHebdon’s workshop for most of the session on Friday was an important refresher and reinforcement of the power of how we approach teaching, how our students (and ourselves) approach learning and what is it, in reality, that we are teaching and what, in reality, do we want our students to learn. As Dr. Falino (@johnfalino1) has written here so many times before, we are living in an ever-changing world. We don’t have any idea how much it may change in just a few short years nor do we have any idea what kinds of jobs our students will have or what skills they will need for those jobs. But we do know some skills that they will, without a doubt, need no matter what job they may one day have. You’ve read this before but you can read it again:  400 USA top corporate recruiters look for:

1) Oral and written communication skills

2) Critical thinking and problem solving skills

3) Professionalism and work ethic

4) Collaboration across networks

5) Ability to work in diverse teams

6) Fluency with information technology

7) Leadership and project management skills

Knowledge of mathematics came 14th on the list just ahead of science knowledge and foreign language comprehension. (Wagner, 2010; Trilling & Fadel, 2009)

How amazing, despite all the changes in our world, those seven qualities were exactly the things that Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony possessed (information technology was newspaper print, pamphlets, and stump speeches in their day). And it’s what we still value and need.

As Will Richardson (@willrich45) reminded our district faculty this year at our opening day before our students even arrived, most have all the answers they need in their pockets. Content information is readily accessible. What our jobs as teachers have evolved to, in many ways, is to be those who help facilitate how to access and discern information. And, dare I say it, to be those who spark the desire to learn that content information and to use those 21st Century skills to make sense of that infinite information. But the skills that Douglass and Anthony had, to engage with people, to think critically and beyond their own lives and experiences, those are invaluable and absolutely essential.

So, how do we do that? It seems easy, doesn’t it, helping students understand, negotiate and hone those thinking, social, communication, self-management, and research skills. Those are the ATL skills. That’s it. We can create activities and drill them and practice them and test them. And then they’re learned, right? Not so fast. No, not really. It is our job as educators to facilitate the experiences that will develop these skills and determine what is better time spent together. Do we practice and encourage talking with one another, understanding diverse perspectives,  or do we demand regurgitation of content knowledge? I think you see where I’m going. Our students have to be adaptable and reflective. I look forward to continuing these discussions and learning with my colleagues how we approach our teaching and facilitate our students’ learning. What will Dobbs Ferry students, all of whom are IB students, do when faced with all the challenges of the modern world including continuing the work begun so long ago here in New York by Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony?

IB vs. AP: Going All In With IB

IB or AP? Is one better than the other? The debate between the two programs has intensified as the paradigm in American education continues to shift due to the CCSS and the push for both international mindedness and the development of “real world” 21st-century skills. As an IB World School, it seems that we are getting more and more requests for visits as schools continue to investigate the possibility of making the switch to IB. At last year’s NYC GIBS conference, Drew Deutsch (@DrewDeutsch) noted that the IBO now has over 4000 authorized IB World Schools with an additional 1,000 in either the candidacy or authorization phase. The “Americas” is leading the way with schools in countries such as the United States, Canada, Ecuador, Argentina, and Peru.

Over the past few years I’ve spoken to leaders from many schools who are caught between IB and AP and, as a result, offer both options to students. While this certainly makes some sense for schools that are transitioning, a long-term plan that includes both options for students is ultimately a bad one and only serves to muddy the vision and direction of a school. While the thinking might be that offering both provides more options for students, the likely result is that one of the programs will become “cheapened” since students will typically gravitate to one over another while never fully getting the most out of either. The result is an academic program that is more piecemeal than anything else with no true cohesion occurring due to the differing philosophies that guide each program.

Having worked closely with both programs as a teacher, an assistant principal, and now as a principal, I’ve been able to see and experience some of the differences between IB and AP first hand. A few months back I identified several of those differences. In this post, I have included and expanded upon those points while adding a few others. They are as follows…

IB Philosophy: Regardless of the grade level or course, the IB philosophy and approach should be evident in any class in an IB World School. For example, the English 9 class that is taught in an IB School should look very different from the same course that is being taught up the road at a non-IB school. The thinking here is that all students are IB students who will ultimately choose to access the Diploma Programme at various degrees. This will range from students who enroll in one or two IB courses to those who choose to pursue the full diploma. With AP, there is no “AP philosophy” per se and the thinking is that a specific pre-determined population of students will ultimately enroll in AP courses. That population is typically identified early on and tracked in honors and/or “pre-AP” courses.

Access: To expand on the point above, the IB makes it much easier for all students to access DP courses in grades 11-12. They do this by offering both Standard Level (SL) and Higher Level (HL) course options that are, in most cases, spread out over two years to allow for greater inquiry and exploration. In addition, the IB requires that all schools have a clear special needs policy to ensure greater access for all students. While the AP program certainly accommodates the needs of all students, the greatest difference is with the difficult entry point and seemingly high level of exclusivity that exists for students who choose to enroll in AP courses. Simply stated, far more students will access IB courses in a full IB World School as opposed to the number that will access AP courses in a more traditional situation.

“The Test”: When I attended AP training years ago, I was told flat out by the instructor that “the test” drives every aspect of the course and that students who enroll should do so with the expectation that they will score at least a 3 if not a 4 or 5. Assessments, assignments, and other tasks must be “AP-based” and inquiry, analysis, and creativity should be limited to what is necessary for success on the AP exam. Conversely, IB courses are driven less by the pressure of one test and instead contain a blend of internal and external assessments over the course of two years. This not only provides a more well-rounded picture of what students know and are able to do, but also allows for a deep understanding of the subject since more time is provided for inquiry-based authentic tasks.

Community and Support: While there is certainly plenty of opportunity for AP training by the College Board, the level of community and support that teachers and students receive with IB reaches far beyond. In addition to receiving formal IB training before teaching an IB course, all teachers meet with colleagues from their respective regions via “roundtables” and can share resources via the Online Curriculum Centre (OCC). Furthermore, teachers receive ongoing formal training (online or in-person) when changes are made to the IB subject guides every seven years and also have an opportunity to attend local, regional, national, and international conferences. All of this helps to ensure that IB teachers remain current, connected, and on the cutting edge. Similar opportunities exist for students, including IB World Student Conferences in locations around the world.

College Recognition: At last year’s GIBS Conference, @DrewDeutsch reiterated that the mission of the IB is to promote the development of an international education while providing an opportunity for students to earn a diploma that is recognized around the world. Though the IB recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, it is not until more recently that the IB has become commonly recognized by United States universities as a benchmark for academic excellence. In fact, more and more colleges are coming right out and saying that they prefer IB over AP and the college “Common App” now has a separate check-box for students who are pursuing an IB Diploma. More universities are also awarding credit for IB courses and colleges such as Sarah Lawrence are now indicating that they will award a full year of credit to full IB Diploma students. From an IB perspective, the focus has never been on helping students to earn college credits in high school and is instead on preparing all students for success in college and beyond. Fiscally minded parents and students, however, are more than happy about this shift.

Staying Connected with Twitter

The following piece will appear in the next issue of Principal Communicator. 

Twitter is a significant and critical professional tool that, as a principal, I use daily, though not as I had originally envisioned. Admittedly, at first, I wasn’t impressed with Twitter as a platform for communication and didn’t see why anyone would feel compelled to visit a website in order to read 140 character messages. But in 2007 Twitter was “the future” for how educators could (and would) connect parents to their schools, so I followed the “trend,” opened an account, and pretty much forgot about it until 2011 when the conversation resurfaced during my first year as the principal of Dobbs Ferry High School. Once again, Twitter was presented as a vehicle for connecting parents and community members to our school and I was open and excited about the possibility given the explosion of social media at that time.

In Dobbs Ferry, we are guided by the belief that communication must be differentiated so that we can best reach parents, students, and community members. We thought at the time that Twitter was “taking off” and that this would be an easy way to share school-wide information in a quick and ongoing way. We were actually wrong. As it turned out, most parents were not on Twitter and in the end I found that our high school Facebook page was a much better tool for communicating information about our school. In fact, of the over 3,000 Twitter followers that I currently have, I’d say that only around 75 are parents and/or community members.

Despite the limited impact that Twitter has had on parental communication, however, Twitter did take on a much different role than I had originally expected. Instead, Twitter has served as a tool that has truly transformed the way I think about professional development and professional networking. Specifically, I use Twitter in the following two ways:

  • As a Professional Learning Network (PLN): Twitter has provided me with the opportunity to connect and interact with thousands of teachers, researchers, advocates, and administrators in the field through “tweetchats,” “mentions,” and by reading others’ posts. The information comes from all directions and it is easy to get happily lost in articles and educational research for hours each night. Furthermore, Twitter provides an easy way for professionals to share resources with other members of their PLN and has quickly replaced the “hard-copy” journals from professional organizations that come in the mail each month. It is also an invaluable resource for sharing information and examples of best practice with the teachers and leaders in my school. As a principal, supporting this level of differentiated, far-reaching, “up to the minute” communication is an absolute must for any educator who is serious about ongoing professional growth and improvement.
  • Engaging and Connecting Teachers: I encourage the teachers in my school to open a Twitter account and to “follow” some of the relevant educators and publications in the field. For most, this has worked beautifully and has allowed me to share links to resources and articles on a regular basis. For others, Twitter is viewed as an “extra thing to do” that is not part of the daily routine. I never fault anyone who feels this way and instead continue to model best practice by referring staff members to my Twitter page and by engaging teachers in “back-channel” discussions during both faculty meetings and professional development workshops. At this point, the majority of the staff members at my school are active on Twitter and it is not uncommon to overhear teachers saying that they will “tweet” a link to a professional article to one of their colleagues. In this sense, Twitter is the “norm” and is not far different from teachers’ communicating via email or text message.

Twitter is truly transforming the educational landscape in ways that were probably never intended when it was first created. In addition, teachers at our school are using Twitter inside of the classroom in much the same way and it has truly enhanced instruction and overall student engagement. While there is plenty of room for debate on the future of Twitter, it is clear that its ability to connect principals, school leaders, and teachers will ensure that it continues to “trend” for years to come.

Please feel free to contact me on Twitter @johnfalino1 if you have questions and/or would like to share your experiences about how Twitter has (or hasn’t) worked for you.

Gearing Up for #IBTO2016: Finding New Ways to Learn Together

It’s that time of year again! The IB Conference of the Americas (#IBTO2016) is fast approaching as IB educators from North and South America are heading to the beautiful city of Toronto, Canada for what is sure to be another exceptional conference. As the Head of an IB World School in Westchester County, NY (USA), there is no better conference to attend and I’m both thrilled and honored to present for a second year in a row with @careim2, @MegHalberg, and @ErinVred. Our session, “Promoting Equity and Access in the IB DP,” runs on Sunday morning at 9:00 a.m. and is an extension of our 2015 presentation in Chicago on how our 1:1 Chromebook program promotes the development of 21st century skills for all students in our middle and high school.

The conference theme of “Learning Together” certainly resonates for the members of the team from Dobbs Ferry that is joining me at this year’s conference. We put a group together each summer to attend this event and “learning together” is something that we are committed to and, perhaps more importantly, enjoy doing with one another. We are fortunate to have a team that is comprised of forward thinking educators and this conference always seems to bring out the best in us. Over the past five years we have not only doubled the size of our DP program, but are also prepared for authorization to the MYP this fall. A great deal of these changes occurred as a result of our team “learning together” at this annual conference.

The notion of “learning together” is certainly not new and part of what makes the IBO so special is that it provides like-minded educators with many opportunities to do just that on a local, national, and international level. Whether through local roundtables, regional meetings (GIBS), or international conferences like this one, the IB is comprised of a community of a learners who are united through a common vision of creating “a better and more peaceful world.” But while the idea of coming to a conference to learn with one another may seem like a somewhat obvious concept, the last few years have brought forth a tremendous shift in how we learn with one another. Perhaps the biggest reason for this is the explosion of social media on the education scene and the role that tools such as Twitter continue to have on both professional development and professional networking. In fact, social media has singularly eliminated all of the walls as it relates to connecting with others and educators from around the world are now connecting and “learning together” daily as a result.

Given this radical shift, it makes sense that the IBO would take on the theme of “Learning Together” for this year’s conference since the IB is constantly challenging us examine how we learn, ways of knowing, and of course how we receive and interpret information (think TOK). So the challenge for all of us at this year’s conference is to find new “out of the box” ways to “learn together” apart from the obvious approach of attending different sessions and passively taking notes. Not sure how? Here’s a few ideas…

  • #IBTO2016: If nothing else, you need to stay connected to the conference hashtag and you need a Twitter account in order to best do that. If you still do not have a professional Twitter account, stop reading and create one right now. This year’s conference hashtag will connect all of the conference attendees as well as vendors and other members of the IB community who are not in attendance. The hashtag is a superb vehicle for promoting dialogue as well as sharing information, infographics, blog posts, and of course links to articles and other conference notes. 
  • Session Hashtags: To the presenters, it’s imperative that you create a session hashtag for your attendees. Our session, “Promoting Equity and Access in the IB DP,” will have the following session hashtag: #DFIBforAll. As noted above, a session hashtag will allow all of the members in the room to connect with one another, follow each other, and stay engaged long after the session has ended. A session hashtag is also a perfect way to keep a backchannel discussion going so that attendees can pose questions, comment, and interact with one another.
  • Conference EdCamps: The EdCamp movement has taken off as teachers get together, brainstorm topics, and engage in mini-discussions based on common interest and need. While EdCamps are typically events unto themselves, an annual conference is a perfect opportunity to gather a group of attendees to engage in an EdCamp experience using a “conference within a conference” approach. The conference hashtag is the perfect way to solicit interest to organize this type of impromptu form of professional learning. For more on EdCamps, check out this video:


  • Collaborative Note-Taking: Whenever I attend any meeting or workshop with @careim2 or another member of my team, we instantly “share” a Google Doc so that we can take collaborative notes, interact within the document, and essentially engage in a backchannel discussion for the duration of the time. This approach allows us to crystallize ideas as they are coming our way while providing us with an opportunity to “learn together” in a way that is natural and free flowing. This simple yet highly effective approach is ideal if you are attending either the same session as someone from your group or if you are in different sessions and want to “learn together” across sessions that are running at the same time. It’s also a great way to learn with colleagues from back home by allowing them to engage with the respective workshop remotely and in real time.
  • You Had Me At Hello: Sometimes it’s best to just go “old school,” put the phone and computer away, turn to the person next to you, put out your hand and say “hello.” Meet someone new, have a conversation, make a contact, and perhaps find an opportunity to learn with that person during the session. It’s how people have been doing it since the beginning of time and is something that sadly feels foreign to so many of us these days. So don’t be shy and go for it…

Have other ideas for how we can “learn together” at #IBTO2016…? Please share below! I wish you all the best for a great conference.