#HollistonInnovates - A Mid-Year Update

We’ve reached the mid-point of the 2017-2018 school year with winter firmly ensconced in Holliston and our classrooms abuzz with engaged and excited students and teachers. In my column on the cover of the August 2017 Back-to-School Newsletter, I announced that the Holliston Public Schools, inspired by our history, was focusing our efforts on “Rekindling Holliston’s Innovative Spirit” with the goal of unleashing the creativity and curiosity of our staff and students and encouraging and supporting the development of innovative instructional practices, fueled by the growing levels of technology available in our classrooms. These efforts are designed to help each of our students discover their purpose and develop their individual curiosity, passion and imagination. The response from the parent community to this bold shift in focus was both strong and positive.

On the opening day of school, I spoke to the entire PreK-12 faculty and staff. During that presentation, I shared that I thought that Holliston was being hampered by society’s over-emphasis on MCAS scores that served to evaluate and rank teachers, schools and school systems. As a result, I argued, Holliston (and most other “high-performing school districts”) had, over the years, unconsciously shifted its focus to training students to be successful test-takers, rather than critical thinkers. I shared that I was tired of waiting for society to wake up and recognize the negative impact that state-wide assessments was having on our students and that Holliston was no longer going to “follow the leader” and was, instead, going to chart its own course. I concluded my speech with the following call-to-action: “It’s time for me to remove our handcuffs and challenge us to boldly embrace innovative instructional practices that will help students explore their world, discover their passions, and develop the critical skills they will need to be life-long contributing members of society.” The response from our teachers to this bold shift in focus was also both strong and positive.

Fueled by the momentum created by these statements, our parents and teachers have spent the first half of the 2017-2018 school year working feverishly on new and exciting approaches to education here in Holliston. Following a local viewing of the movie Most Likely to Succeed last spring, a passionate and supportive group of parents formed a “focus group,” created to support Holliston educators in our efforts to instill more innovative instructional practices into our schools. This group continues to meet and would welcome new parents to the fold. Their next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, February 28th at 7PM in the HHS Library. Please feel free to contact Anne Buckley at hollistonptofocusgroup@gmail.com for further information.

In addition, in late October, Holliston’s Fall Town Meeting appropriated $100,000 to the school department for classroom technology at Placentino and Miller Schools. With these funds, we will now have enough Chromebooks in Grades 2-5 so that there is now one full cart of Chromebooks that can be shared between every two classrooms. For Grades K-1, every two classrooms will be sharing a full cart of Chromebook Flips, units that serve as both “laptops” and tablets, run both the Chrome and Android operating system, and allow access to hundreds of education “apps” appropriate for our earliest learners. But, we need to remember that using technology to deliver the same, stale lessons is not innovation. Technology is an essential ingredient in Holliston’s modern, innovative classrooms, making innovation possible, but far from a guarantee.

For their part, teachers have welcomed the freedom that they were granted when I “removed their handcuffs.” Within the first two weeks of school, I had already been invited to observe a grade 4 classroom where a teacher had incorporated several aspects of Project-Based Learning into her Social Studies unit on geography and map skills. Over a third of the Holliston High School faculty is participating in a collaborative study group, using the book Most Likely to Succeed to drive their discussion and experimentation. In addition, the hashtag I developed, #HollistonInnovates, has served as a great way for Holliston teachers to document and share their innovative practices with each other and our community. There are hundreds and hundreds of tweets and re-tweets on Twitter where Holliston educators, using the #HollistonInnovates hashtag, have shared their journey with each other and those who follow them. If you’d like to follow along, just search #HollistonInnovates from your twitter account or follow my twitter feed (@HollistonSuper).

To propel this initiative forward and expand its impact, we dedicated the entire January 12th Professional Development day to focus on this work. Our keynote speaker shared his vision of innovative classroom practices, the complex technology-rich classrooms of the future and the practices needed to help teachers and students thrive in those settings. For the remainder of the day, teachers could choose to attend several of the 45 different breakout sessions, each led by a Holliston teacher. In these sessions, Holliston teachers shared their recent experiences with innovation, the successes they saw and the challenges they encountered. These sessions provided colleagues the chance to share their experiences as well as hands-on opportunities to try new and exciting tools to redesign learning activities. What an exciting and invigorating day of learning it was!

The progress we’ve seen since the #HollistonInnovates initiative was first introduced in late August has far surpassed my expectations. The energy and excitement in our schools is palpable. Teachers and parents have embraced the challenge and responded in strong and powerful ways. Most importantly, our students are seeing new and challenging opportunities to explore their interests, nurture their curiosity and discover and unleash their passions. This journey to reshape and modernize our instructional practices throughout our system will be long and difficult. We will undoubtedly encounter obstacles along the way. But I am convinced that this work is essential as we shift our focus from graduating good test-takers to developing critical thinkers, effective communicators and collaborative problem solvers, who are self-aware, creative, curious, compassionate, and resilient young adults, poised and ready to pursue their passions as they leave the Holliston Public Schools and enter our interconnected and interdependent world.

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