I replaced final exams with passion

When I finished my 12th year as principal of my high school, I was again fed up with final exams.  High stress with little academic bang — except the high ticket value — meager follow-up discussion, no chance for improvement, Scantron-a-palooza, scaled essays.  Finals were more a test of futility than academics.

Why? Except that’s the way high school’s have always done it.  Some claim they teach responsibility and accountability.  They won’t be prepared for college.

So I began this past year with a September meeting with my leadership team.  I asked if someone can find me data of any college that regularly has classes that meet every day from September through June with one high stakes test at the end that may be worth anywhere between 10 and 20 percent of the final grade, but there may be some opt-out conditions if your grade is high enough.

No one could. So I cancelled final exams this year.

We already had in place four profound common quarterly assessments in all departments for the year with teachers deciding the testing schedule.  These exams were factored in to term grades.  They were part of the last week of each term.

No half days.  No cessation of teaching and learning.

Our school calendar already had half days at the end of school K-12 to come to closure on grades for the year.  People asked me throughout the year what was I going to do in lieu of the traditional final exam period.

This afternoon I rolled out to my faculty at our annual June gathering and ice cream social two important thoughts: the all-school book title for Year #5 of our interdisciplinary September event and what we would do for the last days of school.

Joseph Case High School will replace final exams with Passion Days.

As a school that began the year by prioritizing teacher-student relationships, I have thrown down the gauntlet to end the year with relationship-building by having teachers share their passions.

During the last two half-days of school, students will have an opportunity to select two teacher-led events that will complement their formal high school education.

A teacher may share an activity that isn’t traditionally connected with school, lead a service project in the community, or help make something all in the spirit of collaboration.

My teachers have until 8 a.m. on Friday to submit some Passion ideas so that I can then shape the day with the help of my awesome assistant principal.  We hope to have between 35-40 projects that will include 10-15 students each session.  Some will be individually led, others may involve two teachers.  One Passion projects may even take two consecutive days with the same cohort in some cases.

My teachers are deep in reflection at present, marinating ideas to bring to the digital table.

I officially roll out the program to students on Monday, with reinforcement in advisory on Tuesday and selection on Wednesday.

Educators at Joseph Case High School in Swansea, Mass., are taking big risks at the end of this school year to help our student.  Like the title character of our school-wide title A Man Called Ove, we are all looking for a sense of purpose.  By risk-taking and modeling our passions, aren’t we helping children gain a sense of theirs?

Our Passion Days will be epic: I hope more for an epic success than the opposite.  I’ll keep you updated.  Proposals due Friday.



Creating innovation opportunity for high school educators (3)

(The third installment in a series of three)

April 10th was like no other professional development day at Joseph Case High School.

Time didn’t matter: no one was checking when people arrived; no one check when thy went home.  Lunch was determined by the team.

Pretty radical for a microcosm that operated on a bell system.

High school educators — teachers and paraprofessionals — worked on projects of their own design: to come up with something new, something they were passionate about, something that would potentially change our high school.

Two key components were in place: time and autonomy.

I visited each team in the morning, sometimes to just check in, sometimes to engage in a profound discussion about the project they were working on.

Thirty-two teams were formed.  Thirty-two different projects proposed and accepted.  Thirty-two project that came to closure with 32 scheduled presentations the next day.

Some teams looked to update and revitalize existing programs: an update on our Capstone Project, rethinking special needs summer experience, and revitalizing our advisory program to sharpen its focus to be student-centered.

Some looked at designed new courses: a foreign language conversation class, a civics and local government class, a focus on 20th century social studies topics.

Others looked at bring something new: a school store, a promotional video to compete with private and vocational school, and the additional of a new activity designed to complement our business scope and sequence.

Some teachers used the time to expand their curriculum, whether it was climate change or an interdisciplinary combination of computer and automotive science.

Still, the some of the most contemplative projects looked at the institutions of grading, how we transition students from the middle school, tapping into our passions, and correcting how our administrative software collects and distributes family email addresses.

By the next day, each group had submitted a tangible product with a common cover sheet documenting contributions to the whole.  As well, groups had the opportunity to submit a handful of slides to complement their three-minute presentations later in the afternoon.

One week prior, each group had the opportunity to sign up for a three-minute slot via a link to a Google Calendar.  Teachers could choose when they wanted to present in the afternoon, beginning at 2 p.m.

My assistant principal and I designed complementary Google Slides for each delivery.  With the help of my drama teacher, we designed stage lighting in the auditorium that was appropriate to both delivery and having teachers support each group during the duration of the presentations.

Each group’s presentation was profound in its own way.  Realistically, some were more successful than others.  A few were ready to be implemented immediately; some would require some future fiscal planning if the school committed to them; some teacher simply used their time as a platform to share their passion.

Truth be told, I’m ready to move ahead with two of the ideas and will weave them into my school improvement plan for next year.  The August gauntlet was indeed accepted and the outcome exceeded my expectations.  As a group of innovative learners at Joseph Case High School, we demonstrated that because the adult learners take risks, we need to provide opportunities for our students to innovate as well.

Most importantly: I am proud.

I am proud that my superiors enabled me to create a situation where teachers would take risks to create.  I am proud that my teachers all took a risk on these two days — and we realized that people risk-taking levels differ.  And I am proud that my community of educators respected and embraced their peers’ risk-taking by bearing witness to each delivery.

This entire exercise in innovation didn’t cost anything outside the daily expense of running a school.  All it took was a snow day and some sparks of inspiration from fellow educators for one high school to make the leap to become an institution of innovation.

Thanks George, Daniel, John, Chris and all the educators at Joseph Case High School for your inspiration to inspire risk-taking innovators.


Creating innovation opportunity for high school educators (2)

 (The second installment in a series of three)

After a snow day availed an opportunity for me to finish reading Daniel Pink’s Drive, I embarked on a journey to build capacity within my school community to make this a professional development reality — in less than two months!!

In planning my April 10 professional development, I was originally relying on some past successes with an #edcamp-style experience that I brought to the high school in the fall of 2015.  My teachers enjoyed learning from each other and the time to remind our community that we are sometimes our best resources is invaluable.  Still, in the back of my mind, I was reluctant to not try something new — to be more innovative in my PD shaping.

FedEx Day at Joseph Case high School is directly inspired by the works of Daniel Pink and George Couros. At my opening of school meeting, I asked all teachers to become innovators during the upcoming school year, but failed to provide them with an opportunity.

Until April 10.

The first blessing I needed was that of my superintendent, John Robidoux.  In the past, he has always been gracious of my non-traditional ideas and is generous to allow me to present and learn with my peers at state-level and national conferences.

I presented him with a Pink/Couros variation of the following: During FedEx Day at Joseph Case High School, the entire day is dedicated to autonomous, non-commissioned work on any project of the teacher’s own design: a new idea, a prototype, or a better internal process.  The proposal must reflect something new rather than a task that a teacher was endeavoring to do.  The event is a FedEx Day because all product deliveries must be made 24 hours later at a faculty meeting where all teams will present their innovations.

John did not hesitate to give me an opportunity to be successful or a chance to learn from a failure. The most important thing was he was supportive and forward-thinking.

Next I ran the idea by my assistant principal, Chris Costa, who seemed to become as excited as I was about this chance for teachers.  Gaining his support, I spoke to a handful of trusted teachers in my building who are not afraid to give me feedback, even in the toughest of situations.  Three thumbs up from these trusted advisers and I readjusted my March faculty meeting time to roll out the April event.

Teachers would propose via a Google Doc their team’s idea.  They could work in small groups or alone if preferred.  The most important thing is that they were tapping into a passion they have for something related to Joseph Case High School.

Two weeks before the event, I order shirts.  If nothing else, we are committed to costuming appropriately at my school.
One week before the event, I had 32 proposals (from a staff of approximately 55) that I offered individual feedback to incorporate into the delivery.

More importantly, people were excited about this opportunity, spoke about it often among themselves, and, in many cases, began to work on their ideas many days before the actual professional development day.

One thing I learned thus far: when people are engaged in developing ideas that they are passionate about, time doesn’t matter.

Coming up in the final installment: FedEx Day arrives followed by its next-day delivery.

Creating innovation opportunity for high school educators (1)

(The first installment in a series of three)

April 17, 2017 — One week ago at Joseph Case High School in Swansea, Mass., magic happened — and there weren’t any students in the building!

Sounds strange, particularly for a public school —  one that has prioritized relationship building between adults and students for the past two years.

Magic happened at my high school because faculty and staff presented their innovations to each other in lieu of a monthly faculty meeting.  This was the culminating activity of our first FedEx Day Event: presenting the work done on a Professional Development Day 24 hours later.

Let me backtrack about nine months.

At the school’s opening day for teachers on August 29 of last year, I was fresh from reading George Couros’ wonderful book for educators The Innovator’s Mindset. Recognizing the strides we had made in embracing technology at my high school in the past four years, I threw the gauntlet down for each of us to be more innovative this coming school year.

I told the story how story of how Play-Doh had emerged as an American arts and crafts staple===> that its origin was a wallpaper cleaner in the 30s that was rebranded to schools two decades later as a type of modeling compound for projects. Play-Doh became a popular toy with the advent of its television advertising beginning in the late 50s.

Play-Doh symbolizes innovation for me.  And on the first day of school, I left each staff member a personalized note and a small can to keep innovation in their mind’s forefront.

And nothing really happened as we moved through the fall…and into the New Year. I would look at my own can of Play-Doh in my office which now became a symbol of my frustration.

Until it snowed in New England.  Really bad.  Enough to have a snow day where I remained in comfy clothes and read in front of roaring fire until it was time to shovel.

The snow day allowed to finish Daniel Pink’s Drive which I had been slowly reading for the past month.  Pink speaks at length about the concept of a FedEx Day: when people innovate given the time, autonomy and resources to do so.

My wheels began to turn.  In my head, I changed gears and scrapped any ideas for the professional development day I was planning two months ahead and began by laying ground to making the August 29th gauntlet into an innovative reality for my faculty and staff.

In the second installment: how I created capacity and established momentum ay my high school to bring this FedEx Day to fruition.

#shadowastudent day 2017 – PART 5

Last class of the day: Portuguese 3. Great way to finish my shadow day with 11 students committed to the highest level of this language offered by the school.  The class is conducted almost entirely in the vernacular. She begins with a an opening exercise and quickly transitions to partner work that will empower the students to decide appropriate verb tense in the tale.

It was interesting to see yet another class embrace cooperative learning. Seeing this strategy used in multiple classes, it affirms my supposition that Joseph Case High School is living its 21CLEs.

Another great observation today is seeing minimal lecture and more facilitation of discovery with students.  During this last period, Senora Pereira asked her students to find a reason WHY a specific verb tense was used.

Students were engaged in the last seven minutes with a formative assessment that asked them to identify the verb tense used and then provide reasons WHY.  Not only does this kind of activity with a portable white board gauge student levels of mastery, it engages them by making them active learners and contributors to the classroom community.

What resonated the most for me in this class  —  and in all of the classes that I bore witness to  —  that teachers like Catia Pereira LOVE her students and prioritize their relationships with them above all in the school.

And that revelation makes the entire day worth it!

#shadowastudent day 2017 – PART 4

A few months ago, I was looking at the lunch schedule and actually considered for a few minutes shaving a minute off of each lunch.

After I ate my lunch in the cafeteria with my shadow and his friends today, I probably will never consider it again.  Lunch is only long if you are a teacher and have lunch duty.  Lunch is really short if it’s the only break you have had in the day, have to eat third lunch, and don’t get to finish your meal because two drink machines didn’t function correctly.

Today refreshed my lunch perspective.

After lunch, it was Painting, Drawing and Printmaking, an art elective, with a large group of students ranging from sophomores through seniors.  The class gave my shadow Travis a chance to use another part of his brain, while honing his creative side.

Travis and his class worked on their linoleum blocks.  The teacher, Mrs. Hall, seemed to be at 20+ kids beck and call to answer any questions or provide feedback and advice.

Watching her in action made me think it is easier to be a high school principal than a high school art teacher.  At minimum, it is less aerobic.


By the way, the math teacher returned my test.  It looked like a bandage from the TV show MASH by its color.  It did not help my math self-esteem.

#shadowastudent day 2017 — PART 3

Chemistry I began with an addition to the notebook’s reference section about using the VSEPR theory to determine molecular shape.  Students then began to outline highlights of a chapter on small molecules available in hard copy and Google Classroom. The class is compliant and maximizes its time during the period to analyze and synthesize the information.

Dr. P then introduced how to draw Lewis dot structure of various compounds. Students knew what they were doing.  I was lost.  Like in a foreign language film without subtitles.  But looking at the students and their level on engagement, I was most likely the only one lost.

I was most impressed with the teacher’s many questions and use of formative assessment to gauge students.  He was purposeful in including specific molecule configurations on the front board that he referenced in the latter part of the class.

Travis’ next class is Algebra II.  I thought, “how hard can it be to remember my own math experience?”

The class began with a test: 20 questions solving quadratics.  It wasn’t until the test was actually in front of me that I remembered that the last time I was in an Algebra class as a student was even earlier than chemistry ===> 1977-1978.

But slowly, I think it came back to me, at least some of it.  I did better on the second page than the first.  The two problems seems to make sense in the assessment’s final section, but I remain lost on what to do with section one.

When I took Algebra II, there was no push for relevancy.  You learned it because that it expected of you, without any regard of how Algebra II could fit in with my personal universe in my pre-Boston College days.

Travis didn’t break a sweat, though.  He seemed prepared, confident, and non-plussed about the whole assessment. He worked diligently and had no questions.


Third lunch is a tough wait though!!!  I normally eat my sandwich around 11 a.m.: by noon, I would have consumed my laptop I was so hungry.





#shadowastudent day 2017 — PART 2

I was more in my element for English 11.  The teacher facilitated an oral review of the first part of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, followed by an oral reading.  I got to play the role of Willy Loman and enjoyed revisiting Miller’s vibrant, multi-layered text.

Students then worked in small groups via Google Classroom to answer some focused questions. Cheers to the power of collaboration and camaraderie.

Students took risks in this class when they read orally. The culture of the class is so supportive that students volunteer to share a dramatic experience  without fear of judgment.

This supportive, collaborative, robust culture continued in Travis’ World History Honors class during third period.  The teacher spent the beginning of the period celebrating the winners of the recent World War I group project/contest.  He transitioned seamlessly to an electronically infused lesson on Nationalism leading to World War I.

This class did not resemble my own history experience at this school almost 40 years ago.  We were seated traditionally in roles, wrote notes most of the period while the teacher droned on, and perhaps did some reading and questions from a text book. Travis’ honors class reflected a culture where student relationships were established and cultured throughout the year, where  prior knowledge is continually accessed, and students are questioned throughout the period in order to craft their formal notes.

Most of all, there is joy of learning in this class.  Students have rigorous demands, are empowered to be thinkers and providers of perspective, and their opinions are valued by the teacher and their peers.  Watch the interactions in this class:  students are happy to be pushed academically.

#shadowastudent day 2017 — PART 1

First period: phys ed.  Truth be told, I haven’t been in a formal phys ed class as a participant since spring of 1980.  After the dynamic warm-up (which is a great to stretch your muscles first think in the morning), I was assigned to my shadow team’s for Team Handball.  Two sophomores explained the rules to me, I was handed a red pinny to identify my team, and invited to be the center for the jump ball.

Some students really surprised me.  I only saw them previously as docile and passive, but in the gym, I went face to face with “the mountain lion” who appeared out of nowhere to swat the ball and the “deflector”who prevented multiple balls from entering the goal.

I bore witness to healthy competition, camaraderie, relationship-building, and helping to create a supportive environment.  When teachers model their expectations in the class — both in terms of game play and interpersonal skills, in this case — all stakeholders benefit.

Plus, it’s not everyday I get to wear camo to school.

Leading Administrators to PD waters via #edcamp

When you have a profound professional experience, you naturally want to share it with your colleagues.  That’s what happened to me in my first #edcamp at NASSP’s Ignite15 in San Diego.

I had first heard of the concept from my friend and fellow Massachusetts principal, Henry Turner.  When I had the good fortune to be at a conference that had #edcamp in its first morning, I jumped at the chance.

I was so energized, motivated and inspired by the many “rooms” I took part in that I wanted to bring the concept to my state association’s annual summer institute.  It took over a year to get in on the summer agenda, but #edcamp was going to be a reality on Cape Cod this summer.

Mission accomplished: On the final business day of July last month, I helped to facilitate the Massachusetts Secondary School Administrators’ Association’s first #edcamp at its annual Summer Institute for middle and high school administrators across the Commonwealth. The event was scheduled for the penultimate session on the last day.  Not a great time slot — but one that conference organizers always struggle to keep participants until the institute’s end.

I got some of my principal friends to help me promote it and facilitate the event. My friend Marty and I arrived extra early at the venue to get people to submit ideas so that we could build the board together while the Commissioner of Education addressed secondary administrators.

We worked the room with positive energy, big smiles, and gentle requests for people to give us some current topics for consideration.

It went well…for the most part.

I handed out the colorful Post-It Notes to one table that had a group of sour gentlemen that looked at me like I had the plague.  “Please write down a topic of something you want to know more about,” I cheerfully asked them.  I was back in high school as a freshman looking at a vetted table of seniors who had no use for me.

They didn’t smile.  They didn’t nod.  They just stared.  I think one just wanted to know when I would move along and leave them alone to their muffins and coffee.

You can’t let the haters take control of your day.

I moved on.

Marty and I built the board during the keynote.  Some of the ideas were terrific and current.  A few were too specific and were sidelined with ideas that had a wider interest. One person submitted this slip:


Always a joker in the crowd.

The events went well with some real exciting discussion taking place.  People curated events on Google Docs.  Between sessions, people complimented me on the #edcamp style, thought it would be better at the conference’s beginning, and seemed to reflect a similar energy that I felt in San Diego.

I popped my head into one session: there were only two people in the room — talking about Mentoring New Principals.  Initially, I was saddened at the small turnout in this particular session.

Until I realized the these two people would not have met and had a professional discussion about a topic both cared about if it wasn’t for this #edcamp. Those two young administrators were the reason that #edcamps continue to be held and thrive.

I don’t remember their names a month later, but their experience validated the power of #edcamp for me.

#Edcamp is not for the haters.  It’s for the curious, the passionate, the vulnerable and the risk-taker.  This professional development empowers you to be a better school leader.

To those who have experienced #edcamp: bravo!  I know something about your teaching and leadership has changed.

To those more interested in muffins and coffee, have a great school year.  I’m sure it will look like last year. Or 1985.