Music Matters

At a recent school concert I shared with the audience a story that I saw on 60 Minutes.  A story that, on many levels, presents important lessons for our students- whether they are musicians or not.

The story is about a group of children, middleschoolers included, who live in an impoverished community in Paraguay.  In fact, the community only came into existence because a garbage dump, or landfill, was developed there.  The program (linked below) describes how these children, under the guidance of a few thoughtful and creative adults, use music to enrich their lives.  A remarkable aspect of the story is how this group of musicians is able to use instruments that were built using items found in the landfill; thus they call themselves the "Recycled Orchestra".

It is a story of hope.  Hope that, at first glance, should not exist in a community with little to no electricity, no plumbing or safe drinking water and the harsh realities of extreme poverty.

It is a story of perseverance.  How when you set your mind to something, that when you commit to something you believe in that good fortune and opportunity can come your way.

And it is a story of the power of music.  A power that can shine light on a community that was once cloaked in darkness.

Says fifteen year-old Ada, on what playing her violin (made with a discarded oven tray among other landfill finds) means to her: "When I play...I feel like I am somewhere else.  I imagine that I'm alone in my own world and forget about everything else around me and I feel transported to a beautiful place...completely different to where I am now.  I has clear skies, open fields and I see lots of green.  It's clean with no trash. There is no contamination where we live.  It's just me alone playing my violin."

The transformative power of music.

Related Resources:
A movie about the group:

The 60 Minutes story:


Teaching Kindness

We can't.

I recently heard someone say that empathy can't be taught, but it can be inspired.  If what we- the adults at school- mean by empathy is really just plain kindness than the same holds true for kindness. We can't teach children, or our peers, to be kind.  Rather, we must model it and in doing so we demonstrate to those around us the norms and understandings that guide our behaviors and interactions.

A few posts ago, I wrote of the power of Wonder, a book by R.J. Palacio.  The tagline of the book is "choose kind" and I found that simple, yet so compelling.  I wanted that message to stay with me so I asked an art class student to paint this picture on a wall in my office. I recently learned that the author of Wonder was appearing in northern New Jersey and I knew I had to go see her.   In her presentation, Ms. Palacio summarized her writing experience as well as the unexpected, and overwhelming response to the book.  She did not expect that thousands of people throughout the world would embrace the book and pledge to Choose Kind. And it was at the end of her speech, that Ms. Palacio said, "you can't teach empathy, but you can inspire it."

Recently at our school, a young man came to a tell another story about the power of kindness.  Addressing all of our students, he told the story of Rachel Scott, the first victim of the Columbine High School tragedy in 1999.  Prior to her death, Rachel wrote on the power of being kind. In her everyday life, Rachel was known as someone who stood up for others, treated everyone with respect, and loved life and those she shared it with. The assembly, known as Rachel's Challenge, focused not on Rachel's death but rather the inspiring messages that she left behind in her journals.  Rachel's family embraced these messages and have made it their mission to share them with the world.  Rachel wrote, "I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, than it can start a chain reaction of the same."  Through this program, and its related activities, our students have joined the millions of other school children that have been inspired to choose kindness.

Being kind isn't hard.  Whether the message comes from a popular book or a powerful assembly, we all have the capability of creating significant change in the world around us through acts of kindness.  As exemplified in the story below, when we commit acts of kindness we not only change the lives of others but also ourselves.  Just ask Justice Miller, one heck of a teammate and certainly a changed person.

Related Resources:
Rachel's Challenge Website

Previous Blog ("Choosing Kindness", August) Update:
Following the 60 Minutes program on mercy ships serving Africans suffering from cranio-facial disorders, a $20 million donation was made to pay for a second ship.



Like many adults who took a "foreign" language class in middle school and high school, I, unfortunately, am not bilingual.  I took Spanish for six years, and although I remember number, colors and a few phrases I am not able to effectively converse in the language.  6 years, nearly 700 hours! I assure you, I was never uncomfortable in those classes. 

I often tell students and parents that I want our students to be uncomfortable in class. Although I always include a preceding phrase such as "a little bit", the statement can result in some curious looks directed my way.  And then I explain:  Learning isn't easy.  It requires our brains to process and code new information that may seem to contradict previous understandings or knowledge.  In the classroom setting, true learning takes place in the area between what a child can already do or demonstrate, and what the child can only do with assistance- the zone of discomfort (or the zone of proximal development).  If the work or task is too easy, we are bored and disinterested.  If it is way above our capability we are frustrated and confused.  Either way, learning does not take place.   For optimal learning to take place the task must be challenging to the student and require them to seek new understandings, build upon previously learned skills and work to find solutions and comprehension.  It is our task as teachers to provide each student with this type of experience, and the role of the student to have the courage to embrace the discomfort that comes with new material and concepts, to seek assistance from those that can help, and to reach beyond the limits of what was thought to be possible. 

In the past ten years or so, world language education has undergone a significant transformation.  Gone are the days of text-book driven vocabulary lessons that did little to prepare us to effectively communicate in an increasingly global, or flat, world.  In today's classroom, even at the middle school level, it is expected that the language of study will be the only language spoken in the class (with some directional cues provided in English).  This instructional approach to language education significantly increases our ability to achieve the goal of developing multi-lingual students.  Why? Because it is uncomfortable.  If I had to move to France I know that it would be hard for me to get by given my current comprehension level of the French language.  I know that in order to effectively function, I would have to learn the language.  Yes, I am sure I could get by with my English, but without speaking the native language my opportunities for success and enjoyment would be limited. This discomfort that I would feel, would be the motivation I would need to learn the language.  When there is a "felt need" to learn, the likelihood that new, high-level, learning taking place will increase.

This week, approximately thirty-five students from France will be visiting our town.  I am sure that these students will demonstrate an impressive understanding of the English language but it is undeniable that they will be "uncomfortable".  In their brief stay in the United States they will be forced to depend on their knowledge of English to interact with peers and host families and to better understand American traditions, past-times, norms and sites.  I applaud them for the courage it will take to rely on a non-native language to get the most of their adventure.  As is my goal for students in all classrooms, these students will have to overcome their discomfort by developing, practicing and refining skills that make them more effective at what they do.  To continue with the comparison between their experience and the general classroom setting, these students will have to take some risks and even accept making a mistake or two in order for true learning to take place.  

As a school community we are excited to host our special guests from across the sea and we look forward to providing a comfortably uncomfortable experience.

Related Resources:

Brain Rules:  an easily digestible primer on how the brain works and what we can do to increase its performance.

The Teenage Brain


Choosing Kindness

I remember my first day of camp. I recall driving down the long, rocky driveway. I can hear the crunching of the stones underneath the tires of the car. I remember being terrified.  I wanted to turn around and go home- there was no way I was going to make it. Who would I talk to? Would I make any friends? How am I going to fit in?

Did I mention I was 19? That's right. I had accepted a job as a waterski instructor at a camp in Maine. I had never heard of the camp, but I knew I needed to get out of my comfort zone for the summer and live more independently. It was my first real camping experience, it just so happened that it was as a counselor and not a camper. No matter your age, beginning a new stage of your life- or taking on a new job, or moving to a new town, or even starting middle school- is anxiety provoking. Change is hard. It is different, uncomfortable, and confusing. Rarely do we embrace the new without a degree of apprehension, it is our nature to stick with what we know.

And then there are characters like Auggie Pullman.  Auggie, seen from behind in the video above, is the main character of R.J. Palacio's wonderful novel, Wonder.   This is a story about a boy, anxious about starting middle school and fitting in, who seems destined to fail- socially speaking.  You see, Auggie has a severe facial deformity (thus the book's cover art) that has rendered him a target of stares, jokes, and teasing for pretty much his entire life.  Auggie will never be "normal";  he knows this, all who know him know this.  Without spoiling the plot, Wonder reminds all of us- no matter our age- of the power of kindness and empathy and how real friendships are about who we are and not what we look like. I was nervous going to camp because I didn't know anybody.  Auggie was understandably nervous starting middle school because he knew that so many people, as they had throughout his whole life, would choose to avoid him due to his outward appearance, rather than get to know who he was on the inside.  Wonder explores why we tend to do this, and highlights the effect that acts of kindness, friendship, courage and character can have on our understanding of each other and ourselves.

As the principal of a middle school it is my responsibility to make sure we achieve our academic goals and consistently improve our state test scores.  When the state report cards and school rankings come out we are compared to other districts mostly by our test scores.  It is important to me that as a school we are always improving, always getting better.  What is also important to me is that we build a community that embraces, and chooses, kindness.  Reading this book, I couldn't help but ask myself, "how would Auggie Pullman do at our school?"  I think he would do just fine...and nothing could make me more proud.

O, I believe
Fate smiled and destiny
Laughed as she came to my cradle
Know this child will be able
Laughed as my body she lifted
Know this child will be gifted
With love, with patience and with faith
She'll make her way 
-Natalie Merchant, "Wonder"

Wonder-related Resources:

NPR Interview with the Author
"Authors Revealed" interview: What inspired the author to write the book

60 Minutes: An amazing story on what American doctors and nurses are doing for patients with maxillofacial tumors in Africa.


Book Review: Sticks and Stones

I recently came across an article about Facebook and cyber-safety that as a middle school principal certainly captured my attention.   In the article the author, Emily Bazelon, senior editor at Slate magazine, provides a behind-the-scenes look at what Facebook does to monitor what is posted by its 1.1 billion users. Facebook does have a department that investigates the authenticity of its users, their age (which it states should be 13), and posts that they feel violate the user agreement.  The exectives at Facebook purport to understand that they have a responsibility to protect its users.  However, as Ms. Bazelon reports, although the effort to monitor its own product is sincere much more can and should be done to create a safer experience for its users.  

We know that many middle school students have Facebook pages, and we also know and increasingly see how our students mistreat each other on Facebook.  Of course, Facebook gets most of the attention because it is the #1 social network; there are many, many more that our students are using that do very little to control the tone and content of what is posted.  As more (and younger) students gain access to social media through smartphones and/or tablet devices schools are forced to develop, review and evaluate how to address the inevitable conflicts that arise as a result.  I was relieved to read this article from a mainstream media source because it clearly pointed out- as few similarly themed articles do- that there lies a responsibility on those that have created these networks/apps (facebook, twitter, vine, snapchat, kik, on and on..) to protect its users and therefore the value of the user's experience.  Although many who use these networks see it as a free and easy means of communication, in actuality the companies that own the network are making millions and billions of dollars through the advertising that comes with it; advertising that is specifically targeted at the user based on the social network sharing user-data with other companies (example: Facebook sells user data - gathered in the form of posts or likes- and sells this information to a separate company- say Hollister or Coke or Under Armor who target specific users with ads and emails). Play the video below for an explanation of how Facebook (or other social networks) make money.

As a new fan of Mrs. Bazelon's writing and perspective- I picked up her book on bullying entitled, Sticks and Stones.  It is, without question, the best book I have read on the subject of bullying.  It is a thorough and personal summary of the latest bullying trends. In the book, Ms. Bazelon takes the reader through a history of school bullying, with  a major focus on recent incidents that received national attention, and provides a thorough analysis of the causes of bullying and the most effective, research-based, methods to reduce it.  She is able to present to the reader a fair evaluation of the bullying culture that has received so much attention in recent years.  Sticks and Stones provides many insights that parents, educators and media can certainly benefit from listening to.  Mrs. Bazelon does not point her finger at one group over another, rather she makes the appeal to all of us to consider how we can reduce the impact that bullying has on our children.  Some of the main topics of the book include:
-what bullying is and what it isn't
-what brain research says about why we bully

-summaries of real-life "bullying" situations and how the media got it wrong
-internet safety and the responsibility of Facebook and others have to protect kids
-common sense suggestions for how parents, educators and students can address conflict
-effective strategies implemented by schools to improve school climate
-distinguishing between conflict and bullying
-the power of empathy

In the reference section of the book, Mrs. Bazelon included a list of helpful video, book and internet resources for all ages.  

Additional Resources:

Interviews with Mrs. Bazelon:
WGN News
Colbert Nation- Pick through the sarcasm, but Mrs. Bazelon makes great points here

Other Videos:
Random House Interview- "building capacity for empathy"

SMS Website



The Khan Classroom

In the spring of 2011, Salman Khan's TED talk helped spark a national conversation about an idea called the "flipped classroom" and how internet technology can be used to transform learning and teaching (see this Wired article for a great summary of Khan, its impact, and criticisms as well as the 60 Minutes story in my "great videos" section).

If you were to visit Khan Academy today you will find video tutorials for a wide variety of topics- and it isn't limited to just math.   You want to learn more about the debt ceiling, Raphael's School of Athens, Newton's Laws of Motion?  Then Khan has a video for you.  Of course, you can learn about those topics, and 3,897 other topics that are featured on the site by simply doing a google search or reading about them on Wikipedia.

So why all of the publicity?  Why is Khan what everyone, including deep-pocketed investors like Bill Gates, is talking about in educational circles?  For me, a visit to Sparta Middle School's 8th grade math teacher, Mr. Kopp, provided all of the answers.

During the Thanksgiving break, Mr. Kopp created accounts for all of his students within the Khan website and provided students and their parents with primers on how to use Khan to enhance the student learning experience and to supplement what was taking place in the classroom.  What many students and parents soon discovered was that Khan is not just a series of youtube videos, arranged by topic.  It is a virtual classroom, where students can learn at their own pace, increase their proficiency of standards-aligned skills, and provide valuable data to their teacher who in response provides targeted intervention and remediation.

Last Friday, I visited a few of Mr. Kopp's classes to see how his experiment was working out for his students and how Khan has influenced the student-teacher experience.  The first main difference was the setting.  These classes weren't meeting in the classroom but rather in the Media Center's Mac Lab. Typically, Khan is used at home to supplement, reinforce or preview what students are learning in the classroom.   However, two or three times per marking period, Mr. Kopp brings his class to the media center for a Khan review.  Each student was working on their own computer, all signed in to their Khan student accounts.  The students knew they had a unit test next week and they were practicing problems based on the skills that they were to be assessed on.

However, practicing problems really doesn't accurately explain what I was witnessing.  For each topic that the students were going to be tested on (the upcoming unit test), the Khan site has corresponding sets (stacks) of questions.  For each question, the student is timed for how long it takes to get the answer.  This tells the site how confident the student is with this concept.  If the student answers multiple questions in a row on the same topic quickly, then the program knows that the student is proficient and will increase the challenge of the questions asked.  At the end of the stack, if the student got all eight questions correct, they can be confident that they are proficient in that skill and move on to the next topic.  What if they are stumped by a specific question?  Khan provides hints and then links to the original video tutorial to re-teach the topic.  The more time, hints and videos that a student requires to get through a particular stack of questions, the less likely they will be identified as having achieved proficiency.  Khan keeps track of all this and is able to provide to Mr. Kopp a report of how students fared and where he needs to provide additional assistance or re-teaching (see screenshots below).  The immediate feedback that Khan provides gives students the affirmation of their particular strengths and weaknesses and where they need to focus their energy in preparation for the assessment.

The students appreciate the ability to move at their own pace, whether that means focusing on a skill that they are having difficulty with, or exploring advanced math topics that they are curious about.   Khan also provides students with charts, graphs and other progress indicators that allow students to chart their own progress and set their own learning goals.  Throughout the class period, not one student was doing the same thing as another student- a truly differentiated learning experience.  Said one student of working with Khan Academy, "it is helpful because you can't always have a teacher holding your hand, and the videos and hints help me understand." This student logs in to Khan two or three nights per week to practice concepts learned in class.  As a result, she is proud to report that her grade went from a "75% to a 92%!"

Parents can sign up to be "coaches" and access the same individual performance data that Mr. Kopp is given.  For many parents, middle school mathematics can be frustrating because they are less and less able to assist their children at home.  The Khan Academy can bridge this gap.  To foster this partnership between home and school, Mr. Kopp provided parents with Khan primers through e-mail and offered daytime and evening workshops to learn about the program.

For Mr. Kopp, the experience has been transformative.  The hours and hours of preparation that was required to set this up for all of his classes has paid dividends in terms of student motivation and engagement as well as the added stream of individual student data that he is provided and uses to plan his lessons, activities, and assignments.  Kudos to him for taking this technological and pedagogical leap of faith.  We are excited to see where it takes him and his students.


Learning to Serve

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”- Gandhi

For the final three weeks of my senior of high school I had the opportunity to participate in a service learning project through a local branch of Habitat for Humanity.  I learned a lot about the power of service during that experience.  Not only was I able to help work with an organization that builds homes in low-income areas but I learned about myself by, as Gandhi said, serving others.  At SMS we try and instill in our students the importance of service within the context of their own learning and as part of their growing understandings of citizenship, empathy and responsibility.   We believe it is essential to model for our students our own commitment to serve others and I thought I would share with you two examples of how SMS staff-members have done exactly this.
Nearly three years ago, the Caribbean nation of Haiti, suffered a devastating earthquake.  The country, already known to be the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, was crippled by the quake and its aftermath. Homelessness, disease, malnutrition, dehydration, impassable roads, leveled buildings and lack of adequate healthcare were among the major challenges.  As we are learning here in New Jersey, the recovery and rebuilding following a natural disaster takes the financial and political support of local and national government and the already existing network of support that includes representatives from the healthcare, construction, and service industries.  This all takes time.  In Haiti, time moves very slowly due to the lack of adequate government, poor infrastructure, and the overwhelming nature of rebuilding a country that was already impoverished.

In order to get adequate care and help stop the spread of disease, the Haitian people depend on outside organizations (NGO's) to send trained personnel, supplies and equipment.  One such organization, Nurchers, is a local organization that is committed to teaching the people of impoverished areas the essential foundations of healthcare so that the people can eventually provide it themselves. The group's goal is to "spread healthcare wisdom globally, one village at a time."

In the summer of 2012, a group of local nurses, including SMS nurse Mrs. Lil Farrell, visited Haiti for five days- bringing with them loads of supplies, and their nursing expertise that they utilized to not only treat hundreds of suffering Haitians but to also teach local leaders essential skills that will allow them to provide adequate care for years to come.  Of the experience Mrs. Farrell reports that the Haitian people were "amazing, lovely and appreciative."  The Nurchers group basically set up a "clinic" (four standing concrete walls with a tin roof), and provided assessments and screenings for the local population.  The nurses also worked with local volunteers, teaching them how to provide basic first aid, and to identify common ailments such as dehydration and infection- especially prevalent in babies and children- with the goal of ensuring that a basic element of care be available to the people long after the experts left.
Nurse Lil-  doing her part in making one small part of the world a better place and paying it forward to the people of Haiti.  Please be sure to ask Mrs. Farrell about her experience this summer in Haiti.  

In the late summer of 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, damaging many coastal communities and nearly erasing one of America's great cities off of the map.  A thousand miles away, a group of Sparta teachers took it upon themselves to do what they could to help and in April of 2006 the group, including current SMS staffmembers: Robert Gilmartin, Barbara Gilmartin, Jason Kopp, Danielle Kopp and Michelle Hertzberg, went to New Orleans and spent their Spring Break volunteering with the organization, Catholic Charities.

The teachers were tasked with tearing down the internal walls and cabinets of several flood-damaged homes.  The picture above shows the proud group shortly after wrapping up work on one of the homes.  This house was one of the thousands of homes in the New Orleans area that were destroyed by flooding and mold.  The only way to save the home and to bring the family who lived there back was to tear the house apart and to start again.  Thanks to this group of Spartan volunteers one New Orleans family could return home.  Following Hurricane Katrina, it is estimated that over one million people volunteered to help rebuild the Gulf Coast, helping to change the narrative of hopelessness and despair to one of resolve and community.  I guess that makes each of these teachers- one in a million.

Volunteering and community service are great ways to learn about yourself, connect with people from diverse backgrounds and lifestyles, and experience the feeling of making a difference.  So next time your local scout/brownie troop, place of worship, team or other organization is looking for youth volunteers- go for it, the world needs more people like you.

Related Resources:

Interested in learning more about nursing as a career?

Volunteering opportunities for students and families:
Pass It Along

Special Olympics of New Jersey

Sparta Middle School's Builders Club


United Way

Youth Service America


New Orleans Post-Katrina: