Monday, December 11, 2017

Empowering citizens for the 21st century

This post was published as the "Superintendent's Corner" column in the Fall 2017 edition of the Shrewsbury School Journal.

Embedded within our school district’s mission is the idea that our students will appreciate and sustain our democratic tradition by becoming citizens who make positive contributions to their communities, to society, and to the world.

The creation of an educated citizenry in order to ensure that democracy is sustained has historically been the aim of public education, going back to our nation’s founding.  Thomas Jefferson argued that educating the general public was the greatest foundation for the “preservation of freedom and happiness” and the surest way to guard against misgovernment, which thrives on the ignorance of the people.  John Adams, in the Massachusetts Constitution, enshrined the right to public education in our Commonwealth, asserting that “wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue” are “necessary for the preservation of (the people’s) rights and liberties.”

Many argue that American education’s overemphasis on measuring the quality of education through test scores, particularly in English and math, has created a more limited view of what our schools should be providing to our students, and is often focused on what will be necessary for future gainful employment.  While developing students’ skills and knowledge is central to our work, and the economic benefits of a strong education to both individuals and society are well known, these are not sufficient for sustaining democracy.  Further, the development of positive character traits in our students, while important and desirable, is also not enough.  As author Joel Westheimer points out, socializing children to be respectful, honest, helpful, hardworking, kind, and collaborative is appreciated in our culture, but so would it be in virtually any society, including those governed as totalitarian dictatorships or by other non-democratic means.

So, if we are to educate our community’s youth to be good citizens in a democracy, what does that require?  Westheimer suggests, and I agree, that this involves teaching students to think critically by learning how to ask questions about why things are the way they are; to seek and consider multiple perspectives and sources of information on controversial issues; and to engage in the study of what is happening now in our community, state, nation, and world.

This kind of learning requires the development of empathy, the willingness to imagine what it is like to be in other people’s shoes and to consider their points of view.  Given the echo chamber that exists in today’s news media and social media environments, and the coarsening of public discourse that has emerged, it is important to help our students recognize what those who are on the other side of a controversial issue believe and why, and to recognize that while it may be uncomfortable to have one’s own assumptions challenged, that is the path to better understanding.  

A crucial ingredient in this work is teaching our students how to respectfully disagree while being open to the possibility of being wrong.  As Princeton University’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, wrote: “Some people mistakenly think the art of disagreement is mainly about winning debates or being able to say, ‘I was right.’ It is much harder than that. The art of disagreement is not only about confrontation, but also about learning. It requires that we defend our views, as we do in debate, and, at the same time, consider whether our views might be mistaken.”  

For our students to be engaged citizens, it will take more than just talking or tweeting about an important issue; it will require them to use what they have learned to take thoughtful action. Shrewsbury High School's mission aims "to empower students to become capable, caring, and active contributors to the world in which they live." In other words, we aspire for our graduates to use their knowledge, skills, and understanding of what is right to act in order to make a positive difference. If they do, we will have succeeded in sustaining and advancing our cherished democracy.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Never Forget

It’s another beautiful September morning, but today’s clear, blue sky makes memories of September 11, 2001 even more vivid.  On that day, I was the newly-promoted principal at Floral Street School, and I recall being in the office area when one of our secretaries hung up the phone and relayed the message that “the World Trade Center is on fire.”  I checked the daily schedule and found an empty third grade classroom where the students had gone to a special class, and I asked the teacher to turn on the TV that was mounted in the corner.  The image that slowly emerged on the screen, of smoke billowing from the North Tower into a cloudless sky just like today’s, will never leave me, nor anyone who witnessed it.  A few minutes later the second plane hit, the newscaster used the words “terrorist attack,” and I quickly left the room to find the assistant principal to begin figuring out how to inform our staff.  Over the next hours, the remaining tragic events of that day occurred, a day that changed the course of history and deeply affected our nation and the world, and that for many thousands was also a personal tragedy due to the loss of loved ones and friends.

To those of us who experienced that day, 9/11 doesn’t feel like “history.”  However, the young students who attended Floral Street School that day are now in their twenties, and the vast majority of our current students were not even born.  For them, it is history, and so it is important that our schools continue to ensure that our community’s young people learn about that awful day, including both the evil that caused it and the courage and heroism that so many displayed – from first responders in New York and Washington D.C., to ordinary citizens, like those on United Flight 93, who acted in extraordinary ways to save others’ lives.  Like with all important historical events, there are and will be various interpretations and critiques of what led to and followed 9/11.  Regardless, I do hope that educators and parents help our next generation understand how Americans, regardless of national origin or religion, came together in mourning and resolve in response to the evil that was done that day, and thereby give meaning to the exhortation “never forget.”    

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Back-to-School Message 2017

Given recent events that have roiled our nation, I feel that it is critical to reiterate our school district's core values, especially our commitment to "honor each person’s individuality, celebrate our community’s diversity, and support school cultures of mutual acceptance and respect."  Below is an excerpt from my remarks to staff at our opening staff assembly, which I also e-mailed to parents.

Excerpt from Superintendent’s Remarks to Staff on August 28

First, I want to be as clear as possible that we all are responsible for upholding our core values of mutual acceptance and respect, by accepting our students, parents, and colleagues unconditionally, for who they are.  No one should feel excluded from our public school community based upon their race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or disability.  That is the law, and that is the right thing.  Our schools must be inclusive for all whom we serve.

The question of accepting others’ ideas and beliefs is where things become more complicated.  No student, parent, or colleague should feel excluded or unwelcome in our schools based on their political ideas or beliefs.  Legally and ethically, in our professional work we must be politically neutral, as we must not use our power and authority to influence our students’ formation of political beliefs.  The challenge is where some view an issue as political but others view it as moral.  In the aftermath of what happened in Charlottesville and the rhetoric that has followed, I feel it is important to state, unequivocally, that tolerance of different political viewpoints does not extend to tolerating any form of hate, racism, bigotry, homophobia, sexism, or xenophobia in our schools.  We must be politically neutral, but we must not be morally neutral.
Therefore, we must actively ensure that our students and our parents know and understand our core values, and we must actively work to shape our students’ character regarding universally accepted principles of respect, kindness, truth, fairness, and just treatment.  We must be clear through both our words and our deeds that hate, discrimination, and intolerance have no place in our schools.
You may have noticed that I have used the term “power” to refer to what we possess as educators, and that is a very purposeful word choice.  Each of us has the power to shape the environment in which our students learn and to influence the very quality of our students’ lives.   Do not minimize the fact that this power is very real, and that we have a responsibility to use it wisely, and for good.  So, in closing, I will quote the 20th century psychologist and educator, Haim Ginott, who in turn may have been adapting a passage from Johann von Goethe:

I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom.

It is my personal approach that creates the climate.  It’s my daily mood that makes the weather.

As a teacher, I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.

I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.

I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.

In all cases it is my response that decides whether a situation will be escalated or de-escalated or a child humanized or de-humanized.

And so, what will our response be to this challenging time?  I hope that it is to rise up and use our power as educators to nurture the best of humanity in our students, and, as our student choir sang earlier, that they may know truth, and dignity, and peace, and hope, and freedom.

~ Dr. Joseph M. Sawyer
   Superintendent of Shrewsbury Public Schools
   Remarks at Opening Staff Assembly, August 28, 2017

Friday, July 7, 2017

Tribute to Dan Morgado

July 7, 2017

Today was Shrewsbury Town Manager Dan Morgado's last day of service to our town before beginning his retirement. In honor of his leadership and in appreciation for all he has done for Shrewsbury, I am publishing an edited version of the remarks I gave when I had the privilege of introducing him when he received the Shrewsbury Education Foundation's Community Service Award this past January.
It is my privilege to have the honor of introducing this year’s recipient of SEF’s Community Service Award, our highly esteemed Town Manager, Daniel J. Morgado.  I was very pleased when I learned that Dan would be honored in this way, as his leadership has had a significant, positive impact on so many aspects of the quality of life in our community during his almost 20 years as the Town’s chief executive officer, including his support of our schools.  During my time as Superintendent of Schools, I have gained an increasingly greater appreciation for the work that Dan has done, and an understanding why he is revered among his peers and why our town has the reputation as being one of the best managed municipalities in the Commonwealth.

You should know that Dan has always done his best to recommend the most funding he feels he can to our community’s schools, because he has tremendous respect for the importance of public education.  Dan often will reference his and his wife Luanne’s appreciation for the education his son, Dan, received at Shrewsbury High School when their family moved here when he became Town Manager, and for the role our schools play in the life of our community.  From his own upbringing, Dan has talked with me about the negative effects he experienced due to insufficient school funding when his school used double sessions as a cost-saving measure, and I have witnessed first hand his passion for wanting all of our community’s youth to receive the education they need and deserve.  During his time as Town Manager, a time of incredible growth in the town’s population and school enrollment, Dan has been a superb steward of the limited resources available to the town, enabling our schools to thrive.  His thoughtful and innovative approaches in the areas of health insurance, custodial services, and regionalization of the Health Department, just to name a few, have stretched the dollars available to address other Town needs, including education.

His leadership has also been indispensable for the improvement of the Town’s infrastructure, with the wonderful new Public Library just the latest example. During a time period when we needed to add significantly more school space, his diligence and skill have been key for the many successful school building projects we’ve had during his tenure, including the new Shrewsbury High School, the renovation of the former high school into the Oak Middle School, the addition of several modular classrooms at our elementary schools, the conversion of the old North Shore School into the Parker Road Preschool, and the most recent addition of the new Sherwood Middle School.  The fact that Town Meeting just unanimously appropriated over a million dollars for a feasibility study for the Beal project is tribute to the fact that Town Meeting members know that when Dan Morgado is recommending a project in the best interests of the town, you can trust that it is.

The impact that Dan’s leadership has had on all aspects of our community’s quality of life is substantial, but since he is being honored tonight in the context of education, I want to conclude my introduction with my appreciation for the fact that Dan is, himself, and outstanding educator.  He educates when he provides information, explanations, and insight when speaking at board meetings and Town Meeting.  He also is a superb adjunct professor at Clark University; it is a treat when Dan shares his final exam questions with me, as it is clear that his public administration and policy students are gaining a tremendous amount of knowledge and wisdom from having Dan as their teacher.  And, like all excellent teachers, Dan is a student, especially of history and current events.  Many of you know he avidly consumes both historical biographies and various news sources, and I always appreciate the wisdom I gain from conversations I’ve had with him about his latest reading.   It is with great admiration that I can say that Dan is among the most learned individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing – period.

It is fitting that, after two decades of extraordinary service to Shrewsbury, that Dan is being honored with this award.  Our town has benefited from his deeply held core values and principles; his extraordinary work ethic; his skillful leadership; and his devotion to the wellbeing of our community, including its youngest citizens through his many contributions to the quality of their education. Dan, on behalf of those many thousands of students, as well as the employees and residents who have benefited from your leadership: Thank you for all you have done.  It is now my distinct pleasure to ask this year’s very worthy recipient of the Shrewsbury Education Foundation’s Community Service Award, Dan Morgado, to come forward to accept this honor.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Live Lives OF Purpose, ON Purpose

These were my remarks at the graduation ceremony for the Shrewsbury High School Class of 2017.

Members of the School Committee; administrators, faculty, and staff; parents, family, and guests; and, most importantly, members of the Class of 2017 – it is an honor and a privilege to address you this evening.

It is inspirational to me to look out at you and consider both how much you’ve accomplished and how much potential you have to live interesting, meaningful lives in the decades ahead.  As I’m sure is already happening now, and will more so at upcoming graduation parties, you will be asked lots of questions about your future.  What are you doing next year?  Where are you going to school, and when do you leave?  Do you know what you plan to major in? Where do you want to travel or live? What do you want to be when you “grow up?”

However, there are other interrogatives that you are likely to hear less frequently, but I think are more important; namely the queries “How?” and “Why?”  Heather E. McGowan, an author who focuses on the future of education and work, suggests that in a rapidly changing future, for many of you it is difficult to know what you might be doing for work, as many jobs will become obsolete, others will evolve, and many haven’t yet been invented.  Because of this, she says we shouldn’t be asking “What do you want to be when you grow up?” but rather “How do you want to be when you grow up?”  

Despite uncertainty about the what, you do have control over how you will be in the future.  How represents the choices you make regarding the ways in which you act. Thanks to the values you have learned from your families and from your education in Shrewsbury, I hope that you make...

  • the choice to be ethical;
  • the choice to be kind;
  • the choice to be respectful;
  • the choice to be charitable;
  • the choice to be empathetic;
  • the choice to be industrious;
  • the choice to be grateful;
  • the choice to be humble;
  • the choice to be purposeful; and
  • the choice to be loving.  

While not always easy, these choices are yours to make, and no matter how the future evolves these aspirational characteristics, this “human touch,” will never become obsolete. No matter what you do, if you do it in these ways, your lives will make a positive difference for others and will be satisfying for yourselves.

The more difficult question than “How?”, I think, is “Why?”  This is a question I encourage you to embrace as you enter what can be an exciting, but also unnerving, phase of your lives.  Of course, as adolescents you have asked your parents “Why?” many times, and I’m sure, like I often do at home, your parents have answered this query with a bit of deep wisdom handed down, generation to generation, through the ages: “Because I said so.” (You may laugh, but I promise most of you will utter that phrase someday to your own children…).  

Figuring out your why is a crucial part of your transition into adulthood.  The author Simon Senek defines why as one’s personal purpose, cause, or belief; it is what gets you out of bed in the morning and motivates you to navigate your life in the direction you’ve determined.  He writes: “Most of us live our lives by accident – we live as it happens.  Fulfillment comes when we live our lives on purpose.”

It is my hope that what you’ve learned during your time in school has been an important foundation for the development of your sense of purpose, and I challenge you to build upon this in the coming years so that you can clearly articulate your own why. Sinek says that the values that express our why should be verbs, as our actions ultimately demonstrate our values.  Each day for the past four years you have passed under the banner in the SHS lobby with the school’s mission statement emblazoned across it.  My wish for you is that you convert that mission into verbs that will help you find your purpose.  Challenge yourself to improve; create ideas, and solutions, and art, and music; think independently; keep learning in order to build your capabilities; care for others and yourselves; and contribute your talent and time to others in order to make a difference.  Live lives of purpose, on purpose.

On behalf of everyone in the Shrewsbury Public Schools, please accept my very best wishes and hopes that you choose to lead purposeful, fulfilling lives.  Congratulations.

Shaping Good Students and Good People

This post was published as the "Superintendent's Corner" column in the Winter 2017 edition of the Shrewsbury School Journal.

In 1980, the Shrewsbury School Committee adopted its policy on the “right to study controversial issues.”  This policy reads:
Teachers are responsible for encouraging students to search after truth and think for themselves. Students have four basic rights with reference to the study of controversial issues in the classroom:
1. The right to study controversial issues which have political, economic, or social significance on which, at their level, they should begin to form judgments.
2. The right to study under competent instruction in an atmosphere free from bias and prejudice.
3. The right of access to all relevant information freely available in the school and public libraries.
4. The right to share and express their ideas and opinions on controversial issues, and within a forum of fair and open discussion, grow in their understanding of the difficult and complex problems they face as citizens in today's world.

The wisdom of this policy remains relevant today, with the only key difference being that our students now have much greater access to information through the Internet than what was then mainly available in libraries.  I am struck by the assertion that learning about controversial issues is not considered to be merely an opportunity that should be provided to our students, but their right.

There have been many periods in our nation’s history where there have been significant divisions among American citizens regarding important issues, and there is no doubt that we are living in one right now.  Given the proliferation of information through online sources and the prevalence of social media, I believe that it has never been more important for our schools to teach our students how to discern the credibility of sources, weigh the validity of arguments from both pro and con, and build a strong understanding of such issues in order to form their own judgments.

This work will differ depending on the age of the students, with the ultimate goal being that our SHS graduates will enter the world beyond high school with the ability to think critically for themselves, make sound judgments based on solid evidence, and communicate their perspectives effectively and respectfully.  If we are successful in this, Shrewsbury alumni will be inoculated against propaganda and ideological “groupthink,” regardless of the source and its place on the political spectrum. Ultimately, our graduates will have different perspectives on controversial issues, because there are typically no easy, clear solutions to such disputes.  Our job is to give our students the skills and knowledge to form their own perspectives, especially by developing their capacity for strong reasoning.

Our policy rightfully indicates that this education must take place in an atmosphere free from bias and prejudice.  I think that this not only speaks to our schools’ responsibility to be appropriately neutral regarding political matters, but also to ensure that our articulated core values are taught and honored, especially when it comes to issues such as treating others with respect. It is important to note that, regardless of what anyone who represents any particular political party or viewpoint might say or do, our expectation is that members of our school communities will act in accordance with the time-honored values of treating others with respect, consideration, honesty, and integrity.  
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit a sixth grade student exhibition of learning at Sherwood Middle School, where students presented projects on “rules to live by.”  After completing research on the “rules” that a famous leader of their choice lived by, these students then created their own.  Many focused on hard work and perseverance in pursuit of one’s goals, but I was struck by how many also cited the importance of acting with kindness, respect, and courtesy.  

Our students need this kind of education more than ever.  Unfortunately, they are growing up in a world where too many, especially adults who should know better, don’t follow the rules of common decency and respect, and instead use the availability of social media as a means to post insults and/or untruths that few would ever utter to someone in person.  Almost worse is when others then validate this attention seeking with judgmental comments, without having any knowledge of the truth.  Maligning others, with no sense of fairness or respect, has become all too common.  My disgust with this behavior, however, is tempered by the recognition that people who act this way are a minority, and countered by the hope I gain from students and educators who are demonstrating the opposite.  As one sixth grade student, Gabriela Cardoso, wrote for her project:

I want to remind myself that the way I treat others is a reflection of who I am.  The way I act around my family and friends shapes my character, and my attitude and actions ultimately form my reputation.  Therefore, I try to be kind to each and every person I meet, so I can positively impact their day.

I think you’ll agree that that’s wise advice from a sixth grader.  It reminds me why it is so important that our schools and community work together not only to help our children to become good students, but also to become good people.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Our Kids

This post is adapted from remarks I made at the Shrewsbury Youth & Family Services annual meeting in October 2016, and was also published in the Fall 2016 edition of the Shrewsbury School Journal

As I’m sure as you have, I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about how community life has been evolving in the United States, and I think it’s clear that we as a country are experiencing a time where there is a great deal of anger, divisiveness, mistrust, and coarseness.  I am not a sociologist, nor an economist, nor a political scientist, but as an educator I am very concerned about our current state of affairs nationally, and what this ultimately means for our town of Shrewsbury.  

Last spring, I had the opportunity to hear Robert Putnam, the Harvard sociologist and author who has done extensive studies of American society and who, in his recent book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, makes the case that the sharply growing gap between the wellbeing of children from wealthy families vs. poor families is, and will be, the most important issue facing our country now and in the coming decades.  His argument lays out the stark differences created by increased segregation of social classes in America, from where people live, to the quality of education, to whether parents are married.  He illustrates how family and social bonds are fraying within the lower socioeconomic classes, and how children from lower income families are living not just in a marginally different environment, but essentially in a different universe than their more affluent peers.  The contrast he draws from his own upbringing in a small Ohio town in the 1950s, compared to what currently exists in that community, is stark, and he concludes that a significant cultural change has occurred.  He says that when he grew up, in his town the phrase “our kids” referred to the entire community’s children.  He suggests that now “our kids” is more likely to mean “my own kids and my friends’ kids,” and that many Americans have a narrower and more selfish perspective when it comes to the wellbeing of the next generation.  

While Putnam’s view of a more equitable playing field in the past may be a bit narrow, as opportunities were certainly different than they are today if you were female or a minority back in the 1950s, I think his larger point is on target relative to the extreme differences between social classes in today’s America, and how this is affecting children’s chances at upward mobility during their lifetime.  Interestingly, despite his findings, Putnam is an optimist who sees parallels between where we are now and where we were as a country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where many of the problems of the so-called Gilded Age are present today: the greatest gap between rich and poor (until now); very high rates of immigration; and significant political alienation.  Putnam asserts that these issues were addressed effectively by what he calls the greatest public policy decision in the history of our country:  the implementation and widespread adoption of the American public high school.  This investment, which was significant at the time, raised productivity so much that Putnam says it was responsible for a huge amount of the economic growth in the 20th century; it helped level the playing field between social classes; and it was an engine of upward mobility that was a manifestation of local communities providing opportunities for their youth, regardless of their socioeconomic background.  He also reminded those of us in the audience that this was a bottom-up solution that played out in local communities, not a national mandate from Washington D.C.  Providing educational opportunity to all the community’s young people through access to public education turned out to be an excellent investment with long-lasting positive effects.  

Public education is what made the American dream achievable for millions, including my parents, my siblings, and me.  Now, in 2016, the expectations for what a public education should provide to students have multiplied and become more complex, and the world our students will  enter after they graduate is not only complex but changing rapidly.  Our school district is working very hard to figure out how to best prepare our students to be successful in the future, and I am optimistic that we will find ways to equip them with the skills and knowledge they will need to succeed.  Ultimately, it will take the entire community to support and sustain this effort, in the spirit of providing all of “our kids” the opportunity to achieve their American dreams.