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Superintendent Matt Geary applauds from his front-row seat during a program that featured a variety of speeches kicking off the school year for teachers, administrators and other staff members. Michele Brooks delivered the keynote.  (Click here for Lisa Griffen's Teacher of the Year Speech) (view gallery)

Convocation Includes Geary’s Bold Vow to End Achievement Gap

Staff packed into the high school’s Bailey Auditorium on Monday for a convocation program that featured a keynote speech about the importance of developing productive relations between schools and families, as well as a bold vow by Superintendent Matt Geary.

Geary’s vow – to end the achievement gap in Manchester in the next three years.

The keynote speech was delivered by Michele Brooks, an assistant superintendent in Boston who oversees the district’s office of family and student engagement. She told Manchester teachers that that they are in position “to transform lives.”

Parents and teachers are natural allies, Brooks said, and students benefit immensely if the adults around them can “align their message.”

Brooks’ presentation capped a morning that included recognition of Manchester teachers of the year, staff who had reached their 25th anniversary, and speeches by dignitaries.

Among the latter was Mayor Jay Moran, who noted that “it feels like camp in here” because so many of the teachers were wearing red, blue, green and yellow  T-shirts emblazoned with the key district tenants of courage, collaboration, creativity and excellence for all.

MEA President Tom Nicholas, who is one of those celebrating his 25th year in the district, urged teachers to “enjoy your year as bold risk-takers.”

Lisa Griffen of the Manchester Preschool Center, who was selected as the district’s teacher of the year, said the theme of her talk was that “teaching, at its very core, is a celebration.”

Using props including a huge inflatable banana and later donning a tutu, Griffen reminded that rests of the staff that “your kids were once my kids” and added that they she knows that as her former students get older they still remain amazing.

For the first time, convocation featured what Geary called a “model showcase” – presentations of outstanding and inspiring work being done within the district. These presentations were:

  • The Imagine campaign at Manchester High School. This includes Imagine College, a support program geared mostly for upperclassmen who are the first in their family seeking admission to college. High school staff pair up with these students, helping with everything from the application process to filling out FAFSA form. The campaign also includes Imagine College and Careers 9, which is aimed at ninth-graders and helps them realize “how the choices they make today will affect their future,” as teacher Lisa Young put it.  MHS assistant principal Katelyn Miner then explained about their new Academy Personalized Learning Seminar program, which gives students the chance to pursue areas of personal interest.

  • Genius Hour at Keeney School. Teacher Megan Thompson said this program is based on the business principle that “if you give people time to explore their own personal passion, productivity will increase.” Students have regular opportunities to work on a project and have wide latitude, although Thompson said there must be “a driving question” behind the work, it must involve research of some sort and must lead to some sort of product to be shared.

  • A Grade 1 Pen Pal Project between Highland Park and Waddell schools. Waddell teacher Donna Watson noted that this project had “a Twist of Google,” as student shared their letters using Google drive and even used Google Hangouts to meet face to face from their own classrooms. In addition to the motivational lift that emerging writers get from having an authentic audience, Watson noted another advantage: “These kids will reconnect at Bennet and hopefully become lifelong friends.”

Karen Gray, the district’s supervisor of student development, announced the winners of 23 creativity grants, which have $100,000 of funding attached.

Geary’s presentation include his stressing the importance of “systemness” – that is, of ensuring that there be alignment throughout the district of resources, efforts, strategies and more on behalf of all students.

“There’s a ton of good work going on here,” Geary said, “and we need to be sure that all of the parts are working collectively to propel the system.”

He said a new “social thinking” curriculum would debut in some of the elementary schools as a part of a continued effort to better the climate and culture in schools throughout the district.

Geary said that the biggest problem in America today is the achievement gap, which is the persistent struggle of certain groups of students, including blacks, Hispanics and those from families with low incomes.

“In the next three years in Manchester – that gap will be gone,” Geary vowed. He said the work would be difficult but added that Manchester has what it needs to reach its goal. Looking out at his staff, Geary said, “The answer is in this room.”


District teacher of the year is Lisa Griffen's Speech

Perhaps the most obvious and appropriate way to start this presentation would be to begin with a thousand and one thank yous. From my family and friends to this administration, from my PreK Center family to the selection committee, from our collaborative support staff to our extraordinary kids, the list of thank yous would begin on this stage and continue up through the aisles and spill out into the courtyard of this school.

So instead, I’d like to begin by sharing that I honestly and humbly accept this award on behalf of each of you. I have stated many times that the only way I can frame this recognition is in the context of a student council election. I feel as if I have been chosen to represent the student body and I aspire to do just that with both professionalism and grace. That being said, then this award really does belong to all of us. For the work that you do every day is challenging, exhilarating, frustrating, rewarding and inspiring. As educators, our goal is to cultivate the best in each of our students and, I also believe, we are called to bring out the best in one another. So here’s to you!

This leads me to the theme of my presentation today which is that teaching, at its very core, is a celebration. A celebration of the best that is in each of us and the opportunities we have every day to share that privilege with our kids. So just as we “unpack” the day in my preschool classroom, I’d like to spend some time unpacking celebration and joy with all of you.

To begin, Mr. Mollineaux was my 7th grade history teacher. He was a gifted instructor, the kind of educator who conducted his classes with an enthusiasm and a passion that was almost palpable. He would raise his voice unexpectedly to make an important point, or simply to see if you were really paying attention.   It was not uncommon for Mr. Mollineaux to jump, wave his hands in the air or vault over a piece of furniture. His classes exuded a sense of adventure, but that is not what I remember most about Mr. Mollineaux.

Instead, what I remember, what my peers remember, is that slumped cowardly beside Mr. Mollineaux’s desk was a life-sized, stuffed, yellow banana. This was your hall pass should you need to use the restroom. And you never had to ask permission to use the restroom. It was worse.

You see, if one found the need to leave the classroom, for the 4 minutes you were awarded to use the bathroom, you would quietly approach the banana and it would go something like this. Whether he was lecturing on George Orwell’s 1984, administering a test or helping us to locate countries on a map, Mr. Mollineaux always knew that someone was leaving. And he made sure that everyone else knew it, too.

“Ms. Griffen,” he would bellow, “leaving for the restroom?” We’d all look up from our work, some smiling, some giggling, but all of us grateful for this momentary break from our lesson. We’d take a deep breath, laugh a little and for a brief moment, had the opportunity to collect ourselves from the challenges of the day. It was only a moment, but it was as if someone had pressed the reset button. Now more relaxed, enthusiastic and smiling, returning to our work always seemed more manageable. What had once appeared completely impossible, would now suddenly become doable. The answer to the question would now appear obvious. Why? Because the tension had been broken as Mr. Mollineaux indeed valued joy and celebration.

And I’ll admit I learned a lot about world history, geography and current events from Mr. Mollineaux that year. I absolutely did. Most importantly, however, I learned that Mr. Mollineaux honored laughter, loved us all and made it his mission that we would succeed. Celebration

These seemingly simple acts of laughter and joy become touchstones for our kids. Just like in families, traditions and routines become critically important. As we launch our students into the world, it is important to remember that your creativity, your innovation and your gifts as a teacher will prepare them to successfully navigate this global village. What will sustain them, however, is that you cared. I am therefore proposing that we mindfully and joyfully prepare for celebrations and laughter with the same intention that we prepare our daily lessons.

This reminds me, while shopping at the grocery store over the summer, I came upon a woman who was restocking the peanut butter shelf. She was in her early 20’s and was dressed in jeans, a gray t-shirt, sneakers and a bright green tutu. Remembering my manners, I decided to first compliment her on her tutu and then ask if she was celebrating a special occasion. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I am,” she replied, “It’s Monday.” Well, here you go.

I then began to take careful notice of the other shoppers that were perusing the peanut butter aisle that day. Nearly everyone began smiling. Young children, their parents, the elderly, there was something both irresistibly tacky and amusing about the bright green tutu and the courage, or not, that it took to be wearing it in public with such nonchalance and pride. Maybe she was onto something here. I wear my tutu on Fridays, during our flash mobs, but this was taking celebration to a whole new level. Whether in the classroom or the grocery store, the end result was still the same. Frowns turned to smiles, impatience turned to joy and there was a definite shift in the energy.  

What I was also careful to notice, however, were those individuals who failed to notice anything out of the ordinary at all. It reminded me of some of our kids. So many of our students and their families dread coming to school. Life may feel challenging and impossibly unfair. Some children and their families feel like their hearts have been collectively broken. Some may be experiencing all 4 emotions at the very same time. These are the students that are most likely to walk right past that bright green tutu. These are the kids that most need that infusion of joy. Whether 3, 7, 11 or 18, I assert that we shower them with celebrations and laughter.

I know what you may be thinking. No, this wouldn’t work for my kids. You don’t know my kids, Lisa. This sort of thing will get them all riled up. We’ll be wasting invaluable instructional time. Are you kidding me?

Truth be told, I do know your kids. Your kids were once my kids and I know that they are amazing people. I believe that simple celebrations will not distract your kids but will instead keep them paying attention.

Others might argue, I’m not good at this sort of thing. Strong on instruction, sometimes struggle to think outside the box. We’ve got you covered. Kerry Kearney has kindly created a Google doc entitled Celebration Gallery where all staff is invited to share their celebratory triumphs. We’re not looking for paragraphs here, but simply providing a place for you to record your own ideas, or for others to visit in order to be inspired. Bullets or photographs would be great: For example,

  • teacher wore fancy socks on test day
  • inspirational quotes written daily on the wipe board
  • “I believe in you” sticky notes given to every child before an exam
  • Husky fight song played at the beginning of every week

(Who let the dogs out…)

You’ve got this.

And no, I am not suggesting that we stray from excellence or neglect the basics, but instead recommend that we strengthen the foundation of all learning experiences with joy. I am looking to build communities rich with celebrations and I am inviting you to come along for the ride. Let’s do it for our kids, let’s do it for ourselves, let’s do it for one another.

To further showcase this celebratory theme, the Illing Boy’s Choir, under the leadership of Cheryl Hilton, has graciously agreed to perform for us this morning. (They have only had 1 rehearsal!) You’ll notice that our soloists are modeling the limited addition, 2015 t-shirt, that honors Celebration. Never underestimate the power of joy!

Thank you again for entrusting me with this honor and may your school year be filled with rich learning experiences and many joyful celebrations!



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