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Humanities Academy Teachers Dive Deep into Design Thinking at Stanford
Jennifer van Frank

Teachers John Madden and Matt Daly attended an intensive workshop at Stanford University's prestigious d.school as part of their summer professional development, bringing back with them new insights and experiences to share with students and colleagues.

Q:  What do places like MIT, Princeton, and Stanford have in common with the Morristown High School Academies?

A:  High-level, innovative programs in Design Thinking!

This summer, Morristown High School English teachers John Madden and Matt Daly spent an intensive three days at the K12 Lab, one of several rigorous professional learning opportunities offered by Stanford University’s d.school--a dynamic cross-disciplinary program in design thinking.  A hallmark of both the Humanities Academy and the STEM Academy at Morristown High School, “design thinking” is a human-centered methodology for addressing real-world problems that foregrounds empathy; throughout its iterative stages, design thinking revolves around a deep interest in developing an understanding of the people for whom we are designing.  Stanford’s K12 Lab gives educators the “creative confidence” to further their knowledge of design thinking through actual design challenges and to develop specific strategies for implementing the methodology in their own classrooms and schools.  

As part of a diverse international cohort of 50 teachers and school leaders, Madden and Daly assumed the role of students in an introductory design thinking course.  This enabled them to experience instruction from the students’ point of view as they collaborated with other educators to problem-solve and negotiated a range of different perspectives and levels of expertise.  Daly recalls, “the emphasis on creating empathy in our designs was constant throughout the activities, and really brought home the concept and importance of keeping the ‘human’ in human-centered design.”  They also found a strong correlation between the imperative to recognize one’s assumptions and biases in the design process, a salient theme of the Stanford workshop, and their own professional development in Culturally Responsive Practices and Social-Emotional Learning, which teachers in the Morris School District have been focusing on over the past two years.  

In the Humanities Academy, students learn the fundamentals of the design thinking process in their first year of the program and then focus on its various applications through in-depth, self-directed projects in subsequent years.  Their course of study culminates in an original senior-year creation and presentation.  Because feedback is essential to the design thinking approach, students are given multiple opportunities in and out of the classroom to develop ideas and share their research with the school and wider community. Madden and Daly have established a series of “In the Schools” forums held at the town/township library for this purpose, and students present their end-of-year projects at the annual Humanities Night at the high school.  Along with their peers in the STEM Academy, Humanities students can attend several design thinking sessions at Princeton University, where they work side by side with Princeton undergrads on design challenges.

Together with their Humanities Academy classes, Madden and Daly have devised a core set of “Habits of Mind” that students learn to cultivate and draw from as they approach their coursework and research projects.  These habits of mind include values-based principles such as empathy, mindfulness, and intentionality as well as principles that are reflected in an individual’s behavior, like flexibility, intrinsic motivation, and persistence.  Thus, the Humanities Academy emphasizes the significance of the metacognitive dimension of learning:  a student’s mindset is integral to the creative process and to the end result.  According to Madden, their approach to teaching vis-a-vis “habits of mind” was echoed throughout the workshop at Stanford’s K12 Lab.  “It was tremendously gratifying to realize how far developed our program at Morristown High is, and how the ideas coming out of Stanford University are things our students are already well-versed in here in the Humanities Academy,” he stated.  

Having left Stanford with an invaluable network of teachers and professors to continue learning from, with new activities and resources to export into their own classrooms, and with new ways to frame objectives such as approaching a text or writing a paper, Madden and Daly want to ensure that their experience in the K12 Lab travels back to the Morris School District.  They look forward to opportunities to dialogue with colleagues here in the Morris School District from a range of academic fields about ways that this methodology can inform teaching practices across subject areas and bring teachers from different disciplines together through a shared and richly productive language of inquiry.  

MSD in D.C.! Superintendent Pendergrast Shares District's Success at the National Press Club

Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast presented at the National Press Club on October 16 as part of a national showcase on Equity and Excellence.

The national spotlight was on the Morris School District last week, when Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast joined nine other public school leaders from across the United States at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. for the Equity and Excellence: Innovation in American Public Education showcase. The showcase was organized by Digital Promise, a nonprofit dedicated to improving educational opportunities and outcomes through innovative practices and technologies. Superintendents and other public school administrators, education policy makers and thought leaders, and representatives from the press attended the event to learn how successful school districts are addressing the equity gap and positively impacting the lives of marginalized students.

The Morris School District was one of two NJ districts selected by Digital Promise to participate in the Equity and Excellence showcase; Freehold Regional High School District (FRHSD) Superintendent Dr. Charles Sampson also demonstrated his district’s equity work alongside Mr. Pendergrast.  Both the MSD and FRHSD are members of the League of Innovative Schools, a national network of forward-thinking education leaders, entrepreneurs, and researchers within Digital Promise.

As one of the nine presenters at the showcase, Mr. Pendergrast highlighted the Morris School District’s multi-strategy approach to closing achievement gaps in reading and writing at Frelinghuysen Middle School.  Explained Pendergrast, “Four years ago, state standardized test scores revealed marked disparities in student performance among our demographic subgroups, with students of color, economically-disadvantaged students, and students with IEPs performing lower than white and non-economically disadvantaged students.  At the same time, discipline data showed disproportionately higher numbers of behavioral referrals, detentions, and suspensions for African-American and Hispanic students.  Principal Joe Uglialoro and I determined that, in order to create impactful, lasting change at the middle school in terms of equity, access, and achievement, we needed to take the broad view and confront both the reading and writing gap as well as the climate gap.”  A study just published by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) validates their approach; Stanford University Professor Francis Pearman and colleagues have now documented the relationship between racial disparities in school discipline rates and academic achievement between black and white students nationwide.  (See Pearman et. al.  “Are Achievement Gaps Related to Discipline Gaps? Evidence From National Data.”)

Mr. Pendergrast’s demonstration at the Equity and Excellence showcase outlined what he and Mr. Uglialoro call “The Architecture of a Coherent Vision for Learning”--the integration of a comprehensive set of strategies along three fronts:  the transformation of student culture and climate, emphasizing the centrality of positive, affirming human relationships; the elevation of reading and writing instruction, including the move from an every-other-day schedule to a daily schedule of English Language Arts classes; and the universalization of “blended” learning, which couples technology-based and face-to-face instruction, so that all students can have equal access to the skills and resources necessary for the 21st century.

The longitudinal data Mr. Pendergrast shared at the showcase illustrates the far-reaching impact of the Morris School District’s approach.  “Our results are proof of concept,” he stated.  A four-year comparative summary of test scores from the NJ State standardized test in English Language Arts shows significant improvement across the board for all demographic subgroups (see chart below).  For example, economically disadvantaged students receiving a passing score improved by 44 percentage points (from 18% in 2014-15 to 62% in 2018-19).  African American students improved by 35 percentage points (from 30% to 65%), and Hispanic students improved by 51 percentage points (from 17% to 68%).  Over the same time period, discipline rates declined at the middle school:  behavioral referrals went from 788 in 2014-15 to 112 in 2018-19, suspensions from 175 to 18, and lunch detentions from a high of 1034 down to 34.  


*Note: The NJ all-student average for 2018-19 was 62.8%.

Pendergrast calls these results “remarkable,” and noted that it was the combination of coordinated strategies that proved so effective: “It is no mistake that while suspensions and behavioral referrals have dropped dramatically, we have simultaneously seen a dramatic rise in student growth and achievement in reading and writing.  All of the strategies we conceptualized and employed were necessary in concert, and it was the comprehensiveness and coherency of our approach that enabled its success.  Simply reading and writing more is not enough to create this type of improvement unless it is accompanied by the intentional use of data, careful and targeted integration of technology, sustained professional training and dialogue, investment in student participation and social capital, and a shift in culture and climate so that all students feel that they belong and have value in our schools.” 

Pendergrast added:  “What is more, these strategies were not conceived and implemented incidentally; they are aligned to our district mission and firmly rooted in our values--values that are shared by the community and advanced by our partnerships with our stakeholders.  The Morris School District is part of a legacy of committing to inclusive, accessible education for all students.  We are proud of that legacy, and we will continue to work hard toward its realization.”

Both he and Principal Uglialoro gave great credit to the teachers and counselors at Frelinghuysen Middle School for their “uncompromising commitment to providing exceptional instruction, meeting the needs of each student, and inspiring our students to reach new heights.”   

The Right Equation for Success: MHS Math Team Earns Top Spots in State Math Competitions

Morristown High School's math superstars placed first in Morris County this spring.


At the conclusion of the six contests that comprise the NJ Mathematics League’s annual state competition, Morristown High School emerged as the top-scoring school in Morris County, placing 10th overall in the State. Students from public and private schools across NJ were administered a series of thirty-minute exams covering a range of topics. Several MHS students earned a perfect score on the individual tests.

The MHS Math Team is an extracurricular club open to all students who enjoy mathematics and want to challenge their logical thinking and reasoning skills through advanced topics. The team meets weekly with club advisors Marina Bragina and Christiana Kemp, math teachers at the high school, to solve difficult math problems together and to share and develop new strategies. Students participate in state and national competitions throughout the year. Mrs. Bragina commended the exceptional work ethic and dedication of the members of the Math Team. “With each step we take, we grow stronger, more skilled, more self-confident and more successful,” she said.

In December, Morristown High placed second among high schools in its size category (greater than 1250 students) at the 42nd Annual Association of Mathematics Teachers of New Jersey (AMTNJ) High School Mathematics Contest. Only Millburn High School scored higher in this division. Ingrid Suazo and Duncan Wild, both seniors at MHS, received the top scores among individual students in NJ; Ingrid won second place and Duncan won third place.

The Morris School District situates mathematics within its comprehensive integrated PK-12 STEM curriculum. Students in the District study math as well as its sister STEM disciplines—science, technology, and engineering—from the earliest grades onward. The curriculum is complemented by a wide array of co- and extracurricular opportunities in STEM, particularly at the middle and high school levels. The District also boasts a STEM Academy at Morristown High School. This highly selective program offers a unique interdisciplinary experience for students in grades 9-12 who wish to pursue a rigorous sequence of STEM courses, as well as professional partnerships, field experiences, mentorships, capstone projects, community service, and other STEM enrichment activities.

District Math Supervisor David Thompson noted the recent growth in student achievement in math. Says Thompson, “We’ve seen an increase in the number of Morristown High students opting for the most advanced math courses such as AP Calculus, AP Statistics, and Linear Algebra.” Thompson added, “Certainly, the accomplishments of the MHS Math Team this year testify to the strength of the District’s math sequence—as well as to the hard work and passion of our math superstars.”

Training “Instrument Ninjas” in MSD’s Elementary School Music Program

The MSD offers students a "musical journey" that few other districts can match.


Students at Alexander Hamilton have been practicing diligently to prepare for their black belt test. No, they aren’t studying martial arts; they are students in Jean Graziano’s instrumental music program at Alexander Hamilton School, and they are working their way through the District’s “Instrument Karate” assessment—learning new skills, becoming more adept at performance, and reaching key benchmarks in their development as musicians.

In the Morris School District, students may begin instrumental music (band or orchestra) in fourth grade. For the next two years, they take small group lessons, play together as a full band or orchestra, and are exposed to multiple performance contexts such as Winter and Spring Concerts, Solo Nights, and STEAM night. By the time they graduate high school, those who remain with the program will have received nine academic years of instruction. Many opt to enroll in the Summer Music Academy as well, which offers students a chance to continue toward mastery in a dynamic, focused summer program.

It is this full trajectory of music education—a “musical journey” across a continuum of opportunities—that affords Morris School District students a particular advantage. Ariella Schwam, who teaches both instrumental and vocal music at Normandy Park School, maintains that “the Morris School District is a special place because it fosters the musical growth that allows students to take the foundation they get at the elementary level and run with it!” Indeed, when they reach Frelinghuysen Middle School, students are ready to participate in a wide range of musical forums: a regular schedule of classes and group lessons in addition to concerts, competitions, festivals, and honor bands. FMS offers Band and Orchestra as year-long electives, and students may also audition for the extracurricular Wind Symphony and Jazz Band.

As the training ground for students’ ongoing music education, the elementary programs focus on helping students develop a lifelong love of and appreciation for the craft. Deborah Carroll states that her primary goal as the orchestra teacher at Sussex Avenue, Normandy Park and Thomas Jefferson schools is “to teach and guide students towards becoming independent musicians that will always value music as an important part of their lives.” Ms. Carroll believes the MSD stands out in the area of music education because it “offers students a true musical community where they will learn, evolve, and have so much fun as they continue through the music program.”

One of the best parts of teaching beginning musicians, says Jean Graziano, Alexander Hamilton’s concert band and jazz band teacher, is witnessing the transformation students undergo over the course of their two-year elementary school experience. She and her colleagues enjoy following their students’ success once they move on to the middle and high school programs, and witnessing the impact of the foundation they have provided is an enduring source of pride: “[Students] may be working with another teacher when they make Area Band or Regional Orchestra, win best soloist at a competition, or are recognized for their outstanding musicianship. But, to me, they are always ‘my kids’ because I knew them when they made that first squeak!”