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Grey Matters for October 3, 2016; Volume 5, Number 5

posted Oct 2, 2016, 1:29 PM by Andrew Shen   [ updated Jul 18, 2017, 11:04 AM by James Marcotte ]
Hi Everyone,

Earlier this year a parent reached out to me and asked what I might prefer parents and guardians call me. I appreciated the question and it also got me thinking about a few things I'd like to share with families about my name and names in general.  First, if parents and guardians are comfortable, I am happy to be addressed by my first name (Andrew).  Some of you may have a preference to maintain some formality with teachers at your child's school, and I am also fine with Mr. Shen, or even Morning Traffic Guy.  I have also been addressed by some as Dr. Shen.  I will admit that in those moments I usually don't let them know that they've bestowed upon me a title that I haven't earned, as I do not have a doctorate.  "Dr. Shen" does have a nice ring to to it, so I'll hope you'll grant me that one indulgence of not immediately correcting those who might address me in that way.  

During most of my lifetime my last name -- Shen -- has been one that has often been confused for Chen (with a "Ch"), another Chinese-American surname that perhaps is a bit more common and familiar to many in this area.  While there appears to now be more Shen's in the Greater Boston region than when I was growing up in Andover in the '80s, the mispronunciation of my last name by using a "Ch" remains a fairly common occurrence and so I wanted to use this moment to provide a gentle note of clarification.  My reason for mentioning this is not only about sharing something about my own experience, but also with the intention of providing an entry point and invitation for you and your children to help our staff's ongoing efforts to pronounce your names correctly.  Our community continues to grow and evolve, and there will always be names that are not as familiar to each of us and perhaps a bit more challenging to say correctly upon our first (or even second and third) encounter with it.  There will continue to be plenty of times when I will fumble when saying someone's name, and I'm more than comfortable admitting those moments of difficulty.  I think it's helpful to forgive ourselves (and each other) if we mess up here and there provided we still commit to taking the steps for learning each other's names and working towards getting it right.    

To that end, there are many teachers who use the start of the school year to have students share any nicknames that they might prefer, as well as how to pronounce their names. Still, there may be students (and parents/guardians) who are reluctant to tell us that we're saying their name incorrectly for any number of reasons.  Perhaps they are nervous about correcting a teacher (we've all been there), or it's not a teacher they see very often.  Maybe they've become resigned to the difficulties that others have with pronouncing their names, or maybe there are some students for whom it's not as pressing a matter compared to other priorities. Despite this reluctance, or in fact because of it, I think it's worth it for us as the adults to promote the idea that pronouncing names correctly can be an important part of helping each person feel welcome and seen, be it here at school or anywhere else.  On our end, my hope is to work on making more habitual at school the act of asking for a bit of guidance or confirmation about whether we pronounced a name correctly. I hope many of you will consider joining us in that effort so we can model this practice for our students.  

Some quick reminders for the next two weeks before I shift over to talking about homework:  

  • A reminder to 8th grade families that Minuteman Technical High School will be visiting RJ Grey this Tuesday and Wednesday to provide students with a brief overview of the school and the application process. Because the town of Boxborough is leaving the Minuteman district, there will be a slightly different process for Boxborough students and families interested in a vocational route next year.  Attending the Minuteman presentation still makes sense for Boxborough students given that it could still be the right option for them, and please stay tuned for additional details about the process and options for exploring vocational programs.  For any families who want to know more about Minuteman Tech, I would encourage you to email your child's counselors.  
  • A quick heads up to 7th grade families -- starting October 17, every 7th grade team will be traveling to the Christa McAuliffe Center at Framingham State.  This is a trip that we take every year as part of the science curriculum, and very much emphasizes the importance of communication, teamwork, and problem-solving.  If you'd like to read a bit more about the McAuliffe Center, you can visit their site by clicking here.  Please email your child's science teacher if you have questions about the trip.  
  • One last reminder that we have our unique extra-long Columbus Day weekend coming up where we won't return to school until Thursday, October 13.  This schedule was established last Spring in an effort to fold in both the Columbus Day holiday as well as the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur (which is on Wednesday).  

With the extra-long Columbus Day weekend about a week away, I wanted to share with families some information about homework during long weekends and over school vacation periods. Specifically, that there will be none.  Last year, we implemented a school policy that homework would not be assigned for any of our extended vacations (Thanksgiving, Winter, February and April Breaks).  This year, we are now including planned long weekends, such as Columbus Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Memorial Day.  Nothing will be due (nor any tests or quizzes scheduled) on the day students return from a long weekend or vacation, and long-term projects that are assigned prior to a vacation will not be due earlier than the Thursday after a vacation.  As I shared with families last year, what lies at the heart of this policy is a belief that these extended periods away from school can and should provide students and families an opportunity to rest and focus on time with each other, free from any school-related obligations. The commitment we (parents and the school) have to academics will be ever-present, and yet I think we would be remiss if we ignored what Challenge Success identified as the need for "honoring the importance of downtime, playtime, and family time."  We hope students and families will see these periods away from school as an additional opportunity to cultivate other parts of their family's life, be it in the form of leisure and social activities, or simply quality time with each other.  

Our school's discussion about homework does not start and end at the above policy about vacations.  Last year, we began an important and wide-ranging conversation about connections between homework and our curriculum, what makes for quality assignments, and the development of common expectations regarding workload.   We know that a balance must be struck between the benefits that quality homework assignments can provide and the necessity to manage a workload that is reasonable for students in these grades.  This is a multi-year effort and a work in progress (we're now in Year 2) and something that we'll continue to pursue while keeping a purposeful eye on the many valuable curricular goals and aspirations that are important to preserve. We hope over time to establish shared expectations about homework that we might hold for students, for ourselves, and that we'd like to ask of parents and families.

As part of last year's Challenge Success survey, our students answered a number of questions related to homework and we're using that data to guide some of our conversations right now.  Over the course of this year one of our goals is to share with families some of those results (stay tuned), and to also unpack the homework experience a bit more by collecting additional information from our students.  One way that we'll be collecting information is through a survey that we will ask students to complete over the course of a few days during each trimester.  This will include questions about how long assignments took to complete, where students might have done their homework, when they started it, and whether they were doing anything else at the same time.  Beyond the issue of workload, we know that it's also equally important to focus on ways to help students engage with homework more successfully. This could include practices that range from how to provide clearer directions and instructions, to designing assignments where students see more immediately a link between the task and their learning (i.e. that it's not "busywork").

Long term, our discussion about homework is one of a few entry points to our school district's commitment to discussing the overall health and wellness of our students, and trying to widen what has recently been a very narrow definition of success for what students pursue in and outside of school.  I hope you'll allow me to use this as yet another opportunity to highlight and promote our work with Challenge Success, which you're going to hear about throughout this year from me, the Principals of the other schools, Dr. Brand, and many others.  One very important event that will be central to our efforts this year will be a visit from Dr. Denise Pope, a professor at Stanford University and the co-founder of Challenge Success.  On November 8, Dr. Pope will be meeting with the entire preK-12 staff as part of our Professional Day, and then presenting to the parent community later that evening (7pm, High School auditorium).  She'll be touching upon a number of the issues that our community has recently had on its collective mind, such as stress, sleep, academic expectations, and the healthy self-development of our children.  Yes, November 8 also happens to be Election Day and we all may have some other things on our mind, but please strongly consider attending Dr. Pope's presentation that evening.  You can come and vote at the Junior High, head down to the High School auditorium at 7pm, and then be home in time to watch the election results on television.  Between now and November 8, I will be finding all types of ways to mention Dr. Pope's presentation and providing a healthy amount of pressure for all of you to attend.  So be prepared for the full-court press.   

On a final and different note, I wanted to make sure everyone was aware of a recent Boston Globe article that provided me the satisfaction in not feeling alone in terms of my utter confusion about the obsession my two sons have had with repeatedly flipping half-filled plastic bottles and trying to get them to land upright.  The. Whole. Summer.  When the school year started and many students (mostly boys) at RJ Grey were also flipping bottles, I at least knew that it was something that went beyond my sons.  It's also why I am assuming some of you may also find solace and companionship by reading the article. As for the appeal, the article points out that the activity is indeed "quick, portable... and requires no training."  And let's look on the bright side, it doesn't involve staring at a phone and having kids potentially walking into oncoming traffic as they try to catch digital images of Pokemon characters.  Like the rest of you, I'm just waiting for that next craze to invade our home.  

Safe travels to those who may be leaving town for the upcoming extra-long Columbus Day weekend.  

Have a great week, everyone.