Speaking to Bedford’s teachers on Wednesday morning, Jon Sills outlined priorities for the coming school year – Image (c) Kristen Tracy, 2017 all rights reserved

By Jon Sills, Superintendent of the Bedford School Department

On Tuesday, 2,664 students will walk into the welcoming embrace, metaphorically speaking, of our amazingly caring, creative and collegial faculty and staff–our teachers and administrators, counselors and psychologists, nurses and coaches, secretaries and custodians, food service workers and technicians.  Many of our students will come excited to see old friends, to learn new things, to be challenged and supported and made to feel that they matter.  Some will come burdened by thoughts of recent events in the news, of Charlottesville, of Barcelona, of Texas.  And an important few will come with grief in their hearts as they mourn the loss of a loved one who died this summer.  For our grieving Bedford families and for the victim of Hurricane Harvey, let’s please give a moment of silence.

For me, the most indelible images coming out of Texas are of first responders and everyday citizens wading through waist or chest deep water to carry a neighbor, a senior citizen, a child to safety- not once, but over and over again.  The phrase Texas Strong, just like Boston Strong after the marathon bombing, has come to symbolize people pulling together in a crisis, saying no to fear, and caring for each other in real, material ways.  Bedford too has pulled together at times of crises, and we can proudly say we are Bedford Strong.

But the bigger challenge is to sustain that spirit of cooperation, of kindness and standing up for each other, of elevating our commonalities over our differences, while still celebrating those differences, and to do so long after the crisis generated adrenaline has dissipated and is replaced by the often daunting day-to-day work required to do right by each and every child before us.

So yes, we once again ranked among the top 20 school districts in Boston Magazine, but such data never tell the real story of what goes on in schools.  The real story of Bedford sits before me, scores upon scores of educational first responders and citizen colleagues who are dedicated to the long game and who give of themselves, generously and often courageously, to put their students on higher ground.

Leadership, Standing Against Hate, and Developing Literate Leaders of Their Own Learning: Fundamentally, it’s a Question of Equality

“As we prepare for the new year, I want to talk about three big ideas, and how the relationship between them should inform our work as a faculty moving forward this year: teacher equity leadership, standing up for each other and against hate, and developing ALL of our students’ abilities to independently make sense of, or understand, complex text.”

Teacher Equity Leadership: Making Change Happen

A year and a half ago, I had a visit from five teachers- Melissa Gonzalez, Lenore Zavelick, Paul Harrington, Allison Hammer, and Colleen Irving.  They asked me to consider making changes to the way in which we dealt with religious holidays, particularly to find a way to be more equitable, to stop making certain members of our student body feel invisible by recognizing some religious tradition’s holidays while not recognizing others, and to address the challenge that teachers have at the middle and high school when told to not to assign homework, projects or tests on the Jewish high holidays.

I shared their concern around the inequities inherent in having a half day on Good Friday while holding school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and in having a no homework/no test practice on the Jewish high holidays, but not having a similar practice on holidays such as Eid, Diwali or Chinese New Year.  I also understood that one, not having an actual written policy was a source of some confusion, and two, that the practice of having no homework or tests so early in the year was problematic educationally.   I responded that we could certainly address the equity issue in part by publicly announcing/acknowledging each of the holidays at all four schools, but that I was unwilling to take away something that families had come to count on, that is the Good Friday half day and the no school work practice on the Jewish high holidays,  particularly the latter because the persistence of anti-Semitism in our society would, I believed, makes changing that practice feel like backsliding on an important issue.  And if I am to be honest, I did not relish the idea of having to deal with a storm of anger from some of either our Christian or our Jewish families.

But I agreed to explore the issue and put together a task force comprised of teachers, parents, students, and clergy, and the resulting interfaith group, including observant practitioners of the various religions as well as atheists and agnostics, met throughout the course of last year and developed a set of recommendations for the school committee.After what were at times challenging conversations, the task force arrived at a strong, though not unanimous consensus to reconfirm our commitment to announcing/acknowledging all major holidays- a practice we had already begun last year- and to include the holidays in all school calendars

Based upon the dual goals of minimal disruption to learning AND equitable treatment of all faith traditions, [Bedford Schools will]

  • eliminate the half-day holiday on Good Friday;
  • count as exempt an absence that a parent identifies as due to a religious observance (or major cultural observance such as Chinese New Year and Kwanza),
  • no longer prohibit teachers from assigning homework or giving tests on the Jewish high holidays or any other religious holiday, while allowing a minimum of a week for such makeup work;
  • encourage teachers to avoid giving tests etc., on religious holidays whenever feasible; and
  • expect teachers to be sensitive to the challenges that students and their families will face missing school and making up the work.

There are two points I wish to make about the work of the task force.  First – this is a pilot, and its success really does depend upon the fidelity of its implementation, so I urge you please to pay close attention to your school’s Friday or Monday memos that will remind you of impending holidays, to please try to plan accordingly, and to be as supportive and sensitive as possible when working with students who have to make up their work.But [second and] more germane to today’s address, I want to be clear that this important equity work would not have been possible, my position certainly would not have changed, and the SC would not have approved a new policy had it not been for the leadership of the teachers involved, both in raising the concerns initially and by the critical role that several of them played on the task force.

Standing Up For Each Other And Against Hate

This example of teacher leadership, particularly its focus on ensuring equitable treatment of all of our students, gives me great hope for our ability to deal effectively with the challenges posed by the resurgence of hate speech and hate-generated violence that we have recently witnessed.  I am similarly encouraged by other examples of teacher-generated equity-focused work across the district, whether by the 25 teachers who volunteered to teach a social justice curriculum to 9th graders last year, or Lane and Davis teachers who worked with their colleagues to select, plan, and implement lessons exploring key diversity topics through children’s literature. Or the JGMS teachers who launched a middle school Tenacity Challenge last spring, and the countless other examples of individual classroom decisions and school-wide actions that teachers have led. And of course, I am encouraged by the leadership that our administrators, both curriculum and building based, continually provide to this work with reworking curriculum, promoting student leadership, and with district-wide initiatives aimed at ensuring equity for all of our students.

Last year, when we listed the attributes that we wanted to be able to ascribe to all of our graduates, kindness was the top vote-getter.  And it is a great place to start – kind people make for a better world.  But unfortunately,

  • it is possible to be kind and still to be prejudiced;
  • it is possible to reserve your kindness for people like you or for those that you think are exceptions to a stereotypical rule;
  • and it is possible to be kind and still lack the courage to stand up for someone who is being targeted by hate.

My expectation is that our Equity and Diversity Committee, along with continued work at diversifying our staff, will prioritize strengthening our stand against hate and on helping us deepen the dialogue around differences, racism and other forms of injustice in our classrooms.  I hope that our schools will find ways to engage students and that students themselves will come up with actions that declare our schools to be safe from hate.  Perhaps [through] art contests or essay contests.  Perhaps by building on the wonderful spontaneous demonstration of support for students targeted by anti-Semitic graffiti that the JGMS students engaged in last year.  Definitely researching, writing about, debating and discussing issues of social injustice in our classrooms. And certainly sharing resources such as Responding to Hate and Violence at School – Teaching Tolerance http://www.tolerance.org.

But while we must be unequivocal with regard to hate speech, we must also acknowledge the complexity of dealing with political speech in the school house.

  • What about freedom of speech and differences of political opinion in our classrooms?
  • How do we navigate that fine line between hate speech and ideas that we may find politically unsettling, or students’ questions that challenge the values of pluralism and equality but whose expression are a reflection of that pluralism?
  • How do we answer the high school student who last year said that the teachers were hypocritical because they always talked about diversity, but they didn’t promote or protect a diversity of opinion to include, for example, more conservative views?
  • Should Confederate monuments be torn down, should they be placed in museums, should they be left alone, or should monuments to the Confederacy’s victims and opponents be erected next to them?
  • What is political correctness and does it repress an important exchange of ideas or does it protect vulnerable people from demeaning labels?

These questions need, in age-appropriate ways, and as I am sure, many of you do, to be explored in our classrooms.  For example, this year’s social studies prompt for our high school Tenacity Challenge, for example, will engage the students in exploring whether or not campus protests should shut down visiting speakers from White supremacist organizations, or allow them to speak but protest against them?

How successful we are in engaging students thinking about these kinds of controversial topics will depend upon:

  • how well we can discuss these issues with each other in respectful, civil ways that are nonjudgmental, incorporate curious questioning, and hold as precious each person’s dignity and right to an opinion;
  • and our remembering always that good teaching is not telling, it is creating learning experiences that require students to inquire, to research, to question, to analyze, to listen, to compare and contrast, to reflect.

How will we know that we have truly created these safe spaces for learning?  We will know that we have made important progress when we can say with confidence that:

  • “We can create a safe school for all students and staff.”
  • “We can learn to deepen our understanding and empathy for targets of injustice.”
  • “We can help our students recognize injustice.”

And when our students can say with equal conviction that:

  • “I can be an upstander.”
  • And “I can help my fellow students feel safe to be themselves.”


The Connection Between Literacy, Complexity, and Equity.

One of the most powerful and important ways we can equip our students to think for themselves, to make sense of the morass of fake news and reductionist political positions, whether on the Right or the Left, and of ensuring equity, is to teach every single student how to independently comprehend complex text and to be critical readers/consumers of information.

Why really do we teach kids to read if not to be able to make good use of that skill, if not to be able, as the Common Core standards (and they get this right) direct – “(to) comprehend and evaluate complex texts, without significant scaffolding, across a range of types and disciplines, and (to) construct effective arguments and convey intricate or multifaceted information.” (CCSS 2010, p. 7)

But for some reason, knowing full well that most of our students are only fairly capable of reading AND comprehending complex material, we stop teaching reading after the elementary grades??  We assign it, sometimes, but we often rely on class discussion and our lectures to make sure they understand it…  or we avoid it and give more simplistic readings.

As a district, we have come a long long way towards making the development of our students’ thinking central to our curriculum, our planning, and our minds-on instruction, and certainly, in the realm of literature, we have been working hard to develop their close reading, textual analysis skills.  But not so much with non-fiction in the elementary grades, and hardly at all with non-fiction in the secondary school grades.

Some teachers do teach general reading strategies in the subject areas, but we do not, as a district, take a systematic approach to teaching critical and analytical thinking through text.
When our college-enrolled alumni tell us that they are better prepared than their roommates and other peers when it comes to being familiar with hard work, with academic rigor, with demanding writing assignments and extensive research, and with understanding complex material, we should feel exceptionally proud.

While in our care, these students were able to learn to work hard and persevere, to think analytically, and to learn with increasing independence — particularly, to read and make sense of complex texts on their own.

  • They were most likely to be the students who contributed regularly to class discussions and were enriched by them, but who did not depend upon them to understand what they read.
  • They were most likely the students who learned to take notes as an interpretive rather than as a copying process, but who did not depend upon their notes to understand what they read.
  • But unfortunately, they are also most likely to be the students who took high honors or AP courses at BHS.

We know that if we think of our struggling students, in most cases, their struggles can be traced back to challenges with reading comprehension.  Even many of our honors level high school students are not adept at independently comprehending complex texts.   We know that many run their eyes over the words, but do not read with a critical eye when given a reading assignment. They are adept, however, at employing compensatory strategies, picking out the answers from the text, or waiting for the discussion- knowing that their teachers, in many cases, assume that they will and unwittingly enable their avoidance of learning critical reading comprehension skills.

They may be as capable thinkers as their more independent counterparts, but they are not as independent, and they will be less able to interact successfully with complex text when they are no longer in public school.   This will impact their functioning as college students, as workers, and as citizens who will choose to rely on talking heads and oversimplified writing to make sense of the political world.

At its heart, then, the issue of improving literacy for all students is an equity issue.  It is also at the core of our commitment to developing higher order thinkers and independent thinkers who lead their own learning.

That independent ability to comprehend text, a product of fluency, vocabulary, ample background knowledge, a cultivated capacity to identify the main idea; to distinguish between key concepts and supporting information; to draw inferences and interact thoughtfully with the text, is truly at the core of any students’ enduring success as learners- particularly when coupled with their ability to write with a degree of sophistication.

So we want that we, as a whole district, as an all hands on deck proposition, in addition to the early grades where teaching literacy is the core mission and where teachers have been recently calling for more attention to comprehension, to commit to teaching for understanding and literacy, specifically to developing our students’ independent ability to make sense of what they learn as they interact with the primary means by which complex information and ideas are communicated- the written word.

Focusing on literacy is not a divergence from our comprehensive focus on higher order thinking and minds-on learning,

  • it is a honing of its focus,
  • it is recognizing that there is a difference between developing students’ understanding of content and developing their ability to understand content, a process that is done in the context of learning content, but that has an additional, deliberate focus on developing the comprehension skills that can be transferred and independently applied elsewhere, specifically as it pertains to text.

As a district, we have long been committed to depth over breadth, and we have prioritized developing students’ ability to analyze information, to draw and support conclusions, and to use the knowledge and the skills that they learn to solve more complex problems rather than simply acquiring subject area knowledge.

And because we believe that students can only develop higher order thinking skills by being given regular opportunities to exercise them, we believe that student- centered or minds-on learning must characterize the way in which we organize instruction.

That is, we understand that the complexity of their thinking corresponds to the complexity of the tasks we ask them to do and that we scaffold for them to learn to do.  We believe that the best way to teach content is to create immersive learning experiences in which students think about the content.

And we know that this approach to pedagogy is supported by brain research that tells us that the more active the learning process — that is, the more work the mind does with the information- the more operations it performs on the information, the more neural connections are made, new cells and pathways generated, and the more strongly that learning is pushed into long term memory.

When we talk about developing students’ higher order thinking, we are really talking about a combination of general thinking skills and their manifestations as discipline specific thinking skills.  Generally,

  • We want students to have the skills and background knowledge to make sense of, that is, to understand, what they are hearing, reading and learning on a continuum that moves towards ever-increasing complexity.
  • We want them to be able to analyze information, identify what is important and explain why it is important, solve problems, research questions, generate and defend theses and hypotheses, summarize, and apply what they are learning to solve more complex problems.
  • At the same time, we want students to think more skillfully as historians, as scientists, as literary critics, as mathematicians, as linguists, and as artists.
  • For example, to think as a historian is to ask the question why, to analyze multiple perspectives, to seek to understand cause and effect, to interpret primary documents, and to draw lessons for the present; it is to employ higher order thinking in the historical context. To think as a scientist is to apply the scientific method by identifying patterns, exploring cause and effect through the generation and testing of hypotheses, to analyzing evidence and to carrying out investigations, that is, to employ higher order thinking in the scientific context.

This is not new to us as a faculty-  our focus on higher order thinking and minds-on instruction finds phenomenal expression through disciplinary thinking at all four schools and through integrated curriculum work particularly

  • At Davis, where for example, the groundwork for disciplinary thinking is laid when students are asked to role play different jobs- to think like a doctor, for example in order to help to design the hospital for Davis Town. As part of their integrated studies, first-grade classrooms incorporated more research into their penguin studies this year, this included watching a live penguin cam, skyping with somebody that works at an aquarium, noticing, describing and wondering and journaling as they observed a real (stuffed) penguin.
  • At Lane School when students are taught to observe their chickens like scientists, to gather data and draw conclusions; or where fifth graders think like engineers for the Invention Convention- where they come up with a problem, design a solution and troubleshoot its improvement;
  • At JGMS where social studies students are taught to think as archeologists in order to analyze skulls and draw inferences about the habitats they might come from; or in science where students make daily visits to – meteorological websites to record seismographic data in order to track tectonic plate movement; or in English where students learn to mimic various styles of poetry to think like a writer; or in math, where students apply proportional reasoning to create exact replica enlargements of common products;
  • At BHS where physics students are constantly observing and graphing data to perceive patterns and draw conclusions, or design their own experiments to test their own hypotheses; or in history where budding documentary film makers do extensive research and incorporate critical history constructs like contrasting perspectives, cause and effect, evaluation of bias and the impact of historical context on ideas; or in foreign language where advanced students begin to learn the idioms and expressions that enable them to think like a French speaker or a Spanish speaker; or in art where students think like graphic artists, interpreting a book, and then designing and then creating its cover.

So more and more as a district we are designing curriculum and instruction that teaches our students to think like scientists, mathematicians, engineers, etc.

But what I think is relatively new is the idea of teaching disciplinary thinking in conjunction with, or through, disciplinary literacy — that is, the ability to read, write and discuss as experts do in the various disciplines, with the expressed goal of developing students’ ability, over time, to do this independently.

This means, for example, in history, to engage students’ thinking, as they approach any historical text, primary source, or history textbook, as though they were historians — which means to consider that the text is written from a point of view, to question what might influence different points of views or perspectives, to think about the context that the document was written in and how that might have impacted the point of view, to ask the question why as they read about the historical phenomena.

Using different lenses when reading makes the reading more interesting and relevant.  It ties it directly to higher order thinking, even if the text itself is simple.

And the research suggests that doing this, we think in addition to teaching general literacy skills like recognizing the main idea, drawing inferences, predicting, etc., promises the greatest payoff in terms of developing students’ independent ability to make sense of an increasingly complex text.

This work, of course, must be coupled with disciplinary writing, of which more will be explored at a later date.

But for now, we want to concentrate all of our efforts on spreading responsibility for developing strong, independent readers to all teachers, across all subject areas, and all grades, through the content-relevant approach of disciplinary literacy.

To be clear, we are not expecting everyone to become a reading teacher.  Nor are we suggesting that subject area teachers who do equip their students with more general reading comprehension strategies should stop doing so.  We applaud that work.

But what we are asking is that you all join us in learning together how disciplinary literacy can enable content area experts to develop their students’ reading comprehension and writing by teaching them to read and write in discipline-specific ways.

This is work that must be led simultaneously by teachers and administrators, by the innovators, the researchers and reflective practitioners among us, and that must be grounded in significant professional development to which we as a district will commit.

Unlocking literacy is as complex as the reading and writing that we want students to be able to understand and create- probably more so.

But if we are truly committed to equity, truly committed to developing independent learners capable of critical and analytical thought, we have no choice but to focus on literacy.

But if we double down on literacy, even on disciplinary literacy, without simultaneously putting equal effort into helping students become leaders of their own learning, we will not be successful.

We want all of our students to be able to say with confidence:

  • “I can recognize the main idea in a text.”
  • “I can find evidence in a text that supports the reading’s conclusions.”
  • “I can draw on prior knowledge to make sense of a text.”
  • “I can make inferences from, and draw connections between, multiple complex texts.”
  • “I can recognize bias, seek out different perspectives, and analyze arguments.”
  • “I can think and read like a historian, a scientist, a literary critic. a mathematician…

But they will only be able to do this if they can simultaneously say:

  • “I can set my own literacy goals and monitor my own progress.”
  • “I can curate examples of my work and reflect upon them in order to improve.”

This is because reading material that students find hard to understand, is hard work.

  • Changing habits from running eyes over the page to critical engagement with the text, IS hard work.
  • Reading with a purpose other than the purpose of getting it done is hard work.
  • Looking up words that they don’t understand is hard work.
  • And really trying to make sense out of the reading takes effort, concentration, and motivation.

Precisely because these actions involve sustained hard work and changes in long established patterns, teaching literacy will only be successful if we simultaneously, deliberately, and planfully, teach students to be leaders of their own learning.  It will be that added motivation that comes with wanting to improve and with truly believing in the growth mindset that will generate that additional effort.  While not magical, it is nevertheless the critical ingredient missing from most educational practices that will help struggling learners make genuine progress.

  • Only by involving them in setting personal goals and monitoring their progress will they invest more fully in this difficult work.
  • Only by scaffolding the process of developing increasing independence will they be able to develop the confidence to go it alone.
  • Only when students frequently collect and curate examples of their work in order to reflect upon their growth, do we begin to successfully shift the responsibility for learning to the student herself.
  • This is made all the more possible when we set achievable goals and change our students’ language to “I can” statements,
  • ONLY THEN do students begin to see learning- not getting A’s- as something that they are truly invested in.
  • Because this work is difficult, students will have the added motivation to see this work through only when they develop the intrinsic motivation that accompanies the proud process of becoming leaders of their own learning.


So we come full circle.  I truly believe that only a literate citizenry- literate in the fullest sense of the word: self-actualizing, life-long learners. People

  • Who ask questions,
  • Who can make meaning out of complex social, economic, historical and cultural data, –
  • Who can distinguish fact from fiction, fake news from real, demagoguery from the hard slog of changing systemic problems-

Only such a citizenry can ensure a healthy democracy and inoculate the body politic against hate.

The ground from which hate grows is fertilized by ignorance– ignorance defined not only as a lack of knowledge but as simplistic understanding, inflexible, black and white thinking — and an inability to ask why and analyze complex causation.

So in the end, literacy is truly an equity issue, not only because freedom from ignorance and from dependency on others’ analyses or political sway is a kind of power over their own lives that all people deserve, but because without increased literacy for our students and students everywhere — tomorrow’s voters and civic leaders — the purveyors of hate will deprive whole groups of people of the equal rights, the safety from fear, and the opportunities to thrive that are the hallmarks of an equitable, just, and democratic society.

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