Project HI Aware and School Climate Transformation

Now is the Time...

Children are the Priority, 

Change is the Reality, 

Collaboration is the Strategy

Promoting Mental Health...

Improving Academics!                  

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Your Guide to Running a School Like Disney World

Every year, millions of people flock to Disney World, the self-proclaimed “happiest place on Earth.” Many return year after year to spend their hard-earned money despite the long lines and unpredictable weather. Why? Because of the magical feeling that exists there, and the way people who run the park make them feel. No matter where you come from, what language you speak, or your disability, Disney offers magic for all.

At  Mary Williams Elementary, we strive to create a similarly magical feeling. We put our guests—students and parents—first, and work hard to keep those behind the scenes feeling inspired and supported. We also invest in digital technology that we believe can engage students, as well as make the teacher’s job more enjoyable. After all, who wants an autograph from a grumpy Mickey Mouse?

Of course, some people may argue that a school shouldn’t be likened to a theme park, or that entertainment and education don’t fix. We disagree. It’s this student-first way of thinking that’s helped our school go from a School of Improvement to a  School of Excellence in just two years. With over 1,000 students, it’s not always easy, but we take pride in the fact that although the lines are long, students come every single day looking forward to the magical moments our classrooms offer.

A focus on customer service

At Disney World, staff are hired for attitude, not aptitude. Whether cast members or third-party employees, the organization unites everyone in a common goal: to help the guest.

You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.
—Walt Disney

At Mary Williams, the magic starts with a similar vision: that students come first. That means hiring with kids n mind. After all, some people may be great educators, but may not be the right fit for our students. Can they relate to English Language Learners? Are they sensitive to students with Special Needs? These questions matter because part of the magic is creating inclusive experiences for all.

Teachers also need to be included, especially when it comes to decision-making. As principal, I truly believe my role is to create conditions that allow everyone else to be successful. Sometimes that means simply stepping back and listening; other times, it means sharing curriculum knowledge or running to Walmart to get oreos for a ‘Phases of the Moon’ project. I want teachers to know we are part of the same team, with a common purpose.

This was the rationale for starting teacher-centered Edcamps during professional development. During these sessions, we don't go in with a plan. Instead, teachers decide what they want to learn, and what they'd like to help others learn, instead of being force-fed one-size-fits-all PD. Once the session is over, staff members know who to reach out and collaborate with. It’s this teacher-led model that’s the key to our next secret to success: using innovative technology to transform our classrooms.

Creating magic through tech and relationships

Students enjoy a celebratory pizza party

When I started at Mary Williams, two things were clear: students weren’t fully engaged, and it wasn’t teachers’ faults. So we took a look at our competition—video games, iPads, smartphones—and realized while students were happily spending time on their devices, we were giving them old fashioned paper-and-pencil activities. The solution? Infusing some excitement into our lessons, Walt Disney-style.

Since then, we've experimented with dozens of different apps and online programs to boost learning and interest: 3-D printing, spheros, Osmos, virtual reality, coding, cyber security modules, drones, Robotics, multiple devices. But we never expect teachers to all use the same tools, and we never use tech for tech’s sake. Yes, we want our school to feel like Tomorrowland, but only because we know technology has the power to both differentiate and engage. As a result, the school has become a learning lab for both students and adults: a place of true innovation. 

We also know technology cannot replace strong relationships. As Walt Disney said, "you can design and create and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it takes people to make the dream a reality." At Mary Williams, we believe in second chances. We understand that exclusionary practices hurt students and destroy the culture we try to foster. Instead we lead meetings by letting kids know we believe in them. We also host lunches, book clubs, and play minecraft and coding games with students. I do not like to miss an opportunity to ask them about the things we have implemented and ways we can improve as a school.

Parents: both guests and stakeholders

Although students come first, we also view parents as guests whose experience is just as valued. From the minute a parent walks onto our campus, they are welcomed, whether with the music playing in the office, the colorful murals that adorn the walls, or staff intentionally asking, “How can I serve you today?” We take time to foster relationships and go the extra mile to exceed expectations.

Parents and teachers as partners

We’ve also found technology useful in serving our guests' needs. Our parents have access to me at any time of the day through Remind, which lets them text me if they need anything. We also use DoJo, Smore, Facebook, and Twitter to communicate, along with the occasional flyer for the refrigerator.

Parents are also regarded as stakeholders who deserve to know how we use our resources and time. Anytime I need an expert, I reach out to our parents first. During school-wide events, I make it a point to ask them for feedback and how we can improve: I call them quarterly to ask for input. At PTO meetings, I reveal market trends and student data to them. As a result, changes are not a surprise because they are part of everything we do.

The success of Mary Williams is the result of hard work, dedication, and inviting everyone to sit at what I call “the dinner table”. Magic happens as a result of crafting an environment where people feel safe to make mistakes, feel loved, are allowed to think outside the box, and are excited about coming back every single day. Is it easy? No. But if it were easy, everyone would do it. And like Walt Disney said: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

Lynn Colón is the proud principal of Mary Williams Elementary. She is passionate about transforming education through digital learning and was recently recognized as a National School Board Association's "20 to Watch."


The Warm Demander: An Equity Approach

Recently, I was talking with a high school student about his frustrations with a first-year teacher. The student said, "I like [the teacher] because he's understanding, but he doesn't require enough discipline. He tells us to stop talking, but he doesn't really do anything to stop it. If I say, 'I forgot my homework,' he extends the deadline, and he keeps extending it, so I don't bother doing it. He needs to be more strict!"

He didn't know it, but this student was asking for his teacher to be more of a warm demander -- a key strategy for creating equity in the classroom. Warm demanders are teachers who, in the words of author Lisa Delpit, "expect a great deal of their students, convince them of their own brilliance, and help them to reach their potential in a disciplined and structured environment." In my two decades of working in public schools, the idea of the warm demander is the most important conceptual framework that I've learned, and it guides my interactions with students on a daily basis.

The staff at June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco, where I am co-director, developed a four-part framework for how to become a warm demander:

1. Believe in the Impossible

Do you really believe that all children can learn? If you are not sure, read David Shenk's The Genius in All of Us to help you understand that brain science is clear: "Limitations in achievement are not due to inadequate genetic assets, but to our inability, so far, to tap into what we already have." You also need to understand the cultural strengths and role models of your students' communities. For example, can you imagine your Latina students being the next Dolores Huerta, Sandra Cisneros, or Ellen Ochoa? If not, you won't be able to remind your students of their unlimited potential.

2. Build Trust

Warm demanders understand that learning starts with trust. To build trust, you must listen to your students, and learn about who they are and what matters to them. You must be vulnerable, and share your true self -- including smiling and having fun. As Pamela Druckerman recommends in her book Bringing Up Bebe, you should follow the example of French parents and be strict about things that matter, but within those firm boundaries (which Druckerman calls a cadre or frame), trust children with the autonomy to make mistakes and learn from them.

3. Teach Self-Discipline

My student who complained about the repeated extensions on homework deadlines felt disrespected by the teacher's actions because he knew that he ought to have been getting his homework done on time. Warm demanders demand that students demonstrate self-discipline -- not because they seek compliance, but because high standards communicate respect. This does not mean micromanaging students, nor does it mean punishing students who don't meet your expectations. It means teaching discipline and normalizing the hard work and effort that lead to success.

4. Embrace Failure

Warm demanders teach their students to have a growth mindset and understand that real learning comes through failure. Since most of us hate to fail, Jo Boaler suggests three strategies to celebrate mistakes in the classroom:

  • Create the norm that you love and want mistakes.
  • Don't just praise mistakes -- explain why they are important.
  • Give work that encourages mistakes.

It's important to note that for failure to result in learning, it must happen in a safe environment, with guidance from someone like a warm demander teacher.

Through these approaches, warm demanders hold their students to high standards and provide the support that students need to get there, thus creating an equitable classroom.


Anatomy of School Bullying

Understanding the hot spots within schools is essential to putting a stop to student bullying.

Hallways and stairwells are bullying hot spots, according to a new report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). In the 2014–15 academic year, students between the ages of 12 and 18 reported nearly twice as many bullying incidents in transitional areas between classes—where they spend a fraction of their time—as in other school areas like cafeterias or playgrounds.

About 5 percent of students faced overtly physical forms of bullying, reporting that they had been “pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on.” Students reported higher levels of verbal and relational bullying, disclosing that they have been “made fun of, called names, or insulted” (13 percent) or were the “subject of rumors” (12 percent). The numbers suggest that digital bullying, which seemed to herald a dangerous new era of harassment when it first appeared, has not developed as predicted. While bullied girls reported online harassment (15.9 percent) at more than twice the rate boys did, they still encountered far more harassment in school environments than digital ones. Only 6.1 percent of bullied boys reported online incidents.

But it’s the location data that jumps off the page of the report. While the playground is typically considered the epicenter of bullying, it’s the more transitional spaces—the fast-moving, highly social hallways and stairwells—that dominate the landscape of student harassment. Almost 42 percent of students who were bullied reported incidents in hallways or stairwells, a number that was similar for both boys (41.8 percent) and girls (41.6 percent). A much smaller percentage of bullied students reported incidents outside on school grounds (19.3 percent), in a bathroom or locker room (9.4 percent), in the school cafeteria (22.2 percent), or on a school bus (10 percent).

Discouragingly, almost 34 percent of bullied students reported incidents in the classroom, a fact that deserves deeper consideration. As a former teacher, I think back to the transitional moments within a class, as students arrived, settled in, transitioned between activities, and then exited. Those situations are chaotic and difficult to manage well—and feel like a possible explanation for this unexpected finding.

Modern thinking on bullying acknowledges the complexity of the problem, and has shifted responsibility away from teachers and administrators, emphasizing instead the positive effects of broader networks and school-wide cultural transformations. According to Edutopia contributor Anne O’Brien, it’s critical to develop a clear code of conduct, to empower “teachers and especially students to help enforce it,” and to socialize the message through activities like all-school assemblies and “art contests highlighting school values.” And a broader look at what Edutopia contributors have written on the topic over the course of years reveals a clear theme: the importance of establishing a web of allies, including administrators, students, teachers, parents, and even unaffiliated citizens. This more holistic, school-and-environs approach is best summed up in our recent blog post “Successful Community Efforts to Prevent Bullying.” It takes a village.

Whatever model of bullying prevention a school adopts—however diverse the coalition summoned to take a stand against bullying—it makes sense to be mindful that hallways and stairwells, taken together, are nearly twice as likely to be the source of the problem as the cafeteria, playground, or buses and bathrooms. Supervision and vigilance in those fluid spaces between classes is likely to benefit vulnerable students disproportionately.

The full report—which, I should warn you, begins with a very detailed description of the statistical models and assumptions used—can be found here. To see critical resources on bullying prevention, take a look at our Bullying Prevention topic page or visit our resource roundup.

Stephen Merrill


Changing Minds: Science of Childhood Trauma

A brief overview of what happens to the brain of a child who experiences trauma and the impact a person can make by doing 5 things that will support a child!  

The Science of Adversity

Children living in poverty often endure stress from adverse experiences, such as exposure to violence, loss of a loved one or homelessness. Unfortunately, most schools aren’t designed to address the impact of stress on learning. Pamela Cantor, M.D., President and CEO of Turnaround for Children explains the science of adversity and how we can use this information to design better learning environments to help all children reach their full potential.

Building Blocks for Learning

Turnaround for Children’s Building Blocks for Learning is a framework for the development of skills children need for success in school and beyond. Each element represents a set of evidence-based skills and mindsets that have been proven by research to strongly correlate to, and even predict, academic achievement. The framework draws from research in multiple fields to suggest movement from lower-order to higher-order skills. Overall, it provides a rigorous perspective on what it means to intentionally teach the whole child – to develop the social, emotional, motivational and cognitive skills in every learner. Turnaround offers the building blocks framework as a contribution to a vital collaborative endeavor to deepen and transform K-12 education.

How Brains are Built: The Core Story of Brain Development

The AFWI developed the video with considerable input from our partners at the Harvard Center on the Developing Child and the FrameWorks Institute. Using metaphors developed by FrameWorks and tested with audiences both in the US and in Alberta, "How Brains are Built" infuses core story concepts with energy, accessibility, and high fidelity to the science.

Creating Trauma Sensitive Schools

Dr. Mary E. Curtis, director of the Center for Special Education at Lesley University discusses “3 big ideas” in volume 2 of Helping Traumatized Children Learn that influenced Lesley University’s design of a series of trauma and learning graduate courses for educators.

Why We Need Trauma Sensitive Schools

All students need safe and supportive schools. In studies of adults, over 50% reported having traumatic experiences during childhood. Traumatic experiences can impact learning, behavior and relationships at school. Trauma-sensitive schools help ALL children to feel safe to learn. In this video teachers, administrators and support staff give a compelling picture of why we need trauma-sensitive schools.

Being a trauma-sensitive school comes down to establishing a culture of awareness that there are a lot of students who have experienced trauma in their lives and bring that with them into school.

Trauma-sensitivity has to be at the forefront of any instruction if you're going and be successful.

Find out more at

New Approaches to Youth Violence Prevention in Schools

Violence impacts our youth at home, in the community, and on campus. This NITT multimedia video describes various forms of violence that impact youth and hones in on the evidence-based practices, programs, and policies that ensure students are safe at school.