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Redesign the Junior and Senior Years of High School


In many independent schools, most students are ready for college-level work by the time they reach junior year. Why, then, do we make them conform to the same time and curriculum structures as our younger students?

Students who study away during junior year know this well. Popular study away programs develop curricula connected to their place in the world, set students to real-world challenges, have more flexibility in their daily schedules, and ask students to present their work to experts in the field. When they return to school for senior year, students often find a conventional schedule confining and learning goals abstract (at best).

Two such students have visited me several times this year, to the point that I have invited them onto one of our strategic planning committees. Their requests: place-based education, interdisciplinary learning, and real world projects. They would like studies to connect to the city of Seattle, draw upon multiple academic disciplines, and to work toward meaningful outcomes.

Junior and senior year are ideal times to develop and test new models of curriculum and instruction. Students take many elective courses during this time, having completed most graduation requirements. Many design a course of study that allows them to more deeply investigate the subjects that interest them most. Junior and senior curricula already have quite a lot of flexibility.

As students prepare for the next step in their educations, they could follow a weekly schedule that supported independence and flexibility. Each class could meet just twice per week, reserving substantial time for individual and collaborative work on open-ended projects, including travel into the city.

Such a schedule would also create space for innovative programs in education. Internships, independent research, senior projects, service learning, and online learning are all promising new forms of study, but they cannot ultimately be effective if constrained by the fragmented time chunks of a conventional high school schedule.

A program centered on student designed learning experiences deserves equally innovative school architecture. Such a school would include spaces to work independently, meet with a mentor, collaborate with a small team of students, build and leave long-term projects, prototype and iterate, and identify resources and partners. This part of campus would support hybrid thinking, housing both disciplinary experts and specialists in community engagement.

Could such a program also benefit students and younger grades? Of course! This center would be available for innovative learning in all grades. The center would field test a model for active learning that could subsequently be adapted for all grades.

Photo by nicolastathers

Sharing Guest Speaker Presentations

Gene Luen Yang at U PrepGuest speakers can deliver some of the most powerful learning moments in the life of a school. Authors, scientists, politicians, nonprofit leaders, and others may share compelling stories of intellectual and personal challenge and triumph, not to mention a peek into life outside of school. In the past year, U Prep has hosted Gene Luen Yang, author of American Born Chinese and writer for the Avatar books, Carl Wilkens, the only American to stay in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, and John Sage, founder of fair trade coffee company Pura Vida.

I have often wished that we could share such presentations with broader communities: parents and alumni of the school, prospective families and employees, the public at large in the Seattle metro area, and our national network of educators interested in educating students for social responsibility. The benefits to the school would be numerous: sharpening the school’s identity locally, building name recognition nationally, attracting families and teachers to our mission, maintaining a presence in the life of alumni, and more.

Many obstacles exist to sharing such presentations online. The speaker may decline to grant the school permission to record a talk or publish it online, so that they protect their earning potential as a public speaker. Someone at the school must capture high quality audio and video from the presentation. AV infrastructure must allow tech staff to tap audio en route from microphone to speakers and connect it to the video recording device. Someone must invest time time to prepare the video for web site publication. When a live audience is the priority, it can be a challenge to consistently organize high quality capture and publication of such videos.

Taft School has found a way to overcome these obstacles. They capture most, if not all, of their “Morning Meeting” presentations and publish them on their web site. A 120+ year boarding school has an enormous parent and alumni network. Publishing community presentations online has tremendous potential value. The following newsletter note brings attention to the collection of talks.

Morning Meetings – Online!

Taft Vimeo ChannelThe 2015-16 year started off with a powerful group of Morning Meeting speakers. So far this year, Taft has hosted an artist (Jessica Wynne ’90), an activist (DeRay Mckesson), an African debate team (iDebate Rwanda), an astronaut (Rick Mastracchio), and an author (Hillary Jordan) as Morning Meeting speakers. Assistant Headmaster and science teacher Rusty Davis also gave an inspiring presentation about imagination and technology. Videos of most Morning Meeting speakers are available on Taft’s Vimeo channel.

Kaitlin Orfitelli, Taft’s Director of Marketing and Communications, asks the speakers in permission for permission to publish their talks. “I have found that bringing it to speakers in person, introducing myself, and explaining how we will use the video often helps in obtaining permission.” The Video Arts teacher and his student crew record and produce the videos for the Communications department.

Sharing the great work of your school with the broader community has great potential value and takes both effort and organization. Does your school publish guest speaker presentations?

Coaching Innovation Online Course

9c0aa2dbf6021419f530af5f_209x280Global Online Academy’s two week course, Coaching Innovation, will be offered starting on November 4. Learn the thinking and techniques behind effective mentoring of faculty members. Learn how to coach teachers to think differently and to innovate their practice. This course is ideal for technology specialists, teacher leaders, department chairs, curriculum coaches, and other faculty members that work closely with teachers to help implement new practices. 

Register today!

Supporting Student Curiosity Through Online Learning


“The Face of Poetry” exhibit (Minneapolis, 2008)

What does the future hold for online learning in schools? Will schools of the future offer a mixture of fully online, face-to-face, and blended courses, or will e-learning instead largely live within online providers that compete with schools? While predictions abound (and conflict), we deepen our understanding of online learning by participating in it.

Global Online Academy enrolls students from over 60 leading independent schools across the country and abroad. Classes are fully online—students never meet in person. Teachers from member schools assign both individual and group work and get to know their students well. The courses are at least as challenging and time-intensive as U Prep courses.

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Students in one class mark their locations on a map.

15 U Prep students are taking GOA courses this semester, exceeding our expectations for this new opportunity. Why did so many students elect to take online courses? For one, GOA offers subjects designed to extend and enrich our curriculum. With the addition of GOA, our elective catalog instantly expanded from 60 to 100 courses. Second, online courses have gone mainstream—the choice no longer seems unusual or risky. Finally, offering Global Online Academy courses as part of the U Prep program increases the expectations for independent school culture and student support.

We also reduced barriers to entry as much as possible. GOA courses were included in every step of our course requests process, from new course announcements to course signup and approval. Even though the school pays student enrollment fees to GOA, students take the courses without additional charge.

Our students are very clear: they take GOA courses in order to study contemporary topics that interest them. Ancillary benefits include experience taking a fully online course and meeting students and teachers from other states and countries. U Prep students are currently enrolled in eight of GOA’s 40 courses:

  • Applying Philosophy to Modern Global Issues
  • Arabic: Language through Culture
  • Contest Mathematics
  • Genocide and Human Rights
  • Global Health
  • Graphic Design
  • Medical Problem Solving I
  • Poetry Writing

The courses exemplify interdisciplinary study of contemporary issues in a global society. Students take courses that reflect their intellectual curiosities and have obvious relevance to their lives.

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Some anecdotes:

Annie and Matan are paired up with online buddies at King’s Academy in Jordan. Twice a month, they chat online via Skype to get to know each other and practice Arabic.

When Tseion’s Genocide and Human Rights class was asked, “what human right is most important to you,” she gained a new appreciation for political diversity as classmates from around the world shared their responses.

Kei wanted to take an additional semester of math in the fall, but none fit into his schedule. Having participated in math contests before, Contest Mathematics was a great fit.

Claire took Global Health because she had always been interested in social justice and wanted to learn how she could apply that interest in an academic setting.

Grace and Michelle share an advisory, a free period, and an interest in medicine. In Medical Problem Solving, they work with classmates from different schools to propose a diagnosis from a set of symptoms.

Katherine found a GOA that perfectly matched her passion for writing poetry. Each week, she submits her writing to the course’s discussion forum and both receives and gives feedback to her classmates.

Zack reports that Graphic Design is his favorite course. Why take a course online that we offer on campus? It can be hard to get a spot in our spring semester course, and GOA places more emphasis on digital work.

Rwandan Hutu refugees with as many possesions as they can carry trudge along the tarmac near Benaco Junction after being turned back by Tanzania soldiers after they tried to flee deeper into Tanzania. Several of the refugees said they would walk all thw way to Kenya or Malawi just so they could avoid returning to Rwanda. PG Photo by Martha Rial Dec. 1996

Rwandan Hutu refugees, PG Photo by Martha Rial Dec. 1996

Teens and Upsell in Video Games

Many youth enjoy sports video games as a recreational and social activity. However, are video games companies unfairly taking advantage of adolescent development? As youth enter their teens, they transition from games designed for children to those designed for adults. While video game companies comply with laws to limit mature content and protect children’s identities, one area remains largely unregulated: the upsell. Video game companies take advantage of adolescents’ developing self-control in order to profit from them.

To illustrate the point, let’s take a look at the FIFA series (EA Sports). At its simplest, the game seems pretty harmless. Electronic Arts rates it as “E” for “everyone,” and Common Sense Media approves the game for ages 8+.

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Common Sense Media's rating of FIFA 16

Out of the box (or download), the game allows the player to choose their favorite, real-world club and play against teams in various international leagues. Kids get to improve their skills, access greater levels of challenge, and create fun matchups that one would not often see in real life. Some parents, therefore, feel only positively about the game, particularly when compared with games that include violent or sexual content.

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CommonSense Media member review

At this level, frustration is the biggest potential drawback. Kids may feel challenged by the limitations of controller-based simulation of real-world phenomena. In real soccer, players use their whole bodies to make successful passes, shots, and defensive moves. Particularly for a beginner, hard work and focus quickly lead to improvement. In FIFA, you have the controller. While EA Sports has invented many button combinations to create different types of plays, these are a far cry from the biomechanics of the human body. When kids exclaim, “How did I miss that shot!”, they may be expressing some subconscious blurring of physical and virtual experience. In other words, luck plays a much larger role than skill in the simulated game, a fact that kids may not fully appreciate.

Simulation is another subtle concept that youth may have difficulty grasping. Sports based video games use “artificial intelligence” to simulate human decision making. A kid can only control one player at a time—the software automates actions of the other 10 players. Not surprisingly (at least to an adult), automated players often do irrational things. AI can only approximate human thought, and so virtual players often make ill-timed runs, don’t defend consistently, and generally fail to sense the flow of the game and the intent of the one human-controlled player on the field. Kids can get extremely frustrated when their players don’t behave as expected.

To their credit, Common Sense alludes to consumerism in the gameScreen Shot 2015-10-24 at 12.28.08 PM

EA Sports boldly monetizes all aspects of the game, embedding advertisements like in real contests. On the one hand, the effect is authentic. On the other hand, companies are advertising their wares to the player, and your child is absorbing all of those messages while playing! If you have doubts about this, just ask any young soccer fan whether they have heard of Etihad and what it is.


Electronic Arts surely understands the value of blurring the lines between reality and simulation. Each year, non-game play animation grows more realistic, and EA and FIFA product logos appear at real games.

This is virtual.

Michael Oliver referee 2014-15
This is real.


Real foreground, virtual background

What effects do idealized simulations of people have on young kids? Do kids conceive of players as real people with emotions, camaraderie, and team concept, when they spend so much time playing as their avatars? I hesitate to speculate and would love to read some real research on this topic.

Were youth to experience only these challenges with FIFA, I would not feel so critical about the game. However, the game takes advantage of adolescent disposition in other ways. Kids are social. Interactions with friends are crucially important, perhaps of higher value than anything else. Not surprisingly, pre-teens quickly learn from their friends that that they can play each other in FIFA. Were the game completely fair, social play might be a great thing. However, kids can choose whether to play as a stock team or as FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT). The “ultimate” moniker brings a component of fantasy gameplay into the game. One starts with a team of basic, lesser-known players. Through gameplay and wins, the player earns coins that one then uses to purchase more talented players.


FUT requires an online account (XBox Live, for instance). These are restricted by COPPA, which protects the personal information of youth under age 13. The game console company (e.g., Microsoft) is required to obtain parental consent for youth to create an online account. Such companies also typically provide parental controls to hide children’s identifying information and restrict them from making in-app purchases. However, parental controls are notoriously difficult to use, and many parents just go with default settings or remove them entirely to avoid the hassle. In addition, the default setup includes linking a credit card to the account in order to pay the $60 annual fee.

Imagine yourself as a kid (maybe even your kid). If you played your friends over and over, would you prefer to win? Would you put in hours of gameplay in order to rack up more coins and improve one’s skills? Youth certainly do. The urge to play with friends, compete, and win is very strong for some children.

Here’s where the dynamic becomes perverse. What if you could buy better players (instead of playing for hours) and then beat your friends? If you had the money, would you do it? EA Sports has two forms of virtual currency: points and coins. Points are purchased with real money, whereas coins are earned through gameplay. Either allows one to open “packs” of virtual players. As one reviewer writes, “think of FIFA Points as the easier way out. You’ll quickly amass talented players, but your wallet will take a hit.” EA Sports uses typical advertising techniques to encourage urgency and spending.


Buying packs is a lot like gambling. On second thought, it is gambling. Open enough packs, and you are bound to luck into a high-quality player eventually. The chance of drawing a great player in one pack is small, and the probability increases as you open more packs. The psychology of gambling is well-documented. “One more hand, and I’ll win the big one.” Youth may not be allowed to enter a casino, but they can gamble with real money in FIFA and other sports video games. Open a child account using a credit card, and now the kid can blow big money opening packs.

Parents would do well to understand these qualities of this “E for everyone” game. Playing against the computer or a friend who comes over is fun, to a point. The game entices kids to buy the online subscription in order to play against friends on the Internet and enter tournaments. Through upsell techniques, your child becomes part of a very adult dynamic, which requires either uncommon self-control or an usually involved parent to avoid being taken advantage of. Parents new to gaming should be aware that upsell is part of the game, and they may have to be the “uncool” parent and say no to their kids’ requests or risk exposing them to this abuse. Navigating parental controls is an enormous challenge. One must discover more effective techniques, such as disconnecting the credit card from the online account and buying your child gift cards instead.

To make matters worse, FIFA’s market for virtual players has operated as a true economy at times. With millions of players and transactions, EA Sports has from time to time offered a “transfer market,” in which gamers list their players for sale and prices are allowed to fluctuate. Last year, kids would casually remark the “transfer market has crashed again,” as player prices fluctuated wildly, increasing or decimating the value of their club’s roster and making recent transactions look ridiculous. Furthermore, an all-powerful governing body (EA Sports) can change the rules at any time. Accountability to the populace, essential to a functioning government, is hardly evident in the relationship between game vendor and consumer.


It gets even worse. Over the years, entrepreneurs have developed ways to cheat the coin and transfer markets. A black market emerged, third-party websites where users could buy coins and/or players at dramatically reduced prices. The black market caused both competition and prices to skyrocket, putting those who played fair at a disadvantage and creating enormous incentives to cheat. EA Sports has periodically shut down the entire transfer market, putting a temporary stop to the cheating and also causing widespread upset. This year, EA has reopened the transfer market with rules intended to suppress bad behavior. The irony is that EA is trying to both monetize the game as much as possible while maintaining some measure of control over this community.


Let’s pause here for a moment and consider the life lessons for young gamers.

  • Persistence and effort pay off, to a point.
  • You can buy or cheat your way to success.
  • Gambling can pay off big, and it can also hurt.
  • Those with power control.

It may be worth reminding ourselves that the game is rated 8+ by Common Sense Media, and COPPA only restricts online accounts for children under 13. Parents would do well to tread with caution or prepare yourself to console an upset child and pay a giant credit card bill!

School Start Times

The Seattle Times reports that Seattle Public School superintendent Larry Nyland will propose new start times for next year, based on the work of the bell times task force.

8:00 a.m.: Most elementary schools, three K-8 schools, Denny International Middle School
8:50 a.m.: All high schools, most middle schools, five K-8 schools
9:40 a.m.: 10 elementary schools, three K-8 schools

Currently, most high schools and middle schools start at 7:50 and elementary schools at 8:25 or 9:15. Three years ago, a district proposal to adjust start times was rescinded due to family objections. This time, all grades start later, some much later. According to the article, some families are balking over the potential inconvenience of the 9:40 start time proposed for some elementary and K-8 schools.

Research has suggested for years that adolescents are not physiologically prepared for an early start, and that learning may suffer as a result. Just ask high school teachers how much they prefer first period classes! One progressive, public high school starts at 8:40 most mornings, 10:10 on “late start” days. However, multiple factors influence bell times: athletics schedules, historical practice, traffic, parent work obligations, and busing. Three years ago, busing drove the proposal of new start times, so that the district could save funds by running the same buses on multiple morning and afternoon routes.

Let’s hope that the best interests of youth carry the day on this question.


What I Learned From My High School Transcript

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Over the last 22 years, I have worked in six schools, consulted with over a dozen, and visited many more. Yet, I continue to think a lot about my own secondary school experiences. My old school serves as a powerful reference point for my ongoing work.

With my son about to enter high school, and amidst University Prep’s ongoing strategic planning work, I recently became curious about the accuracy of my school memories. Did I correctly remember those experiences? In what ways was my high school similar to and different from contemporary practice? I requested a copy of my transcript to find out.

The results: some of my memories were accurate, others wildly off-base. Brain research suggests that memories are encoded within patterns of neural activity, which are reshaped every time that they are activated. Therefore, memories change and become less accurate as a result.

Number of Courses

I took only five classes most semesters. A few times, I took six. Today’s students regularly take six to seven classes per term. While they get to study more subjects, depth has been sacrificed as a result. In high school, I studied AP biology, chemistry, physics, and calculus without prior coursework. Today’s, AP science and math classes often have prerequisites, as teachers express that they can’t possibly cover the specified content in one school year.

Some subject requirements were minimal – one trimester of art during grades seven through nine? One semester of science in grades eight and nine? One semester of history in the ninth grade? World language study was required through high school. Science was not! These subject requirements seem unthinkable today.


The “A” next to course names designates “advanced.” Tracking was a standard feature of the curriculum, and I took all of the advanced courses that I could. I vividly remember my upset at being placed in the lower math class in my first year. Through test performance and lobbying, I worked my way into the advanced track, where I remained and excelled. I felt the pernicious effects of track, a practice that has a common sense appeal and yet denigrates children and denies their potential.


I earned mostly B’s and only a few A’s. How did I get into Harvard? For one, grade distributions were wider then. An A reflected “unusual excellence” and was difficult to earn. My school defined B as “an honor grade,” which sounds a lot like today’s A. The A is now the most common grade in many secondary schools and colleges. I remember always scrapping to prepare for assessments and improve my performance. Perhaps that’s because there was always a higher level to aim for.

Non-transcript Experiences

Ethics class? SAT prep? A capella group? Senior woodcarving panel? These were all required and took place during class periods, and yet only the full courses are reflected in the transcript. Today’s transcript captures every academic experience.

Computer Science

In today’s “coding for everyone” climate, it’s ironic to remember that such courses were widely available in the 80’s. The computer had just become “personal” and coding was synonymous with computing. I took two semester computing classes, one in BASIC and the second in PASCAL. My school offered a sequence of four programming courses! In the 90’s and 00’s, technology skills instruction displaced programming, and only now is coding making a spirited comeback.

Electives and Student Choice

It is currently popular in education circles to bemoan content coverage and uphold student agency and choice. Well, it appears that at least one fairly conventional, independent school offered more course choices in the 80’s than most schools provide today. The small core curriculum left plenty of free space in student schedules for elective studies, and the faculty filled the catalog with a wide range of interesting offerings. Today, a long list of distribution requirements forces a certain diversity in student course selections but prevents them from fully pursuing their interests. In 1986-1987, my high school offered the following electives to juniors and seniors.

English: Shakespeare, English Writers, American Writers, Great Poets and Poems, The Hero as Rebel-Victim, Novel and Film, The Short Story, Modern American Literature, Creative Writing, English Composition, Writing—Expository, Narrative, Descriptive, Introduction to Philosophy, Classics in Translation, Readings In John Milton’s Paradise Lost

History: America At War, Constitutional Law, Civil Liberties, Russia and the Soviet Union, Africa: Colonialism to Independence, Hitler’s Germany, The Vietnam War

Arts: Art History, Ceramics, Drawing, Furniture Making, Mechanical Drawing, Media, Music, Photography, Printmaking, Acting, Advanced Ceramics, Advanced Photography, Architectural History, Graphics, Sculpture

Other electives: Anthropology, Geology, BASIC Computer Programming, PASCAL Computer Programming, Advanced Computer Programming, APL Computer Programming, Astronomy, Business, Advanced French, Latin, and Spanish courses, German, Probability and Statistics, Psychology, Topics in Mathematics, Biology, Calculus, Chemistry, Math Analysis, Physics

Diversity and Social Justice

Neither the student body nor the faculty was particularly diverse, and yet some courses had a strong diversity and social justice angle. Invisible Man, African Independence, Civil Liberties, and other courses suggested a politically liberal, progressive tilt among at least some faculty members.


What courses did you take as a teenager? How does that course of study compare to your school today? Education literature suggests that U.S. schools have evolved little over the decades. While the current school reform agenda attempts to counter this trend, it is worth taking a look back to check the accuracy of our memories.

Harry Potter Play-Along


Harry Potter Movie Night and Score Play Along, October 23, 6:30-10:30 PM!The evening starts at 6:30 with an informal performance of 3 or 4 scores from the Harry Potter films. Anyone who plays an instrument and can read music is welcome to join (parents too!). This is followed by a festive reception featuring food from the books (butterbeer, those horrible jelly beans, pumpkin pasties etc). After the reception, we’ll watch one of the Harry Potter films on the big screen in Founders Hall. This is our fifth year and each year attracts a bigger crowd and more fun! Spread the word!

Proud of Northwest Independent Schools

Yesterday, our association of Northwest independent schools stated its unequivocal support for educational equity by organizing our annual educators conference around themes of inclusivity and transformational moments. The conference drew 1,500 attendees, historically its largest draw. Our conference planning committee was extremely thankful to Lakeside School for hosting this large event.


The conference consisted of two keynote presentations, several featured presentations, and dozens of participant-led workshops. MK Asante started the day off with a gripping, humorous, and emotional accounting of his youth and how one critical moment in an independent school saved his life.

Featured speakers delivered superb workshops during the day. Presenters included Alison Park, Janice Toben, Elizabeth McLeod, Michael Gurian, Thomas Hoerr, Jennifer Bryan, Heather Clark, Rosetta Lee, Maketa Wilborn, and Cindy Goldrich.

Northwest teacher leaders and program directors led the breakout sessions, which covered topics from Writing as Healing to STEM Educators for Social Justice. Attendees expressed a ton of enthusiasm for these peer-led session, as audiences filled the rooms and flowed out the doors. U Prep was proud to lead four breakout sessions.


When classrooms proved too small, people got creative and went outdoors.


Phillip Craig From Oregon Episcopal School created a unique “sacred space” in the Lakeside library. I was very impressed by how the environment brought together concepts of mindfulness, contemplation, consideration of others, and spirituality. Most of our schools have nothing like this.


I attended the featured presentation by Heather Clark, instructor of anthropology at the UW and teacher at Rainier Scholars. Heather skillfully guided the audience through an anthropological perspective on diversity and inclusivity, interspersed with examples from participants.


Steven Jones delivered the closing keynote, “Manage or be Managed by our Unconscious Bias.” Jones began with a personal recollection of the Million Man March, which took place 20 years ago. Attendance was still robust at the end of the day, reflecting attendees’ engagement and interest.

Here is the Twitter “transcript” of the conference.

How I Became the Dot Voting Guy

$(KGrHqRHJCoE9!OfDVrRBP,KkTcg0w--60_35Dot voting is widespread. Who knows how long it’s been around? I use dot voting regularly to democratize decision making, and its use has spread within our school. Amusingly, some at school now associate me with dot voting!

Visual facilitation techniques can help break up conventional meeting dynamics. The typical committee operates in whole group discussion most of the time. Roles become ingrained, and some participants have more influence in discussions and decisions than others. One well-placed comment can redirect an entire discussion and potentially sway a decision. Those who hold contrary viewpoints do not always feel comfortable openly disagreeing and causing conflict.

Dot voting is deceptively simple. Since participants receive equal numbers of dots, they have equal influence on the decision. If you distribute a limited number of dots, then people must make choices and indicate priorities. Dots are anonymous, so a person can normally vote their conscience without worrying about what others may think, as long as no one else is watching over their shoulder! The resulting voting patterns can be extremely revealing about the distribution of opinion within a group.

Here are some examples from the past year.

Determining Department Head Goals For the Year

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Favorite Ideas From Summer Faculty Reads


Dots With Our School Mascot, the Puma!


Poster Session Favorite Ideas


Identifying Student Supports Using Mini Dots
from a colleague’s meeting


See Gamestorming for more meeting facilitation games.

I would like to thank our main office staff for stocking an entire plastic bin of sticky dots.