Service Learning at MTS

Community has always been paramount at Mount Tamalpais School. Through our service learning program, we strive to broaden our students’ community while preparing them to be responsible citizens in a global community. It is our hope that our students have the opportunity to realize the impact of their work and to understand and connect with people from different backgrounds, stories and traditions, all the while exercising empathy and compassion. We currently ask all middle school students to complete twelve to twenty hours of service over a year. The students will then share their experiences with the younger grades in an assembly this spring. We hope that sharing their stories and feelings will help other students appreciate the importance of volunteering, and will guide them in their future endeavors. We are also working with the parent association and student council to develop further opportunities for students and families across the school to engage with the broader Marin and San Francisco community.

A few of our alumni and eighth grader service learning experiences are shared below.

-Barbara Guarriello

Samuel Potter, Class of 2017

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Organizations: Swim Across America, Bay Area Make-A-Wish, and PAASS Challenger Sports

I naturally fell into much of my service learning due to a family connection with both Swim Across America (which has included many MTS participants over the years) and the Bay Area Make-A-Wish. Because my family were actual beneficiaries of both organizations, it felt very gratifying to give back to them by raising donations, and I continue to do so to this day.

Therefore, I was surprised when I found a third organization that made an even greater impact upon me personally. Volunteering for PAAS Challenger Sports, which helps children with physical and emotional disabilities to play organized team sports, was a really incredible experience.

I first signed up for Challenger Baseball, and I was nervous: I had never played baseball and, more importantly, wasn't sure that I would be any good connecting with the children.  It turns out that it didn't really matter what my sports skills were. It was more important to be present for the participants, giving these children your enthusiasm, patience, and friendship.  In later years, I also volunteered for Challenger Basketball. I left the practices and games feeling that for an hour and a half, I had really put myself out there to connect and play with the children.  Having this really intense face-to-face relationship with the kids who participated in Challenger Sports gave me a greater understanding and empathy for others.

Jacqueline Patterson, Eighth Grader

Organizations: Camporee, Arequipa, and Fireside


For my service hours, I have done mostly two different things. One of the things that provides me an advantage with service is that I have been a girl scout for the last 7 years. This has given me the option of doing Camporee leadership which provides me with 90 service hours and Arequipa, a girl scout day camp, that provides me with an additional 35 hours. The other service I do is volunteering at Fireside (temporary housing for homeless).

I choose to do these activities because they really were fun to do and made me feel very accomplished with what I have done. During Camporee leadership, you get to watch as the months worth of your work becomes an incredible camp experience for the younger girls. I really enjoy these service opportunities because I love knowing that I'm making an impact on someone else's life. These opportunities are also fun because the activities are meant to be fun. When I go to Fireside, I often start by coloring with the kids or doing a planned craft that goes with the holiday closest to the time. This is really enjoyable because I get to interact with the kids and even have made a few friends. Then after the kids leave, the adults come in to play some very competitive rounds of bingo.

I have learned many things from my service in Marin. I have learned how to interact with people of all different ages and abilities. I have also learned how to act when in a leadership role and how to handle the responsibility that those roles included. There was a lot of work to be put in for the girl scout events on my part. The day camp required going through a difficult and rigorous training course which was challenging to complete.

Oscar Nesbitt-Schnadt, Eighth Grader


Organization: Glide Memorial Church

For a lot of my service learning, I worked at the Glide Memorial Church. Most of the time, I would arrive early in the morning and head downstairs to prepare the large amount of sandwiches necessary for people’s meals. I chose this organization because I could really feel and see that my assistance was having an impact on the community. When I walked past the many different faces along the streets, I knew that I would be helping some of them that same day. The satisfaction of knowing that I was contributing to those around me made all of my work worth it. And from seeing people eagerly awaiting their small portion of food, I learned that even people in bad conditions who have been dealt an unfair hand by the world can still find gratitude and kindness in their hearts.



During the spring of 2017 a team of faculty members worked to revamp the middle school schedule for the 2017-2018 academic year. Many of the upsides of this new schedule are evident – increased core class instruction, resource periods, and double block classes. One hidden gem of this new schedule, however, is our Tuesday and Thursday club time. In keeping with our departmentalized structure and teachers teaching to their passions, the middle school faculty club leaders choose to lead clubs that align with their passions outside of academics.


Clubs have become a great way for our 6-8th grade students to start their days and have given them the opportunity to learn more about their teachers in a casual setting. Students choose a club activity each trimester. Trimester Two club offerings include Open Gym, Mathletes, Board Games, Chess and Backgammon, Yoga, Art, Digital Display and the most sought after club, Knitting. We have also been extremely fortunate to have Winifred Macleod and Bain LaPlant from FastForward join us on Thursday mornings to lead the Journalism club. The Trimester I Journalism club produced the first edition of the “MTS News” magazine that was sent home on December 1st.


As students settle into their Trimester Two clubs, we look forward to seeing the work the journalism club produces for the next edition of “MTS News,” while the Digital Display club works with Andrew and Lauren to produce weekly content for the new entryway display.

- Dave Baker, Head of Middle School

Read on to see a few articles excerpted from the printed MTS News magazine.

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Vacations and Showers: Another Reason for Winter Recess


Next Wednesday, after our inaugural Winter Wonderland celebration, our students will head home for Winter Recess. Why? Perhaps the most obvious reason for this school vacation is Christmas and Chanukah and the cultural norm to take an extended break during this time to celebrate and visit family. As an educator, the vacation provides much needed time to recharge and relax while also planning for the second half of the school year. For all of us, though, winter vacation can be good for our creativity. Yes, time away from school – and work – can improve creativity.


For the same reason that ideas often unexpectedly flow in the shower, vacation can often unleash new ideas and connections. School, academic classes in particular, asks students to focus. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is called on throughout the school day – and during the after school piano lesson or coaching of a new soccer defense – to help maintain the requisite attention. The prefrontal cortex is the conductor of the brain’s symphony and, at school, it is busy getting the brass to be on the beat, the woodwinds to be a bit louder, and the percussion section to start playing the right piece. Such an active prefrontal cortex reduces the brain’s ability to make unexpected connections, to be creative – because the second violin is listening to the conductor, he is not improvising with the oboe player.


When we go on vacation, we give the prefrontal cortex a break. With the conductor on vacation, the violin-oboe (and other!) improvisations commence. Because we are not asking for specific ideas – remember, no conductor – new ideas pop up. Many of us experience this in the shower.  With no task at hand other than soap and shampoo and no screens to distract us, disparate parts of the brain that we don’t regularly allow to communicate, make new connections and we have creative “aha!” moments out of the blue. Another reason that showers inspire creativity is that we are often warm and comfortable in the shower, releasing dopamine, further inspiring creativity. Vacation can do the same thing. While delayed flights do not release dopamine, evenings in front of a warm fire and great smells from the kitchen do get the dopamine centers activated and thus creativity flows.


It is not just at school that the prefrontal cortex hinders creativity. Most (maybe all?) workplaces demand an active prefrontal cortex. With a greater emphasis placed on innovation in today’s workplace, many companies are looking for ways to provide the creative release that vacation – and showers – inspire. Walking meetings, off-sites, and the famed 20% time of early Google, are just a few ways that corporate America is attempting to provide the “organizational slack” needed for innovation.

While researching organizational slack for this piece, I found a number of academic papers that suggest that innovation and creativity needs some down time, slack, but not too much. So fitting for school as well. Our students and teachers will greatly benefit from this vacation. We will be ready, though, to come back and re-engage the prefrontal cortex come early 2018. I look forward to seeing your even more creative children then!


We Begin Every Morning With Laughter

I hear and see joy from the students and faculty first thing each morning as I walk by or drop into the classrooms. I hear laughter and see students making connections with one another. When kids feel connected to their peers, teachers, and community, it allows them to feel safe. When kids feel safe they’re able to learn at their best. - DJ Thistle, Head of Lower School


This past summer 13 of our faculty members attended a 4-day Responsive Classroom training and had the opportunity to learn how to build a supportive and positive community for our students. Mount Tamalpais School has implemented Responsive Classroom as part of the broader Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Program, to help students develop belonging, self-awareness, empathy, and conflict resolution skills. Responsive Classroom is an evidence based education approach associated with greater teacher effectiveness, higher student achievement, and improved social climate.

A key aspect of Responsive Classroom is Morning Meeting. Lower school students spend 30 minutes with their homeroom teachers and fellow classmates every morning, five days a week, playing games, laughing, and sharing. Morning Meeting gives students the chance to connect socially before starting the academic day. It’s an opportunity to check in with one another and practice using language tools for expressing emotions, thereby building a foundation that they can take with them throughout the day, out on the playground, and beyond when they leave campus. The idea is that they are able to internalize and utilize the tools, always building empathy.


By establishing the morning meeting, we are creating a forum to have community and kindness built into our day, as a core part of our curriculum, our culture, and our philosophy. When speaking with faculty to find out if they are already seeing a change in students since we introduced Morning Meeting in the 2017-18 school-year, DJ Thistle notes that he’s seen changes especially with students who were having a hard time connecting. The Morning Meeting allows these students to connect with their peers relieving any social anxiety so that they can focus on learning. All students benefit when they understand more about their classmates. Whether it is finding a new person to play with at recess or understanding that a classmate’s over-reaction during a playground game is connected to that student’s sick dog. Morning meeting strengthens community, and it makes for a more forgiving community.

Ally Svirsky, fifth grade teacher, says that in her class this year she’s already seen a lot of growth with students who started out very shy at the start of the school year and who are now  completely comfortable sharing with their classmates. Aileen Markovich and Rachael Olmanson who teach 2nd grade homeroom note that it has made a big difference in developing their own personal relationships with the students, making them more effective teachers. Knowing what a student did over the weekend with their families, for example, can help guide teachers in their approach. It provides a different lens to understanding the full lives of our students and makes us better teachers.


Morning Meeting consists of a greeting, a sharing circle, a game or activity, and a morning message. The greeting may encourage practicing eye contact, or saying hello in another language. During the sharing portion, students might say how they’re feeling, “I feel X today because…” or simply share a favorite animal. Activities are done with the entire group, including the teacher, and may involve singing, games, chanting, or poems. The morning message may revolve around a theme for the week, such as Respect or Meaningful Apologies. Teachers and students alike draw from the “emotional toolbox,” developed by Dovetail Learning, which consists of 12 tools (such as Breathing Tool, Listening Tool, Empathy Tool, etc.). Teachers have noted that students often refer to the tools later in the day when something comes up, such as “I need to use my Empathy Tool.”


Keeping kids young, while also emotionally mature with a clear sense of self, is key to what makes MTS special. Responsive Classroom has been an important element to the School’s curriculum in teaching our students about life skills, so they can be even more successful in academics and life. Morning Meeting helps us continue to Build with Kindness on our campus and in our community. It also helps to have every day begin with laughter.

Using Data to Improve Instruction

When it comes to data in education, many of us think of mathematics. Data-informed instruction, however, is an integral element of our literacy program. During the October professional development day and as a continuation of the Readers and Writers Workshop, our literacy coach trained the K-5 humanities teachers in using the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System. The system, a tool for measuring student progress in reading, allows teachers to individualize instruction specific to each student by calculating accuracy rates and comprehension levels using word lists and leveled books. The system is data driven and allows teachers to assess for accuracy, self-correction, fluency, comprehension, and writing.


In the assessment, teachers are looking to determine where students fall into three areas: independent reading level, instructional reading level, and hard reading level. Once they’ve determined a given student’s reading level, the teacher can tailor the instruction to each student’s needs, so that they can meet all students at their own level. This allows instructors to potentially push a student’s comprehension further and faster. Additionally, the formal assessment is given three times a year, so that the teacher and student can adapt throughout the year based on how much the student has grown.

Not only does this system allow the teacher to individualize instruction, it also allows the students to map their growth. They can see by the benchmark’s “band” how much their reading has improved. Students are given individualized book bags, which include books that correlate with their own, personalized reading level. Both teacher and student can be more confident in their decisions in making adjustments to these reading materials during the year. It also enables teacher and student alike to more easily share with parents how their reading is progressing. It’s no longer a subjective “sense” of the student’s reading level. By using this concrete data, it’s much clearer how much progress has been made. As such, the faculty is excited to have this data as they prepare for upcoming conferences.


Humanities teachers continue to meet with our literacy coach consultant every Tuesday to ensure MTS implements the Readers & Writers Workshops most effectively. This includes reviewing and refining the School’s use of the Benchmark Assessment Tool. We are looking forward to sharpening our skills at working with this system in order to enable better individualized instruction that ultimately can improve students’ reading abilities at a faster rate and provide them with confidence in their ability to learn and grow.  

While data has clearly found its home in the humanities, we will update you in January about how the faculty are continuing to work with ERB experts to mine that testing data for ways to improve learning for whole classes as well as small groups of students– the focus of our next professional day at the start of 2018.

Data at MTS


When it was time for me to go to graduate school I was degree agnostic, but career focused. With the hope of becoming a Head of School later in life, I explored a wide range of graduate degrees. I narrowed it down to two: business school and divinity school. Yes, money and the divine, those were my two options. I knew that business school would help better run a multi-million dollar organization in an effective, data-informed manner. I knew that divinity school would help me take care of people – pastoral care, my mentors told me – is a critical role for the Head of School. While I was torn, Stanford’s dual MBA and MA in Education, location, and the fact that they accepted me settled the debate.  

At business school I learned to love data. As I returned to education I brought my passion for numbers to my work. Whether it was reviewing applicant data to determine the most effective numbers to value in the admission process, or designing and analyzing alumni satisfaction surveys, I jumped on every numbers-focused project. I have brought that passion to MTS. I just closed our third parent-satisfaction survey and am in the thick of analyzing that data – oh how I wish your comments could be more easily parsed by Excel. This summer I created scatterplots of GPA and SSAT scores to better inform high school counseling conversations. Last winter and again this January, our faculty is working with an expert from ERB to use the November test data to improve curriculum and pedagogy. Whenever there is a big decision or a chance to improve, I love to look to the data.

In this MTS Too you will read about an exciting place that data has further entered teaching and learning at MTS. Using a new assessment tool, paid for by the generosity of last Spring’s Fund-A-Need, our humanities teachers are better able to meet each student where they are as readers. Using data, we are better able to differentiate our instruction improving the learning for all of our students. As a business school alum and educator, this is exciting to me.

When I chose business school rather than divinity school, I did not give up on the pastoral care.  Both in my previous work and over the past sixteen months leading MTS, I know that numbers only tell part of a story. A student might have low scores on the ERBs because they are upset.  Regardless of where an 8th grader falls on a scatterplot of data, a high school admission committee can be wowed by a compelling story. And if a child does not feel a sense of belonging they will not excel in the classroom regardless of their data-informed, customized literacy level. That is why community, belonging, and social emotional learning, is also a focus of our program growth this year as well as this month’s MTS Too.

With data and belonging – business school and divinity school, if you will – we are setting our students up for success. How will we know? We will measure it with data and we will “feel” it in our community. Both are important, even if I only have a degree in one of them.



I try to end every Friday with my self-designed “Kanban Checklist.” This half sheet of paper forces me to systematically review the past week, tie up loose ends, and plan for the week ahead. As I look at the coming week, I review my goals for the year and calendar action items related to those goals. While occasionally pushed to my Sunday morning office time, this process is critical to my ability to focus on the mission aspect of my job versus the maintenance aspects of my job. And, of course, at the center of this ritual are my goals. 

A mentor of mine told me that goals are like limbs – any more than four are imaginary. Following her advice, this year I am focused on four goals. They, of course, have plenty of initiatives and projects. Here are my four goals and a few of the most notable initiatives for each goal: 

  1. Realize Planned Program Changes & Further Grow Our People and Programs: From our new social emotional learning programs, to the Readers and Writers Workshop implementation, and 5th and 6th Grade STEM courses, we are taking on a great amount of program innovation this year. I will be supporting this work while ensuring that we continue to support and grow our curriculum and pedagogy. Included in this goal is the redesign of our report cards.

  2. Strengthen Communication & Build Community: Throughout the year, I hope to clarify and increase school to home communications to create more windows into school life. As part of this effort, I plan to write more regularly for Thank Goodness It’s Almost Monday, my blog. I will also continue to be a regular presence in classrooms and at community events.

  3. Finalize Foundational Systems: With outstanding leadership and increased staffing in the business office, we will next focus on streamlining billing processes for greater transparency and ease. We will also look to better utilize technology to streamline behind the scenes processes.

  4. Strategically Plan for our Continued, Future Success: Using input from parents, students, and faculty, I will work with the Board of Trustees to write a Strategic Plan that will guide our future efforts. Growing student enrollment through focused admissions and marketing efforts will remain a top priority.  

I am not alone in being goal-oriented. This summer I was able to meet with my newly redefined administrative team and share my goals with them. They, in turn, have developed their own goals that build on these four priorities, while ensuring success in their particular roles. With all oars pulling in the same direction, we are rowing into an outstanding school year.

I think I’m alone, however, in not leaving my office until the items on my to-do list are all checked off.  It’s my only way to relax!