Creativity and Constraints



The MTS mission statement now hangs on a wooden plaque in the entrance to school opposite the student-curated digital display – a physical manifestation of our tagline “where tradition meets tomorrow.” The mission’s physical presence has inspired me to reflect on it more regularly; I often read it to students who are waiting to be picked up early and ask them what parts we do well and what parts we could do better. As you will hear in my upcoming State of the School on April 18th, some words and phrases in our mission statement are deeply resonating with me as I head into the next three years of my leadership at MTS. One of those phrases is “creative and process driven.”  


Visitors to MTS often comment on how well-kept our campus is and that our program seems highly structured with students moving every forty to eighty minutes. Those who are in the classrooms, from math to art to PE also note the impressive discipline of our students.  Order and discipline are not what most of us think about when we envision creativity and process.

Doesn’t an improvised, changing schedule or messy studio yield greater creativity? As we strive to further live our mission, does our structure and discipline keep us from offering a “creative and process driven” education? I do not think so. In fact, I believe that we are onto something that many great creatives know, creativity needs structure. Four years ago I wrote a piece titled “ISIS, Latin, and Middle School” about just this. That essay was inspired by David Brooks’ New York Times article “The Good Order”  in which he shares the ways that “creative people organize their lives according to repetitive, disciplined routines.” From Maya Angelou to John Cheever, Brooks writes, “They think like artists but work like accountants.” Poetry, particularly the sonnets of Shakespeare or the haiku of Basho, is further evidence that structure and limits, breed creativity. And it is not just art that needs structure. The same applies in Silicon Valley. Research on “organizational slack,” lack of structure, shows that too much “free time” is counterproductive to innovation.

As we focus on offering a creative and process driven education, we do not need to lose our structured identity. In Brooks’ words “order and discipline are the prerequisites for creativity and daring.” Our order and discipline, though, does not guarantee creativity and daring; it is only a prerequisite. In the months and years ahead, we will be looking at how we work within our creativity-inducing structure to ensure that we are living the “creative and process-driven” call of our mission. There is outstanding creative and process-driven work happening on campus each day – some of it documented in the two articles in this month’s MTS Too. Is there room for more? Absolutely, and we have the right structure in place to see that creativity realized.

Thoughts on Technology in School

We spoke with Mike Taverna, Director of Instructional Technology, and Lauren Mayer, Middle School English teacher who uses technology in her classroom, to learn more about the School's approach to the use of technology. 

A conversation with Mike Taverna, Director of Instructional Technology


Q: We are fond of saying that technology at MTS is intentional, not ubiquitous. Could you talk about this? What does that mean in practice?

MT: One of the reasons I like the approach toward technology at MTS is that we focus on what the main goal is: what are we are trying to teach- that comes first. What tool can help me do that? - that comes second. If it’s the other way around, with technology first, not second, then you’re developing a program that needs to be justified. I’ve seen this kind of approach at other schools I’ve worked in the past. Here at MTS, we have technology options available for use, but it’s not considered the end-all, be-all. The school values more personal, hands-on approaches when applicable such as reading books, talking in a circle, and the value of human interaction in social emotional learning tools.

I’m an advocate for technology given my role, so it’s possible I may come across as a “pusher.” My job is to find ways to help teachers utilize tools that are available to improve their lessons. “What is the end goal of the lesson? What do you want the students to learn? What tools might be available that could help you with that?”


Teachers sometimes have fears and anxieties around using technology. They need training. I try to ask the questions to guide teachers in how and where technology might be useful by asking certain questions – “Where’s your most problematic unit? When are your students tuning out? Where are you using up too much time?” I then ask “What’s the lesson supposed to do? What are you trying to teach? What do you want the students to think about?”

In general, I like to think of using technology in a way that fits into one of these categories: Efficiency, Engagement, and Enhancement. In other words, is it efficient? - making lesson plans quick to put together and also making good use of class time; is it engaging? - making sure we keep the students interested; and does it enhance or improve the lessons to make our teaching more effective? If you decide to use a digital learning tool, it needs to fall into one of those categories. At MTS, we want to develop a culture around the idea that technology is available to help by giving teachers the opportunity to attend workshops, so they can see and understand the options that are available. It’s really all about balance.

We also need to understand the curriculum development and the progression that students are making with regard to the kinds of digital tools they should know how to use. How can we best prepare them for high school and beyond in terms of the real world application of technology? What technological skills will they be expected to have in high school, college, and the work force? It’s important that we help students develop the basic skills and productivity tools that will ensure them future success. 

Q: What are the concerns around using technology in school?


MT: Is it reliable? Teachers worry about this. They decide to take a risk, plan a lesson using technology, and then it’s not working the day of the lesson. Maybe the internet is down or the application isn't functioning correctly. These types of issues discourage teachers from adopting and planning around it.

Another concern is distraction and classroom management. If the students are on devices, will they get distracted and off-task? Do they have easy access to the internet? This can be difficult to monitor.

For some teachers, the use of technology is counter to their philosophy. And then there are some subjects that you simply don’t want to use a technology solution. It feels like it's at the other end of what you're trying to do. For example, in social emotional learning, you don’t want to replicate human interaction with a piece of equipment. Not every teacher needs to be using it, not every class, and not every lesson. There's a real need for balance.

It's become such an integral part of our culture that it's important to teach what’s acceptable, using common sense, and keeping in mind that we're responsible for creating a healthy environment. Our job is to be sure that balance is achieved somehow. If we’re putting a laptop in every kids' hands, is it too much screen time? We all have to work on it, parents, teachers, and students alike. And in order to ensure that we're intentional, as teachers we have to know that part of teaching is showing how and when to use the tool by describing how and when it should be used and taking ownership of it.

Q: What’s your role at MTS?

MT: When I started, and an ongoing part of my role, is focused around systems and infrastructure. I make sure all the school's systems are working as they're meant to. The other fundamental part of my role, and the area I'm most excited about is laying the foundation and helping shape the culture at the School around technology. I'll be reviewing the students' curriculum from K-8 to see where we might implement specific workshops and programs that can help the faculty understand where and how they can use technology.

A conversation with Lauren Mayer, English


Q: How do you use technology in your English classes?

LM: In 7th and 8th grade English, we primarily use technology to support and facilitate the writing process. Google Classroom is a great platform for many reasons–as a teacher, I can easily send out assignments to students, post upcoming due dates on a class calendar, track student progress, and provide timely feedback on essays. Classroom makes it easy for students to submit drafts, read teacher comments, and revise their work, as well as have a digital copy of their assignments. When students sign up, the platform automatically creates a folder in their drive that stores all their work and keeps it organized.

It’s efficient for both students and teachers as both can access it anywhere with internet, and it allows for and tracks the natural back and forth process of writing and going through multiple drafts. I can give faster feedback for writing, because I can just type it instead of writing it down on paper, and then it’s all captured digitally and can be accessed later at any time through the process, making it easier to track a student’s progress. The platform even has an audio record option, so I can dictate feedback, and the students can listen to it later.

As the teacher, I can easily pull up global summaries of who has turned in assignments or I can organize summaries according to each student. I can post announcements, and upcoming assignments, or I can pose questions with the  discussion/comments feature. I can post questions to all the students as a group in a forum-like fashion, or I can ask “closed” questions to get feedback from students where only I can see the answers. I can see previous assignments and can repost old assignments to a new class without having to re-do everything from scratch. I don’t use it for everything. For some lessons like grammar and vocabulary we still use a pen and paper, but the digital platform definitely has its place.

Q: How has this proven successful? Have you encountered any challenges?

LM: I think students really enjoy using Classroom. They can access assignments at home, collaborate with classmates for peer editing, and have immediate access to a digital “portfolio” of their major assignments. Classroom links directly with Google Drive and other Google Apps, which helps students organize their work and easily review prior teacher feedback. We occasionally run into glitches, but overall it’s been very helpful.

Q: How do you see the use of technology as beneficial to the students? Do they like it? Does it improve the lessons you’re trying to teach?

LM: I think the greatest benefit of Google Classroom is the ability for students to readily access their assignments, organize their work in a centralized location, and receive timely and specific feedback from teachers.

Q: How long have you been using this teaching method for your English classes? Did you use this in previous teaching positions?

LM: I have been using versions of G-Suite for about five years, and it’s been exciting to see how Google has updated their program to directly influence classroom learning. The platform is constantly evolving and improving, making it better and better to use. It’s more and more student and teacher “friendly.”

Intentional Technology Use


“Hard things are hard.” President Obama kept a plaque on his desk with these words to remind him of the importance of not taking the easy road. These words resonate with me as a parent and school leader. Being a parent is hard. Academic studies show that the two easiest paths to parenting – the strict and controlling ‘authoritarian’ and the laissez-faire ‘permissive’ – are less effective at raising well-adjusted children than an artful blend of the two, ‘authoritative.’ Authoritative parenting requires that we balance control and independence, authority and warmth. In my experience this balancing act is hard, and I don’t even have teens yet. Indeed, hard things are hard.


Technology use in schools is, I believe, a hard thing and requires a similar challenge of balancing two competing “easy” forces to yield the best results. It is tempting to put a device – whether iPad, chromebook, or laptop – in the hands of every child. With our students on screens in each class we would look like a school “of tomorrow.” However, research is showing that our children are only getting more and more screen time. This screen time is, in turn, having an impact on social skills such as empathy. And, skills like note-taking are proving to be more effective when done by hand rather than digitally. I recently watched our students build and test helicopters as they learned about air resistance. Their hands-on simulation was just as, if not more, effective than an online-simulation. And, over the course of the period, the students practiced how to work with others rather than click a mouse. It is not just the adults who are recognizing the downsides of ubiquitous technology. I have worked with middle school students in a 1:1 environment who bemoaned that every assignment was on their iPad and that they were too often distracted by YouTube and games, just a swipe away.  


As the pendulum has slowly started to swing away from constant connection, including during the school day, some Silicon Valley leaders – those we would expect to endorse technology –  are sending their children to schools with no educational technology or trying their best to limit access to screens for as long as possible. A tech-free school and life, though, also seems too “easy.”  At school, technology can deepen understanding. At MTS, students are able to learn the thinking routines and skills of a programmer with a computer and robot. English and humanities students get real time feedback on their writing from teachers and peers on a writing assignment. Math and world language students are able to get “reps” at just the right level using a blended learning platform such as XYZ or Language Nut. Technology can even further learning in the arts – this week the Scene Study class is using iPads to record, watch, and critique their own performances. Furthermore, when our students start 9th grade at just about any high school, they will be required to interact with teachers and peers using technology.  


So what is the future of educational technology at MTS? Like ‘authoritative’ parenting, there is a sweet spot in the middle between ubiquitous computing and a Luddite refusal to use technology.  To me that balance is best described as “intentional” technology use. Our goal is that our teachers have the training and support to recognize when technology could deepen student understanding and the devices to implement those tech-enabled lessons. We do not want students using technology for the sake of using technology, even if it looks like something a school in 2018 “should” be doing. We also do not want our students missing out on opportunities to grow in the classroom because we don’t have the support or the machines to enable this growth.  

I am thrilled to work with Mike Taverna, our Director of Instructional Technology, as he builds relationships with teachers and shifts more of his time to helping teachers implement effective uses of technology. And, like parenting, technology integration is not always perfect. There will be lessons where we use technology and the learning objective is muddled by the machines. There will also be lessons that, in hindsight, could have been strengthened by a digital tool. We will always, though, keep our eye on finding the balancing point of “intentional” technology use that prepares our students for their future while maintaining the strength of face-to-face and analog learning. Intentional technology use is hard. Hard things are hard. And, we are committed to getting this hard thing right.

Try It Truck

The Discovery Museum's Try It Truck came to Mount Tamalpais School in January 2018. The truck is an "engineering lab on wheels" that introduces students to the engineering design process with both high and low tech tools that encourage them to experiment and try new ideas. The truck visited MTS for 3 days of activities for grades K-2, and it was such a resounding success that we brought it back for a second week, so that third and fourth grades could also participate. Here are some highlights from the first week. 




The first day of the visit, students were able to explore a number of different stations, which included:

  • Hammering wood
  • Dismantling computers, adding machines, and old calculators
  • Laser cutting hand-made designs drawn on tablets
  • Manipulating clay to simulate a beaver dam, crab shell, or bee hive


Hummingbird Nests

Students were presented a "problem" experienced by a local animal and were then challenged to "solve" the problem with a custom design. The local animal on this day was the hummingbird. Students learned about the small size of hummingbirds, and their correspondingly tiny eggs. They discussed the importance of creating nests that can withstand wind, predators, and keep the eggs warm. After students spent several minutes drawing their prototypes, students were then given a wide array of materials to build and test their designs. A station was set up with fans in order to see whether the nests could hold up against the wind. 

Week 1, Day 3

Bat Shelters

Day 3 of the Try It Truck, K-2 students were presented a new challenge focused around bats. They learned about bats and how bat shelters differ from those of hummingbirds. Unlike hummingbirds, bats sleep upside down, and enter their shelters from the bottom.

As such, students had to create a shelter for a bat that:
1) Is warm and narrow
2) Is rough on the inside
3) Has an entrance at the bottom


What Parents are Saying

"So excited the 3rd graders get to experience the Try it Truck!" - Michelle Young

"Amazing! Chase has really loved this! Brilliant idea" - Katrina O'Connell

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"Thanks so much for the opportunity to volunteer at the Try it Truck yesterday. What a great program!" -Kristin Baehner

"We heard a lot about the truck at home, ..obviously we should get her some power tools next Christmas ;)" - Laura Moore

"Aisling absolutely loved the truck too! She went to great lengths to explain in detail every activity! She was super enthusiastic." Orlaith Dolly

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!


“Amazing things happen in the classroom every day at MTS, and we want our families to know about these moments of joy and learning.” Head of School, Andrew Davis, opened with these words as he gathered a group of teachers and administrators to rethink classroom to home communication.

Reflecting on the last school year, Andrew was enthusiastic about the steps forward the school took with communication including MTS 1, MTS Too, a photo sharing website, and a handful of teachers actively using Class Dojo. He was also clear that the desire for even more communication was shared among the parent body, as well as the faculty. Knowing there was room for improvement, ten faculty members and administrators met over two days in mid-August tasked with redesigning classroom to home communication.

Andrew and that team approached the problem from a design thinking perspective. Design thinking, made popular by Ideo and the Stanford D-School, is a process for human-centered innovation.  Using the “Design Thinking for Educators” text, created by Ideo and Riverdale School in New York, along with hundreds of Post-It Notes, Andrew led the group from the question “How might we most effectively communicate between school and home?” to a solution that we are excited to launch next week.  

The design process included five steps:

The most obvious outcome of this “redesign” is our upcoming launch of ParentSquare. This platform and app will allow teachers and administrators to post regular updates to parents about life on campus.  In the lower school we plan to have more frequent, briefer posts with pictures similar to those that were on Class Dojo last year. Middle school families will see less frequent unit and mid-unit summaries from teachers.  Both of these are meant to be catalysts for further conversation and learning at home. The Head of Lower School and Head of Middle School will be using ParentSquare to share reflections on life in their respective divisions. As a parent, you will only see the posts relevant to your children, and you will be able to select whether you receive a digest email, text notifications, or app notifications. 

Our upcoming launch of ParentSquare is just one of the end products from this design process. Andrew’s earlier email clarifying who and how to contact faculty and staff evolved from an expressed desire by all of our parent users. Likewise, we emphasized the importance of the human connection in communication and community building at MTS. To this end we have opened up the black top for parents to drop their K-2 children off for school and have asked our homeroom teachers and advisors to be in touch with families every five to six weeks for a brief check in.

A core tenet of the Ideo design process is that we always evolve our designs. For this reason, we will ask for your feedback on the effectiveness of our school and classroom to home communication later this fall.  That feedback will allow us to open even more effective windows into the joyous daily life at Mount Tamalpais School.





“What did you do this summer?”  I, like most people around a school, have been asked this question numerous times recently.  My first response surprises many people. I biked to school from my home in Novato. After they look at me askance, I quickly add that I got an early birthday present – a red, electric bicycle that makes the journey not only doable, but enjoyable. 

My second response, and the one that I have even more to say about, is that I took an incredible online course titled “How to Learn Math for Teachers,” taught by Dr. Jo Boaler, a professor of mathematics education at Stanford. Dr. Boaler, a recent celebrity in the mathematics education world, reinvigorated my teaching in countless ways.  

Two of Boaler’s lessons that guide my instruction the most these days are a focus on mindset and number sense. Dr. Boaler emphasizes the importance of setting students up for success by creating positive and encouraging class norms. The norms remind students what is true and important to be a growth mindset mathematician, one who sees intelligence and skill as mutable through effort. To foster the growth mindset I am spending the first weeks of class introducing Dr. Boaler’s “Positive and Encouraging Math Norms”:

  1. Everyone Can Learn Math to the Highest Levels. There is no such thing as a “math” person. Through believing in yourself, having a desire to learn, and hard work, you can reach the highest levels in math.

  2. Mistakes are Valuable. Brain research shows that mistakes grow your brain! It is good to struggle and make mistakes. Mistakes are growth opportunities.

  3. Questions are Really Important. Ask and answer questions. Continually ask yourself, “Why does that make sense?”

  4. Math is about Creativity and Making Sense. Math at its core is about visualizing patterns and creating solution paths that others can see, discuss, and critique.

  5. Math is about Connections and Communicating. Math is a connected subject, and a form of communication. Math can be represented by words, pictures, graphs, and equations that can all be linked together.

  6. Depth is much more Important than Speed. Most great mathematicians think slowly and deeply.  

  7. Math Class is about Learning not Performing. Math is a growth subject. It takes time to learn, and it is all about effort.

These norms will remain front and center throughout the year, encouraging our students to approach math with a growth mindset.

With norms in place, Dr. Boaler’s course reminded me of the importance of developing number sense. Boaler defines number sense as a student’s ability to “interact with the numbers flexibly and conceptually.” Number sense helps students see that there are numerous ways to solve a problem, giving them the confidence to experiment and even “play” with numbers, critical skills for more open-ended problem solving and higher level mathematics.  

One of the strategies for developing number sense that Boaler described, Number Talks, is something I know well from working with Kevin Marcovich last year. Kevin would write a number expression such as 8 + 5 on the board and ask the first graders to mentally find the sum. After all students had a moment to think, he would ask for solutions. Next, students had the opportunity to share their strategies for finding the sum. For example, one student said, “I added 10 + 5 and then subtracted 2 to get 13.” Another student said, “Since 8 is 3 + 5, I added 5 + 5 + 3 to get 13.” Excited to share their own strategies, the students were also learning new strategies from each other. They were developing flexible thinking while understanding conceptually that 13 can represented in many different ways.

Growth-mindset focused norms and developing number sense are just two of the many learnings Dr. Boaler had to offer. If you are interested in learning more about Dr. Boaler, I encourage you to explore On this site you will find articles, videos, activities, courses as well as parent resources.  

On one of my electrically assisted rides to MTS this summer, I reflected on the connection between Dr. Boaler’s course and all that we do at MTS. From math class to English class, we want our student to develop a growth mindset, to believe that intelligence can be positively impacted through effort. Furthermore, we want all of our students, regardless of subject, to develop flexible, conceptual understanding, to know the why, not just the how. I am excited to bring this to life in my math classes.

Jennifer Adams, Dean of Curriculum, 5th Grade Homeroom, Math Teacher

"The Job I have Been Preparing For My Entire Life"

A Conversation with Dave Baker, Head of Middle School

Q: Many people know you as the technology director and math teacher.  What made you want to lead the MTS Middle School?
DB: In the 30 years I have spent in the classroom I have taught every age of student from Kindergarten through college and I have learned that the middle school years are the sweet spot for the age I enjoy working with the most (besides the kindergarten students in computer class). Students in their middle school years begin developing the intellect, passion and self-identity that makes them so much fun to work with. When people I meet learn I am a middle school teacher the usual response is something like, “Wow, I could never work with that age group!” yet it is, for me, a group that has so much to offer.  Middle schoolers have an energy that, when well directed, can take them to places and discoveries they never imagined. I want to lead the MTS Middle School because I get to work with an amazing faculty that teaches a wonderful group of students who are just discovering how great they are.

Q: How have you professionally prepared to lead a school division?
DB: I feel like leading the Middle School has been the job I have been preparing for my entire life. People do think of me as being focused on math and technology, and these are both passions of mine, but my interest in education has always been about working with children. Having worked at Four Winds Westward Ho Camps in the San Juan Islands while in college I decided to study psychology with an emphasis on child and brain development.  I continued to study and teach and took on greater and greater leadership roles at  Four Winds Westward Ho, eventually acting as the Head of Westward Ho.  My mentor at that wonderful institution noted that I like to be a part of organizational change and have an impact.  For this reason I completed a Masters in Private School Administration and a leadership fellowship with the National Association of Independent Schools.  These programs, along with the work I’ve done as Associate Head have given me a great foundation to move into this next phase of my career.

Q: You have been at MTS for quite some time.  What has kept you here? 
DB: Simply put, I have always believed that MTS is a gem that, with the right leadership, could go from being a really good school to one of the best in the area. I wanted to be an integral part of that change. 

Q: What changes are you most excited to make in the years ahead to the MTS middle school program? 
DB: The three that immediately come to mind are not changes I’m excited to make, but rather changes I’m excited to be a part of facilitating with the amazing group of educators at MTS. On the immediate horizon is the plan for a social emotional learning and advisory program, Developmental Designs. Second would be the creation of a Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) program. This is an obvious area I have a connection to with technology and math baked into it, but more importantly it will give our students more opportunity to learn about learning, exploring, making mistakes and problem solving all while diving into topics like coding, robotics, electronics and physics. Finally, working with the faculty to incorporate more problem and project based learning.  Much like STEM, the inclusion of Project Based Learning (PBL) will help our students be more self directed and independent in their learning which will prepare them well for high school and beyond.

Q:What do you hope you will do on a “typical” day in your new role?
DB: I plan to have a lot of contact with the students and teachers throughout the day.  Beyond the administrative tasks of coordinating high school visits and talking with parents, I hope to be out of my office more than in it. I am excited to still be teaching Algebra next year and working with students in Mathletes and their enrichment classes. As a teacher, these connections are important to me and will make me more effective as the Head of the Middle school.  I also plan on having the opportunity to get into other classrooms each day to really see what is happening across the middle school. This time will give me the opportunity to collaborate with teachers and facilitate cross-curricular discussion. I look forward to having the opportunity to talk with parents and be a part of a mechanism that creates more of a window into the daily lives of their children. As a parent I found it an invaluable dinner table conversation starter to have a bit of insight into what had happened on campus during the day.  For too long parents have been kept at arm’s length and I look forward to being a part of creating more of a partnership between school and families. 

Q: What is something students and parents might not know about you?
DB: The two things people seem most surprised learning about me are that I surf and I am a certified, although not current, IFR pilot. Having been born and raised on Oahu I started surfing when I was about 8 years old and it remains a big part of my life. The water is a little colder here, but it helps keep the crowds down. Flying is also something I’ve enjoyed over the years, but it has taken a backseat while Liam and Alanna have been growing up. It is something I look forward to doing again when I can give it the time and energy to go beyond the FAA minimums.

"I Strongly Believe in the Mission, Vision, and Direction"

A Conversation with D.J. Thistle, Head of Lower School

Q: You have taught across a number of grades at MTS, why are you interested in leading the Lower School?
Thistle: Most importantly I strongly believe in the mission, vision and direction of the school.  These convictions inspire me to take on this new challenge and lead the Lower School.  Having taught almost every grade level at MTS over the past eight years has allowed me to see the remarkable progress our students make over the course of their careers here.  I love working with our younger students because of their energy and enthusiasm. I love how they come to school with a smile on their faces and are always eager to learn something new. 

Q: You were recently in graduate school.  How do you think this work will help you be an effective Head of Lower School?
Thistle: Yes, I recently completed a Masters degree in Educational Leadership and Administration in January of 2017.  In that program I studied leadership, design thinking, diversity, curriculum design, and instructional leadership.  I can see all of these directly impacting my day to day leadership as we grow and evolve the Lower School program.  Through my program I also connected with an invaluable network of fellow school leaders.  I have already leveraged this group to set up visits to peer schools and explore other program best practices.  Finally, my culminating project was on improved teacher collaboration in the classroom. I believe the research and analysis of the topic will help me guide our lower school teachers to be even more effective with their students.

Q: What changes are you most excited to make in the years ahead to the MTS lower school program?  
Thistle:  Ooh.  This is a tough one.  We are taking on a number of great new programs next year and I am excited by all of them.  Our trio of new Social Emotional programs–Toolbox, Responsive Classroom, and No Bully–will provide the language, strategies, and time for our students to see increased value in being a part of the MTS community and to resolve the normal conflicts that arise.  These programs will also help all of the adults in our community, parents included, teach students how to self regulate and step in effectively when necessary. I am also  looking forward to the Columbia Readers and Writers Workshops. I believe the professional development and consistency of this program throughout K-4 will strengthen our Language Arts program. The program will also give us more data allowing teachers to more effectively communicate with the parents and benchmark student progress. Across the board I am excited about having the opportunity to be in the classrooms to develop stronger relationships with the students and dig deeper into how each individual student learns best, and support, collaborate with, and evaluate teachers.

Q: How do you hope to be known with students and parents in this new role?
Thistle: With all constituents, I want to be known as a leader that is in the classrooms daily and making decisions grounded in what I experience and in collaboration with the teachers that work with our  students every day.  I hope that every student can confidently say that DJ knows me.  I also want the students to feel comfortable enough to approach me with any questions, ideas or concerns.  Frankly I want parents to feel the same way–that I know their child and that I am an open partner in communication and problem solving.  Finally, I want parents to see me as someone who is working hard to build community among the grades themselves and the lower school.

Q: What is something students and families might not know about you?
Thistle: I didn’t believe I was “good at math” until I had that teacher that turned it all around for me in 7th grade. I hope to make a difference of this scale with every student at MTS.

From the Garden–Volunteer Spotlight

From the Garden–Volunteer Spotlight

The bell rings for lunch recess and I watch as happy faces race into the MTS garden. “We are the first in the garden!” beams a first grader.  Freedom and dirt, a magical combination the MTS Garden volunteers say make it one of the most rewarding places at MTS to be a parent volunteer. 

The MTS Garden was given to the school seven years ago through a successful Fund a Need campaign.  Wendy Anderson, who has been looking after the garden for the last six years, says this year the garden truly is the children’s garden. “Everything in here was planted by the kids.” Wendy’s background in teaching and her past work at the Alice Waters Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley means she brings a wonderful enthusiasm to the children when they are in the garden planting seeds, digging, weeding, watering or doing crafts. “I’m a teaching gardener. This place is the most active, inclusive and involved I can be with the children. It’s real, active learning and brings them connection, pride and ownership. And it makes the connection of what it takes to make things grow and develops an appreciation for the food they eat everyday.”

Helping Wendy is Lucie Charkin and Gwyn Thiessen. 

Beware the "Like"–Social Media Guidance from Andrew

Beware the "Like"–Social Media Guidance from Andrew

Oh how the word “like” has changed.  In sixth grade Randy asked me if I “liked” Jessica or like “liked” Jessica.  It sounds so odd now, but this was a typical–if not the quintessential–question of adolescence in the late 80s.  While like-like might still exist, “like”, as in I “liked” your photo on Instagram is the far more common usage.  In fact, as I write this on a Saturday afternoon my phone lights up every few minutes as friends “like” my photo of Huck and Harrison on the Angel Island Ferry from our morning adventure.  These “likes” make me feel good and, if with access to a brain scan, we would see dopamine being released with each notification.  I like “likes.”  We all like “likes.”

A recent New York Times article, shared with me by a MTS parent, reveals the dark side of the “like.”  

Coding @ MTS–Beyond The Hour

The Hour of Code is coming!  This event, organized by, takes place each year during Computer Science Education week in early December in recognition of the birthday of computing pioneer Admiral Grace Murray Hopper.  The event is designed to demystify “code," to show that anybody can learn the basics, and to broaden participation in the field of computer science.  At MTS our 4th through 8th graders have been taking part in the Hour of Code since it’s inception in 2013.  

The Hour of Code allows our students to learn that computer science is fun and creative and that it is accessible for all students.  Learning to code, creating step-by-step commands for a computer to follow, opens the door to an understanding that students can be consumers of technology and the creators of it. Our involvement in coding goes far beyond one hour, though.

Blended Learning at MTS

Blended Learning at MTS

In our World Language Department students are able to supplement traditional learning with online, self-paced learning on the Languagenut website in a format known as “blended learning.”  Languagenut and the blended model encourages students to take charge of their learning using interactive games, songs and stories.  Our students have access to Spanish and Mandarin as well as 17 different languages. We even use Languagenut in Latin class, as we study French, Italian and Spanish to analyze derivatives, and to strengthen pronunciation and intonation. Native speakers do all recordings, ensuring students develop the correct pronunciation.

This online language resource relies on games, engaging students in simple, fun and effective learning activities. Students explore...