Professional Development Opinion

Educators as Change Agents at Mahar Regional School District

By Contributing Blogger — July 06, 2018 10 min read
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By Amanda Avallone, Content Manager for Next Generation Learning Challenges

I am looking for risk-taking and innovation, and it can't be something that comes from me or the principals; redesign needs to come from teachers. I couldn't be more proud of them. I am out of my skin that they've taken on this challenge of redesign." --Tari Thomas, Superintendent, Ralph C. Mahar Regional School District, Orange, MA

For educators, the month of July often provides a much-needed break from the day-to-day urgency of the school calendar. For me it was always a time to recharge, reflect on the past year, and ponder the big ideas that get crowded out by essays to grade and emails to answer. By affording time to think more expansively, summer invites us to be inspired about our practice and what it can mean for our students.

This edition of Friday Focus: Practitioner’s Guide to Next Gen Learning tells the stories of a group of educators who have done more than wrestle with the essential questions of what students need to be engaged learners and successful adults; they have converted their ideas into the action of school redesign.

This past year, teams from Mahar Regional School District in northern Massachusetts engaged in numerous learning design activities organized by Next Generation Learning Challenges and its initiative Mass IDEAS (Innovating Design in Education for All Students), with funding provided by the Barr Foundation and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Educators from Mahar visited innovative schools on NGLC’s Massachusetts Learning Excursions and sent a team to a Mass IDEAS’ School Design Institute this past spring. Mahar will also participate in an upcoming Mass IDEAS School Model Design Studio. For this story, I spoke to three teachers and the superintendent from Mahar to find out:

  • What motivated you to redesign the school experience?
  • What did you do in response?
  • What have you learned along the way?

Creating Space to Do What Needs to Be Done

Mahar Regional School District Superintendent Tari Thomas points to a “whole constellation of things” that ignited her belief that “teaching and learning really need to shift.” The first of these was her own experience. “As a learner, I can’t handle the old industrial model.” What it produces, she says, is “good little soldiers who do well on exams, but then they go off to college and don’t know what to do. School hasn’t changed that much since the 60s and 70s,” she observes, “but the workplace has changed. It’s a real mindbender. We need to be so different for kids.”

Tari also describes how, in 2016, she was inspired by the actions of two educators from Mahar Regional High School. John Speek and Lauren Cerillo, whose stories appear below, submitted an entry to XQ: The Super School Project, a national high school redesign competition. For Tari, seeing these Mahar educators reach the semi-finalist round in a national project prompted some hard questions. She recalls asking herself, “You have two teachers doing this work and you are not harnessing it? Why aren’t they doing this work right here?”

After that, she reports,"the floodgates were wide open.” Her message to teachers was, “You can do it here.” Among other initiatives, she began awarding trophies to teachers for risk-taking and innovation. She also called upon principals and directors to help facilitate the work and serve as advocates, but to “give teachers that wide open space to do what needs to be done to support our kids’ futures.”

Tari’s been delighted with how Mahar’s teachers have responded “with enthusiasm and engagement and going the extra mile for kids.” She reports feeling “like the proudest mother on the planet.” Later this month, Tari will be part of Mahar’s team at Mass IDEAS’ School Model Design Studio, an immersive experience for whole-school design or redesign. In the coming years she looks forward to seeing “kids extremely engaged in purposeful projects in the community, finding agency and developing habits of success, as well as content knowledge and skills. Once kids own their own learning, that’s where the power happens and the lightbulbs go on.

To support what Tari refers to as a “grassroots way of making significant change,” Mahar’s leaders initiated an Innovation Committee, now led by teachers. Here are the stories of some of the work that has come out of that committee and the educators--Keith Bevan, John Speek, and Lauren Cerillo, pictured below--who are making it happen.

Students Learn, and I Help Them

Keith Bevan has known he wanted to be a teacher since the 8th grade. Even so, he identifies his early experiences as a learner as “the main inspiration behind the plunge” into school redesign. “So much of it was just worksheets that can be easily cheated,” he recalls. “It doesn’t challenge students in a thinking way but in a memorizing way.”

At Mahar, Keith’s first glimpse of another way of teaching and learning came when he was invited to teach a middle school course called MakerSpace and a high school counterpart, Maker. These courses “were organized around projects and thinking, not regurgitation,” he explains. “It gave students opportunities to be self-directed, develop perseverance, and fight through frustrations. It was about teaching them what kind of learners they are.”

The projects students selected that first year ranged from learning Arabic to playing the ukulele. Keith reports that, at first, “it was scary not to be the one with the knowledge.” However, that soon changed: “It was gratifying to see the fever of students owning their own work because it’s something they want to do. It’s not about the teacher giving knowledge. Instead, students learn problem-solving, and I help them.”

This spring Keith, along with John and Lauren, served on the Mahar team at a Mass IDEAS School Design Institute. With its strong design thinking component, the SDI weekend supported the team to create a prototype experience to try out right away, before the school year ended. They also successfully applied for a Mass IDEAS mini-grant to fund the pilot. Called Mahar Expo (or Mahar X), it was one of the change projects that had come out of Mahar’s teacher-led Innovation Committee, of which Keith is a co-chair.

Keith describes the day-long event, held on June 8, as a “giant show and tell all over the school” to showcase the talents and passions of the school community. With a focus on student agency, the presentations emphasized self-expression, and the event provided opportunities for students to “roam free” based on interests. Mahar X included musical performances, sports demonstrations, club expos, academic fairs, TED-style talks, and art projects, all led by teachers and students.

Keith’s advice to educators redesigning the learning experience is that it’s “OK to start with something small, but students have to have a say. Build it with them. It’s going to be messy, but stay the course. That’s how you change and learn. Kids shouldn’t be bored, and school shouldn’t be meaningless.”

Learning that Doesn’t Die at the School Walls

John Speek, who teaches English at Mahar High School and co-chairs the Innovation Committee with Keith, describes how he struggled for years “to get kids genuinely engaged in their education. It was always frustrating when kids said, ‘I am forced to be here, and I don’t see any value whatsoever.’ I used to get pretty worked up about it,” he recalls.

One day, however, a colleague gave him a copy of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, by Tony Wagner. “When I got to the Stanford d.school part, I asked myself, ‘Why can’t we do this?’”

Today John leads the second key initiative selected by Mahar’s Innovation Committee: The School for Applied Research at Mahar Regional High School. According to John, this strand, which students can opt into during their junior and senior years, “seeks to radically depart from the traditional model.” John describes this comprehensive reworking of pedagogy, schedules, and use of physical space as a combination of Stanford’s d.school, MIT’s Media Lab, and Hampshire College, but “pulled down into the high school level. You explore new areas and gather learning in order to achieve a goal,” he explains. “The teacher’s role is to help with the exploring, curate the learning, and open students’ eyes to new things.”

John recently participated in an NGLC Massachusetts Learning Excursion and has studied a variety of innovative models. Some schools, he observes, “are more focused on the physical world and creating objects. We are more focused on creating processes and teaching students how to be project managers and to effect some kind of change in the outside world so that learning doesn’t die at the school walls. Making this little machine is great, but how does it better the world around you?”

To illustrate, John describes how a student team launched a countywide competition, challenging local high schools to reduce food waste. Another group, responding to research on academics and physical activity, created a running club at a local elementary school. Community organizations have now picked up both initiatives so that the work can continue. “That’s the extra step we are trying to do,” says John. “To have students be able to point to real change they made in the outside world.”

Empowering Young Minds to Do and Lead

“I’m passionate about history,” says Lauren Cerillo. “How can we get progressive about the future without knowledge of the past?” Lauren teaches history at Mahar High School and, with John, co-leads the Senior Honors Project, the keystone in Mahar’s Applied Research program.

“There are so many important lessons from the past,” she explains, but learning them can “get lost in the monotony of the day and the structures we are forced to align ourselves with in education.” She recalls how, for two years, she and John spent their prep periods and time after school wrestling with “how to insert purpose and meaning into a classroom--a cinder block box full of desks, just like the last one students sat in--and how to develop intrinsic motivation.”

Discussion turned to action when John approached her with the XQ application and the question, “Lauren, do you want to change the world?” John and Lauren’s entry for the XQ competition included the innovative Applied Research track, and although their redesign was not funded, the two did not abandon the project. “We had invested the time and work into redesign. We had decided these innovations were really important for students, so why wouldn’t we listen to our own lessons?” Since then, Lauren has helped create and lead the new program. She also served on the Mahar team at the Mass IDEAS SDI, applying design thinking processes to create the Mahar X prototype.

Lauren gives a great deal of credit to Tari and Scott Hemlin, her principal, for the progress the teachers have made to redesign student learning. When she and John first approached these leaders with their ideas for the new strand of coursework for juniors and seniors, Lauren expected that “they would think we were crazy, but we were met with support and energy. We were in awe. We were given a lane and invited to run in it. We haven’t stopped running since.

Her recommendation to other teachers is to “trust yourself and trust your students. When you give students the power and trust to do something, they can do it.” Returning to her particular passion, history, she says, “So many movements for social change came from students. They have that raw idealism, and they believe we can make it work. We can give them the tools for change. We can empower a whole bunch of young minds to do this and lead us. It’s a brilliant thing.


  • The Mahar X program includes descriptions of the student- and teacher-led presentations and activities participants could choose from.
  • In this video of his presentation at Mahar X, John Speek discusses the “why” behind the event and other innovations happening at the school, as well as the power of teenagers to do, as well as learn.
  • The Mahar X Google Drive folder includes sample attendance sheets, a schedule for the day, and other resources to support logistics.
  • This news article about Mahar X provides more detail about the events, speakers, and activities of the day.
  • From Problem to Prototype” describes the Mass IDEAS School Design Institute that the Mahar team attended in March.
  • This article by Sujata Bhatt, Managing Partner for Innovation at Boston Public Schools, provides insights into nurturing innovation with a “culture of micro-innovations--what teachers do everyday.”


Photos courtesy of Mahar Regional School District. From top:

  • Teacher Jesse Gilmore and student Henry Ndayisaba make a joint presentation at Mahar X on the refugee crisis
  • Mahar Regional School District Superintendent Tari Thomas
  • Mahar educators Keith Bevan, John Speek, and Lauren Cerillo
  • Seaworthy ship, built and tested by Grade 10 Maker students at Mahar
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