Standards, NOT standardization!


“Accountability” is a hot topic in education today.  From Senate confirmation hearings, to state legislatures, to local districts and schools, everyone wants to know: How are we going to ensure that ALL students have access to a quality education and how will we know that they are learning?

From a philosophical point of view, consensus has largely been reached.  We agree that all students (and teachers) benefit from high “standards.”  That is to say, we all agree that having high, clearly articulated expectations of what students should be able to learn and do promotes student success and high levels of achievement.  Rosenthal & Jacobson’s classic 1968 paper “Pygmalion in the Classroom” represents just one of a multitude of studies demonstrating essentially that students will rise to the level of the expectations placed upon them.  Hence the emphasis on written standards (whether national, state, or local) demanding a high “level of quality or attainment.”

Where consensus breaks down is how to measure and verify student mastery of those standards.  In the quest to do so, we collectively have fallen victim to “standardization,” an over reliance on a specific “idea or thing used as a measure… in comparative evaluations.”  We administer standardized assessments to measure student progress, and hold both students and teachers accountable to performing adequately on those tests.  Sadly, this overreliance on standardized assessments misses the mark in many ways.  Test-taking becomes divorced from the active process of learning, is anxiety provoking, is devoid of student agency, and frankly in many cases is a better measure of the parents’ educational and economic status than it is of student learning.  I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with my son’s elementary school teachers in which they tell me some variation of, “I know he understands the concept, but he made such-and-such mistake and only earned a such-and-such score.”  So he knows it, she knows he knows it, but the test doesn’t know he knows it!  Overall, we have substantial evidence that our tests don’t really measure what we are trying to measure.

So why are we so stuck on them?  I think, in large part, because we have bought into two fallacies, first that standardized assessments save time because they are easier to grade and second that they are more objective.  We are unfortuantely frightened away from the sort of performance tasks and student presentations of learning that we would all agree are a much more comprehensive and accurate demonstration of what students know and can do, because we think we don’t have time for them and that giving a multiple choice test is quicker.  This fear, however, ignores that such performance based assessments inherently combine instruction and assessment, so you are not “losing” any learning time by administering them (whereas any teacher, student, or parent will tell you that testing eats up too much valuable instructional time).  Furthermore, the “scoring” of the assessment also is embedded in the conversations between student and teacher, where instruction, feedback, and reflection all occur.  Again, grading becomes part of the learning experience.

educational-system-comicAs to the purported “objectivity” of such assessments, I refer you to the provided cartoon popular with educators.  We call standardized tests “objective” because they provide defined questions with very specific “right” answers.  But who decides what answer is “right”?  More importantly, who decides what questions are worth asking?  The very act of designing an assessment requires someone to decide what will be assessed, how it will be asked, and which responses will be deemed acceptable.  Thus, the design of these tests is inherent extremely subjective.  Personally, I would much prefer those subjective decisions be tailored to each unique student and, better yet, involve the participation of the student being assessed.   Again, in this aim performance assessments and presentations of learning fit the bill.

We don’t live in a land of unicorns and rainbows where everything works as it should, so I recognize that standardized tests are a reality I can’t run away from.  Just two days ago, our Innovation Lab students completed all of their more traditional subject-area midterm exams.

We refuse to let it stop there however.  Today our sophomores began the exhilarating scramble leading up to their first Exhibition of Student Work, being held Wednesday February 8th from 6:30-8:30 PM at the Bruce Museum.

bruce-museum-flyer-feb-2017-1The exhibit, titled “Opposition and Change in Self and Society,” represents the culmination of three months of work on a joint Humanities and STEM project in which students were asked to create digital and physical pieces of art that symbolize and comment upon their views of themselves and society. In the digital pieces, created using the mathematical interface Desmos, students symbolize opposing aspects of their identity and/or comment on a change they would like to see in themselves.  In second piece of art, students symbolize an important social issue and comment on the change they would like to see in that issue.  The students will then present their work and learning to any and all members of the public that care to join us.

That’s an impressive performance with an excellent assessment of student learning!  And it also happens to be a ton of fun!!

Hope to see you there! 



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Communication in the Cold

This summer, in conjunction with our friends from Greenwich Leadership Partners, we devised goals and strategies to help move us forward during year two of Innovation Lab. High on our list was implementation and revision of curricula; and the creation of a brand new twelfth grade program.  As teachers though, this is our comfort zone.  It is what we do and what we love.  Some other items on our list–such as creating a marketing strategy that would highlight our true colors, and constructing a concise and effective school profile to send to counselors and colleges– had us more nervous.  As our first class nears the college application process, we see more and more the importance of getting the word out about how we educate our students and about what makes our program unique.


In the early fall we collected some preliminary data from our students and parents. We discovered that the most useful and convincing strategy in getting our message across was unbelievably simple.  Our community found candid and live conversations with Innovation Lab teachers to be the most significant source of reliable and persuasive information.  What other strategies did they find useful?  Communicating with our students.  


Our students learning Environmental Chemistry.

Our work then focused on the best way to make ourselves available to current and prospective parents and students.  One of my favorite venues for conversation is the nightly Innovation Lab information session.  I hosted the last one this past Monday with Dana Schlosser, our Junior year STEM teacher.  It was a frigid night.  People in Greenwich were sick.  There were so many other activities happening.  Dana and I expected a small gathering of about ten or twelve.  We started promptly at seven with about that many and about five minutes into the meeting, a Greenwich high school alumni respectfully interrupted our meeting to announce that about thirty people were waiting to be let into Innovation Lab from the high school’s glass corridor.  As if on cue, people started to pour into our Design Studio classroom, filling the comfortable sitting room chairs, the office chairs by the tables, and all of the standing room in the back.  As we continued to speak about InLab, our energy level now high after the coffee and the conversation, we noticed that people lingered in the hall craning their necks to get a view of the room and doing their best to hear from the outside.  After answering a few questions about how we block our schedule and how we differentiate for different levels of students, Dana and I decided to move our party to the larger STEM room.  As Dana started a video of our students at work, I scanned the room and noticed that we had close to sixty people there!  It was quite a showing for a cold Monday night.


When the video played, I could see people finally began to understand our “school within a school.” Especially the prospective applicants in our crowd became more engaged, listening to our InLab students describe passionately our culture, our philosophy, and (of course) their projects. After the video ended the questions really started to roll.  Parents asked about how InLab might affect college admission.  Students worried about being alienated from the rest of the school. It was in our open dialogue that people’s concerns were voiced and a picture of our reality painted.  I could feel the positive energy in the room, and felt comfortable sharing my passion for Innovation Lab.  It was a good night.


For those students who were still on the fence I offered shadowing our students.  Although conversation with teachers is good, nothing can beat watching our community in action.  Our students are experts at sharing their school experience with the larger Greenwich community.  They welcome and even nurture those who seek what we have to offer.


So, if you believe that you know a youth who might love to join Innovation Lab, urge them to connect with one of our students.  All they need to do is email us at  We will schedule a shadowing day so they can really get a feel for what it might be like to be a driver of their own learning.

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Can We Skip Midterms and Get to the Fun Stuff?


Eva’s expression of forgetfulness and time management

Midterms are approaching faster than I think both the students and the teachers are ready to admit. Last minute assessments and project submissions are happening, and as much as we are all trying to alleviate the stress of this time of year, we are all feeling it. Why should Innovation Lab feel different? But oddly it does, if only a little bit. Some parts of the program ignore the arbitrary boundaries of quarters or semesters and the projects will continue. Some projects are finishing, but there are still aeroponic plants that have survived the holiday break, and although the final sophomore computer math projects were due yesterday, they extend their work into a chemical/physical piece that bridges both Humanities and STEM that will continue until the exhibition of their artwork at the Bruce Museum February 8th. The juniors are looking at representing their storyboard of the inner workings of governmental processes which will, next semester, transition into a mechanical piece of art that will tell the same story in motion.



Fjolla and Siobhan’s representation of the checks and balances system.

Learning cannot be restricted by these arbitrarily decided boundaries. Deadlines should be based on the complexity of the project and be flexible to adjust to the needs on the project. Yes, the summative assessment of the term has its merit, but should everything come to a screeching halt when it comes to the educational process? I know we’ve taken to easing up on the assignments that need to be done before midterms, but everyday we still give time over to working on the current projects as well as working on review of first semester’s content. The projects are the chance for our students to explore what they want to explore and learn what they want to learn. The assessment for these big projects should come at a natural juncture, and thats where our focus should be. Midterms are still happening, and we can’t avoid that for now. But is that a true assessment of their skills? I am more looking forward to seeing the results of their labors that anyone can enjoy and learn from, than I am for breaking out the red pen and passing judgement on one exam.

Here’s to hoping that everyone takes a deep breath and gets through this exam period and then we can get back to real learning in 2017.


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Numerical Equations Representing Self-Change

Jody discusses motivation, math, and milestones.

Jody Bell

I stare at the elaborate rubric for the history essay due next week. My mind already trudging through the tedious research and annoyingly overthought writing process needed to complete the assignment. The topic was relatively easy: a simply argumentative essay on Uganda and what could be done to improve democracy. Yet, every milestone for the topic I treated as a marathon, and every small detail that I had yet to complete seemed like a 30-foot high brick wall that I needed to overcome. I absolutely hated it.

But. Why?

Why was it that I voluntarily will take on research projects and scientific essays on mythology, but am revolted by political/historical writing assignments? Why is it that the quality of work differs so greatly topic to topic? The answer is simply motivation.

I seem to have an inordinately narrow field of motivation, and that tends to restrict my ability to work well outside of…

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Numerical Equations Representing Self-Change

Jody Bell

I stare at the elaborate rubric for the history essay due next week. My mind already trudging through the tedious research and annoyingly overthought writing process needed to complete the assignment. The topic was relatively easy: a simply argumentative essay on Uganda and what could be done to improve democracy. Yet, every milestone for the topic I treated as a marathon, and every small detail that I had yet to complete seemed like a 30-foot high brick wall that I needed to overcome. I absolutely hated it.

But. Why?

Why was it that I voluntarily will take on research projects and scientific essays on mythology, but am revolted by political/historical writing assignments? Why is it that the quality of work differs so greatly topic to topic? The answer is simply motivation.

I seem to have an inordinately narrow field of motivation, and that tends to restrict my ability to work well outside of…

View original post 640 more words

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Peppermint Tea and Positivity

Innovation Lab Blog

Saying thanks often isn’t enough to show gratitude, a few words cannot prove that you are grateful for what you have. It’s not in the words we say, but in the actions we take to show that we are thankful. This week being Thanksgiving week, it’s especially important to be grateful to those that make our lives better. Being grateful doesn’t only better the lives of those who we are thanking, but it benefits the person who is saying thanks. If you take a few moments every day to sit down and write three things you’re thankful for, it’ll make each day seem better. Practicing being grateful is important because it encourages us to appreciate people in our lives more. Before I go to sleep, I try to think of some of the things I’m thankful for. Even if I don’t write it down, just reflecting on the people who…

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Why InLab?

Jessica Neri

Innovation Lab is a project based learning program that was created to help students succeed and learn based on interest. Students are able to share their learning in a way that interests them, which will give student the opportunity to explore their passions and connect them with school. Innovation Lab isn’t just about making projects, we also take trips to different places to better understand topics taught in class and spark creative ideas. Below is a photo of my class and I on a recent trip to the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, where we viewed and learned about art from the 1920s to benefit our learning.

img_5804 Trip to MoMA in NYC class photo.

Within a couple months, both my parents and I can see the progress I have made since last year. I have accomplished and learned so much in such little time. While getting good grades, learning no longer feels like…

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Woven Chronicle

Last Monday, Innovation Lab sophomores attended our second annual trip to the Modern Museum of Art in New York City. Below is Sydney’s reflection on the experience.

Our second quarter project is a collaboration of STEM and Humanities. This individual project will display modern art as a way to communicate social commentary. In order to grab ideas and inspirati…

Source: Woven Chronicle

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Life of a Project


Air, soil and water project work 

This past Friday marked the end of the first quarter. The sophomore class finished up their intellect themed projects. The Humanities muckrakers project and documentaries were finished and the STEM room was abuzz with the breakdown of Air, Soil and Water projects. The juniors were finishing an organized election debate, and their aeroponics project journals are all updated for grading. But the projects aren’t really over. As the sophomores tour the MOMA today and the juniors switch into their civics curriculum the first quarter projects will live on. The interviewing and documentary skills of being a muckraker will carry into their interdisciplinary modernism project and some air, soil, and water projects will continue on, simply for the sake of continuing to produce data and food in some cases. Some students found cases to further develop their explorations in the realm of oil spill recovery, and ocean acidification. The focus on the elections will carry the juniors into the government “machine” in the coming weeks. The aeroponics projects are still on pace to have a harvest before the holiday break, and may go even beyond.


Cucumbers are really starting to take off, as are the tomatoes, kale, potatoes, peppers and bok choy

The projects that we see have so much effort put into them that they tend to take on a life of their own. They don’t end with the confines of a grading structure. The skills carry forward, the documentaries live on, and the plants must be kept alive for as long as we can. The marking period often ends with students cleaning out their binders full of notes and only referring back to them for midterm exams. Not here. Skills are reused, research is appended, and essays may be revised for a future publication. No project really ends here. They may lie dormant, but often things are brought up and reanimated into a new form. So while the sophomores use chemistry in their modernism project and the juniors build machines, their first quarter projects live on (some quite literally) to make an impact somewhere else besides in a grade book.

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Survival Post-Society

Wednesday morning, around 9:30 AM, the entirety of Innovation Lab along with anyone in Greenwich High School interested in hearing Emily St. John Mandel speak about her book, Station Eleven, made their way down to the Performing Arts Center. There we got the news that Mandel was running late due to some unexpected transportation issues. We later found out that her driver had made an illegal turn in front of a police officer, who subsequently arrested the driver for an outstanding warrant. Her driver was thus taken away in handcuffs, and sadly Emily was not able to speak at the high school. Luckily, she did make it to the Greenwich Library that night where Ms. Mistretta, an English teacher at the high school, interviewed her about her newest novel, Station Eleven. That night, I, along with four other students and a room full of Station Eleven enthusiasts listened to her talk about her writing process, her decision-making process, and more. It was a great experience and peek behind the scenes of an author’s thought process.


The essay contest honorable mentions and winners being recognized on stage at the Greenwich Library. 

Every single year, Greenwich Reads Together chooses a book for the community to read. This year’s reading was Station Eleven. Along with the reading of that book comes an essay contest. For Station Eleven we wrote a personal essay on what non-technological item we would bring in a post-apocalyptic world. Judges selected three high school entries (two honorable mentions and a winner) and two middle school entries (one honorable mention and a winner). I was lucky enough to be one of the high school honorable mentions, a great honor. For those of you who have not read the book, Station Eleven takes place in a post-pandemic and post-society environment and focuses on Kirsten, a member of the traveling symphony. The traveling symphony consists of musicians and actors who travel the new world performing Shakespeare and playing music.

The following is the essay prompt and my response to it:

In Station Eleven Kirsten Raymonde carries Arthur’s glass paperweight that Tanya gave to her the night before the pandemic wipes out most of the world’s population. In a similar crisis, what one non-technological object that means the most to you would you keep and how would it ensure your physical or psychological or emotional survival? In your response, please draw parallels to Station Eleven.

Survival post-society

There is no one around; all that surrounds me is vast raw wilderness. White pearly mountains watch over me and the elegant creature grazing only yards away. A cold breeze blows past my bearded cheeks and makes my uncombed hair dance. The rumbling in my stomach reminds me what I set out for. I clasp the .22 rifle tight. I breathe in slowly through my nose and then back out through my mouth, leaving a cloud of vapor drifting off until it vanishes into nothingness. I smile. The simple beauty of the landscape around me still makes my heart flood with joy. The smile widens at the thought of being here, living and breathing nature, and escaping society’s crushing trap of conformity. I need to hold back laughter when I think about how I will never again suffer from the disease of materialism. I aim the gun and peer through the sights. I breathe in again slowly. Air feeding through my nostrils sounds loud and clear. Hold. Patience. Wait. Fire.

I wake up out of my daydream realizing that I have been staring out the window for minutes on end, with my copy of Into the Wild in hand. A purple pen marks the page where I left off. This book that has become so precious to me over the last weeks is my number one choice to bring with me to any post-societal environment or survival situation.

After his graduation in 1990, Christopher McCandless set out on a lone journey across the United States. After two years of traveling the roads at the age of 24, Chris, by then known as Alexander Supertramp, set out on his final journey, an “odyssey” if you will, to Alaska. He planned on “living off the land” for some time. His provisions were minimal consisting of only “a ten-pound bag of rice” with “no ax, no bug dope, no snowshoes, no compass” (Krakauer). He would spend his final 118 days in the Alaskan wilderness until he died of starvation in “the magic bus.” Although McCandless’ story is one of a quest for greatness and proving himself much more than mere survival, it does reveal the morals and thoughts of a man who thrives and achieves greatness with the absence of modern day technology and the conformity and stability that modern society brings; neither of which are available in the post-pandemic world that Emily St. John Mandel brings to life between the front and back covers of Station Eleven. Into the Wild is the real world example of Station Eleven .

Coming out on the other side of a pandemic or any other survival situation depends on much more than mere physical necessities like water, food, and shelter. Psychological and emotional fortitude separate the survivors from the ones that crumble. Keeping our humanity and taking in the joys of life that are “placed all around us… in everything and anything we might experience” (Krakauer) sit at the center of thriving in a world without modern day society. A moral that for me is contained within the words of McCandless’ story.

It surprises me every single time how simply beautiful McCandless dream was. Through the reading of the book and the multiple re-viewings of the movie that came out in 2007, I have fallen in love with the ideals that he sought. To “move around, [to] be nomadic, [to] make each day a new horizon” (Krakauer), which Mandel emphasizes in the world of Station Eleven. Being able to see the world, meet people, bring joy to them, learn from them. Kirsten, who start to travel with the Traveling Symphony at a young ago, is the perfect example. She sees both the horrors and beautiful parts of the world. She learns about the instincts of survival and human nature. In an interview with a local newspaper, she talks about how “some places, you pass through once and never return, because you can tell something’s very wrong. Everyone’s afraid, or it seems like some people have enough to eat and other people are starving… the place is either lawless or in the grip of something, a cult of some kind… they’ve slid into disarray” (Mandel 114). Seeing all these places and meeting new people is one of the reasons why Kirsten survives and thrives in the new world. She learns from her experiences and different encounters, allowing her to grow. Into the Wild reminds me to do the same. Even without its necessity for survival, I am already yearning to travel and see the world, making Into the Wild the motivation I need to do just that in Mandel’s post-pandemic society, thus bringing Into the Wild ensuring my survival.

Chris McCandless thrived with nothing more than a hunting rifle, some rice, the clothes in his body, and books. And I am yearning to set out on a similar adventure. To break away from the confines of society. That yearning becomes significant if I were placed in the new world of Station Eleven. An internal drive to be better, which stems from McCandless’ story. It creates a similar mindset that Jeevan, one of the pandemic’s survivors falls into during his time on the road. His mind got to “whispering the same two words over and over: ‘Keep walking. Keep walking. Keep walking” (Mandel), an internal motivation that ultimately leads to his survival and thriving in the new world. That is what Into the Wild means to me. It is about the will to keep going and fight until you achieve what you set out to do. To be different and stronger than everyone says you can be. To crush limits and expectations. Qualities that will ensure my emotional, psychological and therefore physical survival.

Painted on the front caravan of the Traveling Symphony are the words, “Survival is insufficient” (Mandel) a powerful phrase. Living in the new world is not only about survival. It is about thriving even without modern-day technology and civilization. Into the Wild embodies those ideals. It will empower me with the motivation and morals I need to “make everyday a new horizon” (Krakauer) even in a post-pandemic society like Station Eleven.

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