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Thinking Outside the Box: How One School Is Going To Do Things Differently | Laurie Grassi-Redmond ’02

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Laurie Grassi-Redmond with her students at the Mill School

   Laurie Grassi-Redmond with her students at       The Mill School in Maine

When I was taking graduate classes at the Mills School of Education over ten years ago, Anna Richert challenged me and my colleagues to “imagine schools otherwise”. Our student teaching placements left us with many questions, and when we met with Anna on Wednesday afternoons, our frustrations and concerns often bubbled up and out. We questioned standardized tests, teacher to student ratios, school schedules, moral dilemmas, content standards, prescribed curriculum, assessments, and more.  Anna would listen to us, facilitate our discussions, and then push us to imagine what schools could look like, if we took the time to imagine them otherwise.

Years later, having taught at the Mills College Children’s School and in public elementary and middle schools, and having stepped outside of the classroom for five years to raise two daughters, I am now in the process of founding a school. Holding in my heart and mind what I know to be best for children, I developed The Mill School.

The Mill School will help children tap into their capacity for learning so that they are confident and successful while maintaining a true sense of self. Located in Freedom, Maine, The Mill School will serve children ages six to ten in a three-day program. Academics will be taught through integrated projects. Assessment will be on-going and authentic. Through place-based learning, The Mill School will advance environmental stewardship and foster the growth of children who view themselves as participants in the life of their community. The Mill School will prepare children to be valued members of society by emphasizing critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, adaptability, initiative, curiosity, and imagination.

At The Mill School, children will spend half of each school day outside. The outdoor environments will provide the roots for the curriculum at The Mill School and they include the falls, stream, pond, forest, wetlands, and adjoining family farm. Snacks and lunches will be made from whole, local, organic foods and served family style.

The Mill School will partner with families to educate children. Constructivism and place-based learning will guide the curriculum. One day we may offer a five-day program so that we can try to become a “school of choice” – that means that families in the surrounding area could attend the school for free. For now, we will actively work to keep tuition as low as possible while still valuing our teachers and providing a safe and enriching learning environment where children can thrive.

I would like to thank all of my Mills professors for preparing me for this venture. Collectively, they planted a seed ten years ago that has now blossomed into one school where things will be done differently: a school rooted in what is best for children.

To learn more about the school, please visit

Written by collegialconnections

January 16, 2013 at 12:30 pm

Notes from the Field: Changing School Culture| Zachary Roberts, Ed.D ’10

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Zachary RobertsEDD in Educational Leadership Graduate 2010

Zachary Roberts
EDD in Educational Leadership Graduate 2010

In The Principalship, Thomas Sergovanni defines culture as the beliefs and values that underlie and direct the actions of faculty. Ideas such as “all children can learn” and “the whole child should be educated” fall into this category of thought. The importance of cultivating a healthy school culture cannot be understated in school leadership. The ability to effect positive change in the program, operations, and political dimensions of school structures rests on having a strong, coherent culture that supports faculty in modeling the foundational values, and holds them accountable when they move away from those. This is why I identified improving the culture of the elementary division at The Berkeley School, where I am Associate Head of School and Elementary Division Head, as one of my foci for the current school year, and made it the topic of my project for my NAIS Fellowship for Aspiring Heads of School.

Because school culture rests on abstract ideas such as beliefs and values, changing it requires surfacing those values in ways that can then be directly applied to the curriculum, traditions, and other facets of school life. While I would have loved to set aside time for faculty to discuss their core values and beliefs about education in the abstract, to do so would take their most precious resource – time – without providing a pragmatic connection to their work, and my experience is that teachers prefer their time be spent talking about substantive matters, rather than process-related ones. My approach, therefore, has been to identify ways in which the values and beliefs in our culture can be named within the context of specific program-related work.

One way in which I have worked to shift school culture is through a year-long examination of our curriculum. One strand of this has been to begin a curriculum mapping process that gives teachers time to plan, reflect, and revise their own curriculum, as well as significant opportunities to work with faculty at other grade levels to understand the knowledge, skills and understandings that are being taught to students throughout the school. Another strand has been working closely with our Curriculum Coordinator to implement a design thinking process for examining our balanced literacy program.  This initiative has involved defining the components of the program, training faculty on implementing a consistent word study program across the grades (since one was missing), providing regular opportunities to implement the Looking At Student Work Together protocol developed by David Allan and Tina Blythe at Harvard’s Project Zero Institute, and more.

My second approach has been to increase the role of teacher leadership in defining specific aspects of our program. I formed small working groups to examine our shared traditions, such as holiday celebrations and our curriculum sharing events, and I pushed those small groups to be explicit about the values behind our work. For example, one such group at the beginning of the year met to rethink our assemblies, which were previously bi-monthly sing-alongs of old folk songs. By starting with sharing the reasons we value assemblies, we were able to then move on to identifying the goals we wished the assemblies to meet, and thus come up with a structure that could achieve them. When this group of teachers suggested a structure to the event that involved students sharing their learning, and the reporting out of the work of our newly-formed student council, the faculty as a whole was excited to take on the added burden of preparing their kids to present, precisely because their peers had taken the time to ground the approach in their values.

I have used one other strategy to increase the coherence of our division’s culture, and that is to attempt to become a better cheerleader and recognize what is going right in our classrooms. I have found several avenues for this, including offering a sincere and authentic appreciation to a different faculty or staff member each day for some aspect of their work; being sure to notice, comment on, and inquire about the new displays and documentation that appears on the walls of the classrooms each time I enter a room; and to publish an internal division newsletter in which I pick one thing from each class, and write about how I see it connecting to our mission, learning outcomes, or pedagogic approach.

Peter Drucker, an influential scholar of management theory and practice, once wrote that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Understanding the history of a school site, the personal narratives of the faculty and staff, and the context, constraints, and conditions that a school faces are essential in effecting culture change. It is time-consuming work, and one that I find presents me with new and exciting challenges every day. I share my approach in the hope that it provides others with a foil to consider their own critical work in this area, and I welcome anyone who would like to have a dialogue on this topic at to contact me at

Written by collegialconnections

January 7, 2013 at 12:11 pm

Teaching Pre-college Math to Incarcerated Adults | Regina Guerra

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Mills Alumna, Regina Guerra ’00
Developmental Mathematics Coordinator
at the Prison University Project

When I was a classroom teacher I had a poster in my room that said, “The highest fences we need to climb are those we’ve built within our minds.” I have always found this statement to be true for my students, and when I became the math coordinator for the Prison University Project I found that it was true for me as a teacher as well.

When it comes to learning math, many students enter the classroom with an internal narrative about who they are as students and what they are able to accomplish in a math class. We all know the power a good teacher can have on the success of a student. For adult learners, a good teacher can affect not only how well a student learns the material, but also how they see themselves as students. Working with incarcerated adults who are returning to the classroom I witness the change in their internal narrative. Many students have been away from school for many years or didn’t see themselves as “college material” when they were growing up. What makes my work so enjoyable is watching the transformation that takes place when adults are finally able to have the success in math that they didn’t have before.

The pre-college program at the Prison University Project works with students to build basic skills in English and Math and prepare them to enroll in college courses. But below the surface there are other changes happening as well. Students are learning study skills, critical thinking, and how to participate in class. And the dedication the students have towards their learning is exciting to watch. Having worked as a teacher in public schools, I witnessed students who took their education for granted. The students at PUP are in many ways the “dream” students for teachers because they are engaged, dedicated, and set high standards for themselves. I am continually impressed by how PUP students connect their education goals to their larger life goals and continue to persevere even when it’s difficult. Watching them overcome their past struggles in math inspired me to think about my own internal narrative.

Before working in a prison I imagined prisoners as one-dimensional, defined by their capacity to commit crime. However, the conversations I have with students, the issues that come up in classes, the skills that students struggle with, are the same as in my other teaching experiences. Very quickly after taking my job I realized I had my own narrative about prisoners to overcome. In this static environment they are taking advantage of the opportunity to change. Working with the Prison University Project is seeing teaching that changes lives in its purest sense.

The College Program at San Quentin State Prison is currently recruiting teachers to co-teach pre-college Math and English classes (Math 50 and English 99) this coming spring semester. Teachers with these classes typically work in teams, with each set of instructors covering one evening per week. 

Math 50 has several sections that are held on some combination of Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings from 6-8:30pm. This course covers math from about first grade level (place value) to eighth grade level (pre-algebra) and is geared toward students needing review before moving on to a college algebra course.

All sections of English 99 meet on Sunday, Tuesday and/or Thursday evenings.  This pre-college composition course prepares students to write college level essays. 

The Prison University Project provides incarcerated men at San Quentin with higher education opportunities through our College Program in partnership with Patten University. Our teachers are volunteers from universities around the Bay Area including UC Berkeley, Stanford, and University of San Francisco. There is no minimum education requirement to be an instructor for the pre-college classes, but those with an education background or previous teaching experience are strongly encouraged to apply. We receive no state or federal funding, so major expenses like textbooks and supplies are funded entirely by donations. 

If you are interested in working with the pre-college program, please contact Regina Guerra at for more information.

Written by collegialconnections

November 9, 2012 at 10:17 am

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