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New day dawns at MUSD

Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune

An animated Babatunde Ilori, MUSD executive director for accountability and communications, gestures during a training session for administrators following an earlier staff development kick-off at Roger Rocka’s.


Administrators’ training begins at Roger Rocka’s

The race is on. A new school year is about to begin, and Madera Unified is pulling out all the stops to make sure when students return to their classrooms in August, they will have an experience that is full of joy.

That’s why on July 19, staff development for administrators began at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater in Fresno.

Led by MUSD Superintendent Todd Lile and his executive cabinet of approximately 100 directors, coordinators, principals, and vice-principals gathered for a special performance by the Good Company Players, just for Madera Unified.

The unique production was orchestrated by Dan Passano, founder of the theater group. The former Madera Unified teacher hand-picked a cast of performers who then presented a program specifically designed through musical drama to inspire Madera Unified’s administrators to encourage creativity in the district’s classrooms.

The unusual staff development kick-off came about as the result of the feelings of isolation brought on by COVID-19. Lile knew that there would have to be significant changes when school opened this year. A different human experience would be needed. All the experts were calling for schools to engage students in the most meaningful and dynamic ways possible. That’s when Lile got an email from retired drama teacher Ginger Latimer, who inspired him “to think through the empathetic experience all humans have through theater and music.”

The superintendent reached out to Passano, a former Madera High School drama teacher, who “very carefully selected songs and performers with messages and themes that touched the hearts and minds of our leaders.” When it was all over, Madera’s administrators “wiped their eyes and got ready to exercise their leadership through a new frame.”

This “new frame” runs counter to the so-called accountability era in which schools focused increasingly on standards and test scores and very little on joy in the classroom. Now, all of that has changed. The new mantra is, “Joyful learning can flourish in school — if you give joy a chance.” Without neglecting academic rigor, Madera’s students will experience more hands-on projects and more opportunities to be creative. Lile insists, however, this can’t be accomplished with the older mindset about standards, high stakes testing, and a grinding focus on more accountability.

So what is the makeup of the new direction Madera Unified is taking? What are its obiter dicta? What will it take to bring “joy” into the classroom? A hint came in the meetings following the Roger Rocha experience, which included some discussion on “Joy in School.” One document had several suggestions:

1. Help students find pleasure in learning. Make schools more than factories for creating workers and test-takers.

2. Give students choices. Give them some ownership over what they are learning.

3. Let students create things. Allow them to bring original ideas to fruition.

4. Show off student work. The walls of classrooms should speak to people and tell what is going on throughout the school day.

5. Take some time to tinker. Encourage some grand schemes, wild ideas, crazy notions, and leaps of imagination. Push beyond the teacher-proof curriculum the textbook industry has created, which tries to plan every subject for every hour of the day.

6. Make school spaces inviting. Rearrange the desks and make room for some rugs and pillows. In other words, make classrooms look less like classrooms.

7. Get outside. Students need a break from being confined to a classroom all day. A sunny day can do miracles for the human spirit. Take students outside once in a while to read and write.

8. Read good books. Encourage students to read thrillers, action-adventure books; stories about sports, animals, pop culture and nonfiction on topics they love.

9. Rethink “failure.” Portraying failure as a bad thing teaches a child to avoid risk taking. “If we graded toddlers on their walking skills, we would have a nation of crawlers.”

10. Have some fun together. Have some outdoor field days, movie nights, school sleep-ins, T-shirt days, and talent shows.

Lile and his top-level administrators are solidly behind moving the district toward more “joy” in the classrooms, especially after the disruption caused by the pandemic.

“Students and teachers have lost too much,” Lile maintains. “They both need an engaging school experience that embraces creativity, expression, and inspiration. That must be balanced with a professional culture of trust and empowerment. The choice is not binary. We aren’t focusing only on achievement results or only on fun. This is our chance to rebuild our school system into dynamic places even more beloved and valued by students, families, and staff! This is our moment to rise out of the ashes like a phoenix!”

Lile had high praise for Sheryl Sisil, Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services; Babatunde Ilori, Executive Director of Accountability and Communications; Karen DeOrian, Director, School Culture and Climate and Area Assistant Superintendents Jesse Carrasco, Lalo Lopez, and Oracio Rodriguez, all who exhibited exceptional teamwork in developing the training sessions for the district’s administrators.

“This was the best it has been in our collective memory,” intoned Lile.



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