The 2019-2020 academic year officially began Monday for teachers in West Hartford Public Schools with a lively and inspiring convocation highlighted by a ‘flash mob’ musical performance led by Teacher of the Year Jennifer Stanish.
By Ronni Newton
The West Hartford Public Schools annual “Celebration of a New Year” convocation ceremony was proceeding as usual, with warm and inspiring words shared by speakers, including 2019-2020 Teacher of the Year Jennifer Stanish, who gave heartfelt thanks to her parents for being her role models. She shared several stories about having the courage to build bridges and to deal with vulnerability, and about believing in yourself and others.
And then she burst into song.
Stanish, a fifth grade teacher at Wolcott Elementary School, studied at the Hartt School for several years before deciding that she wanted to become a teacher, and is beginning her 21st year teaching at Wolcott Elementary School.
On Monday, her musical talent, as well as her ability to engage and inspire, was clearly, powerfully, and melodically on display as she launched into a performance of the country music anthem “Love Can Build a Bridge,” written by Naomi Judd, Paul Overstreet, and John Barlow Jarvis, and originally recorded by American country music duo The Judds in 1990.
Stanish was then joined on stage by a “flash mob” of fellow educators and former students, and by the time she finished the entire audience of roughly 900 teachers, administrators, Board of Education members, and town officials was on its feet, singing along and clapping. Many were wiping tears from their eyes.
Tom Moore, delivering his annual superintendent’s message, had an extremely tough act to follow, but speaking extemporaneously and passionately – as is his custom – he rose to the occasion.
“Now I gotta sing,” said Moore, laughing as he uttered a few words from “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen, his favorite musical artist.
Moore said in some ways the summer was rough, with lots of reflection.
“It’s hard for me to say that this is my last year …” Moore said. After gasps from the audience and a pregnant pause, he added, “as a West Hartford parent … What do you think, I’m Andrew Luck or something? … You’ll have to drag me out of here.” Moore explained that his youngest child, his daughter Fallon, is now a senior at Conard and after this year he will no longer have children in the schools.
Moore structured his speech around several quotes from Nelson Mandela, inspired by his son Jack’s experience studying in South Africa this summer.
“There’s no passion to be found in playing small, in settling for a life that’s less than the life we are capable of living,” he said, quoting Mandela. “Let’s not play small, there’s no passion in maintaining, no passion in just doing the same things.”
The major initiative “is the child in front of you,” Moore said, but if we close our eyes to what’s happening “we’re not doing the world a service and our kids a service the way we should be.”
Moore said he likes to touch base with students as well as recent graduates, and the graduates always say how well prepared they are for college. “But over the past two years there’s been a ‘but,'” and that “but” has been that the recent grads – now studying a variety of non-computer science disciplines – didn’t already know how to code and had to teach it to themselves, and said they regretted not taking AP Computer Science.
“We can’t count on our kids to take computer science,” Moore said. “Really what this shows is it has to be inculcated.”
In a three-year initiative, beginning this year with a period of study and curriculum development, that’s what is going to happen in West Hartford. “We are going to be at the forefront, in the state and nationally, making sure that computer science and coding is inculcated throughout pre-k through 12.
“I am not talking about teaching AP Computer Science in fourth grade,” added Moore. “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” is a lesson in coding, in pattern recognition.
The gap between available jobs and those with the skills to fill them in the STEM field is huge, he said. “Why not build those skills here in West Hartford?”
Moore said he’s not just looking to create computer scientists, but to provide exposure and understanding so that computer science becomes another language students know and also helps teach problem-solving skills – “how to bang their heads against a wall and how to keep doing it, and that builds resilience.”
He said he doesn’t want teachers to be nervous about this. “I want you excited about this, to meet your students’ needs where they are, prepare them for a world ahead.” Teachers will be the ones to decide how to do it, he said.
Turning to the other focus of his speech, Moore quoted Mandela again: “As we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. Do I need a better example than Jen Stanish?”
Moore said there was a dichotomy this summer, on July 17 and 18. He said he wasn’t making a political statement, but noted that the president was at a rally in North Carolina on July 17, when people started chanting “send her back.” The next day the president said, “I wish they hadn’t done that,” Moore said of the 13-second episode.
On July 18, Mandela’s 101st birthday, he spoke to his son, Jack, in South Africa, where there was not a day off for celebration but rather a goal of 67 minutes of service to each other called for, in honor of Mandela’s 67 years of service. “Sixty-seven minutes to works with each other vs. 13 seconds of chanting,” Moore said.
“And I think of the 13 seconds, and the people that didn’t want to be a part of it, but other people were,” said Moore.
“What do you choose this year for our kids? Those 13 seconds, what are you going to do?” Moore asked the teachers. “Because I’m of the opinion that now more than ever we’ve got to get our hands dirty … if you hear something in the hallway, you’ve got to stop it. If you hear unkindness you got to teach it. If you hear hate you’ve got to address it. If you hear racism, it’s not enough to say ‘I’m not racist.’ You have to be actively anti-racist.”
Racism is the biggest issue that we are fighting against right now, even here in West Hartford, said Moore.
“As we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. When we show love we give people permission to talk about love,” Moore said.
Education is the answer, said Moore. It’s not about getting jobs.
“I’m not in this business to create workers. We’re in this business to create people, citizens of the world, who will lift each other up. Education is the way they’re going to do it,” he said. Intellectualism is not just for the elite, it’s for everyone.
Moore said it’s easy to get caught up in skepticism, he said, pointing to a display of two lines. One looks longer and ones looks shorter, but they are the same line. It depends on how you look at the world.
Right now we’re pessimistic, Moore said. Things are far from perfect, he said, but he shared charts showing dramatic declines in slavery, poverty, oil spills, HIV infections, child mortality, and the dramatic rise in “good things” like entertainment, protected land, women’s right to vote, harvest, literacy, democracy, childhood cancer survival, availability of electricity which is now 90 percent of the world. In 1980, 58 percent of the world had clean water, and now it’s 90 percent.
“What do we see and what do we feel and what do we think?” asked Moore. Crimes have not been going up, they’ve gone down dramatically. “Do we make decisions based on our hopes or our fears? These are fear-based questions.”
Moore showed a chart of population growth, and the reality is that the curve has started to flatten, with about 2 billion in the world today, and about 2 billion children estimated to be in the world in 2100, with an average of people having only 2.1 children. They’re more educated, things are more stable, he said.
Moore said that he and his wife found out she was pregnant with their daughter, Fallon, on Sept. 11, 2001. “What kind of world are we bringing this child into?” they wondered.
The world is not a worse place, he said. “I know the threat of global warming … I don’t need 1,000 emails … but you’re telling me the world is worse to bring a child into? How can we think that?”
Moore said that in the last 20 years half a billion people have moved out of extreme poverty, it’s now less than 9 percent worldwide.
“Unless everybody wins, nobody wins,” said Moore. “Because every child is somebody’s child. Every child is somebody’s hope, and I ask you to dedicate yourself to 13 seconds, to get your hands dirty … to say ‘not here,’ I ask you to look at yourselves honestly and say ‘Am I doing enough?’
“Those 13 seconds, that’s the important part this year. Thirteen seconds to do the right thing. Thirteen seconds to say “not here, not in my classroom, not in the hallway, not in West Hartford.”
Moore said that everyone needs to start the year getting their hands dirty, and promoted he will do that, too.
Quoting Mandela, Moore said, “I am the master my faith. I am the captain of my soul.”
Don’t bring people down, he told the educators. He plans to be smiling, hopeful, and lifting people up.
“Instead of being the harbingers of doom, because that’s not your role, your role is to be the light, the light for our kids. Keep lighting that path, because the future is bright … for humankind and for our kids,” Moore said.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” he said.
Hand the students love, not a paper to write down information, said Moore. Bring light and optimism.
“Light the paths because they’re there, our kids have that future, bright with no limits. And we won’t be the ones to put limits, and we won’t be the ones to put gloom, we’ll the ones to bring hope. We won’t be harbingers of doom, we’ll be harbingers of hope.
“Have a great year, West Hartford,” Moore said as he was met with a rousing round of applause.
Other speakers and presenters also provided inspiration, and received standing ovations.
The “Pledge of Allegiance” was led by Rosie Daly, a fifth-grader at Duffy Elementary School, whose brother Finn’s love for the American flag and the act of kindness it inspired made national news. Finn was to have assisted but was a bit overwhelmed by the crowd.
Each year a different school officially hosts convocation, and this year the honor belonged to Sedgwick Middle School.
Sedgwick’s Top of the Sixes select choir, led by Melissa Dzen, performed “T’ain’t What ‘Cha Do (It’s The Way How ‘Cha Do It)” and “I’ll Make the Difference.”
Sedgwick Principal Andrew Clapsaddle spoke about leaving a legacy. Sedgwick rolled out the “positivity project” last year to all students, he said, with the motto of “other people matter” to establish a culture of legacy and service.
“I challenge each of you this day, as educators, to teach our students to put other people first, teach them that kindness and service are two of the greatest gifts they can give, and when they leave our schools the foundation has been created for them to go into the world and do good, and because of the good they do they will have created their own legacy of positivity and service. And if you ask me I couldn’t think of a better legacy to leave, for them or for us,” Clapsaddle said.
“Happy New Year,” said Dr. Gretchen Nelson, director of Pupil Services, noting that she plans to be hopeful for the future.
Nelson welcomed the district’s 52 new teachers, as well as new principal Melissa Behrens at Webster Hill and World Language Supervisor Jocelyn Tamborello-Noble.
Board of Education Chair Carol Blanks also wished the educators a “Happy New Year” on behalf of the Board.
West Hartford’s teachers are equipped with the tools they need to help students to excel, she said, and urged everyone to “celebrate your students each and every day because each of you will have a lasting impact in their lives,” said Blanks. “Clear the path for bright futures and encourage all students that there are no limits but instead to reach above and beyond. Make this your greatest year ever.”
Charlotte Tucker, an eighth-grader at Sedgwick Middle School, was chosen to give “Insights of a Student.” A talented musician and a Girl Scout, she recently presented the Town Council with a proposal to ban single use plastic bags.
“Learning is my oxygen,” Charlotte said.
She said she tries to learn as much as she can about her surroundings, reads all the plaques at museums, and tries to understand as much as she can about life.
“Knowing as much as you can about your surroundings is not something you can do by yourself. Teachers play a huge role in a student’s understanding of their world,” said Charlotte. “A teacher’s enthusiasm creates a positive and safe environment for students to flourish in.”
Charlotte said that she has a mental list of people who have changed her life, taught her lessons and shaped her. “This includes all the teachers I have had through my 10 years of schooling. I owe so much to teachers,” she said.
“Teachers have given me my life, they have opened me up to the world I live in and without them I would take many things for granted,” said Charlotte.
“To all the teachers here today, you have and will continue to change your students’ lives forever. So thank you for your enthusiasm, your passion, and your inspiration,” she said.
“Have a wonderful school year.”
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