Head’s Corner

Not So “Standardized’ Testing

Over the next two weeks, if your student is in grades 3-8, they will spend a few hours taking the NWEA MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) test. The MAP test is a “standardized” test in Language Arts and Math (and soon Science) like the ERB – but it is nothing like the ERB.  

The first difference is how students take it. Instead of the test being a pencil and bubble form test that has students answer the same questions no matter what 4th grade class they are in the world, the MAP test is computerized and adaptive. As students take the tests, the program feeds them either more challenging or easier questions, depending on their performance on previous questions. The algorithm searches to find a student’s strengths and weaknesses in a subject area. All students are fed the same number of questions, but it is safe to say that out of the thousands of questions in the data bank, no student takes the same test. 

The second major difference is that while the test will benchmark students to other students across the country, that is not the emphasis. The test provides data for teachers, parents, and students alike that will help leverage strengths and fill in gaps. Each teacher receives a report on their class as well as individual students to assess their competency in a subject area. Parents receive a report on their child that offers suggestions for improvement as well as links to resources that will spur academic growth.

Lastly, the test can be used at different times of the year to assess growth and pinpoint areas of need. Compared to the ERB, which would take three or four mornings of instructional time to complete, the MAP takes approximately 45 minutes per subject area to complete – making it not only more useful but less intrusive to our teaching day. 

We look forward to sharing the information gathered from the MAP test as we move forward into next year. 

For more information on the MAP test, please click here

Warm regards,



Head’s Corner

If These Dollar Store Buckets Could Talk

Right now, outside of the main office, there are five plastic buckets. They seem unassuming at first, but upon closer inspection, they have a lot to say about the motivation and determination of the sixth grade class.

If these dollar store buckets could talk, they would tell you how thoughtfully students researched their chosen endangered species, learning about its environment, the threats to its existence, what it needs to survive.

They would brag about the creativity of each group, the excitement that went into decorating the buckets and garnering support for each animal.

They would regale you with examples of Ms. O’s passion and commitment, as she guides students through this work for another year.

Through the muffled sound of loose change mixing with dollar bills, the buckets would marvel at the generosity of the Saklan community, and the thrill students of all ages have gotten from selecting their favorite animal and donating money toward its cause.

If they had a spare moments, these buckets would deliver an eloquent lecture on what it takes to build–and keep– a school culture of creativity, compassion, and courage.

I have passed by these buckets every day for the past week, and so far, I haven’t heard them say a word. But I know if they could talk, they would remind me–and all of us–how lucky we are.


Head’s Corner

Saklan State of the School Recap

Thursday evening we held our State of the School presentation over Zoom with roughly 60 people in attendance.  The presentation lasted about 40 minutes, including time for questions from the attendees, and went well ( if I do say so myself).  

Like anything else, the product was good because the process was a well thought out collaboration between many stakeholders. I owe a debt of gratitude to Toshie Baba, Lori Anders, Jenny Choi, Mel Zippin, Geri Buhl, and Joanna Kauffmann for all the work they put into making the presentation excellent.

I also want to thank all those in attendance and the entire Saklan community for their continued involvement in their child’s education, and their investment in the success of our school.

If you missed the presentation, you can view it here.

If you are just interested in the slides you can view them here. 

If you have any follow-up questions, please reach out to me at doconnell@saklan.org.

The State of the School and the State of the Community is strong.


Head’s Corner

Eighth Grade Influencers Project – and a Call for “Experts”

There are three hallmarks to a strong, student-led project:

  1. Ambiguity – A teacher can never be sure what topic students will be fascinated by and will want to pursue.
  2. Messiness – Students are bound to struggle as they try to focus their project, and teachers always have more questions than answers to students’ quest for clarity.
  3. Uncertain Outcomes – Neither the teacher or the students know what the end product will be until well into the project.

On its face, each of these three characteristics seems like a weakness of project-based learning. In reality, it’s a superpower.

Deep learning experiences are full of surprises, serendipity, fits and starts, failure and creative solutions. This process is sometimes referred to as “emergent learning” because the understanding emerges from what feels like chaos.

Two weeks ago, the eighth-grade students started a project called “Influencers.” The objective of the project is to have students raise awareness about and influence public discussion and policy on an issue they care about. The first step of this project was to determine what those issues actually are. Using a survey tool and a word cloud app, we were able to “see” where their passions lay.

Once we started to understand the common interests, students grouped themselves around four of the above topics. With their topic selected, it was then time to develop a driving question that would influence a change they want to see in the world. Their driving question would be supported by steering questions that would determine the direction of their research.

For example, the group that is focusing on racism has created the following driving question: How can we influence society to be more accepting, and create a world free of hate speech and hate crimes? Guiding their research and supporting that driving question are steering questions that are built around “wonderings.” How has society influenced children to accept racism? What messages have social media sites sent to people of color? As they research, these steering questions sometimes flex, as students gain a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of their topic.

Over the next few weeks, students will begin to delve into their research and think about the best ways to present what they’ve learned, and to use what they’ve learned to influence society. Possibly the most interesting phase of their research is working with experts in the field. Students will be expected to learn from and possibly partner with others who share their passion.

As we move into this exciting phase of our work, we are hoping to interview “experts” (a term we use lightly) in the following fields:

  • LGBTQ+ Rights
  • Green Energy
  • The Psychology of Racism and Hate Crimes
  • Animal Abuse

If you, or someone you know, has some expertise in any of the above areas, please reach out and contact me. I have some world-changers who would love to connect. DOConnell@Saklan.org.


Head’s Corner

The Fable of Mug Shot 7053

A couple of weeks ago, I shared this New York Times article on Rosa Parks in a faculty meeting. The article itself is fascinating, with lots of fodder for good conversation. It unpacks the popular myth of Rosa Parks and her famous refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus – the myth that a meek, tired seamstress was too exhausted to walk to the back of the bus and accidentally started a movement that changed civil rights.

In reality, Rosa Parks had been an activist fighting for racial justice for decades before her bus stand. Though the word “quiet” was used in most of the obituaries that ran after her 2005 death, she was anything but.

The fable of Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement of the time betrays the reality, pain, and sacrifice, and down plays how resistant Americans were, and often still are, to change that challenges the status quo.

As educators, we used this article to examine the fables and myths we have heard, and those we have perpetuated. From Christopher Columbus to “American Exceptionalism,” we owe it to our students, to ourselves, and to our society to take a closer look at what and how we are teaching.

When you have the time, I encourage you to take a few minutes to read the New York Times piece – what fables do you know?


Head’s Corner


I am happy to announce that we launched Summer@Saklan this week. We are fortunate to have two excellent co-directors this year, Ashley Villalobos and Jessica Brandt. Both have years of experience working in Saklan’s summer program and are bringing to the table new energy and ideas.   

As many of you know, due to COVID-19, we could not hold camps last year. This year we will be running on a limited schedule with a reduced number of participants. COVID-19 restrictions will mean a lower student to teacher ratio to help everyone stay safe. All the safety protocols that we have put into place during this school year will still be in place over the summer. Students will be masked, distanced and much of their time will be spent outside, or in well-ventilated rooms. Our cleaning and hygiene protocols will continue as well.

As in years past, our focus will be split between activities and learning a new language.  Because of our limited capacity, we will only be offering Mandarin and Spanish. And while transporting students off-campus to field experiences is not possible this year- our intention is to bring some of those experiences on to campus. Whether it be a soccer trainer, photographer or animals from the Lindsay Wildlife Experience, Summer@Saklan students will be engaged and learning this summer. 

If you would like more information about our camps, please click here

Warm regards, 



Head’s Corner

What Kind of Extremist Will You Be?

“So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letters from a Birmingham Jail (April 16, 1963)

I think many of us are still processing the violence of January 6th to understand the magnitude of that day. While the events of the day left us feeling upset, angry, powerless, and maybe lost, it was also a day of extremes. Those who stormed the Capitol building and those responsible for electing two diverse candidates to Georgia’s Senate seats. One group was for the preservation of injustice, the other for the extension of justice.

I tend to be an optimist and look for the bright spots in dark times. The January 6th attack has consumed us and has sucked the oxygen out of the air, but the Senate election is the long arc of history where diversity and open-mindedness win the day.

Last week was exhausting to process. From now until after inauguration day- there will be a steady stream of rhetoric filling our screens- some thoughtful and worthy, but much inflammatory and meant to incite. 

While our older children will be bombarded through social media, our younger ones will hear things.Neither group will be able to make sense of what they are hearing or seeing without our help. The videos, memes, and rhetoric of these events can create more anxiety and stress. Our intentionality and consideration about when, how, and where we discuss and tune-in to these events matters. It is crucial that we stay attuned to what they are being exposed to – and help them feel safe and process at an age-appropriate level. 

I know we are exhausted by the politics, protests, and injustices of the last year- and yes, the pandemic. But as parents and teachers of young children, we have an opportunity to help them learn how to work through understanding the complexities of our current world. We also have a timely example in Martin Luther King, who led positively in what was arguably a more challenging period.  

Below are several resources to help or frame the issues in front of us. They each have age-appropriate approaches. I hope they are in some way helpful.

In peace,


The National Association of School Psychologists  – Talking to Children About Violence

The American Psychological Association How to Talk To Children About Difficult News

Commonsense Media – Explaining the News to Our Kids

Head’s Corner

As we close the books on 2020 I am sure we want to say good riddance. But there are a few things that were bright spots or learnings that are worth mentioning. 

  • Scientists have prevailed and come through with a vaccine at record speed. While this school year will most likely end with us still in masks, it does look like next year we will be back to “normal-ish.”
  • We say kids are resilient all the time, but they have really proved it. They are here, they mask, wash their hands and engage in learning.
  • We talk alot about “connection” here at Saklan, this year we found out just how critical it is to learning.
  • While the country has not acted as one to stay safe, our school community has done a great job following safety protocols. Parents have cancelled travel plans, kept kids with sniffles at home, and quarantined when necessary. 
    • I was ready for a few positive results when we did the school wide testing- and we were all negative.
    • I was sure that when we started in person learning in September, we would have to quarantine classes on a regular basis. We have only had one instance where a class has needed to quarantine for the two weeks. Amazing.
  • Masking and hygiene works well for keeping COVID-19 at bay, but it works well for other ailments too. We have seen very little flu or other issues here at school these past couple of months. Rarely are we making a call to have a parent pick a child up.
  • Teachers have been exceptionally creative in keeping students engaged and learning here on campus, while simultaneously working with students at home. 
  • Our AGF participation has been strong, I can only imagine that has something to do with the fact that families are pleased with our efforts.

Yesterday, as parents were picking up their children for the last time of 2020, there was a sense of accomplishment and hopefulness in the air. I know this year has really been a drag- but there is so much to still be thankful for. 2020 has taught us some valuable lessons. 

 Nevertheless – goodbye and good riddance 2020.   

Head’s Corner

COVID-19 Travel Guidance

Dear Saklan Community, 

On Monday, we enter our third week of having all grades on campus. It has been a heavy lift with many moving parts, but it has been absolutely worth it. Your children are engaged in their learning, their spirits are high, and our teachers walk with a purpose. 

Overall your children have been fantastic in understanding the importance of wearing their masks and are cooperative beyond our wildest expectations. As parents, you have done a fantastic job with the screening, have kept your children home when they are not feeling well, gotten tested when asked, and been incredibly supportive of our teachers.  

As I am sure you know, COVID infection rates are on the rise across the nation. While California has done well comparatively speaking, there is a concerning rise state-wide and in Contra Costa County. We continue to be vigilant on campus. While knowing we will not be able to 100% stop the virus from coming to campus, we feel our safety protocols significantly mitigate its spread.  

But this system is only as good as its weakest link. It is up to our entire community to be dedicated to reducing the possibility of COVID-19 from entering campus. Rising numbers and the holidays will only lead to increased cases across the state. I know of schools that have had to close because their community members let down their guard, attended get-togethers, or joined small parties. I am sure they all felt they were being safe enough. 

For those of you planning travel, the California State Government has issued a travel advisory asking those who travel outside of California to self-quarantine for two weeks upon return. Saklan will apply this policy to our community. If you have to travel outside the state, we request that you quarantine for two weeks upon your return. We will work to keep your child caught up with their school work through distance learning and/or assignments. The advisory also recommends that Californians refrain from all non-essential travel during this period; therefore, we encourage families not to travel until the advisory has been lifted. 

Educating your children in person is our number one priority. If you have to travel, we understand, but please help us stay in person by quarantining. Help us give your students the education they deserve by remaining vigilant. If we have our priorities straight, we can have a pandemic and school at the same time.

Stay well,



Head’s Corner

Lately, we have all had a lot on our plates. The ramifications of COVID-19 impacting our day-to-day lives. Family dynamics that have been stretched. Forest fires and smoke, causing us to stay indoors and cancel school. And now, an election that seems to emphasize our differences and pits us against others. Daily, we have to navigate our own emotions, fears and anxieties, as well as those of others. Many days it feels beyond our capacity. 

A head of school colleague shared this piece with me last week, and it just seems to fit so well with where we are today, and what we need. 


Turning to One Another

There is no greater power than a community discovering what it cares about.

Ask “What is possible?” not “What’s wrong?” Keep asking.

Notice what you care about.

Assume that many others share your dreams.

Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.

Talk to people you know.

Talk to people you don’t know.

Talk to people you never talk to.

Be intrigued by the differences you hear.

Expect to be surprised.

Treasure curiosity more than certainty.

Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.

Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.

Know that creative solutions come from new connections.

Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know.

Real listening always brings people closer together.

Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.

Rely on human goodness. Stay together.

Margaret J. Wheatley