Teens should be able to learn from mistakes, new Gunn principal says | August 8, 2014 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 8, 2014

Teens should be able to learn from mistakes, new Gunn principal says

Lifelong Midwesterner says her job is to 'bring out passions of innovative teachers'

by Chris Kenrick

As a chemistry teacher in suburban Chicago, Denise Herrmann teamed up with a biology teacher to create a project-based curriculum that combined the disciplines over two years.

As principal of Middleton High School near Madison, Wisconsin, for the past eight years, she led the teaching staff through a critical self-reflection process following a well-publicized 2013 cheating incident.

As the new principal of Gunn High School, Herrmann said she plans to immerse herself in the culture and look for opportunities to ease the high-pressure environment.

"I'll be listening and watching for opportunities students have to take some risks and make a few mistakes and not be penalized for it — to let them dust off their knees, get back up and keep at it," Herrmann said in an Aug. 1 interview in her new, still-bare office on campus.

"I'm sure there are many of those, and when I find them I'll give the teacher a high five and say, 'Great job.' Where I see it missing, that will be an opportunity for me to coach the teacher and say, 'What would happen if we inserted that kind of (lower-stakes) feedback at this point?'"

Herrmann arrived in Palo Alto July 17 on the eve of Gunn's hosting of 1,200 teachers and administrators from around the world for the 2014 Google in Education Summit.

"I wanted to be here for that," she said. "I wanted to be a learner and to say, 'Welcome to our school.'"

After spending three days at the Google conference she flew back to the Midwest for her 30th high school reunion in Shabbona, Illinois, where she graduated in a class of 33 students and married her high school sweetheart, a fifth-generation farmer.

From the couple's home in Wisconsin, he could drive to the 600-acre farm in Northern Illinois in less than two hours. After helping his wife settle into their new home in Menlo Park, he'll return to Illinois for the corn and soybean harvest and be back for Thanksgiving, Herrmann said.

Lifelong Midwesterners, the couple's decision to move to California was "somewhat spontaneous," she said.

While visiting one of their daughters in San Francisco at the end of March, "We thought we could see ourselves retiring here," Herrmann said. "And then we were like, 'We don't have to wait 15 years to live in a place we want to live for the rest of our lives,' and I said I'd just start keeping my eyes open for an intriguing position."

Ten days later she spotted a posting for the opening at Gunn and, after querying California friends about Palo Alto, decided to apply for the job.

"I enjoyed the fact that there were community members and students and all different facets of staff in the interview," Herrmann said. "I was able to establish a really positive rapport with the team ... and after the interview I thought this could be a really good fit."

Gunn search team members were unable to comment on their first impressions of Herrmann, having taken a pledge of confidentiality about the interview process. Gunn PTA President Joy Hinton said she's been out of the country since mid-July and has not yet met the new principal.

Herrmann said she views one of her main jobs as "bringing out the passions of innovative teachers here at Gunn and helping them do great work.

"You're working with the community to build a good learning environment for students. It makes all the difference for kids when you know the parents value it, the City Council will work with you, everyone in the community is working together to help kids be safe and good learners."

Herrmann was tested last December when 250 seniors had to retake a calculus exam following allegations that students had sold photographs of test questions. The culprits were never identified, Herrmann said, but the highly publicized incident led the school to change some of its practices.

"There were some practices that were very, very trusting of students, which I like — I like to trust students — but to the point where it was really putting other teachers who might be using that same test at risk," she said.

"One of my big learnings was how important it is to have conversations with teachers about assessment practices and the use of technology in the classroom. How you communicate your expectations to students can be very different from teacher to teacher."

Like Gunn, Middleton High School is a high-performing school that this year ranked as Wisconsin's No. 1 high school in the U.S. News & World Report list.

In such high-pressure environments, Herrmann believes schools can help reduce students' temptations to cheat by offering more frequent, lower-stakes assessments rather than fewer, higher-stakes tests.

Referring to the "mindset" research by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, Herrmann said high-pressure environments can "inadvertently reinforce (students') idea that they have to get an A and will resort to cheating before they'll admit they don't know it to teachers, to their peers, to their parents."

With only six calculus tests per semester at Middleton, "that made each one really important," she said.

She advocates more frequent assessments that give students a chance to learn from mistakes and "have a chance to relearn before a high-stakes test.

"That's what we learned from students — the more frequent, low-stakes checks for understanding we can do, the less likely it will be for them to feel the pressure to cheat," Herrmann said.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.


Posted by good start, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 8, 2014 at 9:02 am

Wow! A principal that is actually taking note of what the students have been telling this district. That's refreshing: a PAUSD high-school principal actively addressing the top issues at both our high-schools:

1. I feel anxiety about getting into the colleges that I want to go to
2. I feel tremendous pressure to succeed academically
3. My family expects me to attend a top college
4. I feel anxiety about my workload at school
5. I feel pressured to take a challenging load of Honors and AP courses

You've asked the kids for the top priorities and they've told you. Time to follow Denise's lead; get your act together and actually do something that helps our kids.

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 9, 2014 at 12:27 pm

When I was a student, the community would spend one day harvesting a field of soybeans and corn by hand. Maybe Gunn's new principal could plant some of the fallow land around the playing fields and have the students do some manual labor for a day. It would be quite a change.

Posted by feedback, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 9, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Ms Hermann,

"I'm sure there are many of those, and when I find them I'll give the teacher a high five and say, 'Great job.' Where I see it missing, that will be an opportunity for me to coach the teacher and say, 'What would happen if we inserted that kind of (lower-stakes) feedback at this point?'"

You've probably heard that teachers are extremely independent. Asking "what would happen if" is a very diplomatic approach, and the answer could range from a welcome and well received suggestion that will be explored - to a flat out hurt ego and dispute. If there is attitude, it is worth the trouble to identify people who are obstructing and work tirelessly to have them re-assigned and away from the classroom, instead of trying to go out of your way to please them and to work around them. Worst, asking students to go out of their way to adjust to poor practices.

Posted by GunnFan, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 9, 2014 at 12:59 pm

Welcome to Ms. Herrmann! Congratulations on your new post as Gunn principal. We are glad to have you join us in our community.

Posted by Wondering?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 9, 2014 at 2:07 pm

It’s really hard to understand what the new Gunn principal is saying. The one key point here seems to be removing all “high-stakes” evaluations, or introducing some “low-stakes” evaluations.

What exactly are “low stakes” evaluations? There was a time that most of us (not PAUSD students) attended schools where “low stakes” evaluations happened, using far less wordy descriptions. We had “pop tests”, and homework, and in-class questions that we either answered, or failed to answer, based on our at-home preparation.

These were the days when teachers were not paid over $100K a year. These were the days, when teachers for the most part didn’t have aides, or parent volunteers. Teachers routinely turned tests, homework around relatively quickly—correcting student work personally.

So—why is it that this new Gunn principal seems to think that the traditional techniques of providing student feedback are ineffective, or need to be replaced with some other technique that she doesn’t seem to want to identify for us at the moment.

Most principals last 3-5 years, before their performance is called into question by events that sometimes are seemingly out of their control. Here’s wishing this new Gunn principal the best of wishes, but also wishing that she speaks a little more clearly in the future about what she thinks is wrong at Gunn, and what she thinks she is going to do to correct the problems.

It would be refreshing for her to provide us some details about the cheating scandal at her old school, and what she did to correct the problem. It would be very interesting to hear about how she plans to deal with cell phones in class, during high, or low, stakes testing.

Posted by feedback, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 9, 2014 at 3:40 pm


It's not that hard to understand. For example, you could get rid of finals. Heresy? Not really. It's not like you haven't had a full year to make sure the student is mastering a subject in a lot of different ways (traditional included). It all probably depends on the class, subject, and options. Give it a chance.

Posted by feedback, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 9, 2014 at 4:01 pm

Ms Hermann,

Many have the system figured out, so it could rattle some. And I don't mean to imply that wondering is one of them, but there are many who have at hand, old finals, old labs, old notes, old everything, and it would be very inconvenient to know they can't be useful in getting ahead.

My question is why not have old tests, old notes and old labs for students to take pictures of. These materials are learning tools and instead of keeping them subversively, have a contest or something for students to get creative about how to put study guides together. Even a contest for parents, since they also have creative ways of teaching their kids the subject. Extra credit for innovative ways to present material.

Posted by Pat Burt, a resident of Community Center
on Aug 9, 2014 at 6:20 pm

I think Ms Herrmann's comments sound refreshing and very encouraging. She seems to be focused on how Gunn teachers can take innovative teaching approaches while reducing the counter productive pressures that too often drive kids toward bad decisions. It sounds like she is willing and able to provide effective leadership that should be well received by the faculty. She deserves our support in these efforts.

Posted by MIT grad, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 9, 2014 at 8:53 pm

If she's anything like this article, she does sound refreshing.

I'm with you, feedback. MIT's freshman pass-fail system helped keep focus on the work and not on the grade. Old tests were copied and handed out with answers before new tests in order to give everyone the same opportunity to study the material.

Some kids want the grades, though, as you say, have the system down. For them, there's no reason to mess with what works.

I think any innovations have to make it possible for the kids who really want what's here to keep it. But then let those who want to innovate try something new. Schools-within-schools have well-known benefits and could accomplish this. In fact, the board really essentially promised us that when they chose to enlarge the high schools rather than reopening Cubberly.

I think there's a real desire to create something new and innovative to address a need for very creative project-based types, especially boys. I'm sure by this time I don't need to refer people to the research on how we are failing boys in school. But it's not just boys.

The Connections program at JLS serves one end of the educational spectrum through middle school and then it stops. There really is nothing else to take its place at the high school level, not the small learning experience or middle college, whereas the direct-instruction types can take all the APs they want.

The kids who prefer project-based kind of program tend to be intrinsically motivated/driven, work collaboratively, do better with more control over the way they use their time especially in regards to traditional homework (less of), and perhaps with block scheduling like at Paly for more depth rather than constantly switching gears. Connections has a different grading rubrik, too.

I think a lot of parents and kids would be happy to see the program extended as a school within school at the high school level at both high schools. Please Dr. Hermann, consider introducing something by next year's freshman class.

Posted by feedback, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 9, 2014 at 9:16 pm


Imagine Pass/fail for some classes, giving back the gift of time and space instead of the lockstep system for the college application race. The best grading practices are usually an incentive or make the work feel rewarding, but too often they're used to be punitive, or as a way for teachers to control their time, and the classroom.

Posted by StudentStress, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 9, 2014 at 9:26 pm

Welcome Ms Herrmann,

i think you will have your work cut out for you. PAUSD doesnt offer students second chances. There is no rework, there is no forgiveness. Students are given one-chance for perfection; single pass through school. No Do-Overs. No rework. High school is four years of continuous pressure - hundreds of assignments, tests, and papers one after another, all expected to be perfect. Late? - too bad: Zero. Sick? - too bad Zero. Didnt get the handout? Too bad: Zero.

in short it is a horrible place for kids to be kids. The pressure the teachers place on students is inhumane. Only those with tutors or outside help can achieve this expectation. is that cheating? maybe more like gaming the system - A broken system.

you have a tough job changing this teacher - centric pressure culture. you must change this culture to change the system.

one suggestion: true second chances. allow students corrections on all assignments and tests.

Why is this not done today? Because we care less if a student learns on his second attempt; only first-pass perfection is valued here.

Good Luck

Posted by Paly Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 9, 2014 at 9:35 pm

What one of us parents never made a mistake as a teen? I know I did. Unfortunately at Paly, one mistake shows up for ever - or right through high school.

Whether it be a social mistake or an educational mistake, our teens are never allowed to forget a mistake or do anything to change what is part of their record or transcript.

I commend the new Gunn principal for this attitude and sincerely hope she is able to alter the present system. Good luck to her and hopefully it will rub off on Paly too. The sooner the better, I say.

Posted by feedback, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 9, 2014 at 9:40 pm

In case the push back is that everybody can't get A's, then please gut the reasons why the high schools need to be weeding kids out for the colleges. Many would be thrilled to get Bs in some classes but when even the B's are impossible, some kids who can't get the B derail in one way or another and that B goes into free fall. Grades are a 100% emotional ride for many kids, and that's not fun.

Posted by Spin machine, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2014 at 1:46 am

Check out PAUSD.org for this and all the Tabitha Hurley spin. Not quite sure it's worth $150,000, especially the hand-clapping video and disjointed message from the principals. That just didn't work. Don't worry, no one is noticing right now. As for Denise Herrmann's words, they are just words. Walk the walk by getting tough on sexual harassment and compassionate on kids throwing a stapler. Want to really start the year off on the right foot? Stop trying to repackage the existing brand and start rolling up your sleeves for work that matters. I have a feeling we won't hear the truth about bad news until after the election.

Posted by Want Improvement in Math Department, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 10, 2014 at 7:15 am

Hopefully our new Gunn Principal will address the arrogant Math Department at Gunn that has endless homework with no point but stressing students and trying to prove that only endless hours of mindless practice without teacher review is going to get a kid an A.

The behavior in the Math department is atrocious especially with its current chair. Where is delivering the love of math? The why of math? Its only endless hours of mind numbing homework and bullying by the teachers in the classroom when a student misses a concept. The department sends an aura of indifference to its students.

There needs to be a change from testing to teaching. These kids are in High School and should not only be in some rat-race to get the highest grade. Please return to teaching vs. ball-busting.

Posted by village fool, a resident of another community
on Aug 10, 2014 at 9:49 am

@moderator -

1. May I suggest to consider linking this thread also to the 'Schools & Kids' Category? (currently it is listed 'around town')

2. I have posted before similar comments. While the past threads I mentioned were linked to the category I suggested, my suggestions disappeared completely, no trace was left. I dare think that I used civil language (#1 above is a sample).

May I ask why my previous suggestions were removed?

Thank you

Posted by village fool, a resident of another community
on Aug 10, 2014 at 10:06 am

@Spin machine -
While I know nothing about the new principal and I wish her and Gunn's students that all the nice words become the future's reality, I totally agree.

For example, the title of this one reads very differently now - Web Link

This link is just one sample of many many links resulting of a very quick search.

Posted by feedback, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2014 at 10:12 am

The way students are evaluated, and grading is the last frontier of addressing the social emotional health of students. Ms Hermann, I commend you for having this land on a headline.

The concern for social emotional health of students is readily used for political gain, but actions never follow. I recall years worth of threads and debates about using IC, there are still complaints. Deflection is the master, and everything else, everyone else is the problem.

Complicating is that there is no way to evaluate teachers, and worst is that there is no way to evaluate if there is progress with innovative solutions. Solutions which will save these kids from the mill that we all have created for them (especially the college application race). We are all largely a compliant bunch, and the schools can help save everyone by setting the tone of learning, not just competing with more homework - by taking leadership for the environment created at school, which extends to our homes.

Palo Alto is the kind of place where extra free time is golden. You can enjoy a sport, a unique interest, a hobby, and families value the time with their kids. High stakes tests, pressure cooker assignments are pointless anyway. I look forward to hearing the follow up to any initiatives.

Posted by feedback, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2014 at 10:30 am


The best reviews I've heard about a high school class are the ones where the lectures are consistently valuable (I don't want to miss it), minimal homework, and where the teacher allows re-takes until the material is mastered. I've noticed the personalities of the teachers in these classes are very low drama. Kid happy not only because he gets many shots to make a grade, but they kept learning all along. The opposite practices are the classes which take up more time than any other, and the kids feels like crap afterwards anyway. Very rarely, there is a class with a ton of work and reward is the case, those are the exception.

Posted by Nederlander, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 10, 2014 at 2:00 pm

What Ms Herrmann says is great on paper, but the reality is that HS kids aren't really allowed to make mistakes after freshman year. Any mistakes they make, they pay for, especially at Paly.

Posted by MIT Grad, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2014 at 2:22 pm

PS another thing I remember that really helped at MIT was being told my grade would depend on how well I improved, regardless of where anyone began or ended up. This is perhaps too chalkenging for some teaching situations but is another possible tool. Telling me I just had to show big imorovement - and grading me accordingly - helped the intrinsic motivation to strive to improve.

Posted by MIT Grad, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2014 at 2:44 pm

That's a really great point. I saw a lecture at Ames by Salman Khan of Khan Academy, and if Dr. Hermann has a chance to view it, it's well worth it (can't find it online yet but was recorded).

He makes an analogy between traditional education and building a home. He asks, why are set blocks of time the factor by which we control everyone's moving forward, rather than mastery of the material? What if we built houses that way, and decided,okay, now three weeks have passed, we need to move on from building the foundation to putting up the framing, even though some houses have only 60% of the foundation complete? (It's easy to see some builders cheating under such pressure.) Every child, especially in this district, is capable of mastery or building a proper house, and yet we require some of them to move on with everyone else even if some important step isnt finished or to wait when they are ready to move forward before others at one time so they have no slack when they need it at another. We give kids grades, but we don't use them to help everyone finush those stages of building the house.

If the mistakes were just a part of the learning process toward mastery, that changes all the incentives.

I went to a public school in another state that did their basic early education by degrees of mastery and not time, and from that small school in a small town, I keep coming across these amazingly creative, self-driven, successful people. Everyone was given the same support for mastery. Little kids worked at their own pace. There were no grades. And yet those who wanted to learn faster, could. We spent most of our time on big projects, something Khan suggests high school students would be better off doing, where they are synthesizing what they already learned in the most efficient way possible by every student working for a level of mastery.

Again, the way to try out something like this is in a school-within-school framework, so you offer it to those who want it and see how it goes, rather than taking away from those who work better in traditional settings. The Connections program is a good way to start, the parents are involved, motivated, and many would be glad for some kind of extension into high school.

Posted by MIT Grad, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2014 at 3:36 pm

PS Dr. Hermann - the SLC program and the middle college program are in no way remotely equivalent to what I am proposing. Often people will wave off any suggestion of extending Connections into high school with vague allusions to those programs which are neither the same nor do they accomplish the goals above.

Posted by feedback, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2014 at 3:53 pm

MIT Grad,

Interesting points, a few red flags though

Project learning is the most challenging thing to be graded on (especially if it's done as homework), and the grading itself infuses unnecessary stress in what is otherwise a great thing. Project leaders have it hard carrying all the responsibility - yes more pressure to the already higher work load, or the leaders can be so bossy the other kids check out and let them do the work. There's a lot of talk about teaching how to work in teams, but the problem is when that means no adult supervision. Even in the workplace you have guidance for team work, and it's adults.

The place for project learning is better in class, with the teacher engaged with all the teams. Maybe that's why the connections program relies on engaged parents as helpers, but you don't want parents in school in high school.

The other major red flag is "school within a school" to offer what should be available to everyone. Who is to say which kids are more suitable for one type of learning or another. It's already controversial to have one thing for Gunn another for Paly, each thinking the grass is greener in the other, or the reverse.

The best thing about traditional learning is the teacher. An adult to take on the full engagement with the students. That's why nothing beats having a good teacher, and class size comes in second probably. Project learning has also always been part of traditional learning. The issue is when you have too much of one thing or another. Like history re-enactments for example. They are nice, but man can they get out of hand. I heard of a student who barely recovered from taking one of her re-enactment projects too seriously in freshman year.

I don't think the surface has even been scratched with innovative ways to evaluate students and to use grading for learning. Redemption opportunities, making materials an open thing, as opposed to being underground secrets. There should be no need to have a school for each type of learner, if only because traditional learning doesn't have to mean no learning, and project learning can easily be part of it.

Posted by feedback, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2014 at 5:05 pm

MIT Grad,

I'm not familiar with Connections, but the other issue about project learning is what is graded. Some teachers include creativity, and subjective things which are so difficult to take seriously. What if the parents had some of the creativity? Or it was just a fluke. In traditional classes there are also points for things that have nothing to do with learning. Some things just can't be graded in a high stakes way, and some are pure "show" factor. Not that teachers have favorites or anything, but some kids are not good show types. Of course it's good to take kids out of their comfort zone, but I've noticed that some teachers prefer a type of student, and what options are there for the ones who are not a match. What if you get some brooding, non-participatory, daydreamer who looks like he hates you and your class - is he or she a burden? It may be a completely temporary state for that kid, so some consideration should be given to the "over time" factor. Later you hear things, how is a college supposed to take freshman year seriously, and yet every week at the high schools is as serious as a heart attack, and the kids say, I wish I knew then.....

Posted by MIT Grad, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2014 at 8:25 pm


With all due respect (and I mean that), you really clearly don't know anything about the Connections program at all. Your red flags all come from a complete and utter lack of familiarity with the program. It would take too much of my time to sit and dissect every wrong assumption, digression, description -- you're not even in the right ballpark.

Most of your concerns are a non-issue in a program that has been up and running for a long time from K-8 (starting with Ohlone), with a lot of the specific pedagogical issues already worked out. Parent participation is different than you think and is not a part of the classroom instruction in the way you think. When the teachers need helpers for really big things, they ask for parents for specific tasks, and the community that participates in this program tends not to be threatened by parent participation. You get the sense many of them would be homeschooling if they could. The grading rubrik is already worked out and everyone knows what to expect when they apply.

There is no application for such a program, it's not based on what type of a learner you are, it's based on choice. (And then there's a lottery because too many people apply for the slots available.) The kids who WANT direct instruction can continue such a choice through high school because that's the regular program, but the kids who CHOOSE Connections type programs don't have a CHOICE right now. In order to offer such a CHOICE, it would need to be done as a school-within-a-school framework, probably.

Connections is a program and approach that is already working and popular in our district. Almost everything that has been really great about my kid's middle school experience has been because of Connections. It's not for everyone, that's why you offer a choice. A choice that is available to those who want to choose it. I don't know how to make it more clear. (I'm sorry, but this feels like a bad PTA meeting where people feel like they have to opine at length about things they really know nothing about, and you have even said as much. Just a gentle bit of feedback: it can really throw a monkey wrench in efforts to innovate when too many people do that....)

Posted by feedback, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2014 at 8:57 pm

MIT Grad,

As I said, I'm not familiar with Connections.

The topic was allowing students to learn from their mistakes, and you seemed pretty willing to contribute to the topic. You then brought up project based learning, Connections, and I was apparently mixing it all up.

per the PAUSD website

"The Connections Program at JLS Middle School is a learning community of students, teachers, and parents where hearts and minds are inspired through challenging, innovative, and relevant curriculum. Curriculum is designed to create life-long learners prepared to meet future academic, social, and global challenges.
Connections offers a project-based learning environment where students gain and practice the higher order thinking skills needed to create, design, analyze, and problem solve in real-world contexts. Instruction is designed to provide learners with tangible experience in critical thinking and decision-making, ensuring they are well prepared for the rigors of high school and beyond."

I'm sorry, but why would anything in this description need to be a choice for high school? It may be exactly what the high schools need. I don't really expect an answer, as I have nothing to add a the debate about choice programs on this thread.

I would hope that whatever is good is extended to as many students as possible, and whatever can be improved will be, and that stress reduction for everyone is paramount.

Posted by feedback, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2014 at 9:05 pm

Oh, I do stand by my point that parent participation in High School is not a good idea. Your rant about my ignorance was exhibit 1. But for other reasons.

Parents don't go to college later. HS is actually where students can experience independence. If the schools need extra staff, they should hire people. Our kids love us, but there is nothing more disruptive than having your parents in the space you get to try out being yourself, all by yourself. And it's not even fun to see your friend's parents.

I will say that whatever my feedback may be as relates to this topic, I completely trust the teachers and administrators in the high schools. And I know that some tedious classes aside, and stress an all, there is no reason for me to need to physically be hanging around campus.

Posted by MIT Grad, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2014 at 9:51 pm

Peace feedback. You have read emotion into my post where it didn't exist. Soeaking of teaching our kids to learn from mistakes, if someone points out you've made one, don't assume it's meant as anything but to correct an error. The caps were for emphasis, because I really had already explained that.

You admit you know nothing about something, opine at length about potential problems with something you aren't even in the ballpark about, and then when I try to set the record straight, you say I have ranted and called you "ignorant." I am asking you to please not go on and on about potential problems with something that is nothing like what you have imagined (and admit you know nothing about). That kind of negativity can be a real stumbling block when it comes to doing anything innovative in our schools. I'm not criticizing you there, I and many other families would like to see the extension of the Connections program into high school, and it's a tough enough job without combatting criticisms that aren't even informed about the actual program. Just realize those things tend to have legs. Can you please go back and reread what I wrote and imagine a friend writing it?

Secondly, it's great that you like the description of Connections from the site, but it's not for everyone, as there is a direct instruction program that follows a very different philosophy, at Hoover Elementary and continuing through Terman. The high school programs are much more geared to that end of the pedagogical spectrum. There is nothing available for kids on the Connections end. The reason it would need to be a choice, as I have already posted, is that it's not for everyone. A new program like this would be DOA if everyone were forced into it and those who preferred direct instruction were given no choice about keeping what works for them. The way to introduce something so different to what's there already in high school is as a choice for those who want it.

Thirdly, you extoll the Connections description, but you then go on to criticize the parent involvement in a way that again demonstrates that you know nothing about the program, are willing to criticize at length nevertheless, and do not realize how destructive that can be - other people who don't know the program are usually only too happy to jump on those kinds opf bandwagons. The website says, ""The Connections Program at JLS Middle School is a learning community of students, teachers, and parents" - that's another reason Connections is a choice, that kind of community is not for everyone, not that you have even the remotest idea of what it really entails by your critique. (Just curious, do you say the same things to homeschooler parents?) You have the wrong idea about what the program and community are about. That's not an attack on you feedback, it's feedback from someone who does know. (Now please refer to the titke of this post, and take a deep breath before posting again... )

Posted by feedback, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2014 at 10:22 pm

Peace. I have no issues with anything you point out, but I'll clarify.

For me, "school within a school" is a totally different conversation. If there is so much good about project based, or any other methods (as they relate to the topic) why not extend those things to everyone. Why is it either direct instruction or Connections.

As far as project based, it appears it can mean a lot of things which I am not fully informed about.

I do however know how group or independent "projects" work in traditional middle and high school, and if these count as project based learning, then everything I brought up stands. Group projects are not great without involved teacher or other adult supervision. Better if they happen in the classroom. Scheduling homework group projects alone can be a nightmare if you have kids in sports. Projects can work very well in a classroom, they are fun. If more staff is necessary to support this, money well spent.

The parent thing, please don't take it the wrong way. The parents are, as you say, almost fit to home school, and that's probably most of the parent population here. Highly educated, capable, gifted, generous. I still think that parent participation in high school activities should be more measured for the reasons I posted. There are many ways to participate, but less is more.

Oddly, the high schools I would say have a sort of school within a school communities. There are many options to get involved in lots of things. And because the schools are so big, the natural thing is for kids to find their place according to their interests and friends groups. They have the choice to try everything, especially the first two years. Later there's all the AP stuff and that can be a school within a school because kids study together and support each other. Sorry, this may sound like I'm again talking about what I know nothing about, so disregard if I am not using the nomenclature well. I do know that communities are thriving within the high schools, with parent support like with boosters, driving for field trips, and so forth.

Posted by feedback, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2014 at 10:42 pm

You're right though.

I again ended up comparing Connections features with regular, when it's a choice program and I get your point that it would not be for everyone. It could very work very well for many students and the advantage of big schools is that there is likely a large enough group to start with.

Posted by MIT Grad, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2014 at 11:12 pm

Connections is a project-based SCHOOL program, it is nothing like a bunch of project homework overlaid on the traditional program. I was not criticizing you, really, I was pointing out that you were so off base in your description, it just would take too long to even describe, and I am typing on a mobile device. No need to just repeat what you said.

"Why is it either direct instruction or Connections. "
Because the two approaches are completely different pedagogically. This has all been worked out in our district instructionally already. Kids who tend to do well and be less stressed by Connections tend to be very unhappy and learn less in the direct instruction model and vice versa. We have these two different programs in our district for a reason. We just don't have anything for the Connections kids through high school.

Again, just as with the project-basedprogram, you made assumptions about the parent participation and community that are simply off base and then go on to criticize again. I have no quibble with your views, but they are misapplied, and I want you to realize that kind of overlaying can be damaging to efforts to innovate, specifically to something a whole segment of kids could really use that will reduce their stress. Middle school is a time to differentiate from parents, they manage a healthy parent participation aspect of the program then too. If you don't like that, or don't even want to know what it really is about, the beauty if a choice program is you can choose what you think works best for your family, views, and values. Connections families are very big on work-life balance, appropriate parent participation would be part of the program just as it is in middle school. It's not parents roaming the halls as you may imagine.

Yes, that's correct, schools within schools is not the same thing as communities that form around interests.

Gunn is now growing beyond the size considered best for producing optimal results for the cost. Schools within schools can help balance that. One reason to do project based that way is to be able to move connections to cubberly as a way of easily opening cubberly if need be, but if not, the program can be operated with all the benefits of SWSs at the existing HSs indefinitely. Connections is blended at middle school and is not a separate school at middle school level, it could be done that way at HS but it would make life a lot more complicated for the HS administration.

You and I began talking because you originally brought up some great points that fit with Connections. But then when I brought up the actual program, you've been bringing up detailed and negative assumptions that don't apply and then analyzing and repeating them as if they do. I am bothering to try to correct you because I see this kind of thing on the school district and PTA all the time. People want to innovate, and it always seems to invite this kind of unrelated and negative analysis, and I want you to realize it has a way on getting taken as feedback about the innovation at issue. Connections has a history with the district. The kids tend to be very intrinsically motivated. That tends to be good for focusing on learning rather than the grade. Go back to some of your earlier positive points and then spend some time understanding how they apply in the Connections program already, perhaps we could both agree it might be a way of solving several problems at once for a segment of kids that struggles the most with the traditional program.

Posted by MIT Grad, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 10, 2014 at 11:16 pm

Strike my last two sentences, you were already there. Our comments posted simultaneously. We have common ground. i would really like to see Connections or something similar offered, and soon.

Posted by feedback, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 11, 2014 at 12:28 am

MIT Grad,

Given that many of the good intentions never get to action, or they wallow in political debates, or internal politics, extending Connections to high school sounds pretty good. The district has experience with it, you have people willing to make it succeed and nobody can say there aren't enough students who could thrive with it. Many many students need options and the torture of adjusting to the already high stress system is just enough already.

This could be a bold move which could bring about innovation. I agree soon is important good luck!

Posted by MIT Grad, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 11, 2014 at 1:17 am

"Given that many of the good intentions never get to action, or they wallow in political debates, or internal politics, extending Connections to high school sounds pretty good. The district has experience with it, you have people willing to make it succeed and nobody can say there aren't enough students who could thrive with it. Many many students need options and the torture of adjusting to the already high stress system is just enough already."

Agree 1000%. Thanks for the excellent summary.

Posted by Be KInd, a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Aug 11, 2014 at 11:27 am

To Wondering?
I suggest you rewrite that letter using a more positive approach rather than such a negative one. I found it very unkind to Ms. Herrmann who is trying to show that there is more than one way to teach and it might even be worth the effort she is putting into it. Give her a chance. Rewrite what you wish you say, but be kind.

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 11, 2014 at 1:23 pm

I am still researching and trying to get traction on the purported "graffiti hate crime" of May, 2014, that included, as was reported in the Oracle and perhaps here "Thank God Villalobos is gone".

I wrote a letter to Chief Dennis Burns about this, and he said he got it but otherwise has not responded. Likewise I left a message with a contact in Herrman's office (Herrman replaces Katya Villalobos, the subject of some of the graffiti). By the way, and probably a red herring, Vicki Nguyen of Channel Four news has a report about Palo Alto Police airing tomorrow Tuesday.

My impression, based on some research, is that the perpetrator was a student and someone who did not feel part of the Gunn success story. His actions were inappropriate but I have a hard time believing his message, albeit odious, is not protected by the First Amendment. Or do we really think "scared straight" will do him good? (Certainly he is responsible for the damage per se as distinct from the content of his message).

For me personally, that my parents moved here so I could attend these schools (Fremont Hills, Terman, Gunn) was one of the greatest privileges I have been offered. I do try to keep tabs, as an alum but not a parent and help where I can. I am following the school board race, for instance.

Go, Titans. Good luck Dr. Herrman.

Mark Weiss
Gunn 1982

I will admit in print if, sadly, I am wrong and the authorities, press and the system are right about the case.

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 11, 2014 at 1:31 pm

Also, and this is maybe a quibble or red herring here, I am alarmed by commercialization and corporate creep into the public sector and schools: I notice the mention of the software/search sponsored event you name, Chris, albeit the local and ubiquitous firm. I'd rather pay our teachers more and not buy the latest gear.

It's still very Channel One to me and problematic.

(I make similar complaints about Palo Alto libraries and their letting corporations use us as branding and market; I criticize Council and staff for using public meetings for such; I am a stickler on this. No logo and all that).

Anyhoo, good luck to Denise.

Posted by Paul, a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 11, 2014 at 2:21 pm

Welcome to the 2nd ring of hell (aka PAUSD/Gunn)!!!

You are stepping into a very unpleasant and unhealthy work environment. In PAUSD sexism, racism, and ageism are institutionalized into the very fabric of PAUSD. It starts with folks at 25 Churchill and filters down to the school sites. It is Palo Alto's dirty little "secret."

The Gunn staff needs strong leadership after the shameful leadership of the past four years. There is still some dead weight in the Main Office. One remaining administrator in particular is responsible for the downward spiral and low staff morale. He needs to be replaced with someone who will not cater to every student's whim.

Move cautiously and with care. Listen to all sides and make your own decisions. Good luck & best wishes!

Posted by feedback, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 11, 2014 at 2:41 pm


It's difficult to connect the description of the internal dirty secret (sexism, racism, and ageism), and resolving it by getting rid of "one" remaining administrator who happens to cater to "every" student's whim.

But you confirm the dysfunction between internal matters - basically the team on the inside can't work together, and students are considered the enemy. I'm not saying whims need to be catered, but what are these whims?

Posted by StudentStress, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 11, 2014 at 8:09 pm

I'd like to here what "whims" Paul reports... but here are a few "whiims" my kid requested of her teachers that have been denied:

- asking the teacher to write down the assignment on the whiteboard (denied)
- asking the teacher to write the assignment on a piece of paper (denied)
- asking the teacher to post the assignment on Schoology ( denied)
- asking the teacher to indicate the due date for assignments (denied)
yep, the assignments were collected randomly with no forwarning. sometimes the next day, sometimes the next week

All of the above were brought to th Instructional Supervisors attention, who did nothing about it.

other "whims" denied:

- posting test and quiz dates on Schoology calendar ( accepted, but unfulfilled)
- telling the students the grading expectations before a lab assignment (denied)

Of course this adds significantly to student stress when there is no second chance, no rework, no recovery. One-Pass perfection in this environment is nearly impossible when teachers setup students for failure. There is no pedagogical reasoning behind this behavior; it is justified solely on the teachers right to treat their students in any manner they see fit. Some treat students horribly. Administration does little about the worst practices. After all, "we're an academically rigorous school"

Any wonder there isnt more cheating??

Posted by feedback, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 12, 2014 at 8:59 am


"the teachers right to treat their students in any manner they see fit. Some treat students horribly. Administration does little about the worst practices. After all, "we're an academically rigorous school""

Not all teachers have the worst practices, but there usually are at least one or two in each department which generate 95% of the fear. When Ms. Hermann is looking at evaluations, I hope she will include homework because it's often "the" daily evaluation of students, and each can be a high stakes situation.

The students who catch the homework when the teacher announced it are basically getting credit for listening. The ones turning it in are getting credit for being organized, and the ones who do this without fail are the ones who are superhuman. Never mind that homework is not graded by the teacher, they're just points which loom large in the daily grind.

What is the best way to use homework in terms of grades? If there will be more frequent less high stakes evaluations, how would homework figure? Currently homework IS a series of high stakes evaluations. Much of this work doesn't help prepare for the test evaluation, but students are so busy with homework they're beat for the tests.

I'm sure there is an explanation for evaluating students for their homework skills, and I would love to hear it. In the context of learning though, I would pick my battles and spare the students some energy for real evaluations, and make those as relevant as possible. Students don't have the choice to pick their battles.

Posted by palo alto parent, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 12, 2014 at 9:20 am

Regarding homework and its posting - my son has ADD and had an IEP (which is a legal document). Part of his IEP was that he was to be given ALL homework assignments in writing or have access to the description online. From 7th grade on (Jordan) thru high school (Paly) with a few exceptions, only the teachers that used Schoology or their own website complied. Everyone else ignored the requirement. Talking to the IS doesn't help because Instructional Supervisors in PAUSD are not "Department Heads" (teachers often take turns being the IS), it is more of an administrative role. He is now in college, ALL of his work is either posted online or in the Syllabus received at the beginning of the semester. Guess how much better his grades are and how much lower his stress level is.

A VERY simple thing that PAUSD could do to reduce student stress is to consistently post assignments, tests and quiz and their respective dates on Schoology. And stick to the dates.

Posted by Kids in School, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 12, 2014 at 11:49 am

Didn't this woman have several cheating scandals at her old school indicating a high pressure environment created to succeed? I believe it was reported in our local papers when she got the job?

Posted by MIT Grad, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 12, 2014 at 1:08 pm

@ Kids in School,
Yes. But I think people not only learn from mistakes, here we see she is soul searching about it herself. Our kids are likely to be beneficiaries of that.

@palo alto parent,
Very, very good points. Very accurate description of what we've observed even without an IEP. When kids have trouble with organization in the first place, part of the education should be helping them be effective at learning. Grades are useless if they are only a measure of how poorly a child (who struggles mightily with it) copes with lack of organization with no help ever at figuring it out. It's very frustrating as a parent to not have any idea whether one's child is not learning the subject matter or just not able to cope with what are really significant teaching-related challenges to already challenged organizational skills. This is particularly apt in relationship to the way we our educational system is now falling down on the job for our boys.

You are so right that this is a key area of stress.

Posted by feedback, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 12, 2014 at 2:22 pm

There is probably no good reason for the hoops and obstacles to arrive at a grade. In a good workplace you wouldn't spend time creating barriers for your employees. You'd do things to help them succeed. You'd ask what will help you succeed, and if the answer is post the homework on Schoology, you would do it.

Posted by Paly Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 12, 2014 at 5:14 pm

One of the biggest problems our family has had over the years is with being out sick.

The policy of the same number of days being out sick as a time allowed for catch up sounds fair when you say it quickly, but is often much harder in practice. Take for instance a student who has been up sick half the night throwing up, diarrhea and no sleep takes a day off school and spends it asleep in bed. That night gets up at about 6.00 pm and has some toast and tries to perhaps do some homework. Next day, that student then struggles to get to school on a bike or walk (or get a ride but in bad traffic) and then has to go through school having been sick and not completely recovered. They then get home from school exhausted and go back to bed. They then have double the amounts of homework to catch up and end up handing in work well below the usual standard just so that is not classed as late.

This scenario has happened to us on several occasions and even more so when we have had various injuries that require ER attention.

The stresses involved in a child being sick and getting behind are one of the biggest downfalls of our system. It is not a "mistake" to get sick, but it is treated the same. Teachers feel they are being obliging to allow one day late for one day sick, but a sick child is still recovering and can't get all the catch up work as well as the new work done when they haven't been eating for a couple of days.

So the kids end up with poor grades and the feeling that perhaps they should go to school sick next time. It is no wonder that they get sent to the school nurse so often because really then can't afford to take time off when they are sick.

Posted by feedback, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 12, 2014 at 6:53 pm

For a bunch of random posts, there seems to be a lot of common concerns. I'm sure that for each post, everyone has a circle of friends who has had similar concerns. I know friends with IEP's have it the hardest.

Being sick, and any number of life circumstances happen. Lo and behold - during high school too (especially in high school). Any slight slip can be a huge deal for a young person trying to not make mistakes. The stakes are high ALL the time if homework cannot be missed, a zero is hell.

Ms. Hermann - you have a lot of options to look into. Extending Connections to high school; not making homework assignments a treasure hunt or an ego trip to see if the student was listening; not making homework "the" evaluation; looking at redemptive homework policies (cutting homework by half would be a good goal). My suggestion is that if you are sick with a doctor's note you should not have to turn in that homework (ever), and you should get to re-take the related test or quiz for material missed at least twice, if not indefinitely. Track abuses so that if someone is pulling the sick card too often they get a reduction in privileges.

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