EPISODE 18: THE STORY OF

Innovative Principals

with Dr. Michael Caira

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So often, innovation is linked to technology and innovation doesn’t have to be technology. Innovation could just be the way you are interacting with students on a regular basis.

Jamie
One principal is connecting with students isolated at home through pop up dance parties in their neighborhood, a school tradition that started well before the pandemic. I’m Jamie Hipp, and this is Teaching Trailblazers, a show about teachers, artists and leaders in arts integration and STEAM. On today’s episode, we connect with Dr. Michael Caira, the Principal of David Mindess Elementary School in Ashland, Massachusetts. Prior to serving as a school leader, Dr. Caira served various communities as an elementary teacher, special education coordinator, Dean of Students and Assistant Principal. Welcome, Dr. Caira, we are thrilled to have you on the show and simply overjoyed to spend time with you today.

Dr. Caira
I’m very happy to be here. Thank you so much for the invitation. It’s a pleasure to join you.

Jamie
Positively. Can you tell us a little bit about your school and your students at David Mindess Elementary?

Dr. Caira
Absolutely. So we are the David Mindess Elementary School. We have about 670 students in grades 3, 4 and 5 in the small town of Ashland, Massachusetts, which is a suburb in the Metro West area of Mass. Right next to Framingham, Mass, for those of who are familiar with Massachusetts, we like to say that we are the 5K point of the Boston Marathon route. Ah, it originally started in Ashland. So we have that claim-to-fame as well. We’re just an excellent community of learners and wonderful teachers and we truly just love being at school, and right now we’re missing in a little bit extra, so it’s ah, it’s a great place to be.

Jamie
I bet, it sounds like it and everything that I’ve read online and seen on, of course, your Twitter feed, which we’ll talk about social media a little bit later. But you can tell that the passion and enthusiasm for learning is very special at David Mindess. Does your school or district currently have any arts opportunities for students? And if so, can you tell us a little bit about your arts programs?

Dr. Caira
Sure. So at Mindess, we have a general arts program for all students, so all of our students take a general art class one- once every seven days, in the seven-day cycle. In terms of our performing arts, our fifth graders are allowed to take a band instrument lesson and they have a band, the fifth-grade band, which is great. It’s a wonderful opportunity for kids. I think we have over 100 students who are a part of our fifth-grade band. We also have chorus for fourth and fifth graders. It’s something that we put into our schedule. It used to be a while back a voluntary chorus, but now we’ve asked for all of our students in fourth and fifth grade to participate in chorus. Um, and they also get general music once every seven days in a 60 minute block. Other than that, we have some great STEAM opportunities for kids too. Um, we’re especially proud of our makerspace that we have in our library. So when students go to the Media Library media class, ah, lot of the time is spent on makerspace activities because we want to form a new 21st-century library. Our kids are creating and making, and we have another course as well where students go to a computer lab. It’s no longer that traditional computer lab, we’re not just teaching students how to type, we’re teaching students how to create. We’ve got two different green screens in there and our digital learning teacher is just a fantastic innovator. And she has created this amazing opportunity for kids to create a digital student-led newspaper, which we’re so proud of. And every few months that comes out, and it’s just a great opportunity for students to create. So we definitely support the arts. We just started a dance club through our extended day program. Just there’s, there’s so many great opportunities for our kids that we want to make sure that they’re able to explore their talents in a lot of creative ways.

Jamie
That is phenomenal to hear about green screens in an elementary school, and it sounds like you are providing visual, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic teaching and learning opportunities, so just fantastic. Now I heard you mention dance a little bit with the dance club, and I heard that while your students have been at home during this pandemic, you have started pop up dance parties in front of students’ homes, and this was recently featured by Ellen De Generes. There are many other ways you could connect with students. So why did you select dance specifically?

Dr. Caira
So, um, we like to dance. At Mindess, we dance and on Fridays, in particular, we dance. And this started, this actually started, probably about either six, maybe seven years ago. But probably six years ago, when I was a principal at the Henry Warren Elementary School, which is the K-2 school in Ashland. Um, and we started playing music as students would come out of their cars into our school, and we begin dancing with the kids, especially on Fridays. And when I was hired over to become the principal at Mindess, that was a tradition that I wanted to bring with me. The students who had worked with that at the Warren were coming along with me, so they were expecting that to happen. And I just think it’s a fantastic way to get kids energized. You want, you want students running off the buses getting into school. There’s nothing better than seeing, ah, a smiling face and a whole bunch of high fives and kids excited as they enter the school building. So each morning, my incredible assistant principal and I, uh we greet the kids as they come off their bus with high fives and handshakes and loud music playing. And then on Fridays, we dance. So on Fridays, they can stay outside with us for about 25 minutes until the school day starts. And we, we do line dances, we do just regular dances. We just have a lot of fun. And it’s just a great opportunity for kids to get some energy out for the day, but also just a great way for us to interact positively and connect with our kids. So that led to the fact that we’re no longer with them. And, um, we’ve been trying to connect in various ways, and one of the ways I wanted to connect with our kids right away was to create videos each morning. And, um, I began videoing myself, just a daily message in the morning to say hello to our student population, and the first Friday that we were not… no longer with our students, I said, I’ve got to dance. This is what we do. We dance on Fridays, so I brought my girls out with me, my two daughters, and we went in our driveway and my wife taped us dancing to the Cotton Eye Joe and that, that received a really nice reaction on Twitter and email. Parents loved it, and I got a lot of positive emails saying thank you so much for that. We missed the dance parties, the kids missed the dance parties, and I cannot take credit for it. It’s my wife. She she looked at me and she said, We’ve gotta dance for these kids. We’ve gotta bring the dance parties to them. So thus began the traveling Caira Dance Party and, ah, we would visited a whole bunch of homes and it’s just been it’s kind of taking on a life of its own. I certainly never expected it to get this kind of credit. And it’s just been a wonderful opportunity for us to connect with the families and the kids.

Jamie
Outstanding. What have your student reactions been when they see you outside their home in their neighborhood doing a pop-up dance party?

Dr. Caira
It’s been fantastic. Sometimes parents will not tell the kids were coming and their students that I know in advance are really not going to dance. But they still laugh. They laugh at their principal, making a fool of himself doing a Cotton Eye Joe or doing the Cha-Cha Slide. But what other kids just there so ready to go and they’ve been, they wait for us with signs or we’ve had a few students that dressed up in costume for us. It’s just, it’s really been a fantastic way to bring some joy during a time when otherwise has been pretty scary for a lot of kids and not a time of a whole lot of happiness. So I think most of them that we’ve gone to have just been elated to see someone who is connected to the school. It’s there was certainly prefer, probably have their teachers in front of them dancing. But I guess the principal will suffice for now.

Jamie
I bet they think it’s pretty cool. So these dance parties, once we’re back and once we’re not self-isolating or quarantined anymore and we’re back at school, dance will continue, yes?

Dr. Caira
Oh yes, the dance will continue. Dance will not stop as long as I’m the principal of the school. I’m assuming that our assistant principal will be out there with me like she always is too. It’s just, it’s one of those things that makes everybody happy. And, uh, no, not every student dances with us, obviously. We have 670 students, but the students who are out there are enjoying themselves, and we certainly would make sure that continues. When we go back, we’re going to have a gigantic dance party, that’s for sure.  

Jamie
We can’t wait to see pictures and videos of the giant dance party, of course. I’ve listened to interviews you’ve given before related to innovation and education, and you’ve brought up mindfulness and movement, of course, with dance, and creativity and active engagement as forms of innovative teaching. Why do you believe these are important for 21st-century learners?

Dr. Caira
I think that you need to make sure that we are teaching students where they are. Students don’t just sit around anymore. Students have to be active. Students have to move. Um, I… The way you can reach a student through a game or through a game of catch outside is remarkable. You can have a conversation with the student that you would never have before if you’re just taking a walk with them. So getting kids to move is just so powerful. I love the fact that we have teachers that’re utilizing things like Go Noodle and we have teachers that are being creative with gameplay. You utilize responsive classroom techniques in our school, and there’s constant movement involved in our morning meetings where kids are getting up there interacting with one another in a way that it’s not just the traditional sitting side by side and interacting. And I think innovation is not… so often, innovations is linked to technology and innovation doesn’t have to be technology. Innovation could just be the way you are interacting with students on a regular basis. And I think if you’re able to be creative through things like flexible seating arrangements and, we have, you know, several teachers who use flexible seating. We have teachers who give students student choice. I mean, that’s just all those things were so important to make sure that we’re hitting all learners and make sure that everybody has an opportunity to learn to the best of their ability.

Jamie
I love that you brought up this idea of student choice, and it sounds like at your school, there is so much choice related to the arts with chorus and with dance club and with band. And, of course, in their visual art classes as well. Do you see direct benefits from the arts and education? And if so, what are they?

Dr. Caira
I mean, the easy answer here is that when kids are creating, they’re using a different portion of their brain and there you know, I have my own daughter who was ah, a student who would probably not love to go to school all that much if she wasn’t able to go participate in art class and music classes. She certainly loves the relationships that she builds with her teachers. But if she had to go and do math all day and do reading all day and not be able to write creatively and, um, allow herself to move during PE, she would not want to be at school. So I just think that offering students that avenue to get energy out, to get their creative energy out, to get their… Just get your mind working in a different way, and we have so many students who are talented, I just and not to go too far off-topic, but I just had a pop- in morning zoom session with kids last week, and we were talking about our end of the year variety show. We always have a variety show to end their school year to celebrate the different talents of our students. And one of the young men was so distraught that he wouldn’t be able to show off this song that he’s been working on his guitar all year long because we wouldn’t be having our variety show. And this is a kid who just loves playing the guitar. That’s his passion. And he’s great at it and school’s not his favorite thing. But he comes to school every day with a smile on his face, and he’s been looking forward to the Mindess variety show this entire year. So we said to him, That’s gonna happen. We’re going to make it happen for him, no matter what. He is going to have an opportunity to play that guitar, whether he does it during his morning message with me or whether we do it in front of the entire school during a zoom session. He’s playing that song. I mean so important for these kids to have that outlet to know that the people the adults in front of them want them to be able to achieve, whether it’s writing a paper, doing math problems or painting a beautiful picture. So we want to support our kids.

Jamie
Absolutely inspiring. How can we learn more about you and your school and maybe follow you guys on social media?

Dr. Caira
So I am a fairly active Twitter user. You could follow me at clockertalk, um, clocker and then TALK, clockertalk. That’s really the main, the main way. We use social media at the Mindess School, a bunch of our teachers there on social media as well, using Twitter so if you give me a follow, you can check out who I’m following, and then you can make sure that you’re connecting with our school. We would love to have some folks come on board and see the wonderful things that are happening at the Mindess Elementary School.

Jamie
Teaching Trailblazers is a production of the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM, and I’ve been your host Jamie Hipp. This podcast is produced, edited and mixed by Jaime Patterson.