Pulling Double Duty

It just so happens that, on the day I usually post on my weekly blog here at riverhillprincipal.com, my guest blog post for Dr. Foose at Superintendent’s Corner got published. In case you missed it, check it out here.

I’ll have another original post or maybe a guest blogger of my own next week!


Spring Break is right around the corner and I’m sure many of you have some great travel plans. Maybe you’re taking a Caribbean Cruise? Maybe you’re heading to the Florida beaches? Maybe you’re not travelling anywhere at all? Whether you’re on vacation or enjoying a “stay-cation,” you can join in on the fun of our Spring Break Selfie contest. Here are the details:

1) Take a selfie that shows what you are doing on Spring Break. You on the Lido deck, you and your family at Disneyworld, you get the idea.

2) Tweet me the pic at @RHHSPrincipal and use the hashtag #SpringBreakSelfie. No Twitter account? Email me the pic at nnovak@hcpss.org.

3) All the selfies will be judged by a panel of experts (actually it will just be me and a couple of other staff members).

4) Prizes will be awarded (plus it’s cool to see what everyone is up to over the break)!

I hope you join in on the #SpringBreakSelfie contest and that you have a great Spring Break!

High School Musical


What it’s like to be a Wildcat

The interesting thing about performing “High School Musical” is that when the movie came out in 2006, the current generation of high school kids was young children and adored the film. Now, those same children are given the opportunity to act in one of their favorite childhood films. The amount of people in this year’s spring show tops the number of actors we had in last year’s “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Many students around the school have already talked about going to see the show with their friends.

The play is just as intense as any sport offered at River Hill, and we often spend about 4 hours in rehearsal a day, excluding tech week. When tech week rolls around, all of us end up spending over 12 hours in the school each day, with rehearsal going until 7 or 8 at night. Obviously, this makes it hard to do homework, and it is really hard to do things on the weekends. Though it is really difficult to balance schoolwork and dress rehearsals, we definitely try to get schoolwork done first. On top of this, students often spend time outside of school practicing lines, learning music, and going over the choreography and blocking. Depending on the show, you may have to learn a new skill (such as flying, rollerblading, or playing the ukulele), which obviously takes practice outside of rehearsal. Good actors also often spend time researching the show, the time period it was set in, and other aspects such as references or allusions. The snow days are definitely a huge obstacle, especially for this show, but we feel pretty confident about the show and we really think the audiences will love it.

The show is a great way to socialize and meet new friends since so much time will be spent with them every day. This lets us look forward to every rehearsal. The most exciting part of the process, however, is seeing all of the different elements come together in the end. When you work on a show and make it the best it can be, you’d never expect the magic that happens when makeups hits faces, when lights hit the stage, and, in this show specifically, when glitter cannons shoot way up into the air. “Magical” is the closest possible word to describe the feeling that you get as an actor. At this point, all we are waiting for is an audience so that we can see how they react to all of the surprises that are in store.


Kyle McKee as Ryan Evans

Amanda Yuan as Gabriella Montez

Thaddeus Harold as Jack Scott

Patrick Gover as Troy Bolton

PARCC Exams Start Next Week!!!

Next week, students will be taking the first round of new PARCC exams being administered in Maryland and in other states across the country. These tests are more closely aligned with the common core standards and are much more challenging than the High School Assessments (HSAs) for English and Math they are replacing. This is a good thing! To ensure that we are preparing students to be college and career ready, we need to know they can handle the level of material and the complexity of tasks they will be presented in the “real world.”

So you have more information about these assessments, I present to you my “Fast Five Facts about PARCC” and a bunch of resources you can peruse to learn more about the exams:


Students enrolled in English 10, Algebra I, and Algebra 2 are required to take the PARCC assessments. In fact, taking the English 10 and Algebra I exams is a graduation requirement for students enrolled in these courses for the first time. Passing the assessments will be required for students in the 2016-2017 school year.


No additional test prep is necessary. In many ways, the PARCC exams are more representative of classroom tasks than previous tests because they address more of the skills that students are learning. As a former English teacher, I thought it was crazy that the English HSA didn’t require any writing. The English 10 PARCC exam does!


There are two components of the PARCC exam for each subject: the performance-based assessment (PBA) and the summative assessment. The PBA schedule for March is:

3/3-Algebra I

3/4- Algebra 2

3/5- English 10

3/5- English 10

Students will take the summative assessment in April on the dates listed below:

4/21- Algebra 1

4/22- Algebra 2

4/23- English 10


Since the assessments are computer-based, students are assigned to testing locations around the school that are equipped with computers (computer lab, media center, classrooms). Their teachers will communicate specific testing locations and we will have posters in the front lobby just in case students forget.


Check out some of the links below.


The Official PARCC Website


Good luck to all the students testing. Even though no passing score is required, we still want every student to do his or her best! If you have any questions, feel free to email or call me!

Why Take the AP Exam?

Last week, students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses were invited to attend an information session about registration for the exams scheduled for May. We discussed the cost of the exams ($91/test), the deadlines for registration, and the process for submitting payment and forms, but the most important issue addressed was why students should take the exam (and not just the course).  As a follow up to that meeting, I offer to you the top five reasons to take AP exams:

  • You can earn college credits for passing scores on your exams. The exact number of credits awarded varies based on college/university and exam score, but for some students it can be quite significant. See who accepts your AP exam scores.
  • Even if your college/university doesn’t exempt you from taking a class, you may receive elective credits which help when it comes to registering for classes. Registration is based on number of credits, so having AP credits puts you ahead of other freshmen (and some sophomores depending on how many credits you earn).
  • You could qualify for an AP Scholar award depending on the number of exams you take and the scores you earn.
  • How well does your grade in the class indicate your readiness for college-level material? Wouldn’t it be nice to see how you stack up against the rest of the country? After all, they will be joining your college classes when you enroll.
  • Taking the AP courses helps you with college admissions. They like to see that you have taken the most rigorous course possible. Taking the AP exams helps River Hill High School. It is a great benchmark for us to be able to gauge how good a job we are doing preparing you to be college and career ready. We scratched your back with the course instruction, now it’s your turn to scratch our back by taking the exam.

If you missed the info session or want more specifics about AP exam registration, check your email (student services sent out info through Naviance) or check with your/your student’s counselor!

Mourning the Mixtape


As we head into Valentine’s Day weekend, I can’t help but reminisce about days gone by and what was always a go to gift on Valentine’s Day growing up—the mixtape. For the young people reading this, let me give you a quick education. Before there were playlists on iTunes and CDs made on home computers, people created mixtapes in their double cassette player boomboxes. It might sound a little antiquated, but let me tell you that the painstaking process of making the perfect mixtape was well worth the effort!

Mixtapes were a labor of love, not only for the time and detail to attention that went into creating them, but also because, quite frequently, they were made for the object of your affection. If you wanted a girl or guy to like you, you had to select the perfect songs. And it wasn’t just the content of the songs you had to plan for, but the length too. I always went for 90-minute mixes, so I was looking for a nice selection of 9-10 songs that filled side 1 and another 9-10 songs for side 2.

You had to allow for a few seconds between songs and, of course, you actually had to have the songs. When making a mixtape, you always gathered together your music collection, sometimes reaching out to a friend to borrow a few tracks you might not own. If you were really desperate to obtain the perfect song, you resorted to recording it off the radio, hoping that you could get a clean copy without the DJ talking over it. If all went well, you had a compilation of songs that told special someone just how you were feeling.

I started asking around yesterday about what students do now that equates with a mixtape and the results were disappointing to say the least. Texting, tweeting, and snapchat don’t really accomplish what a great mixtape did. There’s no tangible gift to look at, listen to (over and over again), and interpret hidden meaning in. There’s not a lot of time and effort put into social media messages. There’s just no matching what we had with the mixtapes back in the day. It is truly sad that youth today will never know the joy of making or receiving a mixtape.

I was joking around with a teacher about creating a mixtape app, but discovered that someone (actually a lot of people) had already beat me to it. Some have a mock up of a boombox and the ability to add songs to each “side.” Other apps offer the creator the option to add artwork to the cassette case. I’m still looking for the app that allows the user to share the mixtape with someone—that’s the best part! So what’s on your Valentine’s Day Mixtape?

Meet the Big 3!

“He was the last man on the bench all season. He was the last man on the bench the previous season. He was the last man on the bench the year before that. In his career, he’s played 31 minutes. He’s scored two points. But he stayed. On a team with future NBA draft picks, he’s the one who’s ordinary.”

—Michael Graff, writing about former Maryland Basketball player Earl Badu

You probably don’t recognize the name Earl Badu, but you may have heard of some of his Terrapin teammates like Chris Wilcox, Lonny Baxter, Steve Blake, or Juan Dixon. While these guys were featured prominently on the 2002 National Championship team, Earl Badu is known more for being a fan favorite at Cole Field House.

On many occasions when the win had been secured, the Terrapin section called out for their man to sub in…Baduuuuu! He certainly didn’t get a lot of playing time, but he made every minute count and made a lot of people happy just by entering the game. In a tragic turn of events, Badu took his own life in 2012, but he will always be remembered as the 5’9” guard from Ghana who captured the hearts of faithful fans at Cole Field House.

At River Hill this year, the boys basketball team has its own version of Earl Badu in a group of juniors who call themselves “the Big 3.” I sat down with Tim French, Danny Isaac, and Ciande Ndiritu this week to learn more about who these guys are and what they are all about. Check out my mini-interview below:

The Big 3 from Nick Novak on Vimeo.

My New Mantra

I had a lot of fun yesterday when we were off from school for a snow day. I wasn’t at home playing video games. I wasn’t outside sledding. I was at work…and on Twitter. To help pass the time, I decided to create a little River Hill trivia contest and run it through social media. Over the course of the day, I got to talk to three different students on the phone when they called in with a response, tweeted with current students, alumni, and staff members, and ultimately had a blast doing it. I mean, how can you not enjoy posting Dikembe Mutombo pics?

Why can’t work be enjoyable? Why can’t school be enjoyable? This year, my mantra has been “if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.” Every day, I am looking for ways to have a good time. Maybe it’s visiting a classroom and seeing a cool lesson or having a deep conversation with a student or a teacher about the latest Dr. Who episode. Perhaps I have the chance to sit in on a lecture and learn something new or hear a sneak preview of the big finale piece for the upcoming concert. Some of the normal aspects of my job really do give me great pleasure (I’m kind of sick like that). I love talking to parents about the awesome things happening at River Hill; I derive great satisfaction from developing solutions to problems at the school; and I could spend hours in a midyear conference with a teacher talking about the innovative activities he/she has designed to promote student learning.

My “work” is trying to make it a great day to be a Hawk. I am usually successful in making that a reality for myself, but my true goal is for students and staff to feel the same way as I do. I remember when we used to give the HCPSS climate survey to students every year and one particular question always stood out to me–“I like going to school.” This question, above any other, was probably the most important question on the survey. If students don’t enjoy their classes, if they don’t like at least one teacher or staff member at the school, then all of our efforts are for naught.

We need to make sure that students are enjoying themselves, that they are having a chance at least once, hopefully more than once a day, to HAVE FUN! And that is only possible if we all commit to it. If you’re a teacher reading this, think about what is fun about your job and do it everyday. If you’re a parent reading this, encourage your child to think about what is fun about school and do it everyday. And if you’re a student reading this, think about what is fun about school and do it everyday. Just remember–if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong!

The 21st Century Pen Pal

“Several technological and political forces have converged, and that has produced a global, Web-enabled playing field that allows for multiple forms of collaboration without regard to geography or distance – or soon, even language.”

–Thomas Friedman

When I was in 4th grade, my teacher thought it would be great to learn about world geography by assigning everyone pen pals from countries like Norway, China, and Mexico. I remember my excitement every time I found a letter from my pen pal Octavio in the mailbox and getting a chance to read about his sister’s quinceañera and holidays like Dia de los Muertos.

Fast forward to the 21st century and correspondence between students in different countries is more conveniently handled through email or better yet through video conferencing programs like Skype or Google Hangout. One of the first uses of Skype I remember seeing at River Hill was when social studies teacher Callie Casper connected with a class in Australia so students could discuss voting laws in the country. As she recalls, “my students were able to have direct contact and dialogue with students in Australia about politics and voting. It was so much more real than me just saying, ‘In Australia voting is a requirement’. They got to ask students about what that meant in their culture and the impact.

Mrs. Casper’s class did this several years ago, so Skype was still relatively new and River Hill didn’t have wireless at the time. Our computers here did have that ability, so Casper’s students had to bring their laptops with cameras and hardwire into the internet. Also, because they were skyping with a class on the other side of the world, they had to work out the timing. As expected, her students loved it. The teacher in Australia arranged with the RSPCA to bring a baby wallaby to school and they brought it around to each camera so the students could see it.

After Callie Casper broke the ice, many teachers have followed in her footsteps to include videoconferencing as a regular part of instruction. I checked with our teachers this year about what they were using Skype and Google Hangout for and here’s what they said:

Business- Teresa Waters and Michael Ahr did a Skype session with the founder and owner of TV Talk for Teresa’s entrepreneurship class last year. It’s on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8_6A928gjxI

Career and Research Development-Just last week Angela Johnson and Katie Noecker skyped with a former River Hill student who is now doing contract work with Google. Students had a chance to discuss her education and career path.

Computer Science-Team Rocket, River Hill’s Zero Robotics tean, used Google Hangout to have several long meetings during class with their alliance teams in both Spain and Italy. They also communicated using shared Google docs, Google Chat, a private Facebook group and email. They discussed strategies, and shared code with each other. The last few minutes before the deadline they were in the classroom at 5:00 chatting with Italy and speaking to two kids from home on various platforms.

English-Kristin Mitchell’s students used Google Hangout to discuss their Enterprise in Literature project with personnel at the Ayn Rand institute. This is a cross-curricular project that Teresa Waters’ Marketing class and Kristin’s Leadership class are working on.

English- Rachael Schultz used Skype to give her students an opportunity to talk to a climber who had scaled Mt. Kiliminjaro. As one of her students indicated, “It gave more insight than just reading the book (Into Thin Air)—a personal account was helpful and easier to relate to.”

English– Lin Storey is trying to promote connections between her students and professionals throughout the nation. Because of the expense for travel and lodging, it is often impossible for writers to visit River Hill. Therefore, skyping is the perfect alternative. Students really enjoy this experience. Ms. Storey makes sure they have well-prepared questions and get to practice their speaking and listening skills.

Journalism-During Dave Vitalgliano’s podcast projects, the students connect/discuss via Skype while recording the conversation with other software.

Math- Roger Demaree uses neither Skype nor Google Hangout; however, he does use videoconferencing for daily instruction. As the teacher of the county’s digital learning differential equations course, Mr. Demaree connects online with students from around the county who watch Mr. Demaree’s class online and participate virtually through their computers.

Music-Richard McCready used Skype so he didn’t have to travel to give a lecture. This saved UMiami a lot of money, and him a lot of time. He was able to use the front and rear facing cameras to switch between a view of him talking to the students and views of computers with student examples.

One Book, One River Hill- English instructional team leader Diane Curry set up a Skype session with Gene Yang, the author of American Born Chinese. Student and staff got to hear first-hand about the choices they made while writing the graphic novel.

Spanish-Norda Hodgson-Clopein’s Spanish 5 AST students skyped with the AP students at Archbishop Spalding High School last year.

Theater Arts-Pam Land’s theater arts class was able to hear from an expert in the field who was not able to come to us, nor were we able to come to him. Students asked questions in real time and the guest speaker was able to walk us through the set he was working on. They loved it. It was like going on a field trip, but we never left the classroom.

Countless other teachers indicated they were planning on using Skype or Google Hangout later this year. How fantastic that so many people are incorporating this great technology into their lessons? What once seemed impossible is now just a normal aspect of 21st century teaching and learning!

Course Registration for 2015-2016

Student schedule requests for the 2015-2016 school year are being collected today and throughout the week. However, counselors will be meeting with each student and there is still time to make changes. Please read the following Words of Wisdom from the Student Services Department:

1) Make sure the courses you select help meet graduation requirements? You need to fulfill your fine arts, technology, and “program choice” completer requirement. Check these courses off of your four-year plan.

2) Pick courses that match your interests. Take courses that excite you; don’t take courses solely for the purpose of building a competitive transcript. Which course would you rather be in—the one you WANT to be in or the one you HAVE to be in?

3) Think about what college majors or careers you are interested in exploring and select courses that are best-suited to meet your goals. Also, look at the career academies. There are many great career programs offered here at River Hill and over at the Applications Research Laboratory.

4) Teachers put a great deal of thought into recommendations; if you do not agree with the recommendation please speak with the teacher. Making recommendations in January can be difficult, but teachers will often revisit recommendations later in the year if your grades, work ethic, etc improve in the second semester.

5) Take full advantage of the knowledge and help of your school counselor. He or she knows what college admissions officers are looking for as well as what the expectations are for the courses you may be interested in. Having a discussion NOW about the courses that might help prepare you for Pre-Law programs is better than waiting until next school year when you might not be able to change your schedule.

6) Take the most rigorous courses you can handle while maintaining an A or B average. Colleges and universities do like to see Honors, GT, and AP courses on your transcript, but not when you’re earning C’s or D’s. Push yourself, but be sure not to get in over your head.

7) Remember the amount of time you spend doing extracurricular and social activities when determining the rigor of your courses. Use the homework minutes sheet as a guide for planning your course selection. You might want to take four AP classes, but do you have the time in your after school schedule to complete at least two hours of homework just for those classes. Start with your bedtime (hopefully no later than 11pm), then subtract 2:30pm (end of the school day). That’s the time you have to work with. When you factor in dinner time, practices, activities, etc, you’ll be left with how much time you can dedicate to homework.

8) Make sure there is balance in your course selection. Take at least one “fun” course. If your schedule is filled with rigorous, homework heavy classes, you will most likely struggle at some point. Pick a class or two that is fun, lighter on the homework, and something you’re interested in. You might consider being a peer assistant or a student aide.

9) Although graduation requirements state that students must take two years of world languages at the high school level, most colleges prefer students to complete at least level 3 of a world language. If you start with level 1 in high school, you should also take levels 2 and 3.

10) Every student applying to college should attempt at least one AP course. The best way to prepare for the rigor of college is to see what the expectations are now. You don’t need to load up on APs if you don’t feel comfortable doing so, but find the area you are strongest in and push yourself in that content area.