A Test is Just a Test

As students took  the PSAT today, I took time to reflect for a moment on our testing culture (both here at River Hill and in general). High-stakes testing has become a regular component of our educational system and for many students high-stakes result in high anxiety. One might think that the PSAT is just practice and isn’t as important as the actual SAT or an exam tied to graduation like the HSA or PARCC, but for juniors the test is also a qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship program. And let’s be honest, lots of sophomores and even freshmen who take the PSAT put a lot of weight into the test results.

Every year when I congratulate students on being a commended student (top 3% nationally on the PSAT), I always see a few dejected faces because they weren’t National Merit Semifinalists. Don’t get me wrong–I admire students’ drive for success and want every student to work hard and achieve the best possible score. However, I also want to make sure that students realize that is only that—a test score.

My thoughts on the matter were framed quite well in this article I read over the summer about a Head of a school In Lancashire, England who sent her students a touching letter about what tests mean and what they don’t. You can check out the article here, but read the letter below and remember that the PSAT and any other test is just a test. It’s important, but so is a lot of other stuff in life.


Please find your end of KS2 test results. We are very proud of you as you demonstrated huge amounts of commitment and tried your best during this tricky week.

However, we are concerned that these tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you—the way your teachers do, the way I hope to, and certainly not the way your families do. They do not know that many of you speak two languages. They do not know that you can play a musical instrument or that you can dance or paint a picture. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day. They do not know that you write poetry or songs, play or participate in sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school. They do not know that you have travelled to a really neat place or that you know how to tell a great story or that you really love spending time with special family members and friends. They do not know that you can be trustworthy, kind or thoughtful, and that you try, every day, to be your very best…the scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything.

So enjoy your results and be very proud of these, but remember there are many ways of being smart.

Planning for College?

Whether you attended this week’s college fair at River Hill or if you missed it, you’ll definitely want to read on for some solid advice and resources to help you map out a plan for preparing for college. Sometimes it feels like there’s so much pressure to get into a “good” college that if your child didn’t go to the best preschool, he or she is already behind and will never have a chance of going to Harvard or Yale.

You don’t need to panic if your child hasn’t taken the SAT yet as a freshman or sophomore, but you might worry if he or she is a senior (the registration deadline for the November test is October 9th). If you’ve had a child go through River Hill already, you probably feel somewhat comfortable with what you need to do from freshman year through senior year. But if this is your first time through, you could benefit from a little advice. Check out the timeline I created below, read my “Fast 5″ tips, and click on the link below to access the county’s publication on College and Career Planning.

College and Career Planning Timeline

Tip #1: Set up a meeting with your child’s counselor. He/she will be an invaluable asset during your child’s high school years and will help make sure you are on track with college and career planning.

Tip #2: Don’t get caught up in peer pressure. Just because your neighbor’s son has a 4.0 GPA, perfect SATs, and is applying to Hopkins, doesn’t mean your kid has to. Respect the fact that every kid is different and needs to find a school that best fits his/her strengths, interests, etc.

Tip #3: Don’t sleep on HCC. You often hear people talk about HCC with a hushed voice like it’s something to be embarrassed about. We are extremely fortunate to have one of the best community college’s in the country right here in our backyard. Students often need the HCC experience to allow them time to mature and get a better grasp on who they are and who they want to be.

Tip #4: Remember that colleges are looking for actual people, not just numbers on a page. You need to be more than a GPA, more than an SAT score. What is your passion and how have you spent your high school career developing that passion? Consider how your extracurricular experiences can do more than just pad your resume, but help define your character and identity.

Tip #5: Take advantage of the college and career programs offered at RHHS and other schools. There are so many people ready and willing to help you in the process. All it takes is for you to show up. Watch for announcements and take your child with you to make the most of the experience.

* GREAT RESOURCE: College and Career Planning Guide

PS- Shout out to the RHHS Student Services team for an amazing college night this week and for providing me with the resources for this post!

Being Smart is Cool!


When I’m not working, I try to have a life outside of River Hill. I spend time with family, hang out with friends, and even watch a little TV. One new show I was looking forward to this Fall was Scorpion, which tells the story of a team of four geniuses who get recruited to be government funded problem solvers.

Scorpion premiered this Monday and (for me at least) did not disappoint. With a Ferrari racing down a runway underneath a 747, car chases through Los Angeles, and ticking clock dictating the pace of the show, there was plenty of action packed into an hour. What I liked best about the show though was how it works to make it cool to be smart.

So often, the heroes are the strongest, the fastest, or the bravest. Sometimes they aren’t  just heroes, but superheroes with superpowers that amaze us and makes us wish we too could leap tall buildings in a single bound or sling webs through the city as we chase down criminals. But that’s not the case with Scorpion.

Our four heroes all use their brains to solve problems and save the day. As I watched the pilot, I couldn’t help but see our own students at River Hill in these roles:

* Walter O’Brien, the whiz kid who hacked NASA, might be a student in Mrs. Contney’s Computer Science class who uses his coding skills in the Zero Robotics competition at MIT.

* The brilliant mathematician Sylvester Dodd could be the student taking Mr. Demaree’s Differential Equations class…as a sophomore.

* Happy Quinn, the electrical engineer who can do anything from short circuit an alarm system to hotwire a Ferrari, is potentially the young freshman who signed up for the Project Lead the Way pre-engineering academy because she’s been fixing things around the house since she was a kid.

* The world renowned-behaviorist Toby Curtis who can read just about anyone is the insightful student honing his skills of intuition in Mr. Difato’s AP Psychology class.

Being smart is cool every day at River Hill and it’s good to see it on TV too!  Check out Scorpion and watch and wait to see what our very own brainy heroes accomplish at River Hill! If you have a favorite depiction of “smart is cool” on TV or in the movies, weigh in by leaving a comment below.

River Hill Fed Ex Day 2014

FedEx Day

After attending a presentation at a conference last year, I have been anxiously awaiting the opportunity to try out an idea for professional development called “Fed Ex Day.” The presenter from Liberty High School in Carroll County shared the concept that many schools across the county had implemented over the years, but originated with the 2009 book Drive.

In his book, Daniel Pink discussed an unusual business practice started by Atlassian, an Australian software company.  Once a quarter, the company instructs all of its developers to work on anything they want for the next 24 hours with the expectation that each participant “delivers” an overview of the results. The company called these days “Fed-Ex Days” because it worked well with the slogan “when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” (Fed-Ex eventually made them change the name to “Ship-It Days.”)

Some further exploration of Daniel Pink uncovered two great videos that address his message on motivation: a TED talk and an RSA Animate video. In both presentations, Pink suggested that there are three factors that lead to better performance-autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Using the RSA Animate as an introductory message to staff, we put forth the charge to staff that they would be selecting how they spent their morning of the county professional learning day provided it met two “rules:” 1) they needed to collaborate with at least one other person on a school-related task and 2) they had to share the results of their work (that’s right, Fed Ex delivers).

Given the time to improve their performance (mastery) toward a purpose that they valued and selected themselves (autonomy), staff members came up with outstanding products. Teachers developed common objectives for their yearly evaluation. They came together to develop a standardized rubric for all of the writing assignments in their department. They collaborated on an articulation event for middle school students to attend. There were so many great results that I could spend pages just listing what everyone did.

But the results went beyond just the products the collaborative teams produced. Staff members enjoyed the collegiality developed by working both within their department and sharing their products with other departments. They appreciated the time to work on something they will actually use in their classroom (which if you’ve ever been to training/professional development sessions isn’t always the case). The sharing sessions also reminded us that sometimes the “experts” we can learn from are in our own building.

As we suggested to staff, the Fed Ex Day concept and the emphasis on autonomy, mastery, and purpose isn’t just for staff. Students can also benefit from similar experiences. Some students may need a little more guidance than others, but if we instill in students a sense of purpose then the time they spend on activities like Fed Ex Day, Genius Hour, or even Hawktime will be well spent.

NOTE-Special thanks to assistant principal Jared Wastler from Liberty High School whose presentation and resources helped inspire our professional learning.

How to Create a Good Relationship with Your Child’s Teacher

School’s back in session and you hopefully met your child’s teachers last week at Back to School Night. Whether this is your first child at River Hill or your fifth, you’ll definitely benefit from this “Do’s and Don’ts” list of unsolicited items advice I’ve assembled on how to work collaboratively with your child’s teachers to best support little Johnny or Suzie’s education. I’m going to be brutally honest in addressing the pitfalls to avoid as well as the opportunities to take advantage of this year. Here goes:

Parent Chart

I usually like to be #1, but on last year’s job satisfaction survey administered by HCEA, River Hill had the highest percentage of staff members who reported that they had experienced harassing behavior from parents in the last 12 months. I don’t believe for a minute that anyone’s intent is to come across as harassing, but it’s important for us to mind our words and our actions and ensure that we build a positive home-school partnership that is based on trust, respect, and collaboration. I appreciate your help in addressing this important issue.

Thanks for your support of the River Hill students and staff!



The “It Can Wait” Assembly

After winning the AT&T “It Can Wait Pledge” contest last Spring, we were treated today to a one hour assembly featuring Baltimore Orioles catcher Matt Wieters and a texting and driving simulator for students to experience after the assembly. As I have shared with students at parking presentations each year, everyone puts so much focus on the dangers of drinking and driving and we often neglect a much more common concern—texting and driving.

Today’s assembly gave students an up close and personal view of the dangers of texting and driving. After opening remarks from HCPSS Superintendent Dr. Renee Foose, students watched the documentary “The Last Text,” then met Matt Wieters, who talked about the dangers of texting and driving. In addition, students had a chance to experience a simulator that demonstrated just how much a distraction texting while driving can be.

Check out these pics:


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What did our students think of the experience?

“It was a good way to get kids to not text and drive.”

“It was really cool and eye-opening.”

“It was a great idea to try to engage students by bringing in someone they know and have seen on TV.”

“What a great cause—I hope it helps promote student safety.”

“It was really informational. I had seen the AT&T ads before, but you don’t get to actually see how it affects people.

“It was interesting to see someone in the spotlight, someone who is a role model be able to speak to kids about this issue.”


Parents, want to know what you can do to follow up on today’s assembly? Here are the tips from AT&T:

* Be a resource. Share information with your teen about the risks of texting and driving. Download resources from their toolkit. www.att.com/txtngcanwait

* Be an example. Don’t send the wrong message by texting while you drive. Your teen will follow your example. Visit the toolkit, www.att.com/txtngcanwait to print, discuss and sign the Parent/Teen Pledge.

* Be caring. Don’t send a text when you know your teen is driving. Wait for them to call or text you once they have arrived safely at their destination.

* Be aware. Know your options. AT&T Smart Limits offers parents an easy way to manage their teen’s cell phone and text messaging activity. Go to www.att.com/smartlimits for more information.


Thanks to everyone who helped make today’s program a success and don’t forget to be safe out there!

2014-2015: Your Personal Tabula Rasa

Tabula rasa

Put quite simply, a “tabula rasa” is a clean slate. I always love the start of the school year because it represents exactly that, a chance to start anew. Last year is in the past and what’s important now is the here and now and the undefined future that lies before us.

Last year, you didn’t do as well as you wanted in your classes. Guess what? This year, you can study a bit more, try getting help at Hawktime or after school, and make Honor Roll. Maybe you regret not getting more involved last year? Well, this year you have an opportunity to do things differently. You can join FBLA. You can try out for indoor track. You can even start the club you talked about last year.

Think “tablua rasa” applies only to students? Nope, we adults can have a fresh start too. Teachers have an opportunity to try lesson plans again after making adjustments over the summer. Parents can reflect on what worked and what didn’t work in supporting/raising your kid last year and try a different approach for 2014-2015. Administrators can start school with a different mindset and attitude and try new initiatives.

The 2014-2015 school year is a blank slate, whose story is unwritten, a blank canvas waiting for paint. What will you put on it? Tell us your plans in the comments below!


The 21st Century Back to School Shopping List

I remember back in the day getting so excited to go back to school shopping because it meant some new Trapper Keeper binders, a Transformers or GI Joe book cover, filler paper, and a variety of other school supplies to get me through the year. I should have known then that I was destined for a career in education–I mean, who else geeks out over school supplies? (It’s not nice to call someone a geek, but it’s okay when you call yourself one…especially if it’s true!)

Anyway, fast forward to 2014 and the Trapper Keeper is back, but that’s not really the point of my post. As great as all those school supplies are, there is one item I’m advocating for you to buy your student this year–a Chromebook or a laptop. Still reading?  Good. I feared that you may have scoffed: “Mr. Novak expects me to buy what?” And, indeed, you may have had that reaction, but hear me out. These days it’s fairly typical for a high school graduate to receive  a new computer. So, little Johnny heads off to college with a brand new Macbook Pro, but has little to no experience actually using it in an educational setting. Sure, he’s had access at home, but working on an essay while simultaneously playing video games, catching up on TV shows online, connecting with friends on social media, downloading the new Kanye album, etc is a little different than bringing the laptop to class. Before he heads off to college, why not provide a learning experience in how to use technology responsibly?

The new Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) program has opened up that possibility for all students. Smartphones were the most popular device for students last year, but many students, especially juniors or seniors, began bringing in their laptops to complete their class assignments. I think this is a trend that will continue and is definitely something I support. Students enjoy using devices they know how to use and like the convenience of being able to work on an assignment and save it without having to email it to themselves or use cloud-based storage.

Need some more convincing? Which device would you rather your child have out during class–his iPhone or a Chromebook? Yes, he can access his English teacher’s Edmodo page on his 5S (or maybe the 6 coming out in September), but there’s a greater temptation to be Snapchatting, Instagramming, and using other apps that don’t necessarily have an educational purpose. That’s not to say that the Chromebook doesn’t offer a similar allure of off-task programming, but I think the degree is slightly lower and it’s a little easier for teachers to notice what’s happening on a 11+inch screen than on a 4 or 5 inch one.

Here are some deals going on right now you might want to check out:

Acer2  http://www.bestbuy.com/site/acer-c720-11-6-chromebook-intel-celeron-2gb-memory-16gb-solid-state-drive-granite-gray/2746011.p?id=1219077152618&skuId=2746011&st=categoryid$pcmcat244900050010&cp=1&lp=2





Think I’m crazy? Let me know. Feel like I may be onto something here? Say that in the comments too!

Welcome Back!!!

Yes, we are gearing up for the start of another school year.

No, Mr. Kotter does not work at River Hill.

Maybe the Sweathogs will be in your child’s class (not by name, but there always seems to be a few Vinnie Barbarinos or Arnold Horshacks in every school).


If you’re new to River Hill, welcome to my blog. If you’re a returning parent, welcome back. In some ways, the site is like a webpage. There are several sections worth exploring that may or may not give you some helpful information; however, the main focus is the weekly post I put out (every Wednesday if I can, but being principal can get pretty busy, so I hope you’ll excuse me if I’m late a day or skip a week every now and then).

You should have received the summer mailing this week with your child’s schedule, a letter from me, info about joining Boosters and PTSA, and some other materials from the student services office. I can’t provide all of those electronically, but my letter can be downloaded below and you can join the Boosters and PTSA online at riverhill.org, just click on the “Join Now” links on the right-hand side of the page.

Parent Schedule Letter 2014

As I indicated in the letter, be sure to make any elective schedule changes now before school begins on the 25th. Once classes start, it won’t be possible to switch from AP Chemistry to Accounting II just because. That’s what the seventh months since course registration is for. Unfortunately, we can’t do an add/drop period like in college. Our funding for staffing doesn’t work that way. If you have a question about your child’s schedule, give his/her counselor a call before August 25th!

Check back next week when I discuss back to school shopping!

Summer Reading Bingo

Earlier this year, English Instructional Team Leader Diane Curry led the One Book, One River Hill initiative to promote literacy, encourage lifelong learning, and develop a sense of community. Students, staff, and parents read I Am Malala and engaged in online and face-to-face discussion of the memoir. As we close out the school year, she and the English department are continuing those efforts with a new approach to summer reading–a Bingo game!

Typically, students receive a summer reading list before the last day of school and the choice of books is dictated by the English course they are enrolled in for the following year. As a former English teacher, I used to do this too. It was always nice to hit the ground running by starting off discussing the work students had read over the summer. The problem was (yes, you know where this is going) not everybody read the book.

Some students diligently set about reading the assigned text once they got the reading list. They not only read all of the books the teacher suggested, but additional ones by authors they fell in love with after reading other works. Most students had the best intentions to read the book, but the vacation to the beach got in the way and then one thing led to another and there they were the weekend before school starts scrambling to skim over the book, find a Sparknotes version, or asking their friends for a quick synopsis of the novel and any themes or symbolism that stood out. And, of course, there are those students who never had any plans to do the reading and flat out refused to do the assignment.

The beauty of the summer reading bingo game is that it gives students (and all participants–staff and parents are welcome to join in too!) complete control over what they choose to read. So Pride and Prejudice isn’t really your cup of tea (I’m not a fan either), so what is?  Are you into Fantasy? Check that off on your bingo board. Need to occupy your time on the car ride to Myrtle Beach? You can choose the audiobook square. There are some challenging choices, but enough options to allow every reader an opportunity to complete their Bingo board.

English teachers will be offering extra credit for students who complete and submit their bingo boards at the beginning of next year. In addition, there will be drawings for prizes in the 2014-2015 school year. As I mentioned before, it’s not just for students. Staff and parents are encouraged to participate. It’s a fun way to approach what you’re going to read this summer and you might just find a book you never would have read otherwise. I’m already contemplating books by an author who shares my first name. I don’t want to read anything by Nicholas Sparks–too sappy! Feel free to use the bingo cards below (they come from a random generator website done by Frank Ledo), get one from your English teacher, or find one online. Happy Reading!!!