Grants in Action

Cuerd@s Workshop at NHS Connections

With funding from a Fall 2023 grant, a workshop was held in February for students in the Connections program at Needham High School with Cuerd@s, an organization that provides embroidered clothing to support mental health. For the creator, the act of embroidery is soothing and creates a healthy environment for processing emotions and building community. For the wearer, the embroidery serves as a built-in de-escalation technique and reminds them that they are safe, loved, and valued. The workshop provided students the chance to embroider clothing to donate to a local mental health organization and to embroider a sweatshirt for themselves.

Connections is a therapeutic program developed to meet the needs of students with emotional disabilities. The workshop also provided an opportunity for all Connections students to meet at the same time to build community with others on similar paths in overcoming personal challenges.

Katherine McMahon, grant recipient and Connections program teacher, said “The event was incredible and I feel so fortunate our students had this opportunity … Meg Burke, … the founder of Cuerd@s, could not have been better … It was great to see her sharing her story with my own students and doing it with so much passion and insight. Thanks to the NEF grant, we had the opportunity for our students to learn and practice creating a tactile fidget on sweatshirts they could use to cope. When the activity was over students wanted to keep embroidering. They found both the activity and the process helpful and satisfying.” 

She noted that many students were wearing their embroidered sweatshirts the next day and that students were continuing to embroider using the kits purchased through the grant.

Let’s Read in Spanish! Creation of Pollard Spanish Classroom Libraries

This grant funded Spanish language books and supplies to create classroom libraries for each of the Spanish classrooms at Pollard Middle School, impacting over 500 students currently enrolled in Spanish classes. These libraries provide access to a variety of tiered, engaging, fiction and non-fiction texts in the target language. By providing students with choice and access to tiered and interesting texts, students will be motivated to read and gain confidence in reading in the target language. In addition, the texts will model grammar structures and vocabulary “in context,” increasing students’ language proficiency.

Once the books were received, one book was chosen for each course that would be an all-class read. The rest of the books were put on display in the classrooms and each class had time to browse through the collection. Once a week, class time was dedicated for students to read independently. In addition, students used reading logs to track their reading, including space for reflection, new high-frequency vocabulary, and chapter summaries. The goal for next year is to run literature circles.

According to Spanish teacher Jackie Edwards, “Students are impacted by having a choice on which books to read based on level of interest and abilities. Since the books are leveled, they can track their progress and see their language skills grow. We purposely chose books that focused on different aspects of cultures that represent people of all different races, ethnicities, ages, and experiences. The books are helping to broaden their global awareness – their ability to make comparisons between their lives and communities, and the lives of the communities of the characters in the different stories. For us as teachers, it is an opportunity to build connections between our content and the world beyond our classrooms. The books are told from different perspectives and contain a lot of topics that we may not touch upon in class but are of high interest for our students.”

Overcoming Barriers in Jazz: Musician Residency with Tia Fuller

This grant, along with funding from Needham High School Friends of Music, funded a two-week musician residency in which Tia Fuller— Grammy-nominated Black female jazz saxophonist, composer, Berklee professor, and featured musician in Pixar’s Soul—shared her musical expertise and experiences with overcoming the glass ceiling often faced by Black and female-identifying musicians with Needham student musicians from High Rock, Pollard, and Needham High Schools. This residency coincided with the inception of a newly-established lab jazz program at Pollard that provides beginner jazz instruction to High Rock and Pollard students. Needham jazz students had the opportunity to prepare and rehearse Fuller’s original Grammy-nominated charts alongside her, which culminated in a combined performance in January encompassing all jazz programs in the district.

Grant writer Spencer Parrish, Needham High School Band Director and Music teacher, noted “Our time with Tia Fuller proved to be transformative for all involved. It is rare for professional musicians of Fuller’s caliber to be effective music clinicians in public school settings. Given this, Steve Heldt [Pollard Band Director] and I were pleasantly surprised to witness the efficacy of Fuller’s interactions with our students. Her feedback was differentiated for each respective age group, and the depth of her knowledge and experience as a professional jazz musician led to immediate (and lasting) improvements in the performance quality of our ensembles. Students walked away from the experience feeling pride for the tremendous musical accomplishment of performing and rehearsing alongside a Grammy-nominated musician. This residency seems to have provided them with inspiration to continue performing and learning about this special musical genre. These outcomes were everything I had hoped for when submitting the initial grant proposal.”

World Language Books

Last year, Elizabeth Hitron, librarian at Sunita Williams Elementary School, working with Kelly Haas, Sunita Williams’ ELL teacher, and Jenn Potter, Broadmeadow’s librarian, received a grant to fund the purchase of books written in languages other than English for all of the elementary school libraries. The program was developed in a partnership between the libraries and the elementary ELL teachers who are seeing a sharp increase in their caseload of students, many of whom have little to no English when arriving in Needham, and who have noticed a lack of appropriate reading material. The books, written in students’ home languages, support their academic growth and independent reading, as well as offer an opportunity to see themselves reflected in the books around them. These collections are housed in the five elementary libraries for ELL teachers to access for their students, as well as for general circulation.

Books were chosen in three ways: 1) translated copies of popular titles so that students new to the U.S. can access materials their peers are reading, 2) books originally written in world languages and reflecting other cultures, and 3) books in a variety of reading levels to accommodate different ages and reading skills. 

According to Ms. Hitron, “The new world language books have been a very welcomed addition to all five elementary school libraries. As an elementary team, we have had many successes with these new books – students and staff alike have been delighted with them. It has been a lot of fun presenting books to students in their home languages. A second grade student at Newman was thrilled to find a book in Chinese. His classmates were so impressed he could read it! Another student at Newman who recently moved from Israel (and had little to no English) was so happy to borrow many books in Hebrew, her first language. A Mitchell student was very excited to find books in Russian because his dad speaks Russian at home. He checks them out and has his dad read them to him before bed.”

Molly Mullin, Eliot Elementary School librarian, added, “The new world language books arrived in the Eliot Library perfectly timed with the arrival of a new family to the school. The family had recently fled Ukraine and the children could read in Russian. Our new Russian language books were the first books that these students checked out of the library. It was wonderful to welcome them, provide them something they could read, and to show them that we embrace and respect other languages. While we have electronic resources to provide ebooks in other languages, having a diverse collection of print books is also very important to our school culture.”

Technical Theater Workshops

This fall, Kristen Mazzocchi, Needham High School Theater teacher, coordinated workshops to provide the necessary training for Pollard and Needham High School students to participate as technical crew and designers in the school district’s theater productions.

Given the lack of live performances during the pandemic, Kristen realized that veteran crew members were unable to pass down their knowledge to incoming students. This left students without the necessary skills and training to take leadership roles in managing the technical aspects of theater production. To make up for this learning loss, Kristen applied for an NEF grant to run workshops in stage management, as well as sound, lighting, costume, and set design, with local industry professionals. In addition to learning the basics, students were introduced to new technologies that are being used in the theater industry so that they can elevate the production level of Needham’s school performances in the future. The after-school workshops were open to all Pollard and Needham High students and no prior experience was required.

According to Kristen, “The students were able to put much of their new skills right to work since many of these workshops were held … at the same time as the set building for the Students Acting To Make A Difference production [of The Addams Family]. Students went right from the workshops to actually building the set, focusing the lights, and using a new digital sound board that they had just been trained on. It was amazing to see what the students just learned being put into practice!”


Needham Steps Up Mentorship Training

Last year, the NEF funded professional training with Mass Mentoring Partnership (MMP) for Needham Steps Up (NSU) mentors at Needham High School. NSU pairs up to 20 income-eligible students with a Needham High School teacher to mentor them throughout their years in the high school. The training included:

  • providing mentors with a more cohesive and clear understanding of mentorship, particularly within a high school setting
  • helping mentors increase their responsiveness to students’ needs
  • helping mentors understand boundaries
  • helping mentors establish clear guidelines about the types of issues they can tackle on their own and when it is important to seek outside help

The grant also funded professional training of NSU staff members in a “train-the-trainer” model so that future mentors will receive the same instruction. Since all mentors are NHS teachers, this grant will not only benefit the students in the program, but also the students in the mentors’ classrooms.

According to grant writer and NSU board member, Martha Cohen Barrett, “the training … provided a foundation and a sense of the mentors as essential to their mentees’ high school success. NSU will build on that sense of skill and intentionality going forward, linking what they do to the mission of both NHS and NPS. This year’s mentor training served as a springboard that we will build on. For example, we … did one exercise at the end of training that had mentors move toward different sides of the room depending upon what they would do in a particular situation. Not only did the exercise provide examples of how mentors see mentoring through different lenses, but it shed light on the different ways in which the mentors are living their experiences with their mentees. However, there wasn’t time for the mentors to debrief and problem-solve together. In the future, we will do more of these kinds of activities, aiming to create training that runs like a thoughtfully conceived lesson plan.”

Educator Workshop at Heart Mountain in Wyoming

This summer, Needham High School Social Studies teacher, Laura Magno, attended the National Endowment for the Humanities’ (NEH): Heart Mountain Educator Workshop in Wyoming. More than 14,000 Japanese Americans were confined at Heart Mountain during World War II. The week-long workshop included visits to the nationally recognized interpretive center at Heart Mountain, as well as the Smithsonian-affiliate museum, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, and the Homesteader Museum. The experience will enhance teachers’ understanding and provide resources and lessons for the Needham High Social Studies Department.


Student Ambassador Program

Needham High School Assistant Principal, Mary Kay Alessi, received funding in the Winter 2021 grant cycle to create and implement a  student Ambassador program designed to support students who are transitioning into Needham High School. Upperclass students were trained as Student Ambassadors to facilitate community building while providing support for some of the social emotional needs of students transitioning into NHS, including both 9th graders and new-to-Needham upperclass students. The program builds on the traditional elements of the 8th-9th grade transition while extending the outreach to new students, incorporating more robust activities in the transition process and deepening the connections between current and incoming students.

During the multiple orientation days in August, Student Ambassadors provided building tours. On the first day of school, they fanned out into 9th grade and new-to-Needham homerooms and provided additional tours and held informative question and answer sessions for students. This opening day of school also was the start of the ‘No one eats alone’ initiative where Ambassadors invited students to join them in the cafeteria during each of the lunch blocks if they didn’t have friends to sit with. The Ambassadors provided this lunch support for about 2 weeks as students began to find a rhythm and become more comfortable with NHS expectations.

The Ambassadors were quick to offer support and work one-on-one with students who joined NHS after the school year started, as they were learning their way around such a big building. Student Ambassadors stayed assigned to homerooms for the first 4 X-blocks, where it allowed the Ambassadors to share relevant information with students to help with the transition to high school or to NHS specifically. The work was broken into 4 modules: SEL, Getting Help and Getting Involved, Getting Organized I, and Getting Organized II. This was also helpful for teachers as it removed a responsibility for them and gave them a nice place to start building their student relationships.

Additionally, the team created a ‘booth’ for NHS Oracle which is an opportunity for all club and activity groups to show who they are and recruit new members. The Ambassador advisors and leaders have created a website that includes their initiatives and resources to support students joining NHS. Parents were also directed to the website adding another potential support for students transitioning to NHS. Finally, Ambassadors created posters that were distributed throughout the building to advertise their mission and let students know where to find information.

NEF is proud to have funded the Student Ambassador program because it provides opportunities for students to make connections and improve the school culture. In addition, it provided the Student Ambassadors opportunities to practice leadership and organization skills, planning and creativity, and collaboration.

Navigation Games for Interdisciplinary Learning

A winter 2021 grant was awarded to Physical Education and Wellness Teacher Rob Tatro to bring orienteering to the K-5 curriculum at Sunita Williams Elementary School. Orienteering has many benefits in physical education: developing locomotor skills, physical fitness, responsible behavior, social interactions, and an understanding of the value of life-long outdoor recreation. 

This large grant funded the purchase of equipment and training materials, the development of lesson plans, and the support of an on-site trainer from Navigation Games, a non-profit organization based in Cambridge who develops, shares and delivers navigation education for children.

In orienteering, students use a map and a compass to find a series of checkpoints. There is no marked path, so they must choose their own routes from one checkpoint to the next. These navigation skills offer students a stimulating outdoor learning experience while empowering learners to discover and integrate content from multiple disciplines, engage in self-directed learning, and use technology to support learning to navigate in a digital world. 

According to Mr. Tatro, “Students absolutely loved orienteering and learned so much.” The PE staff at Sunita Williams had a great time too. While they were having fun, they were thinking about ways to integrate many of the activities that they did into their existing physical education curriculum. 

Going forward, Rob will find opportunities to collaborate with teachers in other subjects (math, social studies, STEAM, etc) to develop lesson plans around things like map-making, scale, distance estimation, time/distance relationships, spatial reasoning, problem solving, and teamwork.

This program is a pilot for a long-lasting curriculum that can be shared with the other elementary schools with a minimal investment in equipment and training. NEF is proud and excited to have supported this innovation in education for Needham Public School students.

“Playful Learning” in Mitchell’s Math Centers

Mitchell Elementary School Math Coach, Anjali Petersen, received funding for her grant entitled “Playful Learning: Enhancing Computational Thinking & Spatial Reasoning for All Learners through Mathematical Games.” The winter 2020 grant funded the purchase of visually-based math puzzles and games that can be used independently and within small groups across a wide range of learners in Grades 1-5.

Game-based visual learning “activates the brain’s spatial-temporal reasoning skills and leads to a deeper understanding of concepts for all students,” explained Petersen. Importantly, this includes English Language Learners and other high-needs learners.

The games covered a variety of content including patterns, geometry, place value, and logical problem-solving. They also provided students with opportunities to work on the math practice standards.

Teacher Lynn Gotwals reported that “The math games gave the students an opportunity to use their skills in a different way. The blocks tested their ability to use spatial reasoning to solve a puzzle and were a favorite game.”

Both students and teachers enjoyed including these games into their math routines.

The roll out of the games was delayed due to Covid, but once in-person learning resumed full-time, the second grade teachers, in particular, quickly embraced the games. Each class had one or two games in their classroom for at least two weeks each.

“They had a lot of success in using the materials during their math workshops,” said Petersen.

“The math games were a great addition to math centers this year. It took 1-5 minutes to explain each game and then the students were able to play on their own. The games were all very different and kept students engaged.”
—Math Teacher, Gabriella Gonzelez