Stretching the Concept of What's Possible

Type: Article
Topics: District & School Operations, School Administrator Magazine

October 01, 2019

A small district in Massachusetts disrupts the status quo through impactful brainstorming with students at the center
Administrators from Mendon Upton gather aroun da table to collaborate
Administrators in the Mendon-Upton Regional School District hosted education innovators Pam Moran (second from right) and Ira Socol (center) at Miscoe Hill Middle School’s new Inspired Innovation Center in Mendon, Mass.

The inspiring practices that have emerged in our suburban school district of 2,300 students in Massachusetts often start with the preface “What if … ?” Though these conversations are invigorating, to be truly impactful, we must shift to “What’s next?” and ultimately to the question “Who might join us?”

Based on our experiences in recent years, we have learned that collective brainstorming combined with a mindset of action can bring changes to the school experience for students that disrupt the status quo.

Several recent scenarios capture some of the ways we’ve used “What if …” to stretch the idea of what’s possible in the Mendon-Upton Regional School District (located near Boston) and in public schools more widely.

What if … we found other educators who desired to change teaching and learning practices in school?

From that question emanated the Inspired Learning Project, a digital space for connecting educators dedicated to creating cross-district connections and opportunities for students to engage in learning that has meaning and relevance beyond school campuses. At the core of the Inspired Learning Project are one-hour online Zoom discussions featuring an interview with an innovative educator and a community discussion around critical topics in our practice, including student agency, use of space, entrepreneurial education and rethinking school schedules.

The project also contains a blog featuring summaries of our Zoom sessions, resource guides and guest submissions from educators sharing projects that inspire learners.

What if ... we brought inspiring educators together?

From this question, the Inspired Learning Convention was born. The in-person, single-day convention is an annual event drawing educators and students from across New England to share effective practices and engage in conversations around creating opportunities for authentic deeper learning experiences.

Educators engage in roundtable discussions with presenters as they share their inspiring learning practices, such as partnering with NASA scientists to tackle the challenge of a sustainable human mission to Mars and launching a social justice conference led by students and teachers. Each presenter provides a project guide that enables participants to bring upwards of 50 projects and practices back to their respective districts.

In addition to educator sessions, we have been joined by nationally recognized education experts such as Beth Holland, Pam Moran, Ira Socol, as well as Y.J. Kim and Louisa Rosenheck of the MIT Playful Journey Lab, to push our collective thinking.

What if ... we asked experts to join our conversations?

In a district of avid readers among the professional staff, many of our What if provocations are inspired by the ideas encountered in books. These questions led us to reach out to authors, launching the #MURSDLeads interview series conducted on YouTube Live.

Authors such as Yong Zhao, Tony Wagner, Chris Lehmann and Suzy Boss have participated in our interview panels consisting of educators, school district administrators, students and community members. Together we conduct a deep inquiry into trending practices and policies in education and explore the implementation of these ideas in schools and classrooms. These interviews are available through on-demand access, which is shared with our network and beyond.

What if … we created a space for innovation and disruption in our schools?
Seven students prep a cooking assignment around a table together
Nipmuc Regional High School students ventured off campus in Mendon, Mass., to learn about fishing and cooking during their school’s 21st Century Learning Conference titled “The Community as Our Classroom.”

Our school district partnered with American Student Assistance, a national nonprofit based in Boston, to create the Miscoe Hill Middle School Inspired Innovation Center. ASA provided the district with a three-year grant to improve infrastructure and provide professional development to increase opportunities for hands-on, maker-oriented education at Miscoe Hill. The center, which we planned with the help of Moran and Socol, former leaders of Virginia’s Albemarle County Public Schools, will focus on physical computing, digital fabrication, robotics and digital media creation while adapting to emergent needs of students and faculty.

What if ... we truly listened to our learners?

One of the best ways to seek advice about how to reimagine school is to bring students into the conversation. Students have powerful insight about what’s working and what needs to be redesigned.

At Nipmuc Regional High School, we launched Food for Thought Lunches that provide students and teachers with opportunities to explore school change jointly. The lunches last one hour and bring together a cross-section of 15-20 students and 3-4 educators. Students answer questions about their experiences at school by working in small groups and record answers on chart paper. Discussion prompts include “What advice do you wish you could give to teachers and administrators?” “What besides friends makes you excited to come to school each day?” and “What is the most powerful moment of learning that you’ve ever experienced?”

Then we facilitate a brief conversation while students share their answers. We collect all responses digitally and then take action. One good example stems from the feedback from our students about homework. This led to the formation of a district homework committee and guidelines for the assignment and completion of homework.

What if ... we flattened the leadership structure of our school?

We asked this to challenge the traditional hierarchical leadership structure of schools in which only a few adults make decisions for the entire school community.

One answer to our “What if …” came by reimagining traditional department chair meetings at Nipmuc Regional High School to become Lead Learner Workshops. While department chair meetings were open only to a select group of teachers, the workshops can be attended by any teacher or any student. These monthly workshops are our school’s most important leadership sessions where we choose a topic related to the future of our school and explore it as a community. In the past year, we’ve addressed our new portrait of a learner, community partnership projects and reimagining advisory.

These actionable workshops have served as a sandbox for the innovative ideas needed to bring our beliefs about learning to life.

What if … we asked students what they want to learn rather than what we want to teach?

Living a “What if …” mindset has expanded to all members of our community, but the most significant impact has been when we have engaged our students to identify what they would like to learn. Nipmuc’s 21st Century Learning Conferences — full-day learning events modeled after professional conferences but offered to students — answer the question, “What if we threw away the schedule for the day?”

With a relentless focus on empowering student agency, inspiring inquiry, and engaging students in real work that matters beyond the classroom, our conferences set students on their own learning adventures. What began as a high school endeavor expanded to the elementary level with the creation of an Inspired Learning Day at Clough Elementary School with students following their passions such as learning how to be a police officer or learning how to play guitar.

Students conduct a science experiment on a grid in the snow and ice
The Nipmuc 21st Century Learning Conference teaches students both the practical and the imaginative, such as how to build an ice rink for community skating.
What if ... we gave students the freedom to reimagine assessment?

Like other forward-thinking public school districts, Mendon-Upton has created a portrait of a learner profile to identify the skills necessary for all students to succeed in a rapidly changing, increasingly diverse and interconnected world.

Unlike many districts, ours has used this opportunity to disrupt the traditional practice of teacher-driven assessment. Through collaborative forums, students led the work to define the portrait of a learner and how to assess their progress. Their work resulted in clearly articulated “I can” statements and an assessment tool that eliminates traditional grading practices in favor of teacher-feedback in the form of “What if” and “I wonder” statements.

What if … we immersed our students in global citizenship through language immersion and travel?

A key component of our district’s strategic plan is the emphasis on global citizenship, valuing the diversity of cultures, experiences and perspectives. For more than 20 years, the district has hosted a K-12 Spanish immersion program that empowers students to learn a second language.

At the elementary level, students at Memorial Elementary School not only immerse themselves in speaking Spanish but also actively engage in collaborative lessons in Spanish with classrooms across the world via Skype using the language. The Spanish immersion program now culminates with a monthlong dual exchange program with students in San Sebastian, Spain.

Stretching Possibilities

The “What if” mindset has become an engine for innovation and disruption in our school district. Each time we answer a “What if” question, we bring our vision of learning to life and stretch the concept of what’s possible in schools.


David J. Quinn, Maureen M. Cohen, John K. Clements, Mary Anne Moran
About the Authors

David Quinn is director of technology integration in the Mendon-Upton Regional School District in Mendon, Mass.

   David Quinn

Maureen Cohen is assistant superintendent of the Mendon-Upton Regional School District.

John Clements and Mary Anne Moran are co-principals of Nipmuc Regional High School in Upton, Mass.

Additional Resources

The authors addressed this question for readers: What if … you wanted to learn more about what we are doing in Mendon-Upton?

 21st Century Learning Conferences: Learn more about each of the eight 21st Century Learning Conferences at To launch your own day of interest-driven learning but don’t know where to start, check our comprehensive guide at

 Inspired Learning Project & Convention: You can join one of our Zoom sessions or participate in the convention held each spring? For details, visit

 Lead Learner Workshops: To explore the flattening of your leadership structure or to reimagine your faculty meetings, see the Lead Learners website ( for topics and activities we’ve implemented with our students and teachers.

 Portrait of a Learner: To design a portrait of a learner with ways to move from ideas to action, visit to view Nipmuc Regional High School’s process and resources.