Simmer Projects & Office Hours: Innovative Learning Bright Spots in Dedham Public Schools

As TEC’s Innovative Learning Coordinator, one of my favorite parts of the job is visiting TEC district schools to see and hear about the great work happening every day. This month, I had the pleasure of visiting two Fuse MA alumni – Dedham High School ELA teacher, Tricia Rocha and Greenlodge Elementary School Fifth Grade Teacher, Ken Toomey – which offered a refreshing and inspiring reminder that teachers are constantly innovating and iterating! 

As a former High School ELA teacher, I remember grappling with pacing and finding meaningful applications for those moments when students finished a project or lesson, but we didn’t quite have time to jump into something new. Or administering an assessment that some students finished quickly, while others needed more time. 

Enter Ms. Rocha’s invention: The Simmer Project!

Simmer Project instructions are clear: “Use your English skills to explore something that interests you in a way that you find enjoyable.” It is simple and effective, offering students ownership, choice and the opportunity to share who they are while connecting back to their fundamental English skills. The idea is that this project can simmer, like a pot happily bubbling away on a stove, stirred and revisited as needed. 

Simmer Projects started at the beginning of the year, so on this January day, students jumped right into them once they had completed a vocabulary assessment. As they worked, Ms. Rocha pulled students for one-on-one conferences, checking in and asking questions about their work and choices.

<—This student’s Simmer Project includes illustrating vocabulary words from different lessons. Another student worked on a playlist of songs, creating a slideshow and rationale for why the music meant something to him. Students have interviewed each other for podcasts, created videos, and proposed their own Simmer Projects as well. Ms. Rocha noted, “It’s not only an opportunity for students to use their ELA skills to explore their interests; it is a great way for me to both learn about and from my students.”

Over at Greenlodge Elementary School, I got a chance to see Mr. Toomey’s fifth grade class implementing effective and often fun routines and procedures that smooth and tighten transitions, offer clear cues and opportunities for students to truly take ownership of themselves and their learning. 

As I walked in, Mr. Toomey’s class was transitioning from Math to Reading Workshop using a 30 second dance break button. They arrived ready on the rug having put away their Math materials, found their small groups and books. Discussion commenced on the theme of hope and what it means to be an interpretive reader. As students turned and talked with their book club members, Mr. Toomey brought the group back together with a quick and effective call and response cue. 

A veteran teacher of more than 30 years, Mr. Toomey has set clear expectations of respect and self-regulation in his classroom. As students begin an activity, for example, they are not allowed to ask him a question for 5 minutes. They can ask each other, and of course reference the directions and many posted cues, however Mr. Toomey finds that most often students have figured the question out for themselves after the 5 minutes when he checks in, using resources outside of “ask the teacher.” Mr. Toomey noted, “Having them work for the first five minutes has allowed the students to see what they already can do, and their clarifying questions are much more focused.”

Another innovative strategy I saw was Mr. Toomey’s “office hours” table – a separate, labeled table with a light that, when switched on, indicates that office hours are in session. Students at the office hours table know they have Mr. Toomey’s attention and students who are not at the office hours, know to wait until the light is switched off if there is something they need.   

Classroom visits only offer a quick glimpse into the incredible work a teacher does to address the many elements that contribute to a joyful, productive and innovative learning environment. There are so many more projects, strategies, routines and ideas that Ms. Rocha and Mr. Toomey invent, implement and iterate on throughout the year – I’m incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to learn about and share a few from Dedham. 

Meg Smallidge is TEC’s Innovative Learning Coordinator – for more information or to share innovative learning examples from your school, please email

Fuse MA

Fuse MA

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Innovative Learning

Innovative Learning

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