How Vermont middle grades educators are powering up PLPs this summer

Why the 2016 Middle Grades Institute may be the most important one yet

The 21st Century Classroom podcastNew podcast ep: We visit with educators at last summer’s Middle Grades Institute to look at how this unique professional development opportunity is helping Vermont’s middle grades educators deal with the challenges posed by legislative Act 77, the Flexible Pathways Initiative.

Also, 200 Vermont educators dance like dinosaurs. And rock at it.

Transcript below.


(Fade in as an enthusiastic crowd stomps, claps and laughs to Koo Koo Kanga’s Stomp It)

The sound you’re hearing in the background is nearly 200 Vermont middle grades teachers stomping, clapping and cheering like dinosaurs at the start of the second day of a weeklong summer camp.

(enthusiastic crowd keeps stomping and clapping)

It’s Morning Meeting time at the Middle Grades Institute, and each morning the camp’s staff incorporate a number of physical, group-building activities to get campers blood-pumping before sending them off to learn how to host similar experiences in their classrooms.

(Fade out enthusiastic crowd)

Every June for the past twenty-four years, middle grades teachers from across Vermont have taken a week out of their summers to leave home, stay in dorms and figure out how to make middle school a better experience for students. One of the main attractions of the Middle Grades Institute is the ability for teachers to meet up with fellow educators from different schools to compare notes on the issues that affect them all.

Unidentified educator: I don’t know how much I want to focus on the mindset lessons, rather than just gathering data from the students through like interviews…

Educator #2: –And that’s what we used blogger for because it allowed us to have those limitations on who could post and who couldn’t, I would get notifications on who could post and who couldn’t.

Educator #3: So you’re like the moderator?

(conversation fades out)

Right now, one of the most pressing issues that’s affecting Vermont teachers is Act 77, also known as Flexible Pathways to Graduation. Passed in 2012, this legislation requires that every student in grades seven through twelve have a personal learning plan, or PLP, outlining what they will be learning, by when, and how they’ll prove it’s been learned. According to the legislation, this past fall was the deadline for implementation state-wide, but the problem is, there’s little consensus on what an effective PLP looks like. It’s a huge challenge for Vermont’s middle grades teachers.

Educator #4: Did you have people that piloted PLPs this year?

Educator #5: I know that we had a group of teachers who had piloted them with kids, so they were able to come here with some information.

Educator #6: How’d that go?

Educator #5: I think… that it went good and bad.

Effective implementation of personalized learning plans has been the Middle Grades Institute’s main focus for the past two years. And at the Middle Grades Institute, teachers get help and support from experts in the field. Meet James Nagle.

James: My name is James Nagle, and I’m the co-director of the Middle Grades Institute.

Nagle has been involved with MGI for 12 years, the last two of which have been spent adapting the program so it provides Vermont middle grades teachers with the specific set of skills necessary to help students craft their personal learning plans.

James: At the MGI, what we’re hoping to have our teachers learn is to become facilitators of learning. To also become coaches in teaching students how to goal-set, in teaching students how to determine what assignments and assessments that the students are doing in their classes that could be evidence for showing or proving that they’re meeting their goals, then also to allow the teachers to learn how to discuss with the students and teach the students how to reflect on their learning, so that they can not only say that “this piece of evidence shows evidence of my goal,” but also say “What are the action steps that I need to do to further that?” We’ll have groups of instructors working with the teacher-participants, in developing their own personalized learning action plan — for when they go back into the school.

Some teachers attend the Institute for their own professional development or to earn graduate credits, and others attend as part of entire teams of teachers and principals, who find the out-of-school location conducive to productive conversations.

Educator #7: So, this is more logistical: we haven’t talked about Evidence Year 1. We’re not goin’ there, right?

Educator #8:  Yeah, I think it’s safe to hold off on that discussion. We’re kind of goals-focused right now. Gettin’ the PLP set up — we’re layin’ the roads, we’re mapping out the roads right now. Then we can start building the gas stations and things like that. Yeah?

Educator #9: But it would be awesome if people on the leadership team highlighted stuff, you know? And then make it a non-negotiable next year.

That sometimes take slight detours, when the teachers get distracted by exactly the same things their students tend to.

Educator #9: This is–Chris?

Educator #7: Yeah?

Educator #9: People are talking about photos, on their profile? How do you change your photo on your profile?

Educator #8: ‘Cause that’s so important.

This week where teachers spend long hours working outside the classroom to create a tech-rich, student-centered vision of middle school for Vermont is necessary for effectively implementing personalized learning in Vermont middle schools. Just ask the teachers themselves:

Educator #10: This has been really different, but really great in that we’ve been able to have discussions openly and honestly, and make decisions, that have not just been people feeling like “Fine, whatever.” So it’s been really good. We got out of our own middle school universe and into being grownups, so that was great. *laughs*

Educator #11: We worked hard, all week. And when I say all week, I mean we had a lot of pockets of people working late into the night, multiple nights. And we feel good, we’re all on the same page.

Here’s Crossett Brook Middle School librarian Jen Hill, on her takeaway from the Middle Grades Institute. I tracked Hill down while she was taking a break from the workshops and, well–

Jen Hill: One favorite part is connecting with my peers, like the other teachers and stuff? (Now the rule in our family is if you can’t get down, don’t go that way? I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get down that way, so I’m gonna back up. 1:00: This branch doesn’t look so smart to climb up on *squeals* I’m not gonna do it.)

…climbing a tree. It is camp, after all. Anyway, here’s Hill’s takeaway from her Middle Grades Institute experience:

Jen: One of our strand facilitators this morning said, “You know, you have this time and you’re in this place, and you’re kind of locked-down to figure this stuff out and this is stuff that’s been on my mind and heart since I started working, so it’s really great that it’s something that we’re working together on making real for kids. It’s… thrilling. Yeah.

So as Vermont looks to the future of its middle grades students, rest assured their teachers are no dinosaurs.

Audrey: You okay?

Jen: Yeah. I’m just not sure how I’m gonna get down.

Me: You need help?

Jen: Well no, that’s the rule, that’s the rule. Well I kinda wanna just jump, but it is kinda high. Yeah, I’m not gonna jump yet… Like, my personal goal might be better tree-climbing.

(Dinosaur song fades back in)

Now you open up your jaws and chomp it chomp it

Open up your jaws and chomp it chomp it

Now you open up your jaws and chomp it chomp it

And we do it again…

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Audrey Homan is a Vermont-based digital media producer, and host of The 21st Century Classroom podcast. She's worked in non-profit communications for more than a decade, and in her spare time develops video games and mucks about with augmented reality and arduinos, ably assisted by five dogs. Interviewing students and yelling in PHP are the best parts of her job.

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