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Summer Reading 2021

Hooray for summer! Sure, we usually say something along those lines this time of year, but this year? ONCE MORE WITH FEELING. And with that, we turn to our Tarrant correspondents for a peek into the reading bags, shelves, carts and– *squints* — trees, that keep our folks out of trouble.* 

We’re off reading and resting for the summer, on our annual publishing hiatus. We’ll rejoin all you fine folks come autumn.

Without further ado…


*fires off airhorns*

*launches coffee pot into the air*


Jeanie Phillips

I cannot wait to dig into summer reading, and paradoxically, I wish I had waited on two books because I’d love to read them again for the very first time!

Angeline Boulley’s The Firekeeper’s Daughter is a mystery set in an Ojibwe community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I read it quickly for the plot and then reread it to soak up the indigenous ways of knowing and being. It was definitely my very favorite YA book of the year…

Until I devoured A Sitting in St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia, which is now tied for first! Williams-Garcia tells the story of a white family and the people they enslave with such nuance and skill. It was the perfect companion book to Scott’s recommendation How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America.

Speaking of re-reading, I’ve got plans for that as well! 

Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights delighted me indeed, and I plan to read a delight a day this summer. (Here is a sample delight to whet your appetite.)

And I’m going to re-read an old favorite in anticipation of the sequel that is scheduled to arrive this fall.

I adored Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe when I first read it, and I can hardly wait to read Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World.

summer reading 2021


And then there is the stack of books I am taking with me to the beach to be read in the sunshine and salt air.

Happy summer and happy reading to all of you!



Life LeGeros

Books come to us in so many different ways. Sometimes we find them the old fashion way: perusing library shelves.

Right now I’m reading The Kingdom of Copper, which is the second book in a series. I found the first one randomly, without ever hearing about the book or the author, and it is one of my absolute favorites. The author, S.A. Chakraborty, is an expert in medieval Islam and she is such a good writer that I can’t put it down — it is one of the rare books where I put all my others aside until I’m finished. I might just have to listen to the Hidden Djinn podcast to stay steeped in djinn lore.

A new way that I’ve been finding books in the last few years is when a friend or colleague is published. Alex Shevrin Venet’s Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education falls in that category. I’ve learned so much from Alex over the years, and followed (from afar) her writing process. To now have her book in my hand, and to see the education world going gaga over her genius, is so exciting. The parts that I’ve read so far are as profound and practical as I’d expect from somebody with Alex’s brilliance, compassion, and experience.

Then there are those books that you just need. Like when you need to talk to your tween daughter about something complicated or embarrassing.

That’s how I found and ordered (to my local independent bookstore, of course) Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen by Michelle Icard. She seems to have a good handle on adolescent psychology so I’ll be leaning on this one heavily for the next few years.

More and more often I have the experience of being introduced to books (and music and TV shows) that my daughters bring home. Interestingly, both of my daughters recently brought home books from the library that center trans characters.

Ayla, 9 years old, says I simply must read Zenobia July

And Zoe, 11, has invited me to read with her Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story, which is a memoir by Jacob Tobia (who apparently played a character on one of our family fave shows, She-Ra).

Finally, there’s always the To Be Read pile.

I look forward to continuing my lifelong project of unlearning/relearning history via Clint Smith’s How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. Along with many of the other books already in that pile (or recently added due to my fine colleagues!)

Here’s hoping that some good books make their way to you and that you have as much time to read this summer as you’d like. You deserve it!

Photo of a stack of books




Susan Hennessey

Shifting into summer mode sometimes is nuanced. Even when I’m no longer in scheduled meetings or following a strict timeline, I still find myself stuck in a schedule mindset.

A kick in the pants for me to shift modes is my summer reading stack.

This summer I am eager to start a new book, revisit two old favorites, and dig deep into something I only skimmed the surface of.

And just like every Zoom meeting I’ve engaged with over this past year, my cat Tink needs to make her presence known. She’ll be right there with me while I dig in.

summer reading 2021
Editorial note: there is, in fact, a cat in this picture.


We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra tops my list because who doesn’t want to dive head first into a first-love love story revealed through letters exchanged, and one that alludes to Walt Whitman’s writing throughout.

Next, I plan to revisit two old favorites: one for a laugh at the absurdity of things —  When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris — and one that fills me with hope, as I laugh: Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott.

And finally on the list, a book I purchased this year and skimmed for insights, but didn’t give it the time it deserved: Myron Dueck’s Giving Students a Say: Smatter Assessment Practices to Empower and Engage.


Emily Hoyler

Last summer I bought a camping hammock, the kind that comes with its own straps and fastens anywhere fitting. It’s an essential summer reading accessory for me.

And being slung between two trees is an especially apt setting for my some of my summer reading selections.

First I’ll be diving into Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. This is doubly exciting, because Simard was the inspiration for one of the characters in a previous, glorious summer read, The Overstory by Richard Powers. My arboreal daydreams will continue with Peter Wohlleben’s The Heartbeat of Trees: Embracing Our Ancient Bond with Forests and Nature. But I won’t spend the whole summer in the trees.

(Ok, actually, I might.)


I can’t wait to dive into adrienne maree brown’s Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Mediation. I’ve shared before my love of brown’s Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, so I’m excited for this more practical facilitation guide.

I’ve been lovingly admiring Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019,edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, perched on my nightstand for months, and it’s collection of essays will lend themselves nicely to short bursts of reading.

And of course there will need to be some escape fiction. Of course.

While much of that will be determined impulsively and intuitively, I can not wait to get my hands on Chris Bohjalian’s Hour of the Witch.The most disappointing part about this choice is that it will probably be devoured in a day. Good thing that there are so many other treasures waiting to be discovered!


Scott Thompson

For those who know me… I’m a list person. I need them to keep me focused and on task but I get stressed when they get too long. The book list follows a different set of rules.  I’d say a book a day gets added to the “you need to read this” list. So when summer rolls around the list gets some special attention. When things slow down a bit, here are my first two reads for the summer.

  • How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with The History of Slavery In America by Clint Smith.
  • The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson


Rachel Mark

I love reading in the summertime. For one, reading during the day always feels like such a luxury. Whether I’m in the backyard, in a beach chair, or just reading in bed at 8 am, it feels like a delicious treat.

These are the books that I hope to devour this summer.

Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff is one of our MGI reads for this June. I am already into this middle grade novel, and I know it’s so good. The main character, Bug has experienced an important loss and she’s grieving and searching for her identity in a small town in Vermont. It’s a great story that involves some ghosts, gender identity, and coming of age. I highly recommend it to teachers!

Another book on my list is You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience edited by Tarana Burke and Brene Brown. This book is an anthology of essays by black writers discussing topics on shame and healing. I have deep respect for these two women and know that this book will shape my heart and my head.

My book group has chosen to read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. I don’t know too much about this except it’s the fictional story of an old Hollywood icon – probably loosely based on Elizabeth Taylor. I was eager to read it since I loved the author’s book Daisy Jones & the Six.

The final book on my summer shortlist is The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave. I chose this book as my “candy” reading. It looks like a page-turner mystery about a woman whose husband goes missing. She has to discover his hidden past and protect his daughter. While reading this book is not going to raise my IQ, I can’t resist; I can just get lost in the story and let time fly by. Isn’t that what summer reading is about?!




Audrey Homan

Hoo. This particular summer reading list’s a little bittersweet. After 11 years at the Tarrant Institute, in July I’ll be leaving to join the crew at the UVM Center on Disability and Community Inclusion (CDCI). I could not be more excited about the chance to work with the team there. Could not.

At the same time, I am intensely grateful for the chance to have worked with the kind and generous people both at the Tarrant Institute and in every classroom generous enough to invite me in for a chat. I have learned so much from all of you.

So what’s in the reading to-go bag? 

I Didn’t Choose The Late-Night DJ Life…

It continues to choose me, even while recording from home. 

I’m on a deep dive into the history of radio in the United States. After having worked through Lonesome Cowgirls & Honky Tonk Angels: The Women of Barn Dance Radio, I’m on to Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio. I’m also reading Rebel Radio: The Story of El Salvador’s Radio Venceremos, although I am aware that El Salvador is not in the United States.

Oh! And in case that wasn’t enough, I’ve finally gotten hold of the final book in Joyce Krieg’s Sacramento-set radio mystery series, Riding Gain.

It’s Never the Sharks’ Year, Dude

At the point of this writing it’s 108 days until October 12, 2021, also known as the start of the NHL 2021-2022 season. A little light hockey reading should tide me over. 

First up, Zamboni Rodeo: Chasing Hockey Dreams from Austin to Albuquerque, telling the story of one season in the late great career of the Texas-based WPHL’s Ice Bats (real team; not making that up). On deck (which is not a hockey term) is Shorthanded: The Untold Story of the Seals, Hockey’s Most Colorful Team. Who knew that Oakland and Cleveland spent 1976 fighting over an NHL team? Now just look at them (hockey-wise). Tsk tsk. 

Plus! Crossing the Line: The Outrageous Story of a Hockey Original, the rip-roaring 1970s autobiography of Boston Bruins tough guy Derek Sanderson and his hair. Cannot wait.  

And with that, my young onions, your editor is out. Thank you very much for reading.

Audrey Homan, 2014 edition.
2014 summer reading flashback.



Happy reading, everyone! We wish you a restful and rejuvenating summer break.



*Don’t quote us on that come September.

Learning Lab Lessons Learned

In a year of many firsts, both good and bad, the Learning Lab faced a lot of unique challenges. This immersive year-long action-research-based protocol found ways to adjust to remote learning just like the rest of us, but they also found more. The group determined that the pandemic would only make them stronger, and more determined to be there for their students. It’s Learning Lab lessons learned.

In this hourlong livestream, Learning Lab director Bill Rich talks with participants Kyle Chadburn and Sarah Marcus about how they used the Learning Lab experience to help weather an unprecendented storm.

Guests: Kyle Chadburn, Sarah Marcus

Facilitator: Bill Rich

This livestream was presented by the UVM Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education, with support from Susan Hennessey


Audio-only version

Challenging Simplified Notions of Health Equity in the Middle Grades

Lindsay McQueen, a middle school science educator at Edmunds Middle School, in Burlington VT, originally presented “Challenging Simplified Notions About Health Equity in the Middle Grades” in January 2021. She presented it as part of the 2021 Middle Grades Conference at the University of Vermont.

Below please find a video recording of the workshop, optimized for solo or team playback. Additionally, we present an annotated transcript of this presentation for your use.


Audio-only version


Annotated Transcript

All right. Good morning, everyone. Just to let you know a little bit about me, I am a health educator, middle school, 6th, 7th and 8th grade at Edmunds Middle School in Burlington, VT.

And what I hope to do today is share a little bit of the purpose and background behind my action research project: a health equity unit that I designed and used for the first time this year.

And in that I’m also going to then zoom in on one lesson in particular, just to give you a little bit more sense of that. Then we’ll pause there for some comments and questions. And after that, I’m going to share some initial observations about learning and a few of the projects that students created to give you a sense of what the outcome was.

Designing a health unit around equity

The purpose, really the grounding and the inspiration, was that I had already been dreaming about redesigning a unit in health class, and seeing the work actually that the sixth grade humanities team does at my school.

health equity


The humanities team in 7th and 8th grade was what I went into the Middle Grades Institute (MGI) with last summer. And having a real grounding with the equity literacy framework through Paul Gorski. Between those two, I decided that the purpose here was really to design a new unit that uses equity literacy as the foundation. And also as the umbrella of everything that we do through health class.

I specifically wanted to analyze the extent to which really intentional anti-biased lessons change students’ thinking about the causes of health disparities.

So: looking at health equity and health disparities. What I was hoping learners would take from this was being able to recognize inequities within the different dimensions of health that we look at.

Finally, the actionable part is to advocate for healthy individuals, families, and schools, which is part of the national health education standards. So bringing that in and grounding that all in the equity work.

the health equity rainbow

When I talk about simplified notions of health, I think a lot of what have done over the years in health education is really focused on that second, darker yellow band there around individual behaviors. Diet. Exercise. Addiction. Coping.

So much of traditional health education is around diet and exercise. And talking about prevention of prevention in terms of drugs and alcohol learning, stress management techniques and so on.

It’s always not really sat very well with me because I thought there’s more to this. But how do I get there with middle-schoolers? How do I go beyond thinking that health is all up to them managing their sleep cycles and managing their diet and so on?

And so I use that image of the rainbow as an intro to the unit talking about that band there of individual behaviors and factors. But then I also bring up this larger context of all the other socio-economic and political factors: living and working conditions, the services that go into our understanding of healthy individuals, and healthy communities, and a healthy nation.

This is also called the social determinants of health. And it’s been a hard thing to access with middle-schoolers.  A lot of the reading that I’ve done is even hard for adults to access. Like, it doesn’t even really roll off the tongue very easily.

So I was trying to think of a different way to approach this.

And then these inquiry questions were also what helped ground the unit:

To what extent is health determined by individual choices and behavior?

Factual: What is the difference between health equity and inequity/disparity?

Conceptual: Why do health disparities exist?

Actionable: What is important to teach our community about health and equity?

“Health for All: An Introductory Unit”

So the intro unit is called Health for All. And the overarching question is how much, or to what extent is health determined by individual choices and behaviors?

We started off getting a real understanding of what is the difference between health equity and inequity. I’m trying to get some solid definitions there for disparity, right?

And then this why question — which is often a challenge to do — why do health disparities exist? And taking a look at some of the different reasons, then ending the unit with an actionable piece.

So: what is it that’s important to learners and students to teach our community about health and equity? Making sure that that piece is built in as well.

Here’s the overview of the unit:

Brief overview of health equity unit

I mentioned the definitions, so getting a grounding in what these words even mean in terms of health. A lot of the 7th and 8th graders come into health class with some prior knowledge and learning through the 6th grade humanities program. And it’s a really great way to connect that to a different discipline now.

We watch this short video and really identify that health disparities are avoidable and unjust, and they are differences in health among groups of people.

Then we do a specific lesson called “Unfortunate or Unjust?”

Finally we choose a topic to investigate.

That’s the action piece: creating a public service announcement to inform our community and actually be able to do something to address this.

“Unfortunate or Unjust?”

Okay, so this lesson is inspired by, as I mentioned, the 6th grade team’s lesson called “Unfortunate or Unjust?” The purpose of this was to raise critical consciousness. It’s a series of 10 statements.

And what we do is stand up or sit down based on whether students think the statement is unfortunate or actually unjust. This is also meant to spark interest in what they then want to go and investigate.

Unfortunate or Unjust? 6th grade lesson plan

So here’s one that addresses talking about diet: “My school only serves the kind of fruit I don’t like, so I never eat fruit.”

For the most part, everyone stays seated. Everyone’s sitting in their chair. (This is obviously COVID adapted. Normally we would move around the room, but this is just stand up or sit down.)

We talk a little bit about the fruits that they don’t like, just trying to get some understanding there that that’s just unfortunate. Like, that’s not targeting any particular social identity group. But it might be someone doesn’t eat as much fruit as would be recommended because they don’t like it.

As opposed to the other statement.

“There are up to 10 times more e-cigarette ads or signs in my neighborhood than in other neighborhoods.”

This gives a chance for anyone who’s interested in exploring this topic more, around how big tobacco companies intentionally target youth in marginalized communities through marketing and advertising. Again, part of this is to raise critical consciousness and to also give learners a chance to see what are some different topics that they can then go and investigate.

Students are in many cases able to make the connection to why something is unfortunate.

They are able to identify the social identity group that is being marginalized.

And so then we can go back to the rainbow graphic and say, “This is an example of racism. This is an example of sexism.” Being able to put that in the larger context of that graphic.

Then a lot of the language for middle schoolers too, is to say that health also just depends on where we work, where we live, and where we play. All of those larger society factors that can influence health beyond just our individual behaviors.

Environmental Health & Environmental Justice

One of the topics that that is offered in the investigation is around environmental health and environmental justice.

One of the questions that is unjust or one of the statements that I have in there is: “My community is next to a landfill. And this is the only place that I can live.”

And there was some really interesting conversation among students. It’s not necessarily at that point in time that we say this is definitely unjust, but it allows for the conversation to happen where some say, well, that’s just too bad, but someone has to. Not really understanding how communities are intentionally placed. Not understanding yet that where landfills are built or power stations is intentional.

And so some of that again is just sparking that raising that critical consciousness around what they’re thinking. Why sometimes some of the unjust statements would actually start off as kids thinking that they’re unfortunate.

But what are students interested in investigating?

What areas of health equity are students interested in investigating?


Now, this was a Google form of student interest on which area, which topic they were interested in investigating more. And it’s a lot. There’s a lot there. I was really trying to provide a lot of choice so that everyone felt like they had something that they could access and interact with.

And there were even some topics beyond this that learners came up with. Someone said they wanted to investigate equal pay and the income gap for gender inequities. So we just added those on based on what other interests came up.

From this, I learned a lot about what students were interested in finding out more about.

Clearly the environmental health piece that I had mentioned, and then mental health and the criminal justice system was something that students were very interested in investigating more.

So then what we did was we grounded that in a real understanding of why these health disparities exist.

After that, they had a chance to choose one of those topics and investigate that more and finally create an action piece. We know it’s important is to be able to take action so that students aren’t just left with what they’ve learned about all of these inequities, and a feeling of… now what do we do with it?

Three Examples of Public Service Announcements (PSAs)

Instead, at the end of the unit, what they had a chance to do was create a public service announcement.

These are just three examples from what they did.

Racism & Health Justice Slideshow

Environmental Justice Video PSA

Kindness Kits

“Kindness Kits” are what some seventh graders did to take action, which was of their own initiative.

They were investigating gender inequities and health, in terms of not having access to, or not being able to talk comfortably about, having menstrual pads available at school. So they decided to put together these kits that have pads in them. And they have a note to anyone who needs them. Students really just did this of their own initiative. They ran with it and decided that they want to make these available for anyone at our school to pick up for themselves or for someone else. That’s how they decided to take action in this case.

Sample Takeaways

This is again from a short Google form. Just some things that the students said that they thought was important from their projects.

  • “I would hope that it would help open a conversation about gender equity.”
  • “I hope that from my PSA, people who are part of the LGBTQ+ community will ask for help when needed and can talk to anyone and feel more comfortable around anyone.”
  • “It will help raise awareness to racism because it’s not talked about enough.”
  • “I think the main idea was to educate people on this issue [mental health and the criminal justice system] because it is not talked about enough.”

Helping to raise awareness and helping to open up the conversation that is sometimes uncomfortable and not talked about. That was that was a big piece for them. This is just a sample, but there was a common theme with all the responses to the Google form.

Next Steps

next steps in teaching health equity

So my next steps: I want to be more explicit in tapping into prior knowledge.

I did a lot of listening and observing from lesson to lesson, but I didn’t feel like at the end, I had a real, like, this is before thinking, and this is after thinking that the learners had for themselves.

And so the next time around, I would like to just be really explicit about this is what I used to think, and this is what I now think.

Then I need to be more intentional and explicit and develop my own current courage around talking about individual choice versus systemic oppression in terms of health outcomes. I felt nervous about doing that when we first came back to school in September because of the dual pandemics that we are experiencing.

I wanted to really recognize the tension of students identifying or self-identifying with these social identities. And then the health outcomes that we know exist and not feeling like this is a done deal for me.

So I’m always trying to balance that.

Being able to talk about things that are uncomfortable and also providing that hope, with an eye towards a more equitable future. And I’m certainly finding my co-conspirators at school help to, to have the courage and continue to develop the courage to do that.

Those are the things that I want to keep working on.


Lindsay McQueen’s Slides



The 2021 Middle Grades Conference was made possible by the Middle Grades Collaborative, a combined project of the University of Vermont, St. Michaels College, Castleton University, and Northern Vermont University.

How to Facilitate Healthy & Respectful Conversations

“How to Facilitate Healthy & Respectful Conversations (Online & Off)” is an interactive online workshop for educators that we offered in March 2021. It featured Vermont educator Kathy Cadwell and six of her students at Harwood Union High School, in Moretown VT.

In this workshop, Katherine Cadwell and her students shared their experiences addressing the specific challenges of planning for and facilitating successful virtual discussions. The students described how to create a functional classroom climate, how young people can work with teachers to set norms for online dialogue, and techniques and strategies to facilitate virtual discussions.

They confront some of the most common roadblocks to healthy & respectful discussions, and learn the norms students recommend for removing them — or better yet, preventing them even starting. We’ll also look at some tech tips for creating engaging and functional online spaces for these dialogues. How can we work with our students to engage in virtual discussions that are highly engaging and grounded in mutual respect, collaboration and trust?

Below please find a recording of the workshop, optimized for solo or team playback.

The workshop itself contains prompts for reflection, as well as an activity involving an excerpt from Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People To Talk About Racism.

We encourage you to listen to these materials as a solo practitioner, or with your teaching team. Below, you’ll also find a transcript of these materials, annotated with the resources cited.

All materials presented here are licensed via Creative Commons 4.0 (Non-Commercial) license. You may re-use them, and re-mix them for non-commercial usage, with attribution.



Audio-only version



Kathy Cadwell: I’m here with several wonderful students. Six wonderful, highly talented students that I have worked with at Harwood, to share a journey that we’ve been on and what we know about how to have high quality in-person conversations — especially how to have high quality conversations online. And the students are really going to be leading much of this workshop and they’re going to be facilitating a small online discussion.

We invite everyone to join in and we’ll be sharing the practices that we’ve learned to adopt as we go along.

Today, we are really gonna hone in on this question of how can we create virtual classrooms that are highly engaging and grounded in mutual respect, collaboration, and trust.

Meet Your Instructors

Merry Smith: So we are all Harwood students. And last year, we were all part of a class with Kathy Cadwell that focused on classroom dialogue through the Harkness pedagogy.

And we were having lots of discussions and presenting around the state when COVID happened, and we decided to try to have discussions online. Most of this presentation is based on what we learned during those months after March.

Merry Smith, Harwood Union High School

So I’m Merry Smith. This is my second year working with Kathy Cadwell on all this work. And in my spare time, I also like to play field hockey and I’m also a ski instructor during the winter and the season just finished out and that’s me on the left with the student that I got to work with this year. So it was really fun. Yeah.

Maia George: Hi, I’m Maia George. I’m a junior at Harwood. I’ve been involved in Harkness for two years with Kathy and I’ve been helping her teach some courses this year on dialogue, which has been really fun.

Maia George, Harwood Union High School

When I’m not at school, I like to watch Gilmore Girls with my sister. Here, you can see me on a hike at camp.

Jaye Fuller: Hi everyone. My name is Jaye Fuller. I’m 17 years old and I’m a junior at Harwood Union High school. Throughout my years of high school, I’ve become super passionate about students advocating for their own education. And because of this, I love being involved in the craziness of the Hartness pedagogy, where students drive the conversation.

Jaye Fuller, Harwood Union High School

When I’m not in school, you can find me playing basketball training as barista at PK Coffee, and spending time outdoors with family and friends.

Anna Albertini: Hi guys, I’m Anna Albertini, and I’m so excited to be here today. So, I am a junior at Harwood Union High School, and this is also my second year. I’m working with Kathy on Harkness when I’m not in school. I love to travel. And I also intern at a law office in Waterbury VT.

Anna Albertini, Harwood Union High School

And I really love Harkness because I love expanding on new ways to learn and helping integrate that into my school community.

Allie Brooks: My name is Allie Brooks. I am also a junior at Harwood. In my free time, I love to play field hockey, sing, and spend time with my family and friends.

Allie Brooks, Harwood Union High School

I took that class with Kathy last year and ever since then, I’ve been really involved in the Harkness pedagogy at Harwood. And I love the opportunity to kind of take charge of my own learning and help other students do that as well.

Mason Berry: I’m Mason, I’m a senior, I’ve been working with Harkness in and out of the strategies class since sophomore year. I’ve really come to believe in the main concept of Harkness, which is: the one that does the work, does the learning.

Mason Berry, Harwood Union High School

And I want to like continue spreading that after I’m out of Harwood.

Where to start with building online conversation spaces

Kathy: Thanks Mason. So you heard these students mentioned the term Harkness or the Harkness pedagogy. That’s a particular type of learning where students work together to drive the conversation. This workshop is really not about Harkness.

We’re really going to be sharing our experiences about how to have high quality discussions face-to-face and most specifically, online. We’re going to be sharing some general principles that we have just learned.

Now, these are words that really have resonated with me:

“The foundation of all high quality discussion is based on relationships and trust.”

And Brené Brown says, “Trust is earned in the smallest of moments.”

When we think about developing trust in our classrooms, and a climate of collaboration and safety, where kids feel comfortable taking risks? That’s the foundation of all successful and high quality dialogue.

And this sort of dialogue, I think demands new roles for students and teachers.

One of the things that’s important to think about with online dialogues is what are the obstacles, because there are definitely some new things that have come up in the past year that have made it a little bit harder to discuss these topics in an online classroom setting.

There are certainly advantages, but we’re going to start off with this short video of Harwood teachers showing some obstacles to an online discussion.

Have you ever seen any of these behaviors before?



Merry: So one exercise we’re gonna do is we want to know what challenges you as teachers have encountered using online discussions. And we’d like you to put them in the chat, like think of just a few comments or something that you thought of that video, something you’ve experienced in your virtual classroom.

From the chat:
  • “I start talking and forget to unmute.”
  • “I can hear students talking to each other on Facebook.”
  • “Students who leave immediately after attendance.”
  • “Little siblings bombing the class.”
  • “Multiple people trying to talk at the same time.”
  • “Pets are wonderful, but sometimes distracting.”
  • “Students not turning on their cameras.”
  • “It’s difficult to read body language when talking about tough topics.”
  • “Glitching screens!”
  • “Students are in chaotic environments that cause disruptions when they try to ask questions.”
  • “Teachers not being aware of why students choose to keep their cameras off.”
  • “I feel all alone sometimes.”

Kathy: As you’re scrolling through these, do you see anything that you haven’t written, but that that resonates with your experience? l

When we operate in an online world, it really is a new world.

Challenges… from the students’ perspective

Kathy: This is a list that kids created to share with teachers what’s hard for them.

Anna: So, the first thing that we noticed when we were brainstorming challenges that we had experienced while having online discussions was that speaking up online can be more difficult.

how to facilitate conversations


I think that when you have like a barrier of technology, it can definitely be like a little bit more nerve-wracking. It adds a lot of extra challenges just on top of already, like, speaking out in a group can sometimes be really scary for a lot of students.

Jaye: It is immensely easier to lose focus and not participate in online discussions than it is in person. I don’t know about you guys, but I have a Macbook as my computer. So like, if I see a message pop up it’s super easy to just turn and want to respond to my message rather than zeroing in on what’s going on in the discussion.

Anna: There are sometimes technical difficulties that can get in the way of learning. Almost like every zoom I’m in, you know, it’s a big, big challenge that we face.

Jaye: It is hard to connect with people through a screen and feel that energy in the room. During a discussion in person, you can definitely like feel the energy start to build and pick up. And it’s a lot harder through the screen, which then can cause people to be nervous or not focus. And just the loss of energy sometimes is a huge challenge that students face.

Anna: So this one, I think is a real, real big challenge, especially when we’re having active discussions. And that is, without body language, interruptions are frequent.

Through the screen, you can’t really see when people are like leaning in to speak up into a discussion. So that makes it so interruptions are a lot more frequent because we can’t read each other’s body language.

Jaye: Another one is there’s less accountability for students. This is a huge one, because students have to become accountable to themselves and say, “You know what, this is a time where I’m going to focus and I’m going to drive my own learning.”

Whereas in a classroom, you know, you’re accountable to your teacher.

Who’s like standing right there. And watching you.

Through Zoom, the teacher’s watching you, but you can have your camera off. So there’s just less boundaries and less accountability. It really turns the focus to the student and drives the student to say: hey, I want to drive my own learning.

Anna: So the next one is the online experience is not the same for every person as the environment is different. So opposed to being in a one classroom altogether, I think it’s a big challenge that everyone’s in a different environment and their distractions, their workspace may be different. That definitely makes it difficult.

What happens in a high quality discussion?

Kathy: Thank you, Anna and Jaye. We might compare this with our list that we just brainstormed. There are certainly some overlaps and yet some very different challenges when you’re a student in an online classroom, rather than if you’re a teacher.

Now, let’s move towards what happens in a high quality discussion.

We want to invite you to think for a minute and visualize when you are in a high quality discussion face-to-face or online.

What do you see? And what do you see happening?

What do you hear? What sorts of comments do you hear student to teacher, student to student, for example, and what would you, how would you characterize the emotional tone or climate of the classroom?

We’re inviting everyone to write in to this Google Doc, and let us know your experiences.


Really focus on specifics.
  • What does it look like?
  • What does it sound like?
  • And what sorts of comments are you getting?
  • What’s the emotional tone of the classroom or the climate of the classroom?

We saw in the video spoof some of the behaviors that maybe we don’t want to see in an online discussion, but what are the things that we do want, either face-to-face or online discussion?

This is absolutely an exercise that I have done with students. It’s an exercise I encourage you to do with students. Make a copy of the Google Doc and use it to collect feedback from your students.

Engagement takes different forms in different spaces, such as Google Docs vs. chats. And it can look like students nodding or shaking their heads, indicating whether or not they understand, or are paying attention to other students.

Eye contact; leaning forward, or facing forward; unmuting to participate.

It looks like including everyone’s voices. It’s shared airtime, and both probing and clarifying questions.

This is a really interesting comment in the middle of that second column:

“The rhythm of different speakers allows many to be involved. Each talking for long enough to express some deep stuff, at least a minute, but not so long as to take up too much air.”

That’s a powerful observation. And it’s true for being online and face-to-face.

The climate of the classroom is what forms the foundation to allow those brave conversations to take place. Positive tension in the air. People are hanging onto each other’s words and listening for ways that their own thinking is challenged and expanded.

This is a lovely list.

So these are aspirational, right? This is what we would want to happen.

And I I’d urge you to have your kids do this as an exercise also.

So how do we get there and what are some of the techniques and strategies that we can use?

how to facilitate conversations


Allie: So our first norm, our first practice that we have is to invite students to log on early and chat with you.

And this kind of just like helps create a safe and a kind of healthy environment where students don’t feel like they’re going to be judged. They don’t feel like they are too stressed out about it. It really kind of just gives them that peace of mind.

And then the second one? Is to begin with an icebreaker.

This is kind of similar in that it just makes it a more relaxed environment. It’s not as stressful, or it’s not as tense for students. And it’s also a really good way to connect with people. A lot of people said that it’s hard to connect over Zoom, and it kind of feels like you’re not really having a discussion with people.

So an icebreaker can be a really great way to make that connection, even over a virtual space.

Then the next one is to use the chat as a tool to get people thinking about ideas.

This is one way you can actually utilize the online learning environment to your advantage. I know it can be really easy to look at all the negatives of this. But it’s also important to remember that there are positives too. Like, we just used it earlier in this presentation, and it can also be great to privately chat with students. You know, if they’re having a little trouble or if they’re not speaking out as much, but you sense that they might have some great ideas, they’re just not really feeling comfortable with that. That can be a great tool to use.

And then the last one is to monitor your airtime as a teacher.

Kind of know your class and based on that, decide your role in the discussion. It’s kind of easy to tell pretty quickly how high quality the discussion is going to be. So if you can tell that all your students are really engaged, they’re really going to be having a good discussion. You can just step back and don’t need that big of a role in it.

Then again, of course, it’s also classes that are definitely gonna need more help, need more teacher engagement. But it’s really important to not treat every class the same to kind of assess where your class is at are and go based off of that.

Have students establish the norms

Kathy: Let me mention one thing. The first one on the list is have students establish norms. And I think that’s critical. That kids are involved along with you as the teacher in co-constructing the norms for the discussions. Allie, that was wonderful. Thank you. I really appreciate it.

how to facilitate conversations


Maia: Another thing to think about is to encourage questions rather than answers. And to model and encourage risk-taking.

With students, especially online, it’s hard to speak out, cause they might feel like they’re just talking to a screen or people that they don’t feel as connected to. It’s harder to create that brave space in an online environment.

So when the teacher is modeling that, it gives students, especially younger students, an example of what they can do. It just creates a nice model for the space that we’re creating online.

And then another thing that we’ve found is really helpful is to end the class with a group debrief. Thinking about what we as individuals each learned during the day, and then also how that contributed to the group and how the group performed.

  • When we all combined our knowledge what do we need to work on?
  • What else can the teacher do to help the students?

At the end, we often ask students to give shout-outs to one another for their contributions. To build those relationships and the trust between each other.

And finally, practice with short and sweet before deep and difficult. Don’t dive into those really deep probing timeless and timely questions. Start out with like an icebreaker or some clarifying short questions.

And then students will naturally be able to move into the realm of probing and deeper thoughts.

Kathy: So full disclosure, the students came up with most of the things on this list as advice for us as teachers.

And when we were thrown into lockdown last year, like all of us, I was leading a class on dialogue and we had to go from dialogue in person to dialogue online.

We had start from the beginning, constructing norms and figuring out how to make this work. And we probably had 15 very in-depth high value online discussions, but we had to create it from the beginning and build it from the ground up together.

Give it a try:

Use what you’ve learned so far to try some new ways to create a healthy discussion space.

At this workshop, attendees broke into groups to discuss an excerpt from Robin DiAngelo’s, White Fragility. And the Harwood students each facilitated a breakout group.

We invite you to choose a similar text to try out some of the norm setting and discussion facilitation tools the students have shared.

Tech tools to support healthy conversations

Kathy: Allie and Mason are going to take us through our final activity.

And, you know, this takes courage. This is long-term work. It’s important work.

Just as learning to teach online takes courage, listening deeply to our students, letting students step forward and drive the conversation and investigating new roles for students and teachers? All that takes courage, for all of us to learn how to step back so that we can help kids learn how to step up.

So Mason and Allie why don’t you take us through this last piece?

Mason: We’re going to be doing a jamboard about how we can use strategies and tech tools to create engagement in deep online discussions.

Kathy: So let me just say with regard to this question, when the kids and I were planning this, we talked about what do we want you as to take away from this discussion.

And this is the question that the kids came up with.

How can you and I, as teachers, use other strategies and tech tools to help create engagement and to deepen online discussions?

So I’m going to open up this Jamboard.

What are things that you’ve done? Well, what strategies have you used? What tech tools have you used? And I’d invite students also to add to this things that have worked for you.

Things that have been helpful, tech tools that create engagement strategies that have worked, maybe you’ve used it, or you’ve been a, a student or a participant. And if you’re not familiar with jamboard, this is one of the tech tools that can be helpful.

A little note about Jamboards

Maia: You can create a sticky note, which most people have been doing. And you can also draw or add a picture or just like a text box and, and then you can move them around, make them bigger and change the color.

Kathy: I’d love to invite anyone in the audience students and teachers, or whether you were here from the beginning or whether you joined us late. Just to talk about things that have been helpful for you.

how to facilitate conversations


Using silence as a tool in conversational spaces

Kathy: I want to make a couple of observations about our list. A number of people have talked about silence.

And commenting that some of the facilitators  [in the Breakout Rooms] used silence  in a really thoughtful way.

Silence is oftentimes uncomfortable for us.

And I know that in my classes, we talk about this as students. We talk about how they use silence as a way to encourage deep thinking.

And there are techniques that you can use. Sometimes we call that a turn and talk. If you sense that people are silent, instead of jumping in to save the conversation, which teachers often do if they feel there’s tension in the room, no one’s talking.

Instead, you could have a private chat with a student, or, as some of you are suggesting, have a three minute think time. Turn off your cameras.

Right? Think for three minutes, come back to the conversation. Get comfortable with silence. Use silence as a learning tool.

It’s a challenge, but it’s a wonderful one because it can be a productive way to learn how to be comfortable with one another.

Abby: One thing that I’ve done in the past to varying degrees of success is have students like an answer to a question in chat and then like pick one of their responses and ask if anyone wants to like, respond to that. And oftentimes that gets students thinking about like other students’ work. Then sometimes even the student who said it will like, well, no, that’s not what I meant. And so they’re sort of playing off of each other.

Kathy: Thank you, Abby. Yeah. Using the private chat is it’s a really interesting technique. A couple of people mentioned, you know, here, the comment and using the chat to invite people in when you’re face-to-face. Right.

I can look Merry in the eye and I can give her a little clue that I’d love to have her speak next, like, but I can also chat Merry. Private chat her and say, “Merry, I’m really looking forward to your comment.”

Of course, the challenge is you don’t want to have so many crosscurrents of conversations off screen that people’s attention is diverted. That’s why, if you notice in the norms, we often we ask people to remain on the screen. To close other screens to give their full attention to the conversation at hand.

Even more resources


So just as a way to end, I have been engaged in this work of having high quality, thoughtful discussions that are really grounded in mutual respect, collaboration and trust for the last five years or so. And I’ve done it in a way where I’m using the knowledge that I can gain and the partnership that I can create with students to do this work.

So here are some resources that I’ve pulled together that have been helpful for me. I’m sharing them all with you here.

There’s some articles I’ve written that have really been written with kids and about the kids that you have met today. Some icebreaker activities, some materials for helping students ask good questions, some other articles on civil discourse, these are some pretty thoughtful articles.

Next steps

And then finally, I have a website where I have all sorts of materials and videos about having discussions specifically what we call Harkness discussions. That said, they don’t have to be Harkness discussions, just high quality face-to-face or online discussions.

And as we close out, I want to say a special thank you to the kids who are here today.


Thank you, Jay and Mason and Allie and Mary and Maya and Anna for taking time during school, online and after school. Thank you for sharing your time with us. And thank you for sharing your expertise.

Place-Based, De-Colonized Ecology in Middle School

Natalie Smith, a middle school science educator at Lyndon Town School, in Lyndonville VT, originally presented “Making Science Authentic: Teaching Place-Based, Decolonized Ecology in the Middle School Science Classroom” in January 2021. She presented it as part of the 2021 Middle Grades Conference at the University of Vermont.

Below please find a recording of the workshop, optimized for solo or team playback.

The workshop itself contains a number of prompts for reflection. We encourage you to listen to these materials as a solo practitioner, or with your teaching team. Additionally, we present an annotated transcript of this presentation for your use.



Audio-Only Version


Annotated Transcript

Let’s jump right in to my pet peeve.

For those of you that aren’t familiar? You are lucky. This video is The Wolves and Moose of isle Royale (video), and I’m not going to inflict it on you.

ecology in middle school: "What's wrong with this picture?"

I’m being a little unfair to this video because it’s a really fascinating study in population dynamics. In how a closed ecosystem like Isle Royale —  which for most of the year animals can’t come and go because it’s so far removed from the mainland — how predator and prey relationships are shaped on that island when one of those populations, the wolves, undergoes a drastic decline.

That all sounds really great to me, as a scientist. And it probably sounds really great to you if you are a science teacher. But I have a major problem with this video.

My problem is that for the past six or so years, I’ve been in and out of various science classrooms as an instructional assistant and as an intern, and every time we get into ecology, we show this video.

Every classroom I had been in, and every school that I had been in, this video has come up.

Then, I had the opportunity to start at Lyndon Town School (LTS) this year.

The previous 7th grade science teacher shared with me her old materials. And right there at the top of the unit plan there, they were again: the wolves and moose of Isle Royale. For me, they’re fascinating.

But for the past six years, I have sat there through this video and watched the faces glaze over. Because there are two groups of kids that are really into this video:

  1. the middle school wolf girls are really into this video (because there are wolves in it);
  2. and the kids who already see themselves as scientists are into this video.

And everyone else has no way of accessing science through this video.

I’m going to be honest with you: I’ve seen this video seven or eight or nine times now, and I still could not tell you on a map where Isle Royale is. I think it might be in Michigan or Minnesota or one of those other M States, but going to be honest: not a clue. Plus, I could be making that fact up.

And that’s the problem.

If I, as a science teacher, as someone who spent four years studying biology, have no connection to this video, how am I going to expect my students to connect to the subjects that I’m teaching them? If I start out with something that’s got no relevance to their lives whatsoever (unless they’re the middle school wolf girls).

So, in starting my year out at LTS, my goal was to make a significant change to how we teach ecology.

And I’m kind of fortunate that I am the only 7th grade science teacher. I am the only one in my building that is teaching ecology. So I got to say: you know what? I am not showing the wolves of Isle Royale this year. We are doing something different.

So here was my goal in this unit.

ecology in middle school


My goal was threefold.

First to get them engaged, to get them asking questions and investigating solutions by second, making them see that every single person who walks through my classroom door (or rather in COVID times, every single person who is in the room when I walk through the classroom door) is a scientist.

And to make sure that everyone who is in my classroom can see themselves reflected in the science that we’re learning.

And to do that part three, I wanted to make the science personal. By building a connection for them to the stuff that they were learning.

So here’s my mission statement. It’s beautifully phrased and you are welcome to read it, but what it boils down to is that I wanted my students to engage in the work of thinking like a scientist by making the material relevant to them. And by breaking down the idea that there is any one right way to interact with their ecosystem.

ecology in middle school


Before the unit started. I gathered some data, because I’m a scientist.

So in my traditional start-the-year survey, I snuck in a few extra questions beyond the:

  • Who are you?
  • And what’s your experience with science
  • What are you passionate about?
  • And what do you want me to know about you?

In between those, there were 10 I statements that were related to cognitive engagement, and those were around topics like:

  • whether or not my students ask questions when they’re confused;
  • whether or not they had strategies that they employed for understanding material;
  • and whether or not they have goals for their learning;
  • whether or not they talk about their material outside of my class and make connections between what they’re learning and other topics.

For these questions, I had students rank themselves from one to four, which really irked them. Because middle school students love nothing more than selecting that answer right in the middle. And they couldn’t do that.

They had to scale themselves from one to four, with one being, “Nope, this doesn’t describe me at all” and four being, “Yes, this is me overall.”

What I saw was that my students were willing to ask questions, but they were not at all engaged in making connections between science and the rest of their lives.

And I want to show you two graphs that show what is the most telling for me.

ecology in middle school

The statement that I gave them was, “I talk about what I am learning in my classes outside of school”. And over 60% of my students were in the, “that does not sound like me” range. Only 12.8% — five of my students — talk about what they are learning outside of school.

Or at least did at the start of the school year.

And the other one that was very telling for me was, “I try to make connections between the things I’ve learned.”

ecology in middle school

Again, more than half of them in that one to two range, and only three students saying, “Yes, this sounds like me. I make connections between the ideas that I’m learning.”


The goal is to change those two sets of numbers.

And here’s where we started instead of the wolves of Isle Royale. I started with this book: Tom Wessel’s Forest Forensics, which is based off his longer book, Reading the Forested Landscape. And if you are a science teacher in Vermont, this book was made for you because this is a field guide to figuring out the history of a new England forest.


I took this field guide and broke it down to make it a little more student-friendly. I turned it into some real, yes or no dichotomous keys. Where my students could take them out into the woods around our school and use them to draw a conclusion about what our school’s land was used for before 1991, when our building was built.

We spent a glorious day out, roaming the trails with dichotomous keys, hunting for pillows and cradles and inspecting trees for scar tissue and identifying insect species that we could use to determine how old the forest around us was.  In order to draw a conclusion about *our* place specifically and what the history of it was before we got there.

The conclusion that my students mostly reached was that they are convinced that our school was built on an old growth forest.

Before we came to that spot, this was undisturbed forest land. Rich.

And we built on this unit from that foundation.

ecology in middle school

From saying, “These concepts are relevant to this spot that we are standing on.”

We can get the big vocabulary and we can talk for hours about what abiotic and biotic factors are, and what different types of symbiosis are.

But all of these things are happening here. All of these things are things that you as an individual are a part of.

From there, some of the stuff that we did in this unit?

I built in some time for them to say, here’s what I want to learn about.

Based on that, I built some playlists for them to work through around topics like water use, and agriculture. Because many of my students are farmers, they wanted to investigate that.

One of the topics that I was able to build, with some resources shared with me by Judy Dow of Gedakina, was a playlist that many of my students engaged with around traditional tribal ecological knowledge.

Based off my second book recommendation for you for the day, Low Tech by Julia Watson, we did lab work related specifically to Vermont waterways. I gave my students a map and said,

“Okay, here’s where my parents live. Here’s where we are. I’m driving between the two places. You tell me where to stop. And we’re going to test the water from those places to see, which is the healthiest. “

Lake Willoughby was the winner, and Winooski River was the loser in our lab testing. Make of that what you will.

Students chose what concepts I presented them with under the broad umbrella of ecology and ecosystems. I said, “Okay, what out of this interests you most?”

So we spent a week focused on what makes something alive, anyways. And how do scientists know if something is alive? Including the classic lesson on sewer lice.

For those of you that are about to be concerned, sewer lice are raisins in some kind of carbonated beverage. But because they are paired with this fantastic video from Carolina Biological Supply, I can convince any room of students that sewer lice are a real organism.

And then they get real grossed out when I start eating them out of the test tube.

It really generates a conversation when I finally reveal to them what the sewer lice are.

  • Okay, what fooled you?
  • What made you think that this was alive?
  • And how is this such a hard topic for us to understand?

But the ultimate goal in this unit was to get them to here, to our final project.

Which was to say: you are a member of this ecosystem for better or worse. You are a member of your ecosystem. And because you are a human person, you are capable of making more drastic effects than any other single part of this ecosystem.


You have needs as an individual. You have things that you love. How can we meet those needs? How can we fulfill those passions while still meeting the needs of our ecosystem?

"The final ask for this unit: how can we, as a major part of the Lyndon ecosystem, meet our needs while still meeting the needs of our ecosystem?"


I turned them loose on identifying topics that were important to them, which ranged everywhere from art and art supplies to sports (which was terrifying for me because I am not a sports person), to farming to old cars. You name it, they loved it.

Whatever they came to me with, we worked together to identify how that topic impacted the ecosystem.

So to give one example: one of my students is an artist. And this student really wanted to do something related to art. So what we came up with was looking at art supplies and how those are made. Could we make them with better materials? So that you can still do art while not contributing to the problems of overuse of plastics?

Once they had a topic, I turned them loose on some research.

They had to come back to me with the answers to four questions.

They had to give me some background info just because I can’t be an expert in everything. And they had to tell me:

  1. How does this topic or issue or passion affect our ecosystem?
  2. What changes are possible to make?
  3. What are people doing already?
  4. And if we make these changes on a broader scale, what would the impact be on our ecosystem?

Then finally, once they had those answers, they designed some kind of a multimedia project to share what they learned. And the goal here was that they would be sharing it, not just with me, but with someone out in the community to try to affect change.

Humans in the Ecosystem: three methods


Unfortunately, the last bit of that goal was kind of the stumbling block for this unit.

I learned that 99% of seventh grade students are not willing to have their work shared with anybody but their teacher.

So, the student in this example ended up focusing in on two art supplies: ink and paintbrushes. This student identified that a major problem with art supplies is plastics and how much plastic is used to make the materials that we use to make art. This student also identified how to make their own ink. They identified how to make their own hair for the brushes. And wood-based paintbrushes to use with that ink.

The art that is on this poster was partially accomplished with the ink that this student made to demonstrate me that this was a viable alternative.

They were able to identify that not just the plastic, but the actual materials in the ink itself are bad for the environment. So that making their own ink and making their own brushes would help to mitigate the problem of plastics being tossed into a landfill.

The other outcome?

This question has come back to haunt us from the start of the presentation. I talk about the things we learn outside of school. So when asking them specifically about this unit, we started off with 60% of middle schoolers down in this one to two range  Well, over 60% instead are in the two to three range, moving towards talking more about what they’re learning outside of class.

post-action research data: "I talked about things we learned or did in this unit outside of school"

Unfortunately, this next one didn’t change as much as I would like.

The making connections between what I’m learning and other learning and outside ideas? These numbers stayed fairly consistent from the first survey to the last survey.

ecology in middle school


We had about 50% down in the one to two range when we started, and 50% still down there.

I think a large part of that is two-fold.

Part of that was that they did not want to make a connection to the outside because they did not want to share their work.

But the other part of that, another major stumbling block that I didn’t anticipate with this unit, was a vocal group of students who walked into this final project and informed me that they would only be doing a topic where they could say everything that we as humans are doing is right, and nothing should change.

And we’re starting to see that same group of students in the humanities. Applying those same ideas to their work around politics and history.

So part of my next step for this unit, when I teach it again in the future — I’m going to keep working on this unit – is to find a way to de-center the idea that the way we as white people in the Northeast kingdom are doing things is the right way to do things.

Part of that is that this unit needs more connection to the Wabenaki people, whose land I am teaching on right now.

And part of this unit that would exist if these were not COVID times would have been an excursion into Vermont’s returned tribal forest plains. They’re right up the road from our school, but too far away for us to get to on foot. We were not able to travel to them this year.

And then in the future, I want all of my units to eventually be viewed through this lens.

So all of my science units at someday are going to start with:

  • How do I connect these people that live here to this concept?
  • Why does what I want to teach matter to the people that live here so that I can convince the people that live here, that they are scientists?

Other exemplars from this unit

Wildlife Bridges


Please feel free to take anything you find in my slides and adapt it to the people that are learning science, where you are.

Questions from the Audience

Question on de-colonization: “My question is how many students or more about the demographics of your students? So are you teaching children? Are there Black children, other Indigenous children in your classroom? How does that influence your teaching? And you use the word ‘decolonize’. Can you talk a little more about what you mean about that and how it’s related to anti-racism?”

Thank you.

So yes, my demographics up here in the Northeast Kingdom. It is a very white part of a very white state.

In total, I’ve got 48 students and of those, we’ve got three Black students. We do have some that claim Native heritage, but not that they have talked about to me. So it is a very white part of the world.

For me, when I think about decolonizing, what I’m thinking about is the fact that for most of the science that we teach, what we are teaching is very centered around white male ideas of how the world works.

Most of the history of Western science does not acknowledge ideas outside of the history of Western science. So even like, if I’m teaching space right now, traditional science classes dictate that I should be teaching about Kepler and Galileo. I should teach about all of these people who did phenomenal work in helping us understand how science works right up through the Hubble and Hawking.

And all of those people that I just named are white men.

But we don’t acknowledge in a traditional unit the fact that Arabic astronomers were first people to come up with accurate maps of the sky. That they were first to calculate the size of the planet earth.

We don’t acknowledge Native peoples that keep accurate understandings of the sky. And that tell stories based on the stars that we’re looking at.

So when I talk about decolonizing a science class, what I’m thinking about is this idea that there are in all of the history of science, so many ideas that don’t get acknowledged because they weren’t published through the traditional channels of white male science.

Question on the language of decolonization: “I guess what I wanted to say was do you use words like with middle schoolers, like ‘whiteness’ and ‘white men’ and ‘white supremacy’ and, and things like that?”

I want to give you an example of an easy way to bring that into the science classroom.

In my work group, I have an acknowledgement of birthdays. And part of what I acknowledge every month is a famous scientist birthday.

Now, that has involved things like the fact that we don’t know George Washington Carver’s birthday, because he was born into slavery. And despite all of his great acknowledgements, I can’t say happy birthday to him. I have to acknowledge him on the anniversary of his death. We have no idea when he was born. And other Black scientists have had their work so belittled that they were not able to work in the field of science. They went into other fields, like education.

So, yeah, and I probably don’t do as much work about it as I should because I am still white and sometimes it slips my mind. But I do try to make those acknowledgements and use that specific language with my students.

Question on assessment: “Do you have any strategies for getting students to problems in systems when they think they are doing something perfectly?”

So, I’m not going to promise that this is a perfect strategy, because it did not work with all of my students, but for some of them, what worked really well was to say,

“Okay, this is obviously something that you feel very strongly about. Now go find me the data, because this is science class and we are all about data. You are going to go forth. We did some work at the start of the year on what a reputable source and science looks like. So I know you know how to find those. You’re going to go out, you’re going to find me the data. And you are going to report back on what the data says.”

Question on centering Indigenous history in a science curriculum: “I’m curious because you did such interesting discussions around the Indigenous people. In terms of the Wabenaki, the Indigenous people who started here, I’m wondering how you can, as you go forward with this type of thing,  test to actually kind of center that more? What can you do to incorporate that history as the center? As you’re going out into these beautiful lands and these beautiful places? How can you bring that up and use your science lens?”

Right. So, in thinking about that, here’s one of the things that immediately comes to mind. I had a part in my unit where we were focused on: why does this matter? Why does it matter that we learn about ecology?

And the first thing that I thought of to pull out was John Muir. His essays on the American wilderness, and the importance of keeping wild spaces.

The first thing that comes to mind with that question — and something that is now going to be part of this unit going forward  — is replacing that writing. Because it’s a powerful writing, but it’s also John Muir mostly writing about the Sierras. I know that Judy Dow and other Native American people in this area have written about the beauty and the importance of place.

So that’s the first thing that comes to mind for me: bringing those voices even more into my classroom. Saying: why does it matter? Well, here are the people that have been here since long before. They are going to tell us why it matters.

Question on including Indigenous and Black families in curriculum design: “I’m a student teacher, and I had to write up a lesson plan called the invasion plan. And I chose centering Indigenous people. Before we ever talk about Columbus or anything like that, centering them in the curriculum first. And one of the things, one of the suggestions that I got from the rethinking schools book was if there were any Indigenous children in the classroom, to let them know what you were going to talk about. And I’m wondering also, so how do we include families of Black children and Indigenous children when the majority are white in the classroom? How do we encourage those families and those children to be centered in those conversations?”

Thank you. And good luck with student teaching; I was there last year.

So, normal teaching, I have been told, is not like this year. But yeah, I don’t know if I have an answer so much to that as an agreement. It would be incredibly powerful to bring the voices of those students and those families whose cultural experiences are so very different from the bulk of my classroom into the conversation.

And part of the reason that I’m not sure I have a good answer for that, is that there is really no good way to bring those families into the conversation in my classroom right now. Short of putting them up on screen in Zoom — which for a lot of our families, the access might not be there.

It’s hard to get them involved in the conversation. But I absolutely agree with you that bringing those voices in would be incredibly powerful.

Question on Vermont eugenics & the science curriculum: “I’m thinking a lot, mostly because of work with Judy Dow, about how eugenics has served as a way of erasing Indigenous people in Vermont. And so when I hear folks in especially in the Northeast Kingdom, say that their students are all white? It makes me wonder if part of that is erasure because so many Abenaki families had to assimilate to survive. To avoid sterilization and by the State of Vermont and to avoid being institutionalized by the State of Vermont. And what I’ve been wondering about is if we had a better statewide approach to teaching about the Abenaki and the other Indigenous folks that lived on these lands, whose rightful land, we are living on. Would we have more families feel comfortable sort of owning and claiming their heritage?”

Yeah. I feel like it’s a real disservice that we don’t teach about eugenics in Vermont. We’re gonna lose people who know the meaning of that heritage. So I’m just just thinking about that.

I’ve actually been trying to figure out how far I can push the envelope with my students and my administration. One of the units that I get to hit before the end of the school year, is I get Human Body.

And one of the thoughts that I had around that unit was to spend some time on what makes us look different, and why it is that we perceive these differences in such a negative way and treat these differences so differently, and with such anger and violence. Really pushing them at that notion of how much more alike we are than we are different.

So that was a foundation that I was wondering if I could get away with, for my human body unit. And I may be pushing into that later this year.

I’ll let you know how it goes.


Natalie Smith’s slides:




The 2021 Middle Grades Conference was made possible by the Middle Grades Collaborative, a combined project of the University of Vermont, St. Michaels College, Castleton University, and Northern Vermont University.


Playlists & Other Strategies for Supporting Independent Learners

Playlists & Other Strategies for Supporting Independent Learners is an interactive online workshop for educators that we offered in December 2020. It featured Kyle Chadburn & Andrea Gratton, both of the Orleans Elementary School, in Barton VT.

Below please find a recording of the workshop, optimized for solo or team playback.

The workshop itself contains prompts for reflection, as well as more details about specifically how these two educators use playlists along with other strategies to support their 5/6 and 7/8 cohorts of learners. We encourage you to listen to these materials as a solo practitioner, or with your teaching team.


For more information about upcoming workshops, courses, and other events, subscribe to this blog or follow us on twitter at @innovativeEd.

Decolonizing Place-Based Education

Decolonizing Place-Based Education is an interactive online workshop for educators that we offered in February 2021. It is a collaborative project of the UVM Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education, Gedakina, the UVM Rubenstein School for Nature & Environmental Resources, and Shelburne Farms. Educators Judy Dow, Marie Vea, Aimee Arandia Østensen and Emily Hoyler designed and co-facilitated the materials.

Below please find a recording of the workshop, optimized for solo or team playback.

The workshop itself contains a number of prompts for reflection. We encourage you to listen to these materials as a solo practitioner, or with your teaching team.


Additionally, we’re providing a copy of the slides used in the workshop for your reference. That said, we do encourage you to work through the video content along with the slides.  Please note that we release these materials under Creative Commons license 4.0: non-commercial use and remix, with attribution.



Each month, the UVM Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education offers 1-2 interactive online workshops for educators. These workshops aim to help educators tackle topics of current import to classroom work. Additionally, they provide documented re-certification hours.

If you’ve attended one of our workshops and have found it useful in your work, please consider donating to us, to keep these workshops free to attendees. Or, if you have an idea or a need for a workshop you’d like us to coordinate, please reach out and let us know.

Resources for responding to January 6th

As ever-increasing cracks in the foundation of our democracy reveal weakness and corruption, so too do these revelations allow the light of justice and truth to penetrate. As educators, our work to help young people learn to communicate across differences, think critically, and work for justice is as important as ever. This remains an apt time to reconnect and reflect.

And an even more apt time to talk about what’s happening with our students.

Rest assured, they know something’s going on, but they’ll need your help to begin processing.

What’s happened now:

On January 6, 2021, a group of white supremacist terrorists infiltrated the US Capitol building and briefly shut down Congress. They committed many criminal acts, yet news outlets have portrayed them variously as “criminals”, “protesters” and “heroes”. What’s the truth? And who decides?

First of all: you’re not alone in this. Teachers nationwide are talking about this with their students. We are all trying to make sense of this at the same time as our students do. We’re the adults in the room, so we’re having to do the thing.

resources for responding to January 6th

And we’re also here to provide some resources and strategies for talking with your students.

Let’s start with the big picture: what happened
General resources for responding to January 6th

Putting it in historical perspective

Resources for anti-racist education

Looking for resources to talk about who’s at the heart of our conversations on what matters? Need help evaluating critical sources for bias, or just jumping into anti-racist education?

Resources for digital citizenship

One important portion of the events of January 6th was the role of the then-President, both in video messages and on social media. Looking for resources for unpacking the role online communications has played?


Teachers, we see you and we appreciate you. None of this is easy, but responding to moments like these are incredibly necessary. Education is necessary for democracy to be successful. We have a role to play in the health of our democracy and supporting our students. Our investment matters.


Winter Break Reading, 2020 edition

While most of the time, we’re looking forward to the winter part of our winter reading break, this year it’s really more about the break. This year, a lot of us leaned into the escape, the support, and the love that we get from books. We hope you are too.

This year we took a little different tack on our reading roundup. We asked some of your favorite professional development coordinators to take their current reads and assemble what we’re calling “bookzibits”. They’re based on Rachel Kloos & Lisa Highfill’s #BookBento assignment.

For each book, the reader assembled some items they feel are related to the story, or connect with where they are in this beautiful magical dumpster fire of a year.

Theydies and gentlethems, without further ado:

2020 UVM Tarrant Institute Winter Break Reading

Jeanie Phillips

“Tea is all about connection in this book. The Kellner family regularly gathers around pots of tea: Persian tea with hel (cardamom pods), Moroccan Mint tea, and all sorts of other brews from Rose City Teas. Darius and his friend Chip sip tea while they study. And Darius has many pleasant memories of the tea he shared with his family and friends in Iran.

I think of tea as the medium through which Darius shows his love, and as a tea lover myself, this book inspired me to drink more tea!”

Emily Hoyler

“It all started during a pandemic summer when one of my kids had an itchy bug bite and we had run out of Afterbite. I mixed together some baking soda, water, and a couple of drops of tea tree oil. Instant relief! I began to wonder what other home remedies were at my fingertips.

Around the same time, we decided to stop mowing the majority of our yard. As the summer bloomed, the now-field was covered in wildflowers: yarrow, St. John’s Wort, chicory, evening primrose, fleabane..and many more. (How did I know? I used an app called Seek by iNaturalist to identify many, many of the plant friends who live near me).”

Robin Merritt

“My son’s violin: As Langston grapples with loss, bullying, and city life, he misses the red dirt of Alabama, his grandma’s home cooking, and the slow-paced culture of the rural south. Yet with a new world at his fingertips, opportunity for knowledge awaits. His path seems like it comes with some obstacles. I’m excited to see where it leads.”

Life LeGeros

Broken Places is about how Okorafor became a writer. She has written for youth and adults, sci-fi and fantasy, books and comics. Everything I’ve read by her is pure magic.”

Rachel Mark

“I adore this book series by Louise Penny. This winter, I’m reading Book 12, A Great Reckoning.  The protagonist might like listening to my father’s old jazz collection — on vinyl, of course.”

Scott Thompson

“The author, Nic Stone, was inspired to write this book for many reasons. One being that in high school she didn’t get to read about many characters that resemble her. She didn’t want that experience for other African-American students. When we look into a mirror we see our reflection. What if that reflection was not you, and no one like you. How would you feel?”

Susan Hennessey

“The hippocampus acts as a short-term information store but fills up quickly each day: a USB drive.”

Audrey Homan

“Winter’s a great time for swapping tires, conditioning bearings, cleaning the chain (srsly: clean your chain), and generally love on yr bikes!

(Also, could someone remind me to clean the basement *before* I do a photoshoot next time?)”




Well, there you have it. That’s our winter reading 2020!

We would LOVE to see your own #BookBento or bookzhibit! And to get you started, here’s a quick guide to using Thinglink.

If we can provide any of y’all educators some of the love and support we got from books this year, please don’t hesitate to ask.

We’ll be back… after the break*.





*Seriously, we’re on hiatus Dec 16 – January 3rd.


vted Reads: The Hate U Give

In this episode, we sit down with the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council, Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup. The Vermont Humanities Council runs Vermont Reads (not to be confused with Vermont *ed* Reads), in which they choose a book for our whole state to read, ponder and talk about. This year, that book is Angie Thomas’ powerful The Hate U Give.

and that is the book Christopher and I mull over on this episode of the show. What can this popular YA novel about police violence against Black bodies teach a largely white state?

I’m Jeanie Phillips, and this is #vted Reads: books by, for, and with Vermont educators. Let’s chat.

Jeanie: Thanks for joining me Christopher.

Christopher: Thank you so much for having me Jeanie. It’s really great to be here.

Jeanie:  Do you want to tell us before you read a little excerpt, a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Christopher:  Sure. I’m the Executive Director of Vermont Humanities. We’re the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities and we’ve been around since 1974. And our mission is to really make sure that all Vermonters have the opportunity to read and learn throughout life.  We do a lot of different programs, but one of the programs that many Vermonters are very, very fond of is Vermont Reads, where we pick one novel each year and work with that novel in communities throughout the state for the entire year.

Jeanie:  Excellent! I love Vermont Reads and I’ve been reading your selections for many years and I’m so excited to have you on the show. You indicated that you’d love to start with a little bit of a reading from The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. So I’m just going to turn it over to you.

Christopher:  Yeah. So this is an interesting book for these times because it addresses police brutality against African-Americans.  And so I’m going to start with a short excerpt from the book. It starts with the main character, Starr, who’s a 17-year-old girl, talking to members of her family the day after she has witnessed the shooting of one of her childhood friends by a policeman. 

“I borrowed your hoody, Seven,” I mumble. It’s random, but it’s better than nothing. “The blue one. Momma had to throw it away. Khalil’s blood…” I swallow. “His blood got on it.”


That’s all anybody says for a minute.

Mama turns around to the skillet. “Don’t make any sense. That baby–” she says thickly.  “He was just a baby.”

Daddy shakes his head.  “That boy never heard anybody. He didn’t deserve that shit.”

“Why did they shoot him?” Seven asks. “Was he a threat or something?”

“No,” I say quietly

I stare at the table, I can feel all of them watching me again.

“He didn’t do anything,” I say. “We didn’t do anything.  Khalil didn’t even have a gun.”

Daddy releases a slow breath. “Folks around here gon’ lose their minds when they find that out.”

“People from the neighborhood are already talking about it on Twitter,” Seven says. “I saw it last night.”

“Did they mention your sister?” Momma asks.

“No. Just RIP Khalil messages, fuck the police, stuff like that.  I don’t think they know details.”

“What’s going to happen to me when the details do come out?” I ask.

“What do you mean, baby?” my mom asks.

“Besides the cop, I’m the only person who was there. And you’ve seen stuff like this. It ends up on national news. People get death threats, cops target them, all kinds of stuff.”

“I won’t let anything happen to you,” Daddy says. “None of us will.”  He looks at Momma and Seven. “We’re not telling anybody that Starr was there.”

Jeanie:  That’s really powerful. Oof, there’s a lot going on there and I wonder if we might use it as a segue to ask: why did the Vermont Humanities Council choose The Hate U Give for Vermont Reads?

Christopher: It’s a tough book and it’s very relevant at this moment, of course. We really chose it because last year our Vermont Reads Book was March by John Lewis. That book is also a really powerful book with a fair amount of violence in it. You know, it’s the story of John Lewis growing up and joining the nonviolent civil rights movement of Dr. Martin Luther King, and it goes through a number of different events in the congressman’s life.

It goes through crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the beatings that happened there. It goes through the lunch counter sit-ins and the violence that happened there. And it goes through a lot of the jail time that John Lewis and his fellow organizers went through.  But one of the things that we thought about as we worked with that book was that for many people it feels like far away history, even though it was only about 60 years ago. For many people — especially young people — that feels like it was very, very long ago.

And we felt like it was important to recognize that the civil rights movement that John Lewis started is not over.

You know, as we watched the congressman in his final weeks visiting Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington D.C., that was very much the message that he wanted to give to young people today. This movement is not in the past, this movement is now. And that’s really why we felt like it was important to continue the conversation with a book that really dives deep into some of the work that the Black Lives Matter movement is doing today.

Jeanie:  I love March and John Lewis is a hero of mine. I watched Barack Obama’s eulogy (video) and was really touched by him saying, “Be more like John Lewis.”

John Lewis, I know, centered love in his work, and thought of his activism as an act of love, and the civil rights movement as something that embodied love. That justice is a form of love. 

And so I carry that, and Barack Obama’s words about John Lewis, in my heart. And I think a lot about how could I be more like John. 

So I’m so grateful that you bring him into this conversation, and bring this book into continuity with last year’s Vermont Reads book. And with his life really.

I’m also wondering: you say that John Lewis says that the civil rights movement isn’t just ancient history, it isn’t just in the past, but it’s also something that I think a lot of folks associate with the South. And here we are in Vermont. I think that bringing this book here is also a way of asking us to deal with our own racism here, when we think of ourselves as not a very racist state.

Christopher:  Yeah. You know, I think that’s very clear. We see that especially in the last six months or so. That there have been so many really intense examples of the work that we need to do in this state. That we continue to see threats made against Black organizers. We continue to see Black organizers actually leave their communities because they and their family don’t feel safe. In a way that’s actually part of the story in The Hate U Give.

There’s a big, there’s a big debate that runs throughout the book between Starr’s parents, about whether they should stay in the community that they live in. Whether or not it’s safe for their children. And I think that’s very much true for folks of color, for organizers all over the place. It’s not something that disappears when you cross the border into Vermont. We like to think that we have a very safe state but that is that is not many people’s experiences. 

Jeanie:  Right. And the statistics also don’t bear out that we’re a non-racist state. Right? Because people of color are way more likely to be stopped by police officers, right? As just one statistic. Or people of color who live in Vermont are way more likely to be incarcerated, right? And so our statistics show racism in action.

Christopher:  You know too, just one statistic that came up yesterday again is that Vermont incarcerates Black men at the highest rate in the nation. We are number one and there’s some very systemic problems there.

Jeanie: This is our issue too, right?  When you talked a little bit about the debate within Starr’s family, about whether to leave, I had marked a piece of the text on page 52. Starr’s father, Maverick, is really loyal to his neighborhood; the neighborhood is really important to him. He runs a business in the neighborhood. Starr’s mother, on the other hand, his wife, is really interested in moving out to the suburbs, to a place where she feels like her kids will be safer and where her brother Carlos lives. And Uncle Carlos is also a police officer.

So I’m just going to read a section of this because I think it’s really relevant to what we’re talking about here in Vermont as well:

Page 52 of The Hate U Give

So there’s something about this for me that’s like how timeless this book is even though it was it came out of a very specific time because of how little movement or progress we’ve made in this area and then also a way in which it brings it home for us, even if we think we don’t live in a place that has this kind of incidents happen.

Christopher: You know, I think it’s true we keep seeing this story over and over and over again.  In this fictional treatment, we see these dynamics happening that you just see in community after community all across the country. And you see them here in Vermont as well.

But I also want to turn it a little bit and say there’s some really crazy stuff that happens in this book. There is some really deep systemic racism; there’s some really deep pain. They’re telling a deep story, they’re in pain — but there’s also a lot of joy in this book. And each time I read it, that comes out to me more and more. That there is a community in Garden Heights that is really looking out for each other.

Garden Heights is the name of the neighborhood that the fictional neighborhood that Starr in her family live in. And they know everyone: they know all the neighbors, all of the parents’ generation are taking care of everybody’s kids, the grandparent’s generation knows everything that’s happening in the community. They talk a lot about being outside in the streets, talking with one another.

The scenes where they are gathering, or in a celebratory space, are really wonderful examples of community culture. That I think is just beautiful. And it’s also really relatable in many ways. When we think about our own neighborhoods here in Vermont, there’s some really crappy racist stuff that happens here; we have deeply embedded systemic racism. But we also care about each other and these communities as well.

We also have some of the same issues that exist in Garden Heights, so that’s another thing that that came up for me. Particularly thinking about how much they struggle with systemic racism and economics. How much they struggle with systemic racism and the drug culture and the gang culture. Like, that is not stuff that only exists in an inner city neighborhood, right? The opioid epidemic. And as prevalent in Barre or Montpelier or Winooski or Brattleboro or Rutland as it is in the fictitious Garden Heights — or anywhere else in the United States. There’s an important message there too, right? That this is not a community that’s at a distance.  We can relate to this. These are things that happen in our communities as well.

Jeanie:  I think what I’m hearing from you is that Angie Thomas takes this real strengths-based approach, this real asset-based approach, as she’s writing this family, this community, and  this story.

So even though this terrible, awful thing has happened to Khalil, and Starr’s a witness to it and it really rips apart the community, there’s also this sense of Angie seeing all of their gifts and their love for each other. The place that that struck me most acutely is the really beautiful relationship between Maverick and Lisa. Between Starr’s parents. The way that they’re able to hold the tension of this challenging moment and still love each other, and love their three children.

And I think that’s really important. I think that a lot of books about race have been about conflict, or about pain. So Angie Thomas’ book is about that, but it’s also about strength and about wholeness.

Christopher:  Yeah. There’s so much beauty in that, and also a lot of humor, you know? I think one of the things about Maverick and Lisa’s relationship is that they do have a lot of conflict about this tension between the suburbs and the neighborhood, but they do hold each other very much in a loving space. They have that argument and they embarrass the crap out of their kids all the time with the way that they love each other, and how public they are about the love that they have for each other. 

That is, I expect, so relatable to anybody who is a teenager watching their parents interact with each other. Or anybody who’s a parent trying to push the buttons on their kids to make them react. There’s a lot of humor in that and it’s so strength-based. It’s all about assets. And there are so many assets in the community that Angie Thomas has written. 

Jeanie:  It’s redemptive, right? Because Maverick hasn’t lived an ideal or perfect life. He spent time in jail and he’s come out the other side of it as a business owner, as a family man, as a pillar of the community, really.  And there’s something about that redemption that feels really hopeful to me.

Christopher:  Yeah, and his relationship with Uncle Carlos, Lisa’s brother, who raised Mav’s kids during the time he was in jail is a really interesting and complex relationship. Because Uncle Carlos is a cop. He’s serving in the same precinct as the cop who murdered Khalil. So there’s a really interesting tension between the two characters and their approach to community-building. Mav has this kind of incredible sense of organizing in the community, and Carlos comes at it from a more traditional policing perspective, but they’re often coming at each other in ways where they have to look beyond the stereotypes of cops or gangbangers. I find that an interesting piece of this book as well.

Jeanie: The part of the story where we get this contrast between Uncle Carlos and Maverick reminded me of the Jason Reynolds book called All-American Boys. Have you read that one? It’s a white perspective and a Black perspective; two perspectives on an act of police violence. I think what Angie Thomas is really getting at is the plurality of ways that we can think about these issues.

You know, the book starts with this big arc, if you will: an act of racism where a police officer acts with excessive force and ends up killing a young Black man. But there are also the smaller acts of racism that happen at the private school that Starr attends. I’m particularly thinking about her interactions with Haley and Maya. I wondered if you wanted to talk a little bit about that sort of quieter kind of racism that that gets spotlighted in this book.

Christopher:  Yeah you know could I read another short passage from the book actually that gets right at that.

It starts on page 71. In the on-going battle between Lisa and Mav, one of the compromises that was made is that the three kids are sent to a private school in the suburbs, close to where Uncle Carlos lives. It’s called Williamson High School. Connie and Seven and Starr are all students there, and it’s an almost entirely white school. Starr has two girlfriends: Haley and Maya. Haley is very, very white. Maya is from a Chinese-American immigrant family, but this little passage is as Starr is getting out of the car to go to walk into the school in the morning. She says:

Page 71 of The Hate U Give

Jeanie:  Yeah. That passage really highlights for me what it must feel like and be like to code-switch as a regular part of your school day.

Christopher: A lot of people might not know what code-switching is. Code-switching is what Starr is talking about in that passage where you really have to become another personality in certain situations.

I first learned about code-switching not in the context of racism, but in the context of Queerness. And feeling like you behave in one way in a certain group of people, and you behave in a different way among another group of people.  And although I know that code-switching as a concept originated in communities of color, it does apply to other kinds of difference. Where you really have to hide in many ways.

And what Starr is doing is, is pretty classic.

She doesn’t tell people what her life is like in her neighborhood. Not because she’s not proud of her community; I think she is proud of her community. But to have to compete with some of the other private school kids.

One of the things she talks about is they’re all saying where they’re going on their Christmas vacation. They’re going to the Bahamas, to the family home in the Bahamas, or they’re going to Taipei to visit their grandparents. Starr doesn’t have any of that and she can’t compete with those kids. It’s hard for her, as a teenager, to figure out that she can hold on to other things.  It’s a complex piece of her story. 

Jeanie:  I think about Starr and other folks who have to code-switch in order to fit in to dominant culture dominant narratives, right? How much work that is. And how little credit it’s given, right? To read a situation and know which version of yourself to have ready. And then all the work! All the sophistication. The sort of literacy that it is to be able to do that.

To know how to speak to your community is both a strength and a tremendous burden, right? It’s a lot to ask a 16-year-old kid to do. 

Christopher:  And they’re doing it all the time, right? They’re learning it from a very young age. 

I can say that from my own perspective, as a young person you learn very quickly what’s safe and what’s not safe in any given situation.

We recently did a training for librarians who were going to be working with this book and that’s one of the things the trainer talked about. Right away, to a room full of largely white librarians, she told a story about how as a Latino woman she spends much of the time scanning the horizon for “shit that’s about to go down”, I think is the term that she used.

And I think that’s true for anybody from a marginalized population. Constantly aware of your surroundings and what might be dangerous.

That’s very much what Starr is experiencing at Williamson.

 Jeanie: I read this book in 2016, as a librarian. I was at a library conference and I got an advanced reader’s copy. And I saw the poster then (which is different than the poster now) and knew I needed a copy of this book. I read it right away. 

What I remember in 2016, is that I had a 16-year-old son at home. 

Same age as Starr, right.

And in this book, in chapter two, when they first get pulled over, Khalil and Starr, Starr immediately starts remembering the talk she had with her parents. One talk was about the birds and the bees. And then the other one she says, the other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me. 

Page 20 of The Hate U Give

Starr continues throughout this or deal with the police officer to keep remembering her father’s words. 

And I remember reading this you know it’s on page 21, it’s the beginning of the book and realizing I had never once had a conversation with my son about what to do if you’re stopped by a police officer, never.  And feeling both the privilege of that and the shock of that and the pain of what it must be like to have to have that conversation early and often.  And so thinking about thinking about what you just said about how people of color have to navigate spaces and the difference when you are when you occupy an identity that is in that represents the dominant culture.

I guess I’m just still sitting with that. Remembering how much that hit me at that time. 

Christopher:  Another resource for folks would be Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And  Me. It’s letter that Coates writes his son, which is that talk that Black parents have with their children. Those three lines:

  • Keep your hands visible
  • No sudden moves
  • Only speak when spoken to.

They repeat this over and over and over again through the book.

I think that’s a piece of this that white folks do have a really hard time understanding. That the relationship we might have with the police in our community is very different from the relationship that other people might have to the police in their community.

I live in Montpelier, and in our schools there’s a big debate happening right now about the school resource officer, who is a cop, who is assigned to the school district and spends time in the schools. The officer wears a gun in the building. And there are a lot of parents who have expressed concern about having an armed police officer in the building. A lot of them are concerned because of the association of school resource officers with systemic racism and the potential for police violence, particularly against young men of color.

And we’re a very white community. There are lots of other parents who just cannot get that. Who just are not able to get that understanding of: keep your hands visible, no sudden moves, only speak when spoken to. That the relationship that we have to the police is not the same as other people’s relationship to the police. And that it’s traumatizing for some children because there’s generational trauma associated with that relationship. 

With all due respect, many Vermont cops are wonderful, wonderful people. They’re not engaging in violence against young men of color or young people of color, but that does not change the fact that the generational trauma that is associated with police is still there. And it’s borne out by our statistics, that we put young men of color in jail at a higher rate than any other state.

Jeanie:  I think that’s one of the reasons why this book and books by people of color are so important for students in mostly white schools to read.

I’m thinking about Rudine Sims Bishop, who in the 1990s, wrote a piece about windows, mirrors, and sliding doors (.pdf). And there’s a great graphic I’ve mentioned before, where if you are a white young person growing up in this culture because of the way you are represented in books and the media, it’s like you’re surrounded by mirrors.

Diversity in Children's Books 2018
Infographic citation: Huyck, David and Sarah Park Dahlen. (2019 June 19). Diversity in Children’s Books 2018. blog. Created in consultation with Edith Campbell, Molly Beth Griffin, K. T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Madeline Tyner, with statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: Retrieved from

Everything’s mirroring back your own experience, which makes it seem like your experience is the only one.

If you’re a person of color, your mirrors get smaller and smaller to the point where if you’re Native American, the way you see yourself in media and culture is like the size of a compact, right? Teeny tiny.

And that’s harmful for people of color who don’t see themselves represented, but it’s also harmful because of the way that white folks are overrepresented in their own experience of media and books. Right? That they think that there’s only one way to experience the world.

For me, we can’t — in schools — read enough books by and about people of color, written by own voices. Stories of people of color and other marginalized voices.

Because we are so inundated, and we’ve been so inundated with our own stories, that we need to welcome in other version, so we have a more pluralistic and understanding view of the world.

Christopher:  You know, that essay has come up over and over again for me in the last couple of weeks, so I’m glad you put it in the resources for folks. Listeners, you all should read it. It’s quite illuminating.

I mean, it’s arguably harmful, right, that we’re two white people talking about this book together. Right?  We have biases and perspectives and misunderstandings that are pretty much ensuring that there are pieces of this work we don’t get. That we don’t understand. And we at Vermont Humanities have heard that critique, you know?

Why are you, as a historically white organization doing work with this book?

And it’s a painful critique to hear. That you can’t just read a book and get it, right? Because we’re smart people; a lot of us are English majors, we read a lot. You know about new criticisms, I went to Kenyon College. The reality is that there are places where I’m going to mess up often and I have to be very, very careful about that.

And so one of the things that we’ve decided to do which we haven’t typically done in the past in Vermont Reads is offer facilitated assistance to every community that wants to work with this book. To help them address some of the pitfalls some of the places where we could fall down, where we could make mistakes. Among the biggest of them of course, is that as white folks, we could assume that all young people are having the same experiences. 

For many young people of color in Vermont, their lives here are  radically different from the experience that Starr has in this book.

This is a novel, it’s fiction, it’s not based on somebody’s actual experience, although it draws a lot of elements of truth out of history and out of the current, current day.  We have to be careful as teachers, as librarians, as organizers around this, to make sure that we’re recognizing the complete humanity of the people that are in the room with us when we’re having these conversations — and not make assumptions about what people’s experiences may or may not be. 

And I hope that we’ll do a good job but I’m also sure that we’re screwing it up every day.

Jeanie:  And the only thing worse than screwing it up would be not trying it all, right?

I can’t let the errors I’m going to make in my own whiteness stand in the way of me reading and talking about books by people of color, right? And I can’t expect people of color to do that work. So I totally hear you and couldn’t agree more.

Five years from now we’ll listen back to some of the conversations I have about reading, about books and be mortified, right? At how little I knew. Because I’m always driving to learn more and I won’t learn more if I don’t try, right? If I don’t lean in. 

I really appreciate that you just said that and holding the tension of both of those truths. For me, fiction in particular gets that deep truth. Like, I learned so much about what I don’t know, the lived experience of others through fiction. Not because it’s factual but because it hits on what it must be like to have daily experiences of micro aggression in a way that I can’t walking around in my white skin. 

Christopher:  You know, I go back to another one of my favorite books, The Color Purple by Alice Walker. As a young person, this really meant a tremendous amount to me, right? Because there was a mirror there of a clear experience in a serious relationship with Shug, but it was also a book that got really, really challenged particularly when it was made into the movie by a white guy, by Steven Spielberg.

It was a book that was showing too much that white people wouldn’t understand. That there was too much violence in it. Particularly violence against women by Black men. And it was a book that was dangerous for white people to read. Yet, you know, looking back, I’ve probably read it 10 or 15 times now over the last 30 years, since it came out in the early 1980s. I guess almost 40 years ago now. 

And I think about this book, The Hate U Give, and I think there’s some parallel qualities.

What does it mean to have that internal view of the community’s dynamics? 

There is tremendous strength in the character of Seeley, in The Color Purple, for example, in her relationship with Shug. The women in that book particularly the women but some also some of the men, show tremendous strength. That is also exists in this book The Hate U Give: tremendous strength in community. I think we want to really hold onto that. What are the assets that this community has? What are the things that they are doing to support each other, to love each other, to hold each other up, even in the face of this tremendous violence? That’s really important. 

Can I read another little piece?

So this is where we started at the beginning of the conversation: Mav and Lisa had said to Starr  nobody’s going to know, you’re not going to tell anybody, nobody needs to know. And they felt like that was that was their way of helping Starr to cope with this tremendous violence that has been visited upon her. That was their way to protect her and to protect the family from the consequences of being the witness. 

But by the middle of the book they’ve all kind of changed their minds.

Starr has decided to testify in front of the grand jury about what happened in hopes of getting justice for her friend. I’m not going to read that piece, but I’m going to read the first time she goes to the police station to talk with the detectives about what happened.

It’s the beginning of chapter 6 page 93:

Page 93 of The Hate U Give

I’ll stop there.

Jeanie:  That feels like a really important passage, do you want to say more about why you selected it?

Christopher:  Again it goes back to this notion that I don’t get it. I don’t have the same relationship to the police that many of my friends and colleagues do. That I can walk into the police station and think that it’s a place where I can go to get help. 

What Starr does when she walks into the police station is she sees all the guns that might kill her or her mother or her father.  It’s a base experience that is entirely different for some people versus other people. And that’s so important as readers and as change-makers that we’re able to understand that experience.

Jeanie:  That brings me back to when you were talking about the school resource officer and different perspectives on that, right? And thinking there are probably kids walking into schools even in Vermont for whom a gun on a school resource officer triggers trauma, right? Or brings up something that makes them feel uncomfortable, or makes them feel unsafe in some way. Maybe not because of an experience with a cop, but maybe because of an experience with a gun, right? 

Maybe because of something that’s happened at home or in their communities. And this assumption that because it’s a cop everything’s okay, doesn’t apply. It doesn’t make it okay for all people who walk in. It doesn’t change the biology of what happens for them when they see that gun.

So I’m loving this conversation! I could talk about Starr and her family for the rest of the day, but I want to hear more about what’s happening around this book with Vermont Reads. You talked a little bit about offering facilitation, but how are you supporting communities as they talk about this book? What are some of the events that are happening?

Christopher:  Well, some of the traditional ways that Vermont Reads works is that we pick a book, and we create a resource page around the book. We think about several different things when we’re picking the book:

  • We think is this a book that can be widely read from middle school on up;
  • Whether or not the book will lend itself to collaborative projects;
  • Is it at a literacy level that a lot of people will be able to read it?

The Vermont Reads project is not meant to be a book group where you read the book and you talk about it. It’s meant to be project-based, where you read the book and you talk about it and then you do something. 

We don’t want to choose a book that is already being widely read or widely taught. So for example, I was recently reading The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, thinking well that would be a really great book. It just so happened that that book came out just as I was graduating from college. So as I checked it out with several of my colleagues, I said, “Well that’s great, but now every eighth-grader in America reads that book.”

And I didn’t know that because it came out after I had already had my educational experience.  So we wouldn’t choose a book like that that’s already being widely taught.

We picked this book because it really does lend itself as the follow on to March, but also because there’s so many opportunities in it for communities to do something later. We know, for example, that many communities that are doing work with this book are also engaging with the social justice action committee at their church, or the youth anti-racism organization at their school, or a Black Lives Matter chapter in their community.

That there are opportunities for people to read the book, learn from the book, and then take some sort of action.

We also are super aware that we’re in the middle of a pandemic right now.

And the pandemic really shut down Vermont Reads for quite a number of months, because we are pretty old fashioned and we rely on paper books. So we bought 4000 copies of The Hate U Give and for four and a half months, we couldn’t ship them anywhere because it wasn’t safe. It wasn’t considered safe to ship the boxes out.

So we’re just now starting to see projects happening. And there’s been tremendous demand (which is awesome) and actually a bit of a shift from when we started with the book at the beginning of the year. It was a bit of a slow start and some librarians actually said I’m not sure if this book is really going to work out for us, but then of course history cut up with white people and we had several more horrifically violent situations happen and suddenly The Hate U Give is pretty popular among white folks because they really want to learn.

So it’s our responsibility now, as it picks up, to make sure that we are being responsible with this book.

I mentioned earlier we’re providing trained facilitators who can help you with complicated conversations in your community.  And we’re making a lot more suggestions about what kinds of things you might consider doing to follow up with this.  I’m excited to see what people come up with and what kinds of things happen ,I’m also you know excited to think about what other books people might read, might they read between the world and me.  Might they read White Fragility and some other books that then inspire people to take the next step in their journey?

I hope so but we’ve got a lot a long ways to go, right certainly for us and for my humanities this is not something that is one and done will be at this for a long time certainly for the rest of time that I am around, but I hope long after that and specifically on The Hate U Give we decided to extend it another six months because we did lose that chunk of time because of the pandemic and so we’ll be working encouraging communities new projects with this book all the way through June 30th of next year before we start the next book.

Jeanie:  What do you hope schools will do with this book? What are your hopes for how it’ll don’t know spark change or conversation in public schools?

Christopher:  Yeah you know I think there’s a few things that I would say, I hope that they’ll use it and indeed if they’re going to use our books they’re required to use it beyond the curriculum, right it’s not just a book where they could say, hey send me 25 copies and the ninth grade honors English class is going to read it.  They’ve actually got to involve another community organization and I hope that it will spark a partnership with that community organization whether it’s a social justice group by the local church or a youth organized activism group in their school that will carry on and they’ll continue to build that partnership you’re over a year.  I hope it will also encourage them to really get more get more involved in understanding what communities in Vermont are struggling with around these issues, I mentioned you know early on that the problems that Starr is experiencing in her neighborhood are not limited to communities like Starr’s, right.

That a big part of Khalil’s story is that his mom was an addict and that is a story that is relevant to thousands of Vermont children and if we can learn some empathy around that and some do some change making around that here at home, I think that would be a great outcome and of course you know one of our challenges here is to make sure that people understand that Khalil’s moms experience as an addict is not because she was black, it’s because of the racism that impacted her whole life and those kinds of forces that economic injustice that systemic economic injustice exists in a lot of places.

Jeanie:  Absolutely, especially with as you mentioned the pandemic has changed your program and cause you to extend it, but the pandemic is also wreaking havoc on the economic lives of Vermonters, right.  That we know that there’s a lot more food insecurity and income insecurity right now because of COVID-19 and that to me feels like another thread work some of our students conceive themselves in this book the struggles in this book.

Christopher:  Lights or food, lights or food that’s a theme that comes up a lot and that’s the thing that very much at play in Vermont right now.

Jeanie:  Yeah, well I have great hopes for how this is going to play out with the schools I work with and I’m really excited that more and more kids are going to get read the book and you were kind enough to drop off a beautiful copy to me I’m going to put a picture on the site in case you haven’t seen it, the Vermont Reads edition of The Hate U Give which is a lovely copy, thank you for that. 

Christopher:  You’re welcome.

Jeanie:  I wanted to make sure that you had a chance to talk a little bit about Jason Broughten and the conversation he’s going to be having around this book.

Christopher:  Yeah, so you know as you know Jason Broughten is our state librarian and I love that he always introduces himself that way.  I’m Jason Broughten your state librarian and he is going to be having a conversation with our dear friend and colleague Dr. Laura Jiminez, she is a professor from middle grade novels young adult novels, studies the use of a young adult literature and anti-racism work specifically done research around The Hate U Give as well as a lot of other books.  She has a great blog that will get you the link for the resource page.  And they’re going to be having a conversation with school and public librarians on October 1st and we will be linking to the recording of that conversation after the fact and we’ll make sure that you get it for your resource page, it’s been exciting to partner with Jason over the last year and a half because for my humanities and that live really share strong interest in anti-racist organizing and using books and literature in anti-racist organizing.  So it’s nice to have that partnership with him.

Jeanie:  That’s really exciting I look forward to that and Jason has actually agreed to be on the podcast and to choose the book for us to have a conversation about, so I’m really excited about that as well.

Christopher:  You know what book he’s going to read.

Jeanie:  No he is holding me in suspense as of now, so I’m going to reach back out say have you, he said he had several in mind, so we’ll see when it comes up with.  And I’ll be curious to know if it’s a young adult book because we do a lot of work around young adult or middle grades books.  But we also talk about adult books that maybe help with professional development of teachers or give us a different lens on teaching.

Christopher:  Can I actually maybe put in a plug for nominations for Vermont Reads.

Jeanie:  Please.

Christopher:  So we are always looking for suggestions of excellent Vermont Reach choices and there is a nomination form on the Vermont Reach section of our website where you can put in your suggestion why you think it would be a great Vermont Reads book.  I can tell you now that we will be starting the next book in July of 2021.  We’re very interested particularly in books that might address issues of climate change and from my perspective I think it would be very interesting to have books that talk about climate change through a perspective of racial justice and what is climate change going to.  How is climate change going to impact different communities around the globe over time?  So if anybody has great ideas around that theme we would love to hear them, but other ideas are also always welcome around any theme.  I’m looking at a book right now in my office that I have been loving, it’s called We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Hoekstra and it’s about two boys in love with Walt Whitman and with each other.  And that is an amazing book, so maybe that will make of Vermont Reach appearance at some point, but please go on the website and nominate your favorities so that we can consider them.

Jeanie:  Oh Christopher be careful what you wish for.  Do I have to put my name on all my nominations?

Christopher:  You can do whatever you want, you can put whatever name you want.

Jeanie:  Because I already have one that hits your boxes, are you ready.

Christopher:  Awesome.  Yeah.

Jeanie:  Are you ready.  One of my favorite books of all time is a young adult book written by a First Nations author from Canada, Cherie Dimaline and it’s called The Marrow Thieves.  And it’s a dystopic piece of fiction that is utterly gorgeous and it’s about some folks, young folks and older folks surviving in a post climate change world.

Christopher:  This is crazy but we were sitting around eating lunch outside on our front lawn of Vermont humanities the other day with a couple of our new staff members and we went around the circle and I said what are you reading, and one of our folks said I’m reading this amazing book called The Marrow Thieves.  I never heard it before.

Jeanie:  It’s the best, it’s amazing, I feel like I need to loan you my copy because you know because you brought me The Hate U Give, usually at the beginning of the show, I ask people what’s what they’re reading, what’s on their bedside table and I feel like you’ve just given me we contain multitudes to add to my list.  Is there any other book you’re reading a book you’ve recently read that you want to share with us?

Christopher:  Well we contain multitudes definitely also a Canadian writer, although the book takes place in Minneapolis, which is a lot of fun because it also brings in Prince, which is quite…

Jeanie:  I love Prince.

Christopher:  Quite wonderful, so I would suggest that I am also wrapping up now MT Anderson’s amazing epic The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, which I have not read before.  A lesser known work of his that I think everybody should read is Symphony for the City of the Dead.

Jeanie:  I loved that book. He actually came to my library to talk to students about that book that’s a phenomenal book.

Christopher:  Awesome, well I’m hoping I’m fingers crossed that I can talk from my youth orchestra into doing a partnership with us around that book at some point.  Although the rest of my team tells me it’s too complicated and too depressing to talk about the Russian Revolution, but I think it’s a great book and too depressing that’s totally relative.  There’s a lot of joy and Shostakovich as well is the hard stuff. And that you know on the more grown up side I’m reading a book about Adam and Eve by the fellow who wrote Swerve Stephen Green Block historian which has been really interesting especially as it feeds into the Adam and Eve narrative in the astonishing life of Octavia Nothing, that’s been cool.  One final suggestion, Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. A very popular TV show on HBO right now and the TV show is terrific, but the book is even better.

Jeanie:  Nice.  So I think your dog is telling us it’s time to wrap up, but…

Christopher:  Probably.

Jeanie:  I just want to thank you I’ve lived in Vermont now for 20 years, I’ve been aware of Vermont Reads for a number of years and one of the things I’m most grateful for about Vermont Reads is that you get folks reading YA.  That you bring books that are meant for young adults or middle grades and get a large cross section of people to read them.  And I think we live in a world where it’s easy to think that young adult or middle grades books or just for young people but they’re not.  And I’m just so grateful when adults read books from young people’s perspective and when they realize how great YA is.  So thank you.  From on the bottom of my librarian heart for getting more people to read books like The Hate U Give and March.

Christopher:  Yeah, we love YA and we love it for everybody.  It’s really, it’s really a great opportunity for folks to learn about things they, they never thought they would learn about.  And The Hate U Give is a great example.

Jeanie:  Well I cannot wait, I’m going to be looking for projects that emerge from the way communities are using this book to spark conversations and make change.  So I’m looking forward to those examples and I’ll make sure that pack the transcript with links to a lot of the things you mentioned and to your website.  I want to thank you so much for taking the time to come on and talk about The Hate U Give and about Vermont Reads.

Christopher:  Thank you so much for having us, we’ll come back any time.

Keep saying their names.

This has been a tough few weeks.

Even in relative terms to 2020, it was “a week.”

Our sense of social justice has been tested and pummeled by, yet again, disappointing news. Last week, the notorious fighter for justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed away. Leaving millions of us grieving for her person and for her heroic deeds for justice in our country.

And then last Wednesday, there was no justice for Breonna Taylor.

And our country continued to mourn, grieve and grapple with justice and equity. Our heads are baffled, and our hearts are broken. We are sad, and we are angry.

And here’s the thing:

Teachers, the work that you do in your classrooms is more important than ever.  Because teaching about social justice belongs in our schools and classrooms. You are doing that work. We see you, and we thank you, and we stand with you. It is hard work, and it is needed now.

We know that when when the world is difficult, you lean in. As you always have!  As this work begins in some schools and continues in others we can expect it to be difficult. And so, yet again, we ask you to lean in. We can expect pushback. What gives us the strength and courage to push forward? We ask you to ponder this for yourself.

Students are capable of doing hard things. They want to have these conversation and are able to engage in complex things. We ask that you share resources when you can and invite folks into the conversation. If you would like some help, let us know.

We reaffirm our commitment to Black Lives Matter. We strongly believe that teaching about social justice belongs in the classroom.

Thank you for all you do. Keep empowering our students to change the world.

#vted Reads with Elijah Hawkes

Listeners, I’m angry.

I’m angry about the failure of our political leadership, the unmitigated disaster of climate change, and the risks we’re asking our educators and students to take right now. I’m angry, and I’m hurt, and frustrated, and I’m not the only one. I know you’re angry, and I know our students are angry.

Our schools have long been held to the idea of being zones that are or should be, entirely free of politics.

But how does that work in the real world?

Are our students free of politics when they walk through the classroom door? Do they take their anger off when they put on a backpack, or turn on their cameras?

On this episode of vted Reads, we’re re-joined by Vermont principal Elijah Hawkes. Hawkes has written a book called, School for the Age of Upheaval: Classrooms That Get Personal, Get Political, and Get to Work.

It’s a powerful, powerful read, by which I mean that you can read it as a talisman against the notion that as educators we should stand by and pretend our students don’t see, hear and feel about politics as it unfolds around them. You can read it in order to figure out how to address your students’ anger — and maybe your own.

I’m Jeanie Phillips, and this is Vermont Ed Reads. Let’s chat.

Jeanie: Thank you for joining me, Elijah.  You were very recently on the podcast at the end of last season, but I’m going to ask you to introduce yourself again, tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Elijah:  Hi, Jeanie. My name is Elijah. I’m currently principal at Randolph Union.  I’ve been here nine or ten years now and delighted to come back for another year with this fabulous faculty, staff and community.  I grew up in Vermont myself, in Moretown, and then left for college and found my way to New York City where I was a teacher and then a school principal in New York City. I also lived abroad and worked in schools and school settings in West Africa for a couple of years.  well, all of that experience just affirms for me the importance of small, community-minded democratic schools and so it’s a pleasure to be here at Randolph Union and to be talking with like-minded educators. Like you.

Jeanie:  I’m super excited to talk about your book.  But before we get to that, I like to know what people are reading! What are you reading now?  Last time, I think it was The Water Dancer.

Elijah:  Oh, yes, it was The Water Dancer. I’m reading a book of essays, long form essays I’d never read before by James Baldwin called No Name in the Street, and it’s written much later than a lot of his other essays, so I’m enjoying reading it.  It just feels like a different kind of Baldwin’s voice to a certain degree, a little bit more meandering, and free flowing but it always comes back to where it wants to go.  So, No Name in the Street, by James Baldwin is what I’m reading.

Jeanie:  Thank you for that.  I haven’t read that so I’m going to have to add that to my list. But I’m also reading essays right now. I’m reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights.  They’re little small essays and they’re so delicious.  I highly recommend it. 

Okay! Let’s talk about your book.  There’s a lot to talk about in this book.  But I’m going to start just with the introduction, because you start by talking about anger.  And I think this might be a time when kids could really feel angry. 

I think if my own son is any indication, this is a time where you can feel really angry with society, given COVID, given the conditions of right now, given the political situation.  And so, you say “We need their anger, and we need it to find its voice.”

I’m going to read that again, Audrey, you say we need their anger and we need it to find its voice.  And I don’t think of anger as being particularly welcome in schools.

So I wanted to know more about what you meant by this, and maybe even a description of what it looks like.

Elijah: I think I start to talk a bit more about what it looks like in the get personal and to get political chapters where I think you’re right that young people today is experiencing what they are likely to be experiencing, watching the behavior of adults behaving in ridiculous and unjust ways, seeing the way their society is going.  They have a right to be angry at the state of the world.  They’ve been born into a world of runaway climate change that is likely to make civilization difficult for them to live in.  By the time they’re in their older years (and even sooner) they have a right to be angry at the state of the world they’ve been given, so a kind of righteous anger, a kind of anger at the state of injustice.  And so, I think that that anger is something we need and we see it in the streets and its, it can force really positive change in our world.

So, in the get political chapter, I talk about the need for ideological dissonance and debate that is, like, ideas and ideals that are being debated and upon which kids can grasp and channel their sense of what is unfair and what is not right about the world in political and political directions.  So that’s oriented towards policy change and social change as opposed to directed towards themselves or towards other people in some kind of demeaning way towards others or shameful way towards oneself.  And so, the get personal chapter touches upon that as well.

I think that better again that if a child is – if a young person is feeling wounded or in pain in some way, children are too likely to internalize that as being somehow their own fault and so it can lead to feelings of shame.  Something that then gets closeted.  So if the world has mistreated them rather than them feel shame about that in some way or feel like lesser than I’d rather they be upset with the world that has been mistreating them, and that they find a way to express who they are, the stories that they’ve lived, and that they also have a sense of, like, how to shape their world for the better.  But that’s something about what I mean by we need their anger.

Jeanie:  I feel like part of what you’re saying is that we need to harness their anger. And part of doing that is giving it boundaries or using a phrase. Our mutual friend Mike Martin uses “limits as liberators.” Like, sort of giving it some structure and also giving a sense of something to rebel against. Something to sort some values and morals and cultural, traditions and beliefs, and ground them a little bit.

Elijah:  Yes. Absolutely. To be both grounded and to have something to resist. I think but I think that that’s part of why it’s important for the adults in a young person’s world to have strongly held beliefs.

Whoever those adults might be, I think it’s important not to avoid complexities. Not to be a simplistic black-and-white thinker, but to have strongly held ideals and to express those in no uncertain terms.

As a lot of the writers that I quote throughout the book do when they’re talking to young people. So that they have something to either say: “Yes, that resonates with me and there’s a model that I can follow” or “No, that doesn’t resonate with me that’s a path that I’m not going to take.”

If adults are too wishy-washy or too ambivalent or too juvenile ourselves in our own pursuits and pleasure-seeking, young people won’t get that kind of mature confrontation with ideals and tradition that they need. 

Again, like you said, either to have something to adhere to or something to reject.

Jeanie:  I think what you’re asking us in that chapter about getting political in particular, is to show up as our moral selves, right? To show up and not shy away from politics and from conflict. And I guess what I would ask is:

What do you say to folks who feel that politics doesn’t belong in schools? Or that my morals as an educator don’t belong in schools?

Elijah:  I think that I think everything is political, really. I think that our lives are shaped by common circumstances and those common circumstances whether it’d be the 90-degree temperature in September that causes us to issue heat warnings such that we can’t hold soccer games? Or whether it’d be the economic divide between the haves and the have-nots. Whether it’d be the quality of the water in our streams, whether it’d be who has money for lunch or not.  I mean, I don’t know. Like, what is not political? What is not in some way shaped, either in in distant or very immediate ways by policy contexts by people in positional power?

So, I would reject the notion that, like, politics doesn’t have its place in the classroom. 

I think that whatever we might be talking about has connections to policy contexts. And so when I say get political, I mean, put things in a policy context. Think about who has power to shape the world, and claim some of that power for yourself, and know how the world works in that regard.  That’s what I mean by get political.

Now, there’s a book that I cite in that chapter called The Political Classroom, which is more of an academic text by some professors who are really interested in knowing how politics in the classroom engages young people.  And of course, they find that classrooms where people are debating controversy in political issues are very engaging for kids. 

But what these researchers also found is that the classroom can be very engaging for kids across the political spectrum, if the teacher withholds their own personal political beliefs. 

Those classrooms can also be deeply engaging for kids across the political spectrum, if the teacher is more transparent about their personal political stance. 

So, a lot of it is about the tact of the teacher in terms of how you share who you are as a person outside the walls of the school.

I chose to be pretty public through my writing, and in other ways about where I stand on the political spectrum, I suppose.  And I think that over time that actually serves me well in working with a diverse community of people.

…How to say this? 

I think it would be worse if people thought that I had a hidden agenda by which I was trying to manipulate their child.  Whereas, if I don’t know if I’m having a conversation with parents and I think yes, I think healthcare is a human right.  I think that there should be universal healthcare for all, I can be transparent with you about that.

At the same time, I can support students having debates in the classroom about it in really thoughtful ways that are pedagogically sound.  But you as a kid and you as a family, you don’t have to be, like, wondering what my agenda is.  You can be empowered to disagree with me in really articulate ways.

Jeanie:  Right.  I really appreciate that stance and that way of holding yourself in the world and being transparent about what you believe, and being open to other people’s ideas and feedback. I’m not the first person to say this by any means, but this idea that when we think we’re being neutral, we’re actually political on the side of the status quo. And so when we’re refusing to discuss these tricky issues — whether it’s climate change, or immigration, or any of these things that are sort of larger discussions in our culture — we’re sending the message that it doesn’t matter. That we don’t have much say in it. And that the status quo is just fine.

Elijah:  Yeah, I think that’s true.  And status quo is an unmitigated disaster for, like, much of the world’s population right now. 

I was with a group of teachers and other educators in a certification program and they were they had read the book over the summer as part of their program and many of them chose to focus in on the very question that we’re talking about right now.  And I think we’re really wrestling with, “What do I do with my own beliefs as a teacher in the classroom?”

And we got into a conversation about, are you always going to perpetuate the idea that there are two or three or four equal sides to every political topic?  Like, where would you *not* do that?

You know, like, if, when it comes to Nazism, are there two equal sides to that to that political stance?  Well, no. 

Okay, so you’re going to draw a line there and you’re going to take a stand.  That’s good. 

What about climate change? Are you going to say there are two equal sides to climate change? Like, right now? Teachers, school principals: are you going to say that there are two equal sides to that and you want both sides to be heard and want young people to make up their minds? No, you’re going to take a stand on that.  Okay, good. 

Like, I don’t know. Where you draw the line in where something is really, really important to the world and you’re going to sort of like, hide what you feel is right?

Jeanie:  I feel the same way about hate speech, right? O homophobia. There’s a clear line for me.

Elijah:  Yeah.  Again, that said, I don’t think that teachers being transparent about what they feel is right for their world and for the children and it, precludes them from enabling children to really become evidence-based critical thinkers who are accepting this and discarding that as they make up their own worldview.  In fact, how elsewise, can they do it? They need adults in their lives, who are presenting them with strongly held evidence-based beliefs that are also grounded in personal experience, they need to see that.  And then they need to again, like, be able to decide if that’s something that they are going to accept in their world as true or a path forward or not and young people will, they will make up their own minds.

Jeanie:  Much of your book get seems to me is about process. It had me thinking back on my own life. About how I came to believe what I believe. Where my ethics and morality sort of formed. How do we create conditions for kids to develop their own sense of self in that way?  Develop their own beliefs and identity — you talk a good bit about identity in your book — and give them space to do that, instead of just assuming that they can make sense of the world.

Elijah:  Yes, right.  I don’t know if this is quite the appropriate analogy or not, but like, I often think about, like, when I’ve needed to acquire knowledge and skills and haven’t had it. And intentionally seek it.

I think often about how when I moved back to Vermont.  When I grew up, I never used a chainsaw very much.  My dad did and other people did, but I never did. And so, when I came back to Vermont and became a homeowner, there were some work to be done around the place with a chainsaw.  I had friends who knew how to use chainsaws very capably.  So, I went to my buddy Chris. I was like, “Chris, like, can you show me how to cut down a tree in a safe way?” Like, I very intentionally went to someone who felt like they knew what they were doing, to mentor me into that skillset.

Jeanie:  One of the examples you use early on in the book is about a student who, like, your chainsaw, has an interest, but her interest is depression. Because she’s experiencing it. Because she’s in pain because of her own depression. And she does a project: she makes in video about depression. And so, in a way, the educator she’s working with is giving her the skills she needs. Is mentoring her in the skills she needs to talk about, to voice, this thing that’s important to her. 

And, and I love that example because I think that’s really powerful way to capitalize on interest.  It’s a really great example of a Flexible Pathway. 

But I’m going to just poke at it a little bit, because I can imagine that some of the educators that I know or work with might say, “Yes, but how does that help meet curricular goals?” Or question the validity of that kind of personal work. So I’m going to put that question to you.

Elijah:  Well, I guess yes. I can appreciate that question, although I think that any documentary filmmaker might very well push back and suggest that the skill sets that [they] have in order to make this film certainly fall into the realm of the language arts. Certainly fall into the realm of digital literacy, and depending on the subject area may very well dovetail with science standards or social studies standards or psychology. So it’s not hard, I don’t think, to connect a project, like, that to our graduation standards. 

It may be hard to view it as test prep for an SBAC test in mathematics. But then again, a child who feels more self-assured and confident in herself may very well do better on a standardized test than the girl who walks into school with her, you know, bangs down over her face and a lack of a sense of pride and a lack of a sense of her own voice and place in the world.  Because through that project, this girl was telling a story that she’d never before told. And I kind of believe almost every story wants and needs to be told. On its own terms when the time is right.

And so that’s part of what that’s part of the subtlety of all of this is that, how do we help young people find that time? And that time may never arrive in the years that they’re with us.

You know, I was just in a professional development session with the Vermont Principals Academy over the summer and I offered a poem that I thought we could read. Because we were talking about Vermont and we were talking about race and racism and we were talking about people being in our classes and our colleagues and the poem is called, “Every Traveler Has One Vermont Poem” by Audre Lorde. 

In that poem, a speaker of the poem — who one can presume is Audre Lorde or an African-American person like her — is in Vermont and she’s called the n-word by a young boy on a tractor.

And one of the participants in the session over the summer said that there is a story that she carries with her, that she feels sometimes the need to tell the people she’s working with in schools —  but she hasn’t told it yet. But seeing something of her story in that poem? Was important. And was humanizing. It brought her a step closer perhaps to sharing some of the story that she feels the need to tell. 

So, in that summer professional development session she didn’t share her story. But she acknowledged that there was a story inside her and she saw something of that story in the literature.  And so, she and that story are working it out.  At some point, when the time is right that story will be told, and the world will see her and she’ll see herself in the world in a new way and perhaps even more complete way.

Jeanie:  I can’t love the idea of sharing story and the power of story enough. I think that really led me to one of my favorite quotes from your book is on Page 12 and it says — it’s about a specific student but it could be about any student —

Better we help her find the words, and that they be spoken in safe and supportive spaces, with adults who care to listen. Better they be written in ink than in blood. 

And I guess the question I have is: how?

You give many examples in this book of how to help young people find the words, over and over again. In your examples of Jeremiah and other students, right? And this young woman. But I guess the “how” I’m really interested in is: How do we, in the limited time we have in schools, teach or encourage adults to care to listen?

I think schools often feel really times starved and it can be really easy.  I can think of myself countless times not having time to really hear a student that needed heard… and that haunts me a little bit.  So, I guess that’s the question I’m putting to you is: how? How do we make that a reality?

Elijah:  Well, gosh, it feels to me like there’s ample time.  So, maybe it’s more the question of: how do we work with adults such that they care to listen and create the space?

Because I got a typical high school class and I’ve got students with me? More than 200 minutes a week? For 10 months of a year? That’s some time. So, maybe it’s more about how do we as adults ready ourselves to create the spaces where those stories can be told and heard. And I think that may be the real key to this, to unlocking these spaces in schools. A lot of adults aren’t comfortable with the pain that young people carry. And that they even themselves may carry.  A lot of teachers, a lot of English teachers, may be very comfortable talking about Faulkner but not talking about themselves.

A lot of math teachers may be comfortable teaching algebra but not reflecting on their own racism, right?  We need to create spaces for the adults in the building to have those conversations and do that kind of work. And then that helps us all learn how to personalize our interactions and see the world we live in policy and political context. We have to practice it as adults.

That’s some of the work that we’ve been trying to do at Randolph Union, which is just like, to very regularly in our precious faculty meeting time, to sit in small circles of five to eight people and do some of this work together. Where the listening is practiced, where people start to get a sense of how meaningful it is to feel heard…

And to have opportunities — invitation, not coercion — but to have opportunities to share a story or to see that story reflected in what something. What someone else has shared.  So, I think creating adults who are ready to listen means practicing and doing that work as the adults in the school.

Jeanie: I couldn’t agree more with the idea that listening is a skill we have to develop that it’s not something we’re really, that comes really easily to us especially in this current moment, in this current culture. 

That to me feels really connected with another quote that I love that reminded me of Carla Shalaby’s Troublemakers. And it’s specifically about Jeremiah, one of the students you write about and that says:

“Love. Any other response seems inadequate.What else can be said other than love him?”

Listening feels like a really act of love. And so part of what you’re saying to me about relationships and circles and the ample time is about prioritizing love. Prioritizing knowing students well and that’s another place where I can hear folks, maybe folks that might say focus on the 3 Rs, you know, the Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic say that’s not the job of education.  So, what do you say to that? 

For me I say learning is social and that relationships are key. But that that L-word, the love word, I think can be challenging for folks.

Elijah:  Well, what I, I guess what I would say is… I guess I would say to someone who is skeptical about the focus on relationship building, I would say give it a second. Give us a little bit here.

Like our advisory program at Randolph Union? We based it on some of the work of U-32 in past years where they have about, you know, six year at least in the past they did a six-year relationship between an adviser and students and families.  So, when we first launched this kind of advisory program at Randolph Union a bunch of years ago, there was a great deal of skepticism.

But now? It’s one of the most important questions that new parents for our school want to know. “Who is going to be my kid’s advisor?” Because they’re going to be with them for so long. And they know from their neighbors and from their siblings how important that relationship is over years and years and years and years and years.

Or in a classroom: if you give me a semester to do really powerful work with young people and then let that work be shared, watch that girl’s film on teenage depression, the work and the students will speak for themselves.  It will be of such undeniable power and relevance because the young people speaking about who they are that it just want, it just can’t be questioned.

We got to share that student work. Don’t just keep it in the classroom.

So if we’re doing really meaningful work with young people, again whether it’s with their names attached or even anonymously, share the powerful stories that we’re hearing and that students are writing because the power of the stories will speak for themselves. And every parent that’s out there and every neighbor and community member and grandpa and grandpa? What they want most of all is to see and hear the young people in their lives and to know them as whole people. So, the work will speak for itself. 

Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding the time and the means to share it.

Jeanie:  So, I have two thoughts about that, and one is I think that exhibition of student work is really crucial as an antidote to, like, judging schools by test scores alone. Because test scores give you such a narrow, small, little, biased I’ll say, notion of what’s happening in a school. 

But student work, it tells more of a story. Coming back to story again and student’s stories. 

And one of the things that I really saw in your book was a kind of listening to students and not just what they say and not just what they write, but listening to how they hold their bodies and the work they’re producing and the work they’re *not* producing and, like, this kind of deep full listening to kids.

And that reminded me a lot of Acts 77 and PLPs or personalization, right? And that we have to know kids really well in order to create flexible pathways that matter for them, right? 

And that this kind of works that you’re talking about is part and parcel of that work. I’m really playing devil’s advocate. And I’m going to quote the fakequity blog that I really love, where they say: “the devil has enough advocates.”

But I’m going to do it anyway, which is:

If I’ve got 15 or 20 students in my classroom.

If I’m a middle school teacher.

Or if I teach 50 or 60 students a day, how do I operationalize that kind of deep listening?  How do I not leave some kids out? How do I not just listen to the loud kids?

Elijah: And how do you help the students who don’t want to speak, or feel comfortable speaking? Because all that takes time too.  So I mean there’s some discussion of that kind of pedagogy in the book. Of course, it’s really important for the classroom teacher to establish a climate of trust where the norms — whether they’re crafted with the young people or not — that the norms are norms the adults are going to uphold. That they’re going to make sure that it feels like a safe space where there is kind of, like, boundedness and contained-ness that the adult is helping to create, so a person can feel safe sharing their story.

I think there should be opportunities for work to be shared anonymously, as well as with your name attached. 

I think there’s nothing more fun than reading a child’s work to them. Because there may be students who can write the most wonderful thing — but they’re afraid to read it themselves to their peers.  So, the teacher could read that work to their peers. Or you bring in some older students to read the work or you bring in some of your drama students who want nothing more than to read in a performative way, and bring the child’s text to life. 

There are ways to create a very celebratory culture that values the questions kids ask and the stories that they tell, and finds ways to share what young people contribute whether it’s anonymously or not.

I don’t know, I think there are ways to create those spaces.

And then if you’ve got a lot of students, there are lots of different ways to display and share student work.

Sometimes I’ll walk down the seventh grade hallway here and they’ll just be 60 or 80 very short poems on the wall; no names attached, but every student’s voice is out there. 

And then I think also, you know, over time there could be discussion forums and other, like, Socratic seminar.

I’m thinking of the discussion forums that have been really carefully scaffolded over time, so that students again feel supported by the teacher and by the work they’ve done in sharing their voice and sharing their opinions. It’s certainly possible and we’re blessed to be here in Vermont where there are so many different models of that and so many teachers who are willing to share their work.

If a teacher wants to do this kind of work, the resources are out there to help them do it.

That said, it’s also important that the administrators of the school are willing to support it. That’s key as well. 

And it’s important that teachers hear from their administrators that we’ve got your back if you’re going to be doing work that has personal and political intersections as long as we’re doing that carefully. Like, work carefully. I’ve got your back; I’ll support you and we can do this well together.

Jeanie:  You’re right. The Get Personal chapter gets really specific and I really love the ideas.  They’re about building trust in the classroom and how to go about that. Modeling that vulnerability, being yourself in the classroom, being willing to share your story to be person of yourself. 

I really love this idea of it being an invitation rather than something that’s coercive or compliance-oriented, right? That the engagement is an invitation. And that kids get to join in or to put a toe in when they’re ready, and ease in. 

But the last thing in that chapter is about validation and praise, and it didn’t strike me the same way. 

I questioned it a little bit.

As somebody who has really done a lot of work giving praise and validation to students in the past? About a year or so ago, I listened to a Hidden Brain episode about clicker training and, you know, just giving feedback that’s nonjudgmental. And it really struck me that as a student myself, I was so wrapped up in the validation and praise from others, that I didn’t actually ever know when I was doing good work myself. 

And so, I guess I’m just going to question that a little bit, about the role of validation and praise.

Elijah:  You said as a young person, it sounds like you were more focused on the external validation and didn’t have your own sense of, like, when you were doing something worthy of the praise or not? Can you say more about that a bit?

Jeanie:  Well, I think we’re all attention-seeking, right?  And some kids when they don’t get attention go about it in a negative way, right?  We see that in classrooms all the time. 

But for a kid like me who was very compliant, and a good little girl, I often went about getting attention by trying to do my best work. Not because it was my best work, but because I wanted the teacher to give me that star. That gold star, those kind words, right?  And I won’t even just say as a young person. I think even as an adult, it’s taken a lot of work for me to value my own growth and my own work internally as opposed to looking externally for folks to approve of it. 

I’m just curious about that, right?  

Elijah:  What I’m thinking is that it’s certainly not healthy to create a culture in the classroom where everyone’s motivation is dependent upon some external rather than intrinsic motivation.  That’s certainly, that’s really not healthy.

That said I feel, like, positive feedback, goes a long way towards motivation, as well as sort of modeling. 

I guess, if a student presents something that has, you know, like several strengths about it and several weaknesses, sometimes, especially early on in a class, we just accentuate the positive because that shows the rest of the class what kind of work is worth doing. You don’t even have to say, like, I wouldn’t do that. There can be a strong emphasis on the positive, especially at first, and you can help create the criteria you’re seeking to attain by emphasizing the positive aspects of what people are doing.

I don’t know; I just feel like a lot of positivity and enthusiasm goes a long way as a teacher and is part of loving the kids. 

And again, just an abundance of care and validation — but kids know when something is empty. You can’t be insincere; that will be a problem. You can’t just throw fluff out there.  Like, you can’t praise someone for asking a question when they didn’t actually ask a question.  You have to be a careful listener and you have to be sincere and you also have to be balanced and share the love with everybody.

Jeanie:  Well, that makes me think when I got to page of 132 which is in the Get Meta section.

You talk about a strategy that Alex Shevrin Venet uses in her trauma-informed teacher toolkit, and that’s: disconnect before you correct. And that positivity really rings true there for me. Like, “I can see you have your head on the desk” — a question can follow. “Are you feeling tired or hungry?” Instead of just saying “Get your head off the desk!”

I think it was just the words validation and praise that brought back my own experience a little bit.  So, I can really appreciate that.  Thank you for going deeper on that.

Elijah:  Yes, sure.  I appreciate your question.

Jeanie: I am a huge fan, so I’m going to move along to the Get To Work chapter. I’m a really big fan of the Get To Work chapter.  I’ve actually written a little bit about this for a school librarian audience about doing, I think I called it work that is real.  When I think young adolescents, young adults but also little people, can really do really work that’s relevant and meaningful and engaging to them.

It’s a little bit like going back to your chainsaw example of like: it’s going to do real things, right?  

We see that in action right now. right like the Winooski students for anti-racist education. They’ve just made huge changes in the Winooski School District based on their activism. And that’s work that’s real, right? 

Elijah Hawkes

And so, any time we can get kids out and doing the real work of testing water quality and streams or developing prototypes to solve a real problem feels really powerful to me. 

I wondered if you had any examples from the book that you’d like to share with our listeners from Randolph Union.

Elijah:  Yeah, in terms of the in terms of the get to work modality, yeah I think that well, let’s see. One example that I talk about in the book, which is from Randolph Union from a couple of years ago, was a local community organization, Economic Development Corporation needed a place for their board meeting or their shareholder meeting or some large annual meeting and they asked if they could use the school.  And I said, well, yeah you can use the school, but how can the young people help you organize and pull off the event? Because there’s a lot of work that we could do in having you here that we could learn from. 

So, the students at the tech center helped make the food for the evening. And the students from some of the project-based learning classes helped provide some of the content for the evening.  It’s just a matter of looking for any opportunity to put young people to work doing the doing the tasks that the community needs doing.

There’s no reason to not do work that the community needs doing. You know, I think it’s a problem and we should look to reform teacher preparation in this regard. 

It’s a problem that I could be a student at Harwood Union High School who really liked and did well in his English classes and then go off to college and university and really like and do well in my English classes and then go on become an English teacher and replicate what I did in my English classes and have no contact with any professional other than teachers.

And that could be the same for science. And that could be the same for math and that could be the same for almost anything. 

Jeanie:  Yeah I really love that and I love pulling in community partners and asking them what work needs doing, and how can our students do it. I’m also thinking about how much our core classes and teachers could learn from tech centers and wood shop teachers. And I just think about how much energy goes into the school play or the school musical. How excited kids get and how that’s this high stakes performance. And what could the rest of us learn from the drama teacher who puts that on.

Too often those things are sort of shunted to the side and treated like they’re not the core, or they’re not even those core subjects because so often that denotes like, the other things they’re less important.

And yet I think we could learn so much about how to make our classes more relevant and meaningful and engaging from those disciplines because they do real work.

I still have the lamp I made in wood shop in middle school all these years later.

Elijah: I think that sometimes maybe it could be helpful to think about it’s not always about reaching out into the community. It can also be about just doing the work that the school needs doing. 

Elijah Hawkes

So, for instance, one of the things that’s worked well here it at Randolph is to take what used to be an after school endeavor and a kind of club activity, that is, the world language students going abroad. Going to Spain or Morocco or France or wherever, that used to be an after school activity.

We pulled it down into the school day and made it a teacher’s prep or responsibility and enrolled students who wanted to be there in the class. Of course, there was also an after school component for the students who couldn’t be in the class but by making it a class it could become so much more than students raising money.

It could be students in partnership with Planting Hope from Montpellier, an organization that does work in schools in Nicaragua. The students could be co-planning their own travel to Nicaragua, developing their own materials that they’re going to then use when they’re in the schools in that in that country. 

It could be writing the grants themselves to the foundations to raise the money to support their trip so that any kid can go regardless of their financial backing. Writing emails to airlines and picking up the phone with travel agents and learning these real world skills.

Sometimes it’s about opening up the space in our classes to just do the stuff that the school needs doing.

Jeanie:  It reminds me of Peter Stratman, one of my fellow Rowland Fellows from my cohort does this thing called Cabot Leads. Every middle school kid gets a job in or out of the school. So some kids are working as assistants in the PE class or as mentor readers with kindergartners, but others are in the cafeteria, right? Helping with food prep. Some kids are going out into farms and helping with the milking.

Elijah:  They’re doing work that they’re interested in and it’s worthwhile.

Sometimes when we just ask young people what they’re interested in, of course that can lead in powerful directions but it but I think having as a point of departure what needs do we have collectively or do you have or that can start to fill that the work that’s done to meet a need can be very, very important words.  If I’m just interested in something it might be slightly more superficial.  I’m not saying necessarily is, but I think as the first point of departure is thinking about our individual and collective needs is a really, really powerful way to start the work of getting to, of getting to work.

Jeanie:  Well, and I think that the research, the newer research points out that people are happier not when they’re pursuing a passion but when their life feels purposeful.

Like having a sense of purpose. Feeling like you’re making a difference in some way. That you’re meeting a purpose. That, to me, is about community need. That’s way more rewarding for folks than just pursuing an interest or a passion, right?

Elijah:  I think also if you’re talking about needs as a point of departure, it can neutralize some of the knee-jerk reactions to anything that is political. If you’re focused on like, there are hungry people in our community — that’s obviously a political concern. 

But if your point of departure is focusing on that need? Then if the teacher is courageous enough, you’re going to get yourself to the policy context of that hunger.  Focusing on needs is a way to get to the personal and political in ways that are: how can you object to that? Of course, we’re talking about something political!  We have people who are homeless in our community! That’s a political concern!  It’s all interwoven.

Jeanie:  It makes me think too that if you’re doing that well then you’re not just sort of raising money. When you get to what you call the political context, you’re moving past just the savior mentality or quick fix mentality. You’re actually having to understand the real issue.

Elijah:  Yes, absolutely I couldn’t agree more and that’s part of why I advocate for a shift in terminology: from “service” to “citizenship.” Think less about serving others and think more about my rights and obligations as a citizen in the society to which we all belong. 

Of course one could be a global citizen, but where do you really practice and build a muscle of helping others in a way that like, you’re held accountable as well? It can only happen in close proximity at first. You really need to see the impact of your actions, the mistakes that you make, and how those mistakes reverberate among the people that you’re working with.

 And so if we build our citizenship muscles and sensibilities in our own communities first and build outward global citizenship can come but I agree with you.  We need to also be sensitive to the needs right here at home where we can really start to feel our privilege if we have it, our power and of course we have it if we organize and work together collectively.

Jeanie:  Yeah, I love that. I love that. I guess something I’ve been thinking a lot about is the word “reciprocity.” The give and take. 

And one of the things that I’ve talked about in other episodes is like: who gets to serve?Sometimes we only let, you know, we only let the gifted kids serve, right?  So how do we make sure everybody who wants to, gets to have impact? Right?  Everybody wants to be engaged in that way. That’s a human need, to be connected and to be helpful to others. 

And your book is a lot about that. How do we create conditions so that kids get to have that need met, and not just be alienated from themselves in their communities and their cultures and their schools?

 I really appreciate that.

The last chapter before you write a lovely letter to teachers is about getting reflective and metacognitive and it makes a great case for me about PLP’s or portfolios. Places that we can capture those reflections.

First page of Chapter 8: Get Meta, Elijah Hawkes
Click or tap to enlarge.

I don’t really have a question about that, just deep appreciation for the resources and the perspectives you share. The strategies you share in that section. It’s a chapter I’m definitely going to be using with the teachers with whom I work. 

Any thoughts or anything you’d like to add or any snapshots of that chapter you’d like to add for our listeners?

Elijah:  Yeah, I talk a little bit about the student, the student portfolio presentations or effectively it’s like a personal learning plan or personal learning portfolio at the end of eighth grade, at the end of 10th grade, 12th grade, it could have been you know at any grade level but it is, we do them at the end of the year here at Randolph Union.  It’s like a huge scheduling nightmare.  It’s worse than scheduling exams.  It’s really hard to do it well because we want to kids to be presenting to their advisor as well is there a past teacher and a future teacher.

And so, it’s hard to put those panels together but it is so healing, it is so important for educators to just sit and listen to young people talk about who they are as people in as learner’s.  So, it’s one of those ways that we create like really meaningful academic and personal rites of passage in the school and it means a lot to the students because of course they’re building their vocabulary and their sense of and their sense of self and where they have struggles and they start to learn how to ask for help and where they have strength so they can learn how to apply those strengths.

It’s really good for young people.  It’s also really good, really good for educators especially if it’s like I’m going to get to teach that kid next year or I worked with that child last year and look how far they’ve come, it could be such a healing ritual and the stakes feel really high but in a like a traditional bureaucratic accountability sense the stakes are very low, it’s not an exam.  Yeah, you have to do it but really does your promotion to the next grade level depend on it?  No, not really.  But it feels really high stakes to everybody because people are sharing of themselves and it’s public speaking in your own community where you feel accountable and where you have those relationships.

I think it’s well worth the effort to have those personal learning journeys shared in person. 

Jeanie:  Yeah, I have the Compass School is down where I used to live and I spent some time at Compass School with students being on their panels for their senior portfolios and I hardly knew these students and I had tears in my eyes and it was such a beautiful process to watch them go through that and it reminds me again of two things that we talked about earlier. 

One is exhibition night. Community members being able to come in. Because they always have community members on their panels, and see the impact of school on this kid. 

And then two was the power of those stories. Coming back to the young person’s story and their developing story. Their developing narrative of themselves. And so I really appreciate how we’ve come full circle in this conversation, really thinking about that quote from the very beginning which I’m going to read again.

Better we help her find the words, and that they be spoken in safe and supportive spaces, with adults who care to listen.

I love that.  Elijah, thank you so much for this book.  I’m really grateful that it exists in the world and that I’m going to get to use it with teachers that I work with and thank you for talking to me about it, I really appreciate it.

Elijah:  I’m very grateful for the conversation, Thank you Jeanie.

Elijah Hawkes

14 socially distanced advisory activities

We’re all terrified, anxious, and… back at it in schools! So, as we return, let’s look at this big list of socially distanced advisory activities. Some work for being in-person, some work for being virtual, some work for both.

But let’s face facts: at this point we’re all here to build community and chew gum, and most of us are all out of gum…


1.Fizz Buzz

Fizz Buzz is a counting game where “fizz” is assigned to a certain number and its multiples. “Buzz” is assigned to another number and its multiples.

2. Counting Up

As a group, the idea is to count to ten without two people talking at the same time. If that happens you return to the beginning. Accuracy counts, and speed is bonus points.

socially distanced advisory activities
Image via TeachThought

3. Kindness Bingo

Help students remember and celebrate their acts of kindness. Grab a copy of the sample bingo card (cunningly disguised as a Google Slide) and get to calling! Works for in-person (how exciting to yell “BINGO!” at full volume) or virtual (practice your hand-raising in Zoom) advisories.

kindness bingo socially distanced advisory activities

4. Pecha Kucha

A quick way for folks to share about themselves and learn about others. Works in person or virtual. Once again, grab this Google Slideshow, make a copy for yourself and go to town.

5. Riddles

We’ll be honest: the vast majority of these 25 riddles are terrible. Legit groaners. But when has there ever been a better time to bond over truly terrible jokes? Please, point to that portion of history that’s not now.


Well played, Reader’s Digest. Well played.

6. Heads or Tails

Have students indicate their choice: Heads or tails. Hands on head? Or hands on hips? Flip a coin. If you are correct you stay in the game. If you are wrong, you are outie mcnoutie.

7. Words of Affirmation

No big mystery here: each morning each student and your own amazing self shares a word of affirmation. A word that describes where you want to take that day. Speak them out loud to one another, maybe with a little explanation, but that bit shouldn’t be required. Someone could be taking notes and producing a beautiful beautiful wordle or word cloud everyone can refer to throughout the day. Virtual? In-person? YES.

socially distanced advisory activities

8. Thunderclap!

While in a big SOCIALLY DISTANCED circle pick someone to start with a single clap and choose if the clap goes left or right. The idea is to clap immediately after the person in front of you. Try a few times and see how long it takes to go around the circle. When done really quickly the clap will sound like thunder.

Variation: The groups stands so they are in some sort of SOCIALLY DISTANCED circle. They can pass the clap with clapping once, reverse the clap by clapping twice, or share the clap by pointing.

This variation sometimes goes by the name “Pass the Clap”, and if that’s a choice you’re going to make for a middle school classroom, best of luck to you.

9. Rainstorm!

Make the sound of a rainstorm with your body. Look, we were a little skeptical at first too, but check it out. With a group, you can do it with a combination of rhythmic clapping, stamping, shushing, whistling and finger-snapping. Amazing!

10. Energizers & Icebreakers

Here we go: 

40-Second Blah Blah Blah! Yes, really. Each person gets forty seconds to just say whatever is on their minds. Free-write stream-of-consciousness in a judgment-free zone. The only rule? You can’t stop talking once you start, until the forty seconds are up.

Whose …. Is It Anyway? Whose shoes? And whose pet? Pick a subject and everyone shows their own implementation of the noun. We’ll be honest: this one needs some careful handling, in terms of both equity and trauma. Be careful not to choose a topic that could make your students feel exposed in terms of socioeconomic need or privilege, and also a topic where you’re less likely to exacerbate existing trauma. For instance, if you’re asking whose pet is this and a student just lost theirs.

Walkabout: Get up and go for a walk. Sounds simple, but is super effective.

11. Two Truths & A Lie

Does what it says on the tin. Each student comes up with three statements about himself. One should be completely made up, but plausible (more or less), and the other two should be true. Students take turns sharing their three statements and having others guess which statement is the truth and which are the lies.

12. Community Poem

Create a poem together. Pick a topic and have a student start the poem with a few words or a sentence. The next student needs to continue the poem by adding their sentence so it still makes sense, and so on.

13. Collaborative Crossword Puzzle

Virtual: Queue up a crossword puzzle on your screen. Your students can now — using only the comment function of your videoconferencing platform — share their answers (ex. “13 down is ‘Amazon'”). See how far you can all get in five minutes.

In-person: Mark up some pieces of butcher paper in a canonical crossword format. Entirely blank squares. Lay them down on the floor (commandeer the gym, cafeteria, or outside spaces as necessary). Ask students for a word. (“Right! Let’s start with 1 down. Five letters. Who’s got me?”) Now, either you’ve got students with giant marker pens writing the letters on your butcher paper, or you’ve got students with a stack of scratch paper, taping the letters onto the butcher paper so y’all can revise on the fly.

As each word gets tacked down, move your way as a group through the crostic, contributing words as you go. Hey, blend this activity with the Words of Affirmation, above. Build an affirmation crostic.

Once the crossword’s filled in — or as you go, you do you, kittens — ask the group to come up with a definition for each word. Talk about it. Work through it.

And still feel the satisfaction of completing a crossword together.

14. Tunegroove

Begin each day with a song in your hearts and over tiny speakers on your desk or playing in the Zoom room. Throw a dance party, cameras optional. And don’t restrict this one to the Morning Meeting, feel free to bust it out any time during the day when y’all need a little energy boost.

And of course have students suggest songs. You might find the FCC guidelines for radio airplay helpful here: no mention of genitalia, genitalia activities, excretion or excretion activities. That covers quite a bit, but y’all can talk about what energy you want to bring into your class with these songs and make up additional inclusive and kind ground rules.

To get you started, we’ve pulled together this quick Spotify playlist of songs you can pull from for morning meeting, advisory, or whenever you need a little boost. And yes, it includes Hamilton. But also yodeling, because that’s gonna be amazing to sing along to as well.

Reach out if you need us; we’re all in this together.


What do public exhibitions of learning look like during a pandemic?

The days of hosting public exhibitions and showcases in the school gymnasium appear to be over. For now.

Some schools and educators, however, have been very clever at hosting socially distanced and virtual exhibitions of student work and learning, despite the pandemic.

Why provide an audience for student work?

We know that student engagement and motivation increase when educators design an authentic audience for their work. When students create work that can be of service to the world, or they share work with people who produce valuable critiques? That motivates students. It gives them the incentive to develop quality products.

Ron Berger produced a useful Hierarchy of Audience that boils down to this: the more authentic an audience is, the higher the student engagement. For instance, families are a more motivating audience than teachers. The school community is a more motivating audience than families. Once the public outside the school gets involved, the stakes are higher.

Think of it as upping the ante for presenting.

Now the challenge is: how can we continue to provide authentic audience during the pandemic?

Here are 10 ways to provide socially distanced authentic audiences for student learning.

1. The virtual conference

Yep: Zoom rooms.

At the Middle Grades Institute this summer, educators selected from a schedule of workshop events and attended those workshops in a dedicated breakout room. This takes some organization and logistical planning, but the feedback from attendees indicated it was a huge success.

pandemic public exhibitions of learning

2. The Livestream

Platforms such as Facebook Live and YouTube allow users to livestream an event. In some cases, participants can ask questions or provide comments in a live feed. Presenters can choose to answer these as they come in, or let attendees know whether there will be follow-up after the event. These events can also be recorded, and included in a student’s PLP.

This past summer, two students in Essex VT, set up Facebook livestream concert to showcase their classical music performances. The two had been performing in person at libraries around Vermont. When the pandemic hit, they learned how to host and publicize those same performances in a way that brought them to the same public, authentic audience.

3. Embrace Flipgrid!

At Williston Central School, in Williston VT, teachers used Flipgrid in order to host a “virtual open house” Flipgrid is a platform where users can record videos to share with a select audience (videos are password-protected). The audience can then respond with their own videos. Through this platform, students were able to connect and engage with parents and other community members for feedback.

public exhibitions pandemic

4. Get outside and stretch

A useful strategy for social distancing is getting and staying outside — away from other people. As such, we’re seeing a huge rise in the popularity of Story Walks. A Story Walk is a trail along which an organization installs plaques on sticks, like you have in state and national parks.

Students at Lamoille Union Middle School, in Hyde Park VT, constructed a story walk along the Lamoille River trail. Each plaque showcased a student group’s historical research, along with a QR code linked to a short student-produced video.

Right now, many libraries are constructing Story Walks, and would love to feature student work to share with the community. Get out, stretch your legs and learn!

5. Get your audience outside!

Middlebury opera educator Sarah Cullins runs the Youth Opera Workshop, in Middlebury VT. The Youth Opera Workshop provides opportunities for students to learn and perform opera for appreciative Vermonters — who are usually an older demographic.

Once the pandemic hit, heading out to nursing homes would have been a disaster. So instead, Cullins worked with elder care homes and public utilities to bring the appreciative audience out onto large green spaces. They were able to remain socially distanced while students presented their performance pieces in public exhibitions.

5. Make headlines in your local paper

One unexpected aspect of the pandemic is that subscriptions to local papers have gotten a hefty boost. People are more interested than ever in local information. And a lot of them read that paper online. And that can be a boon for students.

Local papers live for community-submitted items. Contact your local paper and pitch a student series of op-eds, or articles. That’s taking the audience for the learning out beyond the teacher, beyond the families, and out into the community.

Looking for critical feedback? The online publishing of local papers provides a robust platform for engagement with community members. Lay down ground rules for commenting (for community members) and work with your students to decide what their policy on responding to comments will be. For an extra boost, encourage students to send the link to their articles to experts in the field they’re studying. We’re all looking for a little extra connection right now.

6. Get your video out there online

While we’re all staying home to flatten the curve, we all still love a good video. Embrace video as a way for students to record themselves in the location of their choice and get it online. The link can be public and shared through school social media or unlisted and just shared with families.

At Mt. Abraham Union High School, in Bristol VT, students did just that to perform a rendition of Vermont’s state song, “These Green Mountains”. They wanted public feedback, so they reached out to the local community access television station in Middlebury as a way to build their audience.

Mt Anthony’s choral ensemble did something similar (video) and a big takeaway from both of those videos can be found in the comments. The comment sections to these two videos are filled with love and appreciation. They are from real people. They are positive and supportive.

7. Go big with your videos at the drive-in

During the pandemic, drive-ins are making a comeback. They let families get out of their houses and go the movies while still socially distancing (flatten the curve!). But The Warren School, in Warren VT, took it one step further when it came to their graduating sixth graders. The students traditionally prepare a reflection of their learning on video to share at the school exhibition. In order to keep that tradition going, the school worked with local drive-in The Big Pic to arrange a community showing of the student-made video. The Warren sixth graders’ authentic audience turned out in droves, and tuned in on their car radios.

You can do this.

Whatever you do, don’t give up on creating authentic audiences for student work. It may take some creativity and innovation and learning a new tool, but the technology and resources are out there. More than ever, students need to feel like their work matters to more than themselves and their teacher.

More for the door:

Share Your Learning have developed some resources to support educators with virtual exhibitions of learning, virtual student led conferences, and virtual presentations of learning.


Measuring the value of a personalized learning coordinator

Will schools really re-open this fall? And what will they look like? Most of all: how will we ensure that our teachers and students are safe?

Even though I usually do my best to think about anything but school during summer vacation, this year I’ve been tuning into the conversation on reopening.


For one simple reason: the way our schools adapt to the challenging circumstances of this fall will have enormous implications for Vermont’s students.

And the students most at risk of inadequate support during this transition, as usual, are Vermont’s most vulnerable and marginalized students.

It wasn’t so long ago that I was in high school myself.

I grew up in Jericho, VT. I graduated from Mt. Mansfield Union High School in 2015. But for the past year and a half, I’ve been researching what has become one of the go-to strategies for remote education in Vermont: personalized learning.

And what I’ve found says a lot about how schools should go about reopening.

personalized learning coordinator Asher Lehrer-Small paper at Brown University digital repository
My full research report (.pdf). It’s available through the Brown University digital repository.

The key ingredient: a personalized learning coordinator.

As people in the education community know, there are four main flexible pathways for personalized learning in Vermont:

  • work-based learning
  • online learning
  • dual enrollment
  • and career and technical education.

As schools explore creative ways to engage students remotely, it’s likely we’ll see an uptick in the use of these programs.

In my research, I crunched the numbers on dozens of different factors to see how they were linked to student participation in flexible pathways.

When I did, one relationship was stronger than all the others, separating schools with robust flexible pathway programs from those with weak programs. It was almost too obvious.

What was the magic ingredient? A coordinator.

Schools that had a personalized learning coordinator on staff tended to have higher rates of student participation in their flexible pathway programs.

Without diving too deep into the methodology, it’s worth explaining where that result comes from.

In the fall of 2019, I sent out a survey to all principals of Vermont public high schools asking about their personalized learning and flexible pathways programs. I asked for all sorts of details: professional development priorities, advisory programs, student leadership, parental engagement, and more.

35 out of 60 principals – 58.3% – provided data. And the numbers told a story.

personalized learning coordinator data table 1 Asher Lehrer-Small

Without any fancy statistical methods, I could estimate the rates at which students across the state were actually participating in flexible pathways. I could see how many schools had a devoted personalized learning coordinator.

But actually crunching those numbers revealed results that were even more telling.

personalized learning coordinator data table 2 asher lehrer-small

When I regressed flexible pathway participation rates on each school-level factor, I found there was a statistically significant positive relationship between the presence of a pathways coordinator and student participation in flexible pathway programs. Even when controlling for school size and student poverty rate.

(There were other findings too, but – shameless plug, again – you can find more specific data in my paper (.pdf))

How big was the effect?

Having a pathways coordinator on staff was associated with an increase in overall flexible pathway participation of five to fifteen percentage points.

When I interviewed some of those coordinators, the reasons for this bump in participation became clear.

Flexible pathways can help students learn in new and engaging ways. For example, at the workplace through an internship placement. Or about a new topic – say marine biology – through an online course.

But these opportunities can be difficult for students to set up on their own. And without a coordinator to help them select the right options and then navigate the registration process, many students miss out entirely. Especially for students who don’t have parents actively involved in their education, flexible pathway options can become inaccessible.

Take dual enrollment, for example.

Dual enrollment allows Vermont students to take college courses while still in high school, giving students a taste of college-level content and allowing them to get a few credits under their belt before enrolling in college. The policy was intended to make higher education more accessible to first-generation students. Has it followed through on that goal?

Not exactly.

Because there are so many hoops students have to jump through to register for dual enrollment, the programs have mostly become populated by well-resourced students. “Dual enrollment is for your high-flyers,” April Wortmann, a coordinator from Mt. Abraham Middle High School, explained to me. “It kind of did the inverse of the intent.”

Similar issues crop up with online learning.

Without a coordinator, how will students find and enroll in the course that’s right for them? Or work-based learning. How will students set up an internship placement all on their own?

Again and again, I found that when students are left without a coordinator to guide them, flexible pathway programs tended to create starker divides between the “haves” and the “have nots.”

So how, you may ask, does all this play into school reopenings?

Coordinators as a COVID learning solution

As our schools experiment with hybrid and remote learning models, it’s likely that they will rely more and more heavily on flexible pathway options to engage students outside the classroom. But at the same time, many schools are facing tightened budgets, and many “non-essential” staff positions may be on the chopping block.

If my research has anything to say about how schools should go forward, it’s that personalized learning coordinator roles need, need, NEED to stay.

And schools that don’t yet have these roles must create them.

Perhaps the best way to prove my point is to explain what pathways coordinators actually do.

In early March, just before COVID shut down life as we know it, I spoke with Terry Berger, Multiple Pathways Coordinator at Leland and Gray Union Middle & High School, about her role.

She recounted a number of key responsibilities that she shoulders. Of course, these roles were pre-COVID, but many responsibilities carry over.

The following is an incomplete list:

Berger advises students on how to navigate her school’s pathway options, she runs the school’s work-based learning program and teaches the program’s classroom component. She finds internship placements for students and coordinates their transportation (sometimes driving students herself). She publicizes dual enrollment and online learning options, and manages the labyrinth of paperwork for students who register. Plus, she guides students through technical glitches in their online courses in the evening via text messaging.

Berger’s two specialties, work-based learning and online learning, may be some of Vermont’s best options in keeping students engaged this coming year while minimizing their time in the classroom.

But it’s not easy.

Any one of these responsibilities, alone, could be a headache. Together, they are hero’s work.

“Sometimes it really does feel that there’s just not enough time in the day,” said Berger.

At the beginning of each semester, Berger matches the 20+ work-based learning students to local internship opportunities. It’s a web of emails, applications, meetings, phone calls, safety checks, background checks, and more. “I don’t eat or sleep or spend time with my children for a solid four weeks,” said Berger. “It’s just absolute mayhem.”

Try pulling off an effective work-based learning program without someone like Berger. The chances of success are slim. Before her role was created, Leland and Gray’s work-based learning program was more of a “dumping ground” for students who had abandoned the college track, she recalled.

In Berger’s short tenure at Leland and Gray, the composition of the program has changed completely. Describing her students, Berger said, “They’re college-bound, they’re trades bound, and there are opportunities for all of those kids. It’s not just the kids who don’t do well in school.”

For maintaining equity in personalized learning programs, coordinators like Berger are essential.

The right fit for the job

A number of factors seem to determine who makes an effective pathways coordinator.

For one, connections in the community.

Berger believes that her status as a local boosts her effectiveness as a coordinator. “I know everybody,” said Berger. “That for me has just been the key.” And though it’s not her go-to technique, she admits that she has landed internship placements for students while in line at the deli or the hardware store.

Another key? Flexibility of schedule.

Like Berger, Patty Davenport, Pathways Coordinator at the neighboring Springfield High School, often works in the evenings to better support her students. Usually it’s after school that students are logging on to dual enrollment and online learning courses. She makes sure to be available in the case of any glitches.

Going forward there’s good news and bad news.

The good news? Vermont schools have the capacity to support all students as they navigate personalized learning opportunities, regardless of socio-economic status. Many of the coordinators I spoke to had already found innovative ways to do so.

The bad news? These schools are the exception not the rule. Many Vermont schools do not yet have flexible pathway coordinator positions, and as they figure out what this coming year will look like, they have some catching up to do if they seek to make personalized learning accessible to all students.

In the age of COVID, this change is urgent.

Should out of school internships be available only to students who know where to look? Should project-based learning be a reward to students already who have the supports in place to work independently? And should online dual enrollment courses be restricted to those students who know how to navigate the college registration systems and the classroom norms?

Think about students with unreliable internet access. Think about students without a quiet room to in which work. These are the students who have been historically underserved by our schools. They are disproportionately low-income. And they are disproportionately first-generation college hopefuls.

They need someone in their corner. They need someone like Terry Berger.

So yes, even if it means thinking about academics during summer vacation, I do care about how schools are reopening this year. Specifically, I want to see them reopen with flexible pathway coordinators ready to lift up the students hardest hit by the pandemic.

Physical education & remote learning

We know the importance of physical activity to our health and well-being. So, when we educators needed to pivot quickly to remote learning last March, physical education teachers faced a unique challenge.

Educators in the Kingdom East school district got busy quickly to respond and provide ongoing learning opportunities despite the constraints.  How might we build on their collective efforts?

A collective effort

Theresa Young is the curriculum coordinator for the Kingdom East School District. The collaborative effort of Physical Education and Health educators in her district stood out to her. It is an example of an impressive collective effort to meet needs. These educators moved quickly and creatively to launch a district-wide website with the necessary tools, strategies, and resources for families to take next steps. Take a look and you’ll see why.

The KESD P.E. & Health page is a landing space filled with resources for students and their families from kindergarten to 8th grade.

Site highlights

physical education and remote learning KESD homepage


On the site, students can access an array of engaging resources.

Middle level students were invited to:

  • explore the calendar,
  • pick out one of the suggested activities to try 2 or 3 times a week
  • And, share / reflect on the experience with this Google Form 👉


physical education and remote learning
Click or tap to enlarge the image.


Sharing student work

In addition to a resource collection and feedback form, the site helped educators highlight student work. First grader Carter Boivin published his own book: Bike Safety Manual! And KESD is happy to share it broadly.

Carter’s interest in biking translated into advice shared with a wide audience through this collective space.


Other ongoing supports

As the educators were building out the site, Jeremiah Bias found a creative way to engage his students in physical education activities. He video recorded himself sharing and modeling a physical activity easily replicated at home. Many schools in the Kingdom East School District use Seesaw.  Jeremiah delivered these engaging videos through Seesaw postings.

The key: engage learners to be active and healthy, even when we have to do so at a distance!

Further exploration

Want to know more about ways physical education teachers can work to keep students and their families active this summer at a distance and plan for the fall?

Check out:


Re-connect & re-imagine this return to school.

The return to school is usually filled with excitement, anticipation, and maybe a little nervousness. This year though? Much more nervousness with the excitement.  How can we anticipate what it will take to keep teachers and students safe? While each of our communities and school leadership put their hearts and minds into that question, we’re looking at what we know works for a return to remote and blended learning. We’re going small, and keeping it simple. Returning to the basics. We asked each of our professional development coordinators for their best piece of advice on the return to school in this exceptionally challenging year.

What one word would they provide as a guidepost?

Emily Hoyler: “Re-center.”

Emily Hoyler return to schoolI tend to dream big and that’s great. But when it comes time to bring those ideas into reality, all my grand plans can be a bit overwhelming. (Can you relate?)

But the best advice I’ve heard lately was: how can you make it smaller?

This is a reminder to create manageable and focused goals. Peel back the layers to find the best bits, and focus deeply and intentionally on those.

But the hard part can be figuring out which bits. So I offer this:

One of my favorite books to begin the school year with is The Three Questions by John Muth. In this tale, which is based on Tolstoy’s work with a similar name, a young boy is seeking answers:

  • What is the best time to do things?
  • Who is the most important one?
  • What is the right thing to do?

Spoiler alert:  I’m going to tell you Tolstoy’s answers to those three questions. Here are they are: The best time is now, the most important one is the ones you are with, and the right thing to do is to do good for those you’re with…right here. Right now.

I typically use the text to set the scene for my classroom culture and community, to help students think about how to show up for each other. But I think these questions can guide us here.

What does it look like to do good for our students right now?

I think it means scaling back. Paring down. Focusing deeply on what matters. Relationships. Connection. Purpose. Reflection.

So when you look at the long list of all that you’ve been asked to do, can you ask yourself:

  • What is the most important?
  • What can I let go of (for now)?
  • How can I make it smaller?

Let’s give ourselves permission to let go, narrow our scope, make things smaller, and honor what truly matters.

Jeanie Phillips: “Hyperdocs”.

Jeanie Phillips return to schoolIf I were headed back to the classroom this fall my head would be spinning!  Should I plan for remote learning? Should I prepare for in-person learning?  Or both?  What is an educator to do?

The solution I’m offering is the Hyperdoc: an organized way to plan for your learners that works virtually, in person, or in a hybrid model.

What’s a hyperdoc?

A hyperdoc is an organized instructional unit that curates all of the resources, materials, practice, and assessments in one place. Using UDL and backward design, educators can plan thoughtful instruction that is aligned to proficiencies and provides voice and choice for students.

And while the typical hyperdoc is designed so each student has their own copy, this format could also be used by collaborative groups so they can work together at a safe social distance.

Rachel Mark: “Re-connect”.

Rachel Mark, Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education return to schoolOne of the most fundamental purposes for re-opening schools this fall is to rekindle human connections and relationships.

In my capacities as both a parent and an educator, I perceive daily advisory to be absolutely essential for this school year.

Whether it’s face-to-face, virtual, or a hybrid of both, there are many ways that educators can use advisory to build relationships, develop community, and help students feel a sense of belonging. Earlier this year, I wrote about a format for conducting virtual advisory with students. In that post, I called it morning meeting, which I consider to be a very similar concept to middle school advisory.

Advisory sessions should be an opportunity for people — adults and students — to relate with one another, feel connected, and have a little fun. And as educators, let’s find ways to help students feel safe and supported and individually willing to turn their cameras on. Let’s behave like guests in their homes so they’re willing to be face-to-face with us for yes, more connection.

Last year, we published ideas on our blog for activities that could be used in a virtual advisory or morning meeting.

In June, I taught a graduate course for educators that promoted virtual advisory as a critical component for this upcoming school year.

It was my favorite part of the day.

And I believe it was a similar highlight for my students.

Life LeGeros: “Project-Based Learning cycles.”

Life LeGeros return to schoolTeachers are being put in a tough situation right now (understatement of the century, I know). You’re being asked to put relationships and connection first while developing curriculum that is more engaging than ever. And to do so in a situation where the format might be face-to-face, remote, or hybrid, or all three with different students.

My suggestion is to do as much planning up front as possible to provide time for individualized feedback and support when students kick things into gear. This will also allow creative energy to be funneled into community building.

Where do cycles come in?

If you can create choices that students can explore through a consistent process, then you can run a few cycles where students get to choose a focus area each time.

For example, the Humanities team at Orleans Elementary School (Andrea Gratton and Kyle Chadburn) created the Humanities Expeditions Project last spring. Students start each two-week cycle by choosing to explore an “expedition” area such as sports, the future, heroes, or social justice. They spend time with resources in that topic area for the first week and reflect on what they learned. Then in week two, they write about it. Students receive feedback on informational writing skills and self-direction. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Another example comes from the Imagining September project from MIT and Harvard. In the “School as Basecamp” storyboard (p. 11-12), students engage with a career exploration project during the first two weeks of school and then choose from modules that have been pre-designed by teachers. Modules blend skills and content, such as Writing to Persuade or Reading About Science. Modules last a month and culminate in a creative exhibition of learning.

Both of these cases require a fair amount of up-front work to structure the delivery method (may I suggest Hyperdocs?), provide resources for students to explore, and figure out how to introduce and scaffold the process. But like many project-based learning approaches, once things are underway teachers get to focus on being there for students.

It’s also an asset-based approach that capitalizes on the power of choices and builds on the self-direction skills many students deepened during the spring.

Scott Thompson: “Ask.”

Scott Thompson, Tarrant Institute for Innovative EducationLet’s just acknowledge that this year is different. All your emotions are okay. And while significant challenges lie ahead, we cannot admire them. Educators are amongst the most talented, innovative, and passionate folks around. WE CAN DO THS! So let’s wonder what could it look like? How can it be different and better at the same time? Students will be showing up in some capacity and their energy will give us energy.

As we show up, and as our students show up, let’s not be afraid to ask for things. Ask for help. Ask for reassurance. And ask for space.

Let’s be kind to ourselves as we focus on coming together for such a mighty, mighty lift. Let’s step back when we need, and let’s make noise as we plan. Advocate for ourselves and our communities.

And above all, let’s listen to students.

Susan Hennessey: “Plan P”.

return to school collaborative digital tools for faculty meetingsWe all need to build learning opportunities based on multiple scenarios. Think of it less like having a Plan B, and more like a Plan P: pivoting to new contexts with intention.

One way to do so is to have a multitude of content in a number of different media at the ready so students have choice of access points to engage with content. If they can’t benefit from an in-person lecture / discussion, they will be well served by an engaging video with short stopping points for reflection built in via EdPuzzle, or a podcast followed by a collaborative discussion board via Padlet, or a piece of informational text they can collaborative mark up in ActivelyLearn of

Flower Darby in Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes advises:

“Take a little time to find relevant videos, audio recordings, and images…Find and share impactful pieces of content that add depth and breadth to your existing instructional materials. This will help students gain a richer understanding of the nuances of your subject.”

So, how to do so efficiently and effectively? Take advantage of Open Educational Resources like CK-12, OERcommons, and Curriki to find ready-to-use content. And don’t forget CommonLit to find texts for all reading levels and needs. These tools allow busy educators to easily search by content standard, grade range, and topic.



Teachers, we want you to be: safe.

We are excited for the possibility of seeing this fundamental disruption to school as we know it, as an opportunity to explore and create new ways of learning. Ways that honor student voice and drive, that create truly flexible pathways for students to move out of school buildings and into their communities. We are hoping students can explore what intrigues them about this world, and share who they are and what they’ve learned through their PLPs, and via student-led conferences (whatever those will look like). What are your students learning and doing during this time? How can we assess the new skills they gain? And how do we level the playing field in terms of racial, social, economic and intersectional equity?

But all of these questions are immaterial without teachers and students being truly safe in their learning environments.

Reach out if you need us. We will support you however we can.

Not all rainbows and unicorns

Hello there, educator friends and colleagues! I hope this note finds you in a good moment. Good moments are crucial and to be cherished to be sure.

Though they aren’t everything. Let me explain.

July brought so many good moments for my family.

My wife and I took several weeks off of work. We limited our fretting over the state of the world by staying away from social media and ignoring the news. Our little family managed to create some bubbles of being where we were able to savor so many small pleasures. Our dog’s first kayak ride. Garden veggies straight from vine to mouth. Our daughters’ first backpacking trip. Spotting comet NEOWISE nestled under the Milky Way. Guiltlessly lazy mornings. Countless river plunges.

rainbows and unicorns

I came to appreciate the little things. I was really truly present there for a bit. 

But eventually we had to leave our bubble and the big stuff came back into focus. I won’t lie, the transition was rough. I hoped to have built up a reservoir of resilience to draw on as I returned to reality. But instead, after a few weeks of living in blissful denial, I was raw and quickly overwhelmed. Unnecessary pain. Cruel and unjust systems of oppression. In education, too many tough decisions amidst too little respect for teachers.

It seemed impossible that the wonderful little moments that fed my soul could exist in the same universe as the relentless intractable big stuff that made me want to either hide or burn it all down.

When I find myself profoundly confused, anxious, or paralyzed, I’ve learned to ask for help. From many sources, I was brought back to my core value of love. bell hooks talks about love as an act of will, as both an intention and an action. In any given moment, I can love those around me by connecting, showing compassion, asking what they need and trying my best to provide it. It’s something I can control.

But I have to deal with the big stuff too. I work with others in my community to make it a more welcoming and liberatory space. I collaborate with amazing educators to try to transform systems to fully value and serve every student. And I constantly interrogate the oppressor within myself so I can strive to be anti-racist.

It’s not either/or. It’s both/and. Perhaps that’s why Cornel West calls justice, “What love looks like in public.”

Teacher friends, you inspire me.

You are masters of navigating the big stuff while creating magical moments. And you speak up to the system while showing up for your students. You name the injustices while learning the name of every student. And you address the pain of the world, and how to make it better, while creating bubbles where students can be part of a learning and loving community.

I appreciate y’all so much.

No matter how uncertain or worrisome the big stuff becomes, I am heartened by the inevitability that children will have powerful positive experiences in your care. They will learn, they will belong, they will be loved. Even if but for a moment, it will be worth savoring.

Thank you for all you do,

2020 Summer Reading with TIIE

Emily Hoyler

It seems my ‘to-read’ pile is growing faster than I am reading. Luckily it’s summer. These longer days provide daylight well past my bedtime, ensuring I make it a few pages further before dozing off.

First up, because my digital hold finally arrived (I love you, Green Mountain Library Consortium!), is The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. I was a huge fan of her apocalyptic pandemic novel Station Eleven, and though this switches genre I’ve heard from readers-who-I-trust that it will be a good one.

I’ve also just started listening to Sonya Renee Taylor’s The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love, narrated by Ms. Taylor herself. This one is already transformative. Check out her TED Talk, Bodies as Resistance: Claiming the political act of being oneself (and shout-out to Rhiannon Kim & Erika Saunders who introduced me to her work!).

Next up is The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin. This sci-fi novel is the first in a series (bonus!) and was recommended to me because I loved Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (haven’t read it yet? Do it!). Hopefully, I can lose myself in that world for a bit, before coming back to ours to do some work. I’m looking forward to diving into Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.

However, my activism is just getting started and won’t culminate in a book club.

I’m also excited to check out And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. I’m new to the genre and the author, but this one came highly recommended by my college roommate, Tessa Wegert, who just released her first novel, A Death in the Family. That one is also on my list.

Finally, I look forward to consulting my collection of, er, antique gardening books. Just look at what this one has to say about compost! Oh, wheel of life!

I’ve got a busy summer ahead. But the hammock is ready and waiting.

Jeanie Phillips

I am so ready for summer reading! Fiction, non-fiction, professional, YA: I plan to read a little bit of everything this summer.

The Seasons of Styx Malone has been on my to-be-read list for a while.  Written by Vermont author extraordinaire, Kekla Magoon, it was a 2019 Coretta Scott King Honor Award Winner. Set in a small town in the summertime, it has been described as madcap and hilarious but also touching and heartbreaking. I’m looking forward to getting to know Caleb, Bobby Gene, and especially their cool neighbor Styx Malone!

The other YA title at the top of my list is An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People.  Reading Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You made me realize how many gaps there are in my own historical understanding.  It is time to remedy that and this book is my next teacher! (I also love that one of the co-authors of this book is Debbie Reese, creator of the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog that I count on for reviews and critical analysis.)

My professional (and deeply personal as well, because this work is both for me!) reads include Bettina Love’s We Want to do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom.  I’ve had this book on my nightstand for months, but it demands to be read in the daytime and I’m looking forward to inviting it on a staycation!  And I’ve just begun T. Elijah Hawkes’ beautifully written School for the Age of Upheaval: Classrooms That Get Personal, Get Political, and Get to Work. I’m one chapter in and it’s already touched my heart and reawakened my imagination for what schooling could become.

Here is Charlie wondering why there is no fun adult fiction in the stack!

And now I share my conundrum. Somehow I arrived in summer without an adult fiction book I am dying to read… How did that happen?!  Gentle readers, what might you suggest for this lover of thoughtful contemporary fiction? Romance novels and true crime need not apply…

Katy Farber

So many books I want to read right now!  There is my dream reading list, and there is the which books I will actually get and read list. These are constantly in flux.

A few weeks ago, I finished listening to How to Be Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi. This was one of the most powerful listening experiences I have ever had, though it did leave me with plenty of questions and deep reflection. I found listening to Dr. Kendi reading this book to be utterly compelling and helpful. I need to return to the text, review certain chapters, and consider other scholars’ work simultaneously.  I will be following it up with reading more women of color on anti-racism, and I am particularly interested in Bettina Love’s We Want To Do More Than Survive and Layla Saad’s Me and the White Supremacy. The book is also an education in writing and the integration of ideas, personal narratives, history, and concepts. The end is truly uplifting and hopeful.

Next up, I am finally listening to Know My Name by Channel Miller. This is a deeply personal, vivid and incredibly written memoir. It is about sexual assault, but so very much more. A moving family story, a critique of university, police and societal reactions to sexual assault, and the continuation of rape culture. The book, so far (I’m still early on), challenges the reader to consider deeply the experiences of women and the fight against sexual assault and misogyny that harms everyone.

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Lastly, I am reading All American Muslim by Nadine Jolie Courtney, because my daughter told me I must read it right away! And, right away, my blood was boiling about an incident on a plane, where Allie has to defend her father from an islamophobic man. But my youngest is encouraging me to push through, because it is one of her all time favorite books, and it focuses on identity and becoming true to one’s self.

Late addition: Last night, I just started School For the Age of Upheaval: Classrooms That Get Personal, Get Political, and Get to Work by Vermont principal (and recent vted Reads guest) T. Elijah Hawkes. I have loved reading his writing on various platforms and following his work in #vted.

This book, having just read the introduction, is shaping up to be an unflinching look at how students need deeply to engage in important work, to be seen and heard, and feel part of their communities, or they suffer from any number of harmful-consequences that plague our communities. I’m excited to dig into this one, and consider the current moment, and how it might impact planning for meaningful work with students this fall.

Life LeGeros

I’ve been reading Dr. Bettina Love’s We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom for a few weeks. I look forward to being able to dig in. I’ve been learning so much from her in other venues (webinars, Twitter feed, etc.) and her book is similarly brilliant so far.

Another book that has been on my list for some time is Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor. I had signed up for her digital workbook last year but I couldn’t stick with it. Now I have the physical book and a commitment to go through the 28 days of learning together with my wife. Although I’ve explored many of the ideas in other places, I’m sure I’ll get a ton out of revisiting them in this format with brief dives and journal questions.

As Saad notes,

“Begin within. Begin with you and white supremacy.”

I plan to start there and return constantly and forever.

The last couple are fiction that I just picked up at my local bookstore, Bridgeside Books in Waterbury, Vermont. They have started antiracist sections for adults and for youth.

First there is Nic Stone’s Dear Martin, a slim but powerful volume about a Black youth caught up in a mess. I plan to read it with one or both of my daughters. And then there is Akata Warrior, by Nnedi Okorafor whose Binti series blew my mind in the very best way. Just looking at it I notice that it is a sequel. Welp, looks like I’ll have to add to my stack! (See how this goes?…)

Dog next to four books


Rachel Marks

I am truly looking forward to some time to disconnect and read for pleasure this July and August. Inspired by friends and colleagues, I have a list of books by Black, women authors that is stacking up quite nicely. Not to mention, I love many of the beautiful and artful book covers. Some of these books make me happy just looking at them!

To start, I just began reading The Mothers by Brit Bennett, and I also have Bennett’s most recent book on deck, The Vanishing Half. Bennett writes fiction that feels so real and captures the beauty and truth of human relationships (I also want to frame her book covers as works of art).

Another book, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has been on my list for years. This is the summer for reading it.

I devoured her essay, We Should All Be Feminists, and I’m excited to read this book about race and belonging.

Last but not least on my list is a non-fiction book aimed at young adults, This Book is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell. After working with teachers around expanding equity and identity work in middle schools, my friend showed me this book. It’s lively and readable, and I think it possibly has a place in middle school curriculums. The book’s activities and exercises around identity and racism are fresh and engaging.


Scott Thompson

Usually, by this time I have amassed a reading list long enough to fill the entire summer and then some. This year is different. Yup, I said it!

In the spirit of self-care, I have set my sights on just a few books (to start). Through the wonderful world of social medial my friends recommended have recommended Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears we Cannot StopDubbed The Sermon to White America, Dyson speaks from the heart and offers,

“The time is at hand for reckoning with the past, recognizing the truth of the present, and moving together to redeem the nation for our future.”

My second book was recommended to me by Vermont educator Allan Miller. I always dive right into his recommendations. Here’s what hooked me in Allan’s email:

“So the other point George Couros made yesterday about the challenge facing us moving into the fall is that like it or not we are all being challenged to undertake significant Innovation while being bound by some fairly strong constraints that are beyond our control.   His new book Innovate Inside the Box – opens with some really inspiring thinking especially as he talks about moving beyond Growth Mindset to an Innovators Mindset.”

I may be speaking out of both sides of my mouth but I also have a bunch or articles and resources I want to reconnect with. Yes this is summer fun to me!!! The resources from Teaching Tolerance are just really good. Their have some advisory specific resources that are new-ish and feel like they will complement some of the work in the fall. And finally, catching up with my all my favorite websites like Cult of Pedagogy and KQED/Mindshift.

Taking it slow for sure.

Susan Hennessey

Summer, it’s here! And in the bottom of my canvas beach bag, along with sun screen and a bag of almonds, you’ll find: Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving by Mo Rocca. Needing a jolt of humor as my launch book! Next up! What is not yours is not yours by Helen Oyeoyemi. And finally, connecting to the natural world with Robin Kimmerer with Braiding Sweetgrass. One I’ll definitely be reading outdoors, under the sun, and very near water.

Audrey Homan

Y’all, I am tired. Tired tired. And I am very much looking forward to my reading staycation. It’s always nice to stay someplace that welcomes five dogs.

Yes, five dogs. I am living the dream.

So. The theme of my staycation reading this year is: oceans and other large bodies of water.

Now, despite the presence of two lakes within driving distance — one large, one small — I remain sequestered in my home. Why? Not just because dogs (well mainly because dogs) but also because I don’t trust y’all out there to WEAR YOUR DAMN MASKS. Even at a lake.

So here we are. It’s fine, I have a paddling pool and a hose.

First up, I have Deep Descent: Adventure and Death Diving the Andrea Doria, by Kevin F. MacMurray. Does what it says on the tin, and presents the author’s own extensive experiences diving the legendary ocean liner SS Andrea Doria. Spoiler: the shallowest part of the wreck is 200 feet down, so the dives are wicked difficult.

Next up is The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean, by Susan Casey. A delightful examination of monster boat-eating waves at sea, and how bad we humans are at predicting what the ocean will eat next. (Spoiler: we’re really bad, and it’s going to wipe out everything.)

Also on the list: Deep Storm, by Lincoln Child (an underwater research lab is saved by science and derring-do, right before it explodes), Pacific Vortex! by Clive Cussler (the exclamation point indicates the number of underwater explosions per chapter), and Fathom, by Cherie Priest (evil mermaids invade Florida).

And finally is Mel Odom’s The Sea Devil’s Eye, the third and final book in Odom’s Forgotten Realms-based Threat from the Sea trilogy. Will Krynn survive the sahuagin uprising? Will our reluctant young sailor hero finally embrace his destiny as a pirate?? And how is the evil Iakhovas controlling Krynn’s ocean creatures???

(Spoilers: yes, probably, and by being a sharkshifter. You’re welcome.)

Btw, I just finished Houses Built of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Power, and Food, by Psyche A. Williams-Forson. While it’s not set in or around the ocean, I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s a history book, it’s a culinary book, it’s film critique — if any of those interest you, give this book a go. It’s currently back in its accustomed place on the shelves of UVM’s Howe Library, which is doing curbside pick-up to order, like some kind of wonderful diner that serves hot fresh books and icy cold bookshakes.

Yes, bookshakes. Did I mention I’m tired?

The power of PIPs in a pandemic

Middle school is not a Zoom room.

When the quick switch to a remote environment was required, Charlotte Central School decided to go with what they know. And these folks know their students. Specifically, they know “Personal Interest Projects” (PIPs, aka passion projects, aka Brainado, aka curiosity projects) work for their students. Charlotte Central students in grades 7 and 8 had both worked through a few rounds of PIPs, providing educators with rave reviews. And as the distance (learning) lengthened, honoring students’ individual joys and passions seemed the best way forward.

It generally always is.

But for these PIPs, remote learning environment removed a lot constraints in terms of time and place. This middle school truly wasn’t a building, but instead a networked community, working remotely to support, engage and more deeply know their students.

Keep it simple:

Educators Marley Evans, Lisa Bresler, and Allan Miller started to wonder how to make this work in the wild new environment of emergency distance learning. First, they started with some guiding statements for students:

  • Pick something that’s engaging
  • Fun and not overwhelming
  • Something you’ll stick with

They were hoping for something that created a meaningful back and forth dialog. Something that could be synchronous or asynchronous. A dialog that supported a growth mindset and a little self-direction.

Plus, they really, really missed their students. And this would be an opportunity to reach out and connect. But however would they cope with the virtual reality of the situation?

Roll Call:

An email went out to staff and other interested educators, requesting a little help.

The response? Overwhelming. 17 adults in the school community stepped up to the plate and volunteered to be a PIPs resource. That represented a 240% increase over the last round, and created a 1:5 ratio for adults supporting students. Take a moment and think about what a 1:5 ratio could look like for student learning year-round…

And onwards!


Marley, Lisa, and Allan let students know that spring PIPs were on their way and there would be a virtual rollout.

They framed this round of PIPs with Head (thinking), Hand, (doing), Heart (feeling). Not a new idea for the students but new to tie it explicitly to the PIPs. Students then joined their advisors in small groups. They talked possibilities and posed questions, until each student had the tools to create a single slide, capturing the basis of their PIP.


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The support

Each Monday the team sent out a reminder through Google Classroom, then each Friday small groups would meet to answer questions, share progress, or problem-solve. It’s the little nudge that keep momentum going. The planning group shared a list of prompts, for people who were new to this type of project.

Student Progress Tracking


And the results were GLORIOUS.

Charlotte Central has always tried to say yes to a PIPs proposal. But, sometimes the gym wasn’t available or the art room booked up, so the answer had to be no. Well, this round of PIPs produced work that wasn’t possible in the traditional school structure.

Some students worked at 6am, others at 8pm. Students worked with their family’s needs and their own biorhythms, based on the sheer joy of going for it.

One student launched a lawn-mowing business. Another student learned a backflip. And still another planned out his garden *and* built bike jumps for his backyard. And one engaged his dad in a conversation about chickens. If you build the coop, dad said, we’ll get chickens. Blueprints appeared almost immediately.


“How was this assessed?”

It wasn’t.

…thank you for coming to our TED Talk.

No, but in all seriousness, assessment was pretty much the furthest thing from anyone’s minds. The idea was really: let’s engage students with what they want to study, and give them a venue for showing us who they are, then sort assessment out for next year. Because the rest of this year has just been a whole DEAL.

Lessons learned?

Now, while many students embraced the opportunity to follow their joy, student participation was not 100%. Some students did their projects but skipped the check-in meetings. Not every student felt comfortable meeting virtually, especially with the 1:5 adult-student ratio (small groups can be awkward). Before the school closure, not every student had a strong relationship with an adult in the school community, and that… didn’t improve by going remote.

Friday afternoons were the perfect time to meet when school was in session, but during distance learning? Not so much.

Plus, let’s name it: equity remained a problem. Access to resources was an issue in school and it became a greater issue away from school.

Let’s go back, Jack, and do it again:

The only certain thing about school next fall is its uncertainty. No one knows for sure what it’s going to look like. But the Charlotte Central team do know they want more PIPs. Here’s their quick list of takeaways for the next round, if school stays remote.

How could this be a part of your learning?

Remoteness does not meant devoid of rigor, relevance, or relationships. This is one way to honor student passions and create a venue for them to show you how they learn. It’s a way to open flexible pathways to student’s goals. And for Charlotte Central, it was a way to connect with the students they missed so very much.

Everything is not canceled.

I think I speak for many when I share that I have experienced innumerable emotions, moods, and feelings during this pandemic. This morning, I woke up in what I’ll call my 34th stage of response to the COVID-19 situation:

Today I feel energized by hopeful possibility.

Don’t get me wrong. I have shed many, many tears over the tragedies and atrocities people have faced. I have screamed many, many times over the countless cancellations, postponements, and missed experiences.

There are times that I have felt like life, as we know it, has been canceled.

To some degree that’s true, but I have to admit that I’ve entered a new stage of appreciation and admiration for the ways that humans and systems have begun to create new possibilities.

Many students around the globe are meant to be experiencing graduations right now. We’ve always pictured those as being a very uniform tradition. Family and friends filling rows and rows of chairs. Caps and gowns pressed together in hugs. Students and faculty exchanging high fives and jubilant handshakes at the on-stage diploma exchange.

THAT isn’t happening. But we are witnessing some very creative new possibilities.

I’ve heard of graduates riding a ski lift to be recognized. Graduates fêted at a drive-in from individual cars. Car parades. And ceremonies spread out across wide open parking lots.

We’re witnessing an unparalled flourish of innovation and creativity. That’s happening right now in our communities and in our schools, and it’s worth celebrating. We’re making room for new possibilities.

Camping at Vermont State Parks has been restricted until June 26, but now there’s time to camp in your backyard, like I did with my children the other night. On a school night!

For years, backyard chickens seemed like a bad idea, despite my yearning for the fluffy birds. My family now has embraced the possibility. We have more time at home. We have more energy and presence for care.

I hope that you, too, find a way to embrace the possibilities that emerge from the obstacles we face during this time.

Emily Hoyler wrote about re-imagining project-based learning at home with her children. And she gives us inspiration for immersing learners in PBL at home.

My clever colleagues Scott and Susan discovered the potential of the Marco Polo app for creating connection. As we’re craving human connection, they show us how to use tech tools to interact with our learners and one another.

In the recent #vted Reads podcast, Jeanie talks with Mike McRaith about the possibilities of a new culture. In Turn This World Inside Out, Jeanie and Mike discuss the book’s timely concepts of transitioning to a culture of interconnectedness.


And Katy Farber put out a hopeful article in edutopia, on Lessons Learned During the Pandemic. She highlights the opportunities that have been presented and educators and schools.

While not all of you reading this are in my same 34th stage of pandemic response (hold tight: stage 35 is coming), I urge you to notice the creativity and innovation around you, because it’s inspiring.

Everything is not canceled.

We just have to reimagine, and find new possibilities.

Project-based learning at home

It all started with a pandemic

Dear reader, as you are well aware, back in March a global pandemic struck and in-person schooling was suspended for the remainder of the school year. Quite suddenly, my family, like many, found ourselves home together all day, every day. My kids, also like many, thrive on routine. When we realized we would be spending All The Time together, we quickly built a family “home school” schedule.

This was in that in-between period before remote schooling had begun in earnest. We designed a schedule that had our three kids rotating through hands-on work, learning apps, and ….(drumroll)….project time. While I continue to work full time, my husband took over all things kids and schooling. My husband is a carpenter. This means that project time is also known as building-cool-stuff-with-dad time. Like birdhouses… or a playhouse… or a mountain bike pump track… or a new bedroom.

Wait a minute, I thought, this would make an excellent PBL project!

As my kids and their dad set about planning out each kid’s dream project (see: playhouse, pump track, and new bedroom), I immediately thought of the math! The physics! The ecology! The design thinking! And the skills: Self-direction! Project management! Critical thinking! Problem-solving! Perseverance! Collaboration!

The kids could take pictures, write reflections, and make a mini-documentary telling the stories of their projects. This is personalized learning at its best, right? These are Passion Projects! And this would be the perfect content for my students’ — ahem, I mean, my children’s —  PLPs.

I gleefully invited the kids to begin thinking about how they could document their projects and learning.

Unfortunately, I was met with eyerolls and groans.

Somehow it seems that they’re not all that excited about “school-ifying” their projects.

As an educator, I can’t ignore the myriad learning opportunities these projects offer. But my learners aren’t playing. This is real life, they crow. Why do we need to write about it? they plead.

Right now, the lines between school-and-home and teacher-and-parent are blurred. I need to think about this.

We interrupt this blog post for a few words from John Dewey:

That Dewey guy, fellow Vermonter? He was pretty brilliant when it came to education. (For the record, so was his wife Alice, whose career as an educator provided Dewey much of the fodder for his astute observations and Pedagogic Creed.) His more famous quotes often rattle around in my head at pivotal moments. Here are a few that have been circling my thoughts lately:

“I believe that education… is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.”

Education is life.

And that couldn’t be more true as we plant seeds, make bread, and learn the names of the spring plants emerging in the forest.

“We don’t learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”

And reflection is where we make meaning. Just like savasana following a yoga practice lets all the good sink in and lets our bodies integrate all that work, we need to pause after these rich learning experiences.

We need to evaluate and write our mental note-to-self.

To let our experience sink in.

If Dewey is right (and I believe he is) it is both these real-world pandemic projects and the process of reflecting on them that is The Real Thing. Our Aim in Education.

But how can I help my kids reap the benefits of these learning experiences without the eyerolls and groans? (Read: suffering for children and parents alike.)

Striking a balance

I remember in high school English class how I would lament that I just wanted to read the book and enjoy it, not pick it apart into such fine detail that it loses its appeal. I remember how I assigned my students to complete reading logs, documenting minutes and pages read.  Arguably these both killed some of the joy of the experiences.

Yet, I’ve been actively involved in book clubs for the past 20 years, where I show up so that I can discuss books (and yes, eat cheese and sip beverages). And I now keep track of my own reading on the Goodreads app. I love seeing my collection of books grow, and the satisfaction of reaching my reading goals.

project-based learning at home

So what’s the difference?

How do I make sense of my adult behaviors in the context of my schooling experiences? Why now do I deeply enjoy something that I resisted as a student? There are probably many answers, but one stands out: without having become proficient at the skills necessary for these behaviors (decoding and meaning-making! literary analysis! goal setting!) I probably wouldn’t engage in them as an adult.

Similarly, our kids need to develop essential skills.

And developing these skills takes practice. Take perseverance, for example, the stick-with-it-ness that allows us to meet even the most challenging tasks with success. Based on my recent observations, my kid isn’t likely to learn perseverance by practicing his multiplication tables or emptying the dishwasher.

So is there a way to get there without as much resistance?

Based on this kid’s new-found passion for his bike and his drive to build a pump track, he just might learn it with a shovel.

project-based learning at home

And this is the promise of personalized learning.

When we give kids a choice of what to do, and when it’s something they love (or like; like is good enough) they can develop the skills they need to succeed, driven by their own interests. They can work toward developing proficiency in a wide array of skills while engaged in an activity that captures their imagination and interest.

When this happens, our role shifts.

Questions, questions, and more questions

So maybe I’ve figured out my pandemic project problem. My kids already have passion projects underway.  Education = life, check! And ok, as a mom, maybe it doesn’t make sense to assign actual documentation and reflection in a PLP (though as a teacher it sure would).

But it does make sense to slow them down, ask them questions, and help them plan and reflect. This will balance my Deweian-experience-and-reflection equation.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

Before work

My role before the kids get started is to help them make a plan and get organized and to anticipate and plan for challenges. A few of these questions would do:

  • What are you going to do today?
  • How long do you think it will take?
  • What materials do you need?
  • What do you think will be the hardest part?
  • How might you handle it if that happens?

During work

For the most part, when things are going well, they need little intervention. But when they get frustrated, or when we see things going off track, a little redirection can nudge things back in the right direction.

  • How can I help?
  • What do you need to do next?
  • What do you think will happen if you do that?
  • How are you feeling? Do you think it would help if you took a break?

After work

When work is done (for the hour, for the day, or the project is complete), we can hold the space for reflection.

  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go well?
  • Next time, what would you do differently?
  • How do you feel?
  • How did you solve the problem?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What is your next step for next time?

I can notice, aloud, how they located the information they needed or worked together successfully, or how they worked hard to achieve their goal even though they were tired/frustrated/hungry. I can celebrate their success with them.

Also, please notice that these aren’t leading questions. (Like: what will you do after you make a mess? What will happen if you don’t? Do you really think that’s a good idea? Just what do you think you’re doing, mister!?) And they aren’t statements, either. They are generous, curious, scaffolding questions.

By asking questions I’m engaging their brains in problem-solving. I’m asking them to figure it out, perhaps with a little support.

Considering the questions is more important than having the answers

Here’s the truth: even when I ask my kids these questions they often don’t have the answers. There might be an IDK. But in just considering the questions we are helping them build the neural pathways for planning and reflection in their brains. Just like it can take up to 40 experiences with food before a child decides they like it, it can also take numerous iterations of

  • “What’s your first step?”
  • “What went well?”
  • “Next time, what would you do differently?”

to build those connections and insight.

But soon they’ll have an answer, and eventually, they’ll be able to ask themselves the questions.

And once they have those skills (and they’ll know they have those skills because they’ve noticed and reflected on them) they will be able to call on them in the moments when the content of their task is less appealing.

We may need to remind them of this, too.


So after reflection (hey, thanks for reading) I think I know how to solve this learning documentation conundrum. Now, in this pandemic spring, I will urge my children to continue their projects.

And I will ask them questions. (Lots of questions.)

And that will be enough.







In case it’s helpful: Super Sisters Academy schedule and project sheet

Where are we with formative assessment for remote learning?

Who could have predicted were we are today? Many aspects of education have been challenging the past few month. Most notably being distant from your students. They give you energy, bring you joy… and also provide lots and lots and lots of feedback.

Teachers, we see you out there designing remote learning with your whole hearts. We see you digging deeper into your toolboxes than ever before. The learning curve has been steep, but you have made sure to keep your priorities in order. Safety. Health. Relationships But, how do you know what’s working?

It’s formative assessment time.

Why formative assessment right now?

Now that school and home have crossed the streams, remote learning — or as it should be more properly known, “emergency distance learning” is really highlighting the equity issues that have always existed in our systems. So we ask:

  • Who has support?
  • Who has access?
  • Resources? Safety?

If we consider bringing summative grading into the picture now we might be rewarding privilege and not learning.

“Do you know where you are?”

One of our favorite questions for starting to take stock of a situation. Let’s take a moment to see where you might fall on this learning progression on formative assessment.

Formative Assessment learning targets


Putting it into perspective

Charlotte Central School learning coach Allan Miller recently framed the challenging situation like this:

Is it possible to successfully combine:

  • High Engagement
  • Proficiency Based Learning / Targets
  • Formative Assessment
  • Personalization (choice and feedback)
  • Remote Learning
  • Social Emotional Learning
  • Focus on Relationships
    • Student to Teacher
    • Teacher to Student
    • Student to Student
    • Teacher to Parent/Guardian

That… seems like a lot. Because it is. However, if you took away the remote learning situation, these have always been our goals. We have some prior knowledge to lean on before jumping into formative assessment for remote learning.

What would it look like if we were doing it well?

Borrowing again from Allan Miller:

“By June 2020 I will be able to design and implement remote learning instruction that:

  • Is aligned with my chosen academic learning targets and provides authentic opportunities for improving core skills (academic and transferable)
  • Is highly engaging for students – meaning they choose to engage not just out of compliance
  • Provides formative data that I can use to modify and personalize my instruction through timely feedback
  • Allows students to interact with each other in authentic and engaging manner 
  • Allows for choice, personalization and differentiation – in a sustainable way for a teacher with a life.  
  • Provides a safe, supporting environment for all students”

Right. And that leaves us exactly… where now?

It’s okay to not have all the answers. It’s just important to have the conversation. If you need some tools and strategies we have you covered.

At the end of the day you want to know what’s working for your students. And how to keep them engaged.

So… where are you now with formative assessment for remote learning?

Formative Assessment learning targets


A Quarantine Homeschooling Dispatch

Today on the 21st Century Classroom, from Super Sisters Academy:

It feels really weird, because in some ways it’s kind of cool to see how you can be homeschooled. But then in other ways you’re like, “Ohhhhh, it’s kind of scary.” Because we are staying home because of the virus that’s going around and for our safety and other people’s safety and everything. So it’s mixed feelings I guess.


I’m Life LeGeros, and that’s my daughter, Ayla, who is eight (Actually she turned eight during the pandemic). My other daughter, Zoe, is 10. Today on the 21st Century Classroom we’re going to explore quarantine homeschooling in the age of COVID-19.

  • What are we learning during it?
  • And what are we learning *from* it?

And we’re going to do this by talking with my daughters.

Ayla:  As I said it was like scary but kind of cool to see how you can actually be homeschooled. I mean, I like school? And homeschool? So I like both of them. I kind of like both of them the same, but one reason why I don’t really like homeschool, it breaks me down a notch is because I don’t get to see my friends and interact with them, my teachers and everything, so.

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Let’s start by setting the stage with a little context.

My wife and I have been homeschooling for about five weeks now.

We found out on a Sunday night over dinner that our schools were going to be shut down starting the following day. The next morning we spent the first few hours trying to plan a schedule; essentially my girls did this. We found an example online and they tweaked it and messed with it and put in a shape that they thought would work (.pdf)

And thus, Super Sister Academy, as my daughters deemed it, was born!

quarantine homeschooling Super Sisters Academy

Here’s Zoe to walk you through a typical day.

Zoe: Morning meeting, with our family, where we do a greeting, a share, and an activity. And then we do morning meeting with our class on Zoom or… something like that. Then we have Academic Time for like two hours I think? Then we have Movement Time, where we just like move and stuff, and go outside and stuff. And then we have Creative Time where we can build, play with Legos, draw, paint, that stuff. And then we have … what do we have after that?

Ayla: Lunch.

The Academic Time that Zoe mentioned: that’s the time when they do work that’s provided from school. Packets from the girls’ school materialized pretty darn quickly after the lockdown. And now there’s a full-blown curriculum with up to 3 hours of work per day, which is great (although we did have to adjust our schedule a bit).

quarantine homeschooling Super Sister Academy schedule

One thing it’s very important to acknowledge:

My wife and I have the privilege of being able to work from home, and support our homeschooling pretty directly. That’s *not* a privilege that our system affords to all families and caregivers. It’s very important to acknowledge that.

We’re doing our best, and we get a lot of feedback from our class of two.

Life: How did your week go?

Zoe: Pretty good, I guess.

Life: You had a huge, like, whole schedule from a teacher. All the stuff that you had to get done. You were able to take care of it?

Zoe: Yup.

Life: Do you feel proud of yourself? How did you what was your strategy for getting it all done?

Zoe: Ummmmmm, I just did it one by one.

Life: Super Sisters Academy is rockin’?

Zoe: Mm-hm.

Life: What kind of things do you miss about “school-school”?

Zoe: Like seeing everyone and being able to work with other people. Like my age and stuff.


That brings me to a clear drawback about homeschool, and a worry for a lot of families.

Ayla: I just miss my friends and my teachers and I mean sure I can see them on like my morning meetings with them on the computer but like, I like interacting with them physically and stuff. But we can’t really, now.

Governor Scott’s Stay At Home order and the release of schools means it’s incredibly difficult for students to see their friends and teachers. And a lot of us are worried that connecting online alone… isn’t the same thing. At all.

At the same time, the change of venue actually works for some students.

Zoe: I like being able to just like work with someone without like, a bunch of other people needing help. The schedule at home is a lot more flexible? Because you’re at home and it’s not going to affect a bunch of other people if you switch things up. I like that.

Ayla: Usually when I’m at school there’s like, a lot of people talking because people need help and everything, and it’s kind of just easier for me to understand, when I have my parents as teachers for some reason? Since I just have one sister, it’s not like I’m have a million classmates, I just have one sister and they go off on us so they can help us for longer.

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Costs, and opportunities.

I’m telling you, we are learning new things every day here at Super Sisters Academy. Costs and opportunities.

Life: Is it hard to stay on task at home?

Zoe: Yes, sometimes.

Life: What do you find? Like the most distracting?

Zoe: When Ayla’s singing!

Life: What else?

Zoe: Just like, sounds and stuff.

Now, a lot of the work Ayla and Zoe do is on either a computer or a tablet. So it’s obvious that they’re going to be gaining some tech skills. But what surprised me is the *range* of tech skills that they are gaining.

Ayla: How to work a slideshow. Because usually we don’t get to work on that kind of stuff.

Zoe: And how to make a good game on Roblox, which we don’t get to do in school. And I use my email a lot more because nobody can talk to me to my face.

Roblox is a game Zoe started playing when the quarantine began. She plays online with other kids, something we never used to let her do, but she’s totally into it now. Plus she’s also using it to learn some rudimentary coding and game-building.

And I confess I have mixed feelings about that.

Same with the email situation. It’s cool that they can stay connected to their friends, but on the other hand… email is complicated, right? It can be distracting or cause drama — and we weren’t even planning on giving Ayla email access yet. She’s in the 2nd grade. But now she’s got it.

On the other hand, the two of them are learning to navigate email with us by their sides. Would they have gotten that in a traditional school setting?

Flowers of the Math Garden

Anyway, some of these tools are actually really useful for learning things that can supplement the regular classroom.

Life:  This is a game that your teacher asked you to play?

Ayla: Yes, it’s a math game.

Life:  You just started it today?

Ayla: Yeah it’s a math game. I really like it. So I’ve kind of decorated it. I have a garden at my house like, it’s just part of the game. I put three trees on each side — well one side has two, because I didn’t have any more trees to put. There’s like flowers in the middle of the gaps… And I like the side with three trees better. I put a picnic table in front of the trees that have three, not just two [branches]. And then it has violet flowers on the top of it — violet flowers, no vase.

Life: That’s cool. What does this have to do with math?

Ayla: Well, it’s kind of like the other math games on Sun Dog. You do some stuff and than you get to do some fun. So I do the math problems and then I get to enter the garden.

Life: Oh.

Quarantine homeschooling Super Sisters Academy the math garden


One thing I’ve learned after a few weeks of my kids playing these online games is that they are almost all incentivized in the same way: they have a garden or house or something that they get to decorate. And when they do well they earn points and prizes and then they get to put things in their place.

I never knew this before but apparently kids really love to decorate and it’s super motivating for them. So it motivates them to do whatever procedural skill and content learning they’re supposed to be doing.

Ayla: You do all kinds of math. You do like: coin math, subtraction, and shapes, and all that kind of math. So there’s not like one kind of math you pick.

Welcome to Bunny Land

So, maybe students and teachers alike will come out of this whole thing with more technology skills. And maybe that will help with the flexibility and individualization that seem to be some of the things students are getting out of home schooling that are harder to do in school.

Life: Do you think schools should just be the same?

Zoe: Well, I mean… I think some things should be different.

Life: Like what?

Zoe: Like, more outside time and stuff, because we’re inside, like all the time. So.

Life: Are there other things that you work on, that you just don’t do at school? Like, certain types of projects?

Ayla: Well yeah. We don’t really do projects? And then like, have a goal and everything and that’s one of my favorite parts of the day. I kind of like that.

Life: Like what kind of projects? Give examples of things you’ve done during homeschooling.

Ayla: My birthday was a couple of days ago and I got a big Lego house and my goal was to finish it in ten days but I didn’t. I finished it in less, and I’m proud of that and that was like a project for me. I’ve also done a slide show…

Life: What was the slideshow about?

Ayla: I really like bunnies so it’s about bunnies.

Life: And then you shared that with your grandparents?

Ayla: Yeah.

Here’s what it sounded like when Ayla shared her first project with both sets of grandparents on a Zoom call:

Ayla: I made a slideshow about bunnies and then about Bunny Land!

Grandparents: Ooh, Bunny Land!

Ayla: Does anyone have any feedback? Like, things I could do next time… better?

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My hope is that all the conversations around this pandemic homeschooling education that are related to the importance of relationships, come back to students missing and appreciating their friends and teachers, and the community that schools provide. Maybe as we reprioritize that, we could put that in the center of things, right alongside the acknowledgement of the glaring inequities that the pandemic has revealed and magnified.

But even on the homefront, thinking about how this will impact my household and my kids’ relationship to learning, I really have no idea for the long-term.

I would like to think that they’ll have more of a growth mindset in the future. I’d love to think that they’ll let us in more in terms of helping them think about their approach to learning and schoolwork. But it is quite possible we’ll just fall back on our old patterns and routines if and when things get back to quote-unquote “normal.”

At Super Sister Academy, we begin the day with Morning Meeting: just a quick check-in to plan the day, do some troubleshooting, say hello. The girls’ school begins the day the same way. And I asked Zoe whether Morning Meeting at home was something that we might want to think about keeping once everything gets back to normal.

Zoe: Yeah, I like it.

Life: Should we keep doing it after you start going back to school?

Zoe: No. We’d have no time. Because we are always late anyways.

Life: Okay!

Yeah, well, it’s yet to be seen whether my promptness will improve once I need to start going places in the world again. I’m not putting any pressure on myself. At the moment, I’m just taking it day by day. Which hopefully you are too.

Yeah. Like, forgive yourself and just try to be nice to yourself, too. Because this isn’t just about being nice to other people, it’s also about being nice to yourself.




The 21st Century Classroom is the podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative education at the University of Vermont. This episode was produced by Life LeGeros, and Audrey Homan. Thank you to Zoe and Ayla LeGeros. Our theme music is by Meizong and Yeeflex, and you can find out more about the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education by visiting tarrant institute dot org.

Connecting students to community in the Northeast Kingdom

How do we help students connect to their communities, and consider how to enrich community life?

That’s the question Chrissy Park and her 3rd through 5th grade students at Burke Town School, in West Burke VT, have spent their year exploring. Together and in-person, they considered ways they could all take part in their community. Now, as Chrissy and her students face the move to remote learning, they continue that work with renewed vigor.

The Connect Vermont Students to Community Project

After Burke Town School moved to emergency distance learning, Chrissy built digital structures to reinforce and expand on the community work. She created a unit that uses project-based learning structures to shape remote learning.

She built the Connect Vermont Students to Community Project: a four-week online adventure exploring the questions:

  • What is community?
  • Why is community important?
  • Thinking through the lens of the Global Goals, how has community been effected by the pandemic?
  • What do we want to do in the fall to bring community back together?

The unit invites students to consider ways to come together virtually. It also encourages them more than ever to become active, contributing members of their local communities.

She started Week 1 with a Padlet to create daily guides for students. It featured playlists of resources.

You can find her emerging plans here.  Feel free to make a copy for your own use — thank you, Chrissy!

And for dealing taking the project offline, due to bandwidth or screen fatigue, Chrissy’s also created a slideshow of this project, where the resource links could be viewed separately or printed out.

But taking the project online worked so well because of all the scaffolding Chrissy did with students in person, in the before time. She worked with them the entire year on this idea of community connection.

This community work took a village: Learning Lab VT

To focus on community and civic engagement, Chrissy signed up for Learning Lab VT, a year-long project that brings educators together to support each other in pursuing personalized learning. Chrissy’s inquiry question?

How does personalization and project based learning help students connect and engage in their local community?

Chrissy and her teaching team intentionally prepared students to have the skills to engage in community work. They wanted all students, no matter their age, to participate and find success. With the support of the Learning Lab, they invited the Burke 5th graders into roles as consultants and co-planners in this multi-age class. Students quickly took on leadership.

Scaffolding skills and habits to self-direction: introducing the whole loaf metaphor

Early in the school year, Chrissy recognized the need to provide clear, concrete, step-by-step supports for PBL work.

“At the beginning our our PBL time we rushed a lot of things and it ended with students not understanding the purpose of what we were doing and not understanding how what they were doing connected to the real world. We took a step back and came up with 4 slices to our loaf.

We started by having students doing collaboration activities which helped them feel closer to their team members and also helped us realize potential group issues early on in the project. And we then went to our second slice, which was having students practice being a historian by researching a VT landmark. They used a rubric to create an infographic that displayed their findings. Third slice: together we then researched how the global goals were being worked on throughout the world community. We launched our PBL website with all the links they needed. Easy access to a help link on the website supported more independence during project work time.”

Throughout the different slices of the year, students experienced different scaffolds and supports to aid in self-direction and independence. Google Forms helped support a communication flow between teachers and students. Exit tickets and an engagement survey allowed students to provide feedback for mid-project corrections. The Help Link on the project website provided a just-in-time space for students to reach out when necessary but maintain independence. And the Google Doc Project Note Catcher helped group members keep track of the daily work and for teachers to monitor progress and provide necessary supports along the way.

Students as project planning partners and team leaders

Chrissy and her team recognized the importance of students taking an increased role in the design, development, and evaluation of learning in a PBL environment as a key indicator of personalized learning environments.

Kallick and Zmuda suggest, “a balanced approach as students become more capable being increasingly more self-directed and educators find more opportunities to allow students the space to participate in design work.” What Progressively Student Driven Means in Personalized Learning

Chrissy gathered her 5th grade student leadership team and explained their role in this work. As leaders they would partner with her by providing feedback, help plan activities and serve as in-class supports during PBL time.

First, she tasked them to choose standards for different phases of the project. Next, the student leadership team created transferable skills rubrics. They based them on scales they had been using for PBL. The scales focused on what makes for successful collaboration and civic engagement. And, they planned whole group collaboration activities because they recognized the importance of practicing this important skill. Together they created a powerpoint presentation about engagement, personalization and effort and how all three of these connect. Finally, they helped collect and analyze data. And then they proposed solutions to problems that arose from the data analysis and during PBL work time.

The two-pronged approach of scaffolds and student leaders? That was sure to set up these Burke Town students to be successful.

How might you create an extended community of Vermonters coming together with a shared purpose?


How to throw culminating events — online!

It is spring. I know, snow has fallen and it has been cold lately, but it’s officially May. And while school might not look like every other bustling year with our end of the year celebrations, showcases, exhibitions, and events, we can still find ways to celebrate and share student learning. You might find yourself having to PIVOT your passion projects, project-based or service learning units celebrations online.

In this moment, we can still find connection, audience and purpose. It’s just (like everything else right now) going to take a bit of planning and pivoting.

So, rewind!

What are culminating events?

culminating events for project-based learningThey’re the lovely finish line of a project-based learning unit. They celebrate the projects and the learning in an authentic, community based forum. And they’ve been a key motivating factor for the project. Generally, they’re in-person events, like school exhibitions, community nights, or guided tours.

I think you see where we’re going with this.


But all is not lost: culminating events can still happen in meaningful ways online.

The essential elements of culminating events are exactly the same online

A culminating event should be:

  • an authentic way to share projects to a wider community
  • the audience is one that is important to the students– they are stake-holders on the issue
  • students see and feel how their work is connected to a wider community
  • students present their work publicly and feel the value in this

Make it work!

Learning fairs & exhibitions

In learning fairs and exhibitions, students present to parents, the school community, and other interested groups. These usually take place in gymnasiums, courtyards, and classroom spaces. Now? We need to consider how to bring folks together online.

There could be various formats for this, both asynchronous and synchronous. A quick review!

  • Synchronous is when students are learning at the same time, in real time. This allows for instant personal communication and connection. Examples of this include video conferencing, live chats, and live streamed videos.
  • Asynchronous is when students are learning at their own pace, at different times. Communication is pre-recorded in some way. This is sometimes more convenient and flexible for learners. This includes emails, screencasts, messages on Google Classrooom, Flipgrids, and blog posts or comments.

Next, consider what might work best for your students and families. And right now? Many folks are understanding how important education is (um, yeah!) and are able to support students with feedback and celebration.

Synchronous options:

  • A live Zoom/Google Meets presentation. This could be a time when students do a short video presentation live. They could share their screens to show their digital work. Survey caregivers to see what time might work best for them, and provide different options. If students were unable to be present live, or if a bandwidth / tech issue prevents successful synchronous meeting, the student could record a screencast presenting the work, then submit their videos to their teachers before hand, who could show it.

Asynchronous options:

  • A shared padlet. Students could publish their work to a padlet. What is a padlet, you say? It’s like a virtual bulleting board, where you can pin up work and links. You can set them so that anyone with the link could comment; then grandparents, neighbors, other invested community members (and even the general public if you desire!) could comment.
  • A shared Flipgrid. Students could post their presentations to a Flipgrid for your class. A new topic, called our community celebration/demonstration of learning, could be set up and students could post their presentations. Again, students and families could post comments and reactions. They could even record their own videos responding and giving praise.
  • A YouTube video. Decide what level of audience you want: an unlisted video, or one linked to your school’s account. I would leave comments off for this, but you could encourage folks to give feedback in another format.



  • A published website of a gallery of images. This could be shared with various audiences via email or social media. Other ideas include online maps, blog posts, or online magazines and websites.
  • E-book creation. Book Creator is a great tool for this! Students can work on part of a book and demonstrate their learning that way, and the teacher can publish the e-book for any audience. For example, see this recently released e-book from the researchers at Ottauquechee School.
  • Seesaw Journal or Blog entries. If your students are regularly sharing their learning on their Seesaw digital portfolios, or in a public Seesaw blog, this is a perfect venue for them to share their presentations with teachers and families.

These provide a great way to assess students use of the transferable skills of communication as well!

Student-to-student presentations

Students can present their work to younger students in this moment too. Sometimes the most valuable audience is peers. Especially younger ones that motivated older students to engage, be role models, be friendly, and connect. Can two classes connect for a presentation of learning via videoconferencing? Or can your students sent a video or photo of a project to younger students for feedback? This is a great option for this moment of prolonged remote learning.

Digital showcases

With so many digital sharing tools, students can create something of value in their PBL projects to share with the wider world. The culminating event can include the act of sharing that creation.

These can include educational YouTube videos, online maps, blog posts, or online magazines and websites. Take a look at this YouTube video from the historians and newscasters at Proctor Elementary School, in Proctor VT.

Targeted shares

Did your students do projects based on a favorite book? Maybe they could share their work directly with the author! So, one collective padlet or gallery of projects could be shared directly with the author on Twitter, and imagine the excitement of a response, if not by the author, then by lots of fellow readers. This could work for scientists, writers, performers, politicians, CEOs, and other leaders of their fields!

Or reenactments of a scene from your favorite books could get noticed by the author…


Reflection and practice makes progress

When finishing a project, take a few moments to help students get ready to present by reflecting on their experience. Ask questions like:

  • What did you learn?
  • How did you work through challenges
  • Describe new skills did you gain?
  • How do you feel about your work?

In addition, students will still need to practice a lot to get ready to present, no matter what format! Students have different levels of comfort with presenting and will need practice time, scaffolding, and some feedback about how to improve. Family members, siblings, or even stuffed animals can make good practice partners.

Lastly, don’t forget to have students reflect at the end of the culminating event, too. This is a great time to capture student thinking after sharing their work to an audience. Here are some ways to facilitate these reflections. 

Share your Learning has fabulous resources for ways to share your learning remotely, with step by step guides! 

How might you help students share their learning with an audience this spring?

How to conduct a virtual morning meeting

During this COVID-19 crisis, we as adult educators, are collectively mourning the loss of our everyday routines and face-to-face interactions. And students are too.

As educators, we know that routines are important, and so is face-to-face connection. Meaningful connection with other humans is critical to a young adolescent’s health and well-being. Right now more than ever, we need to provide students with those regular connection routines. And as we make use of video conferencing to connect with students, here’s how to maximize our human connection: virtual morning meetings.

Virtual morning meetings are essential

In Southern Vermont, as soon as schools closed, sixth grade teacher Robin Bebo-Long instantly went virtual with her morning meetings. Every day of the school week, she gathers with her students from Cavendish Town School on a Zoom call. It begins each morning at 8:50 am. And Robin greets each student by name as they join the call.

In Northern Vermont, Jared Bailey joined with his teaching team in getting virtual morning meetings up and running. Every day, Jared spends time with his 21 fifth- and sixth-graders via Google Meet. And he too, greets students as they join the call before its 9 am start time.

Virtual morning meetings help preserve and strengthen relationships

Jared says,

“At this time, we have had such an abrupt disruption in schooling, and we have to focus on what is essential for students – to see their teacher’s face and hear their voice. Those relationships come first, and that we see that our students’ emotions are healthy.”

While so much in students’ lives has changed, it must be comforting to these young adolescents to see both their peers and their educators each morning.

What are the elements of a powerful virtual morning meeting?

Robin and Jared are masters of facilitating the virtual morning meeting. Each of them loosely follows the same structure (which is incidentally pretty similar to the one I proposed in Host your morning meeting from home).  It’s a structure that encourages students to connect, share and build relationships; it could follow this simple format.

1. The Greeting

As mentioned, Robin and Jared greet every student by name, every morning. Each of them greeted students by name as they entered the call. “Good Morning, Lydia…. Good Morning, Neko….”

What does it feel like when you hear your name spoken by a familiar and expected voice? Does it help soothe any anxiety you feel?

2. Daily News or Announcement

If the teacher is the leader of Morning Meeting, then he or she gives some updates and news briefs about the day.

In one session I sat in on, Jared told the students, “Today you have a virtual ELA session at 10:30 am, and a Math virtual session at 1 pm. I know that the art teacher sent out a link to you about some art resources, and there is a time tomorrow for you to pick up Spanish packets at school”.

Try to behave like the central hub of communication for kids on that day. Centralize the information they need for the day. Try to organize it for them. Repeat it to them so they have your voice as a touchstone. There is a lot coming at students in their email in-boxes every day, and many students need someone to assimilate that information for them. If you think it’s helpful, you can use visual news or reminders.

3. Sharing

Next, open up a prompt for people to think about and share.

I’ve seen that done well as a prompt *combined* with the greeting. Jared did this in the session I attended. “Please say good morning to us and share with the class what book you are currently reading”. That sharing creates a set of student-contributed resources for other students to consider. It creates community.

I attended one of Robin’s virtual morning meetings on a Monday. So she asked students to reflect on their weekend activities, utilizing a protocol called Roses and Thorns: “Share with us a high from this past weekend and a low.”

Using that protocol is clever, as it captures the reality that many students are going to struggle with weekends, as well as finding joy. It opens the door, on one hand, for students to look for joy in their lives. At the same time, it invites them to share a place where as the morning meeting leader, you might want to check in and ask a student if they need additional support.

4. Game or Activity

Last, the leader can choose some sort of short activity or game.

Robin shared an activity her class loved: “Find a MEME that shows how you’re feeling!” Again she created that space where her students could invite themselves to share joy or positivity but also open the door to asking for additional support. Meanwhile, for his activity, Jared had the class contribute to a Flipgrid where each student shared a joke.

A note of caution about virtual morning meetings:

So many of us are learning a “new normal”, and video-conferencing has taken the place of the handshake. We are quickly learning the benefits and drawbacks of video tools. Some of the positives: students seeing familiar faces, and hearing familiar voices. The power to provide in-time, synchronous support to students.

And the drawbacks: privacy & security

Security and privacy are real concerns, so choose your tools wisely. Whether you are using Google Hangouts, Meet, Zoom, or some other platform, teachers should take precautions to keep virtual spaces safe. For instance, do you know how to keep students from joining or rejoining a Meet without you?

(Speaking of Meet, they just recently added the ability for teachers to run Google Meets from within their Google Classroom platform. Learn more about that here.)

Now, in some ways, video conferencing can be a great equalizer. But they can also unearth certain inequities. You may be joining the call from your (second) beautiful, sunny solarium with high ceilings, while I am sharing myself from the messy closet of a bedroom that I share with two siblings.

If you use a Zoom call, you can allow your students to change their backgrounds. Microsoft Teams allows users to change their background as well, or simply blur it out. These features allow students to show their own clear faces, but not show a less than ideal backdrop. Teachers might even choose to ask all students to hide backdrops, so that everyone can focus on the person, not the setting.

Additionally, some students may simply not feel comfortable enough with their appearance (or surroundings, or the technology) to participate in video-conferencing either regularly or in a particularly challenging moment. In these cases, what’s your backup plan?

Morning Meeting, meet Advisory

While I have been writing about the Morning Meeting, I want to acknowledge its intwinement with advisory.

Often, an effective advisory structure uses morning meetings on all or most days. Morning meetings can take place across many learning settings, hence my dependence on the term “morning meeting” instead of advisory.

We need Morning Meeting now more than ever

Now back to our program…

For me, there are two main outcomes that make Virtual Morning Meeting so essential.

For one, it’s important that students have this opportunity for connection with peers. I observed both Jared and Robin artfully manage their meetings while still keeping it focused on the students and their voices. Some students might make animal sounds, and the chat window might be fluttering. As much as possible, let the meeting be about their authentic student voices.

The second piece that I noted is that a Virtual Morning Meeting provides this critical window of observation for the teacher. The teacher gets a quick glimpse of each student and hears the tone of their voices. That’s really important data for educators while we attempt to run school remotely.

Speaking of data…

Williston Central School asked parents and students to give administrators and teachers feedback about the remote learning so far. Not surprisingly, Jared and his team received clear and positive reactions about the importance of the virtual Morning Meeting. Here are what some of his parents had to say:

  • “Keeping the daily meeting with her core teacher has been AMAZING! Her whole class was in attendance again today – so pivotal to their happiness!”
  • “… the Google Meets in the morning, right from the get go, have been the glue holding this House together.

Now more than ever, we need educators to create very intentional spaces for our students to connect with their peers and their teachers.

Please tell me if you are using a virtual morning meeting with your students. What is working? How’s it going? I’d love to hear from you.

More Ideas for Morning Meeting Activities


How are you?

I mean really, how are you?

More than anything I wish I could sit down with you, face to face, and have a long chat. I’ve been missing my community: the teachers and students I get to work with, the educators I get to learn alongside, the folks I see at conferences and restaurants and grocery stores. I’d love to smile at each of you, offer a hug where appropriate, and just share a moment of “we are in this together.” I miss the joy of human connection! And it was really getting me down.

Then my colleague Katy Farber mentioned a new idea for students during this time: an independent hands-on learning experience called: The Joy Project.

Joy is exactly what I needed. AND it’s a way to communicate with my community.

So I went for it. I stepped through her plan.

1. Discover your interests

I was really interested in finding a way to communicate with others, those who might also be lonely or struggling in this challenging time (BUT NOT BY ZOOM! I REPEAT, NOT BY SCREEN!).

I’ve been inspired by the stories on social media and the news of folks writing in sidewalk chalk, sharing signs of gratitude, and hiding stuffed animals in windows for young children to spy on walks.  But I don’t live in a neighborhood with sidewalks or young walkers…

2. Discover your community

I live in a BEAUTIFUL place with lovely hiking paths and walking trails. And more folks are walking these trails than I’ve ever seen before. But with social distancing guidelines in place, we smile and move on, isolated from each other even as we share the trail, the view, the sound of the river.

3. Find the overlap

I’ve been repeating little mantras to myself when I need a boost… what would it look like to share these with my community?

Enter the tree cookie.

What is a tree cookie you ask?  In my many years of chaperoning at Keewaydin Environmental Education Center, I became not only familiar with but a fan of the tree cookie: a slice of a branch that can serve as a name tag, sign, or marker.  Why not write my little mantras on tree cookies?!!!

4. Enlist help

Power tools are not my friends. But, I’ve got some family members that were happy to collaborate with me.  A branch from the yard was quickly transformed into small, circular canvases. Many thanks to those who know how to wield a power saw!

5. Do the work!

Tree cookies in hand, I got out my markers and started to compose. I reached out to friends for sayings they found reassuring, words that lifted their spirits.  And once I had a handful of decorated tree cookies, I took them walking.

6. Share the results

My little round messages are now located on four different walking trails: nestled in trees, resting on rocks, tucked into mossy nooks, waiting to be seen by walkers of all ages.

7. Aaaaand reflect

It’s a little thing, the sharing of kind words. And yet it brought me so much joy, each and every step of the way.  As I wrote on each sliver of wood I breathed love and care into the words.  Walking in the woods with a pocket of positive messages changed the nature of the walk – I was more present as I noticed perfect spots for little circles of light.  And as I return to these spots I smile to see the words still there and smile even harder when I see that they are not –hoping they went home in the pocket of someone who needed them.

I can’t see you right now #vted community — I can’t inquire after your health or your family, I can’t offer you a smile as you tell me your news.
But I can share a kind word with you:

You are enough.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.
We’ve got this. We belong to each other.
You are loved.

how are you joy project
My pup, Charlie, assisting in the tree cookie process. I enlisted his skills in imitating a small hippopotamas.

Introducing: The Joy Project


Lots of educators, students and families are telling us that we can’t simply replicate in-classroom learning via video conferencing and assignments. It is *too* much for teachers and students and families. It doesn’t offer the kind of hands-on learning we know students enjoy, along with the flexibility families need in this moment.

Plus, students need more joy and creativity to build up their sense of selves, their resilience, and their connections to the world.

A student-driven, thematic project could provide this.

Hear us out: it’s time for Joy Projects.

You may have heard the terms before: genius hours, passion projects, curiosity projects. But for this moment in time, we feel like we need:

  • a student-driven interest-based project
  • that can be done remotely
  • featuring analog and virtual options
  • focused on JOY + CARE + RESILIENCE 

Take a moment with that idea, because it’s a big one.

How can educators and families support students in doing personal interest projects done with flexibility, creativity and curiosity? What kind of guidelines could students use to provide structure and direction for passion-based learning?

The Basic Recipe: 7 Steps to Joy

We want to help educators and students do personal interest projects that feature the following seven steps.

1. Discover your interests

Students, what brings you joy during this time? What do you want to explore? Will your Joy Project be wide open and free choice? Or will you focus mostly on one subject area, or a Global Goal, or a student-determined theme? And educators, what kind of joy do you see relating to where your students were, as a group, or where you’re all going on this new journey?

2. Discover your community.

Who are the people around you? And who do you see pulling together as a community right now, what do you notice happening? Who is in your community during this challenging time, and what are some of their strengths and some of their needs?

3. Find the overlap.

This one’s key: where are the places where your interests as a learner overlap with the needs of your community?  Think of this in terms of finding a key that unlocks learning in your community, or that of your students. Your community’s needs are a lock; when the needs are met, they unlock better health and happiness in the community. Your learning interests are a key: you can use them to unlock that better health and happiness.

4. Enlist help.

We are all stronger together: as you undertake this learning project, who are some of the people or organizations in your community who can provide you with support. Are they some of the same people with the needs you’re trying to meet? Or, are they people who simply have strengths that you may not have explored, who could lean in a little?

5. Choose a reflection.

As you learn, you’re going to want to keep track of what you’re learning along the way. You could use a learning journal, or a scrapbook. You could create a podcast, or start a YouTube channel. Or could you could free-write, or explore mixed media? Or create a class padlet for all the students in the group to document their learning? Choose a method in advance, then…

6. Get it on the calendar

While learning is a lifelong process, let’s put some milestones down, and make the wide-open unknown of time work for student learning. Will you do a month-long project? A semester-long one? Are you a student who just wants to take a week to explore one of your passions, then a break, then take another week to explore something different? Set your boundaries.

And as you set your schedule, keep that end date in sight, and plan for how you want to share this learning. And who will you share it with? Are you a class of learners who want to gather in Zoom? A student who wants to write an article for the local paper? Do you want to record a TED Talk, or conclude your podcast series? Will you send your podcast to the local radio station, or just share it on your family website? Will you snail-mail your journal to a far-away beloved relative? Choose a method, then set and share the date.

7. Do the work (learn + create).

This is the funnest part! Now you have a plan for what you want to do, get in there and follow your passion. Help your community. Be the change.

Some examples:

Perhaps you’re an educator whose class was studying Lake Champlain when All This happened.

Host a discussion with your students as to how they want to use the seven steps to structure a two-week culminating project around their own personal explorations of the lake. You might set three check-in points for students along the way, taking them to the calendar in your Google Classroom, and ask students to contribute their learning to a shared padlet. Perhaps one of your students videos his interpretive dances about the lake and adds those to the padlet. Another student writes long-form in a journal about observing the aquatic snails at the shoreline. You’ve informed families of the date for the share-out gala, which they can enjoy from their own homes.

Or perhaps you’re a student, working on family meals.

You’ve always been interested in gourmet breads, and a little online research has led you to be curious about cardamom buns, or Georgian khachapuri, or discovering the recipe for your grandmother’s cast-iron no-knead bread. You announce May 2020 as The Month Of Breads. As you experiment with different bakes, you snap a quick photo, and email around a quick survey to the members of your household (yes, you have to transcribe your little sister’s answers, in that you ask her in an interview style). You add your own thoughts and research and combine the whole in a Google folder. You’ve promised your family and classmates a cookbook for the end of school. Not everything’s delicious, but you learn more every time.

Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn a new language.

You’re a busy caregiver working from home and staring at your children. One of them showed you the free option for studying Hebrew in Duolingo. You scrolled through and talked over what could be learned in six weeks time. A little negotiation while prepping the garden bed and you get to check in with your student weekly, seeing their progress on the leaderboards and the points they accrue. Your student also reached out to their rabbi and the rabbi made some suggestions for additional materials to try. They’ve been looking for someone to help translate some materials online. The rabbi promises to speak with your scholar next time you go to temple.

Grow into your joy.

You own a nursery and now is GO TIME, corona or no. As your nursery runs on child labor (ahem), you and your student talk about how said student could be in charge of the strawberry starts this year, from incubation through to marketing. You show them the accounting software you use, and set them up with an account. They tell you their love of jam, and the two of you look at what it could look like to incorporate the added-value product to your farmstand for the official start of the CSA season.

And SCENE. It’s Joy time, y’all.

Options options options

  • The project could be broken down in a slide show format, which could be reviewed on a phone, and completed in a journal, notebook, or Word document. 
  • Project pages could be printed off and stapled, delivered to students, and used as a place to gather reflections and learning for the entire project. 
  • Also, what about Google Docs that could be printed and distributed as a passion project with phone check-ins?
  • To simplify, students could use one place to record their Joy Project experience. Preferably their PLP! Seesaw works well for this, as it is a digital journal and could be used for students to post updates about their progress. 
  • Students could also create reflections right in a slide show version of this, if they have their own student copy. And then post this to their PLP. 
  • Or lastly, they could create a digital way to share, like Book Creator, about this project, and post on their PLPs.

Structure structure structure

Here’s a full-fledged, education-forward Google Doc template with all the bells and whistles you need to craft deeply personalized, service learning-oriented personal interest projects with students. If that’s what brings you (and them) joy.

And here’s a simplified .pdf template that just contains the seven essential elements.

The Joy Project

Advice for educators on Joy Projects

If this feels a little daunting, totally feel free to use our service learning template, completed and revised for this moment, that you can use with or as a learner. It’s the full-featured item, and will work best for teachers or teaching communities. And you absolutely can reach out to us here with questions or concerns.

But we bet you’ll see so many connections between this project and service learning that the whole project can be designed around the idea of using your interest/joy to benefit your community. You got this.

Advice for caregivers

We know you are busy. My goodness. If your school is not providing a structure like this, you can do this, and either check in with your student to provide feedback and structure, or invite a friend, an elder, or someone who knows a bit about the subject area to provide support, feedback and an audience.

Start the day with a quick check in to help your child focus on what part of the project they will work on that day, with small, doable, engaging tasks. Have them record their project progress back to you at the end of the day, with a photo and a caption, describing what they did today, what they learned and what they want to do next.



Pivoting! to remote PBL

Oh, remember back when we had our project-based learning culminating events all mapped out? Students presenting at Dynamic Landscapes! A school wide community celebration of Cabot Leads! Presentations at Cultivating Sustainable Pathways.. and the Vermont Rural Education Collaborative conference. So many plans, spring days, joining together to celebrate and witness each other’s efforts!

Full. stop. Enter, school cancellation until the end of the year.

First, we can mourn for that loss. The spring celebrations and culminating events for me are one of the most fulfilling and inspiring parts of the school year, when students proudly present what they have created, in their own voices, and how it has changed them, and often positively impacted the world. It is moving, important, purposeful.

*Sigh* After we have mourned this loss, we can pivot. Project-based learning can still happen remotely, and students can still find meaning, purpose, collaboration, joy and share their work with their communities. It’s just going to look different now. We can still feature:

  • relevance
  • purpose
  • collaboration
  • hands on work
  • community partnerships
  • culminating events

We can still use this PBL template, but consider how we can do each part virtually and remotely. So, let’s go! Pivoting to remote/distance PBL. We got this.

Exciting Virtual Launches

Often one of the first, most exciting and important parts of PBL is launching the entry event. These are critical to engage students in the learning, by tapping into relevance, motivation, and excitement. They are something novel, high-interest, that can give students a reason to dive into a driving question for inquiry. Luckily, many organizations see this opportunity to engage students and are giving us resources to do so.

Here are some examples of high interest virtual launches:

The idea is experience something new and exciting… then ask students to generate questions or to pondering a driving question you have created, and launch all sorts of inquiry and thinking.

Moments of Collaboration

It is easy to think that the shift to remote PBL means that students will be working on projects by themselves. But this is not true! Student can work collaboratively on projects with many of the same supports you designed at the beginning. Collaborating on Google Docs and slides? Yep. Creating a timeline and due dates? Yep. Giving each other feedback on work? Indeed. Students will need support with how to do this, as in schedules, dates, expectations and times. This could look like a weekly post describing how they worked as a team that week, or daily exit tickets with this check in.

Here are a few tools that support collaboration in remote project-based learning:

Scaffolding and support

PBL requires lots of support and scaffolding from the teacher, and in the remote environment, this is even more important. What might this look like? It might be providing one slide show of the entire project, step be step, that students can follow, and the announcements that day can say what step your class is working on. It could also be creating a Google Site for the project, with weekly plans and task listed on docs embedded in the site, like this one from Learning Lab participant and 3/4 teacher from Burke Town School, Chrissy Park!

Or it could be clear instructions on Google Classroom in an announcement: “Hey class! Today, use this research note catcher to document your research using the Padlet of sources for your team. Add your main takeaway as a comment to this post sometime this week.”

Remote PBL could take the form of a playlist as well, guiding students through a series of steps to complete the project. Here, you will see Burke teachers Amelia Wurzberg and Courtney Murray continued their year long focus on the United Nations Global Goals with a choice board to pivot their PBL to a remote environment, and provide flexibility to the project.

In thinking about UDL, offer all students support like you might in the classroom: graphic organizers, note catchers, clear instructions and steps, and ways to get more support. Here are the principles of UDL as they apply to remote learning environments.


Regular reflection is a key part of project-based and service learning. Schedule weekly reflection opportunities digitally or on paper, just as online journals such as Seesaw or create digital books such as Book Creator. Or, have students post reflections on Flipgrid. The key is regular reflection with multiple modalities for doing so. Students can reflect on their learning of the transferable skills or other learning targets. All of the strategies in this post are doable remotely with some minor tweaks!

Community Partnerships

These are still possible and important! Many community partners want to be available to support students. Creating a community partner contact list is a good first step, either with students, in your teaching team, or on your own. Then, coordinate ways teams of students can meet with community partners online or get feedback on their working drafts. Check out how folks at People’s Academic Middle Level have partnered with their communities in project-based learning. 

Culminating Events

While these will certainly be different, they can still provide an authentic audience. Any of these ideas could be remote as well.

Students can:

  • send a video presentation to legislators or interested in community groups
  • curate and present a slideshow of work via video or audio to a school and community audience at a virtual event
  • livestream a presentation to a wider audience (with family approval, of course)
  • create and share YouTube video presentations
  • create an Adobe Spark and share online
  • other ideas!

Another example

One example of remote PBL that I recently saw was this one, created by over 100 educators, PBL about this moment in time. A caution, however, that this might be too overwhelming and scary for students who are experiencing loss and anxiety right now. They could focus on other aspects of the project, such as building community, self-care, or other issues related but not directly exploring the virus and its impacts.

Another word of caution

We need to make sure that the design of remote PBL is  equitable and trauma informed. First, any PBL that requires any fancy materials, or any materials actually, that are not usually readily available in the home environment. And before a student uses any home materials, have them check with caregivers at home. Resources right now are challenging to find and manage.

To be trauma informed, the plans need to be flexible and open ended. Plan in student choice, asynchronous opportunities, and adjusted timelines to allow for students who are experiencing difficulties at home. Provide, as Alex Shevrin-Venet shared during a recent webinar, make sure to let “flexibility and empowerment to guide you: offer choices, differentiating, and one choice might be to opt out.”

PBL can be remote, with some planning, and shifting mindsets. How are you moving toward with purpose, motivation and relevance with project-based learning? The keys are flexibility and relevance. We’d love to hear about it!

How to set personal boundaries with remote learning

Educators? We need to talk personal boundaries for remote learning.

Every day, you used to dress and pack a bag for school. You walked out the door and into a classroom, where you spent eight hours with dynamic, interesting, and beloved students, made space to listen and laugh with co-workers and administrators, and waved to families as they arrived to close out your day. And all of those steps are now blurred. Right now, we are struggling to make a distinction between home and work.

It’s an understatement to say this change in working conditions can feel overwhelming.

While it is lovely not to have to commute, and never to have to change out of comfy pants, the shift to remote teaching and learning is fraught with challenges. And one of the biggest is how to make this type of work sustainable for teachers.

In this situation, you could work for hours and hours with no breaks, forgetting about your own needs. And from what we hear, many of you are doing that! And that is not healthy or sustainable.

So: we need to set up some boundaries.

Brene Brown’s work focuses on boundaries, and she often addresses them as what is and is not okay. She says,

Generosity cannot exist with out boundaries. Nothing is sustainable without boundaries.

Whoa. Let that one sink in.

Nothing is sustainable without boundaries.

Teaching is already hard enough work. And now, teachers are at risk of burning out more than ever before. The conditions are *beyond* challenging. Connect with every student while simultaneously caring for your own family and monitoring this global pandemic? Sure, and let me just tackle world peace while I’m at it.

Enter: boundaries. As in:

a protected space and time

  • what is okay for you,
  • what is not okay for you
  • and what you require others to respect about your life.

It is important that we all set boundaries with a focus on staying self and healthy. So, how do we do that?

Some recommended boundaries

Let’s dig in:

1. Designate work hours

And that includes office hours, and the hours you will be working each day.

First, think about what hours you are going to commit to work, while considering how many hours you worked before, and what your school or district is asking.

In the before-time, many teachers worked at schools somewhere between 7:45am to 3:30pm, sometimes staying later for meetings or work. But this might not work as well for you right now with your family at home. Teachers might get up early to do their planning, and then change the work hours based on this.

For me, I can do a lot before everyone in my house wakes up and I need to check in with them. I’m an early bird.

But you might designate some evening hours for planning or touching base with your colleagues or students via email. Own your night owl self!  Decide what your “work hours” will be — when you will be responsive and available — and then decide when you will shut your computer for the night. Yeah, I said it. When. You. Will close your computer… for the night.

2. Design support systems

Okay that sounds hard, but we all need to figure out what is going to work for us to take care of ourselves during this time, with a full-on daily commitment to our own health as educators.

This looks different for everyone, but a few ideas are:

Get outside

Being outside is linked to so many good health outcomes for us physically and mentally. Even a short walk brings benefits.


The science is clear here too. Meditation reduces stress, improves memory, mental health, and focus.  I use the Calm app for this each day, and honestly, it has made my life and this moment a lot better. There are also lots of focused sets of meditation based on what you are working with that day. There are other great apps for this too, like Headspace, and 10 Percent Happier. Find one that works for you.

Set reminders to take breaks and move

If you are anything like me, you sit down to work, and look up hours later, dehydrated and disheveled and a little unsteady. I found an app for my phone  that cues me to take a standing break every 30 minutes: Stand up! The Work Break Timer. I find it very helpful.

Also: short sessions of yoga interspersed throughout the day are lovely. The downward dog app is free for teachers and students and is my go-to for movement. You can pick the duration, the music, and what you want to work on.

Family meals

Right now, connecting with family is super important. And dinner is a good time to do that if you can. Make it screen-free and settle in. Share some highlights from each of your days. Live alone? Invite a family member or friend to dine with you over Zoom.

Check in with friends

Since everyone is homebound, this is more important than ever. There is so much strain on everyone’s mental health, especially those who are older and might live alone. Who can you call instead of text?

Play a game

I know! It can be easy to think WHO HAS TIME FOR GAMES? This is a pandemic, people! But this is the very time to find moments of humor and levity. Just last night, my daughters and I played the online drawing game Drawful 2. It was so fun! We were all in stitches within minutes — and that was certainly the first time I laughed that whole day. My daughters and I have also lately been playing Heads Up using my phone, which is quick and fun and can turn whole BIG moods around.


I am *trying* to make more time for this. Right now I find my eyes closing quickly when I try to read. Right now, I am drawn to stories that take me to far away places and need to work on giving myself more time to enjoy them.

3. Simplify your life when possible

Everything is complicated right now! Even trips to the grocery store. So what can you simplify? Is it more open ended assignments or choice menus for your students, so you don’t have to collect completed work each day? Is it simpler meals?  What can be pared down? This is no time to be taking on complex, arduous tasks that are avoidable in any way.

4. Let go of pressure

Cut yourself some slack. Social media will have you believing that many people are using this time to homestead and cook perfect loaves of sourdough from scratch every six hours. And sure, maybe some people are, but you my friend, you don’t have to, if sourdough feels overwhelming. See where we’re going with this? Doing home projects or working our or creating incredible art, or writing the next big novel — all lovely. None mandatory. Just seeing all of this is exhausting. There is no pressure on you to anything but what gets you through. Let go of other people’s ways of handling this moment. There is no one right way to do this. Do what works for you, and let go of pressure to produce, create, or “better yourself”. You are enough right now. You? Are frankly amazing right now.

Maintain those boundaries like a well-tended garden.

Once you have these boundaries in place, they take tending and care. There are always resources, people, and tasks that require your attention, and they are present and persistent 24/7. But the work is in recognizing this, and saying to yourself, “Not now. I will get to this, but not now. Now I need a break.”

And you might have to say no a bit.

Saying no to that extra task or meeting. Or saying what you have created is good enough. Or frozen pizza for dinner is good enough. It is all okay. You might have to communicate to your kids or spouse that this time is your time for yourself. As in, no, I am not open to negotiating whose turn it is on the iPad. I am reading.

Week to week, your personal boundaries for remote learning might change.

They might need tuning. And they might need to change based on your work load and living conditions, and that is okay.

Thinking of you all #vted. How are you setting personal boundaries for remote learning? What is one of your boundaries to help you with this moment? I’d love to hear.

Other articles on personal boundaries for remote learning:




Scaffolding students with Padlet and Flipgrid

Collaboration is not just fun for students, it’s also a crucial skill they will need to be successful in life. Yet with our need to stay home these days, students are desperately missing the social connections a classroom provides, and many are seeking other channels to maintain these connections.

We know our students thrive when they can connect socially with each other. Yet we are all still figuring out how to help them work together safely, effectively, and most of all in a way that meets their needs for fun.

Good news! Properly scaffolded, we can continue to foster opportunities for our students to connect and create meaningful work together.

#BetterTogether: Padlet & Flipgrid

Heidi Ringer, a 6th-grade teacher at Warren Elementary, searched for ways to support student collaboration in this remote learning environment. She chose to invite students into a collaborative Padlet board. And, planned intentionally to start with something familiar to introduce them to the tool.

Learning how to use Padlet

“Students created a One Pager as a culminating activity for their independent reading book. They posted the One Pager and then students commented on their work. This was the first attempt at commenting as a way to collaborate. Students are learning to use the same guidelines they use for peer conference in writing. It was a great way to present students’ work and gather comments. Finally, they are reflecting on the kind of feedback they received and what that told them about their work.”

The importance of scaffolding collaboration

Next, Heidi launched a Discussion Questions Padlet. Students had four questions about the class novel and jotted down an idea for each question. Later, they used their notes in actual virtual discussions.
Tips for peer feedback

Often students need help knowing how to comment effectively on others’ work in shared spaces. Here are some prompts from Kathy King-Dickman from her post Mini-lessons that Support Effective Bookclubs:

  • Using Center for the Collaborative Classroom prompts “I agree with______ because…., I disagree with _____ because…, or I agree, but I would like to add….”
  • Questioning another’s ideas or thinking: use prompts such as “Why are you thinking…, Can you explain why you think…, Where in the novel did you find that…?”

Taking it to the next level with Padlet: Literature Circles & Project Planning

Finally, now that her students have experienced collaborating via Padlet, Heidi is planning Padlet-based Literature Circle Discussions. This collaborative discussion process, with the very clear roles and tasks, can take place asynchronously, especially when students have had experience using the tool. Lee Araoz’s Lightning Thief padlet will give you a good idea of Literature Circle Roles in practice.
Another great way to use Padlet for asynchronous collaboration is project planning. Rachelle Dene Poth shares this idea:

“Taking all of these themes into consideration, I decided that one student in Spanish IV would be the ‘Team leader,’ and their ‘mission’ would be finding a job and moving to a Spanish speaking country. They had to create a collaborative space, could be using Padlet or Google Slides or another format, and share it with the their ‘team.’ Team leaders had to write a list of requirements to their “Travel Agent,” “Community Specialist” and “Realtor” (students from Spanish I, II, and III) to let them know their travel needs and preferences for moving abroad. The team members would use this information to plan the travel, a tour of the new neighborhood, and find a house.” Tips and Tools to Encourage Classroom Participation

Asynchronous video exchanges for collaborative remote learning with Flipgrid

We’ve written about Flipgrid before and are big fans because of the way it creates a virtual video-driven discussion space. Consider the asynchronous possibilities for your students; they can video record their responses to a prompt and then engage in a threaded video commenting stream.

An easy entry point to scaffold a Flipgrid experience for students is to ask a fairly straightforward question and give students a short time span in which to answer. Here’s an example of the folks at Tarrant Institute sharing one quick idea for a back-to-school get-to-know-you activity.

Courtney Elliot, a teacher at Proctor Elementary, starts her daily communications with her students making good use of Flipgrid for asynchronous collaboration. This week’s prompt: Tell us about a book you are reading!


In addition, Courtney uses Flipgrid video responses for Number Talks. Students post an answer to a math question and then respond to each other, just like they did when together in their classroom. Check out how she does it here.


Kick it up a notch

Once students are familiar with the post and response routine in Flipgrid, you can bump up the level of collaboration. Just like how Literature Circles can be run using Padlet, Flipgrid also provides a similar collaborative space. Lee Araoz describes in her post how to set up Flipgrid for Literature Circles. The prompt: state your name, your book title & chapter, the name of the Literature Circle job you are discussing, and what you did. Simple as that. But so powerful when students can see and hear each other from a distance as they collaboratively share.

Matthew Frattali, a middle school teacher who advocates for using Flipgrid with students to teach the Sustainable Development Goals advises “Asynchronous video is training wheels for synchronous video, which in turn is training wheels for video production and citizen journalism.” Think of the possibilities!

Updates to Flipgrid now include the ability for educators and learners to record their screen right inside a Flipgrid video post. That’s right!

Now it’s your turn:

How are you facilitating student-to-student collaboration in a virtual environment?

Bonus material

Finally, don’t forget that Morning Meeting is a powerful way for students to connect socially – with you and each other – during these days apart. Just like Courtney, you could run Morning Meeting asynchronously using Flipgrid. This post has some great ideas for connecting with each other, and you may even want to consider doing a morning meeting with your housemates as well!

However you go about it, let’s keep maintaining those connections that sustain us!

Balancing your new work and home situations

What happens when your work and home ecospheres become one and the same? For many of us this is part of the new normal.

As we are responding to a global pandemic, the need to redefine space, roles and schedules has presented itself. Educators are amongst the many feeling disrupted and experiencing the growing pains that accompany forging new routines. Personally, I’ve tried to keep these two aspects of my live separate and now, that is not longer a possibility. No doubt many of you have seen my daughter making faces over my shoulder when in virtual meetings.

Regardless of your situation at home this is hard.

Whether you are parenting and working simultaneously, dealing with social isolation, worrying about your health or any of a million other scenarios — this is new territory. And it will take time to find the right balance.

So how do we respond?

I’m reminded of the movie Ghostbusters (hello 1984!). Throughout the whole movie, the Ghostbusters were cautioned never to cross the streams from their proton packs. But in the end? Crossing the streams turned out to be… not so bad. In fact, it kind of fixed everything.

Stay with me on this.

Setting new routines

What’s the new normal? We know that school will not physically reconvene for the rest of the year. Distance learning is now the norm. Schools are presented with the challenge (or opportunity, depending on how you look at it) to reinvent new structures for learning. Recreating what we know as school at home just doesn’t seem to feel right. With new guidance coming almost daily how can we feel comfortable with our new normal?

I’m still working on this one but I have a few things to share as the dust settles:

  1. Get out of your pajamas. And not just a nice shirt with pajama bottoms for those virtual meetings.
  2. Create time for physical activity or being outdoors. Sunshine and movement is a must.
  3. Set boundaries. Twelve hour work days are not healthy! (Maybe no more than 3 cups of coffee, too).
  4. Find joy and excitement in something. Be creative and inquisitive.
  5. Don’t forget to have fun. It’s okay to laugh and be silly in faculty meetings. Even play a game.
  6. Embrace your two worlds merging. My animals frequent meetings too, FYI
  7. Be vulnerable and ask for help when you need it! Hard but necessary.
  8. Continue with empathy and kindness. You may never know who needs it.

Be human and embrace your supports

It’s okay to be human and let down your shield. Which aspects of these two worlds coming together can we embrace? After the first few times my daughter put in an appearance on my Zoom, folks began to ask me when she would next appear. She changes conversations for the better. It’s a boundary I’ve taken down and it allows me to be my full human self and bring my best to the work.

Photo bombing!


Hard to find good help these days


Educationally speaking, resources have been coming across social media, in emails, and just about every other possible delivery method. Many have been examples of online tools, equity focused, and connected to supporting learning. Many have been making sure people are fed, needs are met, and resources for support . The lesson here: take advantage of what you need. The popular sports phrase “it’s okay not to be okay” seems to apply here to. If you are struggling help is available. And that includes nuking your inbox and not even finishing this blogpost if you don’t want. Do the thing that helps you be okay.

Owning the discomfort

I fully admit I was paralyzed the first few days at home after Governor Scott announced he was closing our schools. I mean, I knew it was coming but at the same time… it just snuck in there. Time to regroup!

First, I didn’t have the right workspace set up.

Now that colleagues would be seeing my home it made me think. What about that pile of dishes over my shoulder? Or the stack of overdue library books? The casually discarded toys? Or the general disarray that changes from day to day in my house? All fixable. I simply turned my kitchen table around. Now there’s even a nice picture in the background. And it’s helped me much more so that I thought it would.

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It doesn’t even have to be your space

Videoconferencing tool Zoom has a feature where you can swap out the background of your call for one of your choosing. You don’t have to share any part of your house with co-workers. You can convince everyone you teach from Hogwarts. Or the moon.

So privacy can remain yours. (And a sidenote: the Zoom background feature is much more than a cute moment. It can help people who need their living situations to remain confidential — for whatever reason — do just that.) Again: do the thing that makes you feel the best.

Second, as mentioned above, sometimes my family just shows up.

The cat has a Jedi sense of when meetings are happening. My dog, Maple, likes to bark every time the mute button is off. It’s just part the deal. And I’ve let go of worrying about those aspects. It helps. Everyone’s doing their best, everyone’s adding to the chaos.

What have we all learned from this?

It’s all still a bit new but I have definitely learned a few things about myself. Forging new routines has taken a solid two weeks to feel like it has mitigated my anxiety. But… things are starting feel “normal” (if you can believe that). Yet it took some pushing and difficult learning to get there. In the bigger picture, I wonder what we can all take away from this experience? How can this period of upheaval inform our growth as educators and people?

In the interest of full transparency with the home/work overlap, let me share our newest backyard learning: maple syrup.

Since we were home, we decided to learn how to make maple syrup. It was our own take on a genius hour/passion project to help distract from the world. We borrowed taps and buckets from our neighbor. Looked up how to identify sugar maples. Tapped 10 trees. We started every morning, coffee in hand, collecting sap buckets. Who knew that 10 trees could produce so much sap? It was a welcome addition to our new reality and routine.


The last word

I found this calming. Hope you do too!



How to run an in-person morning meeting at home

Parents, how are you doing at home with your new “homeschool classroom”?

I’m with you. I’ve been waking up every day for the past two and half weeks feeling like I am in the movie Groundhog Day.


Despite having been a middle school teacher for nearly 20 years, I feel like nothing has prepared me for the task of working from home and managing the academic lives of three children — two of them adolescent boys. Like many of you, I am the homeroom teacher, food service, custodian, counselor, art teacher, PE teacher, and behavior specialist.

And I am struggling.

For two weeks, nothing has felt normal. My home has felt chaotic, and I have been stressed.

I finally had some time to reflect this week upon our home school system. I thought about what is working (snack break) and what is not (sustained work without whining). Then I thought about what I would do if I was a teacher in the classroom again. And finally, I realized that what my home school needed was a sense of community and some routines.

Enter the Home Morning Meeting

Today was our first day, and I designated myself as the leader of today’s morning meeting. I told my family to arrive fully dressed, at the kitchen table, for 8:30 am. I served everyone a bagel, and announced the purpose and structure of our new morning meeting. We would gather together every morning to connect, have a bit of fun, and set the stage for the day.

Now, I live with real humans. This is not some Pollyanna life that I lead.

My husband stared straight ahead like he was enduring a dentist visit. The 16-year-old may have muttered, “This is insane”… My nine year old daughter suggested we put hands on our heads when we were ready to share. Each of us came to this meeting with varying degrees of acceptance and enthusiasm. I fully expected this outcome, and we did it anyway.

It’s important for our kids to have routine and structure. Adults need it too. We are realizing very quickly during these times that face-to-face connection is critical to our human needs. If you can handle it, please consider trying a morning meeting at your home. It takes about 15-20 minutes, and this has been my happiest morning yet.

Here’s my structure for a Home Morning Meeting:

1. Greeting

Start the meeting by greeting each other. You decide how that works, but the basic requirements are to greet a person by name and with eye contact. This morning, we greeted the person to our right with a “Good Morning, Dad” and a fist bump. (There will be snickering)

2. Daily News

The leader of Morning Meeting gives an update and news brief about the day. I said, “Today is Thursday, April 2. It’s a school day with academic learning from 9-12, lunch at 12. Lunch is hot dogs. If you don’t like hot dogs, you can make yourself a PB & J sandwich. From 12:30 – 2, it’s free choice time for extracurriculars. You can do art, music, PE, foreign language, or other projects. Devices stay off until 2 pm”

Keep it short and direct. If you think it’s helpful, you can use a visual.

3. Sharing

Next, the leader opens up a prompt for people to think about and share.

Ours was, “What’s a place in the world that you would like to visit someday?”

The real world responses:

  • Harry Potter Wizarding World in Orlando
  • Amsterdam
  • Costa Rica
  • Lake Louise in Banff National Park
  • Siberia

Bet you can’t guess which one is the ironic 16 year old response.

4. Game or Activity

Lastly, the leader can choose some sort of short activity or game. You can even get outside for a game or a walk. Today, we played one of my favorite advisory games, Count to Ten.

Then, I closed the meeting and wished everyone a good day. Yes, it felt a little hokey and forced, but it also felt good.

We said good morning to each other. We knew what day it was. And we laughed together.

Plus I learned that my husband wanted to visit Amsterdam. So it was a positive start to the day.

Please share with me if you do your own Home Morning Meeting. What ideas do you have? What’s working? The struggle is real, and I’m with you.

Talking with Mount Holly students

On this episode of The 21st Century Classroom:

M.:  I learned to, well, use a computer. That’s a big one. And then I also learned to help and be a kind person and try to do as well as I can.

For this episode, we’re in the Two Rivers Supervisory Union, in Southern Vermont. Ace podcaster and #vted Reads host Jeanie Phillips visited the Mount Holly School, in Mount Holly, Vermont.

We’ll hear from Aubrey, Alyssa and M., three sixth graders entering their final semester at this K-6 school. Next year, all three move up to one of the nearby middle schools. So what have these three students learned from their time at Mount Holly? Let’s find out.

About Mount Holly School:

Mount Holly, Vermont is super, super rural. Located at the Southern end of generally populous Rutland County, Mount Holly has only 1200 residents, spread across 49 square miles. And that? Is a lot of open space.

The school itself is close-knit and spirited, with a number of activities and classes that get students out of their seats and outside into the school garden, one of three outdoor classrooms, as well as the school’s very own nature trail.

Students practice mindfulness and meditation. They learn to sew and identify plants, as well as working with woodcraft and learning the traditional rigorous academic subjects. School lunches have book-themed names such as “Dragons Love Tacos”, “The Hungry Caterpillar”, “The Princess and the Pizza”, and “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”.

There’s a weekly all-school meeting, student-led conferences at every grade level, and beginning in kindergarten, every student starts learning French.

It’s a small and cheerful school where everybody knows everybody else, families included.

And these are three of Mount Holly’s students:


Mount Holly students: Aubrey


Mount Holly students: Alyssa

and M.

Mount Holly students: M.

Right off the bat, we want to know: what makes school meaningful for you?

Aubrey:  What I find meaningful about school is that they give as lot of help to the kids that need it, and the kids that sometimes have problems focusing or learning. They’ll like help you a little bit more than they normally would. And it’s just kind of like hands-on learning.

Jeanie:  What are some of the opportunities you have to do hands-on learning?

Aubrey:  Well, in math class, normally we do our lesson and then afterwards she’ll give us like, a page to do? And then you’re either with someone else or you’re by yourself and you can ask for help then.

Alyssa: I find something very meaningful about school is getting to learn about the things I *want* to learn about. Like, I love the ocean. I like when I get an opportunity to learn about it. Because when they give you one subject you have to learn about? Everybody else is learning about it. One, it doesn’t seem interesting because everyone’s doing it, and two, it doesn’t like, make you think, ‘Oh I want to learn more about it’ if it’s like, something you don’t even think about once a year.

Jeanie: Yeah. Do you want to give me an example of when you got to learn more about the ocean?

Alyssa: We’re doing a project currently — not everyone’s doing it about the ocean but I’m doing the deep ocean? Which is like you have to list things like the animals that live there, where they get their food from, everything like that. And it’s a very fun project for me and I like it a lot. It’s very fun.

Jeanie:  Excellent. I’m so excited about this conversation. What do *you* find meaningful about school?

M.:  Kind of the group community develops, and on being together as people. And not having always having the choice of being by yourself? And learning real world skills? That’s far more important to me than the actual learning, because you can do that at home but it’s a lot harder to experience during the school day. It’s a lot easier for you to experience social skills as opposed to home.

Jeanie:  So, real world skills like social skills you get to practice here, in a way you wouldn’t at home?

M.:  Correct.

Jeanie:  What are the real world skills do you learn at school, M?

M.:  I learned to, well, use computers. That’s a big one. And then I also learned to help, and be a kind person, and try to do as well as I can. And that… learning is… only fun when you make it fun.

Jeanie: Excellent. So, looking ahead what do you hope to be able to do in school as you continue with your schooling?

M.: My big goal for high school and college is to — I really, I mean like technology and STEAM. All that.  One of my goals is to… well, my first goal is to get into MIT. And then my second goal is to build a computer for myself. And once I can do that then I’ll feel pretty good. But I always want to learn.

Jeanie: What do you hope to do to benefit the world with your degrees, and your expertise in STEAM and technology?

M.: I really like and am inspired by Greta Thunberg. And hydro power? I think that’s really cool, because it doesn’t harm nature like wind turbines do? And it’s also sustainable? So, I really want to protect our planet from climate change. Maybe become a worker at a national park, or help the World Wildlife Fund, somewhat. I already made a few donations.

Jeanie: Wow, those are some big aspirations! Is Greta Thunberg a role model for you?

M.:  Yeah.

Jeanie: Have you learned about her at school at all?

M.:  Ms. Coldwell and another teacher showed us like, one video about her, but I watch a lot of her speeches.


Jeanie:  In your free time?

M.:  Yeah. I don’t have any devices but my parents approve of that sort of technology.

Jeanie:  Excellent. How about you Alyssa, what do you hope to do beyond Mount Holly School?

Mount Holly students: Alyssa
Alyssa and friend.

Alyssa: I really want to be a marine biologist. I’ve always loved the ocean and I will always love the ocean. I want to be a marine biologist, but a marine biologist and expert in exploration? To like, lead dives and stuff like that. To get to like, swim with sharks and nice dolphins and things like that. I… want to be someone who like, finds the missing piece to an Egyptian thing or something. I’ve always wanted to be the one person who dives into the ocean and finds that super special thing nobody else could find.

Jeanie: Yeah. How do you hope that will contribute to our world?

Alyssa: I think in like… climate change if I’m like figuring out how it’s affecting, then people will start to actually care. Like if I show the numbers and stuff of like, how many things and people and stuff are dying, because of it? So things like climate change? If like lost pieces to when we weren’t intelligent enough to make like, computers and stuff. Like, artifacts I guess.

Jeanie:  How about you, Aubrey?

Mount Holly students: Aubrey
Aubrey, Mount Holly School.

Aubrey:  I… have always loved nature. I mean, I live in the woods so I kind of have to like nature. *laughs* And I have a love for horses. And I have a horse, and when I’m older I would love to learn more about veterinary work. Because I have a love for animals and I just am very interested in the whole veterinary field.

Jeanie:  Excellent. So, your contribution to the world would be to care for all our furry friends?

Aubrey: Yeah.

Jeanie:  That’s a great aspiration. You all are inspiring me,  with your big dreams and plans and aspirations.  Do you feel like school is equipping you with what you need to get there?

Alyssa: Yeah. I feel like we’ll get through elementary school, we’ll know some about what we want to do. We’ll get through high school, we’ll be very excited and we’ll know a lot about what we want our career to be. And me, M., and Aubrey want to go to college. We all want to go to college because, in order to be a vet you have to go to college. To be an engineer you have to go to college? You have to go to college to be a marine biologist. So, yeah, we all kind of look into things like that.

Jeanie:  Okay, tell me something you’re good at.

Alyssa:  I’m really good at like studying, because in like writing in formal papers and stuff because I do that with, like, my shark studies a lot.  At home, I’ll study, I’ll bookmark pages and stuff, and then I’ll write something on Google Docs about it. No one usually sees the Google Docs, but I have them.

Jeanie: You do it for you?

Alyssa: Yes.

Jeanie: How about you, M?

Mount Holly students: M.
M., Mount Holly School.

M.:  I know it’s kind of generic but I really like, and I’m good at building stuff. I feel like that’s really fun for me. We have tons of Legos and that’s one of the big things. I like sports, I play basketball. I don’t actually play basketball like as a team, but I play it by myself a lot. And I play hockey and soccer and baseball and football.

Jeanie: Wow! What’s the most interesting thing you’ve built with your Legos?

M.:  It’s called the Hape Snowfa battle cruiser? [EDITORIAL NOTE: no Star Wars geeks on staff, so we’re doing our best with Google.] It’s not a Lego set, but I made it. I do Star Wars Legos. And I made it after a Star Wars machine.

Jeanie:  Right, you made it from the Legos yourself without a kit?

M.: Yes.

Jeanie: Awesome.

M.:  And I mean also… I’m not good at everything, but school… I tend to be pretty good at.

Alyssa: He does a lot of clicking with our subjects.

Jeanie: That’s a good way to put it! Aubrey, what are you good at?

Aubrey:  I like to swim. I don’t know, I just always like to swim. My parents, my mom like to swim.  So, I just always like to swim, I’ve been swimming from when I was like three years old, so…

Jeanie:  Nice! So, what else besides swimming and sports and Legos and writing Google Docs for yourself about sharks do you get up to at home, outside of school?

M.:  Reading! Reading, reading, reading.

Jeanie: Oh I love that! What’s your favorite book, M?

M.:  My favorite book right now? I like the Endling Series. Have you heard of Katherine Applegate? That’s my favorite book series so far. I like the Tales from Earthsea. There’s a few more I can’t think of. I read tons and tons of books.

Jeanie:  Excellent.  How about you Alyssa, what do you get up to outside of school?

Alyssa: I’m mostly snuggle with my guinea pig. His name’s Leo. I tell him about my day. He’s albino so I like to like to look at his fur and imagine a color because it’s easy to think of what as a color.

And I also like to do like games with my little brother.

Jeanie: What’s your favorite game to play with your little brother?

Alyssa: We play a lot of Mortal Kombat.  And I like to also do journaling.  I have like four journals to different subjects.  I have my journal called ‘The Perfect Day’, which I write really good days I have. Then I have one, that’s all which is called ‘The Worst Day’, and then I have like one that write about every day. I love writing, by the way.

Jeanie: That’s awesome! What are you up to out of school Aubrey?

Aubrey: I read a lot of books. Like *a lot a lot* of books.

Jeanie:  Love it. So, I’m going to dive back in. Remember we were talking earlier about how do you know the things you’re good at? Thinking about the things that you are good both in and out of school, how do you know when you are goods at them? Go ahead, Aubrey.

Aubrey:  I’m, so, I knew that I was good at swimming when I started swim team two years ago.  I only did it for one summer and I wound up getting second place in my first meet.

Jeanie: So, doing well at the competition helps you know you are good at something?

Aubrey: Yes, it makes me feel good about myself.

Jeanie:  Yes, Alyssa. How do you know when you’re good at something?

Alyssa: So journaling, I kind of got into it because I love writing and at third grade I started to notice my formal letters and stuff was already really good.  So, I like to like, practice and I kept doing that. And my mom also thought it was best for me to write down how I feel because… reasons.

Jeanie:  Can I ask you all a follow-up question? What’s it feel like on the inside when you’re good at something?

Alyssa:  It kind of, it feels like, really good to be doing something I like, and I’m really good at it. Compared to something you’re not very good at? When you’re doing something you like and you’re good at it, it’s like, this is awesome. I *love* this, I can do this well.  And you want to do more of it.

M.:  Part of the way I think is that… when you do something and you get really good at it? In my opinion it’s kind of like the first level.  So, you’re really good at something and then there is something else where you haven’t built anything 00 any levels yet. Then you can get really good at another thing. You slowly ascend the pyramid, until you make it to professional. Like Premiere League, or MLB [Major League Baseball] or whatever. And there’s a certain amount of happiness when you get up there? But it’s certainly not like the first day the person calls you up and say you get called up to the major leagues.

And because now you already know what it’s like and it’s not exciting anymore? But, still you could still thrive and have a fantastic time because it’s your passion.

Else, I just think that you can get good at most things, but you could also not get good at most things. And there’s some things, I’m going to be more natural to do than Aubrey and Aubrey is going to be more natural to do than me, you know. Alyssa the same.  So, it’s all a spectrum kind of thought of it.  And by the way, I think I mentioned that I have really good test scores on my math and test for reading, so that’s why I think I’m good at reading.

Jeanie: I hear two things from you. I hear so many things from you, M.  One is like I know I’m good at reading because I have high test scores in reading and also I know I’m good at reading because I read all the time and I love it.

And then I hear this other thing from which is that no matter how good you get, you can always still learn some more or grow some more or get better  Is that right? I see you nodding your head Alyssa.

Alyssa:  Yes. *laughs* I forgot they can’t see me.

Jeanie: What’s it feel like for you, Aubrey, to be good at something on the inside?

Aubrey: It feels really good because sometimes when I don’t do something that makes me feel good about myself, I take it really hard. I’m like, critical.  So, just the tiniest things that make me feel good about myself brighten my day a lot.

Jeanie:  What else do you want the world to know about learners, about what it’s like to be a fifth or sixth grader to be a learner?  Go just say it.

M.”  I mean it’s tough. You, I mean you’re given challenges and especially for me, I’ve skipped two grades. It’s always good to develop those close relationships because it’s… I come, I just come and then I leave and then it’s like all the friends I’ve made, you know, I don’t get to see as much. It’s just, it’s harder and then the older you get, the more homework you have to do. And it eats into your life.

Alyssa:  That is a lie. We do not have homework [at Mount Holly].

M.:  But next year we will.

Alyssa:  Yeah, next year we will.

M.:  And we will be  not be ready for it!

Alyssa: We’re going to be the preschoolers again.

M.:  Seventh grade in the school of 12th graders and under.

Alyssa:  Because we’re in sixth grade and we go to a very small elementary school.  So, after sixth grade, we have to go to the seventh grade and a high school.

Jeanie:  Do you worry about that?

M.:  Not a lot. I don’t feel that *I’ll* get bullied. And I don’t feel that *they’ll* get bullied.  I think that one of the school I plan on going to is a very nice school. *hiccups* Oopsies.

Aubrey:  I honestly don’t think that I’m going to have any problems because…  I’m not even sure what middle school I’m going to yet.  But I mean, I’m not really that social. So I’m not that social butterfly. I mean just, I think I’m just going to be my, be by myself. I like being alone. I’m an only child so I don’t have any siblings to bug me.

Jeanie:  So, tell me the last question I have for you all is what do you want the world to know about Mount Holly School?

Aubrey: Well, I think that they should know Mount Holly School is a great school.  It’s helped me and some of my friends that have a little bit harder time of learning a lot get through those things.

Alyssa:  I think that Mount Holly is a great school and I am only aware of a teacher or two who will be retiring.  But we do sometimes have troubles finding new teachers to take places and I think that we’ll be fine. It’s a good school. They help kids when they need it. And they’re like, they’re very flexible with how kids learn. Like, if you have something you think will help you like a fidget, they will adjust to like, maybe having it around and the fifth and sixth grade’s actually doing an experiment to get hoods allowed in school.  And I think that it’s great that they let us even try this. So. Yeah.

Aubrey:  Also we have a great principal, he is so much fun.

M.:  He’s awesome.

Aubrey:  He’s awesome!

Alyssa:  He’s very flexible.  He loves hanging out with us, we like hanging out with him too.

M.:  Last thing want to say is I think student council is a great opportunity.  Me and Alyssa both do it.

Alyssa:  M. is student council vice president and I am student council president.

M.:  And I feel like that’s a great opportunity to learn some of the things and how the government works sometimes.

Alyssa:  And they give us like, the ability to change rules. We just actually hosted a Valentine’s Day after school party and it was amazing and it went so good. So, we have already done one thing this year.

Jeanie:  And you said you’re encouraged to look at rules, how you might change rules to?

Alyssa:  We actually can change rules if we are powerful enough as a council, if it’s a rule that we think really needs to be changed.  And we all vote that if at least two-thirds of us vote that, that is what we want and this is the idea. Then we take it to the principal and we start working on it.

Jeanie:  Awesome.  You guys are really motivated.  What keeps you so motivated?

Alyssa:  I kind of like that we have these abilities and we have these rights to change what we don’t like to have what we want. To change what we like, get what we want done.  We have the options of how we want everything to be and I think that is just so nice of them to be like if you don’t like it, we’ll give you the ability to change it with enough progress and stuff.

Jeanie:  Nice. M., what keeps you motivated?

M.:  Me motivated?  The way that I can always get better and if I was automatically the best, I wouldn’t be as motivated.

Aubrey:  Oh, I’m not going to lie, I’m not that motivated.

Jeanie:  All right, you do a lot of cool things Aubrey.

Aubrey:  Yes, but I just kind of do it when I feel productive.

Jeanie:  That’s my strategy too. Thank you all three of you so much for taking the time to talk to me about yourself as learners, about Mount Holly as a school.  I just so appreciate your voices and hearing you explore ideas with me. You guys are amazing, thank you very much. Do you want to say goodbye?

Students:  Goodbye speaker! I love you.

M.:  You’ve been helping us.  Might not keep that part. You don’t need to.  Bye.

The 21st Century Classroom is a production of the The Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. This episode was produced by Jeanie Phillips, series producer is Audrey Homan. Thank you to Aubrey, Alyssa and M. for speaking with us, and to all of Mt Holly students and faculty for letting us invade with our recording equipment and headphones and generally be disruptive.

Our theme music is by Meizong and Yeeflex. And thank *you*, as always, for listening.

4 things I learned by being a student again

Being a student again is harder than I expected, and it’s also been quite revealing

Recently, I decided to go back to school to pursue learning in a completely new field. It’s exciting! It’s challenging! And, it’s a little scary too.

I can’t call on my years of experience as prior knowledge. I’m learning concepts, vocabulary, and skills that I’ve never encountered before. I’m totally out of my lane. All of this has made me uneasy. And it’s made me feel like a kid (read: vulnerable novice) all over again.

Since becoming an educator I’ve spent considerably more time delivering instruction than receiving instruction

I mean, to be sure, I’ve learned, reflected, and grown in my own practice over the years. I’ve engaged in professional development, collaborative work, and developed a deeper understanding of student learning and school change.  But I haven’t been a beginner, a student learning completely new content.

Until now.

Best for whom?

My current learning experience is not atypical at all in higher education, nor is it all that unusual in secondary schools: rows of desks — really, chairs with tablet arms — face the board. I arrive (early) and scour the room looking for the lone left-handed setup, find it, and wheel it to the second row rearranging furniture as I go. I want to be close enough to see the board (old, tired eyes), but not too close to be mistaken for a keener in the first row. The expert arrives and delivers content, I scramble to take notes and keep up.

All of us are itinerant to this learning space

We arrive in the late afternoon, spend three hours together and then depart, to return next week. There are a few short breaks in class when I scarf my cold dinner from a Mason jar and wonder what the other kids will be eating in the dining hall later.

The sun sets and darkness obscures the view of the city skyline outside the window. My professor continues to review the key points of the assigned readings.

I am here because I’m curious and because I want to learn. Yet sitting passively and receiving information is only partly working for me. I mean, I think I’m learning stuff, but I’d be more confident if I was able to express my interpretations and hear others’ ideas. If I could make connections to things I do know.

We’re halfway through the semester and don’t know the names of anyone else in the class.

I feel weird about this. Ok, that’s not entirely true. I mean, the first night we did a round of introductions. That’s when I discovered that the room was a mix of undergrads and grad students. (I thought they were all undergrads, but perhaps that’s because I’m such an, ahem, “mature student”. Actually, there are three of us “mature students” in the room.)

Being outgoing by nature, it feels awkward to spend 3 hours a week in a room of people who are interested, presumably, in the same topics that interest me, and not to engage with them, like, at all.

But it doesn’t seem like there’s space for that.

I have made eye contact with a couple of classmates and attempted a smile, and I even got one woman’s email address last week. But I felt completely awkward asking her if she’d be willing to connect in case either of us had questions about the assignments. I felt like I was breaking an unspoken norm:

“Can’t you just figure it all out on your own?”

And I’m totally that kid who keeps raising her hand and asking questions. (Except my “mature student” status probably makes me even more of a keener. The only other person who talks in class as much as I do, besides the professor, is one of the other “mature students”.)

I’m worried I’m getting a reputation. I cringe inwardly every time I lift my arm. But without the ability to check my understanding, I’m totally lost. I mean, if I *think* I understand, but it’s only in my head, how do I know if I *really* understand?

And then there are the assignments.

And the grades. Oh, the grades!

Each assignment is worth a certain number of points, and together the assignment scores total 100, which is then translated into A-F grades. I wish I was more focused on the learning, rather than the grade. Sigh.

(I really want an A!)

What does progress toward the course outcomes look like? How will I know if I’m on track?

The assignments are vague, and the grading criteria even more so. I’ve struggled to infer what my professor is looking for in each assignment. I’ve spent hours trying to decipher the journal articles and scholarly work from this field. (Is it this hard for everyone else? Am I the only one who feels like I’m learning a new language? Who knows! Because we don’t talk about the readings, or anything else, with each other.)

I feel like my grasp is tenuous.

I feel like I’m on my own: it’s sink or swim.

Feedback on assignments is minimal and comes too late for me to do anything useful with it. I’m left with the feeling of being ranked and sorted, rather than nurtured into deeper understanding and capacity.

Wait. This sounds familiar…

I recognize some of these practices. As a teacher, I’m sure I’ve perpetuated some of this on my students.

Now, standing in my students’ shoes,  I can see more clearly the ways we, as teachers, can make learning more engaging and impactful for our students. And why we should.

And I can feel how much it matters to be seen and valued by the leaders of our learning.

A few truths that have been revealed to me in my life as a student. Here are four takeaways that I will (re)apply to my classroom practice.

1. Learning is socially constructed

Meaning-making is deepened when students are able to be both receptive and expressive learners. As an educator, I need to weave opportunities for social learning into my instruction.

That urge I have to whisper to a classmate, to ask what something means, to react to the material that was presented: that is a missed opportunity to deepen understanding.

What if our leader asked us to use a strategy like a turn & talk?  Not only would this help me gauge my own learning, but it would also improve the social vibe in the classroom. Win-win.

2. Connection is key

Learning happens best when students feel safe and connected.

My role as the leader of learning in a classroom is also to be the leader of community-building. Students are looking to me to establish a safe and connected learning community and to model the norms of the learning environment.

Making space to get to know one another is a valuable use of time. Creating a safe space where students can try (and fail) is essential.

3. Clarity is kindness

Students want to do well. And in order to do so, they need clear expectations about outcomes and processes. Models and examples help too.

Some students (ahem) may be focused on success criteria (grades) and would benefit from understanding how to best demonstrate their learning. And…

4. Feedback is most effective when it is timely and applicable

Students benefit from do-overs. We all do! Despite popular rhetoric that ‘real life doesn’t offer do-overs’ I’d argue that it does. As adults, we are constantly given opportunities to improve on our work. (Heck, even this blog post has been improved by feedback from my amazing colleagues.)

Learners need guided opportunities to hone their skills. They need to explore and experiment before they are ready to perform. When we offer our students feedback on how to improve their work and give them a chance to apply it they are growing and learning. Not just sinking or swimming.

Now what?

As a teacher, each student arrives in my classroom with their own learning styles and preferences, and my job is to find ways for each student to access learning and to help them better understand themselves and their needs so that they can be advocates for their own learning.

How might I advocate for myself in this situation? What about you?

This experience has been powerful. And I wish I’d done it sooner because experiencing learning from the other side of the (sole left-handed) desk has given me fresh insight into good teaching and learning. What about you?

How might you put yourself in your students’ shoes? What might you discover?




How do you stay balanced?

Balancing my professional and personal lives is something I am flat out terrible at.

I know it’s hard for me and it continues to be something I fail at. But school breaks are always great for reminding me just how out of balance I am. Sometimes the universe takes it upon itself to send gentle reminders to make some adjustments.  During this most recent break those messages came fast and furious.

Looking Back

At the Tarrant Institute, we often start our Wednesday staff meetings with a fun prompt to connect with each other. They invite the sharing of personal likes and interests, such as current reads, favorite recipes and podcast recommendations. Back in January, our first meeting of the new calendar year was no different. I don’t remember the specific prompt but I clearly remember my answer: I pledged to my colleagues that I was going to focus on balance.

Well, it’s March, and I’d give myself a “Needs Improvement” on the report card.

Formative Feedback from the Universe

Coming into break I felt myself getting sick. How do our bodies know when it’s okay to get sick? Not feeling well is the first piece of formative feedback the universe sent me. Just a cold, but enough of one to make me grumpy. And I noticed my routines and pace didn’t change: still checking that dreaded email, reading work-related articles, and making those all-too-familiar to-do lists.

Then the universe stepped up its game.

It was a sunny and unusually warm morning. My daughter woke up early (for once) and asked to go skiing without any prompting from me. This never happens! I was immediately conflicted. What about work? I have things to do. (I see school breaks as a time to catch up. Unhealthy, I know.) However, the eight year old was determined and “no” was not an acceptable answer. Little did I know this was the start of something powerful.

I committed to taking a few runs, but not the whole day. We get to the mountain and she gets suited up on her own and is impatiently waiting for me. Soon we find ourselves on the lift head to the top. I notice how beautiful the trees are, covered in snow. The sun was bright and warming. Time seemed to be standing still. I looked at my phone after what felt like a few runs and… it was 3:00. Where had the day gone?

It was as if the whole week was building toward this moment.

I was reminded that there is so much to enjoy other than work. I really like my work but I also was reminded how much I really like the outdoors. And I came to Vermont because of all the outdoor opportunities. It was a top consideration when choosing a college. Slowly, as life got busy, I lost touch with many of connections I have made with the world through the outdoors.

I am beyond happy the world sought to remind me that balance is healthy.

So Here’s My Commitment:

I will continue to work towards a more healthy balance between my personal and professional worlds

How do you find balance? How do you hold yourself accountable?


And the reading is eeeeeasy.

Time to pull out your bicycle, kayak, or barbecue. Or curl up in the hammock, on a lounge chair, or with your beach towel and READ!  It’s easy to lose yourself in a book as you relax, rejoice and rejuvenate after a long school year. We’ve got some great summertime book suggestions for you. And we’d love to hear what you are reading for summer 2019 (because our lists are not quite long enough). So, get out your library cards, here we go!

Katy Farber

I read aloud Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga to my daughters. We loved meeting Jude, who moves from Syria to Cincinnati to live with relatives, leaving behind her older brother and father. Jude’s spirit is humorous, inspiring, and contagious. I particularly loved the safe and supportive culture the ELL teacher established at Jude’s school, and Jude navigating growing up, a new school, and wanting to be seen and heard, all at the same time.

I am reading aloud The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden to get ready to meet the author and have a book club discussion at the Middle Grades Institute which we are all very excited about. We are currently cheering for Zoey and her family as they make some big decisions.

Katy with her summer reads

I’m also reading Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School by Carla Shalaby. This book is truly transformative in terms of framing education as

teaching love and learning freedom

and a place to imagine school as a

deeply human, wildly revolutionary site of possibility.

It is a close look at classroom cultures, structures, and teacher practices and how these impact students that are outside of the “norm.” It unflinchingly illuminates what this does to them, over time — how compliance and punishment cultures can harm our most vulnerable students, often for a lifetime.

I can’t wait to listen to the Ani Difranco read her book No Walls and the Recurring Dream. Ani’s songs were transformative for me as a woman in my 20s and still resonate today. I look forward to hearing about how and why she wrote many of the songs that impacted my life and understanding about finding my voice, speaking up, and artistic expression. And, if you haven’t heard it, she released an album with the songs mentioned in the book, redone, acoustically, and it is a stunning thing of beauty.

Jeanie Phillips

I loved The Overstory by Richard Powers, which made me look at trees differently, and summertime is a great time for looking at trees!  What begins as a series of short stories centering trees becomes a complex ecosystem that was so compelling I may just have to read it again.

When I interviewed VT students about the books they love I heard two messages loud and clear: books with diverse representation AND fantasy!  

Once & Future meets both of those requirements. It’s a retelling of King Arthur set in a future without homophobia, racism, sexism, or reliance on the gender binary. BUT also without a viable earth or checks on the Mercer Corporation, Capitalists in Chief. Ari Helix is the 42nd incarnation of King Arthur. With the help of Merlin and her motley band of knights, she finds herself on a quest to find her parents, avenge her home planet, defeat Mercer, and unite the universe.

Favorite reading chair

Finally, teaching is hard work!  I need all of the resilience I can get, so I’m spending some time this summer with Elena Aguilar’s Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators and the Onward Workbook.

Life LeGeros

Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake is written in simple yet elegant language that expresses complex ideas beautifully. I have never read a book that so perfectly captures what it feels like to have a crush. Almost everybody in my family read it separately but I bet it would make a wonderful read aloud.

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden is on this coming years Vermont Middle Grades choice award list. This book, written by a Vermont author, has become one of my daughter’s favorites. She says it is super scary and very cool. I can’t wait to read it!

Black Appetite. White Food. Issues of Race, Voice, and Justice Within and Beyond the Classroom by Jamila Lyiscott is a book that I look forward to reading, savoring, and then re-reading many times. I saw the author speak last fall and was deeply moved by her insights about education and systemic racism. The book interweaves critical analysis, poetry, and practical tools to inspire and support transformation. Ever the teacher, Dr. Lyiscott even includes optional exercises at the end of each chapter to deepen understanding.

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty is a whirlwind of adventure, magic, and hilarious dialogue. The author calls her work “historical fan fiction” or “speculative fiction.” She draws on Islamic lore to vividly paint a fascinating world (or city, rather) of the djinn. The main character is morally ambiguous, brave, and did I mention hilarious? She’s the best protagonist I’ve met in a long while. I can’t wait to dig into the rest of the trilogy this summer.

Rachel Mark

I’m reading two highly recommended new YA books that come with rave reviews.  The first book is The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater, based on recommendations from so many great reader friends. The second is Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosozcka. This graphic novel was my gift to my fifteen-year-old son, but I want to read it myself.

I’m looking forward to reading the newest book by Daniel Pink, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. I love Pink’s readable psychology, and I think there are always great transfer and applicability to education settings.

I’m really excited to read Educated by Tara Westover. I have literally been saving this book for summer 2019. Memoirs always interest me, and this one unites with my love of education.

Susan Hennessey

Books and flowers

The image above is of my pleasure reads…at least a second if not third run through of Anne Lamott’s book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope on the top of the list, because who doesn’t need more hope?!  The Nightingale is historical fiction set in France during the second world war and promises to sweep me away to another time and place.  Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach is also set during WWII, but is more of a thriller. And speaking of thrills…Denise Mina’s Conviction is described as a wild weird suspense tale whose main character is a podcast addict (reminds me of someone I know). Thrilled to escape with her.

Jay McTighe & Judy Willis’s Upgrade Your Teaching: Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience combines two of my professional interests: the science of learning AND thoughtful instructional planning.

Audrey Homan

I’m continuing a long-standing policy of doing absolutely nada in terms of work-related reading during the summer vacation.

(See also: vacation, winter).

My plan is to positively wallow in crime. First order of business? Catching up with Jessica McDaniels, Manchester-based detective inspector and troublemaker extraordinaire. The latest three books in the 13-book series are Nothing But Trouble, Eye for An Eye, and Silent Suspect. No, you can’t read them out of order. At this point in the series, some very old chickens are coming home to roost and it’s all a bit nail-biting. Speaking of sins of the fathers, Rebus may finally have run out of rope in Ian Rankin’s latest, In A House of Lies. I’m much more agnostic about reading this series in order. Just grab one and knock yourself out.

Out of order and proud of it is #3 in Val McDermid’s new Edinburgh-based series: The Skeleton Road. It’s lovely and terrible and filled with buildings and weather, which I heartily approve of, and long sins of war, which I don’t. Still, a really good read. Passes the Bechdel Test.

The new Logan McRae isn’t out until next April and the next Vera Stanhope mystery’s set in November, so that leaves me with Dervla McTiernan’s The Ruin, with its promise of both gritty mystery and a potentially haunted house. Victories all around!

Should I mention the rest of the large stack of fictional criminal endeavors I have cued up to read this summer? Or are we already all worried enough? Oh, all right, one more: Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of the Founding of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Purloined Basketball Team and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis.

What’s that, you say? Sounds more like American history than crime?

Buddy, do I have some bad news for you about Manifest Destiny.

Emily Hoyler

Emily reading in a hammock

I’ve got at least two purely professional books in my stack this summer.  I’ve never read Parker Palmer’s classic The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, but it keeps getting mentioned, so I’m going to give it a go. I’m also very interested in how we cultivate growth cultures for both students and adults, so I’ve also got An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Developmentally Deliberate Organization by Bob Kegan & Lisa Laskow Lahey in the stack.  This one was recommended at a workshop I attended at the Deeper Learning conference at High Tech High.

I feel a little bit like Chicken Little lately, as my concern panic about climate change (i.e. the apocalypse) has really ramped up after diving more into the current science and politics.

(Especially as summarized in this paper, Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy, by University of Cambria sustainability leadership professor Jem Bendell).  My Facebook feed has become a horror show of climate change headlines. I’ve been thinking a lot about what to do with my climate reckoning.  So, obviously, I’m going to do some reading.  My penchant for dystopian literature comes in handy here, and I’m currently reading Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (Earthseed #1). This story follows a young woman living in an eerily familiar near-future world wracked by climate tragedy as she navigates the nature of change itself.

Inspired by Butler’s musings on the nature of change, adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds encourages us to embrace and dance with change rather than futilely resist. I’ve also been grappling with how to connect with others around these concerns, so I’ve collected Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Non-violent Communication by Oren Jay Sofer and Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work that Reconnects Joanna Macy & Molly Young Brown as texts to help me navigate these conversations.  Finally, inspired by numerous recommendations by friends, I have Richard Powers’ The Overstory on my nightstand so that I might touch some beauty in all of this.

Scott Thompson

The above books capture my excitement for exploration and travel. My last trip driving cross country was in 1997 and I think it’s time for another. I have been specifically reading about the Northwest. I was there 3 years ago to visit a friend and was amazed by the beauty. If you are looking for a destination, please consider the Northwest. My other “Northwest” interest is, and has been, Alaska. It’s a bit of a wish but maybe one day it will happen.

As a self-confessed foodie, I love to try my hand at pretending to be a chef. I’ve been following Chef Jamie Oliver for a few years now and get excited every time I get a new cookbook from him. I was raised by British parents, thus British meals, and can connect with Jamie as his cooking represents the Brits very well. He has a rustic and simple style and he’s quite a character as well. Also wanted to keep it local! The Vermont Farm Table Cookbook brings it a little closer to home with a similar style to Jamie but with a Vermont infused menu.

What are you reading this summer?

2018 TIIE Holiday Reading

One of the best things about winter break is the chance to slow down and, for readers, the chance to take a break from the madcap holiday festivities and curl up in the corner with a good book.

Here’s what the TIIE staff are reading this 2018 holiday season.


While I usually go for holiday murder mysteries — Stuart MacBride’s 12 Days of Winter, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, and the BBC Radio adaptation of The Sittaford Mystery are perennial favorites — this year I decided to go for something different.

I’m feasting on a veritable cornucopia of cookbooks and books on culinary history, and that’s the last food-related pun I’ll make in this entry as I Have Been Warned About That Sort Of Thing.

cookbooks Holiday Reading 2018

A good number of Vermont authors have brought out some great reading and eating books, including, in no particular order:

Bean by Bean: A Cookbook, by Westminster VT-based author Crescent Dragonwagon. A new find for me (shout out to the Lawrence Memorial Library in Bristol), I’ve already made a half-dozen of the dishes she features, including Orange Blossom Special Baked Beans, Ful Medames (mashed fava beans cooked with garlic and cumin, garnished with hard-boiled eggs and fresh tomato), Kerala-style Dal (coconutty!), Thai-style carrot and green bean salad (zesty!) and Chopped Liver à La Dragon (vegan & gluten-free chopped liver, which you will not knock until you’ve tried). Still working up to the bean-based desserts chapter.

Marialisa Calta’s Barbarians at the Plate: Taming and Feeding the Modern American Family. This Calais, VT-based author traveled around the country interviewing families and getting them to share their strategies for getting dinner on the table. Along with Calta’s own tips for feeding a horde in 60 minutes or whatever you can eke out of an evening, this book arrived in my house via one of Hinesburg’s Tiny Free Libraries and features the best black bean soup ever.

The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food, by Ben Hewitt. Less of a cookbook and more of a look at community-based food production, Hewitt examines the revitalization of Hardwick, VT and surrounding communities. Around 10 years ago, organic farmers, CSAs, seed producers and dairies began deliberately moving their businesses to Hardwick, joining a deep agricultural tradition in the region and changing the small local economy …in surprising ways. I found this book earlier this year, digging deep in the stacks of the Russell Memorial Library in Monkton, and have been meaning to give it a re-read.

Okay, this is just an out-and-out cookbook: There’s A Pug In My Kitchen: Favorite Recipes from Friends of Green Mountain Pug Rescue. Spoiler: contains no actual pugs (although the dog biscuit recipe is worthy). This fat little cookbook never fails to surprise, with notes from the recipe’s submitters. Whether it’s Kale & Sundried Tomato Spoon bread, from Jeanne Finton, in Panton VT, Gayle Lyman’s Stuffed Mushrooms or Squash Soup with Goat Cheese & Chives, from Burlington’s Tamara Durfee-Smith, I always manage to find something new to try.

Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight That Revolutionized Cooking, by Linda Civitello, has nothing to do with Vermont. 19th century industrial espionage! Robber barons! Possible poisonings!

Y’all, this is all Linda Pelaccio’s fault. I’m a huge fan of her podcast, A Taste of the Past, which is all culinary history, all the time, and Civitello’s episode is one of my favorites.

A Taste of the Past podcast: Episode 276: Baking Powder wars: A History

Finally, a little farther afield entirely (and possibly returning to the main holiday theme), I’m excited to curl up with the newest Ovidia Yu mystery, Meddling and Murder. Set in Singapore, this series tells the story of a meddling Peranakan auntie who runs a café and catering business, and includes lavish descriptions of the all the meals she prepares. Be warned: you will want nasi lemak after you finish reading.


I’ve read some wonderful books in 2018, and I’m looking forward to another year of great reading.  I just finished listening to the audiobook Becoming by Michelle Obama.  Her heartfelt memoir is a deeply reflective look at her life from a girl in the South Side of Chicago to the First Lady of the United States.  I really appreciated her vulnerability and honesty, and loved listening to her read her own words. I’m looking forward to spending time with a print copy so I can reread my favorite sections and peruse the photographs that accompany her story.  I’m also inspired to read more memoirs, and Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s Hey, Kiddo is at the top of my list.  Krosoczka is the well known author/illustrator of the Lunch Lady books for younger readers, but his graphic memoir is for young adults. In it he tells the story of being raised by his grandparents as his mother struggles with heroin addiction and his father is absent.

My favorite novel from 2018 was There There by Tommy Orange, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. It is a brilliant but heartbreaking story told in many voices, all urban and Native American.  It has me craving more stories by and about native people. Cherie Dimaline’s dystopic novel The Marrow Thieves fits the bill. In it only Indigenous North Americans can dream, making their bodies extremely valuable to poachers who want to use their marrow to find a cure for non-dreamers. Sounds creepy but compelling!

Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School is absolutely my favorite education book of 2018, and I recommend it to every educator I know.  Carla Shalaby’s case studies of four non-compliant students have much to teach us about building an education system where all students can learn.

On my list for this coming year: Schooltalk: Rethinking What We Say About -and To- Students Every Day Mica Pollock approaches equitable education from a very concrete place: the words we use.  Words have power, and I’m looking forward to examining my own so they can be tools for equity.

Happy Reading!


Winter is the best time for reading, all that darkness. I was lucky to find a sale priced copy of Daniel Pink’s by DRIVE: the surprising truth about what motivates us. This is a general population/business oriented is book packed with research about what motivates humans with many implications for our work in education. Hundreds of research papers and studies essentially point to the same thing:

“Human beings have an innate drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.”

Self-determination theory, as described by researchers Deci and Ryan, could then be considered as motivation (see what I did there?) and justification for many personalization pedagogies, especially service learning and project based learning. Another salient point from the first part of the book, based on extensive research, is that extrinsic rewards for behavior do not work for the long term in most cases. Indeed, students are often diligent about the change in the short term, but lose interest in the long term with extrinsic rewards for certain behaviors. Working to improve opportunities to develop intrinsic motivation fosters life-long learning and opportunity for students, and this is rooted in research.

I also just finished reading aloud Patina by Jason Reynolds to my daughters. We fell hard and fast for the protagonist, Patty, who faces many challenges in her family and in moving schools. She is a track athlete, so fellow runners (raising hand) will love the scenes about racing and relay passes. But really, the book is about all the different ways families can look and be, and how we can face hard things with love and support from friends and how ever we define family.  The characters are finely drawn (especially Patina’s younger sister, Maddy) and the book is laugh out loud funny at times too. This is part of a track series (YES!) of books that include Ghost, Patina, Sunny, and Lu, which are now on our to read list.


I love my local Waterbury Public Library. I especially enjoy perusing the new release section and finding a gem like She Would be King, a debut novel from Wayetu Moore. Based on the first few pages, her writing is poetic and enthralling. She blends history and magical realism to retell the founding of Liberia. I plan to cuddle up with this one when I want to revel in the enchantment of the season.

I got a bit overambitious with interlibrary loan and ended up with a bunch of other books that have been on my list. Alone on the Ice details an Antarctic expedition from 100 years ago. I was inspired to read it because my wife is obsessed with the daily progress reports of Colin O’Brady, who is one of two adventurers separately attempting the first solo unassisted traverse of Antarctica at the moment. Fittingly, I will read this when I need alone time.

It took me a while to get my hands on the instant classic Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi. I will read this one when my wife is done with it. She got to it first and it must be good because she shows no signs of sharing until she’s finished.

I have no idea where I heard about Anger is a Gift, a YA novel by Mark Oshiro. But whoever put this on my list, thank you. So far it has been an emotional and rewarding ride. The characters are incredibly diverse along every dimension. The school that is central to the story exhibits both oppressive systems and liberation possibilities (via amazing educators, of course). I am reading this one every free moment until I’m finished. And like in the real world, I’m hopeful that liberation wins out.


Several years ago, while camping with my family, I stumbled upon a totally random stack of books previous campers had left in a cabin. A few miles from nowhere, and without any cell phone reception, a book seems like the perfect fit. Not knowing anything about the books in the pile I closed my eyes and grabbed one at random. Little did I know this would be the beginning of a serious binge with this series. Every time I read a book in this series it takes me back to the peace and tranquility of the woods and that lakeside hammock I called home for a few days.  Two weeks ago, Past Tense, the most recent book in Lee’ Child’s series appeared on my kitchen island. It was a birthday gift to my wife from her father.

Full admission, I straight up stole it and claimed possession is nine tenths of the law.

Apologies to my wife… The series details the life of an ex-Army police officer that finds himself in these crazy mystery situations and end up solving them one way or another. 

There was a decade in my life I only lived for the nonfiction genre of adventure and exploration. I was fascinated with books like Into Thin Air, Seven Summits, The Climb, and Above the Clouds to name a few. With every book, I was swept into a foreign and challenging landscape where people pushed their bodies beyond what they and science thought was possible. It was this battle with pushing boundaries and often an exploration of one’s self that kept me hooked. I recently watched the documentary Free Solo  where Alex Honnold free climbed (no ropes or safety gear) Yosemite’s El Capitan. I was reminded of a similar challenge in Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider. The book details the successful 1938 climb of the Eiger located in the Alps of Switzerland. It’s worth a re-read.


I’m counting the days to winter break so I can finally finish Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind, a journey into the history of psychedelic drugs and their current resurgence in the realm of treating depression, addiction, and other health issues. Part spiritual, part personal, oh-so compelling.

Two other must reads during break are Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and Richard Powers’ The Overstory.

But I’m most excited to visit this year’s Green Mountain Book Awards, a list of recommended books for high school students. I sat on this committee back in my library media specialist days and so very much look forward to picking one or two with my daughters to read together wrapped in woodstove warmth, covered in fleece throws, and accompanied by at least two lap cats.


What are you reading this winter to revitalize you for the new year?