All posts by Rachel Mark

Rachel Mark joins the Tarrant Institute as a Professional Development Coordinator in the southern part of Vermont. Prior to working with TIIE, Rachel was a middle school literacy and social studies teacher at Tarrant partner school Manchester Elementary-Middle. As a teacher, Rachel loved exploring new content and new methods with inquisitive young adolescents. She thinks middle schools are the most dynamic learning centers in the state. Rachel is passionate about supporting teachers and helping them overcome obstacles; it’s her mission to break down the barriers that teachers face in implementing change. She is interested in student reflection and portfolio based assessment, inquiry and project-based learning When she's not reading, researching and supporting teachers, Rachel loves to play. She balances her life shuttling three busy kids around by getting sweaty and zen - yoga, exercise, and being outdoors are how she recharges her metaphorical batteries.

NEW Essential Skills & Dispositions Toolkit

Many schools and classrooms across the country identify student skills for success. Ideally, those skills cut across content areas and are grouped within grade bands. They are communicated and prioritized within the learning community. While Vermont’s AOE has identified five Transferable Skills, some learning institutions choose different ones – sometimes also known as “21st century skills”.

Because these skills apply across content areas, they are high leverage opportunities for learning and teaching. Learning to communicate and collaborate effectively will serve students well across their learning and life. And, because these skills transcend specific disciplines or content areas, they are easy to apply to personally meaningful learning, increasing student engagement. Win-win.

A popular framework is the Essential Skills and Dispositions: Developmental Frameworks developed in 2015 by the National Center for Innovation in Education and the Educational Policy Improvement Center. This framework includes four essential skills – collaboration, communication, creativity, and self-direction in learning. We lovingly call them the “ES & D’s”

We have gathered some of our favorite resources to support you as your students work on developing these skills in this Essential Skills & Dispositions Toolkit. (You can also find it in its permanent location here). 

What are the Essential Skills & Dispositions?

How can I help my students develop their collaboration skills?

How can I start integrating the communication ES & D into my teaching?

What does it mean for my students to improve their creativity skills?

How can my learners develop more self-direction skills?

When a learning community can focus on a few essential skills for students, powerful things can happen. It’s possible that students can chart their own growth, reflect on their development, and take ownership over learning. If other tools such as PLPs and Student-Led Conferences are used, students can demonstrate, share and report on their development of essential skills and dispositions.

Please connect with us and share your work with essential skills. 

Updated Student-Led Conferences Toolkit

Around this time of year, many middle schools begin to prepare for a fall student-led conference. This conference serves as a valuable tool for getting to know your students and connecting with their families. It can be a truly memorable experience, but it takes work, too. We have gathered some of our most important resources to support you and your students. Enjoy this updated Student-Led Conferences Toolkit. (You can also find it in its permanent location here.)

Student-Led Conferences

A student-led conference (or SLC) can be a magical opportunity for teachers to engage deeply with a student and their family. It typically involves a middle schooler gathering some evidence of their learning, strengths and challenges, and possibly their goals and aspirations. They assemble that evidence along with reflections into some format; many use a slideshow or PLP, but there are many possible ways – even papers in a binder or journal! Then, the teacher helps facilitate a conversation and sharing process between student, family, and teacher. Many factors help determine its success. Here are some of our favorite resources to help you.

Why Student-Led Conferences are Important

How to Prepare Families for SLCs

Examples of Student-Led Conference Implementation

We would love to hear how you found these resources useful for your Student-Led Conferences.

  • What tools did you use and how was it implemented?
  • What did students find engaging about the process?
  • Do you have other resources and tools to share with us?

Please share and connect with us! Hope your SLC’s are a success!








Centering Connection and Wellness: A Lifelong Sports Program at Rutland Middle School

As we move through another calendar year impacted by COVID, I find myself taking stock of what’s important for our young people. While this pandemic has irrevocably changed all of us, it has perhaps impacted children and young adults even more significantly. What’s more, our schools have been tasked with nearly impossible charges. Keep humans safe and healthy. Monitor them and test them when necessary. Communicate to all as health and safety issues arise. Recover any slides in social and emotional skills. And teach young minds to learn. It’s clear to me now that schools can’t be asked to do it all.

Why do we need to focus on well-being now?

We must support schools to prioritize critical areas of importance and need. In our schools, what could be more important than creating opportunities for human connection? Is there anything more valuable than making space for overall well-being? In response to what students and teachers were needing, Rutland Middle School (RMS) created and implemented their first year of a new program called Lifelong Sports. In this program, every student at the middle school would be able to choose and participate in some exercise or sport that can be done well into adulthood.

While some places have been able to pull off ski and outdoor programs, a full program involving all students had never happened at Rutland City Middle School. Within a global pandemic, this took a lot of vision and orchestration to execute. But the school staff, students, and community all pulled together to make it happen.

Connecting beyond the classroom

For six weeks this winter, all of the 7th and 8th grade students were able to participate in a wide range of activities in their local community. Students could choose to go indoor rock climbing or virtual golfing. Others learned to ice skate, curl and play ice hockey. Some chose to learn fitness and take exercise classes at a local gym. Several students learned bowling and racquet sports. Quite a few students went out in the snow. They snowshoed or went nordic skiing at Mountain Top or alpine skiing or snowboarding at local Pico Mountain. The school’s Physical Education teacher, Geoffrey Bloomer, and Director of Student Engagement, Erica Wallstrom spearheaded this first take on the RMS Lifelong Sports program. The two purposely chose activities for students that they could enjoy throughout their lives: hence, lifelong sports.

What’s even greater than giving kids these opportunities? To also give teachers the opportunity and chance to participate with them. Because, building those connections between students and teachers out in the read world is invaluable.  “The program has allowed students to see their teachers in a different setting and it has allowed our teachers to make a rapport with the students that is not subject specific,” says Bloomer. Another teacher commented that her students were able to see her as a learner, too. That shift in perspective can be huge.

Students can gather great empathy when they see that adults are often learning new things, too. Teacher Chris VanSciver noted,

“It’s an invaluable lesson for a young person to see an adult literally fall down, brush themselves off, and try again.”

Another teacher echoed his sentiments. She also saw kids become cheerleaders for their learning teachers.

“It’s great to hear students encouraging me down the mountain.They knew I was a new learner. It was also great just to have outdoor time with the kids and to encourage them when they were learning a new skill. I laugh a lot more outdoors” teacher Roxane Johnson-deLear.

Laughter is the best medicine.

Focusing on everyone’s wellness


Building connections among students is important, as well as developing bonds between teachers and students. But this program pushed other crucial outcomes. One of the goals was to inspire students to focus on lifetime wellness activities. Wallstrom and Bloomer selected activities because they were something both local and doable into adulthood. Students initially learned how to do the sport or activity of choice, and then were able to advance into more fun and challenging levels of fitness. Ultimately, students were also exposed to the resources and connections for continuing this wellness activity after the program’s end. One community sponsor – Pico Mountain – generously offered their ski school passes to extend through the season, including rentals. That was a big deal to some of the kids!

This program wasn’t just good for the participants, but it benefited the community, too. Many teachers at Rutland Middle School noted the enthusiastic support of their community partners. These organizations and businesses were thrilled to open their doors and slopes to students. They kindly made their programs available for a nominal cost. District and school administrators pulled this off by allocating both school funds and grant funding. As a result, teachers were both proud of their students and proud of their community sponsors. This whole endeavor shows a real commitment to both personal wellness and community wellness. Well children are an indicator of a well community.

Want to start your own Lifelong Sports Program? Here are some quick steps:

Brainstorm – Start a list of providers of lifelong sports in your community.

Ask and (hopefully!) You Shall Receive – Simply approach the organizations about their interest and availability for your programming.

Negotiate Your Price – Be upfront with the organizations about what you can afford to pay. Some may have school rates already in place. If you are able to come at non-peak times, many places are able to offer huge discounts. 

Grant and Sign – Because of the nature of the activities, all kids and parents had to complete all sorts of waivers and permission slips in order to participate. 

Organize and Group – A ton of google spreadsheets were utilized in this process. 

Just Do It – Teachers and students put on their sneakers, ski boots, and bowling shoes to learn together and have fun!

Reflect – Make sure to leave time for teachers and students to reflect on what worked and what could happen differently next time.

Educator Wellness for the Win

To close, I want to note that educator wellness is an important issue at the moment. And it appears that this program helped the RMS teachers feel more…well.  In addition to getting some exercise and fresh air, teachers reaped the benefits of smiles and laughter. If you want to learn more about other steps schools are taking towards educator well-being, read about how one district gave teachers more time. It resulted in teachers and faculty feeling less stressed and burned out. And in another early-pandemic post, we share how schools can center care and love during these tense and unpredictable times. 

Because these are still tense and unpredictable times. And we need systems that support the well-being of our teachers and students alike.

Now, I’d love to hear from you. 

How have you seen a school prioritize wellness?

What structures have been created to make space for human connection?



The Annual TIIE Winter Reading Round Up

Dear Readers,

We are rolling into that time of year when we hope that you find time to get cozied up to a good book. These short amounts of daylight should beckon us to find warm and bright spots within our homes. For many of us at TIIE, that means getting into your favorite chair and curling up with something wonderful to read. Here are some of our winter reading recommendations for keeping the bookworms warm and cozy.

Emily Hoyler

What are my reading preferences, if not eclectic? Truth be told, I am still working my way through some of the books that have been in my to-be-read pile throughout the pandemic. So many books and so little reading time. Perhaps my progress is so slow because my time is so divided. I am reading no less than six books at present, and that’s just what I can remember right now! Here’s to winter reading!

Two titles that have risen to the top of my ‘up next’ pile are Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky, Connie Burk, Jon R. Conte (Contributor) which invites us to bring mindful presence to our care work and offers strategies and practices to do so. I certainly need that these days! And while I’ve read Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown, it’s time to return to  brown’s wisdom to guide me in navigating our work.

Unsettling is also a theme in my reading lately. Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War by Lisa Brooks which tells the tale of the “first indian war” – now known as King Phillip’s War through the stories of a woman called Weetamoo who was a female leader of the Narragansett anong a couple of others. What’s most fascinating is how scholar Lisa Brooks is able to interpret land and documents to bring forward an indigenous perspective.

In the same vein, I’m working my way through An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People by Debbie Reese (Adaptor), Jean Mendoza (Adaptor), Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. I’ll be honest, this is tough to read. And it’s also very important to me to better understand the legacy of settler-colonialism, which is also why I’m also looking forward to reading The Gatherings: Reimagining Indigenous-Settler Relations by Shirley Hager, Mawopiyane. This book has come highly recommended from two people whose recommendations I trust.

My Kindle is what I turn to in the wee hours when I can’t fall back to sleep. Perhaps it would make sense to read romance novels at this time of day, but no, not me. Instead, I’m reading Mothertrucker: Finding Joy on the Loneliest Road in America by Amy E. Butcher, which follows the author as she joins the now deceased Alaskan Ice Road trucker Joy “Mothertrucker” Wiebe in a true story about redemption, overcoming fear, and domestic violence. (Huh, maybe that’s why I can’t fall back to sleep?!)

Finally, on the lighter side, I’m looking forward to cozying up in front of the woodstove to read The Heartbeat of Trees: Embracing Our Ancient Bond with Forests and Nature by Peter Wohlleben, planning some tasty winter menus with Chungah Rhee’s Damn Delicious: 100 Super Easy, Super Fast Recipes (her blog is excellent and I’ve loved everything I’ve ever made from it, like this sheet pan shrimp boil and these Korean beef power bowls). And I’m excited to be inspired by Christi Johnson’s Mystical Stitches: Embroidery for Personal Empowerment and Magical Embellishment. Embroidery has been a pleasure and I’m eager to learn Johnson’s approach to embroidery.

Life Legeros

For the past year, I’ve been a bit obsessed with the question of how humans can work toward collective goals. Because clearly we have some problems, and the only way things are going to improve is by creating a better future together.

Facilitating school change is my jam, and adrienne maree brown has taught me so much about holding space and ushering transformation. Her book Holding change: The way of emergent strategy facilitation and mediation is a collection of powerful voices extending and actualizing the Octavia Butler-inspired emergent strategy approach. I’ve heard a few of the guest authors on the podcast that brown does with her sister, To Survive the End of the World, so I’m looking forward to reading these essays, poems, and recipes. 

I love the central thesis of Peter Block’s book Community: The structure of belonging. He proposes that the fragmentation of our society can be cured one community conversation at a time. I so very much want this to be true. But if nothing else, I find this mindset makes it easier to approach each conversation and opportunity to connect to my community with the vital presence they deserve.

For fiction fun, I’m enjoying The sentence by Louise Erdrich, though I suspect that I’ll be haunted by a bit more than the ghost at the center of the story since it spans November 2019-November 2020. The Ojibwe narrator is a strong, funny, and intriguing voice with plenty of excellent book recommendations or her own.

I can’t wait to delve into Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong punches a hole in the sky. I’ve had my eye on this book for quite some time and now the only question is whether I’ll read it on my own or with one of my daughters.  

I look forward to finding what human connections, including books of course, await in 2022.

Robin Merritt

If you are like me, reading choices are a direct reflection of the many hats I am wearing. Recommendations from trusted friends, colleagues, and family are providing new titles upon my nightstand and filling my curiosity niche right now. I am finding that curated reading is providing me with more than just a good book. They are also providing me with a much needed connection to friends, family, and my community. A special shout out to my colleagues and friends, Jeanie Phillips and Life LeGeros, who have recommended two of my winter reading titles! Always trust a librarian and Life. 🙂 
So here is what is in my winter reading stack, with credit given of course!

“The Widows of Malabar Hill” by Sujata Massey

When speaking with my Tarrant friends, I mentioned wanting something good to read. It could be a piece of literature, historical narrative – just something well written. Jeanie and others immediately recommended some titles. As a little surprise on my swing through, Jeanie left this book on her porch for me to borrow. The story is set in 1920s Bombay with a female protagonist. She is one of the first female lawyers in India. I am excited to delve in and be transported in time. 

“Kindred” by Octavia Butler

This is another recommendation from a trusted colleague, Life LeGeros. I was in luck when my local library had it available. I haven’t started reading this yet, but am so intrigued by its genre. It’s described as science fiction, as well as a “slave memoir, fantasy, and historical fiction.” Hmm, it’s a curious combination. But reviewers indicate it to be a successful merge. 

“Hey, Kiddo” by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Our one room local Winooski library is filled with gems and friendly librarians. They know our family by name and continue to introduce a variety of genres onto our shelves. Prominently displayed in our library, “Hey, Kiddo” is a story of one kid’s experience with family addiction and mental health. I picked this up because my 10 year old has been interested in exploring various challenging topics through graphic novels. After bringing “Hey, Kiddo” home from our library, I placed this book in his room. He flew through this story and then recommended that I read it afterwards. I love reading books that my kids enjoy and having discussions about the messages we each took away. And check out our #vted Reads segment on Hey Kiddo here! 

Audiobook of “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio

Again, a recommendation from my 10 year old who read “Wonder” in school and then watched part of the movie. And Winooski Library for the win again! While browsing titles prior to a road trip for break, my son asked to listen to this as a family. I am rediscovering the power of a great audiobook once again.  

Percy Jackson and the Olympians” by Rick Riordan and “The Complete Guide to Greek Myths” by Heather Dakota

And lastly, my 7 and 10 year old sons have asked me to read the Percy Jackson series aloud to them before bedtime. We are always looking for a good series to read together. This sparked an interest in Greek mythology and prompted our purchase of “The Complete Guide to Greek Myths.” My kids had the idea to cross reference each god or goddess that Percy comes across with the Greek Myth book. We pause to read the background story of the god/goddess he meets. It’s a great introduction to cross-referencing that will make any librarian proud.

Happy reading!

Rachel Mark

My reading picks for this winter are heavy on the fiction side. I do love a good story!

I recently finished The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare about a teenage Nigerian girl. While she ends up as a maid, she really aspires to go to school. Adunni’s strong and vibrant narration is infectious and inspiring. As Jenna Bush Hager said on television, she will “break your heart and then put it back together again”. I loved this book and learned so much about contemporary life in Nigeria. I could see teachers giving this book to upper middle school and high school students, too.

My daughter has me reading The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Van Glaser. Because I love to read along with her, I agreed. It’s a cute story about some eccentric children trying to save their families’ brownstone apartment rental. They have eleven days at the end of December to convince their Scrooge-like landlord to renew their lease. The children must convince him to let them stay in the only home they have known. Something about this book has me wanting to see Wes Anderson bring it to film fruition. I can picture the quaint, cramped and messy New York City apartment brimming with these charming characters.

To satisfy my mystery obsession, I plan to read State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny. It seems like I read about one Louise Penny book a winter. Probably so that I can spread them out and make them last longer. This political thriller is co-written by Clinton. Naturally, it features a new female Secretary of State. She finds herself scrambling to handle a terrorist crisis and an internal conspiracy. While the possible real-world connections may be unsettling, I suspect I’ll enjoy flipping through every page.

For nonfiction pleasure, I’m planning to read The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person by Frederick Joseph. I have heard so many friends recommend and rave about this book. I also love that it’s written for a young adult audience. Hopefully, there are passages and nuggets of wisdom that I can share with schools and students. And this book has some of the best cover art that I have seen – huge credit to Zharia Shinn.

Lastly, I’ll admit that I hope to begin “reading” this Self-Love Workbook for Women: Release Self-Doubt, Build Self-Compassion and Embrace Who You Are by Megan Logan. Truthfully, I am terrible at doing things for myself. As a middle-aged woman who works, studies, and manages a family and life, all sorts of things come before taking care of me. It’s likely that these patterns have gotten even worse over the pandemic. And yet I willingly let that happen. It’s way overdue for me to spend some time working on my own self. I look forward to this workbook and guide for self-exploration.

Jeanie Phillips

I love to give books as gifts. And I also adore browsing local independent bookstores. It delights me to select the perfect (to me at least) book for each recipient. And I most especially love when they call/text/write to tell me how much they enjoyed reading it!

This year the recipient of my book giving is going to be ME!  And I have thoroughly enjoyed selecting these titles for my winter reading!

Picture books are one of my favorite gifts for folks of all ages. I listened to the audio of The 1619 Project: Born on the Water (thank you for the free copy!) and now I HAVE TO HAVE the picture book. The text is so powerful, I can’t wait to spend time with the illustrations.

The Marrow Thieves is one of my all time favorite reads, and Cherie Dimaline has published a companion book. I am so looking forward to spending more time with French and his chosen family. My copy of Hunting By Stars is waiting for me at Phoenix Books – but I think I’ll leave it there until the Solstice because once it is in my house I won’t be able to resist it.

Finally, I cannot wait to dive into Louise Erdrich’s newest book. I’ve been reading her for decades and she has made me cry countless times, but from the excerpts I’ve read of The Sentence, this book promises to make me laugh out loud. Louise has a bit part in this one, which delights me as a long time fan. 

Whatever you read this winter, I hope it’s delicious and warming and good for your soul, and I’d love to hear all about it!

Do you need a radical reset?

In late October, the middle school 7th and 8th grade team at Flood Brook School realized that the 2021 school year was off to a rocky start. Students and teachers alike were pretty miserable. So, they bravely brought their entire team community together – that’s teachers, students and support staff – for a three day off-campus retreat. They needed to figure out how to to be more joyful together. Maybe you, too, need a radical reset… 

The backstory

The middle school teachers at Flood Brook had been experiencing the fall of 2021 as a “tough year.” In their eyes, students were really struggling with the transition back to five days a week in school. They had kids coming back to the school after more than a year out of the physical building. They had staffing changes both planned and unexpected. And they felt like uncertainty was the only thing they could count on. Additionally, students expected to return to a physical school experience that might be a relative “return to normal”, but their hopes were crushed by the delta variant. 

The climate in the middle school had been steadily declining, behavior problems were increasing, and student engagement was in danger. Moreover, the adults and students were growing disillusioned. It was clear that something needed to be done. Finally, Taconic & Green District’s Success Program Director Sarena Barausky pitched a golden idea that immediately found traction. 

A “Radical Reset.”

What is a radical reset?

After days of discussing ideas, brainstorming opportunities, and debating an approach, the team made a plan. The radical reset became a fall retreat – a three day off-campus outdoor educational opportunity. The goal was for students and staff work on team building, enjoy each other’s company, and brainstorm community expectations for building a safe, fun, and engaging school year. Instructional coach Tracy Zaino reframed the work at hand for the group by connecting in-school learning with real-world implications.  

That’s what this middle school does well — connect learning to real life. 

When students began the year with an integrated studies unit that focused on human needs, the driving question was, “How can we build a sustainable, equitable community?” Inspired by the work of Andrea Gratton and Kyle Chadburn of Orleans Elementary School, the Flood Brook team asked students to use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in order to design model communities. Naturally, Zaino suggested that they return to the same inquiry for students. What if the radical reset asked students to design a sustainable and equitable middle school using the same framework of human needs?

Community Building, Reflection and Lots of Student Voice

Student voice, reflection, and community building were the essential ingredients of this Radical Reset. Sunshine, fresh air and nature helped! The primary goal of this retreat was to build community – again. While this team did their share of team building to start the year, they needed more. They needed to have fun together and laugh, play and work cooperatively. So the Flood Brook students played games, made meals, had an evening campfire, and went for hikes.

Don’t see anything here? Good. That’s because kids are playing the game Camouflage. And nailing it. 

Another vital component of this retreat was reflection. It was important for everyone to reflect on this year so far and discover what’s working and what needs improvement. Students made journals and had lots of time to write in these beautiful outside spaces. The teachers refreshed students about Maslow’s five levels of human need. Then students journaled and discussed the degree to which their school day was meeting each need — regarding physiological needs, for example. These middle schoolers considered how the school day did and didn’t support their need for food, water, shelter, sleep, and going to the bathroom. Yes, going to the bathroom was discussed.

Certainly, this outdoor retreat would only be successful with abundant student voices. The teachers gave students this platform and opportunity to negotiate what they needed from school. So, they stepped up and gave them their voices. They discussed basic needs, social needs, behaviors and consequences, and teaching and learning. And all from their own uncensored perspectives. For example, students asked for more choice and flexibility in their WIN or FLEX block. They asked for more variety of offerings and choices. They wanted to be able to see different teachers and to have the opportunity to be with different mixes of kids. In addition, they asked to bring back a former team structure – Passion Projects. Passion Projects allowed students to explore topics of their own meaning and interest. All this time, their teachers listened, took notes, and asked questions.

Will this radical reset work?

It’s too soon to tell. We write this piece exactly as this retreat is wrapping up. But I think it’s safe to say that the adults feel things are shifting already. Over the course of the days, they saw students looking more invested. They saw students treating one another with more appreciation, and they felt like this outing forced them all to slow down and get back down to what really matters.

The Flood Brook 7th and 8th grade  team went into these three days knowing that a one-off event would not “fix”, “solve” or “cure” anything. Essentially if this radical reset is going to work, the real work is yet to begin. This team is committed to working towards implementing student voice more authentically. They’re hoping to continue to engage the students as they work to implement the suggestions they made. By periodically planning novel events throughout the year, they’d like to pause and celebrate successes this year as they continually revisit the work of building student centered humanizing education at Flood Brook.

Please connect with us about this radical reset. 

What do you need to reset? What radical things will you try?

How can you reboot your learning community?

Successful student-led conferences

A student-led conference that brings together the student, teacher, and parent or guardian is a very powerful thing. It puts the student in the driver’s seat. This format varies a bit from the traditional parent-teacher conference. There is no mystery and student anxiety as they sit home and wait to find out what teachers said about them. Along with the teacher and their caregivers, the student is part of the process. In fact, the student is leading the conversation as they share about themselves and their learning.

This fall, I want to help you create your best ever Student-Led Conferences. All the while knowing they may be virtual. We may not be able to sit together around a cozy table and see each other face to face. Whether you are meeting in person or facilitating the screens of a video call, here is how to harness the power.

Collect information before the student-led conference

Before the conference, reach out to your students’ caregivers and ask them some questions. Craft these questions so you get to know their home environment, the strengths they bring to supporting their child as a learner, and to learn what they may need from you in collaboration during this year. In this blogpost about making pandemic conferences work, we suggest that this little bit of connection and work before the conference occurs pays off.

You might choose, for example, to send a questionnaire home before the conference. That may look like giving a paper copy to the student and asking that they deliver it to home. In some cases, creating a Google form to collect information or sending the questionnaire directly to parents via email makes sense. Do whatever you can to ensure that parents and caregivers can access and participate in that questionnaire before the conference. Of course, find a simple way for them to return it to you, whether that’s by email or physical drop-box. Here’s a sample questionnaire that you may use.

Use a clear structure or outline

We know that when we set clear expectations and outline a clear process for students, they can successfully share about themselves.

When we moved to remote learning in 2020, our team wrote about how to engage students and families in effective conferences over the computer. We suggest that using a formal outline or structure helps the conversation move smoothly. You might try this format:

Possible agenda:
• Welcome! How are you? This is so hard! What do you need?
• Student presents work
• Family asks questions
• Teacher asks questions or makes comments
• Celebrate student progress
• Ponder next learning steps together
• Close with gratitude for everyone

Many schools have found success in giving students a slideshow template. The students copy and then create to make it their own. Then the slides prompt and guide the conversation for all. See the example below.

Create intentional engagement for caregivers

Caregivers want to be engaged at a student-led conference, so set up intentional structures for their participation. It’s possible for you to build in prompts for the student to ask their guardians for their thoughts and feedback. Notice how the suggested agenda above gives specific time for caregivers to ask questions about the student work. Another option is to develop a slideshow that allows students to add contributions from their family. The slideshow that we shared does embed caregiver engagement.

When we create intentional engagement structures for parents and guardians during the conference, there is room for their feedback. Caregivers should feel like there is time for their questions and concerns. Hopefully, there is space for them to give some pats on the back to their student. After all, that may be the very ultimate outcome for a student-led conference. Wouldn’t it be amazing if every student felt validation and admiration as a result? This blogpost and video show how explicit parent engagement can make the conference a true celebration.

Note that the conference shared in this video took place prior to masking and social distancing measures.

Let’s imagine that you have these 20-30 sacred minutes to facilitate a precious conversation. I hope that you can add these tools to your toolbox, so you can create a sense of community during that time. Most importantly, use the time to amplify your student’s voice and invite the other voices to contribute to this moment about growth and possibility.

Start the year with building the culture

As we begin the year with students in our classrooms, it’s important to start with a focus on building the culture. Whether it’s by building the culture for advisory, or building the culture for project-based learning, or just building relationships in the classroom and team, one thing is certain: time spent now on building culture will pay off in the end. 

They say in the Developmental Designs approach, “Go slow to go fast!”

Let’s review what we know about building culture.

Building Culture in Advisory

Many teachers use advisory as a place to build culture and relationships. In this blogpost featuring Brattleboro Area Middle School, we share a common format called the Circle of Power and Respect created by Developmental Designs. By using this format that contains daily news, a greeting, a sharing exercise, and an activity, students encounter powerful rituals and routines. 

What’s more, students feel a sense of predictability and awareness when we use a particular format for advisory. White River Valley Union Middle School used a CPR format for advisory, and it eventually led to students creating and designing advisory activities. Learn more about this student leadership and their role in building the advisory culture. When students lead advisory and community meetings, it results in even more ownership of the culture. 

Advisory can also be the space where you build a culture that is responsive to all identities and perspectives. In this blogpost about culturally responsive learning environments, TIIE staff Jeanie and Life suggest that advisory and community meetings are spaces where teachers and students can just be together. 

Building the culture for learning

First, Suzie Boss and John Larmer identify four strategies for building PBL culture in their book, Project Based Teaching: How to Create Rigorous and Engaging Learning Experiences. One of them is around creating a community of learners through shared norms. 

Developing norms and routines with your students can be a critical step in building the culture together. Katy Farber shares 8 Tips for Creating Classroom Routines and Norms to help you get started.

In another story, Farber gives some general advice about how to build community to support project-based learning. She identifies team-building activities and modeling community discussions as helpful to building the culture. 

Lastly, TIIE staff writer Emily Hoyler shares the importance of explicitly teaching routines and expectations in this blogpost

Building the culture all over

You probably know that the culture of a school can really impact many things – student learning, teacher happiness, and family involvement to name a few. So, how does one go about improving the culture throughout a learning system? To get more insight, we can listen to this #vted reads podcast episode where Jeanie talks to Bill Rich about the book, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.  

Jeanie and Bill discuss the book and explore how this non-education book can be applied to education environments. The book is divided into three sections, also identified as skills for building culture. 

  • Build Safety
  • Sharing Vulnerability
  • Establish Purpose

While these skills are more overarching and broad, we can see how we might apply them to schools and classrooms. For example, we might associate “building safety” with the way that we establish and create a sense of belonging in advisory.

If you build it, they will come

I must admit that I’m misquoting this infamous line from Field of Dreams. But I only learned that by watching Jeopardy last night. 

You truly build the culture that you want for your students. If you dream it and build it, your students will enter it and feel like they belong in the culture. Because what we all want is to feel safe, to feel known, and to feel competent – adolescents and adults alike. Take the time to establish agreements, develop routines, and build a place of belonging right from the start. It really will pay off in the end. 

Image by Phan Minh Cuong An from Pixabay

Art for Action at Rutland Middle School

Art for social change?

How do you engage students in an exploration of the ways that art impacts social change? Sounds challenging. Right?! 

But the teachers at Rutland Middle School decided to tackle the task anyway. Through this exploration, students learned more about the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development, visited local murals in their community, and had some fun creating their own art for action. 

We know that middle schoolers enjoy learning about real world problems and issues. Especially given their need for justice, middle schoolers are hooked by relevant and authentic learning. This We Believe by AMLE states that in successful middle schools, “Instruction fosters learning that is active, purposeful, and democratic”. Some teachers choose to tap into this strength by engaging students with the UN Global Goals, and then let students explore what feels compelling and important to them. 

At RMS, students explored four social issues in need of change. Each issue corresponds with an outcome for 2030 in the UN Global Goals – Zero Hunger, Quality Education, Reduced Inequalities, and Climate Action Each of these four goal areas can connect to multiple content areas. Through instructional lessons, students explored the global, local and community impact of these four issues. 

Real world art

Rutland Middle School students explored how artists in their community and in our world have conveyed the need for social change through their art. Some of it lives in their own backyard, like these Rutland City murals. Murals like “We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest Until It Comes” and “Greta Thunberg”, both by LMNOPI show students just what it’s like for an artist to create work that inspires social action and change. The coolest part of this unit was to watch the students grasp a new appreciation of the creations around them. They may have walked by these murals dozens of times, but once they knew the story and vision behind them, things would never be the same. 

“Greta Thunberg” by LMNOPI at the Vermont Farmers Food Center.


Picture of a mural.
“We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes” by LMNOPI at the Center Street Marketplace Park in Rutland.

Then, students went out and saw art! 

Finally, students created their own pieces of artistic expression to convey or inspire change in one of these areas. They displayed their works of art at the Art for Action Fair – inviting their school community and 6th graders from the neighboring school to explore and engage with these pop-up galleries. 

The culmination was a celebration of art and passion for social change. Students wrote poems, built conceptual pyramids, and made paintings and drawings. Their art called for gender equality, climate action, quality education, and so much more. 


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Are you inspired to try this at your own school or classroom? Here are some resources that might help you get started. 

Art, Imagination, and the Quest for Racial Justice

Just Art: Social Justice Through Art

Using Art to Explore Injustice and Social Justice

If you’ve done similar work, please share it with us! 

We’d love to hear about your own experience with students. 

From the innovativeEd mailbag: Flummoxed in Flannery

From the innovativeEd mailbag: a reader looks for ways to keep pathways of conversation open with their colleagues when it comes to talking about difficult topics. Meet “Flummoxed in Flannery”.

“Dear InnovativeEd,

With everything that’s been going on lately, simple conversations with coworkers have turned into a minefield of hurt feelings, recriminations and misunderstandings. So many of our conversations that should be about teaming and pedagogy wind up being derailed by political concerns and debates about our personal values. We should be spending time working out plans for students’ best learning interests, but instead we struggle to stay civil.

I adore my teaching team, and I’m worried this patch of difficulties will do long-term damage to our ability to reach students. Am I worrying without cause? Is this happening to everyone? What are some ways I can have healthy, respectful conversations with the other adults in my building? Help!

Flummoxed in Flannery”


Dear Flummoxed in Flannery,

You have described such an important dilemma! Thank you for this question. I’m so glad that you raise this issue, because you are right to be concerned. The interactions of adults in a school building can indeed be felt and perceived by students. What’s more, the adults in the school can act as role models for the students as they strive to engage in healthy and respectful conversations.

That’s why I’d like to suggest a kind of two-pronged approach to address your dilemma.

First, I’d suggest that your staff and school colleagues invest some time into setting norms or community agreements.

If you have existing norms, I’d suggest that you revisit them in a formal discussion and through a valid process. Making space to engage together in creating norms that foster healthy and respectful dialogue is so important.

I’ll share that my own team has carefully developed a set or norms that guide our work and our meetings. Here are my team’s community agreements.

Welcome our fully human selves

  • Connect, build relationships and community
  • Bring our whole selves and our values to the work
  • Express gratitude
  • Communicate and attend to negative impact
Be present 

  • Be aware of how you’re showing up for yourself and your colleagues
  • Hold ourselves and each other accountable to our agreements
Seek and offer feedback

  • Bring our dilemmas and work to the table
  • Be clear about the feedback you are seeking, give feedback focused on the request
  • Embrace challenging feedback
Value mistakes, struggles, and failures as opportunities for learning and growth

  • Celebrate risk taking
  • Make space for vulnerability
Strive for clarity

  • Ask if you don’t understand
  • State expectations
  • Surface assumptions
  • No is not an invitation to negotiate
Take space, make space, hold space

  • Notice power dynamics in the room, share power, and empower others
  • Seek to hear all voices


Most important is that those norms are maintained and used as a group.

Norms should not just sit on a document or on a piece of chart paper.

At the start of every meeting for my team, we take a moment to read through the norms and each person chooses one to focus on for the time. Sometimes we invite all participants to set an intention from one of the norms and place it in the chat feature of our Zoom. You can also do that in person or write it individually on paper.

Each of these strategies helps agreements live and breathe as they should. When we do this work, they are likely to guide adult behaviors and interactions.

Additionally, dear Flummoxed, you may find that you approach political issues and social justice matters, well… differently than your colleagues.

I’ve commonly seen that while some educators feel very comfortable discussing and weighing in on emotional topics, other educators choose to avoid them completely.

My second recommendation, therefore, is to create a space for the educators in your building to have difficult conversations about race and inequity.

Racial disparities and oppression in our country have absolutely infiltrated every part of our lives — including school. Teachers and educators must engage in the work of becoming educators for social justice, no matter how each individual is approaching and entering the work.

For example, you might choose to do a book reading together as a faculty and staff.

In one of my professional team spaces, we have read articles such as How to Be an Antiracist Educator by Dena Simmons  and then used a protocol to engage in discussion.

Additionally, you might choose to take a course together.

Taking a course with your team like “Let’s Practice Talking to our Children About Race” offered from Courageous Conversation Academy would provide a space with support for you and your colleagues.

Whatever you choose to design, you will need to carefully establish some norms and agreements.

The folks at Courageous Conversation have created four agreements for Courageous Conversations with this very intention.


And you might choose to review these as a school or team and adopt these agreements before engaging in any of these scenarios.

I will also share these general tips and guidelines that you can share and use with your school faculty and team. Some of these I gathered from this workshop by Kathy Cadwell and her Harwood students in March. She and her students shared a wealth of resources.

One of my favorites is this Guide to Respectful Conversations. It seems to originate from We Repair the World, and it contains some important suggestions. I find myself returning to some of them like, “Use I Statements” and speaking from my own experience when I find myself in difficult conversations.

Finally, engaging in civil and respectful conversations with colleagues takes work, and I admire your honest plea for help.

In an often stressful and chaotic world, healthy and successful adult dialogue is so very important, especially in our schools. We want to model for our students that adults can talk about hard things, and it’s essential for a thriving democratic society. I hope these suggestions make a difference in your school interactions.

Thanks for writing, Flummoxed.

Yours in courage,

innovative Ed

Increasing Student Self-Direction

“Increasing Student Self-Direction” was a webinar presented by Rachel Mark as part of the 2020-2021 UVM Tarrant Institute Professional Learning Series. We present it here in its entirety. You can either watch the webinar recording, listen to an audio version, or read the annotated transcript. Follow-up questions about self-direction in your classroom? Email


Audio-only version




Annotated Transcript

Why self-direction?

My name is Rachel Mark. I have been a professional development coordinator for the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the university of Vermont for five years now.

Prior to that, I was a middle school teacher in the southern part of Vermont. I taught sixth and seventh grade, many different subjects, for 16 years.

I‘m also a doctoral student at the University of Vermont working towards a degree in educational leadership and policy studies. And through my work on that degree I have been engaging in a number of different research projects related to self-direction for students in middle school. Adolescent students.

A Brief History of Self-Directed Learning in Vermont

The way that really came around to be was that in 2013, the Vermont legislature passed Act 77, which was a really ambitious series of educational reform steps.

And one of the things that moved Vermont towards proficiency-based learning was to differentiate content skills from what the Vermont state Agency of Education calls transferable skills.

Vermont decided to identify a series of very cross-cutting, large-scale skills that were important for all learners. One of those was self-direction. The others were:

  • clear and effective communication
  • responsible and involved citizenship
  • informed problem solving.

Things that I was familiar with as an educator. I had assessed those things before. I had a large sort of background knowledge base to draw upon.

But self-direction felt different to me and felt new.

Self-Direction in the Current Moment

Fast forward a few years,  and I’m working with schools on implementing the assessment and teaching of self-direction. I’m starting to see implementation and assessment that really looks different across the different spectrums and different environments.

And I get curious about what self-direction is.

So that became the first sort of seed. And it led to more questions:

  • What does self-direction mean?
  • What is the history of this concept in education?
  • And how do we make that make the teaching of self-direction actionable in schools?
  • How do we increase self-direction for students?

I’m by no means an expert. But I’m really an aspiring self-direction person. I love talking about this topic. And I have done a fair amount of research around it. So I consider my knowledge to be emerging.

What Self-Direction Is… And What It Is Not

One of the things that’s most important to me as I start to share what I’ve learned about self-direction is for me to understand that self-direction is based upon the ability for a learner to have choice and selections based on their needs and interests.

That is critical.

So self-direction does not mean that a student follows and completes teacher directions and follows the teacher on their timeline.

Self-directed learners are not by definition, compliant learners. They may be — you may see those two things interacting.

But there are some times when self-directed learners are very uncompliant because they are showing signs that they would like more choice and would like more opportunity to self-direct their learning.

I wanted to debunk that myth because sometimes I am seeing that one interpretation of self-direction is a person’s ability to complete tasks on time. And according to instructions that are provided by a teacher.

That’s really not at all the intent of self-direction. It sometimes could completely backfire!

Self-Direction Emerged from Adult Education

You can imagine that in the sort of mid 1900s, certain educational researchers were curious about what drove adults to continue their education as adult learners. In night school or community college, where people who did not originally get a degree might be expected to go back to get a degree.

And sometimes more informally: what does it look like for adults to learn on their own?

Meet Randy Garrison

One of my favorite resources and models comes from Randy Garrison and his paper in 1997 that identified these dimensions of self-directed learning.

I think they’re really important because they have a lot of application to this idea of self-direction in schools. Garrison first identifies that in order for there to be self-direction, there has to be motivation. Motivation to both enter the learning, and motivation to sustain that learning, and stay with the task.

Those are two separate things.

In addition to that entry — motivation and the importance of motivation — Garrison identifies two other dimensions at work.

One, he calls self-monitoring. That’s really the responsibility you might think of as taking care of what you need to take care of.

And the second is control. Self-management. That to me has a lot more to do with task management.

But they’re really all intertwined. Motivation is the first thing that needs to be there. And then self-monitoring and self-management interact with one another, those three dimensions go into self-directed learning according to his research.

  1. Motivation
  2. Self-Monitoring
  3. Self-Management


Updating Garrison for a 2020 Context: The BEST Toolkit

When we think about self-direction in a more 2020 context, there has been a lot more that’s been developed.

And what we know now is that there are several different components of self-direction, and that the interrelatedness of them is really important.

And that’s where the BEST Toolkit (.pdf) comes in.

BEST stands for Building Essential Skills Today.

And they talk a lot about the inter-relatedness of the components of self-direction. They have five different dimensions of self-direction. These tend to be the five that are currently being used in, in the literature and the research right now.

  1. Self-Awareness
  2. Initiative & Ownership
  3. Goal-Setting & Planning
  4. Engaging & Managing (the learning process)
  5. Monitoring & Adapting (to the learning process).

You can see this sort of metaphor of braided and threaded strands.

increasing student self-direction


When the learner is emerging in their ability to be self-directed, those things seem a little disparate and disconnected.

But as the person becomes more proficient, they sync together in a better way.

What’s important about the braided visual is just imagining how these things are all very inter-related and actually dependent upon one another. In my opinion, that’s one of the reasons self-direction is so fascinating: it’s so often hard to tease these pieces apart.

Unpicking the Braid

Within the dimension of self-direction, we’re really wanting the learner to be asking:

What am I learning about myself as a learner?

For them to have that self-awareness that is very important. We want the learner to be thinking:

How can I integrate my personal interests into how I approach new learning?

So thinking about that — what they know about themselves and that self-awareness — how do they integrate that into learning opportunities and situations within goal setting and planning?

We also really want the student to be asking:

How can I break down a complex task and develop concrete steps to accomplish it?

Sounds Simple, Right?

So how can we help students plan out steps and develop goals and establish really meaningful learning targets for themselves?

We want them to be asking,

“What am I learning about locating resources, managing my time and seeking help when I need it?”

That’s about the sort of managing of the process and the learning experience. And then the monitoring and adapting that needs to happen all along that student is we want them to be asking themselves,

“Am I able to see when something isn’t working well, adjust my approach and learn from my missteps?”

There’s a way in which self-awareness informs all of these dimensions. In some cases, people who are wanting to increase self-direction for their students start with self-awareness because it seems so foundational.

“Dimensions of Self-Direction”

One of the other most common places that we’re seeing resources around teaching self-direction is from the essential skills and dispositions document that was published by the center for innovation in education and the educational policy improvement center.

They use the same five components there.

increasing student self-direction


It’s just interesting to look at these two documents that I think are the most helpful in supporting schools and teachers. And it’s interesting to note that they use the same sort of five components or five different dimensions.

Gerald Grow’s Differentiated Teaching Model of Self-Direction

One of the things that really strikes me about self-direction is that it requires teachers to have an understanding of where a student’s readiness is for self-direction.

And so we have learned through the research that there’s really a continuum of readiness for self-direction.

What strikes me about self-direction is that because our learners are at different levels of readiness, our teaching to each of those learners must be different. There’s no one strategy that’s going to work for everyone in your class. Just like we differentiate all of our content for students, when we are teaching, we need to differentiate our opportunities for self-direction.

Gerald Grow’s work emerged in the 1990s out of higher education. He was a professor of journalism, and he started to become really curious about the way in which his college -evel students were compelled to be self-directed.

So he identified these four different stages.

increasing Gerald Grow


What I think is interesting about this is that he’s identified what type of teaching really needs to match the learner’s stage of self-direction.

So if you have a stage one, dependent learner, that learner at that stage needs someone to be authoritative and coaching, and they need to get coaching with immediate feedback. They need to get informational lecture.

And that’s very different than a student who’s at stage four, who is self-directed. That person needs a teacher as a consultant. That person needs to be engaging in work that looks like internships, dissertations self-directed study group or individual group.

Those are the two extremes.

And then we have people at stages two and three, and those people also need a different type of teaching to match their learning. Grow argues that in order for the learner to advance to the self-directed stage, stage four, they need to receive the best type of teaching for the stage that they’re at along each step of the way.

Match and Mismatch Between Learner Stages and Teaching Styles

I hope you can see that when there is a match between learner stages and teacher styles, things will kind of jive and flow and work well. In this second figure by Grow, those green areas show you the areas of complete match, or near match.

Grow self-direction


So for example, if I’m an interested learner at stage two, and my teacher teaches with a style of facilitation or in a facilitator mode? That’s a pretty near match.

And what I think is so interesting about this is that I can connect back to my time teaching and think of where I saw this, you know, in a scenario.

Let’s say that I’m the teacher and I teach like this teacher one level: I’m the expert, I’m the authority, everything’s in my control, I’m lecturing. I’m giving all the instructions and not allowing for students to have any sort of involvement or responsibility.

If I have a self directed learner who’s at stage four in my class, that student is going to be pretty frustrated.

They’re going to feel like they resent this style of teaching, where the teacher’s the authority.

At the other end of the spectrum, we might have a learner who is very dependent. They don’t know how to do some things for themselves. And if the teacher teaches at this other end of the continuum where they’re a delegator and saying, “What? Go study what you want to know!” Or, “You can learn about anything you want to learn about during the next 30 minutes!” That dependent learner is going to be also very frustrated because they’re being given freedom that they’re not ready for. They’re being asked to do things that they don’t understand how to do.

Equity & Self-Direction

The interesting pieces that I have been drawn to as I’ve conducted research about self-direction is I’m wondering if and how we give our learners equal opportunities to develop self-direction.

And it turns out that there are some pretty major concerns around how students have equitable access to self directed learning opportunities.

There’s a particular study out of Europe that found that that teachers actually do some of the thinking for less self-directed children, and the children that already have high levels of self-direction received even more opportunities to practice self direction. So the implication of this is that teachers can behave in ways that actually encourage some students to develop self-direction and discourage other students from developing self-direction.

How Do We Increase Self-Direction for All Students?

What’s important to understand is what some of these things look like in the classroom.

increasing student self-direction


There’s a lot of talk about planning, in terms of developing self-direction. And so if we want to teach our students how to plan, some of the things that can happen are giving people questions to frame learning goals, engaging in something like a KWL (what do you want / what do you know / what do you want to know?) Explicit instruction about and modeling based on students’ knowledge and readiness for open-ended tasks.

And so while teachers are conducting those activities, we are developing the student’s responsibility to be able to set goals, identify personal interests, reflect on learning needs and develop strategies for completing a learning task.

Some of the other instructional phases that we heard discussed in the dimensions of self-directed learning are around monitoring and adjusting.

Appropriate Classroom Activities for Self-Direction

So again, if the goal is for students to monitor and adjust, some appropriate classroom activities might be:

  • giving very clear teacher and peer feedback
  • having students self-assess
  • assess using some brainstorming strategies or whiteboards to make students thinking visible
  • doing journaling with some prompts to get student explanations out there.

And that’s so the teachers can be modeling how people monitor learning, and adjust as they move through learning tasks. We hope that as a result of that, students will be able to monitor progress, engage in self observation and really be cognizant and critical about how their learning process is going as it’s happening.

We know that another instructional phase is reflecting and evaluating. That comes down to some of the classroom resources around assessment and reflection. Showcases and presentations, for instance, so that students see that there’s a real utility for their work and an opportunity to share it with other people.

A Learning Scale for Self-Direction

My colleague Emily Hoyler and I developed a learning scale that is based upon three indicators for how teachers can develop self-direction in their learners.

self-direction learning scale


First we think the environment is important. The learning environment is helping develop self-direction.

We described that indicator as that teachers will create a learning environment and design learning experiences where students can practice self-awareness. They can take initiative and take ownership of their learning. There has to be an environment for self-direction where students have opportunities and self-direction is valued. That cannot be overstated.

The next two indicators build off of that.

The second indicator is around structures and processes that you have for self-direction. So again: how is your teaching helping to provide opportunities and scaffold a process for students to make learning plans, reflect upon and monitor their progress and adjust their strategies?

And the third indicator is around curriculum and instruction.

How am I as a teacher, creating learning experiences that encourage students to take initiative and ownership, locate their own resources, manage their time and seek help when needed?

I share this with you because it’s a great tool for you to use as you investigate your own teaching. AS you think about how you might have some strengths in teaching for self-direction, and you might have some areas for growth.

And then what do you do with it?

After you have determined some growth areas, you might look for ways to improve it.

And we have lots and lots of teaching strategies related to self-direction and resources in a self-directed learning toolbox.

Again, in our toolbox are three learning indicators:

  1. learning environment structures
  2. processes
  3. curriculum.

So, for example in the area of learning environment, there’s a prompt about: how do we talk about mistakes in my classroom? Because there’s certainly an amount of risk-taking that’s necessary in order for self-direction to exist and develop. Which means we need to normalize mistakes and have a belief system where mistakes are part of the culture of learning.

On Choice Boards, Hyperdocs, and Playlists

So I wanted to address a couple of particular strategies that are you know, enjoying a lot of attention right now.

I want us to consider how choice sports HyperDocs and playlists support self-direction.

So. HyperDocs!


HyperDocs, they’re basically a Google Doc that is created as not just links out to resources, but as an instructional sequence, if you will, to let the learners know what they actually need to be doing with those resources. It’s providing a frame and instructional steps through links out to content and what students are supposed to then go ahead and do it.

So, HyperDocs, choice boards and playlists are all enjoying some notoriety right now in our educational spaces. They are great tools. They are lovely tools, because they look pretty, they are assembled along a theme or a particular skill that needs to be developed. And they do allow students — in almost all cases — to progress at their own pace. Pacing is something that has been really impacted by using tools like this.

What I want to make sure is that if we use choice boards, HyperDocs or playlists to encourage and develop self-direction, then they need to be more than just a set of instructions. There needs to be an element of choice. (Believe it or not, I have actually seen choice boards that don’t have any choice.)

We also use the word “menu” sometimes, and that’s a similar structure, but a choice board is more than just saying, do this, do this, do this, do this, do this, and do that at your own pace until you’ve mastered the information.

There needs to be choice.

There needs to be a place where you say:

“Do this if you need to learn more about this, or do this other thing  if you’re interested in this other topic.”

I can’t overstate the importance for choice in these three different structures that are similar. So students are making choices.

They’re also given the opportunity to make decisions about the content, and about the learning process based on what they know about themselves and their needs as a learner and their personal interests.

Another kind of critical component to any of these processes or structures is that there’s a reflection component for students. A place where they can practice and exercise some metacognition about:

  • How is it going?
  • Did I make the right choice?
  • Did the choice I made in my learning process help me understand this better?
  • Or did I make some wrong choices?

And now I know more about myself!

Final Thoughts on Self-Direction

My final thought I want to leave you with is that I can’t overemphasize the importance for us to be providing *opportunities* for self-direction in order for our students to demonstrate and develop self-direction. Without opportunities, how can students even try?

I really think that we can start that as early as possible in our schools. There are probably classrooms of kindergartners and first graders that are doing that really well. It makes me think about going into my children’s kindergarten class and seeing those different centers that students can choose and go to. They’re using self-direction to do that.

Q & A Session

Question on Self-Direction & Proficiency-Based Assessment

“This is perhaps custom to the Vermont context, but I’d like to ask you about self-direction and assessment. Self-direction is something we’re being encouraged to assess in students, at the same time Vermont’s Act 77 legislation encourages us also to use proficiencies. Can you talk us through maybe a little bit about how you might tie those two concepts together?”


So first of all, Vermont does have rubrics that they developed, the Agency of Education has rubrics for different grade bands and they’re sort of what the criteria looks like for self-direction that are supposed to be student friendly. They’re written as “I can” statements. Like “I can locate a resource and determine whether that is a trustworthy source.” That actually is one of that’s part of the criteria of self-direction which seems more like it kind of like bleeds into library media and technology skills too, but that’s because a lot of the emphasis of self-direction is on locating resources and, and managing resources.

Those are a great place to start, but know that the resources that I shared here from the best tool kit that has very good resources also for rubrics.

Self-direction is this really big concept and we as teachers typically give it one space on an assessment, and instead we’d probably be better off diving deeper into the criteria and being really specific about the assessment of that particular part of self-direction.

Like, maybe you are great at self-awareness, but not great at like, monitoring and adjusting as you’re in the process.

I think we need to separate those things out for students so that they can see where their growth areas are and take steps to do better. You know, ironically there, our assessment of their self-direction should inform their self direction in the classroom. It’s a two way street.

Question on Self-Direction & Flexible Pathways

“Are there ways that you can envision self-direction being key for learners to actually take advantage of the opportunity to pursue flexible pathways in their learning?”


Absolutely. Those two things are so wedded together.

I believe that aspiration starts in grade seven. There are 14 year olds who don’t know the pathway they want to take because they have not had to exercise that muscle before, of knowing who they are as learners and knowing what choices they’re going to make that will take them in the direction they want to go as learners.

If we’re developing self-direction in students, in primary K to five school and then middle school, grades 6-8, by the time we’re ready for them to go out and enjoy some flexible pathways, they should have a sense of who they are and what they’re interested in. What they want to do.

So my, one of my fears is that we haven’t, in some systems we haven’t introduced self-direction early enough, so that by the time they arrive at the doorstep of the flexible pathway opportunities, they they’ve lost their muscle to know what’s what they want and where they want to go. And they’re like, why are, you know, I kind of think about people that I know and think that, that there’s a kid saying, why are you asking me now what I want to learn about? And so it’s too late, we’ve missed the window and that we needed to have been doing that all along. So that by the time we’ve got a kid who can do an internship off campus for credit they’ve they’re primed and ready hope. That makes sense.

Question on Self-Direction & Project-Based Learning

“In terms of the popularity of project-based learning as a scaffold for, for authentic and meaningful learning opportunities for students, do you see a role that self-direction can play in the PBL cycle? Especially when you have a PBL that’s done in groups and you’re trying to assign the various types of activities, the various responsibilities; is there a way that you can fold self-direction into that as an explicit part of the process?”


Well yes.

Self-direction can be reinforced in PBL environments.

Project-based learning environments typically do allow students to have some amount of choice about which kind of angle they’re going to follow of this topic or this theme. There’s a little bit of flexibility in terms of the task itself if there’s project based learning that is in groups. We know when you work in a group, there’s an amount of compromise and collaboration and you can’t just be like, well, I’m in charge and this is what I want to do.

The other piece I would say about project based learning reinforcing self-direction is the fact that project-based learning is building towards a culmination.

There should be some iteration that’s happening, which allows students to be monitoring and adjusting. If I’m building towards a a presentation I’m going to give, I’ve gone through some of the pre stages so that I can see where I need to adjust and maybe I need more research there or something. So I think just that aspect that project-based learning is usually there’s usually some iteration building up to this culminating event, and that takes monitoring on the student end.

Question on The Most Challenging Aspect of Self-Direction

“We know that there is some element of choice and agency that all really great teachers give to their students in the classroom. As educators become more familiar with inculcating self-direction in students, what could you identify as maybe the most challenging aspect of trying to build self-direction in students? What have you perhaps experienced as, as a common challenge for educators trying to build this up, or the research tells us is a challenge in getting started on this process?”


That’s a great question. I can think of a few things.

There’s a really fine balancing act that teachers need to walk. That’s where Emily and I came up with our title of our course, “The Sweet Spot”. That’s balancing between them getting there on their own and you helping them get there.

The Sweet Spot

The sweet spot is this just-right grain size of place, where for them to play with what they want to know about in a way that is manageable.

And sometimes it’s really hard to get somebody to that sweet spot, right? If we let kids take on something that’s too big in scope they will get frustrated and fall short and maybe give up. If we let them do something too small in scope, we know that they’ll just finish and not know what to do.

And so there’s a way that teachers can, in their language of coaching help get to something that feels like the right size. One of the things that’s really hard for teachers is to stay in a place of language that promote self-direction. What that looks like is saying:

“Well, what do you think you need to do next? Hmm. Yeah, I hear you. I wonder how you might find a way to solve that? I wonder what tools you have around you to solve that question that you have?”

It takes time to use that kind of language. It takes patience. Sometimes even the most well-intentioned teachers go to a teacher directed place and say, this is what you need to do.





The unexpected joys of screentime in a pandemic

Virtually every night around 8 pm, I hear two teenage boys shouting. They’re yelling commands and occasionally letting expletives fly. The noise echoes all round our house.

And I love it.

This year has been a hard one for my teens. It’s been hard for all of us, but imagine living through your formative years of social learning in isolation and quarantine.

Not only is that lonely and depressing, but it’s potentially damaging (.pdf). When adolescence is a time for social interaction and building your identity as a social being, you need those opportunities.

And they are sorely lacking right now.

That’s why when my boys started gaming in real time with their out-of-state cousins every night, it made me happy.

There aren’t many opportunities for my kids to socialize right now. We’ve been on near lockdown due to COVID for months. I’m grateful that they go to school a few days a week in person. But many of the pivotal experiences for exploring identity and social learning are gone. There is no hanging out at someone’s house, no gathering at the pizza house one night, no sleepover after a basketball game. But there can be connection with others through technology.

A little over a year ago, this nightly gaming routine would have concerned me greatly. I had come to believe as a teacher and a mother that screentime was evil.

And while some aspects of schooling via computer devices does still concern me, I’ve now realized that not all screentime is bad. Particularly during a global pandemic, computers are necessary and valuable. Screentime in a pandemic can make provide human connection. Screentime in a pandemic can work. It just depends how it’s being used.

I can’t believe that I’m saying this, but I’m perfectly okay with certain forms of screentime, now.

I know, I know! Let me make some distinctions.

I am careful that our kids are not using a screen to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. I encourage my kids to use technology and screens to connect with friends and family. Connection is necessary. We have enough isolation right now.

So I wonder about my previous beliefs. I’m curious about my old fears.

In the years before COVID, what made me fearful about kids and screentime?

Here are my hunches.

I think I was afraid that my kids would choose time with a screen over time with a person. I think that I worried that playing on a device would be more alluring than playing in the real world. And I suspect that I was afraid that my children would choose isolation over connection. Now I just wonder: has this pandemic forever changed us?

Let’s hope so.

I hope that when restrictions are lifted and it’s deemed safe enough, I will always choose connection. And I predict my teenagers will, too. Playing video games online with cousins is good enough for now, but it’s not the same as being together.

So what was I afraid of before? When we fear too much screentime?

Scaffolding success for self-directed learners

We talk a lot, as professional development coordinators and as educators, about self-direction. We think a lot about ways to support self-directed learners, offering them “choice and voice” while trying to make sure we support them in their learning. (And hey, educators, you’re learners too. I’m a learner. We are all, to some degree, self-directed learners).


A brief history of self-directed learning

I started to become familiar with the phrases “self-direction” and “self-directed learning” probably around 2014 or so. I started to hear it in mission statements in, from schools, when they talked about their aspirations. I started to hear it as an outcome for dispositions and skills that we wanted our K-12 learners to have.

And I was really curious about that.

When we in Vermont started to transition towards a personalized learning environment that included proficiency-based learning, the Vermont Agency of Education identified what many of us know as the five Transferable Skills:

  1. Clear and Effective Communication
  2. Creative and Practical Problem-Solving
  3. Informed and Integrative Thinking
  4. Responsible and Involved Citizenship
  5. Self-Direction

Most of those felt familiar to me as an educator, but self-direction? That was new. And I didn’t understand what was. What was that as an outcome for students?

Fast forward a few more years. And I start to see Self-Direction on report cards.

Self-direction as metrics of success on report cards: (l to r) State of Hawaii (general), State of Hawaii (kindergarten), and as part of a "Positive Dispositions" report card section.


I see it in report cards of schools that I’m working with as a professional development coordinator. And I see it on my kids’ report cards, who are adolescent learners themselves.

And basically, I’ve devoted a few years to studying this phenomenon because I feel like there’s some misconceptions about self-direction and self-directed learning.

Where did self-direction come from?

It turns out self-direction is originally an adult learning concept.

It came from theorists and researchers in the sixties and seventies who were interested in how adults pursued further education. That might be adults who never graduated from high school and then decided to pursue a GED. Or they might’ve been adults who are taking night classes.

We’ve taken most of that adult concept and applied it to a K-12 environment. And it’s not a neat and tidy fit.

So I want us to think about what we know about self-direction already. And I want to share some of the things that I learned, which I feel are really of primary importance.

Debunking self-directed learning myths

scaffolding self-directed learning


Self-direction needs to have an environment that is supportive of demonstrating skill and exercising that skill.

And that means that students have some degree of autonomy and independence. They are provided with choices and selections that are based on what they know about themselves. That are based on what they know about themselves as learners, and based on their interests and what they know about that.

Self-direction does not mean that a student in a K-12 environment is following directions created by the teacher. Self-direction is not turning in an assignment on time.

Now there’s a little bit of that that’s debatable, right? But self-direction really has this degree to which it’s about the student identifying what they have for goals and their ability to pursue those goals.

So when we see this talked about in schools, particularly in younger cases where students maybe don’t have a lot of opportunities for self-direction, sometimes it’s being defined in schools as the way a child follows teacher directions.

And that could not be more of a myth self-direction.

Self-direction doesn’t always look like compliance. In fact, sometimes our most self-directed kids are our least compliant kids!

So I just want to give you an opportunity to think about that and think about how that concept of self-direction as compliance might impact your previous knowledge about self-directed learning.

In the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of information coming out of research sites that are supporting the schools and the teachers that are really trying to invest and move the self-direction skills of their students.

Dimensions of self-directed learning

Here’s an example of what has been pretty widely agreed upon as five dimensions of self-direction.

scaffolding self-directed learning


This mimics what I’ve seen in a couple of other toolkits, but this comes from a group called the Research-Practice Partnership (.pdf).

And this is the same as the essential skills and dispositions, which some of you might be familiar with, but these five things are what have been identified in the research as the effective dimensions of self-direction.

And so what I hope to do is engage you in an exploration of what do these things look like in your practice.

Most importantly:

  • Where are you giving your students opportunities to practice and demonstrate and engage in these skills?
  • And then how are you supporting them?

Scaffolding self-directed learners at different ages

Because what we know about self-direction is that to some degree, like a lot of skills, we have people who, for whatever reason, have a little bit more of it than others.

Let’s take like maybe a fourth or fifth grader.

There’s definitely differences at that stage about what students have for self-direction skills, but somewhere along the line, that student had experiences or guidance that helped shape them, right?

Maybe it was a parent at home, maybe it was an experience in summer camp, but they’ve got a little bit of self-direction. But when students don’t have self-direction, we need to coach them and provide them with the scaffolds to develop it.

One of the things I like to remind people about is that when you see a kindergartener enter into a building, and enter into our school system, they have a lot of these things. They have a lot of questions. And they can take initiative. They’re curious. They can identify things they want to learn about.

And then somewhere in our K to 12 spectrum, sometimes some of our learners don’t continue to have opportunities to exercise self-direction.

I think about it as like a muscle.

If you come into kindergarten with these muscles, but no one gives you an opportunity to exercise them and work out, they atrophy. They weaken. And that’s why we sometimes see self-direction failing when we attempt it too late in the process.

You ask eighth graders,“What do you want to learn about, kids? What do you know about yourself?”

And they look at you with blank stares. They say,

“I don’t know, why are you asking me this all of a sudden?”

So self-direction is a process we’re trying to help you develop in your learners. And help you develop the routines and the structures that we think help move this skill in students. When we talk about these things, it’s super complex. And that really fascinates me because it involves so many different parts of learning and education. There’s a lot of human behavior and psychology within this.

And in this course we’re offering, you might choose to just investigate one of these dimensions and how you can create structures and supports for your students to develop that one dimension.

Analyzing self-direction in the classroom

Watch this video.

And as you watch this video, ask yourself: what does self-direction look like for some of these students?

And more importantly, I want you to focus on the educators. What are the scaffolds or supports that you see being put in place for these learners in that video?

Personally, I saw a lot of things.

I saw teachers providing templates and project plans.

I noticed that students had a journal where they were reflecting on both their plan and how it worked.

And I heard that teacher asking a student what the student needed to do and what they thought.

I also saw a process or a system in place where students used each other as resources.

I think this video gives us a great example of self-direction in a classroom and what teachers can do to develop it.

“The Dark Side of Self-Direction”

I don’t think there really is a dark side, per se, but what I mean by that is that it’s clear to me that we do not — we as in American schools — do not provide students with equitable access to self-direction opportunities. And that was noticeable to me in that video.

In that video, the narrator mentions that The Thinkering Studio, that really cool class? Is an elective. And that makes me wonder who’s not in that class. What kind of choices do students have in school systems whereby some of them are in Thinkering Studio and some of them aren’t.

Based on my experience, working in schools, I actually shudder to remember that sometimes I saw my own students engaged in something like a Thinkering Studio while other students were receiving services because of their IEP or 504.

So not everyone was there. Not everyone had that opportunity. And that’s not fair.

What’s more, there’s research that actually says that that unknowingly, of course, teachers are more supportive of the self-direction of students who already have a lot of self-direction.

This particular study came from Europe, but basically it says that students who already had self-direction skills were actually given sort of more verbal prompting of their self-direction than students who did not possess self-direction. And that a student who did not possess a lot of self-direction was more likely to receive verbal information from a teacher in the form of the teacher telling them what to do instead of scaffolding and asking them to exhibit and demonstrate their own.

Super concerning in terms of this thing that we think is so important for all students to possess in order to be successful in this century.

Where’s The Sweet Spot?

So, I want to tell you a little bit about this course we’re offering in March: “The Sweet Spot: Scaffolding Self-Directed Learners”. I’m super excited to be partnering on this.

scaffolding self-directed learners

We’ve designed a five-week learning experience focusing on best practices in self-direction for each of us as educator-learners. The idea here is that you’re going to both be studying how to scaffold self-direction for your learners, as well as experiencing what that’s like as a learner!

Our first session kicks off March 3.

First, we’ll do some capacity-building, build some community, help you understand the logistics and flow of the course. You’ll figure out what your project might look like, and then you’ll design your prototype. You’ll figure out what your scaffolds are gonna look like.

Then we’ll come back together in person for a second session. We’ll continue to do some more capacity-building, but what’s great about the session too, is that you’re going to get feedback from the other participants in the course. You’ll get a chance to share your thinking and work, then get their feedback, and also offer your feedback on their work.

Then we’re going to send you back out into your classroom to implement your plan. Put your scaffolds in place and see how it goes: what works, what might you want to tweak. Collect some informal data around that. What does that look like for your learners and for your practice?

Finally, we’ll come back together for our last in-person session. You’ll get to share what you did, how it went and what your next steps are. And we’ll also think a little bit together about how we might scale changes like this across the systems that we work in.

We really hope you can join us! Check out the full syllabus, and register online here. And give me a shout down in the comments if you have any questions. Self-directed learning is complicated: it can be difficult to navigate between giving students too much freedom and choice (the kind that comes without support) and too little.

But getting that tension right? That’s the sweet spot.


Authentic ways to check in on your advisees

Ways to move beyond “I’m fine”

How are you? No, really.

How are you?

Right now, that’s a tough question for me to answer. Most days when asked this question, I take a shallow breath and reply, “I’m fine.”

But I really notice when someone takes a look in my eyes and sincerely asks me this question.  When I feel like the person is really and truly trying to check-in with me and see if I’m okay, my answer is always different.

  • “I’m surviving.”
  • “Eh, I’m struggling.”
  • “I’m halfway decent.”

I might even want to answer the question with an emoji. 🤷🏼‍♀️ 👀  🤦🏼‍♀️

Our students need a trusted adult to sincerely check in with them, as well.

Someone needs to ask them every day – How are you? What do you need?

In schools, we have some structures in place to make sure that someone is checking in with every child. Our advisory system should be the place to ensure that happens. The advisor’s role is to be the advocate and adult connection for every student. An advisor is meant to be the adult that knows this child well.

So, it makes perfect sense that advisors are the person who checks in on the emotional and academic well-being of every child. And I’d like to help you create a process for making advisor check-ins an effective and meaningful support system for your advisory students.

We all need support systems, but especially now.

Choose your purposes for check-ins

There are many aspects of student life that an advisor could possibly inquire about and offer support. While all aspects are worthy and important, if we group them all together it can turn into a laundry list. We don’t want to set ourselves up for failure by unrealistically thinking we can check in on all things at all times. You might start as an advisor or advisory team by asking yourselves what information you will prioritize during Advisee Check-ins.

Which of these questions will you target with your advisees?
  • How is your emotional health?
  • How are you feeling physically?
  • Do you have enough food at home?
  • How is your family?
  • Hey, how is your technology and ability to connect to the internet at home?
  • How has your school attendance been?
  • What factors impact your school attendance?
  • How are your friendships?
  • Do you feel connected to people right now?
  • How have you been doing with completing your work for school?
  • Has the work been too hard, too easy, or just right?

As you can see, the list of possible topics for check-ins with our students is long and deep. I think it’s important for you, your team, or your school to decide what feels right for your environment.

Consider these two formats to use for checking in with your advisees:

Make time for a personal video connection

While this is the more laborious strategy of the two, it’s important. Each student needs a chance to look into the eyes and talk frequently with his/her/their advisor in a private setting. During a pandemic, I would suggest a zoom call every week or two. Because even if you are seeing a student fully in-person, nothing feels very personal in these circumstances.

Every child deserves to have their own solo time to connect with the advisor. Make space in the school day to conduct a virtual one on one check-in with students in your advisory. If you don’t find time to connect with everyone once a week, make a staggered schedule that allows you to have 10 minutes with each advisee over the course of two weeks.

During emergency learning in spring of 2020, my daughter Jane’s teacher did this beautifully.

Every week she published a schedule including Zoom links for each person’s one on one check-in. I observed that Jane was pretty candid about her own status and wellness when it was just her and the teacher. And to see her teacher’s face and get to have a brief chat? That was always a highlight of her day! While this takes time, we know that it makes a difference.

But there are also quicker and easier ways to also check-in with your students every week or even every day.

Use Google Forms for Weekly and Daily Check-ins

This is a copy of The Distance Learning Check-in that’s been adapted from Jenny Magiera and Autumn Laidler.

"This is a strategy we learned years ago from our colleagues Jennie Magiera (@MsMagiera) and Autumn Laidler (@MsLaidler) so please make sure to follow them! We've used it for years in a variety of classrooms and have gained insight into areas where our students needed social emotional support or a well-being intervention. We've modified it to fit today's distance learning needs and hope you find it helpful." How are you


This form looks like it could be used daily. It asks students how they are really doing, in addition to their previous night’s bedtime and whether or not they ate breakfast.

(Caveat: we know some of our students are experiencing food insecurity or working with an eating disorder, or both, so that is absolutely a thing to bear in mind here. Especially if you too are experiencing food insecurity or working with an eating disorder).

Edmunds Middle School educator Laura Botte has long been using the Google form for Morning Check-in.

Jennifer Lindley shares a library of Google Forms and materials on her blog. She has created and shared copies of her weekly and daily check-in forms that she uses with her 4th and 5th graders. Ms. Lindley also has an end of day and end of week form available.

I especially like Lindley’s Beginning of the Day Check-In form and its use of emojis.

how are you google form for advisee check-in


C’mon, sometimes all we can do is describe how we’re feeling with an emoji.

The most important aspect of these Google forms is how I respond as the teacher.

Some follow up communication is needed in order to support students. If one of your advisees gives you an angry, sick or sad emoji, know what resources you have to call on in your school community when you follow up with them. Can you simply open a window and whisper your principal’s name to the wind and they will appear? Do you have a school counselor or nurse you can bounce ideas off of?

Use those resources in helping you support that student, so you don’t have to go it alone. Maybe an email that simply says,

“Hey [student name],

I saw that you indicated that you were feeling angry today. What’s up? What can I do to help? I’m thinking about you.”

Hey. I’m thinking about you.

Tiny phrase, HUGE impact.

Feel free to use it even with students who answer you with 👍🏽 or 😊. Because we know we are thinking of them, and it will help them to know too.

What if someone always says they are happy? Or silly? Or ready to work? Well, that deserves to be acknowledged too.

It might not need immediate attention, but you might bring it up in the personal video conference. You might say, “Wow. You have responded that you are happy for every day this week! Are you really always happy..? Golly, tell me how you do it.” Again, we are building our connection and acknowledging their feelings.

Teaching and learning during a pandemic is tough. Heck, almost everything is hard right now. And we’re struggling to support the social and emotional lives of our students.

I’d love to hear from you.

What else are you doing to check in with advisory students? What are your strategies?

Setting goals with students for the new year

No matter what that new year looks like.

At the start of a new year, we often think about our hopes and set resolutions. Is setting goals passé now? Not for students. And especially not for young adolescents, regardless of what else is happening in the larger world. Goals make the world manageable. They make managing your own passionate, independent learning doable. Did we mention how important that is for young adolescents?

For instance, we know that in Vermont schools implementing Personal Learning Plans (PLPs), student goal setting and reflection is a key component. Now let’s make it easy for you to set goals for the new year with your students.

Let’s look at three strategies to help it work smoothly.

Strategy #1: Choose a particular format to scaffold setting goals with students

Setting goals can be daunting, and if no guidance or structure is provided, some students can draw a blank and get stuck. Luckily, there are plenty of great formats and templates out there to try.

Some people like using the WOOP format for goal-setting. This format guides participants to identify a:

  • Wish
  • Outcome
  • Obstacle and
  • Plan

for setting goals. Plus: it’s super fun to say.

Down at Ludlow Elementary School, educator Heidi Betz is WOOPing with her students. Together, they’re evaluating their aspirations, strengths, challenges, and motivations in order to set goals. The goals take into account the class’ pursuit of essential outcomes related to the Transferable Skills.

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Or maybe you want to be SMART about your goals?

When students set goals using the SMART format, they identify a goal that is:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant and
  • Time-Based.

At Williston Elementary School, in Williston VT, educator Lissa Fox described how she piloted a structure for using SMART goals with her middle school students. She discovered how important it is to *actively* cultivate a goals mindset with middle schoolers. And furthermore, she also discovered that her SMARTs had to be a team approach.

Pick a format, y’all. And stick with it!


Setting goals is hard. Students need a structure, template and format in order to develop the skill.

Strategy #2: Invent ways to make the goal visible and stick to it

After you help students set their goals, there is more work ahead. Students need to be able to take steps and develop actions towards reaching their goal.

One year while teaching middle school down at Manchester Elementary-Middle School (MEMS), we had students make large graphic labels that captured their goals. We taped those labels to the front of their school laptops. Because they use that object so frequently in school and at home, students had frequent reminders of the goals they had set for themselves.

setting goals with students


Another strategy we’ve used is to devote a small chunk of time at the start of a school day for students to chart progress on their goals. Students can go into their digital PLPs and write an entry describing any concrete actions or steps they had taken in order to reach their goal that week. It’s a powerful measure of accountability and reminds students of the goals they committed to.

Strategy #3: Encourage students to reflect on what works

Remember Lissa Fox? One of the most powerful findings from her study of SMART goals with students was that reflection was crucial to making the goals actually stick.

So what does that look like?

Students can engage in written reflection in their PLP. They could create video reflections that describe their progress and steps towards attaining goals. Teachers can also provide 1:1 conferences with students to check in around their goals.

But Tarrant Institute, we seem to hear you say. New Year’s resolutions don’t work!

That’s absolutely correct. For a lot of people, the best of intentions gets mown down in the middle of the busy road of everyday life. Honk honk! BLAP!

Resolution roadkill.

And that’s another valuable skill to focus on: what happens if you don’t meet your goals? Do you sob or wail? Clean out the Hannafords of peanut M&Ms? Or do you reflect on what you did and what went wrong (there’s that pesky reflection again) and you offer yourself grace. You tell yourself that you tried hard and you’ll try again. You look at what went wrong and think about how you’d handle the same situation in the future.

And you go back and set new goals. You start again. Even if it’s February. (Especially if it’s February).

(Did we mention the grace bit. We should mention the grace bit. Ahem: please help your students offer themselves grace on goals. Offer yourself a double helping of grace as well. Grace for everybody will go a long, long way right about now.)

Anyway, when teachers engage students in these strategies for goal-setting, they are helping them develop a life-long skill.

Every new year, we read and listen to adults talk about their resolutions. Maybe we’re the adults in question. But we’re pretty sure most adults do not stick to their resolutions. But if we engage students thoughtfully in effective goal-setting practices in their adolescence, there’s hope for the New Years’ resolutions of 2030 and beyond.

As long as there’s still a new year to set goals for. But that’s another blogpost.

7 mindfulness activities for advisory

Now, more than ever.

Many schools have an advisory structure to promote strong relationships and a sense of close community. And advisory already serves many purposes. It can be a place for close bonds, adult mentoring, connection and also great fun! But have you ever thought of advisory as a place for practicing mindfulness?

Stress levels are pretty high in schools right now.

Both students and teachers are complying with stringent regulations in order to keep schools safe. Given the tone of stress in the world, it makes sense to bring a little calm and peace to school structures.

Mindfulness is a term given to a range of practices and strategies. It’s become a bit of an umbrella term to cover meditation, yoga, stretching, and all stress and anxiety reducing practices. And mindfulness works! Research has shown that it can reduce stress, help you focus, improve physical well-being, and support socio-emotional growth. It may even make you better at math.

When schools start the day with advisory, why not embed mindfulness strategies? Especially now, when stress levels are high. It can be helpful for students and teachers alike. Mindfulness is not only about bringing peace, calm and stress reduction. It also slows the pace of interaction and behavior to support social-emotional learning. I’m so grateful to counselors at Rutland Middle School, in Rutland VT, for bringing me this high powered and simple strategy.

Here are seven mindfulness activities for advisory.

1. Rainbow Walk

A Rainbow Walk is great because it combines movement with careful observation. Follow the directions here to engage in a walk that involves paying close attention and being present. It’s a simple activity: get your advisory outside and turn them individually loose for a set period of time. As they walk, ask students to take note — either internally or with paper and pencil, or even a phone to snap photos — of one item that’s red. And one item that’s orange. An item that’s yellow. Green. Blue. Indigo. And finally, violet.

If you pulled all those phone photos together, for instance, where could you store your students’ crowd-sourced rainbow? How could it inspire further moments of mindfulness throughout the day?

2. Yoga!

You can show this six minute video to your students, and all practice together. It involves very small movements and stretches that can be done at your desk. Or try a more explicitly Gentle Chair Yoga practice at your desks, or get outside (yes again) and stretch all over. Yoga plus direct sunlight? Yes please!

3. Following a Breathing Board

Either print out or send to devices the diagrams and visuals in this document (.pdf) to assist in breathing in and out. Just sit for a hot second and… breathe. When was the last time any of us made time for that?

mindfulness activities for advisory

4. Mindful coloring

Very slow and deliberate coloring can be a great way to reduce stress and focus. Use the resources from this site to help yourself and your students find peace and calm.

5… Senses Exercise

Use this worksheet (or do it verbally) to guide yourself and others to be more attuned to the five senses.

mindfulness activities for advisory

This is a recognized exercise that people often use to de-escalate anxiety, and it’s quite possible we all could use having something like this in our back pockets right about now.

6. “The Gift of You” Exercise

This exercise may work better with younger children, but there is still something lovely to be learned about the “gift of yourself”. Try it.

7. Box (or square) Breathing

I first learned about “the box breath” from Rising Strong, by Brene Brown. She learned it from Mark Miller, a Green Beret who teaches the breathing technique as it’s used in the military. This explains it well. But basically, you use inhalations and exhalations to construct a virtual box that helps you focus on actually feeling the effects of breathing on your body. It’s an amazing and simple relaxation and mediation strategy.

But you do you.

These are just seven of many mindfulness activities out there that can be embedded into an advisory routine. You might try an activity for a day or two, or you might engage your students in a whole week focused on mindfulness strategies. Whatever you do, make it accessible for the educators in the room, too. Mindfulness is one of many self-care strategies that our teachers need now, too. It deserves to find a time and space within the school day.

I’d love to hear from educators who are using mindfulness in the classroom. Is anyone out there practicing it in advisory? Tell us your stories.



Dear educators: you deserve a break. 

As we enter the week of Thanksgiving, please take care of yourselves and find time for rest and solace. You have been working so hard. Along with so many others, I’m grateful for you.

When I feel depleted of my human energy, I find relief by looking deeply at nature. Not only because nature is calming to my brain and my soul, but because being in nature reminds me that I am part of something so much larger and bigger and more forceful than myself.

So much of our social lives has changed and perhaps feels restricted. Like so many of you, I will be spending a Thanksgiving holiday like none other. For once, I will cook a meal and gather only with the humans under my very own roof. And while that is very different, the forces of nature outside of me carry on.

I hope that you can spend some time feeling the joys of the nature around us. Try just listening to the sounds outside – hear the birds and the sounds of the wind. Feel the air move over you. If you are able, listen to the never-ending sound of the push and pull of water from the ocean. And take a moment to gaze and the sun or the moon and the stars. They are there every day — rising and setting — even when we can’t see them.

you deserve a break

I’m so grateful for the forces of nature. Their stability makes me remember that I am so small and temporary on this earth. The sun and the moon, the tides and the wind – they rise and set and return every day. Without any of my effort or striving.

Educators — principals, teachers, bus drivers, staff, administrators, paraprofessionals — you are forces of nature. You deserve a break. Please enjoy some rest and find comfort in the nature around you.

With so much admiration,
Rachel & the staff of the UVM Tarrant Institute

Making pandemic student-led conferences work

Staying connected to one another during a pandemic can be hard. Like many of us, teachers and parents have faced enormous challenges keeping in touch over students this year. But we have this golden opportunity during our school student-led conferences to connect.

“I really enjoyed hearing more about my daughter’s future goals. She was nervous but presented the slide show very well. Also the PLP was very cool to learn about. I didn’t realize this was something that will be added to over the next few years!”

But why?

Educational experts agree that positive partnerships between family and school can impact student success. In Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engage Families in Student Success, Mapp, Carver and Lander identify five aspects of a family engagement event, program, or initiative that ensure its success. They are:

  1. Direct connection to learning.
  2. Builds relationships between teachers and parents, and between parents.
  3. Collaboration, with equal participation and input from teachers, families, and students.
  4. Honors families’ home languages, cultures, and experiences.
  5. Interactive, providing many and varied opportunities to learn together.

Now, we also know student-led conferences provide students with more agency and engagement than traditional parent-teacher conference. In fact, they can turn from student-led conferences, to student-led celebrations. Imagine that.


In our current context, nearly all schools will need to conduct their student-led conferences through one of the various video call platforms. For more help on the logistics and planning of an online student-led conference, read this vital resource. We can’t be in the same room as our students and their caregivers, but we can create the same relational experience.

Here are three tips to help you sustain the joy of a successful student-led conference during These Times.

1. Use a Pre-Conference Tool

Conferences usually happen twice a year. They take between 15 and 40 minutes. That’s not a long time! Therefore, it makes sense to reach out to families before the conference. Start the conversation. Get a sense of both their assets and needs. Kick off that feedback loop!

Before the conference, you might choose to send home a pre-conference questionnaire.

That may look like giving a paper copy to the student and asking that they serve as the liaison. In some cases, sending the questionnaire directly to parents via email might be appropriate. Do whatever you can to ensure that parents can access and participate in that questionnaire before the conference. Of course, find a logical way for them to return it to you, whether that’s by email or physical drop-box.

In that questionnaire, reach out to the student’s caregiver(s) and ask questions. Design these questions so you get to know their home environment, the strengths they bring to supporting their child as a learner, and to learn what they may need from you in collaboration during this year.

Here’s a sample questionnaire.

pandemic student-led conferences


2. Be flexible in scheduling conferences

School hours do not accommodate most families’ work schedules. Sometimes we schedule school events during the school day, which is natural and often necessary. But we don’t have to schedule parent events during the school day. One positive outcome of the pandemic is that many of us have gotten really good at videoconferencing. And if parents need tech support with their Zoom call, there’s certainly now a kid in the house with those skills and tools.

This year, for health reasons, we cannot invite our students’ families into our school buildings. If I were an administrator, I would encourage my teaching staff to conduct conference zoom calls wherever is most convenient and comfortable. For many teachers, that is from home.

“I really appreciated being able to do it so late at night.” –Fall 2020 parent conference participant

Given that we are connecting virtually with parents outside of school hours, we should invite parents to schedule conferences flexibly around their needs. In my years as a teacher, I can remember meeting some parents at 7 am before work, and I needed to meet others at 7 pm. Those were exhausting days! But given the opportunity to conduct conferences from your homes (rock the Zoom mullet, people), we should be able to find time for all families.

3. Build in interaction & involvement

During the conference conversation, be sure to build in opportunities for parents to respond to their child’s goals or performance. In some cases, teachers utilize an informal script that reminds them to seek feedback and thoughts from the parent. Let’s say, for example, that an eighth grader (I’ll call him Henry) has just shared his personal goals with his teacher and caregiver. The teacher could then turn to the caregiver and ask any or all of the following:

  • What do you think of Henry’s goals?
  • What questions do you have about his goals?
  • Do you agree with those goals based on what you see at home?
  • What are your goals for Henry for this year?

Even better, create a space to document the parent’s thinking and feedback. If students use a digital slideshow to share and guide their conference, you could provide slides that capture their feedback and responses. See this example here. 



Back in the beforetimes, I had the opportunity to interview some students at The Dorset School, in Dorset VT. They talked to me about the slideshows they’d prepared for student-led conferences, which they actually wound up recording as screencasts before the conference. Family conferences, even student-led ones, can be nerve-wracking for the student, and having the opportunity to record their presentation in advance can really help tamp those nerves down.

“My student should have practiced her part to be a bit more prepared.” –parent exit poll feedback

That said:

Y’all Are Doing Amazing. Really.

Rutland Middle School, in Rutland VT, recently completed a round of student-led conferences during this pandemic. They set out to include everyone, to make everyone feel included, supported and brought fully in to the conversation. They gave their students a slideshow assignment to prepare in advance, they gave families plenty of advance notice and a variety of early and late time-slots. And they gave parents an exit poll, so they could not just keep the feedback loop going, but use it to keep bringing families in.

pandemic conferences

It’s going to take all of us to get through this, and they know that.

But don’t take our word for it…

What does it look like when families feel genuinely included and moved by a student-led conference?

  • “I loved the fact it was so interactive! Not just mechanically but also talking with ***** and my son at the same time. It was fun to watch my son present a slide show that clearly took some thought, creativity, and time.”
  • “I love that the conference was child driven! It really puts ownership on the student!”
  • “I wouldn’t change anything. And I appreciate all of Mrs ____’s support!”
  • “Well, I thought M____’s teacher was very nice and caring.”
  • “I enjoyed how my son and his teacher explained every thing about his slide show. I think that everyone is doing a great job.

And especially in These Uncertain Times? That feels AMAZING.

Additional resources for student-led conferences:






Please note: in the image accompanying this post, the two people pictured are part of the same pod, and thus don’t have to observe masking or social distancing together. 

What makes integrated curriculum work?

Middle level educators have long sung the praises of integrated curriculum. It’s been a foundational practice in some middle schools. But why isn’t it happening everywhere, all the time? Right now, our young adolescents are growing and developing in hybrid, remote and uncertain school models. And that means they need integrated and thematic curriculum more than ever.

What is an integrated and thematic curriculum?

This image by Mark Springer nicely shows a curriculum continuum.

At the left end of the continuum is our most traditional middle school curriculum model.

And that’s where subjects are separated. They’re taught separately and have separate curriculum. It’s a middle school where students spend their days moving through 4-6 different subjects that are very discrete and separate.

Next along the continuum, interdisciplinary and integrated curriculum bring some sort of connection between each class. They bring cohesion around what a student learns.

And then at the far right end of the continuum, students don’t experience separate classes. Instead, teachers and students together negotiate themes. That’s a high degree of integration. In a typical interdisciplinary or integrated scenario, the teachers on that team or house within the middle school choose to teach their subjects around a common topic or theme.

They might even design a set of guiding questions that will drive the student inquiry and learning.

What do themes look like?

An interdisciplinary or integrated unit theme usually names a topic that transcends discipline and content. This article by Nancy Doda and Mark Springer  goes into more detail about the power of thematic teaching and learning.

Unit themes should:

  • Be drawn from the real world and reflect issues and problems of social significance.
  • Serve as a lens through which to better understand the content being addressed from a multidisciplinary perspective.
  • Inspire young adolescents to invest in and be curious about the learning. They should spark imagination.

And how do guiding questions fit in?

Integrated units usually have 2-3 guiding questions that drive the teaching and learning. And these guiding questions can also be called focusing questions. This resource What Is a Good Guiding Question? Can help teachers learn how to hone questions.

Guiding questions:

  • Have no right answer
  • Frame content in a meaningful (real-world) context
  • Make sense and can be understood by students
  • Require a multi-disciplinary approach
  • Challenge students to examine & demonstrate connections between content & larger world issues

Here are some sample guiding questions:

  • How do human choices impact our environment and planet?
  • Why is what we eat important? What factors determine the foods we eat?
  • Why do people get sick? Why is it so hard for some people to get well?
  • How does the role of the government impact our lives?

Why is curriculum integration needed now?

When we integrate curriculum, teachers work together to design curriculum around a common theme or topic. As a result, students are most likely to make connections. It’s how they see the real-world relevance to their learning. Now, if the unit also provides students with clear and easy guiding questions that cross curriculum? Then the student is more likely to be clear about what they are learning.

In a nutshell, the theme and topic should ground the teaching and learning. It should provide that significance and meaning for the student. In this unusual time – when many of our “normal” practices are disruptive, students need continuity. More than ever, students need to see the connections between what they are learning in school and what they know about the world around them.

Integrated and interdisciplinary curriculum is not new. And there are many amazing examples around us.

In Randolph Union High School, in Randolph VT, the middle school team completely transformed their approach to curriculum. They decided to dip a toe into integrated curriculum, by having their whole middle school team design a unit on clean water. Science, Social Studies, English and Math. In every class, students took a new angle on the work they’d just done in the last class. Additionally, the team used Google Classroom and hyperdocs to track student work and make adjustments to upcoming lessons based on the outcome of the previous lessons — even in another content area.

That, my friends? That is truly responsive teaching.

integrated curriculum

Meanwhile, down in Londonderry, VT, Charlie Herzog, at the Flood Brook School, has been using integrated curriculum for years. He incorporates a powerful and direct student feedback loop, to make sure students enjoy the work. As a result of recent feedback, Charlie made project-based learning more central to his integrated curriculum, to see how students responded. Turns out: they LOVED IT. 

3 ways to get started with integrated curriculum… tomorrow!

Let’s say you want to start integrating curriculum right away. You can! Here are three ideas to make it do-able.

1.Create your own theme day.

Declare that Friday, for example, is Art Around the World Day. Then, go ahead and embed that theme into all of the learning for that day. Sounds simple, but can be deeply powerful in terms of student engagement. Think of it: an extended period of time to focus on one unifying area.

2. Design your advisory plans around a weekly theme.

Advisory has curriculum, too! For one week, try building plans for your advisory curriculum around a theme. Possible themes?

  • Make Healthy Choices
  • Know Your Neighbors
  • Sing Your Own Kind of Song
  • Masks Through the Ages (Hey look: present-day relevance! Bonus!)

3. Get your team on board

Propose to your teaching team that you choose a week to commit to a team-wide theme.

Let’s say you decide the week of November 9 is a thematic curriculum week. During that week, the team will all integrate Food Systems and Nutrition into the learning. Your math colleague designs some activities around meal planning and budgeting. Your language teacher crafts a vocabulary challenge involving ordering food or buying it in the grocery store, in multiple languages. English language colleague asks students to share their favorite food systems stories; the social studies instructor leans in to provide support for students researching where their favorite foods fit into existing local food systems.

Food for thought! (ha!)



Please note: the photo that accompanies this post was taken before the current pandemic, when social distancing was not necessary.

Hitting learning targets in Vermont hunter education

My twelve-year-old son is becoming a hunter.

Myself, I’ve never even fired a gun, but Henry has been interested in learning how to hunt for several years. Given that he was born in Vermont and has a doting outdoorsman grandpa, his lifetime Vermont fishing and hunting license was purchased when he was 6 months old — despite zero input from the infant. Twelve years and many conversations later,  Henry enrolled in an early September hunter safety course in Southern Vermont.

The sticker, the patch and the handbook: Henry is an officially certified Vermont hunter.

Hunter safety courses in Vermont propose two options. Given our family’s other time commitments, we chose to enroll Henry in the homestudy program. It’s an online course which has two in-person dates once you finish your coursework. The other option is a traditional series of classroom courses — usually in the evenings and in select locations. You can find out more about Vermont Hunter Safety courses here.

In our case, Henry had until Saturday, September 7 to pass all units and the comprehensive hunter safety exam. That meant he had some significant homework to complete during the summer in August. And our goal was for him to finish all coursework before school started on August 29.

Hunter education is real learning

When we registered and logged him into the portal on my computer, I showed him how the course seemed to be set up. It was easy enough to follow, since the materials automatically advanced from lesson to lesson in each unit. As we looked closer, we realized that Henry had nine online units to complete. And sometimes, one single unit could contain as many as 13 lessons. Holy smokes! This was an enormous amount of work!

But Henry was up for it.

Even though he was committed and super motivated by the looming deadline, this online coursework took serious effort.

Each lesson required close reading.

Each lesson required comprehension of both text and video resources.

Topics ranged from hunting history to hunting ethics and responsibility. After each unit, a test demanded a demonstrated application of knowledge. As a parent, I was learning how to support my son in his most ambitious learning experience to date. But the most surprising part? None of it was done in school.

16 days of serious, rigorous out-of-school learning.

Henry receives his official certification. Photo credit: his proud grandpa.

When Henry passed the course, I saw pride and accomplishment wash over his face. My middle-schooler son set himself a goal, worked hard at the learning, and achieved his certification. As a proud mama, there are few feelings that can compare to seeing your child succeed like this.

Valuing every learning opportunity

My son’s work in hunter education moved and impressed me. Yet I can’t help but think of the large scale of this learning across the state.

In my sixteen years of teaching young adolescents, I have likely had several dozen boys and girls like Henry pass through my sixth and seventh grade classes. How many of my former students had participated in Hunter Education courses?

I vaguely remember memory a student in my literacy class asking me if his Hunter Safety course workbook could count as his nightly independent reading. And I shudder, because I know that my answer was not a resounding, “Of course it does!”

And that makes me wonder: just how many of my student hunters pushed themselves to learn this way?

Regrettably, I as their teacher knew nothing about their Herculean feats. Only now as the mother of a similar child, can I acknowledge the important and real-life learning that was taking place.

Hitting targets

Throughout this home learning scenario, I saw my son demonstrate many of his grade level proficiencies. As a seventh grader, his teachers set learning targets around reading comprehension, like: “(I) can determine the central idea of the text and recognize the development of supporting details throughout  the text and provide an objective summary”.

I watched him nail those reading targets through this Fish and Wildlife assessment.

I learned Henry is not just a dedicated student, but a good shot as well. (Photo credit: still his proud grandpa).

Don’t even get me started on how many Transferable Skills learning targets he touched. I think about this learning target, for Self-Direction: “I can demonstrate initiative and responsibility for learning” and then this one “I can persevere in challenging situations”.

Henry took complete responsibility and ownership of this learning. The course tested his attention span; he had to experiment with new comprehension strategies. He had to muster more self-direction and persistence than I’d ever seen from him. Henry hit the targets in the shooting range as well as the learning targets; he’s actually a very good shot.

But how do his teachers know about his proficiency?

Does he have opportunities to inform his school about his learning out of school?

How do we as a state implement structures to document and acknowledge the learning that children and young adults do outside of school walls?

Hunter education in a Flexible Pathway environment

When Vermont committed to the ambitious outcomes of Act 77 in 2013, the state agreed to provide flexible pathways for learning in grades 7-12. What better example of a flexible pathway experience than a Hunter Safety course?

Inviting conversations between schools and parents about learning is a key component, so I plan to share stories about his Hunter Safety education with Henry’s teacher at his upcoming student-led conference. His interest in and exploration of Vermont Hunter Education truly fits the definition of what we hope young adolescents pursue in personalized learning environments.

Additionally this September, the Vermont Agency of Education (AOE) published the Flexible Pathway Implementation Kit. This kit provides important tools to help schools develop and communicate profiles for flexible pathway opportunities.

Across the state, students like Henry are engaging in real-life learning outside of the classroom. A Vermont Hunter Safety course is just one clear example.

  • And how can teachers be informed about this learning?
  • How do they recognize and acknowledge the hard work?
  • Whose responsibility is it to manage the communication between out-of-school and in-school learning?
It’s a start, but I’d love to hear some thoughts both from #vted teachers and leaders, and also Vermont Fish & Wildlife and VT’s AOE. We’re one of the most innovative and vibrant education communities in the nation. Let’s figure this out.
a super-proud mama & Vermont educator

Who are the keepers of your town’s history?

Reviving Manchester’s past through oral histories & 3D printing

place-based learningWith support from the local historical society, 7th graders in Manchester VT set about documenting the history of individual buildings during the town’s 1910 heyday. They went on walking tours, interviewed longtime residents, dug through old historical documents and photos, produced a documentary for each building and even created 3D-printed scale models of each building, for their ongoing town map. And community members, in return, appreciated the interest these students took in the town’s history.

All of which begs the questions: What does it really mean to know your town’s history? And who knows your town’s history?



When the seventh grade team at Manchester Elementary Middle School designed this powerful place-based learning experience, students were highly engaged and motivated by the authentic task. They learned to see town elders as storytellers, keepers of Vermont’s history. They learned cartography, math for 3D printing, interviewing and video production skills. Plus they leveled up on their transferable skills by having to set up the interviews, and manage their project timelines.

But then something unusual happened. Community members became intrigued by the project. They stopped and stared at the collection of young Vermonters busily measuring buildings and shooting video interviews. And they wanted more information about the project. The dialogue expanded, until Manchester’s whole community rallied round the project, and involved themselves in supporting it. Longtime residents and newcomers alike began to see the town — and its young Vermonters — with new eyes. Local legends received validation and recognition for sharing stories of their town’s past. And the two groups, the students and the townspeople, came together in actively documenting a dormant part of Manchester’s storied past.

“These are the people in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood, in your neigh-bor-hoooood”

MEMS educators Kraig Hannum and Scott Diedrich had run the project several years ago, focusing on a different area of Manchester. They began this round by again reaching out to several local historians, including the director of the Manchester Historical Society. The director, Shawn Harrington, recommended that students focus on Manchester’s “Depot district”. At the turn of the 19th century, this neighborhood was bustling due to the railroad and businesses associated with the region’s marble industry. The Historical Society then led students on a walking tour of the district, and provided them with access to photos, maps, blueprints and other documents that could help tell the story.


As students became acquainted with the town’s history, they got into groups and each focused on a particular building or structure.

One group, for example, focused on a still existing building that once housed the town’s steam laundry. It now contains a thirty year-old fixture in the town, Kilburn’s Convenience Store. Manchester resident Cynthia Kilburn opened her store and her stories to MEMS students. She showed them around the building and told them everything she knew about the steam laundry’s vivid past. Her recollections and memorabilia formed the heart of the students’ short documentary film. They combined information from her interviews with the historical society’s archive of documents to produce a heartfelt and compelling video. It was a gift to the town and its residents.

What started as inquiry using local resources became a true partnership between the people of Manchester and the seventh graders in the town. It created a connection and sense of pride between school and community. Teacher Kraig Hannum reflected,

“I’m hoping the community will see that we still value local history – that the kids are out there still learning these things. They are not just on their technology and focused on the here and now.”

Teachers on the team worked overtime to facilitate and coordinate this unit.

Scott Diedrich teaches math and science at MEMS; Kraig Hannum teaches social studies. But for the two of them, combining the disciplines for this authentic integrated unit made sense. After all, the real world doesn’t separate out your math from your history, so why would students’ schoolwork?

As students explored the buildings that made up this important historical period, they learned about scale and measurement. When students went out into the community to interview and research the history of buildings, they also used measurement tools to capture the approximate dimensions of the existing structures.  In their groups, they entered the measurements into free Tinkercad software to design a scale miniature replica. Once they had the scaling correct, students used school 3D printers to create physical models of their buildings. With all of the students working together, the team recreated a largescale map of the Manchester’s Depot as it existed back in 1910. The map currently resides on one wall of Hannum’s classroom, but will soon be on display at the Manchester Community Library.



When all is said and done, this is a project about belonging.

It’s about the sense of belonging that students can feel when they learn more about their town – from its people. That students can feel like a part of that history that matters. And that there’s a sense of mutual respect and honor when we allow young Vermonters to learn and tell its town’s precious stories.

  • How could you engage your students in learning about their local history?
  • In what ways could you collaborate with your historical society?
  • How could 3D printing bring something to life for your students?

Be sure to check out the rest of MEMS’ hyperlocal documentaries! We can’t wait for the next installment in this vivid look at Manchester’s past.

What other ways have you helped your students dig into Vermont’s rich and fascinating past?

Getting started with cooking videos

A recipe for video-making proficiency

"Video in the Classroom"The ubiquity of the digital camera, whether mounted in smartphone, tablet or Chromebook, is getting everyone excited about making videos in the classroom. But it can be hard to translate the squealing, hand-flapping excitement of POWER into concrete, finished products. But making videos gets so much easier when you have two things: purpose, and structure.

Enter the cooking video. Now, at this point in time, the humble cooking video is a type of 21st Century lingua franca. Blame Alton Brown’s long-running Good Eats, or Tasty and their immaculate white-tiled backsplash, or simply admit that you’re off watching Tiny Kitchens videos on twitter when you should be paying attention in a staff meeting. Ahem.

So let’s jump in and get those spoons stirring. The purpose! A short, manageable student-produced video project that showcases student learning and builds video skills.

And the structure? A shot-by-shot approach. There is no need to re-invent the wheel, people. Steal from the best– Take inspiration from the wealth of cooking videos already existing out there. Note down what shots they use and be reassured that you and your students can get this done in two class periods. We teamed up with 6th graders at Currier Memorial School, in Danby VT, to test what it’s like to give students:

And you guys? THEY DID AMAZING.

Let’s tuck in. Starting with the gear:

We loaned Currier’s 6th graders the standard kit everyone here at the Tarrant Institute uses for shooting video: an iPad held in an iOgrapher case, with an external Rode Video MicPro, and either a tabletop or full-size tripod. They recorded their footage using the iOS native Camera app. Videos were edited in Apple iMovie on MacBooks. And there were three kits shared between 18 students.

The shot-by-shot approach:

Getting an iPad on a tripod is half the batter– uh, battle. After that, it’s a matter of writing a script and shooting some of the key components of the modern cooking video. You can go in order, or mix and match.

1. Introduce Your Host

A huge part of the appeal of cooking videos is that the default format centers on a friendly host, someone informed about food and cooking. When you watch a cooking video, you’re essentially welcoming that person into your home to show you how to make tasty food. And as video becomes more and more common for reflection, a key skill for students is getting comfortable on camera.

2. Currier’s innovation: The Ingredient Montage

Giving students the tools, the purpose and the structure and just hitting the deck almost nearly guarantees innovation of one form or another. In Currier’s case, they came up with the stop-motion ingredient montage as a key component of their videos, and it is simple but glorious.

3. The Action Shots: Pouring, Mixing, Whisking, Stirring, Adding, Filling and Checking Temperature

Overhead shots are your bread and butter of cooking videos! (Okay, I’ll stop.) But they actually do serve two functions in your video. One, they illustrate the step the host is describing, and two, they provide visual interest. That’s right: overhead shots are your cooking video B-roll!

4. Updates from the host

As your cooking is coming together, having the host continue to provide updates and small tips about the cooking process makes a watched pot much more interesting and informative.

Looking for a lesson plan?

Currier Memorial School educator Carrie Maus-Pugh designed this planning worksheet and checklist for students as they worked through their videos. BOOM.

Putting it all together

Amazing, right? We can smell what the Currier Kitchen is cooking and it is some glorious video work from the classroom.

The assessment rubric

Of course, as we all know with assessment, the proof is in the pudding. In this instance, the teacher was trying to integrate many concepts into this one cooking video; it combined geography, communication, poetry, science — so much good stuff!

Let’s say you just want to start with this video as a performance demonstrating clear and effective communication. Here’s a rubric that might support students and help them understand how to demonstrate proficiency:


Results! Delicious, delicious results.


And some surprises!

Sure cooking videos have their own narrative and format, that’s what the post’s about. But! Have you ever wanted to hear dumpling poetry? Good morning. Day: improved.

Have you tried shooting cooking videos with your students? How did it go? What did you learn?


Parenting a student-run business

There’s learning in the lemonade stand

project-based learning and parentsWhat might be your child’s first experience with business? That’s right: the lemonade stand.

I mean, what is cuter and more compelling than a few eager kids selling sugar water? Believe me, I’m a sucker for a lemonade stand. In fact, I’m a sap for anything created by and sold by kids. Just something about those earnest faces and homemade products makes me start peeling the bills out of my wallet.

But, what makes kids so eager to create those lemonade stands every summer?

I suspect it’s because business is power for kids.

For better or for worse, our children are raised in a commercial culture where buying and selling, profits and losses tend to rule the world. When you are small and young, you feel that power is beyond your reach. You see it belonging in an adult world, but it’s not a world that you are allowed to enter. So, when a child is allowed to enter the adult world of business, it feels like competence. And when kids are given that competence and power, the result is legitimate and passionate engagement.

This year, I took the lemonade stand concept a step further with my own child, and learned a few things along the way.

Parenting a student-run business

It was summer-time in Vermont and we were finding creative ways to pass the time. As always, I was eager to find things for my kids to do. My oldest child started a summer job for the first time and was raking in the dough, and my eight-year old daughter, Jane, was envious of his cash. I proposed that Jane enter to host a table on Kids’ Day at our local Manchester Farmer’s Market. The Gray Wolf pop-up shop was born.



All we needed was a concept, products, some marketing, and a sales approach. This was serious business! We settled on this being a store for relaxation and creativity. We would sell bath products (bath bombs, salts and scrubs), friendship bracelets and kits, and woven wall hangings. It was a pinterest dream come true…

And my daughter was fully invested.

The challenge for mom was to keep her focused and manageable. You know, making 30 bath bombs was not in the cards (we made five). As the event neared in mid-August, we needed to nail down some business details. Did we need a “store name”? This decision took the longest of all. I felt like it was akin to naming your first album. Jane chose “Gray Wolf” as the name for her shop after her favorite color and her favorite animal. Done and done.




The learning was anything but temporary.

What I saw from Jane in this farmer’s market experiment is the kind of out-of-school learning and effort that educators and parents dream about. Not only was she was motivated and engaged to succeed and make money, but she was developing essential skills. She was learning how to communicate, persuade, persist in design challenges, and implement a long-term plan.

Kids are often begging to get involved in the adult world of economy. Check out the story of Mikaila Ulner, who turned her lemonade stand into a booming business. Not only is her business financially successful, but part of her company mission involves solving a real problem in the world: helping the declining bee population. She calls herself a “social entrepreneur” and shares her business tips.



What can we learn from these examples?

We can learn:

  • That when we allow kids to participate in the global or local economy, their engagement is strong and real;
  • That when kids create and manage their own business concepts, they are learning truly important life skills;
  • And that kids are compassionate beings, and they are capable of seeing ways of creating businesses that do good things for the world.

Do your students have an interest in business? Are their schools supporting those interests?

I would love for you to share your thoughts and experiences with me.

When students share their work, it deepens the learning

Lessons from an exhibition

These days, I’ve been thinking about the reasons we ask students to share their work. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the connection that a public exhibition provides for parents and community. But as I wrote that piece, some other ideas were percolating in my brain about what happens when we share our work with others.

And then I got to experience those ideas for myself.

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Why host a whole-school exhibition?

Providing an arena for powerful family feedback

sharing STEAM projects with familiesSchool exhibitions take work. They take work to organize, schedule, promote and pull off, and they can feel overwhelming from the teacher side. But they also provide a very specific opportunity for students to stand proudly next to the results of all their hard work and say, “Yes. I did this.”

And that can be the best time and place for families to hear the pride in their student’s voice.

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A Developmental Designs approach to student-directed learning

It takes a courageous village

#everydaycourageIn order for student centered learning to happen, we have to invest in explicitly teaching (and reteaching) routines, expectations, and behaviors for learning. The beginning of the year is an ideal time to first establish a culture and community for learning.

But it takes time to learn and practice these routines.

Often, we feel the pressure of time urging us to jump right into our first units, yet without this foundation in place we can find ourselves spending valuable time redirecting student behavior, rather than focusing on content-specific learning.

It takes courage to acknowledge that we need to model, teach behaviors, and establish routines before we can ask students to learn. #everydaycourage.

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4 end-of-year activities for advisory

Acknowledge, share, recognize

end-of-year activities for advisoryThe end of the school year is every bit as happy and joyous as it is chaotic and stressful. Make sure that you slow down the hands on the clock to bring closure to your advisory. Acknowledge the successes and challenges of the year. Share the positive things you’ve all learned about each other, and recognize individual students and their stories.

Let’s see how it works in action.

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The student-centered art classroom

Structures to support student artists

student-directed learning at The Dorset SchoolArt is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination”. To teach children that expression or application sounds like a lofty endeavor. But that is exactly what art teachers do in our schools every day.

If art is the expression of creativity and imagination, then we need new models. Because art is about voice and originality. There is no right and wrong way to express your vision and creation.

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Can virtual reality teach empathy?

Google Expedition aims to connect students with refugee experience

can virtual reality teach empathy?Teaching empathy to our future citizens of the world may be the most important work that we can do as educators. And it’s not something we can force. It has to be an organic outgrowth of the other lessons we build.

Let’s look at how we might make it happen with virtual reality.

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5 Google Chrome apps and extensions for learner support

Support for visual, attention & motor control challenges

Chrome apps and extensions for differentiationRemember training Dragon Dictation to recognize your student’s voice? That technology was pretty profound in 2004, but the options now to support differentiation for learners will blow your mind. What’s better is that we don’t have to offer these technologies to identified students. Any student (or adult!) can use these apps and extensions if they are helpful.

Let’s explore some FREE Google Chrome apps and extensions that support differentiation for a variety of learners.

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How to evaluate student-led conferences

Feedback, feedback, feedback!

student-led conferences and engagement in PLPsAs educators, it’s absolutely critical that we reflect on our practices, especially new ones. As schools around the state finish with parent-teacher conferences this fall, I’d like to take a look at how to evaluate student-led conferences in particular, by checking in on how one school built feedback metrics into the process from the start.

As Emeril Lagasse would say: BAMS!

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Looking to try more student-directed learning?

Test the waters with “Genius Groups”

Start by turning your class over to students.

student-directed learning at The Dorset SchoolYou heard me. Set aside classroom time to let your students design their learning. If you’re not quite ready for a full-on Genius Hour (where each individual student pursues their own learning passion), think about dipping a toe in the water by giving groups of students the space to create and implement learning activities for the rest of the class.

Let’s look at how it’s working for one math class down at The Dorset School, in Dorset, VT.

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Power up your Advisory programs

How 30 minutes can leave a lasting impact on the day.

advisory programsAdvisory: the first 15 to 30 minutes of every middle school day, during which you’re trying to build relationships with your students and engage them in meaningful social interaction.

You also might be fighting off the administrative minutiae of the morning: Attendance. Lunch money. Permission slips. Bus notes.

Let’s look at some strategies for powering up advisory programs

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3 ways to create a student-led open house

Student leadership at a school Open House? You betcha.

#ready2launch student-led open houseYou’ve heard of student-led conferences, but how about a Student-Led Open House? An idea so strange it just might work.

When we partner with young adolescents, we give them voice and choice. We know that is one of the best practices of middle level education. In theory, schools and teachers engage in this throughout the school experience. But let’s face it, sometimes giving up control can feel a little intimidating. Let’s look at 3 easy ways to move towards a student-led open house

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Want end-of-year family involvement?

Try Passage Presentations.

family communication around education, social media and digital citizenshipThe end of every school year is tough. Teachers and administrators struggle to keep students in line, finish assessments, plan field trips, and tie up loose ends. But what’s really important? To provide closure, celebrate accomplishments, and allow students to reflect on how they’ve grown and developed. And including family in those celebrations is vital.

I had the pleasure of witnessing a particularly strong example of how well this can be implemented.

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Exploring careers in middle school

How one school tackles work-based learning

Work-based learning experiences are activities that involve actual work experience or that connect classroom learning to employment and careers. Through work-based learning experiences, educational programs become more relevant, rigorous, challenging, and rewarding for students, parents, educators, and businesses. These opportunities particularly help students make the connection between academic principles and real world applications.”

–Vermont Agency of Education

If you’re a student on the 8th grade team at Mill River Union High School in North Clarendon, Vermont, you’re leading the way in this arena: it’s tradition that every eighth grader at this school experiences a Career Exploration unit in the spring of their year.

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Helping your teen or tween with social media

To follow or not to follow… that is the question.

family communication around education, social media and digital citizenshipOh Hamlet, you would be so perplexed on this one!

I’m sometimes asked this question as the mother of an Instagram-using 12 year old myself. Parents of young adults often are conflicted about making this choice – at least, if your child is connected to social media – and likely, he or she is.

If your child does interact with others on social media platforms, how should you guide, monitor and support their presence on social media?

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Real-world problems and project-based learning

Adapting big science for a middle school classroom

real-world problems and project-based learningOne of the keys of the Project-Based Learning approach is to engage students in solving real-world problems. Ideally, students are involved in exploring relevant and authentic challenges in their community, state, nation, or world. Sometimes teachers and students have to search hard for a need or an opportunity.

But other times it falls into our laps.

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The Parent’s Role in a Student-Led Conference

How can you support your student in sharing how they learn?

the parent's role in a student-led conferenceIn recent decades, schools have turned the table on the traditional parent-teacher conference. More and more, schools are engaging the student and putting him or her in the driver’s seat at this learning conversation. A student-led conference (SLC) can be a beautiful thing. But parents sometimes struggle to understand them. They are, after all, a complete departure from what most parents experienced as kids.

So here’s a look at the parent’s role in a student-led conference.

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How parents can model healthy tech habits

Tips for when to turn off the tech

Rachel Mark, Tarrant Institute for Innovative EducationIn addition to being an educator, I’m also a parent — of three spunky children between the ages of 5 and 12. Like many people, my husband and I bring our work home with us; more specifically, work and home are often one in the same.

Though we both enjoy and appreciate the benefits of technology in both our work and personal lives, we also recognize that it’s hard to disconnect from outside activities and connect in person with the people we love. In today’s world, we both feel how difficult it is to distinguish work time from family-time and couple-time, and the Holy Grail: personal-time.

But for the sake of our children, these healthy habits are what we have to model.

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Providing support for goal-setting in a PLP

3 strategies shared by local educators

providing support for goal-setting in a PLPAt Manchester Elementary Middle School, sixth grade students speak fluently about their Personal Learning Plans (PLPs). They’ve been working on setting goals in a PLP for years; some students in this school have been doing so since third grade.

Manchester educators Seth Bonnett and Melissa Rice, share what they’ve learned about the necessary supports as teachers and students collaborate around goals.

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Screencasting as PLP reflection

Students create screencasts for student-led conferences

screencasting as PLP reflectionSixth graders at The Dorset School in southern Vermont are in their second year of working with Personal Learning Plans (PLPs). These exuberant adolescents have fond memories of one experience. Last year, these students were paired with teacher Amanda Thomas. Mid-way through the year of working with her students on PLPs, Mrs. Thomas realized that their PLP work was falling flat; she had to do more to involve them.

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Balancing screen time and family time

When to put the device down

balancing screen time and family time
Photo by Brian Dewey, CC 2.0.

Let’s face it, it’s a challenge to balance technology in our lives; but it’s essential. 

Parents and adults need to guide their young adolescents and children towards developing this balance. Arguably, we don’t have good technology habits ourselves, but the modeling and mentoring of developing a healthy relationship with technology is a critical role for parents.

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Tailoring the Emergent Project approach for middle school

Emergent Project approach works wonders in middle school

emergent project approachAn unexpected highlight of my days at the 2015 AMLE Conference in Columbus, Ohio was hearing from young Ohio teacher Noah Waspe. He and his advisors, Sue Griebling and Patti Bills at Northern Kentucky University presented their preliminary research findings about the use of a project approach investigation in his sixth grade classroom.

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Y is for Young Writers Project

Using the Young Writers Project to teach writing

using the Young Writers Project to teach writingThere are so many reasons to appreciate how we teach adolescents to write in Vermont. One of these gifts is the resource of the Young Writer’s Project.

Let’s look at what makes this online resource so powerful for educators to present as an option for students looking to explore their writers’ identities.

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S is for Student-Led Conferences

Steps to a student-led conference

steps to a student-led conferenceSome of my most poignant moments as a teacher occurred around the table of a Student Led Conference. Truly. My eyes have welled with tears at the sheer emotion shared. I’m a believer in giving students the voice and the power to be at this table.

It requires a strong level of planning and structuring by the teacher, though.

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O is for Online Collaboration

Online collaboration extends student learning networks

online collaboration extends student learning networksOnline collaboration takes on new significance as students extend their learning network in conjunction with more personalized and meaningful learning: they can use online networks to learn with mentors, with community partners, remote collaborators and with asynchronous and synchronous group work.

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L is for Learning Management System (LMS)

What can you do with an LMS?

what can you do with an LMSLMS stands for Learning Management System. An LMS is an application for planning, delivering, managing, and assessing a learning process.

Likely, your school or district will choose which commercial LMS package to deploy (Canvas, Haiku, Schoology and Google Classroom are a few), but how you use it is entirely up to you.

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I is for Identity

3 tech-rich strategies for exploring identity with students

identity in PLPs

“Who am I?” is the question at the heart of the adolescent mind. Almost all challenges, tests, and dilemmas relate to the central theme of identity.

Young adolescents seek to find answers to questions like, “Where do I fit in?”, “What makes me different or special?” and “What do I believe?”

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Reading for fun and growth this summer

Howdy. I’m Rachel – new Professional Development Coordinator at the Tarrant Institute. I live in the beautiful southern part of Vermont and am thrilled to join the staff of TIIE after 16 years of teaching literacy and social studies to amusing adolescents.

Typically, I devour books during the summer. One of my favorite things to do is to ignore the demands of my children, my household, and my job, and just get lost in a book. It is summer, after all.

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