All posts by Susan Hennessey

Susan Hennessey is a reformed librarian and current professional development coordinator with a particular interest in digital credentials and scavenger hunts. She's addicted to flavored almonds, salty, crunchy snacks, and Google Hangouts.

Voices Heard: learning from our students

 In the past few months, we’ve been meeting with groups of students from six Vermont schools, asking them about their experience this year. What might next year look like if they had a say? Inspired by the Imagining September Project –the MIT Teaching Systems Lab  & Harvard’s Graduate School of Education that gathers student input to imagine what school might be like in September–we set out to conduct our own mini September Project. 

We have access to students who are accustomed to talking with their teachers and each other about what’s working and what needs work in their particular setting. As co-facilitators of the Learning Lab–a network of educators conducting classroom research in partnership with their students and each other–we connect educators and students in a community committed to frank conversations that honor, and help improve, teaching and learning now and throughout the school year.


Most recently, we’ve met with students in three contexts:


  • Learning Lab Student Summits (Putting the Pieces Back Together…Better: Student Summit Agenda), which conducted three rounds of conversations, each answering one of our three questions: 
    • Has the pandemic caused you to realize that there are parts of school that you were taking for granted that you now have a new appreciation for? What are the parts of school you’ve grown to appreciate?
    • Are there silver linings to the pandemic, new ways of living and learning in the world that you would like to see continue and evolve next year? What might those parts be? 
    • Looking back over this last year, what are you most proud of?  
  • Single teachers who were curious to learn:
    • What’s working for you as a learner? What can I do to improve your experience?
  • Middle School Team & Principal who wanted to know:
    • What are some of the things that you do in school that you enjoy or that are helpful for you when you’re learning?


With Them

Something unexpected happened with each group we listened to. Toward the end of each conversation, we asked if there was anything else they wanted to share. To our delight, individuals in each group conveyed a deep gratitude for us asking these questions and listening intently to their answers. We’re not talking about a casual end-of-conversation “thanks”, but an effusive outpouring of appreciation. Most importantly, when they learned that we planned on sharing these findings with a wider audience of educators, they were blown away. 


We shouldn’t have been so surprised. Throughout the year-long Learning Lab experience, students provide formative feedback to their teachers to help them improve. Some students even join a Site-Based Sounding Board team, who occasionally meet with their teacher to make sense of recent data. We’ve witnessed first-hand the enthusiasm of listened-to learners. 


Their enthusiasm, in part, stems from the novelty of the experience. Most students, be they adults or youngsters, are not part of an ongoing conversation with their teacher and their classmates about how things are going and what might make them better. They might be asked to complete an end-of-course evaluation, after the ship has sailed and ended its journey. As John Hattie puts it, “Assessment is something we have done to students rather than with them.” 


Their Ideas

Thayer, a student at Orleans Elementary School, puts it a little differently. As educators consider how to move forward next year, he advises that they aim for balance. “Balance is key, a mix of what students want to do and teachers need to do in a great structure fixes problems.” 


Our most recent round of conversations with students kept returning to this idea, that there needs to be more give and take for learners to experience the kind of agency that keeps humans engaged. And this affirms one of the most important findings we’ve taken from five years of Learning Lab. Doing assessment to learners, rather than with them, poisons even the most well-designed learning well. But making the shift from doing assessment “to them” to doing assessment “with them” makes a profound, positive impact on learning. Making assessment an ongoing conversation, it turns out, improves the quality of the learning well.


Here are three patterns identified across all of our recent conversations with students:


New appreciations for this thing we call school

One student shared he took for granted “having the ability to go to different places for different classes.” Another surprised himself with an awareness of how much he appreciated being in school 5 days a week. One student shared her appreciation for her teachers’ ability to create engaged and authentic learning experiences despite the constraints. “Our teachers do 3 different things in humanities that teach us real world problems and work toward changing our school’s environment.” While another saw teachers’ supports in a new light. “I appreciate the mini-lesson and the teacher support we have in person.” And some mentioned the collective efforts to keep each other healthy and safe. “People are more considerate and aware about how what they were doing could affect other people.” “Better hygiene!”


Pride in their growth in terms of time management and self direction skills

“I feel like I’ve gotten to figure out what learning environments work best for me, and I’ve gotten better at time management” For some following this thread they pointed to teachers’ efforts to publish work in advance. That made it “easier to catch up on missing school work because everything is available online.” While many of us are zoomed out, some students found technology to be useful. “I like using more technology to do more things. It feels more efficient. Sharing our work visually on the computer has been cool.”


Breaks, breaks, and more breaks

One group all agreed that Brain Breaks were a key to their ability to engage and stay focused. “Brain breaks are very helpful when you want to chill. Or to have some time to breathe without a mask.” “We need more breaks. School limits them now to snack, lunch, and a brain break at end of day.”

How to strike the right balance between on-task time and breaks? One student offered his perception that “school can only do so much in the way you want it to go. It’s a place for learning even though we want breaks some time.” But teachers might consider “a break day every third Friday: with no work. I’m not sure if we are allowed to have no work.” Imagine the informal learning that takes place during these breaks! Time for consolidating learning and engaging in relationship building. We think they’re onto something here.


Courageous Conversations

It can be scary to invite students into an ongoing conversation about how their learning is going and what adjustments we and they can make to make things better. It takes courage to listen and really hear feedback that challenges us to change. 


But when we walk this walk with our learners, the journey improves. We are relieved of the crushing load of doing all of the planning, teaching, assessing, and reporting. And students are more engaged and doing more, achieving the kind of balance that Thayer and so many of his peers described. 


Learn more about how to make assessment an ongoing conversation. Check out the resources we’ve included below. And if you’re interested in joining a network of educators committed to this approach to teaching and learning, learn more here. 


Bill Rich & Susan Hennessey

Some Resources

Results of a state-wide effort to gather student voice from Up for Learning’s Youth Advisory Council


Some student responses from the Imagining September Project


Why Should We (& How Can We) Involve Students in the Assessment Process?

This seven minute mini-lesson/screencast describes the assessment rut we can easily fall into. It offers a few ideas and resources for heading for higher ground.



Share with your students the latin derivation for assessment (to sit beside / to sit with in counsel or office). Propose to your learners a plan for moving away from grading / scoring everything. Rather, aim towards an ongoing conversation about what’s working and what needs work–in their work and ours.  


Students Own Their Progress – watch 6th grade students track their strengths and challenges as they analyze their own data. 


3 ways to capture student reflection/feedback in google slides


When Students Track Their Progress


Six Powerful Learning Strategies You Must Share with Your Students

A fantastic resource brought to you by the remarkable Cult of Pedagogy, Jennifer Gonzales’ website. She curates resources that support “crazy good teaching.’ 


Trust the Science: Using brain-based learning to upgrade our educational OS


Giving Students a Say: Smarter Assessment Practices to Empower and Engage

Myron Dueck’s wonderful book about how to partner with students throughout the assessment process. 


Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us

Daniel Pink’s compelling exploration of what motivates humans. The counterintuitive findings explain why a compensation approach to assessment leads to low-level compliance rather than deep engagement.

SEL and mindfulness with the Learning Lab

Drew Kutcher, an art teacher in her first year teaching at Proctor High School has built Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and mindfulness into her practice. She recognized early on that her 7th grade students were struggling with the transition into the high school. They could benefit with her guidance ways to find calm and stay centered in this tumultuous year.

So, she started building intentional Social Emotional Learning (SEL) mindfulness practices into her classroom routines. And the results spread.

It all started with a curious question

Drew participated in Learning Lab, a year-long networked practicum.

A key component of Learning Lab is forming a compelling inquiry question. A question that feels important to answer in collaboration with students. 

From Drew:

My inquiry question is about mental health and incorporating mental health techniques into my teaching practice. More specifically I’m focusing on how we can stay happy, calm, creative, and connected this year. 

I’m feeling good about this question. This is something I care about.

We don’t incorporate enough social emotional learning techniques at the secondary level. I’m happy to see that this is changing but I want to do my part to put that at the forefront of my practice, especially this year.

Currently I’m working with my 7th grade class to try out different techniques with them. Mondays are spent practicing mindfulness deliberately for the first 10 minutes of class.”



“We have done different writing prompts, I have sent out google forms, and also asked them to make different drawings related to their emotions. The data I have collected derives from those exercises.”

What do we mean when we talk about social emotional learning?

Drew drew upon CASEL’s definition of social emotional learning to inform her work:

“Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” –CASEL

Students at the center

 “A huge bright spot for me is that as a group we have come together to support each other with any anxieties we are feeling or troubles we are having in our daily lives. One of my students runs a ‘mental check’ every day (this was her idea) where she asks questions at the beginning of class like:

  • Are you feeling nervous or anxious today?
  • Have you told someone you loved them today?
  • Have you drank water?
  • Did you eat breakfast?

This is something that happened naturally.

But now if she forgets to do it the other students are like :

“Hey what about the mental check-in?”

I think they look forward to it now which is great!

Plus, I always participate myself because I like to be open with them about my own emotions and how I process things. It’s important to model a healthy relationship with your emotions for the kids.” 

From classroom practice to school-wide impact

Drew was concerned. Her social emotional focus was working.  Yet it was still separate from the art projects themselves, and she wanted to tie the two together.

But as she worked on that, word spread.

Drew’s administration was eager to learn more and asked Drew to present her work at a faculty meeting recognizing teachers’ social emotional needs as well as outcomes from her own practice and results from a school-wide student survey.


Next steps to keep up the momentum

Drew shared some classroom activities to encourage other Proctor educators to continue focusing on social emotional learning: 

In addition, she joined her district’s recovery team with a focus on social emotional learning:

“I am now working to implement a summer program that combines art making with a focus on mental and physical wellness that is a part of our district recovery plan. I am also on the district task force for SEL Recovery and have made several surveys that have gone out to all of the middle school students in the district as well as all of the parents in the district for data collection so that we can get feedback from our communities on what they need in terms of SEL recovery. The SEL committee which consists of myself plus a few other staff at Proctor have created SEL focused programming for the whole school, we are hoping to really ramp up our programming for next year but we are starting small this year with just Mindfulness Monday’s.” 

“All of these things started with Learning Lab, I had an interest in mental wellness before but participating in Learning Lab gave me the space to fully explore this interest and bounce ideas off of other more experienced teachers and I think it has really helped me grow as a person and a teacher. I don’t think I would have taken on the leadership roles that I have if I hadn’t participated in LL.”

What can you do?

How can you incorporate SEL into your daily curriculum and lesson planning? What did other teachers in your school district do to meet the social emotional needs of their students and colleagues this year?

And more than that:

Are you interested in getting support pursuing a yearlong action research project with your practice? Interested in joining a network of like-minded educators committed to participatory action research? Now accepting applications for the 2021-2022 Learning Lab cohort. 

Where can you take your teaching next?

Hyperdocs 101

What in the world are hyperdocs?

A hyperdoc is a mini lesson. Almost like a small, self-directed learning module. It usually lives in a Google Doc, or Google Slides, but instead of being simply a collection of resources, it asks students to perform tasks or respond, directly in the doc. It provides scaffolded directions in a way that normal worksheets don’t.

Why hyperdocs?

Our students need us more than ever to provide clarity about what we want them to know, understand, and do in any learning opportunity. Without in-person cues, prompts, body language, routines? Students learning in hybrid and remote environments can get easily lost. But hyperdocs can help us provide clarity.

A well-designed hyperdoc gives learners what they need to succeed: a sequence of learning activities that move toward a clear target.

Rather than a one-off lesson that might not feel connected, we provide context with a clear learning target and easy-to-follow instructional steps with a hyperdoc. And, our learners can experience control over path, place, and pace in our unit or mini-lesson with the scaffolding provided. 

What does a hyperdoc look like?

Here’s a sample hyperdoc that you can run off with: it focuses on Nearpod.


How do I make a hyperdoc?

You can make a hyperdoc from scratch or explore pre-created templates. Simply make a copy and edit it for your context and your learners’ needs. The best hyperdocs build in multimedia rich resources, opportunities for individual practice, and collaborative application along the way.

We created our Nearpod example from one of the templates on Explore, Explain, Apply.

We organized each of the resources and activities under one of those categories so that you, as a learner, could work through the activity of learning Nearpod under a scheme that we feel simplifies the overarching learning arc.

Too many words for a Monday morning. Shoot me a video.

You got it, chief.

Better yet, grab the resources from my recent webinar, How to Use Hyperdocs & Choice Boards for Remote Learning. Here are the slides:

And the recording will be available on 11/30/2020.



Building a blended & hybrid teaching toolkit

Hybrid and remote teaching environments require us to tap into everything we know about designing engaging and targeted learning opportunities. At the same time, the contexts are often unfamiliar. So what we need is a blended and hybrid teaching toolkit.

When looking to design a successful remote or hybrid learning experience, consider thinking about what shifts you’re going to make by starting with educator proficiencies. Proficiencies help you build your own skillsets.

Educator proficiencies for remote & hybrid teaching practices

Here’s what they all look like as a rubric:




I invest time to build and maintain relationships with my students.
  • co-constructing norms and agreements with them and consistently revisit and readjust.
  • learning about their interests and connecting them to my curriculum.
  • Establishing credibility and building trust
I establish clear learning expectations and ensure my students and caregivers know what success looks like. 
  • Sharing via pre-recorded lessons & directions
  • Distance learning weekly planner/calendar access.
  • Providing annotated exemplars
I design instruction that includes demonstrating examples of what students will learn.
  • Screencasts
  • Peer-to-peer collaboration via jigsaws & reciprocal teaching
  • Coaching/facilitating
  • Plenty of opportunities to practice
I select digital tools and resources that are developmentally appropriate with minimal adult assistance and have accessibility features.
  • Closed captions
  • Text designed for screen reader software
  • Faces on video enlarged for readability
  • Not using color change to indicate semantic meaning, etc.
I use methods of measuring the impact of my teaching to  understand each students’ progress and achievement and adjust my teaching accordingly.

I provide feedback students use to become their own teachers so they are assessment capable learners. I include success criteria, feedback about process, and self-regulatory feedback.
  • self-grading quizzes with feedback
  • audio & text comments
  • workshop conferencing
I intentionally amplify student agency by building in choice of subject, path, and pace.
I design opportunities for students to learn from and with community.

This set of proficiencies was drawn from resources in The Distance Learning Playbook: K-12 and Aurora Institute’s National Standards for Quality Online Courses.

Now, let’s unpack these ideas a little further.

I invest time to build and maintain relationships with my students.

One way is to invite students to collaborate in building norms and agreements. And just as importantly, revisiting and readjusting these based on lived experiences.

When we take time to learn about students’ interests and connect these to our curricular design, we build trust in our learning community. Take a look at Bill Ferriter’s Differentiation Learning Profile as a way to gather information from your students. Next, pull from this Imagining School Survey to develop your own questions. And finally, be sure to share the results you’ve culled and the steps you’ve taken with your students. That closes the loop. Students need to know their feedback impacts your practice. They need to see it in action.

Best Practices for Videoconferencing with Students and 14 Socially Distanced Advisory Activities provide you with a ton of ways to create trust in your hybrid community of learners.

I establish clear learning expectations and ensure my students and their families know what success looks like.

One way to provide clarity is to record video lessons for learners to view and revisit. Craft them to provide clear directions, suggested paths, and pacing guides. Consider Using Learning Targets with Students to with goal-setting. Then check out Strategies for Fostering a Productive Distance Learning Experience from the folks at Getting Smart. They advocate:

“Ways to create comprehensive schedules for students; do not rely on families to piece together emails and calendars from multiple sources. And if something changes, make sure that families can easily identify the most up-to-date information.”

How to do this? One middle-level team at Randolph Union Middle School used integrated curriculum to clarify learning expectations. The whole team leaned in on designing a unit that tied curriculum to one compelling theme: clean drinking water.

I design instruction that includes demonstrating examples of what students will learn. 

Learners need to know exactly what success looks like. Using screencasting tools to walk through what makes good artifacts is critical. Design for peer-to-peer collaboration and reciprocal teaching by Improving Student Collaboration in Remote and Hybrid Learning. Use Collaborative Tools like Google Docs & Slides, Jamboard, and Padlet.

Wear both your coach and facilitator hats and give students feedback that includes concrete ways to improve. Also, students need plenty of time for practice and retakes. At Edmunds Middle School, in Burlington Vermont, Sarah Wright rethought assessment and created a self-paced Spanish class. Her students could re-take exams as many times as possible. They worked towards proficiency as it’s defined in the real world: the ability to communicate.

And finally, consider ways for Designing Breakout Rooms for Maximum Engagement using protocols as well as these 6 Ways to Help Students Create the Best Breakout Rooms.

I select digital tools and resources that are developmentally appropriate with minimal adult assistance and have accessibility features.

A plethora of educational technology tools exist. And many actually facilitate teaching and learning. Why not stash Technology Tools Recommendations for Remote environments  in your hybrid teaching toolkit? Additionally, rich content resources are available through these Open Educational Resources:

I use methods of measuring the impact of my teaching to understand each students’ progress and achievement 

Technology tools like Peardeck, Nearpod, Edpuzzle, self-graded quizzes in Google Forms, and Mentimeter engage learners in providing feedback loops to inform next steps. Formative assessment is key to this feedback cycle. Check out this post to guide you in Where are we with formative assessment  for remote learning? Then consider visiting 75 Digital Tools for Formative Assessment from the NWEA to explore ways to invite your learners to provide valuable information. Extend your feedback loop into video watching by looking at How to Use Edpuzzle for Remote Learning and then go deeper into exploring with this Choiceboard for Digital Tools for Active Learning and Formative Assessment in Remote Environments

I provide feedback students use to become their own teachers so they are assessment capable learners

Teachers provide feedback about process, self-regulatory feedback and includes success criteria. Start by reviewing this Create a Feedback Rich Environment hyperdoc.

I intentionally amplify student agency by building in choice of subject, path, and pace 

How might you design and plan for engaging and relevant learning opportunities for your students in these trying times? Consider 6 Student-Centered Projects for the First Week of School. These two hyperdocs  Coherent Unit Design &Meaningful, Relevant, & Significant Learning  can lead you through ways to plan. Or you might want ot increase your capacity to offer choice by reviewing this hyperdoc on Pace & Path Choice with Playlists. Want to know more about student interest projects to increase student ownership and agency? Check out The Power of PIPs in a Pandemic.

I design opportunities for students to learn from and with community.

Remote and hybrid learning can leave us feeling isolated from our local communities. Yet, the constraints of virtual engagement also provide opportunities to connect virtually in new ways. Consider the following resources to help you connect your learners with a wider audience of caring and eager adults:

Want to dive deeper?


6 ways to help students create the best Breakout Rooms

Those of us holding virtual synchronous meetings with our learners recognize the need to build in opportunities to collaborate. Just like in our face-to-face classrooms, we value small group interactions. And that leads us to ask: how best to facilitate effective small group work in our distance and hybrid instruction? Just as collaborative small group sessions work best when we provide clear routines, structures, and role expectations, the same principles apply to online spaces. Let’s look at six ways we can set up maximum engagement and learning in Zoom Breakout Rooms.

1. Invite students into spaces based on their readiness level and work preference

How do you invite students to choose which group to join? As you think about yourself as a learner, what makes you feel welcome? What catches your eye and pulls you in? To be clear, let’s move beyond joining a space where all your friends are. Instead, what are some ways you can help students think about where they are as learners on a particular day? And how much learning are they capable of right now, given everything else going on? In a way, we can compare this to digital flexible seating.

One of the ways to create engaging breakout rooms is to collect that self-assessment data from learners. Throw up a quick poll, or a compelling graphic. And when we say “poll”, know that even something as simple as Jam or Not A Jam? provides you with a good idea of who’s bringing the energy, and who needs a little space.

In this first example, educator Mollie Safran (@safsocialstudy) put up a graphic that asked students to choose a breakout room based on how much explicit support they wanted from the instructors.

And then in this next example, Shannon Surell (@Ms_Surell) created a graphic that asks students to choose a breakout room based on their energy level. Because it’s important that students choose their speed.


2. Clarify roles expectations

Jessica DeMink-Carthew assigns specific roles to her students when sending them off into breakout channels in Microsoft Teams. Why? Because providing the best just-in-time support for students in breakout rooms helps them know they’re in the right place. Jessica anchors the class through running each session using a set of Google Slides. She does this by including the names of each person assigned to each group so students know in advance with whom they’ll be working that day. She creates clear roles to include a Recorder, whose role it is to take notes so she has an easy way, without interrupting the workflow to check in on each group’s progress.

Here’s a  short walkthrough of her process:

3. Use protocols

Troy Hicks describes multiple ways to facilitate breakout room work using protocols based on the size of the group and length of time together in this post:  Designing breakout rooms for maximum engagement.

His main goal is to create structures that “smooth out the roadblocks and provide space for others to lead via break out room structures.” If you want to learn more about using protocols with students, check out this book Protocols in the Classroom 

4. Provide collaborative graphic organizers

Consider creating clear tasks in the break out room by inviting collaboration in graphic organizer work. Matt Miller (@DitchThatTxtbk) shares 25 Free Google Drawings Graphic Organizers to help students work together and organize their thoughts. “Paper versions of graphic organizers can do a nice job of that. But by making them digital in Google Apps, they instantly become customizable. Multiple people can collaborate on them in real time.” As a result, you can save yourself loads of time by getting an editable copy of one of these templates and assigning it to small groups in breakout rooms.

5. Provide choice and structured activities through stations rotations

Stations Rotations provide a facilitated means to foster communication and collaboration among students in breakout rooms. And so this structure allows us to differentiate that learning as well. Caitlin Tucker describes the process in Station Rotation in an Era of Social Distancing. And Jordy Tollefson and Marilyn McCalister share their detailed approach to Virtual Stations Rotations in this Google Slide Deck. Check out their group norms, sample schedules, and meeting structures.

6. Scaffold teamwork

Start with low stakes projects. Help students understand the elements of effective teaming as an entry point for project work. Provide an inviting way to practice by getting to know each other.

Carla Bevins describes how she creates a first team project where she asks small teams to learn about Tuckman’s Stages of Group Formation. And, to share the results of their own conflict management and leadership self assessments before they launch into a small group project.

My colleague Audrey Homan, in her post on Best Practices for Videoconferencing with students writes we want to design spaces where

“Every student wants to take part in the conversation. That every student appreciates every other student, and appreciates this works is currently very difficult, but that these remote learning spaces can offer a place to be centered as a learner, and valued as a person.”

Providing supported facilitation in breakout rooms is one sure step toward that goal.

Want to learn more?

Check out Katie Martin’s 5 Ways That Teachers are Using Breakout Rooms to Create More Learner-centered Experiences in Distance Learning.

And Eric Sheninger’s advice for Remote Learning Collaboration Strategies:

Which of these routines or strategies might you employ to center your learners in breakout spaces?

The power of thematic and integrated learning at Randolph Middle School

Middle level educators at Randolph Union Middle School believe integrated and thematic learning help students see their place and role in the world. And a shift to remote learning meant they’d simply have to be more creative and coordinated to make it work!

Given the challenge to provide instruction remotely, the team agreed they needed to make learning expectations manageable and meaningful. A thematic unit became the focal point to end this year well for their students. And the collaborative effort was worth it in more ways than one.

Why implement thematic/integrated units?

Here’s what the 7th grade teacher team believes:

“When curriculum is integrated, it is no longer a list of skills and information that must just be learned for a test. When learning is tied to a specific theme, issue, problem, etc., students are able to naturally see the interconnected way information and skills from the different subjects work together. The study of themes and world problems relevant to the lives of students increases their motivation and engagement with the material.”

In addition, developmentally appropriate, relevant integrated curriculum:

  • fosters collaboration
  • deepens students’ critical thinking abilities
  • highlights transferable skills


thematic and integrated learning


Launching remote learning through a thematic unit: Is access to water a basic human right?

Once all agreed on the commitment to keep the thematic integration going, they all selected the essential question. Their students would end their 7th grade year learning enough about water from the different discipline lenses to answer the question: Is access to water a basic human right?

Each week, the team shared an overview calendar of assignments with students and families. Students recognized that, although they were doing school work from each subject area, they were working on the Water unit as a unifying force.

thematic and integrated learning


Transforming teaming routines

Each member of the team used Google Classroom to deliver instructional materials and receive student work. Yet, they recognized, an efficient workflow through Google Classroom wasn’t enough to help students and their families navigate assignments remotely. Each crafted hyperdocs containing the week’s worth of work. That way, learners could see the scope of required work and plan accordingly. Here is an example of a math assignment hyperdoc:

thematic and integrated learning


In addition, the team created a website for easy access to all assignments and supporting resources.

thematic and integrated learning


The best benefit to the teachers on the team in this thematic alignment work?  It incentivized them to streamline delivery for students, and to plan instruction and assessment practices in a way they’d never done before.

The power of teacher collaboration

Weekly they carved out time as a team to share drafts of the remote lesson plans they were getting ready to launch this thematic and integrated learning unit. Tuning together meant that each was able to hear feedback from their colleagues about content, work load, and clarity of delivery.

  • Who might need to scale back?
  • Who might need to add more details, more diagrams, visuals and scaffolds to support self-direction?

thematic and integrated learning

Example of science activity improved to include diagrams & time-lapse video 

Teaming at its best

Since they saw the workload for the week assembled in one place, they could make group decisions about the reasonableness of the student workload.

Example from group feedback:

  • hyperdoc formatting ideas included adding icons to slides to indicate if students would need to listen, read, or do.
  • include time recommendations for assignments so students could plan effectively
  • shorten instructional videos into chunks and clarify instruction

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Other benefits of taking the time to tune together

Weekly tuning helped them be better advisors. During office hours each team member could support their students’ struggles and answer questions from other classes. Why? Because they were familiar with their colleague’s instructional plans and expectations in a way they’d never experienced before.

Tuning work can be intimidating. It takes time out of incredibly packed days. Yet, because of its impact, they value it above almost every other meeting at this point in this tumultuous year. Never again, Alyssa Matz the social studies teacher on the team shared, will she go back into a planning silo. She’s recognized the immense value in collaboratively sharing and critiquing lesson planning around a thematic topic for her growth and for the benefit of her students. The team agreed with her to never go back to individualized, discipline specific instruction!  How cool is that.

Reflecting on thematic remote instruction

Looking back, the team saw students making connections, voluntarily without prompting, between content areas. Helping student make connections is a primary goal of the humanities curriculum. The intentional alignment of content clearly affected learners’ ability to synthesize. And the intentional integration gave students a framework to build the new learning upon. They recognized how key ideas in the shared reading of A Long Walk to Water, the science experiments on the water cycle, and the study of border disputes all played a role in their assignments. Even in math!

All agreed the power of teaming in this way was a game changer.

How might you incorporate thematic instruction in your work with students?

How to use Google Keep for video note-taking

A recent study from Common Sense Media confirms what those of us who spend time with young adults already believe to be true.

“Teens clearly prefer a visual medium for learning about the news.” A majority (64%) say that “seeing pictures and video showing what happened” gives them the best understanding of major news events, while just 36% say they’d prefer to read or hear the facts about what happened.”

Why not then, given the implications, teach students the listening, viewing, and analyzing skills necessary to engage with media effectively?

Integrated studies and socratic seminars to the rescue

Through their integrated studies block, Randolph Middle School 8th grade team set out to do just that. At Randolph Union Middle School, all teachers commit to using the high leverage practice of socratic seminars to provide plenty of opportunities for students to practice active listening and discussion skills.

A socratic seminar engages students in a content-focused and evidence-based discussion with their peers. Marisa Kiefaber, a 5th grade teacher at Rutland Town School, believes “Socratic seminars provide students with opportunities to practice and improve transferable skills, such as clear and effective communication and responsible and involved citizenship, and self-direction.” 

The Randolph team set out to engage learners in an exploration of why certain societies fail. Students were to engage in multi-media rich research to prepare for the seminar. All agreed to provide structure and to scaffold skills necessary to be active listeners and engaged discussants.

First they practiced conversation starters and ways to maintain conversations once started. “We had some lighthearted convos and moved into some heavier philosophical themes as a first step. Our intention was to somewhat align with SBAC listening tasks as well.”

The power of scaffolds to remove barriers for all learners

Katy Novak advises teachers to scaffold listening skills.

“Students need to know the difference between the various types of listening in order to use them effectively and observe the world around them. Teach them the difference between active listening and cognitive listening and provide them with numerous options to practice. When cognitive listening students make inferences and generalizations, take notes, and formalize what they learned to make learning more permanent” (Innovate Inside the Box).

To build these important listening skills and establish a shared background knowledge base, Brian Kennedy, the social studies teacher on the team, selected six videos for students to watch. He created a time indexed note-taking sheet to help students be cognitive listeners and active viewers of media.


Building upon successes

A Universal Design for Learning Guideline is to “build fluencies with graduated levels of support for practice and performance. Students learned to see videos as a valid research resource for their socratic seminar through this structured note-taking exercise. A next step in building fluency is to provide direct instruction in note-taking as students begin their own research. Videos, podcasts and other forms of multi-media help them to gather evidence to answer the question why societies fail. And, teens prefer a visual medium, so it’s a win-win for all.

In the past, the 8th grade team asked students to use a tool for this called but discovered this time round the app is no longer available. Luckily they are a flexible bunch and from their own research, they found an alternative.

Google Keep kept them going

Watch youtube videos and practice cognitive listening by taking notes while viewing with Google Keep. Students install the Google Keep Chrome Extension. Here’s how.

How to take notes:

  • start watching the video,
  • pause at an important point in the narration,
  • click on the Google Keep extension icon in the upper right-hand corner of the browser window
  • Keep opens a note in that corner & automatically includes the video hyperlink in the note
  • type time stamp & note
  • repeat

Randolph teachers instruct students to include the timestamp. That way, during the socratic seminar, they have ready access to key evidence from their video-based research.

Google Keep notes can be used much like index cards to structure research. Tag each note to a topic or concept using the labeling feature. In addition, use the color-coding feature for organizational purposes. A bonus: add a collaborator to the notes for group projects and for keeping teachers in the loop of note-taking progress.

Keep removing barriers

Teachers may want to offer additional ways, using Google Keep, to support all learners in developing note-taking skills. The Google Keep app allows a note-taker to use the audio feature within the app for voice-to-text functions. Or a student can use the phone’s voice-to-text function to do the same thing.

Watch this short video to see the Google Keep mobile app in action.


Keep up with all that Google Keep has to offer

Want to know more about Google Keep?  Dottotech reviews some of Google Keep’s other features. Or to use other tools to help students take notes while viewing media, check out this Take Notes Guide.

Bigger implications

From the same Common Sense Media study quoted above we learn that:

Teens get their news more frequently from social media sites (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) or from YouTube than directly from news organizations. More than half of teens (54%) get news from social media, and 50% get news from YouTube at least a few times a week. Fewer than half, 41%, get news reported by news organizations in print or online at least a few times a week, and only 37% get news on TV at least a few times a week.

It is our job as educators to help create engaged citizens and critical thinkers. One way is to provide opportunities for students to practice media literacy skills.

“Being media literate includes the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms.”

And, a key part of that practice is plenty of opportunity to apply what they’ve learned through respectful and evidence-based discussions.

How might you help students learn the skills of effective media consumption and provide ways to safely practice such important life skills?

How to change assessment & grading practices

…in a middle level math classroom

Deirdre Beaupre, a 7th grade math teacher at Lamoille Union Middle School took a deep dive into proficiency work. And she invited her students to join her along the journey. Deirdre participated in Learning Lab VT last year to explore how best to change her practice in a proficiency-based and personalized learning environment. How to change assessment and grading practices?

Continue reading How to change assessment & grading practices

Top 10 ways to spend a snow day

#1. Making lists

As a fan of lists, I went to bed Monday night mulling over my top 10 list of why snow days and school closings are a miraculous gift (to most of us)! High on the list is negotiating with my 17-year-old daughters on times to wake them. Glad to say option three worked for all of us Tuesday: no need to wake anyone. And yes, sleeping in made it pretty high on my top ten list.

#2. Talking with my 17-year-old daughters
#3. Sleeping in (after talking with my daughters)
#4. Writing blogposts

#5. Thinking about inquiry questions for action research

When educators apply for Learning Lab VT, they identify the most pressing question on their minds about best ways to implement personalized and proficiency-based learning. The one they’d like to spend a full year answering with their students

An inquiry question forms the backbone of action research in the classroom. It guides the full shape of the research to come, and forms a foundation for the educator and students to build ongoing research. Learning Lab VT is a program with action research at its heart — action research being performed daily, and with the help of visiting educators and students.

And field trips! (Hey come visit us!)

#6. Planning my next visit to a Learning Lab VT site

How inquiry questions work in Learning Lab VT

Learning Lab VT is a statewide learning community of educators curious about personalized learning. Participating Vermont educators and leaders open their classrooms and schools to those interested in seeing what’s working when implementing personalized learning. They spend a full year pursuing an action research project, and meeting at intervals — both online and in-person. They commit to performing their action research with an open door for visitors and with complete transparency to their students. So choosing a powerful inquiry question is key.

#7. Reflecting my own inquiry question as one of the coordinators of Learning Lab VT

When educators apply for Learning Lab VT, they identify the most pressing question on their minds about best ways to implement personalized and proficiency-based learning. The one they’d like to spend a full year answering with their students related to the Learning Lab’s program questions:

  • Why personalization?
  • What, exactly, are teachers and students doing in settings that are becoming increasingly personalized? And to what end?
  • How might our findings be helpful to each other, our colleagues, and the field of education in general?

Learning Lab VT 3.0 questions


  • “How can students drive the learning in the classroom, in a way that is equitable to all learners?  How does the democratic curriculum process work, and what level of release does it take?” — Robin Bebo-Long
  • “How can we empower student voice and facilitate student-centered learning while exploring themes of social justice and equity?”  Andrea Gratton & Kyle Chadburn
  • “How can goal setting happen in a way that inspires students and helps them own their learning?” — Cassie Santo
  • “How can a student-negotiated curriculum model provide the opportunity for personalization for students at all levels and allow them to take ownership over their own learning?” Evy Gray
  • “How does a guided structure for project based learning help students make real-world connections across all disciplines?” —Stephanie Zuccarello, Elizabeth Emerson, Jennifer MacDonald & Bill Fishell
  • “How can a project based unit designed to address the UN Sustainable Development Goals foster student engagement and increase personalization for students?” — Amanda Laberge & Kevin Pioli-Hunt
  • “How does personalization and project based learning help children connect and engage in  their local community?” —Chrissy Park

#8. Curling up on my couch just enjoying the company of my cats.

#9. Making hot toddies

What’s your inquiry question? What question have you been exploring in your classroom this year?

And what’s your top 10 ways to spend a snow day? Let us know in the comments below.

#10. Being grateful for the #vted community of learners and educators.

Meet Learning Lab VT 2019!

Now that you understand the why of proficiency-based and personalized learning, are you ready to see the how? Learning Lab VT throws open the doors of classrooms around Vermont, so you and other educators like you can see personalized learning in action, up close and personal. Your hosts are educators just like you, who, along with their students, are willing to model how they’re trying to get personalized learning right. And visits for the 2019-2020 season are now open!

Continue reading Meet Learning Lab VT 2019!

The powerful practice of documenting learning

How do we know what our students know and can do?

What, when, and how are we asking them to show us?

In recent conversations with my colleagues, we’ve been considering shifts in assessment required of us in proficiency-based education. Now, let’s explore how to put those shifts into practice.


When we consider those shifts, a theme emerges. We begin to see students involved in the assessment process in meaningful ways. Leading me to wonder: how do both students *and* teachers know a concept or skill is learned or mastered?

The power of documentation

Let’s explore one of these shifts. How might teachers create conditions for the ongoing gathering of evidence of learning in a digital portfolio or personalized learning plan?

Angela Stockman, educator and professional development provider, asks, “ How do we truly know what our students know? Dissatisfied by the potential for quantitative data alone to address that question, many of the teachers that I support have begun embracing documentation for learning.”

Among the advantages she describes, are the following:

  • Students and teachers have the opportunity to study why and how learning happens rather than merely evaluating the product of it.
  • It’s easier to weave feedback loops through the experience, increasing the likelihood that learners will reap the greatest rewards from the assessment process.
  • Capturing a wider vie]ew of learning invitees teachers and students to discover the unexpected and form hunches and theories that testing cannot inspire.

Note the active role students play here.

What might documentation look like in practice?

Special Education Functional Life Skills Teacher Kelli Ohms shares How I Use Seesaw to Create a Learning Journal in my Classroom. Documentation using Seesaw increased motivation. “Students can independently see their own progress. Now that they have several months of posts in Seesaw, they can look back and see how they are improving; they say, “look how I did today? It’s better!”.”

Ohms built student documentation of learning into classroom routines. She reports “At first, my biggest challenge was teaching my students to add items independently, but now they enjoy adding new items to their journals, and even request to post unprompted!”

Documentation as learning

Janet Hale argues the act of documenting learning is indeed a mechanism for learning. Documentation as learning focuses on the process of learning using metacognitive thinking.  “Documenting learning is a shift from the traditional documentation of learning, which focuses on the end product, to documentation for learning and documentation as learning (Making Thinking Visible by Documenting Learning).

Shifting to documentation for learning

Over in her 5th grade class, Melissa Anders Thompson values documentation as a means for students to take more ownership. Because of this, when her school adopted a “bring your own device” policy, she added new weekly classroom jobs. You guessed it. One is the Documenter.

“This summer I read, Who Owns the Learning by Alan November. In his book, he talks about the Digital Learning Farm, and how by giving student’s jobs within the classroom that are integral to the learning, they will take more ownership of their learning and become meaningful contributors to the class culture. The Documenter captures the learning happening in the room and in the school. They take pictures and videos of important learning. This is great practice for when we launch our Student Blogs.”

Documenting outside-of-school learning with digital badges and micro-credentials

Informal learning opportunities can be rich interest-driven experiences for students. Yet, that learning often goes undocumented outside of the context in which the learning occurs. In Digital badges in afterschool learning: Documenting the perspectives and experiences of students and educators authors Davis & Singh argue digital badges can increase the visibility of learning pathways in informal and out-of-school learning. This gives learners a sense of control and ownership. “As micro-credentials documenting specific skills and achievements, badges are well positioned to highlight the intermediate phases through which individuals pass as they deepen their expertise in a domain. By documenting where learners have been, badges can signal where they should go next.”

Vermont middle level educator Don Taylor uses micro-credentials to help students document progress through self-paced learning. When collaborative committee work ends, students can opt to work toward their Climate Change badge. Students earn certificates for completing levels. These certificates of progress get displayed on their PLP portfolios.


Portfolios fall short without documentation of progress

As educator Allison Zmuda says, “The simple act of having digital portfolios for your students doesn’t necessarily mean they are working. The learners need to own them and see benefits for #documenting4learning.”

And we couldn’t agree more. Learning more about documenting for learning with this excellent book A Guide to Documenting Learning: Making Thinking Visible, Meaningful, Shareable, and Amplified by Tolisano and Hale. And consider following the #documenting4learning hashtag.

How might you begin introducing documentation as a key component of your assessment practice?

How to craft questions for deeper learning

Question generation is key to inquiry, goal-setting, and negotiated curriculum. And asking the right kinds of questions pushes students further. They need to know how to ask questions that lead toward deeper learning and effective goal-setting. Meanwhile, teachers need to be skilled at asking questions in a way that leads to deeper learning *for all*.

It’s a small ask, right?

Let’s look at some strategies to help learners with this skill.

Continue reading How to craft questions for deeper learning

What’s your inquiry question?

The why and how of personalization

An inquiry question forms the backbone of action research in the classroom. It guides the full shape of the research to come, and forms a foundation for the educator and students to build ongoing research. Learning Lab VT is a program with action research at its heart — action research being performed daily, and with the help of visiting educators and students. And field trips!

How inquiry questions work in Learning Lab VT

Learning Lab VT is a statewide learning community of educators curious about personalized learning. Participating Vermont educators and leaders open their classrooms and schools to those interested in seeing what’s working when implementing personalized learning. They spend a full year pursuing an action research project, and meeting at intervals — both online and in-person. They commit to performing their action research with an open door for visitors and with complete transparency to their students. So choosing a powerful inquiry question is key.

Driven by inquiry

When educators apply for Learning Lab VT, they identify the most pressing question on their minds about best ways to implement personalized and proficiency-based learning. The one they’d like to spend a full year answering with their students related to the Learning Lab’s program questions:

  • Why personalization?
  • What, exactly, are teachers and students doing in settings that are becoming increasingly personalized, and to what end?
  • How might our findings be helpful to each other, our colleagues, and the field of education in general?

The questions

“How might students’ sense of personalization grow as they shift from doing projects to project-based learning?”*Charlie Herzog

“How can school in general look more like Genius Hour work?”*Tom Drake

“How does a focus on personalization and community empower students to help themselves and their peers in a sixth grade classroom?” *Curtis Taylor & Melissa Williams

“How can we increase students’ ability to reach targets through differentiation and personalization?”*Tasha Grey

“What kinds of opportunities encourage students to go beyond ‘proficient’?”*Deirdre Beaupre

“How can adding personalization to project-based learning foster strong student engagement?” *Heidi Ringer

“How might personalization through self-reflection, self-assessment, and flexible grouping and scheduling across grades 3 and 4 at Proctor Elementary School positively impact student engagement and achievement?”*Courtney Elliot & Corey Smith

“How can I personalize learning for teachers through coaching and professional development so they can personalize learning for their students?” *Melissa Rice

“How can social justice be a lens for personalized, student-designed learning?” *Sam Nelson

“How can a focus on Digital Badging for transferable skills increase student engagement and create a common language in the PLP process?”*Noah Hurlburt

“How can using math menus increase personalization in my math classroom?” *Melissa Richard

“How can a flexible schedule within a school day create opportunities for personalization and help students meet their graduation proficiencies?”*Alena Digen & Sarah Marcus

“How can we increase student voice and extend opportunities for personalization through project-based learning?”*Kyle Chadburn & Andrea Gratton

“How can I give students a completely independent learning experience through PIP’s and then have students use those same skills to give them personalized learning in the humanities classroom?” *Marley Evans

“Can project-based math yield the results we we want to see on testing?  (The project is fun, but does the math get lost?)” *Jon Brown

“What systems and processes can be implemented to sustainably engage students and teachers in personalized learning that is aligned around our [district’s] core transferable skills? How can we encourage students to become more self-directed and reflective in their  Personal Interest Projects (PIPs) and Genius Hour work while maintaining their seemingly high level of engagement?” *Allan Miller

“What are the systems that need to be developed to support personalization in the school day/week? How can schools (students, teachers, and administrators) collect and share the learning process and outcomes of students with families and the community to demonstrate alignment with our district mission? Who are the resources I can connect staff with, as they nurture and refine their personalization goals for students?” *Jen Roth

What’s your inquiry question? What question have you been exploring in your classroom this year?

Let us know in the comments below.

The role of students in the Learning Lab

Students are an integral part of Learning Lab VT.

They have to be.

When educators sign up to host Learning Lab visits, this necessarily involves and impacts their students. We all want Vermont’s students to have and use their voices, and we hope that open classrooms give students more audience for those voices. You well know how much you depend on feedback from your own students to gauge the effectiveness of personalized learning. Now imagine how much more you could learn from hearing from other students.

Melissa Williams Learning Lab VT
Melissa Williams, a Learning Lab VT host from Crossett Brook, visited Orleans Middle School and had a chance to hear from middle school students there.

Students as hosts

When you arrive at a Learning Lab VT host school, prepare to meet not just amazing educators, but capable, on-point students, ready to share. As part of their prep, Learning Lab VT hosts work with their students and students’ families, to ensure visitors are a welcome addition to the classroom, not an interruption.


students as tour guides


Possible other roles students may play include:

  • Feedback Providers & Problem Solvers: serve as a sounding board as teams work together to make sense of the inquiry question findings
  • Moderators:  help facilitate discussions with peers about how things are going / what could work better.
  • Archivists: Take pictures, shoot video, and document the story of the Learning Lab progress

Students as embedded journalists

Marley Evans teaches 7th & 8th grade humanities at Charlotte Central School, in Charlotte VT. As part of her inquiry with the Learning Lab, she wants visitors to be blunt. She wants them to watch her students at work.

And Marley wants her students to provide feedback to her about their learning. She intentionally designs more choice in her humanities classroom. Students are jazzed about getting a say in what they learn and how they spend their time each week. And Marley is keen on learning from them to adjust her practice.

Visitors to Marley’s classroom are welcome throughout the week (book a visit online, please, be kind) but Friday afternoon visitors can spend time with students working on their Personal Interest projects.

Students continuing the work of Learning Lab VT

At each site, students take part in Learning Lab VT even while you’re not there. We know! It seems impossible, yet here we are.

Heidi Ringer, a 6th grade teacher at Warren Elementary School, Warren VT convenes her Learning Lab Site-Based Team every Tuesday at lunch. The group provides on-going feedback about their project based learning in an effort to make it more “kid-led.” Schedule a visit to learn more about their progress in personalizing project-based learning.


Proctor Elementary School teachers Corey Smith and Courtney Elliot share these Site-Based Team Learning Lab Roles with their 3rd and 4th grade students.

Engage all stakeholders

We believe a central tenet of personalized learning is engaging all stakeholders in co-construction of the learning environment. Zmuda and Kallick in The Four Personalized Learning Attributes speak to this:

Students have grown accustomed to being told what to do; what to read, what to think, etc. In personalized learning, every student is seen as a respected and valued participant. Empowerment comes from an environment in which students recognize the power of their own ideas and recognize the shift that can happen by being exposed to others’ ideas.

So grab a group of colleagues, and perhaps some of your own students, and hit the road.  Powerful learning is happening all over Vermont. Join a Learning Lab VT team and explore the bright spots and belly flops of personalized learning in action.

How else could you envision students sharing personalized learning in action?

Welcome to Learning Lab VT

Welcome to Learning Lab VT

Ever wonder whether you’re really up to the task of meeting your learners’ needs? We have.

Our learners — Vermont middle and high school educators — are in the midst of a monumental transition that, done well, will ensure that Vermont’s public schools deliver on their mission of excellence and equity for all our learners. (No pressure.)

The change is complex; the climb steep. The realization a few years ago that we might be stumbling at our jobs — making sure educators have the support they need to meet the challenges they face — made us wonder. What kind of professional learning experience could prepare educators to meet the expectations of Vermont’s Act 77 and  the Education Quality Standards? What would it look like, and how would it work?

The Dream

Right away we knew the experience would have to model the very principles and practices Vermont educators are being expected to apply with their learners. With that in mind:

We wanted Learning Lab VT to be:

  • Personalized. To meet the specific needs of each and every educator.
  • Proficiency-based. To ensure all educators practice and develop the fundamental skills and mindsets expected of them.
  • A trusting learning community. Inspiring educators to open their classrooms, minds, and hearts to each other.
  • Blended. With just the right mix of in-person and asynchronous learning opportunities so teachers can work at times and places of their choosing.
  • Student-centered. Placing our educators’ students’ learning at the center of the experience, inviting them to take on a vital part of the experience.
  • Contributing. To systemic capacity building underway in our schools and across all of Vermont.

A few years later (and a few hairs grayer), Learning Lab VT is our very best attempt to design and implement the opportunity we imagined. The results? Have exceeded our wildest dreams.

The Design

Learning Lab VT is a year-long experience that provides a cohort of educators support to partner with their students and each other. Together, they conduct and share action research answering the questions: What is personalization? What, exactly, are teachers and students doing in settings that are becoming increasingly personalized? What are the best ways to develop systemic capacity to get personalization right?

Learning Lab VT is:

  • Personalized to meet the specific needs of each and every educator. Educators identify and pursue their own inquiry questions.
  • Proficiency-based to ensure all educators practice and develop the fundamental mindsets and skills of student-centered learning. Educators use our learning scales to guide and track their learning.
  • Committed to a creating a trusting learning community so educators are game for opening their classrooms, minds, and hearts to each other and their students. Educators use a variety of technology (Flipgrid, Slack, Google Hangouts, website, blogs) to get to know each other and publish their inquiry questions and request and make visits to each other’s classroomsBlended with the just-right mix of in-person and asynchronous learning opportunities so teachers can work at times and places that work for them. This scope and sequence gives a good sense of the rhythm of the year and how we work when we’re together and apart.
  • Involve our educators’ students so they have a seat at the table. Each educator establishes a site-based Learning Lab team of students who play a range of roles.
  • Connected with and contributing to the systemic capacity building underway across all our schools and the state of Vermont. All of our learners make Bright Spots & Belly Flops blogposts to formatively tell the story of their findings, and all of our learners choose contribute to systemic capacity from our Choice Board

Learning Lab VT educators are:

  • Noah Hurlburt, Rutland Town School. Exploring digital badges!
  • Melissa Rice, Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union. How can personalizing teacher PD help teachers personalize learning for students?
  • Charlie Herzog, Flood Brook School. Studying how students talk about their experiences with project-based learning.
  • Jon Brown, Lamoille Union Middle School. “Can project-based math yield the results we we want to see on testing?”
  • Jen Roth, Charlotte Central School. Exploring the power of principals to effect personalized learning at the school level.
  • And many others!



Deirdre Beaupre, Heidi Ringer, Kyle Chadburn & Andrea Gratton
(l to r): Deirdre Beaupre, Heidi Ringer, and Kyle Chadburn & Andrea Gratton. All are current Learning Lab hosts, with visits to their classrooms available.

The Now

Now, it’s about YOU. We want you to become part of Learning Lab VT. And here’s how.

Right now, we have 19 educators at 12 schools around Vermont who’ve spent the year working on personalization with their students.

And those educators want to show you what they’re up to. Face-to-face, and in person. We invite you to spend some time getting to know these remarkable Vermont educators, through their inquiry questions. Through their reflection videos and blogposts. Look at the places their work overlaps with — or inspires — yours. Then book a visit to their classroom.

For real. We want you to get up, leave your classroom and your school, and treat yourself to a glimpse beyond your school walls. GO. Go see how other educators are tackling personalization. 12 different schools, 19 educators to choose from. 

The Future

We’re super excited for the work ahead. We’re finding our stride — though we’ve been reminded just how hard it is to teach well. We’re inspired by the courageous educators with whom we work. Educators who graciously open their classrooms to the world and, along with their students, who continue to share their stories in ways that remind us that all of us do better in places that where we belong and contribute.

If you’d like to learn more about Learning Lab VT, the hands-down best way forward is to go visit some Learning Lab sites.

So. Where do you want to visit first?


What can we learn about proficiency from special education?

 Equitable access for each & every student

assessment in proficiency-based classroomsMany of us doing proficiency work in the state see it as a means of ensuring equitable access for all students. A proficiency-based learning environment asks the learning community to partner together. The goal: to make certain all learners meet clearly articulated targets for success.

And, the VT Agency of Education agrees. As articulated in the Proficiency-Based Learning Team’s  Why is Proficiency-based learning Important?  proficiency-based education is a means to reach equity for each and every student:  

“A proficiency-based education system benefits all by allowing students to progress at their own pace and creating the space and time to do so. Students are given sufficient time to finish assignments and meet learning targets. Educators respond to individual learning needs by providing timely, differentiated feedback and support. If students do not initially meet expectations for proficiency, they are given additional opportunities to demonstrate proficiency without penalty. Those who progress quickly might dig deeper into the content or move onto learning new concepts. Students eligible for special education services are expected to meet the same requirements as their nondisabled peers in an accommodated and/or modified manner. Proficiency-based learning must exist in a learning environment that fosters strong social and emotional development and encourages high achievement for each and every learner.”

Special education implications: shifts in practice

Let’s look at how one Vermont special educator embraces proficiency-based teaching and learning.  

Meet Angela Spencer, a special educator at Lamoille Union Middle School in Hyde Park, VT. Spencer describes the shifts in practice needed to support students’ growth in a proficiency-based system. 


Key ideas in shifting practice for equity

In the past, much of Spencer’s work with students occurred in silos during intervention time. She says students feel more integral, like they are part of the school now. 

A key benefit: “utilizing the transferable skills and their habits of work scores to develop life skills goals and behavior goals because before they were all so accuracy based. I can come to class and sit for 80%  of the time might now be I can come to class and be a participant following a habit of work. Or, getting a job would be a transferable skill so now we have more of those we can play with to make those goals.”

Here is an example of Spencer’s Behavior Goals with Proficiency Tracking scale.

Collaborating with teachers

With proficiency-based teaching, Spencer is now able to use teacher-created rubrics. And these rubrics support calibration during progress-monitoring.

Spencer shares how she and the classroom teachers on her team work to create learning targets and scales that meet individual learners’ needs and mark growth. They do so by backing out targets for instruction and assessment. She concludes that proficiency-based teaching and learning “finally gets to the point of what individualized plans were, making it about what the individual students needs.” This work took her there.

Sara Crum, Champlain Valley Union High School

Learn more about what Spencer describes in the video about backing out targets with this blog post from Sarah Crum, special educator at CVUHS.  Standards Based Learning and Special Education on the CVULearns blog (excerpted below):

“Again, this type of modification requires taking the classroom target and backing it out by articulating the two, the one and below. Then, like using a ruler, the teacher assesses the student on a different set of 1-4, but using the same targets and skills so that the ultimate goal is to get back on the classroom targets.” 

–Shifted Scale: Backing Out Targets for Instruction & Assessment

Supporting all learners through targeted professional development

Remember the VT AOE article Why is Proficiency-Based Learning Important? I referred to earlier? In it, the authors make explicit that special education students are “expected to meet the same requirements as their nondisabled peers in an accommodated and/or modified manner.” The National Center for Disabilities agrees. “CBE allows students to demonstrate mastery of competencies in many ways, and by allowing such broad differentiation, it has the potential to increase access of students with learning and attention issues to the general education curriculum.” 

Our Vermont context

Among the 10 National Center for Learning Disabilities recommendations is “general and special education teachers must have on-going CBE professional development.”  Here in Vermont, the recently passed Act 173 can be a means to help us meet this goal. Act 173 aims to enhance the effectiveness, availability, and equity of services provided to students who require additional support. It also changes the distribution of special education funding in our state in order to do so.

This year, the VT AOE will work with the Act 173 Advisory Group. Together they will develop a state-wide, coordinated professional learning plan for anticipated stakeholder groups. The Instructional Strand supports supervisory unions by providing instructional staff, including general education and special education teachers, professional development. The goal: to adopt best practices to meet the needs of all learners.

Learning from and with our special educators

In Sally Allen’s article Is it Special Education or Proficiency Based Education? Yes  she argues that proficiency based learning is synonymous with what special educators have been up to successfully for years:

“Teachers provide multiple pathways for students to demonstrate mastery.  In many classrooms it’s difficult to tell the special education classrooms apart from the regular education classrooms, especially at the younger levels. There is student responsibility and accountability, students are grouped and regrouped according to skills that need to be targeted and learning is celebrated.”

We’ve got a lot to celebrate here in Vermont!

Explore further

I recommend reading Designing for Equity: Leveraging Competency-Based Education to Ensure All Students Succeed. The equity principles in the report help districts and schools to create an equity agenda. “Equity is an intentional design feature embedded in the culture, structure and pedagogy” to ensure success for all.

How might you leverage the proficiency work in your context to expand access for all?


Stowe students lead school change

How student-adult partnerships can scaffold student leadership

“Did you know that the same areas in the brain light up when a person is curious as when that person is given candy or money?” Stowe Middle School students Macey Crowder and Shelby Lizotte posed this question to Stowe’s school board during a presentation to their school board. Representing their Student Engagement Committee, they shared the results of a survey given to all Stowe Middle School students to measure the level of engagement at their school.


A focus on leadership:

Stowe’s principal, Dan Morrison, has made it one of his top goals this 2018-19 school year to create multiple leadership roles for his middle school students.  He believes, as Betty Edwards does,

“If we want students to work in partnership with adults, we must give them the opportunities to develop leadership skills—skills that allow them to manage time, work as a team, set goals, solve problems, facilitate meetings, defend positions, and make effective presentations.”  The Power of Youth Leadership: Effective middle schools ensure all students have opportunities to lead

To that end, Morrison created and teaches a Student Leadership Course in Schoology.


Stowe students as well are active participants in two other opportunities for student leadership: the Scholarly Habits Redesign Committee and the Student Engagement at Stowe Committee. Both committees use the design thinking framework and collect and analyze data in order to take on challenges they’ve identified for school improvement.

Student & adult partnerships:

Leadership course

In October, Stowe student leaders presented to their community on open house night. They shared how the school was shifting from traditional parent teacher conferences to student led conferences this year. They distributed this one-page tips sheet  meant to help families prepare for the shift.


Scholarly habits at Stowe:

Lindsey Halman and Helen Beattie from Up For Learning help facilitate the Scholarly Habits Redesign Committee. The task: redesign and reintroduce the scholarly habits to students, teachers, and the Stowe community. The students participated in a summer retreat. Next, they led a faculty meeting to help teachers better understand the scholarly habits, which include learning strategies, perseverance, mindset and social skills. Committee member Nadia Chudzil explains:

“Many  people asked us “Why are you doing this?” There are many reasons why we are doing this. We feel that Scholarly Habits needs to be reevaluated from a student’s perspective. Many students felt that Scholarly Habits was something that our teacher made us do. We also felt that we had no voice in our Scholarly Habits experience. Now that the students are redesigning them, we can make Scholarly Habits something students are interested in and are excited for. Having students do this can help other students be more excited about it because they know that it wasn’t just the teacher telling them about something they HAD to do, but instead they will know that there was student voice in making this a norm in our school.” 

The committee has since collected data from all stakeholders (students, staff, parents, community members) through a survey and interviews. The survey and interviews focused on understanding both the level of ownership and knowledge of the Scholarly Habits. The committee met at the end of November to analyze their data. They will be meeting again mid-January to develop their action plan and begin their SH Campaign.

Student engagement at Stowe:

The task for the Student Engagement Leadership Committee is to understand the current level of engagement at the middle school and consider ways to both celebrate and find areas for growth. To that end, a group of seven students (6th, 7th, & 8th graders) convened. We co-constructed a working definition of engagement and set out to collect data about the current state of engagement at the middle school.  



Data collection:

Working with a Tarrant Institute research fellow, Steve Netcoh (nicknamed Survey Sensei), the students selected engagement indicators from three different national engagement surveys they thought best suited the context at Stowe. They received advice from him about how to build a survey that would elicit honest feedback. 



The committee decided the best way to encourage survey participants to take the survey seriously was to engage them first. They created a Kahoot meant to get players to think about why engagement is important in the learning process. All middle schoolers eagerly participated and then took the survey.

Data analysis:

Committee members discussed the results of the quantitative data looking for celebrations and areas of for growth:



Next, the committee took on the challenge of coding the qualitative responses. They looked for trends, including:

  • Student Input/Freedom (class choice)
  • Activity/Break
  • Change Environment
  • Grades/Workload
  • Change in Teaching (Hands on).

Most of the responses were about students wanting more opportunities to have freedom and their voices be important. This was also represented in the quantitative data as well.

The group once again worked with Survey Sensei Steve to look at results from each of the grade levels. The committee looked at the 20% of students whose answers showed they were disengaged in school. 

Presenting findings:

“Did you know that the same areas in the brain light up when a person is curious as when that person is given candy or money?” Stowe Middle School students Macey Crowder and Shelby Lizotte posed this question to Stowe’s school board during a presentation to their school board. Representing their Student Engagement Committee, they shared the results of a survey given to all Stowe Middle School students to measure the level of engagement at their school.

Superintendent Wrend asked the committee to go further with the data. Explore ways to build on current successes and improve the levels of student voice and engagement. And, she invited the group to return and share their work once again. A perfect next step to encourage continued leadership and student voice!

Clearly Stowe Middle School values partnering with students to effect change.

How do you partner with your students?


Paths to proficiency

Choose Your Own Adventure with 3 easy tech tools

practice for proficiency, paths to proficienciesStudents in blended learning classrooms benefit from taking control over the path and pace of their learning.

Their teachers design learning paths which include:

  • clearly articulated learning targets,
  • readily available instructional activities via digital playlists, and
  • built-in benchmarks so students signal when they are ready for an assessment.

But how do busy teachers do it?

Here are three digital tools to create these pathways / playlists. Go ahead and give over some control to your students. Create a “choose your own adventure” pathway to deliver instruction with:

  • Google Slides & branching choices
  • Hyperdocs
  • Deck Toys

1. Google Slides

Gail Moore (@GailKMoore) shares a way she uses Google Slides to create choices along a path for students with interactive student-led lessons. In this short video, I show how she does it using her Mission Possible slideshow.



Try it for yourself by going to her slideshow below.

Make your own copy. Then start branching out with choices. Intrigued by the possibilities, then take a minute to see how you can extend this idea by using If-Then Adventure Stories with Google Slides from Googles Applied Digital Skills curriculum. Encourage students to work collaboratively and build their own branching stories.


2. Hyperdocs

Heard the hype about hyperdocs? Here we go.  A hyperdoc, according to the Hyperdoc Girls, is much more than just a google doc with hyperlinks:

HyperDocs, a transformative, interactive Google Doc replacing the worksheet method of delivering instruction, is the ultimate change agent in the blended learning classroom. With strong educational philosophies built into each one, HyperDocs have the potential to shift the way you instruct with technology. They are created by teachers and given to students to engage, educate, and inspire learning. It’s not about teaching technology, it’s about using the technology to TEACH.”

Let’s look at an example of an American Revolution hyperdoc (we are on a mission) created by Mandy De Groote.

Mandy shared it on the Hyperdoc website for others to use. Following the clear flow of instructional activities, students both collaborate and work at the team’s own pace. Search for other topics and themes using the Hyperdoc website search tool. Or, simply google your topic with the word ‘hyperdoc’ after it to get ideas and borrow from the generosity of others.

paths to proficiency


Learn more about how to give students choice through path and pacing from the Jennifer Gonzalez’s (Cult of Pedagogy) excellent post How Hyperdocs Can Transform Your Teaching. And, if inspired by Google’s If-Then Adventure Stories from above, check out this Choose Your Own Adventure Stories hyperdoc from Maria DeCicco.


3. Deck Toys

Hang on to your hats! If you liked Google Slides and Hyperdocs, you are going to love Deck Toys. This easy-to-use digital tool creates visually appealing instructional pathways. These paths can be both teacher-directed and student-led, depending upon the need. Check out this Deck created by Chris Bologna to introduce students to parts of a map.


While Deck Toys might take a little more effort to build, what might make it worth it is teachers can track students’ progress while students play the Deck. Teachers then can respond to student feedback needs if necessary based on the results.

Scott Dossett, McCracken County Schools created this 5-minute quick look at Deck Toys that will make it easy for you to build your own.

According to iNACOL’s definition of blended learning, “The most important component of the definition is the “element of student control” emphasizing the shifting instructional models to enable increased student-centered learning, giving students increased control over the time, place, path, and/or pace of their learning pathways.” 
Take a chance at creating and sharing one of these tools to engage your students.  In doing so, you’ll free up instructional stand-and-deliver time to provide formative check-ins and supports as students make their way through the learning paths. 

What kind of proficiency-based learning activities can you and your students design with these tools?

The shifting role of the teacher in a blended learning classroom

Adding playlists into the mix

We often hear about the need to move from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side in student-centered classrooms, so much so that if feels cliche. But how does one go about making that shift in a proficiency-based and personalized learning environment?

Continue reading The shifting role of the teacher in a blended learning classroom

The power of documentation in meaningful learning

Exercises for an LMS

year-end reflection tools and activitiesThis past spring, a small group of Stowe Middle School students gathered to help their teachers and peers solve a problem. As students worked on independent interest projects, they periodically reflected on their learning. All were interested in finding ways to make this reflection meaningful, for both students and teachers.

But what does meaningful reflection look like? And how can we scaffold exercises that create meaningful reflection?

Continue reading The power of documentation in meaningful learning

Students design digital badges

Badging growth toward goals’ attainment

digital badges as evidence of flexible pathwaysA small group of these 6th grades at Peoples Academy wondered how they could help their peers be more engaged in the school’s Opportunity Time, time devoted to goal-setting and exploring student interests, so they took on the challenge of designing a digital badging system to incentive their peers.

Continue reading Students design digital badges

A tale of two tech tools

Students test drive tools to enhance & amplify project work

peer PLP collaborationWhen Stowe Middle Level educators met to plan for the upcoming student exhibitions of learning, they agreed on two critical ideas. One, that their learners benefit from multiple ways to tell the story of their learning.

And two, students are in the best position to test out tech tools to share that learning.

Continue reading A tale of two tech tools

How to run a unit across multiple schools

Get organized, then get tech

how to run a unit across schoolsMany of your current — or future — collaborators teach at other schools around the state or world. But when you’ve got a great idea for collaboration, don’t let distance stand in your way. Let’s look at this example from three Vermont schools on how to plan, manage and support one unit run across three different schools.

(Hint: tech helps. A lot.)

Continue reading How to run a unit across multiple schools

Using PearDeck in a proficiency-based environment

Looking at tech tools for formative assessment

Chrome apps and extensions for differentiationIn a proficiency-based learning environment, frequent, flexible, and transparent assessments become cornerstones of the practice. The importance of formative assessment can’t be understated, and these tech tools make it so much easier.

Continue reading Using PearDeck in a proficiency-based environment

3 easy tech tools for PLP reflections

Answer Garden, Flipgrid and Adobe Spark

how can students reflect on their PLPs?“What are you grateful for?”  We posed this question to 7th grade Stowe Middle School students, the Monday before the holiday break.

The activity may seem simple, but it allowed us to introduce the students to three easy tech tools: Answer Garden, Flipgrid and Adobe Spark. Stowe students will use these tools to reflect and to collect evidence for their PLPs.

Continue reading 3 easy tech tools for PLP reflections

Choose Your Own Adventure with Google Earth

The virtual reality cure for wanderlust

ways students can create VR contentDespite this gorgeous fall weather here in central Vermont, I’m suffering from a bad case of wanderlust. One antidote I’ve found to satisfy the daily craving to hit the high road is the 360Cities Tab Extension. Now that I’ve added it to my Chrome browser, every time I open a tab, it displays a new full screen photo of somewhere fabulous, curious, or surreal.

Another avenue for virtual adventure is to explore Google Earth, Choose Your Own Adventure-style. 6th grade students at Stowe Middle School, in Stowe VT, did just that, learning about latitude and longitude by creating their own Choose Your Own Adventure activities.

And your students can too.

Continue reading Choose Your Own Adventure with Google Earth

Maintaining a teaching team

5 exercises your team can try today

self-analysis and teamingSchool is off to a rollicking start thanks to you and your team’s efforts to build a collaborative culture. You’ve made it successfully through in-service days and the first few weeks of school. Now how are you and your team going to maintain your momentum?

Here are five exercises for maintaining a healthy, happy, respectful and celebratory teaching team.

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4 ways Vermont educators are sharing their practice

The #everydaycourage of being seen

#everydaycourageTake the iconic back-to-school prompt for students — what I did on my summer vacation — and give it a twist. Imagine how students might respond to the prompt What I think my teacher did on summer vacation.

A lot of us wish other folks knew how hard we work during summer: the workshops, the team planning time, the reflection, the resource-gathering. So a lot of us should share out all the work we’re doing.

Let’s look at four ways Vermont educators are sharing their practice.

Continue reading 4 ways Vermont educators are sharing their practice

J-Term at Hazen Union

Personalized, proficiency-based PBL or bust

three pillars of personalized learningDuring a faculty meeting in late December of 2016, educators and staff talked about the need to provide personalized learning options for students at their small, rural Vermont school. They wanted do so in a way that  honored the students’ need for passion-based, independent projects, as well as the desire of the faculty and staff to provide structured supports.

But what could that look like in action?
Continue reading J-Term at Hazen Union

How to win the VT Tech Bridge Building competition

It takes a combination of flexible pathways and student passion.

student-directed learningPeoples Academy Middle Level 6th graders Noble Beerworth, Josephine Simone, Anna Isselhardt, and Jacob Fougere won big at this year’s  VT Tech’s Bridge Building competition.  They built a bridge that withstood 1,089 pounds of pressure, but the story of how their school helped them get there is equally impressive.

Continue reading How to win the VT Tech Bridge Building competition

Build personal connections in teacher advisory

“Every student gets greeted at the start of every day.”

build personal connections in teacher advisoryAt Peoples Academy Middle Level, educators have taken the role of teacher advisory, or TA, to a whole new level. They conduct their advisory to build personal connections with their students. As a result, at PAML, advisory has become a very special thing.

But how can you build personal connections in advisory? Let’s find out.

Continue reading Build personal connections in teacher advisory

4 ways students can control the pace of content delivery

Deliver the goods!

tech-rich social studiesRather than creating a unit on the Civil War, imagine working with an individual student or small group on a topic that fully engages them, but might be something you know little about. First we looked at how to find resources in multiple formats, to meet students’ different learning needs and preferences.

Now, how do we deliver those materials in a way that responds to students’ needs and also gives them some choice in how, when, and where they learn?
Continue reading 4 ways students can control the pace of content delivery

The tech-rich social studies classroom

Building a differentiation & personalization toolkit

tech-rich social studiesI was privileged recently to work with a number of pre-service teachers here at the University of Vermont. All were eager to gain access to tools and resources to help them respond to the variety of learners’ needs they will face in classrooms.

Using the Civil War as our (broad) topic, we developed a workflow for creating a tech-rich social studies unit responsive to different learners’ needs. And using ourselves as learners, we tested out our methods.

Continue reading The tech-rich social studies classroom

Peer collaboration on PLPs

Peers partner on portfolios

peer collaboration on PLPsStudents at two Vermont schools have begun working together as “Portfolio Partners” to curate evidence, reflect on their growth, and prepare to share their learning with a wider audience.

Here’s how it works.

Continue reading Peer collaboration on PLPs

Assessment in Proficiency-Based Classrooms

3 examples using blended learning

assessment in proficiency-based classroomsLet’s explore how some Vermont teachers are shifting their instruction and assessment practices to move all students toward proficiency. Three different educators have changed the way they assess proficiency in their classrooms. Each has created a way for students to have control over the pacing of instruction and have included students in monitoring progress and growth, using a blended learning environment.

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3 visualization exercises for proficiency-based learning

Outcomes, process and automaticity

proficiency-based teaching and learning in VermontI worked with a group of teachers this summer to re-think goal-setting with their students. We know it’s a key component to developing Personalized Learning Plans (PLP), but students reported little engagement in following through on and reflecting about their goals.

In our attempts to think differently about goal-setting and reflection, we decided to approach goal-setting as a visualization exercise. Each of us set a learning goal for ourselves and experimented with visualizing the end result of those goals.

So how can this work for students?

Continue reading 3 visualization exercises for proficiency-based learning

Proficiency-based teaching and learning in Vermont: who, why and how

Two examples of implementing proficiency-based scales of learning

proficiency-based teaching and learning in VermontVermont educators and their students are on a journey. Let’s look at how one school is implementing proficiency-based learning in a way that ensures all learners have the opportunity to thrive.

When we clearly articulate learning targets both for and with learners, the end is clear to all and learning can proceed along a progression with multiple opportunities for demonstrating growth and mastery. 

Continue reading Proficiency-based teaching and learning in Vermont: who, why and how

Assessing tech-rich instruction

The Six Question Framework for reflection

assessing tech-rich instructionAs the end of June nears and students take their final exams, clear out their lockers, and begin sleeping in until noon, teachers are gathering their remaining energy, and administrators are giving them space, to take stock of the year, celebrate the successes and challenges, and together learn from them.

But what’s the best way to assess technology-rich instruction and the 1:1 environment?

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How mobile devices can enhance field trips

Deepen place-based learning and boost emotional engagement

Having signed the permission slips, helped raise money, converted US dollars to Canadian, and reviewed the itinerary multiple times, I attended an information night for my daughters’ end-of-year field trip: a 3-day adventure in Quebec City. I learned (among other things) how to be certain if mobile devices made their way across the border, how to turn off data plans to avoid being charged outrageous fees. I thank the organizers tremendously for reminding us about this issue.

What I didn’t hear though was how mobile devices might be used to enhance learning on this trip.The power of these devices in students’ hands while they explore seems too powerful to pass up.

Continue reading How mobile devices can enhance field trips

Going on Google Expeditions

Too many ‘awesomes’ to count.

using Google tools to connect classroomsThat was a note I took while experiencing students’ reactions to Google Expeditions at Lamoille Union Middle/High School this week. Audible collective “wows” along with “this is awesome” “I feel like I’m flying, that’s why I’m scared” “I love this” permeated the air as students put the cardboard devices to their faces and entered a virtual world. As the Google representative described it to one class, “buckle up your magic school bus seat belts for a virtual reality tour of National Parks and the world’s seven wonders.”

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Cross-school goal-setting for PLPs

Motivating students around goals by connecting schools

providing support for goal-setting in a PLPMany Vermont students have worked hard this year establishing personal and academic goals as an important part of developing Personal Learning Plans (PLPs).

But when we speak with some of them or listen to teachers reflect on the process and progress, many share the need for additional motivation to keep these goals and their achievement active and present.

Continue reading Cross-school goal-setting for PLPs

A community-based interdisciplinary unit

A tech-rich case study from rural Vermont

VT excellence

The team from Hazen Union Middle School, in Hardwick, Vermont, conducted an action research project over the fall semester of 2015, centered around deepening students’ connection to their community. They called the unit “I Belong”.

It provided students with tech-rich opportunities to engage with the small and rural community of their town.

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How ubiquitous learning spaces can spur reflection

Ubiquitous learning at the Sycamore School

ubiquitous learning(Ed Note: Susan Hennessey recently traveled to Malibu, California to check out some innovative schools there and attend Deeper Learning 2016.)

While waiting at the Sycamore School in Malibu, California for our tour guide, my colleagues and I were entertained by a tree full of very talkative wild parrots.

I had never seen parrots in the wild and was intrigued enough to photograph them, search for their origins online, share my curiosity with my colleagues to see what information they might add, and create a quick digital story of this process using the Shadow Puppet app on my phone: all in the 15 minute wait time.

Ah, the power of ubiquitous learning and ready access to a world of knowledge at my fingertips.

Continue reading How ubiquitous learning spaces can spur reflection

Managing time in blended classrooms

Shifting the way we manage time to personalize learning in a blended space

blended classroomsIn my former professional life, I had the pleasure and the challenge of managing a large high school library media center. An irony of the job, one that made me smile and cringe, was the volume of the bell which rang every 42 minutes to signal transitions. The speaker in my library was broken and for whatever reason none of us could figure out how to turn it down, so at eight 42-minute intervals throughout each day, a jarring, disruptive, and impossible-to-ignore screech blared.

In a space meant for reflection, quiet and focused learning, deep dives into inquiry, this interrupter literally felt like chalkboard nails reminding us our schedule boxed us in. I share this story because in my quest to consider how access to technology can support personalized learning, I have been interested in how pacing and timing play a role in middle level classrooms.

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Self-directed learning and playlists

Curating lists of online resources for deep dives into content research

Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education Susan HennesseyWe have been spending much of our time here at the Tarrant Institute exploring the idea of what engagement looks like in a learning environment where access to resources is ubiquitous, where learning can and does take place anytime, anywhere.  That is why when Lisa Nielsen’s Learning without Teachers, Textbooks, or Tests – a Case Study, crossed my personal learning network (PLN), I perked up.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no interest in exploring a world with no teachers, but I could imagine one without the other two Ts in her title. I am interested in guiding others with robust examples of self-directed learning, or as Nielsen puts it, real-life learning ventures.

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Finding joy in the classroom

Is joy in learning an innovation?

joy in the classroomRecently, I was charmed and inspired upon seeing a first grade student’s take on setting goals to improve healthy habits on the Franklin West Supervisory Union blog. I shared this student photo (at left) with a group of teachers during a goal-setting and reflection workshop. They all smiled, especially after I asked them to think about what evidence this student might gather and share to demonstrate she has met this resolution.

Wouldn’t we all love to see that collection of “demonstrated joy” from all of our students? Of course, that would require us to create “joyous” learning opportunities or at the very least honor students’ joyous learning where ever it takes place.

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Using Google tools to connect with other schools

Reaching beyond the walls

using Google tools to connect classroomsI’m always looking for ways for educators and students at different schools to use technology to connect in far-flung locations. One middle-level educator was kind enough to share how he used Google Hangouts, a Google+ Community, back-channeling and plain old email to enable his students to connect with students a couple of states away.

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Exploring identity and current events with Chatterpix

Students tackle politicians’ identities

exploring identity and current events with ChatterpixStudents at Peoples Academy Middle Level in Morrisville, Vermont, are exploring the theme of identity in their humanities class. In part, they’re doing so by “speaking” for presidential candidates, using their research and argumentative writing skills with an app called Chatterpix Kids.

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Personalize learning with Open Educational Resources

What they are and how to use them

collaborative digital tools for faculty meetingsIn a recent blog post, I suggested access to technology can empower teachers to be responsive to students’ needs in a blended learning environment.  I want to expand upon that notion and explore further how Open Educational Resources play an important role in how we teachers facilitate more personalized learning experiences.

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Blended learning in the math classroom

Where is the tech in math classrooms?

blended learning in the math classroom
Photo by Wes Fryer, CC 2.0

According to recent studies, math teachers, tend to integrate technology into their teaching less frequently than those in other disciplines(1).

What was at the core of these research findings I wondered?  And what do we know about math classrooms here in Vermont?


Continue reading Blended learning in the math classroom

Augmented reality and student identity

Students explore the geography of self(ies)

augmented reality and student identityAn innovative way for students to explore who they are happens in Lori Lisai’s classroom at Lamoille Union Middle School where she works with them to craft an interactive biography through her Geography of Self project.

A bulletin board houses the student self portraits; 8th graders include their 7th grade portraits side-by-side: a visual representation of growth-over-time.

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Learning as a social activity

Using Vialogues for social learning

using vialogues for social learningVialogues: visual dialogues. Video dialogues.

(Visible violet dogs? Risible eyelet hogs? Dirigible side-slit frogs?)

Vialogues are an online tool that encourages viewers to answer one specific question about a video, and the tool creates a comment thread based on the answers.

When applied in an educational capacity, this creates a space for social learning.

Continue reading Learning as a social activity

W is for Weekly Geek Podcast

Creative ways to share learning opportunities

creative ways to share learning opportunitiesTeachers at Lamoille Union Middle/High School learn about the latest tools and resources available to them in a unique and engaging way.  Marc Gilbertson, the Integration Specialist and Meagan Towle, the librarian, carve out 20 minutes in their busy schedules to get together and crank out a short video podcast series called the Weekly Geek to share available resources.

Check out this week’s entry demonstrating three tools to encourage visual and audio engagement in learning.

Continue reading W is for Weekly Geek Podcast

P is for Performance Tasks

Using performance tasks as a way to measure student knowledge

using performance tasks to measure student knowledgeWhen working with a group of middle school science teachers recently whose goal was to increase the depth of knowledge in their shared common assessments, we explored using Performance Tasks as a way to measure student knowledge and skills gained, as they apply them in novel and real situations.

It’s the “do” in the KUD (know, understand, and do) that so often gets left behind, but is so important in the world of deep learning.

Continue reading P is for Performance Tasks

Serious PD fun with Chatterpix

“Candy apps”, or how to have fun and still learn anyway

how to have fun and still learn anyway


During a five minute reflection, if a student is given one minute to find a picture and mark the mouth, then he or she still has four minutes to try to come up with something interesting to reflect about. So this is four minutes more than they may have spent if they were asked to just write, or required to use a tool that they weren’t that interested in.

–Life Legeros

Continue reading Serious PD fun with Chatterpix

N is for Nearpod

How these educators used Nearpod for professional development

nearpod for professional developmentEducators instinctively understand the engagement power of a tool that allows learners to actively participate in the learning.

For those of you new to Nearpod, this multi-platform app allows teachers to shoot out presentations — think Powerpoints or Google Slides made interactive — directly to their students’ devices.  Content slides can be interspersed with embedded polls, quizzes, and drawing tools for in-the-moment formative assessment.

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Multiple platforms, multiple voices: scenes from a 1:1 rollout

Collaborative blogging puts students’ voices out front

getting student perspectives on school changeHazen Union School 8th grade student Elijah Lew-Smith shared the first student post of the school year on the school’s shared Middle Level Blog.

Check out his post to see this year’s new initiatives: 1:1 with iPads, a new House structure, and the focus on Project Based Learning, from a student perspective.  

But that’s not all.

Continue reading Multiple platforms, multiple voices: scenes from a 1:1 rollout

Collaborative digital tools for faculty meetings

Go beyond back-channeling and unlock creative communication

collaborative digital tools for faculty meetingsThis summer, look for ways to liven up your faculty meetings and delve a little deeper with technology. Try something new or take a new look at a tool you’re already using. Here are 3 ways of using collaborative digital tools for faculty meetings.

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