All posts by Scott Thompson

Educator, Student advocate, husband, father, adventurer, outdoor enthusiast, cook, traveler, and former North American Nerf Golf Champion.

Advisory for educators?

Physical, social, and emotional health are the top priorities in our learning communities. Period. End of story.

Educators have been preparing for the opening of schools with this in mind. Thinking through endless what-if scenarios. Arranging and rearranging classrooms to observe best observe social distancing guidelines. Reading constantly updated and addended protocols. In addition, hand sanitizer and hope.

Hand sanitizer and hope.

Schools are leaning into structures and routines to help students feel welcome, safe, heard, and cared for.

But… Are we showing up for educators in the same way? Do you feel welcome, safe, heard, and cared for?

Let’s be honest for a moment. This is a marathon. The things we are asking mandating educators to do each single day is unreal. Skip the idea of “rock stars” and “super heroes”. This situation’s next level.

And that’s just the professional part of your lives. Are you getting the support you need to be your full human self at the end of the day?

Now, if advisories are good for students…

Could they work for adults, too? I wondered.

Fast forward to some in-service planning. I met with the principals of two local schools, one in Concord and one in Gilman — both in Vermont — and started re-designing in-service along the lines of what we know works about advisories. Both principals spoke about wanting to make sure they take care of their teachers well.

Adult socio-emotional learning (SEL) was number two on both their lists, right after students.

Beginning our advisory for educators… by coming full circle.

Advisory for educators

After some socially distant re-connecting and welcoming the day, we started with a Circle of Power and Reciprocity. The core components here are:

  • a greeting
  • a share
  • an activity
  • and some news and updates.

Slight modifications were necessary. Normally we would stand in a circle, close to each other, passing a talking piece from person to person. No-go for this year.

But luckily Zoom did its job.

The power of the circle is we all can see each other and connect as a community. Given that some folks were in their classrooms, and some at home, being “together” was a powerful opening.

The circle can also balance the power in the room. When sharing you can only talk when you have the talking piece. Similarly, folks can also pass if they choose to. It also let’s give folks some predictability. They know where they are in the list so they can prepare their response.

A quick rundown:

Today’s Tune:

It’s time to move on, time to get going
What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing
But under my feet, baby, grass is growing
It’s time to move on, it’s time to get going
–Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Time to Move On

Music can represent a theme or create a certain vibe. In this case, it was just a few quiet moments for educators to sit with their thoughts and settle into the day.

Today’s Share:

In the chat: What are you most looking forward to? And what are you most concerned about?

The intent here was to allow folks to be heard (and vulnerable). They control the conversation and take it in the direction they need.

Today’s Activity:

Pecha Kucha.

For the purpose of getting to know one another, we’ll just create one slide each, filled with images and text that illustrate who we are.

With building community in mind this is a great activity for welcome new folks. For more activities check out 14 Socially Distant Advisory Activities

advisory for educators slide 2

News and Updates: Just a place for some logistics and forecasting.

Did advisory for educators work?

Certainly, the start was a little shaky. It was new. Folks had a lot on their minds (understatement of the year).

Not to mention it was the first time many folks were physically back at school since March.

But each day we ran our advisory for educators, things got a little better. Folks embraced the process and began to appreciate the space. Similarly, when someone shared a vulnerable moment, so many folks shared a connection. Giving that universal signal for a connection.

Secondly, folks didn’t feel alone. Colleagueship was honored in new ways. The “we are in this together” mentality was evident and relationships strengthened. The power of a team took on a different meaning.

It’s a space to just be yourself. Show up how you want to. No brave face needed. Tears and laughs are equally welcome. Much like students, teachers like some element of choice and this is just one opportunity.

Consequently there is a price. This time can be dedicated to something else. However, what’s the price of not doing this?

Ultimately, people we in a better place to do the hard work. Just like we hope for our students. Perhaps following a little bit Maslow’s work.

Keep it going now

A few days in August was just the beginning. Bringing back the marathon reference: educators need support and nurturing all along the way. So what can we do now to keep educators healthy?

The way we use use our time is a critical piece of the puzzle. Have you ever left a faculty meeting thinking “That should have been a email!”

Let’s not do that. We should maximize our time together and focus on the most critical things.

I don’t know about you but the timestamp on email says it all. 3:24 am is weirdly not an uncommon sight. How might we expand some of our screentime guidelines to educators? What boundaries can we share to keep a healthy pace?

So, let’s check ourselves! If we say we value the health of our educators (and students) do our actions align? If so, Great! Keep doing that. If not, you can make a change.

So what are folks doing? Moreover, let’s share and spread the work.

Creating your school plan for distance learning with limited internet access

There is not one right response or plan for school closures. Each school community faces different needs, contexts, and situations. And we know in some regions of our beautiful state, access to high speed internet and digital devices are limited.

So, not all #vted schools are going to have the same plans for remote learning. Some communities will have access, some won’t.  We will need to constantly work on addressing these inequities now and well into the future.

But for right now, we wanted to share with you a plan to continue learning with limited internet or device access.  How can we make sure that all students have opportunities to connect, learn and grow while away from school?

Today, we will take you through setting up a school plan and share an example from White River Valley Middle School, and how they are centering students and equity as much as possible in this fast moving, quick changing situation.

5 things to consider when designing a plan for distance/out of school learning:

  1. Access. Remember that not all students have access to online learning platforms. When designing learning activities consider multiple access points including the almighty paper and pencil and email. (Don’t forget about postal service!)
  2. Support. If we apply what we know, students’ support at home can vary. Given many parents maybe working from home as a recommendation of social distancing. Their attention and support might need to be spread across many domains. Consider learning opportunities that students will be self-directed or with minimal support.
  3. Resources. We cannot assume that students have access to resources or materials when at home. When thinking about asking them to create or build something the materials they have access to may vary. Please consider a menu of options where they could or could not choose to build or create.
  4. Communication. Schools strive to be an inclusive community. Communication is key to a sense of belonging and support. Remember, not all students have access to online interfaces. Please consider multiple types of communication including online but also phone or snail mail. Also, educators who also may be at home might have other responsibilities to pay attention too. Just a consideration.
  5. Use existing structures. Many hands make light work. How might you use existing structures to support this transition? Advisory might be a great way to keep an already cohesive group feeling connected and supported.

Everyone needs to come together right now, to feel connection and support.

Families need your leadership and your voice in saying that education will continue, though in a much different way, while the school is physically closed and remote learning is in place. Families and caregivers need to know that the school is working hard to make sure that children are cared for, given opportunities to connect and to learn.

The faculty at White River Valley Middle School (Bethel) developed a plan that takes many of these into account. Their plan dissolves the boundaries of subject specific disciplines and focuses on learning.

The brain is a muscle and the goal is to continue to exercise that muscle in this time transition.

We all recognize that the immediate future will just look different. How different? We’re not sure, yet!

Connection with students

Connecting with students
Photo by Sam Loyd on Unsplash

Consider, how will you touch base with your students each day? Will it be a morning meeting for those who can on Google Hangouts? Will it be a group chat? Or email? And if there is no digital access for a few students, a check in phone call? This connection is one of the most important things to maintain.

Think about how you want to structure checking in with students each day and then establish those procedures and norms with your students. Once it begins, ask how it is working and how the system could be improved based on your group’s experiences.

For middle school teachers, this could be your advisory group. For elementary teachers, this could be your homeroom class, and maybe you could group students into smaller groups with a co-teacher. Decide how you will connect and then make sure everyone has that information.

Menu of learning activities for students

Think simple. What is one learning activity kids could do, even with limited internet access, each day?

See this menu of learning experience ideas created by White River Valley Middle School teachers. Have students pick at least one activity to do, then record their learning on the distance learning activity reflection planning sheets (with no digital access) or they could fill in a google doc (after they have made their own copy).

Inform the parents

Parents need to know the plan. They are likely feeling overwhelmed with work, family and decision-making. Here is a sample letter from the White River Valley Middle School, sharing the primarily offline learning experience menu and reflection document.

Sample letter to families

Distance learning activity reflection plan

Universal design calls for reducing barriers for everyone. Universal access for White River means that each student at White Rive Valley Middle School will receive a hard copy of this plan (though on this copy, we changed it a little bit). On it, students say what activity they did, select the subject it was in, and reflect on their learning. This can be done with paper and pencil or make a copy and written on a personal Google Doc

It can be extended in a few ways. Students could pick from a list of transferable skills and explain how the selected learning activity showed growth in that skill.

Also, despite limited internet access, students could have a daily suggested schedule, with lots of flexibility:

  • Teacher/class connection activity.
  • Read for 30 minutes each day
  • Practice math for 30 minutes each day
  • Select another learning activity for 1-2 hours
  • Reflect on their learning for 15-20 minutes each day.

This of course will take a large bit of self-direction and support. But it is a simple plan that could be replicated, adjusted, and used in any way possible to support remote learning.

How are you planning for distance learning? What would you change or add to this plan?

Thank you for all you are doing to keep kids safe, healthy and learning. We are here to help you. Please leave a comment or questions or need and we will get back to you.


Video evidence & reflection for student-led conferences

How PAML scaffolds screencasts for students

Students and their families at Peoples Academy Middle Level have participated in student led conferences for a number of years now. What’s new this year? The opportunity for each 5th and 6th grader to tell the story of their learning through video evidence and reflection. It’s these “Learner Story” videos they share at their conferences.

Let’s examine how one middle school in Vermont invites their learners to create video evidence and reflection for their PLPs. Now let’s see how Peoples Academy Middle Level fosters and supports this process that then re-feeds the PLPs in question.

The setup

Many Vermont educators facilitate identity building work at the start of the school year. They do so through teacher advisory and as part of Personal Learning Plan (PLP) development. Students explore the questions “Who am I?” both as learners and as integral members of their school community. Knowing students well means we are better positioned to support them on their learning journeys.

Yet, often this identity work stops after this initial back-to-school and PLP prep ends.

Enter: the student-led conference

A teacher-generated video example launches the project. Students consider how to meet the requirements of sharing learning aligned to clear targets from their interdisciplinary project-based work:

  • Include at least 5-6 pieces of evidence from Expedition
    • Explain in writing or speaking:
      • What was the assignment?
      • What did you learn?
      • Did it meet a learning target?

Expedition at Peoples Academy is an integrated studies course team taught by seven educators. Their driving question?

How Do Communities Thrive?

Students select evidence of learning to reflect on. And they *explicitly* link this evidence to clear learning targets. And they do it with video stories.

Izzy’s “Learner Story”

Spoiler: it’s a video.

Let’s jump right in to 6th grader Izzy’s Learner Story, below, then look at how the PAML educators support and guide students with the creation process.

Amazing, right? So good. So comprehensive and clear, and quite a few signposts guiding you through Izzy’s learning journey! (Btw, a big THANK YOU to Izzy and the PAML folx for sharing that video.)

Now let’s reverse-engineer it:

Check out the full slide deck PAML educators share with their students. It spells out how students should:

  • review the learning they are engaged in;
  • curate their evidence;
  • and tell compelling visual stories of how they met shared learning goals.

It provides a solid foundation of instruction for getting students to sit down and think concretely about what to include in their videos.

(Grab yourself a copy of this fabulous resource by going to File > Copy.)

The slide deck asks students the following questions:

  • What’s your story?
  • What have we done?
  • How are you feeling about your student-led conference?
  • What do you need to include in your Learner Story?
    • A link to your math and expo slideshow
    • 5-6 pieces of evidence from Expedition (boom: examples!)
    • What you learned
    • Whether it met a learning target
  • What are you proud of? What didn’t go so well? (Rose and Thorn protocol) What could you do differently next time?

And finally:

  • What are you looking forward to next?

Format: keep it simple

Video evidence and reflection, as a term, can conjure up visions of 20-minute documentaries with a full cast and multiple dance numbers. And yet, PAML keeps it simple with screencasting.

Stop! Pedagogy time: focus on skills over tools

Sylvia Tolisano in her post  12 ideas for amplified forms of digital storytelling  explains what she sees as a strategic choice to include video as a medium. In this way, digital “Learning Stories” amplify the learning because they tap into “previously unknown possibilities.”

Documenting by capturing evidence of learning and sharing it in a strategic way allows for the development of a learning story. Take digital portfolios to the next level and go beyond the accumulation of disconnected artifacts to curate strategic evidence of learning. Create connections (chronological or non-linear) between them. Make reflections and metacognition (the thinking about your thinking) visible. Make your learning process and your growth visible. The learning story can become an inspiration for others, when you share and make your learning trials, obstacles and mistakes visible to others. The act of documenting and telling your learning story can become an integral part of the process of learning itself.”

Peoples Academy teachers value both the process and product.

Students revisit, reflect upon, and synthesize their learning as they create these Learner Stories. In this way, teacher advisors say they’ve learned so much about the students in their advisories simply by watching the videos as they help students prepare for conferences.

Multiple ways to create Learner Stories?

Check out Richard Byrnes’ list of digital storytelling resources for your students to share their Learning Stories.

(Want to know more about Student Led Conferences? We’ve gotcha covered. Plus, check out Katy Farber’s Padlet.)

Now, how might you create opportunities for all learners to reflect on and represent their growth through digital storytelling?

Confronting climate change in the classroom

We’re not talking enough with students about climate change

At least, many of us are not.

At the Global Youth Climate Strike last fall, I spoke with a lot of students who are really concerned about the future. Like, really concerned. Topping their list of worries is that not only are adults not doing enough to address climate change, but we’re also not talking with them (much) about it either. One student even characterized our inaction on climate as the ultimate homework procrastination.

Four students facing backwards holding signs, confronting climate change
Student activists at the Youth Climate Strike in September 2019.

But why?

I have a few hunches: first, despite being addressed in curriculum content standards, including the Next Generation Science Standards and the C3 Social Studies standards, climate change somehow feels like a political issue.

Newsflash: It’s not. It’s not a political issue. It’s science. And civics. It’s everything, really. And all too imminent. I mean sure, it has political implications, economic implications, social, ecological…it changes everything.

Yet wading into anything that feels like partisan waters can be anxiety-provoking for educators.

And speaking of anxiety, yeah, well, eco-anxiety made Oxford’s shortlist for words of the year 2019. Climate emergency won the top spot, and the whole list was related to climate change. Many of us are feeling the burn, so to speak. And for many of us, our strategy is to tamp that feeling down and focus on something else.

The problem is so very big and complicated, and we are so very small.

Or so it seems. It is very easy to feel powerless in the face of such a complex, global challenge.

And yet. The future is at stake. And as educators, just as we value our students, we value their future. Our job is to help prepare them for that future, however uncertain it may be.  And we can’t get there by ignoring or minimizing the threat posed by climate change.

So what’s a teacher to do?

I don’t have all the answers, but I have a few ideas. These, plus a little courage will move us in the right direction.

Knowledge is power

Climate change is a trans-disciplinary concept. There is not a content area that isn’t connected to this issue. From math to art, relevant academic connections can be made. Our students are asking us to help them understand what’s happening, why, and what we can do about it.

 It’s science:

To start, help students understand the facts of climate change in a developmentally appropriate way. Provide matter-of-fact explanations about the science of climate change. Help students understand what greenhouse gases are and how they function. Explore what happens when we upset the carbon balance in our atmosphere, and how scientists use models to try to predict and understand the impacts and outcomes of these changes in global chemistry.

Here are a few science resources to help you get started:
2 adults hold a plastic tube-shaped bag to a car's exhaust pipe, confronting climate change
Teachers in VEEP’s Energy Action Project Institute learn to measure auto emissions.

It’s civics:

Help students discover how governments — from local and federal and beyond- work and how we can get involved. Explore international policy and global efforts to combat climate change.

Who is in charge, makes laws, benefits, and suffers? What happens when we don’t follow through? How does change happen?

Help students understand power and privilege. Who has benefited from the dominant global system? And who has suffered as a result? Who is predicted to suffer the most severe impacts of climate change first? What is our responsibility?

Check out these civics resources:
Large group of students walk on sidewalk holding signs. Confronting climate change
Middlebury Union High School students walk out of class to attend the Youth Climate Strike in September 2019.

And sometimes it’s both together:

Learn together about humans’ relationship with the earth and other living things. Discuss the concept of natural resources. Identify how we use earth’s resources and explore the mental models and perspectives on how those resources should be consumed (hint: contrasting a Western capitalist mind with an Indigenous mindset can be revealing).

Check out this Tar Sands – Keystone XL role play from A People’s Curriculum for the Earth from Rethinking Schools.

It’s ok if you don’t have all the answers! Be the lead learner and model for students how we can seek answers to our questions.

Kids books confronting climate change
There’s a great picture book collection called The Sunlight Series by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm that explains energy concepts. I highly recommend these books, even for middle schoolers! ‘Buried Sunlight’ explains what fossil fuels are and how their use is warming our planet.

And it’s connected to everything.

Help students become systems-thinkers, who can flexibly understand the relationships and interconnectedness of systems, their parts, and issues. Teach them to look beyond the surface to the complexity of the interactions within and between ecological, economic, and social systems. (Hint: The Climate Change Playbook has a ton of great games that help students understand these concepts and more.)

Keep it developmentally appropriate

We need to be real, and we need to be mindful. Exposing kids, especially younger ones, to the horrors of starving polar bears or burned kangaroos may lead to what educator David Sobel termed ecophobia, which means a fear of the natural world. This fear can lead to a sense of powerlessness and withdrawal from nature (and activism).

Help them find answers to their questions, but avoid alarmism.  It’s paralyzing; it invokes our flight, fright, or freeze response. Instead, be truthful while emphasizing the efforts focused on mitigating the problem. There is hope; we are the hope.

Developmentally speaking, our students are primed to seek opportunities to develop their competence and autonomy, to fight injustice, and to seek connection. Lead the way!

Cultivate agency and empowerment

Once we’ve kindled interest (and maybe a little righteous indignation) and our students’ passion for making a difference, it’s time to teach them that no one is too small to make a difference.

Think globally, act locally

Yeah, that catchphrase harkens back to the eighties, at least. But it holds.

Use your own community as a setting for getting students engaged in tackling global issues. Engaging in local service-learning projects will help students develop a sense of agency and empowerment. Through this work, they will discover their ability to make a difference right here, right now.

Help your students start a school-community garden, initiate a no-idling campaign in your school parking lot, or even establish a climate action club. Let them lead. They have great ideas! When we exercise our ability to make a difference, it buoys us.

Enter: service-learning

I am happy to report that this blog is packed full of great resources for service-learning, project-based learning, and using frameworks like the United Nations’ Goals for Sustainable Development, also known as the SDGs or Global Goals, which specify 17 goals that folks across the globe are working on together.

UN Sustainable Development Goals tiles atop a piece of paper with student writing
Students at Cultivating Pathways to Sustainability brainstorm local projects aligned to the Global Goals

Here are some of our best resources on service-learning:

And a few more that explore ways you can use the Global Goals:

Quick shout out to my brilliant colleagues Katy Farber and Jeanie Phillips, who wrote most of the posts on these lists (and Katy even wrote a great book on the topic!)

Finally, feel the feelings

Grappling with climate change is scary. The future may be uncertain, but the days ahead are likely to grow harder. It’s important that we acknowledge our feelings, not tamp them down. The grief we experience when we confront the impacts of climate change and the sixth mass extinction unfolding around us is real. It is also evidence of our deep connection to the earth and the other life we share this planet with.

Sarah Jaquette Ray’s Coming of Age at the End of the World guides educators to attend to both the affective and academic in the classroom. While her students are a bit older, her point remains valid. We have to welcome students’ fully human selves in the classroom. Which means we have to welcome our fully human selves, too.

In order to be able to make space for emotions that may arise for students, we need to be able to acknowledge and confront our own first. We do this emotional work so that we may move through the despair into hope and courage, and show them the way.

We are in this together. And remember, we are the hope.

Digging into self-direction

When states around the country shifted towards standards-based, competency-based and proficiency-based learning and reporting, that involved separating the content-specific skills and knowledge from the learner-specific habits and behaviors.

The particular set of learner habits and behaviors that districts and states chose to measure and report have varied. Similarly, some states adopted guiding structures such as the Essential Skills and Dispositions framework created in 2015. In Vermont, the AOE created a set of proficiencies called the Transferable Skills. These two frameworks differ in some ways, but both have in common a focus on self-direction for students.

(The 5 Components of Self-Direction from the Essential Skills and Dispositions framework)

Five components of Self-Direction: Self-Awareness, Initiative and Ownership, Goal-Setting and Planning, Engagement and Managing, Monitoring and Adapting, and Self-Direction and Self-Directed Learning
Lench, S., Fukuda, E., & Anderson, R. (2015). Essential skills and dispositions: Developmental frameworks for collaboration, creativity, communication, and self-direction. Lexington, KY: Center for Innovation in Education at the University of Kentucky

A little Vermont context

The first time that I saw the Vermont Transferable Skills was in 2015. Many of the skills, such as Clear and Effective Communication, seemed, well, clear. But over the years I have been increasingly puzzled by the definition and conceptual framework behind learner self-direction.

making with cardboard and Self-Direction and Self-Directed Learning

Nearly every mission and vision statement coming out of schools these days aspires to produce self-directed learners. This has me insatiably curious. What is self-direction? What does it mean to be a self-directed learner? From where? And why did this skill suddenly appear in our vocabulary? That is to say, I feel a burning desire to better understand the concept. For the sake of teaching and learning young people.

Turns out, self-direction and self-directed learning are terribly complex concepts

Self-direction is a human trait that combines psychological, educational, emotional, and social behavior. Behind self-direction is the messy interaction of those needs and behaviors. Self-direction manifests into outcomes of our human behavior and decision-making. Instinctually, educators want to frame self-direction as purely positive and compliance-oriented behaviors. But that is a myth.

Any action, human decision and behavior is an act of self-direction: “good” and “bad”. If I’m in my evening class and I’m bored and feel like I need to move my body, I might get up and leave class to go to the bathroom. That is an act of self-direction.

student looking at a map

Consequently, the instructor might think that I made a poor choice to leave class and miss the information and learning. But I examined myself and made the decision. I directed my “self” based on my needs, motivations, my context, and my previous experiences.

Similarly to self-direction, self-directed learning has become an umbrella term in education. It refers to a host of processes and outcomes. In short, it’s an educational experience (formal or informal) where the learner has some knowledge of their personal needs, sets goals, makes decisions, and finds the necessary resources. Then the learner conducts the actions necessary to meet their learning needs and goals. The concept of self-directed learning is being increasingly applied to K-12 educational settings. What’s interesting is that the roots of self-directed learning are in adult education.

Some salient self-directed literature

Certainly, one of the most influential texts is Malcolm S. Knowles’ 1975 book, Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers. He was a leading authority in the field of adult education. He defines self-directed learning as,

A process in which individuals take initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes” 

Another adult learning researcher, D. Randy Garrison, contributed to development of the self-directed learning concept. In 1991, he published Self-Directed Learning: Towards a Comprehensive Model and created this visual to show the interaction of four dimensions of self-directed Learning.

Dimensions of self-directed learning, and Self-Direction and Self-Directed Learning

Checking assumptions

In each of these adult learning models, there is an implicit assumption that the learner has some control and responsibility over their learning. These two models rely on opportunities for the learner to direct their own learning and determine learning goals. More current frameworks of self-directed learning, like the ES & D, also require that the learner has the opportunity and occasion to own and manage their learning.

Alas, I would argue that in many K-12 educational settings, learners do not regularly have these opportunities and this control. Which suggests an interesting problem. What are the behaviors that we are teaching and assessing when students do not have the opportunity to be self-directed learners?

Finally, we (as educators) need to ask ourselves:

If the origins of self-directed learning are rooted in adult education, how do we adjust frameworks and expectations when we apply it to children and adolescents?

  • What is a young person’s capacity and ability for self-direction and self-directed learning?
  • What does self-direction look like in a 6 year old? In a 12 year old? In a 16 year old?
  • How do our schools promote self-direction?
  • What structures in our schools impede self-directed learning?

These are questions that need answers. I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

A moment of collective efficacy

What would it look like if your school plan was alive and represented in much of your day to day work? That would be a stark contrast to many of my teaching days. When the “plan” lived in a binder that came out once a year. I chuckle at the imagery of pulling out a dust covered book with cobwebs like finding a hidden treasure. But what if it was different? Well, at Charlotte Central School it is different. Here’s their moment of collective efficacy.

A plan worth doing!

One of the cornerstones of a Tarrant Institute partnership is having a school plan. A plan that represents teacher voice and above all else, is worth doing. It’s these plans that increase the moments of collective efficacy for faculty and staff. According to Hattie (2016) teacher collective efficacy has an effect size of 1.57. It’s safe to say that is significant. So what is teacher collective efficacy?

“When teachers believe that together, they are capable of developing students’ critical thinking skills, creativity, and mastery of complex content, it happens! Collective teacher efficacy (CTE) refers to a staff’s shared belief that through their collective action, they can positively influence student outcomes, including those who are disengaged and/or disadvantaged” Jenni Donohoo

Collective Teacher Efficacy: The Effect Size Research and Six Enabling Conditions (2017)

Back to the plan

In addition to wanting the plan to be alive and well, it should be focused and concise. Action plans are typically the worst offenders. Fifteen actions steps each with five components. Sound familiar? That’s not realistic. Even under the best circumstances. So what could it look like?

The faculty at Charlotte Central School have been working towards five central goals.


A plan worth doing, right?

Building the moment

Sometime in November, I asked the faculty to think about bringing some work to look at. Not a ton of direction but folks seemed to be nodding and indicating that my ask was okay. Then December happened and things got busy. Nothing out of the normal. In the background co-principal, Jennifer Roth, had been wondering how to better utilize the professional development space. Enter the Learning Wall.

Kudos to Jen as this is purely her idea. What would it look like to have our collective work and celebrations represented in the same space we gather and collaborate? Jen had typed of the school’s goals and laminated them on the wall. We crafted a simple email to the faculty to bring some piece of learning that connected to one of the goals. That’s it! Then the magic happened.

Email to teachers
A simple email about the day’s faculty meeting

If you build it they will come.

I had set up in the same space where the faculty gathers and fired off the quick email above. Then it started! Faculty began popping in placing their artifacts under the goal it related to. One by one, throughout the day, people stopped to look at what others had bought while dropping off their work. As an observer, this is impressive. It was clear they had stuff to share.

Books, models, poster paper, assignments, student work and a big bag of snacks!!! Yes, snacks were an artifact with a powerful story. The evidence was everywhere. If I ever had a doubt (which I did not) that Charlotte had made tremendous steps toward their plan, the learning wall now told their story.


Then it happened!

Faculty meeting started as usual. Announcements, Bright Spots and Belly Flops. etc… Shout out to Learning Lab for that one.

Title slide of faculty presentation Announcements slide

Full presentation here

We started with one simple question. Would anyone like to share?


The Moment had begun

With the usual awkwardness of deciding who was going to go first the stories began. The faculty shared powerful examples and stories focused on student success. They spoke with emotion highlighting what young adolescents are capable of. The moment of collective efficacy was underway.

The Learning Wall

We had simply planned on folks sharing. But it went far beyond that. Lightbulbs were going off left and right. Ideas generated, Praise given. Can I come to your classroom and see you do that? Can you share that with me? I’d like to use that in our…… Yup, it was a proud moment, for sure.


Have you ever not wanted a faculty meeting to end?

That’s how it felt. The wall now had evidence of everyone’s hard work. We could now see it in totality.  A massive success. And we only asked folks to bring one artifact!


So, what’s next?

Enter students! The thinking is to share these goals with the students and ask them for evidence and feedback? Stayed tune folks!


Imagine your school plan was alive? Imagine what it could do?










Who should be assessing student-led conferences?

Feedback is a key component of a successful, celebratory and growth-oriented student-centered conference. And your colleagues, your students and their families can all play vital roles in assessing student-led conferences.

Who should be giving and receiving assessments? There’s *lots* of room at this table. Remember: feedback is a gift.

(Resist the freakout: when we talk about “assessment”, we’re trying to get a sense of what went well, and what could be improved, with an eye towards supporting students and their families. It’s not a test, and it’s not pass-fail. Think of it as more of a cline: this assessment can be codified in Google Forms (or exit surveys) or simply take the form of unscripted reflection.)

Your students’ families

Down at Brattleboro Area Middle School (BAMS), in Brattleboro VT, families arrived for their first ever student-led conferences to be greeted at the door by the building principal, administrative staff, a table of baked goods — and a row of Chromebooks. (Yes, one of these things was waaaay more popular than the others).

BAMS educators designed a simple Google Form in which they asked families to provide a few key metrics about the new conference format.

how to evaluate the success of student-led conferences, assessing student-led conferences


92% of the 112 parents surveyed at BAMS responded that they felt “pretty good” or “fantastic” about the conference they attended. Parents contributed comments such as: “I think this is such a great opportunity for our students to showcase their talents and abilities. I appreciate the collaboration and the conversations that came of the student led conference process.”

Lamoille Union Middle School educator Katie Bryant and her team also used Google Forms to collect family feedback. The team gave their students a structure for the conferences that revolved around projecting their PLP from an iPad. Students walked their families through the pieces of their PLP they were most proud of. Afterwards, Bryant and her team sent out the Forms for family feedback. And when they looked at the data, they discovered that the student-led conferences helped families engage more with student PLPs.

Families want a bigger voice in their students’ education, and this is a perfect time to open that door.

Your students

An integral part of student voice is making sure your students get to assess their experiences in the classroom — including the student-led conference. Here are some sample prompts:

  1. What’s one word you’d use to describe your experience with this conference?
  2. What was the most satisfying thing about this conference?
  3. What was the most challenging thing about this conference?
  4. If you could change any one thing about this experience, what would you change?

Different strokes for different folks: let students answer a Google Form, free-write or even record a short video response. And yes, give students the opportunity to add those responses to the personal learning plans (PLPs). It’s all part of one big cohesive system.

Your colleagues

First, feel free to celebrate. You did it! You — yes *you* — are helping education move forward. You’re changing the dominant parent-teacher conference paradigm in favor of one that centers student voice. That is outstanding! Everybody have a cookie.

Then, keep it simple, you’re all exhausted. Throwing events takes a lot of work, and you have prepped your socks off for these particular conferences. So: how’d it go?

Take some time to decompress, then feel free to reach out to your fellow educators.

If you’re doing student-led conferences in pairs, you have someone who was there across the table, watching and hearing the same event. If you’re doing these conferences as a full team or a full middle school, before the conferences you can build in things to look for:

  1. How was good (or challenging) news received by the family? Did this seem different from previous iterations?
  2. What was the ratio of participants speaking? Did you hear more from the student? From the family?

And you can also just sit down with a colleague and ask them for a general reflection.

Longtime BAMS educator Joe Rivers provided some valuable thoughts on the whole general process during some downtime in the evening event. “I’ve enjoyed watching kids in this setting, talking with their parents. Their eyes light up, get bigger… Kids’ll talk about their lives here, and their lives out n’ about, in advisory, but now they’re talking about things they care about. That’s even deeper. It’s been eye-opening and enjoyable.”

Don’t forget you!

Yes, you absolutely deserve another cookie for this. And you deserve to know your own power as a very interested party. You know these kids. You’re with them every day. In thinking about their student-led conferences, Rachel Mark encourages us to consider the following indicators:

  • Do you see students eyes light up when speaking about a learning experience?
  • Are you blown away by students saying things like, “I used more tools to create the game and make it more complicated”?
  • Does your heart skip a beat when students connect eyes with a parent who tells them they are very proud of them?

Jotting some quick notes along these lines during conferences or directly after can provide valuable meta-data on the experience, and give you inspiration for doing it again next time!

Happy student-led conference season, y’all!


Looking at PLPs

Connecting deeply with students matters. Research tell us this. So does teacher experience. Educators spend a lot of time learning about student interests, their families and cultures, their identities and dreams. This is important work, and is often based on what they show us, or tell us.

But what if students are in the drivers seat of this exploration? And how could all teachers (not just classroom teachers) know students deeply and well, to connect first, develop relationships, then work toward learning goals?

I was at a teacher team meeting recently. One educator was noting a few students who she felt like were disengaged and breaking class norms and expectations. They were pulling back from class discussions and activities. The teachers decided to make a chart of all the students in grades 6-8 and list which teachers felt they had a personal connection with each student. After that, the team looked for themes and noticed that some of the same students who were disconnecting had fewer personal connections with educators.

How would we respond if this was a gap in literacy or math skills? With a plan. And this was a relationship gap. This is new language I picked up from this recent article about the impact of supportive relationships on boys’ learning. When there is a lack of strong relationships, boys can experience a gap, and suffer all sorts of educational and emotional consequences, leaving them open for isolation and invitations into harmful groups and organizations.

Looking at PLPs

And what if there were more ways to connect, for students to show us who they are, and share things with us about their out of school lives, and their learning lives that they might not want to share verbally? Of course nothing will or should take the place of one on one contact and in person relationship building. But Vermont educators have a tool at their disposal and it is ready for students to share with us who they are, how they learn, and what they need. The PLP.

One thing students and teachers are showing us about PLPs is that students need some structures to support developing this reflective and storytelling tool. Because schools have traditionally viewed learning as something that happens in schools only, of course students get that message, and might not share that they indeed got into ice skating finals this weekend, won an ice fishing derby, or made macrons successfully for the first time. They won’t know to record their excitement after video-conferencing with students in Kenya, or discovering that they could survive giving a Ted Talk style speech in front of their classmates.

Care and attention of students + PLPs

How how do we help them?

Like anything, the more attention you give something, the more it grows. Often, teachers launch PLPs with an identity activity, and then it lies dormant until student led conferences. What happened in between? If you are already working on PLPs with your students, when do you find time to look at them? Do the essential arts teachers have a way to look at them? Do families?

PLPs in Seesaw -- looking at PLPs

One way to get started with that is to set aside a time for looking at PLPs in your teacher team meetings, maybe once a week. Pick one or two PLPs to look at, possibly students who you know are struggling relationally first. Ponder:

  • What do you notice?
  • Look closely, what is it telling us?
  • Consider, what might be next steps?

And if you notice the PLPs are sparse, what might be a good plan for developing it more fully with students?  Consider a few of these questions:

  • What are the structures to support kids creating meaningful and regular work in PLPs?
  • How can PLPs be used to help to reach/teach students?
  • How can PLPs be better used to strengthen student and teacher relationships?
  • Is anyone posting out of school learning? How can educators encourage this?

Developing supports

Based on the answers, your team might come up with a few action steps for looking at PLPs. One could be that in advisory each students will reflect on their growth in transferable skills each week (using art, photos, writing, video), or write a journal type email to caregivers. Or each student will post a highlight and a lowlight from their week in any way that suits them. Or it could be that each week students will post about out of school learning that had an impact on them. Each of these would provide a window for all teachers on the inner learning lives and personal interests of their students. This could be especially important for students who are introverted and might struggle to share things verbally in class.

Get student feedback

Then, ask a student! What do they need to make these meaningful to them and their families? This is their learning story and lived experiences, after all.

PLPs need care and feeding, and looking at PLPs on a regular basis does that. They will become like a binder on a shelf if students aren’t interacting with them in meaningful ways. And I don’t mean in a shallow compliance only sort of way, like show me how you followed the class rules today! A reflection about class norms is awesome, but if the PLP just becomes another instrument where teachers tell kids exactly what to do and how to be, it is another example of teacher-directed learning that undermines the purpose of the PLP.

Educators, how do you help students show their true selves in PLPs?  And how do you use this tool to build relationships with students? We are all ears!

Takin’ a ride with Alpha 5

As an instructional coach, I want to push myself on the fact that I rarely take the time to celebrate “bright spots”. I’m definitely the type that can find a flaw in the midst of the brightest 10 carat diamond and once I see it my eyes and attention are stuck. So this post is all about celebration!

And at it’s core is a project that we built from the ground up.  In collaboration with our CCS 5th grade humanities teacher extraordinaire Katie Fraser.

Continue reading Takin’ a ride with Alpha 5

This middle school is not a building

Welcome to White River Valley’s outdoor classroom

Students and faculty at Bethel Elementary and White River Valley Middle Schools firmly believe middle school is not a building. Behind the brick-and-mortar school lies an expansive wilderness classroom that provides opportunities for pre-kindergarten through eight grade to connect with the earth, environment, and each other to become lifelong stewards. And I got to see it all in action.


First visit: “Into the woods! (and home before–)”

I met a group of excited students gathered in the lobby, eagerly awaiting their woods break. Bonna Wieler, outdoor education educator, arrived to hand out compasses. A quick orienteering review in the lobby and off we went.

Bethel had significant rains the day before I arrived so the trail was, let’s say a little muddy. But students had already built a few bridges and worked on some erosion control in the previous days. The slick trail did not slow down anyone. With mud boots on, students sprinted effortlessly up the trail.

Our first stop? One of the campus campsites.

A shelter made of sticks and tarps stood prominently in an opening in the thick pine forest. “We built that!” yelled a student, pointing proudly.

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Do you know where you are?

WRVMS students are mapping the boundaries and trails using emerging orienteering skills. And that was part of the task for today. “260 degrees, 31 paces,” shouted one student. Bonna nodded an acknowledgement, jotting the data in a notebook.

Two students became my guides. They named every type of tree by their bark alone, as the leaves are a bit scarce this time of year. They showed me all the benches students had made with hand tools out of downed logs. It seemed they knew every square inch of that space like the backs of their hands. But most noteworthy was the students’ ability to share their knowledge with confidence. I consider myself something of an outdoor enthusiast [Ed Note: Scott is, no lie, a competitive whitewater kayaker] but I could not compete with this group.

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Second visit: Let there be… FIRE.

My second trip up the trail? This new group of students had a very different focus. We were there to kindle fires. Students carefully carried axes and fire-starting materials through the coolness of the morning and into the dense forest. A small shelter held dry firewood organized by size. The students had been gathering materials for days. The group all had their assignments. “We’re building the fire,” said one student, pointing. “I’ll cut wood, you crack acorns.” Over by the fire, two students were organizing their materials with surgical precision. “When it lights,” said one, pulling her hair into a ponytail,  “we need to be ready.”

Fire n’ Fluff

When I heard “fluff” I thought “marshmallow sandwiches”, but I admit I was hungry. Fluff, is when you take tiny strands of twine and pull them apart. Then strips of birch bark. Followed by mouse tails. Not real ones, just tiny sticks that look like tails.

A pair of girls made a bird nest of materials. Then they grabbed the flint and striker. A few strikes later and boom: fire time. “WE DID IT!” shouted the students. Fist bumps all round. And I was impressed!

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Maine Woodsman Curriculum

Much of the curriculum for these activities have been adopted from similar programs in Maine.

What contributes to the success?

Not many great things happen in isolation or by accident.

First, as mentioned earlier, the elementary school has a strong outdoor program starting in kindergarten. Kindergarten in the woods. Bethel has been using the natural environment as an extension of the school for several years. Educating Children Outdoors or E.C.O has been part of the school as well. Here’s their letter to parents. The school also partners with the North Branch Nature Center to provide training and support.

Additionally, as we all know local partnerships are essential to the health and sustainability of any programs, Bethel partners with Project Learning Tree  and the Four Winds Nature Institute.

A second factor in the success of this program is highly qualified and passionate educators. Bonna Wieler and Melissa Purdy are two such shining examples. Their experience, training, guidance and leadership are essential. Many other educators in the school have participated and have been trained as well. Trained staff is a key to sustainability.

Lastly, what happens in the woods in not in isolation to the classrooms or curriculum.

“It’s where we bring the indoor subjects into the outdoors,” says Melissa. The programs work symbiotically with benefits happening in both places. For example, Lindley (Design and Technology Educator) and Bonna also have a vision of using the resources/wood from the forests to make products in the WRVMS Shop. Keep it local!

What’s the purpose?

For a full version of the desired outcomes please see here

We will:

  • Increase confidence and self esteem
  • Build empathy and resilience
  • Connect with student’s need for movement
  • Reduce stress
  • Be an extension of the classroom
  • Promote creativity and imagination 
  • Play
  • Teach about the natural world and understanding the science involved – the way to grow good stewards of the earth, to develop attitudes and skills to preserve and care for the environment.
  • Help students gain the knowledge, skills, understanding and experience necessary to make informed decisions about our environment.
  • Facilitate connections with elders in our communities to enhance student learning and enrich elders’ lives as they share their knowledge and caring of the Upper Valley, passing on their experiences and expertise.
  • Model and teach the protection, restoration, sustainability and stewardship of the natural systems within our communities. 

Other benefits:

Here’s what students have to say as just one more testament:

“When I’m outside I feel alive”

“The outdoor setting gives me a space to breathe and just be me”

“This is where I feel I’m at my best”

“My family history goes back generations, so it is important for me to protect this for future generations”

How to use data to inform progress

Involve learners with actionable data

Wondering how to use data to inform progress for users in proficiency-based education? Assessment provides both learners and educators with data. One of CAST’s Top Ten Universal Design for Learning Tips for Assessment  is involving learners in their learning progress through assessment data:

“Communicate with learners about their progress towards the intended learning goals through formative assessment data, mastery-oriented feedback, and providing guidance for possible adjustments or new strategies that may support the intended skill. This allows learners to become active advocates and take ownership their learning.”

These questions provide an effective guide for educators:

  • Have I offered timely, goal-related feedback on the assessment?
  • Have I offered learners the opportunity to assess individual learning progress and process (for example, through regular check-ins)?
  • What about sharing options, strategies, and background knowledge needed to build the necessary skills and expertise for achieving the targeted learning goals?

How can we involve students in formative assessment so they can be empowered to take next steps?

Technology allows us to build assessment opportunities with our students. And those opportunities generate data. Students can then make informed decisions about how to move forward. Let’s look at some ways technology can help us answer the CAST questions.

Have I offered timely, goal-related feedback on the assessment?

Consider Google Forms. A form can become a self-grading quiz providing instant feedback that allows for review, reflection, and retakes.

My colleague Scott Thompson walks you through how to set up a Google Form quiz so students get both immediate feedback and resources to learn from on each answer they select.

Have I offered learners the opportunity to assess individual learning progress and process (for example, through regular check-ins)?

Padlet is a versatile tool for assessment purposes, especially when learners use the KWL template  (Know, Want to Know, Learn) to track their growth. Ask students to create a Padlet during a project or unit. Build in routine times for them to update it as a means of tracking progress.


Check out this how-to create a KWL chart video to create your own.

And, Common Sense Media provides some sound advice about how to make formative assessment more student centered.  “To unlock formative assessment’s full potential, go beyond the bar chart and get students to reflect on their own progress, areas for growth, and next steps. In the end, it’s not the quiz that counts but the thinking that happens after.”


Have I shared options, strategies, and background knowledge needed to build the necessary skills and expertise for achieving the targeted learning goals?

I’ve written about one of my favorite edtech tools Nearpod in the past. Nearpod invites learners into active participation with content. The power of this tool lies in the ability to easily include formative check-in activities in content delivery directly. And, the results are easily shared with students – data that then the class can act on. 

Want another example in practice? Consider using Nearpod to introduce peer instruction as a collaborative learning strategy so students can receive immediate feedback on developing concepts.  Interested in more?  Pedagogue Padawan offers other similar technology tools for peer instruction and peer critique . He shares his search for tools that allow sharing student responses with all students in the class.

Consider where you are on the continuum

The folks over at Ed Elements share a helpful continuum on how teachers can move toward adopting effective formative assessment and data-driven decision practices:

  • Getting Started: “Teacher uses formative assessments to check for student understanding”
  • Going Deeper: “Teacher shares data with students on a periodic basis; students review their data individually.”
  • All In: “Teacher uses data to provide immediate feedback to students; teacher and students consistently review data together to identify needs and teacher adjusts instruction accordingly.’

Teachers can harness the power of technology to generate easily shared data to help all learners grow. Want to know more? Visit our Formative Assessment Toolkit. And check out these 75 Digital Tools and Apps Teachers Can Use to Support Formative Assessment in the Classroom

Creating community through advisory

Using mergers as community opportunities

Vermont Act 46 mergers challenged communities to restructure systems. Under a mandated merger, two schools came together to build one thriving community, focused on building a healthy culture. Challenging, yes?

Through a shared, engaging advisory program, these two schools worked together to establish a culture that explicitly values:

  • identity development
  • learner self-development
  • community connections, and
  • a strong sense of belonging.
This is the story of South Royalton and Bethel schools, and how their students moved into the driver’s seat of an advisory that made space for everyone. Everyone.

Continue reading Creating community through advisory

3 ways to ensure equity is at the heart of your work

VTDigger reports that Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French said “From our standpoint, we portray districts being on a journey. Just like everyone in the world is on a journey. And we don’t see 2020 as some sort of hard and fast date.”  However, regardless of a deadline, we should remain focused on centering equity as we implement personalized learning. Equity is at the heart of this state policy.

Whether you are well on you way or just starting work on the three pillars keeping equity at the forefront of education work is a moral imperative. And here are three resources to help in your journey.

What do *you* mean by equity?

The National Equity Project  defines it as “each child receives what they need to develop to their full academic and social potential.” Furthermore, they offer that moving toward it involves:

  •  Ensuring equally high outcomes for all participants in our educational system. Removing the predictability of success. Or failures that currently correlates with any social or cultural factor.
  • Interrupting inequitable practices, examining biases. And creating inclusive multicultural school environments for adults and children.
  • Discovering and cultivating the unique gifts, talents and interests that every human possesses.

Sounds simple in theory; challenging in practice.

3 structures for centering equity
1. Equity audits

Equity audits help examine us examine gaps in opportunity. Even more, they identify solutions to addressing those gaps.

First and foremost, Teaching Tolerance recommends using the equity audits from the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium. You can choose the right grain-size for your work. Everything from systems level to classroom/teacher level audits. And they’re robust!

Another resource: the The School-Wide Cultural Competence Observation Checklist (.pdf) They arrange questions into the following categories:

  • Community & Parents
  • School Policy & Practice
  • Classroom & Teacher
  • Student
  • Curriculum & Instruction

Along those same lines? The VT Agency of Education’s tools and checklists to support implementation of the Vermont Guiding Principles. The AOE lists resources in the following categories:

  • Frameworks
  • Classroom/Program Tools
  • Individual Tools
  • Family Engagement Tools
  • Professional Development Tools
2. The Equity Literacy Framework

Paul Gorski and EdChange developed the Equity Literacy Framework. 

The framework encourages you to consider applying the following frames:

  • “The ability to Recognize even the subtlest biases and inequities.”
    • How are you engaging a variety of perspectives to help you recognize bias and inequity in your system?
    • What perspectives are missing?
  • “The ability to Respond skillfully and equitably to biases and inequities in the immediate term.”
    • What steps are you taking to respond to bias and inequity?
    • Who holds you accountable?
  • “The ability to Redress biases and inequities by understanding and addressing them at their institutional roots.”
    • Have you examined your policies and procedures for bias?
    • Who needs to be at the table to construct or revise policies so they are more likely to be bias free?
  • “The ability to Sustain equity efforts even in the face of discomfort or resistance.”
    • How do you communicate your equity efforts?
    • What values help you stand firm when the going gets rough?
3. Examine your own practice

The most important resource by far, on this list, is you. Don’t underestimate your own power as a change agent. Push your thinking. Stay informed. Find ways to reflect. Collect feedback, think deeply, and reach out to other educators doing the same work.

Reach out to your students. They can provide invaluable feedback on your journey.

Here are a few more resources to consider:
How will your practice change?

Equity connects many of Vermont’s educational initiatives. Still, we always have more work to do. So as you, your team, your school, and your district continue to make transformational change, find your leverage for greater equity. You’re the single most valuable change agent in bringing — and keeping — equity at the heart of teaching.

17 ways to communicate with students’ families


Communication with student’s families outside of student led conferences (SLC) is vital. Giving parents the information they need in order to protect that time for the student voice to take the lead in sharing the learning, goals, and needs is essential. Let’s take a quick look at the why, when, and the how, with a little quality brainstorming.


Family engagement…

family communication bingo

When we engage families in their students’ education the benefits are numerous. The findings from the 2017 report from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation on Family Engagement (Wood, Bauman, Rudo, Dimock 2017) suggests:

  • Schools that reach out to families and the community and build strong parent-school relationships also were found to have a positive impact on students;
  • Empowering parents to exercise leadership within a school as an approach also has shown positive results;
  • Engagement at home is a statistically significant predictor of grades and days missed at school. Students with more engaged parents had higher academic achievement and fewer missed days of school.
  • Increased communication effort with families can have a positive impact on school success and student outcomes;
  • Consequently, employing multiple strategies in a program will likely increase the odds of getting families to engage and of positively affecting school and student outcomes.

…and equity.

We cannot assume that all students have the same opportunities. Additionally, we cannot assume all parents have equal access to information to support their learners. That’s where you come in. Schools can provide a tailored stream of communication. All of which can increase the possibility for students, educators, and parents to engage in conversations about learning.


  • often
  • frequently
  • regularly
  • routinely
  • consistently

All of the above!

Communication prior to the student-led conference should be considered a necessary component of a successful conference. There’s a tremendous amount of information parents want to know. But this is really a year-round need.


BINGO, people. B. I. N. G. O.

And family outreach was its name-o.

family communication bingo

Let’s step through them together.

  1. Class blog. Private or public, password-protected or open for all, a regularly updated class blog can be a rich source of information from families.
  2. Google Classroom (or other LMS). Most LMSes have a way to invite parents in and make channels of communication available.
  3. Community dinner. Make it a class or team project to plan a dinner for all families. Even if you just go the Stone Soup route.
  4. Weekly student videos. Give students a low-entry prompt to sit down and each week, make a short video message for their family. Middle level educator Joe Speers provides an amazing (and short) blueprint for this activity called The Best Part of My Week.
  5. The Phone Call. Picking up the phone and calling a family, especially with good news about their student, still rocks.
  6. twitter or instagram account. As a class or team, you can maintain a twitter or instagram account that shares quick photos or videos with families. Keep it open or make it private at your discretion.
  7. “Talking Points for Parents”. One of the hard things about being a parent is not knowing what to ask your student besides, “How was your day at school?” Jump on in there and send parents regular Talking Points: questions they can ask that pertain to specific activities their students are doing. “How are the trout coming along? Will they be ready for release day, y’think?” “How’s the bike trail project coming along? Have y’all started digging yet, or are you still working on the map? …Can I see it?”
  8. A Paper Newsletter. It’s great practice to have a mix of tech-rich and non-tech activities at the outreach ready. Think equity: do all your families have bandwidth, or devices, or are familiar with all the platforms? The paper newsletter is nice and non-techy, and some of your students are just itching to do some graphic design. Itching.
  9. Workshops for parents. A little more time-intensive, but worth it. Every so often, organize a workshop to help parents understand a little more about what’s going on in the classroom. “Get Into Google Classroom”, for instance. “What’s new with flexible pathways?”
  10. Google Hangouts. Or Facetime, just a quick videoconference can take phone calls to the next level.
  11. Volunteer opportunities for families. Everyone can use an extra hand, now and then.
  12. Class app. Middle school educator Jared Bailey developed a quick web-based app families could install on their phones that provided an on-the-go showcase for student work, student comments and progress. And if that sounds intimidating, does one of your students — or one of their parents — want to build one?
  13. Regular email updates. Email is not dead, it was just briefly resting for a moment there. The email newsletter, distributed either via bcc: or through Mailchimp or Constant Contact, can be a fun writing exercise for giving group updates for your families. Let it all out, Shakespeare.
  14. Open houses. Throw the doors open and see who shows up. Invite them in and chat. Maybe they’ll bring cake!
  15. Shared calendar. At the Mater Christi School, in Burlington VT, the school creates and shares Google Calendars with families. That way they know about upcoming deadlines, ongoing projects, planned school events — the whole shebang.
  16. Weekly (teacher) videos. Education rockstar Michael Berry models this incredibly well with his series of (more than) weekly videos.
  17. Class Facebook Group. Lock it down, keep it open, but tons of parents are on facebook, and it’s a great way to get families talking not just with you, but with each other.

A few quick rules:

You’ll note that a couple strategies are on the card more than once. Those are strategies that have a relatively low bar to entry, or are particularly powerful. Like a phone call, or a weekly student video, for example. So yes, if you do either of those, you can check them off everywhere they appear on the card.

Also, if you let your students run the class twitter or instagram account? You can mark off the additional square of your choice. An extra freebie for your awesomeness.

Hi, there’s homework.

Now, we’re making available a package of bingo cards for y’all, to get you inspired with these 17 different ways you can communicate with students’ families. As an individual or team, break out the bingo marker and daube the strategies you are using. Yes, there are extra points for yelling.

Download your package of bingo cards at this link (.pdf).

We have online and printable versions of the filled card, above, as well as a blank bingo card template. That’s right, you and your team can sit down and choose from any of the SEVENTEEN strategies above, or write in your own. Pin them up in your rooms or tack them up in your Schoology and check off each one as you use it. Print or post additional cards as needed.

family communication bingo

Or print them for your students and encourage them to fill them out. Give them ones you’ve filled out and ask them to check off what they get through.

But wait, there’s more.

The first 10 folks to complete a BINGO and send a picture to our Instagram or Twitter account with the hashtag #familycommunicationbingo will win your choice of a Tarrant Institute journal or a Tarrant Institute water bottle.



How many ways to communicate with families do you or your team use?

Welcome to your in-school internship

What work looks like at St. Albans City School

a model for service learningStudents at St Albans City School, in St. Albans VT,  have the ability to apply for in-school intern positions such as Financial Officer, Chief Executive Officer, Director of Communication and a whole lot more. What would it look like if your students could do an internship right there in school?

Here’s what it would look like.

Continue reading Welcome to your in-school internship

Turning passion projects into real world change

Public displays of learning are not always the end.

How do you know when meaningful, relevant, personalized and authentic learning has really occurred? Is the charge and scaffolding strong enough to continue the learning after the in-school time has expired?

One measure is looking at what happens after the project ends.

Continue reading Turning passion projects into real world change

Therapy dogs in Vermont schools

Who let the dogs in?

For some students, being ready to learn when they arrive at school is a big ask, and more than a few carry trauma or mental health burdens through their day. And that’s why more and more, schools in Vermont are adding therapy dogs to their staffing rosters.

And they’re seeing some pretty pawsitive benefits to the arrangement.

Continue reading Therapy dogs in Vermont schools

Start faculty meetings with a student presentation


student presentations at faculty meetingsThe growing trend of increasing student voice and choice in schools is opening authentic opportunities for dialogues between students and adults. Students, when given the opportunity to present to educators and administrators, almost always deliver on a level far beyond what many think middle schoolers are capable of.

And that’s exactly what’s been happening at Colchester Middle School.

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Looking at proficiency-based assessment for students with disabilities

Making sure Proficiency work includes all students

practice for proficiencyRecently, I was in a middle school team meeting walking folks through some proficiencyb-based learning scenarios and one teacher said “I have a student who is performing at a 4th grade level, what do I do?”

Sound familiar?

Continue reading Looking at proficiency-based assessment for students with disabilities

Winooski’s Graduate Proficiencies & Graduate Expectations

What proficiency-based learning looks like

proficiency-based teaching and learning in VermontWinooski Middle and High School, in bustling Winooski, VT, has been quietly making the journey to proficiency-based learning and proficiency-based graduation requirements for the past six years.

And the resources they’ve constructed along the way — to support students, teachers and families — celebrate cultural and ethnic diversity and challenge inequity.  They provide clear and solid guidelines around proficiencies.

Continue reading Winooski’s Graduate Proficiencies & Graduate Expectations

#vted leads the way with #everydaycourage

School leadership in turbulent times

#everydaycourage #vted leads the wayAs schools prepare to welcome students through their doors, many educators are researching how to talk with their students about the attacks in Charlottesville or Barcelona. Or how to respond to student concerns about diversity, tolerance and equity. Or, ulp, how to address this recent article by Wired, revealing that the state with the highest percentage of online trolls is… Vermont.

Starting these conversations, and addressing our current crisis of digital citizenship takes courage and can often feel uncomfortable, but they all begin with one small step, then another, and another after that. They’re acts in which extraordinary courage soon becomes #everydaycourage, and we’re fortunate to have some leaders in the #vted ecosphere — administrators, educators and students — showing us the way.

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Do you know where you are?

Taking stock on implementing Vermont’s Act 77

Vermont Act 77“Do you know where you are?”

Usually it’s a question medical professionals ask in emergency situations. It’s not as dramatic in the context of education, but it can be just as useful as a diagnostic criteria.

We’re going to ask you to take stock of where you are in the implementation of three pillars: Personalization (PLP’s), Proficiency, and Flexible Pathways. They’re the three pillars holding up Act 77, Vermont’s legislation to put students at the center of innovative school change.

whips out a clipboard, tucks pen behind ear


Continue reading Do you know where you are?

4 Project-Based Learning resources for parents

How do you explain PBL to families?

project-based learning resources for parentsThe popularity of Project-Based Learning (PBL) has grown significantly with teachers and students, but what about parents? When students walk out of school, do they communicate their excitement about PBL to their families?

Let’s look at some resources for helping parents understand why PBL is so engaging for students.

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Why faith-based education in the 21st century?

A flexible pathway for religious choice

why faith-based educationIn a time when combining 21st century skills with personalized learning is in the thoughts of educators, students, and parents, I see the choice of a faith-based education as a very specific personal pathway.

But how does a faith-based education work in the context of 21st century learning?

Continue reading Why faith-based education in the 21st century?

3 ways to use Google Forms to streamline your workflow

For exit tickets, student support & action research

use Google Forms to streamline your workflowUsing Google Forms and Google  Sheets together can streamline your process and make all your tasks feel just a little more manageable.

As an educator, it can be a bit overwhelming trying to keep all your different data streams organized, not to mention the finding the time to analyze and interpret that data! Let’s take three examples of how Google Forms can cut down on your paperwork flurries.

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Rethinking school schedules

It’s about time

rethinking the traditional school scheduleI am fascinated with master schedules! This is certainly a massive understatement. I love the challenge of putting all the pieces together, showing how everything is connected. My mind is wired to think through a systems lens. I am always asking myself, if I change this thing over here what happens over there?

However, I feel like the picture on the puzzle box, you know, the one that shows you how to put the puzzle together, isn’t the right image to be working off anymore. The way we build schedules is struggling to keep pace with the pedagogical beliefs and practices in schools.

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Get #ready2launch your team this year

New ways to approach teaming

ways to approach teamingHave you every showed up to in-service wondering what the new initiatives for the year will be? Or wondered how to continue to meet the demands of the district and school while balancing the the needs of 21st century young adolescents?

takes a deep breath

The answer, I suggest, is teaming, but with a new focus.

Continue reading Get #ready2launch your team this year

Finding ways to encourage student leadership

Student Leadership: The time is now

#ready2launch student leadershipAugust is usually a time crammed with planning logistics for the start of the school year. It’s a time when educators’ coffee intake increases exponentially and that ever-popular 4AM anxiety dream makes you jump out of bed in a sweat. Yet somehow it all falls into place and school opens, students show up, and off we go.

Now, my question to you is how many schools embrace the student’s voice in planning for this opening?

Continue reading Finding ways to encourage student leadership

Education, funny families and international espionage

My 2016 Summer Reading List

reflection for educatorsThere are many thinks to look forward to as summer approaches. As an educator, I appreciate the calm I feel when school is out. You know that tense feeling thinking about what tomorrow’s class will be like. There is nothing like the first Sunday night when you realize you don’t have to be a teacher in the morning!!!!

I also look forward to a slower pace of life where I can stop adding items to my TO-DO LIST and finally start checking a few off. One of those things for me is my summer reading list.

Continue reading Education, funny families and international espionage

Creating cooperative learning spaces

A visualization exercise for changing classrooms

flexible classroomsIt’s not your imagination. It really is the time of year when everyone gets a little wiggly. (Or a little more wiggly than usual.)

But how does your classroom layout respond to that energy? Does it honor it or stifle it? Can your students fling their arms wide to express their excitement over an idea, or are they squished into one-size-fits-someone seats with no rollers? The upcoming summer is a great time to plan a bold new layout for your new cooperative learning space.

Unsure where to begin? Let’s through an activity together to evaluate the state of your classroom (and other learning spaces), and make concrete steps for transformation.

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Project-based learning and math

How much do you want to change the world?

real-world problems and project-based learningAs project-based learning gives students a way to tackle authentic problems in the world and accomplish tangible change while learning, let’s not forget that math can and does sneak in everywhere. So if you have students who think math doesn’t add up, let them explore their passion for problem-solving and don’t mention how much math you see them doing.

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Destination – Anywhere!

green screenWhat was once a standard in news broadcasting and video game production has now found a new home in classrooms. Students and teachers have embraced the teleporting powers of the green screen which adds addition layers of engagement and perspective for school projects. The best part, for schools budgets, is this is a very inexpensive set up and there are several programs or apps that are free! Inexpensive and or free… Intrigued yet?

When using green screen’s you can be teleported to the top of the Great Wall of China, swimming 20,000 leagues under the sea, standing inside a piece of art, or in a sophisticated news media studio.


Continue reading Destination – Anywhere!

8th grade arts and citizenship

A case study in Shelburne

8th grade artsArts and citizenship is for 8th graders at Shelburne Community School. This past session, they had a digital media focus, looking at photography and Photoshop and digital manipulation.

Most recently they just had a Community Celebration, where the artwork was posted around the school and families and the community came in to admire it and meet the artists. QR codes linked each piece to the artist’s reflection — reflections that took place weekly, capturing the ongoing progression of thoughts and creativity as the piece was produced.

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Planning Pi Day activities

More than just math?

deliciousLet’s be honest, there’s not many days dedicated to the celebration of math or its concepts. This is why math folks get a little energized every March 14th. Picking up where last year’s Pi Day post left off, this is an opportunity to plan for activities or celebrations in the classroom, but more importantly infuse some enjoyment into the math culture.

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Screencasting tools for the Chromebook

As more and more school move to Chromebooks we receive lots of requests for chrome compatible programs and applications. In a time of transition to deeper personalization, Screencasting has become one of the most popular requests. There’s power having students talk through their evidence of learning and reflection all on one screen and easily exported to their personal learning plan (PLP). Let’s look at some screencasting options on the Chromebook.

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Self-analysis and teaming

To know your team, start by knowing yourself

self-analysis and teamingA few years ago I had the opportunity to participate in the Vermont School Leadership Project  (VSLP) through the Snelling Center for Government, where I was pushed to truly examine who I was as an educator and what preferences I have in terms of decision-making.

When we overlay the Teaming lens on this activity we begin to understand how we interact and react with our teaching teams, leadership teams,  whole faculty, and even in our home lives.

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Rethinking the traditional school schedule

Keep students centered in the conversation

rethinking the traditional school scheduleWhen it becomes time to talk about scheduling you can often feel the tension rise as everyone’s values and beliefs are put on the table in the attempt to make everyone happy.

In many cases the term “everyone” often refers to adults and omits what works best for students.

Continue reading Rethinking the traditional school schedule

Middle schoolers helping locally and globally

The Great Shelburne Pencil Drive

In which we discover a direct link between Shelburne, Vermont and …Ghana?

middle schoolers helping globally and locallyLast week I had a chance to visit Shelburne Community School to see some underwater robotics. It’s one of several stories I walked away with that day that touched my heart and I feel compelled to share.

As we walked around, talking to students about their robots, learning about all the different opportunities students have throughout the year, we were invited into a side room and discovered an entirely different kind of building going on.

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How to save, edit and share video clips with your students

Part 2: sharing videos in Google Classroom, Drive, and YouTube

ways to share videos with your students

In Part 1, we looked at tools for finding and editing videos to share with your students. But once you’ve found and marked up videos with polls or questions or just a shot of your own sweet self in there, how do you share these videos with students?

Let’s look at three platforms for sharing: Google Classroom, Google Drive and YouTube.

Continue reading How to save, edit and share video clips with your students

To lock or not to lock

School approaches to filtering internet content

school approaches to filtering internet contentAs social media,Youtube, and gaming become more educationally relevant, how do we leverage their educational potential while keeping student data safe and teaching them digital citizenship?

Lock it down! “We need to keep everyone safe.”

Open it up! “It’s how the real world operates.”

I’ve heard strong arguments for both sides of the coin and have seen successes and challenges in both cases.

Continue reading To lock or not to lock

H is for Hangout

What can educators do with Google Hangout?

What can educators do with Google HangoutMuch like being friends on social media, physical proximity has little to do connecting people with other people. Google Hangouts has successfully made communication between individuals or groups and accessing information a bit easier and some may save they even have shrunk the world.

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D is for Digital Workflow

The ABCs of edtech with the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education

Digital workflow: What is it good for?

digital workflowIn its simplest form, digital workflow exchanges the paper and pencil transfer of information for a centralized digital system where information is pushed out,  synthesized, analyzed, or created and returned to the teacher.

With the increasing popularity of 1:1 programs, or readily available access to technology, the form in which learning transfers between people, adults and students, looks slightly different than when I was in school. Additionally, the availability of free programs, such as Google Classroom, help to promote the cycle of information in an effective way.

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Top Ten Summer Reading Recommendations

Summer in Vermont brings on a different set of activities, a different pace of life, and an opportunity for renewal – at least for me. Last week I had a chance to connect with nature in a way I hadn’t in a long time. I finally got out on my mountain bike and did some exploring and tried to remember all the great reading recommendation from the past year. There were too many to remember, much less to read in one summer. Next time I’ll write them down! Summer also offers up the opportunity to have a little more choice in what I read. That night I did some searching and finalist my summer reading list. My goal is 10 books by the end of August. So here goes… Continue reading Top Ten Summer Reading Recommendations