Category Archives: The 21st Century Classroom

The 21st Century Classroom is our monthly podcast on an eclectic assortment of edtech topics, like teaching kids to code, or arguing about devices. You can subscribe to this podcast via SoundCloud, Podomatic or iTunes.

Graduations in the time of COVID-19

A couple of weeks ago, we had the chance to take part in a collaboration between the Vermont Agency of Education and Vermont Public Radio (VPR), celebrating the strange and wonderful ways this year’s graduation differs from those in years past. What do graduations look like in the time of COVID-19? The hourlong program featured students and educators from around the state, performing music, giving speeches and simply musing on the ways in which the class of 2020 made. It. Work.

So as an excerpt, and leading us towards the end of the podcast’s fourth season, here’s the piece we produced for the show. We spoke with students, educators and families from two schools who approached graduation very differently: The Warren School, in Warren VT, and Poultney Elementary School, down in Poultney VT.

This is a tale of two sixth grades.

The Warren School, in Warren VT, opted to host their sixth-grade graduation at a drive-in in Waitsfield, called The Big Picture, known locally as “The Big Pic”. Warren School librarian Heidi Ringer says she got the idea from an NPR story, then called up principal Tom Drake with the suggestion. 

COVID-19 graduations
Heidi Ringer, librarian at The Warren School.


Heidi Ringer: So about a month or so ago, on NPR, they had said something about a school in New York that was doing a drive-in graduation. And then I was scrolling through Instagram that same night. There was a headline from The Valley Reporter that said The Big Pic was doing drive-in. And so I emailed Tom Drake, our principal, and asked Tom: “Drive-in at The Big Pic for graduation?”

He wrote back that he thought I was kidding.

And then he said he realized that was a great idea.

So then one day some of the graduation team met at The Big Picture parking lot and kind of, you know, mapped it all out. We visualized: “Okay. If they’re going to drive this way, then they’re going to enter this way. And then they’ll exit this way. And where are we getting the cakes? Nobody in town makes cupcakes, they only make mini-cakes. And how big are mini cakes? And are they too big? How many people are going to be in a car? Can we fit more than four mini cakes in a box?”

You know, it was crazy details, but it all worked. 

So it took probably three, four weeks of planning and thinking about it. Walking through and visualizing it and just being willing to be flexible and just say:

“Okay, so what are we going to do for the kids here?” 

The planning team remixed a Warren graduation tradition — the graduation essay — by having students record their favorite memory of The Warren School in Voice Memo and send it to the teachers, then the teachers put it all together into one long (48-minute) movie. 

Heidi: Ringer: So in the past, Warren school’s graduation has been the same thing forever and ever. The kids write an essay. So the first paragraph is how long you’ve been at The Warren School. Second paragraph is what are two memories of the school that you have? And what’s the big global idea that you learned from those. And then the thank you. So we’ve always done that. They usually sing a song or something like that. And because we’re in a rural place, some of these kids haven’t seen each other, you know, we see each other on the screens, but that’s it.

The town of Warren is about five miles from Waitsfield, so all the families met in their cars at the school and drove in convoy over to The Big Pic with a fire truck escort (one of the Warren teachers is a volunteer firefighter). At the drive-in, the teachers showed the students’ movie up on the big screens, piping the audio into everyone’s car speakers. 

Susan Hennessey’s ex-husband had a megaphone at Barre we borrowed. We got the megaphone and Tom Drake brought a ladder and stood on the ladder and did the welcome through the megaphone. Then the kids all got their certificates, and the teachers ran to their cars to give them to them, and cheered and did all that. By the, it was dark. So we watched the movie. And then at the end of the movie, I had gone to North Star Fireworks and got huge sparklers. And so the teachers made like, the honor guard kind of thing. We lined the road and then the cars exited that way, with all kinds of beeping and cheering.

They went through the sparklers… and that was it.

That was graduation. 

For Heidi Ringer and the rest of the Warren School teachers, all the planning, the Zoom meetings, sourcing mini-cakes and sparklers (and reminding everyone to bring a lighter), was worth it for one simple reason.

Heidi Ringer: It’s all about the kids. I think that’s the biggie to remember. That it’s about them. So sometimes you just have to let go of things. This is a different time. It’s not going to be the same. It’s not going to be what it might’ve been if you were standing right next to them. So it’s, it’s kind of… let go. It’s all about the kids. 

Eliza Krotinger is one of those graduating Warren School students. What did she and her mom, Nicole, think of the unusual celebration?

COVID-19 graduations
Eliza Krotinger, left, and her mom, Nicole Krotinger.

Eliza Krotinger: Yeah, it was… think it was much better than the regular one. We should do this one more often because the formal one… it just seemed very different. And I liked this one much more. The most memorable part was hearing all the speeches. Even though we didn’t get to see everyone, we could all like, hear each other in some way. And the speeches were all so different and like… I remembered memories I forgot about. Yeah.

Nicole Krotinger: It was just special to see all the teachers and do you know, we hadn’t seen each other in so long, so that was really special. And yeah, the, the speeches were wonderful. The kids put a lot of time and energy into the speeches and you can really, you could really tell because their personalities came through through the pictures and what they had to say about themselves. I think this year, that for some reason the students, their speeches were more unique. Like a lot of years you’ll go and it’ll be, they’ll, they’ll all talk about the same memories. I don’t know if that’s because they’re all in the same classroom talking to each other and this time they were separated out more. Um, so they each had more unique memories this time, which was nice. 

Amelia Brooks also graduated from The Warren School, and attended the graduation with her mom, Marie. 

COVID-19 graduations
Marie Schmukal, left, and her daughter, Amelia Brooks.

Amelia Brooks: I really liked the sparkler sendoff at the end. Because you got to see all of the teachers and it was really fun to see all of them. 

Marie Schmukal: I was amazed at how many of the traditions they were able to keep, even though we were all in our cars, in a parking lot. I really appreciated the effort and thought that the teachers put into maintaining those traditions.

For educators like Heidi Ringer, blending old traditions and new, while a little more effort, is entirely worth it for the students and families they’ve known, in some cases for nine full years.

Heidi Ringer: These kids have been together, for good or for the bad,since most of them were three, four, five years old. They’ve been at The Warren school for *nine years* and suddenly they’re going to a new place. 

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Meanwhile, down in Poultney VT, Poultney Elementary School opted for sticking closer to home for their graduation, by organizing a car parade through town, and then having each family drive through the school bus circle, one by one. As each family drove, the graduating student got out and walked along next to the car. And Poultney’s teachers and administrators cheered their final journey, waving and hollering — in a socially distanced way.  They were joined in cheering by students from Poultney’s local high school — who all themselves happened to be alumni of the elementary school.

The three-member Poultney 5th and 6th grade teaching team — Maureen Kahill Brown, Tia Hewes and Keith Harrington — all brought different strengths to pulling off this event under challenging circumstances. 

Maureen Kahill Brown: My name is Maureen Kahill Brown. I live in Poultney. And I’ve been in Poultney teaching, for 27 years.

We all started about eight weeks ago planning. And, uh, one of my roommates from college is a science teacher out on Long Island, and they had done something similar. And Kristin Caligiuri, our principal, requested that we do a drive-through. So we kind of searched the country for what other schools were doing. And we tried to pull the best of what we could learn from them, in order to make it a reality for our students. 

Every day we met virtually at 11 o’clock and we started tossing around ideas and kind of hammering it out. And the three of us all have different strengths. 

We did create a class Facebook page, a parent helped us out with that, but not all our parents check that. Not all of our parents check their email and not all of our parents check their phones. So it became a challenge to remember which parents did what to try and get them the information, um, that they needed. 

Tia was the first teacher you met as you entered the town. She came to help kind of guide them through the path. (It reminded me of a driver’s ed course, to be honest with you.) And she collected Chromebooks from them and any other things that they had, maybe some musical instruments, and welcomed them and celebrated them. It kind of got that moment because we really haven’t seen students in quite some time. 

Then the next person they would drive up to is Keith, who was at the podium with the microphone. So he got that moment with them, and then I was directing the traffic and taking pictures and making sure they got their diploma. 

And one of the students said,

‘You know, Ms. Kahill, this is so strange.’

And I was like, ‘What’s so strange?’

‘Well, you’re not buffering or jerking out. You’re alive, you’re in person.’

And I said, ‘Yes, because my wifi is typically quite weak when you put 33 kids on it.’

So that was kind of  one of those shocker moments for me. I was like: That’s right. They haven’t seen me live since March.

And my hair is a whole lot longer and for whatever reason, a lot grayer than it ever was before. 

The teachers also put together a photo booth for the occasion, staffed by a local professional photographer who also is an alumna of Poultney Elementary School. But because of social distancing, teachers weren’t able to stand with their students for the photos. So, secretly, the teachers all ordered lifesize cardboard cutouts of themselves, which they placed in the photo booths.

The cardboard cutouts were so convincing that, well, they led to a few confusing moments. 

Maureen Kahill Brown: Traditionally parents and children like to get photos with us. And we didn’t know what we could do because we had to wear masks, and we just didn’t want their pictures to have masks in it. So another parent who’s very talented with photography, Tracy Simons, we made her promise to keep a secret. She took our pictures and we had lifesize cut outs made. And we put them in the photo booth.

It was hysterical. The day we were setting up, we put the three of us in the photo booth and we ran inside to get something. And I guess the head of maintenance, Rich, drove by just, you know, to check in with us. And he waved at the three cutouts. He didn’t realize that it wasn’t us. 

Poultney Elementary School pulled together a graduation ceremony that was just as much about the parents and the alumni as it was the graduating sixth graders. They kind of wanted a ceremony that celebrated how small and close-knit Poultney is, and how many parents stick around and send their own kids through the same schools they themselves attended. This year, 21% of the parents of Poultney Elementary School graduates once attended the school themselves.

Maureen Kahill Brown: Many of the former students that were parents came through. One was teary-eyed and said that she was so grateful that we had taken the time to do the in-person moment because, she just wanted her child to experience what she had. And so gosh, for an old teacher that made me quite happy that she appreciated it. 

My other most favorite part was to see how parents took the time to decorate the cars with such amazing signs, and decorations, and balloons, and streamers. And at one point a parent said, “Go ahead, hit the button on the trunk.”

And out came balloons! They popped out and there was a big sign that said, you know,
“Thank you teachers, we appreciate you.” So that was just amazing. We were really quite fortunate with the amazing parents we had helping and supporting us as we went through, uh, this journey with them. 

We felt they deserved it.

Everyone, um, has certainly been affected by COVID in many different ways. And everyone can tell you where they lost out. My own son graduated college this year — or, well, he has his diploma, you know. The ceremony didn’t occur. And so I guess I understand how those parents may have been feeling. In our world we held a graduation ceremony here at the house for my son. He said it was probably better than the real one, a lot shorter way more comfortable. Um, so he was, he was thrilled that we did that. We kind of surprised him with that. So I guess that’s kind of where we all were coming from. We were just thinking, you know, if it was our children, what would we want? 

What do the students and their parents think of all this? Here’s Ashley Converse, mom to graduating sixth grader Collea Mullholland, and herself an alum of Poultney Elementary.

COVID-19 graduations
Graduating 6th grader Collea Mullholland, and her mom, Ashley Converse.

Ashley Converse: I remember her telling me when her friends in sixth grade graduated last year, everybody cried basically for a few days. Right. Everybody was together, everybody to the end of the last day of school. For some reason, everybody was crying and we don’t know why. And all the sixth graders were like, Oh no, is that going to happen with this this year? But apparently not because they wasn’t quite same.

It’s a small, um, it’s a small close knit community and we all kind of raise each other’s kids.

Pam Chellis is mom to graduating 6th grader Will Hathaway.

Pam Chellis: It would have been nice to have the whole class together, but man, those teachers did a heck of a job. They couldn’t ask for better teachers and staff that they are probably the most amazing people. And with all this COVID stuff, they have been right there for the kids, even though they haven’t been in the classrooms, they can call on those teachers at any given time.

And Marissa Boudreau’s daughter Gabby also graduated from Poultney Elementary this year. Gabby is the second of Marissa’s six kids to do so. And while the family only moved here from Massachusetts four years ago, Marissa appreciates Poultney’s strong, close-knit community.

The heart of which is their schools. And teachers like Maureen Kahill Brown.

Marissa Boudreau: I thought the ceremony was awesome. The teachers were good. And um, today we actually did a parade. The teachers went around town and so we were able to like wave from, you know, wave to them and stuff. And so that was fun.

I just really like, have to praise all of her teachers because we live in such a smaller town and the teacher’s just, just so good about communication, you know, if your kid needs extra help or if your kid is doing great or, or whatever, they’re right there, you know, whether it’s a phone call or an email. I mean, it’s just the, the closeness of the community here is just fantastic. And I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome for her and for everyone else.

It’s kind of like that’s saying, you know, it takes a village. And so our school is that village and they will help us.

COVID-19 graduations
Graduating 6th grader Marissa Boudreau, left, and her mom, Gabby.


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The 21st Century Classroom is a podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. Special thanks for this episode go to all the students and families who spoke with us for the piece, as well as educators Heidi Ringer, Maureen Kahill Brown, Tia Hewes, and Keith Harrington. Extra special thanks to Kari Anderson at VPR, as well as Sigrid Olson and Greg Young at the Vermont Agency of Education. This episode was produced by series producer Audrey Homan.

A Quarantine Homeschooling Dispatch

Today on the 21st Century Classroom, from Super Sisters Academy:

It feels really weird, because in some ways it’s kind of cool to see how you can be homeschooled. But then in other ways you’re like, “Ohhhhh, it’s kind of scary.” Because we are staying home because of the virus that’s going around and for our safety and other people’s safety and everything. So it’s mixed feelings I guess.


I’m Life LeGeros, and that’s my daughter, Ayla, who is eight (Actually she turned eight during the pandemic). My other daughter, Zoe, is 10. Today on the 21st Century Classroom we’re going to explore quarantine homeschooling in the age of COVID-19.

  • What are we learning during it?
  • And what are we learning *from* it?

And we’re going to do this by talking with my daughters.

Ayla:  As I said it was like scary but kind of cool to see how you can actually be homeschooled. I mean, I like school? And homeschool? So I like both of them. I kind of like both of them the same, but one reason why I don’t really like homeschool, it breaks me down a notch is because I don’t get to see my friends and interact with them, my teachers and everything, so.

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Let’s start by setting the stage with a little context.

My wife and I have been homeschooling for about five weeks now.

We found out on a Sunday night over dinner that our schools were going to be shut down starting the following day. The next morning we spent the first few hours trying to plan a schedule; essentially my girls did this. We found an example online and they tweaked it and messed with it and put in a shape that they thought would work (.pdf)

And thus, Super Sister Academy, as my daughters deemed it, was born!

quarantine homeschooling Super Sisters Academy

Here’s Zoe to walk you through a typical day.

Zoe: Morning meeting, with our family, where we do a greeting, a share, and an activity. And then we do morning meeting with our class on Zoom or… something like that. Then we have Academic Time for like two hours I think? Then we have Movement Time, where we just like move and stuff, and go outside and stuff. And then we have Creative Time where we can build, play with Legos, draw, paint, that stuff. And then we have … what do we have after that?

Ayla: Lunch.

The Academic Time that Zoe mentioned: that’s the time when they do work that’s provided from school. Packets from the girls’ school materialized pretty darn quickly after the lockdown. And now there’s a full-blown curriculum with up to 3 hours of work per day, which is great (although we did have to adjust our schedule a bit).

quarantine homeschooling Super Sister Academy schedule

One thing it’s very important to acknowledge:

My wife and I have the privilege of being able to work from home, and support our homeschooling pretty directly. That’s *not* a privilege that our system affords to all families and caregivers. It’s very important to acknowledge that.

We’re doing our best, and we get a lot of feedback from our class of two.

Life: How did your week go?

Zoe: Pretty good, I guess.

Life: You had a huge, like, whole schedule from a teacher. All the stuff that you had to get done. You were able to take care of it?

Zoe: Yup.

Life: Do you feel proud of yourself? How did you what was your strategy for getting it all done?

Zoe: Ummmmmm, I just did it one by one.

Life: Super Sisters Academy is rockin’?

Zoe: Mm-hm.

Life: What kind of things do you miss about “school-school”?

Zoe: Like seeing everyone and being able to work with other people. Like my age and stuff.


That brings me to a clear drawback about homeschool, and a worry for a lot of families.

Ayla: I just miss my friends and my teachers and I mean sure I can see them on like my morning meetings with them on the computer but like, I like interacting with them physically and stuff. But we can’t really, now.

Governor Scott’s Stay At Home order and the release of schools means it’s incredibly difficult for students to see their friends and teachers. And a lot of us are worried that connecting online alone… isn’t the same thing. At all.

At the same time, the change of venue actually works for some students.

Zoe: I like being able to just like work with someone without like, a bunch of other people needing help. The schedule at home is a lot more flexible? Because you’re at home and it’s not going to affect a bunch of other people if you switch things up. I like that.

Ayla: Usually when I’m at school there’s like, a lot of people talking because people need help and everything, and it’s kind of just easier for me to understand, when I have my parents as teachers for some reason? Since I just have one sister, it’s not like I’m have a million classmates, I just have one sister and they go off on us so they can help us for longer.

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Costs, and opportunities.

I’m telling you, we are learning new things every day here at Super Sisters Academy. Costs and opportunities.

Life: Is it hard to stay on task at home?

Zoe: Yes, sometimes.

Life: What do you find? Like the most distracting?

Zoe: When Ayla’s singing!

Life: What else?

Zoe: Just like, sounds and stuff.

Now, a lot of the work Ayla and Zoe do is on either a computer or a tablet. So it’s obvious that they’re going to be gaining some tech skills. But what surprised me is the *range* of tech skills that they are gaining.

Ayla: How to work a slideshow. Because usually we don’t get to work on that kind of stuff.

Zoe: And how to make a good game on Roblox, which we don’t get to do in school. And I use my email a lot more because nobody can talk to me to my face.

Roblox is a game Zoe started playing when the quarantine began. She plays online with other kids, something we never used to let her do, but she’s totally into it now. Plus she’s also using it to learn some rudimentary coding and game-building.

And I confess I have mixed feelings about that.

Same with the email situation. It’s cool that they can stay connected to their friends, but on the other hand… email is complicated, right? It can be distracting or cause drama — and we weren’t even planning on giving Ayla email access yet. She’s in the 2nd grade. But now she’s got it.

On the other hand, the two of them are learning to navigate email with us by their sides. Would they have gotten that in a traditional school setting?

Flowers of the Math Garden

Anyway, some of these tools are actually really useful for learning things that can supplement the regular classroom.

Life:  This is a game that your teacher asked you to play?

Ayla: Yes, it’s a math game.

Life:  You just started it today?

Ayla: Yeah it’s a math game. I really like it. So I’ve kind of decorated it. I have a garden at my house like, it’s just part of the game. I put three trees on each side — well one side has two, because I didn’t have any more trees to put. There’s like flowers in the middle of the gaps… And I like the side with three trees better. I put a picnic table in front of the trees that have three, not just two [branches]. And then it has violet flowers on the top of it — violet flowers, no vase.

Life: That’s cool. What does this have to do with math?

Ayla: Well, it’s kind of like the other math games on Sun Dog. You do some stuff and than you get to do some fun. So I do the math problems and then I get to enter the garden.

Life: Oh.

Quarantine homeschooling Super Sisters Academy the math garden


One thing I’ve learned after a few weeks of my kids playing these online games is that they are almost all incentivized in the same way: they have a garden or house or something that they get to decorate. And when they do well they earn points and prizes and then they get to put things in their place.

I never knew this before but apparently kids really love to decorate and it’s super motivating for them. So it motivates them to do whatever procedural skill and content learning they’re supposed to be doing.

Ayla: You do all kinds of math. You do like: coin math, subtraction, and shapes, and all that kind of math. So there’s not like one kind of math you pick.

Welcome to Bunny Land

So, maybe students and teachers alike will come out of this whole thing with more technology skills. And maybe that will help with the flexibility and individualization that seem to be some of the things students are getting out of home schooling that are harder to do in school.

Life: Do you think schools should just be the same?

Zoe: Well, I mean… I think some things should be different.

Life: Like what?

Zoe: Like, more outside time and stuff, because we’re inside, like all the time. So.

Life: Are there other things that you work on, that you just don’t do at school? Like, certain types of projects?

Ayla: Well yeah. We don’t really do projects? And then like, have a goal and everything and that’s one of my favorite parts of the day. I kind of like that.

Life: Like what kind of projects? Give examples of things you’ve done during homeschooling.

Ayla: My birthday was a couple of days ago and I got a big Lego house and my goal was to finish it in ten days but I didn’t. I finished it in less, and I’m proud of that and that was like a project for me. I’ve also done a slide show…

Life: What was the slideshow about?

Ayla: I really like bunnies so it’s about bunnies.

Life: And then you shared that with your grandparents?

Ayla: Yeah.

Here’s what it sounded like when Ayla shared her first project with both sets of grandparents on a Zoom call:

Ayla: I made a slideshow about bunnies and then about Bunny Land!

Grandparents: Ooh, Bunny Land!

Ayla: Does anyone have any feedback? Like, things I could do next time… better?

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My hope is that all the conversations around this pandemic homeschooling education that are related to the importance of relationships, come back to students missing and appreciating their friends and teachers, and the community that schools provide. Maybe as we reprioritize that, we could put that in the center of things, right alongside the acknowledgement of the glaring inequities that the pandemic has revealed and magnified.

But even on the homefront, thinking about how this will impact my household and my kids’ relationship to learning, I really have no idea for the long-term.

I would like to think that they’ll have more of a growth mindset in the future. I’d love to think that they’ll let us in more in terms of helping them think about their approach to learning and schoolwork. But it is quite possible we’ll just fall back on our old patterns and routines if and when things get back to quote-unquote “normal.”

At Super Sister Academy, we begin the day with Morning Meeting: just a quick check-in to plan the day, do some troubleshooting, say hello. The girls’ school begins the day the same way. And I asked Zoe whether Morning Meeting at home was something that we might want to think about keeping once everything gets back to normal.

Zoe: Yeah, I like it.

Life: Should we keep doing it after you start going back to school?

Zoe: No. We’d have no time. Because we are always late anyways.

Life: Okay!

Yeah, well, it’s yet to be seen whether my promptness will improve once I need to start going places in the world again. I’m not putting any pressure on myself. At the moment, I’m just taking it day by day. Which hopefully you are too.

Yeah. Like, forgive yourself and just try to be nice to yourself, too. Because this isn’t just about being nice to other people, it’s also about being nice to yourself.




The 21st Century Classroom is the podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative education at the University of Vermont. This episode was produced by Life LeGeros, and Audrey Homan. Thank you to Zoe and Ayla LeGeros. Our theme music is by Meizong and Yeeflex, and you can find out more about the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education by visiting tarrant institute dot org.

Hunter education in Vermont

In this episode of The 21st Century Classroom:

I don’t think a lot of people think that I’m a hunter. I feel like when I have like a good connection with my teachers, they will get to know me and realize that I hunt and fish and do a lot of outdoor stuff, but like the teachers that I’m not really like always with and I don’t think they know like I hunt and stuff.


Whether for sport or subsistence, hunting is a big deal in Vermont.

And doing it safely is an even bigger deal.

In Vermont, fishing and hunting license sales have taken off since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. Turkey hunting license sales increased by 26% for the recent start of the spring turkey season. Combination hunting & fishing  licenses are up 24%. It seems like since the Stay At Home order, where our work, school and social spheres got smaller, Vermonters have been heading outdoors to hunt. Not just adults but whole families.

Which bring us to two questions:

  • What does it take for a young adult in Vermont to get a hunting license?
  • And what do young Vermonters find so engaging about hunting? Especially as it’s an activity they do with their families?


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Meet Henry.

Henry: My name is Henry Parent.  I’m 13 years old and I go to Dorset School.

Henry’s a seventh grader in rural Dorset VT, and he has a new interest in hunting.

Henry: I kind of like it, because you’re just like you’re out in the woods usually, not always though.  We were outside walking around sometimes, but usually walk to a spot or something.  And – yeah, and then once you get some – then once you like get something or shoot something then its like – I don’t know, I don’t know how to describe it. One time I shot – well, first time I shot a pheasant and it was… Well, it was kind of cool, because like you shoot and then when you see it go down, it’s kind of like you feel relieved like you didn’t miss it and then you got it. It’s a good feeling.

Henry’s also the son of returning podcast contributor and Vermont educator, Rachel Mark.

Rachel: Hello!

And Rachel’s here to tell you about Henry’s emerging interest in hunting, and her own experiences in a hunting family.

Rachel: I’ve been an educator in Vermont for 20 years, and it’s taken me this long to realize how much learning takes place when young people earn their hunter safety certification. Students do a ton of work, both online and in-person, to get certified to hunt. Now let me tell you about my son.
Henry loves to be outside. He is creative and adventurous, often building things outside or whittling objects from wood. He came to me about a year ago and asked if he could learn how to hunt. Among the people in our two extended families, only my father has any experience with hunting. But when we asked him, Henry’s grandfather happily agreed to mentor him in small bird hunting.

The next step was to find a hunter safety course in Vermont.

Rachel:  Okay.  So what was it like to get a license to hunt?  What – tell me about that process?

Henry:  It was hard.  I did the online course where you have to do a lot of reading and there is this test and it takes a lot of time.

Rachel:  What do you wish your teachers knew about you and your hunter training?

Henry:  That it takes a lot of reading and it should count for like, if you have to do a reading at home.

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In 2019, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department issued almost 71,000 hunting licenses.

And of those licenses, 13% were obtained by Vermonters 18 years of age or younger.

That works out to just under nine *thousand* young Vermont hunters. 9,000 young Vermonters who choose to complete the State’s hunter education course.

So how does that course work?

In order for a young Vermonter to obtain a hunting license, they must first complete the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department’s *free* First-Time Hunter Education course. The course is recommended for every first-time hunter, regardless of age.

The first half of the course is an interactive online class.

Units include:
  • Know Your Firearms Equipment
  • Basic Shooting Skills
  • Basic Hunting Skills
  • Preparation and Survival Skills
  • Be a Responsible and Ethical Hunter

Materials include videos, quizzes and interactive animations. And all are geared towards a sixth-grade reading level.

The online course as a whole is pass/fail: you must get 80% or better on the final exam. But the quizzes all feature unlimited retakes. Or what we from the pre-digital era would refer to as “open book”.

The second half of the course takes place in person, at locations around the state.

They feature an outdoor shooting component along with a demonstration of tree stand safety, blood trailing and a module on survival skills. And these in-person courses are all taught by volunteer educators.

Volunteers like John Walker.

John Walker:  Yeah. Hello, my name’s John Walker.  I’m the enrichment teacher at the middle school. I’ve worked at Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington now for about seven years and we’re looking at hunter safety education. On my free time, which I don’t have much of, I am a hunter safety instructor for the state of Vermont.

In order to become a volunteer, Walker had to go through the course himself. Then the other instructors checked off his skills against a master list. He’s been teaching hunter safety now for four years.

John Walker: Now anyone hunting in the state of Vermont has to pass a hunter safety course. They have to. That’s mandatory.  Hunting is a portion of it, but a large course unit portion of it is first aid, CPR, how to survive in the woods, what to carry with you in case you get lost, if you get hurt, you know, the basic first aid techniques so that you can save yourself or someone you’re with.

And of course, there’s another test to pass.

John Walker: Once they have done that, they’ve gone through the obstacle course, passed all the questions, then I usually administer a 50-question test. It is a standardized test. We can’t modify it. It’s a multiple choice test and they have to get a passing score on that to go forward. Now there are times where we might read some of the questions to someone who is maybe 10 years old because they obviously aren’t at a sixth grade level yet, but as long as they understand what to do and can show us under certain situations they know what they’re doing, then we’re fine.

In 2020 across the state of Vermont, educators and school communities have been wrestling with how, exactly, to implement proficiency-based education.

And one of the major questions around proficiency-based education concerns assessment. It’s one thing to get an A or a B, or 90%, 80% on a test, but what does that look like in the real world?

Hunter education and certification specifically address proficiencies along with a valuable real world component.

John Walker: Compass work is a big thing. We show them and a lot of this ties into school. I know in the sixth grade one of the classes here the sixth grade class does a lot of work with orienting and compass work. And we do all of that. We go through a complete compass course with the kids. And I say the kids, the adults too. The adults also have to do it. And so we go through it. We show them how it works. You know what true North is. We show them the whole thing.

end mark

What can we take away from hunter education about making learning engaging?

Let’s ask Rachel.

Rachel: Great question! Now, I’m an educator, not a hunter. I’ve never been through hunter safety before. But my hunch is that the real world authenticity of the task — get certified to hunt —  is what makes this so compelling to young Vermonters. Because there’s a very clear goal to taking a hunter safety course: get your license and be able to hunt. Everything that you are learning is going to be literally tested in the field.

As a student, you’re not sitting in a classroom wondering when you’re going to use the skills. You’re sitting in a classroom knowing you want to use the skills this coming weekend, when you head out to the turkey blind, hoping to bag a big tom.

You pass the course when you get 80% on the test, and get your certification.

And you’re proficient in hunting when you successfully bring home the (turkey) bacon. So to speak.

It’s the job of schools and educators to support students as they gather information about their interests and think about how it might impact themselves, their world and their future.

My next door neighbor, Liam, is also a certified Vermont hunter.

Liam:  My name is Liam Walsh.  I’m 14

He’s also a freshman at Burr and Burton Academy.

Liam:  I don’t think a lot of people think that I’m a hunter.  I feel like when I have like a good connection with my teachers, they will get to know me and realize that I hunt and fish and do a lot of outdoor stuff, but like the teachers that I’m not really like always with and I don’t think they know like I hunt and stuff.

I’ve always been in the outdoors and then one of my friends really wanted me to get into it.  So I just kind of followed him along on one of his hunts and that got me hooked.

Rachel: How old were you when that happened?

Liam: I want to say 12 I think.

Rachel: Okay, so like in 6th or 7th grade?

Liam:  Yeah.

Rachel:  And what was the class like?  How would you describe it to other people?

Liam:  You learn a lot not only from the information, but from the experiences that they tell you about, because most of the people are hunters and have been around guns and stuff.  So they have experiences that they taught us about and like I think that really helped.

I took like a little thing online before like going into the classes so that I like knew some stuff which I think helped and that was, I don’t know, it was probably took me like an hour or two.  I spread it out, but yeah, an hour or two.  And then I also read – like read a book on it about it.

Rachel: Was that required or did you choose to do that?

Liam:  It wasn’t required, but it was definitely nice to go into the class knowing stuff.  So yeah, it was definitely nice to know like going into the class like some of the stuff about it.  So I wouldn’t say it was required, but it was – I’m happy I did it.

Rachel:  Has it influenced any of your thinking about careers or jobs?

Liam: Definitely. I want to be a game warden when I get older now, because I have so much fun outside in hunting and fishing and I know the local game warden, he’s talked to me a few days.  Nothing bad, like he knows me by name now, just to like talk to me when I’m fishing, so that’s something I definitely want to do.

What is it about Vermont’s hunter safety courses that make them work for students? Are middle schoolers really up to the challenge?

We asked our expert, John Walker.

John Walker:  What I observed from the middle school kids is that they are very aware and very up on all the material. When you tell them it’s important and if they have a test at the end, they understand that because they are from middle school and they’re used to having exams and multiple choice and so on. So, they’re very up on it. They are honestly better than the adults in most cases. They will know what’s going on and they’re taking it very seriously.

John Walker:  I go through things and just highlight and I go around and randomly pick on people in a nice way to answer the question. And it’s usually the youngest people who answer the questions. The older people think they know sometimes more than they do. And I’m guilty of that. We’re all guilty of that. But usually it’s the younger people, “No, no, I know what that is. I read that.” I mean they’re really careful to read their questions.

John Walker: The middle school kids, what we find, the middle school aged kids we find are usually one and done. They can go right through it absolutely fine. You have a little trouble with the younger kids. Sometimes you just can’t let them through because they just don’t learn. But the middle school kids are very sharp. They’re probably the sharpest group that we have.

But hunting is about more than online courses, certifications and readings.

It’s also about family, and community connection.

Rachel: Since Governor Scott closed schools and issued Vermont’s stay-at-home order, I’ve noticed that Liam and his dad have been spending more time going out into the woods together. Whether it’s for scouting potential hunting spots or actually getting into the woods for turkey hunting at the crack of dawn, they log some serious hours of time together.  And they aren’t alone.

Rachel: I myself am the child of an outdoorsman, and I recall heading outside with my father on many occasions. I’m quite sure he is part of the reason that I love being outdoors. As a young person, I didn’t love to fish, but I liked being outside with my dad. I would sometimes tag along with him to a local brook where I would sit on a large rock and read my book. I didn’t even get a pole out myself, but I liked listening to the babbling brook and watching his line dip in and out of the water. It was like this wordless meditation, and we got to experience that together.

And other Vermont families have similar experiences:

Pete Kelley: My full name is Pete Kelley.  I was born and raised in Poultney, Vermont.  And I call Bellows Falls home now.  I grew up in a farming family.

Pete Kelley: Growing up where I did by default, I just hunted the way my father and my grandfathers did on the same piece of property, the same farm, the same mountain with the same types of weapons and methods.  It just was what they taught me because that’s what they had always done.  So, for the first half of my life, probably more than that, the first 25 years or so, I just used the same methods that have been passed down through my generations.

Pete Kelley: And actually, even though I had got turkey before, I never really got into the strategy aspect of it until my oldest son decided that that was something that he wanted to do.

Pete Kelley: So, I actually have three kids.  They all have in different methods, found things that they enjoy about it.  Some like to do certain aspects, some don’t.  But it’s a kind of fun to watch them learn and find their own passions. There’s something fulfilling about teaching something to someone that you know and passing it along and seeing them take enjoyment in it.

Kelley remembers the process of getting his son certified to hunt, because he was right there with him.

Pete Kelley:  He was in a really great class.  And part of what I loved is right in the beginning, they made it clear to the kids: it’s not a reading test.  It’s not a writing test. They’re not grading their handwriting. And if they have trouble with words or phrases or terms, they’ll coach them through it. Their job is to make sure they would be safe in the woods. I looked around the room at that point, saw a lot of kids. To me seem like they breathe a sigh relief at that point.  It wasn’t one more academic test to them.  They just need to prove that they could be safe.  It was a really, really good experience.

My son loved it. And my daughter doesn’t even really hunt all that much.  She really only likes to hunt turkeys.  So, she doesn’t spend a lot of time after deer or anything else.  She doesn’t fish a ton.  But if you ask her about it, you can still see that she’s somewhat proud that she passed the course and got her card.

But some of the best lessons Kelley’s learned about hunting have come directly from his children.

Pete Kelley: But I love seeing them relate some of the things that they’re learning in science.  Some of the things they see out in nature in the field that aspects really fun to me.  Seeing them make discoveries out there, things that they’re interested in on their own, fascinating, I love that.

Pete Kelley: My daughter to this day she’s about to turn 13. And I asked her if she wanted to go out for youth weekend, which is this coming weekend. And she said, “Yeah, absolutely I want to go.”  She said, “I don’t want to shoot one this year, but I definitely want to go,” which I thought it was awesome. My kids love to go at night in roost one.

They love to walk out on the edge of the pasture stand quietly as that sun is setting, is getting dark and hear me owl hoot.  And then listen for the directions to hear that the times gobble. They get really excited and cheer when they hear one almost as if they’ve really accomplished something.

end mark

As we live through this pandemic, we’re realizing how much we value our relationships and bonds with other people.

And it’s important for young people to feel those roots and sense of belonging, now more than ever.

The question for Vermont education has become: how do schools find a way to give students credit for the work they do out-of-school, in becoming proficient?

Not just the 9,000 young Vermonters who currently hold a hunting or fishing license, but the ones who learn to sew for a scouting badge, or the ones who can tell you exactly what your soil needs to make tomatoes grow and squash bugs vanish.

Educators in Vermont and around the nation strive to make in-school time engaging and compelling, and talk about igniting students’ passion for learning. But shifting the lens of education in Vermont also requires knowing what our students are passionate about when they’re not in the classroom. And why.

Here’s Liam again.

Liam:  I would say it’s definitely like a big thing to get your family onboard with it.  Like I could not have like got my hunter safety or anything, my license without my dad or mom.  They’re like… I don’t know. They bring me to everything, sign stuff.  So it’s definitely good to get your family onboard.

Rachel:  What do you like about hunting?

Liam:  The thrill of it.  It’s also like super fun when I go out with my dad.  It’s good bonding time

Rachel:  Tell me more about that bonding time.

Liam:  Well, I mean, we talk a lot, because we’re out there for quite some time each day early in the morning. And it’s really nice spending time with him outdoors and something that we both like doing now.

Rachel:  So in a way, it’s kind of a special connection that you have with your dad?

Liam: Yeah, definitely.

Rachel: Because he goes with you?

Liam: Yeah, he goes with me.





This has been an episode of The 21st Century Classroom, podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. This episode was produced by Rachel Mark and Audrey Homan, with additional material from Life LeGeros. A huge thank you to Henry and Liam for sharing their stories with us, to hunting dad Pete Kelley for his reflections, and to Hunter Safety educator John Walker, for his time and expertise. And thank you to Christ Saunders at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department for providing us with accurate statistics around young Vermonters and Vermont hunter education.


Talking with Mount Holly students

On this episode of The 21st Century Classroom:

M.:  I learned to, well, use a computer. That’s a big one. And then I also learned to help and be a kind person and try to do as well as I can.

For this episode, we’re in the Two Rivers Supervisory Union, in Southern Vermont. Ace podcaster and #vted Reads host Jeanie Phillips visited the Mount Holly School, in Mount Holly, Vermont.

We’ll hear from Aubrey, Alyssa and M., three sixth graders entering their final semester at this K-6 school. Next year, all three move up to one of the nearby middle schools. So what have these three students learned from their time at Mount Holly? Let’s find out.

About Mount Holly School:

Mount Holly, Vermont is super, super rural. Located at the Southern end of generally populous Rutland County, Mount Holly has only 1200 residents, spread across 49 square miles. And that? Is a lot of open space.

The school itself is close-knit and spirited, with a number of activities and classes that get students out of their seats and outside into the school garden, one of three outdoor classrooms, as well as the school’s very own nature trail.

Students practice mindfulness and meditation. They learn to sew and identify plants, as well as working with woodcraft and learning the traditional rigorous academic subjects. School lunches have book-themed names such as “Dragons Love Tacos”, “The Hungry Caterpillar”, “The Princess and the Pizza”, and “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”.

There’s a weekly all-school meeting, student-led conferences at every grade level, and beginning in kindergarten, every student starts learning French.

It’s a small and cheerful school where everybody knows everybody else, families included.

And these are three of Mount Holly’s students:


Mount Holly students: Aubrey


Mount Holly students: Alyssa

and M.

Mount Holly students: M.

Right off the bat, we want to know: what makes school meaningful for you?

Aubrey:  What I find meaningful about school is that they give as lot of help to the kids that need it, and the kids that sometimes have problems focusing or learning. They’ll like help you a little bit more than they normally would. And it’s just kind of like hands-on learning.

Jeanie:  What are some of the opportunities you have to do hands-on learning?

Aubrey:  Well, in math class, normally we do our lesson and then afterwards she’ll give us like, a page to do? And then you’re either with someone else or you’re by yourself and you can ask for help then.

Alyssa: I find something very meaningful about school is getting to learn about the things I *want* to learn about. Like, I love the ocean. I like when I get an opportunity to learn about it. Because when they give you one subject you have to learn about? Everybody else is learning about it. One, it doesn’t seem interesting because everyone’s doing it, and two, it doesn’t like, make you think, ‘Oh I want to learn more about it’ if it’s like, something you don’t even think about once a year.

Jeanie: Yeah. Do you want to give me an example of when you got to learn more about the ocean?

Alyssa: We’re doing a project currently — not everyone’s doing it about the ocean but I’m doing the deep ocean? Which is like you have to list things like the animals that live there, where they get their food from, everything like that. And it’s a very fun project for me and I like it a lot. It’s very fun.

Jeanie:  Excellent. I’m so excited about this conversation. What do *you* find meaningful about school?

M.:  Kind of the group community develops, and on being together as people. And not having always having the choice of being by yourself? And learning real world skills? That’s far more important to me than the actual learning, because you can do that at home but it’s a lot harder to experience during the school day. It’s a lot easier for you to experience social skills as opposed to home.

Jeanie:  So, real world skills like social skills you get to practice here, in a way you wouldn’t at home?

M.:  Correct.

Jeanie:  What are the real world skills do you learn at school, M?

M.:  I learned to, well, use computers. That’s a big one. And then I also learned to help, and be a kind person, and try to do as well as I can. And that… learning is… only fun when you make it fun.

Jeanie: Excellent. So, looking ahead what do you hope to be able to do in school as you continue with your schooling?

M.: My big goal for high school and college is to — I really, I mean like technology and STEAM. All that.  One of my goals is to… well, my first goal is to get into MIT. And then my second goal is to build a computer for myself. And once I can do that then I’ll feel pretty good. But I always want to learn.

Jeanie: What do you hope to do to benefit the world with your degrees, and your expertise in STEAM and technology?

M.: I really like and am inspired by Greta Thunberg. And hydro power? I think that’s really cool, because it doesn’t harm nature like wind turbines do? And it’s also sustainable? So, I really want to protect our planet from climate change. Maybe become a worker at a national park, or help the World Wildlife Fund, somewhat. I already made a few donations.

Jeanie: Wow, those are some big aspirations! Is Greta Thunberg a role model for you?

M.:  Yeah.

Jeanie: Have you learned about her at school at all?

M.:  Ms. Coldwell and another teacher showed us like, one video about her, but I watch a lot of her speeches.


Jeanie:  In your free time?

M.:  Yeah. I don’t have any devices but my parents approve of that sort of technology.

Jeanie:  Excellent. How about you Alyssa, what do you hope to do beyond Mount Holly School?

Mount Holly students: Alyssa
Alyssa and friend.

Alyssa: I really want to be a marine biologist. I’ve always loved the ocean and I will always love the ocean. I want to be a marine biologist, but a marine biologist and expert in exploration? To like, lead dives and stuff like that. To get to like, swim with sharks and nice dolphins and things like that. I… want to be someone who like, finds the missing piece to an Egyptian thing or something. I’ve always wanted to be the one person who dives into the ocean and finds that super special thing nobody else could find.

Jeanie: Yeah. How do you hope that will contribute to our world?

Alyssa: I think in like… climate change if I’m like figuring out how it’s affecting, then people will start to actually care. Like if I show the numbers and stuff of like, how many things and people and stuff are dying, because of it? So things like climate change? If like lost pieces to when we weren’t intelligent enough to make like, computers and stuff. Like, artifacts I guess.

Jeanie:  How about you, Aubrey?

Mount Holly students: Aubrey
Aubrey, Mount Holly School.

Aubrey:  I… have always loved nature. I mean, I live in the woods so I kind of have to like nature. *laughs* And I have a love for horses. And I have a horse, and when I’m older I would love to learn more about veterinary work. Because I have a love for animals and I just am very interested in the whole veterinary field.

Jeanie:  Excellent. So, your contribution to the world would be to care for all our furry friends?

Aubrey: Yeah.

Jeanie:  That’s a great aspiration. You all are inspiring me,  with your big dreams and plans and aspirations.  Do you feel like school is equipping you with what you need to get there?

Alyssa: Yeah. I feel like we’ll get through elementary school, we’ll know some about what we want to do. We’ll get through high school, we’ll be very excited and we’ll know a lot about what we want our career to be. And me, M., and Aubrey want to go to college. We all want to go to college because, in order to be a vet you have to go to college. To be an engineer you have to go to college? You have to go to college to be a marine biologist. So, yeah, we all kind of look into things like that.

Jeanie:  Okay, tell me something you’re good at.

Alyssa:  I’m really good at like studying, because in like writing in formal papers and stuff because I do that with, like, my shark studies a lot.  At home, I’ll study, I’ll bookmark pages and stuff, and then I’ll write something on Google Docs about it. No one usually sees the Google Docs, but I have them.

Jeanie: You do it for you?

Alyssa: Yes.

Jeanie: How about you, M?

Mount Holly students: M.
M., Mount Holly School.

M.:  I know it’s kind of generic but I really like, and I’m good at building stuff. I feel like that’s really fun for me. We have tons of Legos and that’s one of the big things. I like sports, I play basketball. I don’t actually play basketball like as a team, but I play it by myself a lot. And I play hockey and soccer and baseball and football.

Jeanie: Wow! What’s the most interesting thing you’ve built with your Legos?

M.:  It’s called the Hape Snowfa battle cruiser? [EDITORIAL NOTE: no Star Wars geeks on staff, so we’re doing our best with Google.] It’s not a Lego set, but I made it. I do Star Wars Legos. And I made it after a Star Wars machine.

Jeanie:  Right, you made it from the Legos yourself without a kit?

M.: Yes.

Jeanie: Awesome.

M.:  And I mean also… I’m not good at everything, but school… I tend to be pretty good at.

Alyssa: He does a lot of clicking with our subjects.

Jeanie: That’s a good way to put it! Aubrey, what are you good at?

Aubrey:  I like to swim. I don’t know, I just always like to swim. My parents, my mom like to swim.  So, I just always like to swim, I’ve been swimming from when I was like three years old, so…

Jeanie:  Nice! So, what else besides swimming and sports and Legos and writing Google Docs for yourself about sharks do you get up to at home, outside of school?

M.:  Reading! Reading, reading, reading.

Jeanie: Oh I love that! What’s your favorite book, M?

M.:  My favorite book right now? I like the Endling Series. Have you heard of Katherine Applegate? That’s my favorite book series so far. I like the Tales from Earthsea. There’s a few more I can’t think of. I read tons and tons of books.

Jeanie:  Excellent.  How about you Alyssa, what do you get up to outside of school?

Alyssa: I’m mostly snuggle with my guinea pig. His name’s Leo. I tell him about my day. He’s albino so I like to like to look at his fur and imagine a color because it’s easy to think of what as a color.

And I also like to do like games with my little brother.

Jeanie: What’s your favorite game to play with your little brother?

Alyssa: We play a lot of Mortal Kombat.  And I like to also do journaling.  I have like four journals to different subjects.  I have my journal called ‘The Perfect Day’, which I write really good days I have. Then I have one, that’s all which is called ‘The Worst Day’, and then I have like one that write about every day. I love writing, by the way.

Jeanie: That’s awesome! What are you up to out of school Aubrey?

Aubrey: I read a lot of books. Like *a lot a lot* of books.

Jeanie:  Love it. So, I’m going to dive back in. Remember we were talking earlier about how do you know the things you’re good at? Thinking about the things that you are good both in and out of school, how do you know when you are goods at them? Go ahead, Aubrey.

Aubrey:  I’m, so, I knew that I was good at swimming when I started swim team two years ago.  I only did it for one summer and I wound up getting second place in my first meet.

Jeanie: So, doing well at the competition helps you know you are good at something?

Aubrey: Yes, it makes me feel good about myself.

Jeanie:  Yes, Alyssa. How do you know when you’re good at something?

Alyssa: So journaling, I kind of got into it because I love writing and at third grade I started to notice my formal letters and stuff was already really good.  So, I like to like, practice and I kept doing that. And my mom also thought it was best for me to write down how I feel because… reasons.

Jeanie:  Can I ask you all a follow-up question? What’s it feel like on the inside when you’re good at something?

Alyssa:  It kind of, it feels like, really good to be doing something I like, and I’m really good at it. Compared to something you’re not very good at? When you’re doing something you like and you’re good at it, it’s like, this is awesome. I *love* this, I can do this well.  And you want to do more of it.

M.:  Part of the way I think is that… when you do something and you get really good at it? In my opinion it’s kind of like the first level.  So, you’re really good at something and then there is something else where you haven’t built anything 00 any levels yet. Then you can get really good at another thing. You slowly ascend the pyramid, until you make it to professional. Like Premiere League, or MLB [Major League Baseball] or whatever. And there’s a certain amount of happiness when you get up there? But it’s certainly not like the first day the person calls you up and say you get called up to the major leagues.

And because now you already know what it’s like and it’s not exciting anymore? But, still you could still thrive and have a fantastic time because it’s your passion.

Else, I just think that you can get good at most things, but you could also not get good at most things. And there’s some things, I’m going to be more natural to do than Aubrey and Aubrey is going to be more natural to do than me, you know. Alyssa the same.  So, it’s all a spectrum kind of thought of it.  And by the way, I think I mentioned that I have really good test scores on my math and test for reading, so that’s why I think I’m good at reading.

Jeanie: I hear two things from you. I hear so many things from you, M.  One is like I know I’m good at reading because I have high test scores in reading and also I know I’m good at reading because I read all the time and I love it.

And then I hear this other thing from which is that no matter how good you get, you can always still learn some more or grow some more or get better  Is that right? I see you nodding your head Alyssa.

Alyssa:  Yes. *laughs* I forgot they can’t see me.

Jeanie: What’s it feel like for you, Aubrey, to be good at something on the inside?

Aubrey: It feels really good because sometimes when I don’t do something that makes me feel good about myself, I take it really hard. I’m like, critical.  So, just the tiniest things that make me feel good about myself brighten my day a lot.

Jeanie:  What else do you want the world to know about learners, about what it’s like to be a fifth or sixth grader to be a learner?  Go just say it.

M.”  I mean it’s tough. You, I mean you’re given challenges and especially for me, I’ve skipped two grades. It’s always good to develop those close relationships because it’s… I come, I just come and then I leave and then it’s like all the friends I’ve made, you know, I don’t get to see as much. It’s just, it’s harder and then the older you get, the more homework you have to do. And it eats into your life.

Alyssa:  That is a lie. We do not have homework [at Mount Holly].

M.:  But next year we will.

Alyssa:  Yeah, next year we will.

M.:  And we will be  not be ready for it!

Alyssa: We’re going to be the preschoolers again.

M.:  Seventh grade in the school of 12th graders and under.

Alyssa:  Because we’re in sixth grade and we go to a very small elementary school.  So, after sixth grade, we have to go to the seventh grade and a high school.

Jeanie:  Do you worry about that?

M.:  Not a lot. I don’t feel that *I’ll* get bullied. And I don’t feel that *they’ll* get bullied.  I think that one of the school I plan on going to is a very nice school. *hiccups* Oopsies.

Aubrey:  I honestly don’t think that I’m going to have any problems because…  I’m not even sure what middle school I’m going to yet.  But I mean, I’m not really that social. So I’m not that social butterfly. I mean just, I think I’m just going to be my, be by myself. I like being alone. I’m an only child so I don’t have any siblings to bug me.

Jeanie:  So, tell me the last question I have for you all is what do you want the world to know about Mount Holly School?

Aubrey: Well, I think that they should know Mount Holly School is a great school.  It’s helped me and some of my friends that have a little bit harder time of learning a lot get through those things.

Alyssa:  I think that Mount Holly is a great school and I am only aware of a teacher or two who will be retiring.  But we do sometimes have troubles finding new teachers to take places and I think that we’ll be fine. It’s a good school. They help kids when they need it. And they’re like, they’re very flexible with how kids learn. Like, if you have something you think will help you like a fidget, they will adjust to like, maybe having it around and the fifth and sixth grade’s actually doing an experiment to get hoods allowed in school.  And I think that it’s great that they let us even try this. So. Yeah.

Aubrey:  Also we have a great principal, he is so much fun.

M.:  He’s awesome.

Aubrey:  He’s awesome!

Alyssa:  He’s very flexible.  He loves hanging out with us, we like hanging out with him too.

M.:  Last thing want to say is I think student council is a great opportunity.  Me and Alyssa both do it.

Alyssa:  M. is student council vice president and I am student council president.

M.:  And I feel like that’s a great opportunity to learn some of the things and how the government works sometimes.

Alyssa:  And they give us like, the ability to change rules. We just actually hosted a Valentine’s Day after school party and it was amazing and it went so good. So, we have already done one thing this year.

Jeanie:  And you said you’re encouraged to look at rules, how you might change rules to?

Alyssa:  We actually can change rules if we are powerful enough as a council, if it’s a rule that we think really needs to be changed.  And we all vote that if at least two-thirds of us vote that, that is what we want and this is the idea. Then we take it to the principal and we start working on it.

Jeanie:  Awesome.  You guys are really motivated.  What keeps you so motivated?

Alyssa:  I kind of like that we have these abilities and we have these rights to change what we don’t like to have what we want. To change what we like, get what we want done.  We have the options of how we want everything to be and I think that is just so nice of them to be like if you don’t like it, we’ll give you the ability to change it with enough progress and stuff.

Jeanie:  Nice. M., what keeps you motivated?

M.:  Me motivated?  The way that I can always get better and if I was automatically the best, I wouldn’t be as motivated.

Aubrey:  Oh, I’m not going to lie, I’m not that motivated.

Jeanie:  All right, you do a lot of cool things Aubrey.

Aubrey:  Yes, but I just kind of do it when I feel productive.

Jeanie:  That’s my strategy too. Thank you all three of you so much for taking the time to talk to me about yourself as learners, about Mount Holly as a school.  I just so appreciate your voices and hearing you explore ideas with me. You guys are amazing, thank you very much. Do you want to say goodbye?

Students:  Goodbye speaker! I love you.

M.:  You’ve been helping us.  Might not keep that part. You don’t need to.  Bye.

The 21st Century Classroom is a production of the The Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. This episode was produced by Jeanie Phillips, series producer is Audrey Homan. Thank you to Aubrey, Alyssa and M. for speaking with us, and to all of Mt Holly students and faculty for letting us invade with our recording equipment and headphones and generally be disruptive.

Our theme music is by Meizong and Yeeflex. And thank *you*, as always, for listening.

What CVU students want you to know about education

Today on the 21st Century Classroom:

Beckett: When the school systems were created was to produce factory workers, to have good workers for their assembly lines and could make cars and they all knew basic information and could all say the same facts. It was a standardized person pretty much, being produced into the workforce. For those assembly line jobs, that’s what they needed. Nowadays, that’s not what people need. We need creative thinkers that can look at problem and figure how to solve it, not be able to recite Shakespeare, unless that’s what they’re learning about and then they should recite it all.

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I’m Life LeGeros, and on this episode of the 21st Century Classroom, we hear from three students from Champlain Valley Union High School, in Hinesburg Vermont — a sophomore, a junior, and a high school senior. They tell us about what makes school meaningful, along with the way they see the roles of students and teachers changing as schools evolve.

We also talk about equity in schools, as well as spending some serious time discussing what proficiency-based learning has looked like. Does it work? Is it an improvement over the traditional grading system, and how does it affect how these students apply to college?

Meet Heidi, Beckett and Ulee.

CVU students
(l to r) Ulee, Heidi and Beckett, Champlain Valley Union (CVU) students.

Heidi: I’m Heidi. I’m a sophomore at CVU.

Beckett: My name is Beckett. I’m a junior at CVU.

Ulee: I’m Ulee. I’m a senior at CVU.

“CVU” is Champlain Valley Union High School.

Located at the edge of the Green Mountains, it’s the largest high school in Vermont, and has a reputation for being not just progressive, but unabashedly committed to student-centered learning. Now, student-centered learning is kind of a buzzword; it can mean a lot of different things, so we wanted these CVU students to tell us what exactly “student-centered learning” really looks like in action.

The three students we spoke with are all enrolled in CVU’s Think Tank, an in-school course that encourages students to speak up about education issues. Think Tank students are encouraged to develop new ideas for school and try them out in a supported, structured manner.

Think Tank student projects have included ways to reduce stress in applying to (and being rejected from) colleges, educating teachers about mental health issues in students, and introducing flexible furniture in classrooms. And there’s a book club!

But does this flexibility equal meaningful learning?

Life: My first most basic question is what do you find most meaningful about school?

Beckett: I would say just the opportunity to be able to learn more and get more information and just like all the resources that we have, I mean here at CVU, to be able to pursue information and knowledge.

Heidi: Yes, I think going off of what Beckett just said, I think definitely when you have some opportunity in whatever class where you’re suddenly like, “Whoa! This is so cool. I really want to learn about it.” Those moments like that for me are just amazing. I wish I could get more of them out of school, but when they happen, they really stick with you.

Ulee: For me, it’s a little different. I really like the structure and just having a place to go every day. It’s the one thing I really like. I struggle with not having a structure. I don’t always take advantage of certain things when I don’t have someone telling me I have to do it a little bit and so it’s really nice. wWithout school, I don’t really know what I’d be doing. I just be sitting for a bit until something came to me, but it’s nice because it gives me a framework to go about doing what I want to do.

Heidi: I think when I have choice in a class and usually project-based. When I talk about things that have really stuck with me, a lot of them I have from one class that I had in middle school for social studies and it was completely choice-driven, lots of projects. I could figure out what an overarching topic I was really into and then I had the freedom to figure out how I wanted to represent that and share my learning.

Beckett: Really any classes that give the opportunity to think differently, like you give me the opportunity to not think about things how you’re supposed to normally think about them, just like, more freedom to be able to question ideas and not just do the same thing over and over again, but figure out why. It’s like in my middle school for fourth, fifth, and sixth grade, I went to the Waldorf School. It was experiential and really immersive, but it was definitely like the whole philosophy is until you had a certain age, you’re not ready to learn things. They won’t teach reading and writing until third grade. It’s definitely not talent-based or how the kid understand, but it’s like once you get to this age, then you can move forward. It’s the opposite of the question, but there oftentimes I felt like I wanted to move forward but they weren’t letting me.

What I look for in classes is when I can move forward and I can ask those questions. I can be like, “Well, that doesn’t make sense. I need to figure that out.”

Life: What do teachers do to create that environment, or you feel like you can question that?

Beckett: Honestly, I think like a lot of conversational-based classes. When it’s not the teacher just lecturing, but when the teacher either proposes a question and be like, “Cool. I’m going to just sit here and you guys talk about it,” and lets the kids really think without any excess thoughts and controlling factors to what they’re thinking may be tainted in any certain way and just let them come to discovery about the topic that they’re learning. It’s hard to do and it’s hard to explain, but when teachers can create that atmosphere but the kids are making their connections by themselves without saying, “There’s a connection here, find it.” I think that’s really what gets kids to stick with it and be enjoying what they’re learning.

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What we’re hearing from these students? Isn’t new.

Research in cognition, motivation, and pedagogy show that students learn best when they are engaged more with learning that includes them as partners in the classroom, and as active and valued participants in the conversation about their learning. Motivation and higher order thinking come to the fore in middle school.

Life: Where did you learn in middle school?

Heidi: I went to school at Shelburne Community School.

Life: Who was the teacher?

Heidi: Sam Nelson.

Life: What kind of project did you work on that you still remember?

Heidi: We did one of these every single year and he still has office classes doing every year was a historical avatar journal where whatever unit we were in, we basically created some kind of person that was living in that event, a time period, and then we wrote from their perspective. I wrote one during the Revolutionary War. I was a teenage boy who’s a loyalist living with a family that were all patriots and stuff. It was just really interesting to get to think about what life might have been like and what maybe thoughts go through their head.

Ulee, CVU student
Ulee, a senior CVU student.

Ulee: Even in stuff like book groups, you kind of like, “All right, this is the thing that happened.” Actually, I’ve had a lot more book groups deal in middle school than in high school. It’s just like, “All right, we’ll read this chapter,” and like, “All right, what do you think about these things?” and then you have the conversation from there.

I think oftentimes with students, it’s a lot easier to have… all right. With a teacher, it seems a lot more black and white, like this is yes or no. With a student, it’s kind of I feel like we’re both coming from a similar part of not having the experience beforehand, so we’re both like, “This is my opinion and perspective on this deal and this is your perspective on this deal.” That relationship is a little different from someone who has the experience and has the knowledge beforehand.

Beckett: Yes, whenever you’re a kid, you’re always taught the adults have the answers. They know what to do. In class room experience, kids aren’t going to question what the adult say. When the adult say something, it’s just the truth. When they can talk with their peers and you can discuss things, you’re like, “Wait, I don’t agree with that.” It fosters that curiosity into what you’re learning.

Ulee: I think there is a certain level of truth in that, like teachers have more experience sometimes about stuff.

Beckett: Of course.

Ulee: I think an important part is a lot of times when the students are asking students, a lot of the things that they’re coming in to contact conflict with and thinking about are things that wouldn’t be like the teacher initially expects and so either would be written off or just like…

Heidi: I think I agree. I think just really it goes back to questioning thing that it’s okay to question your peers, but it feels like you’re not supposed to question your teacher because you’re teacher’s teaching you about it. I think that difference makes such a huge impact on how these conversations are carried out. I don’t know if teachers realize that when they’re looking at all the conversations that students are having. From the student perspective, I think that a lot of us feel that way.

Life: It’s interesting because you’ve mentioned choice before, right? Some people think of choice or student voice is being something that can be really engaging for students, but it’s a really hard thing for teachers because there’s this age old hierarchy in schools that we’re just touching on, right?

Beckett: I think that they should be in a lot of cases because when the school systems were created was to produce factory workers, to have good workers for their assembly lines and could make cars and they all knew basic information and could all say the same facts. It was a standardized person pretty much, being produced into the workforce. For those assembly line jobs, that’s what they needed. Nowadays, that’s not what people need. We need creative thinkers that can look at problem and figure how to solve it, not be able to recite Shakespeare, unless that’s what they’re learning about and then they should recite it all. I think that schools are starting to make that change, but people are too stuck to that old traditional not wanting change that in a lot of places, it’s not working out. That transition, but I think it should and it’s good that that movement is pushing towards change.

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In a lot of places, having students take such an active part in their learning is still pretty revolutionary.

But a fundamental piece of the change is straightforward: allowing students and teachers to adopt roles in the classroom that let them be partners in learning dramatically changes the landscape. That move, towards a more democratic classroom? Opens up all kinds of possibilities.

Beckett’s right.

The overarching narrative of education in this country involves schools that were set up more than a hundred years ago to meet our then-economic needs: workers with basic skills who could be molded into factory jobs just as surely as the widgets they were creating could be applied to different products.

In Vermont, one of the ways schools are evolving is under Act 77, legislation that calls for the implementation of personalized learning, including a move away from traditional grading systems and towards proficiency-based assessments. CVU instructional coaches Stan Williams and Emily Rinkema co-authored a new book on proficiencies, titled The Standards-Based Classroom: Make Learning the Goal. They’re also the facilitators of the Think Tank course at CVU that Heidi, Beckett and Ulee all take part in.

While Act 77 requires schools to implement proficiencies by 2020, CVU has been ahead of the curve on trying it out.

But how do students feel about it?

Life: Around that, you’re talking about proficiency based learning.

All: Yes.

Life: How is that going here? What’s the mess to success ratio on that one?

Heidi, CVU student
Heidi, a sophomore at CVU

Heidi: I think it depends on the teachers because some teachers are pretty good with explaining what all your targets mean, like you get it before and that stuff. Other teachers I think are still stuck more in the A, B, C, D, E, F grading. I think that gets really complicated really fast for everybody involved when you have that connection. I mean I think I’ve been lucky that a lot of the teachers I’ve had so far have been more on the understanding side of it. I have an older sister who was here right when they started changing it. I know there were some very tough classes just with the grade aspect because the teacher was just more quite how to teach that way.

I think since we are fortunate enough to be at a school, that’s one of the schools that are actually starting to push forward compared to other ones. That also means we get more the messiness involved with figuring out how to implement it in a good way for the students and the teachers because it hasn’t been done before. Obviously, there’s going to be trial and error, but I think that’s hard to see from anyone’s perspective in the school because students are like, “Well, I want to know what the expectations are in a class. I want to know my grades look like.” It just gets confusing. It can be hard to see in the long run how this is going to benefit people beyond just you.

Ulee: That’s really thoughtful.

Beckett: It makes it really challenging when also since… exactly like you’re saying, we’re the first ones to be doing it. The rest of the system hasn’t changed to how we’re looking at it. Sure we might be trying to push forward and move towards a place where there’s no grades and you’re not focused around this carrot and stick type of motivation with getting the students to actually be excited about learning. You can’t really do that because you still need grades for colleges. When it comes down to it, a lot of students are like, “Well, that’s the only reason I’m here. It’s the only reason I’m caring about this.” It’s really hard to be the first ones to change that because everyone else around you isn’t. You’re left like, “Am I going to be penalized for trying to push forward with this?” It’s hard. It’s really hard.

Life: Why is it complicated when they’re still have one foot on both worlds?

Heidi: I think the point is that you’re grading something different with the new type of grading than the old type because it’s supposed to be less like memorization, spit out the information you learned. It’s more like applying and so they’re not ones that were like you can just lump together and be like, “Okay. We’ll grade how I used to using this new form of grading.” You have to really rethink how it is. I mean I totally understand if you’ve been teaching and suddenly it changes. It’s hard to do that.

Ulee: I want to add to this because when I think about the successes and challenges between different teachers, one thing that really sticks out to me is how standards-based grading is very easy and you can tell in math classes. When things are a lot like you did this right or more humanities-based stuff, you have a lot more. Very successful it’s been. I think that goes right in with what you were saying about …how do I put this? What you’re trying to grade for.

Like with the math class, you’re doing it or not. Like multiplication facts are an easy example. But as to whether you’re not truly analyzing a story correctly? It’s a very difficult thing to grade or score whether or not you’ve met the standard for it.

Life: Because they’re more complex skills.

Ulee: The way you’d go about is different. There’s a lot more work that feels into being able to say whether or not you’ve met the standard in something where it’s not as black and white kind of yes or no.

Beckett: It’s hard to really understand it and get it and have this way of grading to be successful. Both the teacher has to jump into it fully as well as the students, which makes it one side is in a particular class or a different setting. It really just sends the whole thing off balance. People are stuck in their traditions and they don’t want them to change because it’s how they’ve been always doing it just like you guys are saying. It’s really just trying to convince people that it is a good idea and that will work.

Life: What do you look for?

Beckett: I don’t know. This is where the most variance is or at least in my opinion, it’s like whether or not… we have a thing called habit of learning. It’s about your engagement levels and that kind of stuff. It’s in parallel with your actual… whether or not you’re meeting the standards. Some teachers link whether or not you’re able to reassess on that, or they just have some weird arbitrary, like if you did well on this, if you handed in all your home works, you can do this. I had one class where it’s like if you corrected this one sheet, you’ll get a good grade on this and yet that has no correlation to re-assessment policy.

That’s one of the first things that you see that you can tell where the teachers come from and their ideas how everything should fit together because there’s a lot of different moving parts with the standards-based learning. That’s an easy way to see their overall plan of how they all fit together.

Beckett: Yes. In standards-based grading, any test you take, if you don’t like your grade and you think that you can show better learning or more understanding–

Ulee: Improvement, yes.

Beckett, CVU junior
Beckett, a junior at CVU

Beckett: — yes, improvement — you can re-task and re-assess on that information. Exactly like Ulee was saying. It’s just that tangible assessment of does that teacher understand what this is for? Because it’s looking at learning is not like you either can do it on this date or you can’t do it on this date and that decides if you’re good at it or not.

It’s like do you have an understanding of the content? If you don’t have that understanding right now but if you want to put in more work, and then be able to show that understanding, that’s totally fine because you’re still putting in that work to get that understanding. You can look at a teacher, and on both sides, they either don’t let you re-assess and say, “No, you can’t do that.”

Then that shows that they’re not understanding certainly the value of standard-based grading, everything we do, as well as the other side if they just… without doing any other work and just like, “Yes, sure, just take it again.” You’re not testing anything else, or not relying you have to do another worksheet or prove that you’ve done more learning to then take it again, that also shows that because it’s just letting the kids have a redo as many times as they want to and eventually they’re going to hit all the right answers.

I mean that’s just statistically if you take it ten times, you’re going to figure out what types of questions are on there, which one could argue that’s also could be learning how to do it. Right sort of the middle of that where the teacher encourages the kids to do more learning and have more understanding and then once they do, let them re-asses. I think that shows the pivotal understanding of standards-based grading and how it can be applied.

Life: Are there other cues that you look for to see how things are going to work from a proficiency lens when you’re working with a new teacher and a new course?

Heidi: I think having a teacher really makes sure that we understand what exactly we’re looking for in the targets, which skills we’re supposed to be applying stuffy. I think when they really put focus on that, that shows that they… whether they’re totally there or not, they’re at least trying to do their best for teaching using standards. Then I think that in the class where I don’t get that, it definitely feels less standards-driven and more memorization-driven.

Beckett: It’s like the way you’re saying, it shows if the teachers can advocate to the students what these standards are and what they mean and how to meet them and what expectations for the class is looking like, it shows the teacher understands that. Because you really and be able to understand something to be able to show someone else or teach someone else. It shows that the teacher has an understanding of how the targets are going to be used and therefore they’ll have an understanding how those realistic targets… what are they called?

Life: Right. I think that that sometimes can be a hard thing for students as well. You talked about student teachers and students have to be on the same page is like you’re saying that the students, there’s also just this very practical, “Well, that’s great. I want to have things I can learn for my life. They’re transferable, but I also need to get into college. I need to make sure I’m playing the game right.”

Beckett: Exactly.

Life: Any advice to other students out there, middle school, high school, how to approach this stuff and get the most out of it if your school is going this direction?

Beckett: I think that having a really strong understanding of how the system works and how it’s used and how it applies to your classes really helps you because then you can go back and then not be confused about something because if you’re confused about something, you just add tool in the system. You’re not going to be able to use it to help you with that.

If you’re thinking college-focused, a lot of colleges also… they’re looking at what the school gives you. If let’s say, for example, if your school doesn’t offer any APs, they’re not going to discredit you or take points off from your application because you haven’t taken APs. It’s just not what your school offered.

Ulee: For me, I think there’s an important aspect of balance in school where, all right, there’s certain things that need to be done if you want to go into college. No matter how much of a change it’s going to be, there’s always going to be a little bit where you have to, “I have to take these classes in order to graduate,” kind of deal. I feel like at some point as of now, that’s unescapable, but at the same time you want to balance that with taking things that either you haven’t taken before and using it as a place to explore. You should focus more on doing something that either is new or is interesting to you that is something else and trying to… balancing, exploring with doing like, “I want to do this for my future,” kind of deal because there’s a whole lot of that, setting myself up for the future that you don’t actually know at this point what truly interests you.

If you take an art class that you’ve never taken before and are really into art, you would never have known that if you haven’t had taken that class. It’s trying balance is my advice. Taking things that aren’t going to better you in the future just because you’re interested and you’re going to have fun with it and it’s going to be something new with actual like the diving into setting yourself up.

Heidi: I think this jumps off of what you’re saying for like, keep an open mind, because I know I can sometimes snap judgements especially about something in school. I’m like, “This doesn’t seem like fun. I don’t like it,” but if you allow yourself to explore lots of opportunities and really just take advantage of a time where you have all these options especially in a school like CVU where we have so many different types of classes.

You just try them and you’ll be surprised and find something maybe that you like, and maybe you hate it but at least you know that. You didn’t just say, “You know what? I don’t think I like it. I’m just not even going to touch it.” You took a risk and tried something new.

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Right now, we need education to fundamentally change.

  • Economically, because we need flexible innovative workers who can thrive in a knowledge based economy.
  • Politically, because we need citizens who can think critically and problem-solve the huge problems of the modern world.
  • And practically, because we’re just now beginning to grapple at an effective level with issues of equity in our schools.

CVU is one of a handful of schools around Vermont where the students successfully lobbied the administration and school board to fly the Black Lives Matter flag on campus.

It was an action the school’s student-led Racial Action Committee had been working towards for two full years, and was not without controversy. The students wrote newspaper op-eds, collected signatures of support from the community, and presented their proposal to the school board on three separate occasions.

This came after a spate of racist and anti-Semitic graffiti was found on the school campus.

Life: Are there students at this school that you feel are fighting for equity?

All: Yes.

Heidi: I think equity in education is very broad and a very tough topic to tackle because there’s so many angles to come at it from. There’s also so many different levels of inequity in education. It could be the school itself, it’s not at the same levels like some other schools. It’s more just the students aren’t as listened to as like in other schools, or it could be something completely different. I just feel like there’s so many ways that there can be an inequity in school, just like with anything in life. There’s so much that people are working on right now that people still need work on, but it’s not an easy problem to fix.

Ulee: We recently had our RAC, Racial Alliance Committee, which I think started only this year in front of the school board, had multiple meetings with them and we got the Black Lives Matter flag raises. There’s different justice groups around the school. We have a club that’s all about being… I don’t remember the name. It’s a club where it’s just go and it’s all about supporting people with disabilities in our school. We have a lot of clubs that actually–

Beckett: Like Unified Sports and stuff.

Ulee: Unified Sports, too, but this is an actual club.

Life: I mean this is a big conversation in Vermont right now with the flag raisings. I think a lot of educators are trying to figure out how to handle this because when you think about old paradigms of schooling, there was a certain widespread belief that schooling should be neutral. That teachers should never show their hands in terms of what political party they support, or even how they feel on different policies, or things like that. We’re not here to indoctrinate kids, we’re just here to give them knowledge. There’s a counterargument that says it’s never neutral. By not saying something, you’re teaching that something as well.

I think people in Vermont are trying to figure out what is the role of Vermont schools for addressing these issues. Most of our schools are mostly white, so should this conversations be happening, how early should they be happening? Should they be happening in the middle school? I don’t know if you guys address these topics when you’re in middle school, or what your thoughts are on when kids can handle these things, and how they should be going while thinking about them?

Beckett: I think that kids are… you’re talking about when they’re ready to handle things like that and I think when they start asking questions and when they start wanting to handle it. I think that’s when the conversation should we have and really based on the students. When they start to be like, “Hey, wait a minute, that doesn’t seem fair,” then giving them… I mean it’s hard because there is that… you don’t want it like to have political beliefs be in the school, but if you present things like the Black Lives Matter flag, it was presented not as a political movement, but as a way to empower students who aren’t as privileged in the school. Sorry. Just letting the students talk about it and letting their voices be heard is really important.

Ulee: Also, a really important part with the raising of Black Lives Matter flag is it wasn’t like this is the administrations like, “We’re doing this.” It was the students came together and they presented it to the administration. They got signatures from around the school and brought that to the school board. I think that’s very different than trying to show your hand. If it’s something that the actual community and the students are like, “This is the thing we want to do.” This is the problem in our school that we’re not having conversations about race and stuff. I think that’s a certain part about when it should be in school. It’s when students actually themselves feel like, “All right. This has got to the point where we need to talk about this and we need to bring this up to the administration,” and stuff like that. I feel like that’s very different.

Life: When the students are pushing it.

All: Yes.

Heidi: No, I just think… yes, just what you guys were saying that when the students bring it forward, that’s when… I think our school’s done a good job about when students bring something forward like this listening to them and trying to support them the best they can. I mean I think it’s so much more effective when you see students for some change like this.

I think in the classroom, you do have to learn how to navigate these situations and stuff, but that doesn’t mean that teachers have to take sides. I think it would be nice if you’ve learned how to navigate political situations and had an understanding of political issues that are going on because I mean especially in high school, a lot of kids are getting close to being able to vote and stuff.

It’s really important that we’re educated on topics that we’re going to be voting on. You don’t have to pick a side when you teach that. You can just be like hear the facts, make up your own decisions. I think it is important that we talk about tough topics and we can leave it completely neutral. I do think that it needs to be talked about in some capacity.

Beckett: I think that’s what these conversational-based classes exactly where that comes back in because the teachers can be like, “Here are the facts and then let the students talk about it.” If it’s in that conversation, the students can actually address it and really get into it without having that other… that as you said the teachers showing their hand and putting their beliefs on to try to shape how the students see it.

Heidi: I think I know a huge issue with politics is people being like, “Well, they don’t agree with me, so I just can’t–”

Beckett: The us versus them mentality.

Heidi: When you open it up to have those discussions and you really get to hear from people who have different opinions than you, you start to see like, “Okay. I can see where you’re coming from,” and like, “Well, I disagree. I respect you for that.”

Ulee: It’s learning how to disagree and being civil in that conversation because in a classroom setting, I can’t see a bunch of kids just sitting there yelling at each other just for 20 minutes. There’s intentional structures in the school that already worked that way around that. I think this is a great place to have the structures in place to learn what it’s like to be in disagreement and yet still go to class with some of them next day.

Beckett: Disagreement with the understanding.

end mark

Fighting for equity in Vermont education is, and should be a big deal. And it requires making sure students are not just equipped to take part in those conversations but honestly believe their voices are welcome, and that their voices can make change happen. It’s the same set of circumstances that make it possible and worthwhile to implement proficiency-based education; students will report on how it’s going and how it can go better.

It’s just up to our schools… to listen.

If you’re interested in hearing more from students in CVU’s Think Tank, the students all maintain active blogs where they talk about these issues and many more.





The 21st Century Classroom is the podcast of the The Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. This episode was produced by Life LeGeros and  Audrey Homan. Thank you to Stan Williams at Champlain Valley Union High School, and of course huge thanks to Heidi, Ulee, and Beckett for being so willing to share their insights.

Our theme music is by Meizong and Yeeflex, as well as this time, Evan Schaeffer. And you can find out more about the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education by visiting tarrant institute dot org.

Thank you, as always, for listening.

What I Learned at the Youth Climate Strike

On this episode of the 21st Century Classroom:

Veronica: My name is Veronica, I’m 13, and I’m in eighth grade.

Emily: And why are you here, Veronica?

Veronica: I’m here because every morning I wake up afraid. And so knowing that so many other people feel the same thing? It makes me hopeful, for the first time in a long time. And so seeing this and seeing the change it brings after? Is the best thing I could wish for.

This past fall, educator and parent Emily Hoyler, took part in the Youth Climate Strike, along with her three children. They visited various protests in Vermont, and Emily interviewed some of the students she met at the protests. She asked them why they were there, what they hoped to achieve, and how this day of action related to their in-school lives.

Here’s Emily.

Emily at Youth Climate Strike


Lately, I’ve been freaking out about climate change.  After years of denial about the severity of the situation, this past spring I confronted the evidence.  And I found it terrifying.

Why?  Because I learned some stuff.

I learned it takes carbon dioxide up to 10 years to *begin* warming the atmosphere.  And once its warming effect starts, it lasts for about 40 years.

I learned that 20% of the total emissions since the Industrial Revolution have happened within the past 10 years.

I learned that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are issuing dire warnings about the need for immediate action. The need to drastically reduce emissions, immediately, if we’re going to avoid catastrophic disruption.

But you know who’s not learning these things?  Our students.

At least… that’s what they told me when I met up with them at the Youth Climate Strike.

The Global Youth Climate Strike had been on my calendar for at least 6 months. Spurred by youth climate activist Greta Thunberg’s Friday School Strike for Climate, this event promised to bring momentum to the movement. As an engaged citizen and reluctant activist I knew I wanted to be part of this global protest, demanding world leaders take action. And I wanted to do it with my own children.

I pulled them from school, and we headed out on the road.

We began our day in the nearby college town of Middlebury, where about 500 people gathered on a town green to demonstrate our demands for action.

As we marched we waved our signs at the passing traffic.  The honks and waves we received energized us.

Folks of all ages were there in droves — toddlers to elders. I was thrilled to see so many students– many of whom I’d taught in the classroom!

I drifted away as a college professor began to speak of the power of civil action to find some kids to talk to.  Why were they here? What are their hopes for the future? Is the climate crisis finding its way into their curriculum?  What do they want adults to know?


Emily: So, tell me your first name.

Milo: My first name is Milo.

Emily: How old are you Milo?

Milo: I’m 12 and I’m an 8th grader.

Emily: Awesome. Why are you here today?

Milo: I’m here today because climate change sucks. It’s pretty terrible and definitely needs to be changed and as soon as possible. Yes, as she’s talking about right now, it can’t… you guys can’t wait for the younger generation, it has to start now.

Emily: Does climate change are the reason we’re here today connect anything you’ve learned about or do in your school work everyday?

Milo: I wish it did more. I know we have a lot of teachers that are in support of us, but we don’t actually learn anything about climate change in like social studies or anything like that and I think that should be probably changed especially because it’s one of the biggest issues by far in our world right now.



B: My name is B.

Emily: All right, B. And how old are you?

B: I’m 13.

Emily: Where do you go to school?

B: I go to Middlebury Union Middle School.

Emily: Why are you here today?

B: I’m here today because I think that climate change is a really big problem for my generation because we’re going to be the ones that are suffering from it because we’re the ones that are in it now. Even the generation above us and all the generations to come will face climate change, unless we stop it now.


Jack : My name is Jack. I’m 14 years old. I’m a freshman at Middlebury Union High School.

There hasn’t been a time where in a class we’ve really talked about these issues yet, but I don’t think that means that we won’t. Definitely, kids are definitely thinking about these things whether it be on social media or at the lunch table kind of things, in the hallways.

Sometimes just in class you just kind of get on these little tangents about discussions about issues like what’s going to be happening today. I think while maybe it’s not exactly being talked about in school, discussions still happen around the school.


Nora: Okay. I’m Nora, I’m 14 and I’m a freshman in high school. I’m here – everyone says to make a difference, but I’m also here to make a difference. Also, I feel like it’s important for everyone to see just how many people care and a lot of times it can feel really overwhelming. So, I feel like that’s a lot – it’s really helpful for people to see other people caring as well. Basically, we’re just… there are way too many emissions in the air, which is causing like this, almost like a shield around the earth to trap heat from the sun and the earth is heating, which is causing all sorts of natural disasters and natural effects and repercussions around the world.

Emily: Okay. So how does this connect to what you’re doing in school at all?

Nora: Not really. I feel like that’s a problem. Like, so many people don’t know what’s going on and we need to bring that into school because every generation needs to help, but the generation that’s coming up is one of the most important generations because we’re the ones who are going to be voting soon. We’re the ones who are about to enter the workforce and make changes and all of that. If people don’t know what’s going on, then they won’t know to make the change. They won’t know to influence their actions.

Emily: What advice would you have to educators in Vermont?

Nora: That just teach it, tie it into your lesson somehow. It’s one of the most important issues. Every issue on this earth is important, but if there’s no earth for them to be important on them, what’s the point?

Emily: What about other kids across Vermont?

Nora: Just get involved. Just go to the climate rallies, see, meet people, get involved in that.

end mark


Next we drove up to Burlington.

Yes, drove.  And while we drove a Prius, we still burned fossil fuels and contributed to the problem we’re trying to address.

We unloaded, grabbed our signs, and began the long trek uphill to find the action.

When we finally arrived, the whole block was swarmed with people.  There were jugglers, a brass band, and lots and lots of people. Including students!

Some kids were just excited to join in on the fun (hey, activism is fun, there is joy and celebration in coming together over a cause).  And so many students knew exactly why we were there and what they hoped the day would bring.

student at Burlington Youth Climate Strike



Cheyanne :  My name is Cheyenne and I’m 12. I’m in 7th grade.

Emily: Great. Why are you here?

Cheyanne :  I really believe that the whole climate change strike is really important because I want to have children. I want them to grow up in a safe environment and I want to grow up in a safe environment.

Emily :  How does this connect to what you do at school?

Cheyanne : Well, we have a really good sustainable sustainability program. We work with a lot of solar panels. We have a huge field in the back where we have a bunch of solar panels and stuff. We’re really committed to that.

Emily : If you could give advice to Vermont teachers, what would it be?

Cheyanne :  You really need to enforce that climate change is real and that it is a real issue.




Callie: I am Callie. I am 11 and I’m in 6th grade. 

Emily: Callie, why are you here today? 

Callie: To speak out against climate change and to make… if enough people start doing this, then everyone will realize that this really is a problem that needs to be fixed.

Emily: Does what your… I’m going to wait a minute and let that crowd die down for a minute. What I’m going to ask you next though is how this connects to what you do in school or what you’re learning about? Let’s let this exciting crowd… look at all this energy. How does this connect to what you’re doing in school?

Callie: We have learned a bit about climate change, but most of it I’ve just learned about on my own time and schools definitely are not doing enough, and spreading enough correct information about climate change and all that needs to be done about it. 




Elsa: My name is Elsa, I’m 13 and I’m in eighth grade.

Emily: Why are you here?

Elsa: To kind of find a voice for climate change, I guess.

Emily: Tell me more about why that issue is important to you?

Elsa: I guess it’s at a point where—it’s kind of putting off your homework, we’re all really good at procrastinating and we’re at the point where we kind of just kind of like sit down and do our homework otherwise we are not going to have it for tomorrow in class. That’s kind of where we are right now. Where like the world and climate change if we don’t do something right now, we’re all just going to blow up. I need you to help us. To give us a good set up so we can learn and grow and be the best people we can be and help the world.




Emily: Okay. Name, grade, age.

Sadie : Sadie. 7th grade and I’m 12.

Emily : Why are you here?

Sadie : I think that it’s really important. I mean, adults are just going to die of natural causes, but if we’re going to be alive when the world is going to end of climate change, I don’t want that to happen.

Emily : Do you think you should get credit for being here? How will an event like this connect to what you do at school?

Sadie : Well, at school we are really aware of how what we do at school and what we do in our out of school lives affects the environment and we talk about it a lot. I think a lot of kids in our school have come here and we’ve seen a lot of them. I think that we should get credit for being here because it’s important. Actually, our school is having their own rally outside on our lawn. I think that is really important that we show people that it matters and that we care.

Emily: Awesome. Anything else you want to say?

Sadie: No.

end mark

While I was happy to hear some kids talk about how the climate crisis showed up in their curriculum many kids said they don’t talk about it at all at school.

That concerns me.

And I hope it changes.

But… I also totally get it.

As a classroom teacher, each minute of my day was spoken for several times over.

Human impacts on the environment (i.e. climate change) are covered in both the main science & social studies curriculum guidelines. (For you teachers, that’s the Next Generation Science Standards and the C3 social studies standards.) But there are also a multitude of other concepts that need to be addressed and taught.

Not to mention: sometimes it *feels* like climate change is a partisan issue. To be clear, it is aaaaaabsolutely not. The scientific evidence is clear and evident and readily available. But we live in interesting times. And there are narratives right now in the public discourse that are both partisan and, well, complete fabrications.

[Spooky editor voice: Merriam-Webster defines “fabrications” as “made up, for the purpose of deception.” See also: lie, falsehood.]

And every teacher knows that getting into politics in the classroom can get tricky.

So I have some hunches about why many kids told me that they aren’t learning about climate change at school.

But as an educator *and* a parent I’ve been doing some deep thinking lately about how education can prepare our children to meet the challenges of the future… and the present.  How can we prepare students for an unknown future? What skills, attitudes, knowledge, and experiences will students need to survive in a world riddled with catastrophes like extreme storms, rising seas, wildfires, acidifying oceans, widespread hunger, air pollution, and the corresponding economic and social unrest and possible collapse?

Students hold up homemade signs at the Youth Climate Strike in Burlington


Amelia: I’m Amelia and I’m 13.

Emily: All right. Why are you here?

Amelia: Because I feel like if we’re not— if I’m not, then how are people going to get the word out and I skipped school because people are realizing that I’m skipping school to come to this because this is more important. If the teachers start realizing that, they’ll be like, “Oh, we actually have to start informing students about that and making known to people.”

Emily: Awesome. Is there anything you want teachers in Vermont to know?

Amelia: Just that like, we’re skipping school because, not because we want to skip class, but because we need to be here to get the word out. And that if they start realizing that, then, yes, they’ll understand that it’s actually a problem.


Sophie: Right. Okay. I’m Sophie. I’m 13 years old. And I’m in 7th grade and I go to FHTMS [Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School].

Emily: You’re here with your classmates?

Sophie: Uh-hmm.

Emily: Why? Why did they let you leave school?

Sophie: To protest against climate change.

Emily: How does to what we’re here to today connect to what you’re doing at school?

Sophie: What we’re learning about kind of how to group together and work together. This is kind of a community thing. We’re working together to change it.


Abby: I’m Abbyi. I’m 12. I’m in 7th grade. I go to Tuttle Middle School.

Emily: Why are you here?

Abby: I think really because I feel called to this issue and as I grow up, I want my children and grandchildren to be able to live in a world that’s as beautiful as it is right now we’re living.

Emily: Does this connect to what you do at school?

Abby: Yes, it does in many ways especially science, we’re working on engineering design process and how people communicate in different ways. It should get something done. I think this is a great example of that.


Simone: I’m Simone. I’m in 8th grade.

Emily: And uh, why are you here?

Simone: Because I want a future where I can do anything I want in an environment where I don’t have to struggle to breathe or anything like that. We are fighting for climate justice to make sure that every generation before us still has a world that they can stand on and see the grass below their feet.

Emily: How does this connect to your schoolwork or what you do in school?

Simone: School, in my opinion, is all about preparing for the future and without the world, there is no future.

Emily: Uh….Mic drop!

Simone: Tell your students if you have… if you’re aware of this strike but you still have to go to work? Tell your students, this is a strike, you can go to this, to stand up for what you believe in.

end mark

A couple weeks after the Climate Strike I went to a professional development workshop held by the Vermont Energy Education Program — VEEP.

Vermont’s largest greenhouse gas contributions come from our heating & cooling, electricity, transportation, and agriculture systems . And all of these systems are present in schools.

VEEP educators help students measure lighting, heat loss, and track energy use in pursuit of making their own schools more energy efficient, thus lessening their carbon footprint.

Deanna: “I am Deanna Bailey. I am Director of Education for the Vermont Energy Education Program. We hope in our deepest of hearts that students take the– it’s very personal for students. So many students are concerned about the climate now, much more so than our generation, was as we were growing up. So our hope is that we can help students feel empowered to make a difference.

We do a lot around supporting schools, to supporting students in particular to latch onto and investigate an aspect of their school that they’d like to change some energy use within. We’ve had groups of students motivated to go to the school board and request putting solar panels on, and using solar panels instead of using just fossil fuels for electricity. So, the ideal is to get into students’ personal interests and tap into that. And then with that, find out, okay, what project do you want to do? How can we support you? And that’s what we’re here to do: is support you to make a difference.”

Another way VEEP helps bring our energy use to the forefront is by making the invisible visible.  After lunch, we headed down to the parking lot to measure auto emissions. With a simple stopwatch and a 10-foot clear plastic bag (and a few brave teachers with car keys), we were able to capture a few different car models’ emissions directly from the exhaust pipe.

We timed how long it took the bag to fill at each car.  Spoiler: the SUV filled that bag much, much more quickly than the hybrid.

I have to admit that even I was blown away watching that bag fill up.  I mean I knew our cars produced emissions, but to literally see the emissions – and the difference between the vehicles – made a deep impression on me.

Educators making emissions visible at a VEEP workshop.
Educators making emissions visible at a VEEP workshop.

Putting the onus on educators to include climate change as a structured topic in their classrooms is probably not the one-size-fits-all solution that can harness student passion for saving the planet. We need organizations like VEEP who can provide structured, informed activities for students that extend beyond their school walls and their school day, and give them regular outlets for getting involved and making a difference.

Here’s Deanna Bailey again.

Deanna: “It’s a personalized experience and a class. It begins at the class level with the teachers, supporting the teachers to understand how they can support the students to do this with them, with support from VEEP if they’re interested. It’s not just the curriculum, but it’s us actually getting in there, putting people in classrooms with side by side with teachers to help students understand how to make a difference.

We have this Youth Climate Leaders Academy. We started it two years ago. It was relatively small the first year, last year it grew at almost doubled this year it’s up to 100. We had to cap it at 120 students. There are so many students that are really wanting to make a difference. It’s heartening and I’m sad for them that we’ve done as much damage already as we have. How do we retreat from that and support students to feel empowered and feel like what they’re doing is making a difference. These are huge obstacles to overcome and the only way we’re going to do it is collaboratively with a lot of people working to make change happen.”

end mark

Now, Vermont’s unique — in a lot of ways — but in our education system, we have something called Act 77, legislation that provides students with more vigorous opportunities in personalized learning. With Act 77, students can explore flexible pathways to learning — basically they can identify things they’re passionate about and ask schools to support them in learning in real-world ways. And students can demonstrate proficiencies in learning, instead of the traditional grading scale. How does this relate to climate change?

Deanna: The personalized learning and proficiency go hand-in-hand. It’s really rethink of the way, the entire way that we do things in classrooms, putting so much agency into students’ hands and then taking the time to figure out how to help them get to a place where they achieve proficiency as opposed to achieve a grade from seat time. That’s a monumental shift for us, for us as educators. It’s a huge shift for students as well. There absolutely are ways that this: the whole strategy, the whole approach that we really boost at VEEP is about helping students be proficient in those transferable skills. We need to be able to think critically and be able to be socially responsible citizens. And that’s really what this is all about. It’s… having the skills to be able to take on a project that makes a difference in your community.

Now,  as much as we need VEEP, and flexible pathways and proficiencies? We. Need. #ClimateStrike.


June: My name is June, like the month and I’m 11 years old.

Emily: Why are you here June?

June: Well, my friends were here and I really love the environment. I love polar bears and I love winter… skiing, ski racing. I really want the environment to stay healthy.


Luke: Hi. My name is Luke. I’m 13 years old, 8th grade. Um… yeah.

Emily: Why are you here today?

Luke: I’m here today because I think that climate change is so important. We need to stop it and if we don’t stop it, then it’s going to be a disgusting world. It’s going to be hot. The ocean levels are rising. It’s anything that people can do, big, small donations, striking, literally, anything helps. Just that tiniest bit of help can do a lot.

Emily: So, what do your teachers think about you being here today?

Luke: Well, when I first heard about this and I asked my teacher if I could go, if I could go to this, he said, “Sure, just call your parents, have them give you permission” and I called my mom, and then, she tried to give permission to my teacher. And she asked him, “So what is *your* personal opinion on this?” To that, my teacher responded, “Well, we’re doing a civics unit right now, and it’s about kids and how they can take action in government and so, I think that this is the best thing that could be done.”



Veronica: My name is Veronica, I’m 13, and I’m in eighth grade.

Emily: And why are you here, Veronica?

Veronica: I’m here because every morning I wake up afraid. And so knowing that so many other people feel the same thing? It makes me hopeful, for the first time in a long time. And so seeing this and seeing the change it brings after? Is the best thing I could wish for.

Emily: So tell me a little about why are we here today?

Veronica: We are here today because the older generations have not been responsible. They have not been caring, they have not been conscientious. And so now that we have the mantle of change, we need to do the best we can with it!

Emily: So how does this connect to school? Does climate change show up at school? Does activism show up at school?

Veronica: I think not as much as I’d like. Certainly it’s being talked about. I think our schools have been stuck on too much things happening in the past? And so I’d certainly like to see more stuff about climate change being talked about, more things happening now.

Emily: And you’re here *with* your school today? Are you getting credit for being here? Do you think you’ll follow up on this?

Veronica: I’m sure we’ll do work to follow up, but this is totally optional. And so I came because I wanted to.

Emily: If you could design the curriculum, what would be most useful? What do you need to face the future that we’re facing?

Veronica: I think… certainly more skills about how we can create change? I think also to be responsible in a world we live in? And also how to decide… what is best for ourselves.

Emily: Do you feel supported by adults, looking around at the turnout today?

Veronica: I do! I think also… I… am incredibly lucky? My family and the adults that I’m surrounded by have been incredibly supportive about the decisions I’ve made, influenced by the climate? I think that… there’s always room for improvement? And I think there’s certainly room for improvement here, but I think that… I do feel very supported.

end mark

Later, I chatted with my own kids about their experience at the Climate Strike.  They’re still young — ages 6, 9, and 10 — and while I think they grasp that we’re facing some serious challenges they don’t yet fully understand the extent. And for that I’m grateful. But I also want them to know they have the opportunity to act, and to change the world — in school, or out.

Phoebe at Youth Climate Strike

Phoebe :  My name is Phoebe and I’m 6 years old. I’m in 1st grade.

Emily :  Phoebe, what did you do today?

Phoebe :  We went to the climate strike.

Emily :  Why did you do that?

Phoebe :  We didn’t want the planet to look bad. My cape said, “Global Game Changer.”

Emily :  What’s a global game changer?

Phoebe :  A global game changer is someone who changes the planet.

Emily :  Are you a global game changer?

Phoebe :  Yes. We’ve been trying to make the world a better place.

Emily :  Thank you for making the world a better place.

Phoebe :  You’re welcome.

Margaret at Youth Climate Strike

Margaret: I’m Margaret and I am in fourth grade

Emily: Okay. Margaret, why did you go to the climate strike today?

Margaret: I went to the climate strike because my parents forced me to, but I wanted to go to school. But also, to help save the earth. To help the earth, yeah.

Jack: My name is Jack. I’m in fifth grade and I’m 10.

Emily: All right. Why did you go to the climate strike today?

Jack at Youth Climate Strike

Jack: Because it was basically a demonstration for climate and I don’t like climate change because it’s not good.

Emily: What is climate change?

Jack: It’s CO 2 in the atmosphere that lets it get hot. Yeah. The heat gets in and then it doesn’t come back out.

Emily: Don’t put the chip in your mouth if you want to keep talking to me. All right? Why is striking for the climate important?

Jack: Because climate change is bad.


Stinkers. You’ll thank me for this field trip later!

Anyway. I want our children — mine, and yours too, all of our students — to know: we are trying. And I want them to remember painting banners and marching, and standing up for our neighbors near and far, standing up for our planet and all the other living things we share this place with.

I want them to know why we’re moving toward a more local diet. I want them to know why we’re shopping less and when we do it’s at thrift stores and the Farmer’s Market rather than online.

They should know that our actions matter.  That our actions speak our values. That we all live upstream and we all live downstream, and every choice makes a difference. And I want them to know that we have a responsibility to use our privilege to improve the quality of life for all.

Even if it means missing school. Even if it means being marked, ironically, “absent”.

I want you to know, educators, that if you’re considering bringing the climate crisis into your curriculum, help is out there.  Heck, get in touch with me, I’d love to help you!

But really, let’s just start talking more with kids about the real-world issues that are on their minds. They need us to be honest with them, and they need us to listen. And they need to be empowered to tackle the challenges of the future.

Deanna: The work that we do at VEEP is definitely the same mud that we’re all crawling around and trying to help students build those transferable skills and make them really excellent lifelong learners that seek out change, that want to make a difference in the world, that have the skills they need to make that difference. Helping them be proficient, all of those skills is very important. You can do it through climate and energy.

Reach out to VEEP because we offer support to individual students as well with deepening understanding of the issues and helping you think through what you personally can do about it. We’re not averse to just going directly with the students to support you to do that, so we have a strong desire to be doing that work.

We know school works best when students are engaged in and motivated by the learning. And at the Climate Strike, I heard nothing but engagement and motivation. Now it’s just up to us to find a way for school to simply keep up.

Emily: How does this connect to what you learn in school or what you do there?

Aiden : Well, school teachers kind of want us to be aware of what’s going on in the outside world and I think this is a great opportunity to show them that we can be activists and do things like this.

Emily: Is there anything you want teachers to know?

Aiden: I’ll make up the work later.





This has been an episode of The 21st Century Classroom, podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. Thank you to all the students who took time out of their protests to speak with me, especially Margaret, Jack and Phoebe. And a big thank you to Deanna Bailey, of the Vermont Energy Education Program. This episode was produced by me, Emily Hoyler. Series producer is Audrey Homan. Music for the podcast was provided by Meizong and Yeeflex, and Ben Vanderbosch. Used with permission.

Subscribe to us on iTunes or Google Play. If you like what you hear, leave us a review. And thank you for listening.

On the cutting Edge of student-centered education

What would you do if you were given the time and space to create a school where students could tell you exactly what and how they wanted to learn?

Where they arrived cheerful and excited with boundless energy for the school day…

And what if I told you it was grounded in the most powerful forms of pedagogy: personalization, proficiency based education and flexible pathways?

In 2008, myself and a few other educators at Essex Middle School decided to build a new kind of school.

Over a 10-year period, students in the Edge Academy at Essex Middle School built a working maple sugaring operation, put solar panels on the roof of their school, released mixtapes, built an industrial composter, and created a community garden for the town.

And I’m going to tell you how they did it. 

You’ll hear from former Edge students, families and other Vermont educators who experienced firsthand the transformative power of providing students with the support to choose their own pathways in learning — and what the difference is when students tackle the rest of their education, and beyond.

You go into this multi aged team thinking, oh man, the eighth graders, they might be mean, they might just not talk to us, and then they were just so inviting and it was such a nice environment to be in. It was just like I miss it. It was really, felt like a home.” 

First and foremost, we focused on building radically supportive relationships with and between students.

We wanted students to empower themselves. We wanted students to feel like they really could change the world, by making their own coursework and projects. And we wanted all of those things to have strong ties to the community. 

This is the collective story of The Edge Academy told by some of my former students and their families: Chloe Lemmel-Hay, Barb Lemmel, Mitch Hay, Rebecca Stone, her son Aaron, Wren House and Lily Davis.

And I don’t think this story could be told any other way. Because effective personalized learning isn’t one student sitting alone at a computer. It’s truly a collective experience, with everyone supporting one another: peer-to-peer, youth-to-adult, students-and-community. 

Everyone showed up to make The Edge work, so everyone shows up here in its story. 

First, let’s talk about relationships. The Edge was *all about* relationships.

Meet Chloe Lemmel-Hay, and her parents, Barb and Mitch.  

Chloe: My name is Chloe Lemmel-Hay and I was in The Edge from sixth grade to eighth grade and that was from 2009 to 2012, and I’m currently in my sophomore year at Harvard University.

Barb: I’m Barb Lemmel. I’m Chloe Lemmel-Hay’s mom and I was associated with The Edge during that time as well.

Mitchell: I’m Mitchell Hay. Chloe Lemmel-Hay’s dad.

The Lemmel-Hays were there from Day One. They were there on the first day of The Edge. They remained advocates not just for their own daughter, but for all the students, and for the very idea of The Edge. And we still keep in touch.

“I really appreciated the relationships with the teachers that I had at The Edge,” says Chloe, “because I was really, really close with you. And I was really close with a lot of the teaching aids and the staff. But I always felt so comfortable just coming into the staff room! And you never made me feel like I didn’t deserve to spend time with you outside of when we were in class, and ask you questions about things that we weren’t covering in class, and have lunch with you and just do all kinds of things and that was really, really valuable. The Edge gave kids who weren’t of a specific type of place to really flourish and feel valued and make relationships with other people, and that was really special.”

That’s an important piece.

There’s a lot of generalizations about Vermont as a homogeneous population of people, but as an educator, it’s apparent everyday how diverse our population of students is.

And it was imperative that The Edge was an equitable place. A place where everyone felt valued and welcomed. Even loved. It was about everyone being comfortable enough to try new things and speak up. 

Barb felt it too: “I loved feeling like Chloe was going to an educational program that I really believed in. I completely trusted the teacher team and I completely trusted the philosophy. I really believed in what you were trying to do; it totally made sense to me. I enjoyed the meetings with other parents, when we talk about kind of what our hopes and dreams were.”

She goes on to say, “The kids were a community; that’s the other thing I remember. It was how much connection there was between the students. They’re middle schoolers, right? So, sometimes it was more dramatic than others, but people really cared about each other and The Edge worked hard to nurture that.”

It’s really interesting, because in these interviews, everyone kept talking about “home” ,and “family” and “community”, and those just aren’t words you hear very often about middle school. 

 It was just great. You go into this multi aged team thinking, oh man, the eighth graders, they might be mean, they might just not talk to us, and then they were just so inviting and it was such a nice environment to be in. It was just like I miss it. It was really, felt like a home. 

This is Raquel.

“My name’s Raquel. I go to Essex Middle School, and I was on Edge the school year of 2016-2017, during my 7th grade year. It just opened me up to a whole new world of people and it was great. It’s like: what? This is like, a thing? I didn’t know! It was amazing.”

So, Raquel came to me when she was in 7th grade, and just like she said, it was effective but she wasn’t really engaged. But she had a fire within her, for sure. Outside of school, she was an activist. She was involved in all these kinds of change movements. But inside, I don’t think anybody knew that. She was just… compliant. Or bored. She spoke up a lot, but… it was just to point out what wasn’t working for her. 

During her 7th grade year, students chose issues they wanted to dive deep into, and we worked with a community artist to produce some slam poetry.

And all of a sudden, you heard Raquel’s voice.

That fire on the inside? Became an inferno when she released it. She knew who she was, and she wanted you to know now, too. Raquel was going to change the world. She had the opportunity to share her poetry at a statewide conference, as one of the keynote speakers. 

Raquel had a strong voice and a strong point-of-view before the Edge, but her relationships at the Edge, her strong relationships with both the adults and students there, helped her channel that voice into one that could change others. It became a voice of change. Instead of seeing her as disruptive, we saw that fire inside her as something to be valued, and something we wanted her to feel empowered to share.

Raquel is Latina, and she fell into the same trap so many students of color experience in our schools: she was seen as disruptive because she shared her voice and her opinions. But on The Edge, we wanted her to embrace her voice. We wanted her to stand with her community in feeling supported and valued for using it. 

Now, Rebecca Stone’s son Aaron was in The Edge for six years. Aaron came to us as a 3rd grader, with a set of unique abilities and talents. Erin needed freedom and support to become someone who could use that freedom effectively. 

What I miss most about it,” Rebecca says, “I guess I would say is just the kind of nurturing, and care and love that you guys showed. Yes, it was very much a family and a community, and the gatherings and the meals and the big project presentations, and all of those are things that you’re not necessarily going to get in a typical classroom environment. I think in terms of watching Aaron and knowing probably what he enjoyed most was that the year he actually got to spend building the maple sugar house, and doing the maple sugaring project was something completely different from anything he’d ever done. It introduced him to tools and you the science behind sugaring, and he really had a ball with that. It was great. Ever since then he’s more than happy to pick up a tool and help his dad on projects too.”

Yes, they built a sugar house. 

Edge students designed and built their own working maple sugar house, on school grounds. And that was only the beginning.

We used project-based learning in the most student-centered way.

Students took hands-on charge of their learning.

Students began by developing questions and concerns they had about themselves and the world. They compared notes with their peers and looked for common themes. They then turned those themes into a yearlong project.

Our requirement? Each project had to benefit the community in some way. 

Wren House is currently a senior at Essex High School, and was on the Edge  2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013. “Building the sugar house was a lot of fun which is probably why I do theater now because I had that skillset. I just rejuvenated those skills and applied them to theater. I remember one year I did this map thing, this giant map of like a sustainable city. Really enjoyed doing that and realizing that if I wanted it to I could present this to a board or a state representative and be like, here is the thing that we could do. I remember Chloe put up the solar panels at the school and got grants and stuff like that. Just seeing kids my age going out and getting things done was really satisfying, really cool.”

So, it wasn’t just a sugar house.

We measured and reduced car emissions in the turnaround out front, and put solar panels on the roof of the school. We created a community garden for the town of Essex, and fruits and veggies from that garden were eaten in the school cafeteria. And we wrote stories and plays, and wrote music — all of it focused on the collective good. 


For instance, every morning, there was this journalism elective. We started before the school day even began. And we learned the skills for being a journalist, and then the students looked for issues in their own community they wanted to investigate. I remember after Hurricane Irene, we traveled around the state interviewing Vermonters who’d experienced extreme flooding. 

I had a student who was interested in why so much waste was being thrown away behind the local supermarket. She did a whole investigative report on food waste, rescued apples from the supermarket, and made us a pie with them.

The investigative reporting our students were doing, it became well known, and our local newspaper, The Essex Reporter, wound up running a column of these student-authored investigative pieces. It became a big deal in our town.

Remember Chloe?

“What mostly comes to mind,” she says, “is being in journalism at 7:00 AM before everyone else got to school and putting together our paper. And I had my first byline with my ‘Who wants hamburgers?’ article about e-coli. I was so excited that I got published in the Essex Reporter! And that would have only happened at The Edge.”

Mitchell:  I enjoyed seeing how often Chloe would be going around with a spark in her eyes and light bulbs going off over her head, and so many projects having real world involvement and then real world repercussions. Like getting the solar array put on the roof of the school. You needed to write real letters to real people who’ve been making real things happen. Not including having Bernie Sanders come and do the Shindig with you all. That was–

Chloe:  People are very impressed that I’ve had lunch with Bernie Sanders for that.

Barb:  Do you remember when you did a week long lesson at the elementary school–?

Chloe:  Oh my God, I totally forgot about that.

Barb: It was first graders and you had to come up with the lesson plan, blah, blah, blah. I remember you came back after the first day. You said, ‘Nothing happened the way I planned.’ I was like, well, you were teaching and they’re first graders! But you regrouped and you figured out, okay, these kids don’t get–

Mitchell: How to translate.

Barb:  -anything I’m talking about, so how do I back up? That was an amazing experience for you.

Chloe:  Yeah, and I remember, because I was teaching environmental science curriculum to first graders — second graders. I went in the first day and I like, had my PowerPoint, I had my plan, I was in front of the Smartboard. I had like, my teacher outfit on. And I was so ready. And I was 12, but that’s fine. But I was trying to explain climate change to them, and I was trying to explain greenhouse gases, to these six year olds and they didn’t know what a greenhouse was. I kept trying to make it more and more and more basic, then I realized they didn’t know what a greenhouse was. So I was like, well this is clearly not going to work out. Then I came back. 

Barb continues: “My favorite group were, I called them The Dog Park Boys. I remember when they first said they wanted to start a dog park in Essex I was kind of like, we’re surrounded by trees, right? You want to do it, okay, whatever. They were like, because it’ll be really cool, and they were just sort of spacey about it, and I didn’t think that much about it. Then when I went back at the end of the year, they had put together. There was going to be a dog park in Essex junction and they had put it all together and the way they presented was so much more mature, so much more than just six months or nine months’ time. I saw that happen again and again and again and again.”

The Edge also taught me how to advocate for myself,” Chloe says, “in a way that a traditional middle school setting would not have done, especially against, not against, but advocate for myself to people of power in whatever institution I was in, and it gave me a strong sense of, well, if I just keep pushing, either it’ll happen or I’ll really figure out why it’s not going to happen. I think it gives me pretty strong convictions about the values that I want to live towards throughout my life, regardless of whether I’m in school or in a career. 

Finally, what was most powerful about Edge projects was the relationships they created with community partners.

Learning how to reach out through email, or even – *gasp!* – Make a Phone Call, were skills that were essential to their project work. And the response we received from the community was overwhelming! Edge students connected with farmers, artists, business owners, non-profits, town officials… The list became endless. 

Raquel’s community connection, for instance, was with University of Vermont Extension and 4-H. She contacted them about exploring food systems and hunger. They put her in touch with a program that helps students learn to facilitate trainings for younger students on food systems. And, well–

“Well, I was in a program called TRY,” Raquel recalls. “It stands for Teens Reaching Youth. It was all about teaching little kids, like fourth graders. I chose to teach them about the food systems. The main concept was how the food in their lunch box got there. How we can help make that food help the environment. And we had to schedule our own appointments and choose our own classrooms where we wanted to teach. We emailed back and forth with Miss Dorthman, who teaches over at Founders [Elementary School]. We settled on a meeting time, we met with her. Then she asked us questions about the program and what we were doing, and if we needed anything from her. We explained it all to her. 

Our first lesson was about… all about how the food in the lunch box got there.

It was *really* fun

I like the TRY program because the little kids really seem to enjoy it. There was this one time where we were over-lapping into their recess time. And we felt really bad because we don’t want to overlap into their recess time, but they were really happy about it. They were like, really excited.”

One of the other keynoters, Abby, spent her time at the Edge developing a program where she up-cycled bags from a local coffee company. Working with a local designer, Abby came up with a brand new pattern for the bags, sewed them herself, then sold them to raise money for COTS, the Committee on Temporary Shelter. They’re a Burlington-based non-profit organization serving housing-insecure Vermonters.

The base of the bag was a burlap sack,” Abby recalls, “and it was from Green Mountain Coffee they actually donated all of the bags for free and, then, the straps were like a green oilcloth and I used oilcloth because it’s super sturdy. At our annual Project Fair at the end of the year where everybody shares their projects and the parents come, and we had a booth and all the bags sold out and we made, I think about like 50 dollars, 60 dollars.”

I think it was good because I was new to the community,” she continues, “and so I got to go to a bunch of places and meet a lot of new people who were willing to help. I was seeing that people in your community are going to support you and help you because I met a lot of professional people and they helped me with my project and influenced this. 

So there you have it. That was The Edge.

We took three seemingly obvious methods — radically loving relationships with students, empowering students to take charge of their learning, and deeply involving the community in student learning — and meshed them together in a program that cultivated successful personalized learning in Vermont. These approaches were indistinguishable in action, because we saw and lived them every day at The Edge. They were, and I think still are, the heart of the work. 

Students have *really* important questions about themselves and the world around them. We’re humans. And this power dynamic of teacher and student needs to shift. Truly valuing what each person’s struggling with in their questions is fundamental not just to effective personalized learning, but to being in this world together.

My fondest memories,” says former student Lily Davis, “were probably some of the times lunch in the classroom or homework club after school, or the group projects. I feel like I really connected with some of the people and kind of wish I had that here still. If I hadn’t had that at that time I don’t know if I would have been at the place I am now. I like the close community that was built for the couple of years I was there.”

Personalized learning is really hard to get right. But when I listen to these students and their families talk about their time at The Edge… I think we did it. I think we got it absolutely right.

It’s hard for me to objectively sum up a full decade of this wild and beautiful teaching experience, so I asked our contributors to give me one word they feel sums up The Edge.

  • Wren House: Family.
  • Lily Davis: Probably… ‘outdoors’, because we spent so much time outside? Yeah.
  • Raquel: It was… ‘enlightening’, is the word I would use. It just opened me up to a whole new world of people, and it was just… great.
  • Chloe Lemmel-Hay: ‘Community’?
  • Barb Lemmel: ‘Grounded.’
  • Mitch Hay: This may be too close to ‘community’, but ‘relationships’.
  • Rebecca Stone: I guess my word would be ‘awesome’.

It was a gift, for me as a teacher, to have these relationships that transcend time.

I wasn’t just their 7th grade teacher. Making this has reminded me just how powerful this experience was for all of us. We were all in it together. And all these students and their families? They’ll always be a part of my journey.


This has been an episode of The 21st Century Classroom, podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. A huge thank you to the host and producer of this episode, Lindsey Halman, along with Chloe Lemmel-Hay, Barb Lemmel, Mitch Hay, Abby and Raquel, Rebecca Stone and her son Aaron, Wren House and Lily Davis.

If you’re reading this transcript, it’s important to note two things:

  1. We opened and closed the audio version of this episode with music from a live performance by Yasmine Nsame & Violet Corcoran, who longtime listeners of the podcast may recognize from this very early episode. We are truly thankful for their courage and kindness.
  2. And two, each morning we’d start our day at the Edge listening to Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory”; a fair-use snippet is included in the audio version of this story.

What students want you to know about school

The art of listening

The 21st Century Classroom podcastWe are big believers in including student voice in our storytelling. Usually we ask students to talk about a specific project or experience that we are featuring. But what if we left it open ended? We wanted to find out what students would talk about in a free-flowing conversation about what is meaningful for them about school. We learned a lot, and we hope you do too.


A full transcript appears below.

Rowan: School shootings: like that happened and it was just yesterday. I’ll come to school knowing that just happened, I’m not okay right now. If we talk about it in class, then when I go to sleep at night I’m not worrying about it anymore because I know that I can change that or that I can be part of the change.

Narrator: Today, on the 21st Century Classroom, we are going into listening mode. We want to feature student voice in a new way by asking students to talk about school. Our questions are open-ended and our agenda non-existent.

We bet that educators will be able to learn a lot by tuning in to a free-form of conversation among adolescents.

Our students today hail from Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, VT. 250 grade 5-8 students from Duxbury and the larger town of Waterbury attend the school. These two towns form a rural community that sits on the east slope of the Green Mountains right under the majestic Camel’s Hump, Vermont’s second tallest and most recognizable peak. Looking at the school from the scenic Route 100 highway, you see a modern looking structure surrounded by soccer fields with a forested hillside as a backdrop. A long driveway lined with maple trees leads to the school. You might also notice the chicken coop of the school’s signature sustainability program, colorfully decorated by a student-created mural.

Although the school sits geographically on its own – most everybody needs to drive or take a bus to get there –

Our students today talk mostly about how much they want their schoolwork to connect to the community and the real world.

Let’s meet them.

Shyannah: My name is Shyannah. I am an eighth grade.

Photo of girl

Damien: My name is Damien and I’m in seventh grade.

Photo of boy

Jordan: I am Jordan and I’m in eighth grade.

Photo of boy

Rowan: I’m Rowan and I’m in seventh grade.

Photo of girl


Narrator: So these four wonderful students were somewhat randomly selected by social studies teacher, Lori Morse, who is on Team Prodigy, one of two 7-8 grade teams in the school. As the discussion ensues, don’t worry about trying to track who is saying what, just roll with it as a group conversation. Try to tune in to what these students express when given an open opportunity to share.

The first question was simply: what is meaningful to you in school?

Jordan: Any opportunity to grow and learn in the area of kind of just outside world like sustainability and Ms. Morse does a really nice job with, you know, she actually changed the world as an opportunity to donate money to humane societies or maybe just make our community better.

Shyannah: Yes. I think sustainability helps us to notice what’s going on around the world that we’re not really aware of. I definitely think that it’s good that we have something like that and Ms. Morse just teaches a lot about like how it’s good to be a good person and to help in the little things that could change a person’s life.

Rowan: This Civil War project that was due recently, that whole thing, just even the little bits of the video, things that may have liked researched at home, all those little things. Even though they were like in the past you can still kind of– I don’t really know what the right word is but like, kind of like apply it to what’s kind of happening now and kind of like some things, not all things–

Damien: Yes, if we don’t know what happened in the past we don’t know what we’re going to do in the future like we’ll never learn from our mistakes. She kind of tells us– In the beginning she told us like this happened to get rid of slavery but racism is still real and stuff like that. Sexism, and a whole bunch of other things.

Narrator: What kind of connections did you make from the Civil War up to what’s going on now?

Shyannah: I noticed that even though the confederates were fighting for like slavery, it’d still be going but not all of them were bad. I’d like to think that they were all for it, they just lived there. Because I’m African-American, I hear a lot of racist things but I don’t let it ruin my life because African-Americans then were treated a lot worse than I am. I’d like to think that I had it better than they did.

Damien: I agree. I’m also African-American and although racism isn’t all the way gone, it’s nothing like it used to be. I hear some things that are nasty or bad, but African-Americans used to be treated much worse than we are now. So it’s kind of not really nice to think about but and I’m not sure I want to talk about it because it’s kind of a sensitive topic. Someone might not have the same opinion but I think the way he targets his audience is people who feel vulnerable or want something and he targets them by saying something they want to believe.

Rowan: They kind of feed it.

Damien: Yes, like he feeds them false information and they want to believe it so they do believe it’s true. If you heard something like I don’t know, like if you heard something you wanted to believe you want to believe it.

Rowan: Like a rumor that you like, I don’t know. I’m not sure if like is the right word but, yes.

Narrator: Does she just tell you these things because she has really strong opinions or how does it actually play out–

Shyannah: She does like to talk about if there’s school shootings she’ll make sure that we’re okay and that if we ever want to talk about it we can–

Rowan: It’s okay.

Shyannah: Yes, it’s open to talk about it.

Rowan: Because it’s something that’s happening now and it could be like somebody has changed the world. You can kind of openly talk about it in her classroom and kind of hear other people’s opinions, her opinion, what everybody has to say about it. Sometimes you may have like this giant weight on your shoulders because of it and after that you’re kind of just like, oh, good.

Narrator: That was interesting because I started up by saying what’s kind of the most meaningful stuff for you. I thought you’d maybe talk about something that’s really fun but you guys talked about sustainability and kind of some heavy stuff you’ve been looking at, social studies. Help me understand that.

Do you think students like to deal with serious stuff?

Damien: I don’t think we like enjoy it but it’s not like something I’m going to talk about all the bad things for fun but it’s like–

Rowan: Like a reality check.

Damien: Yes, it’s like reality check and when you talk about it it takes the weight off your shoulders.

Narrator: Help me understand that.

Shyannah: I think it’s helpful because if your parents don’t watch the news and there’s something that like bad happened–

Rowan: And we just hear it from around.

Shyannah: Yes, and we talk about it, I think that feels really helpful because I don’t like to watch the news because there’s a lot of politics and I don’t like to think about politics because I’m still too young to vote. I definitely think it’s helpful because if there’s a school shooting you’ll hear about it but it’s not totally clear. If you know someone from where it is, it’s definitely helpful so that you can check up on them and it’s scary to think that there are so many things wrong and that we’re not doing anything about it. I think that she should try to help us understand that.

Narrator: I’ve had conversations about these kinds of heavy things before where I came away feeling like overwhelmed. You guys said sometimes it makes you feel like it’s a weight off your shoulders. I don’t know if you’ve had both of those experiences or if you know what makes the difference for moving it towards kind of the more positive.

Rowan: Sometimes I come to school kind of knowing back to actually the school shootings and like that happened and it was just yesterday. I’ll come to school knowing that just happened, I’m not okay right now. If we talk about it in class, then when I go to sleep at night I’m not worrying about it anymore because I know that I can change that or that I can be part of the change and then sometimes it’s like even if there’s not a little bit of talk about it like how you can change it, sometimes I’ll just go to sleep feeling, oh my gosh, a lot.

Shyannah: I think it helps to talk about tough stuff. It feels like it takes a weight off the shoulders.

In sustainability class last year, we all wrote letters to ourselves. About what we wanted to do when we grow up and how we want to change the world. I said to be more sustainable and not use a lot of electricity because of what it’s doing to the Earth. Part of my letter was like I want my children to be able to drink water. To be able to see animals that are still around because they’re dying off because of what we’re doing to the earth. It’s a lot of pressure for us because we’re still young. But we can still do things about it. It does put a lot of pressure on us. But it kind of lifts like the weight off when we talk about it and when we actually do things.

Jordan: Adding on to what you said, also they’re educating us about this because they want us to pursue a job in the future that can help lead these global causes and help us keep animals, keep the giraffes and stuff in the places that are being destroyed. I think that is probably, I mean when you think about it and you watch the news and stuff, at first it’s not great but I think one leading to another,

You have to feel not great first to feel like the weight is lifted off your shoulders once you do something about it.

Narrator: Do you get a chance to do stuff about in school?

Shyannah: Yes, like change the world. You pick a topic and you can do anything. I’m doing something with animals. I earn money and give it to the homeless shelter. I also would want to go there and just see the animals. See how they’re treated because they might not be treated well. And if they don’t get a home they usually get put down, so…. I think that we should offer the teams to do change the world because we could do a lot. And like other schools too. We could change the world so fast if we had a lot more people involved.

Narrator: It’s a cool idea. That’s like my next question.

In your wildest dreams, what would school be if you could just like make it out from scratch?


Jordan: I think that math is great, science is great, language arts is great, and social studies is also really good. But, if I could add something it would probably be a class about global problems or something like that where each student pursues a problem and find something to do about it. I think that’s what partnership for the goals is when it comes down to the global goals. I think that they could definitely benefit from that.

Shyannah: I think that if we have like a class to teach us about… not really business but how we’re going to go into life not closed-minded, be like more open-minded.

Rowan: Knowing what we’re going into and kind of not that we’re closed off from the world right now but kind of being more that class when in my mind we would like open up and allow us to understand what we would be going into.

Narrator: What about beyond the subjects?

Do you have ideas about how school would be better like if the way teachers taught was different?

Damien: I think teachers do a pretty good job with this already but more hands-on learning like projects. I think it would be a lot better instead of writing on paper if we did some sort of project. Which I feel like in social studies, in science we do that a lot. 

Shyannah: I feel like if we– Sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off. I feel like if we did a lot more things off of electronics. And you did a lot more paper. Because all we’re doing is sitting on our phone book most of the day. It’s really not good for you.

Also, to add what classes we should have I think band and chorus is definitely helpful because since I’ve started band I’ve been getting a lot better grades.

Rowan: You have to learn fast. You have to keep up, you have to keep practicing, and you have to learn the pieces. You only have maybe one or two months to learn that a piece and you have to learn it well or, you know, we are kind of going to just be not blowing and just kind of figuring off.

Narrator: It’s really performance.

Damien: Right.

Shyannah: It makes us feel good when we’re all together and we’re all doing well even though that sometimes we’re not totally focused on what we’re doing in band. We’re all learning and we’re learning to work together with people even if we’re not friends.

Rowan: You kind of nail that piece eventually and you’re like, I just did that.

I can do that in all my classes and then you succeed in every one of your classes. It’s great.

Narrator: If I can see a theme, it sounds like a lot of the stuff you are saying is about connecting to the world. With sustainability and change the world, you’re all doing stuff on the road. You’re in a band, you’re actually performing for raw audience. Is that too big of a generalization to say that–

Shyannah: No. And I think chorus is also very good, too. Because this year I got a solo and it was like adrenaline. I was really proud of myself. I was able to stand up and sing in front of a bunch of people that I didn’t know.

Even though I was nervous, I was still proud of myself. It like pushes us to do stuff that we might not be comfortable with. It pushes us out of our comfort zone.

Rowan: It’s kind of, oh right. Miss Dubois, she does the musical. You do have to audition but this year it was Ms. Dubois and Ms. Morse and they’re really supportive. They’re like you did a great job. That’s really nice to hear but then there’s only two people. Then once you finally get on stage and start performing the night of the show … I was terrified this year because I never had a big role. It’s kind of like you’re performing in front of, I don’t know like–

Shyannah: Hundred?

Rowan: Maybe a hundred people that you don’t know over half of them. Once you do it, you’re kind of like–

Damien: It’s really cool to have out of school communities and I really had fun in school this year kind of having the music weirdly.

It was just nice knowing that if I’m like down, if I’m not doing well or something I can just think of it. If I could like get this role in musical and if I can do this then, yes. I don’t know, it’s just really nice.

Narrator: Wow, what a great conversation. The last comment in particular was so interesting. I later found out that this student had recently played the lead in the school play. He had worked hard to get the part, and then worked hard to make sure he did an awesome job. No wonder he plans to look back at that when he’s having a tough time. Basically he’s built that resilience. The resilience that comes with having been challenged, truly motivated to try, and then supported to succeed.

My big take-away from this conversation is that these kids are asking to be pushed out of their comfort zone.

They don’t want school to be a sheltered place – they want as much contact with the real world as possible. Students want to talk about tough things, like slavery, modern racism, climate change, and school shootings. They want to face authentic challenges, like making a positive impact on their community, or performing for an audience.

So let’s give it to them – the real world, warts and all, with opportunities to make it better. This conversation makes me confident that the young adolescents of today will rise to the challenge.

Thank you to the Crossett Brook Middle School Chorus for that wonderful rendition of the state song.

The 21st Century Classroom is the podcast of the The Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. This episode was produced by me, Life LeGeros. Huge thank you to Damien, Shyannah, Jordan, Rowan, and their teacher Lori Morse. Our theme music is “Sunset” by Meizong and Yeeflex, the Argofox release.

students from Crossett Brook Middle School


Good luck out there, educators, and whatever you do, keep listening to students.

All about service learning

with Katy Farber

The 21st Century Classroom podcastFrom real and relevant to what to do in the event of a mountain bike accident, the last predators in Middlesex, and the all-important question of who is responsible for the pizza at your exhibition of learning. That’s right: librarian Jeanie Phillips talks all about service learning with author and educator Katy Farber.

A full transcript appears below.





Jeanie Phillips: I’m Jeanie Philips, and welcome to the 21st Century Classroom. We’re here to talk books for educators, by educators, and with educators. Today, I’m here with Katy Farber.

We’ll be talking about the book Real and Relevant: A Guide for Service and Project-Based Learning.

Thanks for joining me Katy. Will you tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Katy Farber:  Hi, I’m excited to be here. I’m Katy Farber, I was a sixth-grade teacher for the past 17 years or so. Three years ago, I joined the Tarrant Institute as a professional development coordinator where I’ve had great opportunities to research, to write, to think, and to collaborate about how to make school engaging.

Jeanie: Great. I’m so glad you’re here to talk about this book. I really enjoyed it. I wish I had read it last year before I helped a team of teachers co-plan a service learning unit.


I’m just going to start with your definition of service learning. You laid it out really clearly in the book and I wondered if you could just tell us what you think service learning is.

Katy: Absolutely. I really liked the KIDS Consortium definition of service learning which has students discovering the assets first, I would add. But the needs of their own community and then doing research about those needs. Then coming up with an action plan of how they can improve a condition and make a real difference in their communities. Reflecting along the way and then sharing their process out at the end.

Jeanie: Could you talk more about what you mean by asset planning?

Katy: Yes. In fact, when I first started the service learning work many, many years ago, I used this resource and it guided me to discover the needs and problems in the community. But then a couple of years ago I started to think about — and learn about — an assets-based approach.

How can we go into communities as students or as teachers without really first looking at and learning from, the strengths in that community? And diving in, and getting to know people that live there? What makes the place they live special?

Only then I feel, can teachers and students really explore what are the needs and the problems.

Jeanie: That just makes me think about how you’re asking students and teachers to go into the community with the same lens we as educators use with students. That we’re not fixing them. We’re not saving them. That we’re really seeing where their strengths are? And helping them build skills where they have challenges.

Katy: Yes. I just went to AMLE in Florida and took teachers through an asset mapping process. It was very short, but you could replicate it in the classroom in a much more deliberate and intentional fashion. It seemed to set us up nicely to brainstorm about the assets of the community. Then brainstorm about the potential need.

Then look at the UN Global Goals. Try to prioritize needs based on those Goals, and then think of projects from there. Because then you’re grounding students in what is special and important in their communities and what they want to improve on.

Not solve but improve on.

Jeanie: Do you have an example of a school that’s done this kind of asset mapping that you could just briefly describe the process?

Katy: Yes. Thinking about Burke Town School, they have these amazing “Kingdom Trails”, these mountain bike trails — that’s the asset. This amazing outdoor opportunity that they have for residents and people that travel to this site to go mountain biking.

But people get injured out there. And they noticed a need for people in the surrounding area to have wilderness first responder skills. So they learned from a local professor that works in that field what they should know. What are the really important things to know if you come upon somebody that’s injured on the trail and how you can better help them. Then they went out and taught the community about that.

They used the asset. They found the problem that was existing within that and then developed a plan to make things safer in their community.


Jeanie: Wow, that’s such an authentic learning. It’s such an authentic problem, such an authentic learning. Also, a really authentic audience. I’m grateful for that. My son is a mountain biker and loves the Kingdom Trails, so I’m grateful to them for that.

We’ve talked about what service learning is. In your book, you also go through project-based learning, what it is.

You go through this process that I really appreciate of Venn diagraming the two, where they have overlaps and where they’re distinctly different.

Do you want to talk through that a little bit?

Katy: Yes. I think, as educators, we get really stuck on what box we’re operating in. I think, when you think about personalized pedagogies that it’s really great, fine and encouraging actually to dance between two, three, or four approaches as long as some of the commonalities exits.

Such as:

  • Are we creating something that is going to be beyond the audience of one, for the teacher?
  • Are we doing something that kids feel that they have voice choice, and creativity and that matters?

Those are some of the commonalities between them.

Project-based learning has a little bit more of structure in terms of entry events and the way that maybe things are labeled? Service learning seems more process oriented in terms of coming at and looking at: what are you going to improve and what are you going to do about it. But that is certainly not meant to be siloing, right?

The real difference that I can see with project-based learning and service learning is that project-based learning can be a simulation.

It can be this court case that you’re acting out. Or it can be a mock election. You can still have excitement relevance engagement.

But service learning is tied toward action in the community, right? And that action is not decided upon by the adults. That’s community service, right? That’s another misunderstanding I see a lot, is that community service is usually detached from the curriculum. It’s usually adult-decided.

The example I like to use to think about that is telling kids they are going to pull tires out of the river. The kids don’t even know that the tires in the river are a problem. They just go do the thing. It’s important. They make a difference, but they’re not seeing the connections for themselves and they’re not coming up with the plan themselves either.

Jeanie: What I hear you saying is that part of the authenticity of service learning is that kids identify the problem and the solution.

Katy: Yes. Yes. And that you can teach specific proficiencies or standards or transferable skills through that process.

Jeanie: I have real, genuine curiosity about this as I work with schools. Sometimes I hear teachers who want to do service learning describe community service. And they really want to use it to, let’s say, meet some science standards or do something around sustainability.

So they’re like,

“Well what I really hope that the kids will do is plant a school garden.”

I’ll say,

“Well you can narrow the scope so it’s science-focused for service learning.”

But, telling them what they’re going to accomplish at the end automatically makes it not service learning. Am I correct when I say that?

Katy: I think so. I think that you can have a real guided process with helping them discover the problem for themselves. And that I think is where the work is. Especially if you’re coming at it with something that you have a sense of what you’d like them to discover? And the approach you’d like them to take. Your process could be guiding them towards that.

One project that I did with the sixth graders was about the Worcester mountain watershed, and so that’s pretty specific. I had pretty specific things I wanted them to learn about the ecosystem there. We started with that focus and then asked them to brainstorm every question they could possibly think of about that ecosystem. It’s very wide, and then group them based on all sorts of different science concepts that emerged.

Then, they’re all learning from each other. They’re learning whatever it is in terms of erosion in our particular ecosystem. Or they’re learning about the riparian zone or they’re learning about a particular mammal.

It’s also that co-learning experience where I can cover a lot more in terms of proficiencies or standards that the students are also teaching each other. And pursuing something of their interest within a certain theme or subject area.

Jeanie: If you narrow the subject area, if your driving question focuses them in a specific subject area… it’s really the solutions that are up to them, then.

Katy: Yeah. It’s where are you finding the voice, choice and creativity. You have to think about is as, sometimes we have to apply specific constraints. And then look for the places where we can get the creativity and the choice. Then, that’s up to us to find that balance.

It’s going to be different class to class… year to year, project to project. It’s not like we can just do the same service learning project every year, right? Because the needs of the community are going to be different. The students that are coming to us are going to have different needs and different ideas.

And so it’s really… even with the same theme. Even if you did the same theme certain of your projects would turn out differently. If we’re tuning the choice and constraints and really thinking carefully about that.

Jeanie: So the constraints might be: we’re focusing on this watershed?

Katy: Yes, exactly.                

Jeanie: What I love about that is often students come up with way better ideas for the solution. Or for the push to improve a place than we would as adults. They’re way more imaginative in their thinking.

Katy: Absolutely.

Jeanie: Have you seen that in practice?

Katy:  I have. Just the ideas for projects that they come up with are so much wider in scope than I ever anticipate. It’s really exciting to see. Within one culminating event that we had at Rumney School there were all sorts of different things.

There was a play about the last predators in Middlesex. A play featuring the food web that I would never have anticipated from students — who I would never have anticipated would have done that. There was a field guide for the amphibians that was describing the marsh that was a resource. That was just off the playground that nobody even knew. They just didn’t even know that was a habitat.

So there’s just such a wide variety that emerge. And that really do add assets and make connections for students to where they live.

Jeanie: That also seems to get me. Get past this idea of strategic compliance where you’re complying with this project I want you to complete. To the work we really need kids to do in order to be good citizens in this world, which is imaginative, creative problem solving.

Katy: The other thing I think that really is an interesting point between service learning and project-based learning is that —  in my view — they both should be process-oriented and student learning oriented.

Versus a pretty little project that we’re excited to share at the end from the adult lens.

I think that we can get really caught up in what we think it should look like. And forget that it’s really their learning journey along the way that matters more than anything.

Jeanie: Absolutely. I love that. I feel like we’ve already gotten into this, but a question I had written down that I want some more answers here, that I want you to really think out loud about is, why service learning?

Why should schools invest the time in service learning?

I think you do a nice job of answering it in your book. Could you give us a few highlights?

Katy:  Well, what I’ve been reading and thinking about lately is: we know that students who are deeply engaged in meaningful work learn more. Achieve more. Come to school more often. Graduate on time more often, have better social skills and better feelings of interconnections between their peers and their teachers.

This is really an important work. I think that we can fall into those sort of content-covering traps. But really, what are we asking students to do? To learn how to become engaged citizens that can help improve the communities where they live in the future and currently. They’re such an undervalued resource in terms of compassion and knowledgeable, caring people who can really be co-creators of a strong community. If we don’t give them those opportunities, what are we saying? We’re saying that you’re not ready contribute. Then we’re just going to all of a sudden ask them to vote? And ask them to become members [of society] when we deem that they’re ready for that? I just feel like if we’re not preparing students for this kind of engagement, that that can really have a detrimental effect on our society, right?

Let’s not forget about all the skills that they’re going to be learning along the way and the social capital that they learned. What I mean by that is, we’ll see students who, maybe they’re really isolated. They don’t know what career paths could possibly be in front of them. And then they go ahead and maybe they’re part of — there’s an invasive species group in a school that I work in. They end up coordinating with all these different community groups. They see what adult pathways could look like for helping your community and having a job that pays your bills.

And they didn’t know that existed before. Then they met that person. They now have a relationship. They have the social capital. Whereas, if they were isolated and they didn’t have that before, they had no concept of it. We’re giving students all sorts of future pathways, career pathways, skills that they can use beyond school. And showing them that they matter in that landscape.

books about service learning: If we don’t give them those opportunities, what are we saying? We’re saying that you’re not ready contribute. Then we’re just going to all of a sudden ask them to vote and ask them to become members when we deem that they’re ready for that.


Jeanie:  It seems to me like it’s a really rich opportunity for the three pillars of Act 77. It’s a really flexible learning environment, where kids have lots of voice and choice. It may be outside of their regular school setting. It’s proficiency-based, right?

You have to use transferable skills in order to do service learning well. In order to do service learning well you have to be proficient at those skills, right? You have to be able to collaborate well or communicate well. Plus you have to be able to problem-solve. And to demonstrate that. To collect evidence of it, in order to do the service that you want to do. It feels really personalized. Like kids gets to choose their path.

It feels like the perfect tool for this moment.

Katy: I think it is. Just the basic skills of:

  • how to use the phone;
  • how to make a contact;
  • and how to write a professional letter.

These are things that kids have to practice and know how to do. And we have the responsibility within the service learning or project-based learning context to do the direct teaching and support to get them there. Think of the idea that, oh, they’re working on their projects, they’re independent. But really, it’s our time to get personal and close in with: what does a student need? And how can we help them get there? Within this project context.

Jeanie: It also feels like it pushes that lever that I’ve found to be really useful in motivating students, which is authenticity or relevance.

It’s something that matters to them in their community. It’s something that feels like they’re doing really authentic work.

This is not worksheet work.

Katy:  No. In fact, one of the things I think that illustrates that really well is, I had student who as a sixth grader really didn’t like coming to school and didn’t really find success or meaning in the regular academic context.

But when he was partnered with a second grade student at recess, helping that student play safely? And helping all of the primary kids be safe on the playground? Those relationships blossomed. Then when he would walk by them in the hallway, they would high-five him. They would hug him. And so he started to come to school more. Especially on the days when he was doing that work.

It was such a clear example to me of: this matters. He feels like he belongs here. I would like to see a world where every student feels like the school won’t function properly if they are not there.

Jeanie: Yeah. You’re bringing me back to my last two podcasts. The first podcast we did was on The Culture Code. We talked about it with Bill Rich. An important theme of that book is belonging. What you’re saying is that service learning really builds belonging for students. That they feel necessary to their communities. Their school community or their broader community.

Katy: That’s right. That they feel critically important and that they’re learning with and from each other. I think that was a really important finding and learning for me. We can reinforce existing stereotypes if we think “we’re doing this service for you”.

It’s not doing the service for you. It is: we are learning together. We are with and improving our communities. In fact, if it’s done in that reciprocal way, then service learning has the power to disrupt stereotypes and biases. The research supports this.

You have fourth graders that go out and have pre-existing ideas of what elderly people are like. And then you have them do a service learning experience with those same folks, elderly people, and they disrupt the biases that they had about them beforehand.

The same goes for pre-service teachers working in high poverty schools.

It’s really powerful in terms as a tool to disrupt what you notice as maybe a privilege or a bias or a stereotype.

books about service learning: "You have fourth graders that go out and have pre-existing ideas of what elderly people are like. And then you have them do a service learning experience with those same folks, elderly people, and they disrupt the biases that they had about them beforehand."


Jeanie: It seems to me it’s also an opportunity to disrupt adults’ views of what kids are like. This brings me to the other podcast. My second podcast with Jory Hearst where we talked about Piecing Me Together. In that book Jade is the main character. And what she wants more than anything, is to go on this community service trip to South America to use her Spanish. To have impact, to be able to give.

What she gets instead? Is a mentor. She feels like, wait, how come I only get to get? How come I’m not seen as somebody who can give? I feel like you’re touching on that theme too, that’s it’s empowering to know that we have something to offer. That we know we have something to give to our communities.

Katy: Absolutely, and what an undervalued resource, right? It also really does change the way the adults think about the kids. Because, here you have community partners that are coming in and their biases about teenagers. They come in with certain ideas that they have and those are disrupted by what are kids able to do and bring to the table.

We do really have all sorts of reciprocal benefits for all the community that get to engage with these kids. Then for the kids that get to see their communities in a new light and themselves as a change agent within it.

Could you talk a little bit more about community partners?

Could you maybe guide schools through how they might discover the community partners that could be their allies in this work?

Katy: One thing that was really important for me as a new teacher in a school was to figure out who my community gurus were. Who were the people that had that knowledge of what exists in the community? Who are the people that know the people that can connect me to that?

That was really important for me to discover who those folks were. That was through a whole bunch of parent connections and connections to the administrative assistant, and connections with the custodian. But really, who are your people that know what’s happening in the community and they know what experts you can reach-out to.

We would survey the parents. We would survey community members. And we would ask all sorts of questions about what are the areas that you’re interested in? What are the areas you could possibly come in to school and talk to kids about? Would you be interested in having them onto your site or where your organization is located, or would you be willing to come to the school?

There were all sorts of opportunities for that knowledge to grow. And it only increases, right? Once you start building that, people know that you want to know about that and that you start accumulating all the information about that particular community and what’s available outside the walls of the school.

Jeanie: It seems to me that in my experience in schools, a lot of that information is in one person’s head.

Just as a tech solution, where do you put all that?

Katy:  It’s a great question. It’s interesting to think about when I did this it was much more analog oriented and we were just starting to use those connectivity tools. I feel like now there’s so much more opportunity for connecting globally. And really unsiloing ourselves from all these really separated places.

But now I would think about things like a shared Padlet or Google Classroom. Or I would think about creating Google Sites or shared drives. Places where, if the person did leave, they could leave that legacy of what are the assets, what are the needs? Who are the partners that we can work with? It changes all the time. Who comes in, who’s willing to work with kids?

We did a community launch in Burke, where we partnered with 12 different organizations that came into one of the buildings there, the gym, and set up stations. Then the kids went around and interviewed them. That whole structure exists and all those partners contact information exists at Burke Town School for example. But then they’re changing their approach a little bit this year and reaching out in a different way. You’re right, it’s: how do we hold that institutional knowledge and how do we transfer it every year.

Jeanie: I’m going to switch tacks a little bit. One of the areas that I found both in project-based learning and in service learning when I work with schools that’s a challenge for people is reflection.

I wonder what Katy Farber’s, like in your back pocket, reflection strategies are with students as they’re doing this important work?

Katy: When I was researching service learning I kept coming across information and research that was supporting how reflection really is the learning in service learning and that it’s so easy as a teacher to just really focus on the doing. Everybody loves the doing. Students, teachers, it’s all very exciting.

We have to slow down, we have to think about what we’re doing, talk about what we’re doing and reflect about what we’re doing. It’s just critical to the success and the learning of in service learning and project-based learning.

I tend to be somebody who is excitable and rushes. I would need to really earmark the time in my teaching schedule for that reflection. It’s easy to get stuck in a pattern of “just journal about what you did today”. And that is great, that there is reflection happening. I think about ways to expand that. With great video tools right now like Flipgrid, with sketchnoting, with mind-mapping. With all sorts of other ways to get students thinking about what they’re learning.

Right now I have a reflection menu that I use and it lists a whole bunch of different ideas. Some very tech-oriented and some just pencil, paper-oriented. Just to guide kids. Then I would give them choice about how they are going to go ahead and reflect.

If they stay in one form of reflection, then I would encourage them to try another one, another avenue and really try to create a body of reflection at the end of the project that reflects all sorts of modalities so that they know that they’re also learning about how to do reflection as well.

About service learning: "Everybody loves the doing. Students, teachers, it’s all very exciting. We have to slow down, we have to think about what we’re doing, talk about what we’re doing and reflect about what we’re doing. It’s just critical to the success and the learning of in service learning and project-based learning."


Jeanie: Yes. I’m really fond of metaphors. One metaphor I found works really well with middle school students is to ask them,

“If the work we did today was a traffic sign, what would it be and why?”

I’ve gotten some really juicy answers out of that and really thoughtful responses.

Katy: That’s really neat. That’s also back to those constraints, right? It’s so broad to say, “What did you learn today?”  That might be a nice way to get a little bit more focused on different aspects that you want to really draw the kids’ attention to. Maybe you’re working on a specific transferable skill, so you say,

“How did I practice communication this week? What was hard? What am I going to try next week?“

It’s not only a tool of reflection, but it’s also a tool of planning and focusing for the next session.

Jeanie: Right. When we do collaborative work, sometimes… I’ve been working with teachers around using a collaborative pie.

  • How big was your slice of the work pie?
  • How big were your peers’ slice of the work pie?
  • Could you reflect on why that was and how the work went because of that?

Jeanie: Katy, in your book, you outlined some key findings from a case study you did on a specific service learning project.

Could you share some of those with us?

Katy: Absolutely. The quote that I’m just going to share with you that I think really encapsulate a lot of the work that was happening at this particular site is this one from Brené Brown.

“We move what we are learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands.”

The findings of this particular site, which was a middle school, and it was a sustainability course that the students were involved in. That students were doing throughout the course and they were engaged completely. They didn’t sit for more than maybe seven or eight minutes during class time. They were building their competency, their ability to actually do things, that often surprised themselves.

They’re constantly problem-solving. So if the fence broke to the chicken coop, or there was a leak, or there was any need, the teacher would not solve that problem for them, but would ask how they are going to solve the problem.

Students regularly showed caring to each other, but also to the chickens or for the tower garden or for whatever needed care.

They really showed that regularly.

They had a personal connection and a strong relationship with the teacher.

The learning environment had a joyful, fun spirit to it.  It’s often undervalued. A lot of our student environments are very stressful. But music was playing and it seemed like an accepting, safe place for learning and for exploration.

Students felt pride. They felt good about contributing to the sustainability of the school and the community. That their contributions mattered. That what they were doing had significant impacts. And there were very few behavioral problems in these classes that I observed.

Jeanie: I love that. One of your chapters is called “Doing Matters.” It reminded me of when I interviewed students from Leland and Gray after their service learning project. That one of the key things that many of them said was, “It was really nice to be doing something and not just sitting in a classroom.” For them that doing really did matter.


Katy:  It does. It has the ability to change their perception of learning. Because they only think of learning in this one way. They’ve been doing learning, doing school in a certain way. This can really change their perceptions of what they can do and how they can learn.                         

Jeanie: Right, love it. One of the things that I think teachers especially struggle with when we do project-based learning, but especially service learning is that rarely does it happen with just one kid working on something. It happens in teams or groups.

Working in collaborative teams is really challenging.

There’s a lot of learning that students and teachers have to do, to do that well.

Katy: Yes. I actually remember when I first learned about Tuckman’s team development model. It was after school and I’d been trying service learning and kind of feeling like it was a little unwieldy.

And I remember being taught through the KIDS Consortium training in service learning about the phases of teamwork. Or the phases that teams go through as they are trying to do important things. I remember the relief I felt when I learned that “storming” is a phase that teams go though, and it’s okay. It looks like power and control issues. It looks like difficulty communicating. And it looks like trying to figure out how we’re going to function as a team.

Adults go through that and students go through that. And, somehow that just normalized that for me and gave me the relief and understanding that I can help students move through that storming phase.

The phases that are in the book are:

  • when the group is forming;
  • when they’re storming;
  • again when they’re norming;
  • and then when they’re performing.

Certainly, this is not linear. Teams can move back and forth between all these phases. But something about teaching that to students and teachers, to learn that this okay, this is a different kind of learning. It won’t fit into a tidy, quiet box. It’s going to be a little bit challenging for everybody, but that just means that there’s more buy- in and that there’s more participation, hopefully.

Jeanie: I love this. Because what you’re saying to me is that in the life cycle of a team, there’s going to be trouble.

That that’s normal.

It reminds me both of being a mother, when my son was in early adolescence and would get a little surly. Instead of being annoyed with him, I’d be like,

“Oh, he’s completely in the right developmental stage! If he wasn’t doing this, it might be something to worry about.”

Or, when I work with middle school students, it’s to be accepted. Because it’s the natural developmental arc. You’re describing the developmental arc of teaming as sometimes there will be troubled waters. There are going to be periods where there’s a fight for power, or where kids are butting heads against each other. If we help them work through that, they are going to be more productive than if we shut that down before it even gets started.

Katy: What a powerful learning opportunity, too. One of the things that it’s just good to keep in mind as a teacher is,

“I’m not going to go fix it for you. How can this team be productive? And having that be a joined space of problem-solving?”

Jeanie: Right. I heard Courtney Martin say on a podcast one time, “I’ve become suspicious of efficiency.”

It makes me think that sometimes we’re so wrapped up in efficiency that we forget that some of our deepest learning happens in these inefficient, messy ways. Teamwork is one of those places That’s not always efficient, that’s a little bit messy, and yet we learn so much about ourselves and others and how to work together.

Katy:  It also reminds me of the book Duct Tape Parenting. I don’t know if you have read that one, but I have listened to the author speak before. She talks about waaaaaiting when you’re hearing your kids maybe argue with each other. Waaaaiting if they’re not actually punching each other. Can they solve this themselves? Because then they’ll have the skills to do that. As a teacher, I would have to count to myself. I would have to fight that urge to go rescue them from the wrangling. The wrangling was often right before they had a breakthrough.

Jeanie: Right. We rob our students of the opportunity to do that deep learning when we rescue them.


Any other words about teaming and working in collaborative teams?

Katy: Just that we have to use our best teacher moves. Sometimes that might be that kids have clear roles that are delineated, explained and modeled. That might be the learning that they need to increase their self-direction and their skills to be able to do this work. That might be what it is. You might be allowing more freedom as they get more experience with this. It doesn’t mean that we just,

“Go ahead in the group. You’re going to storm and you’ll figure it out.”

It might mean that we need to give them more clear parameters, if they need that. You’ll know from your students how you want to start that work. And then maybe move to more freedom as they gain skills to do that.

Jeanie: Right. What other teacher moves do you find most useful when you’re doing service learning work with students?

Katy: I think it is the best opportunity to engage students just-in-time with whatever they are working on. Meaning like I might not care about using commas appropriately, or any number of skills that I might not have — until I need it for my project that I care passionately about.

And so if I can align that just what you need, right when you’re asking for it and you need it? Then I’m in that sweet spot of teaching. I can use all my best direct instruction skills, modeling skills, scaffolding. All of those things right when the student is the most receptive for it.

Jeanie: I’m going to move on and ask you to unpack an example for us that I know you’ve been involved in. Last week I had the great pleasure to present with students and a teacher from Cabot, the Cabot School, at the Rowland Conference at the University of Vermont in Burlington. And we were presenting on student agency and engagement. These two students and a teacher from Cabot School were presenting about their work with Cabot Leads. I’d love for you to give us a little summary about Cabot Leads as a service learning project.

about service learning: Cabot Leads


Katy: Yes. Cabot is in this really interesting situation where they have a 7-12 building. Then they have the K-6 buildings, they’re separate buildings and they’re spread out over this campus. What was happening was that they want to view themselves as a middle school, as a 5-8. But since the buildings are separate, it’s really very difficult to build that belonging, that community, that sense of purpose.

We wanted to come up with something that would allow all students to engage in leadership and service and to feel critical to the running of the school in a meaningful way. I had done something like this in sixth grade at Rumney School where students had done jobs. These jobs were either identified by what the student was interested in or what they saw as a need in the school community. Or it was identified by the school community saying, “Hey, we have all these efforts going. It’s too much. We really need the support of the students here.“

Really, it’s this intersection of what does the school community need and what are the student’s interests?

I had done that at a classroom level and then we took it middle school-wide with Cabot Leads.

People from across that Cabot community identified needs within the community. Students did a set of interest inventories, discovered what they were passionate about helping with. Then they applied for different jobs key in helping the school function. Things like culinary assistant, public relations committee, library assistant, math tutor.

Things where they can go in and once a week usually — but sometimes more — help with functioning of the school toward positive outcomes. That’s a 5-8 program. What are we doing there? We’re building all sorts of cross-age relationships. We’re building all sorts of narratives of opportunity and career pathways. And then just so much belonging between that.

As they gain more skills, they can gain more independence with each new job. So they can reflect on the job they did last year and the job that they want to do in the upcoming year. They have to interview for the job. Then the mentors get together and they decide those different placements based on what students need, what they’re interested in and what would support the community.

Jeanie: Such real world skills, right? Not only do they have to interview, they have to apply.

They have to build a resumé and write a cover letter, am I right?

Katy: Yes. They do. Even just the learning of that procedure. Think about that. Why do we wait until kids are in college to engage in that, or post-secondary, anything? Why do we wait to have those kind of conversations? Shouldn’t we get to know what are your strength now? What do you want to learn? What do you want to do?

And I just did interviews of kids last week for this job. You could just see, they did a virtual interview with me. So not only they’re gaining the skills on doing a virtual interview and connecting to what are my strengths? What can I bring to this position? How might I impact the community? These are deep questions that kids are asking in middle school in Cabot.

Jeanie: I heard from one of the students that there’s a new job this year. That got me really excited. Do you want to talk about that new job that they were offering this year?

Katy: Are you talking about the adviser to the principal?

Jeanie: Yes.

Katy: Yes, that was so exciting! That is just wonderful. Glenda Cresto, the principal there — I’m not exactly sure how this job was born. I’d love to trace that back to its origin, but I just loved that the student can partner with the principal in all the school improvement efforts. That’s just a really exciting development.

Jeanie: Has that job been filled?

Katy: It has been applied for.

Jeanie: Excellent.

Katy: Yes. There are several different new positions there this year.

Let’s see, there’s the concession stand assistant who helps run that space, and so that’s to support the community and to raise money for the school. There’s all sorts of applied math that they can come from that. That’s just really exciting too.

Jeanie: Yeah. I love that program. I love talking to the students and hearing about their growth. And I love the way they celebrate their learning with a gallery at the end.

Katy: Actually, I’m really glad you said that, because that’s the thing I did forget to say. Is that there is a Cabot Leads culminating event sharing. Which was so neat. I attended last year. The students from the culinary committee and assistants, they were making pizza in the pizza oven outside to feed everybody that was coming to take in all of the exhibits that were on display.


Jeanie:  I love it. Let’s talk a little bit about the books that really informed your learning around service learning and that you might suggest other educators read or revisit as they’re doing this important work.

Katy:  It’s a really interesting cross-section. Right, place based learning, service learning and project-based learning. I think it’s fine to dance between those and to really get to know how you want to incorporate some of those similarities between those approaches.

KIDS Consortium has a website and several books that I really do like, as does the Buck Institute, Setting the Standard for Project-Based Learning. That’s a really incredible guide filled with research and resources on project-based learning. I feel like those two are really solid grounding in both pedagogies. I think I would start there.

Jeanie: Here is my own special interest: when I was reading your book, I was thinking where does this show up in young adult, middle grades or children’s literature?

The example that came to me of kids solving a problem, an authentic problem that they had was, Harry Potter. Specifically, I think the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where the fourth or fifth year to road, they have a completely crummy Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Now, it’s Dolores Umbridge and she has them learning about the dark arts by doing worksheets essentially, and so they formed Dumbledore’s army. Their way of solving a problem, they have to be prepared for what’s coming, and so, they practiced together.

But I had a hard time really thinking of service learning in action in books. I’m wondering what sparks service learning for you?

Katy:  I come at the work from an environmental lens. A lot of my entry into service learning was around environmental issues that I would learn about. And then bring forth to students. We had sustainability standards in one year. I focused very locally one year for a service learning project and then try to be more global the following year.

One year I just spread out a tarp in the classroom, I just took the trash and I just dumped it out in the middle of the classroom. And it smelled! There was lots of draaaaama. But we discovered some really basic things. Like kids were getting bagels for snack time and they were throwing their foil into the trash. There was a ton of foil in there.

That was a problem we wouldn’t have really known if we wouldn’t have been reading nonfiction about environmental issues and problems and really thinking about that. Like Hoot — any Carl Hiaasen book. Or The Long Walk to Water. You think about that book that is just coming back to where different people have to spend hours and hours to find access to their water.

  • What are the issues that you’re seeing in your literacy program?
  • What are the things that make your kids feel very excited and that feels like it has possibility in local, or even global connections?

I’m trying to remember the book that we were reading when students understood for the first time that girls across the globe did not have access to education. This was a startling realization for them. We were on a hike up Mount Hunger on a field trip. They were like, “Miss Farber, can we do something about this?” Yes, we can.

Jeanie: Yes, we can.

Katy:  We ended up crowdsourcing all sorts of books from the parents and then having a large book sale. We ended up sending the money from that to the Malala Fund. There were all sorts of promotion of literacy skills and then the raising of funds. That came from interest. That came from learning about world events. How are we teaching kids about world events? Usually, through books. Usually through current events and literature.

Jeanie: Yes. A great book about girl’s uneven access to education would be the new middle grades read, Amal Unbound, which I just adored. Which I think could really connect well with service learning and with UN global goals.

Jeanie: Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman is another fantastic read about the power of a community working together. I can see that really scaffolding some service learning with students. Or being a great read aloud for ongoing as you’re doing a service learning project learning project with students.

Katy: Any book that students identify with an injustice or a wrong. It can be about a societal condition. It can be about something in the environment. Maybe, even a story that hasn’t been told.

It’s just that how can we top into their interest and really integrate what we’re doing across subject areas and allow them to explore a project based on their own interest. This can come out. During the read aloud time maybe even having a chart up where students are recording different thoughts and different ideas for how they can apply that to their local context in projects that they might want to do based on that.

Jeanie:  You’re reminding me that outrage is a powerful motivator and any books that outrages. For kids, that’s really about any book with injustice, because they’re so focused on fairness and equity at that age. They’re really concerned when they see an injustice.

Katy: They really are. In fact, I do a writing workshop, it’s called Writing for Change. We’ll make our bother list.

  • What are your bothers?
  • What are the things that bother you? The plastic in the oceans bothers me. Racism and sexism that’s playing out in our news cycle bothers me.
  • What are the things that bother you?
  • Then what are we going to do about them?

Jeanie: I love that approach. It occurs to me that a school librarian can be a great friend in finding picture books, well middle grades readers or young adult books that connect with an issue that might help with that spark as well.

Katy: Exactly, because once you have the bother, you have somebody who cares. Then they want to go read about and learn about the topic. Then think about what they can do about it, because they can’t just jump to action without having the facts.

Jeanie: Right. Love this. I feel so motivated. I want to go and work with some kids on service learning right now. Katy, I want to thank you so much for taking time to talk to me.

I also want to give a shout-out to the beautiful Waterbury Public Library which hosted us as we had this conversation today. It’s a gorgeous place, folks.

Check out Katy’s book Real and Relevant, A Guide for Service and Project-Based Learning in your library or find it at your local independent book seller. Let us know if you do some service learning work. We’d love to hear about it.

Katy:  Yes, we absolutely would. I want to thank you for being a champion of books everywhere. For me personally and for students across Vermont.

Jeanie:  Thanks Katy.

Katy: Thanks for having me.



This has been an episode of The 21st Century Classroom, podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. Thank you to service learning and salamander-handling guru Katy Farber for appearing on this episode.

Randolph students turn digital audio producers with PBL

Flexible pathways in digital music

The 21st Century Classroom podcastWe had a chance to hear from student digital audio producers at Randolph Union High School, in Randolph VT.

They, along with innovative educator Raymond Cole, shared what makes this project-based learning class such a hit.


A full transcript follows below.

In this episode of The 21st Century Classroom, in tiny Randolph VT, students are turning digital audio producers, complete with a CD release party and plays on local radio.

And they’re doing it in school.

Bailey: Right now, I’m currently working on a more trance piece. If you know DeadMau5, he’s a trance deejay and he makes kind of trance-y song. It makes you, like, get upbeat but it’s kind of like you’re lost in the world. That’s what I’m working on right now. And it’s very… It has live synths and pads, which is all very airy.

Randolph Union High School has begun offering a digital music class that uses a technique known as project-based learning to support students in learning about music, technology.

And more importantly, how they best learn in a classroom setting.

Emma: Well, usually, we come together in the beginning of class and do something together. Maybe we’ll analyze a piece of music, share some of our music, talk about tempo, chord progressions. Then, we branch off a d either work in collaboration with each other or alone. And that’s the time when you really start to need to be… Like your mind goes into its creative space.

I think something I really struggle with sometimes is that writer’s block sort of thing. I think if anybody, or any other student’s experience that while writing music, it’s a really real thing. And it’s hard to overcome and it can feel really frustrating. But if you have somebody to collaborate with and say,

“Hey, come on, will you listen to my piece?”

It can be really helpful to gather other people’s input and really help move along the creative process.

Raymond Cole is teaching Randolph’s digital music course as part of the school’s focus on project-based learning. Project-based learning is a type of personalized learning that fuses student passions with concrete actions in the world.

Students begin each project-based learning cycle by focusing on an idea they want to bring to life in the world, creating meaningful change.

Raymond Cole: My name is Raymond Cole. I am the music teacher here at RUHS, Randolph Union High school. I teach grade seven through 12. I teach jazz band, concert band, choir, digital music, and then a seventh grade general music class here at the school. I have done music technology in the past at other schools that I have taught at, and it’s been a really big part of my musical growth since I started doing music. I thought it was really really cool being able to teach a project based learning class at PBL. I usually teach most of my classes through projects anyways, so it kind of really fit really, really well.

At the beginning of this year I went to a weeklong professional development session on PBLs and project-based learning classes, and learned how to teach a project based learning class, and ended up coming up with this idea, then working backwards from it. And it ended up working out really well.

Cole has found that project-based learning’s focus on creating, making and doing has changed how he approaches his role in the classroom.

But not the content.

Raymond Cole: I’m really more of a facilitator in this class than a teacher. Very rarely do I spend a lot of time in front of the students lecturing or giving out information that way. I usually build projects that allow them to figure out the information for themselves. I ended up having our big end-of-the-year exhibition project planned out, where we were going to create a CD and then broadcast it on a radio station and worked backwards from there.

We started out the year basically saying,

“Okay, this is where we need to be. What do we already know that will help us reach our goal, and what do we need to know in order to reach our goal?”

I already had an idea of what we did, but I wanted the students to be able to kind of figure that out for themselves, and then from there I structured projects that allowed them to gain this knowledge through doing the project. We started out on some more basic softwares, and working with loops, and already premade music, and they had to piece together.

That way I was able to teach the structures of music through a non-traditional sense instead of just saying, “This is form and this is how it sounds.” I have them say, “Okay this is form” and build a song using these pre-made loops to emulate that form. It’s all learning through doing versus learning through absorbing.

A key component of project-based learning requires that students undertake projects that are both personally meaningful and authentically connected to the world around them in some way.

For these students, focusing on their tracks included anticipating releasing them as a digital mixtape, complete with a potential CD release and outreach to local radio stations.

Willam: With this, we have to email and talk to people, call and get communicating with the radio station. It’s been a lot easier to know how to set stuff up. Like groups, parties, releases and stuff like that.We had Adam, one of the students, email the radio station, collaborate with them. Like:

“When do you want it to happen? When is a good time? What’s going to happen? How do you want us to set it up? What do you need?”

Just stuff like that.

Emma: I hope to be able to share something that I feel really proud of and say, “Yeah, I wrote this.” And be a little surprised at where I’ve come. I hope to take away a lot more music theory knowledge of more tempo and stuff like that, and harmony, and just music theory that I could take away to use in the traditional music world.

Meet Emma. She plays multiple traditional musical instruments, and this class is her first foray into digital music.

But she’s already noticed a change in how she approaches both disciplines, and creative effort in general.

Emma: Okay. My name is Emma. I’m in 10th grade and I go to Randolph Union High School.

I had been playing several instruments since I was younger. I mostly played the flute, but I do play a little bit of piano and guitar here and there, and music is just something that really interests me, and I happened to have this period free. Digital music is something I had never really tried out so I figured, “Why not take a chance?” It ended up being something I like. I’m really glad I decided to do it.

Usually, we come together in the beginning of class and do something together. Maybe we’ll analyze a piece of music, share some of our music, talk about tempo, chord progressions. Then, we branch off in either work in collaboration with each other or alone. And that’s the time when you really start to need to be… Like your mind goes into its creative space.

I think something I really struggle with sometimes is that writer’s block sort of thing. I think if anybody, or any other student’s experience that while writing music, it’s a really real thing, and it’s hard to overcome and it can feel really frustrating. But if you have somebody to collaborate with and say, “Hey, come on, will you listen to my piece?” It can be really helpful to gather other people’s input and really help move along the creative process.

When I first started the class, it was a little hard to share my music because music can be a really vulnerable thing. I think I’ve grown though since then like, become more proud of the pieces I’m making; I don’t think that any of the challenges are bad though.

I think that’s helped translate into like other classes or just life in general, like being more proud of what I’m doing and taking pride in the creative process. Yeah.

Bailey: After you make something, and you like it, and you hear it, and you hear it… And if you show someone else and they like it, then that’s probably the most satisfying. As long as you like it. Then when you hear someone else confirm that your feeling is right. Then that’s probably the most satisfying part.

Project-based learning provides a space for different levels of learners to take enjoyment from the shared, collective experience of building. In project-based learning, when you have a shared purpose, it creates something greater than the sum of its parts.

Randolph senior Max came to the class with a very different set of musical experiences, and has taken a different pathway through it.

Max: Yeah, I started producing music on my own when I was in 8th grade and I learned a couple of different types of software. I mostly taught myself how to do it all. I started releasing music on SoundCloud under my name and released an E.P. when I was in 10th grade. I’ve learned all the technology mostly on my own and over the course of it, I got a really solid understanding of using multiple kinds of software.

So I signed up for this PBL digital music class because I’m actually someone who’s been a music producer for a long time, and it’s always been a passion of mine. But it’s never been something that’s been taught at school. I haven’t really seen very other people getting into it. So, I signed up for this class to kind of be a resource, to help others learn and to have fun with people who are into something that I’m really into.

It’s been really good for me in this course to be able to help other people through every step of the process because we have people at every different skill level come into this class.

Yeah, this class isn’t so much about my own goals. I think I’m mostly in this class to really teach others what I know. I think it’s really important to have classes like this, and have this stuff being taught in schools because it enables people to express themselves musically and actually have a platform for that and not just have ideas but not be able to pursue them. I think that’s kind of why I’m in here, is to really make people want to take it seriously and inspire people.


And for teacher Raymond Cole, all of these outcomes are a success for the class.

And for project-based learning at Randolph.

Raymond Cole: Well, with music it’s all very subjective. Success means a lot of different things. We actually had a discussion about what success was towards the beginning of the year. Because some people might think success would be being able to write their own song without any help and all that kind of stuff. Whereas some people would find success in being able to even understand what they are doing.

It really depends on the student, and I think what we ended up coming up with was success meant reaching the goal they had set for themselves before they started the project.

Being able to write the song that they wanted to write or convey the message they wanted to convey whether it’s through loops or through stuff that they wrote and it’s on varying levels too, which I thought was really cool because each student could kind of have their own measure of success as they went.

I basically tried to sculpt the beginning of the year in a way that everybody could be successful, and that everybody can learn what they needed to in order to progress. Which was really cool because that way I could kind of take my time being a new teacher here at Randolph. I could tell them, okay, this is what we are doing today. And then watch them figure it out on their own versus me having to stand in front of them. Then test to see whether or not they’ve figured out what they are supposed to figure out.

Bailey is an 8th grader at Randolph and when he joined the class, had no prior musical experience.

But he’s already gotten deeply into the production side of things.

Bailey: Right now, I’m currently working on a more trance piece. If you know DeadMau5, he’s a trance deejay and he makes kind of trance-y song… it makes you like get upbeat but it’s kind of like you’re lost in the world. That’s what I’m working on right now. It has live synths and pads, which is all very airy. We’re using popular song form right now — which is intro, verse, chorus — but pretty much what I’m doing right now is I’m adding in the beginning a very mystic feel. Then it’s going to have a lead up, a drop, and it’s just going to hopefully blow your mind.

Obviously, I hope when we release it to the radio station people are like,

“Oh, this is fire!”

And want it. But I guess it’s all up in the air, it depends what people want. If they like it, I guess we’ll go from there.

That’s a key component of project-based learning — and really any transformative learning experience.

Students have the choice of what they learn, how they learn, and why it means something.

Bailey: Hopefully, after this year, I’m hopefully going to be coming back to this PBL, and so hopefully by then I will have a track that I am very proud of. I’m still working on my main track right now, but at a year’s time I hope I have at least a small collection of tracks that I’m really proud of.


This has been an episode of The 21st Century Classroom, podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education, at the University of Vermont. Huge, unending thanks to Raymond Cole, Elijah Hawkes, and all the students in Randolph Union High School’s digital music class for their generosity and their patience. The episode was produced by Audrey Homan and Life LeGeros.

It has been a true pleasure to listen to these students and their work, and if you want to hear more of their tracks, head over to and look up “The Galloping Circus”. It’s the name under which Randolph’s students released their first collaborative album, “The First Act”. Give it a listen.


Piecing Me Together, with Jory Hearst

Also featuring: The Green Mountain Book Awards!

Legendary Librarian Jeanie Phillips is back on the podcast talking about what else but books! Not just any books, but how books can help educators unpack some of their privileges and connect with students. Joining her this time around is Jory Hearst, Vermont educator and six-time Green Mountain Book Awards committee member. They’re discussing Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together, and what they learned from it about identity, racial microaggressions and teaching around deficit theory.

A full transcript follows.


Jeanie Phillips: Today I’m here with Jory Hearst and we’ll be talking about Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson. Thanks for joining me, Jory. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Librarian Jeanie Phillips, left, hosts Jory Harris (r) as they discuss Rene Watson's book "Piecing Me Together".
Librarian Jeanie Phillips, left, hosts Jory Hearst (r) as they discuss Rene Watson’s book “Piecing Me Together”.


Jory Hearst: Well, thanks so much for having me, Jeanie. I’m thrilled to be here. I love talking about books, especially young-adult books. I am an educator and an avid reader. I’m not sure which should come first in order. I have taught middle and high school, both in Southern Vermont and up here in Burlington. In English and History. I’ve also been a bookseller for many years of my life. I also currently serve on the Vermont Green Mountain Book Award (GMBA) Committee, which is our teen pleasure reading award list that the state comes out with every year. This is my sixth year serving on that committee. So I spend a lot of my time reading young-adult fiction.

Jeanie: Let’s start with Piecing Me Together. Could you give me just a brief summary?

No spoilers, a little bit about our main character, our setting and the big themes of this book?

Jory: Yeah, I would love to. Piecing Me Together was on our GMBA list last year, and it’s a book I loved and I’m so glad to see on this list. This is about from 2017, and the main character is a high school girl name Jade Butler. She lives in North Portland. She has a full scholarship to a private, sort of hoity-toity private school called Saint Francis, that she has a very long bus ride from North Portland to her school. Every day. It’s a school where not having much money is less likely than being a person of color.

And for Jade, she is both of those things.

Her mom is desperate for her to make close friends at the school but for her, she is just want to kind of keep her head down and plough through. And she talks a lot about sort of knowing she has to take advantage of the “opportunities” that this school has to offer.

Jade is a lovely, lovely character for many reasons. She is an artist and she makes these beautiful collages from scraps of other people’s trash, and we’ll talk about that hopefully little more today. As this book begins, a main point in the story is that Jade’s guidance counselor, Mrs. Parker, sets her up with a mentor. In this woman-to-woman — sort of Black woman to Black woman mentoring program. Jade, when she gets called in to the guidance office, thinks she’s about to get the scholarship for the study abroad program and she’s thrilled. But she finds out instead that she’s been chosen to be a mentee. She just feels like another thing where somebody is coming to help me. Like, “Do I really need all this help?”

That’s sort of where the book begins, and it’s sort of follows her trying to figure out who she is and how to feel more whole in her life as she is sort of collaging her own life together.

 Jeanie: That’s a great summary. Thank you for consolidating that so nicely. I think one of the reasons I loved this book so much is that, as a white woman in the world, a book like this gives me the opportunity to step into the shoes of somebody having a very different experience from my own. From the beginning of the second chapter — if you turn to page two — Jade is learning Spanish. Really loves language. I love that she uses these Spanish words at the start.

Tener éxito

Piecing Me Together, by Renée Watson

Jory: The top of chapter two says in Spanish: tener éxito. Which means to succeed. The chapter begins with,

When I learn the Spanish word for succeed, I thought it was kind of ironic that the word exit is embedded in it. Like the universe was telling me that in order for me to make something of this life, I’d have to leave home, my neighborhood and my friends.

Jeanie: Yeah, that exactly sums up Jade’s world’s view. That she has to leave the things that are familiar in order to make a success of herself. And her mom’s dream for her really is to do just that.

Jory: And makes me think about something we both loved about this book. Not only is Jade a really thoughtful, insightful character that gives, I think, both of us windows into other worlds, but the writer Renée Watson is a beautiful writer. And it makes me think of another passage where Jade talks about feeling stuck in the middle.

In this passage she’s talking with a friend and feeling stuck between these two worlds. Kind of like she does not really quite fit anywhere. And her friend is saying,

“It’s weird, huh? …Being stuck in the middle. Like, sometimes I hold back at school, you know? Like I don’t ever join in on those what-are-you-doing-this-weekend? conversations, because I know nothing I will say can compare to the weekend excursions those girls of Saint Francis go on,” Sam says. “But I also don’t talk much about what I do at school with my family or with my friends who don’t go to St. Francis. …God, Jade, I don’t know how you’ve done this for two years.”

Jade responds, ”I don’t either, but now that I have you, maybe these next two years won’t be so bad.”

This is the beginning of her friendship with another girl in her school who is also busing in from far away and on scholarship. She happens to be a white student, but they have a really interesting friendship about, sort of, they’re like the two kids who get that, like, this is this world of incredible privilege and no one else there seems to see that except for them. They’re in-between places.

Jeanie: I know a lot of students and adults in Vermont are reading The Hate U Give right now, and that really reminds me of Starr’s predicament.

She code switches between her private school and speaks one way about certain things there, and then goes home to her neighborhood and speaks a completely different way and about different things there. Jade is in — it’s not exactly the same but there’s a lot of commonality with Starr.

Jory: And while we’re on the topic of other books, this connects to another one that, I think, is really apt is Dear Martin, by Nic Stone, which is another book of the 90s. It’s a male protagonist, who writes letters to Martin Luther King, but he is also a Black student at a pretentious — pretentious and prestigious university — and he is constantly trying to navigate where he fits. And what it feels like most of the time is that he doesn’t really fit anywhere.

 I think a lot about for us in Vermont, there are increasingly more and more students for whom that experience is so true in our schools.

And I think this book can just be really helpful to remind, especially for you and I as educators, as white educators in the state, how many of our students — for race reasons or may be just because of [economic] class — are straddling multiple worlds. How difficult that is for them.

Jeanie: That makes me think of another place in which, I think, students can find some affinity with Jade. Which is that her parents are not together. Her mother had her at 16, and her parents did not stay together. There is a quote on page 11, that I really love, that captures that so beautifully:

“I think about this as I ride to school. How I am someone’s answered prayer but also someone’s deferred dream.”

Jade’s really talking about there is that her mother has put all of her hopes into Jade and Jade’s success. Because she cancelled her own plans to go to school because she got pregnant at 16. Her father on the other hand, feels like he is living his best self because of his daughter. Because of her, he feels like he’s become a better person than he would be. There’s this contradiction for her with her parents. I feel like she carries a lot. And I have seen a lot of my students, that I teach, carry a lot from the expectations or the lived realities — the lived experiences of their parents.

Jory: One of the other really beautiful things I think about this book is the way Jade is able to talk about herself not always feeling whole.

That is for due to lots of reasons. Partially as a female and especially as a Black female in the world she lives in. She has this explanation of it that I love, when she talks about the space as she feels whole and then the places that shatter her.

She says,

Listening to these mentors, I feel like I can prove the negative stereotypes about girls like me wrong. That I can and will do more, be more. But when I leave? It happens again. The shattering. And this makes me wonder if a black girl’s life is only about being stitched together and coming undone, being stitched together and coming undone. I wonder if there’s ever a way for a girl like me to feel whole. Wonder if any of these women can answer that.

Jeanie: That is such a beautiful passage. It really, Renée Watson’s beautiful prose really shines through there. And the beautiful image as it pulls us back to the title: Piecing Me Together. It pulls us to collage art that Jade has such expertise in, and then just that central conflict of how to hold yourself whole in a world that doesn’t see you as a whole. That sees you as broken, or as something that needs to be fixed.

Jory: Yeah. When I think about how many students I’ve had that feel broken in different ways, right? That there’s this sense of: there are many ways in which the world we live in shatter us. I think in this book specifically, but also that being a student of color in Vermont, I think, can be a really shattering experience. Especially if you are in more rural area here, you may be one of very few students of color in your school and so it feels really hard to have all those pieces of yourself honored.

Jeanie: Right. This makes me think a little of the story this summer, about the camp for children of color in Stowe. Did you hear that story? They brought a camp of students to Stowe, and they experienced a lot of racism and racial slurs. I think a lot of us were heartbroken by this experience. And it makes me wonder about what our job is, as educators, to expose Vermont students who are white, to stories of other people so they can see the humanity in others.

Jory: I think one thing, you and I have talked about, is that this book does a really good job illustrating how microaggressions work for people of color. I think this book is full of places where Jade experiences these little pricks. Like, a microaggression is this little comment that may be is meant with good intention but it just digs at her and it others her, right? She is constantly aware that she is “Other” than the other kids at Saint Francis, so that she needs more help than other kids or more “Opportunity,” right. All of those things in little ways dehumanize her, right? She has to work hard to hold on to her humanity.

Jeanie: There’s an excellent example on page 18, if you could read that for us, Jory?

Jory: Yeah, on page 18, she’s talking with her guidance counselor, an older white woman: Mrs. Parker. Of course, Mrs. Parker has a photo on her wall of her daughter and her son-in-law. And her son-in-law happens to be a man of color. And all of her grandchildren are mixed race, and so in some ways, I think, Mrs. Parker has the sense of like, Oh, I get you honey, right? That Jade always feels like there was like little bit of condescension there. Anyway, Mrs. Parker is setting her up with the mentor and Jade responds, “Mrs. Parker, I don’t need a mentor.”

Mrs. Parker responds, “Every young person could use a caring adult in her life.” Jade says:

“I have my mother.” And my uncle, and my dad. “You think I don’t have anyone who cares about me?”

“No, no, that’s not what I said.” Mrs. Parker clears her throat. “We want to be as proactive as possible, and you know, well, statistics tell us that young people with your set of circumstances are, well, at risk for certain things, and we’d like to help you navigate through those circumstances.” Mrs. Parker takes a candy out of her jar and pops it into her mouth. “I’d like you to thoroughly look over the information and consider it. This is a good opportunity for you.”

Again, we have this moment where this caring adult with really good intentions — l like Mrs. Parker, she’s trying her hardest. But in the process of trying to help Jade, the reader is very aware that she’s actually putting Jade down, right. Jade is saying, “My mom, I have my mom. I have all these caring adults.” [Mrs. Parker’s] like, “No, no, but you need real role models.” As if to say: your parents aren’t going to help you get out. Right.

Jeanie: Which adds insult to injury because what Jade really wants is to give.

She doesn’t want to always be the recipient, and so what she’s hearing from Mrs. Parker is, Oh, you honey, you just get to receive. You don’t have anything to give. These microaggressions, well-intentioned as Mrs. Parker may be, add up. And some of these have real impact.

Jory: Right. Because what Jade thought was going to happen when she went to Mrs. Parker’s office — what she was going to find out, and I’m going to quote from it — she says, “Of everything Mrs. Parker has signed me up for, this one means the most.” She’s hoping to sign up for a service learning project. Jade thinks, “This time it’s not a program offering something I need, but it’s about what I can give.”  So she wants to be able to say, I’m doing okay. Like, I want to give back, right.

It’s like we don’t even let her. Or, the world is not even letting her give back. They’re only seeing her need, right.

And the reality is Mrs. Parker as a white woman wants to be the giver, because giving feels good. It’s like we’re depriving Jade of this basic human need we have to help other people, right, and that she can only be helped, she can’t help others.

Jeanie: My educator self can’t help but think about the way we talk about moving from a deficit lens — what’s wrong with students — to a strengths lens about what do they have that they’re good at, what can they do well, what do they have to offer, and think about the power for Jade of Mrs. Parker shifting from this deficit lens to a strengths lens, and what impact that would have.

Jory: Can I just talk about her mom?

Jeanie: Yeah.

Jory: The other place, I think, in the book where it’s really obvious how these microaggressions, these little digs, are really effecting the characters is when Maxine, who is a seemingly more upper-class Black woman from Portland but who has been assigned as Jade’s mentor, shows up at her house. And she hasn’t contacted Jade’s mom. She’s just made plans through Jade. She comes to the house. Jade’s mom says, “I’ll answer the door.” Jade’s mom says,

“Good morning,” she says. “You must be Maxine.” Mom has her hand on her hip and she won’t let Maxine through the door. “I’m sorry, you wasted your time and gas coming over here, but Jade is not going with you today.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. I was hoping to do an early b-day celebration with her and spend some quality time together,” Maxine says. “Is she okay?”

“Oh, she’s fine,” Mom says. “I would just appreciate it if you would contact me first before you and Jade make plans. Jade is not grown. Believe it or not, she does have a mother. That’s me. …Please let this be the first and last time you try to take my daughter out of my house without my knowing and giving permission.”

I guess I love this scene because it’s the mom saying, like, you might be her mentor but you’re not saving my daughter. Mom says:

“At the end of the day, when this program is over, she is not going to be anyone’s mentee but she’s still going to be my daughter.”

For her mom, she’s feeling all this hurt. Like, [she] can’t take care of [her] own kid.

And there this sort of undoing of her own humanity and people making assumptions about what she is capable or not capable of.

Jeanie: That’s so intriguing because it falls to that strength-base versus deficit-based approach.

When people have all these stereotypes about students of color, families of color and families in poverty, and one of the stereotypes is that they don’t care about education. And yet the data shows that actually they care about education really a great deal. And I think, for Jade, the biggest advocate for her for getting a good education is not Mrs. Parker, is not her teachers, it’s her mother.

Jory: Right. Her mother is working her butt off for her.

Jeanie: Her mother is working multiple jobs, and, yeah, holding things together. In this society, mothers like Jade’s don’t always get the respect and dignity that they deserve.

Jory: I think just another way Renée Watson creates a lot of whole-feeling characters in this book.

Jeanie: Jory, how would you use this book in a Language Arts classroom or Humanities classroom? In middle school or high school?

Jory: Well, first of all I love that this book is on the shorter side and yet so rich and full-feeling. Like, there’s so much here and yet it’s not a super, super-long book. I find when I am teaching books even to super-loving reading classes, I actually prefer less text because it means that you can spend more time on other things. For me this book is perfect because who doesn’t want to make collages?

One way that I think would be really fun to use this book in the classroom is to kind of do it in collaboration with some art. And to talk about collaging and figuring out how students may want to piece themselves together.

I want to just read one little quick part on Jade’s philosophy on finding beauty in the world, and as sort of a jumping-off point for how you might use this in art with your students. So Jade says,

Lots of people can’t find beauty in my neighborhood but I can. Ever since elementary school, I’ve been making beauty out of everyday things–candy wrappers, pages of a newspaper, receipts, rip-outs from magazines. I cut and tear, arrange and rearrange, and I glue them down, morphing them into something no one else thought they could be. Like me. I’m ordinary too. The only fancy thing about me is my name: Jade. There is nothing exquisite about my life. It’s mine, though, so I’m going to make something out of it.

This idea of taking all these ordinary things in our life and creating something that pieces together a representation of us? I think with an eighth or ninth -grade student — which I think that this book is perfect for sort of late middle school, early high school — there’s so much stuff around collaging and identity.

But even from there you could do so much around piecing yourself together in poetry or interviewing a bunch of your friends about who you are, and then collaging their ideas of who you are and creating a written piece about who you are. I think this book is really useful in getting at who each of us are, which is an added layer of beauty in this book.

I also think, on a very concrete level, this is a really powerful book for Vermont students to hear in terms of thinking about “What do microaggressions look like?” 

And for students of color, for them, maybe, to feel like there is an allied  voice or — they may not resonate with Jade but maybe there is another character on the book they do. Or just sort of giving out other voices in our students’ lives that they hear other people? Is a powerful tool for this book.

Then as we talk about microaggressions, I think you could use this book really concretely to help kids define what it means when those little pokes at your humanity are constantly happening. That othering, and what that looks like and feels like for a character. I think this would be a really safe space to do that in. So lots of ideas. Yeah, do you have other ideas? What are you thinking?

Jeanie: Well, I love all of that. I think it really strongly connects with any identity work that’s happening in the classroom, really powerfully connects with that. I also love it as an opportunity to look at the way we build our identity from the inside? But our identity is also how we experience the world, and how the world experiences us. And this book is a really great example of that.

Jade has this rich inner life and knows who she is, but she also has to go out and face the world in ways, and she writes in lots of different ways about how her body takes up space in the world and what that means. But I’m wondering if there’s also a connection to youth voice. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but there are powerful ways in which Jade finds her voice in this book and uses them within that mentoring program. And I wonder about using that as a spring board for how did the voices of our students show up at school? How do we make space for the things they think are important, or the good ideas they have? So I’m curious about that as another avenue for this text, for this book.

Jory: Yeah, I love that idea. Again, no spoilers, but she does find some empowering ways to use her voice, totally.

One other thought I just have: I would hate to read this book with the class where that, maybe, makes a student feel really obviously targeted to. I think there needs to be just some thought about who’s in your class and reading a book like this, because it is a story about a girl who feels like she’s the only person with her perspective in the room.

I think even if done with good intentions, the book itself could be taught in a way that feels unsafe for a student in your room? Where it’s like, if there’s one kid in the room who’s aware that they’re the sort of the “othered” one that this book may actually be like, Oh, well, now my teacher is picking a book to make me feel normal but everybody knows who this book is for! Or something.

I think it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taught, because I think it can be really powerful for everyone? I am just thinking about my sixth-grade class last year. And they were a little young for this book, but if I had done it with them, I might have only focused on identity and collage. Like, I may have only used parts that felt really inclusive of everyone.

Jeanie: I think that’s really a good point. Like, we want to be prepared for our students to encounter any book, right? It could also be the case if you only have one student of color in your class that you’d want to do the work ahead of time to make sure everybody is comfortable and ready to experience this book and the discussions you’re going to have.

I really loved The Hate U Give. I really loved Dear Martin by Nic Stone as well, but in both of those the people of color in those books experience police brutality. And I like this book because they don’t. Like, both the racism is more subtle in this book. It comes in the form of microaggressions and deficit thinking, but also that doesn’t become the only experience of people of color, that someone they know gets shot. I like this as an alternative story to that.

Jory: Yeah, and I totally agree. We are seeing a real trend in young-adult fiction right now about police violence, and that’s powerful. I am thinking about All American Boys, which came out last year. Or, this year, Tyler Johnson Was Here, is a brand new one that I am just reading. They’re really powerful important stories, but there are a lot of other stories about being a person of color. So I think you’re right that I appreciate that this book does not feel like it has to have it all. Like, it doesn’t have every issue. There is a calmness and a quietness to this book too, which I appreciate.

Jeanie: Let’s talk about some other books it puts us in mind of.

For me, it brought up Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. A beautiful memoir that was a Vermont Reads book a couple years ago. Were there books that it brought to mind for you?

Jory: Well, we’ve already talked about Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, which is really being read a ton, and libraries are buying tons of copies of, which is great; although it’s also banned in some places. It’s been getting a lot of attention. This book also that reminded me of an older book called The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake, which is another book about being “othered” and what it feels like to be Other, and to have an adult in your life who might feel the same otherness you do. That I read actually as a middle schooner, and I’ve taught in middle school and have found it to be a really powerful book to this day. It’s an oldie but goody to keep around.

Jeanie: Excellent. I also just read Jacqueline Woodson’s Harbor Me which is for a younger audience but I think it speaks to some of these other themes about feeling other, because of your family circumstances, and creating a safe harbor, a safe space, for students to be themselves. I think that’s another great connection for the fifth and sixth grade classroom.

Jory: It’s a little bit of jump from here, but one of the things that’s been really exciting about serving on Green Mountain Book Award over the last six years has been seeing the huge increase in authors of color writing about … writing characters of color. There’s been a big movement: the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement has really, I think, had real impact on publishers, and in a way that maybe Hollywood has been slow to respond. I think in especially young-adult fiction, we’re seeing this just huge increase.

I’m thinking about two books I’m just reading.

One, American Panda by Gloria Chao, which I read few weeks ago. I’m just finishing up a book called Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi, which I’m loving. Both are young-adult novels with Asian-American characters written by Asian-American female authors.

Just seeing the volume of authors of color and seeing feels exciting. All of us this year have been like, “Wow.” Like, “This feels exciting.” We’re in this moment where we finally hearing just a broader range of voices to represent our country. It feels, I think, especially in these political moments it’s feeling exciting to feel like there is some hope out in the world. Some good is happening in the world of stories.

Piecing Me Together: Books Discussed in this Episode


Jeanie: Stories are powerful. Tell me about the Green Mountain Book Award or what we often call the GMBA award?

Jory: GMBA is Vermont’s reader’s choice award for high school students in the state. We select a list of about 15 books every year, and they are meant to be books that are for high school students of Vermont to enjoy. Really the goal of it is really about pleasure reading. While it’s meant to be books that we enjoy, but it’s not always about literary acutance. It’s often about what do we think teens are going to pick up and what do Vermont teens specifically need to be reading, which is really fun.

The 2018-2019 list includes some of my favorite books, such as Robin Benway’s Far From the Tree, which is a story of three children who have all been either adopted or in the foster care system. They didn’t know they had siblings and they sort find each other. It’s a really beautiful, beautiful book. It was also a National Book Award winner from last year. Another book that was fun and sort of different for me was David Elliot’s Bull, which is a novel in verse retold about bunch of different Greek myths, and they are — it’s witty, and hysterically funny and also just sort of pithy. Couple other ones that were highlights from last year were, S. F. Henson’s The Devils Within, which I think for Vermont high school students is a really important book. It’s a fictional account of a teenager trapped in a white supremacy group, and they get out, and what that looks like. It’s a terrifying, page turning, harrowing book.

Jeanie: I read it. It’s so gripping and so informative. Yeah, it’s a powerful book.

Jory: Yeah. Another great one to do with a class or just hand to teen to read on their own. Then another one that I really love from last year was a non-fiction title: The 57 Bus: The True Story of Two Teenagers and The Crime That Changed Their Lives. which is the story of a transgender student who is lit on fire on the number 57 bus, a public bus in California, and all that transpires. They survive but all that transpires afterward with the accused and the victim, is a really powerful, powerful true story. Yeah, lots of lots of things and a whole mix of stuff from last year’s list.

Jeanie: The 57 Bus would have been perfect, Jory. When we used to teach together we could have taught that as a part of your juvenile justice unit.

Jory: Yeah, and it also would have fit really well with my narrative non-fiction. I am a huge fan of non-fiction that feels like a story. Where it’s like it to really like be a page turning gripping reader in the midst of non-fiction. Yeah, you’re right. We could have taught that in lots of good ways. If you go to the Vermont Department of Libraries, the 2018/19 list is there as well as all the previous 10 years of list. There are just awesome books on there. We work really hard to pick a mix of things that we love, but also things that, maybe, haven’t been given much voice and then need a little trumpeting.

Green Mountain Book Awards


Jeanie: I have always been a fan. When I was librarian and I collaborated with the high school language arts teacher. We would give kids choice from the GMBA list and for there one book a year, so they weren’t reading Shakespeare and weren’t reading what was in the cannon, but they had some choice. It was always their favorite book of the year. It was always huge. We did it for years because they loved it so much and the teacher saw the value of it as well so. I want to ask, a lot of middle school kids read these books, so how does GMBA work … it supposed to be a high school? Can middle school kids vote? What do you say about middle school participation in this program?

Jory: That’s a great question. A lot of people are very familiar in Vermont with the DCF list — the Dorothy Canfield Fisher list — which is also a reader’s choice award. DCF is meant to go from grades three or four through eighth-grade. GMBA was created as the high school equivalent, but what we’ve really seen and learned is that most students, by the time they’re in eighth for sure but even seventh, are really ready for older books. We’re pretty aware of that on GMBA. We do consciously chose books that will appeal the high school students, but we know younger readers would read them.

Part of how we have accommodated for that is that come usually around end of March, we open up voting, and it’s online through the Department of Libraries. There is a link to how kids can vote, and every kid can fill up their own individual voting form. There is a way to check that you are not in either ninth or 12th-grade. You can say you’re a middle school student, or you can say you’re a college or older student, because we know actually lot of college kids also read these. Yeah, we welcome middle school kids reading them; although we will say some of the content in these books is hard.

Piecing Me Together actually is one I would pretty happily hand to a middle school, but like The Devils Within is a really hard book about white supremacy, I would … there is a reason we say ninth through 12, but we also know middle schoolers are always looking to edge up.

Jeanie: Well played. Well played. Any other thoughts on GMBA or on Piecing Me Together, this beautiful book by Renée Watson?

Jory: I guess my final thought on this book and GMBA is just that I feel really grateful to get to read young-adult books as an adult, because every time I do I’m reminded a little bit more of what it’s like to be a teenager, and we have this funny world where people who write for young-adults and people who recommend — like you and I recommend books for young-adults — are adults. There is this powerful thing that happens in YA words often, and Piecing Me Together is a great example of. It’s really they’re stories often about someone really trying to figure who they are.

I think as an adult, as someone in my early thirties, who is constantly trying to figure out who I really am, that these stories really resonate, because the reality is it may happen for us for our first time in a powerful way when we’re 16 or 17. That’s my first memory of really piecing myself together, but that about every five years, I’m doing it again. I sort of appreciate that these books remind me of just how difficult it is to feel whole in a world that’s complicated.

Jeanie: Yeah. I strongly believe that reading young-adult and middle-grades literature makes me a more empathetic educator. Helps me understand my students … the young people in my life better.

Jory: I feel that same way.

Jeanie: Yeah.

Jory: And myself. And I understand myself better.

Jeanie: Yeah. Absolutely. Thank you, Jory, so much for taking the time to come and talk to us about “Piecing Me Together.”

Folks if you want a copy, I’m quite certain your high school librarian or middle librarian can get you one if they don’t have one on the shelf. Check out your local library, your school library, find a copy of Renee Watson’s “Piecing Me Together.” You won’t regret it. Jory, thanks for your time.

Jory: Thanks for having me, Jeanie. Talking about young-adult literature is my best life.





The 21st Century Classroom is the podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. A huge thank you to Jory Hearst for appearing on this episode. If you’re interested in finding out more about the Green Mountain Book Awards visit They are continually looking for new committee members and would love to hear from the reading public. Also a quick shout-out to the Carpenter-Carse Library in Hinesburg, for loaning our editor a reference copy on extremely short notice. Ahem.

You can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Soundcloud and the Google Play store, or right here on our blog. Music for this episode is by Argofox: Meizong & Yeeflex – Sunrise, used with permission.

And if you’re interested in reading Piecing Me Together with your students, check out this discussion guide about race, gender, class and intersectionality (.pdf).

Piecing Me Together Discussion Guide

“The Culture Code”, with Bill Rich

Why do certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts?

The 21st Century Classroom podcastIn this episode of our podcast, we kick off our fourth season with legendary librarian Jeanie Phillips.  She’ll be sitting down with a series of guests from around the #vted ecosphere and …reviewing books. Not just any books, but books that can help educators make meaning from the wonderful, complicated and challenging jobs they have of saving the world.

First up, Jeanie talks with noted Vermont educator and consultant Bill Rich (twitter: @rhlearning). Bill is a longtime-classroom teacher who now works with schools, providing guidance on brain-based learning. He’s also the co-director of What’s the Story VT? and LearningLabVT.

Jeanie and Bill sat down to talk about Daniel Coyle’s book, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. The book was recently chosen for a Vermont-wide twitter-based book chat as well.

Over to Jeanie and Bill.

Continue reading “The Culture Code”, with Bill Rich

The Importance of Eating Earnest

What food education looks like in Cornwall VT

The 21st Century Classroom podcastIntegrating food studies into schools leads to thinking about interconnectedness in other ares of study. But don’t take my word for it: meet some amazing students from The Cornwall School, in Cornwall VT, who definitely won’t be surviving on Pop Tarts, ramen or mac and cheese when they grow up.

“My favorite root vegetable is probably the beet because you can do so many fun things with it. In a beet salad, you usually have thinly sliced beets with some Feta cheese on it, and sometimes, you’ll add some brussels sprouts or something, like maybe a hard-boiled egg or two on top. Another great thing to do with beets is to put it on a pizza, so pizza crust with a little Maple syrup on top with beets, Feta cheese on it.”

Continue reading The Importance of Eating Earnest

3 #GlobalGoals projects feeding Vermont

What do the Global Goals look sound like in action?

The 21st Century Classroom podcast

The three Essex Middle School students who delivered the keynote address at the 2nd annual Cultivating Pathways to Sustainability conference spoke from the heart. They also spoke from experience, having spent the previous year using the #GlobalGoals to address hunger in their communities.

Continue reading 3 #GlobalGoals projects feeding Vermont

Having the hard conversations in Southern Vermont

It takes a village to talk about substance abuse with students

The 21st Century Classroom podcastLondonderry, VT-based non-profit The Collaborative is in its 14th year of “Refuse to Use”, a substance abuse-prevention program that creates community conversations about alcohol, tobacco and drugs.

They base their curriculum off hyper-regional data and depend on community members — parents, educators and students — telling them what to talk about next.

Continue reading Having the hard conversations in Southern Vermont

The Crossett Brook Queer-Straight Alliance

Think middle schoolers are too young for a QSA? Think again

#everydaycourageAt the Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) at Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, Vermont, young adolescents have carved out a space where they can be their authentic selves. While that’s critical during middle school, it’s especially crucial for LGBTQ students.

As we kick off the third season of our podcast, let’s hear more about Crossett Brook’s QSA by listening to one of the students instrumental in its formation, as well as some of the educators who support them.


Continue reading The Crossett Brook Queer-Straight Alliance

What we can learn from brand new educators

What advice would your 7th grade self give you about teaching?

what we can learn from brand new educatorsRemember when you were first starting out as an educator? The ink on your certification barely dried, and there you were, standing in front of your first class, 30-some pairs of eyeballs staring back at you, waiting for you to lead.

We hear from six amazing middle level educators graduating this spring from the University of Vermont. We ask them about their hopes, their fears, and… what their middle school selves would come back to tell them.

Continue reading What we can learn from brand new educators

How do adverse childhood events affect student performance?

Cognitive outcomes vs intersectional traumas

do adverse childhood events affect school performanceWe talk with legendary awesome stats guy Mark Olofson — now Dr. Legendary Awesome Stats Guy Mark Olofson — about his research into adverse childhood events and school performance.

It’s some pretty important stuff, about how the intersecting traumas that affect students have some long-reaching consequences.

Continue reading How do adverse childhood events affect student performance?

The great Brian Eno-powered STEAM PBL caper

Wondering how to blend project-based learning with STEAM?

Real World PBLYes, STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. Earlier this year we profiled The Cabot School’s amazing public exhibition of sound sculptures highlighting water conservation. They were a big hit with the Cabot community, the students who made them and, it turns out, a fair number of you guys, too: our readers.

In this episode of The 21st Century Classroom, we talk with Cabot School educator Michael Hendrix. We hear about what it takes to pull off STEAM-powered PBL and why Hendrix feels you can’t ever really teach science without art.

Continue reading The great Brian Eno-powered STEAM PBL caper

Student TED Talks, sound sculptures and a funk band

Student exhibitions of project-based learning

student TED talksAt this point we all know how important it is for students to share project-based learning with an authentic audience. It shows students they have power in the world, and that their research really makes a difference. But how best to design an exhibition that empowers students and provides a compelling, informative experience for the community?

Cabot High School did it by hosting an evening that combined student TED Talks, interactive sound sculptures and a high school funk band.

It. Was. Glorious.

In this episode of our podcast, we take you to Cabot High School’s FLOW event, where you’ll hear what it was like to connect with their community around water conservation PBL.

Continue reading Student TED Talks, sound sculptures and a funk band

Data shows #vted leads nation in educators on Twitter

Vermont’s new leading role online

educators on twitterIn today’s podcast, Mark Olofson talks with Joshua Rosenberg and Spencer Greenhalgh, education researchers from Michigan State University. Their research focuses on the state-level twitter conversations among educators: who is doing it, and what they’re getting out of it.

And, spoiler alert, when they looked around the country, Vermont emerged as a pretty special place.

Continue reading Data shows #vted leads nation in educators on Twitter

Tackling school change as a community

Community conversations about education

community conversations about educationWhat would you tell your neighbors about your school? What do you think they’d say in return? The Washington West Supervisory Union has set out to find out, by hosting a series of community conversations.

Life LeGeros, a Tarrant Institute professional development coordinator and WWSU community member, is taking part in those conversations, and sharing out what he learns.

Continue reading Tackling school change as a community

VT Secretary of Education speaks on equity in Vermont

“I don’t believe you can be an educator committed to student voice and not be a powerful advocate for equity.”

This past August, the University of Vermont played host to an international conference focused on ways to amplify student voice and increase student partnership in the classroom.

Attendees were lucky enough to hear an address by Vermont Secretary of Education Dr. Rebecca Holcombe, who spoke powerfully on the need for intersectional equity in Vermont, in supporting students.

Continue reading VT Secretary of Education speaks on equity in Vermont

Mathew’s Y.E.A.R. at The Compass School

Scaffolding year-end reflections

The 21st Century Classroom podcastAt The Compass School in Westminster, Vermont, students advance through grades by producing evidence of their accomplishments from the year, using the previous year’s reflection to inform the current one. We had the chance to sit down with a student just finishing 11th grade at Compass, and hear not just about his Y.E.A.R. (year-end academic reflection) but how it’s going to prepare him for the all-important graduating Roundtable.

Continue reading Mathew’s Y.E.A.R. at The Compass School

Making history on the radio with community partners

Middle school students power Brattleboro’s radio days

The 21st Century Classroom podcastBrattleboro, Vermont was incorporated back in 1753, a former military fort that embraced trading, commerce and the power of nearby Whetstone Falls to spur mill production. It was where Rudyard Kipling settled to write The Jungle Book, and where Harriet Beecher Stowe came to seek the famous 18th century water cure. It’s been home to countless tiny, fascinating episodes of Vermont history — episodes that current residents can now listen to each week on the radio, being described and re-enacted by students from Brattleboro Area Middle School.

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How Vermont middle grades educators are powering up PLPs this summer

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

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

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

Continue reading How Vermont middle grades educators are powering up PLPs this summer

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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Z is for Generation Z

Who are Generation Z?

who are Generation ZThe term Generation Z refers to teens and pre-teens born after 1995 and was officially launched in 2014 as part of a marketing presentation. The salient characteristic of their generation is its apparent fondness love of and comfort with new technology.

So, in order to find out more about Generation Z, we asked middle school students about theirs and their families’ relationship with technology. And found no easy generalizations.

And what does this all have to do with that pesky “digital natives” conversation?

Continue reading Z is for Generation Z

Podcasting with Principal Berry

How school change began with just one person, and just one podcast

The 21st Century Classroom podcast

We talk with Richmond Elementary School principal Mike Berry about how he’s using podcasts and other digital storytelling to help his students find their voices and prepare them to tell their stories as they move to middle school.

You can listen to our podcast episode here, as well as at SoundCloud, and on Stitcher, or you can download it and run away with it clutched to your person (our personal fave) or you can just read the nifty transcript*, below.

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What goes into measuring the success of edtech?

What does “quality” mean in assessing statewide digital efforts?

The 21st Century Classroom podcastThe Foundation for Excellence in Education recently released its 2014 Digital Learning Report Card. According to this report, Vermont does not support digital learning. In fact, all of New England is a digital wasteland. But what does the data really say? How are these researchers quantifying “digital learning”?

And how can we use this report to look at other measurements of success with edtech?

Continue reading What goes into measuring the success of edtech?

M is for Minecraft

How to use Minecraft with students

how to use Minecraft with studentsMinecraft is an example of welcoming in student-driven modes of learning, exploration and demonstration of learning. Students find the platform deeply engaging because they can use it to build entire worlds, and many prefer to do their building collaboratively, or outside of school hours. But Minecraft also requires reading, writing and blogging skills, and can have real-world impact.

“Bio,” says one 9th grader. “We were in Bio. And there were some machines sitting there and one was a centrifuge. And I knew what it was because of Minecraft.”

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What it’s really like to use an LMS with students

edmodo vs Schoology, digital badges and how to leave a great comment

The 21st Century Classroom podcast by the Tarrant Institute5th grade Peoples Academy Middle Level teacher Hannah Lindsey returns this week with a look at what it’s really like to use an LMS with students. She sat down with Mark Olofson to talk about her experiences with edmodo and Schoology in the classroom.

Continue reading What it’s really like to use an LMS with students

From arduino learner to teacher

Student teaching STEM Academy arduino strand

student-guided stem learningMeet Ian. Ian’s a senior at Essex High School, and he’s not just enrolled in the STEM Academy there, he’s also teaching it.

In this episode of the podcast, research fellow Mark Olofson talks with Ian about how he went from learning about arduinos, to teaching them, and why robotics is so much more fun to build than talk about.

Continue reading From arduino learner to teacher

Personalized STEM learning at Essex High School

New podcast episode: Essex STEM Academy

student-guided stem learningIn this episode, we talk with math educator and STEM Academy leader Lea Ann Smith about Essex High School’s STEM Academy and take a look inside a program that lets students pursue projects in medicine, engineering, computer science, mathematics or biology — by working with community partners during the school day.

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Project-based learning and creative writing

The play’s the (learning) thing

The 21st Century Classroom podcast by the Tarrant InstituteAlso the musical film and the series of novels. Stay with us on this.

In the 2nd of our three-part series looking at project-based learning with The Edge team at Essex Middle School, we talk to a novelist, a playwright (slash-director-slash-costume-designer-slash-actor) and a film-maker — all at the same time.

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New podcast ep: Building an eco-machine at The Edge

Essex 7th graders partnering with UVM on food sustainability project

The 21st Century Classroom podcast by the Tarrant InstituteJust before the holiday break, we got the chance to talk with some of the students on The Edge team at Essex Middle School, in Essex Junction, Vermont, about the progress of their year-long inquiry projects.

In the first of three installments, we talk with a trio of 7th graders who are building a living machine, with the help of their community partner, the University of Vermont.

Continue reading New podcast ep: Building an eco-machine at The Edge

Learning to make with arduinos

The journey from learner to educator

The 21st Century Classroom podcast by the Tarrant InstituteIn this episode of the podcast, I talk with local digital artist and educator Rachel Hooper about how she got started learning and teaching how to make stuff with arduinos. Hooper discussed her background in teaching both students and adults how to construct projects using the tiny microcontrollers, her journey from arduino-learner to educator, then schooled me on gender essentialism* in tech-based learning.

Did I mention we were locked in a bathroom at the Generator?

(Never let your travel microphones out of your sight, people. Never. Do it.)

Continue reading Learning to make with arduinos

How does data-mining affect edtech?

New podcast ep: “How does data-mining affect edtech?”

The 21st Century Classroom podcast by the Tarrant InstituteWho’s looking at your students’ data?

Tarrant Institute professional development coordinator Susan Hennessey joins research fellow Mark Olofson in discussing some of the issues around corporate data-mining and how this potentially affects students and educators’ choices around edtech tools.


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Taking the lid off technology

The unintended consequences of branded tech in the classroom

The unintended consequences of branded tech in the classroomIn this episode of The 21st Century Classroom, Tarrant Institute graduate research fellow Mark Olofson and I take a look at one of the premises of this article on the ill-fated city-wide rollout of iPads in Los Angeles classrooms, “Los Angeles schools need to think outside the iPad”.

A number of problems arose during and after the rollout that make valuable intellectual fodder for any school or district in their 1:1 planning phase, but the article’s author, Nathan Schneider raises an interesting point about how who makes the tech students use on a daily basis can shape their world-view.

So give episode #4, “Taking the lid off technology” a listen, and as always, we love to hear your feedback. This week’s music is by Chrissy Jackson, and you can find more of her Creative Commons-licensed sounds at her Soundcloud page.

You can subscribe to The 21st Century Classroom via iTunes or Soundcloud, or just keep tuning in here.

New podcast ep: Making web apps at Williston Central

Vermont middle school educator created app at camp

Vermont middle school educator created app at campIn this episode of our  podcast, we’re going to be hearing from math educator Jared Bailey, who spent his summer vacation building a web app for his students, so they could have their homework assignments, practice drills, schedule and his contact info all in one place. As could their parents.

Bailey’s ethos was simple: he wanted it to be as simple as possible for students and their families to install the app on their mobile devices, and he didn’t want to deal with licensing issues or necessarily learn a ton of code. He just wanted his app to be convenient for students.

Continue reading New podcast ep: Making web apps at Williston Central

Teaching how to code with Processing

teaching code with Processing
This past summer, we hosted another successful year of Tarrant Code Camp, where campers from all over Vermont came together to learn iOS development, website design, gaming, robotics and art.

Yes, art.

UVM Computer Science professor Robert Snapp taught campers how to code through the use of Processing, a programming language that translates code into visual and audio movement. But can students really learn to code by creating art? And what can you do with Processing after camp, anyway? We tackle those questions, along with the best way to explode a human head, in this episode of our podcast, “Code is art”.

Give it a listen.

Continue reading Teaching how to code with Processing

About that NPR piece on kids’ reading habits…

It’s the End of Reading As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Something new and different for us today: we tried podcasting! And we’re disagreeing with NPR.

I know! But listen: a couple weeks ago NPR ran a story covering this Common Sense Media study ostensibly showing that Kids These Days are reading much much less than they were in times past. Which times, you ask? ME TOO.

Cue my suspicious eyebrows.

Continue reading About that NPR piece on kids’ reading habits…