Category Archives: Action Research

On Fostering Brave Spaces


Audio only
Annotated Transcript

Hello, my name is Grace Gilmour. I’m a seventh and eighth grade social studies teacher. And today I’m going to be talking about:

“How do we foster brave spaces for discussions about race and other forms of oppression in our classrooms?”

In the fall of 2020, I designed and implemented a unit that was meant to create a framework that we can come back to throughout the year.

It was supposed to (and did) introduce different social justice concepts and vocabularies as well as skills. So throughout the year, as we were discussing other time periods in history, case studies through history, we’d be able to come back to these concepts to help us understand them through a social justice lens. And the other purpose of this was to really build my students’ stamina for having increasingly difficult conversations about racism and other forms of oppression.

I think it’s first important to note that intervention may take different forms in different communities.

So, I work in a community that is majority white, and so our focus has to be on:

How do we protect and empower those few students of color that we do have while also giving our white students the understandings and skills and literacies?

True literacies, that they need in order to live in a more equitable world and a democratic society in which all people are valued. So I want to start by just reading this quick paragraph that I wrote that I think sums up why this is all necessary:

“Race and racism are key to understanding and dismantling inequity in America due to the persistence of the ideology of race and white supremacy. The hegemony of whiteness remains entrenched in systems in ways that are not always immediately apparent, especially to white people. This is compounded by individualism and claims of colorblindness which serve to justify or hide racial disparities in a racist world. These historical ideologies have left many white people racially illiterate, but racially conscious when perceiving other racialized groups. Imagining that race is not real conserves white supremacy by preventing it from being interrupted.”

And this plays out in what we know about how white students interpret race and understand race.

In a study done by Michael and Bartoli in 2014, they found that overall white students and white teenagers did not have the understandings and skills to engage in discussions about race. They found that by and large white teenagers held really contradictory ideas about race. They oftentimes expressed so-called colorblind ideas while also holding stereotypes. So, they would say out loud, “I don’t see race” or, “I don’t see color”. Or “We’re all the same race: the human race.”

But then they would also hold stereotypes about Black people. And they also saw any mention of race as racist.

I know I oftentimes saw my students try to avoid naming race; try to avoid it to the best of their ability. They would say anything but someone’s race. Say anything *but* race or racism.

And this really comes down to this idea that white students overall lack an ability to analyze systems through the lens of racism. Therefore they’re looking at outcomes and they’re putting those through the lens of individualism. They’re seeing these things as individual failures rather than as a result of historical and current structural racism.

So we really need to give our kids understandings about race and about racism in order to be able to accurately interpret what they’re seeing around them.

Schools have a clear responsibility here, right?

The way I see it is we can really either be interrupters or perpetuators of the systems of oppression. Right? We can either continue them by omitting discussions of race and other forms of oppression in our classrooms or we can face them head on.

And in addition to that, we also have a duty to prepare our students for an increasingly multi-cultural multi-ethnic multi-racial society. We have a duty to prepare our students to take part in a democracy that involves a lot of different types of people.

So how do we do that?

That is a big ask.

Grace Gilmour Fostering Brave Spaces


I kind of boil it down to components and to understandings and into skills. What are those things I’m wanting to target to make sure my kids understand and make sure my kids are able to do so?

I wanted them to understand that race is not biological, but rather a social construct and a power construct as Kenny would call it. Explain why race —  despite not being biological — is an important aspect of many people’s identity. Being able to identify the difference between individual and systemic racism.

Most of my students if you asked them what is racism, they would tell you racism is when someone calls another person a racial slur. But before this unit, they really lacked that understanding that racism is also systems that have inequitable outcomes. Also being able to analyze the importance and impact on intersectionality.

Thinking about both as an individual, as looking at others, what are those different parts of their identity that are impacting their experiences in the world?

And then finally being able to analyze my own privileges and disadvantages. Looking at my own social identities,  what are the aspects that maybe marginalize me? What are those aspects that give me privilege?

In terms of skills, there’s some clear skills kids need.
  • Being able to identify and analyze racism and anti-racism in language, actions and media.
  • Being able to interrupt when they see or hear bias remarks or actions.
  • And being able to take action and create change through civic engagement.

Again, thinking about that democracy piece. Recognizing and analyzing both racist and anti-racist ideas and actions in myself and in others. Again, that self-reflection. And that acknowledgement that racism isn’t always in some far-off bad guy, but also is found within ourselves.

And then I can use strategies to manage my racial stress. I’ll talk about that more in a bit, but that’s that idea of:

How can I manage my feelings of discomfort, my feelings of strong emotions that maybe prevent me from hearing what people are saying?

That might pop-up as fragility, for instance. Or defensiveness. All right, so why start with social identity? For middle schoolers in particular they’re at this age where they’re already trying to develop a sense of self. Who am I and who am I in relation to others? And they’re also developing their own moral compasses thinking about what is fair, what’s not fair, what is just.

Social identity gives all students an entry point because we all have social *identities* — plural, right? We all have different aspects, different social groups that we all belong to.

And then finally this idea that the self and understanding ourself is a precursor to understanding society. And through doing this work with social identity, we’re able to build the empathy that is necessary to have these further discussions about race and colonization and other forms of oppression.

The next thing that’s really important for us to think about is how we’re thinking about this word “safe” and what is its role in education.

We oftentimes talk about creating “safe spaces” and I understand why, right? We need to feel safe in order to learn, in order to connect with others. The problem with that is: whose safety is being valued? Whose safety are we valuing, especially when we’re having conversations about racism?

And so many people have talked about the concept of brave spaces.

Glenn Singleton has done a lot of work on courageous conversations. I really like though what San Pedro proposes; this concept of a sacred truth space where our goal is to seek truth rather than seek safety. So he said he proposes the creation of a sacred truth space where students are able to engage in the often vulnerable act of telling and hearing multiple truths. Where safety is not necessarily the goal. Rather the goal is creating a dialogic space to share our truths and to listen and learn the truths of others.

So this idea of like, shifting our idea of safety and what our goal is.

Easy, right?

How to put it into action

So in order to kind of break that down into what that actually could look like, these are some things that I sought to do as I was building my community with my kids:

  • Generating community agreements
  • Building community connection
  • Feeling connected to each other
  • Explicitly teaching skills and practicing these skills around social, emotional skills that would help us to engage in these conversations.

Because listening feels particularly important:

  • How do we listen patiently?
  • How do we listen actively?
  • And how can we be aware of the space and time that we’re taking up with our voices?

And then a part of that also is teaching and practicing strategies for dealing with strong emotions. So when we’re feeling those strong feelings how can we deal with that? And how can we deal with that with others? Also establishing norms for conversations that are practiced regularly and are reinforced. Creating time and space to debrief individually, in small groups, in whole communities, in small groups.

It also might be helpful especially in majority white spaces to create affinity groups.

I have not done that this past year, but that is something that I’m interested in thinking about as well. Plan for strong emotions as a teacher; it’s going to happen. Have a script for yourself. What are you going to do when those strong emotions come up?

And then finally scaffolding discussions. Sentence stems are great, or sentence starters, discussion protocols. What is the system that we’re using is also great.

I use a lot of talking pieces in my room, they’re wonderful. How can we scaffold these discussions so we’re not just throwing kids in and expecting them to know what to do?

Starting with norms and standards

I started by looking at standards. I use Teaching Tolerance’s social justice standards. They have K-12 and they’re in these four kind of big categories of identity, diversity, justice, and action. These are are the pieces that we were working on with this first unit.

Grace Gilmour, "Fostering Brave Spaces"


I pulled from Quin Gonnell’s middle grade social justice curriculum. I’ve relied on him very heavily for the beginning of this unit when we were kind of starting and setting the stage for this work. So we started with looking at what our hopes and fears were. And then we thought about how could we create norms that would help us reach our hopes while also addressing our fears?

So these are the norms that I developed with my students that came out of that work:

  • Listen to understand rather than respond.
  • Be open to new ideas.
  • When we mess up, we make it right.
  • Stay present and engaged.
  • Speak your truth, and
  • Be respectful of each other.

And we’ve used these throughout the year.

Making space for strong emotions

The next thing we did — also pulling a lot from Quin Gonnell’s work — was preparing students for strong emotions.

We talked about comfort zones and learning zones.

We discussed and modeled strategies for responding to triggers, and actually had little sentence stems to help them with those as well. And we spent a lot of time at the beginning of the year just building community and connection — and hopefully trust — through check-ins and games. Then we practiced those discussion protocols so that we can kind of fall back on those structures. And we practiced those with accessible topics.

We didn’t jump in right away talking about racism or talking about sexism.

We initially talked about things like “would you rather” games and things like that, to get them used to those protocols.

And then some of our major topics were levels of oppression, social mobility, intersectionality, positionality, gender and sexuality bias, personal versus social identity, social and power construction of race. And then just the concept of justice. What is justice?

As a white woman I thought it was really important for me to try de-center myself as much as possible. And also just be really reflective and vulnerable with my students.

“What do middle schoolers need to understand about social identity and oppression?”

With that in mind, I wanted to really carefully integrate the arts and the personal testimony of people of color, as well as people with other marginalized identities.

So, we oftentimes started class with poetry or music or art or TED Talks or short stories just to kind of anchor ourselves, as well as center people with these marginalized identities. We also journaled every day, we modeled and practiced vocabulary usage. We had structured discussions. And then we oftentimes would end class with a more individualized guided inquiry where I would pose a question such as “Why are schools still segregated after Brown v Board?” And then kids would investigate that using resources that I provided.

So that was kind of every lesson.

And then the end of the unit we did a project where kids were asked to answer the question,

“What do middle schoolers need to understand about social identity and oppression?”

That was kind of our big overarching question. And then kids designed projects to do that.

Here’s some of the projects that kids created.

One was looking at the intersection of race and LGBTQ identities. Others looked at the school-to-prison pipeline, racial socialization in America, implicit bias, impacts of redlining today.

Overall for my students, the biggest kind of takeaway that was reflected in a lot of their reflections that they wrote was the shifting from an understanding of racism as something that happens between individuals to something that oftentimes happens between systems and from systems down.

Grace Gilmour, "Fostering Brave Spaces"


Some successes that I had: students regularly utilize social identity and justice concepts now without prompting. And with increasingly less prompting over time, they’re showing a much higher level of nuance. When we’re looking at history or current events, they’re able to kind of use these frameworks as a lens. They’re showing a greater understanding of their different social identities and how they impact them.

On a personal level I feel very much closer to my students this year than I have in the past.

I think that the vulnerability and the level of reflection that a unit like this takes just makes you closer as a community. I had six students come out to me this fall. And in addition I just had more students reaching out to me for various things and to seeing me as a person that they trust. Which I have really valued.

Over the course of this unit and this year, students also showed just less discomfort and hesitancy especially when talking about and naming race and racism. They’re no longer treated as bad words by my students. I’m hearing them just feel more comfortable naming those.

They’re also increasingly using strategies to interrupt oppressive language without me intervening. I hear very little oppressive language in my classroom anymore. I’m not naive to think that that is true outside of my class, but we’ve created an environment in which it’s very clear that oppressive language is not acceptable. And students have been able to interrupt that language without my support more and more.

Other things I’m going to work on are things I’m willing to work on.

In my curriculum, I’m wanting to — in addition to talking about oppression — also be talking about Black joy and Black creativity. And really also emphasizing moments not of oppression, because I think there’s a real danger of re-traumatizing kids, traumatizing kids or having my white students see Black people as only oppressed. I really want to emphasize that moving forward.

I also want to have a greater emphasis on Indigenous history and current events.

This is admittedly an area that I need to do a lot more learning in. I’m really trying to seek out resources right now to be able to do that more effectively with kids. And I’m wanting to make more explicit connections to the present oppression throughout my curriculum.

I’ve never shied away from the more traumatic or more difficult aspects of our history. I have at times done a poor job of connecting that to what we’re seeing now. So showing the through line from this history to our present. I’m really wanting to be better about that.

And then professionally I’m really ultimately wanting to acknowledge that this is a process, that I’m never going to do it perfectly and that I need to always be striving to do it better. A big part of that is just centering myself on the why, right? Which for me is I’m really wanting to do my part in creating a world in which people from a variety of identities can feel valued, can feel empowered and have equitable access to society. I believe strongly in democracy and in creating a world in which we actually can have an equitable democracy.

So that’s my why. And I want to continue just to center that as I’m doing this work.

If you have any questions definitely email me at Thank you so much.


SEL and mindfulness with the Learning Lab

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

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

It all started with a curious question

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

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

From Drew:

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Students at the center

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

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

This is something that happened naturally.

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

“Hey what about the mental check-in?”

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

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

From classroom practice to school-wide impact

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

But as she worked on that, word spread.

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


Next steps to keep up the momentum

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

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

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

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

What can you do?

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

And more than that:

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

Where can you take your teaching next?

Challenging Simplified Notions of Health Equity in the Middle Grades

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

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


Audio-only version


Annotated Transcript

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

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

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

Designing a health unit around equity

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

health equity


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

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

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

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

the health equity rainbow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conceptual: Why do health disparities exist?

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

“Health for All: An Introductory Unit”

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

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

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

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

Here’s the overview of the unit:

Brief overview of health equity unit

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

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

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

Finally we choose a topic to investigate.

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

“Unfortunate or Unjust?”

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

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

Unfortunate or Unjust? 6th grade lesson plan

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

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

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

As opposed to the other statement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Environmental Health & Environmental Justice

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

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

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

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

But what are students interested in investigating?

What areas of health equity are students interested in investigating?


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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Examples of Public Service Announcements (PSAs)

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

These are just three examples from what they did.

Racism & Health Justice Slideshow

Environmental Justice Video PSA
Kindness Kits

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

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

Sample Takeaways

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

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

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

Next Steps

next steps in teaching health equity

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

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

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

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

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

So I’m always trying to balance that.

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

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


Lindsay McQueen’s Slides



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

How to Facilitate Healthy & Respectful Conversations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Audio-only version



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

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

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

Meet Your Instructors

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

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

Merry Smith, Harwood Union High School

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

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

Maia George, Harwood Union High School

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

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

Jaye Fuller, Harwood Union High School

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

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

Anna Albertini, Harwood Union High School

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

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

Allie Brooks, Harwood Union High School

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

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

Mason Berry, Harwood Union High School

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

Where to start with building online conversation spaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you ever seen any of these behaviors before?



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

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

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

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

Challenges… from the students’ perspective

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

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

how to facilitate conversations


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happens in a high quality discussion?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a lovely list.

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

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

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

how to facilitate conversations


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have students establish the norms

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

how to facilitate conversations


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give it a try:

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

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

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

Tech tools to support healthy conversations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I’m going to open up this Jamboard.

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

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

A little note about Jamboards

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

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

how to facilitate conversations


Using silence as a tool in conversational spaces

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

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

Silence is oftentimes uncomfortable for us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even more resources


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

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

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

Next steps

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

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


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

Place-Based, De-Colonized Ecology in Middle School

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

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

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



Audio-Only Version


Annotated Transcript

Let’s jump right in to my pet peeve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s the problem.

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

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

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

So here was my goal in this unit.

ecology in middle school


My goal was threefold.

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

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

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

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

ecology in middle school


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ecology in middle school

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

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

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

ecology in middle school

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


The goal is to change those two sets of numbers.

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


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

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

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

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

And we built on this unit from that foundation.

ecology in middle school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humans in the Ecosystem: three methods


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

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

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

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

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

The other outcome?

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

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

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

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

ecology in middle school


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other exemplars from this unit

Wildlife Bridges


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

Questions from the Audience

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

Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll let you know how it goes.


Natalie Smith’s slides:




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


Creating community through advisory

Using mergers as community opportunities

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

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

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

Continue reading Creating community through advisory

What’s your inquiry question?

The why and how of personalization

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

How inquiry questions work in Learning Lab VT

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

Driven by inquiry

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

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

The questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us know in the comments below.

Increasing student engagement in PLPs at Williston Central

It’s about providing choice in reflection tools

getting started with action researchPersonalized Learning Plans (PLPs) across the state have taken many different forms and serve a few different purposes. One common thread among educators is a wondering of how to increase student engagement in the PLP process. How to make it more meaningful and relevant. Michael Willis, Jared Bailey, and middle grades student Hudson, accepted this challenge and over the course of the year, conducted action research on what might actually work. The three of them presented the results of that research to a packed audience at the Vermont Middle Grades Conference at the University of Vermont, this past January. Below, you’ll find a video recording of the presentation that includes the presenters’ materials. And below that, we’ve laid out that recorded presentation as a text for you to read, again accompanied by the presenters’ materials. A huge thank you to Mr. Willis, Mr. Bailey and Hudson, for sharing this story.


Solving the mystery of PLPs

Mr. Willis: “Last summer was the fourth MGI (Middle Grades Institute) that I’ve been to and I decided that I would do something around student engagement in PLPs. One, I don’t know that much about them. I hadn’t had any practice with the kind of official version using Protean, which we use in Williston. As a third and fourth grade teacher, I had done goal setting and reflecting and using blogs.  But, that was all fine and good until you put the label of “PLP” on it. Then it seems that the attitude, as probably a lot of you know, starts to suddenly change.

I was just texting my daughter (who is now in high school) and she asked what I was presenting on, and I told her and she went, “Oh, that’s boring. PLP is so boring.” I asked her why? She said she didn’t know. So there’s this shroud of mystery around them. So I thought I would try to engage students differently by just giving them some different options of how to reflect.

Putting the pieces together

I did want to try and give students some options of how to reflect. The idea of setting a goal wasn’t brand new. The idea of collecting evidence wasn’t brand new, but the idea of how to reflect? That was kind of a sticky wicket. I thought, well, maybe video, maybe audio, maybe some photos, which they were pretty comfortable doing. Maybe just: how could it be less about writing? So that’s where this came from. I did this survey in the beginning of the year:


What did our data say?

Well, the opinions were all over the map in terms of what students think about PLPs, specifically. But in terms of what they thought about reflecting, the majority of students still prefer written reflections. I thought it was interesting if given the choice, students chose writing, yet nobody’s seemed to like the idea of having to do that writing. It’s a mystery!

"How would you like to show evidence of your learning?" 42% chose writing, 11.5% chose video, 38.5% chose drawing & sketching, 26.9% chose audio and 15.4% chose "Other".                                  

The fifth graders were really my trial group. Two times a week we meet in skills group and we do a number of things. But over the last month or so we’ve been thinking about PLPs.

Enter Sketchnoting!

Can you Hudson, talk a little bit about what your experience has been with goal setting and having to collect evidence?

Hudson: I did start out. I did write a goal but it was just hard because I had to write all the other responses to that goal, like my evidence. Then I did something called sketchnoting and it’s like you basically draw a quick sketch and then you draw and then you write like a few little captions. And it just like helped me out a lot.

Mr. Willis: When I said that they were clear in their opinions about having choice, I wondered if they really believed that they have a choice. It occurred to me after talking to Hudson was that maybe they didn’t know they had all these options. You’re going to find that both the fifth and the sixth grade believe that having choices is important yet… I don’t know if they thought they had choices available.

"How important is having a choice in the way you get to do work?" 53.8% scored it highly important.


Reflection doesn’t have to be museum quality

Last summer, I first heard of sketchnoting. Now, I’m a writer. I communicate better in writing and I’m not a drawer. I told Hudson my sketchnoting would be stick figures and well you said to me—

Hudson:  It doesn’t really have to be like a perfect sketch, like museum or any kind of… quality.

Mr. Willis: That to me? Is perfect news. And I think that’s the message that so I just dove right in. Now, I’m also the kind of person who doesn’t necessarily do all of this reading first, to be honest. I just dive in. We did a month-long integrated unit about trash and waste, relating to content areas. We called it garbology. That’s a new word, Google Docs didn’t recognize it. We piloted it. Thank you. I showed them a video from Brainpop about waste management and said there aren’t a lot of rules here, go for it.  Not every student liked it. Below you can see definitely one of the kind of flashier, more complete versions that I got. But the idea that a student could do this without much instruction, without much guidance really sold me on the idea of, well, maybe it could be used for a reflection on your PLP.

One student’s sketchnote on waste management. Click or tap to enlarge.

Sketchnoting from a student perspective

Hudson, the reason that you’re here is that sketchnoting did appeal to you. Right? You said it doesn’t have to be a museum piece. How does writing make you feel?

Hudson: It gets me a little stressed and I just feel like it’s writing [the same thing] all over again every week.

Mr. Willis: What is it about writing that kind of gives you that feeling?

Hudson:  Just staring at a screen and typing the whole time when you could be drawing and doing quick little like notes just like what I really like to do.

Examples, organizers, and responsibility, oh my…

Mr. Willis: I learned that students would reflect on their PLP after the summative activities in the unit. One of their complaints is that we only do this after summative activities and I thought, well that’s true, but one thing at a time. How can we make that action, that activity perhaps be a bit more engaging, and have this idea of choice? Here’s a student example I thought was interesting:

Mr. Bailey was doing the social studies piece. This idea of this graphic organizers came first and I thought was interesting with this student taking responsibility. They’ve got the goal listed to take initiative and responsibility for learning. This person actually, you see the picture of the house. We don’t always chat. I’m busy teaching the math piece and they’re doing theirs and seeing the student reflect and say, look, I did some of this at home. I did it in class.

That was new for me. I had no idea that student was even doing that. I know the student loves to draw. So, this seemed like a natural choice for this one but the learning that I got from it, I’m not sure would have come out in writing. I appreciated that piece.

An example of visual reflection via sketchnote

"Let's hear from our student guest!"Now, Hudson and his tablemate, Tommy really were two that dove into this idea of being able to use sketchnoting, this idea of visually reflecting. Hudson, what does this show about your work on the integrated unit?

Hudson: Well, this just shows all my classwork that I did on computers and on paper.

Mr. Willis: What made this work for you?

Hudson: Well,  it wasn’t really writing, but it was, so, I used like a cycle WeVideo and it was kind of cool and just like put in like little clips of videos. Then I got good sources. Like what I said, good sources makes for good products. I don’t mean a product like a computer kind of product, I mean a good piece of classwork.

Mr. Willis: I like that you’ve got those visuals. So those people who don’t end up in Washington that have no idea about what we did during our unit, I’m feeling like we look at this graphing shows up in math. What’s this on the left hand side? You said it brought up a genuine problem.

Hudson: It was about how marine animals and animals are getting sick in the oceans

Hudson: Yeah, are getting hurt by that.

Mr. Willis: Then the top left hand one, what does that detail mean? So, you’ve got this drawing, it’s pretty detailed…

Hudson: By detail I mean, I added stuff for like color coding and…

Mr. Willis: Now, was that a goal of yours, detail?

Hudson: Not really.

Student opinions on sketchnotes

Mr. Willis: A couple of the top two students, you can see this idea of what Hudson was saying. “I don’t feel the pressure”, “I don’t feel this idea that has to be perfect when I do it”, “I can see my thinking” and they can communicate visually. The bottom two I thought were interesting because they are people that actually, students that actually do choose the words that they’re feeling like either not a fan of drawing or if it’s notetaking, it’s hard to keep up.

A sign of success: students revisiting their reflections

Mr. Willis: I’ve got to wrestle with this idea of how using it to take notes during learning, which is I think maybe the next step into math as I was saying earlier. But also I think the reflection piece though, there is no real timeline. It isn’t really like you have to be done at the end of the class. Hudson saying it’s something I can revisit. I’ve noticed students want to revisit a sketchnote more than they want to go back and revise the paragraph. I’m sure that that’s not something that I’m sure that’s something you’ve heard before as well.

“Let’s Recap”: A tool for reflection

Mr Willis: I did go back to something that I had used in the past. It’s called Let’s Recap. Let’s Recap is great because it organizes video reflections from students. You can send out a prompt, they get to join code. They with their Chromebooks have the ability to film and record answers to a question you put out there. They get a little window that pops up and they record themselves. Then you can then take this video and embed it in something, or share a link. Students can download it to their own files. My students downloaded their videos and inserted them into their Protean PLPs. That’s what Williston is using; they all have their own Protean accounts.

Video reflections from Let’s Recap

Here are four Williston students reflecting on… reflecting on their PLPs.

We did have them practice off a script here. Some will be just kind of, and this is me and here’s my reflection. You can tell you in practice a bit more. The fact that you get him to talk with those transferrable skills language. We did have them set goals and in the past I believe it was maybe as something as simple as I want to get my spelling homework.

Transferable skills help students see cross-curricular

Mr. Bailey: Now with these transferable skills goals, they’re able to pull evidence from other places. Our district has transferable skills which go on to become graduation standards in grades nine through twelve.

Champlain Valley School District's transferable skills, along with the evidence students provide to show they've achieved them. Click or tap to enlarge.
Champlain Valley School District’s transferable skills, along with the evidence students provide to show they’ve achieved them. Click or tap to enlarge.

We’re having students pick one of those transferable skills as their goal, to really help them see the cross-curricular piece of all the transferable skills. It was much harder to track them last year when a kid had a personal goal of scoring in the soccer season, because then they were like, well, it’s not soccer season right now. So we have no evidence this week. Most importantly, what we’re doing with intentionality is having them take a deeper dive into that transferrable skill, see it spread across their day and outside of their life in school rather than having them pick a personal goal, an academic goal, and trying to juggle the two. Pick one goal and let’s go deeper on that and see it kind of come through in all your classes.

What did we accomplish?

Mr. Willis: If you had to choose now and or say at the end of the work that we’ve done over the last couple of months, do you feel like you have more choice now?

Hudson: Yes, like I said before, I thought it was just writing for a long time. Now, I have like three or four new choices that I can do.

Mr. Willis: What does that feel like, in terms of when the assignment comes now?

Hudson: I can just think into it instead of thinking, oh, I have to write again. Do another sketch here or maybe do a video recording.

Mr. Bailey: You were saying in the lobby that it kind of feels more freeing. That you’re able to think more about what you want to say in the reflection, rather than having to worry about making it fit into a writing piece.

Mr. Willis: Right.

Mr. Bailey: He’s able to focus much more on actually what he wants to say and the quality of the reflection, because he’s not having to try to figure out how to do a high quality reflection and then transfer that as a writing piece. Additionally, I did use Let’s Recap as a way of having students reflect on: how do you feel about the newer choices?

What’s next?

For me, the Protean learning curve is what we all need to keep working on. I think just the micro of it, the minutia of sharing and making it public? Just the pieces of that. As I’ve heard from a lot of workshops, finding more time to do it is tricky, and that’s what makes me think that this evidence collection needs to be able to happen anytime. I’ve yet to really do that as well as I want to.  I do want to give an actual survey using Google Forms, but the video feedback is what I use for now. I don’t know if people are familiar with Protean or if you’re using it, but these videos and sketchnotes can be uploaded right into the evidence of a PLP in Protean.

These are flexible pathways for reflection

Kind of like taking a flexible pathway and putting it in a flexible pathway! It’s that idea of if we’re going to give students flexible pathways for learning, let’s give them flexible pathways for reflecting on their learning. Subsequently, what we found at Sterling and what Michael’s brought to the table and is his year with us, is this idea of giving them multiple cause. We were so text driven in their reflections.  However, that doesn’t really seem to fit with the philosophy of a personalized learning plan.

The idea is to find tools that make you successful and to learn how to play to those strengths. As a result, coming up with a variety of options for reflecting on a personalized learning plan is a light bulb moment for us and the rest of the team. So that’s been great.

Hudson, thank you for coming. I appreciate you presenting with me. Thank you very much.


Unlocking family communication in math class

Students write weekly emails to their families

family communication around education, social media and digital citizenshipLizzie Stockbridge, a 6th grade math teacher at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington, Vermont, gives students 15 minutes every week to write an email home.

But when she started she had no idea how powerful this simple routine would turn out to be.

Unicorn stories!

 Here’s a recent snippet from an email by a student who writes about “Herald the Unicorn” each week:
As you recall last weeks event’s were brutal for Herald this week though they get even worse as I must have reader advisory for this because its so scary it will make you look around and wonder if there really was something moving around in that closet, so creepy it will make you want to run away and actually do that homework that you were told to do if you choose to keep reading you have been WARNED.

Intrigued? Well, read the whole email here as well as his father’s full response, which starts:

John, nearly all of your sentences in this week’s submission are run-ons, but all is forgiven. Why? Because this work is simply fabulous. Foreboding, tense and yet simultaneously humorous. You are juxtaposing genres here, with touches of theater, fable, horror and, dare I suggest, even poetry.

Lizzie’s students are really engaged in this routine. They use their weekly emails to express creativity, raise red flags, reflect on academic learning, process intense events — all sorts of things.

Melding student voice & family connections

Lizzie is a first-year teacher but she recognized the importance of connecting with families. And she knew that the key was to follow the lead of students to make sure it was meaningful.

At the end of the first week of school, students hadn’t yet delved into the math curriculum. When Lizzie read the first set of emails, she found that “they were just so excited about everything that had happened. Before school, after school, how there’s sports here now, how there’s clubs, blah, blah, blah. All the different teachers that they talked to. … Once I saw how invested they were in these other things, I just rolled with it.”

That’s responsiveness. And her instinct to let her students lead planted the seeds of the good things to come.

How does it work?

There are a few simple components to Lizzie’s approach.

  • The gift of time: Students write for 15 minutes on Fridays. Lizzie sets a timer and students are asked to reflect on their week. Otherwise there are no constraints on topic or format. Some students use speech-to-text and some even use emojis rather than formal writing.
  • Email buddies: Each student has at least one “email buddy” to serve as their authentic audience. Lizzie had originally thought she would require the email to go to somebody in the home, but she quickly realized that this didn’t work for everybody. Lizzie makes sure that every student has at least one person to email. For a couple of students this meant connecting them with an external buddy who had some time on his hands: Lizzie’s father. And a few students chose to email teachers within the school with whom they have close relationships.
  • Responses encouraged: Lizzie periodically reminds email buddies that responding makes a big difference for students’ buy-in. When students do receive a response: “It’s clear that they’re excited about sending the emails and the parents who respond often start the email by saying, ‘I love your Friday emails. They brighten my day.’ Then I hear the kids come in and they’re like, ‘They got my email. We talked about this. We talked about that,’ which is great.
  • Teacher CC’d: Lizzie receives all of the emails as well. She skims them over the weekend. “I usually do it on Saturday morning and I’m just sitting there on my computer like, ‘…That’s so cute.’ Yes, it’s nice, yes.” This part is key. So many positive things flow from the fact that Lizzie takes the time to look through the emails.

8 positive impacts of weekly emails

In addition to strengthening family communication, here are eight more benefits of students writing weekly emails home.

1. Teacher student relationships

Lizzie values learning about her students. This was big part of the reason why she altered her original math-focused email plan.

When I saw how they enjoy me talking to them on Mondays being like, “Oh, how did that football game go?” Like, “What? You know I played football? You read my email!” Which is really cool. Instead if I’m like, “How did ratios go last week in Math?” They’re like, “I don’t want to talk to you about this.” That was my major switch.

As a former math teacher, I was always jealous of ELA teachers who learned so much from students’ writing. The weekly emails do this for Lizzie.

2. Curricular relevance

Lizzie uses what she learns to directly support math learning as well.

It makes teaching math so much easier to me. Because if I notice the kids not getting it, I can make connections. “Okay, I know that you have watched Spiderman this past weekend because I saw it in your email.” And so I’m like, “Okay, what if Spiderman needed to save someone and they needed – what do they need to make the suit? …when I ask them to create their own problems, they can easily do it and they connect it to things that are going on outside of the class. Where I feel like last year if I ever ask my students to create anything, it would just be surface level class pencils to markers, but now, I feel like they know that they can talk to me about everything that’s going on because they know that I read it.

3. Crisis prevention & support

In several cases, Lizzie has come across information that was helpful to her team mates for supporting a student.

It helps in other classes, I noticed, because I found some emails, some red flag emails, and I immediately just contact the team or I contact whoever needs to be contacted. Also, for kids who shut down in class, they don’t tell us anything but then they’ll email about it. It’s nice to see that I can see what they’re thinking without them having to verbally tell me.

In one case a student noted that “my teachers hate me.” Lizzie notified her teammates and they talked to the student about it. The positive change was immediate. “She’s like a completely different kid. She comes in all bubbly and says hello to us every day now.” Listening is a powerful strategy and the emails give students another venue for voice.

4. Students connecting with their families

Lizzie was hoping that students and families would talk about school more at home due to the Friday emails. Her action research suggests a moderate shift based on parent survey responses.

Lizzie did see some interesting exchanges however:

A lot of students think ahead to their weekend. …they often talk about what they hoped to happen in the weekend. They send a list home of things that they want to happen. … It’s something they usually send an ask home of, “Can we eat popcorn while we watch our movie?” Or, “Can we watch this movie instead of that movie? Could we go outside? Can we go sledding? Could we…” It varies, but they are usually sending a list and then asking something of the people they send their emails to.

Kids getting a jumpstart on weekend negotiations suggests that they saw this as a legitimate communication tool for the stuff they care about.

5. Student learn life skills

Lizzie was amazed at how little her 6th graders knew about the tech skills related to emailing. Students needed to learn how to use Outlook, how to create a signature, how to enter email addresses, and how to access responses.

It became apparent several months into the school year that she had forgot one important aspect. A parent pleaded, “Can you please teach them how to reply?” Students had been creating new emails each week. Contributing to an ongoing threaded conversation is certainly a 21st Century life skill!

6. Student reflection

Lizzie framed the emails as a form of reflection:

I do call it an email reflection, and so now when they hear the word reflection, I think that they are correlating the, “Okay, now I have to process what I have done.” I don’t know if it’s true in all cases, but I’ve noticed that whenever I say reflection to them, they know exactly what’s expected of them.

In some cases students were focusing their reflection on academic learning. In many cases they were just thinking through the day-to-day tribulations of young adolescence.

I’m thinking that it’s a way for them to process what has happened to them this week, and if that is school related or if that’s something outside of school, that’s up to them, but taking that time to think about what they have done for the week or what they have done for the hour is really important.

In a school-wide survey, Lizzie’s team received positive responses relative to other teams. Parents were impressed with the family communication and students were enthusiastic about reflection. Lizzie and her team mates consider the Friday emails to be an important contributor to the encouraging feedback.

7. Kids like it

If Lizzie has to skip a Friday, she gets a lot of push back from students. Students sometimes finish their emails in study hall. And students have sent their Friday email when they were sick or traveling.

Pie chart showing 72% of students enjoy Friday emails and 25% more say "maybe."

Some students have gotten really creative. One student created the idea of “Girl Power Industries,” where her weekly learning is framed as world-changing. And if you check out a typical email from her then you might believe that this girl is indeed likely to change the world!

8. Families like it

Lizzie has received good feedback from families as well.

Pie chart that show 94% of parents enjoy Friday emails.This comment on the survey seems to capture the parental gratitude:

"Thank you so much for taking the time to create the weekly reflections with the kids. It's a wonderful glimpse into our child's week through his own words and memories. It seems harder these days to tease conversation about school out of him, this really gets the ball rolling around the dinner table. Thank you and keep them coming! [redacted]

And Lizzie has felt the difference in her interactions with families.

Parents are constantly reaching out to me. Every week, I at least have five parents reaching out to me. It can be simple things, concerns, or just check-ins … When I see parents and introduce myself. They’re like, “Oh no, we know who you are.” Immediately they’re like, “Yes. We know you. You’re the math teacher. We know exactly who you are. We hear about you and see your emails,” which is really cool.

It’s so important to be seen and to be known. For teachers, for students, and for their families. Sometimes the simplest routines can help us be human.

Action Research

Please check out the screencast below to see Lizzie’s presentation at the Middle Grades Conference on her approach, her action research, and her findings.


How could you empower students to reflect via email?


How do you measure success with project-based learning?

“A Tale of Three Projects”

getting started with action research

Two Vermont educators share how they measure success with project-based learning units… in space!

Allan Miller and Natasha Grey, two educators from Charlotte Central School, Charlotte VT, shared their journey towards authentic, meaningful, engaging project-based learning. The “Gold Standard” in project-based learning. At the 2019 Middle Grades Conference, they candidly talked about the successes and failures they experienced with three project-based learning units conducted during the 2017-2018 school year. The projects built towards a deeply meaningful and highly engaging set of learning opportunities. But along the way, there was a lot of learning on the teachers’ parts, in terms of what worked and what… could use some improvement.

So: how do you know what works?


A full, annotated  transcript of their presentation, with slides, appears below.

Why We’re Here

"A Tale of Three Projects"

“We were hoping to give you a brief overview of our experience planning a project-based learning experience for a group of sixth graders. We’ll start with our overall first experience and then talk about a model that we grounded ourselves in to help us figure out how to do project-based learning in a really meaningful way. Then we’ll talk about the next two iterations of our experience.

 In case you’re wondering what the ISS is doing up there? 

These are science-based projects but we’re not so much talking about the design of the project in science. We’re talking about the design of the project in general. Hopefully it transfers to humanities, language arts, science and math. 

Dinner verses Dessert

Here’s our basic take away: this image represents our learning last year.  

The difference between having a super-engaging activity that students love and a scaffolded in, grounded project-based learning. That’s what we learned from our three projects. The Buck Institute, one of the world’s leading experts on project-based learning, refers to the difference between these two things as akin to the difference between dessert and a full course meal.” 


Project 1.0 – Sally Ride EarthKAM

Charlotte Central School project-based learning

Natasha: ‘Allan came to me with a really awesome activity. One that he had done in several other schools and several other places. It was taking photographs from the International Space Station. I’ll be honest; I had no prior knowledge about the International Space Station. I had no interest in space exploration. It was a leap of faith for me. It turned out to be cool activity. Our school was in the process of implementing proficiency-based learning I was like “Oh we can use this, we can totally attach this to some learning targets and use it to integrate, and it’s going to be great.”’

Did we hit the targets? Well…

In implementing proficiency-based learning, we were trying to make the learning goals for students really transparent.  As well as the pathway to how to get those goals. Trying to find different experiences for students to use to hit those targets was really important. We thought, well we have these really amazing pictures that students have taken from the International Space Station they can use those pictures as evidence. What a unique way to integrate evidence in a way that isn’t just text-based! It was also a really awesome opportunity for us to use our one-to-one Chromebooks and to develop some responsible technology skills. As well as some just really practical technology skills. We combined all of these wonderful ideas into a culminating project, that we thought would knock the socks off our students and us. Students needed to make a narrated PowerPoint using Screencastify , The students used their pictures as evidence to support a claim.

Charlotte Central School project-based learning


And here’s an example of the resulting screencast.

It was… not so great. In fact, we took that really awesome activity that kids were so stoked about and we forced them to make these miserable products. They didn’t like making them. And we had to pull teeth to get them to do it. They were absolutely horrible for me to sit down and watch *45* of. 

We refer to this as a belly flop.

It’s like the dioramas that end up in the garbage after a project.  What did we miss? This makes me go back and look and say, “Wow that had no authenticity, the students really didn’t have a choice, it wasn’t a sustained inquiry.” Let’s not kid ourselves, that wasn’t PBL. We learned and said, “Oh, maybe we’ve got to go back and do a little bit of analysis for ourselves of what project-based learning is.” 

Reflections on PBL 1.0

There were some really great things. The kids loved doing the actual project; they were going home and taking photographs and really using a lot of great technology skills to do that. It was an innovative way to use chromebooks.

How often does a student get take control of the camera on an actual space station???? That is a whole lot more than using your Chromebook to write another essay.

A lot of students did show real growth on the evidence and analysis scales, especially between interpreting implicit evidence and explicit evidence. As well as really knowing the difference and being able to articulate it. But we wanted to build on video and screencasting. The tools showed us what the kids could do. It’s a formative assessment.

What didn’t work:

Charlotte Central School project-based learning

We learned one of the things that really didn’t work was: we forced that alignment between those targeted learning skills and that culminating project. It really was us forcing them. Background knowledge, that was another one. We had students do research they didn’t have background in — topography and the connection between civilizations — and that was forced. Plus, we didn’t give ourselves time for it.

Finally, those products weren’t really made for anyone except for us: their teachers. There was no genuine audience. Students really didn’t feel a deep connection to the work, or any real need to get it done. Or any need to do it well outside of pleasing us and that’s really not a good enough reason.

Project One? As the kids would say,  “it was the worst of times”. But things did get better for us. (Eventually).

Project 2.0 – Houston We Have A Problem

Charlotte Central School project-based learning


We designed an engineering design problem. Continuing with the International Space Station theme was some background that we want to give the students. We looked at: “Can they make an insulator, can they take something like this which has some technology involved” and include data logger. Could they insulate this simulation battery and a) keep it cool in the heat extremes of space and b) keep it warm in the cold extremes of space. We were really intentional, we had a science target that we were working on teaching kids about and we had a math target. We started with what skills we wanted to build  and then built this project around them.

A. Content in PBL? Why YES.Charlotte Central School project-based learning


B. Fail early, fail often, fail fast

Now, we really have some belief in design thinking. Design thinking is the idea that we want students to learn to iterate and we literally introduced this as maybe the stupidest model that could ever be introduced in school. Failure is of course an option.  We want the design thinking idea that even the best engineers fail early, fail often and fail fast, that’s how they learn. We follow this model to say, “You’re going to test, you’re going to prototype and it’s not whether your design is fantastic, it’s what you learn from your design”. That’s what scientists do! 

So, this is kind of how the project worked. We had a set of materials that we could generally say an astronaut could find on the International Space Station. Working in groups gave them some very specific parameters.


Charlotte Central School, project-based learning

C. Test, examine, rethink

From that, here are our first round products. Here are the insulators that we designed to withstand heat.

Charlotte Central School, project-based learning

By the way, Allan’s wife was incredibly generous and let him put those insulators in the oven at home. When you put a plastic bag in the oven it doesn’t smell good. It melts. And students learned it’s not especially an effective insulator. However, from that experience, each team received a graph full of data. And they were so invested in understanding these graphs and understanding how they related to the model that they had designed. And we had never seen kids dig that deeply into understanding the graph, it was amazing. So right there was our Math target:

Can you understand that data and what it means?

D. Next: collaborate and redesign

The next thing they had to do was after they worked in their small groups to understand their design and what elements worked in it, they had to collaborate with the opposite groups. Suddenly they were on new teams that had to deal with the heat and cold. They had to work with brand new collaborators in designing an insulator that could withstand both heat and cold. And they dug right in. We have just never seen sixth graders collaborate so genuinely over an academic subject as they did with this design challenge.They were all invested in understanding each other’s designs, and designing something that could really hit those targets that Allan had laid out for them. Here is one of the models that they created so that their insulator could be recreated by someone else, and you can see real evidence of that collaborative learning.

Charlotte Central School project-based learning

E. Growth thanks to data.

Now, whereas the Trial One designs were all over the place, by the time we’d gotten down to our Trial Two designs, students had really identified elements using the data from the graphs. They looked at their original designs and identified elements that helped prevent that heat transfer. They used:

  • their Trial One models;
  • Trial One graphs;
  • their new teams;
  • their Trial Two Models;
  • and their Trial Two graphs

to decide which device was most successful, which insulator was most successful.

Reflections on PBL 2.0

“Practice makes progress”

Charlotte Central School project-based learning


You can see, we were definitely growing in our knowledge of proficiency-based learning and project based-learning. Again, this was a really engaging activity that kids and parents were talking about. That was really important to us. Also just the graphing component, digital graphing, that was something new for most of them. This was really genuine problem solving and collaboration in a really meaningful way. Truly, we learned as much from these failures as we did these successes. We thought we really hit the design elements of it. Teams realized that this failure informed the learning, which is what we wanted hear from the engineers who designed it.

Our end result, that summative, really showed their growth. We could use that as a summative assessment, when they had to examine those graphs and identify which insulator was the most efficient and was the best. That was real evidence for us of their understanding, it wasn’t just observational like it was in the first round of project based learning.

The data was relevant. It was authentic and informative thinking. So moving forward they had something they wanted that sustained inquiry.

Notice we have a lot more pluses this time. One our deltas was that teaching and modeling was really challenging and models really didn’t show a lot of growth from the beginning to the end. They were really basic. We decided not to even asses the modeling target.

Students understood how to make a better design

If we go back to our core energy transfer, again, students understood how to make a better design. They understand conduction, convection, reflection. Both concepts we could have gone much deeper in so that they were intentional could explain this is why this model worked and works better than this one. Didn’t get that as well as we’d like to.

It was a great opportunity to slow down and do those things. We didn’t take the time to do that, next time we might do it. We might really dig deep into those concepts.

PBL 3.0: ISS downlink and research videos

Charlotte Central School, project-based learning


We were presented with an opportunity based off of some work that Allan did to have a downlink conversation with astronauts who were actually on the International Space Station. WHAT? It was a really powerful experience. 

Now, this is not an opportunity available to any school in the country; they only do about five or six a year and you apply for it. But there’s also the opportunity through NASA to Skype an astronaut. NASA pretty much guarantees if you give them five or six weeks, they’ll hook you up with genuine astronaut you can Skype in your classroom, which is one of those just motivating things. 

We learned from our Earth Cam experience (PBL 1.0, above) that even though it was a really cool activity, if we didn’tembed it in a meaningful way… that’s all it was going to be. We worked really hard to create something that would make this downlink really meaningful. And we came up with a challenge: Can you create a two minute video that engages viewers in the excitement of an experiment that’s taking place on ISS? That’s what the kids were meant to do after.

Launching the project with a NASA REQUEST!

Charlotte Central School project-based learning

We needed a really special launch. To help motivate our kids and get them really deeply invested. We knew we had to do something a little different ,and so we tapped into a existing resource: NASA education specialist, Scott Black. It really didn’t take all that much planning, it took about 20 minutes. He Skyped in, did a video conference with our students and asked them the question:

“Can you guys create a video? Can you help NASA out and create this video for us?” 

Oh boy. Our kids walked away saying, “NASA needs us! So we’re there!”

Learning targets 3.0

Charlotte Central School project-based learning

Again, we wanted to be really intentional about our design and not just have this be a really cool activity but how to be grounded in a learning that we wanted them to be doing. Understanding testable questions in science, using that technology responsibly.  Then there’s a humanities target too.

PBL Management – “it’s not laissez-faire”

Charlotte Central School project-based learning

We set this wonderful project up, and then we couldn’t just step back and not do anything. There was a lot of teacher management that went into it. There was a lot of student-directed learning. The students had lot of choice. They had a lot of choice in this project. But Allan and I grouped them really intentionally to have supportive peer relationships. They had to do a lot of critiquing and a lot of revising to make sure that it was a worthy product.

Allan and I set up a lot of opportunities and a lot of touch points for them. Sometimes it was peer-to-peer, and sometimes it was peer-to-teacher, and sometimes it was just check-pointing against some of those standards, some of those scales.

We helped our students manage their time because these were genuine public products that they were going to present at open house. It really was a driver for our students. 



Seemingly, a little different than our product from the first one. Pretty excited about those –there are 20 of them. Let’s just say we’re excited.

Reflection on PBL 3.0

Charlotte Central School project-based learninb

Again they loved it, the parents loved it, we loved it. It was so much fun to do. We had the voice, the choice.They really built skills in a genuine way, and asked wonderful questions. I think we turned something that could have been just a dessert or appetizer downlink into a project that had genuine learning with it. We saw growth in all the targets that we had set out in this project and that was because of our intentionality around how we built it.

Especially the collaboration and the ability to solve problems. Those public products got so much feedback and the kids were so proud of that and so invested in them. We have a lot of students who are now talking about career options; I could do something with this.

Next steps: Keep talking with scientists

As we think about it this year our big challenge is to go deep in the science. We couldn’t have the in-depth conversation we wanted but we did discover that, there’s another program, “Skype with a Scientist”. With about two to three weeks warning you could identify a scientist in the life sciences and connect with them. That’s what we’re going to do.  We will take each individual group, they can connect with them. Have one on one conversations saying “this is what I think, I don’t understand this” We’re going to try to leverage that technology in that way.

I’d really take that opportunity to slow down, go deep into learning and take advantage of their genuine interest.

Charlotte Central School project-based learning

Toward a student-directed classroom

Releasing responsibility in Ottauquechee

an action research module examining scheduling and student choiceOttauquechee Elementary School teacher Kim Dumont had a vision. She wanted to build her students’s self-direction and self-efficacy. She wanted students to feel like leaders of their classroom and their own learning. Over the summer, with the help of a week at Vermont’s Middle Grades Conference, Dumont put together a plan to help her fourth grade students learn self-direction and self-efficacy.

An action research plan was born.

This fall, she launched that plan, helping to build her students self-direct and efficacy through modeling and through releasing responsibility. Here’s the Google Site where she’s documenting her research:

Kim Dumont's action research plan

The results

She presented the results of this research over the first half of the school year at the 2019 Middle Grades Conference. You can either watch Kim’s presentation in the video below, or read how it went, in Kim’s own words, below.



“Good morning, thank you all for being here. I called my presentation “Letting Go”, because I’m trying to give control of classroom operations to my fourth graders.

This is really a journey that we are all on together. I wanna introduce our cast of characters.

As you can see, they really are characters. I don’t know about other grades, but fourth graders, they won’t take a serious picture if you don’t promise them the goofy one. So here’s the goofy one. In the classroom everyday, it’s me, a wonderful paraprofessional who works one on one with one of my students, and 16 nine to ten year old learners. At the beginning of the year, they gave themselves the name — team name — the Dumontstars. And we really do use that name. And so there they are.

Our story begins with my belief that fourth graders need to feel ownership over their classroom and their learning to get the most out of school.

It’s really the foundation for this. My goal is that the class will run everything for the entire day and I won’t say a word to them. We’ll call it the silent day. The next point is that I will gradually release responsibility for the running of the classroom to the students and promote self-efficacy.

This really came about through MGI in June. We talked a lot about identity and self-efficacy, and how important it is for students to feel that ownership and feel that they can succeed. Really that’s what self-efficacy is — the belief that you can succeed.

The other inspiration was the book Learn Like A Pirate: Empower Your Students to Collaborate, Lead and Succeed. If you haven’t read it, it’s a fantastic book. I highly recommend it. Paul Solarz talks about his own classroom and his experience releasing responsibility and also just about the “silent day”.

The students that read it were like, “Oh, I can do this.”

With these fourth graders, I hear they’re going to be a really good group. We’re gonna try to do this. So, that’s what our plan was with gradually releasing responsibility. I was hoping to show an increase in their self-efficacy in their classroom ownership.

To put the plan into action, I wrote a list of routines, the rituals that they need to do everyday.

At MGI, you certainly have all the time to think and you’d come up with the best-laid plans and introduce them, “This day, day one, August 28th.”Okay, we’re going to be doing this, this, and this.” And these are the days they are going to be able to do it on their own or self-directed, and this is how we’re gonna know that they’re doing well. Of course with MGI, everything seems all very rosy and wonderful and most of this  happened similar to what it says here.


The red indicates things that we just took out. It wasn’t working for us. Blue was something that we had to change because again, it didn’t go quite as expected. Yellow is something, well, we misses our date and missed our target were still working on it, and that’s okay.


This isn’t the whole list, this is just a snapshot of it. I was going through, I’ve just seen, what do we have to do? What can we change based on what we need?

The other part of this was to introduce self-efficacy.

This was new language. It’s not something that they’ve ever heard. So we did that through first a self-assessment and all they need to do is fill in statements, the ones that Chris Stevenson has developed and have used at MGI, and you’ll see that on that on the next slide, what those statements are.


click or tap to enlarge

So they did that before we even started talking about self-efficacy and what is that, what does that mean. They just filled in statements: “I belong to and get along with…” So they were just really thinking about their own identity at that point.

We also read the book The First Rule of Punk, and we ended up Skyping with the author, Celia C. Perez.

It was just an amazing experience all around. The reason we used this book is because the main character, Malu, is talking about her identity, trying to figure out who she is. So we looked at self-efficacy through her lens.


We also made zines. If you’ve never seen a zine, they’re just about the cutest little thing.They are mini-magazines and one of them is a model based on Malu and her own, her self-efficacies. So, we talked about hers and then we kinda matched them up to the model. Then I made one for myself as a model, and because I felt if they were letting me know about them, I was going to let them know about me.


And so there’s a picture of them all working diligently to cut up words and letters that represent them choosing their little own self-efficacy zines. They love making zines. Once we started, there were zines everywhere all the time for everything. (Just as a warning if anybody decides to do that!)

These are some of the results from the first self-efficacy self-assessment that they did.

click or tap to enlarge

And as you can see, they just have to fill in, finish those phrases. A lot of them are about their families and scores for Math comes up a lot as far as things they need to get better at and how they’re going to do that. This is exactly what they wrote. You might notice the “pinch my nose” as the things they wanna get better at. But you know what, fourth graders, you know them.

This first time, it was really amazing that most of them could write something. So they are feeling that they can be successful, in some ways. We don’t see a lot of school. But this is like the third day of school, so not surprising that they’re not yet feeling that they’re successful at school.

Then in the follow-up though, we see a lot more mention of the classroom environment from the school

Things that are happening in the classroom that they feel that they are having a higher level of self-efficacy in the classroom.

Yes, one student, bless her soul, did write, “I take care of Mrs. Dumont.”

They’re clearly feeling a strong connection with the classroom while with their friends and what we’re doing at school. And so after four months, that’s exactly what I was hoping to see.

The other way that they’re taking ownership is that everyone in the class is entitled to get the group’s attention pretty much any time as long as it’s worthwhile.

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We’re working on that right now. They really love that chime, they love clapping. They love getting the group’s attention for things that sometimes we have to say not that the whole group really need their attention. Well, we do that privately. It’s not like, Hey, you don’t need everybody’s attention. But I think it’s really important for them to know that their voice is powerful, that theirs are just as important as mine. And so if they need the class’ attention, they’re welcome to get it. And like I said, they use it, they use it a lot. Sometimes more successfully than others, but they’re doing it.

The other way that they’re taking ownership, is we came up with classroom jobs.

The first round, they got to get any idea they want to. Nothing was thrown out.

So we have things like “Pillow Patroller”. Basically, we have pillows in the classroom, like somebody should make sure those are picked up. We need a pillow patroller. And so we have some really fine ideas. They did a survey where every idea was put on the survey and they would say yes or no. I want you to rate them. This is an example of one of the results.

Anything that got more than 50% of the vote was an automatic to go on the final list. Anything that got less than 50% of the vote was not in the final. Those that got 50% were put aside to be talked about as a whole group.

So, we voted; some of them stayed, some of them went. Pillow patroller didn’t make the cut but phone answerer did because, they do love answering the phone in the class.

That’s another responsibility that they are welcome to have.

Most classes, I don’t think do that, let the students pick up the phone and say,”Hello, Mrs. Dumont’s room, student speaking.” But I think it’s really important to want that job.

So our final jobs, and I just do wanna draw your attention to one final job because I think that it’s important to show. With the jobs, they also came up with expectations for each of these jobs.

There’s a job description so that they know exactly what they’re supposed to do. That came from them, I just typed it. One of the jobs is volcano monitor. I’m pretty sure that no other classroom ever has had volcano monitor.

We read the book My Mouth Is A Volcano and they recognize it themselves that they have a lot of kids who interrupt and erupt like a volcano.

They decided that one person should be in-charge of letting those people know that they’re being a volcano.

One student actually made a little volcano that says, “I am a volcano”. They take that very seriously and the other kids respond to it really well because they know that they chosen to have that person as the volcano monitor.

I think if I had gone in this with the jobs already created, which I’ve done in the past, that would not make the cut, it wouldn’t represent what they thought they needed.

That’s been really important lesson this year. I don’t always know what they need and they know better than I do. I just really love that job.

Something else that they are helping me out this year is taking the responsibility for is time management.

They have two blocks in the week; goal time and a passion time, that are completely student-led, student-directed. The students decided what their SMART goal is.They decided how they’re going to reach that SMART goal and are tracking their progress toward it. If they come to me and tell me,”Mrs. Dumont, I think I’ve reached my goal.”I’m just, “Okay, what’s your evidence?” They will show me either spelling words that they spelled all correctly that they have done with a partner. Or they show me a math journal where they’ve written beautifully because their goal is writing neatly so others can read it. So that’s really up to them. They have a goal partner who’s working on something similar and they help each other out.

The passion time is a time where they do a project that’s really their passion. I have helped them in projects ranging from World War I to make-up, and if it is used, you know,
they put natural products versus synthetic products.

So it’s really who they are and something that they’re really interested in and they really report to those two times; goal time and passion time.

The TBD blocks are just chunks of times where like, I’m not sure?

What do you want me to do with this time? What do we need to do to be successful? How should we use this time? They’ll say, “Oh, I think we should use it to”finish up that ELA lesson that we didn’t finish the other day.” Or, “We can use it for Math menu time.”

It’s really up to them how we use it. I think the power of their voices really came through in this last item.

One day, we had to finish ELA in the afternoon. We just didn’t finish it and it was one of those days where I like we have to get through this. So we did it and they said, “Mrs. Dumont, can we do this in the afternoon all the time?

“Can we always have ELA in the afternoon?” I said, “Why?” They said, “Well, after recess and lunch, “we’re a lot more settled down, than we are before recess and lunch.”

“We’re a lot more squirrelly and integrated studies is a time where we get to move around more.”Okay, so we put it to a vote and they all voted to do that change. So now we do the ELA in the afternoons.

Yeah, it’s not something that I would have thought of and there was a perfectly valid reason and they were able to explain it. I just thought that was really a highlight for me to know that they realized that their voices are as powerful as they are.

They even changed the schedule. I think that was really important.

Tracking progress


This is how we do it for self-assessments. We try to do it monthly, best-laid plans.

Really what we’re looking for is changes over time. So the next few slides, you’ll get to see some results. I’d go through that rather quickly because really what we’re looking for again is the trend.

So you’ll see some things that jump out.

The data set is small, so we’re kinda just looking for those trends.

The right side indicates the ones that they feel like they’ve improved on. The left side, kinda we’re slipping backwards a little bit. You can see morning, they’re feeling pretty good except for that forgetting their materials.

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Next one is these changes again aren’t that big, but again, respectfully listening to each other. That’s where that volcano monitor really comes in handy!

A lot of these are morning academic times and transitions and things are becoming loud and slow, as you’ll see teachers feel the same. These are really, because the scale is so small, this looks big but really these are about zero.


Then that one really jumps out right at the largely negative, not cleaning out their cubbies.

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That goes along with the observations that we made as teachers where they’re forgetting their morning materials and they’ll be back like, “Oh, no, I don’t have an my math journal.” “I don’t have a pencil.”

During the transitions, loud and slow and when they feel rushed at the end of the day, they forget to do stuff. There’s that cubby thing they have a bunch of stuff and they’re trying to pack it all up and the cubby is the last thing that really gets attention.

So they’re very honest.

The data show that they showed improvements in the morning and they arrive and know what they’re doing.

They’re writing what they’re doing well and what they need to work on, and they need a way to remember it without adult intervention because otherwise that defeats the purpose.

They’re trying to gain responsibility and that independence. Implementation can be difficult. At the end of the day, when it’s time to clean cubbies, they’re kinda held up with other stuff.

So we had to come up with a plan. They decided… I put this data, I just said, “Here’s what we’re seeing, here’s what you’re seeing, “what should we do?”

So they decided that they wanted a checklist so they could self-monitor, so now they have all of those metrics on their little checklist. Here’s students filling it out. She was doing that, I didn’t tell her to do that. She was totally doing it and I just snapped a picture.

You can see that one student felt particularly fantastic that he has two sharpened pencils. Really great.

So we have made progress toward the silent day.

These are the current student-led activities that I could be out of the room and it would still happen. Math station, there is a teacher station, but other than that, if they’re not with a teacher at the station, they’re choosing their own independent work through the math menu and they’re making their own decisions.

They did have a silent morning in October!

I said nothing and they did everything.  It’s just how seriously they took that. They took their responsibility so seriously and they were well-behaved on that day heading for their classroom to music than I think they ever had in the hallways  because they knew that it was up to them, it’s their responsibility.

That leads to our next steps.

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I did assess the student to ratio talk to make sure that their voices are heard much more often than mine. If they’re gonna take control, they need to have that. Determining what
responsibilities they can have as far as academic work, anything else, I’d asked them for input.

They were very interesting.

There were things like we need to be respectful of each other. We need to, you know…Which is all great. It’s all great.

But then it’s like, okay, what about in the academic part?

They said, “Oh, well maybe we should have students teach some lessons.” “We could have them teach with you.” So then we came up with all sorts of great ideas.

Now, it’s just giving them those opportunities. We have a plan for a silent afternoon, and it’s going to be next Friday that we don’t have skiing, we have a ski program in our school. They chose Friday afternoon because they thought it was logical because there were three chunks of times and mostly it’s student-directed now, so that’s a good time to practice.

That’s our plan going forward.

How are you building your students self-direction and efficacy?

Voice + choice = a better math classroom

Start by listening to students

an action research module examining scheduling and student choiceElizabeth Tarno asked her students for feedback about their math class at the end of 5th grade. Then she did something incredible: she completely redesigned her classroom to address what students asked for.

Elizabeth teaches both 5th and 6th grade math (and science) at the Warren Elementary School. She spent her summer working to rethink her approach through the lens of personalization.

The result? She turned her 6th grade math class into a self-paced course that came to be known as “Choose Your Own Adventure Math Class.” Students worked individually or in partners, used printed or digital materials, and took assessments only when they decided they were ready. They even created their own homework.

Elizabeth listened, she personalized, and her students responded positively. By the end of the initial experiment, Elizabeth had thoughts on how to improve this new approach. But she was clear about one thing: “I’m not going back.”

Continue reading Voice + choice = a better math classroom

How to build teacher advisory

Peoples Academy Middle Level shares their action research

“It’s getting personal”. Peoples Academy Middle Level teachers discuss how they’ve created personal connections with students in their TAs (teacher advisories), and the difference that’s made to classroom environments. Presented at the 2017 Middle Grades Conference, at the University of Vermont.



Transcript pending.

Unpacking a great action research project

A tale of research-driven change

an action research module examining scheduling and student choice

Last year two educators at Crossett Brook Middle School undertook an amazing action research project that directly improved their interactions with students.

Mollie Burke-Bendzunas, speech pathologist, and Melanie Zima, special educator, took a three-day class together during the summer. The class focused on structured teaching as a strategy for working with highly autistic students.  Mollie and Melanie thought that it could be applied more broadly to address a wide range of student needs.

Continue reading Unpacking a great action research project

Flexible pathways in proficiency-based learning

Choose Your Own Adventure

practice for proficiencyIn Sam Nelson’s classroom, students choose what they learn, and how. Through the use of learning scales and targets, Nelson sets guidelines for students to demonstrate proficiencies in whatever they choose to study. Between the two systems — flexible pathways and proficiency-based learning — students negotiate a curriculum that keeps them engaged and satisfies their curiosity about the world around them.

How does it all work? Let’s take a look.

Continue reading Flexible pathways in proficiency-based learning

Scheduling and student choice

The middle school team at Rutland Town School in Rutland, VT have been working on a more fully integrated implementation of personal learning plans (PLPs) at their school.

They’re also passionate believers in student choice and learner-centered classrooms. Given some flexibility to change the school schedule, they came up with iLearn, a model of student self-direction and choice in tackling PLPs.

Continue reading Scheduling and student choice

Can sustained silent reading help reluctant readers?

How student choice can support literacy

sustained silent readingEnglish teacher Laela Warnecke set out to answer one question: “How might sustained silent reading impact 8th graders?”

Warnecke examined the effect of sustained silent reading on the engagement and achievement of her students. She surveyed her students and helped them set aside time during the day to read whatever they wanted. And it turned out that her so-called “reluctant readers” weren’t all that reluctant after all.

This is a story about student choice, student engagement, and how action research can impact student outcomes.

Continue reading Can sustained silent reading help reluctant readers?

How to get started with action research

Strategies for starting a research project

getting started with action researchWhether the inspiring teacher examples from my last post roused your inner researcher, or you’re just one of those continuous improvement people (as most teachers are), it’s exciting to think that we could have some potential new knowledge creators out there.

So let’s take a look at how to make this work.

Continue reading How to get started with action research

Why do action research?

5 benefits of doing action research in the classroom

getting started with action research

Teachers are constantly tinkering, creating, learning, and growing. Action research is a slightly formalized version of what skilled teachers do every day.

By honoring action research as systematic professional inquiry, we empower teachers to improve their practice. It’s easy to get started undertaking a small, powerful action research project in your classroom. Let’s see what it can look like.

Continue reading Why do action research?

Implementing 1:1 norms and digital citizenship

How do student behaviors change?

how does professional development affect technology integration?Debi Serafino, a math teacher at Brattleboro Area Middle School, presents the results of her semester-long action research project examining the effects of implementing 1:1 norms and digital citizenship on the behavior of the incoming 7th graders, all of whom participate in a 1:1 Chromebook project.

Here’s what she and her team discovered.

Continue reading Implementing 1:1 norms and digital citizenship

Using digital tools to change student goal-setting and reflection

Measuring how students approach goal-setting in the 5th and 6th grades

Google Tools for personal learning plans


Educators at Wallingford Elementary School and Shrewsbury Mountain School, in central Vermont, undertook an action research project measuring how their use of digital tools — specifically Google Docs, Forms and Sites — changed how middle grades students approached setting goals and reflecting on their achievements.

Both schools are 1:1 with MacBooks.

Continue reading Using digital tools to change student goal-setting and reflection

Google Tools for personal learning plans (PLPs)

A teacher-authored case study

Google Tools for personal learning plansToday we hear from a grade 5-6 team venturing into the world of personal learning plans (PLPs) using Google Tools.

Jared Bailey, math teacher, and Joy Peterson, English Language Arts teacher, provide concrete details on how they rolled out PLPs this year, including links to such resources as graphic organizers that they used for goal setting and an assignment (including rubric) on identity.

Continue reading Google Tools for personal learning plans (PLPs)

How does professional development affect technology integration?

The impact of PD in a 1:1 teaching environment

how does professional development affect technology integration?A trio of middle grades educators from Mill River Union High School, in Clarendon, Vermont, presented the results of their semester-long action research project, examining what role professional development plays in increasing the amount of time technology is integrated into the classroom in a 1:1 environment.

Continue reading How does professional development affect technology integration?

Teaching students how to set personal exploration goals

Goal-setting as a process

This presentation, delivered by Harwood Union High School teacher Lissa Fox at the 2016 Middle Grades Conference, describes an Action Research project that looked at the implementation of a one-semester 9th grade course focused on goal setting within Personal Learning Plans (PLPs).

Continue reading Teaching students how to set personal exploration goals

Student-led conferences and engagement in PLPs

A middle school case study

Katie Bryant, an English teacher at Lamoille Union Middle School, presents the results of her semester-long action research project examining the relationship between student-led conferences and engagement in PLPs, or personal learning plans.

Here’s what she and her team discovered.

Transcript appears below.

Hi! I’m Katie Bryant.

I teach at Lamoille Union Middle School, I’m on Team Extreme. And a lot of my faculty went to MGI last summer, working on creating implementation plans for PLPs at my school, as they’re brand new this year.

I felt like the student-led conference was going to be a really big part of that.

Just really quickly about my school:

We have four mixed 7th/8th grade teams, 4 core teachers and a special educator on each team. There are about 60 students on each team.

We are in the third year of our 1:1 iPad initiative, so students all have iPads and a lot of students bring them home, and they use them throughout the content areas.

We are in our first year of implementing PLPs — pretty daunting, pretty messy, but really good work. And we are using Google Sites for PLPs. I get that question a lot. Yes: we are using our iPads to create Google Sites, which is tough, or uncomfortable at first, but is actually working better and better.

And then student-led conferences were only piloted on my team this year, so the other teams continued with traditional the parent-teacher conference model, with the intention of possibly trying student-led conferences throughout the school next year.

This was my abstract:

student-led conferences and engagement in PLPs

By the end of the project, the question and my abstract felt very different. I don’t know if others  had that same experience, but I felt like the question was really hard to answer, especially with the feedback that I received, and it became more about implementing the student-led conference — as messy as it was going to be — letting it go and just allowing it to happen. And then learning from it.

But I was really interested from the get-go in how these student-led conferences might influence engagement in a PLP.

Are the students motivated by the fact that they have to make a presentation to their parents about their goals? Or not. That was basically my question.

Honestly, I feel like my whole team should be here, as I couldn’t have done it without their support, and as you might’ve experienced, it takes a lot of time up front — tons of time up front, and totally worth it in the end, but without a team that functions really well together I don’t think this would’ve happened.

We had a lot of tools to work with.

We worked together to take a lot of tools from around the state. Peoples Academy Middle Level, lots of stuff from Main Street Middle School around goal-setting; scripts and all these different materials, and tried to make them our own.

We had students setting up sites of their own — super-basic, we’re in the infant stages of these sites.

We have an About Me page, and then some goals, evidence, future. And where we’re at right now is how do we use this evidence and reflect for our next step.

We created a goal-setting template, because one thing we knew we really wanted was “My goal is important to me because…” So when they’re presenting to their parents they’re saying why their goal is important.

We had a student script that students could use for the conference themselves. They had that in front of them when they stood up in front of their parents and their teacher.

And one of the awesome things we realized with that was that because they took their iPads home, every student was creating a Google Slideshow for their conference. And they were able to work on that at home, even if parents weren’t able to come to school. We also Skyped with a few parents, too, which was awesome.

We had a take-home script for the students, which was specifically for when they were at home  at the table with mom or dad (or both! or whoever) and they could go through their goals together and their parents could add goals and comments.  And there’s a place for a parent signature on the back. Some families took advantage of that.

For us, parent involvement is a big issue at our school, so having students to have the ability to do this at home — you don’t even have to have wireless, you can just download and save a copy on the iPad — was really a nice option for many people.

So in order to plan for the student-led conference we gave each student a template that we gave them to fill in. We actually had them keep in some of the Act 77 language so that they could explain that to their parents: “Why are we doing this? THIS is why.”

And then we had a personal goal, an academic goal, and really simply, evidence from each core class: what is something you’re really proud of?

Here’s a student example.

His personal, long-term goal is to get a job in the art industry as an artist, book illustrator or animator for movies. And then he went through how he will know when he’s achieved his goal, and why he wants to:

And then he has an academic goal as well:

And then we gave students a lot of free rein, and we made suggestions as to what they to choose from their classes, but they were able to choose, finally, what to show their parents:

We said, “Choose something from Math that you’re really proud of. Take a picture of an assignment or it could be a project you did on your iPad that you want to import. And he did that for each core class.

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Pre-SLC Student Survey

So I tried to ask students before the conference how they felt about the student-led conference, if they’d ever been in a conference before. Here are a couple of quotes from my survey:

“I have never talked in front of my parents and teachers before and I’m a little nervous.”

As you might imagine, 7th and 8th graders, most of them said they were very nervous. A lot of them said they felt awful about it. Here’s another quote:

“When I was in Michigan parents had a conference with your one teacher, and you sat outside of the room when they talked about how you were doing in school and what you needed to work on or any behavior issues. The meetings ran for about twenty minutes and never did the student get to talk to the teacher and parents at the same time, and after the twenty minutes were up your parents came out of the classroom and said good job or I am disappointed in you.”

Ouch, right?

I was really interested in seeing how their feelings would change after they presented to their parents.

Post-SLC Student Survey:

“The best part was having my parents be proud of me and letting me tell my parents how I felt like I was doing in school and how I felt about my grades and teachers.”


“I liked getting to present what I do well and what I would like to see myself do better and compare it to my teacher’s and parent’s ideas.”


“The best part was that I got to lead it and it helped me talk about what I’m doing well and what I need help with. Plus it made me feel good to get feedback on my work in that very moment.”

and then:

“The best part was getting to show your parents what you’re proud of and getting to interact with your parents and teachers at the same time. I also think that it was nice to have your parents and teachers make a goal for you and to have them know what you’re doing in school so they can help.”

A lot of this feedback was really great to hear: a lot of the students were really nervous in the beginning and then in the end felt really empowered, which was great. Not every single student felt that way, of course, but it was nice to see a lot of shift in their perspective.

Parent Surveys

One of the really big things I wanted to make sure to do was to capture the way that parents experienced it, so when parents were there, we had a survey for them to fill out as soon as they were done with the conference. It was up on a desktop, there were no internet issues, they were logged in, they could do it on their way out of the room, to find out how they felt about it. And I got some great input from them.

100% of parents preferred this model to a traditional model, which was pretty surprising. They all loved it. Some, I think, were maybe a little uncomfortable coming in, and then they stayed and loved it.

  • “The best part was hearing about my son’s goals that he has set for himself. Hearing him talk about what he wants for his future and the path he has taken to make sure he can reach his goals.”
  • “The best part was watching my son taking control of his own education.”
  • “The best part was being able to use technology to participate remotely and share the material.”
  • “The best part was that it was led by my son!!”

SLCs and PLPs

The other thing that was just great about doing this with the PLP, hand-in-hand, was that we were able to get a goal or a wish that the parent has for their student, there that day. So they sat and listened to their child’s goals for themselves, and then they were able to articulate a goal or a wish that they had for them. And that gets immediately implemented into their PLP site, as something that we can watch over time. It was really nice to get that parent involvement, which is part of Act 77 and also best practice.

Did the SLC motivate students to set and achieve goals?

Really hard to answer. Really, really hard to answer. I asked students that question. I didn’t really know what else to do.

  • “Not really, but I am trying more this trimester then last one.”
  • “I think it made me more aware of my goals and more likely to start taking them seriously.”
  • “Definitely, because it gives you something to work towards, and makes all these hours in school not seem pointless.”
  • “I think the SLC makes more people aware of your goals and more people help you try harder to reach them.”

Although not concrete, really nice to hear that at least some students did see the connection between motivation from the conference, and their goal-setting.


There were a lot of challenges.

Asking the right questions, is always really tough for me — asking the right questions on the forms themselves. Knowing how to ask the right questions so you’re getting the kind of answer that you’re looking for is really hard. So that, moving forward, is something that I’m constantly trying to improve. Not to get the feedback you want, but to get at the feedback.

Another challenge — and this is kind of a good thing and a bad thing — is that there’s so much out there around the state, that people are using for goal-setting and reflection and student-led conferences and sites — there’s tons of stuff and it’s all awesome. But you have to take it and make it your own. Otherwise it doesn’t feel authentic.

That was a challenge sometimes with me and my team. We had all this stuff and it was great, and it’s really about how do you make it your own?

Time. That’s basically the biggest challenge.

For me, it was really hard to know that it was going to be really messy and imperfect and it wasn’t all going to work out great. And maybe parents were going to be upset, or… who knew? But to just go with it and let it go. That was hard.

And the last was, of course, building in time for the students to prepare for the student-led conference. I spoke with my administrator at the beginning of the year, to let her know that this was my personal focus for the year and I would be taking some content time to help students prepare for their student-led conference. I’m an English teacher so it does make sense for reading/writing/communicating that this would fit in with my content, but I did have to have that conversation.


As a team, we were able to conduct SLCs with 70% of our students and their families, as opposed to less than 40% last year using the traditional model.

In the past some combination of teachers had been in a room together doing conferences, and that limits you, right? You don’t have as many time slots. In this case what we did was homeroom teachers met with their students in their homeroom and their parents, and then if anyone was very concerned about meeting with the Math teacher we set up that too. Which was great.

  • And as I said before, parent involvement in our school is a big issue, so this is a huge jump for us: 100% of parents reported that they preferred the SLC model to the more traditional model. That was great to know.
  • Watching students interact with parents and teachers in this way was really insightful.
  • 83% of students were nervous or unsure about leading a SLC beforehand, but 71% reported that it went pretty good, or fantastic, afterward.
  • 50% of students had achieved one of their goals by the end of the first trimester.
  • At the SLC we were able to capture a goal that parents have for their students, which serves as a start to involving parents in the process.

Next Steps:

We’re working on carving out time in the spring to have a follow-up SLC, which has never been a part of our schedule before but it makes sense, to plan another evening, have the parents come back in and check in on goals.

We’re going to share our experience and results with the rest of our school, hoping that they too will pilot some SLCs next year.

We’re going to continue our PLP work, especially around goal-setting; also a very messy process.

And we’ll improve the SLC process on Team Extreme next year.

That’s pretty much it.

Student-led conferences image by Clive Warden; licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 (reuse-attribution).


PLPs and literacy

Incorporating student choice into reading

providing support for goal-setting in a PLPThis screencast, from Crossett Brook Middle School, in Waterbury, Vermont, describes an action research project based on the premise that students would benefit if day-to-day classroom instruction reflected the choice and self-direction at the heart of Personalized Learning Plans (PLPs).

In addition to the positive response of students, one of the most exciting things about this project was the collaboration that took place behind the scenes.

Continue reading PLPs and literacy