Category Archives: Education for Sustainability

The successful, sustainable middle school

Middle school students are ever-changing, curious, socially and globally aware, and incredibly capable. Their energy and urge to explore can be channeled into rich and fertile learning territory. It’s such a privilege to walk alongside them as they grow during these often tumultuous years.

Folks often say it takes a special kind of person to teach at the middle level (count me in). It also takes a particular approach to teaching to best meet the academic, social, emotional, and cognitive and individual needs of this age group.

Now, we’re big fans of the Association for Middle Level Education’s foundational position paper The Successful Middle School: This We Believe. (Not familiar with this paper? Then check out the #vted Reads podcast episode where Jeanie Phillips talks with co-author, our own Penny Bishop.)

I recently sat down for some quality time with the revised 5th edition of this book. It left me feeling so inspired and excited about the alignment between this book and another one of my passions: Education for Sustainability.

While The Successful Middle School dives clearly into the what and the why of promising practices in middle-level education, Education for Sustainability (EFS) can be a powerful ally when it comes to the how.

 “Early adolescence is a time of considerable moral development, and issues of equity, injustice, and sustainability are important fodder for middle school curriculum. Students benefit from seeing that their work can make a difference in the world around them.” The Successful Middle School p.38

Ok, so then, what is Education for Sustainability?

Before we get to defining Education for Sustainability, let’s get clear on what we mean by ‘sustainability.’

Often the word brings to mind things like recycling or solar panels. Those things are part of the story… but only part.

When we’re talking about sustainability, we’re talking about three core concepts, often called the 3 E’s of sustainability:

  1. environment
  2. equity
  3. economy.

More specifically, we’re looking for the intersection of economic vitality, ecological integrity and social equity. Find the balance where each of these criteria are met, and that’s the center of sustainability.

So when we talk about Education for Sustainability (EFS), we’re talking about an approach to education that engages students in authentic and meaningful learning that strives to create conditions for sustainability.

EFS links inquiry and action through:

  • Rooting learning in the natural and human communities that students are part of,
  • Helping students develop their understanding of systems and interconnectedness, and
  • Engaging students in making a difference in their own communities, here and now.

Through these place-based service-learning opportunities, students begin to develop a deep connection to place and community and sense of agency.

Through Education for Sustainability, we can nurture the development of community members engaged in creating sustainable and democratic communities.

The successful, sustainable middle school

Central to both effective middle level education and Education for Sustainability is the importance of a whole-child approach. Both prioritize nurturing students’ sense of wellbeing, as well as their academic growth. Both approaches also signal the importance of providing opportunities for students to participate as active citizens in their local and global communities.

“[Students] engage in active citizenship by participating in endeavors that serve and benefit [their] communities, such as exploring more socially just and ecologically sustainable ways of living.” The Successful Middle School, p.5

But that’s not all! Both approaches cite the importance of a thriving culture, opportunities for powerful collaboration within and beyond the walls of the school, and authentic and meaningful learning opportunities developed in partnership with students.

Culture, community…

Arguably, the most important ingredient in thriving schools is strong and caring relationships. It’s the secret sauce that holds it all together. Relationships are crucial. Students should be rooted in caring relationships within and beyond schools. Students are seen. Their multiple identities are honored and valued. And students are recognized as the capable and creative young people they are through engaging them as partners in the learning. We take them seriously and make room for them to shine.

We also value the power of collaboration. Middle grades students are social creatures by nature. Making space and supporting collaborative learning is both highly engaging and effective. And the collaboration doesn’t end with peers.

…and community partnerships

Not only do these strong relationships create a culture of safety and affirmation at school, but they extend out into the community. Community partnerships are key for creating authentic and meaningful learning.

“Genuine, innovative, and sustainable community partnerships are a fundamental component of successful schools for young adolescents.” The Successful Middle School p.21

“…these relationships are vital to connecting the curriculum to relevant, real-world issues.” Shelburne Farms’ Sustainable Schools Project

Community partnerships offer opportunities for students to engage in learning that makes a difference. This could look like collaborations on community gardens, community mural projects, or even addressing food insecurity or racial justice issues in the local community. By connecting with young adolescents questions about themselves, their community, and the world, learning becomes highly engaging and empowering.

And speaking of meaningful, relevant learning:

Successful, sustainable middle schools find leverage when they engage pedagogies that put students at the center.

“Negotiated curriculum, youth-adult partnerships, personalized learning, and YPAR offer well-established frameworks for engaging students meaningfully in their learning and in the world around them.” The Successful Middle School p.39

These approaches give students a sense of purpose. They also provide an authentic context through which to develop essential skills such as problem-solving, effective communication, collaboration, and self-direction. Exactly the kind of humans the world needs!

That sounds great. How do we pull it off?

EFS engages several student-centered pedagogies, including project-based learning, place-based learning, negotiated curriculum, and service-learning. It sounds like a lot.

But actually, these approaches blend together quite easily with impressive results.

When you engage students in generating questions about themselves, their community, and the world (negotiated curriculum + place-based education) and then use those questions to drive inquiry and action to make a difference here and now (project-based learning + service-learning), you get some personally meaningful, highly engaging, and civically-oriented learning.

Many teachers have found success using an EFS approach focusing on the UN’s 17 Goals for Sustainable Development. These Global Goals provide a powerful frame for taking local action for global impact. Students and community partners are working together to bring positive change to their communities

Curious to learn more about how to use Education for Sustainability in your classroom?

We’re excited to be partnering with Shelburne Farms to offer two courses this summer. Check out Foundations of Education for Sustainability  and Education for Sustainability Immersion. We hope you join us!





Photo credit: Sustainability Academy, Burlington VT. Courtesy Shelburne Farms.

From the innovativeEd mailbag: Sustainably Yours

This week, something new for us: a letter from our mailbag. While we aim to help everyone on a regular basis, it’s always exciting to hear directly from our readers. In this case, we try to provide a little context-setting for a reader who goes by the handle, “Sustainably Yours”.


“Dear InnovativeEd,

I’ve been teaching about climate change and the natural world for quite some time, but I’m not sure I’m really hitting the mark in terms of truly empowering my learners. We grow a school garden, and we go outside and we think about climate change together, but how can I take it further? (Does this connect with PLPs??) What am I missing? How can I tie it to equity efforts in my school? And how do I ensure I’m doing right by my learners?


Sustainably Yours”


Dear Sustainably Yours,

How fantastic that you’re already engaging your learners in such relevant and meaningful learning! You are asking some great questions here, and to answer them I have a few questions for you!

When I hear you talk about climate change, school gardens, and learning outside, what this means to me is that you’re interested in sustainability.  My first question is the big one: What’s your why? Why do you, as an educator, want to engage your learners in these types of experiences? What types of skills, attitudes, knowledge, and understanding are you hoping to cultivate through this work? What are your hopes for this learning?

For me, the why is about nurturing the development of citizens who are engaged in creating democratic and sustainable communities. And I believe that through

  • rooting students to the natural and human communities that they are part of,
  • developing their capacities as systems thinkers, and
  • helping them develop agency through engaging in meaningful learning that makes a difference in our community, here and now (not in some distant, “grown up” future)

through experiences like these.  We are well on our way!

This approach is known as Education for Sustainability (EFS) (or Education for Sustainable Development internationally) which is “learning that links knowledge, inquiry, and action to help students build a healthy future for their communities and the planet.”

And EFS addresses your question about dismantling inequity as well. Because ‘sustainability’ lies at the intersection of social, environmental, and economic justice, a sustainable approach, by definition, must disrupt inequity. In other words, a ‘sustainability’ perspective must consider social equity, economic vitality, and ecological integrity.

So what do school gardens and climate change have to do with equity?
Lots, it turns out.

First of all, school gardens can help learners understand food systems and equity of access or even serve as a metaphor for equity versus equality.  And using an equity frame to explore climate change can provide powerful insight on fairness and responsibility. In any context, using the ‘lens of sustainability’ will help you explore the ecological, economic, and social considerations at play in each of these issues.

Now, I noticed you asked specifically about addressing equity in schooling, and how you might truly empower your learners. So I’m wondering what kind of role your students have in designing the learning? How do you — or might you — involve students in co-planning meaningful learning experiences rooted in place?

Negotiated curriculum is an approach through which teachers partner with students to explore their questions about themselves and the world, and use those questions to design curriculum. Check out these Climate Resilience Case Studies for examples of what this looks like in practice.

Plus, pairing this approach with the UN’s 17 Goals for Sustainable Development is a great way to empower students to take local action on sustainability issues with a global impact. This positions students to be part of the collective impact of folks all over the planet working toward these shared goals for our future. Students have tackled local hunger, explored the power of partnership for change, and even built sustainable campus. Powerful stuff.

Finally you asked if PLPs are a fit.
I say: always.

As John Dewey says, “We don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” And whatever you call them (portfolios, anyone?), documenting learning goals and processes, and reflecting on learning become even more powerful when paired with such impactful and empowering experiences.

In my first few years in the classroom I was trying to engage students in these types of learning experiences. But I kept feeling like I was missing my mark. Now I realize it’s because I wasn’t yet clear exactly on why or how. I also discovered a whole community of educators who shared this endeavor. And now you can too: Shelburne Farms and the University of Vermont are excited to be partnering on summer professional learning courses for educators. Check out our offerings here (Full disclosure: I’m one of the instructors!) I really hope you join us!



Personalized learning in the spring garden

Signs of spring surround us: snow is melting, the days are lengthening, and the mud has returned. So it must be time to think about school gardens!  School gardens have become increasingly popular over the past few years, and for good reasons. They’re highly engaging, and ripe with educational opportunities, ha ha. But did you know you can also plant a personalized learning garden?

Why school gardens?

School gardens present fantastic learning opportunities. They’re part of a larger Farm to School movement that’s seeking to improve the health of students, food systems, communities, and local economies in one comprehensive strategy. And we know it’s working

We know hands-on experiential learning is great for students. School gardens offer opportunities for students to dig into science, math, social studies, and language arts, but they also provide a ton of great opportunities to develop a wide array of other skills we’re seeking to cultivate: problem-solving, perseverance, goal setting, planning, reflection…you get the idea. 

Why now?

And right now, they are especially well suited to our current situation.

With food insecurity increasing across the country, growing food with students will not only provide food for your community but will also provide students with an invaluable life skill. One they can depend on in the future. And while we might be nearing the end of the pandemic, we’re not quite there yet. As we discovered in the fall, moving learning outside is a brilliant idea— and something we hope you keep doing even when we’re all more comfortable in close quarters.

Students across the InnovativeEduverse are digging in. They’re connecting learning to the food system.

In Cornwall VT, students undertook a Farm to School journey explicitly to understand more about how and where their food came from.

With the help of their community, middle schoolers at Essex Middle School built their own sugaring operation on school grounds. They negotiated the planning permits, the construction, and keep it running to this day.

Then, students in Dorset built a chicken coop so they could provide fresh eggs to the school cafeteria. And finally, students at the Burke Town School, in West Burke VT, undertook projects tied to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Result!

Are you ready to dig in?

The Farm-to-School movement has already provided a bounty of amazing school garden resources, such as:

Wherever you are in your school garden journey, a quick internet search leads you to troves of amazing ideas. But how can a garden fit in with effective personalized learning?

Story time: School gardens as personalized learning

As the warm spring sunshine permeates the classroom, Ms. E and her 6th grade students gaze out the window, longing for outside. They return their attention to morning meeting for the prompt:

What are you looking forward to this spring?

One student, shares about her family’s sugaring season, and how they’ve also just planted tomato and pepper seeds. Next, in the Q&A, other students share memories of gardening with parents and grandparents and savoring the taste of cherry tomatoes plucked fresh from the vine.

Another student reminisces about the garden his class took care of at his old school. A few other students recall their elementary school gardens.

Ms. E gets an idea.

“What if we had a garden here?” she wonders aloud.

Affirmative murmurs ensue. Ms. E is thinking about how she might tie the school garden to her Humanities curriculum. An information writing unit is coming up, and students have already identified goals in their PLPs they can tie in.

The following day, the class uses more of the morning meeting to think together about why, how, and what a school garden a Mountain Maple Middle School might look like.

By early the next week, two students write out a proposal to bring to the principal. Another pair research climate and USDA zones, while still others plot out a location for the garden in the sunny area behind the softball field. 

Ms. E has connected with her teaching team. Mr. D, the science teacher, and Mx. W math teacher are totally on board. They’re considering how they might tie in some STEM standards to this student-led project. They all consider how to flex the schedule to build more time for this collaborative project.

The students are thrilled when the principal gives the go ahead.

Now things swing into action. With a little coaching from their teachers, the students begin to self-organize. They form a Landscaping Team, a Research Team, an Outreach Team, and a Documentation Team to start.  Malcolm is psyched because he loves making videos for YouTube, and now he can meet his PLP goal of becoming a YouTuber. Lola and Ulti are writing progress entries on the class blog, and Ruben and Sonni are working with Mx. W on a grant proposal.

By the time the mud outside begins to dry, this class has turned the soil outside. They’re almost ready to plant.

It’s amazing how much 15 adolescents and a broadfork can get done in 20-minute installments…

(Cue the credits)

Oh, I could go on and on. And we’re just getting started. But you get the idea.

Where did personalized learning show up in that little vignette?

  • student voice
  • co-designed curriculum
  • project-based learning
  • service learning
  • team teaching.

It’s everywhere.

A garden can be so much more than a garden. It can be a way to get outdoors, partner with students on an engaging project, and even contribute in a meaningful way to the community. It can be a personalized learning garden.

Starting small

While that story might be inspiring, it might be a long-term vision if you’re just getting started.

Beginning with a small and manageable-yet-engaging project is an easy start. Grow and plant flowers in the existing beds in front of your school. Do some future planning for a garden site, or explore soil science and play in the dirt.  Build off students’ home gardening experiences, and bring their (and their families) expertise in to help you get started.

Another great project? Grow A Row, where you plant an extra row of veggies to be donated to your local food shelf.

Start with you

Of course the best way to get this project off the ground is to turn it over to your students. Let them tell you about themselves as gardeners, record-keepers, horticulturists and chicken-coop-constructors. But if you’re looking for a way to dig deeper into the connections between personalized learning and gardening and sustainability, we highly recommend taking the summer to grow your own knowledge with these courses from Shelburne Farms:

Need a smaller first step?

Start seeds in the classroom and send them home when they’re ready to be transplanted — after you’ve researched, measured, and documented all the amazing transformations they’ve undergone since you planted them.

Anything goes, really. But mud and grass and sunshine should be involved whenever possible.

How does your personalized learning garden grow?

How to Build An Anti-Racist Bookshelf

Who’s Outside? How to Build An Anti-Racist Bookshelf is an interactive online workshop for educators we offered in January 2021. We offered it in collaboration with Shelburne Farms. Additionally, educators Jeanie Phillips and Aimee Arandia Østensen courageously co-facilitated this workshop.

Below you’ll find a recording of the workshop, optimized for solo or team playback. 

The workshop 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, you can find the slides from the workshop below. We encourage you to share these slides with your collaborators. And finally, we release all materials under Creative Commons license 4.0: available for non-commercial use and remix, with attribution.



This workshop was made possible by a collaboration between the UVM Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education and Shelburne Farms. Check out our upcoming online workshops and webinars, Or, sign up for our newsletter to stay informed about new professional development opportunities as they become available.

Looking for something specific? Please feel free to reach out to us to suggest topics for upcoming events, or to request a quote for a custom professional development offering for you and your teaching team. We offer two-hour, half-day and full-day in-services, on topics ranging from the anti-racist bookshelf, through to personalized learning, student identity, project-based learning, proficiency-based assessment, and many more.

4 tales of outdoor education in Vermont


What does outdoor education and place-based learning look like right now? One of the recommendations from leading health officials is to conduct classes outside. But what if you’ve never done that before? What if you could use some pointers? How are other educators tackling this topic? And why should we keep taking students outdoors, even when the pandemic is over?

We sat down with a panel of educators from around Vermont, who provided some advice, pointers, and stories from what they’ve found works for outdoor education.


This article was originally presented as a webinar in the 2020-2021 Tarrant Institute Professional Learning Series.

Resources from the webinar are available here.

1. What is place-based education?

Aimee Arandia Østensen, outdoor education

Aimee Arandia Østensen
Shelburne Farms
Shelburne VT


“My name is Aimee Arandia Østensen, and I work as a professional learning facilitator in education for sustainability at Shelburne farms and Shelburne Vermont. I’m currently coming to you from the ancestral, un-ceded and contemporary lands of the Haudenosaunee people of New York State.

What is place-based education? So there is no singular definition of place based education; it’s an evolving practice and approach.

But for this session, we’re going to use this definition from the Promise of Place website:

“Place-based education (PBE) immerses students in local heritage, cultures, landscapes, opportunities and experiences, using these as a foundation for the study of language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and other subjects across the curriculum. PBE emphasizes learning through participation in service projects for the local school and/or community.”

We find ourselves in an interesting situation right now, where schools and teachers are needing to reinvent how we teach to meet the needs of this COVID-19 crisis. Many schools and teachers are being encouraged to use the outdoors as a site of learning in a time when we need to social distance. While this is a great solution for this crisis, it’s also a great opportunity for many teachers to connect to the practices of place-based education. The benefits go far beyond solving the challenges of social distancing and teaching through this global pandemic. While it does meet the needs of the moment, it can be an enduring piece of our education practices.

I want to take a moment to acknowledge that outdoor learning and place-based education are related and separate practices.

One can be an outdoor educator and not consider place-based education much, or one can be a place-based educator and use the outdoors in a limited capacity. As you see in this graphic, there is an overlapping space between outdoor learning and place-based education for the purpose of this discussion:

outdoor education vermont

We want to expand that overlapping space and explore that overlapping space where outdoor and place-based education are happening simultaneously.

Where does place-based education happen?

This is a graphic that we use at Shelburne Farms:

outdoor education vermont Shelburne Farms Sustainable Schools Project

Place-based education happens everywhere.

It begins with the individual connecting oneself to their space and their environment and their neighborhood.

And as students get older, they might be exploring wider realms of place, from their community out to the globe. There are unending answers to the question of where place-based education happens, but in order to do it, we need to start looking beyond the classroom and beyond the school walls. To explore connections to our curriculum, and what possibilities for taking action and learning exist out in the world.

There is no singular process for place-based education, but we like to consider how we could begin with wonder and carry students through to action by layering inquiry with knowledge, understanding a sense of responsibility, and caring. We hope that students develop a deep, caring relationship with the places they inhabit and the relationships that exist in their surroundings so that they can take informed action right now as students, and in the future as adults– practices and outcomes that we hope stick with all of us. Place-based education helps students learn to take care of the world by understanding where they live and taking action in their own backyards and communities.”

2. Integrating the middle school curriculum outside.

Cliff DesMarais outdoor education
Cliff DesMarais
Flood Brook Union School
Londonderry VT


“My name is Cliff. I teach at Flood Brook School in Londonderry, Vermont. My pronouns are he, him and his, and I’m coming to you from the heart of the occupied Abenaki territory in Southern Vermont.

I’m gonna just tell you a little bit about my story of outdoor Ed down here at Flood Brook School to begin with.

One of my core values is that students really need to feel ownership if they’re going to have any passion for learning.

So I really like to think about the year in terms of cycles; it plays really well into what we teach. When the blackberries are starting to ripen, that’s the time of the summer where I start to think about like: what do I have to get going? What’s going to happen this year in school?

Then here we are a little bit further and it’s apple season. The cider apples are coming in, and it’s kind of the time where you started to see the things coming on the vine and the apples are going out. You’re finally seeing the fruits of your labor. That’s kind of the metaphor of where I’m at right now.

outdoor education vermont Flood Brook School

Here at Flood Brook, we have seen a few different phases of outdoor education.

We started with some service learning in our integrated studies program. Oh, and I teach social studies here at Flood Brook. In the seventh and eighth grade. I’ve been a sixth, seventh and eighth-grade teacher in language arts, social studies, and what we call integrated studies, which is a combination of science and social studies taught through the project baselines.

My seventh graders who I had for language arts, would start with work in the garden with our science teacher. They started by doing writer’s notebooks outside. And we saw this to be a really developmental approach for where our kids were at in seventh grade. And that it would benefit the entire program if we really doubled down on it.

So in phase two, we spent about two years moving out and spending our time out on the campus.

We’ve got nearly 24 acres here at Flood Brook. It’s about half forest and half school, with open fields and pastures. And we took a Forest Friday approach and started what we call “Fridays On The Land”, where students are taking control of some of the stewardship of our campus. They’re working on trail systems, they’re working on the garden help our, our farm to school program. Those kinds of activities.

We also use the social studies classroom for collaborative ethnographies in outdoor education.

We had an integrated unit in our science and social studies class where we connected with a few other schools and some of the local nonprofits here and started telling the story of the people in our place.

And the end goal is that we’re looking to develop a semester-based outdoor education program here. Either a rotation through our middle schoolers or through our entire consolidated district. This is where we’ve been and that’s where we’re going. We focus a lot on character development and how kids socialize both with our classroom community and with the larger Londonderry community. We do a fair amount of social-emotional learning and focus on the skills there and everything.

outdoor education vermont Flood Brook School

And our outdoor ed work uses project-based learning, and really a large focus on transferable skills.

So while we have social studies and science standards that our proficiencies are geared towards, we also have learning scales for them. We spend a lot of time talking about how this shared experience can contribute to a kid’s ability to clearly and effectively communicate. To problem-solve, to be an engaged citizen.

So when they’re out on the trails, they get to problem-solve and try to figure out what can we do to improve the land for who’s going to be here next, but also to be an active participant. For instance, we had some students here who had a tree right across our main lane of trails and they wanted to move it.

So it got bucked up with a pulley system.

outdoor education vermont

And we had a full advisory’s worth of six, seventh and eighth graders They used a three-to-one system to learn about mechanical advantage, and they hauled that massive sugar maple right out of the way.

Then, of course, we not only got to use that sugar maple as a balance beam for team-building, but it actually became lumber that was milled at one of our local sawmills, and then got used for student projects. Problem-solving with authentic, transferable consequence.

Which brings me to the here and now.

Right now at Flood Brook, we have a group of kids who are here in what we call Phase One. And as we slowly bring kids back to the middle school, that’s only six kids. But most of their friends are remote learning and there’s this feeling of parts of our community getting different things.

Our Phase One learners masked up and worked on benches. They made some out of wood from that maple tree we pulled off the path. They’re getting to give back in addition to having a safe place, if their parents are essential workers, or if a school is the best place for them to learn. They’re kind of getting a little bit of a taste of what the rest of our students will have in outdoor education when they get back here. We’re all trying to get back outside in a deliberate, intentional manner.”

3. Fire rings and transferable skills in the White River Valley

outdoor education vermont bonna wielerBonna Wieler
White River Valley School District
Bethel VT


“I have two pods of middle-schoolers at the Bethel middle school: a Monday / Tuesday group and a Thursday / Friday group. Everybody else has one pod and does academic work remotely. But I just get kids outside. We’re looking at the biodiversity of life: you can touch anything that’s living and do something with it.

I’ve been doing this with Bethel, teaching outdoor ed for 30 years now. We really want to get kids connected to themselves and to the outdoors and as much nature as possible. We want them not to be afraid of it and to look at it for their solace, you know?

outdoor education vermont goals

We have a system where we’ve got “sit spots” or magic spots, so to speak. The kids will take their journals and their pencils and go up and find the spot they want to hang out in for five to 15 minutes every day that we can.

And they come back different.

They get time to sit with themselves without a big rush. Without the pressure of social stuff going on amongst them. Cause they’re in their own spot.

And then they grow.

They get together and they share that we’re helping with their self-esteem. And I’m finding that every kid who was once way behind or way out in front — and everyone in between — now has some leadership skills that I’m finding we can help nurture.

You watch them very closely when you teach a new skill or get connected with some kind of content area.

You watch them because they’ll spark.

outdoor education vermont

Right now there’s a burn ban in Bethel. But we’d already started building our fire pits.

They go to the woods and they’re developing their own campsites. And part of that, the biggest part, of course, is safety. So anything that has to do with fire has to be extremely safe. We had been putting more than three inches of gravel underneath where there would be a pit. We had been putting a screen over it and surrounding it with rocks or bricks, and having water on hand. But right now we’re not doing any fires because I want the children to really get it; I want them to get that burn ban, and why it’s in effect, even though we did all this safety stuff in advance.

outdoor education vermont

Now, I want to talk a little bit about when Phase 3 for Vermont (.pdf) comes around, where kids will be in the building.

I personally will still be out of the building.

I’m having them send me kids and the teachers, if they will come. We’ll still go back into the woods and be working on our skills and our perseverance and our fortitude, with biodiversity as a topic. But we’ll continue with the negotiated curriculum in outdoor education that we’re doing at this school. The kids come up with what they want to study in their pods. If all the kids have something about animals, for instance, they ask each other: what do they have in common?

Finally, here’s a little bit about transferable skills.

Last fall, we were building a trail. We worked with the Maine Guide Association Certification program.

outdoor education vermont


There’s a middle school and high school program and the high school it’s based out of Maine. Anybody who’s going to be a Maine guide has to pass a certification. But now they’re training the kids, the middle and high schoolers very intensely with very directed and thorough trainings. How to lead trips, and how to be a leader as well as how do you do all the skills and take care of other people as well. So we’ll keep doing that work as well.”

4. Growing an outdoors program at the high school level

outdoor education annie belleroseAnnie Bellerose
Champlain Valley Union High School
Hinesburg VT


“Like Cliff, I’m a humanities teacher. And I come from a background in outdoor education and farming. And this has really just worked for me at the high school level. And it’s very much a work in progress and very much an experiment. But I wanted to talk a little bit about the strengths and challenges of working with a high school age population. I don’t know how many folks in our group right now are working with 9 – 12. And then also just about kind of how to really think about designing curriculum that’s created with place in mind. It’s not: completely moving your English or social studies class outside. It’s more: is place really integrated into what you’re doing?

I’m finding this whole outdoor, place-based initiative is really helping kids develop their own leadership skills and become self-confident, and wise, and caring, and a community member in a way that I don’t see in the classroom.

I think we’re on the right track.

All the teachers are happy.

The kids are happy.

To the point that I worry about them going back in doors.

They’re developing their own projects of what they want to learn and fitting everything else into that.

Of course, getting everybody outside is amazing, no matter what that looks like. In teaching outside, I try to make it as low tech as possible. No screens, essentially. And some of the research and, and film watching is done outside of our class time together. But when we’re present, we’re really present.

Like, yes, we have those folks who were wearing flip flops in December. But I would say for the most part it’s a really wide variety of personalities and backgrounds. Students are really thrilled to be outside.

Often, particularly at the high school level, there’s sort of this idea that you get off the bus or out of your car and you immediately go into the building and you’re there all day. We don’t really come outside. Then maybe you go to sports practice, but that’s pretty structured. But so this idea of play and exploration, and being calm outside I think was really novel.

outdoor education vermont

And kids are really hungry, hungry for that.

Even sometimes it’d be like 45 degrees and raining and we’d sit down in our hoophouse and say like, do people want to go for a walk? What do people feel? And always students said let’s go out and be in the elements. One of the great things about working with high school students is that they are so independent.

For us, it’s been the pace of change that students and teachers have been ready and excited to get outside. Before, administrators weren’t quite as ready to get their heads around what that might look like or how to figure out the logistics of that. But I do think that now is a great time to kind of leap on some of the momentum of that. One challenge that comes with that is: how are you doing it intentionally and thoughtfully?

I could say:

Go do this for 35 minutes. I have a rough idea of where you are, and I’ll trust you to come back.

And I felt really safe and comfortable doing that with them.

One of the things that I was unsure of was: are our kids going to enjoy a sit spot where they’re finding this place where they, you know, sit and connect, and go there every day?

That turned out to be silly, because the consistent feedback from students was that they were pleased with outdoor education and that it was too short.

That chance to play and slow down was so important. Did sometimes people fall asleep in their sit spots? Yes. But that also felt important too. A lot of these kids are really busy and really scheduled, so being able to take a nap in a tree was really rejuvenating for them.

I’ve had the benefit of having a chance to plan with place in mind. And I know that many of us are in the situation of suddenly being thrust outside. But I think that designing curriculum that allows you to respond to the place that we’re in, from the very local level to a more global level, to the news, to who we all are as individuals is invaluable.

outdoor education vermont

The classes that I teach are an environmental lit class with a focus on the literature of climate change (both fiction and nonfiction and poetry), and a climate justice course that really focuses on environmental racism and creative writing on the trail. Both get kids out and about exploring Vermont.

You can still do research.

You can still do really thoughtful discussion.

And you can still use protocols to really get at some of these ideas.

All our learning targets were really connected to communication.

  • How do you clearly communicate about things that you’re passionate about?
  • How do you understand the history of what we’re talking about?

What’s been really satisfying, I think, is seeing how rewarding it has been for students. They talk about the rest of their day differently.

I often teach outside for the first block of the day. (We have a four-block schedule). And that introduction to the day has been meaningful. It brings a different kind of calm and focus for the rest of their school work. So I think that’s been huge.

Also just seeing their willingness to make change.

Whether that’s the whole class pledging to be vegetarian for a semester or going to a protest together or doing some writing as a form of activism, I think just that it’s been really relevant for me as a teacher to see students authentically and passionately engaging with the world.

Another great thing about high school students that I found is that there there’s a real willingness to dive in. A real interest in rigorous discussion and a desire for action. They really want to do something. It’s an interesting balance of supporting them and taking action, but also allowing them the space to slow down and just sort of be. To sort of connect with the place around them. I think a really key thing, particularly at the high school level is to, to know that a slow pace doesn’t mean a lack of rigor.

outdoor education vermont

I was really lucky that I got a chance to pilot a course this summer in the time of COVID.

This was an all-day outside summer intensive. And more than ever, that ability to connect, that ability to be outside and able to socially distance and take your mask off and have some great conversations? We brought a bike chariot along to carry our portable handwashing station and some folding chairs that allowed us to be really movable. We started off simply. A five gallon bucket is great for carrying your stuff and sitting on. Plus it’s waterproof.

The thought I want to leave you with is just that I think place-based education has the power to be so transformative.

Keeping it simple and low tech I think is really helpful. And starting small.

I had initially proposed a much bigger interdisciplinary program, but the administration was reluctant. Yet over time, they became more and more supportive and encouraging. And I think the more students were in those classes and able to share that and talk to other students? The more enthusiasm and support we received from the administration.

outdoor education vermont



One mural, multiple legacies

Beyond the Passion Project: Clara wanted to do something amazing for her final Brainado project. She wanted to push herself and leave a “remembrance,” as she called it, commemorating the sustainability program at her middle school. She envisioned painting a Crossett Brook mural on the newly constructed, pristine greenhouse. She only had one small problem: “I have no artistic ability.”

But she went for it.

She found a partner, a community mentor, and unexpected help. She made mistakes and fixed them. And she worked far beyond the project period, up until the last week of school. The mural is amazing to look at but has impact far beyond the visual. Clara thought she was painting her legacy but she was also expressing the legacy of the educators who cared for her.

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4 ways students are tackling the UN’s Global Goals in Vermont

The United Nations has kicked off a movement for the future. They’ve identified 17 goals for sustainability world-wide, and they’ve given those goals to students around the world.

Here in Vermont, a cadre of passionate educators are scaffolding project-based learning around those goals. And #vted students are hard at work, changing the world, one community at a time.

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How mobile devices can enhance field trips

Deepen place-based learning and boost emotional engagement

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

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

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