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Some final reflections from former TIIE staff

John Dewey once famously said, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” As the Tarrant Institute for Innovation Education (TIIE) sunsets as an organization, we found it appropriate to reflect and share some tidbits of what we have learned.

Here are some thoughts and reflections from former TIIE staff (alphabetized by last name) when asked:

“What is one important thing you learned through your connection with TIIE that you’d like to share with middle level educators?” 


Penny Bishop, Dean of the College of Education and Human Development at University of Maine & former Founding Director at TIIE

TIIE helped me understand the extraordinary nature of middle grades educators. They literally change the world each day they believe in, connect with, and elevate young adolescents.

Katy Farber, Assistant Professor of Education at Saint Michael’s College & former Professional Development Coordinator at TIIE

TIIE taught me that school change is possible, that small groups of people — when connected, when encouraged, when joined with instead of told — can create schools that work against the systems that have dominated for so long — and grow community, grow connections, purpose, engagement, and meaning. Centering the voices of students, amplifying their stories and brilliance. 

I learned about the strength, power and persistence of VT educators, who show up in all the ways they can everyday for their students. To help them, in any way, was the purpose and privilege of working at TIIE. 

Susan Hennessey, Technology Integration Coach at Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union & former Professional Development Coordinator at TIIE

In reflecting back on my time at the Tarrant Institute, I am struck by just how much can be accomplished when a team commits to meeting norms, working agreements, and protocol driven structures to complete complex and creative tasks. Our collective commitment to the work in this way allowed us to be innovative risk takers.

Emily Hoyler, Operations Manager at UVM’s Institute for Agroecology & former Managing Director at TIIE

I learned and grew so much during my time with TIIE. I think the most important thing that I will carry with me is the importance of nurturing relationships and tending to “the container,”  whether that “container” is our classroom community, the adult culture in our building, or any community that we find ourselves in. I’ve learned that how we do the things we do is as important as what we do and that showing up with self-awareness, compassion, and vulnerability are essential ingredients for thriving. I feel so much gratitude for being part of such amazing work in the Vermont education community over the past six years.

Life LeGeros, Equity Scholar in Residence at the Institute for Liberatory Innovation, former Professional Development Coordinator at TIIE

I have deepened my understanding and personal interpretation of the beautiful struggle. The day to day work of teaching, school and district leadership, systems transformation: these are incredibly hard things to do. The products of our efforts aren’t often readily apparent and don’t always manifest. But the power of this work lies in its potential: working together based on shared values rooted in equity, learning to better love ourselves and others, freedom dreaming about a better tomorrow, and showing up every day as our true selves striving to make each moment as human/e as possible. Successfully changing social systems is not guaranteed, so the struggle itself may be all we have; and that’s okay because when we enact hope together, it’s beautiful.

Rachel Mark, Director of Academic Support at Vermont State University- Castleton & former Professional Development Coordinator at TIIE

As a result of my time working for the Tarrant Institute, I’ve learned so many things. Perhaps what strikes me most of all is what I’ve learned about attending to the way we work in teams and systems. The process of working together as people in systems is just as important as the content of the work. Perhaps we learned this together because we lived and worked through a pandemic, when so much of our world was unpredictable and in turmoil. I learned that we needed to surface our emotions and take care of one another as we worked through this time. Fortunately, we never let go of working this way.

Our agreements and working norms as a Tarrant team are extraordinary, and I hope to carry them with me into all of my future endeavors. Two of my favorite agreements are “Take space, make space, hold space” and “Welcome our fully human selves”. I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to learn from and with you all. 

Steve Netcoh, Coordinator of Extended Learning Opportunities at Farmington High School in Connecticut & former Postdoctoral Associate at TIIE

​The most important lesson I learned through my work with TIIE is that the community is an invaluable source of meaningful learning opportunities for middle grades youth. From offering relevant questions and issues that can serve as the foundation for curriculum to providing experts who can help youth explore their passions and interests, the community is essential for helping to foster purpose, identity, and engagement for young adolescents within and outside school walls.

Mark Olofson, Director of Educator Data, Research, and Strategy at Texas Education Agency & former Graduate Research Fellow at TIIE

Often I think about how middle school is a transformative time period for students, where they change and are changed – but working with TIIE I saw educators and other professionals change, and be changed through collaborative and purpose-driven action. I guess – it’s not just the students having transformative experiences.

Jeanie Phillips, Senior Associate at Great Schools Partnership & former Professional Development Coordinator at TIIE

The biggest takeaway I have from my time at TIIE is RELATIONSHIPS! This work allowed me to develop deep, meaningful, lasting relationships with my colleagues, educators around Vermont, and students.  I learned so much from all the people I worked alongside in schools and beyond, and I cherish those connections. AND I watched as educators nurtured relationships with students, colleagues, families, community members, and those of us at TIIE – building strong learning organizations rooted in belonging and care. I’m deeply grateful for Vermont educators and students for the opportunity to connect and learn with you! 

Scott Thompson, Director of Curriculum at Franklin West Supervisory Union & former Professional Development Coordinator at TIIE

Middle School Matters! Developmentally, academically, socially, and emotionally it is such a unique time that has had long impacts on YA’s. In my time with TIIE and as a middle school teacher, when students feel welcome, cared about, and involved in their education is where I have seen the most benefit. Despite all the pressures of testing and rigor, I’d offer to focus on the students. The rest will fall into place, 

Introducing our Community Engaged Learning Toolkit

There is a reason that we’ve written so many stories about students doing cool projects in and with their communities! Relevant, real world learning experiences are highly engaging for young adolescents.

The learning and work feels meaningful, and youth feel energized with their emerging sense of agency: I can make a difference in my community. Here and now. This matters.

Seriously, there’s no way we can capture them all here in this toolkit, and it’s likely that almost any post makes at least some reference to students engaging with the larger community. You can find the permanent link to the toolkit here.

Also, there is a lot of overlap between community-engaged learning and place-based learning, outdoor learning, project-based learning, service learning, negotiated curriculum, and even education for sustainability

But whatever you call it, when it has the essential ingredients of real world, student driven, making a difference and, crucially, engaging with members and organizations in the local community. Community engaged learning is a huge boon for student students and for communities – it’s a win-win!


How to approach Community Engaged Learning


Examples of student projects

Meet the Compassionate Faces of the Shires by Jeanie Phillips

  • Manchester Elementary and Middle School 5th graders created profiles of compassionate community members. To illustrate, includes video and examples of student work.

Humans of Burke by Katy Farber

  • Burke Town School 8th graders spent a semester connecting with community members and creating art to honor them. To illustrate, includes video and examples of student work.

The value of a community mentor by Life LeGeros

  • Crossett Brook Middle School’s Brainado project allows an 8th grader to connect with a local mechanic (and parlay it into a summer job!). To illustrate, includes video.

Projects for Hope by Katy Farber

  • Burke Town School 8th graders connect with community leaders and use the UN Global Goals to contribute to the community. To illustrate, includes video.

Sixth Graders Revamp the Ville by Life LeGeros

  • Lyndon Town School 6th graders participate in a town-wide planning process to improve the community. To illustrate, includes video, lesson plans from teachers, and learning scales.

Who are we as West Rutland? by Emily Hoyler

  • West Rutland students in grades 7-8 take an asset and inquiry approach to improving their community. To illustrate, includes student work.

(re)Building community: Breaking bread and stereotypes with formerly incarcerated Vermonters by Jeanie Phillips

  • Dorset School 6th graders connected with Dismas of Vermont during a unit about cooking, food, and community.

Connecting students to community in northeast Vermont by TIIE staff

  • Burke Town School students in grade 3-5 work to reconnect their community after pandemic school closures. To illustrate, includes video and lesson plans.

Who are the keepers of your town’s history? by Rachel Mark

  • Manchester Elementary Middle School 7th graders used oral histories and 3D printing to create mini documentaries about local history. To illustrate, includes description and video.

Lessons learned from a community conversations about race by Life LeGeros

  • Students at Harwood Union High School partnered with community members to facilitate a community conversation about the name of a primary school in the district.


Podcast episodes (and transcripts) about Community Engaged Learning

Introducing our Outdoor and Place-Based Learning Toolkit

We have a saying around here that “middle school is not a building” and we also believe that classrooms do not have to be rooms. There are so many benefits to being outside for humans’ wellbeing and for students’ learning. We’ve collected our favorite blog posts – find the toolkit’s permanent link here.

Outdoor and place-based learning are tightly connected with so many other things we hold dear. Understanding our place in the wider outdoor world is important for building community together and for students to explore their identity. The outdoors are a great place for engaging in reflection , while thinking deeply about our relationship with the environment and the legacies of a place are powerful ingredients for equity. And so many fabulous project based learning experiences take place in part or fully outside. 

We hope you enjoy digging in here, and, of course, getting out there!


What is it and why do it?

Outdoor and place-based education in the now by Audrey Holman 

  • Includes a 45 minute webinar with transcript, an outdoor place-based education resources page that includes external resources, and four Vermont examples:
    • Aimee Arandia Orensen – Shelburne Farms
    • Cliff DesMairis – Flood Brook Middle School
    • Bonna Wieler – White River Valley Middle School
    • Annie Bellerose – Champlain Valley Union High School

8 ideas for outdoor learning by Katy Farber


Examples of projects with outdoor and/or place-based learning

How to plan a service learning project in 5 stages by Jeanie Phillips

  • Example from Leland and Gray Union Middle and High School that walks through their service learning process. See this short video about the project, too.

This middle school is not a building by Scott Thompson

  • Features the outdoor classroom at White River Valley Middle School

Green Mountain’s Wilderness Semester by Jeanie Phillips

  • Describes the origins of Green Mountain Wilderness High School’s program. Includes a short video

Do you need a radical reset? By Rachel Mark

  • Shares a three day immersive outdoor experience by a team to spur positive culture.

Building a loose parts playground by Emily Hoyler

  • Walks through a Project Based Learning experience from conception to how students shared their insights at an educator conference.

How to make real, sustainable change in the Northeast Kingdom by Audrey Homan

  • Traces how Burke Town School used the UN Sustainable Development Goals to guide a place-based learning project. Includes a video.

Sugaring, STEM, and community connecting by Mark Olofson

  • Recounts a maple sugaring operation by the Edge team at Essex Middle School.

Connecting Vermont students with a dairy farm by Audrey Homan

  • Describes how students from the Cabot School regularly work at Molly Brook Farm as part of their Cabot Leads service learning program. Includes a video.

Examples of other forms of outdoor and place-based learning

How a PTO connected students with community during COVID about Crossett Brook Middle School, by Life LeGeros

Lessons from summer camp about the Kingdom East School District’s summer program, by Life LeGeros

Centering Connection and Wellness: A Lifelong Sports Program about Rutland Middle School, by Rachel Mark

Prioritizing daily movement and experiential learning in Newark about Newark Street School, by Life LeGeros

Introducing our Equity Toolkit

Equity is the moral imperative behind all of the work we do here at the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education. In this new toolkit, we have collected many of our favorite posts about equity, including analyses and syntheses about equity in general, how to support equity in professional learning and in classrooms, and examples of student projects with equity at the center. Find the toolkit’s permanent location here.

Equity is the basis of the middle school movement that we hold dear, which originated as a challenge to the status quo of junior high schools. As progressive educators, we promote shifts in education to bring more equitable outcomes, more humane learning spaces, and expanded opportunities for students to analyze and act to bring greater justice to our society.

We promote equity through practices represented in our toolkits such as positive Community and Culture and Identity work for inclusiveness and belonging; Proficiency-Based Education to focus on growth and cross-curricular skills like the Essential Skills and DispositionsPersonalized Learning Plans and Student Led Conferences that enhance student ownership; and engaging pedagogies like Project Based Learning and Service Learning.

And an important shift in the middle school movement over the last decade is the recognition that equity needs to be explicitly centered in order to be effectively pursued. While it may be a driver behind the work, and there are important practices that promote it, equity itself demands to be named, analyzed, researched, learned, taught, and applied. Please see below for some of our favorite blog posts that address equity head-on.


On equity in education and middle school


Supporting professional learning about equity


Culturally Responsive Practices series


Examples of projects with students that center equity

  • Equity, identity, and art by Life LeGeros
    • Christie Nold’s 6th grade social studies unit. Includes some of Christie’s curriculum materials, interviews with students, and a poetry reading by a student.
  • Challenging simplified notions of health equity in the middle grades by Lindsay McQueen
    • Lindsay McQueen’s presentation at the 2021 Middle Grades Conference. Includes video and slides from the presentation, slides used with students during the unit, and an example of a student project.
  • Flood Brook’s classroom library audit by Flood Brook Middle School
    • Middle school students created “bar graphs” by stacking books in different categories. They analyzed the data and developed insightful takeaways.
  • Bright spots and belly flops by Sam Nelson
    • Sam Nelson reflects on his inquiry question “How can students use social justice as a lens for designing curriculum?” He provides examples of how he and his student planning committee integrated social justice throughout the school year.
  • Art for action at Rutland Middle School by Rachel Mark
    • Middle schoolers used the UN Global Goals and a tour of social justice art projects in their town to inspire their own creations.
  • On fostering brave spaces by Grace Gilmour
    • Grace Gilmour’s presentation at the 2021 Middle Grades Conference about a grade 7-8 Humanities unit. Includes video, transcript, description of activities, and student reflections.
  • The #everydaycourage of talking about race in Vermont schools by Jeanie Phillips
    • Provides resources and tips for talking about race by tracing Christie Nold’s 6th grade student’s learning and actions related to hate speech at their school.

Prioritizing daily movement and experiential learning in Newark

Dillin, a seventh grade student at Newark Street School (NSS), had this to say about starting school with 30 minutes of daily movement:

“So my perspective is, I really like it. It gets you healthy. Your heart beats, and then you get ready for the day you have after you’re done doing it. Like you get to take all your energy out.”

Asked what would happen if he didn’t get his energy out, Dillin replies, “Oh, it’d be different. I’d be annoying. … With Power Hour, my brain is ready to learn – it, like, observes more.”

This 30 minutes of daily movement is called Power Hour (along with 15 minutes of breakfast and a 15 minute morning meeting). The school started it this year along with Exploratory Fridays, which devotes a half day each week to activities such as hiking, canoeing, or skiing. 

These programs are having a positive impact already. Students seem to love it, especially students like Dillin who need to “get their energy out” or others who aren’t able to regularly access these activities because of cost or other barriers. The school has seen benefits in terms of student engagement, academic achievement, and behavior. Let’s take a look at how it works and why it is readily replicable. 

Power Hour

The structure for Power Hour is simple: every day starts with 20-30 minutes of a movement-based activity. For K-2 students, it is similar to a recess. For students in grades 3-8, they get to choose among a number of activities. During warmer seasons, the choices could include biking, walking, running, or playground games. During the winter, there’s snow shoeing, cross country skiing, calisthenics, and sports in the gym.

Images of students engaging in biking and games. A table shows a schedule with teacher names and activities and location.
Shared by Tim Mulligan, principal, and Ty Mulligan, grade 8 student, in a presentation at the 2023 Middle Grades Conference.

After exercising, students have breakfast and then circle up for morning meetings to get ready for the rest of the school day. In several interviews with students and adults, there was widespread agreement that Power Hour carries benefits throughout the school day in terms of focus and social connection. More on that later.

Exploratory Fridays

Once a week, students spend half of their school day engaging in experiential activities that often have a recreational or creative emphasis. 

In some cases Exploratory Fridays are extensions of Power Hour. For example, students might bike each day around the school, and then head to the Kingdom Trail network on Fridays. I accompanied one of these trips and students conveyed that the daily biking was fun but that the Friday trips were the place where they got to see their skill and stamina gains pay off.

A table with grade level bands and activities. Includes things like biking, canoeing, art, music, hiking, etc.
Shared by Tim Mulligan, principal, and Ty Mulligan, grade 8 student, in a presentation at the 2023 Middle Grades Conference.

In many cases, Exploratory Fridays involve community partners to provide more supervision and structure. Many of the activities plug students into established offerings that in past years may have been accessed more as one shot field trips. 

Tatum, an 8th grade student, noted that while Power Hour is all about exercise, Exploratory Fridays was better described as “personalized learning.” It is less about getting the heart rate up as it is about leveling up. 

Why does it work

There is solid scientific evidence behind the theory that daily movement prepares the brain for learning. Tim Mulligan, principal of NSS, had encountered this evidence in the book Spark, written by Dr. John J. Ratey. In a recent presentation at the Middle Grades Conference, Tim summarized Ratey’s evidence for the benefits of daily movement:

  1. Opens neurological pathways that prepare the brain for learning
    1. Cardiovascular activities actually create new neuro-pathways. The best way to take advantage of this is to engage in academics following sustained movement! 
  2. Provides therapeutic effects for everyone!
    1. Especially for students with ADHD, anxiety, depression and other mental, emotional, and social health conditions.
  3. Increases cardio-respiratory fitness
    1. Develops a healthy habit that reduces risks of many chronic diseases.
  4. Supports a healthy body composition
  5. Promotes greater sense of self-worth and esteem
  6. Creates positive social interactions and builds a stronger community

Tim has not been shy about sharing the research rationale for daily movement with teachers, students and community members. Mary Jane, a 7th grade student, had this response to a hypothetical skeptic that worried about a loss of “academic” time: 

“Actually, studies show that biking or walking, or doing anything that exercises your body in the morning helps your brain learn better which will make our grades go up compared to having less movement in our day.” 

Quite convincing!

As for Exploratory Fridays, the focus on doing is exactly what many students need, especially young adolescents. According to the Association for Experiential Education

“Experiential education is a teaching philosophy that informs many methodologies in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people’s capacity to contribute to their communities.” 

The approaches used in Exploratory Fridays, such as outdoor learning and place-based education, are squarely in the experiential learning umbrella. Middle grades students at NSS reflect weekly in their personalized portfolios to make connections to their learning and lives.

Titled "Exploratory Friday," shows images of students engaged in activities such as biking, canoeing, on computers, and in a circle in a classroom.
Shared by Tim Mulligan, principal, and Ty Mulligan, grade 8 student, in a presentation at the 2023 Middle Grades Conference.

Early evidence of impact

So far, these programs appear to be living up to the promise of the research that is behind them. The principal cites several indicators heading in the right direction:

  • Attendance has improved
  • Test scores are up
  • Bullying incidents and misbehavior is down

There is a positive vibe about the programs. In interviews, students shared things like:

  • “I’ve noticed that when you are active, your brain works better” (Andrew, grade 6)
  • “I really enjoy it, and I do feel a difference in wanting to be at school earlier, and being more motivated to get up in the morning, get dressed, eat breakfast, and pack my bag” (Tatum, grade 8)
  • Yeah, it puts me in a better mood, because it’s waking me up. And I just like that moving in in the morning before I do school.: (Graham, grade 7)
  • “I would encourage other schools to do it, because it’s just so much fun to not just be in a classroom and just to be outside and doing all of these things.: (Ava, grade7)

These positive comments align with the survey feedback that NSS solicits from students and parents every few months. The vast majority of responses show that these programs are perceived as enjoyable and that students feel well supported. For those few who respond otherwise, the principal follows up to improve things for those students.

How do they do it

Tim Mulligan, principal at NSS, has worked with local community members to defray the costs of these programs. Through monetary and other types of donations (like letting students ride bikes on their land, or parent volunteerism), the cost of these programs to the school budget is kept to $15,000 per year.

The title says "Community partners and creative scheduling (how are we able to do this?)" and notes that donations, parent volunteers, and a fantastic staff make a huge difference.
Shared by Tim Mulligan, principal, and Ty Mulligan, grade 8 student, in a presentation at the 2023 Middle Grades Conference.

Morgan Moore, the Director of Experiential Learning for the district, supports Tim with some logistics and in making connections to community organizations. The district uses grant funds and deploys staff from their after school programs to support these types of experiences in other schools. Morgan brings in students from the Outdoor Education program at Northern Vermont University as well. At Concord School, Applied Academics teachers are the backbone of Exploratory Fridays. 

Morgan notes: “Every school is different for how they can make this work. But it’s so important to make these opportunities available during the school day. Every student deserves to be exposed to these skills, the land, these local organizations, and of course Transferable Skills like teamwork.”

Making these opportunities a priority is perhaps the most important element in making them widespread and equitably available. Tim points to the challenges facing schools as the ultimate justification for innovation:

“How are we meeting the needs of all of our kids? ADHD, mental health, depression, the trauma so many have experienced. And all of us adults going through the same things? We have to try something different than what we’ve done in the past.”

So every school is different, and it is time to try something different. Getting students moving and exploring is a great place to start, however you do it.

How will you get students moving and exploring at your school?

Introducing our new Project Based Learning toolkit

At the Tarrant Institute, we write a lot about Project Based Learning (PBL). We consider it one of the engaging and meaningful instructional pedagogies that we endorse. As an approach, PBL offers many of the traits that address the important needs of young adolescents. It engages students in thinking about real-world problems, gives time for inquiry and research, and suggests that students create their own solutions to questions. Which is why we’re so excited to share our new Project Based Learning toolkit with you. Find it in its permanent location here.

Teachers who implement PBL observe so many benefits. We trust the work and research of PBL Works to describe Why Do We Focus on Project Based Learning?

Before anyone sets out to implement PBL, we encourage you to build the culture for this learning. This blogpost about creating a PBL culture in your classroom shares strategies and activities. Our Community & Culture toolkit can also provide you with some resources and strategies to prepare your learners to engage successfully with Project Based Learning.  

But even when you build the culture, we know that teaching and learning with PBL can be messy. Students are collaborating in groups. They have varied paths they want to follow. There is trial and error. It isn’t easy! We have worked with countless teachers and schools to help them tell their PBL stories. And we have learned from their work to help guide us forward.

In this toolkit, you will find topics that might resonate with your own inquiry about PBL. Attached are some of our most valuable and relevant resources to help you on your journey towards understanding and implementing PBL with students. 

PBL How-To

These posts offer suggestions, steps, and planning tools for how to build and implement PBL in your classroom.

Examples of Exciting PBL

These stories describe some real-world examples of Project-Based Learning.

Virtual PBL

When the pandemic forced students to be at home, we got creative about how to keep PBL alive and well. While students are in person now, we can still learn from this time.

PBL Pitfalls

Like a lot of teaching strategies, we have learned from our mistakes implementing PBL. Here are some resources that address some of the potential pitfalls. 


Winter Break Reading & Listening: 2022 Edition

It’s that time again! One of our favorite times of the year around here: our annual Winter Reading post. This year, for your listening pleasure, a few of us have also included podcast recommendations! Oh, and as an extra special surprise, we have guest contributions from a few former colleagues! So without further ado, may we present our lists…

Rachel Mark

I love to read, and that’s no secret. But what I have recently realized is that I love the actual hunt for discovering the right book. As we head into this winter, I think I have really nailed it in finding some “right books” for me.

At the top of my stack is Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. This novel sounds like an endearing story about a female chemist in the 1960’s whose trajectory takes an unexpected turn. Its description as “funny” and “feminist” has made me eye it for months. In fact, I received two copies of it from separate gift givers for my recent birthday. That hasn’t happened since I unwrapped six copies of Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume for my 12th birthday, so it must be a solid choice.

Another fictional pick is on my list is Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow: A novel by Gabrielle Zevin. I must admit it was the beautiful and creative cover art that drew me to this book. But the story involves an intersection of love, success and video game design that sounds fascinating. Indie Bound gives it “rave” reviews. I can’t wait to crack its cover.

To satisfy my professional side, I plan to read Leaders of Their Learning: Transforming Schools Through Student-Engaged Assessment by Ron Berger, Leah Rugen, and Libby Woodfin. In part, I’m reading this book to become more attuned and aligned with a specific school district’s work and goals. But it’s compelling to me for other reasons. This book will contribute to my long-term passion project around empowering and engaging students. Its particular attention to student-led conferences, passage presentations with portfolios, and standards-based grading will be relevant and will deep my own learning.

The latest book by Maira Kalman, Women Holding Things, is also on my to-read list this winter. This is not your average book. It contains extraordinary and whimsical illustrations, paired with witty and wise words. I think this book speaks intimately to me. Kalman writes, “What do women hold? The home and the family. And the children and the food. The friendships. The work. The work of the world. And the work of being human. The memories. And the troubles. And the sorrows and the triumphs. And the love.” If you’ve never read Maira Kalman or looked at her artwork, I highly recommend that you do. Her book And the Pursuit of Happiness is one of my favorites. Happy Reading!


Life LeGeros

I write this in the throes of World Cup fever. My love of the beautiful game (soccer) is only matched by my appreciation of a good book. Throw in middle school and equity and I’m hopelessly hooked. I was long ago devoted to Front Desk series, and yet the fourth installment, Key Player, had me particularly excited. Hearing author Kelly Yang recount the famous match at the Rose Bowl between the United States Women’s National Team and the Chinese team was so fun. And then learning that this book was just as autobiographical as the others was simply amazing.

I’m currently reading Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by sister scholars Karen E. Fields (historian) and Barbara J. Fields (sociologist). The book is a collection of essays that are chock full of brilliant scholarship and exquisite writing. They challenge some of my ideas about how identity operates, about how and why anti-Black racism arose in America, and about whether ideology is about belief or, as they argue, is grounded in day to day practices. It’s good to be challenged and I look forward to reading their recommendations for action.

As I get ready to grow my To Be Read pile here at the end of the calendar year, I need to circle back to some of the books that have been in that stack throughout 2022. One of my kids pulled Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor off the bookshelf the other day to use to prop up the book she was reading. An acclaimed book by one of my favorite authors, that I had forgotten that I own? Perfect! Thank you, universe.

I’ve been working with schools in the Northeast Kingdom this year, which has made for some lengthy and very pretty drives. Here are my favorite podcasts depending on mood:

  • For deep learning about race and whiteness, the Seeing White season of Scene on Radio was a life changer for me, while Teaching While White has taught me a ton and continues to put out new compelling episodes.
  • For inspiration and insights about life, apparently podcasts featuring sisters are my thing. I enjoy How to Survive the End of the World with adrienne maree brown and Autumn Brown; and We Can Do Hard Things with Glennon Doyle who along with amazing guests often invites sis Amanda Doyle and wife Abby Wambach.
  • For amazing journalism about crucial topics, my go tos are Reveal for investigative reporting and Throughline for historical context on contemporary issues.
  • For story telling you can’t beat Snap Judgment and it’s scary story spinoff, Spooked.
  • For Vermont-centric stories that are as good as anything out there, Rumble Strip is illuminating and mesmerizing while Brave Little State is a treasure. The special series Homegoings, focused on Black musicians in Vermont, is especially powerful.

I’m not always in the mood for a podcast, though. There’s live radio, music, or just sitting in silence with my thoughts. However you like to exist, I hope you get plenty of it this winter.

A dog with three books - Who Fears Death, Racecraft, and Key Player.

Emily Hoyler

I confess: I’ve been quite swept away with reality TV these days. I seem to go through phases, and currently I’m not in a book phase. Actually, that’s not quite true. As a doctoral student, I’m doing a lot of reading. But it’s not the wind-down-take-it-easy kind of reading. It’s you-better-have-a-dictionary-and-deep-focus kind. Hence the current Survivor obsession. But given that stacks of books are the key element in my home design aesthetic, there are plenty around, and a few titles that have drawn me in lately.

When it does come time to snuggle up with a book, I am prepared. Not only do I have books, but I have a puppy to snuggle with. As such, Herbs for Pets is on my reading list, as well as Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo, recommended and loaned to me by my friend Samantha.  I  also optimistically checked out a stack of books from the library as well. I’m really excited to dive into this stack, which includes The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley, Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley, and All Adults Here by Emma Straub.

Finally, because nonfiction is my jam, I’ve also got The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis by Amitav Ghosh and Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders by Michael Newton both queued up.  And, because Life can’t stop talking about it, Racecraft will be added to the stack! Phew! I better turn off the TV!

As for listening, the pandemic really crushed the commuting time during which I listened to podcasts. But I still manage to stay caught up with a few. Current favorites include Mary Annaïse Heglar and Amy Westervelt’s Hot Take, which keeps me current on the unfolding climate crisis with some amazing dad jokes thrown in – keeping it light, folks. When I’m up for more unsettling, I listen to Ayana Johnson’s For the Wild: An Anthology of the Anthropocene, which blends sweet music with interviews of visionary activists and changemakers. Lately though, I’ve been feeling saturated, and choose music instead. (Hello, Taylor Swift.)

Bonus Features!

Katy Farber

I was gobsmacked by the brilliance of this book: Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. It was a bit slow moving at first, but the writing is so gorgeous, lyrical, and descriptive, I’m glad I stuck with it. By the end, I was exclaiming to the woods, my cat, how these stories and worlds came together, through decades, gloriously human and beloved characters, connected to this earth, a story, and each other. I just can’t believe it. If you would have asked me if I was interested in Ancient Greek texts I’d say nope. But this? A book that is dedicated to librarians, present and future? It pulled me along and then sailed me through the last 200 pages like a fast boat ride. Books connecting people, saving people, transforming people. So much love and humanity in this. If you have read it, my goodness! Would love to hear what you thought.

Shout out to Aggie in the background. Best reading partner!

Jeanie Phillips

I’ve got a cozy stack of books awaiting the first snowy days, and one I’ve already begun that I’m loving. Let’s start with that one. 

Ruha Benjamin was such an amazing speaker that the Rowland Foundation invited her to be the keynote at their annual conference not once, but TWICE! Her latest book, Viral Justice, is just like her keynotes: warm, personal, and beautiful but also insightful, inspiring, and revolutionary. She weaves together research, policy, science, and her own story — encouraging us to make small changes that will coalesce to make the world more just and humane for everyone. I’ve been listening to this one on audio (read by the author!) but had to have a print copy to annotate and underline. Plus – the cover!!!

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu was recommended (and loaned) to me by my friend Rhiannon. Pausing here to say I just love reading books recommended by dear friends — I love the shared experience of a book and the many conversations that follow — it’s a kind of kinship that brings me so much joy!  Interior Chinatown is a satirical look at race and assimilation. It’s the perfect follow-up to the book I’m currently reading: Celeste Ng’s Our Missing Hearts, where assimilation is policed by a patriotic America that has no tolerance for difference. 

I’ve got a memoir in the stack, too: Deborah Copaken’s Ladyparts. This one comes to me via my friend Emily who assures me that it is both hilariously funny and powerfully feminist (just like Emily!). 

And then there is Inciting Joy! Ross Gay is a poet, but his book of essays, The Book of Delights, is one of my most favorite books ever. In it, he conjures delight from the most mundane things: the roots of trees, pick-up basketball games, two people carrying a shopping bag together — 1 handle each. His essays, like his poems, stir deep gratitude in me and remind me to savor small things. 

Here is wishing you joy this winter — in your reading, your gathering, and your resting.


Introducing our new Advisory toolkit

It’s no secret we’re big fans of advisory around here.

And we don’t just mean the time on the schedule that’s called “advisory,” but the practice of circling up with students to build relationships and connections, share ourselves, and laugh, play, and maybe occasionally even cry together. Which is why we’re so excited to announce our new Advisory toolkit. Find it in its permanent location here.

Young adolescents are deep in the throes of exploring who they are, both individually and collectively, and we have the wonderful privilege of stewarding this process. It can be a tricky time for students to navigate increasingly complex social relationships, not to mention juggling multiple teachers (and homework assignments). Advisory is one of the key ways we support our students.

Advisory, done well, is a core middle grades practice

Despite its name, the morning meeting can happen any time of day. And it can “fit” into whatever time is available, although 20-30 minutes a day is ideal. It’s a time to build relationships and community through greeting each other and being greeted, sharing about our lives, and having fun together. Nothing builds engagement like an enlivening round of Is This Seat Taken? or Silent Ball.

But it’s not all just fun and games in advisory

Advisory is often the structure schools use to create a “home base” for students, most of whom have many more teachers in their schedule than they’ve had in the past. The role of the advisor is to deeply know, advocate for, and celebrate their advisees. Advisors often serve as the key home-school contact, and co-facilitate student-led conferences. In this way, we can make sure that every student is connected with a caring adult at school.

And advisory isn’t just about a circle of chairs. It’s about building relationships and community all day long. That’s why our Identity toolkit,  Community & Culture toolkit and our Adult Culture toolkit also have wisdom to offer on this topic. 

How do you use the advisory structure to build community and relationship?

Advisory How-To:

These posts offer suggestions, insights, and research on how to build and facilitate advisory.

Advisory Activities:

Need ideas on what to do? The first post gives an overview of one structure for advisory, and the following posts offer activity suggestions.

Virtual advisory?

The pandemic reinforced what we already know: social connections are essential. And some of you got really good at virtual advisory. Here are a few posts sharing those strategies.

Why advisory?

Still not convinced? Or need to convince your colleague to invest in this highly effective best practice? Read this series from middle level expert Nancy Doda.

Introducing our NEW Community & Culture Toolkit!

You know the vibe when you walk into a classroom where everyone is engaged and buzzing with learning, and the room is humming with good energy? It’s not accidental. Culture takes deliberate work to build and grow. Learning is happening. Collaboration is smooth. Laughter is present.

How do we get more of that?

Building community, all day, every day

We know that a thriving learning community is essential to student success and wellbeing. And a connected class brings more joy to each school day. But how do we build and maintain an engaged, respectful, and curiosity-centered classroom culture?

Slowly. Daily. With patience, clarity, and laughter.

Community & Culture is such an important topic that we’ve written about it a lot and often. So we are especially excited to present our new Community & Culture Toolkit. Find it in it’s permanent location here.

Building the Culture & the Beginning of the Year

We all want to get off to a strong, solid start. These posts share ideas on how to build the foundation of a strong learning community from the beginning.
See also our tool kit on advisory for more ideas on how to build culture through advisory.

Maintaining the culture

A positive and thriving learning culture must be tended throughout the academic year. These posts address keeping things fresh and real in pursuit of a learning community.

Pandemic Reflections, Reverberations, & Ripples

The pandemic may not be over, but we have certainly progressed from the early moments of 2020 when we pivoted to remote schooling. We’ve moved past the mask mandate and daily case reports, into now, the as-yet undefined third year of pandemic schooling. While many things have returned to ‘normal’, we are changed. This collection of posts by middle level expert Nancy Doda offers rumination on what we’ve learned, what’s important, and what we should still be asking ourselves.

Adult culture

A positive and collaborative adult culture is essential to a positive and collaborative student culture. As educators, we must attend to both. We believe that a thriving adult community in schools is essential, so we built a special toolkit just for that topic. Find it here!

Food for Thought

These episodes of #vted Reads invite us to think more broadly about schooling and culture, and reflect on the implications for our practice.

Sixth Graders Revamp Lyndonville

It was a perfect match.

The sixth grade team at Lyndon Town School were looking for an end of year interdisciplinary project. They wanted students to reconnect with the community after two years of pandemic schooling.

The Town of Lyndon was calling for community members to help generate ideas about how to improve downtown. They were in the “consider” phase of the Revamp the ‘Ville, a year-long “community-driven planning process.”

Students, town officials, and community members intermingled. Connections ensued. And a whole slew of fantastic ideas were developed, shared, and celebrated.

Read on for a play by play of this magical month of project based learning, along with reflections and tips from the students and adults who made it happen. (And check out the video too!)

Breaking out of COVID isolation

After a year of pandemic schooling in 2020-2021 with social distancing and many students opting for remote rather than in-person learning, everybody was ready to get back to something more normal. The beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, however, saw a rise in cases that caused more disruptions and further cautionary measures.

By the end of the year, things were feeling more settled. Going into the spring, the sixth grade team knew they wanted to do an interdisciplinary project. They also wanted to help students make connections across content areas and with the community. Tyler Willis, the Humanities teacher, enrolled in a graduate course about project based learning. As a result, he was able to bring resources and ideas to the team in line with their goals and use his assignments in the course to further the project planning.

Tyler explained the connection impetus this way:

We felt that through the years of Covid, we’d strained the relationship between our parents, our community members, and the school. So much was Covid focused that we really wanted to try and open up what we did as a project. We wanted to bring our kids back into the community and bring the community back into our school.

In line with this reconnection goal, the team wanted the project to feel like a celebration of sorts. They were committed to asset-based approaches in their everyday teaching and through structures like Student Led Conferences.

Luckily, the Revamp the Ville process underway in their community was highly aligned with their goals. It was an asset-based, action oriented, inclusive community project. The team just needed to figure out how to bridge the gap so that the students could meaningfully participate while also learning what they needed to for school.

Interdisciplinary clarity and collaboration via the Transferable Skills

The team had big ideas of all the directions they could take the project. They wanted it to be vibrant and emergent in a way that would be impossible to completely preplan.

With this in mind, the team decided to use Transferable Skills (cross curricular proficiencies) to craft their learning objectives. More specifically, they chose one: self-direction.

“Less is more”, Tyler reflected later. Focusing on self-direction provided cohesion across content areas. The team created a scale for self-direction and then provided additional detail to students based on task. For example, the task sheet for planning and project management provided indicators at each proficiency level that could be used during work sessions. Over time the students developed an understanding of what self-direction looked like in different contexts so that they could self-assess, provide feedback to peers, and understand feedback they received from others.

By focusing on self-direction, the team could calibrate and collaborate effectively. Tyler explained “we tried to break it up as a team so that we didn’t have to assess every single student we had in front of us every single day. We had conversations about what are we seeing from different students so that it almost took on like a team based assessment kind of thing.”

Furthermore, this type of collaboration felt like something the team had long been striving for in their Professional Learning Community (PLC). Tyler observed that whereas it is hard to look at data together from different content areas, “this feels like a way to tackle a true PLC model. Are we really data driven? We can be if we are focusing on Transferable Skills.”

Launch day

A good project deserves a great entry event.

On a beautiful Monday morning at the beginning of May, the sixth grade team took a bus to downtown Lyndonville. In small teams led by one or two teachers, students walked around town snapping photos and taking notes. The scavenger hunt asked them to observe and record the pros and cons of their town in three areas: business and economy, recreation opportunities, and attractiveness.

Each group stopped by the Aubin Electric office, where owner CJ Aubin gave them a quick history lesson. Students were enthralled to hear that he remembers coming to the building as a kid when it was a train stop, where you could earn 10 cents a bag to help unload goods. After one group left, CJ waxed poetic about his enthusiasm for the project:

These kids just need to be pointed in the direction to see that their dreams and goals can benefit everybody around them where they live. It all comes down to their dreams – they can make it happen and it all starts now.

By the end of the day, students were already coming up with ideas for improvements to the town: more trashcans to reduce litter, more community events to bring people together, brighter crosswalks, and better food options. Before heading back to school for lunch, students and teachers played lawn games together on the town green.

Forming and brainstorming

Over the next few days, six community members visited the team to give students varied perspectives on the history, values, assets and needs of Lyndonville. The esteemed presenters included:

  • Eric Paris – A local dairy farmer and Vice President of the local historical society.
  • Joe Benning – A state representative and candidate for Lieutenant Governor (who eventually took the students on a field trip to the State House).
  • Beth Kanell – A historian and novelist.
  • CJ Aubin – A community member and business owner with multi-generational family connections to the community. 
  • Ben Mirkin – Associate Professor of Outdoor Education, Leadership, and Tourism at Northern Vermont University.  
  • Nicole Gratton – Director of Planning for the town of Lyndon. She brought an understanding of logistics, and connection to all of the research, zoning bylaws, and other relevant town information that had come up in the information-gathering phase.

It was a whirlwind week, but worth it, as noted by Tyler: “There was a lot to plan for the teachers a lot of logistical stuff but by the end of that week all of us, the kids and the teachers, were motivated and happy. Teachers were feeling like it was like one of the best weeks we had all year. After that we were like, okay, now, we have really started.”

By week two, students were ready to run with all sorts of ideas. Some students started to naturally group themselves into pairs for projects that they wanted to work on together. The team then clumped students into topic groups so that students could share resources across projects.

Let’s get organized

Before completely opening things up for students to chase their dreams, the team did some foundational learning together and established some structures.

First, students did some research about community improvement. A worksheet guided their exploration of resources organized on a padlet. The resources ranged from general ones about what makes thriving community to specific articles about Lyndonville, many of which were written by presenters from the previous week. Students contributed to a JamBoard as a centralized brainstorming spot.

Next, the team solidified the expectations and products that students would be asked to complete. Students participated in a Humanities workshop about the persuasive product that they would create and a science workshop about the model they would build. Students studied and unpacked the rubrics for these products that linked to the Transferable Skills of self-direction and communication. These experiences and tools made it clear how the products would serve as evidence of learning.

Along the way, students completed tasks to receive concrete feedback about self-direction (the main focus). For example, one day they created a business plan and logo that connected to their early ideas about improving the town. These tasks expanded students’ understanding of the expectations for self-direction and built skills that could be applied again later.

Finally, students created an initial project plan. They explained their project, made a case for working with a partner if this is something they wanted to do, and started costing out materials. Teachers conferenced with students to provide feedback and approve plans.

The foundations had been fully laid and it was time to get messy.

Screen shot of a project management page.

The messy phase

The third week of the project brought lots of work time. Teachers supported students in everything from making connections to their content areas to getting in touch with people and resources in the community.

Michelle Bechanan, math teacher, noted: “As a math teacher involved in this project it can get messy because the math each student might need can be very different, and this makes it both energizing and challenging trying to help all of the students with the different math they need.”

Yes, it’s messy, but it’s also a math teacher’s dream to have students asking to learn math to do something that they care about. This is the intrinsic motivation that is the holy grail of education, and one of the main reasons why PBL is such a powerful, research-based pedagogy.

As put by Temperance, a sixth grade student,

“This was the most engaging things we did all year. The reason that I am the most engaged in this project is because it means a lot to me.” 

The momentum of meaningful learning carried students through this work period. Teachers arranged for some “stress test” moments along the way, where students would reflect and provide feedback to each other about how realistic their projects were.

Eventually, students learned that they would be presenting their ideas to mentors from the community. They did some warm up pitches in a Shark Tank-style activities, reflecting on how to create short persuasive presentations. Students tamed the messiness of the work week by condensing their project ideas into digestible pitches.

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Mentor Day!

Before submitting their persuasive products and models, and a week before exhibition day, students shared their projects with mentors from the community and received feedback.

Tyler explained,

We didn’t want students to just present finished projects to community members. Ou goal from the beginning was to have community members be a part of the projects and actually work alongside kids.”

Community mentors circulated to students, heard their ideas for improving the community, and offered verbal and written feedback. Comment cards encouraged mentors to be as specific as possible

Justin Smith, the Municipal Administrator for the town, focused his feedback on feasibility. “It was a great experience for both sides, an opportunity for understanding why things can be done and why can’t they be done.” He came away impressed by students and their ideas, with some good ideas injected into the town project: “These real life experiences are very important. It’s a give and take – I’m getting a lot of great ideas and they are getting some real life lessons about the expectations you can have for some of these projects”

The Final Exhibition

After incorporating feedback from Justin and other mentors into their products, students were ready to share. The team invited mentors, community presenters, families, and other teachers and students to learn and to celebrate.

And they didn’t disappoint. The library was abuzz as students showed off their models, made persuasive and informative pitches, and even modeled some real life shwag with logos that they had designed.

“These 6th graders have great ideas!” exclaimed Justin after the exhibition.

“They came up with unique things to do for our city and  our town that us adults wouldn’t necessarily think of. It’s great to have kids throwing ideas at you … I can take these back and ponder: is there a grant for this? Is there a doable project here?”

After the excitement of the exhibition, students completed a self-assessment that asked them to reflect on their learning and to provide feedback to teachers about the project. Overwhelmingly, students expressed that Revamp the Ville had been the most important and fun part of the school year.

CJ Aubin, who had been involved since day one, was still floating after the exhibition had wound down. “There are some great ideas in the air. The dreaming is what I really like. To see them spend time on thinking up ways that can improve the lives of other people in the community that means so much to them.”


When asked to offer some tips and lessons learned, Tyler came up with six:

1. Depth over breadth for cross-curricular proficiencies

For cross-curricular learning objectives like the Transferable Skills, don’t worry about coverage or comprehensiveness. Pick one or two and provide students with multiple opportunities to unpack them. All of this practice will help students understand these complex expectations better and position them to self- and peer assess, gather relevant evidence, and meaningfully reflect.

2. Community connections pay big dividends

Bringing the community into school, getting students out into the community, and allowing students to work on improving community are all huge motivators and sources of learning. There are lots of examples for the power of community connections and it is always worth it.

3. Create a feedback rich environment

The sixth grade team set up many layers of feedback so that students could hear from peers, teachers, community members, exhibition attendees, etc. Feedback is crucial for proficiency-based learning generally, and in this case the team wanted students to understand that a crucial component of self-direction is the ability to incorporate feedback from others. There was also a helpful division of labor: teachers focused on self-direction and external mentors were looked at the products and ideas.

4. Set time aside to plan and collaborate

Making magic like this is not easy. The team gave themselves ample time to work together so that they could be responsive to student needs and to the emerging aspects of the project. Tyler put it this way:

“Try to be conscious of just enjoying the time you have with the kids and to not overplan.”

You can get a jump by looking at sample projects like this one and others.

5. Your students will love it!

Michelle, the math teacher on the team, had not used a project based learning approach before Revamp the Ville. She shared afterwards: “Through my experience with project based learning I have found that the students are more engaged with their learning.  They take more ownership to their learning because they see a real life application to what they are doing.  Making the project something that they feel like they can have some say in is powerful! … I would highly suggest teachers do at least one of these projects a year.”

Students echoed this sentiment. Let’s let them have the last words:

  • Arie – “It was actually fun, how we were interacting with the community in a way. It was cool how they involved us, because it is not only adults that should be able to make decisions.
  • Nevaeh – “Students like hands on things. Rather than just doing it on your computer. Because we can work with your friends.”
  • Jamion – “I hope we do more of this kind of project because it can help build community.”
  • Temperance – “In the future, I think we should do this literally every year. Because it teaches kids that not only are you helping the world, but you could help yourself.”

NEW Essential Skills & Dispositions Toolkit

Many schools and classrooms across the country identify student skills for success. Ideally, those skills cut across content areas and are grouped within grade bands. They are communicated and prioritized within the learning community. While Vermont’s AOE has identified five Transferable Skills, some learning institutions choose different ones – sometimes also known as “21st century skills”.

Because these skills apply across content areas, they are high leverage opportunities for learning and teaching. Learning to communicate and collaborate effectively will serve students well across their learning and life. And, because these skills transcend specific disciplines or content areas, they are easy to apply to personally meaningful learning, increasing student engagement. Win-win.

A popular framework is the Essential Skills and Dispositions: Developmental Frameworks developed in 2015 by the National Center for Innovation in Education and the Educational Policy Improvement Center. This framework includes four essential skills – collaboration, communication, creativity, and self-direction in learning. We lovingly call them the “ES & D’s”

We have gathered some of our favorite resources to support you as your students work on developing these skills in this Essential Skills & Dispositions Toolkit. (You can also find it in its permanent location here). 

What are the Essential Skills & Dispositions?

How can I help my students develop their collaboration skills?

How can I start integrating the communication ES & D into my teaching?

What does it mean for my students to improve their creativity skills?

How can my learners develop more self-direction skills?

When a learning community can focus on a few essential skills for students, powerful things can happen. It’s possible that students can chart their own growth, reflect on their development, and take ownership over learning. If other tools such as PLPs and Student-Led Conferences are used, students can demonstrate, share and report on their development of essential skills and dispositions.

Please connect with us and share your work with essential skills. 

Introducing our NEW Adult Culture toolkit

A positive and collaborative adult culture is essential to a positive and collaborative student culture.

As educators, we must attend to both.

We can’t expect our student culture to thrive if that quality is not present in our adult community. As adults, we set the tone. Schools should be places where everyone is a learner, where everyone collaborates, where all voices are heard, and where we share responsibility and power.

But how? Below we share our favorite resources on a few essential elements of a thriving adult culture: effective teaming, better meetings, culture-building and self-care.

Effective teaming

If you’ve been fortunate to work as part of an effective teaching team, we don’t need to convince you of the power and benefit of such deep collaboration (not to mention the moral support!). According to The Successful Middle School

A signature component of middle schooling is the interdisciplinary team of two or more teachers working with a common group of students for a shared block of time, ideally in proximate space. Effective teams serve as the foundation for a strong learning community…They can provide young adolescents for the sense of belonging, social bonding, and connectedness. They can also lead to improved student achievement, improve family engagement, and other positive outcomes. (p. 51)

But the benefits of effective teaming require a strong foundation.

To achieve these benefits of teaching teams require daily common planning time. Educators need regular opportunities to discuss how – and how well – they are meeting learners’ needs. During common planning time, teachers plan how they will integrate curriculum and personalize learning. They analyze and reflect on assessment data and student work, discuss current research, and reflect on their team’s effectiveness. (p. 51)

Whether you’re just getting started or have been teaming for years, these resources can help you as you collaborate with your colleagues:

If you are an administrator looking to support your teaching teams, we are also fans of Elena Aguilar’s work, especially The Art of Coaching Teams.

Better meetings

Once you have your teaming structure established, and have carved out regular time for collaboration, it’s time to think about making the most of this time together.

Time is a precious resource, and we often feel like we don’t have enough if it. Collaboration works best face to face, yet if we spend out meetings reviewing logistics or getting sucked into fruitless discussions we might not be making the best use of the time we do get. This series of posts can help you and your team build a better container for collaboration so you can bring your vision to life.

We love the School Reform Initiative’s protocols so much, we even use them in our internal meetings. Don’t forget the debrief, it’s essential! Reflecting on how our meeting and discussion worked – or didn’t – gives us valuable insight we can apply to future meetings.


How we show up matters. A lot.

Are you showing up as a captive or a curious learner?

The energy we bring impacts the collective energy of the group. Think of someone whose presence always lifts your spirits. We need to decide, each day, each moment, how we are showing up, and to be aware of how our energy is impacting the collective.

It’s also important to play and laugh together. This is what humans – young and grown – often seek in their free time. Why not begin faculty meetings by teaching each other favorite advisory games? This serves double purpose: not only do we laugh together, but we’ll have new ideas to bring to our students.


It’s hard to give what we don’t have. You’ve heard it before, the thing about putting your own oxygen mask on first. Sleep. Movement. Nourishment. A good therapist. Care work is hard work. Take care of yourselves out there.

Food for thought

When you have the time and bandwidth for it, we’d like to leave you with a few other pieces of food for thought.

Our work as educators is undeniably challenging under the best circumstances, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. Especially when we feel connected to and supported by our colleagues.

How do you foster and build a positive adult culture in your school? Let us know! And find our Adult Culture toolkit in its permanent location here.

PLPs to Know Students Well: Introducing the Personal Learning Plan Toolkit

Knowing each student well is essential to a year of flourishing for students and educators. It’s a prerequisite to ensuring equitable access to belonging and wellbeing, a culturally-responsive learning environment, and deep learning. And it enriches the relationships so central to a thriving school. Personal learning plans (PLPs) can drive a rich and sustained process of knowing each student well. Teachers, peers, parents and other important adults—and certainly the student—will appreciate the evolving insights PLPs can offer. And students’ learning experiences from the summer, team development activities to launch the school year, and identity units will help you use PLPs to know students well. 

We’ve pulled together our favorite blog posts and other resources to help you launch or deepen your work with PLPs. You’ll find this and plenty more in our updated toolkit. Below you can get a taste of some of the highlights. Enjoy!

Introducing our updated PLP Toolkit

According to Vermont’s Agency of Education, “A PLP is a plan created by a student, with the support of parents/guardians, teachers/mentors and peers, that defines the scope and rigor of academic and experiential opportunities that will lead to secondary school completion, postsecondary readiness, and civic engagement. Creating Personalized Learning Plans provides students the opportunity to reflect upon their learning and shape their future, and enables the adults in their lives to better understand each student as a unique individual…. PLPs not only help articulate and clarify students’ goals and needs but also are a reflection of the importance of student agency in learning as they work to meet graduation proficiencies.”

Clarify Your Purpose

Clarifying your own purposes for PLPs is key to unlocking their power. In our book, Personalized Learning in the Middle Grades: A Guide for Classroom Teachers and School Leaders, we invite educators to begin their planning for PLPs by first asking themselves a number of questions. These questions are meant to invite thinking about critical gaps in current schooling, especially for students poorly served by current practices, that PLP work can help to fill. 

  • What life opportunities do I hope my students will engage in when they launch into adulthood 8-10 years from now? As citizens, wage earners, and family members? 
  • What kinds of learning would I like to see more of in my classroom or school?
  • What kinds of learning do I wish were valued more by the rest of my school system?
  • What kinds of evidence of learning and growth do these learning opportunities produce? 
  • How can I welcome this evidence into a system of student record-keeping? 
  • Who are the stakeholders in my educational community and what evidence or experiences do they need in order to support the learning I want for my students?

And remember, PLPs aren’t just for the teacher. Here are some ways we think PLPs can help various stakeholders. Notice the many ways stakeholders can use PLPs to know students well.

Sample PLP purposes by stakeholder for using PLPs to know students well

Consider these purposes and discover new ones as you explore the resources below. Start by hearing what students have to say about PLPs that work for them.


Center Personally Meaningful Learning

Foremost among the lessons we’ve learned from teachers and students, PLPs must center the learning students’ find most meaningful. That often means learning at the edges of or beyond regular school-based curriculum. Moreover, while most facets of schooling serve other stakeholder priorities, PLPs are meant to focus on learning that students value most. 

Build Powerful Opportunities into the Process

A robust PLP process is rich with depth, complexity and culture. In the following examples we see educators and students embrace that richness with processes that are collaborative, reflective, and iterative–the same traits we seek from each students’ PLP experience. PLPs to know students well yields benefits across the curriculum and the school community.

Borrow from Others

Growing a PLP program responsive to the needs and interests of students, educators, and families must be iterative. Fortunately, embracing iteration is easier now more than ever. You’ve got plenty of rich examples to draw upon. Some are fully formed systems honed over years. Others speak to creative approaches to critical elements. 

Consider Platforms with Purpose in Mind

A clear purpose will guide you toward the technologies that meet the needs of students, teachers, and other stakeholders.

Scaffold Evidence Gathering, Reflection & Goal Setting

A commitment to meaningful learning and student ownership of PLPs opens many avenues for scaffolding key skills students will need for PLPs and their lives ahead.

Keep the Bigger Picture in Mind

It is important (and helpful) to remember that PLPs make sense within a larger system meant to spur deeper and personally-meaningful learning. We’ve found that PLPs often falter without meaningful learning opportunities and authentic assessment that values them.

Updated Student-Led Conferences Toolkit

Around this time of year, many middle schools begin to prepare for a fall student-led conference. This conference serves as a valuable tool for getting to know your students and connecting with their families. It can be a truly memorable experience, but it takes work, too. We have gathered some of our most important resources to support you and your students. Enjoy this updated Student-Led Conferences Toolkit. (You can also find it in its permanent location here.)

Student-Led Conferences

A student-led conference (or SLC) can be a magical opportunity for teachers to engage deeply with a student and their family. It typically involves a middle schooler gathering some evidence of their learning, strengths and challenges, and possibly their goals and aspirations. They assemble that evidence along with reflections into some format; many use a slideshow or PLP, but there are many possible ways – even papers in a binder or journal! Then, the teacher helps facilitate a conversation and sharing process between student, family, and teacher. Many factors help determine its success. Here are some of our favorite resources to help you.

Why Student-Led Conferences are Important

How to Prepare Families for SLCs

Examples of Student-Led Conference Implementation

We would love to hear how you found these resources useful for your Student-Led Conferences.

  • What tools did you use and how was it implemented?
  • What did students find engaging about the process?
  • Do you have other resources and tools to share with us?

Please share and connect with us! Hope your SLC’s are a success!








Why Advisory matters so much

The Why

We teach a precious and somewhat precarious age group. Our middle grades students are in the throes of one of life’s most pivotal and seminal periods in human development. They are growing faster than at almost any other time in life, and are grappling with some of life’s most significant milestones which will come to shape how they see themselves, others and the world. These are the “turning point” years of life.

Growing up has always been hard work, but for today’s young adolescents, it is well…simply harder.  We do not need volumes of research to convince us of this. The past two years of trials and challenges in managing the not-so-post pandemic school world offer plenty of evidence. Students need us more than ever to help them navigate the challenges of growing up well.

As middle grades educators we have long celebrated the importance of positive relationships and social and emotional learning in middle school. We know and research substantiates that when our young people feel well known, valued and included at school, they are more likely to be fully invested in learning, make better choices, and feel happier at school. (CDC, 2011). Moreover, for young adolescents, being connected to others is essential for healthy identity development.  A productive search for self is inextricably linked with positive adult and peer relationships. And, since our age group is vulnerable to bullying, ridicule and exclusion, they depend on us to ensure school is a socially and emotionally safe place so they can take the risks needed to grow in such important ways.

The Advisory concept has long been celebrated as an essential program feature designed to safeguard our young adolescents. While there are many models of Advisory, the twin aims emphasize quality peer relationships and personalized adult support. The hope is that every child has one caring adult advocate, feels connected to a caring peer group, and is afforded the opportunity to develop social skills in a safe haven.

Over the past decade, educators have learned even more about the value and leverage of Advisory programs. Perhaps most significant, is the fact an Advisory program can transform a school’s culture creating a sense of connectedness; a key ingredient in school success. Connectedness takes shape when schools deliberately attend to quality relationships and make time to help students do the same.  (See this resource from AMLE for more: Creating a Culture of Connectedness through Middle School Advisory Programs.)

Finally, there is no doubt we all aspire for a softer and kinder world. Living through the pandemic has made abundantly clear the need to help kids learn to care about themselves, others and their world.  Advisory is one special opportunity to help us show young people how to be caring members of a community: to listen well to others, to understand others with empathy, to learn to be kind, and to learn about the value of a civil community. 

Advisory Going Forward

So let’s say you are on board with all the possible benefits, but last year’s Advisory left a bad taste in your mouth.  You felt like you were managing chaos most days and the occasional good days were not enough to bring you back into enthusiasm. You’re not alone.

The last school year will long be remembered as one of the toughest we have ever faced. And, it wasn’t only Advisory that lost ground. Advisory however is a unique beast. It’s too relational to be unstructured; too intimate to be unplanned. And, with a huge decline in student social skills and a rise in problematic student behavior, it’s no wonder many of us were wondering if Advisory was really worth it.  

Considering How

With the fog of last year’s challenges starting to fade, how can we give Advisory a new fresh stroke, and better prepare for a year of Advisory success.

Here’s what some fellow middle grades teachers and students have learned that might help us recommit to our Advisory and keep it relevant and manageable:

  1. Revisit your most positive Advisory memories. Sit with this. When did you witness growth? Can you recall faces of students who flourished over time? What were some moments of joy?  Did your students discover emerging new friendships? When did things work well?
  2. Establish routines and celebrations that will keep you sane all year. How do you hope students will enter and leave the Advisory time, gather in a face to face circle, behave during the share time or activities, take turns, act as co-leaders, set up and clean up messes? These routines are so important, that if you had a rough year, look back and consider what routines you had in place from the start. Then, consider how you might take steps to address this during the first month of the school year. Rituals and celebrations are also vital to keeping Advisory going.  Could you plan one or two fun celebrations to hold the year together? Monthly special food sharing? Monthly cross Advisory play? Goofy days
  3. Spend more time up front on building relationships and belonging. A few ‘getting to know you’ activities is not enough. Commit to a month of steady relationship building work. Take lots of pictures of the journey and share. And, keep in mind students are always growing and changing so ‘getting to know you’ activities can and should happen all year long
  4. Engage students early as helpers and leaders of Advisory. Start with 3 simple roles needed to keep Advisory productive. Examples: News and Announcements, Check-ins or Greetings, and Set up/Clean-Up. Add on over time. Student voice matters in all our classes, but Advisory can fall apart without it
  5. Balance and structure what you do in Advisory. Focus on blending structured discussions, with free flowing productive play. Use both as opportunities to teach social skills, as simple as manners, to good listening skills, and appropriate discussion skills.
  6. Have a simple plan for every week. Don’t over-plan, but have a focus for the week’s Advisory with some talk time, activity time, play and reflection. If you find you are without a plan, ask a colleague to borrow an idea or check the Advisory calendar. Try using components that give Advisory more structure. Here’s one example: Morning Meeting Components – Cambridge Public Schools
  7. Talk often about Advisory as a faculty. What we talk about is what matters to us. No less than once each 9 weeks, faculty should have a chance to share ideas, debrief what’s working or not, and learn one new thing. Even 10 minutes can yield ideas and inspiration. In between, try starting each faculty meeting with a different check-in. Without this needed talk time, and added modeling, we will risk losing momentum.
  8. Focus on face to face. When in doubt, leave technology out. We live in a world where technology is ubiquitous. While there is no full escape, Advisory ought to hold sacred time for face to face relationships. Eye to eye, knee to knee will have a greater impact on student behavior in Advisory and throughout the day than any technology platform could achieve.

Last words

Every one of us joined the teaching profession to try to make a positive difference in the lives of our students.  This has always been hard work. Today, however, it’s not only harder for students to grow up, it is harder for all of us to reach and teach every child. In these challenging times, we need every tool available if we are to make that difference. We need many ways into the hearts and minds of young adolescents. Advisory is one powerful way in. 

Introducing our updated Identity Toolkit

The beginning of a school year is a great time to explore and reflect on identity. For teachers who are working with students for the first time, exploring identity is a great way to get to know them and to build relationships. For teachers working with returning students, well, they may have changed a lot during the summer! In any case, identity work is good for relationships, developmentally spot on for young adolescents, and can provide a foundation for engagement and social justice learning.

We have compiled our best Identity blog posts to support educators doing this important work. You can find the resources below or go straight to the updated toolkit. Enjoy!

Continue reading Introducing our updated Identity Toolkit

Happy Summer Reading!

We at the Tarrant Institute look forward to summer reading every year, but THIS year… this year we all deserve the BEST books, the BEST swimming holes, the BEST summer adventures, and the BEST time with friends and family. We’re sharing our book lists and our wishes for summer joy and relaxation with all of you. Enjoy!



Lately, I haven’t been reading like I usually do, friends. I’ve been distracted by work, the pandemic, and my doctoral studies. And I’ve missed it, so I’ve got big plans for this summer- plans that involve hammocks, beach chairs, and books – lots and lots of books!  Here are a few on my list:


a picture of three books outside in a garden: Malibu Rising, Caste, and Hospicing Modernity.
Summer books in my favorite summer reading spot.
  • My college-aged son read Caste by Isabel Wilkerson for a class this past semester. He loved it, the book and the class, and it made for many great dinner conversations. He passed his copy along to me and it is top of the list for this summer. Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns was such an amazing history of the Great Migration – I learned a ton! I’m sure this one will also be an education.
  • I adored Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo – it swept me into the world of a Cuban American actress and her complicated relationships, with lovers but also with the public. Malibu Rising will be my second book by Jenkins Reid – and it will be perfect for the beach as it is about a family of famous surfers. Who knows, if I love it I’ll follow it up with Daisy Jones & the Six.
  • Two dear friends, Emily Hoyler and Jory Hearst, recommended Hospicing Modernity by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira. Turns out the author also goes by the name Vanessa Andreotti and I’ve read a ton of her scholarly work in my program and I am a HUGE fan! Her HEADS UP framework reminds me to be suspect of uncomplicated solutions, paternalism, ahistoricism, and other shortcuts to social justice. This book, written for a broader audience, asks us to be reflective as we address complex social issues and injustices.
  • Most years I reread a classic. This year it’s Kindred by Octavia Butler, but I’m listening to the audiobook on It was powerful in print when I read it thirty years ago, and it is already so good as a listen. (PS> has a great audiobook listening copy program for educators – check it out!)
  • My summer reading list would not be complete without a few YA titles. I’m looking for recommendations – please send them my way!



Folks, I do a lot of reading. And since I’ve become a student again, things have only gotten more intense. It seems that my to-be-read pile grows faster than I can keep up. Honestly, it’s both a little exciting and a little overwhelming to have so many ideas lined up to engage with. This past winter I decided to carve time out for reading by rising early, so it’s up at 5am I go, coffee in hand, to settle into my armchair and dig into something. These somethings are almost always non-fiction. I guess that is my preferred genre. Huh.

Except that’s not the reading I want to talk about — or do — right now. I want to talk about summer reading: potato chip beach books. Easy fiction reads that I fall into so easily it feels effortless, almost like binge watching Netflix. Stories that sweep me away, pull me under, and lull me to stillness in the summer heat.

Unfortunately, I need some help here! What should I read? The decision fatigue is deep this year, and when it comes to books the struggle is real. I don’t have the stamina to wait for a book to pull me in. It needs to happen in the first 3 pages. I know that’s a lot to ask. But I also know it’s possible.

Luckily, my local librarians have a shelf for their picks, so my current read was plucked from that shelf: This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel, which is the story of a family with a secret that undoes them. It’s certainly pulled me right in, I’m halfway through already!

What else should I read? Recently, I really enjoyed The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, as well as The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller, and City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert.  I’ve loved everything by Kristin Hannah that I’ve read so far, including The Nightingale, The Four Winds,  and The Great Alone

So what should I read next?

If you need me, I’ll be in the hammock.


My daughter came home from the library the other day with a stack of books. At the top was The Best At It, by Malik Pancholy. I had heard a chapter read aloud during a session of the school-wide read at White River Valley Middle School and had been pining for it ever since. (Even more after reading Jeanie’s Twitter thread about the author visit!) I’ll be borrowing it as soon as my daughter is done.

I’m looking forward to delving into the many stories told in The Most Costly Journey: Stories of Migrant Farmworkers in Vermont Drawn by New England Cartoonists. It is the result of an amazing project where cartoonists were paired up with migrant farmworkers to provide visual representation of their powerful stories. The project was supported by some fabulous Vermont organizations and has been chosen as the Vermont Reads 2022 book by Vermont Humanities. I can’t wait to talk to others about it during a book group at the Middle Grades Institute next week.

I associate summer with pop music that makes me want to dance. Janelle Monae creates music that compels boogeying though it’s far too complex to classify as pop. I knew about her brilliant acting, too, but gave an audible squeal of delight when I came across her new book. The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer. It uses her concept album Dirty Computer (and emotion picture) as a launching point for a series of short stories, many of which she co-wrote with amazing people. This is going to be one to savor, preferably with Monae’s beats and melodies in my ears.

And finally, I have nearly 800 pages of pure bliss to enjoy in The Empire of Gold by S.A. Chakraborty. It is the third and final book of the Davaebad Trilogy, based on Islamic mythology and written with unparalleled richness and imagination. They are the type of books that I can get completely lost in. The type that get into my dreams and inspire djinn-filled daydreams. I can’t wait to return to this enchanted realm with the magic of summer reading.


Like my colleagues, I read a lot. In fact, I am reading this post to take note of their reading lists, too.

To start, I am reading The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon. My daughter was reading Yoon’s books this spring, and she inspired me to read this one. Truth be told, I think that I have already read it, but I remember nothing. This time I’m slowing down, so that I can talk about the book with her. It’s a love story, but it’s also about complicated relationships with family, immigration in America, and so much more. I eat up this YA fiction like candy.

Next on my reading list for this summer is We Run the Tides by Vendela Vida. My mother caused me to read this after her own book group selected it. Though she didn’t expect to like it, I helped my mother find it in the bookstore thanks to kind staff. That scavenger hunt to find the book (without knowing its title), has endeared me it. Goodreads describes it as, “both a gripping mystery and a tribute to the wonders of youth, in all its beauty and confusion”. That (and it’s beautiful cover art) has me hooked.

Speaking of cover art, I am noticing the resemblance between We Run the Tides and another book on my list. What’s Mine and Yours by Naima Coster has a cover that looks really similar. Which makes me think that sometimes I do judge a book by its cover! This book came from my friend’s list of books to read. I love that it’s about mothers, the complicated choices they make for their children,  and their fight for a better future for their kids.

Last but certainly not least, I can’t wait to read All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks. When hooks died at the end of last year, it made me regret not reading more of her work. Originally published in 2000, this piece of her writing strikes a resonant chord with me these days. She wonders….what if we view love as a verb, rather than a noun? I am so drawn to the way that hooks persuades us to change the way we think about love and one another. We need that kind of love now.

Readers, please enjoy this period of rest and rejuvenation. After this year, you deserve all of the BEST relaxation, the BEST adventures, and the BEST books.

What Matters Most Now: Lesson Three – Authenticity

The school year is almost over and this one may well be remembered as your toughest yet. If hardship makes us stronger, we’ve got that covered. And, we have learned lots about how to be, live, and teach in this challenging time. My first two posts nudge us to consider slowing down and rethinking what we teach. Here I want to remind us to stay “real”.

Lesson Three: Authenticity

One of the most refreshing aspects of the pandemic was that it helped to strip us of some pretense. We were all equally vulnerable. When virtual, we saw some of our children’s homes, their pets popped in, and there was something endearing about getting closer to our real selves.  We were all afraid together, all trying to be safe, all feeling loss and grief. This is the kind of humanity we don’t want to lose.

This first flush of pandemic authenticity was short-lived and it has already faded.  Being real in school is tough.  Even during the peak pandemic lockdown, there were very few structured opportunities for teachers and students to talk about the pandemic. We discussed COVID facts and protocols but left the authentic at home: hopes, fears and feelings. With the zillion questions we all had about COVID and the pandemic, I don’t know a single school that engaged students or staff in an active exploration of the very thing that was consuming all our lives.

Of course, this was partly due to the sensitive nature of COVID. Moreover, we didn’t know how to talk about a pandemic. We’d never lived through one before.  Finally, we avoided it because we were in survival mode. But this difficulty in being real along the way left us with greater wounds to heal right now.

“What is really going on in school now?

Middle schools today are still oozing with anxiety that has been accumulating since the start of the pandemic. Today, young adolescents are in school without masks. Like many of us some wonder, is this going to be okay and safe? Can I really relax? Is this really almost over?

Over the past fall, schools have reported significant behavior challenges they have never seen before. Students who once were engaged, have been observed checking out and refusing to do any work. One school in northern Vermont observed that work refusals have tripled in this school year. (VPR, Eric Heilman, March 9, 2022)

Likewise, many teachers report that some students who never struggled with behavior issues, struggle to care. When students do behave badly, many who would have once been eager to set things straight, fail to apologize.  Some taken for granted manners have gone by the wayside. Teachers have observed that many students have lost the social skills needed to work with others and to be kind in social interactions. We have schools filled with both children and adults who have experienced trauma. That is the real deal.

We are all dancing as fast we can, using every possible resource to manage these challenges. The line at the door for comfort and help was too long before the pandemic; now it feels daunting. So exhaustion continues and anxiety is unabated. What can we do?

We might start by allowing ourselves to recognize where we are. And, we can make the social and emotional well being of every member of our school including ourselves, our top priority. This doesn’t mean we stop caring about academic learning, but we should worry less about students falling behind academically, and worry more about students falling behind emotionally and socially. Here are a few ideas:

Building Community With Student-Driven Conversations

Figure out ways to bring mindfulness, or relaxation or social and emotional checks into your classroom routines. Starting or ending a week with reflections can be a simple but powerful way to monitor the emotional pulse and open space for students to be real. This 60 second tool is worth checking out. As are these posts on bringing mindfulness into the classroom and 7 mindfulness activities for advisory.
We might frame our Advisory (if we have that time in our day), as the place where authenticity is sacred. We don’t need lots of fancy gimmicks, but we do need to find middle school appropriate ways to let students talk to us, and to one another about life.

School leaders might find new ways to encourage authentic faculty conversations.  If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that we need one another, and we all need safe spaces in which to be real. This resource from Edutopia helps you imagine Designing a Better School Staff Meeting.

One school found that by starting each faculty meeting with an Advisory-like activity, they were able to help teachers learn new Advisory protocols while building good feelings and trust across the faculty and school community. What if most meetings began with such authentic moments? Are we willing to find ways to fit this in? If we keep burying all the feelings and avoid authentic conversations, we will continue to find ourselves depleted and stuck.  (Feltman, 2021, The thin book of trust)

Being Authentic in the Classroom

Being real of course has its greatest power when we are able to be real with students. Share yourself. Tell your own real stories. Middle school students are perennially curious about us, but more than ever before they need for us to be authentic and real, modeling how best to do that. Recall how delighted students were to see the background of a room in your home when we were all virtual. That window into your life was a gift. We want to hold onto that in the years ahead.
There is such a need for schools to become more authentic places where we all can be real, and where it is safe to share our true selves. Let’s use this pandemic to shift from peril to promise.

#vted Reads: The Last Cuentista

Lovely listeners, welcome back. I’m Jeanie Phillips, and on this episode, I get to talk about “The Last Cuentista”, a book by Donna Barba Higuera.

It’s a fantastic middle grades book that touches on the tension between technology and organic life, duty and desire, along with what we know about identity — and how we know it.

It’s also a book that asks us questions, like: how are you keeping the young people in your life plugged in and growing? And: Do you know the stories they tell about themselves? And most importantly, do you know how to help them tell those stories?

My guest today is Ornella Matta Figueroa, who works to support storytellers out of trauma, with Safeart, out of Chelsea, Vermont. She’s also part of the Vermont Education Coalition.

This is Vermont Ed Reads, a show about books, by, for and with Vermont educators. Let’s chat.

Jeanie: I’m Jeanie Philips and welcome to #vted Reads, we’re here to talk books, for educators, by educators and with educators. Today I’m with Ornella Matta-Figueroa. And we’ll be talking about The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera. Thank you so much for joining me Ornella. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Ornella: Thank you so much for having me. My name is Ornella Matta, and I’m coming to you from the Vermont Education Coalition, also co-director of Safeart, which is a nonprofit based out of Chelsea. We address trauma and communities to creative expression and storytelling.

Jeanie: I can’t think of anybody more perfect than to talk about this book, The Last Cuentista. But before we get to this one, what are you reading? Right now, Ornella?

Ornella: Right now, I’m revisiting bell hooks Teaching to Transgress, and seeing it with these eyes that have gone through the pandemic and have lived the last few years is a totally different experience. And trying to figure out how do we create liberatory classroom? So that’s my work of the moment.

Jeanie: We can always learn more from bell hooks I find every time I read her, I have a new full body learning experience.

Ornella: Same. Absolutely.

Jeanie: Well, let’s it’s tempting as it would be to talk about bell hooks right now let’s, let’s come back to The Last Cuentista, which is a book that starts the very beginning of this book, we know that the world as we know it is ending, a comet is going to strike Planet Earth in the year is like 2060 something and I wondered if you wanted to just give our listeners a little snapshot of who our main character is and what’s happening in her life.

Ornella: So, how old is Petra?

Jeanie: I think she is like 13.

Ornella: She 13 or 14 years old?

Jeanie: I think she’s on the cusp. She’s like 13?

Ornella: Yes. So, we have Petra, and the book opens up with storytelling and this very moving goodbye between Petra and her grandmother. And there is a lot of you know,  anticipation of what is going to happen next? What is it that we have to do? We start and see the relationship between Petra and her family, and we start to understand the earth. It is a little bit, you know, prophetic almost in a sense of, ooh, “A lot of this introduction sounds a lot like the worsening of the earth today.” And yeah, so the main character is Petra. And we meet family. In the beginning of the story, I would, I would say that.

Jeanie: And Lita, her grandmother is a storyteller. And, and Petra aspires to be like her when she grows up.

Ornella: A lot of inner conflicts we’re seeing between the family, what the who Petra wants to be versus who her family wants her to be? While all of this chaos is happening, and they’re trying, you know, they’ve been selected. And there’s also this new one, so who gets to live and who gets to die?

Jeanie: More about the selected – what are they selected to do? Petra and her family.

Ornella: Selected to be leaving Earth and one of these shuttles, that’s supposed to be, you know, going to repopulate or, you know, populate a different planet. After being increased thesis and like, all this kind of technology. It’s definitely a sci fi novel.

Jeanie: Yeah, I would call it speculative fiction. Right? It’s got this sci fi fantasy more than fantasy and this world is ending.

Ornella: Dystopian edge to it a little bit, too.

Jeanie: Did you say Dystopian Edge? Yeah.

Ornella: Yeah. For me, it has a little bit of that Dystopian Edge. Yes.

Jeanie: But what’s unique about is it’s so rooted in the traditional storytelling of her family, the quaint those her grandmother Lita shares with her it’s so rooted in sort of ancestral wisdom for lack of a better word. So, it’s got this like futuristic and this past.

Ornella: And something I noticed with that, the values that reinforce are all really beautiful values. Even in the edges are so a way in which Petra’s retelling of the story is even like, in a healthier context, that her grandmother, as we hear her interpretations, and how she’s kind of like in the future in the story, frames the context of what’s happening to the people she then storytellers to is, like, with kindness and the priority of like, you know, those VA hosts and everybody went to the VA feels to ask for advice. And there’s this way in which service and compassion and gratitude is kind of like a framework in how the storytelling is shared, or like the morals underneath the storytelling.

Jeanie: I love that I hadn’t thought about it in that way. Because those stories operate on so many layers and it starts with just a new said before we started recording the whole book is Petra grieving, in gentle and not so gentle ways the whole book is grieving, for Lita, who’s being left behind for this planet, this place that she loves, and for humanity, as she knows, it’s going to have all of it. And so, there’s a way in which part of her grieving is to hold on to the stories part of her way of mourning, Lita is to hold on to the stories and to want to be like her. And her grandmother gives her some really good, great advice, I thought, she says, you have to make your stories your own. And I was struck by this concept of stories changing over time and about how we use the wisdom of folktales and sort of our family stories and the stories from our backgrounds, and how we adapt them for a modern world or for a changing world.

Ornella: When I think about stories here is so interesting because something I’ve noticed very recently is that if we don’t have the story to make ourselves good as a human beings, based on the choices that we make, we don’t there’s no way in which stories that we’re even told about ourselves, that we tell people really shapes how we reflect, and mirror and observe ourselves. And, yes, there’s so much beauty in this book and how its honor’s the ancestry, and also allows for the creativity, to give the community what it needs, for their community to be healthy, and to be able to see themselves or whatever wholeness they need to see.

Jeanie: You’re really inspiring me Ornella to think about how, when I work with schools, when we at the Tarrant Institute work with schools, we often encourage them to start the year with identity with questions of who am I and who do I want to become? And this book holds all of that, who am I? Who are my people? What are my passions? And what are the values of my upbringing? And who do I want to be in the world? And how does that help me be the person I want to be in the world?

Ornella: Absolutely, I see that in Petra. She’s such a powerful leading character, and in the ways in which she really perceives and views her world with such curiosity and kindness and such honesty with where she is and what’s happening in front of her. And there’s this just like sincere vulnerability and the ways that she’s interacting with what’s happening, a way in which it keeps her alive. It keeps her hopeful. It keeps her working towards like, the less of this move me ahead, right, like that kind of feeling in which there’s something behind her moving her ahead.

Jeanie: Well, in that, that strength comes with a real vulnerability, and I’m thinking particularly about a physical vulnerability. Because as Petra and her family are boarding the Pleiades Corporation ship, we find out that she has a disability with her vision. So, she doesn’t see very well. And so, her family, she has clearly adapted to this disability and to making it invisible to others. She uses certain strategies about how she navigates the world so that people don’t notice that she doesn’t really have wide-angle vision, right? And her family’s like holding on to her and they’re trying to hide it because there’s a sense that she won’t be able to board that they won’t take her if she’s and I’m using air quotes here, listeners if she’s defective. And recently it brought eugenics to mind.

Ornella: Oh, yes. You know, many actors, so many agents have gotten the story about, like, who are we and who do we want to be as a community? And what is the difference between we all choose, and we are all the same? And it is so beautiful, how in this world beautiful and terrifying and striking, and how it plays out in the story. Yeah, you know, they are able to hide her ability or, you know, they are able to, and even she becomes so valuable, that even when it’s discovered her skills are indispensable. There’s nothing, you know, it doesn’t matter anymore at that point.

Jeanie: When there’s a moral there, there’s a theme there about her value as a person and she would have been left on earth to die if they had discovered that she couldn’t see because they consider that as like weakening the gene pool, which is like directly the language of eugenics and the Holocaust, right. I wonder about that as an opening to start talking about eugenics in classrooms. And I think it’s a really tricky subject to navigate about how to discuss it, how to bring it forward. And I’m thinking about the legislature moving towards doing some truth and reconciliation, owning the story of eugenics in Vermont a little bit. And I don’t know, in your work with the ethnic studies coalition, how does that land for you, is this book an opportunity to sort of talk a little bit about our history in Vermont?

Ornella: I think any opportunity is an opportunity to talk about it right? I think that there’s a line here that we could go there as part of what we can discuss when talking about this book, and it is a beginning opportunity, it’s an opportunity to talk about our history and be honest and real about what has happened. And also observe the ways in which it affects us still today. Like, what are the inner shames and the inner pieces and our lack of being able to connect with ourselves because of our ancestry? And how many families in Vermont are still hiding? And not being honest about their ancestry? Or even French-Canadian ancestry? Yeah.

Jeanie: Or its might not even be not being honest, but have lost that connection because of the need for assimilation? Because they needed to assimilate to survive, I wonder if that reached out to? Could you say that again?

Ornella: There may be a delay. I was saying that my experience in Puerto Rico is also similar. Like it’s part of the history of so many different places. This genetic “cleansing”, you know, it’s a part of a lot of different histories.

Jeanie: Right in Vermont, the movement was about building a better Vermonter. And sterilization was about deciding who was unworthy to pass on their genes. And we’re not the only ones that have that story. I think you’re saying, and although it’s not about sterilization, this selection of who gets to board, this ship was very much about whose genes do we want to send into the future? And who’s who, who are we sacrificing?

Ornella: And what they do with the genetics later on? It’s also super interesting in this story.

Jeanie: Oh, well, let’s talk a little bit because I think for that we need, you know, the United States government at the time is making these decisions. But there’s this movement afoot, that infiltrates called the collective. Let’s talk about a collective. So, before they leave the US, Petra, the collective is often on the news, it’s sort of fringy. I think I got the impression that it was a little bit fringy. And Petra’s father says about the collective that it sounds like what they want is good, they talk about equality. And he says, Yeah that sounds good. It’s how they’re going to get there. That’s problematic. And so, he says, equality is good. But equality and sameness are two different things. Sometimes those who say things without really contemplating what it truly means that dogma runs a thin line. And so, the collective really has this, like, this stance, this ideological stance that we have to be the same in order to be equal. And they’re willing to do a lot.

Ornella: You know, they’re willing, and it was, I didn’t see them as a fringe, I saw them from the perspective of a progressive family. So, I didn’t see them as fringe as much as I saw them. Back to buy one of the billionaires in the story, which is how the collective ends up on one of the ships, right, like there’s a way in which capitalism and money also has a huge piece and what’s happening there with the collective. I’m trying to figure out where to go next with that, because sameness is such a big thing. It’s like such a big conversation.

Jeanie: The whole book is about, I mean, we’re going to look at it from lots of different ways, but it’s about identity and being yourself or being who people want you to be. And the collective wants people to be a certain way. From their names, their whole identities, they want people to be same.

Ornella: Because we’re all the same. And if we are all choosing to be the same, then there won’t be any conflict. They see the differences as the foundation for conflict, or the focus on the differences as the foundation for conflict. And, you know, the book spans a few 100 years. So, there’s also a lot that happens, which is something I always think about. When I frame 200 years I always joke and tell my kids when I’m homeschooling you imagine if Hamilton talked about it, and we’re fighting, we’re talking about it right now, you know? So, Hamilton did it. And now we’re talking about it in the Supreme Court, you know, and I go back again, and I was like, oh, let’s talk about Jesus and the Council of Nicaea over a year, and how many years that took after Jesus died, before he was declared the Son of God. And then we have so there’s like this huge number of years. And when we meet the collective at the beginning of the story, and where we see the collective later on. And what it started, is not what ends up on the other side, either.

Jeanie: Right? Well, well, Petra and the other children and families who were selected to, to populate this new world are sleeping in stasis. Another group of people infiltrated by the collective are many of them of the collective are caretaking them and having and giving birth and having families on the ship to get them there. So that they can all populate this new world. And as they’re on this ship floating in space, trying to reach this planet called Sagan, they’re reproducing, and they don’t have any natural sunlight. So, their skin is really pale. They’re like, they’re like their genetics are changing, the way they look is different, say, say that, again.

Ornella: They’re changing their genetics or altering their genetics to be able to survive in a spaceship.

Jeanie: So, like, so there’s so much, so much so that when Petra, when they wake Petra up several 100 years later, they’re like, what is that she has freckles, and they call it a skin disease from Earth. And then one of the collective members says, we’re not supposed to talk about Earth, right? Like it doesn’t exist, because they’re erasing their own history. They think erasing history will solve their problems. And so, there’s like all these layers of how much they’ve changed and become different just from being on this ship. With this ideology that they’re following.

Ornella: Yes, because too, they believe that if they study history, it will only fuel their observation of difference. And those differences are what caused conflict.

Jeanie: In their opinion, not yours, Ornella.

Ornella: No, no, no, not, in my own opinion. Thank you for clarifying that. I’m the complete opposite. I’m like, Hey, how could we have none of the up you? How do you figure out and connect to your own purpose? If you follow your own inner guidance? Yeah, and I’m the complete opposite of that is interesting, how it echoes a lot of the current dualities in binaries, right, like it’s one of those ways in which our society oversimplifies the complexity of creating community. And what it takes for us to be socially connected in difference.

Jeanie: It what you just said reminds me and this thing about history in the book reminded me of that almost cliche, those who don’t know history are bound to repeat it. I’m sure I didn’t get that quite right. But it makes me think about this current argument in our society about the notion that we can’t teach the real history because it will make us proud of being American or right versus this other. Other people, including myself, would view that like, we have to grapple with our mistakes so that we don’t keep making them that we can both we can hold, and we must hold the pain and the mistakes of our past in order to get to become the people we want to become.

Ornella: Absolutely. What that evokes for me, as you’re speaking is shamelessness and how shame is socially constructed. So, it can only be socially deconstructed. So, there’s no way in which for us to be able to sit with our mistakes or the things you know we need to like to be in this face of this is not everything I am I am valuable. This is only a part of my history. This is not defined everything I will do in the future. Richer, you know, and how do we reconcile that we need to be way kinder to one another and to ourselves, I would say just to start.

Jeanie: Right and that shame only dissipates when we let the light in. And in order to let the light in, we need to tell the truth, we need to because otherwise it just sits their investors, right? We need to ask forgiveness, we need to like, own what happened and tell the truth about it. And when we don’t when we what’s the word I’m looking for? When we clean up our history? Right, when we sanitize it, that shame still exists, because we’re not telling the truth. Whether that’s about genocide, or eugenics, or racism, or the entire all of the complicated truths of our history.

Ornella: Yeah, and we need to figure out what’s enough, right, like, there’s a point in which we need to be self-accountable, we need to tell the truth about the many, many histories and the many layers of oppression that we what’s the word I’m looking for? That we’ve imposed on one another, that especially colonial folks, you know, we’ve, there’s a way in which we really impose a lot of aggression in this column reality. And as I see it, it’s really hard to take responsibility, when there’s no clarity around what that’s going to, like, you know, what that’s going to do what that’s going to be for people. There’s a way and a story in which is perceived as never enough. And then there’s so way and a story in which it in which you can heal, right, there’s like, and then there’s a way in a story, in which we create and construct a whole new future. And we can look at the history while also building something else. Yeah.

Jeanie: Yeah. And so, the collective, the collective wants to build something new without learning from history by just flushing history down the toilet. But there’s also a way that the collective is approaching the individuals, especially those in stasis, those young people and their families that are being transported to populate this new world. And so, Petra’s family, her father and her mother, both scientists, and there’s a flashback in the book that I just loved, where Petra and her father out hunting for rocks together and they were looking for Jasper had to look up what Jasper was, it’s a kind of rock. And his father says, as they’re looking for the Jasper, the rock will tell us who it is not the other way around. And he goes on to talk about how each piece of Jasper has its own spirit, and that those differences make things beautiful. Some of the Jasper is like yellowish or amber with a red stripe and some is greyish and there are all these different shades and colors. And that theme becomes really central to the book, especially when I realized that Petra comes from a Latin word, which means rock. And so, in a way, it’s also about Petra, just like her grandmother says, The Rock will tell you know who you are, it’s not for other people to tell you who you are. And those other people telling Petra who she is, is happening within her family and then also with the collective.

Ornella: And there’s something really beautiful about how Petra stays Petra. And one of the many possibilities is because Petra insists on what she wants to the very moment you know that she’s put in cryostasis, or whatever it is. She insists on the fact that she wants to be a storyteller, and she tells everyone and makes it, so this becomes a priority when it hadn’t been to anyone um, the world is ending. And she’s walking into this room still saying, this is what I want you to do. And it kept her alive like it kept for herself all the way through. That’s one of the many possibilities.

Jeanie: Well and Petra’s mother wants her to be a botanist. Right,  a scientist like herself. And Petra keeps insisting she wants to be a storyteller. But there’s also as Petra is waking up from stasis. Wait, the the members of the collective are waking her up. We’re going to talk about this in a minute, this cog that she has inserted in her spine in her brain keeps repeating the same thing. “My name is Ada one. I’m here to serve the collective. I’m a specialist in rocks and plants” or something like that. I’m not quite getting it right. But as, she’s hearing it, she keeps repeating it. My name is Petra Pena, right. Like I come from I left Earth in 2061. You know, and like she keeps reclaiming her identity even as this technology is trying to erase it. It’s a real powerful act of resistance.

Ornella: Oh, yes. And that, you know, that scene with the library in our mind.

Jeanie: Let’s, let’s talk about Ben, and the library in her mind.

Ornella: Oh, my gosh, Ben. What can we say about him?

Jeanie: Well, his real job right is caretaker of these young people. His job is to keep them alive.

Ornella: While they’re plugged in, and they’re not there. They’re in these pods. The information that gets fed into their cogs.

Jeanie: And he knows Petra. He’s but he’s also so he’s caretaker right. He’s my favorite kind of person. He’s caretaker, but he’s also a librarian. He loves books. And he knows that Petra wants stories. And so, he selects all these stories for her and sort of illicitly illegally against orders. Make sure she has access to them. And I love there’s this whole scene in the book where there’s like the naming of the authors. Did you love this too? Where it’s like Louise Eldritch, and Toni Morrison and Kurt Vonnegut.

Ornella: Yeah, I thought it was love. It was really well done. It was really, really well done.

Jeanie: But then I love as a librarian, I don’t know if you know this, but I was a school librarian for a long time. As a librarian, I also just loved where Ben is like, Oh, well throw some RL Stein in there too. And I don’t know if you recognize that author. But RL Stein wrote all the Goosebumps books that I couldn’t keep on the shelf when I was a school librarian. Like, we essentially, Ben was saying, you know, you need your silly books and your romance to those stories are worthwhile to.

Ornella: I love that. I thought it was so well done, it was really well done.

Jeanie: It would be if I were using this book with kids, I would want them to curate the list of stories and authors that they would think should be, you know, blasted into the future in somebody’s brain.

Ornella: Absolutely. And also, you know, a little bit of awareness, you know, of how kind of heavy the book is, for some young people with this too. Like I was thinking it’s like, okay, so I have two 11-year-olds and a 13-year-old. And I can see one of my 11-year-olds really doing this, well, my 13-year-old doing well, but maybe the other 11-year-old, not so much. When we’re looking at, you know, identifying what books they’re going to do in the future, you know, they would want to hold on to forever. And especially because the book is really so full of grief. That it’s, you know, it’s a little loaded.

Jeanie: Right, the world is ending. There’s loss, like real loss of entire civilization, but then also, and we are not going to spoil much of the book, but also people Petra is close to there’s a lot and there’s not much time or space, and there’s certainly no ceremony for grieving in the book. And so, it is there is a real heaviness to it.

Ornella: An active part because it’s very true to how grief surprises us. So, it’s very genuinely told us that way. If it’s very genuinely told, from that perspective, in which grief surprised as Petra, often throughout the story, and there’s all of these things happening, and then all of a sudden, we’re overwhelmed with grief. And there’s like this way that for the reader as well, the grief can come on fairly, suddenly out of nowhere, just because we’re living patriarchs experience to-

Jeanie: Charlie’s bark came on quite suddenly there too. And I think he had something to say about grief, my dog. So, I feel, I feel that, and I appreciate you naming that this book might need it’s really a middle-grade novel, but it might be upper middle grades 6-7-8, and not four or five, because there’s a lot of heavy talk of mortality, really, there’s a lot there. And it might require connecting with a school counselor, or someone who knows about trauma, and being aware of how you’re making space for students to explore that grief and the trauma that happens in the story.

Ornella: I think it depends on who’s in your classroom. Right? We know, you know, teachers know, their students, and who’s in your classroom? And what are the losses and the experiences that have happened right now, because we’re living in a pandemic reality. And there has been so much global collective loss, I notice that there’s a bit of this storytelling and this trend that’s very attractive to kids in that 13, 14, 15, 16 range, there’s a darkness to what they want to be consuming. They want the scary, they want the sad right now. And also, there’s, you know, slow is good. I wouldn’t rush through it; I would probably slow it down. So, it’s not like, it’s not as much of a binge read, as it is a paused and thoughtful pace.

Jeanie: Right, and Ornella. What I hear you saying, is that it I want what I wonder about what you’re saying is that kids are drawn to these books, because they need time to process what’s been happening. And in our rush to go to call it post pandemic, are we rushing them past the opportunity to process the grief and the loss, whether it’s the loss of social life, or the loss of a loss of innocence, that the world feels more dangerous right now? Or the loss of real loved ones? Who is the loss of connection, you know, being able to see family and friends and people who matter to you? So, there’s so much less that we haven’t I know, I’m not processing? And that I would love an opportunity to slow down and process with a text like this?

Ornella: Absolutely. And I think that young people, I think that they if we just take our lead from them, most of the time, they can tell us where to go next. Yeah.

Jeanie: Yeah. So, there’s also that I don’t want to paint this as a really sad book, though, because there’s also a lot of action and power, Petra is a very powerful character, both in how she resists the stripping of her identity, and also how she sorts of, without giving it away rallies and nurtures the identity of the other young people she ends up in, in a kind of community or family with as they’re headed towards Sagan. And so, I don’t want to look past just the sheer embodied strength of this rock of a character Petra.

Ornella: Petra uses storytelling SOA, to exactly like a “storyteller should”, right? Like, she’s such a storyteller. And she does it so well. Her vulnerability, and her seeing people for who they are, and really loving them. There’s such sincerity in the description of the characters. And I remember the moment in which she says, so far, I think we’ll all be good friends. I really liked them all. There’s a way in which she can see people and love them, and like who they are, and, and that’s so beautiful. And so, I don’t know, felt new to me. Because there’s such little judgement, involved in the way in which Petra interacts with other people.

Jeanie: She builds belonging, she builds, she does some healing, she does this nurturing with these stories, that’s really powerful. I agree. And sort of helps them reclaim their identity, which I think makes me really want to use this book at the start of the year with kids to talk about identity and what’s it means to create identity affirming spaces? And how do we take care of each other in ways that build this kind of belonging and, and how do we become the person we are instead of the person people are telling us we should be and, and so there are so many like layers of how she models that, and how this book models that that are really important. But there’s this other thing we have to talk about. Because I’m an educator, we got to talk about cogs. So, there’s this device, and whether the author use this device as a convenience, or what I think it would be really interesting to talk about in the classroom. So as these young people are entering their, their pods, they’re given cogs with knowledge. It’s a kind of education device, it’s this mechanistic thing that like shoots into there I imagine it’s like the back of their neck. So, I imagine it connecting to their spine. And it’s basically like they’re supposed to wake up with all this knowledge, right. And it like very much portrays education as like just like dumping stuff in brains. And we know that like learning doesn’t happen like that learning doesn’t happen by we can’t just give you a shot or put something in. And so, it both like bugged me. But I thought it’s a really great opportunity to have a discussion about could we really learn by cogs? How does learning happen, which feels like a really important conversation in a classroom or a really important way to get at some like brain science at some like what’s it means to create a learning.

Ornella: Absolutely, I thought so too. It’s interesting, because it was very useful. Very useful technology, if it would work, which people want it. I’d be curious to see what young people would say about this. Because their realities so much. It’s so different. It’s so full of tech. Yeah, that I wonder if they would opt for it. And then how much sleep would you need afterwards? You know, like, is it possible? Can you code or like, brain live the experiences? I bet there’s a science that could recreate it, but

Jeanie: Well, there’s this like sense of like, they learn all the knowledge. There are all these facts in these cogs, but they have to apply it in this real world. Like they have to go to Sagan and apply this knowledge, whatever it is, they all have different specialties. And like, is knowing and applying the same thing. I just think it get into some really interesting conversations about how we learn and what it looks like.

Ornella: Absolutely. And I imagined that when I heard it as something that both dump information and create an experiential experience, like practice of it, kind of like in The Matrix, that’s how life lived. So, I thought that the reason they were able to wake up and do it had because they’d been in this imaginal space, doing all of these things.

Jeanie: While they slept. Wow, they loved it.

Ornella: That dream learning if on lack of work, yeah, I wouldn’t have imagined that at the pouring of information, because then it wouldn’t have worked. The ways I envisioned that was as in like, Dream learning. Yes.

Jeanie: Well, and the thing that they don’t know, the parents don’t know, the kids don’t know, and that they haven’t consented to is that these very same cogs that are filling their brains with botany and, and geology, etc., are also removing their individuality.

Ornella: Brainwashing them? Absolutely Oh. So, think brain? That’s really what it was, was it? It was?

Jeanie: It takes me back to Ben, right. And one thing that I was struck by, you know, this, like removing of stories, we don’t need stories in history. And this, like brainwashing that you just referenced is this moment right now, where in states across the country, librarians and teachers and young people are standing up, and parents are standing up against the banning of books. And so, you know, there’s this other theme that’s very much linked to current events about who gets to stay, who gets to say what story survive, what stories we share, and the kind of power that happens when we say, when we, when we, when they when the collective wouldn’t be blood power. Decide some things go in the trash can and other things go in, in belong in our kids’ brains?

Ornella: Absolutely, this is one of those things that I feel is so dangerous about extremism, and pedagogy that’s not framed in real conversation, and dialogue, and good healthy confrontation and reflection. And you know, there is a way in which right now the absolutes are really making it so we’re not getting well-rounded education possible like we don’t have it’s like we it’s not possible based on some the standards set at the moment, Vermont’s in really good shape, but when we look at other places in the nation, it’s a very different story.

Jeanie: Listeners, if you could see Ornella’s body language right now, it’s spoken volumes. I wish they could see the way that you just visualized that there’s a like, can we talk a little bit about heavier we haven’t mentioned much but he’s Petra’s brother or younger brother. And he plays an important role in the book and as they’re boarding this play these corporations spaceship thing, that’s very complex. They’re allowed to bring they have like one set of clothes; they and they’re allowed to bring like one special thing. And Petra brings a necklace her grandmother gave her, but Javier brings a book, which even in 2060, she says it’s an actual book. And it’s rare, right? Because they tend to have these electronic books. And it’s a picture book by Yuri Morales called Dreamers. And maybe we could just draw some connections about why the author might have included this specific book as the book. Do you want to talk about you neither one of us has a copy of Dreamers, but we sort of know what it’s about? Do you want to talk a little bit about what it’s about and why it might be significant?

Ornella: Absolutely, yeah, Dreamers. It’s my understanding that it’s talking about immigrant families that came to the United States who achieved citizenship ships through the dreamer’s program, the dreamer’s legislature, and it is an immigrant story about coming to a new nation and making you know, it’s like the traditional American eating. Yeah, this American tale of starting over and being able to build a life in freedom and being able to have the choices to be who you are. And it is a bit of criticism, let’s take a little bit of the nostalgia because it’s also a little ironic. As an immigrant boy, I’m not an immigrant, because I’m Puerto Rican. But as a person who was born in a different place, who’s also had to figure out how to fit in the United States. I also know the illusion of this American dream. So, there’s like that those two, like the irony of it being the book he brings, while it also being very limited to admit it legitimately a very valuable and important story, while it also having both the value for it for heavier and another very sweet character that we have later on named Foxy. For what look to me different reasons. Foxy with this whole what Earth mothers used to have and raised their own babies, right, 300 years later.

Jeanie: And seized on the spaceship, right. So, he hasn’t had a mother. He’s born in this like, realm of sameness in the collective and born on the spaceships. So, he’s like, shocked at the relationships in this book.

Ornella: Yeah, for what it means to have a mother to have a family. Yeah.

Jeanie: For me, this book evokes something else a, I did a podcast episode a while back with a friend Amy Randy Stinson on the book The Dark Fantastic by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, are you familiar? And Ebony Elizabeth Thomas talked about how books about black and brown young people are usually about struggle and about history and not about the fantastic or they’re not often the heroes of their future stories, right. And it’s really limiting. And so, in a way this book dreamers also evokes this idea of like, putting black and brown young people in the center of the story about the future, and not just the past, and, and giving Petra all this power, and not just making her a victim.

Ornella: I love it, I think it’s a beautiful way to look at it. Thank you for sharing it. Yeah, I’m also, I haven’t gotten all the way through the back fantastic yet. But I am getting there. And really thinking about it, as I am, you know, looking at different books, and reflecting on my own childhood literature and seeing the ways in which these stories, that the ways in which we story ourselves really matter. And we have when we have these stories of powerful young people boldly living, even though struggle, we are able to reflect that back into the world. And I love the idea. And I see it in my own children that if it doesn’t exist, they write it. And I this is, which I know everybody else have discussed this in the book is this fanfiction, this ability to like, share and these writing communities? And yeah, it’s part of what makes this book so special is the ways in which I can see myself as a Hispanic girl living in the world, you know, and how many of those books that I have growing up? Not very many.

Jeanie: Yeah, that’s really important. And I feel like you just gave me the enduring understanding for the unit about this book. And it is and the identity unit about this that engages this book and maybe some other stories too. And that enduring understanding what you said, I made, I declared as the enduring understanding for this lesson. Right now, proclaim the ways in which we story ourselves matters. Oh, yeah. And what a better enduring understanding for young people. Your story and the way you tell it matters. And then you also led me to what was the second thought I had about this other oh, another lesson or extension activity was writing, you know, the book, the book ends, we’re not going to give anything away on Sagan as there it’s like a new beginning. And I can imagine young people writing fanfiction about what happens next.

Ornella: What happens next? Absolutely.

Jeanie: There’s such a great opportunity there. Yeah.

Ornella: Oh, another piece of that is the role of the educator in it. And I’m helping students see themselves in complexity and have complexity be okay.

Jeanie: That’s beautiful.

Ornella: They’re so way as educators and as caregivers and as teachers in the world, that we help students do that, and that when we allow for this complexity, and they’re able to be good, they’re able, you know, whatever good is to them, they’re able to be good in whatever context that is.

Jeanie: We all want to be valued. And we all want to do our piece. We all want to have impact right in the world. And so being able to have strengths-based approach to our stories helps us do that.

Ornella: Absolutely. Yeah.

Jeanie: What other books would you recommend you have the three middle grades young people, three young adolescents in your life? You’re a reader. What other books would you recommend for middle grades? Learners and readers and the people who love them.

Ornella: Oh, there are so many for the people who love them. I recently read Hunt, Gather, Parent , which I thought was very, very just connecting for me, in my interest, giving different ways of viewing parenthood, and viewing our relationship with young people that we think are the little ones what can we what have the little ones been reading lately? You read this let me look. I just finished The Actual Star which I thought was also incredible. Definitely not for middle grades. But it is a beautiful book by Monica Byrne. Emergent Strategy for the grownups. Also, Atlas of the Heart, which I also finished over the last few. For shame work, you are your best thing. It is a compilation of essays about shame from Tirana Burke, and also curated by Brene Brown, with Tirana Burke. Trying to think about what the little ones have been reading.

Jeanie: I just love that you call your children the little ones.

Ornella: Not so little anymore. I mean thanks. I don’t know why I can’t think of any of the books I’ve been reading. I’m looking here have they been reading? And it’s okay. Yeah. Right now, they’ve been reading the Mysterious Benedict Society.

Jeanie: Oh, my son loved those books.

Ornella: Yeah, so they’ve been reading that. And I think under Kindle they’ve been reading. They’re like into this Graceling series.

Jeanie: Oh, those are intense. Yeah. They like their fantasy, don’t they?

Ornella: Yeah, no, they really do. Right now, we’re doing the roaring 20s. So, there is some talk, some talk about which books we’re going to do for the roaring 20s. We’ll see.

Jeanie: Well, to be continued, we’ll have to hear more. Thank you. So, thank you so much for bringing your perspective and your experience and your wisdom to this discussion about this book The Last Cuentista, which I loved so much. It’s so lovely to tell you.

Ornella: Thanks for inviting me here. Thank you for sharing your thoughts too. Have a blessed happy season.

Jeanie: It’s a pleasure. I’m Jeanie Phillips and this has been an episode of #vtedReads talking about what Vermont educators and students are reading.  Thank you to Ornella Matta-Figueroa for appearing on the show and talking with me about The Last Cuentista. If you’re looking for a copy of The Last Cuentista, check your local library. Many thanks to Audrey for all of her behind the scenes work on the podcast. To find out more about #vtedReads, including past episodes, upcoming guests and reads and a whole lot more you can visit, follow us on Twitter and Instagram at vtededreads. This podcast is a project of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont.

What Matters Most Now: Lesson Two – Rethink What We Teach

This is the second in a series of mini blogs with attention to priorities in the not-so post pandemic world. In the first blog post, Nancy Doda nudged us all to consider how we might slow down in all aspects of school life. This second post examines curriculum and how the pandemic invites us to rethink what we teach.

Lesson Two: Rethink What We Teach

All of a sudden, the pandemic challenged us to think about so many aspects of our lives in new ways. The world is no longer the predictable place we took for granted. This is an uncomfortable place to be. As Pema Chodron once notably said,

“Chaos can be extremely good news.” 

It slams us up against old patterns that hold us back.

Before the pandemic, we were long overdue for a serious closet clean out when it comes to what we teach in our schools. One old pattern needing our attention is that of holding on to what we have always taught. In my decades of work with middle schools, no matter what city or state, we always seem to add more and delete almost nothing. 

Even with the advent of 21st century skills, or what we call in Vermont, transferable skills, we have had a hard time letting go of our volumes of content. While we value the attention to transferrable skills, it turns out they still don’t rank above the books we have always taught, the units we love, and the archives we inherited.

After the Common Core declared it had cut back content load in math, I was hopeful. Yet little changed in the volume of middle school mathematics. We are all still buried in way too much to teach.  

The Mile Wide and Inch Deep Curriculum

While teachers often share that they’d love to change this, they feel pressed to prepare students for the tests.  One science teacher told me she had to cover 65 topics in 42 days. Speedy curriculum coverage was once translated into curriculum by mentioning, “I mentioned it, so I am moving on”, sustaining the yet untouched mile wide, inch deep United States curriculum. 

Knowledge keeps growing, expanding and changing. The “Knowledge Doubling Curve”, as it’s now known, was created by Buckminster Fuller in 1982. Fifty years ago, we were told that we were witnessing a knowledge explosion. Human knowledge was doubling every 13 months.

Today, with the help of the Internet, we face the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours.  To put it into context, in 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every 100 years. By the end of 1945, the rate was every 25 years.  It’s 2022. 

It’s been said that “facts are stubborn things,” but maybe not as stubborn as we think. New facts are replacing outdated ones at an accelerated rate as the tsunami of data continually yields new discoveries and information. It’s time to change.  

Discernment, critical thinking, and relevance

COVID offers a superb example of the dramatically changing nature of knowledge as our collective understanding of the virus, the vaccines, the protective measures…. you name it, changed dramatically and fast. Achieving consensus about COVID truths often feels like ‘trying to nail Jello to a tree.’

We have been called to be nimble with ever changing information. We have witnessed the public’s struggle with deciphering truth: distinguishing fact from opinion, remaining open to new truth, and seeking to really understand.

Most importantly, we need a curriculum dominated by attention to lifelong learning skills and a hardy respect for the ever-changing nature of knowledge. Specifically, our students need our help learning to access and evaluate a wide array of knowledge and to decipher fact from opinion. Our students need abundant opportunities to put knowledge to work in real ways. 

Decluttering the Curriculum

How can we Marie Kondo our curriculum— declutter by removing anything that doesn’t spark joy? If we asked that home organization expert, she’d likely advise us to cut our volume in half.

Imagine if we held curriculum conversations around units that we have always taught. What if we asked ourselves: Why do we hold on to them? Do they still seem essential for our students today? Do they inspire students to learn more? (Mehta and Peeples, 2020)

These are thorny questions. Aside from broad agreement about some of what is worth knowing, there’s considerable debate. Who decides what’s worth knowing? What knowledge will best support preparing students to live well and participate more fully in our world?

One sure way to move forward towards a more compelling curriculum that is not a mile wide and an inch deep, is to start with the voices of kids.  As many advise, start local. Like the slow food movement, we need to localize and personalize our curriculum. We can only do that with the help of those we serve.

Engage Student Voice in Curriculum Decisions

We can find powerful guidance by helping students help us. I don’t mean just the kind of voice we often solicit from students in choosing writing topics, books to read, or research topics. I mean we need to know what concerns, wonders, questions our students have about their own lives and our world.

This is not only done to engage students more fully. It is done because in a democracy all citizens and all voices matter. We need to organize curriculum differently by using their questions and concerns to help us map a living and richer curriculum.  Some of these instructional practices are shared and discussed in this blogpost on Negotiated Curriculum

Maybe both teachers and students repeatedly ask questions about climate change, or about money, or about racism, or about happiness or health to name a few likely themes. It is not the individual curiosities here that matter as much as the shared questions  regarding issues in our ever changing world.

Imagine then assessing the merit of our content focus in terms of how it can inform these shared questions? Like Marie Kondo, we can toss out what fails to have both personal and social significance to us and our students. After all, there are many roads to assessing standards. Or to quote Blake, “To see a world in a grain of sand…”

Why not?

Do we worry that building some of the curriculum around the concerns and questions of our students will derail rigor?  To me, standard curriculum coverage might be the greatest roadblock to rigor. So much of what we teach lacks a context that is meaningful to students. Content without a meaningful cause is content lost.

Why are we learning this? What does this have to do with anything? How can I put this knowledge to work in real ways? As NELMS award recipient James Beane once observed:

“The rigor in a middle school curriculum lies not in painful abstraction but in its capacity to engage the intellectual curiosity and imagination of young adolescents.” (Beane, 1998).

Content without a meaningful cause is content lost. 

Rooting into here and now

Therefore, let’s ask ourselves just how what we teach explicitly connects our shared questions about the world with our content standards. Instead of planning units around topics or standards, let’s consider planning units around vibrant questions drawn from the real local and world issues that baffle us all.

After that, we design the learning activities so students are called to draw upon a wide array of content to address these questions. When we approach the curriculum this way, it shows students that school knowledge is vital to addressing the compelling questions in our lives and world. Knowledge really matters. 

Lastly, this on-going pandemic has me feeling like I live in a changed and ever changing world. What kind of curriculum will matter in reshaping the future world to ensure peace, sustainability, civil discourse, and health? What will our students most need to know and be able to do to lead us all towards a better, saner, more just world? As we craft lessons and units, let’s pause to consider the end in mind and rethink what it is we teach. 


Beane, J. (1993) The middle school curriculum: From rhetoric to reality. AMLE. Columbus, OH.

Feltman, C. (2021) The thin book of trust, 2nd ed. The book publishing, Bend, OR.

Roy, Arundhati. (2020) The pandemic is a portal. 

Mehta, J. and Peeples, S. ( 2020). Marie Kondo the curriculum. In Shankar blog, June 25, 2020.

Sable, M. (1995) Maxims and various thoughts in The timetables of women’s history, p 174.

Siffre, A. Something inside so strong. 

What Matters Most Now: Lesson One – Slow Down

This is a the first in a series of blogs with attention to education priorities in the not-so post pandemic world.

The Crisis

I have been immersed in middle school education for decades. I have always been grateful to belong to such an amazing community of educators who share the same magnificent obsession. Because this community is passionate about the welfare and education of our young adolescents. And it’s committed to building a kinder and more just world. I am full of gratitude and admiration for my fellow educators who have managed to keep going, caring and persevering during this very challenging time. This has been tough. It still is.

To say that things are in good shape would be dishonest.

Are any of us feeling like we are solid? Public education is facing a crisis unlike any I have seen in decades. This fall, when most schools resumed face to face, many educators began to realize that we and our students were in a rough place. I think we need to try to unpack what has happened and what most needs our attention as we move ahead. 

Unpacking the Pandemic’s Impact

The pandemic has pressed our faces to the glass. We now see how fragile we were before COVID arrived. Over the past decades student needs have been mounting exponentially. Data on the mental health of our nation’s young adolescents has shown us that children are struggling in significant ways. Many teachers have shared with me their concerns about epidemic levels of self-centeredness accelerating in students.

Likewise, many teachers and principals have been concerned about declining student engagement and investment in school learning.  I hear from many that the true joys of teaching feel like a thing of the past. Teachers are buried under the mandates and prescriptive guidelines that were created to improve student engagement.

Last, not least, the inequities in every system of our society have been on full display during this pandemic. Our America is not equally beautiful for everyone. Before COVID arrived, these were some of our unresolved challenges now magnified tenfold.

Educators by nature persevere. We don’t give up. But we all stand on shaky ground. Can we use the pandemic to help us see more clearly what we most need to honor in this not so post-pandemic world? As Arundhati Roy (2020) wrote:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smokey skies behind us.  Or we can walk through lightly with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Adjusting the Lens

Recall that at the start of the pandemic, songs were written and sung, talks delivered, and articles poured forth. Art was created, and it all attempted to lift us up and help us manage the sadness, the loss, and the fear. Many of the efforts tried to cheer us up and give us hope. Some inspired us to think differently about how to live well.

For a time, we lived life more slowly. Traffic came to a halt, animals came out of hiding, and we tried not to eat too much or snap at those we loved who we discovered were more challenging than we’d ever remembered. We felt united by our humanity. Everyone was searching for answers about the pandemic and the meaning of life. Beauty, nature, love, family and friends suddenly became more precious.

In schools, after some time in this quieter place, we were catapulted into craziness. Virtual teaching, hybrid teaching, masks. We had to hold on as we rode the COVID protocol roller coaster. Exhaustion was commonplace, and burnout rampant. One gifted and always cheerful teacher I have admired could no longer smile at the start of year two.  Another dedicated teacher told me she was thinking of quitting, but instead decided she just had to stop caring. It was all too much.

Today, as we find ourselves back in schools and the most dire COVID news lessening, can we begin to sort it all out? Can we rethink our priorities? Here is what I think matters most in our (almost) Post-Pandemic World.

Lesson One: Slow Down

One clear message from the early months of the pandemic was the realization that doing less and slowing down can bring us back in touch with many things that seem to matter a great deal. We were forced in our personal lives to be still as there was less doing and going —less going out to eat, less traffic, less driving kids to practice, less shopping in stores.

People had more time: with those we love, time to play, time to really cook good food, time to listen well, time to care, time to revisit new and old hobbies, and time to think. Humans did as Thich Nhat Hanh once advised: “….unplug from the speed and complexity and noise of everyday life and …  return to being in peace.” ( TNH)

That taste of slow was a good thing. Many of us noted an engendered calm. We noticed that less can be more, and that slow can be better: more productive, happier, and saner.  Sure, at first we might have binge watched TV series, but soon most of us got busy and productive. Slow didn’t mean unproductive, but it meant we didn’t live at a crazed pace. How might we learn from that that calmer time and bring more slowness into our work?

Perhaps we finally reconsider our schedules and abandon the 45-minute period day, where we whiz students through seven different subjects with seven different teachers and move towards longer, more flexible blocks of learning time.

Maybe we have a daily Advisory time that is more responsive and less scripted, where students can talk more and we talk less.

Could be we have snack breaks in and outside.

Perhaps it means we make time for recess every day.

Maybe we don’t pursue multiple initiatives all at once.

Maybe it calls for us to have faculty meetings where teachers can really think and talk about what’s working and what’s not.

Could be we try to add a little mindfulness into our fast-paced school days.

Finally, perhaps we should try to declutter our curriculum – teaching less, not more. 

Everyone benefits

I know principals and teachers would agree that school life would be significantly more satisfying for everyone if we could slow things down. Some teachers have decided they can no longer teach and are considering leaving the profession. Many are barely holding on trying to get through the days and recover what they once felt about this important work.  We have a crisis in our schools that calls for bold thinking. As Roy said, we have a gateway.

Is there one way you might slow things down in your school? If you are a leader, can you find ways to shrink rather than expand the to-do lists for your schools and teachers? If you are a teacher, can you find steady ways to check the emotional pulse of your classroom? I urge you identify the places within our system and classrooms where we can slow down and focus on what matters. 

This is the first education lesson from the pandemic.

#VTED Reads: Care Work with Dr. Winnie Looby

Welcome, listeners, to another episode of vted Reads: talking about books by, for, and with Vermont educators. In this episode… we own an oversight.

On this show, we are dedicated to breaking down systems of inequity in education. We administer flying kicks to the forehead of intersectional oppression! But we haven’t yet talked about disability.

So in this episode, we fix that, as we chat with Dr. Winnie Looby, who coordinates the graduate certificate in disability studies at the University of Vermont. Dr. Looby also identifies as a person with a disability, which is important, listeners, because the rallying cry of disability advocacy has long been “Nothing about us, without us.”

So we’re here, we’re clear, and we’re talking about “Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice,” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. Let’s limber up those kicking legs, folks, and talk about how disability too, is an equity issue.

I’m Jeanie Phillips, and this is Vermont Ed Reads. Let’s chat.

Jeanie: Hi, I’m Jeanie Phillips, and welcome to #vted Reads. We’re here to talk books for educators by educators and with educators. Today I’m with Dr. Winnie Looby. And we’ll be talking about Care Work, Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. Thanks for joining me Winnie, tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Winnie: Yes, so my primary function, I guess is I work at UVM as a lecturer in disability studies, and also in foundations. And then I’m a coordinator for a program under the Center on Disability and Community Inclusion. And I’ve been working there for about four or five years.

Jeanie: And so excited to have you with us to talk about this subject. One of the things I’ve become aware of recently, is these two schools of thought about how we talk about people with disabilities or disabled people, do we use identity first language, like, disabled person? Or do we use people first language like people with disabilities? And I wondered if you had any thoughts about that?

Winnie: Yeah I think, from what I’ve absorbed, I think it’s kind of context specific. Say, if you’re talking to an individual who chooses to identify as an autistic person, that’s the language you use when you’re talking with them. But say, if you’re talking to a government official, or somebody else like that, the politically correct thing to say now is person with a disability. So that’s the language that you would use. But then say, if you’re within an activist circle, you might say disabled people disabled person. So it really kind of requires us to be deep listeners um to figure out what exactly might be the appropriate thing to say in that moment.

Jeanie: I really appreciate something I’ve heard from other people I’ve had on the podcast as well. This like ask people ask people how they want to be referred to. And I think we had Judy Dow who’s in an Abenaki scholar on and she said, you know, we talked about do people who want to be referred to as indigenous or Native American or Indian or, and she said, ask them, and think about tribal affiliations and things like that, as well. And so it’s really helpful for you to frame that, again, ask people how they want to be referred to. Thank you for that. So this book, and so our author frames, access, disability access, in this way, “access as service begrudgingly offered to disabled people by non disabled people who feel grumpy about it.” And she wants us to shift to a different definition of of access to “access as a collective joy and offering we can give to each other.” And I was just really inspired by the move from one to the other, and what it might take for us as educators as schools, higher ed and K to 12 and pre K as well, to embrace this shift as a challenge to move from begrudgingly giving people access and being grumpy about it to creating opportunities for collective joy.

Winnie: Yeah,I think I like that a lot. Because you have to be creative to do that. Right? If you yourself, don’t identify as a person with a disability or disabled, you might not know what people need. And if you want to include everybody, then you actually have to care about them as a human being before any of the other stuff. So I’ll say for example, with my students in my classes, I had quite a few students who had disabilities and had accommodations, and they were kind of shy to share what they needed with me. But on the first day, I say, Well, you know, consider what we’re talking about, it’s important to me that you feel you have access to, to, you know, the readings, to watch films, all that stuff. So if something’s not working, you have to tell me so that we can, we can make it more inclusive.

Jeanie: Right, so what I’m hearing from you, Dr. Looby, is that we need to be informed by others what they need and embrace that information, moving it from, I guess I have to ask you what you need to make this work from you, to like, I really need you to help me help you learn.

Winnie: Exactly.

Jeanie: And I think about K to 12 schools I can probably even place myself back when I was a school librarian and thinking, Oh, we’re going to go on this field trip, and then realizing it’s not going to be accessible to the kid who has mobility issues, say, and then instead of begrudgingly say, well, I guess I can’t do that field trip; finding ways to create this collective joy, and how do we make sure that everybody is able to have fun?

Winnie: Right, right, exactly. I think an important part of that, too, is the modeling that you’d be doing for that student and the other ones. So say, that student, you know, over the course of their lifetime, they can take in a lot of negative messages, whether that was an educators intention or not, they might feel like they’re too much trouble, or they’re not being included because of their disability. So it’s modeling for that student that yes, you’re important part of the class, and also for their peers, and that this is how you work with people and you include them, you don’t just say, Well, today, you’re just going to watch a movie at class in somebody else’s classroom, but more we care that you’re here.

Jeanie: That’s a beautiful thing to think about the modeling not just for the student with a disability, but also for the rest of the class about what it means to be a community, what it means to take care of each other. So the other thing that our author really gets at that I found really interesting is this idea that, that when the disability rights movement started it really invisible, invisible ized people who were I’m actually going to read her words, because she says it so well.

The Disability Rights Movement simultaneously invisiblized the lives of peoples who live at intersection junctures of oppression, disabled people of color, immigrants with disabilities, queers with disabilities, trans and gender-nonconforming people with disabilities, people with disabilities are who are houseless.

And she asked us to notice that ableism is intertwined with white supremacy and colonialism. And I’m gonna just confess here that I’ve been doing a lot of work over many years to think about my privilege, but ableism is something I’ve been able to ignore for a really long time. It’s something I’ve really recently been thinking, been considering is where ableism shows up in me and in my life. And so I really appreciated the way she sees these as intertwined systems. And I wondered if you had any thoughts on that?

Winnie: Yeah, yeah. I would say it gets me thinking about what do we consider normal, right? In our, in our broad culture, what do we call normal, we turn on the television, what’s a normal family? What’s a normal person look like? Right. And so I talk about race in this way too that if the only message you’re taking in is one kind of person, or people, and that leaves out a lot of other people. And so questioning the things that you’re taking in and the things that you’re assuming, I suppose. And I would say too that, it’s important to kind of take the shame away from that. Because without that input without somebody consciously saying to you in school, this is what ableism is, right? Or unless you’re, you know, before now, if you didn’t really feel the need to actively seek it out, of course, you wouldn’t know. Right? So the idea is that, you know, it comes to your consciousness, and then you’re aware of it. And then you’re also kind of, to me, it kind of opened up the door to lots of other things I hadn’t thought about before. That the analogy I can think of is, you know, the Matrix movie, where there’s a blue pill and a red pill or something like that. And the guy says, you can take this pill and learn what the world is really like. Or you can take this one and just stay with the way it is, right? And so I feel like once I’ve been exposed to oppression of any kind of other people, it’s opening myself up to understanding other people, rather than just staying kind of where I’m comfortable.

Jeanie: It makes me think about, you know, an increasingly problematic thing about our society is how segregated we are for people, unlike ourselves. Can we see that politically? Right, we see that in terms of racial segregation, we see that in terms of communities where there are lots of queer folks and communities where there aren’t. And then we also see that in terms of ability, right, that because of the way our societies are organized, I don’t currently have a friend in a wheelchair. I do have a friend with mobility issues, who considers themselves disabled. But I have to really seek out perspectives of people who are not able bodied who are not like me, and our world makes it harder and harder to do that.

Winnie: Yeah, I would say, well, mass or mass culture does, right. Our movies that are blockbusters, the ones that feature disabled people are always people who were kind of helped by somebody able bodied rather than having their own agency, right. I think it’s, I don’t think in and of itself, it’s a bad thing to seek things out, you know, to listen for, like, I learned so much in reading this book. I actually got it when I went to the Disability Intersectionality Summit in 2018. First time I went, and Leah was a speaker there, she actually her book had just come out. And she was reading a chapter from it. And just being in that talk, and in that environment, I thought, people can actually make the world more accessible if they really want to, I mean, I hadn’t seen such accessibility in my entire life. I mean, there were like these, these great badges where you could choose a color green, yellow, or red, green meant you were open to having random conversations with people. Red meant, please don’t talk to me. Yellow meant, maybe depends, right? So you’re respecting a person’s kind of social anxiety in that moment, there were pins that say, you know, here are my pronouns, you wouldn’t have to necessarily announce it. Here it is on my my chest. There were there were live captions, which I’d never seen before where in that moment, somebody’s typing in a large screen. what’s being said, there was somebody who actually opened up the event, acknowledging that the college that we were at, we’re at MIT, that it had been placed on ancestral lands, right? So owing, you know, giving respect to that piece. I mean, all of these things had been thought through very purposefully, very carefully. And there was even like a room where, you know, if you were completely overwhelmed with everybody, you can go and draw and have quiet time, right? I mean, just, they thought of everything. And I was really, I thought, why can’t everything be like that? It’s not that hard. Really thought about, it’s not that hard.

Jeanie: Well, so two things come up for me is one is I’m probably just thinking about using myself as an example again, right? Like, I have lots of friends of color. I have lots of friends who are different than me in different ways. But maybe I’m assuming I’m making assumptions about who they are. And and our world makes it hard sometimes for people to share their disability or to write like without making it complicated, because if, for example, if I had a disability, I might not want to share it, because I don’t want people to feel sorry for me or to pity me or to feel like they had to do things for me or to assume I don’t have agency. Yeah, that those stereotypes themselves get in the way. And that stereotypes I hold that everybody’s like me also gets in the way.

Winnie: Yeah,yeah, I think well, for myself, my own experience, I mean, I’m disabled. I use a chair sometimes, sometimes not. But I do catch myself in these ableist moments where I’ve internalized a lot of negative messaging, to say, if I want to be seen as competent at my work, I can’t share that, you know, I feel sick today. Or if I want to be seen as a strong and not lazy person, I have to leave my chair in the car and exhaust myself walking around the grocery store. I mean, you, you, you internalize a lot of messaging, whether people mean it or not. You don’t want to be treated differently. You don’t want people to kind of talk down to you because they think somehow that’s helpful. I don’t know. So yeah, it makes it it’s hard to feel like you can share who you are with the broader public. But then I’ve also found that on those days when I’m feeling brave, and I just don’t care what other people think those are the best days when I can just kind of let that go, and just do what I need to do without thinking about it.

Jeanie: Hmm, I really appreciate that. Thank you so much for sharing your personal experience in that way. Do you have advice for someone like me, we’re gonna get back to the book, do you have advice besides reading this book for someone like me, who’s really working their edges around their own ableism and trying to be to learn more.

Winnie: I would say reading personal narratives. So things that people have written or expressed about themselves, performances, whatever it is, and there’s lots of that out there, where they talk about their life’s path. And then you can see the great variety in what people have been through, you know, it could be a lot of intersectionality there with like, you know, socio economics, race, where they lived, language, you can see kind of the huge variety in what the disability experience can look like. And so then, for myself, at least, the more I read, the more curious I am about other people. And the less I assume that I know anything about them, which also is could be scary and intimidating. And maybe you feel like you’re gonna make a mistake. At the same time making those mistakes is, you know, like Leah talks about real Disability Justice is messy. It’s not like everything goes just so.

Jeanie: Yes, I love that section of the book. And what you’re making me think about, is for me, especially, but I think for a lot of people reading is a real act of empathy, and reading, #OwnVoices stories by people with disabilities is really helpful to building empathy and understanding about what the world’s like for someone who’s different than you. It creates what routines into what Bishop calls a window into somebody else’s experience or even a sliding glass door where you can really have under the answers step into their experience.

Winnie: Yeah, I found that the stories, people’s personal stories are what sticks with me when I try to think about, what am I going to talk about around disability injustice and inequality, I think about the individual people that I’ve met or read about.

Jeanie: Yeah, well, the other thing that Leah shares our author, Leah shares is this acknowledgement that the gains made in disability justice have been largely on the shoulders on the through the work of, of multiply-marginalized disabled people. So queer, black and brown, people with disabilities have really led the way. And it made me think about what that might look look like in our educational institutions. And it reminded me of a say that saying nothing about us without us is for us about being not doing for but being in solidarity with I guess my question, if I can formulate one, that is what does that look like in an educational institutions? What does that look like for people when they want to engage? We’re gonna get to the messiness of disability justice, but what does it look like to be shoulder to shoulder with instead of trying to make change for?

Winnie: I think, for me, it starts with respecting the agency of that other person. Seeing them as you know, having a complete other life that has nothing to do with me. And that my work as an ally would be to not stand in the way, you know, not speak for anybody not do anything for them, but offer myself as somebody who is there if they’re needed, right? I can be a gatekeeper in a positive way where, for example, of the last couple years of my job I’ve a lot of, I’ve gotten a lot of cold calls and emails from folks who are looking to work in this field. And those messages have been coming from other bipoc folks who are disabled. And I thought, wow, that means that I have a really important role in playing right here. Like even if I can’t directly do something for them or open a door for them, that they see me as somebody who could possibly be somebody they could talk to, about, you know, their future career. or goals or anything like that is a really powerful, important kind of role that I can play. And so I think, you know, teachers, in my experience with I have four kids, and three of them have disabilities. And so my kids, when they had the most successful time they had in school was when their classroom teacher, really respected who they were as people. And the child, my, my child felt that respect, really, I mean, it wasn’t like, if they really felt that the person cared about what was happening for them.

Jeanie: It wasn’t grudgingly given.

Winnie: Right, right. And kids can tell when you’re faking it. I mean, you’re trying to just be nice, and you’re not genuinely caring about how they’re feeling in that moment. So I think like listening to parents, especially parents, from marginalized groups, about, you know, they’re the experts on their own child, right. And as that child grows up, they’re going to need to learn how to advocate for themselves. And so encouraging that, you know, helping them to pull that out and say, This is what I need. I need help. I think a lot of messages kids get in school is that they shouldn’t need to ask for help.

Jeanie: I have so many follow up questions. But I think just returning to the book, you reminded me of a section of the book, where Leah talks about asset framing, versus deficit deficit framing. And, you know, this is this is a concept that crosses beyond ability and disability, Gloria Ladson, Billings, has told us for a long time that one of the most powerful things we can do for our learners, is to see them with an appreciative lens to see their strengths and skills and not focus just on deficits and struggles. And we know that’s a huge lever for equity, it’s a huge part of being culturally responsive in the classroom. And I really, still hear students with disabilities discussed with a deficit lens a lot. And, and the author writes, “able-bodied people are shameless about really not getting it that disabled people could know things that the abled don’t, that we have our own cultures, histories and skills, that there might be something that they could learn from us. But we do and we are.” And what you just said about your children’s experience in the classroom and your own experience as a scholar, made me think about the shift towards an appreciative lens for people with disabilities. And I wondered if you had any insights to share with us about how that happens, or what that looks like?

Winnie: Well, again, it’s it’s seeing the whole person, right? That I just had a conversation with somebody the other day about how, in one way or another, you could have an impairment, right, like needing glasses means that my eyesight is imperfect. If you look at it that way, everybody has a little bit of something that isn’t perfect, right? There is no perfect. An impairment becomes a disability when the environment is not there to support you. And what you want to do, or what you need to do, right, there’s not something inherently wrong with the person because they have a disability, there’s something wrong in the environment, in the social attitudes that they have to absorb and kind of do something with.

Jeanie: Some friends recently recommended a podcast that I listened to. And I’m not going to remember the person’s name, but I’ll put a link in the transcript. It was an On Being podcast and it was about asset framing. And the idea of asset framing really was what this person’s aspiration is? And what’s the obstacle to that? So instead of seeing them as the obstacle, what are the obstacles or them as the problem? What’s the thing they want to accomplish? And what’s the thing getting in the way of that? And so that removes the problem from the person to the environment, just like you’re saying, but there’s this other side of it, too, which is that there are things we can learn really big things we can learn from people with disabilities because of their experience of the world. So it’s not just that we don’t see them as a deficit, but also that we see their assets and their strengths and the things that they can teach us. Do you have examples? Do you have ways people might think about what they can learn the what the author calls the cultures and histories and skills and the ways that we might tap into that and open ourselves up to learning from people with disabilities?

Winnie: Well, one way I guess, is to I know, a state organization the Vermont Center for Independent Living. They’ve had public forums around different topics. And so one might be, you know, health care access, like something, something like that. And so inviting people with disabilities to come and share. This is what’s happening for me, this is what I’ve had to do to work, work my way around that. And it can be so gosh, it’s just, it’s hard to describe, especially with like, state, institutional things, I think she mentioned, like, social security and disability insurance and all that kind of stuff. Disabled folks have a lot of that in common. And, again, listening to people and their own personal experiences, I mean, just just really paying attention, not just saying, oh, you know, that person’s just complaining, or, Oh, they’re, you know, hypochondriac or, Oh, it can’t be that bad. You know, like, I think people of color have heard hear that a lot. Very similar messaging. I think it has to be, there has to be a willingness to realize that you don’t know everything. I think teachers are hesitant to say when they don’t know, or they’re not sure, or they made a mistake. I think you can start there.

Jeanie: I really appreciate that. I think for me, one of the tension points is–so I’m going to use Outright Vermont as an example. One of the programs that Outright Vermont offers in schools that I think is really powerful as they have queer kids come and sit on a panel and answer questions and talk about their experience in schools. They used to, I imagine they still do, but when I was in school, they, you know, we have in common it was really powerful for people. The tension for me is about like, it’s not really their job to educate me. And so how do we learn from and with without expecting people with disabilities or people of color queer folks to do the work for us? So, there’s a real tension for me about like being open and I think that’s why your suggestion earlier about seeking out personal narratives that people have written, seeking, seeking out books like this one is really helpful, right? Because that’s out there. And I’m not asking people to do additional labor. And so I guess I’m just wondering how do you grapple with that tension, the both and of like, I want to learn from you, and I don’t want you to have to do a ton of work for me to learn like I should be doing the work.

Winnie: Yeah,I think well, one thing I learned through my scholarship a few years ago, I did some research around culturally responsive research, like how you might be a researcher, academic who wants to do research in a community, that community might be disabled, BIPOC, intersectional, lots of different kinds of ways. How do you do that in a way that’s respectful and they don’t feel exploited? Right? Think about what’s in it for them. Right? Those kids that come on to a panel most likely wanted to because they want to practice speaking up for themselves to practice self advocacy to practice leadership. Right? So saying, Okay, if I want to learn something specific from this specific person, I have to think about, well, what is what’s in it for them? Right? What is that, that I really want? Is it that I’m being nosy and just want to know details about their lives? Or is it do I want this kind of mutual exchange of information that benefits us both equally in some kind of way?

Jeanie: That’s helpful. And it reminds me of a section of but we are jumping, by the way listeners all over this book all over different sections of this book. But one of the sections of this book that really, I think was most interesting to me, was about, trying to find this specific quote, was about mutual aid. And so, in one of the chapters, the author talks about this voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit, she goes on to say mutual aid as opposed to charity does not connote moral superiority of the giver over the receiver. White people didn’t invent the concept of mutual aid. Many pre colonial black, indigenous and brown communities have complex complex webs of exchanges of care, and this idea that I think so Often, in our society, we have this like white savior notion, or what you’re talking about is like this, when you were saying earlier that their characters with disabilities in movie say, and so often it’s about this able bodied person who comes to the rescue, right? And it totally means that in that storyline, they’re devoid of agency, right? The person with a disability is devoid of agency. And so this idea of mutual aid, is more than a nod is sort of honoring that we need each other. And that in communities, we take care of each other. And I wondered if you had thought about what mutual aid might look like in an educational institution in a school in a community? Yeah, or if you have any examples?

Winnie: Yeah, I can think of one example. I remember when I first started my doc program, there was an article we read about schools, public schools in say, pre-desegregation, right. So the article was saying that Neighborhoods and Schools kind of lost something with desegregation when kids had to be bused to different schools, because before then the school had been this hub of community, right? The teachers might live right down the street, and parents would know each other. The kids knew that there were adults around them that cared about their well being. I think that there is a deep desire for a lot of people to feel more connection than they do. In general, and I think if we can cultivate that in earlier ages in school, and to say, to kids, it’s okay to need other people to say to parents, that it’s okay to ask for what you need or to be, you know, demand what you need from the teachers and the principal and whoever it is, and that it’s okay for teachers to make mistakes, you know, it’s okay, for, it’s okay for that struggle to happen. Because without that, that means that we’re not even trying.

Jeanie: Ireally appreciate that. And so it makes me think that this book made me think a lot about rugged individualism and self sufficiency, it made me think that that’s something like we value as American society, right, rugged individualism and self sufficiency are sort of baked into how we think we’re supposed to be in order to be successful. And it gets in the way of asking for help from others. And it kind of creates a culture where you’re ashamed to ask for help. And recently, two things happened in my own life, that’s, that helped me that this book spurred new thinking about and one is that, um, some friends had a complicated pregnancy and a baby that needed some NICU support and, you know, they were so it was such a joy for me and some other friends to cook for them and provide some self care items, you know, it’s COVID. So a baby shower wasn’t really an option, but we like sort of threw together this, like, Here, take this and make yourself a baby shower. And my job was to provide them with meals for the freezer. That was my role I like to cook and, and they were so like, totally lovely in their, like, Oh, this is too much, we so appreciate it. And I was like, really, it’s a joy to do it. Like there’s reciprocity in this that I felt real joy in giving. So that’s one example. And then just the other day, I got an email from somebody saying, Hey, I’m gonna have surgery, and I’m gonna need some meals. And I’m gonna need some people to take me to appointments, and I’m calling on you as a group of friends. And here’s my meal train. It’s the first time I’ve ever received a meal train from somebody who set it up for themselves. And I was like, that is the baddest thing I’ve ever experienced. Like that is the coolest, like most empowered thing, that you set up a meal train for yourself, you’re my hero. And just thinking about that. The power in saying, I am not a rugged individual, I’m not self sufficient. I need people who care about me. I’m willing to ask for your help and receive it. And I know that I’m giving you a gift as well. I know that you want also to do something to help me. And that, that that reciprocity is a gift for you. And I just, I don’t know, I can’t stop thinking about how that’s the bravest thing that I’ve seen somebody do in a long time. And it made me wonder what would it look like if we like kicked self sufficiency and rugged individualism to the curb in schools and focused on creating communities of care where we can ask for and give the things we needed or that others needed. I was really wordy. Thank you for bearing with me. Dr. Looby. Any thoughts on that?

Winnie: Yeah, I think, Well, for me, the great place to start was to see that they call it the myth of meritocracy, right that we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps to be successful. And that’s not the case at all. Right? That that was set up by people who wanted you to work for no money, and work yourself into the ground and leave the workforce if you got hurt on the job, people who don’t care about you, right? So if you think about that, thinking, it doesn’t serve anybody except for people who make a lot of money off of what you’re doing.

Jeanie: Right? And it hides, it’s like hides all the privilege that people call on when they so-called lift themselves up by their bootstraps.

Winnie: Exactly, you know, this person that’s a friend of my uncle gave me an internship someplace, right, or, you know, there were these, oh, God I could get into a whole thing about, like, financially for, for folks of color, starting off with how there’s generational wealth that we don’t have, a lot of our communities do not have. And so when you say you can afford to buy a house, you’re buying a house with money that your great grandpa had saved, My great grandpa worked, you know, at a railroad, he didn’t have that kind of money to give me. So thinking, pulling apart all those assumptions that we make about how the world is supposed to work, I think kind of frees us up to be more generous and compassionate.

Jeanie: Well, and so when I read this and started thinking about this, I was thinking, oh, one of the like, paradigm shifts, or Aha I had is that disability justice, I’m almost ashamed to say this out loud, but I’m gonna be really vulnerable and say that that disability justice isn’t an extra an add on, it might be the very way to pull us towards a more liberatory future it might be. And it makes me think of to Dr. Bettina Love, who says, If you really want to work towards liberation, listen to queer black women. Right. And so this like sort of adds, like, people furthest from justice are actually the people who can help us see a clear path to justice.

Winnie: I like that. Yeah, I think I think we made some great points about, you know, the ingenuity that you have to have to be able to kind of survive in the world the way that it is, when you have multiple marginalized identities. The, I don’t want to say grit, that’s not right, the word but the, I guess, being comfortable with feeling out of place. And pushing past that anyway, like being in my doc program. I was the only person that looked like me in my cohort. And it was really uncomfortable that first semester, but then I also thought, if I can get to the finish line, I can open up the door for so many other people, right? Even if they just see me on the website, and my picture that I went through the program that will give somebody kind of a boost to feel like that’s that’s for them as well.

Jeanie: Well, and I know you’re making a difference, because a friend of mine is black, and is taking a class with you or took a class with you. And you are the first black person he had had a class with in our doc program.

Winnie: Oh, wow. Yeah.

Jeanie: And that’s huge for him. Right? That would be huge for me, too. I unfortunately, have not yet taken a class with you, Dr. Looby, but maybe in the future. So I think you’re right about that. But it also makes me think, Okay, I’m gonna take this to Vermont schools. But it makes me think about interlocking systems of oppression of which ableism is a part. And I think that often is really easy in our society to pit oppressed groups against each other. And I’m going to give you an example. In Vermont, for example, when we’re talking about equity, which I talk about schools with all the time, I will often hear the this this comment, we should be focusing on poor kids because those really are the most marginalized kids in Vermont schools. That’s the comment I’ll hear. That’s not my words. Those are a paraphrase of the words I hear. And that really gets my dander up. Because it’s a way of glossing over or ignoring racism, sexism, homophobia, heteronormativity and ableism and the intersections of them that just by focusing on class, we’re ignoring all these things that poor up poor kids might also be experiencing. And and that’s mean that works to maintain power and privilege, right? Like when we pull them apart and say we’re just gonna focus on class. We’re actually not even alleviating the problems of classism, because they’re so interlocked and intersecting.

Winnie: Right. Right. Right. I always, I always wonder why folks put it that way. Right. Is it coming from their own discomfort? I think about we call it the dog whistles you hear on in the media about when you say diversity, you mean black people? When you say urban, you mean, you know, these coded words that everybody in that circle would know what you mean, instead of just saying what you mean? I think that’s where it comes from, you know, this individual kind of, well, if I say that it’s not on the table, that it’s not, and we don’t have to look at it. Right, that I’m the leader here. And I’m saying that this thing is the most important thing, these other things don’t matter. Because I don’t want to look. I mean, nobody would ever say it that way. But that’s actually what’s going on, right that like, in my, I worked as a para long, long time ago. And I noticed the dynamics in school were that the principal wasn’t in charge. It was the teachers who had been there the longest who were in charge, right? They set the tone for the culture of the school. But nobody wants to talk about that openly. But like you kind of have to pull apart. Why is it like that? Who said it‘s like that? Who set the rules in that way and why?

Jeanie: You’ve got me now visualizing this image of a knotted up ball of string. And if we just untangle the knot, that’s about classism, we still have a bunch of knots, right. And often before we get even get to that knot, they’re a bunch of knots we have to go through. And so seeing it as a an interlocking system of knots, as opposed to like, Oh, if we just focus on classism, and people often say, Well, you know, Dr. King, at the end of his life was only focused on classism when I was like, only? like, you know, like, I think it’s a little more complicated than that. Right? And so I think,

Winnie: capitalism,too, I think.

Jeanie: Yes, yes, yes. I’m seeing the intersections of these things. Isn’t extra, it is, it is the thing, right? It’s the it’s the way forward. And I think disability justice movements, as Leah points out, have been really led by people who are multiple marginalized in a ways that see those intersections that experience the intersections of not just ableist systems, but also classist, homophobic, heteronormative, sexist and racist systems. And so I have a clearer sense of how the things all fit together just based on our experience. That’s what I read from Leah.

Winnie: Yeah, yeah, I think so too. I think so too. I had um, I thought also, I’m still thinking about this person that thinks class is the only thing I think, also that folks want the shortcut, right to say, this will get done faster if we just look at one thing. So let’s just talk about that one thing right now. Or I think true, transformative change doesn’t work like that. It has to be this kind of constant chipping away. Constant spreading awareness, constant self inquiry. I mean, it’s not something you just kind of get done with and then everybody’s fine. It has to be purposeful. And connected. It just it just has to.

Jeanie: Yeah. But there’s a scholar I really love named Vanessa Andreotti, she’s from Canada. And she uses this thing called the Heads Up framework. I can’t tell you what each of them stands for, ‘H’ is hegemony. The one that always sticks with me the most is the easy solutions, right? And easy solutions, which I think we all want, because we want to solve the problem, right? Is actually a red herring, right? Like, they’re often a sign that we’re not actually dealing with a real problem. An easy solution is often not the is almost always not the answer. And as you alluded to earlier, and as we talk a lot, working towards justice is a messy, messy system. It’s a messy process because these aren’t simple problems that we’re solving, right. And they’re also not only systemic, but they’re also the way that the systems we live in have shaped who we are and how we show up how we are in the world. And I was listening recently to a Hidden Brain episode, I’ll link to in the transcript about what happens when change decision making from ethics, like our moral decision making to financial, to sort of this, which a lot of our decision making in our current capitalist world is really financial. And it shifts the part of the brain it works. And we make decisions that don’t help us make better decisions. And in fact, so often, the example they use is if an after-school program charges you, if you get paid, charges you a fine if you’re late picking up your kids, and they set for a lot of people, they’re just like more people were late because they felt like they could just pay the fine. So it had the opposite impact.

And I think a lot about the decisions we want kids to make at school, we turn to this sort of financial decision-making, right like through a token economy. And we say, well, you get a reward if you do this thing, or you’ll get a punishment. If you do this thing. Instead of saying this is the right thing to do. This is the way we take care of each other, let’s be our best selves. And so gosh, I just went on a long tangent, but my point was, I did have one doctor, maybe I did. I guess my point was that these easy solutions often shift us into our worst selves, right, and we want this quick way of fixing something wrong. Really what we need to do is grapple with whom do we want to be? How do we want to be in this world? What kind of moral-ethical person how do we want to show up? And I think you keep reminding me that there’s no single easy pass through all this injustice, we just have to wade in and get messy. Thank you for bearing with me and that nonsense I just spoke.

Winnie: oh, that was great. That was great. That was great. I’m really enjoying how you’ve been processing all of this really, I usually process through my own personal experience, it’s how it kind of lives in me. So if I’ve personally experienced it, or somebody close to me has, then that’s the thing that I’m going to anchor myself to. I find that, you know, in higher education, say, I just went through this whole process of getting my contract renewed as a lecturer. And so in that process, you’re supposed to show all the things that you’ve been doing with your time, in the last four years, you know, like the ideal is to have, you know, when you get out of PhD school, the idea is to find that tenure track job, right? tenure track, meaning that you prove yourself over seven years, then you have this job for the rest of your life, right? They’re not really concerned about what kind of work you do after that. Right, you’re just gonna, you’re just gonna, you know, work really hard to get that piece of cheese or whatever it is. And what I’ve found in the last four or five years is that I don’t really want that cheese, I want to actually get stuff done. Right. And actually getting stuff done means that I have to let go of a lot of other extraneous stuff. So for me, it’s like labels, it’s it’s money. It’s all those things, right?

Jeanie: Figuring out what really matters to you.

Winnie: Yeah

Jeanie: And that often goes against I mean, tenure track really is a it’s part of that meritocracy. It’s part of a capitalist system. It’s like credentialing, right? Like, who did you publish enough to get tenure? And so deciding that how you want to be in the world matters more, the things you want to accomplish matter more.

Winnie: Right now, right now, I’m actually working on a book that is from my dissertation. And I decided that like, you know, I spent four years learning all these $20 words. Now I’m going to unlearn it so that this book can actually be read by regular people.

Jeanie: What’s your book about?

Winnie: Oh, I did this great action research project around self perception, self esteem, social emotional learning in the arts, and how creating inclusive learning environments for students kind of helps kid peer relationships. It supports You know, the learning of kids with disabilities where they can show what they know in lots of different kinds of ways, not just by taking tests. And then it also enriches the whole school culture to become more of a caring, open minded, flexible kind of culture. And so I talked about Well, so far, I’ve been writing it for like three years now. I spend a lot of time trying to make the research relevant to real life. To why is it important to understand how meritocracy works? Why is it important to understand why it’s important to engage with families around their own children?

Jeanie: Dr. Looby, your book feels like one I really have to read and want to read and can’t wait to read. I hope that when it’s published, you’ll come back and talk to us about it on the podcast.

Winnie: Absolutely. Absolutely. I’m hoping to be done with it before another couple of years.

Jeanie: Well, we don’t wait patiently until then. But the world needs your book, I think. Yeah. What are the things that when you when you said the things we need to understand, like you said meritocracy, and why we need to understand these things in order to do a better job in schools. It made me think about some of the things that were really hard to read about in Leah’s book. And one of those was this history of ugly laws in the United States. It’s really painful. And so I’m just going to quote her, she says, “the ugly laws on the books in the United States, from the mid 1700s, to the 1970s 1970s, stated that many disabled people were too ugly to be in public, and legally prevented disabled people from being able to take up space in public. These laws were part of a system that locked up or criminalized all kinds of undesirable people, indigenous folks, poor folks, people of color, queer folks, and disabled folks.” And so it made me think about all these other laws that we don’t often talk about, but that have lasting implications in our world. So it made me think about eugenics, for example, which in Vermont, as well as elsewhere, sterilized, and institutionalized people considered delinquent or defective, many of them poor, indigenous, or disabled. And it made me think about other kinds of laws like redlining, that, you know, profited or benefited privileged white folks, while denying those benefits or privileges to people of color who maybe also fought in wars or right, or who were looking to buy homes, right, the same American dream. And I think about and I’m sure we can name countless other laws and statutes that play out in this way, that means some people have privileges, or are not allowed to have privileges. In this case, the privilege was being allowed to be in public taking up space in public, and that folks where it made people who able bodied people uncomfortable. And so we created laws for that. And it was just horrifying to me. And I think those things still play out in schools, right, like those the ramifications of that still plays out in systems of education in the way students with disabilities are treated. And I wondered if you had thoughts on that?

Winnie: Yeah, yeah, the connection I’m making with school is, I remember not ever seeing a child with disability in my school, in the 70s. I know that where they are now I know that they were there. But then I had no idea. And I wonder, I get down to the real feeling behind why that’s necessary. I think, even though disability has been, you know, one in four people in the world, has a disability. Right. There’s plenty of people that we know that won’t ever talk about their disability, because of the stigma involved. And I think I think the reasoning behind that, that shutting away or that pushing away is this kind of fear that life is unpredictable. That, you know, you can’t control everything, you can’t have rules for everything. You can’t. You can’t control your mortality. You know, I don’t think people like that. Right. They want to know that the world is exactly the way that it was when they woke, you know, went to bed last night. They don’t want change, I think, I mean, might be controversial to say it but I think that’s partly why folks are so, so eager to get back to normal with COVID. Right? Even though statistics are showing us that we’re not done with it yet. People really really, really don’t want to wear a mask like like that’s that’s a really small, really small thing that you have to give up to benefit other people. It just to me it kind of gets at this fear about what you can’t control what you can’t fix. You know, what’s unpredictable about just the way the world works. I think that’s kind of I can’t say it’s good or bad. I just think it’s a human tendency to, to say, I’m more comfortable with things that are are knowable that I understand that look like me that sound like me. And anything other than that really throws me off.

Jeanie: As you spoke, our listeners can’t see this because they’re listening, but you put air quotes around normal. Oh, yeah. I really appreciate that. Because I think what you’re reminding us is that with those air quotes, what I read from that, and I’ll ask you if I got it right, is that normal is a myth that normal doesn’t exist that normal. In many ways, I took the next leap and thought, well, normal is what we used to keep the status quo as it is, and the status quo doesn’t serve all people.

Winnie: Exactly. Exactly.

Jeanie: And I did a podcast with my friend Emily Gilmore about the End of Average which really describes why this norm reference to this norm normal really is, is related to averages, right? Doesn’t serve any of us, none of us are really normal, right? And so that this notion of normal, and this privileging of this notion of normal, is problematic just because it doesn’t exist, it’s reusing, right? It’s using statistics to describe people, and that just doesn’t work. There’s a fallacy. It’s very hard, it’s that.

Winnie: Well, it’s also it’s also defining this kind of mythical ideal, right? That if you have a normal body, whatever that is, that means that you look a certain way. You feel a certain way about yourself, like our I think our like beauty industry is all around “I want to be that ideal. But it doesn’t exist, right? It’s keeping people’s kind of aspirations to have the thing up. So like, say, what do you call it? My grandparents used to call it keeping up with the Joneses. Where are you know, you have a neighbor that gets a new pool, though, you have to have a pool they get a new car, you have to have a car? What is that all based on? And who is that serving other than the people who you’re buying from? Right?

Jeanie: Yeah, our our feelings of inadequacy really do serve people who want to sell us something, right? We joke about that at my house. I’m like, why there are certain times in my life or certain days, certain periods of exhaustion or frustration where some email advertisement really can get me and I have to step back and say, oh, I need that thing. I just feel bad about myself at the moment. And that thing, that shiny thing is, is a way to that I think will make me feel better. But it doesn’t really, right.

Oh, yes. And one of the things that Leah pointed out in the book is that it’s really short sighted of us not to be looking for disability justice, because so many of us as we age will experience some kind of disability. That by the way, self interest isn’t the only reason that we should engage in disability justice. But she does point out that like, and you sort of allude to that too that. It’s our our lack of desire for change that keeps us where we are, and our lack of understanding that we could face as our people we love people in our own families in our own lives can face disability, it’s really short sighted of us not to not to clear the way so that all people can take up space and be valued and and be acknowledged and identified with their strengths. There’s one more concept I want to talk about in this book before we move to close. And that’s this idea of care webs. Would you do you think you could define care webs?

Winnie: TThe way I understood it was that you I love how Leah talks about it, where it’s it’s people with disabilities who are all supporting each other, right and pulling in allies where they’re necessary. And not so much doing things for each other, but really just caring about what’s happening with somebody else that like she talks about how isolating it could be, to have a disability, right? That if you feel like you can’t talk about it at work, or you know, you’re feeling, you know, vulnerable around how you’re treated within your family or anything like that, that it’s important to have these other people who understand at least somewhat of what your life is like, to kind of alleviate that isolation. So I think like a great benefit is the actual, like, somebody’s going to help me cook and do my laundry. But I think for me, the important part would be that that social connection piece.

Jeanie: I really appreciate that. And there’s a page in this book, and I’ll put an image of this in the transcript that says questions to ask yourself as you start a care web or collective and keep asking messy again, code word messy. And so it starts with these really practical things like what is the goal of your care web? Who needs care? And what kind, but it moves towards these other things? Like, how you how will you celebrate and make it fun? Or what’s your plan when conflict happens? Or, and this is one of my favorites. And I’ve talked about this in other places, not around disability, but are you building in ways for disabled folks to offer care instead of assuming that only able bodied people are carers? And I’ve talked about this with the book Piecing Me Together of who do we think gets to give and who gets to receive? And how do we create opportunities for everyone to give and receive, because we all have something to offer, and we all need each other? And so if we’re just one, otherwise, we fall into the charity model again, right? We fall into the white savior model, again of like, oh, look, I get to be the hero, as opposed to mutual aid model of we’re in this together. And we’re creating communities where there’s reciprocity, and where we take care of each other.

Questions to ask yourself as you start a care web or collective, and keep asking.

Winnie: Yeah, I would say the leadership piece is important. Where say, you’re an able bodied person who wants to do something with Disability Justice, well, it wouldn’t really start with what you think or what you feel. You know, you need to follow the lead of the folks who are most affected by this thing, right? It’s, I guess, for me, it feels like kind of obvious that that’s what you would do. I think, because it cares. I care about understanding people as individuals in their own path. And I spend a lot of time in self reflection, just because I feel very responsible to my students.

Jeanie: What I hear you saying is that we need to center relationships. And that those and the inference I’m making is that when we center relationships with individuals, we can use the knowing them and their voice and their experience to understand the problem with systems. Yeah, I hear you correctly, when that’s what?

Winnie: Yep, exactly, exactly. Yeah. There’s a section in her book, which talks about, was it emotional intelligence, where how folks with disabilities understand the idea of like, pushing past what your limits are, because there’s something that you want to do or need to do they understand that they understand that the difficult conversations you have to have with whatever bureaucratic office there is that has some kind of control over your life. They, they, they get it. So having those folks in your life is important to kind of keep keep your sanity to keep you kind of motivated to move forward.

Jeanie: So that touches on I guess there’s one thing I wanted to really point out from the book, and it’s this notion that of freedom dreaming, I’ve been thinking about freedom dreaming a lot. And I’ve been thinking about you know, Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds point out that racism was created via imagination, and it’s gonna take imagination and creativity to uncreate it or to fix it. And, and so Leah says “sick and disabled and neurodivergent folks aren’t supposed to dream, especially if we are queer and black or brown. We’re just supposed to be grateful that the normals let us live.” And it makes me think about what’s it look like to to, to center aspirations and dreams for All people. I guess that’s also the opposite of charity. Oh, look, we’re being nice to you, you get to survive, as opposed to like, what are your dreams for the world? And how can those dreams help inform my dreams for the world?

Winnie: Yeah, um, well, I have, I think I have kind of an analogy that relates. In my I teach a class on race and racism in the United States. And the first couple of weeks, we spend time thinking about our own identities before we talk about any history, any anything else. Who, what makes us who we are? Where do we grow up? What languages do we have? How important or not is religion? What’s our gender identity? All those things about ourselves, right? And then connecting that with do I or do I not understand how race and racism works? Why might that be? Oh, if I went to, you know, this affluent boarding school where there weren’t people of color, of course, I wouldn’t have learned very much, right? And so in that moment, you’re saying, Okay, I’m going to give up control that I know everything that I know anything about this thing, whatever it is, and then I’m going to take pleasure in having those conversations with people who have been through those things, right, taking away the shame and the the feeling of like, you know, I have to make up for what my grandpa did, right? Take away that and say, how do I learn about other people for who they are? How do I grow as myself? In what I’m learning? How do I keep learning, it’s not like, cultural competence is going to be this end goal. Because there isn’t really one, there’s always more to learn. I mean, I said, I learned so much from his book, things that I didn’t know before, you kind of have to be open to that. So creativity requires being able to say you don’t know, being vulnerable, thinking, you know, following the lead of other people who wouldn’t necessarily get the lead, usually, right? Being willing to kind of just up end the way you think things work. To make it something else, you can’t you can’t follow the same playbook, you have to completely throw it out the window and create a different one.

Jeanie: Oh, my gosh, that was so helpful. What you just said that such a like helpful way to wade into the mess. And although I have a gazillion other quotes and ideas