Category Archives: Teaming

From the innovativeEd mailbag: Flummoxed in Flannery

From the innovativeEd mailbag: a reader looks for ways to keep pathways of conversation open with their colleagues when it comes to talking about difficult topics. Meet “Flummoxed in Flannery”.

“Dear InnovativeEd,

With everything that’s been going on lately, simple conversations with coworkers have turned into a minefield of hurt feelings, recriminations and misunderstandings. So many of our conversations that should be about teaming and pedagogy wind up being derailed by political concerns and debates about our personal values. We should be spending time working out plans for students’ best learning interests, but instead we struggle to stay civil.

I adore my teaching team, and I’m worried this patch of difficulties will do long-term damage to our ability to reach students. Am I worrying without cause? Is this happening to everyone? What are some ways I can have healthy, respectful conversations with the other adults in my building? Help!

Flummoxed in Flannery”


Dear Flummoxed in Flannery,

You have described such an important dilemma! Thank you for this question. I’m so glad that you raise this issue, because you are right to be concerned. The interactions of adults in a school building can indeed be felt and perceived by students. What’s more, the adults in the school can act as role models for the students as they strive to engage in healthy and respectful conversations.

That’s why I’d like to suggest a kind of two-pronged approach to address your dilemma.

First, I’d suggest that your staff and school colleagues invest some time into setting norms or community agreements.

If you have existing norms, I’d suggest that you revisit them in a formal discussion and through a valid process. Making space to engage together in creating norms that foster healthy and respectful dialogue is so important.

I’ll share that my own team has carefully developed a set or norms that guide our work and our meetings. Here are my team’s community agreements.

Welcome our fully human selves

  • Connect, build relationships and community
  • Bring our whole selves and our values to the work
  • Express gratitude
  • Communicate and attend to negative impact
Be present 

  • Be aware of how you’re showing up for yourself and your colleagues
  • Hold ourselves and each other accountable to our agreements
Seek and offer feedback

  • Bring our dilemmas and work to the table
  • Be clear about the feedback you are seeking, give feedback focused on the request
  • Embrace challenging feedback
Value mistakes, struggles, and failures as opportunities for learning and growth

  • Celebrate risk taking
  • Make space for vulnerability
Strive for clarity

  • Ask if you don’t understand
  • State expectations
  • Surface assumptions
  • No is not an invitation to negotiate
Take space, make space, hold space

  • Notice power dynamics in the room, share power, and empower others
  • Seek to hear all voices


Most important is that those norms are maintained and used as a group.

Norms should not just sit on a document or on a piece of chart paper.

At the start of every meeting for my team, we take a moment to read through the norms and each person chooses one to focus on for the time. Sometimes we invite all participants to set an intention from one of the norms and place it in the chat feature of our Zoom. You can also do that in person or write it individually on paper.

Each of these strategies helps agreements live and breathe as they should. When we do this work, they are likely to guide adult behaviors and interactions.

Additionally, dear Flummoxed, you may find that you approach political issues and social justice matters, well… differently than your colleagues.

I’ve commonly seen that while some educators feel very comfortable discussing and weighing in on emotional topics, other educators choose to avoid them completely.

My second recommendation, therefore, is to create a space for the educators in your building to have difficult conversations about race and inequity.

Racial disparities and oppression in our country have absolutely infiltrated every part of our lives — including school. Teachers and educators must engage in the work of becoming educators for social justice, no matter how each individual is approaching and entering the work.

For example, you might choose to do a book reading together as a faculty and staff.

In one of my professional team spaces, we have read articles such as How to Be an Antiracist Educator by Dena Simmons  and then used a protocol to engage in discussion.

Additionally, you might choose to take a course together.

Taking a course with your team like “Let’s Practice Talking to our Children About Race” offered from Courageous Conversation Academy would provide a space with support for you and your colleagues.

Whatever you choose to design, you will need to carefully establish some norms and agreements.

The folks at Courageous Conversation have created four agreements for Courageous Conversations with this very intention.


And you might choose to review these as a school or team and adopt these agreements before engaging in any of these scenarios.

I will also share these general tips and guidelines that you can share and use with your school faculty and team. Some of these I gathered from this workshop by Kathy Cadwell and her Harwood students in March. She and her students shared a wealth of resources.

One of my favorites is this Guide to Respectful Conversations. It seems to originate from We Repair the World, and it contains some important suggestions. I find myself returning to some of them like, “Use I Statements” and speaking from my own experience when I find myself in difficult conversations.

Finally, engaging in civil and respectful conversations with colleagues takes work, and I admire your honest plea for help.

In an often stressful and chaotic world, healthy and successful adult dialogue is so very important, especially in our schools. We want to model for our students that adults can talk about hard things, and it’s essential for a thriving democratic society. I hope these suggestions make a difference in your school interactions.

Thanks for writing, Flummoxed.

Yours in courage,

innovative Ed

What makes integrated curriculum work?

Middle level educators have long sung the praises of integrated curriculum. It’s been a foundational practice in some middle schools. But why isn’t it happening everywhere, all the time? Right now, our young adolescents are growing and developing in hybrid, remote and uncertain school models. And that means they need integrated and thematic curriculum more than ever.

What is an integrated and thematic curriculum?

This image by Mark Springer nicely shows a curriculum continuum.

At the left end of the continuum is our most traditional middle school curriculum model.

And that’s where subjects are separated. They’re taught separately and have separate curriculum. It’s a middle school where students spend their days moving through 4-6 different subjects that are very discrete and separate.

Next along the continuum, interdisciplinary and integrated curriculum bring some sort of connection between each class. They bring cohesion around what a student learns.

And then at the far right end of the continuum, students don’t experience separate classes. Instead, teachers and students together negotiate themes. That’s a high degree of integration. In a typical interdisciplinary or integrated scenario, the teachers on that team or house within the middle school choose to teach their subjects around a common topic or theme.

They might even design a set of guiding questions that will drive the student inquiry and learning.

What do themes look like?

An interdisciplinary or integrated unit theme usually names a topic that transcends discipline and content. This article by Nancy Doda and Mark Springer  goes into more detail about the power of thematic teaching and learning.

Unit themes should:

  • Be drawn from the real world and reflect issues and problems of social significance.
  • Serve as a lens through which to better understand the content being addressed from a multidisciplinary perspective.
  • Inspire young adolescents to invest in and be curious about the learning. They should spark imagination.

And how do guiding questions fit in?

Integrated units usually have 2-3 guiding questions that drive the teaching and learning. And these guiding questions can also be called focusing questions. This resource What Is a Good Guiding Question? Can help teachers learn how to hone questions.

Guiding questions:

  • Have no right answer
  • Frame content in a meaningful (real-world) context
  • Make sense and can be understood by students
  • Require a multi-disciplinary approach
  • Challenge students to examine & demonstrate connections between content & larger world issues

Here are some sample guiding questions:

  • How do human choices impact our environment and planet?
  • Why is what we eat important? What factors determine the foods we eat?
  • Why do people get sick? Why is it so hard for some people to get well?
  • How does the role of the government impact our lives?

Why is curriculum integration needed now?

When we integrate curriculum, teachers work together to design curriculum around a common theme or topic. As a result, students are most likely to make connections. It’s how they see the real-world relevance to their learning. Now, if the unit also provides students with clear and easy guiding questions that cross curriculum? Then the student is more likely to be clear about what they are learning.

In a nutshell, the theme and topic should ground the teaching and learning. It should provide that significance and meaning for the student. In this unusual time – when many of our “normal” practices are disruptive, students need continuity. More than ever, students need to see the connections between what they are learning in school and what they know about the world around them.

Integrated and interdisciplinary curriculum is not new. And there are many amazing examples around us.

In Randolph Union High School, in Randolph VT, the middle school team completely transformed their approach to curriculum. They decided to dip a toe into integrated curriculum, by having their whole middle school team design a unit on clean water. Science, Social Studies, English and Math. In every class, students took a new angle on the work they’d just done in the last class. Additionally, the team used Google Classroom and hyperdocs to track student work and make adjustments to upcoming lessons based on the outcome of the previous lessons — even in another content area.

That, my friends? That is truly responsive teaching.

integrated curriculum

Meanwhile, down in Londonderry, VT, Charlie Herzog, at the Flood Brook School, has been using integrated curriculum for years. He incorporates a powerful and direct student feedback loop, to make sure students enjoy the work. As a result of recent feedback, Charlie made project-based learning more central to his integrated curriculum, to see how students responded. Turns out: they LOVED IT. 

3 ways to get started with integrated curriculum… tomorrow!

Let’s say you want to start integrating curriculum right away. You can! Here are three ideas to make it do-able.

1.Create your own theme day.

Declare that Friday, for example, is Art Around the World Day. Then, go ahead and embed that theme into all of the learning for that day. Sounds simple, but can be deeply powerful in terms of student engagement. Think of it: an extended period of time to focus on one unifying area.

2. Design your advisory plans around a weekly theme.

Advisory has curriculum, too! For one week, try building plans for your advisory curriculum around a theme. Possible themes?

  • Make Healthy Choices
  • Know Your Neighbors
  • Sing Your Own Kind of Song
  • Masks Through the Ages (Hey look: present-day relevance! Bonus!)

3. Get your team on board

Propose to your teaching team that you choose a week to commit to a team-wide theme.

Let’s say you decide the week of November 9 is a thematic curriculum week. During that week, the team will all integrate Food Systems and Nutrition into the learning. Your math colleague designs some activities around meal planning and budgeting. Your language teacher crafts a vocabulary challenge involving ordering food or buying it in the grocery store, in multiple languages. English language colleague asks students to share their favorite food systems stories; the social studies instructor leans in to provide support for students researching where their favorite foods fit into existing local food systems.

Food for thought! (ha!)



Please note: the photo that accompanies this post was taken before the current pandemic, when social distancing was not necessary.

Getting started with protocols

Be better at team conversations

You know that spirited colleague of yours who dominates, practically filibusters, staff meetings with her lamenting and haranguing?

Or your colleague who is so thoughtful, but rarely speaks at staff meetings? Or it is you?  Does your zest and passion bubble forth into conversations leaving little room for all voices? (Confession: that’s me!) Or do you retreat into silence as you watch the volley of conversation flutter around the room waiting for the pause that never comes?

Whoever you are in a group, it appears that we need a little help bringing all voices into the conversation.

I first made this discovery in (shocker!) my elementary classroom.

We’ve all seen it. Whenever I circled up with my students to discuss the learning at hand, it was no surprise that the same five kids would simultaneously burst into conversation, while several others never seemed to get a word in edgewise.

So we started paying attention to how we had discussions. We talked about reflecting on if we were ‘first talkers’ or ‘not talkers’ or somewhere in between. Then we mapped our conversations, collecting data on who talked, for how long, how often. Finally, we learned about extroverts and introverts, internal and external processors: you know, the difference between those who think to talk and those who talk to think?

Then we talked about what we could do about it.  Everyone agreed that it was important that everyone’s voice was heard.  So we brainstormed strategies, like the use of a ‘talking piece’ (in our case it was often a ‘talking stapler’) that had to be in your possession before you spoke, or how the extroverts could use our voices to invite others into the conversation.

Collaboration is the key ingredient in most organizations.

It’s the synergy of ideas that brings the magic. Those other voices help us see the same thing in a new way. They bring a suggestion that solves the puzzle.

But in order to effectively collaborate, we need everyone’s ideas on the table. We need to hear all voices. And we seem to be operating under the assumption that as adults we do this well.

Except we don’t.

And I don’t think adults are too keen on using a ‘talking stapler’ to manage their conversations.

Enter: The Discussion Protocol.

What is a discussion protocol, you ask? It’s a conversation guided by a process to a specific outcome. There are directions and steps. There’s a facilitator who moves the conversation along. And there are specific types of feedback called for at different times.

There are several organizations out there who create and train folks around how to use protocols.  I’ve always used the School Reform Initiative‘s work.

Check out a few examples of protocols: 

  • Chalk Talk – a ‘silent discussion’ which can be used to brainstorm, reflect, or solve problems;
  • Charette – which can be used to improve a piece of work;
  • or a Four A’s text protocol used to explore a text.

But folks, let me tell you, at first, I was seriously annoyed.  It felt touchy-feely and stifling at the same time. I mean, we were a bunch of high functioning adults, for goodness sake!

Can we just talk about the thing without having to take timed turns?!

But it was the way we did things. So I persisted and tried to play by the rules. And you know what, it’s taken a while (several years, in fact) but over time, I’ve come around.

I’ve become a convert.  Let me tell you why.

It’s simple, really. Conversations have become more effective. More fruitful. More spacious. Just better.

Instead of a constant barrage of input, there is a slowing down. Things are more thoughtful. Mindful even. No longer a firehose of words, but a gentle shower. We understand a problem before trying to solve it.

And everyone’s voices are heard. That’s part of the deal. Sure, you can take a pass if you have nothing to contribute — but everyone gets a turn!  Without a stapler! #winning

But it’s not just me.

Last summer a group of teacher leaders and district coaches in Vermont’s Greater Rutland County Supervisory Union (GRCSU) embarked on a five-day training around collaboration and the use of protocols.

It was so powerful to have a room full of teacher-leaders getting jazzed about leading professional development with their colleagues. As we all know, there is a huge lack of training on how to do this crucial work effectively.

Many of these teacher-leaders have taken on new roles as PLC leaders this year.  This course provided us with tools and practice on how to plan meaningful professional learning, create a sense of belonging, and use protocols to dig into our work in meaningful and fruitful ways. One participant noted:

“I was very resistant to protocols prior to our training. I found them unnecessary and oppressive, but my thinking has changed: protocols can provide focus, structure, and create an environment in which participants can feel safe to take risks. I’m confident that protocols, when thoughtfully prepared and well-facilitated can create a productive environment.”

We solved each other’s problems

At one point each of us brainstormed a dilemma we struggle with in our work. We ruminated on the type of feedback we wanted: did we want to grapple with the getting at the core of the issue, or were we looking for crowdsource solutions?  

Our facilitators introduced us to different protocols that would yield different outcomes and we selected one to meet our needs. Then, in small groups, many of us presented our dilemmas, with another participant playing the role of facilitator.

It was powerful

Folks felt that not only did they understand better how dilemma protocols work, but they actually received incredible feedback to move their work forward.  It was clear how useful this could be back in our school settings. One teacher noted:

“I really enjoyed learning [to facilitate] these protocols.  It dawned on me that they are meant to mimic a conversation between well-adjusted people.  That is giving people time and space to talk and think.”

They were transformative; they helped us see our own thinking in new and productive ways.

Teachers sit around a table covered with papers and computers talking.
GRCSU Coach Al Gregoritsch and teacher leaders practice using protocols before bringing them to staff meetings.

But you don’t have to take (just) my word for it

GRCSU Innovation Coach Al Gregoritsch participated in that course, and he has been using protocols with his school’s PLC all year.

We had a teacher who wanted to try something different with a unit that they were designing.  They were looking for something more dynamic than presentations from students for their summative assessment.

We picked a Charrette protocol and modified it a little to provide a little more back and forth discussion during the process… Everyone was comfortable with the group and the level of trust between the group members was high.

The presenter talked about where they had been in the past and what they were looking for in this unit, we had a deep discussion in which a number of ideas were presented.  The teacher was able to take the feedback from the group and develop a lesson that worked for the class.

The process gave me a chance to work with this teacher as a coach through the unit.  Not everything came out perfectly, but we will be having further discussions now on how to tune the unit and what changes can be made for future units.

Without the protocol, the discussion could easily have gone off track and we would have ended up having a discussion on the more general topic of Proficiency-Based Learning or Standards Based Grading, and not ended up with a good list of ideas that could be used to build a specific unit.

Gregoritsch has found that the more a group gets used to the process and reaps the benefits of the outcome, the easier it gets.  He also notes that the seemingly rigid structure of the protocol can offer a safe space in which to build trust, and “in which people could share their thoughts without fear of having their ideas devalued. I remember thinking that that was pretty powerful.  It provided equity for peoples voices.”

It’s important to be prepared!

Gregoritsch notes that taking time to prepare for the discussion, including pre-conferencing with anyone presenting work or dilemmas, and picking the right protocol are crucial for success.  He cautions us

… to not over-do the use of protocols.  Some room for organic discussion needs to be left and sometimes a protocol might be too much for the task, especially if the group is small.

His advice to those considering bringing protocols to their collaborative work?

The best advice that I can give anyone interested in using protocols in their work would be to practice with an experienced presenter or facilitator at first.  Find a friendly group to work with where you will not have to worry about the negative opinion leader trying to derail the process. Once you have gained experience sorting through how the protocol process works and have had some practice picking the right protocol for the situation, then it is time to broaden your circle of influence and bring the protocols to a wider audience.  For me this place to practice was at the Collaborative Practices Workshop that was offered over the summer. It’s ok to take time to figure it out and make mistakes. That is how we grow.

A word about trust

Protocols can be excellent if you use them bring equity of voices to a conversation, to bring forth new thinking in a generative way. They work best in learning communities where there is a high level of trust, and people are willing to be vulnerable. (And that’s a chicken or the egg situation: you need vulnerability to build trust, but you need trust to be vulnerable.)

However, protocols can also be used to control or manage people. They can be used to silence people. And that’s not okay, obviously. Used that way, protocols leave people feeling resentful and disconnected.  And hating protocols.

A GRCSU training course participant confirms this type of experience.

“Oftentimes protocols are just shoved in front of us, yet the work was never put into making us feel that they were worth it or that it was something we were part of and had stakes in.”

That is a powerful word of caution. Nefarious protocol use can actually (further) damage a community, rather than bringing much-needed equity. Don’t do that. Word to the wise.

Instead, use protocols with integrity and clarity of purpose: both the purpose of the feedback and the purpose of getting all voices and all expertise included in the discussion. 

So get training if you can

Training is so valuable to learn how to effectively use protocols and make sure you’re setting your community up for success. And, bonus, it will build your confidence and provide experience with facilitating protocols.

To find out about setting up training in Vermont, contact the Tarrant Institute’s Jeanie Phillips (who co-facilitated the amazing Collaborative Practices training for GRCSU). If you’re outside of Vermont, visit the School Reform Initiative’s event page to learn more about training options.

What protocols are you using to collaborate in your school?

How to make meetings more effective

Good meetings can be hard to find

self-analysis and teamingWe’ve all been there: staff meetings that could have been an email or team meetings spent admiring problems and getting nowhere. And I’m not claiming innocence here:  I’m definitely guilty of creating bullet list agendas or meeting with no agenda (or outcome) at all. 

But over the past couple of years, I’ve upped my meeting game. I’ve gathered some awesome tips and tricks, and I’m here to share.

The only 7 reasons for meetings

Last fall, I was an eager student at one of Elena Aguilar’s Art of Coaching Teams workshops.  This training was chock full of brilliance, and I’ve put so much of it into action already. For example, did you know that there are (only) seven reasons to meet? For real. Check it out. Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Share information
  2. Learn something
  3. Solve a problem
  4. Make decisions
  5. Plan
  6. Build community
  7. Set goals, calibrate, & reflect

Of course, there are caveats for each of these.  Take reason 1, for example, sharing information: if it can be done via email you don’t need to meet! Brilliant! And collaboration should be central to the meeting: otherwise, why are we meeting? The big takeaway here is that you should know the purpose of your meeting at the start.  Or better yet, when you draft the agenda.


A photo showing a copy of the book 'The Art of Coaching Teams', a pen, and a table tent that includes a quote from Rumi.
I knew it would be a great workshop when Rumi was quoted on the table tents.


A good agenda is crucial to an effective meeting

A well-crafted agenda is a beautiful thing. It gently guides the group to a preset outcome or goal. It can create the space to connect and laugh and learn together, it can clarify how (and if) a decision will be made, and it can nudge us back on track if (when) we digress.

But it takes some time and thought to prepare an effective agenda. I’ve heard some recommendations that suggest that building the agenda should take almost as long as the meeting itself! Of course, we don’t always have time for that.  But I have a few tips that can help streamline the process.

State your purpose

A solid agenda begins with a clear outcome (or two or three). What is the purpose of the meeting? What will be accomplished by the end of the meeting? You should be able to articulate the outcome in one to three bullets. For example:
  • Reflect on our team goals for the year and add evidence to our school plan
  • Calibrate our assessment tool for the energy projects.
  • Plan the student exhibition night

It’s kind of like backward design for agenda building, y’all! We need to know where we’re going. Once we know that, we can then plan our route.

(Aaaand a few more words on purpose)

Teachers attend a lot of meetings. Faculty meetings, team meetings, PLC meetings, IEP or 504 meetings, SST or EST meetings… the list goes on. Most of the time these meetings stay relatively focused on their primary topics, but other times agenda creep happens. For example, when you find your team discussing the spring dance in the middle of planning your upcoming project-based learning units. If this is happening at your meetings, consider articulating the purpose and purview of each meeting.

The table above is one example of how you might define and shape your myriad meetings.

Figure out the what, why, and how

Once you know your purpose and outcome, it’s time to figure out how to get there by planning down to the minute, thinking through the what, how, and why of each item. As a facilitator, it is so helpful to be clear about what we’re going to do, why we’re doing it, and how it will happen. (Because really, if we’re not clear, how can we expect anyone else to be!?)

Often agendas articulate the what, but skip the why and how. Adults, like students, want to know why we’re doing something. So tell them. Provide the rationale for each agenda item: is it to discuss, to learn, to assess? Then figure out exactly how you’ll accomplish that item. Break it down. What resources are needed? How will discussion flow? What will participants do?

Check out the agenda below for an example of how the facilitator (me!) laid out the what, why, and how for each agenda item.

This meeting was really productive. Why? Awesome teachers and a solid agenda!
Sean Hirten, 7th & 8th grade team leader at Rutland Town School, creates a lot of agendas. He has found
that the more time you spend on an agenda, the better the meeting will be. You will be more prepared to facilitate and others will respond to that. People know why they are there and what we will discuss. [It also] helps with buy-in.” 
Hirten also suggests adding times and prioritizing what needs to be done; “This gives me an excuse to be a bit pushy [during the meeting] because I set times.” 
Which brings us to another important point: time.

Be honest about time

This needs little explanation. But please, please, I beg of you, be realistic about how long it will take to do each item on your agenda well. Sure, you can rush through the conversation to stay on time, but if you don’t reach a resolution or natural conclusion, you may have to revisit the topic again. And that’s not very effective or efficient.

I am a master of making things work on paper, shaving a minute or two from here and there. But guess what? Just because it works on paper doesn’t mean it’s sufficient for real, live humans. Trust me.


  • the task or topic: sharing a classroom highlight will typically be quicker than discussing the new progress report template.  Sometimes, hour-long meetings only offer enough time to address one topic sufficiently.  While unanticipated challenges can always occur, do your best to evaluate how much time it will take to reach the desired outcome. Less is more (and who doesn’t like leaving early if you happen to under plan!).
  • the number of people in the group: the amount of time it will take 3 people to share their observations is vastly different than the time needed for 20 people to share.  Since it’s important that all voices are heard, consider using pair-shares or small group discussions to move things along more quickly in larger groups.
  • the process: this is where figuring out the ‘how’ can really come in handy. What will this time look like? How will folks engage with the topic? Does a decision have to be made?  How will it be made?

Inevitably unexpected things come up and it’s not uncommon to get off schedule, but over time and with diligence in planning you can dial it in and vastly improve your estimates and planning.

Open and close the meeting with intention

The beginning and end of the meeting are important times. Upon arrival, we have all come from another busy facet of our day, and often need a moment to relax, decompress, or settle in the new space.

Hirten likes to start meetings off with a game. “Even for the cynics this can work to lighten the mood, provided it is a fun game, and not too long.” Laughing together is a great way to build a team, and can also double as an opportunity for teachers a chance try a new game to bring back to their students.

A photo showing a team of educators building a tower out of index cards.
The Art of Coaching Teams workshop included team challenges, like this tower building challenge. Not that we’re competitive, but we totally won.

Sharing highlights and notable moments is another great way to open. This not only connects us, but also gives us a window into each other’s classrooms.

Similarly, a well-executed closing can bring a feeling of…er, closure to the meeting. If you’ve built in sufficient time, play the metaphor game:  have participants select an office supply item from a basket as a metaphor to represent how they feel at the close of the meeting (‘I picked the rubber band because I feel stretched’). Short on time? Close with a one-word reflection, or ask participants what went well about the meeting. Whatever you do, make sure to end on time. That matters.

Finally, build a template

Efficiency is where it’s at. Reusing a solid meeting template can cut down on agenda-building time. Your agenda template will reflect your personality and meeting style, but here are a few templates that I’ve found helpful.  Next time we meet I’ll just recycle this format and build the next meeting. Thank you, copy & paste.

Looking to improve your meetings?

"Agenda Exploration Activity - 20 minutes This activity can be used to reflect on the qualities of effective agendas (including your group’s current agenda template, if desired). Share the following three agendas with the group (feel free to include your own agenda as well). Have the group silently examine the agendas for a few minutes. Then, in rounds, ask participants to share responses to the following prompts. If your group in large, consider partnering up for these prompts, then doing a whole group share out. What features work/don’t work about each one? Which example do you think produce a more effective meeting? Why? How might we revise our meeting agendas to support a more productive meeting?"

Try this activity with your team!  In it, you’ll examine a few sample agendas to assess what works and what doesn’t.  Then you can create or revise your own team meeting template and rock your meetings!

Any great meeting tips to share?

All about service learning

with Katy Farber

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

A full transcript appears below.





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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not solve but improve on.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Do you want to talk through that a little bit?

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

Such as:

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

Those are some of the commonalities between them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So they’re like,

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

I’ll say,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katy: Yes, exactly.                

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

Katy: Absolutely.

Jeanie: Have you seen that in practice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why should schools invest the time in service learning?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

It feels like the perfect tool for this moment.

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

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

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

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

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

This is not worksheet work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Could you talk a little bit more about community partners?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could you share some of those with us?

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

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

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

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

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

They really showed that regularly.

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

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

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

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


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

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

Working in collaborative teams is really challenging.

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

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

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

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

The phases that are in the book are:

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

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

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

That that’s normal.

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

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

Or, when I work with middle school students, it’s to be accepted. Because it’s the natural developmental arc. You’re describing the developmental arc of teaming as sometimes there will be troubled waters. There are going to be periods where there’s a fight for power, or where kids are butting heads against each other. If we help them work through that, they are going to be more productive than if we shut that down before it even gets started.

Katy: What a powerful learning opportunity, too. One of the things that it’s just good to keep in mind as a teacher is,

“I’m not going to go fix it for you. How can this team be productive? And having that be a joined space of problem-solving?”

Jeanie: Right. I heard Courtney Martin say on a podcast one time, “I’ve become suspicious of efficiency.”

It makes me think that sometimes we’re so wrapped up in efficiency that we forget that some of our deepest learning happens in these inefficient, messy ways. Teamwork is one of those places That’s not always efficient, that’s a little bit messy, and yet we learn so much about ourselves and others and how to work together.

Katy:  It also reminds me of the book Duct Tape Parenting. I don’t know if you have read that one, but I have listened to the author speak before. She talks about waaaaaiting when you’re hearing your kids maybe argue with each other. Waaaaiting if they’re not actually punching each other. Can they solve this themselves? Because then they’ll have the skills to do that. As a teacher, I would have to count to myself. I would have to fight that urge to go rescue them from the wrangling. The wrangling was often right before they had a breakthrough.

Jeanie: Right. We rob our students of the opportunity to do that deep learning when we rescue them.


Any other words about teaming and working in collaborative teams?

Katy: Just that we have to use our best teacher moves. Sometimes that might be that kids have clear roles that are delineated, explained and modeled. That might be the learning that they need to increase their self-direction and their skills to be able to do this work. That might be what it is. You might be allowing more freedom as they get more experience with this. It doesn’t mean that we just,

“Go ahead in the group. You’re going to storm and you’ll figure it out.”

It might mean that we need to give them more clear parameters, if they need that. You’ll know from your students how you want to start that work. And then maybe move to more freedom as they gain skills to do that.

Jeanie: Right. What other teacher moves do you find most useful when you’re doing service learning work with students?

Katy: I think it is the best opportunity to engage students just-in-time with whatever they are working on. Meaning like I might not care about using commas appropriately, or any number of skills that I might not have — until I need it for my project that I care passionately about.

And so if I can align that just what you need, right when you’re asking for it and you need it? Then I’m in that sweet spot of teaching. I can use all my best direct instruction skills, modeling skills, scaffolding. All of those things right when the student is the most receptive for it.

Jeanie: I’m going to move on and ask you to unpack an example for us that I know you’ve been involved in. Last week I had the great pleasure to present with students and a teacher from Cabot, the Cabot School, at the Rowland Conference at the University of Vermont in Burlington. And we were presenting on student agency and engagement. These two students and a teacher from Cabot School were presenting about their work with Cabot Leads. I’d love for you to give us a little summary about Cabot Leads as a service learning project.

about service learning: Cabot Leads


Katy: Yes. Cabot is in this really interesting situation where they have a 7-12 building. Then they have the K-6 buildings, they’re separate buildings and they’re spread out over this campus. What was happening was that they want to view themselves as a middle school, as a 5-8. But since the buildings are separate, it’s really very difficult to build that belonging, that community, that sense of purpose.

We wanted to come up with something that would allow all students to engage in leadership and service and to feel critical to the running of the school in a meaningful way. I had done something like this in sixth grade at Rumney School where students had done jobs. These jobs were either identified by what the student was interested in or what they saw as a need in the school community. Or it was identified by the school community saying, “Hey, we have all these efforts going. It’s too much. We really need the support of the students here.“

Really, it’s this intersection of what does the school community need and what are the student’s interests?

I had done that at a classroom level and then we took it middle school-wide with Cabot Leads.

People from across that Cabot community identified needs within the community. Students did a set of interest inventories, discovered what they were passionate about helping with. Then they applied for different jobs key in helping the school function. Things like culinary assistant, public relations committee, library assistant, math tutor.

Things where they can go in and once a week usually — but sometimes more — help with functioning of the school toward positive outcomes. That’s a 5-8 program. What are we doing there? We’re building all sorts of cross-age relationships. We’re building all sorts of narratives of opportunity and career pathways. And then just so much belonging between that.

As they gain more skills, they can gain more independence with each new job. So they can reflect on the job they did last year and the job that they want to do in the upcoming year. They have to interview for the job. Then the mentors get together and they decide those different placements based on what students need, what they’re interested in and what would support the community.

Jeanie: Such real world skills, right? Not only do they have to interview, they have to apply.

They have to build a resumé and write a cover letter, am I right?

Katy: Yes. They do. Even just the learning of that procedure. Think about that. Why do we wait until kids are in college to engage in that, or post-secondary, anything? Why do we wait to have those kind of conversations? Shouldn’t we get to know what are your strength now? What do you want to learn? What do you want to do?

And I just did interviews of kids last week for this job. You could just see, they did a virtual interview with me. So not only they’re gaining the skills on doing a virtual interview and connecting to what are my strengths? What can I bring to this position? How might I impact the community? These are deep questions that kids are asking in middle school in Cabot.

Jeanie: I heard from one of the students that there’s a new job this year. That got me really excited. Do you want to talk about that new job that they were offering this year?

Katy: Are you talking about the adviser to the principal?

Jeanie: Yes.

Katy: Yes, that was so exciting! That is just wonderful. Glenda Cresto, the principal there — I’m not exactly sure how this job was born. I’d love to trace that back to its origin, but I just loved that the student can partner with the principal in all the school improvement efforts. That’s just a really exciting development.

Jeanie: Has that job been filled?

Katy: It has been applied for.

Jeanie: Excellent.

Katy: Yes. There are several different new positions there this year.

Let’s see, there’s the concession stand assistant who helps run that space, and so that’s to support the community and to raise money for the school. There’s all sorts of applied math that they can come from that. That’s just really exciting too.

Jeanie: Yeah. I love that program. I love talking to the students and hearing about their growth. And I love the way they celebrate their learning with a gallery at the end.

Katy: Actually, I’m really glad you said that, because that’s the thing I did forget to say. Is that there is a Cabot Leads culminating event sharing. Which was so neat. I attended last year. The students from the culinary committee and assistants, they were making pizza in the pizza oven outside to feed everybody that was coming to take in all of the exhibits that were on display.


Jeanie:  I love it. Let’s talk a little bit about the books that really informed your learning around service learning and that you might suggest other educators read or revisit as they’re doing this important work.

Katy:  It’s a really interesting cross-section. Right, place based learning, service learning and project-based learning. I think it’s fine to dance between those and to really get to know how you want to incorporate some of those similarities between those approaches.

KIDS Consortium has a website and several books that I really do like, as does the Buck Institute, Setting the Standard for Project-Based Learning. That’s a really incredible guide filled with research and resources on project-based learning. I feel like those two are really solid grounding in both pedagogies. I think I would start there.

Jeanie: Here is my own special interest: when I was reading your book, I was thinking where does this show up in young adult, middle grades or children’s literature?

The example that came to me of kids solving a problem, an authentic problem that they had was, Harry Potter. Specifically, I think the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where the fourth or fifth year to road, they have a completely crummy Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Now, it’s Dolores Umbridge and she has them learning about the dark arts by doing worksheets essentially, and so they formed Dumbledore’s army. Their way of solving a problem, they have to be prepared for what’s coming, and so, they practiced together.

But I had a hard time really thinking of service learning in action in books. I’m wondering what sparks service learning for you?

Katy:  I come at the work from an environmental lens. A lot of my entry into service learning was around environmental issues that I would learn about. And then bring forth to students. We had sustainability standards in one year. I focused very locally one year for a service learning project and then try to be more global the following year.

One year I just spread out a tarp in the classroom, I just took the trash and I just dumped it out in the middle of the classroom. And it smelled! There was lots of draaaaama. But we discovered some really basic things. Like kids were getting bagels for snack time and they were throwing their foil into the trash. There was a ton of foil in there.

That was a problem we wouldn’t have really known if we wouldn’t have been reading nonfiction about environmental issues and problems and really thinking about that. Like Hoot — any Carl Hiaasen book. Or The Long Walk to Water. You think about that book that is just coming back to where different people have to spend hours and hours to find access to their water.

  • What are the issues that you’re seeing in your literacy program?
  • What are the things that make your kids feel very excited and that feels like it has possibility in local, or even global connections?

I’m trying to remember the book that we were reading when students understood for the first time that girls across the globe did not have access to education. This was a startling realization for them. We were on a hike up Mount Hunger on a field trip. They were like, “Miss Farber, can we do something about this?” Yes, we can.

Jeanie: Yes, we can.

Katy:  We ended up crowdsourcing all sorts of books from the parents and then having a large book sale. We ended up sending the money from that to the Malala Fund. There were all sorts of promotion of literacy skills and then the raising of funds. That came from interest. That came from learning about world events. How are we teaching kids about world events? Usually, through books. Usually through current events and literature.

Jeanie: Yes. A great book about girl’s uneven access to education would be the new middle grades read, Amal Unbound, which I just adored. Which I think could really connect well with service learning and with UN global goals.

Jeanie: Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman is another fantastic read about the power of a community working together. I can see that really scaffolding some service learning with students. Or being a great read aloud for ongoing as you’re doing a service learning project learning project with students.

Katy: Any book that students identify with an injustice or a wrong. It can be about a societal condition. It can be about something in the environment. Maybe, even a story that hasn’t been told.

It’s just that how can we top into their interest and really integrate what we’re doing across subject areas and allow them to explore a project based on their own interest. This can come out. During the read aloud time maybe even having a chart up where students are recording different thoughts and different ideas for how they can apply that to their local context in projects that they might want to do based on that.

Jeanie:  You’re reminding me that outrage is a powerful motivator and any books that outrages. For kids, that’s really about any book with injustice, because they’re so focused on fairness and equity at that age. They’re really concerned when they see an injustice.

Katy: They really are. In fact, I do a writing workshop, it’s called Writing for Change. We’ll make our bother list.

  • What are your bothers?
  • What are the things that bother you? The plastic in the oceans bothers me. Racism and sexism that’s playing out in our news cycle bothers me.
  • What are the things that bother you?
  • Then what are we going to do about them?

Jeanie: I love that approach. It occurs to me that a school librarian can be a great friend in finding picture books, well middle grades readers or young adult books that connect with an issue that might help with that spark as well.

Katy: Exactly, because once you have the bother, you have somebody who cares. Then they want to go read about and learn about the topic. Then think about what they can do about it, because they can’t just jump to action without having the facts.

Jeanie: Right. Love this. I feel so motivated. I want to go and work with some kids on service learning right now. Katy, I want to thank you so much for taking time to talk to me.

I also want to give a shout-out to the beautiful Waterbury Public Library which hosted us as we had this conversation today. It’s a gorgeous place, folks.

Check out Katy’s book Real and Relevant, A Guide for Service and Project-Based Learning in your library or find it at your local independent book seller. Let us know if you do some service learning work. We’d love to hear about it.

Katy:  Yes, we absolutely would. I want to thank you for being a champion of books everywhere. For me personally and for students across Vermont.

Jeanie:  Thanks Katy.

Katy: Thanks for having me.



This has been an episode of The 21st Century Classroom, podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. Thank you to service learning and salamander-handling guru Katy Farber for appearing on this episode.

17 ways to communicate with students’ families


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


Family engagement…

family communication bingo

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

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

…and equity.

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


  • often
  • frequently
  • regularly
  • routinely
  • consistently

All of the above!

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


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

And family outreach was its name-o.

family communication bingo

Let’s step through them together.

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

A few quick rules:

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

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

Hi, there’s homework.

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

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

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

family communication bingo

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

But wait, there’s more.

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



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

“The Culture Code”, with Bill Rich

Why do certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts?

The 21st Century Classroom podcastIn this episode of our podcast, we kick off our fourth season with legendary librarian Jeanie Phillips.  She’ll be sitting down with a series of guests from around the #vted ecosphere and …reviewing books. Not just any books, but books that can help educators make meaning from the wonderful, complicated and challenging jobs they have of saving the world.

First up, Jeanie talks with noted Vermont educator and consultant Bill Rich (twitter: @rhlearning). Bill is a longtime-classroom teacher who now works with schools, providing guidance on brain-based learning. He’s also the co-director of What’s the Story VT? and LearningLabVT.

Jeanie and Bill sat down to talk about Daniel Coyle’s book, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. The book was recently chosen for a Vermont-wide twitter-based book chat as well.

Over to Jeanie and Bill.

Continue reading “The Culture Code”, with Bill Rich

Changing the who, the what, and the when

The transformation of Team Quest

self-analysis and teamingEducators never feel like they have enough time to do all the things they want to do with students. But for Team Quest at Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, Vermont, the constraints of traditional subject area, schedule and process had become unbearable. So this two-person grade 5-6  team decided to opt for radical transformation.

They changed the who, what, and when of their teaching.

And. They. Love it. Continue reading Changing the who, the what, and the when

Start faculty meetings with a student presentation


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

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

Continue reading Start faculty meetings with a student presentation

Maintaining a teaching team

5 exercises your team can try today

self-analysis and teamingSchool is off to a rollicking start thanks to you and your team’s efforts to build a collaborative culture. You’ve made it successfully through in-service days and the first few weeks of school. Now how are you and your team going to maintain your momentum?

Here are five exercises for maintaining a healthy, happy, respectful and celebratory teaching team.

Continue reading Maintaining a teaching team