Category Archives: Transferable Skills

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?

Strategies for Fostering Student Collaboration

I’ve had to work really hard to learn how to collaborate. Yet, my K-12 teachers always gave me A’s on my collaborative work. Why? Because I got stuff done! In fact, I often took over, doing most of the project myself. My classmates let me. And my teachers routinely stamped my report card, “works well with others.” If you are an educator, then you have known kids like me.

It wasn’t until I took a Collaborative Practices course that I realized I wasn’t collaborating at all. True collaboration, after all, means that everyone contributes, that everyone participates, that together we create something we could not have created on our own: a project, a conversation, and understanding. 

What might my teachers have done instead of throwing me in a group and hoping I shared power, responsibility, and airtime with my classmates? How might they have built collaborative capacity, mine and my classmates?

Here are two strategies for developing and deepening collaborative skills that are not group projects.

1: Hexagonal thinking

Easily one of my favorite collaborative activities with kids or adults, hexagonal thinking fosters dialogue and collective meaning-making. It requires a bit of setup before the magic happens, and even then it can be hard to imagine, so let’s start with a short video of what it looks like in action.


Hexagonal thinking how to

First, identify key vocabulary and terms you want to focus on. For example:

  • Characters, places, and plot points in a story
  • Elements of the water cycle (or rock cycle, or life cycle)
  • Historical (or current) people, places, and events
  • Parts and functions of government

You can do this ahead of time or work with your participants to identify the words and terms you put on your hexagons.

Second, print and cut out your hexagons,  or create your hexagons online, putting one term or phrase on each hexagon. Be sure to leave a few blank hexagons so groups can add additional terms as needed.

Third, provide a prompt or question for your groups. Instruct them that there is no one way to arrange the hexagons, their job is to make meaning together to understand the relationships between the terms. Each hexagon has six sides, and when two hexagons share a side it indicates that they are related in some way. Remind them that they can add additional terms as needed on blank hexagons.

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Finally, be sure to lean on your class norms or agreements to ensure that all participants have a voice in the conversation. 

Hexagonal Thinking map about active learning

Participants work together to discuss the relationships between words, creating a visual map of the concepts. Each hexagon has six sides, limiting the number of hexagons it touches and participants must decide how the various hexagons are related to one another. Once students begin to move the hexagons around the room should buzz with conversation. As an instructor, I tend to walk around and observe, checking to make sure that everyone is participating. If a group gets quiet I ask them a question, “why did you put that hexagon there?” That prompt is usually enough to get the conversation and the hexagons moving again. 

When to use hexagonal thinking

I’ve found this collaborative meaning-making to be useful in all kinds of ways. Sometimes we start a unit with vocabulary and terms and see what we already know, a kind of pre-assessment. It also comes in handy mid-unit as a kind of formative assessment: what concepts are your students understanding? What ideas and understandings require reteaching? Hexagonal thinking can also be used as students move towards summative assessment as a pre-writing strategy to organize their thoughts. I’ve even bookended an instructional unit with hexagonal thinking, giving students an opportunity to reflect on their learning.

However, you use hexagonal thinking, consider ways to capture students’ thinking:

  • Snap photos of their hexagonal maps.
  • Have students take videos as they share their thinking about why they arranged the hexagons the way they did.
  • Encourage groups to glue their hexagons on paper and take notes on the meaning of their arrangement. 

Don’t forget to debrief!

Leave time for the class to reflect on their experience. What went well? What could they have done better? Did everyone contribute to the conversation? What collaborative skills did they use? Were there things that got in the way of collaboration? How might they improve? Without this reflective conversation students may not grow their collaborative skills – this step is crucial!

2: Tiles

I learned about this collaborative strategy from Emily Rinkema and Stan Williams, authors of The Standards Based Classrom: Make Learning the Goal. It’s similar to hexagonal thinking in that groups of students move pieces of paper with key vocabulary around in order to make collective meaning and deepen their understanding. It’s also a little bit easier to prepare: slips of paper are way easier to create than are hexagons. 

Tiles how to

Prepare your tiles. Either with your participants or ahead of time, identify keywords or phrases related to the topic or area of study. Put each of these words or phrases on a slip of paper, and include some blank slips of paper for additional terms that emerge during the conversation.

Do some sorting rounds.  Ask your learners to sort the tiles in some way. You can give them a way to sort the tiles (such as people, places, and things) or let them create their own way to sort the tiles. Once participants have sorted the tiles, ask them to share out their method of sorting them with the class. Follow this with another sorting round, organizing the tiles in a different way.

Tiles sorted example

Use tiles to make meaning. Ask participants to arrange their tiles in a way that communicates their understanding. This could be a flow chart, an image, a mind map, or some other kind of representation. They might use them to outline the plot of the story, explain a phenomenon, or show a cause and effect relationship, for example.

Tiles representation example

Again, take time to have groups share their thinking with their peers and learn from each other. Tiles, like their cousins the hexagons, can be used as a warm-up, formative assessment, or to prepare for summative assessment. And participants can capture and share the results using photos, videos, or glue and paper. 

Finally, just like with hexagonal thinking, take time to debrief the activity and process collaborative strategies and areas for growth.

Collaboration is hard – and requires practice!

Group projects are great ways to leverage collaboration in the classroom, but students need to learn and practice collaborative skills in smaller ways in order to leverage them in larger ways. How do you prepare your students to collaborate?

Transferable Skill Deep Dive: Fostering communication

What do you see when you look at this picture? (For real, I’m not being sarcastic, what do you see?)

I’m guessing you said, “cow.” 

According to Douglas Rushkoff, author of Team Human

“When shown a picture of a cow in a pasture, most Westerners will see a picture of a cow. Most Easterners, on the other hand, will see a picture of a pasture.”

Rushkoff refers to this as “figure” and “ground.”

A shift in focus: from figure to ground

When educators talk about transferable skills, we often focus on the figure – the student.  We talk about assessment, measurement, and how students demonstrate these skills. 

What if, instead, we focused on the ground – the conditions in which students develop these skills? What if we started by talking about the ways in which educators can foster, nurture, and grow these skills? 

This shift seems especially important given current conditions: students are struggling. Now is not the time for more assessment. Now is the time to nurture and grow students’ strengths. 

That is just what some teachers in the Two Rivers Supervisory Union are doing. TRSU uses the Essential Skills & Dispositions framework as their transferable skills. Middle-level teachers there are doing a deep dive by reading more about each skill with two questions in mind: 

  1. What does it look like when kids are demonstrating this skill?
  2. What teacher moves create opportunities for students to grow in this skill?

Then they are committing to small steps to nurture that skill in their classroom.

What does it look like to foster communication? 

Let’s use communication as an example. With the questions above to guide them, the teachers read all about communication. Then they surfaced their answers on a Padlet. After discussing their responses as a group, each teacher committed to one specific next step to foster communication with their students. And finally, they brought examples of teacher moves and student work back to examine together and discuss.

First, let’s check our assumptions

I reached out to educator and equity advocate Rhiannon Kim to check our biases about our learners, and to glean some insight into what it means to foster communication. Here are some of her thoughts:

  • Wait time 
    • Be aware of your pacing to ensure that students are not trying to “keep up”
    • Encourage students to practice slowing down as well
  • Ensure modes of presentation that are accessible for Deaf and hard of hearing students, for non-speaking students, and for augmentative & alternative communication (AAC).
  • Recognize that students are not always ready to “be on.” Read more about this here.
  • Some students are more introverted than extroverted; in what ways can your classroom honor and recognize the different ways students communicate?

What we learned about teaching communication:

Communication has three main elements: expressive communication, receptive communication, and reflective communication. There is overlap, for sure, this is definitely a three-way Venn diagram situation! But let’s look at each element one by one.

Expressive communication is often what we think of when we say communication: it is the talking, writing, expressing part of the skill.

It involves many things including using appropriate body language, facial expressions, voice and tone. Communication skills show up when we engage in dialogue: asking questions, making comments, building on what others have said, and making connections. Communicating requires using appropriate vocabulary, evidence, and visuals to express our ideas. 

So how might we foster expressive communication in the classroom? 

One suggestion is to allow students to practice, play, or tinker with different modes of communication and then reflect on what worked best for them.  For example, they could try expressing the same ideas using verbal and non-verbal signals or spoken and written formats. Other communication methods to try: quotes, metaphors, flow charts, graphic organizers, sketchnotes, and non-linguistic representations

Some teachers intentionally engage students in dialogue using structures like Harkness, Socratic Seminar, or Protocols. Others are playing communication games with their learners:

Finally, many are building on the communication skills they are already practicing by having students consider their audience or using thoughtful prompts in advisory.  

Receptive communication skills are those that often get lumped together into “listening.” 

They include things like interpreting verbal and non-verbal signals, recognizing different perspectives, and drawing inferences. This is where meaning making happens, so learners have to grow their skills in listening to understand and maintaining engagement. They might also work on analyzing setting, context, and source in order to interpret messages. 

What might it look like to foster receptive communication skills in the classroom?

Educators are always modeling communication skills in the classroom, and modeling receptive communication and thinking out loud about it is a great way to foster communication in the classroom. Other ways to practice listening skills include using podcasts in the classroom or playing listening games:

Teachers are also thinking about analyzing communication skills used in picture books, class read alouds, current events, scientific articles, charts, and data with their students.

Reflective communication skills help us become better communicators and learners.

Learners demonstrate reflective communication skills when they consider how their communication choices impact others, when they monitor their communication and adapt it to better convey their message, or when they reflect on what is working well and what isn’t when they communicate. Another critical reflective communication skill: using feedback to improve.

In what ways might teachers grow the reflective communication skills of their students?

Some educators are being more intentional about how they engage the feedback cycle in order to foster communication skills. They are giving feedback for growth that is targeted, timely, and actionable and providing students with opportunities to reflect on the feedback. They are accepting and celebrating revisions. And they are soliciting feedback from students, reflecting on that feedback, and sharing their own growth with their classroom.

Other teachers are focused on building more opportunities for reflection. They are asking their students to consider: 

  • How is your work adapted for the audience, setting, and purpose?
  • What was easy?
  • Hard?
  • What next steps might you take?

And students are reflecting out loud, on their PLPs, or with their peers to further strengthen their communication skills. 

A teacher friend of mine says, “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.” This is wise counsel at any given time, but especially in the midst of a pandemic. What is one small shift you might make to focus on the ground and nurture your learners’ communication skills?

3 ways to bring positive emotional energy to your school

Positive emotional energy makes positive learning.

We need systems focused on creating positive and safe climates. We also need, as educators, to be focused on developing, building, and sustaining learning institutions brimming with positive emotions. That is an enormous task, but we can start by having some personal accountability for just ourselves.

  • What if our brains were co-dependent on our emotions?
  • What if negative experiences caused our brains to shut off?
  • And what if positive emotions and positive experiences actually caused our brains to develop and grow?

It turns out, all three may be true according to research released by Linda Darling-Hammond from Stanford University and the Learning Policy Initiative. The research basically finds that emotion and learning are tightly connected. Positive school relationships and positive school experiences actually activate neural pathways.

One key finding from the study is that “The brain’s capacity develops most fully when children and youth feel emotionally and physically safe; when they feel connected, supported, engaged, and challenged.”

When we work in schools or other learning environments, these spaces are full of energy and emotion.

Because of the complex work that is happening, the energy and emotion can contain struggle, stress, disequilibrium. It’s not always positive, and we can’t change that. We can’t control others, but we can be responsible for our own emotions and choices.

I know this is daunting stuff. But here are three ways to start putting positive emotions and climate in the front seat of your work.

bring positive emotional energy to learning

1. Build personal connection into your routines

It sounds simplistic, but it can make a huge difference. At my organization, we started a new “Connecting” routine at the start of every meeting day. We begin by sharing a personal response to something that is not school or work-related. For example, “What book is on your nightstand right now?” or “What winter tradition brings you joy”. Taking the time to connect with one another as humans before we get into the grittiness of work has made a huge difference in our satisfaction and productivity.

2. Keep a gratitude journal

Teaching and leading is exhausting and expending work. It’s important to acknowledge what is good and appreciate what you have. What’s more, it’s been proven that practicing gratitude changes your brain. Start with a daily 5 minute practice of writing down three things that you are grateful for at the end of the school day. They may be profound some days. Other days you might write, “I’m grateful for the fresh air that I could breathe during the fire drill” and leave it at that. It still works to appreciate and notice the positive.

(If you would indulge me, I’d love to hear from teachers who have used gratitude journals with their students.)

3. Put face-to-face human interactions first.

I’ve noticed a sad trend in our society as we focus on faster, better, more efficient systems.

We forget to enjoy basic human interaction.

I sometimes stand in line at a coffee shop as the staff jumps around to serve the drive-thru window, makes me wait, and ignores my human face. We’re all doing our best with our fast-paced jobs and lives, but I wish I could just have a moment with them to smile and say, “Hi!” When real humans are in front of us, let’s notice them and enjoy them. The emails and texts and online forms can all wait for a more solitary moment.

“Please take responsibility for the energy that you bring into this space”.

I heard this spoken by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor on an Oprah podcast while driving home from my night class. This neuroscientist experienced a massive stroke in 1996, and she had the unique opportunity to learn from her own damaged and healing brain. Dr. Taylor experienced something quite remarkable; because she had only a functioning left hemisphere of her brain, she lost the ability to understand speech and memory. She could only access her reality as a current, non-verbal moment in time. She essentially, could only perceive what she describes as “the energy” that another person emits in her presence.

In her hospital recovery, Dr. Taylor understood that she was extremely sensitive to the “energy”  of people who visited her, and that included doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff. Since this energy was all that she could perceive and sense, it was critical to her health and well-being. She ultimately created a poster or sign and placed  it outside of her room. It said,

“Please take responsibility for the energy that you bring into this space”.

When I think of what Dr. Taylor means by “energy”, I can best sum it up as the collective attitude, emotion, disposition, and behavior of an individual person. I think of energy as related to school climate. In many schools, we are sharing space with hundreds of other individuals. We are part of a system containing multitudes of emotions and attitudes, and each individual’s energy has an impact on one another. That contributes to the climate of the school, and we know that climate is more important than ever.

Because as Darling-Hammond’s research points out,

“Emotions and social relationships affect learning. Positive relationships, including trust in the teacher, and positive emotions, such as interest and excitement, open up the mind to learning.”


bring positive emotional energy

Please be mindful and responsible for the emotions that you create within your system. We can bring positive emotional energy to learning — both our own and that of our students.

How to craft questions for deeper learning

Question generation is key to inquiry, goal-setting, and negotiated curriculum. And asking the right kinds of questions pushes students further. They need to know how to ask questions that lead toward deeper learning and effective goal-setting. Meanwhile, teachers need to be skilled at asking questions in a way that leads to deeper learning *for all*.

It’s a small ask, right?

Let’s look at some strategies to help learners with this skill.

Continue reading How to craft questions for deeper learning

5 fresh ways to power up morning meetings


Morning meetings are the norm in many K-6 and K-8 schools in Vermont. They’re a great way to empower students to find their voices and build community. Now here are five ways to organize and structure morning meetings to build transferable and socio-emotional skills (and build those strong relationships that matter so much!):

(Not familiar with Morning Meetings? Here is an overview of the parts from Responsive Classroom. Go on. We’ll wait here and save your seat…)

(Back? Yay! And:)

1. Different seats each day

Sounds corny, and tons of middle school students will groan loudly, but it works. Different seats promote students getting to know each other, expanding friendships and connections, and supporting cross-gender friendships. Yes, cross-gender friendships, 7th graders! They are doable!

True, it’s not giving students choice, but at the beginning of the year we’ve all got these butterflies about new schools, new grades, new… people. Yipes!

So let’s help everyone out at the beginning with some structure.

I used to put out popsicle sticks each morning with student names around the circle for this purpose, particularly at the beginning of the year. This also helped reduce any arguments about who gets which cushion, couch seat, or beanbag! I decide! *muahahahaha* Plus: you can support flexible seating by giving students the choice to stand, sit, flop or yoga pose it out.

2. “What’s up in the world?”

There is so much happening in our world, especially lately. It is complicated, stressful, and unnerving — especially for students. And especially for those students who might feel unsafe or targeted. Or those who have heard bits and pieces of what is happening, but are unsure what is true and why it’s all happening. Heck, half the time all this unsettling news makes *me* wonder the exact same thing.

And that is where the weekly practice of a morning meeting agenda of What’s Up in the World? can help.

Once a week in our morning meeting, we would pose that question on the whiteboard. Students would sign up for topics they wished to discuss.

In each meeting, one student would take on the role of “fact-checker”. When we weren’t sure of the details, we would check a few trusted sources to find out the facts. We didn’t assume, or discuss without reviewing the facts when we could find them. Another student would be a “definer” and look up words that folks didn’t know and read the definitions out to the class.

Resources for middle school news:

While discussing world events, I would keep the conversation on track and developmentally appropriate, by steering away from the close details and images of violent events. Sometimes I had to jump in and reframe or refocus, or ask a question. We relied on our norms for the class that we created together to help guide us. But what happened regularly was that students were hungry for a space to discuss world events in a safe and supported way. These conversations changed minds. Expanded perspectives. And provided a place to digest and begin to understand the world.

Need norms? Proctor School’s Courtney Elliott for the win:

Resources for difficult conversations about current events

I wonder how many potential misconceptions, half-truths, and partially baked biases and stereotypes about world events we uncovered in these weekly sessions. This work felt vital and important.

3. The State of the Class

Right around the time of the state of the union address one year, my students and I joked about the state of our class and giving a speech about it. And then we had an idea. What if we check in on the state of the class each week?

You know, when students say something like: another student has taken my charging cord! Or: my jacket is buried under everyone’s snow stuff! Or: I don’t like the way our class behaved with the music substitute teacher. We had to solve these problems together.

So, we added a weekly agenda item called the state of the class.

Anyone could bring an issue up about how the class was treating each other or functioning, and we would all problem solve and come up with a plan together. That way everyone was accountable to everyone else and we had time to develop solutions that everyone was in support of.

The state of the class centered in students and the their perceptions of problems and solutions, giving students a model for democracy, citizenship and action.

I’ve seen Warren Elementary School, in Warren VT, do this very powerfully, in a way that centers listening, and relationship-building, in their “Town Meetings”. When one student brought up a current need, and explained its impact on him, you could have heard a pin drop. Everyone in the room was invested in that student’s need. And THAT, people, THAT is the room we want.

4. Learning the morning message

Another way to promote learning and growth in morning meeting is: The Message. You can either have students find the errors in a morning message, or have a chart or table to review a recent skill lesson or concept that the class has learned. Often, this was formative information for me. I could tell when a class struggled to summarize a text, a math problem, or concept. Morning messages were instant feedback on emotional states, current topics, and the daily life of the class.

This is an activity for a few weeks in, but you can begin with a word puzzle on the board, a phrase in a foreign language, a rebus, or a poem made of song titles. Be creative and goofy, and your students will follow.

For schools focusing on socio-emotional learning competencies, morning messages can be a great way to explore these very concepts. Students can respond to prompt on the white board or digitally, and then read and discuss responses during morning meeting.

At the middle and high school school level, many schools are using the Circle of Power and Respect. These meetings follow a different format but have many similarities to morning meetings, and can be huge for building community.

5. Now shift it to a student-led space

Finally — this is going to take a hot minute, so maybe toss it on the to-do list — we all know where we want this work to lead. Once students learn the parts of morning meeting (greeting, agenda, sharing, game/activity) and know how to do each one in an inclusive way, they then can begin leading morning meetings. This was after lots of modeling and practice. (Think: late fall. Build those morning meeting muscles!)

Each week, we had two students lead the morning meeting. We rotated all students through this role and gave everyone a chance to lead. For some, this was hard. They might have never had a chance to lead a group, and this gave them practice and support grow their communication, citizenship, listening and leading skills. As the teacher I would support students to participate in this role, sometimes giving sentence stems or tips to students who might have needed it. This was a safe space to practice student voice and leadership for all students.

How do you structure morning meetings to empower students?

We’ve seen a ton of lovely photos from morning meeting already this year, shared on instagram or twitter, but still: we want to hear from YOU. What are your favorite go-to activities for getting morning meeting off on the right foot?


How to keep the holiday spirit all year long

A holiday post in January?

While this may not seem on-theme, I’m motivated to write about teaching inclusive holidays after Christmas has passed. That is actually my point – we need to teach and celebrate holidays with equality if we’re going to do it at all. And let’s be honest, any teacher knows it is near impossible to avoid Santa art, cookie exchanges and gift swaps completely. And maybe we don’t need to. Maybe, the answer is more parties. I like this idea.

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This year I had been dodging the Secret Santa question for weeks, struggling (like usual) over how to respond to student interest and make sure I was creating an inclusive space for all. If anyone loves cookies, themed costumes and parties it’s me – but what about the students who don’t celebrate Christmas? How does it feel to be in an inescapable Christmas bubble at school? And what message does it send to others if I ignore that nagging uncomfort?

As I struggled with this dilemma, Teaching Tolerance posted this guide to the holidays.

I find it invaluable to read justice-focused education publications regularly – they give me the courage, reminders and ideas to teach for equity. Teaching Tolerance’s guide did just that, but I didn’t have enough time to act on all my ideas. And that’s why I’m writing a holiday post in January. Because, as teachers, we need more time to discuss, mull and prepare – and because I plan to keep celebrating holidays (all of them) throughout 2019.

Here’s what I did, and what I hope to do.

I hope it helps students spread inclusivity in your school and spurs new ideas. Please share them!

  1. I started by teaching the respect curriculum from Teaching Tolerance. Though this was meant for younger grades, my 7th & 8th graders had a lot to say about respect and creating a contract was definitely important as we began to discuss diversity.
  2. I printed out photographs from winter holidays around the world and taped them on to large pieces of white paper. Students did a gallery walk and discussed what they saw in each photo. They wrote key words and noticings down on the papers. After everyone had seen the pictures I added in captions that explained the holidays. We did another gallery walk and students added to their noticings.
  3. Next, students brainstormed similarities between all the pictures holidays.
  4. We then created decorations that represented these similarities. My big idea was to have students plan a party and decorations using the similar words. However, we ended up not having much time to plan activities, food, etc. Instead, students crafted beautiful decorations from the similarities that we hung around the room and they brought in snacks to share.
  5. My next step idea is for students to revisit this by researching holidays around the world and creating a calendar for the remainder of the school year. (I also think this would be a great time to bring in some maps/geography work!) Then, small committees can plan parties for each holiday as they occur on the calendar. I also want to integrate holidays into my curriculum as appropriate. For example, when I’m teaching about the Civil Rights Movement in March I hope students can revisit Kwanzaa and research its fascinating history as part of this movement.

The possibilities are endless and my hope is that we can have student-driven parties all year long that celebrate holidays from many different cultures, religions and people. In this way all students can celebrate holidays that are important to them, while learning more about those that are different than their own traditions.

May we party all year, for equality.

How do you keep the holiday spirit throughout the year?

16 tips for writing a great blog post

#10 will shock and appall you…

Here are 16 best practices we try to follow as writers on this blog. Many of them stem from two key factors: one, people online now have the attention span of lint, and two, search engine algorithms are really picky about what they deem “quality content”. And you want to keep people reading all about the amazing work going on in your schools!

So let’s jump right in with those guidelines.

1. Use short paragraphs and short sentences. As of 2015, when we’re online, we officially have less of an attention span than goldfish. Goldfish: nine seconds. Humans with multiple browser tabs open: 8.7 seconds.

2. Break up blocks of text with images or videos. It’s the attention span thing. You can reset your reader’s attention span by letting them off the hook on reading. Let them relax their eyes looking at something that’s not text, along with some restful white space.

tips for writing great blogposts
Photo credit: pixabay

3. White space is your friend. For both print and online reading, human eyes like white space. It’s a nice way to rest your eye muscles as you consume a large amount of text.

4. Use frequent subheadings.

Even if a reader’s skimming your post, at least they’re still reading.

5. Feel free to write Listicles. (We know, we know, but it’s a term recognized by the AP Stylebook.) They take less time to consume than actual articles and are super popular.

6. Bold key terms. A lot of your readers are skimming. We’re guessing right about now you yourself have started skimming to see what other items are included in this lovely reference guide. Don’t lie; we’re just excited you didn’t run off to check twitter. But bold terms make it possible to skim lists in a way that’s similar to what subheadings do for regular articles.

7. Don’t ever do the clickbait thing with lists. You know the thing I’m talking about: where you promise N things about a topic, and assure the reader that [thing N-minus-five] “will shock and appall you…” For one, search engines have totally caught onto this and it lowers your overall quality assessment as a resource. But for two, it’s gross.

8. End your blogpost with a question to spur reader reflection. This works especially well if you frame the question in such a way that you explicitly invite the reader into a conversation with you. Say you’ve just written a kick-butt post on 16 ways to incorporate live snails into content units. A great way to end that post might look like: “What are some ways you’ve used snails to liven up your content?” You’re inviting readers to tell you their stories.

9. Create a connection with your reader by addressing them directly in the second person. (“You’ve tried every trick in the book to keep students engaged. Well, here’s something you might not have tried: clowns.“)

10. Stick to one topic per blogpost, and feel free to go deep with it. Blogposts can quickly get out of hand if you try to address too many topics or ideas at once. Remember, you can always create a series of thematically linked blogposts.

11. Use active voice. Do not let yourself get used by passive voice.

12. Feel free to take and include screenshots. Rubrics and lesson plans are great for breaking up long screens full of text. Even a Google Doc makes a nice screenshot for teachers who would really love to get their hands on those rubrics and lesson plans.

The rule of thumb is that you can include screenshots of webpages as long as you reference where they’re from (or link back to them) and don’t take shots of paywall- or firewall-protected content.

13. Present your information independent of media type. Not everyone watches videos. Not everyone listens to audio pieces. The default internet stream is still text, with multimedia adding to the information presented in the text. So if you bring in a video, make sure you’re summarizing the relevant information in the video in your text. Not just:

“Watch the video above and notice what Katy says at the 3:10 mark. Powerful!”

For everyone who skips videos, the information is lost. In a case like this, you’d probably want to take the quote, type it up, and set it as a blockquote.

14. If you link to a document that’s not a webpage, indicate what it is in parentheses after the link. No one likes surprise downloads. Example: How Excited Are You For The New Year? An Exercise for Teams (.pdf)

Now, we realize you’re just skimming at this point, but if you take only two things from this page, it should be this:

15. Be nice

16. Practice accessibility

Nice means inclusive and respectful. The Sum of Us (.pdf) is a wonderful comprehensive guide to intersectional, respectful and inclusive language use. We all try to avoid language that negatively reference people’s ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, economic backgrounds, physical ability and citizenship statuses. But we’re all carrying implicit, unpacked biases, so it’s useful to have touchstones and to just keep niceness present.

Accessible means that our readers should be able to access all our content regardless of physical ability. Writing for screen readers, transcribing audio and captioning videos is an equity issue. It’s also an issue when we’re choosing what types of examples, links and other media to include with our posts.

Accessibility also includes other less well-known strategies, such as:

  • Don’t use color to indicate semantic differences. (“Click the red button for flexible pathways, and the green button for flexible classrooms.”)
  • Include three or four words in your links. This way visitors using motion-support devices can easily move to your link.
  • Maximize the difference between text and background colors. Black text on a white background always works. White text on a black or dark background works for very short pieces of text. Pale pink text on a medium orange background is illegible to pretty much everyone.
  • Use alt-tags. Alt-tags are descriptions of images that are read out by screen readers. They’re fairly crucial.
  • Twitter has a built-in screen reader tool. So if you include a photo or image, you can write a quick description of it for screen readers. Here’s how to turn that feature on.

What other tips have you come across in creating quality blogposts?

3 tools for exploring character with middle schoolers

Who am I and who do I want to be in the world?

tools for exploring character and identityWhat do I stand for? What is the good life and how can I live it?

These are questions that most middle schoolers (and adults)-hopefully- grapple with at some point. And this philosophizing usually begins in middle school. Which means that middle school is prime time for guiding students through an exploration of their identity, values and character strengths. And spoiler alert:  they think it’s pretty cool, too!


My students made visual representations of some of the character traits as we explored their meanings. Doesn’t he look curious?

My school year typically started off with a lot of community building and exploration of self.  We used things like learning style quizzes and interest inventories to gather data about ourselves. We shared our data with each other and used it to understand who we were as a community and how we could support ourselves and each other in learning.

This exploration laid the foundation for our personalized learning environment: we all knew that Simon was more focused when he stood and that Ana needed to hear and read something to really get it.

As I’ve gathered resources and tools for this work, I’ve come across a few that are too good not to share!

Flexibility means moving in unexpected directions with grace. (And it can make your face red, but just go with it!)

1. Let It Ripple Film Studio’s Science of Character film

This little film is a GIFT!  In 8 minutes it inspires, explains, and instigates discussion and curiosity about character.

Don’t believe me?  Check it out for yourself.

I used this film to launch our work on character traits.  Cloud Films also provides some great supporting resources for digging deeper including discussion guides.  I’m especially fond of the Periodic Table of Character Strengths. We used this table to explore some new vocabulary and make connections to our literature studies.

Think all of this sounds good?  Let It Ripple also provides resources for National Character Day, which happens annually in September.  The timing is really perfect!


2. Character Growth Card

This lovely little PDF was a game changer in my classroom.

This little form narrows down and explains 8 main character traits (grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, curiosity, and zest). Once my students had a clear idea of what each trait was, they assessed themselves on each trait on a scale of 1-7. Then they gathered feedback from others- the form suggested that students ask 5 teachers to assess them for each trait, but for a couple of reasons we found it better to seek input from both other teachers and peers.

Once they had their feedback from 5 other people, they averaged those 5 scores and then compared the average to their self-assessment.

Check out how zesty she is!

Then, using that data, they identified one character trait to grow and develop.  And it wasn’t necessarily their lowest score- it really came down to which trait they wanted to work on.

This provided a great opportunity to connect to their PLP– my students did a little research on their trait, developed a SMART goal, and documented both the goal and their progress in their PLP.  One student, for example, wanted to work on gratitude.  See her plan, below.

This little gem was created by Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab (see #3, below), but it doesn’t seem to be available there anymore.  Never fear though, it’s still available in a few other places online, like here and here.  If you like it, you should definitely save it somewhere in case it ever disappears completely!


3. Character Lab

Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab website provides a wealth of fabulous -FREE- resources. Based on the aforementioned 8 main character traits (grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, curiosity, and zest) this site offers a variety of tools for both teachers and students. These tools are new, so I didn’t get a chance to use them with my students, but they look great.  Dig deeper into each trait and learn about the ways they show up in our lives. And be sure to check out the Playbooks, which help you and your students explore and grow these traits.

Angela Duckworth is probably the biggest champion for grit; her TED talk on the subject has over 14 million views, and classroom across the country have adopted variations of her work along with Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets. There is great value in this work, but we also need to be mindful of the ways that equity, race, and socioeconomic status can impact this view.  We want this work to empower — not disempower — our students.

How have you helped your students develop their character?

Students blogging for an authentic audience

Getting connected: online & with community members

student-led short story unitWhat if there was a way to spend less time grading your students’ writing, while also providing a valuable writing experience for them?

What if there was a way to bring interested, wise community members into your classroom on a regular basis?  I think I discovered a way: student blogs with readers from the local community.

Continue reading Students blogging for an authentic audience

What if you could have Town Meeting Day every week?

A Vermont tradition comes to the classroom

Town Meeting Day is a Vermont tradition: once a year, everyone in towns across the state pack into the town hall and talk face-to-face about the issues affecting their community.

But Warren Elementary School, in Warren VT, holds Town Meetings on a weekly basis, using the tradition to cultivate citizenship and community.

Continue reading What if you could have Town Meeting Day every week?

How making supports service learning

Responsible and involved citizenship in Grand Isle

a model for service learningWe’re looking at how maker-centered learning and makerspace activities can help support students in developing Vermont’s five transferable skills. We’ve looked at clear and effective communication, self-direction, and creative and practical problem-solving

In this post, we recount EMMA’s visit to Grand Isle School, where teachers and students used making as part of service learning and provided evidence of responsible and involved citizenship.

Continue reading How making supports service learning

Maker-centered learning and transferable skills:

Making as evidence of problem-solving

makerspaces and project-based learningIt’s quite easy to see how making often takes students on new journeys, where their imagination provides opportunities to exercise the transferable skill of creative and practical problem solving. 

After a visit by EMMA, students at Malletts Bay School, in Colchester VT, were inspired to use their new skills to create an interactive display for their whole school community.

Continue reading Maker-centered learning and transferable skills:

Making as evidence of self-direction

The Maker Movement & Transferable Skills, Part 2

makerspaces and project-based learningWe’re looking at how maker-centered learning provides opportunities for students to develop the Vermont Agency of Education’s five Transferable Skills, starting with Clear and Effective Communication.

Today we continue our series with more examples. Our mobile making lab’s visits brought forth evidence of students taking charge of their learning. Students became more and more self-directed as their capacity and confidence around making grew. This was particularly evident during EMMA’s visits to the so-called “Northeast Kingdom,” the most rural area of Vermont.

Continue reading Making as evidence of self-direction

The Maker Movement and transferable skills

Making as evidence of transferable skills around Vermont

makerspaces and project-based learningDuring the past year, EMMA has visited schools around Vermont to fuel the conversation about maker-centered learning.

As we reflected on each of EMMA’s visits, we continually noticed that maker centered learning provided evidence of students applying cross-disciplinary transferable skills.

Continue reading The Maker Movement and transferable skills

J-Term at Hazen Union

Personalized, proficiency-based PBL or bust

three pillars of personalized learningDuring a faculty meeting in late December of 2016, educators and staff talked about the need to provide personalized learning options for students at their small, rural Vermont school. They wanted do so in a way that  honored the students’ need for passion-based, independent projects, as well as the desire of the faculty and staff to provide structured supports.

But what could that look like in action?
Continue reading J-Term at Hazen Union

Build personal connections in teacher advisory

“Every student gets greeted at the start of every day.”

build personal connections in teacher advisoryAt Peoples Academy Middle Level, educators have taken the role of teacher advisory, or TA, to a whole new level. They conduct their advisory to build personal connections with their students. As a result, at PAML, advisory has become a very special thing.

But how can you build personal connections in advisory? Let’s find out.

Continue reading Build personal connections in teacher advisory

Study National Parks with digital tools

Student-created virtual park tours

With access to online and tablet-based tools for digital curation and content creation, students can research the history, challenges and attractions of one of our nation’s 58 (!) National Parks. Under the rubric of planning a visit to them, students can answer an essential and timeless question: What features make National Parks special and worth saving?

It’s almost as good as being there. Especially if you’re trapped in snow and/or don’t have your driver’s license yet. Let’s roll!

Continue reading Study National Parks with digital tools

Exploring digital citizenship as a form of literacy

7th graders learn video as reflection tool

digital citizenship and students onlineWhen I sat down to work with my students on digital citizenship and literacy, I wanted to do something different. These are 7th graders coming from lots of different schools, different levels of understanding, different exposure to the concepts of digital citizenship and I was trying to think of some way to have them understand digital citizenship as something more than no online bullying and no plagiarism. They’ve heard that before.

I wanted to really get them to see how digital citizenship was part of their everyday lives – now – and to make them want to delve into it.

Continue reading Exploring digital citizenship as a form of literacy