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What Matters Most Now: Lesson One – Slow Down

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

The Crisis

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

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

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

Unpacking the Pandemic’s Impact

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

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

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

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

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

Adjusting the Lens

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

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

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

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

Lesson One: Slow Down

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

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

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

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

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

Could be we have snack breaks in and outside.

Perhaps it means we make time for recess every day.

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

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

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

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

Everyone benefits

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

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

This is the first education lesson from the pandemic.

The Teacher Leaders Hero’s Journey

Teacher Leaders are agents of innovative school change

Situated in the heart center of education, teacher leaders are the true heroes of the education system.

Your vision and passion lead the quest for deeper learning and transformation. Your intuition and experience guide your path.

But what happens when you see the way to bring more meaningful and relevant learning experiences to your students, yet challenges and obstacles litter your path?

Maybe you’ve been there?

I have. So have many of the amazing teachers I get to work with.  So along the way, I’ve been collecting some tools and tips to pave the way for triumph (think: secret treasure map). I want to share them with you here.

To be clear, when I call you a hero I don’t mean to call you a savior or a tireless model of perfection. What I mean is more along the lines of what Cornelius Minor describes in his book, We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be: an imperfect and weary change-agent who is working to improve your own teaching, schooling, and the world. Heroes don’t always get it right the first time, and they get tired and hungry. But they rise again. And again.

So, teacher leaders, get ready for your quest. We’ve got your back.

Act 1: The Call to Adventure

For every hero who is called to adventure, the quest must be worthy.  The ring called Frodo, the ocean called Moana, the Force called Luke, and home called Dorothy.  These aren’t small potatoes: in order to leave the comfort of their warm, safe hearths, the call must be worthy. Much will be at stake.

For educators, we are perpetually reinventing our curriculum and our approach to better meet the needs of our students. I don’t think I ever taught the same unit twice – or at least the same way I’d taught it the previous time. It can be exhausting to be in a constant state of reinvention, yet at the same time, it can also be invigorating.

Kinda sounds like a call to adventure, right?

Alena Wehof and Sarah Marcus teach science at Proctor High School and were early adopters of a proficiency-based learning system. After a couple of years of implementing self-paced proficiency-based learning in their classrooms, they were beginning to feel the constraints of their school’s bell schedule.  Their call came in the form of a question: “How could a flexible schedule, within a school day, create opportunities for personalization and help students meet their graduation proficiencies?”

This question launched them into their own quest and has been a rich and deeply rewarding experience. But it hasn’t been without its own riddles or labyrinths either.
We can learn a lot from their quest, but before we begin,

What’s calling you to adventure, teacher leader?

Have you been wondering what it would be like if you moved part of your curriculum outdoors? Are you considering what would happen if you let students take on responsibility for running the daily routines of your classroom? Thinking about how those Genius Hour projects are going really well and you’re grappling with how to make more of the learning time that self-directed?
What is it that’s got you thinking, ‘what if…’? C’mon, tell us, teacher leaders!

Act 2: Lions and Tigers and Bears Oh My

Setting out on your adventure is always exciting at first. Your idea is glimmering, waiting for implementation, just ahead.  The path is paved with yellow bricks that seem to sing to you as you set out…

And then.

Trials and tribulations. Unforeseen obstacles. Caves. Dragons. Poppy fields. Riddles. Know unknowns. Unknown unknowns.

For Alena and Sarah, they took a wrong turn in the labyrinth when they proposed a schedule change to their colleagues. While their colleagues were open to new ideas, they were perplexed by this suggestion.
Wehof and Marcus shared their quest at High Tech High's Deeper Learning conference.
Because Sarah and Alena were deep into developing a student self-paced curriculum, they could clearly see how shifting time could benefit students. Yet a schedule change wasn’t high on their colleagues’ priority list: Sarah & Alena were trying to solve a problem that their colleagues weren’t experiencing.

Because a schedule shift would impact everybody, and not everyone was yet on board, Alena and Sarah recognized they need to take a different path in their pursuit of personalized learning. And they needed everybody on board.

Out of their Hero’s Knapsack, they pulled…

Oh, if it was only that easy!

But I do have a tip for you here, and it comes from educational coaching expert Elena Aguilar: When you come up against unforeseen obstacles in the form of collegial hesitation or resistance, you need to Mind the Gap.  That is, you need to try to figure out what’s getting in the way- is it a capacity gap: is time (or energy or resources) a limiting factor? Is it a knowledge gap: does everyone has the information and understanding they need to carry the work forward? A skill gap? A will gap?

Aguilar’s Mind the Gap is an amazing resource to unearth what might be getting in the way- because knowing is half the battle. (Thanks, GI Joe.) Seriously though, if we can figure out why we’re not all on the same page then we have a better chance of figuring out how to get there. If it’s a capacity gap we need to find resources, if it’s a skill gap then we need training. You get the idea.

Oh, and here’s a #protip:

Aguilar warns us that a will gap (i.e. resisting the change) is often a cover for another type of gap! So if you find yourself battling resistance, use your Compassionate Heart Power and dig deeper: empathize. Put yourself in others’ shoes and ask questions with kindness.
Sometimes things feel out of our control and they may very well be, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have power. Some problems feel unbeatable- they make you want to run away!  Trolls! Enter: the Spheres of Control. This framework can help you see how you might approach these problems: what do you control? What you can influence? And…then there’s everything else. The magic here is that once you know where you can have the most impact you can focus your energies there.

What’s in your way?

When you think about bringing your innovation to life, what stops you? What’s getting in your way? Which gaps are at play? What systemic barriers exist? Where do you have the most control (or autonomy)?

Act 3: Redemption in Community

So, our heroes Alena and Sarah, instead of forging ahead on their own decided to form an….er… fellowship– that is a band of merry and hearty travelers with whom they would pursue their quest, for meaningful and personalized learning for all students, together.

They took a few steps back with their colleagues and realized that there was a constellation of knowledge, skill, and capacity gaps at play in their school’s implementation of personalized learning. They needed to slow down and learn and reflect together.

Fortunately, they had a few other tools already in their knapsacks. It’s one thing to have a meeting, but achieving true collaboration takes intentional planning. It also helps to use clear structures and processes to scaffold conversations.  Enter protocols and norms.

Alena had recently completed a course on the use of protocols and the facilitation of adult work. So for their next move, Alena and Sarah convened their school’s leadership team and trained their colleagues to use these structures in their already established PLCs.

Proctor Elementary School teacher leaders participate in a ‘Chalk Talk’ protocol.

Think these sound like just what you need, teacher leader? Learn more about protocols here: Getting Started with Protocols and Using Protocols for Equity.

The results have been overwhelmingly positive. The staff are now engaged in rich discussions about personalized learning and working together to implement incremental changes that move the whole school closer to full implementation. School culture is stronger.

While their quest isn’t over, they have found progress through fellowship – collaboration. It really is true that we’re stronger together.

Who are your traveling companions?

So the magic here was truly in collaboration.  Who are the folks- near and far- who can join you in this quest? While you’ll need your colleagues to bring big change to your school, reaching out to kindred spirits can bring you sustenance and inspiration.

Find your own personal learning network on Twitter, or consider TIIE’s Learning Lab.

We’re in this together.

Coda: Hero’s Knapsack

This, dear heroes, might be the most important gift I can bestow upon you as you embark on your quest.

Designed by the Tarrant Institute’s own superhero, Susan Hennessey, this Book Creator digital flipbook curates the #bestof the Hero’s Knapsack. Gaps and Spheres are in here, as well as a ton of other amazing resources that make working together with our colleagues in pursuit of powerful outcomes for all students…. a piece of cake. Or, at least, you know, manageable.

The Hero's Journey: Teacher Leaders as Agents of Change in School Transformation
Click here to launch the Hero’s Knapsack flipbook!

So are you ready?

Get out there! You can do it, teacher leaders! We’ve got your back.

Um, for real, reach out if you need help on your quest.

Go, hero!

And thank you.

Trauma-informed personalized learning

Seeing back-to-school activities & personalized learning through the lens of trauma-informed classroom practices

I had a eureka! moment this summer.

We are so lucky when our critical thinking converges ideas in ways previously unrealized. It transformationally reframes our thinking. Those moments enrich ourselves and arrive with the promise that our private learning should have public relevance to make others’ lives more just, joyful, and equitable.

I want to share a recent moment of reflection, even as I just begin my learning journey at the intersection of trauma-informed classroom practices and personalized learning.

I’ve been involved in thousands of conversations with educators from dozens of schools about personalized learning, but I have never before viewed those conversations through a trauma-informed lens. And, I don’t recall anyone overtly bringing those conversations to the table.

This past summer, I was fresh off a year with middle-level educators to continue evolving our school’s approaches to Personalized Learning. One of our final accomplishments of last year was a newly redesigned Personal Expression Process to engage students and faculty in a scaffolded inquiry into self-knowledge and understanding, focused on both individual and shared identities.

IG for PD

Somewhere in those following summer months, I serendipitously connected with education consultant Colleen Wilkinson by first stumbling across her “‘Back to School’ Activities that can Traumatize Students and What to do Instead” Instagram post. 

In her succinct half-dozen images, she caught my attention: full-stop; she provoked educators to be critical caretakers as they consider and construct back-to-school prompts. 

In an exchange with Wilkinson, she acknowledged that much of the missteps she notices are done unknowingly,

“Teachers are creative professionals who often desire to meet the many complex needs of their students without understanding the impact of some common activities.”

She also expanded on the post, explaining common missteps, why they might not work, and what to try instead.

Here is what she shared:

“Write about what you did this summer”

Why it might not work: For many reasons this question causes students to pause. The classroom is new, the teacher is new and the classroom sense of relationship and community is not yet established. Students may feel unwilling to share if they are concerned that the social hierarchy that is established if they share less than a “dream summer”.  Fabrications run rampant in this activity. Students may have experienced abuse, loss of family, removal, or other primary trauma, causing them to feel hyper-focused on those negative experiences. 

What to try instead: An easy substitution would be a writing assignment focused on the future, their hopes and dreams, or imaginations. Such assignments tell us a great deal about the child’s inner life without causing a fear-based reaction. 


“Origin/history of your name” activities  

Why it might not work: Imagine being named after your abuser. Or having been adopted or in foster care with no one to ask for an accurate history of your name. Students who have been teased for their name may also feel a particular dislike for this activity. 

What to try instead: Substitution activities would depend on the curriculum goal of the activity, but might include introducing yourself to 2 other students and telling them something about yourself or name acronyms. In addition, teachers should always work to correctly pronounce student names and avoid asking for permission to call students by nicknames or other names to make it “easier”.


“Family or Personal Timelines”

Why it might not work: Children’s lives may include loss of parents, foster care, multiple removals, multiple adoptions, memories of negative events. 

What to try instead: Instead, teach about timelines with more concrete options such as a timeline of a school day or year, or the timeline of a historical figure.


“Baby Picture Requests”

Why it might not work: Children may not have access to baby photos. Families may not have the time and money to print photos. Picture quality can contribute to negative classroom social hierarchies. 

What to try instead: Instead, draw a picture, use baby animal pictures, or reimagine the activity.  


“Family Trees”

Why it might not work: Children of single parents, adopted or foster families may have complex connections, and modern families may simply not look like the historical tree structure. 

What to try instead: An alternative activity could be to share “people who care about me” that could include anyone from a parent to a neighbor, or family trees of historical figures. Find other ways to highlight examples of non-traditional family structures to ensure students are seeing positive and supportive ideas.


Asking about students’ summers, weekends, out-of-school learning, names, family timelines, and baby pictures, are prompts that on the surface seem perfectly typical to many classrooms yet are impossible to answer for some students who may be, or have been, in foster care or adopted. Additionally, when these prompts are given without choice, they push students to be vulnerable on our terms, not theirs and can trigger recollections of traumatic events, re-traumatized students who deserve nothing but our very best care. 

Two things struck me when I read through Wilkinson’s post and still strike me now: 

  1. It made me realize just how common a practice it is for teachers to, with no intention of doing so, harm vulnerable children with common classroom activities. I have not talked to a single veteran teacher who has said they have not put one of these prompts in front of whole classes of students.
  2. I was gifted a new lens to reexamine countless conversations about learning and to be more critical about future ones.

While my learning arc has just begun, and I now engage in self-work toward deeper understanding, that eureka moment has clarified this personal, working truth:

When we invite our students to consider self-knowledge and understanding, we must do so knowing that we have an immeasurable responsibility to not further marginalize and re-traumatize our most vulnerable students.

That statement seems overly obvious, but classroom upon classroom is unknowingly attempting to connect with students only to push some of them further away, further marginalizing the very students who most need positive connections.

While a few decades old, the landmark 1998 Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs) brought to light “the relationship of health risk behavior and disease in adulthood to the breadth of exposure to childhood emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, and household dysfunction during childhood,” and it provided a yardstick for just how pervasive these reported experiences are for children. ACEs found that nearly 52% of adults reported an adverse childhood experience, as outlined below, and 6.2% of adults reported at least four adverse childhood experiences:

  • Abuse:
    • Emotional abuse
    • Physical abuse
    • Sexual abuse
  • Household Challenges:
    • Mother treated violently
    • Substance abuse in the household
    • Mental illness in the household
    • Parental separation or divorce
    • Incarcerated household member
  • Neglect:
    • Emotional neglect
    • Physical neglect

(“About the CDC-Kaiser Study.” CDC)

From 2016, The Child & Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative reports that 46% of children, nationally and a similar percentage in Vermont, have experienced one or more adverse childhood experiences from the list of 9 ACEs. (CAHMI)

While it’s an imperfect correlation, we know many students are disempowered, and we need to inform our design of education with that in mind.

Applying a trauma-informed lens to personalized learning:

There are so many getting-to-know-you activities, like the ones Wilkinson shared, that educators use every year as a means for organizing student inquiry into self-knowledge and understanding. It’s an honest, yet uncritical, attempt to capture some of the “Critical Elements” of the Personal Learning Plan, such as a student’s own understanding of strengths, abilities, and skills; core principles; career assessment and/or learning styles inventory; and academic achievement.

As I reconsider potential learning opportunities to scaffold inquiry into self-knowledge, I wish to give students a choice:

  • to inspire creativity,
  • to imagine empowering hopes and dreams, and
  • to determine how and to what degree they allow themselves to be vulnerable.

Alex Shevrin, who works extensively in the field of trauma-informed education, has this to say about trauma and personalized learning:

“A great promise of PLP and personalized learning, in general, is that it offers students a chance to be in control of creating their own story, on their terms. So to me, the takeaway here is that, rather than providing limited choices for students that may dredge up traumatic memory or current traumatic situations, consider how students are truly given the choice to let themselves be known in the way that they want to be. It’s also worth noting that for some kids, it’s not safe to let adults or peers get to know you, and keeping a distance might be a survival mechanism.

“Similarly, some kids really struggle with the ‘strengths-based’ part of PLPs because they have a damaged self-concept and don’t know how to see themselves as a person with strengths. I think that the biggest thing for teachers is: don’t shy away from the complexity — there is no magical “trauma-informed getting to know you prompt,” it’s just about applying what we know about trauma to our classroom design. And challenge yourself to provide many options when it comes to students sharing personal things, while always giving the power to the student to choose the level of vulnerability.”

How do you approach trauma-informed personalized learning?

Additional Resources:


What does integrated studies look like at Flood Brook?

At Flood Brook School, middle level teachers believe in an integrated approach to curriculum delivery. Four years into implementing an integrated (science & social studies), multiage (grades 6-8) approach towards units of study, Charlie Herzog responded to student concerns with a focused inquiry cycle asking this important question: How might student attitudes towards integrated units of study shift with increased personalization and when projects are moved to the front of the learning experience? The following chronicle’s Charlie’s year-long experimentation with adjusting his team’s approach to increase student engagement:

“For me, personalization is about giving students as much agency in their learning as possible.”

–Susan Hennessey & Bill Rich



Flood Brook School, in Londonderry, Vermont is a K-8 school; we currently have 82 students in our grades 6-8 middle school. I teach sixth-grade language arts in the morning, and integrated science/social studies during the afternoons.Students rotate through three integrated units of study throughout the year. Integrated studies are scheduled four afternoons per week. Each class is 90-minutes long.

Six classroom teachers and a Library/Media Specialist comprise the middle school teaching team. Classroom teachers have divided into partnerships, each responsible for writing one, integrated, project-based unit of study. Each unit runs from 6-8 weeks. Students cycle among the three units over the course of the year.

This is our first year employing this “divide & conquer” approach. During the prior three years, the entire team collaboratively wrote nine, integrated units.

The typical unit plan structure looked like the following.

  • Students rotating among teachers for 3-4 weeks. Each teacher providing a particular science or social studies content focus along the way.
  • Content delivery varied from the “Sage On the State” approach to more student inquiry driven.
  • An impressive but possibly problematic amount of Cornell note-taking.
  • Student projects as the culminating experience of every unit. Typically, the following have always been a feature of the logistics involved in planning culminating projects.
    • Groups of three or larger must be multiage. Students form their own groups and partnerships.
    • Partnerships may or may not be multiage.
    • Students have been given limited choice regarding what form of a project to design.
    • Students have been given limited choice regarding the content focus for their projects.
    • A sometimes well-intentioned, but an excessive amount of graphic organizers/checklists for students to complete during and in the process of designing and constructing projects.
    • A culminating, public exhibition of learning.

What we noticed: All the prior units had the project at the back of the learning experience.

Restructuring to increase personalization

After growing greatly discouraged about attitudes towards and the effectiveness of our integrated approach, I decided to take a risk, and do something Tarrant Institute coach and friend Mrs. Rachel Mark had been gently suggesting to my middle school team for some time, put the project at the front. The project should be the “main course”, not the “dessert”. I further elaborate on my epiphany here.

My teammate Ms. Joey Blaine and I wrote an integrated unit titled Why should we care about human rights? We wrote it with the intention of increased personalization and placing the project at the front of the learning experience.

What compelled this intention was the sometimes alarming dissatisfaction students were expressing about integrated studies. We were driven by this Inquiry Question:

How might student attitudes towards integrated units of study shift with increased personalization and when projects are moved to the front of the learning experience?

Check out this video to see the unit results and how we answered this question:

Learning from and with students – teacher inquiry

All middle school students were involved in my research. They were informed of my research at the start of each unit cycle and shared their thinking via Google surveys and focus groups. Debriefs were held at the end of each unit cycle, and students, once again, shared their thinking via surveys and focus groups.

At the end of each unit cycle, I compared, reflected upon and analyzed pre & post unit student data in the following forms: blind numerical, blind written feedback and focus groups I facilitated.

Analysis and Interpretation

The data suggests students’ attitudes towards integrated studies shifted in a positive direction as a result of increased personalization and intentionally putting the project at the front of the learning experience.

Students’ blind written feedback also suggests a positive shift in attitudes. The tone of pre-unit feedback skewed heavily negative, with only a smattering of neutral or positive remarks. Post-unit feedback was far less brutal in tone and divided equally between critical and neutral/positive remarks.

Thoughts and reflections from my reflective blog posts throughout the projects echo many of the observations presented. On the whole, student attitudes appeared more positive. Students’ moaning and groaning about having integrated studies decreased noticeably after the first few class periods of our unit.

Furthermore, in each unit cycle, students took great pride in the monuments they designed and constructed, and they felt good about publicly sharing their products created during small group work.

Insights & Resources

Moving forward, my partner and I endeavor to write integrated units of study with the intention of maximizing opportunities for increased personalization and placing the project at the front of the learning experience, as the data suggests doing so increases engagement and develops a positive mindset of the content under study.

While there was less teacher talking than in past units, there was still too much. However, consider that a significant degree of teacher-led discussion was about the Holocaust. We felt this required teacher-led discussion due to the sensitive nature of the topic. Regarding the science content, that too was skewed towards teacher-led discussions. In the future, we endeavor for students to engage in science content in a more self-directed manner, whenever possible.

Launch events are more important than we realized. On the first day of each unit, we took students on a field trip of southern Vermont monuments. We observed, to differing degrees, this increased student “buy-in” for the unit. Thank you to the Tarrant Institute’s Susan Hennessey for the idea. My partner and I will continue planning engaging unit launch events.

For those interested in developing authentic project-based units of study here are some resources:


Jon Brown’s Learning Lab Lessons Learned

Bright Spots:

They say imitation is the highest form of flattery… I guess I’m flattered. It never ceases to amaze me how humorous middle school students are by accident, and not when they try to be. I try to tell them I’m the only funny one around. To which they reply: “Funny… looking!” It’s safe to say the students aren’t afraid of me. I’ve tried to teach them to not take themselves too seriously. I tell them if someone says something that’s funny about you, then laugh. It’s funny!

Inquiry & growth

My bright spots this year are definitely the relationships I’ve forged with my students, watching their growth in math, and helping them feel included in the process. The questions I’ve been researching are:

Will implementing projects or project based learning into my classroom lead to improved results on standardized tests? Will they actually learn the math?

This has met with mixed results, but by including the students in the decision-making process, I’ve forged relationships with them that didn’t exist before. Though the projects were fun, I’m not sure it was really about that, in the end.



Meeting with my site-based team and taking them on a school visit was a definite highlight of the year. Yes, overall, the tests scores on our standardized testing did improve. Did everyone become proficient? Hardly. But there was growth in the right direction from the beginning to the end of the year.


Another unexpected bright spot that I didn’t consider when I started this experience has been connecting with like minded, energized, risk taking, other middle school teachers. The network we’ve formed is powerful and has given me many resources to read and ideas to try.

Belly Flops:

I thought having a site-based team would be easy. Easy to schedule, easy to get ideas from, and easy to spark a curiosity for learning math in the students that were asked and accepted as part of the team. As we all know, theory seldom matches actual experience. One of the students couldn’t handle it. Schedule, behavior, inability to concentrate all contributed to this student only participating once in a while and even then seemed intent on trying to distract the group.

Another student was hardly ever available due to being on too many other councils, groups, or extra-curricular activities. And then there were two. I don’t want to underwhelm the importance of these two. They were very helpful and their input is extremely valuable.

I have work to do next year, both in the selection process and trying to get meetings to become habit so students, and their teacher, plan around it.

Secondly, I thought trying to personalize the experience for students would instantly achieve buy-in and increased passion in my students. Allowing them to make choices about how do get the work done on projects or other activities seemed like a win-win. I, like some of my colleagues, also found that given too many choices and free time to work did not achieve the results I was looking for. Some students seemed completely unmotivated no matter what I tried.

I have more ideas for next year, to include having a subset of students help me plan the curriculum. We’ll see how that goes.

Ottauquechee’s Diversity Detectives in:

The Case of The Library Diversity Audit

Whose stories are being told in your library? Whose stories are being left out?

Look around your library. It is such a beautiful space. It’s filled with vibrant colors and flexible furniture, student art and encouraging signs and posters. Maybe it has a makerspace. And it’s stocked full of books of all shapes, sizes and colors. Every book imaginable is available somewhere, from a YA-version Hamlet, to Winnie the Pooh and The Big Friendly Giant. Plus of course, Catcher in the Rye. You’ve got some new classics as well: Twilight, Hunger Games, City of Bones. Your collection is amazing. Why on earth would you need a library audit?


What’s a library audit?

Librarians audit their collections for any number of reasons. Books like to live, they like to find readers. Part of library management is curating which books to add and which to discard.

But recently, quite a few librarians have noticed that their collections represent only a minority of voices in the communities they serve. Publishing has favored a limited number of narratives. Those narratives feature a large number of protagonists who are white, who are male, who are able-bodied, who are straight. Those characteristics taken together reference a small set of the population. Therefore, many librarians are finding it useful to use lenses of diversity in conducting their audits. As you buy new books, and as you discard older ones, having lenses of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation and economic class — even a subset of those lenses — can make a collection more useful to its community.

And why did Ottauquechee need one?

“I thought about my students. Do they see themselves in the library?”

The Ottauquechee School, in Quechee VT, is home to an amazing library space. Work tables cluster under a wall of windows. Beanbags and soft, plush reading chairs beckon invitingly. Laptops sit ready atop a tech bar, and a whiteboard asks students to write questions for an upcoming discussion. And Ottauquechee School librarian Becky Whitney wanted to make sure the collection was just as welcoming as the space itself.

I was inspired from the Deeper Learning Conference we attended in 2018, and in one session we attended, called Little People have Big Ideas: Implementing a Social Justice Lens in Elementary, with Jeffrey Feitelberg, elementary students did a classroom library audit. And I always felt, because I didn’t have my own classroom, that I couldn’t make systemic change. I only see the students for 45 minutes a week  — and then sometimes there’s holidays or vacations and field trips and then it’s two weeks until I see them. And I thought, “There’s really no way to make these great PBL projects in library.” It’s just not enough time to make it meaningful.

But when I went to that session, and the presenter talked about the kid’s classroom library, I just thought “I could do that with a very small segment of the library,” and then use it as a research project.  The diversity audit, it kind of takes my responsibility and my passion and melds them.

Then I thought, there are a few students of color at our school. Where are they reflected in the library? 

Becky knew that conducting a diversity audit of the library would not just improve the range of the collection, but teach students to be more critical readers. It would teach them to think powerfully about empathy and inclusion. So she got to work.

The Diversity Detectives are on the case


Becky began by showing this inspiring video of 11 year old Marley Dias, a Black 6th grader who wanted to see herself in more books. Marley noticed the books she was reading in school were mostly about “white boys and dogs”. She wanted more books with characters who look like her.  Her mother asked her, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” What Marley did was begin a movement demanding more racial diversity YA books. She went looking for #1000Blackgirlbooks, crowd-sourcing a collection of books with a Black female protagonist. She distributes the books to school libraries. The movement went viral, and kicked off a lot of powerful conversations for librarians around race in YA publishing.

But for Ottauquechee students, Marley’s activism provided a relatable example. Whose stories would they find in their own library? Whose stories did they want to find? Could everyone see themselves in the collection?

Dream of a Common Language

Becky introduced and unpacked the 4 Agreements of Courageous Conversations (Singleton & Linton)  to her students:

  • Stay engaged
  • Speak your truth
  • Expect discomfort
  • Expect non-closure

They would use these four guidelines as a way to move through tough topics together.

Becky also worked with a community partner in this project, John Hall, the chair of the committee for Racial Inclusion and Equality in Hartford.

And what he said was, “Just the discussion was the important and powerful piece. The research is great, buying new and diverse books for the library is great,” but I would have done that anyway. So, including the kids in the discussion, including the kids and giving them agency, and giving them a voice in what kind of library, whose story are we telling — making them realize, the lack of diversity not okay. 

Becky also defined specific lenses students could use in the audit. They could look for stories that featured diversity around race, religion, disability, and culture. Becky and her students chewed over the vocabulary together. They examined current data on the state of children’s book publishing and representation, then they moved into interest-based groups. They in effect became Diversity Detectives, studying Ottauquechee’s library collection for clues to inclusion.

Tackling the stacks…

library audit rubric

…and making the case

The Diversity Detectives studied different sets of books in Ottauquechee’s library, using their Courageous Conversations agreements and the diversity lenses. They worked on analyzing the data they collected, then they created infographics in Canva. Here is a single point rubric Becky created for assessing the infographics. Lastly, students will share the infographics with their whole school community in the hopes of continuing discussions of inclusion.

Now be the change you want to see in the world.

For librarian Becky Whitney, this wasn’t just a theoretical exercise. The Diversity Detectives’ research will directly inform the direction Ottauquechee’s library collection takes as it grows. Taking the infographics and associated research into account, she will be partnering with the Diversity Detectives on recommended new purchases and culls. She also reached out to a local bookstore, in Norwich VT. The Norwich Bookstore’s proprietor, Liza Bernard, has agreed to share with students how she purchases books and what influences those decisions. All part of making sure this exercise remains more than academic. Becky hopes to come home from Norwich Bookstore with about 20 new titles based on the students’ research. Conversations around inclusion and diversity will have real-world relevance in Ottauquechee. They will shape the library collection, and hopefully extend to other areas of students’ lives.

Teaching the library audit

Becky ponders how she has challenged herself to move beyond her own initial discomfort with addressing these issues in school:

I’ve forced myself to be uncomfortable. I’m forcing myself to be aware of the language I use. And I had never understood that as fully as I have now because of the amount of research that I did, to make sure that I knew what I was talking about. It’s kind of like the whole — white fragility thing, and the whole thing about “I’m uncomfortable talking about race, and so I’m just going to not really talk about it.”

Students are leading these conversations and growing their agency, voice and understanding of critical issues in the process. And teachers are giving them the opportunity to share power and critically analyze their library spaces.

What does your library collection look like? How do you choose whose stories are included?

Further reading:

Get started podcasting with students

New to podcasts?  Listen to a few!

Before you jump into creating a podcast, get familiar with the format.  Here are a few that are friendly for middle school students and their teachers:

What is a podcast anyway?

Podcasting takes the best of a classic medium — radio — and puts that power in the palm of your hand. And in the palm of your neighbor’s hand. Heck, everyone’s hands. Podcasting makes great conversations, research, and storytelling available in an on-demand, on-the-go format that fits well into busy lives. All you’ve gotta do is tell a story, get it on tape, put it online, and share it with others.

Podcasting how to:

In realistic busy teaching terms, let’s look at how to get started podcasting with students by planning, recording, editing and sharing a podcast.

What makes a podcast? A digital recording and an online sharing service


1. Planning

First off, figure out why you and your students want a podcast. What’s the payoff? What stories are y’all trying to tell, and why is podcasting the perfect fit for them?

Different stories require different structures, and thus different ways of planning.  Here are some examples:

Podcasts in one voice:

Stories like a This I Believe essay, a book review, or a narrative require a script.  Students will want to draft and revise their story, starting with a hook to really capture their audience.  These types of podcasts often start with an introduction to the host and a conclusion thanking the audience for listening.

Interviews and Conversations:

StoryCorps is a great example of an interview or conversation style podcast.  These types of podcasts require some thought about the questions you will ask.  Students will want to draft some questions, but they’ll also want to practice follow-up questions.

Podcasts in many voices:

Podcasts like Dorothy’s List use many voices to tell a story.  These require both a lot of planning and the flexibility to incorporate the words and ideas of others.  Students will want to script portions of the podcast that introduce guests and their ideas and summarize and synthesize their words.  They will also want to have great questions and prompts for those they interview.  This format will require a lot of editing!

No matter the format, remember these questions:

NPR offers a plethora of resources for teachers and students, including the Teaching Podcasting: A Curriculum Guide for Educators.  In it, they share these questions for focusing student stories:

What is my story’s driving question?

What is the story NOT about?

How will I ensure my story is fair to the people and ideas it represents?

How will I engage my audience — and hold them?

What are my dream ingredients?

What will the audience remember when it’s over?

There is also a guide for students, perfect for self-directed learners!

Overwhelmed?  Start Small!

If this all seems like too much planning to start with.  Start with a very small class podcast like one of these:

  • Tell some jokes!  Here is your hook:
    • Voice 1: Knock, knock
    • Voice 2: Who’s there?
    • Back to Voice 1: (name)
    • Back to Voice 2: and (name) with the Knock Knock Cast where we tell three laugh, or groan, worthy knock knock jokes.
    • [Gather jokes from students and teachers]
  • The Wish Cast:
    • Hook: What would you do if you caught a fish who offered you a wish in exchange for its freedom?  This is (name) and (name) with the Wish Cast.
    • Content:  In Kate Messner’s book The Seventh Wish, Charlie Brennan is ice fishing when she catches a magic fish.  She can hardly believe it but thinks it might be worth it just to make a wish for the fun of it.  “Let Roberto Sullivan fall in love with me,” she tells the fish. The wish doesn’t work out the way she had hoped… but she gets more chances to make wishes. And what about you?  What would you wish for?  We asked some friends and this is what they said:
    • [Interview several people in the room: What would you wish for?]

2. Recording

There are a ton of ways to record your podcasts, depending on the equipment you have on hand.  Here are a few:

  • The Voice Memos app is available on all iPad, iPod, and iPhones and is an easy way to record audio. Unfortunately, this app does not allow for editing.
  • Audacity is free software for any computer that allows you to record and edit audio.
  • GarageBand is available for MAC and IOS devices and provides recording and editing capabilities.
  • Soundrap is an online audio recorder and editor, making it a great choice for Chromebooks.

While software and apps are always changing, you can find some basic step by step instructions and pros and cons of each application here.

All hail the podbox, baby

Because classrooms can be a little noisy at times, and it can be challenging to find a quiet space to record, we recommend trying out a podbox. This snazzy device is modeled on the type of mobile sound-dampening enclosures used by professional voice-over artists and designed by our very own Mark Olofson.

3. Editing and mixing

Once students have recorded their audio, they’ll find they need to edit it to make it sound great.  Here is a step by step process for producing a podcast.

  • Cut your clips: select the audio you want to use and cut out the stuff you don’t want.
  • Order your clips: put your clips in order to tell your story.
  • Check your sound: are some clips too loud?  Are others to quiet?  Adjust the volume on your clips so that they are relatively uniform and won’t be too hard to listen to.
  • Add some sound: sound effects and music can make a podcast even better.  If there is time, add these in to help tell the story.

Some students may master this process quickly, for more advanced mixing check out NPR’s Producers Handbook to Mixing Audio Stories.

4. Sharing

Once you’ve begun creating finished episodes, it’s time to release them out into this big beautiful world of ours. Which begs the age-old question: how?

Send it out online

At the most basic, a podcast is a series of audio episodes you make available online. Soundcloud allows you to upload 180 minutes of audio for free. PodBean also provides free podcast hosting.

Once you have your podcast uploaded to an online service, you can share it with the world via social media, email, QR code, or adding it to your website.  Be sure to use multiple formats so it can find an authentic audience, otherwise, what is the point?!

Send it out over the airwaves

Brattleboro, Vermont was incorporated back in 1753, a former military fort that embraced trading, commerce and the power of nearby Whetstone Falls to spur mill production. It’s been home to countless tiny, fascinating episodes of Vermont history — episodes that current residents now listen to each week on the radio, being described and re-enacted by students from Brattleboro Area Middle School.

These students partner with the Brattleboro Historical Society in researching and recording 3-4 minute long episodes. And local radio station WKVT airs those episodes weekly. The community’s response to the episodes has been astounding, and the series is closing in on its 200th episode. Partnering with a resource-rich organization like a historical society provides a rich stream of content and expert knowledge. And approaching your local community radio station with educational content actually helps stations stay on the air, by partially fulfilling the terms of their FCC licenses.

Additional resources:

Podcasts with and by Vermont students

Have you tried podcasting with students? What tips can you recommend?

Stowe students lead school change

How student-adult partnerships can scaffold student leadership

“Did you know that the same areas in the brain light up when a person is curious as when that person is given candy or money?” Stowe Middle School students Macey Crowder and Shelby Lizotte posed this question to Stowe’s school board during a presentation to their school board. Representing their Student Engagement Committee, they shared the results of a survey given to all Stowe Middle School students to measure the level of engagement at their school.


A focus on leadership:

Stowe’s principal, Dan Morrison, has made it one of his top goals this 2018-19 school year to create multiple leadership roles for his middle school students.  He believes, as Betty Edwards does,

“If we want students to work in partnership with adults, we must give them the opportunities to develop leadership skills—skills that allow them to manage time, work as a team, set goals, solve problems, facilitate meetings, defend positions, and make effective presentations.”  The Power of Youth Leadership: Effective middle schools ensure all students have opportunities to lead

To that end, Morrison created and teaches a Student Leadership Course in Schoology.


Stowe students as well are active participants in two other opportunities for student leadership: the Scholarly Habits Redesign Committee and the Student Engagement at Stowe Committee. Both committees use the design thinking framework and collect and analyze data in order to take on challenges they’ve identified for school improvement.

Student & adult partnerships:

Leadership course

In October, Stowe student leaders presented to their community on open house night. They shared how the school was shifting from traditional parent teacher conferences to student led conferences this year. They distributed this one-page tips sheet  meant to help families prepare for the shift.


Scholarly habits at Stowe:

Lindsey Halman and Helen Beattie from Up For Learning help facilitate the Scholarly Habits Redesign Committee. The task: redesign and reintroduce the scholarly habits to students, teachers, and the Stowe community. The students participated in a summer retreat. Next, they led a faculty meeting to help teachers better understand the scholarly habits, which include learning strategies, perseverance, mindset and social skills. Committee member Nadia Chudzil explains:

“Many  people asked us “Why are you doing this?” There are many reasons why we are doing this. We feel that Scholarly Habits needs to be reevaluated from a student’s perspective. Many students felt that Scholarly Habits was something that our teacher made us do. We also felt that we had no voice in our Scholarly Habits experience. Now that the students are redesigning them, we can make Scholarly Habits something students are interested in and are excited for. Having students do this can help other students be more excited about it because they know that it wasn’t just the teacher telling them about something they HAD to do, but instead they will know that there was student voice in making this a norm in our school.” 

The committee has since collected data from all stakeholders (students, staff, parents, community members) through a survey and interviews. The survey and interviews focused on understanding both the level of ownership and knowledge of the Scholarly Habits. The committee met at the end of November to analyze their data. They will be meeting again mid-January to develop their action plan and begin their SH Campaign.

Student engagement at Stowe:

The task for the Student Engagement Leadership Committee is to understand the current level of engagement at the middle school and consider ways to both celebrate and find areas for growth. To that end, a group of seven students (6th, 7th, & 8th graders) convened. We co-constructed a working definition of engagement and set out to collect data about the current state of engagement at the middle school.  



Data collection:

Working with a Tarrant Institute research fellow, Steve Netcoh (nicknamed Survey Sensei), the students selected engagement indicators from three different national engagement surveys they thought best suited the context at Stowe. They received advice from him about how to build a survey that would elicit honest feedback. 



The committee decided the best way to encourage survey participants to take the survey seriously was to engage them first. They created a Kahoot meant to get players to think about why engagement is important in the learning process. All middle schoolers eagerly participated and then took the survey.

Data analysis:

Committee members discussed the results of the quantitative data looking for celebrations and areas of for growth:



Next, the committee took on the challenge of coding the qualitative responses. They looked for trends, including:

  • Student Input/Freedom (class choice)
  • Activity/Break
  • Change Environment
  • Grades/Workload
  • Change in Teaching (Hands on).

Most of the responses were about students wanting more opportunities to have freedom and their voices be important. This was also represented in the quantitative data as well.

The group once again worked with Survey Sensei Steve to look at results from each of the grade levels. The committee looked at the 20% of students whose answers showed they were disengaged in school. 

Presenting findings:

“Did you know that the same areas in the brain light up when a person is curious as when that person is given candy or money?” Stowe Middle School students Macey Crowder and Shelby Lizotte posed this question to Stowe’s school board during a presentation to their school board. Representing their Student Engagement Committee, they shared the results of a survey given to all Stowe Middle School students to measure the level of engagement at their school.

Superintendent Wrend asked the committee to go further with the data. Explore ways to build on current successes and improve the levels of student voice and engagement. And, she invited the group to return and share their work once again. A perfect next step to encourage continued leadership and student voice!

Clearly Stowe Middle School values partnering with students to effect change.

How do you partner with your students?


Why and how to teach education for sustainability

Teaching to heal the world

place-based learning“How can we improve the systems we’re a part of?”

That’s the question my team posed to our 4th- through 6th-grade students last spring at The Cornwall School, in Cornwall VT. It was the start of a deep dive into education for sustainability.

Continue reading Why and how to teach education for sustainability

Phys ed 2.0: More learning, less suffering

Personalizing PE

peer PLP collaborationIn this era of personalized learning, it’s not just the jocks that find P.E. enjoyable.

At Crossett Brook Middle School and Shelburne Community School, students employ cool technology, develop creative projects, and pursue personal interests and goals while developing autonomy, healthy habits, and deep understandings.

Continue reading Phys ed 2.0: More learning, less suffering

A student-led short story unit at Crossett Brook

7th and 8th graders take the initiative to share their stories with the world.

student-led short story unitMs. Cicchetti’s 7th and 8th grade language arts classes at Crossett Brook Middle School have been writing short stories for the last few weeks. Their writing experience has been a student-driven one and has been “Very enjoyable!” says Harper Haase, a 7th grader in Ms. Cicchetti’s class.

Everyone was very happy with getting to pick their own topic, do their own editing and revising, and not having teachers “guide” them along and take control.

Continue reading A student-led short story unit at Crossett Brook

A tale of two tech tools

Students test drive tools to enhance & amplify project work

peer PLP collaborationWhen Stowe Middle Level educators met to plan for the upcoming student exhibitions of learning, they agreed on two critical ideas. One, that their learners benefit from multiple ways to tell the story of their learning.

And two, students are in the best position to test out tech tools to share that learning.

Continue reading A tale of two tech tools

Therapy dogs in Vermont schools

Who let the dogs in?

For some students, being ready to learn when they arrive at school is a big ask, and more than a few carry trauma or mental health burdens through their day. And that’s why more and more, schools in Vermont are adding therapy dogs to their staffing rosters.

And they’re seeing some pretty pawsitive benefits to the arrangement.

Continue reading Therapy dogs in Vermont schools

How do *you* mitigate heat transfer at your old elementary school?

Local connections with worldwide implications

Science Saturday, with Tarrant Institute research fellow Mark OlofsonIn our current study of heat transfer, our class decided to connect science concepts to the UN Sustainable Development Goals — specifically, Goal 13, which looks to combat climate change. The challenge was to model a place where students had experienced Urban Heat Islands, then create a sustainable mitigation plan for that place.

Starting with paper blueprints, then moving to Google Maps, students fabricated models of these urban heat islands and calculated how to measure the mitigation.

Continue reading How do *you* mitigate heat transfer at your old elementary school?

The 8th grade consultants shaping education at Burke Town School

The power of the student consult

If you’re wondering what engages, excites and motivates students, the answer is easy: ask them.

Creating opportunities for students to give feedback on plans, projects, assessments and activities builds a collaborative learning community, and creates leadership and student voice opportunities.

Here’s how one school gave student consultants a shot.

Continue reading The 8th grade consultants shaping education at Burke Town School

3 tech-rich ways to study local history

Place-based learning with real world implications

tech-rich ways to study historyFor your students, learning about the local landscape can be amazing. What’s that tree? How long has that building been here? What does that plaque, “1927 Flood Level” mean?

Here’s 3 tech-rich ways to study local history: by updating your town on Google Maps, creating a QR code-powered history walk or shooting a historical documentary. Roll tape!

Continue reading 3 tech-rich ways to study local history

The rise of the project-based PLP

A new recipe for Personalized Learning Plans

Crossett Brook PLPsRather than trying to get students to care about existing PLPs, some schools are revamping their PLP process to start with what students care about. They are asking students to pursue their passions by crafting projects based on their personal interests and deepest curiosities.

The new recipe that is emerging: start with a cool personalized project and then build the PLP around it.

Continue reading The rise of the project-based PLP

Choose Your Own Adventure with Google Earth

The virtual reality cure for wanderlust

ways students can create VR contentDespite this gorgeous fall weather here in central Vermont, I’m suffering from a bad case of wanderlust. One antidote I’ve found to satisfy the daily craving to hit the high road is the 360Cities Tab Extension. Now that I’ve added it to my Chrome browser, every time I open a tab, it displays a new full screen photo of somewhere fabulous, curious, or surreal.

Another avenue for virtual adventure is to explore Google Earth, Choose Your Own Adventure-style. 6th grade students at Stowe Middle School, in Stowe VT, did just that, learning about latitude and longitude by creating their own Choose Your Own Adventure activities.

And your students can too.

Continue reading Choose Your Own Adventure with Google Earth

Courage lives on


#everydaycourageThis fall, we’ve been talking  about everyday courage in schools. We’ve written about the courage it takes to start a new team, using technology to open up communication with students and to open up our practice.

We’ve shared examples about how teachers are showing up, engaging in hard conversations about race, their own practice, about getting negative feedback and sharing our work and selves with others. We’ve heard about how students are leading the way when given the support at school to do so: working for acceptance, equality and identity and systems that let every voice be heard. Here are three themes we’ve seen emerge.

Continue reading Courage lives on

The #everydaycourage of staying curious in the face of negative feedback

Feedback often feels like criticism. But what if we used it as an opportunity to grow?

#everydaycourageIn third grade, I had my own time-out chair in the principal’s office. My exuberant chattiness, combined with an 8-year-old’s lack of social filter frequently earned me a trip to that chair that sat in the corner facing the clock.

My face would burn with shame as I trudged down the long hall. As I sat and waited for the loud ticking of the clock to signal my release, I would try to figure out what I’d done wrong. Sometimes it was obvious: Nathan’s story hadn’t “gone to the dogs” as I’d loudly proclaimed. (But it had just seemed like the perfect punchline to the joke when my teacher had asked…‘Where has your story gone?…’)

Other times, many times, I was completely bewildered. I’d do my time, and then return to the flow of the classroom, as if I’d never left, edgy and bracing for my next invisible (to me) infraction.

Based upon the frequency of these visits, I doubt they were learning experiences. Instead, they were punitive, spirit-crushing time-outs; lost opportunities for growth.

Continue reading The #everydaycourage of staying curious in the face of negative feedback

#everydaycourage and trauma-informed education

#everydaycourage is always around us if we can slow down to notice it.

#everydaycourageI spent many years working in a therapeutic school with teens who were struggling with anxiety, depression, mental health, and the impacts of trauma. If you let the pace of the year carry you forward, it was easy to lose sight of the progress we were making.

I remember going to see a production of a musical with students from a mainstream school. I remember watching it and being incredibly impressed with their talents, skills, and bravery in performance.  And I felt sad. My students in our alternative school had faced so much in their lives, and it was unlikely that many of them would be able to do something like get up in front of an audience of hundreds and sing.

Those were the thoughts I had when I was swept up in the school year. But I wasn’t noticing the #everydaycourage and growth right in front of me.

Continue reading #everydaycourage and trauma-informed education

How to start a difficult conversation

Conversations begin at home. And at the bus stop. Also the market. And–

#everydaycourageSo much of the change we need to see right now can be kicked off by starting conversations with members of your community.

It takes a certain amount of courage to address issues that affect your whole community — such as bullying, hate speech and equity — with people who you may never have spoken with before.

But it’s effective. And the more you do it, the easier it gets. Let’s look at 4 ways to start a difficult conversation in your community.

Continue reading How to start a difficult conversation

The #everydaycourage of talking about race in Vermont schools

How will your students prepare for active engagement in democracy?

#everydaycourageLast spring Christie Nold, a 6th grade teacher at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School, was at Burlington’s Jazz Fest listening to student musicians when she got some disturbing news: someone had spray-painted racist hate speech on her school’s campus.

Overwhelmed by her own emotions, Nold also knew that she had to find a way to help her students deal with their own understandings and emotions about the  graffiti. Like Christie, many teachers are wondering how to address a recent rise in racism and white supremacy.

Continue reading The #everydaycourage of talking about race in Vermont schools

The #everydaycourage of sharing our work as educators

3 ways to de-privatize our practice


My first teaching job was in the library at a large, open-concept elementary school in Howard County, Maryland. The library was the hub of the school. During my classes teachers, administrators, and para-professionals walked freely in and out of the library, occasionally stopping to watch our progress.

And it was terrifying.

I felt scrutinized! But, after many months of these informal observations, I began to relax, and then having all of those eyes on my teaching was hugely helpful.

My mindset shifted from helpless vulnerability to hopeful vulnerability; this was an opportunity to learn from experts.

Continue reading The #everydaycourage of sharing our work as educators

What it looks like when students teach

#everydaycourage“It really is nice being able to teach others. I know that I had an effect on them.”

The Essex STEM Academy, at Essex High School, lets students pursue their passion for tech and science with support from the Vermont STEM community. They also let the students teach.

We spoke with Ian, an Essex STEM Academy student who taught arduino programming, for an episode of our podcast. Find out what it’s like when students are given the freedom, support and authority to step into a teaching role.

Continue reading What it looks like when students teach

#vted leads the way with #everydaycourage

School leadership in turbulent times

#everydaycourage #vted leads the wayAs schools prepare to welcome students through their doors, many educators are researching how to talk with their students about the attacks in Charlottesville or Barcelona. Or how to respond to student concerns about diversity, tolerance and equity. Or, ulp, how to address this recent article by Wired, revealing that the state with the highest percentage of online trolls is… Vermont.

Starting these conversations, and addressing our current crisis of digital citizenship takes courage and can often feel uncomfortable, but they all begin with one small step, then another, and another after that. They’re acts in which extraordinary courage soon becomes #everydaycourage, and we’re fortunate to have some leaders in the #vted ecosphere — administrators, educators and students — showing us the way.

Continue reading #vted leads the way with #everydaycourage

A Developmental Designs approach to student-directed learning

It takes a courageous village

#everydaycourageIn order for student centered learning to happen, we have to invest in explicitly teaching (and reteaching) routines, expectations, and behaviors for learning. The beginning of the year is an ideal time to first establish a culture and community for learning.

But it takes time to learn and practice these routines.

Often, we feel the pressure of time urging us to jump right into our first units, yet without this foundation in place we can find ourselves spending valuable time redirecting student behavior, rather than focusing on content-specific learning.

It takes courage to acknowledge that we need to model, teach behaviors, and establish routines before we can ask students to learn. #everydaycourage.

Continue reading A Developmental Designs approach to student-directed learning

Laying the groundwork for effective teaching teams

Or, What to Bring to the First Staff Potluck

#everydaycourageOpening up to fellow educators can be hard. We all know we’re doing the best we can, but many of us also feel like we could be doing better for our students. We want to do the best we can and sometimes we get terrified that it’s not enough. What if none of the other teachers feel this way?

Except: they do.

And that’s why it’s important to be brave enough to connect with the other teachers on your team, to really get to know them as people — and to let them get to know you in return. They can be some of your most important resources during the school year.

Continue reading Laying the groundwork for effective teaching teams

Checking in with Stowe & PAML’s peer PLP collaboration

peer PLP collaborationWhen last we left the students of these two plucky Vermont middle schools, they had managed to connect students and educators via Google Hangout. They’d gotten together to make pizzas and plot the future of personalized learning plans (PLPs). And they’d paired up students as PLP peer collaborators and spent some time reviewing PLPs in pairs.

So we wanted to ask: what’s next? How’s this peer PLP collaboration thing going?

Continue reading Checking in with Stowe & PAML’s peer PLP collaboration

Use a student leadership team for feedback on PLPs

Guiding Crossett Brook PLPs with student voice

The Crossett Brook PLP student leadership group presented their recommendations on PLPs to the teaching staff at the end of the school year. The educators received the students’ ideas well. It was pretty cool to see a roomful of teachers rapt on a hot afternoon during the last week of school.

And the students knocked it out of the park.

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4 examples of students as partners in school change

Let students help you transform your school

students as partners in school changeCreating sustainable systemic change is hard work. Yet there are readily available, free, renewable resources right in your classroom. Students are embedded experts, creative geniuses, ruthless truthtellers, and intrinsic futurists.

Here are four examples of students as partners in school change: partners in building a makerspace, redesigning PLPs, serving the school community and negotiating curriculum.

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Do you know where you are?

Taking stock on implementing Vermont’s Act 77

Vermont Act 77“Do you know where you are?”

Usually it’s a question medical professionals ask in emergency situations. It’s not as dramatic in the context of education, but it can be just as useful as a diagnostic criteria.

We’re going to ask you to take stock of where you are in the implementation of three pillars: Personalization (PLP’s), Proficiency, and Flexible Pathways. They’re the three pillars holding up Act 77, Vermont’s legislation to put students at the center of innovative school change.

whips out a clipboard, tucks pen behind ear


Continue reading Do you know where you are?

4 end-of-year activities for advisory

Acknowledge, share, recognize

end-of-year activities for advisoryThe end of the school year is every bit as happy and joyous as it is chaotic and stressful. Make sure that you slow down the hands on the clock to bring closure to your advisory. Acknowledge the successes and challenges of the year. Share the positive things you’ve all learned about each other, and recognize individual students and their stories.

Let’s see how it works in action.

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8 year-end reflection tools and activities

Reflect, celebrate and plan

year-end reflection tools and activitiesOh, the spring. Such a busy time for teachers.

There are all those transition meetings, already getting ready for the next year. Then there are placement meetings, figuring out who will be in what class, core or group. And of course, all those ceremonies, exhibitions, and spring events.

It’s easy to forget all of the progress you have made with your students and as a school during these times. And it’s easy to get frustrated and to focus only on what you have to do next.

Your class, your community and the progress your school has made matters. And they should be celebrated.

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4 ways of finding copyright-friendly media

The art of the responsible remix

finding copyright-friendly mediaWith the incredible popularity and ease of digital mediamaking comes great responsibility. As students unlock the power of digital storytelling and media creation, they seek to incorporate music, images and video into their productions.

But it’s not as simple as just hitting up the Google.

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Looking at ways students can create VR content

Help students become creators of this engaging new technology

ways students can create VR contentWith the astronomical rise in popularity of virtual reality in education, it’s important to make available tools for students to create virtual reality content as well as consuming it. So while you get ready to send your students off on Expeditions to amazing new worlds and experiences, have ways for them to make their own waiting when they return.

Let’s look at a couple ways students can create VR content.

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Student-centered filmmaking at Compass

Lessons learned from a film festival

"Video in the Classroom"Every year, I watch in awe as students take ownership of their films and are challenged to exercise new skills and proficiencies: self direction, creative expression, and problem-solving. I’ve seen this assignment throw some of our most academically-capable and motivated students off-balance.

I’ve also watched many diverse groups pull together to create some powerful, beautifully-shot films.

This may be the most challenging course we offer.

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4 more ways to help middle schoolers get organized

Helping students get organized

help middle schoolers get organizedMiddle schoolers’ lives are multi-faceted, dynamic and dramatic. And while we talk about how to grow self-directed, engaged and motivated students, that growth can’t take place while students are overwhelmed and anxious about managing their daily lives.

Last time, we looked at how to organize the tech itself. Now let’s look at how to use powerful tech tools (shiny!) to help make middle school manageable.

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4 ways to help middle school students organize their tech

“Where did I put that cord? My computer is dead!”

help middle school students get organized with their techHow many times have you heard this in your classroom? So much of middle school is developing systems to stay organized: “How do I get to all these classes? How do I open my locker?” And with the addition of technology: “How do I keep track of my school computer? Which Google Doc is the homework in? ”

Let’s look at 4 ways students can learn independence and grow leadership through the care and organization of technology.

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Peer collaboration on PLPs

Peers partner on portfolios

peer collaboration on PLPsStudents at two Vermont schools have begun working together as “Portfolio Partners” to curate evidence, reflect on their growth, and prepare to share their learning with a wider audience.

Here’s how it works.

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How to fight fake news in the field

A case study from one classroom

how to fight fake newsIn part one, we explored how middle grade students are struggling to recognize fake news or sponsored posts and shared many tools for teachers looking to tackle this thorny issue.

But what does it really look like We sat down for a Q & A with Christie Nold, sixth grade educator and fighter of fake news.

Here’s her mini-unit on telling real from fake news.

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Why faith-based education in the 21st century?

A flexible pathway for religious choice

why faith-based educationIn a time when combining 21st century skills with personalized learning is in the thoughts of educators, students, and parents, I see the choice of a faith-based education as a very specific personal pathway.

But how does a faith-based education work in the context of 21st century learning?

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Beyond the audience of one

Why digital composition matters

why digital composition mattersI’d like you to think back to your days as a student. What kinds of writing did you do? Who read it? What made it important to you? And what made it important to the world?

If you’re like most people, you’re probably drawing a blank right now. Some of today’s students, though, can clearly articulate just how and why their writing is important. And we don’t mean writing as you might imagine, but rather digital composition:  digital stories, digital portfolios, documentary films, and of course, podcasts. For each of these, there is a real audience, one beyond the more typical audience of one, the teacher.

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Digital access to library resources

A case study in a 1:1 school

Screencast-o-matic on the Macbook: a step-by-step tutorialOur small school is blessed to have an unusually large library space: nearly 3000 square feet.  Over the last eight years, there has been much refurbishment in our library, such as repainting and installing new carpet, new furnishings, ceiling, lights and window shades. Our library has become an attractive, much-used space by all ages, with an average of 600-700 materials circulating monthly.

In a perfect world, this physical library space would be in the center of our school, not on a lower level two floors away from the middle school classrooms.  But with the integration of 1:1 tablet devices for all our middle school students, the distance between the physical library and these students has shortened considerably.

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5 Google Chrome apps and extensions for learner support

Support for visual, attention & motor control challenges

Chrome apps and extensions for differentiationRemember training Dragon Dictation to recognize your student’s voice? That technology was pretty profound in 2004, but the options now to support differentiation for learners will blow your mind. What’s better is that we don’t have to offer these technologies to identified students. Any student (or adult!) can use these apps and extensions if they are helpful.

Let’s explore some FREE Google Chrome apps and extensions that support differentiation for a variety of learners.

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Why do action research?

5 benefits of doing action research in the classroom

getting started with action research

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

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

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3 ways to use Google Forms to streamline your workflow

For exit tickets, student support & action research

use Google Forms to streamline your workflowUsing Google Forms and Google  Sheets together can streamline your process and make all your tasks feel just a little more manageable.

As an educator, it can be a bit overwhelming trying to keep all your different data streams organized, not to mention the finding the time to analyze and interpret that data! Let’s take three examples of how Google Forms can cut down on your paperwork flurries.

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Rethinking school schedules

It’s about time

rethinking the traditional school scheduleI am fascinated with master schedules! This is certainly a massive understatement. I love the challenge of putting all the pieces together, showing how everything is connected. My mind is wired to think through a systems lens. I am always asking myself, if I change this thing over here what happens over there?

However, I feel like the picture on the puzzle box, you know, the one that shows you how to put the puzzle together, isn’t the right image to be working off anymore. The way we build schedules is struggling to keep pace with the pedagogical beliefs and practices in schools.

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What work-based learning in Vermont can look like

On exploring flexible pathways to learning

equity in educationThis past August, Vermont Secretary of Education Dr Rebecca Holcombe addressed the 2016 Amplifying Student Voice & Partnership Conference on the topic of equity in education. She was also kind enough to allow us to record and share her remarks.

In the first of two installments, we hear from Secretary Holcombe as she highlights the story of one particular student from Randolph Union High School, who, along with support from his community, found a way to channel his passion for farming into work-based learning in Vermont, and from there, a world of high-level business skills.

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Power up your Advisory programs

How 30 minutes can leave a lasting impact on the day.

advisory programsAdvisory: the first 15 to 30 minutes of every middle school day, during which you’re trying to build relationships with your students and engage them in meaningful social interaction.

You also might be fighting off the administrative minutiae of the morning: Attendance. Lunch money. Permission slips. Bus notes.

Let’s look at some strategies for powering up advisory programs

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8 tips for creating classroom routines and norms

classroom routines and normsThere is no tired like teachers at the beginning (or end) of the school year are tired. Establishing routines, procedures, community and trust takes time and lots (and lots!) of energy.

How can  you create classroom routines and norms so the class feels safe, comfortable, happy and ready for learning? Here are eight ideas.

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Get #ready2launch your team this year

New ways to approach teaming

ways to approach teamingHave you every showed up to in-service wondering what the new initiatives for the year will be? Or wondered how to continue to meet the demands of the district and school while balancing the the needs of 21st century young adolescents?

takes a deep breath

The answer, I suggest, is teaming, but with a new focus.

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3 ways to create a student-led open house

Student leadership at a school Open House? You betcha.

#ready2launch student-led open houseYou’ve heard of student-led conferences, but how about a Student-Led Open House? An idea so strange it just might work.

When we partner with young adolescents, we give them voice and choice. We know that is one of the best practices of middle level education. In theory, schools and teachers engage in this throughout the school experience. But let’s face it, sometimes giving up control can feel a little intimidating. Let’s look at 3 easy ways to move towards a student-led open house

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4 ways to partner with students around Genius Hour

1% teacher inspiration & 99% student-led

#ready2launchGenius Hour is a leap of faith in which educators set aside their most precious resource, time, for students to pursue their passions. It doesn’t get much more student-centered than that.

But there are actually several aspects of Genius Hour where students can be involved as partners to amp up the genius quotient.

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Finding ways to encourage student leadership

Student Leadership: The time is now

#ready2launch student leadershipAugust is usually a time crammed with planning logistics for the start of the school year. It’s a time when educators’ coffee intake increases exponentially and that ever-popular 4AM anxiety dream makes you jump out of bed in a sweat. Yet somehow it all falls into place and school opens, students show up, and off we go.

Now, my question to you is how many schools embrace the student’s voice in planning for this opening?

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Climate, Community and Voice from Day 1

 Starting up with our students

ready2LAnother exciting year is upon us. It may be difficult to wrest our attention from these glorious days of Vermont summer but never have the opportunities for good teaching been more open to us. As one teacher noted upon leaving this summer’s Middle Grades Institute, “I can bring about positive change in my classroom and school. I just have to follow my heart and do what I know is best for kids: personalized, flexible and proficiency based learning!”

In the next several weeks, we’ll dive into making the most of the first weeks of school so you can follow your heart and do what’s best for kids.

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twitter etiquette

Modeling twitter interactions as an educator and parent

digital citizenship and twitter etiquetteWith twitter’s explosive growth in popularity with educators, it can get a little confusing as to what the new rules of social media look like. Hint: they’re a lot like the old rules. Kindness, empathy and listening rule the day.

Let’s look at how one educator and parent models twitter etiquette.

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