Today on the 21st Century Classroom:
Beckett: When the school systems were created was to produce factory workers, to have good workers for their assembly lines and could make cars and they all knew basic information and could all say the same facts. It was a standardized person pretty much, being produced into the workforce. For those assembly line jobs, that’s what they needed. Nowadays, that’s not what people need. We need creative thinkers that can look at problem and figure how to solve it, not be able to recite Shakespeare, unless that’s what they’re learning about and then they should recite it all.
I’m Life LeGeros, and on this episode of the 21st Century Classroom, we hear from three students from Champlain Valley Union High School, in Hinesburg Vermont — a sophomore, a junior, and a high school senior. They tell us about what makes school meaningful, along with the way they see the roles of students and teachers changing as schools evolve.
We also talk about equity in schools, as well as spending some serious time discussing what proficiency-based learning has looked like. Does it work? Is it an improvement over the traditional grading system, and how does it affect how these students apply to college?
Meet Heidi, Beckett and Ulee.
Heidi: I’m Heidi. I’m a sophomore at CVU.
Beckett: My name is Beckett. I’m a junior at CVU.
Ulee: I’m Ulee. I’m a senior at CVU.
“CVU” is Champlain Valley Union High School.
Located at the edge of the Green Mountains, it’s the largest high school in Vermont, and has a reputation for being not just progressive, but unabashedly committed to student-centered learning. Now, student-centered learning is kind of a buzzword; it can mean a lot of different things, so we wanted these CVU students to tell us what exactly “student-centered learning” really looks like in action.
The three students we spoke with are all enrolled in CVU’s Think Tank, an in-school course that encourages students to speak up about education issues. Think Tank students are encouraged to develop new ideas for school and try them out in a supported, structured manner.
Think Tank student projects have included ways to reduce stress in applying to (and being rejected from) colleges, educating teachers about mental health issues in students, and introducing flexible furniture in classrooms. And there’s a book club!
But does this flexibility equal meaningful learning?
Life: My first most basic question is what do you find most meaningful about school?
Beckett: I would say just the opportunity to be able to learn more and get more information and just like all the resources that we have, I mean here at CVU, to be able to pursue information and knowledge.
Heidi: Yes, I think going off of what Beckett just said, I think definitely when you have some opportunity in whatever class where you’re suddenly like, “Whoa! This is so cool. I really want to learn about it.” Those moments like that for me are just amazing. I wish I could get more of them out of school, but when they happen, they really stick with you.
Ulee: For me, it’s a little different. I really like the structure and just having a place to go every day. It’s the one thing I really like. I struggle with not having a structure. I don’t always take advantage of certain things when I don’t have someone telling me I have to do it a little bit and so it’s really nice. wWithout school, I don’t really know what I’d be doing. I just be sitting for a bit until something came to me, but it’s nice because it gives me a framework to go about doing what I want to do.
Heidi: I think when I have choice in a class and usually project-based. When I talk about things that have really stuck with me, a lot of them I have from one class that I had in middle school for social studies and it was completely choice-driven, lots of projects. I could figure out what an overarching topic I was really into and then I had the freedom to figure out how I wanted to represent that and share my learning.
Beckett: Really any classes that give the opportunity to think differently, like you give me the opportunity to not think about things how you’re supposed to normally think about them, just like, more freedom to be able to question ideas and not just do the same thing over and over again, but figure out why. It’s like in my middle school for fourth, fifth, and sixth grade, I went to the Waldorf School. It was experiential and really immersive, but it was definitely like the whole philosophy is until you had a certain age, you’re not ready to learn things. They won’t teach reading and writing until third grade. It’s definitely not talent-based or how the kid understand, but it’s like once you get to this age, then you can move forward. It’s the opposite of the question, but there oftentimes I felt like I wanted to move forward but they weren’t letting me.
What I look for in classes is when I can move forward and I can ask those questions. I can be like, “Well, that doesn’t make sense. I need to figure that out.”
Life: What do teachers do to create that environment, or you feel like you can question that?
Beckett: Honestly, I think like a lot of conversational-based classes. When it’s not the teacher just lecturing, but when the teacher either proposes a question and be like, “Cool. I’m going to just sit here and you guys talk about it,” and lets the kids really think without any excess thoughts and controlling factors to what they’re thinking may be tainted in any certain way and just let them come to discovery about the topic that they’re learning. It’s hard to do and it’s hard to explain, but when teachers can create that atmosphere but the kids are making their connections by themselves without saying, “There’s a connection here, find it.” I think that’s really what gets kids to stick with it and be enjoying what they’re learning.
What we’re hearing from these students? Isn’t new.
Research in cognition, motivation, and pedagogy show that students learn best when they are engaged more with learning that includes them as partners in the classroom, and as active and valued participants in the conversation about their learning. Motivation and higher order thinking come to the fore in middle school.
Life: Where did you learn in middle school?
Heidi: I went to school at Shelburne Community School.
Life: Who was the teacher?
Heidi: Sam Nelson.
Life: What kind of project did you work on that you still remember?
Heidi: We did one of these every single year and he still has office classes doing every year was a historical avatar journal where whatever unit we were in, we basically created some kind of person that was living in that event, a time period, and then we wrote from their perspective. I wrote one during the Revolutionary War. I was a teenage boy who’s a loyalist living with a family that were all patriots and stuff. It was just really interesting to get to think about what life might have been like and what maybe thoughts go through their head.
Ulee: Even in stuff like book groups, you kind of like, “All right, this is the thing that happened.” Actually, I’ve had a lot more book groups deal in middle school than in high school. It’s just like, “All right, we’ll read this chapter,” and like, “All right, what do you think about these things?” and then you have the conversation from there.
I think oftentimes with students, it’s a lot easier to have… all right. With a teacher, it seems a lot more black and white, like this is yes or no. With a student, it’s kind of I feel like we’re both coming from a similar part of not having the experience beforehand, so we’re both like, “This is my opinion and perspective on this deal and this is your perspective on this deal.” That relationship is a little different from someone who has the experience and has the knowledge beforehand.
Beckett: Yes, whenever you’re a kid, you’re always taught the adults have the answers. They know what to do. In class room experience, kids aren’t going to question what the adult say. When the adult say something, it’s just the truth. When they can talk with their peers and you can discuss things, you’re like, “Wait, I don’t agree with that.” It fosters that curiosity into what you’re learning.
Ulee: I think there is a certain level of truth in that, like teachers have more experience sometimes about stuff.
Beckett: Of course.
Ulee: I think an important part is a lot of times when the students are asking students, a lot of the things that they’re coming in to contact conflict with and thinking about are things that wouldn’t be like the teacher initially expects and so either would be written off or just like…
Heidi: I think I agree. I think just really it goes back to questioning thing that it’s okay to question your peers, but it feels like you’re not supposed to question your teacher because you’re teacher’s teaching you about it. I think that difference makes such a huge impact on how these conversations are carried out. I don’t know if teachers realize that when they’re looking at all the conversations that students are having. From the student perspective, I think that a lot of us feel that way.
Life: It’s interesting because you’ve mentioned choice before, right? Some people think of choice or student voice is being something that can be really engaging for students, but it’s a really hard thing for teachers because there’s this age old hierarchy in schools that we’re just touching on, right?
Beckett: I think that they should be in a lot of cases because when the school systems were created was to produce factory workers, to have good workers for their assembly lines and could make cars and they all knew basic information and could all say the same facts. It was a standardized person pretty much, being produced into the workforce. For those assembly line jobs, that’s what they needed. Nowadays, that’s not what people need. We need creative thinkers that can look at problem and figure how to solve it, not be able to recite Shakespeare, unless that’s what they’re learning about and then they should recite it all. I think that schools are starting to make that change, but people are too stuck to that old traditional not wanting change that in a lot of places, it’s not working out. That transition, but I think it should and it’s good that that movement is pushing towards change.
In a lot of places, having students take such an active part in their learning is still pretty revolutionary.
But a fundamental piece of the change is straightforward: allowing students and teachers to adopt roles in the classroom that let them be partners in learning dramatically changes the landscape. That move, towards a more democratic classroom? Opens up all kinds of possibilities.
The overarching narrative of education in this country involves schools that were set up more than a hundred years ago to meet our then-economic needs: workers with basic skills who could be molded into factory jobs just as surely as the widgets they were creating could be applied to different products.
In Vermont, one of the ways schools are evolving is under Act 77, legislation that calls for the implementation of personalized learning, including a move away from traditional grading systems and towards proficiency-based assessments. CVU instructional coaches Stan Williams and Emily Rinkema co-authored a new book on proficiencies, titled The Standards-Based Classroom: Make Learning the Goal. They’re also the facilitators of the Think Tank course at CVU that Heidi, Beckett and Ulee all take part in.
While Act 77 requires schools to implement proficiencies by 2020, CVU has been ahead of the curve on trying it out.
But how do students feel about it?
Life: Around that, you’re talking about proficiency based learning.
Life: How is that going here? What’s the mess to success ratio on that one?
Heidi: I think it depends on the teachers because some teachers are pretty good with explaining what all your targets mean, like you get it before and that stuff. Other teachers I think are still stuck more in the A, B, C, D, E, F grading. I think that gets really complicated really fast for everybody involved when you have that connection. I mean I think I’ve been lucky that a lot of the teachers I’ve had so far have been more on the understanding side of it. I have an older sister who was here right when they started changing it. I know there were some very tough classes just with the grade aspect because the teacher was just more quite how to teach that way.
I think since we are fortunate enough to be at a school, that’s one of the schools that are actually starting to push forward compared to other ones. That also means we get more the messiness involved with figuring out how to implement it in a good way for the students and the teachers because it hasn’t been done before. Obviously, there’s going to be trial and error, but I think that’s hard to see from anyone’s perspective in the school because students are like, “Well, I want to know what the expectations are in a class. I want to know my grades look like.” It just gets confusing. It can be hard to see in the long run how this is going to benefit people beyond just you.
Ulee: That’s really thoughtful.
Beckett: It makes it really challenging when also since… exactly like you’re saying, we’re the first ones to be doing it. The rest of the system hasn’t changed to how we’re looking at it. Sure we might be trying to push forward and move towards a place where there’s no grades and you’re not focused around this carrot and stick type of motivation with getting the students to actually be excited about learning. You can’t really do that because you still need grades for colleges. When it comes down to it, a lot of students are like, “Well, that’s the only reason I’m here. It’s the only reason I’m caring about this.” It’s really hard to be the first ones to change that because everyone else around you isn’t. You’re left like, “Am I going to be penalized for trying to push forward with this?” It’s hard. It’s really hard.
Life: Why is it complicated when they’re still have one foot on both worlds?
Heidi: I think the point is that you’re grading something different with the new type of grading than the old type because it’s supposed to be less like memorization, spit out the information you learned. It’s more like applying and so they’re not ones that were like you can just lump together and be like, “Okay. We’ll grade how I used to using this new form of grading.” You have to really rethink how it is. I mean I totally understand if you’ve been teaching and suddenly it changes. It’s hard to do that.
Ulee: I want to add to this because when I think about the successes and challenges between different teachers, one thing that really sticks out to me is how standards-based grading is very easy and you can tell in math classes. When things are a lot like you did this right or more humanities-based stuff, you have a lot more. Very successful it’s been. I think that goes right in with what you were saying about …how do I put this? What you’re trying to grade for.
Like with the math class, you’re doing it or not. Like multiplication facts are an easy example. But as to whether you’re not truly analyzing a story correctly? It’s a very difficult thing to grade or score whether or not you’ve met the standard for it.
Life: Because they’re more complex skills.
Ulee: The way you’d go about is different. There’s a lot more work that feels into being able to say whether or not you’ve met the standard in something where it’s not as black and white kind of yes or no.
Beckett: It’s hard to really understand it and get it and have this way of grading to be successful. Both the teacher has to jump into it fully as well as the students, which makes it one side is in a particular class or a different setting. It really just sends the whole thing off balance. People are stuck in their traditions and they don’t want them to change because it’s how they’ve been always doing it just like you guys are saying. It’s really just trying to convince people that it is a good idea and that will work.
Life: What do you look for?
Beckett: I don’t know. This is where the most variance is or at least in my opinion, it’s like whether or not… we have a thing called habit of learning. It’s about your engagement levels and that kind of stuff. It’s in parallel with your actual… whether or not you’re meeting the standards. Some teachers link whether or not you’re able to reassess on that, or they just have some weird arbitrary, like if you did well on this, if you handed in all your home works, you can do this. I had one class where it’s like if you corrected this one sheet, you’ll get a good grade on this and yet that has no correlation to re-assessment policy.
That’s one of the first things that you see that you can tell where the teachers come from and their ideas how everything should fit together because there’s a lot of different moving parts with the standards-based learning. That’s an easy way to see their overall plan of how they all fit together.
Beckett: Yes. In standards-based grading, any test you take, if you don’t like your grade and you think that you can show better learning or more understanding–
Ulee: Improvement, yes.
Beckett: — yes, improvement — you can re-task and re-assess on that information. Exactly like Ulee was saying. It’s just that tangible assessment of does that teacher understand what this is for? Because it’s looking at learning is not like you either can do it on this date or you can’t do it on this date and that decides if you’re good at it or not.
It’s like do you have an understanding of the content? If you don’t have that understanding right now but if you want to put in more work, and then be able to show that understanding, that’s totally fine because you’re still putting in that work to get that understanding. You can look at a teacher, and on both sides, they either don’t let you re-assess and say, “No, you can’t do that.”
Then that shows that they’re not understanding certainly the value of standard-based grading, everything we do, as well as the other side if they just… without doing any other work and just like, “Yes, sure, just take it again.” You’re not testing anything else, or not relying you have to do another worksheet or prove that you’ve done more learning to then take it again, that also shows that because it’s just letting the kids have a redo as many times as they want to and eventually they’re going to hit all the right answers.
I mean that’s just statistically if you take it ten times, you’re going to figure out what types of questions are on there, which one could argue that’s also could be learning how to do it. Right sort of the middle of that where the teacher encourages the kids to do more learning and have more understanding and then once they do, let them re-asses. I think that shows the pivotal understanding of standards-based grading and how it can be applied.
Life: Are there other cues that you look for to see how things are going to work from a proficiency lens when you’re working with a new teacher and a new course?
Heidi: I think having a teacher really makes sure that we understand what exactly we’re looking for in the targets, which skills we’re supposed to be applying stuffy. I think when they really put focus on that, that shows that they… whether they’re totally there or not, they’re at least trying to do their best for teaching using standards. Then I think that in the class where I don’t get that, it definitely feels less standards-driven and more memorization-driven.
Beckett: It’s like the way you’re saying, it shows if the teachers can advocate to the students what these standards are and what they mean and how to meet them and what expectations for the class is looking like, it shows the teacher understands that. Because you really and be able to understand something to be able to show someone else or teach someone else. It shows that the teacher has an understanding of how the targets are going to be used and therefore they’ll have an understanding how those realistic targets… what are they called?
Life: Right. I think that that sometimes can be a hard thing for students as well. You talked about student teachers and students have to be on the same page is like you’re saying that the students, there’s also just this very practical, “Well, that’s great. I want to have things I can learn for my life. They’re transferable, but I also need to get into college. I need to make sure I’m playing the game right.”
Life: Any advice to other students out there, middle school, high school, how to approach this stuff and get the most out of it if your school is going this direction?
Beckett: I think that having a really strong understanding of how the system works and how it’s used and how it applies to your classes really helps you because then you can go back and then not be confused about something because if you’re confused about something, you just add tool in the system. You’re not going to be able to use it to help you with that.
If you’re thinking college-focused, a lot of colleges also… they’re looking at what the school gives you. If let’s say, for example, if your school doesn’t offer any APs, they’re not going to discredit you or take points off from your application because you haven’t taken APs. It’s just not what your school offered.
Ulee: For me, I think there’s an important aspect of balance in school where, all right, there’s certain things that need to be done if you want to go into college. No matter how much of a change it’s going to be, there’s always going to be a little bit where you have to, “I have to take these classes in order to graduate,” kind of deal. I feel like at some point as of now, that’s unescapable, but at the same time you want to balance that with taking things that either you haven’t taken before and using it as a place to explore. You should focus more on doing something that either is new or is interesting to you that is something else and trying to… balancing, exploring with doing like, “I want to do this for my future,” kind of deal because there’s a whole lot of that, setting myself up for the future that you don’t actually know at this point what truly interests you.
If you take an art class that you’ve never taken before and are really into art, you would never have known that if you haven’t had taken that class. It’s trying balance is my advice. Taking things that aren’t going to better you in the future just because you’re interested and you’re going to have fun with it and it’s going to be something new with actual like the diving into setting yourself up.
Heidi: I think this jumps off of what you’re saying for like, keep an open mind, because I know I can sometimes snap judgements especially about something in school. I’m like, “This doesn’t seem like fun. I don’t like it,” but if you allow yourself to explore lots of opportunities and really just take advantage of a time where you have all these options especially in a school like CVU where we have so many different types of classes.
You just try them and you’ll be surprised and find something maybe that you like, and maybe you hate it but at least you know that. You didn’t just say, “You know what? I don’t think I like it. I’m just not even going to touch it.” You took a risk and tried something new.
Right now, we need education to fundamentally change.
- Economically, because we need flexible innovative workers who can thrive in a knowledge based economy.
- Politically, because we need citizens who can think critically and problem-solve the huge problems of the modern world.
- And practically, because we’re just now beginning to grapple at an effective level with issues of equity in our schools.
CVU is one of a handful of schools around Vermont where the students successfully lobbied the administration and school board to fly the Black Lives Matter flag on campus.
It was an action the school’s student-led Racial Action Committee had been working towards for two full years, and was not without controversy. The students wrote newspaper op-eds, collected signatures of support from the community, and presented their proposal to the school board on three separate occasions.
This came after a spate of racist and anti-Semitic graffiti was found on the school campus.
Life: Are there students at this school that you feel are fighting for equity?
Heidi: I think equity in education is very broad and a very tough topic to tackle because there’s so many angles to come at it from. There’s also so many different levels of inequity in education. It could be the school itself, it’s not at the same levels like some other schools. It’s more just the students aren’t as listened to as like in other schools, or it could be something completely different. I just feel like there’s so many ways that there can be an inequity in school, just like with anything in life. There’s so much that people are working on right now that people still need work on, but it’s not an easy problem to fix.
Ulee: We recently had our RAC, Racial Alliance Committee, which I think started only this year in front of the school board, had multiple meetings with them and we got the Black Lives Matter flag raises. There’s different justice groups around the school. We have a club that’s all about being… I don’t remember the name. It’s a club where it’s just go and it’s all about supporting people with disabilities in our school. We have a lot of clubs that actually–
Beckett: Like Unified Sports and stuff.
Ulee: Unified Sports, too, but this is an actual club.
Life: I mean this is a big conversation in Vermont right now with the flag raisings. I think a lot of educators are trying to figure out how to handle this because when you think about old paradigms of schooling, there was a certain widespread belief that schooling should be neutral. That teachers should never show their hands in terms of what political party they support, or even how they feel on different policies, or things like that. We’re not here to indoctrinate kids, we’re just here to give them knowledge. There’s a counterargument that says it’s never neutral. By not saying something, you’re teaching that something as well.
I think people in Vermont are trying to figure out what is the role of Vermont schools for addressing these issues. Most of our schools are mostly white, so should this conversations be happening, how early should they be happening? Should they be happening in the middle school? I don’t know if you guys address these topics when you’re in middle school, or what your thoughts are on when kids can handle these things, and how they should be going while thinking about them?
Beckett: I think that kids are… you’re talking about when they’re ready to handle things like that and I think when they start asking questions and when they start wanting to handle it. I think that’s when the conversation should we have and really based on the students. When they start to be like, “Hey, wait a minute, that doesn’t seem fair,” then giving them… I mean it’s hard because there is that… you don’t want it like to have political beliefs be in the school, but if you present things like the Black Lives Matter flag, it was presented not as a political movement, but as a way to empower students who aren’t as privileged in the school. Sorry. Just letting the students talk about it and letting their voices be heard is really important.
Ulee: Also, a really important part with the raising of Black Lives Matter flag is it wasn’t like this is the administrations like, “We’re doing this.” It was the students came together and they presented it to the administration. They got signatures from around the school and brought that to the school board. I think that’s very different than trying to show your hand. If it’s something that the actual community and the students are like, “This is the thing we want to do.” This is the problem in our school that we’re not having conversations about race and stuff. I think that’s a certain part about when it should be in school. It’s when students actually themselves feel like, “All right. This has got to the point where we need to talk about this and we need to bring this up to the administration,” and stuff like that. I feel like that’s very different.
Life: When the students are pushing it.
Heidi: No, I just think… yes, just what you guys were saying that when the students bring it forward, that’s when… I think our school’s done a good job about when students bring something forward like this listening to them and trying to support them the best they can. I mean I think it’s so much more effective when you see students for some change like this.
I think in the classroom, you do have to learn how to navigate these situations and stuff, but that doesn’t mean that teachers have to take sides. I think it would be nice if you’ve learned how to navigate political situations and had an understanding of political issues that are going on because I mean especially in high school, a lot of kids are getting close to being able to vote and stuff.
It’s really important that we’re educated on topics that we’re going to be voting on. You don’t have to pick a side when you teach that. You can just be like hear the facts, make up your own decisions. I think it is important that we talk about tough topics and we can leave it completely neutral. I do think that it needs to be talked about in some capacity.
Beckett: I think that’s what these conversational-based classes exactly where that comes back in because the teachers can be like, “Here are the facts and then let the students talk about it.” If it’s in that conversation, the students can actually address it and really get into it without having that other… that as you said the teachers showing their hand and putting their beliefs on to try to shape how the students see it.
Heidi: I think I know a huge issue with politics is people being like, “Well, they don’t agree with me, so I just can’t–”
Beckett: The us versus them mentality.
Heidi: When you open it up to have those discussions and you really get to hear from people who have different opinions than you, you start to see like, “Okay. I can see where you’re coming from,” and like, “Well, I disagree. I respect you for that.”
Ulee: It’s learning how to disagree and being civil in that conversation because in a classroom setting, I can’t see a bunch of kids just sitting there yelling at each other just for 20 minutes. There’s intentional structures in the school that already worked that way around that. I think this is a great place to have the structures in place to learn what it’s like to be in disagreement and yet still go to class with some of them next day.
Beckett: Disagreement with the understanding.
Fighting for equity in Vermont education is, and should be a big deal. And it requires making sure students are not just equipped to take part in those conversations but honestly believe their voices are welcome, and that their voices can make change happen. It’s the same set of circumstances that make it possible and worthwhile to implement proficiency-based education; students will report on how it’s going and how it can go better.
It’s just up to our schools… to listen.
If you’re interested in hearing more from students in CVU’s Think Tank, the students all maintain active blogs where they talk about these issues and many more.
The 21st Century Classroom is the podcast of the The Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. This episode was produced by Life LeGeros and Audrey Homan. Thank you to Stan Williams at Champlain Valley Union High School, and of course huge thanks to Heidi, Ulee, and Beckett for being so willing to share their insights.
Our theme music is by Meizong and Yeeflex, as well as this time, Evan Schaeffer. And you can find out more about the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education by visiting tarrant institute dot org.
Thank you, as always, for listening.