Tag Archives: Burke Town School

Developing integrated units from commercial curriculum

Walking through what it looks like to take commercial curriculum and develop a vibrant, personalized integrated unit.

One thing we hear all the time in our work as professional development coordinators is:

“How do you both personalize learning for students AND use the curriculum materials adopted by the district or school? Aren’t these things in opposition?”

The answer is no, they don’t have to be in opposition at all. Like anything worth doing, it takes time, creativity and collaboration.  But you can do it! You can create integrated units that use the Lucy Calkins writing or reading units as a basis, for example. You can turn them — viola! — into project-based learning units that engage and excite students.

Case in point:

Burke Town School in the Kingdom East School District wanted to tackle this problem head on. We helped them to take their leadership team, plus district coaches through an example of what it looks like to create an integrated unit using the Units of Study for Teaching Reading commercial curriculum by Lucy Calkins reading materials. We decided to use the grade four extreme weather unit as our basis for the exercise. Our goals were to:

  • Experience the hands-on process of integrated planning with a focus on personalized learning approaches and using the curriculum as a foundation. 
  • Develop capacity and understanding of the intersections between curricular programs/resources and personalization.

Our guiding question to explore together:

How can we create an integrated unit plan that addresses Teachers College Writing Units, the CCSS standards, NGSS, and other academic standards while personalizing learning?

Here we go. Consider it a creative process. 

Review engaging pedagogies

First, let’s review some engaging pedagogies.

When teachers begin creating a unit, we often choose a teaching pedagogy or approach. And some might say that you can create hybrids of blends of pedagogy in your unit plans. What approach will you use? What are the parts of these pedagogies?

These are all engaging because they feature student choice, voice, authentic audiences, relevance, purpose, and community partnership opportunities. Choose your pedagogical approach that best fits the needs of your students and your topic. 

Create a brainstorm web or map

First step is to think big. What core concept will be at the center of this unit?

In this case, it’s reading about extreme weather. Together create a web of ideas about all of the teaching and learning, possible integration points and parts of project-based learning they might contain. As in, what might be the driving question(s), the exciting launch event, the possible project creations, the community partners, and the culminating event? What concepts connect, extend, and support the learning?

Think big. Think about all of the connections and possible community activities and partnerships.

Here is our web within this theme:

                 EXTREME WEATHER

commercial curriculum

Dig into the unit materials

The unit orientation or overview is honestly something that busy teachers often skip in any curriculum. But really, when creating personalized learning units and approaches, it is critical to read how the unit theme fits together with a progression of lessons and activities. Also, we need to consider how to make sure those activities are as engaging and as personalized as possible.  So, saddle up, and do some reading. Sticky notes might help you label some of these important parts.

  • Look for:
    • Engagement, purpose, entry events, community partners, relevance. 
    • What do you notice? 
    • Possible spots for integration.

Fill in a planning template

commercial curriculum

There are many to pick from and you might have a favorite. We used our own PBL planning template. You can use one you prefer but make sure to address these items:

  • Identify the driving question 
  • Brainstorm the launch event 
  • Decide on the culminating event 
  • List and describe the learning experiences, lessons, and artifacts 
  • Uncover what scaffolds are needed
  • What will students create as an end product?
  • What knowledge, skills, proficiencies will students meet?
    • For literacy, these proficiencies have already been identified. What else?
  • How will students reflect on and show their learning?
  • What assessment will you use?

Plan nuts and bolts

Now consider your next steps. What are the nuts and bolts of this? Grab a colleague, and decide when, what and how will all of this happen:

    • Make sure you have the driving question, the template filled out.
    • Set the date for the culminating event and work backwards from there.
    • Take time to discuss: What are the learning experiences, lessons, and artifacts be?  What scaffolds are needed? How will students reflect on and show their learning?  What assessment will you use? 
    • How will intervention/strategy groups still occur, how will mini-lessons and workshop time be managed?
    • Set up your Project calendar
    • Discuss and decide, how will you monitor the project? (Regular common planning time is essential!)
    • Plan the lessons, create the learning scales, checklists and scaffolds needed

Reflect and Refine

commercial curriculum

All truly great learning emerges from reflection. During your teaching and after the unit is finished, spend some time considering what worked.

  • What did you notice in your students work?
  • What did you see about their connections to the real world?
  • How was student engagement?
  • How did YOU feel throughout the process of teaching the unit?
  • What might you change next time?

All of these reflective prompts will lead you to deepen your awareness of your teaching practices. And teachers need to look back on the learning experiences they create for their students. It’s what makes us all get better at our craft.

The Teacher’s College Units of Study are commercial curriculum ripe for personalization, project-based learning, and building relevance.  This workshop is used throughout many schools. There are endless possibilities for integration, and it just takes a bit of planning, curriculum design, and collaboration. Add this extra planning to the existing curriculum and you can create a rich, rigorous, deep and powerful unit for students.

Share your examples with us.

How have you found ways to bring personalized learning approaches into a commercial curriculum?

We’d love to hear your stories of what worked for you.


Connecting students to community in the Northeast Kingdom

How do we help students connect to their communities, and consider how to enrich community life?

That’s the question Chrissy Park and her 3rd through 5th grade students at Burke Town School, in West Burke VT, have spent their year exploring. Together and in-person, they considered ways they could all take part in their community. Now, as Chrissy and her students face the move to remote learning, they continue that work with renewed vigor.

The Connect Vermont Students to Community Project

After Burke Town School moved to emergency distance learning, Chrissy built digital structures to reinforce and expand on the community work. She created a unit that uses project-based learning structures to shape remote learning.

She built the Connect Vermont Students to Community Project: a four-week online adventure exploring the questions:

  • What is community?
  • Why is community important?
  • Thinking through the lens of the Global Goals, how has community been effected by the pandemic?
  • What do we want to do in the fall to bring community back together?

The unit invites students to consider ways to come together virtually. It also encourages them more than ever to become active, contributing members of their local communities.

She started Week 1 with a Padlet to create daily guides for students. It featured playlists of resources.

You can find her emerging plans here.  Feel free to make a copy for your own use — thank you, Chrissy!

And for dealing taking the project offline, due to bandwidth or screen fatigue, Chrissy’s also created a slideshow of this project, where the resource links could be viewed separately or printed out.

But taking the project online worked so well because of all the scaffolding Chrissy did with students in person, in the before time. She worked with them the entire year on this idea of community connection.

This community work took a village: Learning Lab VT

To focus on community and civic engagement, Chrissy signed up for Learning Lab VT, a year-long project that brings educators together to support each other in pursuing personalized learning. Chrissy’s inquiry question?

How does personalization and project based learning help students connect and engage in their local community?

Chrissy and her teaching team intentionally prepared students to have the skills to engage in community work. They wanted all students, no matter their age, to participate and find success. With the support of the Learning Lab, they invited the Burke 5th graders into roles as consultants and co-planners in this multi-age class. Students quickly took on leadership.

Scaffolding skills and habits to self-direction: introducing the whole loaf metaphor

Early in the school year, Chrissy recognized the need to provide clear, concrete, step-by-step supports for PBL work.

“At the beginning our our PBL time we rushed a lot of things and it ended with students not understanding the purpose of what we were doing and not understanding how what they were doing connected to the real world. We took a step back and came up with 4 slices to our loaf.

We started by having students doing collaboration activities which helped them feel closer to their team members and also helped us realize potential group issues early on in the project. And we then went to our second slice, which was having students practice being a historian by researching a VT landmark. They used a rubric to create an infographic that displayed their findings. Third slice: together we then researched how the global goals were being worked on throughout the world community. We launched our PBL website with all the links they needed. Easy access to a help link on the website supported more independence during project work time.”

Throughout the different slices of the year, students experienced different scaffolds and supports to aid in self-direction and independence. Google Forms helped support a communication flow between teachers and students. Exit tickets and an engagement survey allowed students to provide feedback for mid-project corrections. The Help Link on the project website provided a just-in-time space for students to reach out when necessary but maintain independence. And the Google Doc Project Note Catcher helped group members keep track of the daily work and for teachers to monitor progress and provide necessary supports along the way.

Students as project planning partners and team leaders

Chrissy and her team recognized the importance of students taking an increased role in the design, development, and evaluation of learning in a PBL environment as a key indicator of personalized learning environments.

Kallick and Zmuda suggest, “a balanced approach as students become more capable being increasingly more self-directed and educators find more opportunities to allow students the space to participate in design work.” What Progressively Student Driven Means in Personalized Learning

Chrissy gathered her 5th grade student leadership team and explained their role in this work. As leaders they would partner with her by providing feedback, help plan activities and serve as in-class supports during PBL time.

First, she tasked them to choose standards for different phases of the project. Next, the student leadership team created transferable skills rubrics. They based them on scales they had been using for PBL. The scales focused on what makes for successful collaboration and civic engagement. And, they planned whole group collaboration activities because they recognized the importance of practicing this important skill. Together they created a powerpoint presentation about engagement, personalization and effort and how all three of these connect. Finally, they helped collect and analyze data. And then they proposed solutions to problems that arose from the data analysis and during PBL work time.

The two-pronged approach of scaffolds and student leaders? That was sure to set up these Burke Town students to be successful.

How might you create an extended community of Vermonters coming together with a shared purpose?


Pivoting! to remote PBL

Oh, remember back when we had our project-based learning culminating events all mapped out? Students presenting at Dynamic Landscapes! A school wide community celebration of Cabot Leads! Presentations at Cultivating Sustainable Pathways.. and the Vermont Rural Education Collaborative conference. So many plans, spring days, joining together to celebrate and witness each other’s efforts!

Full. stop. Enter, school cancellation until the end of the year.

First, we can mourn for that loss. The spring celebrations and culminating events for me are one of the most fulfilling and inspiring parts of the school year, when students proudly present what they have created, in their own voices, and how it has changed them, and often positively impacted the world. It is moving, important, purposeful.

*Sigh* After we have mourned this loss, we can pivot. Project-based learning can still happen remotely, and students can still find meaning, purpose, collaboration, joy and share their work with their communities. It’s just going to look different now. We can still feature:

  • relevance
  • purpose
  • collaboration
  • hands on work
  • community partnerships
  • culminating events

We can still use this PBL template, but consider how we can do each part virtually and remotely. So, let’s go! Pivoting to remote/distance PBL. We got this.

Exciting Virtual Launches

Often one of the first, most exciting and important parts of PBL is launching the entry event. These are critical to engage students in the learning, by tapping into relevance, motivation, and excitement. They are something novel, high-interest, that can give students a reason to dive into a driving question for inquiry. Luckily, many organizations see this opportunity to engage students and are giving us resources to do so.

Here are some examples of high interest virtual launches:

The idea is experience something new and exciting… then ask students to generate questions or to pondering a driving question you have created, and launch all sorts of inquiry and thinking.

Moments of Collaboration

It is easy to think that the shift to remote PBL means that students will be working on projects by themselves. But this is not true! Student can work collaboratively on projects with many of the same supports you designed at the beginning. Collaborating on Google Docs and slides? Yep. Creating a timeline and due dates? Yep. Giving each other feedback on work? Indeed. Students will need support with how to do this, as in schedules, dates, expectations and times. This could look like a weekly post describing how they worked as a team that week, or daily exit tickets with this check in.

Here are a few tools that support collaboration in remote project-based learning:

Scaffolding and support

PBL requires lots of support and scaffolding from the teacher, and in the remote environment, this is even more important. What might this look like? It might be providing one slide show of the entire project, step be step, that students can follow, and the announcements that day can say what step your class is working on. It could also be creating a Google Site for the project, with weekly plans and task listed on docs embedded in the site, like this one from Learning Lab participant and 3/4 teacher from Burke Town School, Chrissy Park!

Or it could be clear instructions on Google Classroom in an announcement: “Hey class! Today, use this research note catcher to document your research using the Padlet of sources for your team. Add your main takeaway as a comment to this post sometime this week.”

Remote PBL could take the form of a playlist as well, guiding students through a series of steps to complete the project. Here, you will see Burke teachers Amelia Wurzberg and Courtney Murray continued their year long focus on the United Nations Global Goals with a choice board to pivot their PBL to a remote environment, and provide flexibility to the project.

In thinking about UDL, offer all students support like you might in the classroom: graphic organizers, note catchers, clear instructions and steps, and ways to get more support. Here are the principles of UDL as they apply to remote learning environments.


Regular reflection is a key part of project-based and service learning. Schedule weekly reflection opportunities digitally or on paper, just as online journals such as Seesaw or create digital books such as Book Creator. Or, have students post reflections on Flipgrid. The key is regular reflection with multiple modalities for doing so. Students can reflect on their learning of the transferable skills or other learning targets. All of the strategies in this post are doable remotely with some minor tweaks!

Community Partnerships

These are still possible and important! Many community partners want to be available to support students. Creating a community partner contact list is a good first step, either with students, in your teaching team, or on your own. Then, coordinate ways teams of students can meet with community partners online or get feedback on their working drafts. Check out how folks at People’s Academic Middle Level have partnered with their communities in project-based learning. 

Culminating Events

While these will certainly be different, they can still provide an authentic audience. Any of these ideas could be remote as well.

Students can:

  • send a video presentation to legislators or interested in community groups
  • curate and present a slideshow of work via video or audio to a school and community audience at a virtual event
  • livestream a presentation to a wider audience (with family approval, of course)
  • create and share YouTube video presentations
  • create an Adobe Spark and share online
  • other ideas!

Another example

One example of remote PBL that I recently saw was this one, created by over 100 educators, PBL about this moment in time. A caution, however, that this might be too overwhelming and scary for students who are experiencing loss and anxiety right now. They could focus on other aspects of the project, such as building community, self-care, or other issues related but not directly exploring the virus and its impacts.

Another word of caution

We need to make sure that the design of remote PBL is  equitable and trauma informed. First, any PBL that requires any fancy materials, or any materials actually, that are not usually readily available in the home environment. And before a student uses any home materials, have them check with caregivers at home. Resources right now are challenging to find and manage.

To be trauma informed, the plans need to be flexible and open ended. Plan in student choice, asynchronous opportunities, and adjusted timelines to allow for students who are experiencing difficulties at home. Provide, as Alex Shevrin-Venet shared during a recent webinar, make sure to let “flexibility and empowerment to guide you: offer choices, differentiating, and one choice might be to opt out.”

PBL can be remote, with some planning, and shifting mindsets. How are you moving toward with purpose, motivation and relevance with project-based learning? The keys are flexibility and relevance. We’d love to hear about it!

A critical lens on project-based learning

When we talk about a student in an intervention meeting, we often start with what is amazing about that student. Teachers and caregivers who know the students deeply rattle off talents, skills, and strengths. These are personal and often show up outside of school. There are so many ways to be smart, creative, and self-directed. We start with the positives, with the assets, then move on to what a student might need that they are not getting. This is called an assets or strengths-based approach, where we are seeing students through an appreciative lens. It is a beautiful and affirming way to start a meeting about a student’s needs.

Imagine you are giving feedback on a friend or student’s writing piece. Would you start with everything that is wrong with it? Or would you start with what was strong about the piece?

Most of us respond better to critical feedback once we’ve heard some warm feedback on our work.

Now, imagine how we start project-based or service-learning projects.

Do we start with establishing who knows what about a community, concept or issue, or do we go straight to the “problem”?

One problem I have with problem based learning is how it focuses on, well, deficits or problems.

Perhaps we might begin by learning what is good, right, and positive.

Assets based pedagogies are certainly not new. They have their roots in several curricular and scholarly movements.

  • Critical race methodology “provides a tool to “counter” deficit storytelling” (Solórzano and Yosso 2002, 131). These researchers focus on telling stories that challenge the dominant narratives and seek to fight racism, sexism, and classism. Kim Morrision, in her article, Informed Asset-Based Pedagogy: Coming Correct, Counter-stories from an Information Literacy Classroom, shares that the foundation of assets-based pedagogy are rooted in the work of W. E. B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson, Zora Neale Hurston, Geneva Gay, and Gloria Ladson-Billings. These authors and researchers used critical race theory to explore people’s lived experiences, especially those that had been pushed to the margins and silenced. 
  • Hip hop pedagogy, summarized in this Edutopia post by Joquetta Johnson, is another approach that has foregrounded and validated the experiences of youth in historically marginalized and underserved communities. This approach is rooted in what Gloria Ladson-Billings introduced as Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, which helps students accept, validate and affirm their cultural identities.

An assets-based approach is not new, but it can be easy to forget in the work of designing service and project-based learning experiences.

As educators, we want to engage students in genuine problems and help them solve them.

In our excitement, we may fail to consider background knowledge, the local context, and an exploration of what is going RIGHT.

Coupled with the negativity bias that can plague humans of any age, but sometimes more specifically early adolescent students, the results can be… dare I say it.. problematic.

Students can confirm negative stereotypes, develop biases, and “other” those they are seeking to help.

I’m reminded of the quote by Hazel Edwards: “nothing about us without us is for us.” These concerns drove me to take another look at our project-based learning and service learning templates. I wondered, what might be missing? And while in my earlier writings about service learning, I encouraged teachers to look for local knowledge, and to connect with the deep well of community when planning service learning, there was no equivalent of that in the project-based learning templates and work.

Updated project-based learning template

So the template needed a spot for students and teachers to explore the assets and knowledge of the issues, community, and context before seeking solutions or improvements before diving into looking to improve conditions or solve problems. You can now see that here in the PBL 3.0 (Strength-based PBL) template.

In addition, there is an asset mapping activity linked here, in the service-learning toolkit.

Planning for justice-oriented action

Two students sit behind a desk in a well-lit classroom, speaking to an adult in front of them. A WCAX news camera is also trained on them. From a critical lens on project-based learning.
Photo credit: Burlington School District

But asset-mapping and approaches aren’t enough.

We need to fully work toward equitable learning environments. Environments where our students’ voices are valued, amplified, and listened to. Environments that include them in decision-making, and project-based learning plans. And these should include a step where students work to find a way to disrupt inequities, challenge dominant narratives, and amplify often unheard voices.

Sharing work with authentic audiences is important, and can increase purpose, motivation, and engagement in students. But if we stop there, are we really working to create more inclusive, equitable policies, procedures, and practices in our schools, communities, country, and world?

Helping students move from authentic sharing to justice-oriented action can help them see their own civic power and agency.

It can support the disruption of inequitable systems, practices and policies. Teaching Tolerance standards include identity, diversity, justice and action and urge meeting these standards across grade levels, including saying, “Students will plan and carry out collective action against bias and injustice in the world and will evaluate what strategies are most effective.”

You’ll see a step in the updated project-based learning template for this here. This provides another opportunity for students to deeply reflect on their actions and plans as well.

"Justice/Democracy Oriented Action: What actions might students take to increase democratic and civic engagement? What actions might be planned that can disrupt or expose misinformation, systems of oppression or damaging narratives, practices, or policies/procedures?" from a critical lens on project-based learning

It’s easy to rush through projects, lessons, and curriculum, without interrogating potential blind spots and falling into harmful equity traps.

I am thankful to scholars of color who have shown me the importance of grounding any meaningful project work in an assets-based approach, and to work toward creating more equitable communities through our work with students. While this often happens in practice, being intentional in the design phase of powerful pedagogies ensures that students will have a more meaningful opportunities to make significant changes for good in their schools, communities and world.

What does this look like in practice?

Thankfully, Vermont teachers and students are showing us how to make this work.

How to make sure their projects take direct action, for instance. How to make projects work toward justice, equity, and/or shared goals. Like the United Nations Global Goals.

Jeremy DeMink’s middle school students at Edmunds Middle School in Burlington have participated in a Hands-Joined Learning project about social inequities and worked to take direct action to change them. These projects were in partnership with Jessica DeMink-Carthew, an assistant professor at the University of Vermont. Students demonstrated humanities learning targets through their social action projects, written about here  by WCAX here. You can read more about the Hands-Joined Learning process in this recently published academic article, or in AMLE magazine for more information.

Check out what teacher Christie Nold and her sixth grade students did to work to disrupt bias and stereotypes and build opportunities for students and teachers to explore their identities. These students designed experiences to make their voices heard. Heard by both teachers at a professional conference *and* by their local school board. This demonstrates not only growth in transferable skills and english language arts standards, but in amplifying student voice in decision-making and educational conferences.

Lastly, the Global Goals inspired service and project-based learning at Burke Town School.

The school launched this project with an asset-based, integrated project called Humans of Burke. In this project, students thought of a local community member they admired. They read up on the person’s work. Then they interviewed them, and created an art block print portraits. A local coffee shop hosted a gallery of the portraits for the community. Affirming, positive, community-based. Quite a place to launch service and project-based learning from!

What do you think?

How can we move our service and project-based learning into a more intentional strength-based and justice oriented experiences?


How to make real, sustainable change in the Northeast Kingdom

Think Global Goals, make local change


The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals are ambitious goals that countries, organizations, and institutions are committed to. They provide a framework that inspires students to connect local issues with global movements, to care deeply, and to make their own a plans for positive change. They include things such as:

  • No Poverty
  • Zero Hunger
  • Good Health and Wellbeing
  • Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • Cleaner Water and Sanitation
  • Gender Equality
  • Affordable and Clean Energy

While these may sound pretty daunting, students around the world are finding them useful in designing projects to improve their own communities. At Burke Town School, in West Burke VT, 8th graders have spent the past year putting the Global Goals into action around their school and community. Here’s how it worked.

Sustain your community garden

Last year, one of the projects the 8th graders at Burke did for Global Goals was to plant a garden — outside the Burke Town Offices. The garden continues to thrive, and Burke’s students continue to stock it with plants and seedlings. Burke Town School has a greenhouse on campus, and this year’s 8th graders have been hard at work planting new seeds and establishing how to add them to the community garden, and who will be responsible for them. They’re hoping to teach their community to take what they need from the garden and contribute to the planting cycle. In addition, the 8th graders are teaching Burke Town School’s kindergarteners the fine art of gardening, passing the message on. It takes a village to sustain a community garden.

Put a beehive on campus

Believe it or not, it is possible — with a few caveats. Burke students worked with principal Stacy Rice on what it could look like to install and maintain a beehive on school grounds. Rice helped students get in touch with the district’s insurance agency, to talk about how they’d need to amend their coverage. And here in Vermont, it’s a state law that if you’re going to put a beehive anywhere, you must inform the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. They just like to keep track. Additionally, whenever the students are outside working with the bees, Burke’s school nurse must accompany them, just in case. “I just want it to be part of the school’s culture, just to be normalized to have a beehive,” said Burke 8th grader Wisteria.

Build bike trails

The Northeast Kingdom boasts some of the best mountain biking trails in the country, including the famed Kingdom East trails system. And most of the Burke students are themselves avid riders. So they decided to build their own trails on school grounds, including berms and jumps. The eventual goal is to connect the Burke Town School trails with Kingdom East. Students believe that having readily accessible bike trails at school supports Global Goal #3, “Good Health and Wellbeing”. They hope it will inspire students and the community to be more active.

Make good art — and help people go see it

One of the concerns Burke’s students have is that their community could use more support with mental health issues. Depression is an issue they see a lot in the area. So to raise awareness of mental health issues and more importantly, to get their community talking about them, students contacted some local artists about installing murals around town. They hope the murals spur conversations around mental health, and normalize asking for help when you need it.  In fact, they are planning a community walk/run between these murals to raise awareness. This group also worked with Up for Learning to learn about restorative practices. They then taught the teachers and younger students how to support each other’s mental health needs.

Plant trees for the future

Concerned about plants in the future? Take action now and get some trees in the ground! Partnering with the Connecticut River Conservancy, Kingdom Trails Association, and the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Conservation Group, and “Mad Dog” chapter of Trout Unlimited, (“If you take care of the fish, the fishing will take care of itself.”) students picked up some shovels and got to work, lining a section of the Kingdom Trails bike path with new maples and dogwoods.

Fight hunger at home

Project HOPE is a food shelf serving more than 30 towns across the Northeast Kingdom. In addition to holding a food drive and donating two laundry baskets *full* of food to HOPE, Burke’s 8th graders rolled up their sleeves and turned bakers. Students in the younger grades don’t have a ready source of snacks on Fridays. So with a grant from King Arthur Flour, 8th graders have been making pretzel bites to hold the younger ones over at the end of the week. They also made a huge vat of homemade minestrone soup for Project HOPE’s food pantry. The pantry feeds 15-20 people in the Kingdom each day.

This project-based learning packs a punch

By using project-based learning as a framework for Burke Town School’s Global Goals, educator Morgan Moore provided students with elements key to the impact of the projects.

  • Start with an exciting entry event: At the beginning of the school year, students attended the Cultivating Pathways to Sustainability conference at Shelburne Farms, nearly 100 miles away on the shores of Lake Champlain. They met other Vermont students working on Global Goals and worked with community leaders on strategies for implementing change.
  • Create a driving question: After choosing the most meaningful Global Goals for their local contexts, students brainstormed how those goals could answer a question in the community.
  • Enter the research and creation phase: Students researched how to connect with community partners, and wrote grant applications to fund their projects. They learned from the school how to properly process purchase orders. They made calendars to make sure the work got done on time. Then they did the actual work themselves, digging holes for trees, rolling out pretzels, clearing bike trails, designing murals, assembling a beehive, and planting seeds. Along the way, they documented evidence and reflected on their growth on their PLPs (personalized learning plans). They also considered transferable skills of self-direction, responsible citizenship, and collaboration.
  • Finish with an authentic community sharing opportunity: Burke’s students are returning to Shelburne Farms at the end of the year to share what they’ve accomplished with the same cohort of students from the fall. Additionally, they presented to students from other schools in rural Vermont at the VT Rural Education Collaborative.

How have your students worked on the Global Goals this year?

We’d love to hear about it in the comments!

How does your district hear from — and listen to — students?

Burke students share their learning with district leaders

How many school board meetings have you sat through where the only voices you heard came from adults? When was the last time your community — in school or out — asked students what they liked about school? And what would you do with that information if you had it? Would it make you a better school leader?


Students at Burke Town School, in Burke VT, had the opportunity to present to leaders of their school district on exactly what makes *their* learning so engaging. They spoke with the school district administrative team and gave presentations based on their work incorporating the UN’s Sustainable #GlobalGoals. As a result, they felt more valued and heard by the district’s leaders.

And the district leaders loved hearing from their students.

At Burke Town School, students tackle project-based learning through the lens of taking the #GlobalGoals and applying them to their school and community. They’re:

  • building a mountain biking trail;
  • preparing an art walk for mental health;
  • learning how to eradicate invasive species;
  • planting a community garden;
  • teaching first-aid to the younger grades;
  • and examining water quality for sustainable fishing.

And they’re finding the work incredibly engaging, and satisfying. So the next logical step was to share their ongoing work — and their satisfaction — with district leadership.

Students prepared slide presentations explaining the work along with slides that stated bluntly exactly what they find engaging and meaningful about the work.

We got to teach classes to the younger kids about our project. And do hands on activities with them …

We got to pick a topic that you cared about and then make a project to help our town. And you cared about this project so whatever you did was engaging.

School boards and other district personnel can be incredibly receptive to this kind of feedback from their students.

Don’t *you* like to hear that what’s working well in projects *you* care about?

Former Burke Town School district board chair Tony DeMasi encourages this kind of student voice at school board meetings and beyond. He helped bring in a student advisory group to the school board for many years, and is a big fan of student voice in district decisions.

How can your students provide feedback to district leaders?

How to keep the holiday spirit all year long

A holiday post in January?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May we party all year, for equality.

How do you keep the holiday spirit throughout the year?

5 lessons learned from an integrated middle school PBL unit

Reflections from the Burke Town School

Real World PBLAt Burke Town School, in West Burke VT, students and teachers dove into integrated project based learning (PBL) last year. Here’s what we learned.

Building our PBL unit

This work started with an eighth grade unit, based on the United Nations Global Goals for Sustainable Development. After hearing about this work, teachers knew it would be an excellent organizer for a PBL project. They decided to build time into the school day for students to explore these Sustainable Development Goals, and build their own community service projects.

UN Sustainable Global Goals

Extended planning time allowed educators to creatively deconstruct their traditional school day and work toward building student engagement.

Students showed their passion and creativity, as they dove into creating community gardens, energy committees, water wheels, community dinners, habitat restoration crews, education task forces and wilderness first aid courses.

Here’s how it worked.

In December, students participated in a community fair and several field trips to hear about what was already happening in their community. Then, they researched different goals: What did hunger look like in Burke, VT? How could students in Vermont help fight climate change?

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Once students found goals they would like to work on they were put into task forces (3-4 students) with classmates who had similar goals. The groups then worked together to propose projects and wrote grants to the Vermont Rural Partnership Council for funding. It was powerful for students to fund their own projects, and reach out to community members for help as they implemented projects all spring.

But what did Burke’s students think of the project?

When asked what was engaging about the project, students said:

“I liked how we were able to choose our own project, it wasn’t something assigned to you.  It was completely our own idea. It was something bigger.”

“It’s really good practice presenting, because that’s a high school skill we’ll need to work on.”

“It was very engaging because you thought of your own project, that was important to the town and to you.  We were really focused.”

“Hands on, you were controlling how you were learning, and what you were learning.”

“I don’t think there was any question that was asked of me that I didn’t know the answer to.”

“I feel like this project really helped me understand my school and town b/c I had to research a lot.”

“It really does help you learn how to fail, then restart.  We failed the first time, and then we got it back up, then we failed again.  We realized we couldn’t overreact, and that helps make a project much better.”

“Being outside, being able to choose what we’re going to work on, being able to work with community members.  Understanding our community through our goals.”

“We were able to create our own schedules, we could decide what and when to do, we made our own goals. It was more interesting”

“I liked being my own boss, we could schedule our work time.”

“It was a lot of work, with calendars and dates of field trips, our workload was more complicated because we had to problem solve with other adults, more than just our teachers.”

As this work blossomed, there was interest in extending it to the younger grades.

Teachers wondered if we could build a continuum of transferable skills in grades 5-8, to help students build up to such a large, culminating eighth grade project. As with any good teaching, there was a need to reflect on what had gone well, and what could be improved in this PBL unit, and work to make future units better.

Teachers questioned how to better prepare students for self direction and also how to better structure time within a PBL unit, to ensure standards were addressed, students were assessed regularly, and challenged appropriately.

With these questions in mind, teachers designed a 6/7 Inquiry Unit to try out new structures in PBL learning.

Sixth and seventh grade students learned about forest ecology and also human impact on the environment. Then, they began an invention convention challenge, to build an invention that would lessen human impact. Students again worked in task forces (3-4 students) to research, build, test and improve their invention.

Here are 5 lessons learned from implementing these units.

1. Connect with the community.

A huge success of the 8th grade Projects for Hope happened at the launch of the unit. Read here about how teachers implemented a community fair to help students brainstorm project topics. The importance of community connections stayed an important part of both units. Students embraced learning from a variety of adults in their lives, and teachers leaned on community members to present content information (such as how to teach yoga or remove honeysuckle) that emerged from student projects.

Students spent a lot of time emailing and calling community partners.

This was important work, and just-in-time teaching was provided for students on how to draft professional emails, or make phone calls. Students grew in speaking and listening skills throughout this work. It was also important for teachers to design learning experiences by inviting partners in to teach lessons or lead events that the whole class could benefit from. For both units we also partnered with the local libraries (at Lyndon State College and the town library) to borrow books. Bringing in boxes of new books (fiction, nonfiction, picture books, field guides, and how to manuals) livened up the research portion of the unit. We also utilized the local Fairbanks Museum to teach field trips related to project topics.

2. Structure learning time.

One common misconception is that PBL time is free time. There is a fine balance to encouraging self direction and teaching it. Middle schoolers need structure and teachers need to ensure that there are checkpoints for learning.

A few things that helped Burke teachers ensure this time was structured:

  • Common planning time for teachers
  • Daily agendas
  • Conferencing notes, and
  • Learning scales.

Burke teachers have common planning time each day, and it was extended for half a day, once a month. This time was crucial, since teachers were integrating the unit they needed to be on the same page.

Teachers rotated who supervised what project, and therefore needed to know what had happened before, and what the end goal was. Common planning time was used to create common assessments and calendars of daily plans. These shared Google Docs allowed everyone to stay in touch, even when they were working with different groups.

For both projects, teachers were assigned small groups of students to work with. So while one teacher might supervise a whole room of eighth graders on Mondays and Wednesdays, they had one or two small groups they were working with, within that big group. While the teacher would manage the whole room and sometimes provide whole class instruction, they also had a small group to advise (ensuring that during the week each group was regularly checked in with, and had an adult point person). Advisors kept notes after meeting with their groups on a common doc, which allowed all teachers to know what was happening in each group.

Because teachers were integrating instruction, it became important to have a structure to each day.

Teachers found that opening with a mini lesson, inspirational video, or reflection set the tone of the day. After a few minutes of independent reflection, there was time for announcements and any special plans for the day/week. Then students set a daily goal (on their PLP) and work time began. Work time often looked messy (structurally and physically) but advisors checked in with their groups. At the end of the time students were responsible for uploading evidence of their work to their PLP.

Teachers often found that a closing circle was a nice way to end the day. Students shared one word of the day, or a small group taking more time to share out what they’d done.

It is important to allow for reflection and evidence collection in PBL work, and teachers soon learned that ample time needed to be built into the schedule for this. Reflection can’t be done while students are packing up, it needs to be intentional. However, it can happen in varied ways, and as the unit went on students fluctuated between teacher created reflection templates to platforms such as FlipGrid, photo evidence, Instagram posts, written reflection, etc.

3. Team-building is key

This type of PBL work requires students to communicate in small groups often. While students received individual assessments on project standards, they needed to work with others, often for extend periods of time, to make this happen. Teachers addressed this by beginning both units with ample team building (both within the middle school, the eighth grade, and the 6/7 group).

We pre-taught communication strategies and the stages groups go through (forming, storming, norming) through games and simulations.

Then, as students began their project work, advisors pointed out to students when they thought they were in a certain stage (and helped them communicate through difficult times). It became important for team-building work to happen within the small task forces (as well as the larger middle school) so that students could work together well. As with any group work there were challenges. But teachers saw students have great outcomes, many times among peers they wouldn’t have usually worked with, which is hopefully working toward a stronger school community.

4. Use best teaching practices you already know!

An important learning for our team was that PBL does not mean you have to learn a new way of teaching.

You can use many of the best practices already present in your classroom to encourage student learning in PBL. For example, teachers integrated Lucy Calkins Writing Units of Study into the PBL project by changing the topic of the 8th grade argument writing unit. Instead of writing about the same topic, students researched their representatives and wrote letters (that they actually mailed) arguing for support of their global goal. Here is a letter received back by and eighth grade student:

In addition to integrating existing curriculums, teachers also realized it was possible to find authenticity in other everyday teaching practices. Advisors conferenced with students much as you would in a reading workshop (looking over the PLP, noting celebrations, and giving students a concrete next step). We also used common assessments and kept students accountable to their learning through common learning scales.

Teachers also used community partners and their own expertise to teach.

To start the 6/7 unit students went through stations for the first few weeks – STEM teachers taught forest ecology, Humanities teachers led research and population lessons and others led team building. In this way, we covered content standards, while allowing students to investigate choice topics and build hands-on, outdoor projects!

5. Authentic audiences increase learning.

A surprising celebration that came from these units was the amount of authentic sharing students were able to engage in. A huge celebration for teachers, parents, and students was seeing the community learn from students. Everyone (teachers and students) saw a huge improvement in student speaking skills, as they presented in front of large crowds, wrote emails, called community partners, etc.

Students shared their work with other young people in the NEK at the Vermont Rural Partnerships Spring Conference. They also shared at the Shelburne Farms Sustainable Development Conference. They encouraged teachers to try project based learning through presentations to school boards, administration teams, and at Dynamic Landscapes.

Students also shared with parents/community members at Burke’s Student Showcase Night.The evening included musical performances and a student-led community dinner as well as project showcases.

As a measure of how successful this year’s even was, it was the first year we ran out of food because so many people attended!



This project was made possible by a grant from Teaching Tolerance.

4 ways to jazz up a school exhibition

Going beyond the gallery walk

community based learningExhibition season is upon us!

And as you’re making ready to throw open the doors of your school and welcome in the community, let’s look at a handful of ways to jazz up any school event: by planning your capturing in advance, making interactive takeaways, going off-campus(!) or setting up a digital guestbook.

Continue reading 4 ways to jazz up a school exhibition

Developing empathy for your community

Meet the Humans of Burke

community-based learning the humans of burkeSo many schools operate in isolation from the very communities they are situated in. Do your students know community members? Does your community see your students as young community members?

One small school in Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom interpreted the popular “Humans of New York” project to foster connection between their 8th graders and the town’s community. Meet the Humans of Burke.

Continue reading Developing empathy for your community

Using student TED Talks to showcase learning

why digital composition mattersTED Talks are short, personal powerful storytelling. Now: how can students use this medium as motivation to learn, to explore their purpose, extend their perspectives and understandings, and develop strong storytelling and presentation skills?

Let’s find out.

Continue reading Using student TED Talks to showcase learning

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

Kick off project-based learning with a community event

Hope launches in the Northeast Kingdom

real world project-based learningAs part of participating in the UN’s Global Goals, students at Burke Town School, in West Burke VT, kicked off their service learning projects by inviting their community’s leaders to come to the school and ask for what they needed. What would make West Burke a better place to live? And how could these students help?

Introducing “Project Hope”.

Continue reading Kick off project-based learning with a community event