Tag Archives: Crossett Brook Middle School

On Fostering Brave Spaces


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Hello, my name is Grace Gilmour. I’m a seventh and eighth grade social studies teacher. And today I’m going to be talking about:

“How do we foster brave spaces for discussions about race and other forms of oppression in our classrooms?”

In the fall of 2020, I designed and implemented a unit that was meant to create a framework that we can come back to throughout the year.

It was supposed to (and did) introduce different social justice concepts and vocabularies as well as skills. So throughout the year, as we were discussing other time periods in history, case studies through history, we’d be able to come back to these concepts to help us understand them through a social justice lens. And the other purpose of this was to really build my students’ stamina for having increasingly difficult conversations about racism and other forms of oppression.

I think it’s first important to note that intervention may take different forms in different communities.

So, I work in a community that is majority white, and so our focus has to be on:

How do we protect and empower those few students of color that we do have while also giving our white students the understandings and skills and literacies?

True literacies, that they need in order to live in a more equitable world and a democratic society in which all people are valued. So I want to start by just reading this quick paragraph that I wrote that I think sums up why this is all necessary:

“Race and racism are key to understanding and dismantling inequity in America due to the persistence of the ideology of race and white supremacy. The hegemony of whiteness remains entrenched in systems in ways that are not always immediately apparent, especially to white people. This is compounded by individualism and claims of colorblindness which serve to justify or hide racial disparities in a racist world. These historical ideologies have left many white people racially illiterate, but racially conscious when perceiving other racialized groups. Imagining that race is not real conserves white supremacy by preventing it from being interrupted.”

And this plays out in what we know about how white students interpret race and understand race.

In a study done by Michael and Bartoli in 2014, they found that overall white students and white teenagers did not have the understandings and skills to engage in discussions about race. They found that by and large white teenagers held really contradictory ideas about race. They oftentimes expressed so-called colorblind ideas while also holding stereotypes. So, they would say out loud, “I don’t see race” or, “I don’t see color”. Or “We’re all the same race: the human race.”

But then they would also hold stereotypes about Black people. And they also saw any mention of race as racist.

I know I oftentimes saw my students try to avoid naming race; try to avoid it to the best of their ability. They would say anything but someone’s race. Say anything *but* race or racism.

And this really comes down to this idea that white students overall lack an ability to analyze systems through the lens of racism. Therefore they’re looking at outcomes and they’re putting those through the lens of individualism. They’re seeing these things as individual failures rather than as a result of historical and current structural racism.

So we really need to give our kids understandings about race and about racism in order to be able to accurately interpret what they’re seeing around them.

Schools have a clear responsibility here, right?

The way I see it is we can really either be interrupters or perpetuators of the systems of oppression. Right? We can either continue them by omitting discussions of race and other forms of oppression in our classrooms or we can face them head on.

And in addition to that, we also have a duty to prepare our students for an increasingly multi-cultural multi-ethnic multi-racial society. We have a duty to prepare our students to take part in a democracy that involves a lot of different types of people.

So how do we do that?

That is a big ask.

Grace Gilmour Fostering Brave Spaces


I kind of boil it down to components and to understandings and into skills. What are those things I’m wanting to target to make sure my kids understand and make sure my kids are able to do so?

I wanted them to understand that race is not biological, but rather a social construct and a power construct as Kenny would call it. Explain why race —  despite not being biological — is an important aspect of many people’s identity. Being able to identify the difference between individual and systemic racism.

Most of my students if you asked them what is racism, they would tell you racism is when someone calls another person a racial slur. But before this unit, they really lacked that understanding that racism is also systems that have inequitable outcomes. Also being able to analyze the importance and impact on intersectionality.

Thinking about both as an individual, as looking at others, what are those different parts of their identity that are impacting their experiences in the world?

And then finally being able to analyze my own privileges and disadvantages. Looking at my own social identities,  what are the aspects that maybe marginalize me? What are those aspects that give me privilege?

In terms of skills, there’s some clear skills kids need.
  • Being able to identify and analyze racism and anti-racism in language, actions and media.
  • Being able to interrupt when they see or hear bias remarks or actions.
  • And being able to take action and create change through civic engagement.

Again, thinking about that democracy piece. Recognizing and analyzing both racist and anti-racist ideas and actions in myself and in others. Again, that self-reflection. And that acknowledgement that racism isn’t always in some far-off bad guy, but also is found within ourselves.

And then I can use strategies to manage my racial stress. I’ll talk about that more in a bit, but that’s that idea of:

How can I manage my feelings of discomfort, my feelings of strong emotions that maybe prevent me from hearing what people are saying?

That might pop-up as fragility, for instance. Or defensiveness. All right, so why start with social identity? For middle schoolers in particular they’re at this age where they’re already trying to develop a sense of self. Who am I and who am I in relation to others? And they’re also developing their own moral compasses thinking about what is fair, what’s not fair, what is just.

Social identity gives all students an entry point because we all have social *identities* — plural, right? We all have different aspects, different social groups that we all belong to.

And then finally this idea that the self and understanding ourself is a precursor to understanding society. And through doing this work with social identity, we’re able to build the empathy that is necessary to have these further discussions about race and colonization and other forms of oppression.

The next thing that’s really important for us to think about is how we’re thinking about this word “safe” and what is its role in education.

We oftentimes talk about creating “safe spaces” and I understand why, right? We need to feel safe in order to learn, in order to connect with others. The problem with that is: whose safety is being valued? Whose safety are we valuing, especially when we’re having conversations about racism?

And so many people have talked about the concept of brave spaces.

Glenn Singleton has done a lot of work on courageous conversations. I really like though what San Pedro proposes; this concept of a sacred truth space where our goal is to seek truth rather than seek safety. So he said he proposes the creation of a sacred truth space where students are able to engage in the often vulnerable act of telling and hearing multiple truths. Where safety is not necessarily the goal. Rather the goal is creating a dialogic space to share our truths and to listen and learn the truths of others.

So this idea of like, shifting our idea of safety and what our goal is.

Easy, right?

How to put it into action

So in order to kind of break that down into what that actually could look like, these are some things that I sought to do as I was building my community with my kids:

  • Generating community agreements
  • Building community connection
  • Feeling connected to each other
  • Explicitly teaching skills and practicing these skills around social, emotional skills that would help us to engage in these conversations.

Because listening feels particularly important:

  • How do we listen patiently?
  • How do we listen actively?
  • And how can we be aware of the space and time that we’re taking up with our voices?

And then a part of that also is teaching and practicing strategies for dealing with strong emotions. So when we’re feeling those strong feelings how can we deal with that? And how can we deal with that with others? Also establishing norms for conversations that are practiced regularly and are reinforced. Creating time and space to debrief individually, in small groups, in whole communities, in small groups.

It also might be helpful especially in majority white spaces to create affinity groups.

I have not done that this past year, but that is something that I’m interested in thinking about as well. Plan for strong emotions as a teacher; it’s going to happen. Have a script for yourself. What are you going to do when those strong emotions come up?

And then finally scaffolding discussions. Sentence stems are great, or sentence starters, discussion protocols. What is the system that we’re using is also great.

I use a lot of talking pieces in my room, they’re wonderful. How can we scaffold these discussions so we’re not just throwing kids in and expecting them to know what to do?

Starting with norms and standards

I started by looking at standards. I use Teaching Tolerance’s social justice standards. They have K-12 and they’re in these four kind of big categories of identity, diversity, justice, and action. These are are the pieces that we were working on with this first unit.

Grace Gilmour, "Fostering Brave Spaces"


I pulled from Quin Gonnell’s middle grade social justice curriculum. I’ve relied on him very heavily for the beginning of this unit when we were kind of starting and setting the stage for this work. So we started with looking at what our hopes and fears were. And then we thought about how could we create norms that would help us reach our hopes while also addressing our fears?

So these are the norms that I developed with my students that came out of that work:

  • Listen to understand rather than respond.
  • Be open to new ideas.
  • When we mess up, we make it right.
  • Stay present and engaged.
  • Speak your truth, and
  • Be respectful of each other.

And we’ve used these throughout the year.

Making space for strong emotions

The next thing we did — also pulling a lot from Quin Gonnell’s work — was preparing students for strong emotions.

We talked about comfort zones and learning zones.

We discussed and modeled strategies for responding to triggers, and actually had little sentence stems to help them with those as well. And we spent a lot of time at the beginning of the year just building community and connection — and hopefully trust — through check-ins and games. Then we practiced those discussion protocols so that we can kind of fall back on those structures. And we practiced those with accessible topics.

We didn’t jump in right away talking about racism or talking about sexism.

We initially talked about things like “would you rather” games and things like that, to get them used to those protocols.

And then some of our major topics were levels of oppression, social mobility, intersectionality, positionality, gender and sexuality bias, personal versus social identity, social and power construction of race. And then just the concept of justice. What is justice?

As a white woman I thought it was really important for me to try de-center myself as much as possible. And also just be really reflective and vulnerable with my students.

“What do middle schoolers need to understand about social identity and oppression?”

With that in mind, I wanted to really carefully integrate the arts and the personal testimony of people of color, as well as people with other marginalized identities.

So, we oftentimes started class with poetry or music or art or TED Talks or short stories just to kind of anchor ourselves, as well as center people with these marginalized identities. We also journaled every day, we modeled and practiced vocabulary usage. We had structured discussions. And then we oftentimes would end class with a more individualized guided inquiry where I would pose a question such as “Why are schools still segregated after Brown v Board?” And then kids would investigate that using resources that I provided.

So that was kind of every lesson.

And then the end of the unit we did a project where kids were asked to answer the question,

“What do middle schoolers need to understand about social identity and oppression?”

That was kind of our big overarching question. And then kids designed projects to do that.

Here’s some of the projects that kids created.

One was looking at the intersection of race and LGBTQ identities. Others looked at the school-to-prison pipeline, racial socialization in America, implicit bias, impacts of redlining today.

Overall for my students, the biggest kind of takeaway that was reflected in a lot of their reflections that they wrote was the shifting from an understanding of racism as something that happens between individuals to something that oftentimes happens between systems and from systems down.

Grace Gilmour, "Fostering Brave Spaces"


Some successes that I had: students regularly utilize social identity and justice concepts now without prompting. And with increasingly less prompting over time, they’re showing a much higher level of nuance. When we’re looking at history or current events, they’re able to kind of use these frameworks as a lens. They’re showing a greater understanding of their different social identities and how they impact them.

On a personal level I feel very much closer to my students this year than I have in the past.

I think that the vulnerability and the level of reflection that a unit like this takes just makes you closer as a community. I had six students come out to me this fall. And in addition I just had more students reaching out to me for various things and to seeing me as a person that they trust. Which I have really valued.

Over the course of this unit and this year, students also showed just less discomfort and hesitancy especially when talking about and naming race and racism. They’re no longer treated as bad words by my students. I’m hearing them just feel more comfortable naming those.

They’re also increasingly using strategies to interrupt oppressive language without me intervening. I hear very little oppressive language in my classroom anymore. I’m not naive to think that that is true outside of my class, but we’ve created an environment in which it’s very clear that oppressive language is not acceptable. And students have been able to interrupt that language without my support more and more.

Other things I’m going to work on are things I’m willing to work on.

In my curriculum, I’m wanting to — in addition to talking about oppression — also be talking about Black joy and Black creativity. And really also emphasizing moments not of oppression, because I think there’s a real danger of re-traumatizing kids, traumatizing kids or having my white students see Black people as only oppressed. I really want to emphasize that moving forward.

I also want to have a greater emphasis on Indigenous history and current events.

This is admittedly an area that I need to do a lot more learning in. I’m really trying to seek out resources right now to be able to do that more effectively with kids. And I’m wanting to make more explicit connections to the present oppression throughout my curriculum.

I’ve never shied away from the more traumatic or more difficult aspects of our history. I have at times done a poor job of connecting that to what we’re seeing now. So showing the through line from this history to our present. I’m really wanting to be better about that.

And then professionally I’m really ultimately wanting to acknowledge that this is a process, that I’m never going to do it perfectly and that I need to always be striving to do it better. A big part of that is just centering myself on the why, right? Which for me is I’m really wanting to do my part in creating a world in which people from a variety of identities can feel valued, can feel empowered and have equitable access to society. I believe strongly in democracy and in creating a world in which we actually can have an equitable democracy.

So that’s my why. And I want to continue just to center that as I’m doing this work.

If you have any questions definitely email me at gracegilmour@gmail.com. Thank you so much.


Tom Drake’s Bright Spots & Belly Flops

Without question a big #highfive goes out to the opening of classroom and school doors through visiting other schools and having other schools visit Crossett Brook and Team Quest. Professional isolation in the education profession is real and is really limiting, and having a system in place to visit and be visited is great.

Another offshoot #highfive goes out to the thinking that has come from these visits, along with the brainstorming from readings/videos/conversations.

“What is truly the best environment for learning?”

remains an unanswered question since the first public school opened in 1635. …384 years! For me, that is both a big point of frustration and a major motivator.

Maybe we can be the ones to figure it out!

Towards that end, I would apply a big ‘ole #bellyflop to being further along in answering that question of the best learning environment.

Personalization and student-centered is what I have been most focused on, and Team Quest is forging ahead in shaping this environment with their 45 sixth graders. The environment in their classrooms is alive and vibrant in so many ways.

But can I say with conviction that this is the “best environment for learning”, and that all classrooms should look like those on Team Quest? I cannot as of now, and that remains a point of frustration for me.

Regardless, ahead we go.

8 ways feedback makes proficiencies work

Meet Grace Gilmour, and her proficiency-based classroom.

assessment in proficiency-based classrooms“Oh yay. I was like: yay, my heart.”

This was Grace Gilmour’s response to a student’s honest appraisal of her class: “I love it in here because I always feel like I know the next steps on the road to improving.”

Grace teaches social studies to 7th and 8th graders at Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, Vermont. Like teachers across the state, she has been working hard to implement proficiency based learning in her classroom.

If you ask her how it’s going, Grace will likely smile and whisper, “it’s working.”

Continue reading 8 ways feedback makes proficiencies work

What students want you to know about school

The art of listening

The 21st Century Classroom podcastWe are big believers in including student voice in our storytelling. Usually we ask students to talk about a specific project or experience that we are featuring. But what if we left it open ended? We wanted to find out what students would talk about in a free-flowing conversation about what is meaningful for them about school. We learned a lot, and we hope you do too.


A full transcript appears below.

Rowan: School shootings: like that happened and it was just yesterday. I’ll come to school knowing that just happened, I’m not okay right now. If we talk about it in class, then when I go to sleep at night I’m not worrying about it anymore because I know that I can change that or that I can be part of the change.

Narrator: Today, on the 21st Century Classroom, we are going into listening mode. We want to feature student voice in a new way by asking students to talk about school. Our questions are open-ended and our agenda non-existent.

We bet that educators will be able to learn a lot by tuning in to a free-form of conversation among adolescents.

Our students today hail from Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, VT. 250 grade 5-8 students from Duxbury and the larger town of Waterbury attend the school. These two towns form a rural community that sits on the east slope of the Green Mountains right under the majestic Camel’s Hump, Vermont’s second tallest and most recognizable peak. Looking at the school from the scenic Route 100 highway, you see a modern looking structure surrounded by soccer fields with a forested hillside as a backdrop. A long driveway lined with maple trees leads to the school. You might also notice the chicken coop of the school’s signature sustainability program, colorfully decorated by a student-created mural.

Although the school sits geographically on its own – most everybody needs to drive or take a bus to get there –

Our students today talk mostly about how much they want their schoolwork to connect to the community and the real world.

Let’s meet them.

Shyannah: My name is Shyannah. I am an eighth grade.

Photo of girl

Damien: My name is Damien and I’m in seventh grade.

Photo of boy

Jordan: I am Jordan and I’m in eighth grade.

Photo of boy

Rowan: I’m Rowan and I’m in seventh grade.

Photo of girl


Narrator: So these four wonderful students were somewhat randomly selected by social studies teacher, Lori Morse, who is on Team Prodigy, one of two 7-8 grade teams in the school. As the discussion ensues, don’t worry about trying to track who is saying what, just roll with it as a group conversation. Try to tune in to what these students express when given an open opportunity to share.

The first question was simply: what is meaningful to you in school?

Jordan: Any opportunity to grow and learn in the area of kind of just outside world like sustainability and Ms. Morse does a really nice job with, you know, she actually changed the world as an opportunity to donate money to humane societies or maybe just make our community better.

Shyannah: Yes. I think sustainability helps us to notice what’s going on around the world that we’re not really aware of. I definitely think that it’s good that we have something like that and Ms. Morse just teaches a lot about like how it’s good to be a good person and to help in the little things that could change a person’s life.

Rowan: This Civil War project that was due recently, that whole thing, just even the little bits of the video, things that may have liked researched at home, all those little things. Even though they were like in the past you can still kind of– I don’t really know what the right word is but like, kind of like apply it to what’s kind of happening now and kind of like some things, not all things–

Damien: Yes, if we don’t know what happened in the past we don’t know what we’re going to do in the future like we’ll never learn from our mistakes. She kind of tells us– In the beginning she told us like this happened to get rid of slavery but racism is still real and stuff like that. Sexism, and a whole bunch of other things.

Narrator: What kind of connections did you make from the Civil War up to what’s going on now?

Shyannah: I noticed that even though the confederates were fighting for like slavery, it’d still be going but not all of them were bad. I’d like to think that they were all for it, they just lived there. Because I’m African-American, I hear a lot of racist things but I don’t let it ruin my life because African-Americans then were treated a lot worse than I am. I’d like to think that I had it better than they did.

Damien: I agree. I’m also African-American and although racism isn’t all the way gone, it’s nothing like it used to be. I hear some things that are nasty or bad, but African-Americans used to be treated much worse than we are now. So it’s kind of not really nice to think about but and I’m not sure I want to talk about it because it’s kind of a sensitive topic. Someone might not have the same opinion but I think the way he targets his audience is people who feel vulnerable or want something and he targets them by saying something they want to believe.

Rowan: They kind of feed it.

Damien: Yes, like he feeds them false information and they want to believe it so they do believe it’s true. If you heard something like I don’t know, like if you heard something you wanted to believe you want to believe it.

Rowan: Like a rumor that you like, I don’t know. I’m not sure if like is the right word but, yes.

Narrator: Does she just tell you these things because she has really strong opinions or how does it actually play out–

Shyannah: She does like to talk about if there’s school shootings she’ll make sure that we’re okay and that if we ever want to talk about it we can–

Rowan: It’s okay.

Shyannah: Yes, it’s open to talk about it.

Rowan: Because it’s something that’s happening now and it could be like somebody has changed the world. You can kind of openly talk about it in her classroom and kind of hear other people’s opinions, her opinion, what everybody has to say about it. Sometimes you may have like this giant weight on your shoulders because of it and after that you’re kind of just like, oh, good.

Narrator: That was interesting because I started up by saying what’s kind of the most meaningful stuff for you. I thought you’d maybe talk about something that’s really fun but you guys talked about sustainability and kind of some heavy stuff you’ve been looking at, social studies. Help me understand that.

Do you think students like to deal with serious stuff?

Damien: I don’t think we like enjoy it but it’s not like something I’m going to talk about all the bad things for fun but it’s like–

Rowan: Like a reality check.

Damien: Yes, it’s like reality check and when you talk about it it takes the weight off your shoulders.

Narrator: Help me understand that.

Shyannah: I think it’s helpful because if your parents don’t watch the news and there’s something that like bad happened–

Rowan: And we just hear it from around.

Shyannah: Yes, and we talk about it, I think that feels really helpful because I don’t like to watch the news because there’s a lot of politics and I don’t like to think about politics because I’m still too young to vote. I definitely think it’s helpful because if there’s a school shooting you’ll hear about it but it’s not totally clear. If you know someone from where it is, it’s definitely helpful so that you can check up on them and it’s scary to think that there are so many things wrong and that we’re not doing anything about it. I think that she should try to help us understand that.

Narrator: I’ve had conversations about these kinds of heavy things before where I came away feeling like overwhelmed. You guys said sometimes it makes you feel like it’s a weight off your shoulders. I don’t know if you’ve had both of those experiences or if you know what makes the difference for moving it towards kind of the more positive.

Rowan: Sometimes I come to school kind of knowing back to actually the school shootings and like that happened and it was just yesterday. I’ll come to school knowing that just happened, I’m not okay right now. If we talk about it in class, then when I go to sleep at night I’m not worrying about it anymore because I know that I can change that or that I can be part of the change and then sometimes it’s like even if there’s not a little bit of talk about it like how you can change it, sometimes I’ll just go to sleep feeling, oh my gosh, a lot.

Shyannah: I think it helps to talk about tough stuff. It feels like it takes a weight off the shoulders.

In sustainability class last year, we all wrote letters to ourselves. About what we wanted to do when we grow up and how we want to change the world. I said to be more sustainable and not use a lot of electricity because of what it’s doing to the Earth. Part of my letter was like I want my children to be able to drink water. To be able to see animals that are still around because they’re dying off because of what we’re doing to the earth. It’s a lot of pressure for us because we’re still young. But we can still do things about it. It does put a lot of pressure on us. But it kind of lifts like the weight off when we talk about it and when we actually do things.

Jordan: Adding on to what you said, also they’re educating us about this because they want us to pursue a job in the future that can help lead these global causes and help us keep animals, keep the giraffes and stuff in the places that are being destroyed. I think that is probably, I mean when you think about it and you watch the news and stuff, at first it’s not great but I think one leading to another,

You have to feel not great first to feel like the weight is lifted off your shoulders once you do something about it.

Narrator: Do you get a chance to do stuff about in school?

Shyannah: Yes, like change the world. You pick a topic and you can do anything. I’m doing something with animals. I earn money and give it to the homeless shelter. I also would want to go there and just see the animals. See how they’re treated because they might not be treated well. And if they don’t get a home they usually get put down, so…. I think that we should offer the teams to do change the world because we could do a lot. And like other schools too. We could change the world so fast if we had a lot more people involved.

Narrator: It’s a cool idea. That’s like my next question.

In your wildest dreams, what would school be if you could just like make it out from scratch?


Jordan: I think that math is great, science is great, language arts is great, and social studies is also really good. But, if I could add something it would probably be a class about global problems or something like that where each student pursues a problem and find something to do about it. I think that’s what partnership for the goals is when it comes down to the global goals. I think that they could definitely benefit from that.

Shyannah: I think that if we have like a class to teach us about… not really business but how we’re going to go into life not closed-minded, be like more open-minded.

Rowan: Knowing what we’re going into and kind of not that we’re closed off from the world right now but kind of being more that class when in my mind we would like open up and allow us to understand what we would be going into.

Narrator: What about beyond the subjects?

Do you have ideas about how school would be better like if the way teachers taught was different?

Damien: I think teachers do a pretty good job with this already but more hands-on learning like projects. I think it would be a lot better instead of writing on paper if we did some sort of project. Which I feel like in social studies, in science we do that a lot. 

Shyannah: I feel like if we– Sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off. I feel like if we did a lot more things off of electronics. And you did a lot more paper. Because all we’re doing is sitting on our phone book most of the day. It’s really not good for you.

Also, to add what classes we should have I think band and chorus is definitely helpful because since I’ve started band I’ve been getting a lot better grades.

Rowan: You have to learn fast. You have to keep up, you have to keep practicing, and you have to learn the pieces. You only have maybe one or two months to learn that a piece and you have to learn it well or, you know, we are kind of going to just be not blowing and just kind of figuring off.

Narrator: It’s really performance.

Damien: Right.

Shyannah: It makes us feel good when we’re all together and we’re all doing well even though that sometimes we’re not totally focused on what we’re doing in band. We’re all learning and we’re learning to work together with people even if we’re not friends.

Rowan: You kind of nail that piece eventually and you’re like, I just did that.

I can do that in all my classes and then you succeed in every one of your classes. It’s great.

Narrator: If I can see a theme, it sounds like a lot of the stuff you are saying is about connecting to the world. With sustainability and change the world, you’re all doing stuff on the road. You’re in a band, you’re actually performing for raw audience. Is that too big of a generalization to say that–

Shyannah: No. And I think chorus is also very good, too. Because this year I got a solo and it was like adrenaline. I was really proud of myself. I was able to stand up and sing in front of a bunch of people that I didn’t know.

Even though I was nervous, I was still proud of myself. It like pushes us to do stuff that we might not be comfortable with. It pushes us out of our comfort zone.

Rowan: It’s kind of, oh right. Miss Dubois, she does the musical. You do have to audition but this year it was Ms. Dubois and Ms. Morse and they’re really supportive. They’re like you did a great job. That’s really nice to hear but then there’s only two people. Then once you finally get on stage and start performing the night of the show … I was terrified this year because I never had a big role. It’s kind of like you’re performing in front of, I don’t know like–

Shyannah: Hundred?

Rowan: Maybe a hundred people that you don’t know over half of them. Once you do it, you’re kind of like–

Damien: It’s really cool to have out of school communities and I really had fun in school this year kind of having the music weirdly.

It was just nice knowing that if I’m like down, if I’m not doing well or something I can just think of it. If I could like get this role in musical and if I can do this then, yes. I don’t know, it’s just really nice.

Narrator: Wow, what a great conversation. The last comment in particular was so interesting. I later found out that this student had recently played the lead in the school play. He had worked hard to get the part, and then worked hard to make sure he did an awesome job. No wonder he plans to look back at that when he’s having a tough time. Basically he’s built that resilience. The resilience that comes with having been challenged, truly motivated to try, and then supported to succeed.

My big take-away from this conversation is that these kids are asking to be pushed out of their comfort zone.

They don’t want school to be a sheltered place – they want as much contact with the real world as possible. Students want to talk about tough things, like slavery, modern racism, climate change, and school shootings. They want to face authentic challenges, like making a positive impact on their community, or performing for an audience.

So let’s give it to them – the real world, warts and all, with opportunities to make it better. This conversation makes me confident that the young adolescents of today will rise to the challenge.

Thank you to the Crossett Brook Middle School Chorus for that wonderful rendition of the state song.

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 me, Life LeGeros. Huge thank you to Damien, Shyannah, Jordan, Rowan, and their teacher Lori Morse. Our theme music is “Sunset” by Meizong and Yeeflex, the Argofox release.

students from Crossett Brook Middle School


Good luck out there, educators, and whatever you do, keep listening to students.

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

One mural, multiple legacies

Beyond the Passion Project: Clara wanted to do something amazing for her final Brainado project. She wanted to push herself and leave a “remembrance,” as she called it, commemorating the sustainability program at her middle school. She envisioned painting a Crossett Brook mural on the newly constructed, pristine greenhouse. She only had one small problem: “I have no artistic ability.”

But she went for it.

She found a partner, a community mentor, and unexpected help. She made mistakes and fixed them. And she worked far beyond the project period, up until the last week of school. The mural is amazing to look at but has impact far beyond the visual. Clara thought she was painting her legacy but she was also expressing the legacy of the educators who cared for her.

Continue reading One mural, multiple legacies

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

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

Changing the who, the what, and the when

The transformation of Team Quest

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

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

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

How to bake an inspiring kickoff video

Launching a new project cycle with inspiration from the last one

"Video in the Classroom"Organizing your realia — testimonials, storytelling and artifacts — from a round of projects can feel overwhelming. So much footage! So many interviews! ALL THE IDEAS!

Resist the freakout: here’s a recipe for pulling your footage together to inspire a new cycle of learning with lessons from the previous rounds.

Continue reading How to bake an inspiring kickoff video

Unpacking a great action research project

A tale of research-driven change

an action research module examining scheduling and student choice

Last year two educators at Crossett Brook Middle School undertook an amazing action research project that directly improved their interactions with students.

Mollie Burke-Bendzunas, speech pathologist, and Melanie Zima, special educator, took a three-day class together during the summer. The class focused on structured teaching as a strategy for working with highly autistic students.  Mollie and Melanie thought that it could be applied more broadly to address a wide range of student needs.

Continue reading Unpacking a great action research project

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

The value of a community mentor

How did an 8th grader turn his passion project into a summer job?

the value of a community mentorI found Connor in the tech ed room during the first session of Brainado, a school-wide Genius Hour at Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, Vermont.

He was taking apart a lawn mower. When asked why, he shrugged and mumbled something about how another student might need an engine part for their project. His Brainado project was undefined. He didn’t seem to have much of a plan other than tinkering.

Fast-forward four months and Connor is getting paid to work part-time at the Waterbury Service Center garage. He knows his way around the shop, has learned about persistence and problem-solving, and gleaned plenty of life lessons from Albert Caron, the owner and lead mechanic. But how did Connor get from Point A to Point B?

Continue reading The value of a community mentor

The new Crossett Brook personalized learning plans

One way to make sure PLPs are student-driven: hand them the keys

Crossett Brook PLPsAt the end of last school year, the PLP Student Leadership Team at Crossett Brook Middle School presented to staff their recommendations for the future of PLPs at the school. And the staff unanimously supported all of the recommendations.

But it’s one thing to come up with a bunch of great ideas. It’s another thing to make sure they happen. For this group of students, follow through was not a problem. They met during the summer to keep the momentum going, convened daily during the first few weeks of school, then rolled out the new PLP process to their peers.

Continue reading The new Crossett Brook personalized learning plans

The Maker Movement and transferable skills

Making as evidence of transferable skills around Vermont

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

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

Continue reading The Maker Movement and transferable skills

The #everydaycourage of trying again

Seeing failure as iteration

#everydaycourageA trio of students at Crossett Brook Middle School, in Duxbury VT, have spent the past two years building a go-cart. When their first cart snapped in half on its maiden voyage, the students took that incident as a challenge, and the next year, they figured out what had gone wrong, and better yet, what would make it go right.

And the results have to be seen to be believed.

Continue reading The #everydaycourage of trying again

4 ways Vermont educators are sharing their practice

The #everydaycourage of being seen

#everydaycourageTake the iconic back-to-school prompt for students — what I did on my summer vacation — and give it a twist. Imagine how students might respond to the prompt What I think my teacher did on summer vacation.

A lot of us wish other folks knew how hard we work during summer: the workshops, the team planning time, the reflection, the resource-gathering. So a lot of us should share out all the work we’re doing.

Let’s look at four ways Vermont educators are sharing their practice.

Continue reading 4 ways Vermont educators are sharing their practice

The Crossett Brook Queer-Straight Alliance

Think middle schoolers are too young for a QSA? Think again

#everydaycourageAt the Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) at Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, Vermont, young adolescents have carved out a space where they can be their authentic selves. While that’s critical during middle school, it’s especially crucial for LGBTQ students.

As we kick off the third season of our podcast, let’s hear more about Crossett Brook’s QSA by listening to one of the students instrumental in its formation, as well as some of the educators who support them.


Continue reading The Crossett Brook Queer-Straight Alliance

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.

Continue reading Use a student leadership team for feedback on PLPs

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.

Continue reading 4 examples of students as partners in school change

What are the benefits of taking Genius Hour school-wide?

It’s a movement, not a moment

taking Genius Hour school-wideEvery teacher should consider making time for Genius Hour (sometimes called 20% time or Passion Projects). We know that when students are given the opportunity to explore their own topics, they gain skills in self-direction.

But I’ve come to believe that the ideal Genius Hour involves as much of the school as possible. Here’s what it could look like.

Continue reading What are the benefits of taking Genius Hour school-wide?

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.

Continue reading 3 ways to use Google Forms to streamline your workflow

Tackling school change as a community

Community conversations about education

community conversations about educationWhat would you tell your neighbors about your school? What do you think they’d say in return? The Washington West Supervisory Union has set out to find out, by hosting a series of community conversations.

Life LeGeros, a Tarrant Institute professional development coordinator and WWSU community member, is taking part in those conversations, and sharing out what he learns.

Continue reading Tackling school change as a community

4 shifts for student-led conferences in a proficiency-based environment

Student-led conferences are for students

Student-led conferences are a key strategy in personalized, student-centered educational practices.

And they’re even more important and potentially powerful in a proficiency-based system.

Continue reading 4 shifts for student-led conferences in a proficiency-based environment

4 ways to begin using scales for assessment

Getting started assessing proficiency

proficiency-based teaching and learning in VermontSchool systems in Vermont and elsewhere are in the midst of a shift to proficiency-based learning. At the early stages, this transformation can feel overwhelming even for educators, even if they’re excited by the idea.

Where to start?

Start with scales for assessment.

Continue reading 4 ways to begin using scales for assessment

4 digital identity exercises for students

Introduce a student-centered tech-rich year

#ready2launch student identityLooking for ways to explore digital identity with students? Here are 4 student-centered, tech-rich digital identity exercises for working with students. As a bonus, all the exercises produce media that students can add to their digital portfolios. Let’s watch!

Continue reading 4 digital identity exercises for students


An experiment in student-directed, open-ended project-based learning

real-world problems and project-based learningWhat if an entire school set out to maximize student engagement?

What if there were a school-wide commitment to loosening control and trusting students to do great things?

What if students were told that they could work for an hour a week on whatever they want with one simple rule: you must share something?

Continue reading Brainado!

Revolutionize student research with Padlet

Organize research materials digitally and collaboratively

Tarrant Institute tool tutoriallsTiffany Michael, from Crossett Brook Middle School in Waterbury, Vermont, describes how her use of Padlet evolved to eventually revolutionize the way that she teaches students to conduct research.

I love her story because it has something for everybody. In addition to practical and actionable advice for teachers who want to try to use Padlet, Michael also describes her journey in a way that is informative for coaches, tech integrationists, and administrators.

Continue reading Revolutionize student research with Padlet

Will we see you at Dynamic Landscapes 2016?

Check out these dynamic educators

Dynamic Landscapes 2016Are you heading to sunny Burlington, VT this Monday and Tuesday (no really, it will be sunny and warm) for Vita-Learn’s Dynamic Landscapes? It’s a perfect opportunity to mix business with pleasure.

If so, check out our Tarrant Institute partner educators who are presenting! Feel free to store some of those ideas, haul them back to your classroom, and liven up these last few weeks of school!

What’s that you say? You haven’t created your conference schedule yet either? You do not have that sort of time to plan. Let us take care of that for you. Here’s your own personal schedule:

Continue reading Will we see you at Dynamic Landscapes 2016?

MakerSpace Wonderland at Crossett Brook MS

The Story of MakerSpace: A Rabbit Interrupts a Drowsy Day

the story of a makerspaceThe story of MakerSpace at Crossett Brook Middle School begins with two bunnies. The bunnies lived outside the library in a hutch built by our Sustainability students who loved the bunnies. Winter was coming… the bunnies needed to move inside. The sad turn in this story is that the bunnies were not able to stay. Being in cages in the library with many daily visitors caused them stress. So, once I found a happy home for them and they moved out… poof!

A space was now available…an empty table…no books on it…no piles…what was possible?

Continue reading MakerSpace Wonderland at Crossett Brook MS

PLPs and literacy

Incorporating student choice into reading

providing support for goal-setting in a PLPThis screencast, from Crossett Brook Middle School, in Waterbury, Vermont, describes an action research project based on the premise that students would benefit if day-to-day classroom instruction reflected the choice and self-direction at the heart of Personalized Learning Plans (PLPs).

In addition to the positive response of students, one of the most exciting things about this project was the collaboration that took place behind the scenes.

Continue reading PLPs and literacy

Z is for Generation Z

Who are Generation Z?

who are Generation ZThe term Generation Z refers to teens and pre-teens born after 1995 and was officially launched in 2014 as part of a marketing presentation. The salient characteristic of their generation is its apparent fondness love of and comfort with new technology.

So, in order to find out more about Generation Z, we asked middle school students about theirs and their families’ relationship with technology. And found no easy generalizations.

And what does this all have to do with that pesky “digital natives” conversation?

Continue reading Z is for Generation Z

Personalizing Vermont’s education system

Move to implement PLPs reflected at two local conferences for educators

Personalizing Vermont's education systemFall in Vermont features two amazing local conferences for educators: VT Fest and the Rowland Foundation Conference. And at both these events, one of the hottest topics was personalized learning.

As Vermont moves to implement Act 77, Flexible pathways to secondary education completion (pdf) there ‘s a lot of discussion on the best way to implement personalized learning plans, or PLPs.

Luckily, some schools are already diving right in.

Continue reading Personalizing Vermont’s education system