Tag Archives: Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School

Student intervention for anti-racist education

Schools are committed to bringing anti-racism into curricula and systems more than ever before. Even in predominantly white schools there appears to be a growing acknowledgment that anti-racist education is crucial for all students.

Big changes seem to be underfoot. And that’s a wonderful thing.

But there will be pushback. White fragility and white rage will ensure a range of resistance to anti-racism. Some of it will be coded and couched in other concerns. But some of it will come in the form of violent, ugly, and harmful backlash.

We need to be ready.

For educators, whose first priority is their students, we need to have a plan for students who struggle to incorporate anti-racism into their current worldview.

For those students caught in the middle of the inevitable backlash, we need to be ready to provide support. What might a system of intervention look like for anti-racist education?

Systematic support for anti-racist teaching and learning

Let’s start with the premise that our goal is for students to be active citizens in our pluralistic democracy. And that in order to do that, they need to understand anti-democratic systems, starting with racism. This is so they can analyze, navigate, and transform our currently imperfect system for a more just and democratic future.

A widespread concern in Vermont, and central to this blog post, are our anti-racism goals for white students. In her book Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America, Jennifer Harvey draws on the work of racial identity scholars Janet Helms and Beverly Daniel Tatum, both Black women, to define “healthy white kids” as anti-racists.

“A healthy white identity is nurtured through experiencing the growth, freedom, and power that comes from taking anti-racist stances and learning to negotiate different racial spaces.”

With the goals clear, what would it take?

To help students become anti-racist democratic citizens, we need to mobilize such systems and strategies as:

  • Curriculum that includes identity work, people-centered history, systems analysis, and tons of transferable skills. Something based on the Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards, for example.
  • Professional learning on the above content. This is especially important for teachers who will center this content in their classrooms (social studies, history, humanities). But really all teachers will need to learn much of this because it impacts how they approach the world.
  • Professional learning on student-centered, asset-based teaching methods. Such as Gloria Ladson Billings’ Culturally Responsive Pedagogy. For white teachers in particular, this would include reflection on their racial autobiographies, a deep dive into their social identities, and constant examination of their biases and impacts.
  • System changes including discipline policies, dress codes, diverse representation in the halls and literature, honoring student voice and agency, etc. Students learn from what they observe and experience.
  • Engagement with the community in new and deeper ways. Many families will have powerful assets to bring to this work. Some of them are the same families that may have felt alienated or been marginalized by school practices in the past. And other families will be resistant, overtly and covertly.

This last point brings us to our present focus.

In a predominantly white state and school system like Vermont, we will have a lot of white families, white students, and white-ness to consider. If we are teaching about anti-racism we are going to need a serious system of intervention.

White children

If students are going to learn about anti-racism, they will have a lot of unlearning to do, too. They will hear contradictory stuff at home and from the world around them via every type of media (social media, news, music, magazines, radio, etc).

White students in particular are unlikely to have encountered sophisticated thinking about race at home. In the article What White Children Need to Know About Race, Ali Michael and Elenora Bartoli noted that

“The research suggests that for fear of perpetuating racial misunderstandings, being seen as a racist, making children feel badly, or simply not knowing what to say, many white parents tend to believe that there is never a right time to initiate a conversation about race.”

If families don’t teach their kids about race, society will.

As Jennifer Harvey put it,

“White children are living in a society that is racially hierarchical, divided, and unjust. It seeks to draw white people into collusion with hierarchy and injustice every step of the way” (p. 100).

Put together the tendency for families to avoid talking about race with the damaging messages of society? We can start to see why we are where we are. When we consider how and what white people learn about race? It’s clear that we have a lot of work to do.

What we are up against

The excellent Talking about Race portal by the National Museum for African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) lays out some useful definitions. In the section of the site on whiteness, they define the following terms:

  • White-dominant culture: “How white people and their practices, beliefs, and culture have been normalized over time and are now considered standard in the United States.”
  • Internalized dominance: “Describes the experience and attitudes of those who are members of the dominant, privileged, or powerful identity groups. Members of the [dominant] group accept their group’s socially superior status as normal and deserved.”
  • White supremacy: “An ideology where white people are believed to be superior to nonwhite people.”

So for white children there is a cycle where they are raised in white-dominant culture which socializes internalized dominance and ultimately upholds white supremacy ideology. And that bestows benefits on white people, thus reinforcing white dominant culture. The cycle keeps chugging along.

In a future where anti-racist education is widespread, all students will deal with the contrasts between anti-racism and white-dominant culture.

And this is why we will need to think carefully about intervention.

White students will be struggling to counteract their internalized dominance. And this is a particular problem we have to account for in the intervention model.

Plus, for a small set of white students, that internalized dominance will be especially extreme. These are the students where white supremacy is *explicitly* part of their home environments. Where a loving caregiver espouses white supremacist ideology, for example.

There is a danger that without strategies and systems in place, these students may be pushed harder toward white supremacy. Which underscores the importance of this work. Schools may be the only chance for intervening in a life course based on white supremacist beliefs and actions, harmful to them and potentially ruinous or deadly to others.

The stakes are that high.

The Multi-Tiered Racial Equity Support System

Schools have systems in place to support students who are struggling with math, literacy, or behavior. Schools often call them multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS). This is based on the premise that students receive different intensities of support based on their needs.

What if our goal was a healthy relationship to race?

Based on the work of racial identity development scholars such as Janet Helms and Beverly Daniel Tatum, Jennifer Harvey envisioned the end goal this way: “A healthy white identity is nurtured through experiencing the growth, freedom, and power that comes from taking anti-racist stances and learning to negotiate different racial spaces.”

So what would a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) look like to help develop anti-racist students with healthy white identity?

Christie Nold, 6th grade social studies teacher Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School, imagined how anti-racist teaching might map onto a MTSS model:

“Tier 1 is what everybody gets in classroom instruction. I have a long way to go in my practice to make it true. Responsive, relevant, and sustaining pedagogy for all students. That’s the goal for Tier 1.

Tier 2 for me is collecting formative data throughout instruction, what higher level instruction for groups of students who are grappling with certain aspects of identity or with learning in a pluralistic society. I imagine in Vermont this is particularly important because not all students are getting natural exposure because I imagine many of them live fairly segregated lives.

To me the Tier 3 level is who are those students who are showing red flags and pushing back against Tier 1 and 2 instruction.”

Here’s a visual of a pyramid model of multi-tiered systems of support for anti-racist education:

Tier 1: Universal Instruction

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy used to teach all students:

  • Personal and social identity
  • Non-Euro-centric history
  • Anti-racist, anti-bias, social justice education
  • Transferable Skills such as critical thinking, citizenship
Tier 2: Targeted Supports
  • Educators support students in specific ways:
    • Affinity spaces for Students Of Color
    • Extra instruction for struggling students
  • School-wide Restorative Practices
  • Counselors ready to help students who transgress
  • Supports during tragic events
Tier 3: Intensive Intervention
  • Racial Literacy Intervention
  • For students repeatedly pushing back on Tier 1 and Tier 2 instruction

A couple of things to notice from the pyramid

First, as in a traditional MTSS system, the main emphasis is Tier 1. As Christie put it,I wonder if students were getting high quality Tier 1 Culturally Sustainable Pedagogy from Pre-K on, we start to lose the need for Tier 2 and Tier 3.”

In contrast to math and literacy intervention, however, with anti-racism we will have schools swimming against the tide of the dominant culture in our society. Denial is the heartbeat of racism, to paraphrase Ibram X. Kendi. So students will be learning about things that many of their home families haven’t come to grips with.

Especially white students.

On this point, Christie referenced the example of recycling. She noted that it became standardized practice through schools. Students learned about it at school, went home, and shamed their parents into it. Perhaps adults could become enlightened about anti-racism and oppression through their kids.

Another difference with applying the Tier 2 concept to anti-racism: identity and social identity really matter here.

Students will “struggle” with Tier 1 very differently depending on their relationship to racism. For Students of Color, especially those in predominantly white institutions, Tier 1 anti-racist instruction is likely to trigger some of the trauma they’ve experienced living in a racist society. They will need “healing centered spaces,” as Christie calls them, such as a racial affinity group facilitated by a skillful mentor where they can process together.

When white students struggle with the ideas and skills of Tier 1 instruction, at times they may do so in a way that could be harmful to Students of Color. Consider a misconception such as the idea that it is post-racial to believe that “I don’t see color, I treat everybody the same.” This can be harmful because it invalidates the impact of race and racism. If a student clung stubbornly to this stance, a teacher could not allow it to enter class after class. The lived experience of Students of Color is not up for debate.

An example of Tier 2

Christie recounted one student who was struggling and whose comments during class were doing harm. “Luckily in this case I already had a strong relationship with the student and family, so when I contacted them we were able to work out a plan.” The plan involved the student writing down responses rather than objecting out loud when certain ideas surfaced. The student then decided whether to give the writing to Christie and whether he wanted feedback from her.

If the student was severely struggling to engage with a certain topic, or couldn’t contain what was likely to be harmful commentary, there was a plan in place to involve the school counselor.

Happily, Christie reported that the student made a lot of progress, and “came out on the other side.” She also noted that this kind of success was rare. Often there weren’t resources or receptive families available.

When Tier 2 doesn’t work

Christie shared that,

“Every year I can identify at least a few students who this is going up against something they have learned, something they have already built up walls about. They are being conditioned into white supremacy culture – in 6th grade there may be walls but often I can break them down in Tiers 1 and 2. But for some they have cemented too much. Two or three years later I hear ‘oh this student was involved in an incident,’ and I’m not surprised.”

These are not students who hold common misconceptions. They aren’t merely blundering as they grapple with complex concepts. Instead, they are students who are “pickling in white supremacy at home,” as Christie put it, drawing on a term used by her friend and mentor Shadiin Garcia. “They are hearing something very different from at least one caring adult in their life. It’s not their fault that they are confused – they are just kids.”

These students, typically white males, are in a tough spot. These are the type of students who Christie may expect to hear about later. She wondered aloud “What would a system look like to prevent the harm that student perpetuated? And also the harm they perpetuated on themselves? Because this system hurts everybody.”

How do we provide Tier 3 intervention for these high priority students?

Before we get to the how, let’s consider the who.

Meet a Racial Literacy Interventionist

Netdahe Stoddard lives in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where he grew up. He describes himself as a “Vermont rednecky dude who makes a living with [his] hands.”

He has fought racism in all aspects of his life for as long as he can remember, and has been working with schools for the past few years. This work takes many forms but the place where Netdahe feels like he has the most impact is intervening with white boys who are doing harm through racist behaviors. “As a member of the in group I can help them disentangle the ugly racist parts from the beautiful things about being a redneck.”

He calls himself a Racial Literacy Interventionist, based on a term used by psychologist Howard Stevenson to describe the skills required to defuse stress caused by racism.

The system will surely be stressed if we are going to seriously take on racism in Vermont. We are going to need a lot more people in this role.

A success story

To illustrate how Netdahe operates and why who he is plays such an important role in the work, let’s dial back to a time before he worked in schools. Netdahe has worked for more than 20 years on job sites where mostly white men labored together to build, chainsaw, and dig whatever the job required. And one of his main rules was that “I won’t tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or any of that sh*t on a job site.”

This has caused a certain amount of tension with some of his co-workers.

Which is why this random text last week, from an unknown number surprised Netdahe:

student bias intervention: “Hey I know this must not be good time for you but I’ve been thinking about you with everything going on and I also know you are a loud voice for Black Lives Matter and just wish you the best and stay safe my friend.”


He called the number and sure enough it was a man that he had worked with years ago. They had clashed repeatedly as Netdahe called him out for racist behaviors. At one point things nearly became violent between them.

But now? “I consider you a friend,” the man told him by phone.

Netdahe recalled that he had stood up for this man when it looked like he might lose his job. “I had treated him like a human and showed I cared enough to try to help him grow.”

Netdahe reflected on their relationship: “We had a bunch of hours together as fuller humans, busy being humans together in the world. That allowed us to come to this heightened place after almost becoming violent with each other. And over time we chose to engage in more depth around these issues.”

Believing in humanity is the crux of Netdahe’s approach with students as well.

In fact, Netdahe worked with this man’s son a few years ago. He talked to his former co-worker before meeting with the 8th grader, and the man hadn’t been super happy about it. After a two hour conversation Netdahe had told him to please follow up with his son, and to circle back if there were any questions.

In that case, the student had gotten in trouble a few times for flashing a Confederate Flag. Eventually the school asked Netdahe to help when he asked whether it would be okay to wear a Confederate Flag in rainbow colors.

The school assumed the student was intentionally pushing buttons.

Netdahe, on the other hand, approached the situation with curiosity. “The kid told me ‘this is a flag that I identify with and that I care about. I don’t understand how it is tied to hate. Other kids have Black Lives Matter flags or Pride flags, and this is mine.” Eventually the student came to understand that the other flags did not exclude him or other people, which is what set the Confederate flag apart as a hate symbol.

In another case he worked with a student who wore the flag out of pride for a great-great grandfather who had fought in the Civil War. Netdahe made space for them to admire what it must mean to fight in a war as a young man, and to connect to other soldiers around the world throughout history with the courage to risk their lives. “I tried to get him to realize that rocking the flag might actually get in the way of people respecting his ancestor.”

These stories illuminate the importance of the identity, or “social position” as Netdahe calls it, of the interventionist when we are talking about racism. The socialization process is strong and internalized supremacy can build thick walls. Netdahe’s background, his connections in the community, and his social identity as a white man make a difference in his ability to successfully intervene.

He also has a deep grasp of the literature. He’s developed a range of practical strategies. And he’s built a system of support and accountability so he can carry out his work with integrity.

Building Fearless Futures

As long as he’s been working in schools, Netdahe has partnered with educators of color to do so. He does this to help guard against the ongoing influence of white-dominant culture on the way he carries out his work.

As he put it, “I’m a broke white dude from Lyndonville, VT. I exist as a middle-aged man with white skin. No matter what I know about racism, I’m having the experiences of a white skin man in our society.”

Natdahe and his partners recently created a non-profit organization called Building Fearless Futures. They take a team approach where the process looks something like:

  • A school calls in Netdahe, and they provide him with a description of the situation. Usually a student is in trouble and being forced to meet with him as part of a package of consequences.
  • He drafts a plan and then consults with one of his educator of color partners. They provide feedback on his approach with particular attention to any ways he might be inadvertently reinforcing white-dominant culture or white supremacist ideology.
  • He meets with the student.
  • He consults with one of his educator of color partners to process the session. They help him make a plan for any future sessions.

If the student’s actions harmed students of color, one of Netdahe’s partners may come in to meet with them, and hold a space for healing. The educators of color get compensated for their time, while Netdahe doesn’t get paid for the pre and post-session consults. He considers it professional development.

Key skills for racial literacy interventionists

Netdahe’s approach to working with students boils down to honoring the positive parts of Vermont rural culture while exposing and extracting the racist and oppressive parts.

His main strategies:

  • Build relationships by leading with love. “When I meet a student I want them to know that I’m super excited about these things. I love talking about them. All kids are genius and beautiful souls. I have no history with you but I’m just pumped to be here with you. What are you thinking? What are you interested in?”
  • Seek common cultural ground. “What are you proud of as a Vermonter? Family, making it work, hunting and fishing, having fun with friends? Me too.”
  • Show students how their expressions of rage and violence, although projected as strength, actually display weakness and insecurity. “I let them know I see through it because I am them. Underneath that rage is someone who doesn’t yet know how to love or believe in themselves fully. They fear living in a world with folks of color, unless those folks are limited, controlled and harmed, and they fear living in a world where women have full control of their own bodies. This says something sad about us. Luckily we have the power to shift our thinking. You can actually just live in a world with equal rights and still be a whole person in the world.”
  • Use analogies with zero emotional triggers. “I might explain intent versus impact by showing them my split thumb and explaining that though I intended to hit the nail, I sure feel the pain of hitting my thumb on accident. I don’t need to feel ashamed about it but it doesn’t do any good to deny it either.” Another favorite of his is the Christmas tree: he could have a great Christmas without one. And rednecks can live great Vermont lives without the Confederate flag.
  • Celebrate successes. “I hold them up intellectually every chance I get. And they may not hear much of that in school. Every tiny bit of ability to pop out of that bubble they are in, I tell them ‘you impressed the hell out of me.’”
  • Be ready for the rhetoric. “I keep up with the media put out by white supremacists so I know what these kids might be encountering.” And he’s ready to break it down.
  • Build class consciousness. “I show them examples of how racism is used to justify policies that hurt them.”
  • Show them examples of collaborative efforts between races to reach share goals. “I hold up Black, brown, and white people in every era who fought back against injustice.”

This approach is a powerful alternative to purely punitive measures. A suspension may feed resentment and reinforce the narrative that the world is against a student. It also gives them time to potentially expose themselves to online recruitment by white supremacists. Whereas the Building Fearless Futures roots their approach in humanity, dignity, and learning.

Hillbilly roll call

Netdahe is clearly a special guy. He has developed strategies and has resources and readings at the ready to tailor his work to each student.

Now: imagine many Netdahes deployed as interventionists to support Tier 3 services in anti-racist MTSS systems.

Netdahe thinks he could teach his approach to other people who occupy his social position. “I have three or four righteous broke white dudes I can think of off the top of my head who I could train up to do this work.”

This would tap into a long history of poor rural cross-racial resistance, as detailed in historical accounts like The Real Resistance to Slavery in North America by Russell Maroon Shoatz.

In this same vein, is a recent blog post by self-described hillbilly Adam Jordan (who happens to have a PhD). He spoke directly to people across Vermont: “Folks throughout history, usually rural folks, who have felt economic oppression, and who have pushed back against that oppression through collective action or self-reliant practices.”

Then for the call to action: “If you fall into this description of redneck or hillbilly, and you benefit from whiteness, I’m talking to you. Consider this a hillbilly roll call. We have work to do.”

Yes indeed, there’s a movement afoot.

Wrap around anti-racism

Netdahe and Christie have strikingly similar pictures of what a dream system of anti-racist education in predominantly white schools could look like.

They both described a systemwide commitment to the type of anti-racist and equity-focused curricula that is expected to be recommended by Vermont Coalition for Equity and Ethnic Studies in Schools.

They both talked about schools becoming more connected to communities and providing an array of wraparound services, similar to the Community School model.

Both affirmed the crucial role of healing spaces for students of color such as affinity groups.

And they both described diverse teams of interventionists that could work with students and support teachers.

It may sound far fetched but if we are going to get serious about creating anti-racist education systems, we need to take seriously the investments required. Intervention to support anti-racist education is even more necessary than math and literacy. While math and literacy intervention is meant to close gaps, to do something similar to what Tier 1 is meant to do with more intensive structures, racial literacy intervention provides alternate structures such as affinity groups that serve entirely different functions than Tier 1.

And as we’ve pointed out, the stakes are high.

In her seminal book on racial identity development, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Alone in the Cafeteria, Beverly Daniel Tatum talks about how we need to support the development of an identity she calls “white anti-racist.” Truly committing to anti-racism in education would mean that the typical categories of white identity identified by Tatum – ignorant, colorblind, or racist – would all be viewed as unacceptable outcomes.

We are in this together

To create a less racist society we will need to redistribute resources to people of color and transform systems to decrease white privilege. AND, racism is a problem caused by white people. So we will need to invest in changing white people’s beliefs and behaviors.

Both Netdahe and Christie agreed, as would almost any educator, that children are not at fault for their internalized supremacy. They should be held accountable for their actions but they are fully redeemable.

Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams, co-author of the book Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, asks us to expand this type of compassion to all as we seek collective liberation:

“Simultaneously with our commitment to disrupting and dismantling structures that degrade humanity, a commitment to the practice of engaging the humanity of people wed to perpetuating those structures must co-exist. Whether by arrogance, ignorance, or fear, we must bear witness to their suffering as our own. Challenge what is unjust. Invest in their basic goodness. Always moving toward integration. Without this commitment and practice, we merely mirror the destructive forces of polarization and power.” (p. 203)

In the most extreme cases, for those students being misguided by their caregivers toward a path of white supremacist ideology, we must ensure schools “invest in their basic goodness” by providing the intervention they deserve.

The student-led conference as celebration

What does it take for us to see parent-teacher conferences as celebrations? What does it take for families to see those conferences as celebrations? And how can we make sure that students themselves feel celebrated for their achievements?

We know student-led conferences push our school systems in the right direction, to a place where students demonstrate agency and voice in explaining who they are as learners.

But do they work?

“It was just great to see like two really big pieces of my life, school and home, come together. And it just felt really great that both sides were really celebrating me and I felt humbled and just really special for that half an hour, even though it’s like a conference. It made me feel really great and made me reflect on how I’ve been doing and I’m really proud of the work I’ve been doing.”

–Morgan, 7th grade student

Point, set, MATCH. Now let’s rewind, and figure out what made this particular conference so successful.
Continue reading The student-led conference as celebration

Getting personal about systemic equity

Sometimes pursuing systemic equity in education can feel a little like the carrot vs. the stick. Since No Child Left Behind, federal education policy has talked about equity while applying punitive measures to schools based on students’ aggregate performance. We have been largely mired in deficit-based policy that is ineffective for spurring transformation and generally demoralizing. That’s the stick.

At the same time, for many educators the fight for equity is real and heartfelt. Every student, every day. And when a young person feels truly seen and supported, when a spark is lit, it’s pure gold. We strive for it and we know it when we see it. That’s the carrot.

But realistically: how do we get that carrot to grow in a garden that too often suffers from the infertility of systemic inequity? How can we help educators support the students who need them most when we art part of a larger system with demonstrably inequitable impacts?

One way is to make it personal. We can ask educators to make sure that we each examine our own biases and work on a personal level so we’re better equipped to fix the system. We need to test our soil for pests and pesticides, folks.

Let’s dig in.


Self work

Educators in Vermont are increasingly doing what Susie Merrick, the Healthy Schools Coordinator for South Burlington School District (SBSD), calls “self work.”

Susie pointed to the Beyond Diversity (BD) training from Courageous Conversation as an exemplar of self work. “BD training is, in my mind, absolutely essential training for anybody who works in schools or with young people. It involves the self work: how do I look at my own race, my own implicit bias, and then use this learning to address and dismantle systems of oppression and inequity wherever I work.

Self work might include:

  • considering the existence of and ongoing implications of our implicit biases.
  • thoroughly examining our personal and professional complicity in racial oppression.
  • raising our awareness of micro-aggressions and other ways that we are harming colleagues, students, and families.
  • thinking about the ways that our own identity impacts or limits our ability to effectively support all students.

Learning and unlearning

The starting point is to acknowledge that we are all products of and participants in our inequitable society. Formal institutions such as schooling, as well as more diffuse social influences such as media, have shaped our perceptions and understandings. Our beliefs, both implicit and explicit, impact everything. From classroom decisions to how we analyze school policies. 

This is especially true for white people who have been shaped by the system and privileged by it. To become forces for equity, good intentions and kindness are not enough. White educators need to interrogate our beliefs and actions. We have to unlearn things we’ve taken for granted as true or natural. We have to start with ourselves.

Dean Melen, a school counselor at the Chamberlin Elementary School in South Burlington, sees self work as personal yet essential. “Every thread of who we are will be impacted by what we do with our new learned understanding. White privilege is not new to most communities. We know this and continue to dream about equity. We know too, that dreams are not enough. The voice from our students, families, staff, administration and community must out shine our lack of understanding from the past.”

Let’s look at how SBSD, along with other Vermont districts, is putting personal identity work at the center of their systemic change efforts.

Diversity / Equity / Inclusion in South Burlington

Five years ago, in the 2013-14 school year, a group of SBSD administrators and staff attended the We All Belong training by CQ Strategies. The training focused on cultural competence. Based on this learning, SBSD created a Healthy Schools Coordinator position. Then they merged four mutually reinforcing programs: diversity/equity/inclusion, wellness, mentoring, and mindfulness.

Venn diagram showing circles with wellness, mentoring, mindfulness, and diversity/equity/inclusion intersecting at healthy schools.
Four distinct programs merged in South Burlington School District to create Healthy Schools.


SBSD hired Susie Merrick as the first Healthy Schools Coordinator. She was very clear that Healthy Schools built on important legacies already in place.

“The creation of the Healthy Schools positions was certainly not the start of the equity work we are doing in South Burlington. When I was hired, I had the gift of hearing how dedicated many past and current staff were to social and racial equity, including our Superintendent David Young. I also witnessed first-hand colleagues doing courageous work alongside students that reflected their deep and genuine commitment to equity. But we still had a lot of work to do, like any place.”

A community conversation about equity

During the Healthy School’s first year of existence, conversations about race and identity took center stage due to broader forces in the community. The Student Diversity Union (now the Student Justice Union) at South Burlington High School, co-chaired by students Isaiah Hines and Madison Premsagar, led a movement to change the “Rebel” identifier.

Susie noted that every community has its own story. She recalled “Here in SB what really jump started conversations about race on a deeper level was our story connected to the Rebel identifier.

As staff, we became more aware of how racial inequity was harming our students — and they were the ones leading those discussions because they were courageous enough to speak up. I believe student voice pushed us as staff to more authentically address issues in our schools such as implicit bias and microaggressions.

Courageous Conversation for transformation

The fight over the Rebel moniker raged for over a year. In February, 2017, the School Board changed the name to “Wolves.” Principal Patrick Burke supported the name change unequivocally. He was quoted in an article by the student newspaper: “When I have kids of color saying, ‘I’m not comfortable with this,’ then I have to listen.”

During that school year, SBSD administrators and staff participated in training related to implicit bias facilitated by external providers. The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee (which had grown out of the team who attended the original We All Belong training) recognized the need to build internal capacity in order to create sustainability. SBSD secured grant funding to send a team of 10 staff members to the Courageous Conversation National Summit in Detroit in the fall.

The national summit was a transformative experience for the educators who attended. Susie identified the summit as a pivotal moment in her journey.

“As a white woman, I had never experienced training of this kind. Robin DiAngelo talks of ‘white women’s tears’ in her amazing book ‘White Fragility’: the idea that white people are so uncomfortable discussing race that we get defensive and/or experience guilt. My own white fragility showed up as tears throughout the conference.

The training helped me understand my reaction, try to address it with integrity and then work to build my skills and use my privilege to address issues of inequity in my professional and personal life. This has been an ongoing journey for me.

Other educators who went to Detroit had similarly transformative experiences. The question was how to bring that back home to the entire staff.

Bringing it home

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee recognized that equity work, especially self work, first and foremost required a safe learning community. So during the 2017-18 school year the district allocated 90 minutes of each district-wide gathering (Convocation and two in-services) to relationship building. They called it “Coming Together”. The 400+ staff gathered in small groups and shared stories about things like family, life goals, and their hopes for the world.

In the following year, the district increased investment in this work and put in place several important structures:

  • The Detroit group, who had continued meeting regularly, formally took on the design of professional learning related to equity and became the “Equity Planning Team”.
  • The district brought in a Courageous Conversations trainer to offer the foundational Beyond Diversity course so that more educators could do deep self work. Nearly 60 educators volunteered to participate.
  • The time allotted for equity work during the district inservices was doubled to three hours per session.

So now the district had substantial internal capacity to support the work. The inservices included time where educators presented in the auditorium. They talked about changes they were making in their practice to further equity, using the Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards to help guide their presentations. And then educators gathered in cross-district small groups, facilitated by Beyond Diversity trained staff, to process, deepen, and personalize the learning.


To support authentic engagement in this intense work, SBSD adopted district-wide group norms. Rhiannon Kim, Speech Pathologist for SBSD and Adjunct Professor with UVM and Saint Michaels College teaching Mindfulness Based Practices, developed a set of agreements. She used an extensive process that included multiple rounds of trial and feedback from various stakeholders.

The agreements are relevant far beyond the inservice sessions. Staff across SBSD have used the agreements in a wide variety of settings. For instance, the agreements have supported collaborative team meetings, book discussion groups, the District Level Committee Meeting, and even classrooms.

In the future, funding will continue to be invested in building internal capacity. The district plans to continue offering the Beyond Diversity training to develop more facilitators for district-wide work.

The conversations will continue. And the impacts have already been far reaching.

Beyond conversations

The district level work in South Burlington has made a difference in practice..

For example, the two educators from Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School who were part of the original Detroit group have continued to deepen the work in their own classrooms and beyond.

Curriculum and student leadership

Christie Nold has developed powerful curriculum that addresses social identity and equity in her 6th grade social studies class. She has also worked with several colleagues to launch and facilitate a student leadership group called S.O.A.R. (Students Organized Against Racism).

Christie reflected: “In many ways, I find the district level work we engage with sets conditions in the soil. It is not until the fruits of that labor begin to grow that we are able to identify the impact we’ve had on creating conditions. For me, the most beautiful fruit has been our Students Organizing Against Racism. This does not mean we have finished our work, but instead is an indication that we are feeding our soil well.”

Collaborative learning about Culturally Sustainable Pedagogy

Jeff Novak has worked to diversity his classroom, from the books assigned and available for students to the posters on his walls. Also, he presented at one of the in-services this year. He shared a story from the Beyond Diversity training in Detroit as an example of a transformative experience.
Jeff found a way to continue to deepen his own learning in collaboration with colleagues. He co-facilitated a professional learning strand about Culturally Sustainable Pedagogy for a dozen of his middle school colleagues. He and his partner Lauren Bartlett presented about their experience as facilitators at two different conferences.
Titled "Framing the Conversation" - shows images of "Home of the Rebels" and a "Black Lives Matter" logo.
A slide from Jeff Novak and Lauren Bartlett’s presentation at the Dynamic Landscapes Conference.
Jeff noted that he wouldn’t have and couldn’t have made this much progress on his own. “The district had taken a firm stand on the issue of racial inequity in our system: that it’s a real problem baked into everything and most of us are just waking up to the extent of it. I’ve felt supported and buoyed by the district and faculty who are steeped in this work and feel heartened by our efforts to address the racism in our systems. It’s humbling work without any sense of completion or achievement, but the community that’s formed around this work has been the strongest and most supportive I’ve experienced in teaching.”
The intentional building of relationships and community has been a key aspect of SBSD’s equity work. And we see more and more communities being built across Vermont for this same purpose.

The movement in VT

Consider the work of Lamoille South Supervisory Union (LSSU). During this last school year, Drs. Kathleen Brinegar & Hannah Miller, from Northern Vermont University, worked with all educators Pk-12 from LSSU. LSSU dedicated half of each of three in-services to this work.

Tracy Wrend, Superintendent of LSSU, saw the need for self work alongside the systemic.

We quickly discovered that the continuum of readiness to incorporate culturally sustaining practices and the range of emotional and experience with racial and social justice–particularly inequity–was hugely individual, personal and emotional.  In order to support our students, we needed to take a step back and reflect on the ways our own experiences shape our views as educators, practice listening deeply to the voices of others, and ensure a safe, respectful adult culture where we can have uncomfortable conversations about our personal and systemic educational practices.”

Personal equity projects and district goals

Kathleen described the content: “The in-services focused on defining equity and understanding systemic and structural inequities based largely on the work of Gorski, Ladson-Billings, Django & Paris, the National Equity Project, and our own research. Educators throughout the district engaged in community circles focused on identifying inequities within the district and exploring their own bias.”

Educators engaged in self work and critical analysis of practices within the district. Based on their analysis, each educator developed a personal equity project. They worked with small accountability groups to help develop their projects and process together.

The year’s work ended with the development and unpacking of the following four goals for LSSU:

  1. Educators take proactive steps towards recognizing the ways they perpetuate and reproduce inequities.
  2. All learners have access to the supports, tools, and opportunities they need to grow.
  3. Youth and adults can safely construct their identities.
  4. Educational experiences are transformed by listening to the words, actions, and silences of youth.

The work with educators across the district will continue next school year. The district plans to add specific sessions for district administrators as well.

Self work and systemic change efforts are mutually reinforcing

The self work increasingly happening in districts and schools can complement professional learning focused on systemic equity.

For example, the theme of the Middle Grades Institute this year, is “Advancing Equity”. Rebecca Haslam from Seed the Way will facilitate an opening workshop. The workshop will lead each of the 150 participants through social identity exercises. Kathleen Brinegar will close the week long institute with a keynote about equity. Faculty will continuously ask participants to connect their efforts to fight systemic inequity with their self work.

Vermont educators will have ample opportunities for external professional learning about equity. For example:

  • Based on requests from member districts, Champlain Valley Educator Development Center is offering the Courageous Conversation “Beyond Diversity” workshop twice this fall, plus an in-depth series for administrators.
  • Rhiannon Kim is offering a week long strand at the BEST/MTSS conference called “Mitigating Bias in Our Schools and Uncovering Unconscious Bias.”
  • Paul Gorski will likely be back next year to continue spreading the word about his Equity Literacy Framework, after offering multiple events organized by various prominent organizations last year.
  • The Agency of Education developed an Equity Literacy Grant program and published a set of supportive Equity Literacy Resources.

District sponsored self work is a critical component of this broader equity movement. When time and funding is put into the self work, it sends a strong message about priorities. It also makes sure that all educators are involved instead of just those who seek it out on their own.


And those educators who do seek out additional learning about equity are better prepared on a personal level to understand and apply their learning.

Embrace the challenge

As the equity work becomes more personal, the challenge intensifies. Susie Merrick is quick to point out that the work in South Burlington School District is by no means perfect. It has been emotional and raw and nearly overwhelming for staff at times. She shared that “I am heavily steeped in both conviction and humility. Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder whether I’m the right person for the job.”

Yet, she has persevered and she has learned a lot along the way.

Tips for taking a personal approach to systemic equity

Susie offered three tips for school systems that want to do this work.

  1. “Make sure to give staff an opportunity to do the self work first. Talk to white staff about the fact that this is not the job of our staff of color to lead this work or to turn to in order to get answers to our questions. I would have named something different two years ago but to me that’s the most important. It’s been a game changer for us to have increased numbers of white staff do their own hard work.”
  2. “In South Burlington it’s been helpful to work toward allowing a critical mass of staff in all five schools to get the same equity training. I am so inspired by our staff developing a common language, becoming familiar with the Courageous Conversation protocol and sharing a set of guidelines for courageous dialogues. A growing number of our staff have even been using this learning in classrooms with their students.”
  3. “If you are an aspiring racial and social equity leader in your school community, really honor self care as you do this work and remember that change is hard and takes time. The work can be lonely, so be sure to find a group of colleagues with whom you can connect. Hold close the awareness that you are working toward allowing every single student in our schools to show up as their full selves. I want to make sure that I’m holding space for those reminders because not honoring them can impact well-being. There is an urgency to the work that doesn’t lend itself to pausing, but the pause is so important.”

Challenging ourselves so we can transform systems

“Embrace discomfort” is one of the Courageous Conversation agreements. This norm acknowledges the inherent challenge of self work. Confronting our implicit biases, our problematic beliefs, and our complicity with inequitable systems is hard. But it can be liberating. And it is oh so necessary so that we can transform ourselves, and then our systems, to give all students the opportunities they deserve.

How will your school system give time and support for educators to do the self work needed to advance equity?

Equity, identity & art

Tracing a middle level social identity unit

Identity. Oppression. Social justice. Structural racism. Liberation. These are some intense ideas to grapple with at any age.

Yet 6th grade student Deng isn’t willing to wait: “We need to learn about this stuff early on before it gets pushed off and becomes a problem. We are the next generation of adults.”

Christie Nold and her 6th grade students have tackled these topics together as a courageous learning community that was built intentionally over the course of the year. They showed that not only can young adolescents handle it, but they thrive when given the chance to go deep into identity and equity. Let’s take a peek into Christie’s classroom at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington, Vermont, to see how she did it, what kids got out of it, and the art they created as a result.

Social identity learning for young adolescents

Young adolescents work hard at figuring out who they are and how they fit into the world. They may not know it, but they are constantly learning about social identity — the way that their concept of self is based on the groups they belong to.

By teaching about social identity in school, Christie sought to provide a safe and supportive environment for students to explore these complex yet deeply personal ideas. She also connected identity to larger ideas about society and history – social inequality, structural racism, Civil Rights.

And finally, she gave students the opportunity to process and to act. At the end of the unit, students worked with teaching artists to express their learning. And what they created was amazing.

Starting with self

Christie wanted students to learn about identity in the context of equity and diversity.

“The impetus for the project was really to allow space for students to engage with who they are as people in the world and what that means and also to engage with folks closer in identity to them or farther in identity from them but either way don’t often represent the trajectory of educators that they have in their lives.”

Circle of students and teacher.
A poetry workshop with teaching artist Rajnii Eddings.


In addition to the teaching artists, students met guest speakers such as Kiran Waqar, a member of the slam poetry group Muslim Girls Making Change. This inspired two students, Brianna and Zina, to start writing poetry together. Zina noted that Kiran “taught me what it means to stand behind what you really want to say to the world.” Later, the girls were thrilled to work with Rajnii Eddins, who had mentored Muslim Girls Making Change through the Young Writers Project.

Christie also saw the social identity unit as an important first step in her curricular sequence. She wanted students to think about their own identities as a basis for exploring other cultures.

“I find it’s really important to start by knowing ourselves. I think often without a solid understanding of who we are and also an understanding of at least bias if not our own biases it can be really easy to do a unit on cultures and just continue to engage in stereotypical thinking.

And so it was important to me that students have this opportunity to dive pretty hard into who they are and how that informs the way they see the world before they then started looking at other aspects of parts of our world.

Standards-based social identity learning

Christie used the social studies standards as her starting point. The unit addressed standard D2.His.1.6-8 from the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: “Analyze connections among events and developments in broader historical contexts.” The C3 Framework also includes a Sociology Companion Document with competencies such as “Explain the social construction of self and groups.”

Christie knew that the social studies standards had her back. And she knew that she could design a unit that would provide ample opportunities for students to develop Clear and Effective Communication, which was the Transferable Skill she was working on within her proficiency-based classroom.

The Social Justice Standards

For detailed learning targets directly related to social identity, she turned to the Social Justice Standards from Teaching Tolerance. Identity is one of the four major domains of the Social Justice Standards and includes five anchor standards. Christie used the 6-8 outcomes, derived from the anchor standards, to craft her unit.

The Social Justice Standards gave specificity to the framing Christie had already done based on the C3 standards and Transferable Skill proficiencies. And it connected her with resources. She could access resources from Teaching Tolerance such as this PD module on the website or a PD cafe from the magazine. And she could network with educators all over the world who are helping their students dive deep into identity.

Screenshot of five standards that put the grade level outcomes into grade level language. Equity and art.
The 6-8 Identity outcomes from p. 8 of the Social Justice Standards by Teaching Tolerance.


Christie received a grant from Teaching Tolerance to fund the teaching artists. But before creating an artistic representation, students delved deeply into the social identity learning.

The arc of the unit

Christie wanted to make sure that her 6th graders were able to engage with complex and intense ideas in a thoroughly supportive environment.

Laying the groundwork

Very early in the unit she introduced resources from the Courageous Conversations protocol which is designed “for effectively engaging, sustaining, and deepening interracial dialogue.” Students explored and upheld the agreements (norms) during discussions and collaboration. And they frequently relied on the Courageous Conversation compass to process intense material by considering whether they were in the feeling, believing, acting, or thinking quadrant.

The classroom community added a norm that basically gave permission to “lie” when exploring identity. When writing, students were told to “put on the page only what you are comfortable putting on the page.” Most of the verbal sharing was also optional. Students controlled what they wanted to disclose. This maintained the personal and intellectual safety of the classroom.

Christie also used two read aloud texts to ground the learning throughout the unit. During the first part of the unit that was focused largely on identity, the class read Refugee, by Alan Gratz, which is a story about three young refugees from different nations and eras. During the second part of the unit, the class read Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Ghost Boys, about a young black boy killed by a police officer. Ghost Boys served as a reference point for learning about implicit bias, systemic oppression, and civil rights.

Activities and ideas

With these structures as a backbone, students explored complex concepts by:

  • watching this video on the iceberg model of culture and filled out an accompanying worksheet to learn about the explicit and implicit manifestations of culture.
  • learning that identity is socially constructed (i.e., it is created in interaction with others).
  • looking at various aspects of identity, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and citizenship.
  • creating identity pie charts including various social identity and cultural markers, for Refugee characters and then themselves, which they shared with each other if they felt comfortable doing so.
  • considering dominant and minoritized identities by watching videos about people featured in Ghost Boys such as Emmet Till and Tamir Rice; then looking at the positionality of aspects of their own identities.
  • exploring implicit bias by watching a Trevor Noah clip and then (optionally) taking an Implicit Association Test on race.
  • watching and reflecting upon Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Danger of a Single Story Ted Talk about stereotypes.
  • examining their social and author influencers and asking “who are we listening to?
  • critiquing bias in advertising by looking at ads that are problematic and ads that are trying to change the paradigm, such as the Gillette ad about the #metoo movement.
  • encountering the concept of microaggressions and watching a video about Black parents giving “the talk” to their children.

Take a moment to marvel at the bullets and bolded words above. Consider what a shift it would be for most adults if they took time to learn about these things. Then watch the videos and see how students truly internalized and learned these complex concepts.

Screen shot of a blank table where students record the gender, age, race of the authors and main characters of books they have read. Equity and art.
Students considered the social identity of their influencers.


Christie assessed understanding in several ways. Formatively, in addition to the ongoing reflections and discussions, she has administered a survey three times over the course of the year. The questions were based on the Social Justice Standards. Christie saw significant growth base on student responses.

For summative assessment, students wrote about social identity and made connections to the Ghost Boys book. The performance assessment included a vocabulary bank that students were expected to use in their responses.

Application through art making

After the written performance assessment, students were ready to process and express their learning in a completely different way.

As Christie put it, “I think that because it was so deeply personal and it was about who we are, I wanted to allow students the opportunity to think really expansively. … I had had the opportunity to collect the data and understand how my students were performing. Which then opened up the space for this project to be truly expressive without the confines of an evaluation from me.”

Leading up to the teaching artist experience, students chose the medium that they wanted to explore. Then they connected with a teaching artist for a 45 minute workshop: Rajnii Eddins for spoken word poetry; Max Jennings, a teacher and Moth Grand Slam winner, for oral story telling; or Allison Treston, an art teacher at the school, for visual arts. Students started their projects during the workshops and then used one work day to finish before the exhibition.

One student, Myra, seemed to agree with the non-evaluative approach:

it’s nice to do art because whatever you were doing it’s right because it is about your identity.

Myra created a collage about her identity and shared things that she had never shared at school before. “Identity is not just one thing, it is many things layered on top of each other. … I wanted other kids to learn about who I am and realize that there are parts of me that are different than what they expected.”

Bonding by performing

Though his hands were shaking beforehand, Jesse was proud to hear his story greeted by gales of laughter. He thought that the art project helped show what he had learned in a different way: “writing an essay would show what you know but telling the story we shared what we have learned about identity. The story was about our identity and an essay would just be about the unit’s identity.”

The exhibition was a powerful example of true student engagement that included emotional, intellectual, and behavioral dimensions. The event perfectly blended deeply personal expression with a public display of deep learning.

And the sense of community was palpable. Yorda noted, “I learned so much from my classmates and it was inspiring to see their passion.”

Deng shared:

My classmates gave me courage because they put out tough stuff about their lives so I thought if they can do it I can do it.

And Will captured the selflessness of a volunteer performer. “I shared my piece not for a response but just to spread awareness and positivity.”

Ready for the tough stuff

Christie’s students impressed Rajnii. He commented that “they seemed particularly primed to explore to a deeper degree issues of our identity and to connect to issues of our humanity in vibrant ways.”

In interviews, students validated Rajnii’s reflection on their readiness and eagerness to learn.

From Abby: “Kids around the world and even younger kids should learn about this because we are the future leaders. Christie and Rajnii are so important because they help us learn about ourselves and let us form our own ideas but that can help us see what we want to do more clearly.”

Yorda agreed that combatting bias should start early:

Young people should learn it so they can teach others. It’s easier to learn when you’re young so you don’t have as many bad biases in your brain yet.

And it’s not just preparation for a far-away future. Many students emphasized how they feel empowered to make change now, through art or otherwise. Brianna observed, “children are not just people who learn something and put it in their mind and put it away, they are ready to think about what’s happening and do something about it.” Zina added, “we might be young but we can make a difference.”

Young adolescents can certainly have an impact, if they are given the knowledge and the opportunity.

Where to start

Christie’s main suggestion for educators who want to help students learn about identity and equity is to look inward first. “Start with self and return to self early and often. And so as much as I am reading about Critical Race Theory, as a white woman I’m reading about whiteness. Understanding what it means to deconstruct the system of whiteness. Not just my White racial identity but the system of whiteness from within myself and within the greater system and world that I move between and around.”

For White educators in particular who want to start by looking inward:

Here are some resources for anybody interested in moving this direction:

Be gentle with yourself

Christie recommends working in community with others to learn together and care for each other.

One of the things I think I’ve learned in this work is if I think I’ve got it right I don’t. So the closer I am to being convinced that I am doing it in the right way probably the farther I am from doing it right. … a lot of this involves being able to sit in your discomfort and the mess that is trying to undo hundreds of years of systemic racism. Find communities of practice and and folks who are willing to hold one another lovingly accountable. It gets really hard and if you don’t know who those people are.

Christie adds that she is available to connect. “I’m always excited to meet people who are willing to do this work. I think that that is what keeps me going and give me faith and hope. I love meeting other educators who despite how challenging this could be understand that it’s the most important thing that we can do.”

There is a movement afoot in Vermont and beyond to bring these critical conversations into schools. Classrooms like Christie’s show that learning about social identity is not just possible but essential for young adolescents.

How will you and your students learn about social identity and equity?

What do curiosity projects look like?

“I think every school should do it!”

Soup to nuts, curiosity projects — Genius Hour, 20% time or passion projects by any other name — work for students. At Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School, in South Burlington VT, this year’s Curiosity Projects ran the gamut from robots to cooking shows, electromagnetic studies to YouTube economics. Educators on the Polaris team provided the support and structure, and students put in the work.

The result? Students shared what they studied, what they made and what they learned! The Polaris team hosted an exhibition to showcase the projects. Polaris team families and 5th graders from schools across the district showed up to learn. Students also added the projects to their PLPs and shared them with families in the more intimate setting of student-led conferences.

Unlocking family communication in math class

Students write weekly emails to their families

family communication around education, social media and digital citizenshipLizzie Stockbridge, a 6th grade math teacher at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington, Vermont, gives students 15 minutes every week to write an email home.

But when she started she had no idea how powerful this simple routine would turn out to be.

Unicorn stories!

 Here’s a recent snippet from an email by a student who writes about “Herald the Unicorn” each week:
As you recall last weeks event’s were brutal for Herald this week though they get even worse as I must have reader advisory for this because its so scary it will make you look around and wonder if there really was something moving around in that closet, so creepy it will make you want to run away and actually do that homework that you were told to do if you choose to keep reading you have been WARNED.

Intrigued? Well, read the whole email here as well as his father’s full response, which starts:

John, nearly all of your sentences in this week’s submission are run-ons, but all is forgiven. Why? Because this work is simply fabulous. Foreboding, tense and yet simultaneously humorous. You are juxtaposing genres here, with touches of theater, fable, horror and, dare I suggest, even poetry.

Lizzie’s students are really engaged in this routine. They use their weekly emails to express creativity, raise red flags, reflect on academic learning, process intense events — all sorts of things.

Melding student voice & family connections

Lizzie is a first-year teacher but she recognized the importance of connecting with families. And she knew that the key was to follow the lead of students to make sure it was meaningful.

At the end of the first week of school, students hadn’t yet delved into the math curriculum. When Lizzie read the first set of emails, she found that “they were just so excited about everything that had happened. Before school, after school, how there’s sports here now, how there’s clubs, blah, blah, blah. All the different teachers that they talked to. … Once I saw how invested they were in these other things, I just rolled with it.”

That’s responsiveness. And her instinct to let her students lead planted the seeds of the good things to come.

How does it work?

There are a few simple components to Lizzie’s approach.

  • The gift of time: Students write for 15 minutes on Fridays. Lizzie sets a timer and students are asked to reflect on their week. Otherwise there are no constraints on topic or format. Some students use speech-to-text and some even use emojis rather than formal writing.
  • Email buddies: Each student has at least one “email buddy” to serve as their authentic audience. Lizzie had originally thought she would require the email to go to somebody in the home, but she quickly realized that this didn’t work for everybody. Lizzie makes sure that every student has at least one person to email. For a couple of students this meant connecting them with an external buddy who had some time on his hands: Lizzie’s father. And a few students chose to email teachers within the school with whom they have close relationships.
  • Responses encouraged: Lizzie periodically reminds email buddies that responding makes a big difference for students’ buy-in. When students do receive a response: “It’s clear that they’re excited about sending the emails and the parents who respond often start the email by saying, ‘I love your Friday emails. They brighten my day.’ Then I hear the kids come in and they’re like, ‘They got my email. We talked about this. We talked about that,’ which is great.
  • Teacher CC’d: Lizzie receives all of the emails as well. She skims them over the weekend. “I usually do it on Saturday morning and I’m just sitting there on my computer like, ‘…That’s so cute.’ Yes, it’s nice, yes.” This part is key. So many positive things flow from the fact that Lizzie takes the time to look through the emails.

8 positive impacts of weekly emails

In addition to strengthening family communication, here are eight more benefits of students writing weekly emails home.

1. Teacher student relationships

Lizzie values learning about her students. This was big part of the reason why she altered her original math-focused email plan.

When I saw how they enjoy me talking to them on Mondays being like, “Oh, how did that football game go?” Like, “What? You know I played football? You read my email!” Which is really cool. Instead if I’m like, “How did ratios go last week in Math?” They’re like, “I don’t want to talk to you about this.” That was my major switch.

As a former math teacher, I was always jealous of ELA teachers who learned so much from students’ writing. The weekly emails do this for Lizzie.

2. Curricular relevance

Lizzie uses what she learns to directly support math learning as well.

It makes teaching math so much easier to me. Because if I notice the kids not getting it, I can make connections. “Okay, I know that you have watched Spiderman this past weekend because I saw it in your email.” And so I’m like, “Okay, what if Spiderman needed to save someone and they needed – what do they need to make the suit? …when I ask them to create their own problems, they can easily do it and they connect it to things that are going on outside of the class. Where I feel like last year if I ever ask my students to create anything, it would just be surface level class pencils to markers, but now, I feel like they know that they can talk to me about everything that’s going on because they know that I read it.

3. Crisis prevention & support

In several cases, Lizzie has come across information that was helpful to her team mates for supporting a student.

It helps in other classes, I noticed, because I found some emails, some red flag emails, and I immediately just contact the team or I contact whoever needs to be contacted. Also, for kids who shut down in class, they don’t tell us anything but then they’ll email about it. It’s nice to see that I can see what they’re thinking without them having to verbally tell me.

In one case a student noted that “my teachers hate me.” Lizzie notified her teammates and they talked to the student about it. The positive change was immediate. “She’s like a completely different kid. She comes in all bubbly and says hello to us every day now.” Listening is a powerful strategy and the emails give students another venue for voice.

4. Students connecting with their families

Lizzie was hoping that students and families would talk about school more at home due to the Friday emails. Her action research suggests a moderate shift based on parent survey responses.

Lizzie did see some interesting exchanges however:

A lot of students think ahead to their weekend. …they often talk about what they hoped to happen in the weekend. They send a list home of things that they want to happen. … It’s something they usually send an ask home of, “Can we eat popcorn while we watch our movie?” Or, “Can we watch this movie instead of that movie? Could we go outside? Can we go sledding? Could we…” It varies, but they are usually sending a list and then asking something of the people they send their emails to.

Kids getting a jumpstart on weekend negotiations suggests that they saw this as a legitimate communication tool for the stuff they care about.

5. Student learn life skills

Lizzie was amazed at how little her 6th graders knew about the tech skills related to emailing. Students needed to learn how to use Outlook, how to create a signature, how to enter email addresses, and how to access responses.

It became apparent several months into the school year that she had forgot one important aspect. A parent pleaded, “Can you please teach them how to reply?” Students had been creating new emails each week. Contributing to an ongoing threaded conversation is certainly a 21st Century life skill!

6. Student reflection

Lizzie framed the emails as a form of reflection:

I do call it an email reflection, and so now when they hear the word reflection, I think that they are correlating the, “Okay, now I have to process what I have done.” I don’t know if it’s true in all cases, but I’ve noticed that whenever I say reflection to them, they know exactly what’s expected of them.

In some cases students were focusing their reflection on academic learning. In many cases they were just thinking through the day-to-day tribulations of young adolescence.

I’m thinking that it’s a way for them to process what has happened to them this week, and if that is school related or if that’s something outside of school, that’s up to them, but taking that time to think about what they have done for the week or what they have done for the hour is really important.

In a school-wide survey, Lizzie’s team received positive responses relative to other teams. Parents were impressed with the family communication and students were enthusiastic about reflection. Lizzie and her team mates consider the Friday emails to be an important contributor to the encouraging feedback.

7. Kids like it

If Lizzie has to skip a Friday, she gets a lot of push back from students. Students sometimes finish their emails in study hall. And students have sent their Friday email when they were sick or traveling.

Pie chart showing 72% of students enjoy Friday emails and 25% more say "maybe."

Some students have gotten really creative. One student created the idea of “Girl Power Industries,” where her weekly learning is framed as world-changing. And if you check out a typical email from her then you might believe that this girl is indeed likely to change the world!

8. Families like it

Lizzie has received good feedback from families as well.

Pie chart that show 94% of parents enjoy Friday emails.This comment on the survey seems to capture the parental gratitude:

"Thank you so much for taking the time to create the weekly reflections with the kids. It's a wonderful glimpse into our child's week through his own words and memories. It seems harder these days to tease conversation about school out of him, this really gets the ball rolling around the dinner table. Thank you and keep them coming! [redacted]

And Lizzie has felt the difference in her interactions with families.

Parents are constantly reaching out to me. Every week, I at least have five parents reaching out to me. It can be simple things, concerns, or just check-ins … When I see parents and introduce myself. They’re like, “Oh no, we know who you are.” Immediately they’re like, “Yes. We know you. You’re the math teacher. We know exactly who you are. We hear about you and see your emails,” which is really cool.

It’s so important to be seen and to be known. For teachers, for students, and for their families. Sometimes the simplest routines can help us be human.

Action Research

Please check out the screencast below to see Lizzie’s presentation at the Middle Grades Conference on her approach, her action research, and her findings.


How could you empower students to reflect via email?


The athlete, the artist & the PLP

How Passion Projects can fire up a student-led conference

Julia is a student at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School, in South Burlington VT. She’s an athlete and an artist. So for her Passion Project, she found a way to combine the two disciplines.

And embracing these two important parts of her identity gave her a lot more to talk about at her student-led conference than in years past.

For her Passion Project, Julia transformed a photo of herself at a gymnastics competition and reproduced it using buttons. She took Tuttle’s button mural, depicting their new mascot, as inspiration. In addition, her parents had worked on a portrait of Julia using spray-painted pennies. This too served as inspiration.


Tuttle Passion Projects


Once she’d completed her personal button mural, she discovered that she had much more to talk about at her student-led conference with her family.

As Julia herself puts it,

“When you enjoy doing something, you want to talk about it.”

Several teams at Tuttle Middle School are taking a project-based approach to Personal Learning Plans to “hook” students into the goal-setting, planning, and reflection cycle. Check out Julia’s project reflection sheet, below. There you can see how she documented her journey.

Julia's planning document

How can you help students enjoy PLPs and student-led conferences?

Scaffolding deeper identity work with students

Beyond the “About Me” page

tools for exploring character and identity“What is important to know about me to help me learn?” Every student at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School attempted to answer this question last year.

Student responses took many forms: poems, videos, sculptures, visual art, and more. At the same time, teachers crafted their own projects in order to inspire students. As the “About Me” page of a Personal Learning Plan (PLP) is making itself a rite of passage for Vermont adolescents, this school used a school-wide identity project to invoke creativity and maximize meaningfulness.

Let’s look at how Tuttle staff created a number of powerful, courageous and deeply personal scaffolds to launch this work with students. As a result, students wound up creating some amazing products to put the “personal” in PLPs.

Continue reading Scaffolding deeper identity work with students

How can students teach educators about social identity?

A trio of Tuttle 6th graders led educators from around Vermont through activities in bias-awareness and social identity at the 2018 Middle Grades Conference. And what they learned from those educators is every bit as powerful as what the educators learned from them.

Continue reading How can students teach educators about social identity?

5 online resources for teaching current events

Tarrant Institute tool tutoriallsWhen things get tough, the tough use tools.

Whether you’re actively trying to embed current events in your curriculum or helping your students respond to the headlines, here are five useful tools to help you wrangle news in the classroom.

Continue reading 5 online resources for teaching current events

The #everydaycourage of talking about race in Vermont schools

How will your students prepare for active engagement in democracy?

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

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

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

4 resources for fighting fake news

Teaching news literacy in the social media age

digital citizenship and students onlineWe’ve been hearing a lot lately about the problem of fake news stories and how they might impact our impressions of the world. Imagine: if it’s hard for adults to spot fake news stories, then how hard is it for students?

Turns out: VERY HARD.

Let’s look at some resources for helping students determine when a source is truly credible or not.

Continue reading 4 resources for fighting fake news

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