Tag Archives: Randolph Union High School

The power of thematic and integrated learning at Randolph Middle School

Middle level educators at Randolph Union Middle School believe integrated and thematic learning help students see their place and role in the world. And a shift to remote learning meant they’d simply have to be more creative and coordinated to make it work!

Given the challenge to provide instruction remotely, the team agreed they needed to make learning expectations manageable and meaningful. A thematic unit became the focal point to end this year well for their students. And the collaborative effort was worth it in more ways than one.

Why implement thematic/integrated units?

Here’s what the 7th grade teacher team believes:

“When curriculum is integrated, it is no longer a list of skills and information that must just be learned for a test. When learning is tied to a specific theme, issue, problem, etc., students are able to naturally see the interconnected way information and skills from the different subjects work together. The study of themes and world problems relevant to the lives of students increases their motivation and engagement with the material.”

In addition, developmentally appropriate, relevant integrated curriculum:

  • fosters collaboration
  • deepens students’ critical thinking abilities
  • highlights transferable skills


thematic and integrated learning


Launching remote learning through a thematic unit: Is access to water a basic human right?

Once all agreed on the commitment to keep the thematic integration going, they all selected the essential question. Their students would end their 7th grade year learning enough about water from the different discipline lenses to answer the question: Is access to water a basic human right?

Each week, the team shared an overview calendar of assignments with students and families. Students recognized that, although they were doing school work from each subject area, they were working on the Water unit as a unifying force.

thematic and integrated learning


Transforming teaming routines

Each member of the team used Google Classroom to deliver instructional materials and receive student work. Yet, they recognized, an efficient workflow through Google Classroom wasn’t enough to help students and their families navigate assignments remotely. Each crafted hyperdocs containing the week’s worth of work. That way, learners could see the scope of required work and plan accordingly. Here is an example of a math assignment hyperdoc:

thematic and integrated learning


In addition, the team created a website for easy access to all assignments and supporting resources.

thematic and integrated learning


The best benefit to the teachers on the team in this thematic alignment work?  It incentivized them to streamline delivery for students, and to plan instruction and assessment practices in a way they’d never done before.

The power of teacher collaboration

Weekly they carved out time as a team to share drafts of the remote lesson plans they were getting ready to launch this thematic and integrated learning unit. Tuning together meant that each was able to hear feedback from their colleagues about content, work load, and clarity of delivery.

  • Who might need to scale back?
  • Who might need to add more details, more diagrams, visuals and scaffolds to support self-direction?

thematic and integrated learning

Example of science activity improved to include diagrams & time-lapse video 

Teaming at its best

Since they saw the workload for the week assembled in one place, they could make group decisions about the reasonableness of the student workload.

Example from group feedback:

  • hyperdoc formatting ideas included adding icons to slides to indicate if students would need to listen, read, or do.
  • include time recommendations for assignments so students could plan effectively
  • shorten instructional videos into chunks and clarify instruction

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Other benefits of taking the time to tune together

Weekly tuning helped them be better advisors. During office hours each team member could support their students’ struggles and answer questions from other classes. Why? Because they were familiar with their colleague’s instructional plans and expectations in a way they’d never experienced before.

Tuning work can be intimidating. It takes time out of incredibly packed days. Yet, because of its impact, they value it above almost every other meeting at this point in this tumultuous year. Never again, Alyssa Matz the social studies teacher on the team shared, will she go back into a planning silo. She’s recognized the immense value in collaboratively sharing and critiquing lesson planning around a thematic topic for her growth and for the benefit of her students. The team agreed with her to never go back to individualized, discipline specific instruction!  How cool is that.

Reflecting on thematic remote instruction

Looking back, the team saw students making connections, voluntarily without prompting, between content areas. Helping student make connections is a primary goal of the humanities curriculum. The intentional alignment of content clearly affected learners’ ability to synthesize. And the intentional integration gave students a framework to build the new learning upon. They recognized how key ideas in the shared reading of A Long Walk to Water, the science experiments on the water cycle, and the study of border disputes all played a role in their assignments. Even in math!

All agreed the power of teaming in this way was a game changer.

How might you incorporate thematic instruction in your work with students?

How to use Google Keep for video note-taking

A recent study from Common Sense Media confirms what those of us who spend time with young adults already believe to be true.

“Teens clearly prefer a visual medium for learning about the news.” A majority (64%) say that “seeing pictures and video showing what happened” gives them the best understanding of major news events, while just 36% say they’d prefer to read or hear the facts about what happened.”

Why not then, given the implications, teach students the listening, viewing, and analyzing skills necessary to engage with media effectively?

Integrated studies and socratic seminars to the rescue

Through their integrated studies block, Randolph Middle School 8th grade team set out to do just that. At Randolph Union Middle School, all teachers commit to using the high leverage practice of socratic seminars to provide plenty of opportunities for students to practice active listening and discussion skills.

A socratic seminar engages students in a content-focused and evidence-based discussion with their peers. Marisa Kiefaber, a 5th grade teacher at Rutland Town School, believes “Socratic seminars provide students with opportunities to practice and improve transferable skills, such as clear and effective communication and responsible and involved citizenship, and self-direction.” 

The Randolph team set out to engage learners in an exploration of why certain societies fail. Students were to engage in multi-media rich research to prepare for the seminar. All agreed to provide structure and to scaffold skills necessary to be active listeners and engaged discussants.

First they practiced conversation starters and ways to maintain conversations once started. “We had some lighthearted convos and moved into some heavier philosophical themes as a first step. Our intention was to somewhat align with SBAC listening tasks as well.”

The power of scaffolds to remove barriers for all learners

Katy Novak advises teachers to scaffold listening skills.

“Students need to know the difference between the various types of listening in order to use them effectively and observe the world around them. Teach them the difference between active listening and cognitive listening and provide them with numerous options to practice. When cognitive listening students make inferences and generalizations, take notes, and formalize what they learned to make learning more permanent” (Innovate Inside the Box).

To build these important listening skills and establish a shared background knowledge base, Brian Kennedy, the social studies teacher on the team, selected six videos for students to watch. He created a time indexed note-taking sheet to help students be cognitive listeners and active viewers of media.


Building upon successes

A Universal Design for Learning Guideline is to “build fluencies with graduated levels of support for practice and performance. Students learned to see videos as a valid research resource for their socratic seminar through this structured note-taking exercise. A next step in building fluency is to provide direct instruction in note-taking as students begin their own research. Videos, podcasts and other forms of multi-media help them to gather evidence to answer the question why societies fail. And, teens prefer a visual medium, so it’s a win-win for all.

In the past, the 8th grade team asked students to use a tool for this called Videonot.es but discovered this time round the app is no longer available. Luckily they are a flexible bunch and from their own research, they found an alternative.

Google Keep kept them going

Watch youtube videos and practice cognitive listening by taking notes while viewing with Google Keep. Students install the Google Keep Chrome Extension. Here’s how.

How to take notes:

  • start watching the video,
  • pause at an important point in the narration,
  • click on the Google Keep extension icon in the upper right-hand corner of the browser window
  • Keep opens a note in that corner & automatically includes the video hyperlink in the note
  • type time stamp & note
  • repeat

Randolph teachers instruct students to include the timestamp. That way, during the socratic seminar, they have ready access to key evidence from their video-based research.

Google Keep notes can be used much like index cards to structure research. Tag each note to a topic or concept using the labeling feature. In addition, use the color-coding feature for organizational purposes. A bonus: add a collaborator to the notes for group projects and for keeping teachers in the loop of note-taking progress.

Keep removing barriers

Teachers may want to offer additional ways, using Google Keep, to support all learners in developing note-taking skills. The Google Keep app allows a note-taker to use the audio feature within the app for voice-to-text functions. Or a student can use the phone’s voice-to-text function to do the same thing.

Watch this short video to see the Google Keep mobile app in action.


Keep up with all that Google Keep has to offer

Want to know more about Google Keep?  Dottotech reviews some of Google Keep’s other features. Or to use other tools to help students take notes while viewing media, check out this Take Notes Guide.

Bigger implications

From the same Common Sense Media study quoted above we learn that:

Teens get their news more frequently from social media sites (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) or from YouTube than directly from news organizations. More than half of teens (54%) get news from social media, and 50% get news from YouTube at least a few times a week. Fewer than half, 41%, get news reported by news organizations in print or online at least a few times a week, and only 37% get news on TV at least a few times a week.

It is our job as educators to help create engaged citizens and critical thinkers. One way is to provide opportunities for students to practice media literacy skills.

“Being media literate includes the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms.”

And, a key part of that practice is plenty of opportunity to apply what they’ve learned through respectful and evidence-based discussions.

How might you help students learn the skills of effective media consumption and provide ways to safely practice such important life skills?

Randolph students turn digital audio producers with PBL

Flexible pathways in digital music

The 21st Century Classroom podcastWe had a chance to hear from student digital audio producers at Randolph Union High School, in Randolph VT.

They, along with innovative educator Raymond Cole, shared what makes this project-based learning class such a hit.


A full transcript follows below.

In this episode of The 21st Century Classroom, in tiny Randolph VT, students are turning digital audio producers, complete with a CD release party and plays on local radio.

And they’re doing it in school.

Bailey: Right now, I’m currently working on a more trance piece. If you know DeadMau5, he’s a trance deejay and he makes kind of trance-y song. It makes you, like, get upbeat but it’s kind of like you’re lost in the world. That’s what I’m working on right now. And it’s very… It has live synths and pads, which is all very airy.

Randolph Union High School has begun offering a digital music class that uses a technique known as project-based learning to support students in learning about music, technology.

And more importantly, how they best learn in a classroom setting.

Emma: Well, usually, we come together in the beginning of class and do something together. Maybe we’ll analyze a piece of music, share some of our music, talk about tempo, chord progressions. Then, we branch off a d either work in collaboration with each other or alone. And that’s the time when you really start to need to be… Like your mind goes into its creative space.

I think something I really struggle with sometimes is that writer’s block sort of thing. I think if anybody, or any other student’s experience that while writing music, it’s a really real thing. And it’s hard to overcome and it can feel really frustrating. But if you have somebody to collaborate with and say,

“Hey, come on, will you listen to my piece?”

It can be really helpful to gather other people’s input and really help move along the creative process.

Raymond Cole is teaching Randolph’s digital music course as part of the school’s focus on project-based learning. Project-based learning is a type of personalized learning that fuses student passions with concrete actions in the world.

Students begin each project-based learning cycle by focusing on an idea they want to bring to life in the world, creating meaningful change.

Raymond Cole: My name is Raymond Cole. I am the music teacher here at RUHS, Randolph Union High school. I teach grade seven through 12. I teach jazz band, concert band, choir, digital music, and then a seventh grade general music class here at the school. I have done music technology in the past at other schools that I have taught at, and it’s been a really big part of my musical growth since I started doing music. I thought it was really really cool being able to teach a project based learning class at PBL. I usually teach most of my classes through projects anyways, so it kind of really fit really, really well.

At the beginning of this year I went to a weeklong professional development session on PBLs and project-based learning classes, and learned how to teach a project based learning class, and ended up coming up with this idea, then working backwards from it. And it ended up working out really well.

Cole has found that project-based learning’s focus on creating, making and doing has changed how he approaches his role in the classroom.

But not the content.

Raymond Cole: I’m really more of a facilitator in this class than a teacher. Very rarely do I spend a lot of time in front of the students lecturing or giving out information that way. I usually build projects that allow them to figure out the information for themselves. I ended up having our big end-of-the-year exhibition project planned out, where we were going to create a CD and then broadcast it on a radio station and worked backwards from there.

We started out the year basically saying,

“Okay, this is where we need to be. What do we already know that will help us reach our goal, and what do we need to know in order to reach our goal?”

I already had an idea of what we did, but I wanted the students to be able to kind of figure that out for themselves, and then from there I structured projects that allowed them to gain this knowledge through doing the project. We started out on some more basic softwares, and working with loops, and already premade music, and they had to piece together.

That way I was able to teach the structures of music through a non-traditional sense instead of just saying, “This is form and this is how it sounds.” I have them say, “Okay this is form” and build a song using these pre-made loops to emulate that form. It’s all learning through doing versus learning through absorbing.

A key component of project-based learning requires that students undertake projects that are both personally meaningful and authentically connected to the world around them in some way.

For these students, focusing on their tracks included anticipating releasing them as a digital mixtape, complete with a potential CD release and outreach to local radio stations.

Willam: With this, we have to email and talk to people, call and get communicating with the radio station. It’s been a lot easier to know how to set stuff up. Like groups, parties, releases and stuff like that.We had Adam, one of the students, email the radio station, collaborate with them. Like:

“When do you want it to happen? When is a good time? What’s going to happen? How do you want us to set it up? What do you need?”

Just stuff like that.

Emma: I hope to be able to share something that I feel really proud of and say, “Yeah, I wrote this.” And be a little surprised at where I’ve come. I hope to take away a lot more music theory knowledge of more tempo and stuff like that, and harmony, and just music theory that I could take away to use in the traditional music world.

Meet Emma. She plays multiple traditional musical instruments, and this class is her first foray into digital music.

But she’s already noticed a change in how she approaches both disciplines, and creative effort in general.

Emma: Okay. My name is Emma. I’m in 10th grade and I go to Randolph Union High School.

I had been playing several instruments since I was younger. I mostly played the flute, but I do play a little bit of piano and guitar here and there, and music is just something that really interests me, and I happened to have this period free. Digital music is something I had never really tried out so I figured, “Why not take a chance?” It ended up being something I like. I’m really glad I decided to do it.

Usually, we come together in the beginning of class and do something together. Maybe we’ll analyze a piece of music, share some of our music, talk about tempo, chord progressions. Then, we branch off in either work in collaboration with each other or alone. And that’s the time when you really start to need to be… Like your mind goes into its creative space.

I think something I really struggle with sometimes is that writer’s block sort of thing. I think if anybody, or any other student’s experience that while writing music, it’s a really real thing, and it’s hard to overcome and it can feel really frustrating. But if you have somebody to collaborate with and say, “Hey, come on, will you listen to my piece?” It can be really helpful to gather other people’s input and really help move along the creative process.

When I first started the class, it was a little hard to share my music because music can be a really vulnerable thing. I think I’ve grown though since then like, become more proud of the pieces I’m making; I don’t think that any of the challenges are bad though.

I think that’s helped translate into like other classes or just life in general, like being more proud of what I’m doing and taking pride in the creative process. Yeah.

Bailey: After you make something, and you like it, and you hear it, and you hear it… And if you show someone else and they like it, then that’s probably the most satisfying. As long as you like it. Then when you hear someone else confirm that your feeling is right. Then that’s probably the most satisfying part.

Project-based learning provides a space for different levels of learners to take enjoyment from the shared, collective experience of building. In project-based learning, when you have a shared purpose, it creates something greater than the sum of its parts.

Randolph senior Max came to the class with a very different set of musical experiences, and has taken a different pathway through it.

Max: Yeah, I started producing music on my own when I was in 8th grade and I learned a couple of different types of software. I mostly taught myself how to do it all. I started releasing music on SoundCloud under my name and released an E.P. when I was in 10th grade. I’ve learned all the technology mostly on my own and over the course of it, I got a really solid understanding of using multiple kinds of software.

So I signed up for this PBL digital music class because I’m actually someone who’s been a music producer for a long time, and it’s always been a passion of mine. But it’s never been something that’s been taught at school. I haven’t really seen very other people getting into it. So, I signed up for this class to kind of be a resource, to help others learn and to have fun with people who are into something that I’m really into.

It’s been really good for me in this course to be able to help other people through every step of the process because we have people at every different skill level come into this class.

Yeah, this class isn’t so much about my own goals. I think I’m mostly in this class to really teach others what I know. I think it’s really important to have classes like this, and have this stuff being taught in schools because it enables people to express themselves musically and actually have a platform for that and not just have ideas but not be able to pursue them. I think that’s kind of why I’m in here, is to really make people want to take it seriously and inspire people.


And for teacher Raymond Cole, all of these outcomes are a success for the class.

And for project-based learning at Randolph.

Raymond Cole: Well, with music it’s all very subjective. Success means a lot of different things. We actually had a discussion about what success was towards the beginning of the year. Because some people might think success would be being able to write their own song without any help and all that kind of stuff. Whereas some people would find success in being able to even understand what they are doing.

It really depends on the student, and I think what we ended up coming up with was success meant reaching the goal they had set for themselves before they started the project.

Being able to write the song that they wanted to write or convey the message they wanted to convey whether it’s through loops or through stuff that they wrote and it’s on varying levels too, which I thought was really cool because each student could kind of have their own measure of success as they went.

I basically tried to sculpt the beginning of the year in a way that everybody could be successful, and that everybody can learn what they needed to in order to progress. Which was really cool because that way I could kind of take my time being a new teacher here at Randolph. I could tell them, okay, this is what we are doing today. And then watch them figure it out on their own versus me having to stand in front of them. Then test to see whether or not they’ve figured out what they are supposed to figure out.

Bailey is an 8th grader at Randolph and when he joined the class, had no prior musical experience.

But he’s already gotten deeply into the production side of things.

Bailey: Right now, I’m currently working on a more trance piece. If you know DeadMau5, he’s a trance deejay and he makes kind of trance-y song… it makes you like get upbeat but it’s kind of like you’re lost in the world. That’s what I’m working on right now. It has live synths and pads, which is all very airy. We’re using popular song form right now — which is intro, verse, chorus — but pretty much what I’m doing right now is I’m adding in the beginning a very mystic feel. Then it’s going to have a lead up, a drop, and it’s just going to hopefully blow your mind.

Obviously, I hope when we release it to the radio station people are like,

“Oh, this is fire!”

And want it. But I guess it’s all up in the air, it depends what people want. If they like it, I guess we’ll go from there.

That’s a key component of project-based learning — and really any transformative learning experience.

Students have the choice of what they learn, how they learn, and why it means something.

Bailey: Hopefully, after this year, I’m hopefully going to be coming back to this PBL, and so hopefully by then I will have a track that I am very proud of. I’m still working on my main track right now, but at a year’s time I hope I have at least a small collection of tracks that I’m really proud of.


This has been an episode of The 21st Century Classroom, podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education, at the University of Vermont. Huge, unending thanks to Raymond Cole, Elijah Hawkes, and all the students in Randolph Union High School’s digital music class for their generosity and their patience. The episode was produced by Audrey Homan and Life LeGeros.

It has been a true pleasure to listen to these students and their work, and if you want to hear more of their tracks, head over to Soundcloud.com and look up “The Galloping Circus”. It’s the name under which Randolph’s students released their first collaborative album, “The First Act”. Give it a listen.


Maintaining a teaching team

5 exercises your team can try today

self-analysis and teamingSchool is off to a rollicking start thanks to you and your team’s efforts to build a collaborative culture. You’ve made it successfully through in-service days and the first few weeks of school. Now how are you and your team going to maintain your momentum?

Here are five exercises for maintaining a healthy, happy, respectful and celebratory teaching team.

Continue reading Maintaining a teaching team

Restorative Justice at Randolph Union

A student-centered approach to school discipline

Real World PBLEditor’s note: The students in Randolph Union’s PBL class have created a restorative justice system for their school. The students wrote this post as a way to share their story and encourage other schools to give restorative justice a try.

A lot of people are afraid to start implementing restorative justice in schools because of how intensive the work is. Although it certainly has been difficult to do it at Randolph Union High School (RUHS), we have found that it is well worth our efforts. Students have found that the working in setting up and running Restorative Justice has made subtle but important changes in their learning.
Continue reading Restorative Justice at Randolph Union

How can students reflect on their PLPs?

Students themselves tell the best stories of their learning

how can students reflect on their PLPs?We wish we could hand you the one right way for students to reflect on their personal learning, on a silver platter. It sure would make the rest of the year a lot easier, right? But there are as many ways for students to reflect on their PLPs as there are students, so the best we can do is show up with these SIX SPECTACULAR STUDENT EXAMPLES.

Roll tape!

Continue reading How can students reflect on their PLPs?

What work-based learning in Vermont can look like

On exploring flexible pathways to learning

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

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

Continue reading What work-based learning in Vermont can look like