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

Burke students share their learning with district leaders

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


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

And the district leaders loved hearing from their students.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can your students provide feedback to district leaders?

Student-led conferences come to Leland & Gray

Change is hard!

And changing a school procedure that has been the same forever is even harder! Leland and Gray Middle School teachers started planning a transformation this past summer. Their goal? To increase student engagement through student-led conferences.

(Click or tap to enlarge)

The Process

Start with identity.

Middle school students began the year by focusing on identity. Educators charged them with answering the question, “Who am I?”  Specifically: who am I as a learner, a family member, a community member, and a citizen?

Identify strengths and challenges

And learning more about themselves helped students think about their areas of strength and areas for growth. While the original plan was to have students write goals in advance of student-led conferences, time ran short.  Instead, students asked their parents for feedback on their strengths and challenges and used then that feedback when formulating their goals.

Communicate the change

And change is especially unwelcome if you aren’t expecting it!  It’s crucial to communicate the change in plans to parents and community members.  Leland and Gray middle school teachers sent out a letter to let parents and guardians know that conferences would look and feel different.

Prepare and practice!

The first round of student-led conferences can be scary, for both students and teachers.  Scaffolding the process can help.  Students used a script to prepare for the conversation.

And they practiced, a ton, in pairs.  So when the big night arrived, students explained their learning to their parents with ease. (Because they had practiced explaining it to their peers!)

Ask for feedback

Parents AND students were asked for feedback on the new format.  How will you know what went well and what might be improved if you don’t ask?  Leland and Gray middle school teachers know that this process will grow and improve over time, and they plan to use this feedback to revise the student-led conference process.

Celebrate success!

Student-led conferences received amazingly positive feedback from parents.

I liked that my child is engaged in his progress and aware of it. Loved seeing him voice his strengths — good confidence builder!

It involved the student to the point of accountability. My child was not able ot “zone out” from the meeting, and claim ignorance on subjects.

This format forced [student name] to think, process, and articulate who and where he is academically and personally.

Participation in conferences was higher than it had been in recent years.  And students took ownership of their learning!

How to build teacher advisory

Peoples Academy Middle Level shares their action research

“It’s getting personal”. Peoples Academy Middle Level teachers discuss how they’ve created personal connections with students in their TAs (teacher advisories), and the difference that’s made to classroom environments. Presented at the 2017 Middle Grades Conference, at the University of Vermont.



Transcript pending.

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?

What does service learning look like in Vermont?

Leland & Gray students take on a school community makeover

At Leland & Gray Union Middle High School, students decided to make their school a more inspiring place to learn. They put in flower boxes, painted murals, planted a garden, assembled a forest nature walk and built an outdoor classroom — all in one week.

Here’s what it looked like.

Service learning can take many forms, but in Townshend VT, it took the form of adding light, paint, trees and butterflies to the school community.


  • wrote grants;
  • collected supplies;
  • researched flora & fauna;
  • designed murals;
  • cleared trails;

and built an outdoor classroom. All with an eye to making the school a more inspiring place not just for themselves, but for their community. And for the future.

I think maybe the most satisfying part was, like, knowing at the end we’re gonna have a lot more beautiful things, like, on the school campus? And outside in our community.

So, like, later on, when we’re like, seniors or juniors in high school we get to look back and say, like, ‘Oh, we did this.’ And it’s beautifying the community.

–Ansley, Leland & Gray 8th grader

Throughout the process, students planned what roles could look like in their groups, and consistently focused on how each individual contribution could better the school — and surrounding community — as a whole. Seventh grader Enzo explained the goals of the group focused on adding flower boxes to one of the school’s rear entrances:

We’re doing it to make this area beautiful. To make the parents who drop off the kids know that we like the community.

So exciting to see all this hard work come to fruition! Congratulations, Leland & Gray!

What does service learning look like at your school? What could it look like?

Building a chicken coop at The Dorset School


How do you get fresh eggs on a school menu? Students at The Dorset School, in Dorset VT, did it by researching, designing and building their own school chicken coop. They crowd-sourced donations for materials and had some hands-on help from community members, and now The Dorset School is home to some very happy chickens. We talked with some of the students involved in this project, about what they learned.


Any other schools out there with advice for new coop builders?

How to get students to communicate with families

Welcome to the Best Part of My Week

And yours, likely. Peoples Academy Middle Level educator Joe Speers shares how to get students to communicate with their families. He uses a technique called The Best Part of My Week.

Speers’ sixth grade students use the iOS Explain Everything app to record a short message to their families, talking about the best part of their week. Each message must include a selfie, a short text-based message and a voice recording. Then students store each message in their Google Drive. That way, families know where to go to get the latest updates from their students. But best of all, these messages can be included in the students’ PLPs. Short, personal, and emotional goalposts depicting what each student finds most satisfying about their lives as they grow and change.

how to get students to communicate with their families

While Peoples Academy uses the Explain Everything app, any digital app that can combine text, photo and audio can work. Shadow Puppet? Yup! iMovie or WeVideo? Why not! The tool’s almost immaterial, so long as students feel comfortable. The underlying principles here are mindfulness, reflection and repetition.

  • Mindfulness: It takes a steely resolve to carve ten minutes out of a busy school day for one specific activity.
  • Reflection: We know how much students benefit from reflecting on their learning. This is just applying that principle to their emotional selves as well.
  • Repetition: Every Friday. (Snow days notwithstanding.)

Joe previously showed us how his students use Corkulous to create vocab flashcards, and how he uses Google Drive to organize student work. Which is to say: he is rock n’ roll personified.

How do you get students to talk with their families?

How to create empathy with your community

Meet the Compassionate Faces of the Shires

community-based learning the humans of burkeHow do your students recognize compassion? Do they recognize it in the faces of your community?

In Manchester VT, one educator set about teaching her students to recognize and honor compassion in community members.
Continue reading How to create empathy with your community

How to build up STEAM

Making time for making at Ottauquechee

makerspaces and project-based learningSTEAM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics — gives students the opportunity to create. To make. Maybe to fail. To try again! And to make something that improves a condition, solves a problem, or makes the world a better place. But if your school currently doesn’t offer a STEAM time, it can be daunting to figure out where to begin. And that’s where we pick up our story of Ottauquechee School, in Quechee VT, where we used Design Thinking, a portable makerspace and one amazing library space to figure out how STEAM Time could work at this school.

Welcome to Ottauquechee STEAM Time.

Continue reading How to build up STEAM

One mural, multiple legacies

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

But she went for it.

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

Continue reading One mural, multiple legacies

Battle Physics at Green Mountain Union High School

Come for the math, stay for the slingshots!

practice for proficiencyGreen Mountain 7th graders and HS physics students apply math and science to a real-world problem: hitting targets.  They collaborate in multi-age teams to design and build projectile launchers.  Then they calculate trajectories and calibrate their creations before taking aim.

Each spring the students take over the Green Mountain Union High School cafeteria to stage an epic competition: Battle Physics. The tournament is a test of their skills: designing, building, computing, and calibrating. The winning team will have to do all of these things well to hit the most targets.

Continue reading Battle Physics at Green Mountain Union High School

Developing empathy for your community

Meet the Humans of Burke

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

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

Continue reading Developing empathy for your community

Why host a whole-school exhibition?

Providing an arena for powerful family feedback

sharing STEAM projects with familiesSchool exhibitions take work. They take work to organize, schedule, promote and pull off, and they can feel overwhelming from the teacher side. But they also provide a very specific opportunity for students to stand proudly next to the results of all their hard work and say, “Yes. I did this.”

And that can be the best time and place for families to hear the pride in their student’s voice.

Continue reading Why host a whole-school exhibition?

Using student TED Talks to showcase learning

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

Let’s find out.

Continue reading Using student TED Talks to showcase learning

Should Vermont host the next Olympics?

Manchester’s 6th graders weigh in… to their Selectboard.

Real World PBLTeams of 6th-grade students from Manchester Elementary Middle School researched this question and put their arguments to the town.

Should Manchester VT put in a bid to host a future Winter Olympics?

Continue reading Should Vermont host the next Olympics?

What if you could have Town Meeting Day every week?

A Vermont tradition comes to the classroom

Town Meeting Day is a Vermont tradition: once a year, everyone in towns across the state pack into the town hall and talk face-to-face about the issues affecting their community.

But Warren Elementary School, in Warren VT, holds Town Meetings on a weekly basis, using the tradition to cultivate citizenship and community.

Continue reading What if you could have Town Meeting Day every week?

How to build a better (student-made) chicken coop

Applying NGSS to… chickens?

Real World PBLAt the Dorset School, in Dorset VT, the 8th graders know that fresh, farm-raised eggs taste amazing. The problem: their cafeteria cannot afford local, free-range eggs. So they asked: “What would it take to raise chickens at the school?”

And they used a combination of design engineering, technology and community partners to find out.

Continue reading How to build a better (student-made) chicken coop

Green Mountain’s Wilderness Semester

Take student learning outside

Wilderness SemesterStudents at Green Mountain Union High School demonstrate learning in Science, Social Studies, Health, and Language Arts over the course of a semester. But for one group of students, there are no barriers between subjects, no bell schedule, and no borders on their classroom.  Much of their learning happens out of doors, either in the 200 acres behind the school, on the Long Trail or in other outdoor locations.

Welcome to Wilderness Semester.

Continue reading Green Mountain’s Wilderness Semester

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?

Start faculty meetings with a student presentation


student presentations at faculty meetingsThe growing trend of increasing student voice and choice in schools is opening authentic opportunities for dialogues between students and adults. Students, when given the opportunity to present to educators and administrators, almost always deliver on a level far beyond what many think middle schoolers are capable of.

And that’s exactly what’s been happening at Colchester Middle School.

Continue reading Start faculty meetings with a student presentation

Sharing your school’s Passion Projects

Does your community know you as a learner?

taking Genius Hour school-wideFlood Brook School buzzed with excitement. Students brought in their projects on tables or on carts, the weight sometimes shared with friends. As they set up their displays, parents, teachers, younger students and community members milled about, waiting for the opportunity to learn more about student projects and process. One student fired his trebuchet in the center of the room to great fanfare.

And over the course of the hour, these students described their learning to an eager and curious community. Continue reading Sharing your school’s Passion Projects

The rise of the project-based PLP

A new recipe for Personalized Learning Plans

Crossett Brook PLPsRather than trying to get students to care about existing PLPs, some schools are revamping their PLP process to start with what students care about. They are asking students to pursue their passions by crafting projects based on their personal interests and deepest curiosities.

The new recipe that is emerging: start with a cool personalized project and then build the PLP around it.

Continue reading The rise of the project-based PLP

What flexible seating looks like in action

Physical aspects of a student-centered classroom

flexible classroomsSometimes what seems like a little change can make a big difference. That’s what two Proctor Elementary School teachers recently confirmed when they decided to incorporate flexible seating into their classrooms.

It’s been such a success that now every classroom in their school features some sort of flexible seating options for students.

Continue reading What flexible seating looks like in action

The value of a community mentor

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

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

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

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

Continue reading The value of a community mentor

Race Against Racism VT

It all starts with an idea. Races Against Racism have taken place around the country, and last spring, a community member and organizer Henry Harris suggested that 15-year-old Hope Petraro organize an event in her community. He said she might be interested in having this event in Montpelier. That was just the spark she needed.

Since then, Hope, with the support of her teachers and community mentor, has created an important event to fight back against racism during a time when our country is seeing a resurgence of racial conflict.

Continue reading Race Against Racism VT

The student architects of Shelburne VT

Making math real-world relevant

real world project-based learningWould you tell the school board how to redesign your school? Students at Shelburne Community School, in Shelburne VT, did just that.

They were tasked with redesigning the school’s outdated “kiva” space. Using Google Sketch-Up, they created three different designs for renovating the space, and presented those designs to a panel of local architects, and their school board.

Continue reading The student architects of Shelburne VT

The #everydaycourage of trying again

Seeing failure as iteration

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

And the results have to be seen to be believed.

Continue reading The #everydaycourage of trying again

Sharing STEAM projects with families

Proctor’s STEAM Family Night

STEAM projects with familiesThe sleepy little town of Proctor VT, is making some big waves when it comes to showcasing their students’ STEAM achievements. STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math) is a hot topic in school innovation right now, and rural towns like Proctor are primed and ready to show their communities just why STEAM matters so much to students.

Continue reading Sharing STEAM projects with families

Culminating Events for Project-Based Learning

Honor scholars with an authentic audience for their work

culminating events for project-based learningThe culminating event! It’s the lovely finish line of a Project-Based learning unit. The big event. You’ve been planning for months for this event that celebrates the projects and the learning in an authentic, community based forum. All along, it’s been a strong motivator for scholars, grounding the relevant work they’ve been doing.

So. What does it look like to pull off a memorable and meaningful culminating event for project-based learning?

Continue reading Culminating Events for Project-Based Learning

Idle-Free Vermont in Shelburne

8th grade scientists tackle carbon emissions at a busy traffic circle

community based learningThis past year, Shelburne Community School middle grades students took part in Idle-Free VT‘s ongoing efforts to reduce carbon emissions from idling cars near schools.

The students’ outreach efforts led to a 79% measured reduction in carbon emissions at the school’s traffic circle, while an unanticipated response from drivers led the students to initiate a change in the study’s protocol.

Continue reading Idle-Free Vermont in Shelburne

Study National Parks with digital tools

Student-created virtual park tours

With access to online and tablet-based tools for digital curation and content creation, students can research the history, challenges and attractions of one of our nation’s 58 (!) National Parks. Under the rubric of planning a visit to them, students can answer an essential and timeless question: What features make National Parks special and worth saving?

It’s almost as good as being there. Especially if you’re trapped in snow and/or don’t have your driver’s license yet. Let’s roll!

Continue reading Study National Parks with digital tools

iBook Authors at Harwood Union Middle School

Be your own Hero

iBook Authors at Harwood Union Middle SchoolUsing the free iOS Shadow Puppet app, I created this brief look at an amazing unit designed by one of our partner educators, Jonah Ibson, at Harwood Union Middle School.

Ibson challenged his students to write their own “hero’s journeys” using the iBooks Author software. By taking ownership of the Hero’s Journey narrative, students are encouraged to create e-books that place them in the hero’s role. The resulting e-books will have a chance to be housed in an elementary school library, and read out by librarians to younger students.

Check out these amazing iBook Authors at Harwood Union Middle School, in Moretown Vermont.

Continue reading iBook Authors at Harwood Union Middle School

How to use EdPuzzle for differentiation

How to use EdPuzzle for differentiationNew cool tool for flipped classrooms and personalized learning

Check out this great resource for differentiation and the flipped classroom: EdPuzzle. It lets you mark up videos with commentary, crop them for time and embed quizzes. And as an educator, you can see behind-the-scenes exactly how students are engaging with your content, so you can use EdPuzzle for differentiation.

Let me walk you through how to get up and running with it.

Continue reading How to use EdPuzzle for differentiation

Digital credentials, quests and middle school math

Because 102 years of Girl Scouts can’t be wrong

New this morning on the blog, Harwood Union Middle School math educator Lisa Therrien discusses how she and her students are using the Badgestack platform to use digital badges, quests and differentiation to turn traditional math teaching on its head.

Badgestack is an online tool that’s now available free as a series of WordPress plugins.

How to: showcase community interviews with digital tools

Meet the digital anthropologists of Cabot, Vermont

In fulfillment of their project-based learning research this past spring, this pair of middle school students decided to learn more about different regions of the U.S. by interviewing members of their small, rural Vermont town who had lived in those communities. They took the resulting interviews and embedded them in this Thinglink:

We recently had a chance to sit down with these students and get them to share how they pulled this amazing project together.

Continue reading How to: showcase community interviews with digital tools

Essays on Rube Goldberg: capturing the scientific process with iPads

A tale of how physics can be successfully essayed on.

How one class of 8th grade scientists at Harwood Union Middle School used Google Docs, Schoology, and iPads to capture long-form essays about Rube Goldberg. Featuring everyone’s favorite tech-tastic science educator, Brian Wagner. As HUMS principal Amy Rex commented, “Exemplar teaching and learning — narrow the field and provide rapid feedback :)”

Authentic cell biology with Notability on the iPad

This spring, Nancy Spencer and her class discovered something amazing about their cheek cells.

The students discovered that by placing the lens of their iPad cameras directly against the eye-piece of a microscope, they were able to take photos of cells that had, until five minutes earlier, been a part of their bodies.

And Spencer discovered that by letting her students lead and giving them the freedom to experiment with technology in their hands, she could still be surprised by what they came up with.

Notability on the iPad

“It’s very exciting that, in all these years I’ve used microscopes, this is the first time for combining the microscope with technology on a personal level,” Spencer commented. “Sometimes I’ve had one in class where I’ve been able to project it onto the screen. But to enable the students to really capture the cells, and put it on Notability? I was able to have them label it and have them write the structure and function of that organelle.”

In this classroom, educator and students discovered that authentic cell biology was possible. It makes a difference when the data you gather is about yourself.

What they did:

  • Students swabbed the insides of their cheeks and prepared the cells on microscope slides;
  • Then they placed their iPads’ camera up against the eyepiece of the microscope and took a picture of the slide’s contents;
  • They used the Notability iOS app to mark the different parts of the cell on their digital image, write up the experiment and share it with the educator;
  • Finally they saved their Notability notes to their digital portfolios. The students had previously prepared and examined plant cells, so they were able to compare the cell structures of animal vs. plant cells.

Connect with them:

Mrs. Spencer’s 7th grade scientists would love to hear from any class who replicate their cell biology experiment.

If you and your students elect to take the cheek-cell-Notability challenge and are willing to share your experience with Mrs. Spencer’s class at Harwood (Skype! G+ Hangout!, Facetime!, just a blog post!) please get in touch.

Using Google Forms for a reading log for middle school

As part of their celebration of Digital Learning Day, students at Edmunds Middle School hosted a “speed-geeking” session: they each had six minutes to explain a tech tool and how they’re using it in school. Here, one student explains how she’s using a Google form with lexile reading scores to keep a multi-level reading log for middle school.