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.
At the Warren Elementary School, students in the Upper Unit (grades 5-6) participate in a weekly “Town Meeting.” A rotating group of students leads the Upper Unit community through a ritual that involves current events presentations, joke telling, celebrations, and open discussion of issues big and small.
Town Meeting exemplifies the Upper Unit’s values. So much so that on the “step up day” that supports younger students who will be transitioning to the Upper Unit, they simply invite those students to join a Town Meeting.
The format of this particular tradition is unique, yet it taps into the universal intersection between student voice and democratic practices.
Why Town Meeting anyway?
Town Meetings have happened in Vermont for over 200 years, since before it became a state. Town Meetings allow citizens to engage in direct democracy and build community in a way that representative democracy does not.
To teach how to enact participatory democracy, we must create spaces where students can participate. Resources like the booklet “Town Meeting Day: A Vermont Tradition” can be helpful for laying out the history and procedures of Town Meeting.
But students need a chance to actively build the skills required of modern citizens.
Establishing classroom rituals and routines is particularly important in student-centered learning environments. This includes small things like how to transition between classrooms, as well as regularly setting aside time to come together as a community.
A Town Meeting for a school community can include all of the best elements of an annual Town Meeting – presentations, discussions, decision making, problem resolution, and laughter. By building it into the fabric of the school, we send a clear message to students that citizenship is a priority. And it socializes them into the democratic process.
The Upper Unit has used the same format for years. The meeting starts with celebrations and information sharing.
Then there are presentations. First, two students separately share a summary of a news article on a topic they are interested in. Sometimes the topics address current events and in other cases they are more personal, such as an autistic student who shared the latest research on autism.
Next, the Poet Humorist for the week recites a poem from memory and tells one or more jokes.
At the end students can raise issues requiring community attention during the all-important “Problem for Discussion” section. These are often behavioral issues and the discussion has many of the characteristics of a restorative circle. This is an invaluable venue for accountability and reconciliation.
Students fully facilitate each Town Meeting. Teachers are present and participate as members of the community rather than as authority figures. In this moment more than any other, the three homerooms of the Upper Unit feel like a community.
A school-based Town Meeting provides a predictable structure that serves as a container for the productive interactions of community members. On a weekly basis this allows relationships to be reinforced and emerging dynamics to be addressed.
But don’t be fooled. Within this togetherness a lot of learning is taking place as well.
In addition to facilitating the meeting, the weekly leaders get to practice their public speaking skills. The article summarizer gets to teach about something they care about while applying literacy skills. The Poet Humorist practices memorization and the diction of entertaining recitation.
Students consistently point to the presentations as a powerful learning opportunity. As one student put it:
I’d tell schools that it really helps with confidence and stuff. Sometimes it can really help with stress and how you deal with stress. Because sometimes it can be pretty stressful like how to get your news article done . . Once you do it more times though, it gets better.
Upper Unit teachers firmly believe that presenting at Town Meeting builds students’ public speaking skills in a way that classroom presentations alone cannot.
And it’s not just communication. Every Transferable Skill is represented at Town Meeting: self-direction, integrated thinking, problem-solving, and, of course, citizenship.
As their system moves to proficiency based learning and reporting, teachers have used Town Meeting as a fertile ground for experimentation. They have collaboratively developed and piloted learning scales to strengthen the feedback loop with students.
By continuing to refine the way skills are measured through Town Meeting, the Upper Unit teachers have gained clarity around the Transferable Skills that they are intentionally developing. The concrete academic benefits of Town Meeting are becoming ever more apparent.
And though the community-building advantages of Town Meeting may not be fully measurable, the benefits will propagate as these students navigate young adolescence now and our democratic society in the future.
What would a regularTown Meeting look like for your school community?