Want to Have a High-Quality Discussion On-line?

Keep These Principles in Mind

“Trust  is earned in the smallest of moments. It is earned not through heroic deeds, or even highly visible actions, but through paying attention, listening, and gestures of genuine care and connection” – Brene Brown

Learning is about relationships.

Research on effective teaching and learning and common sense indicates that strong personal relationships with students and the components of social emotional learning are critical for deep learning. Teaching and learning is a partnership, and it is our job to create classrooms that are based on equity, mutual respect, collaboration, and trust. Only then will students feel comfortable to take risks, use their authentic voices to ask questions and let themselves be vulnerable. We also know that creating school and classroom culture must begin the very first day of school. When remote learning becomes the new normal, the task of creating deep learning experiences for students becomes more challenging. How do we create a classroom culture and engaging learning experiences online?

My students  have shared with me that in order to get excited about on-line learning they need to feel engaged  with the material, and they need to exercise their voice. “I do not like just having to do homework problems and sending in my answers- that is so boring,” one student told me. “Learning by myself is really hard and lonely.” “I miss being connected to my classmates and friends,” one sophomore told me. “I like having discussions as I can see other peoples’ faces and hear from other students- this is more interesting and makes learning easier for me,” another 10th grader mentioned.

This spring I have been experimenting with how to have high quality Harkness discussions in a virtual environment. Some discussions have been great successes, and  others can be kindly described as “memorable failures. While the  format of and the challenges of running  a Harkness discussion on-line are slightly different, here are some suggestions that may be helpful for  all types of on-line discussions, not only for Harkness.

1) Limit the size of the google meet or zoom discussion to eight  people.

Keep it small to begin with! That way everyone has a chance to talk

2) First, joint  create norms with  the students  for the discussion

 Here is an example of the  norms that my students developed for our on-line  Harkness discussions  this spring

·   Please mute yourself whenever you aren’t talking to avoid feedback audio. (Unmute if you want to talk (kind of like leaning into the table to talk). We found that it was easiest to ‘lean in’ by unmuting.)

·   If you have technical questions, use the chat so as not to interrupt the dialogue.

·   Please stay on the Google Meet call window for the entire discussion.

·   Please do not communicate with other people, even anyone who is part of the discussion, on other windows or media.

·   If you really need to leave, please notify the group through the chat so that you do not interrupt the discussion.

·   Please have a printed copy of the materials, your completed prep sheet, and a  note-taking sheet if that helps you ready in front of you prior to beginning the discussion. You will also benefit from numbering pages/ paragraphs on any articles.

·   Remember to use appropriate and respectful language, tone of voice and body language.- this is ESPECIALLY important online!

·   Remember to monitor your airtime, you can still invite others to  speak

One of my students developed her additional  norms for our discussions:

·   The Golden Rule

               Treat others how you want to be treated. 

·   The “Hidden Value” Rule

               Look for the good in everyone. You may not see it immediately, but I promise, it’s there. Believe that everyone provides some kind of value, even if it’s not abundantly clear on the surface. Trust that the person standing in front of you has redeeming qualities that, if you knew more about them, would inspire, delight and enchant you. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

·   The “Everyone Is Special” Rule

               Recognize that everyone comes from a different place, and they all bring vast amounts of experience and wisdom with them. Everyone knows something you don’t know. Everyone is capable of doing and being someone completely different from you and that is a worthwhile thing to respect. 

3) Post these norms on your google classroom and have students read and agree to them before each discussion.

After a few  discussions, ask the students, “Do we need to make any changes to this list? If so, what?” Be open to their contributions.

4) Be clear about the goal for your discussion.

On-line discussion can provide added value for students  if they are encouraged to use their voices to engage in learning,  wrestle with problems, ask questions, learn from one another and/or gain new perspectives on  classroom material. On-line discussions should not be dominated by the teacher or an opportunity delivering information or for “lecture”.

5) Prepare a prep sheet for students to fill in, print out and bring to the discussion. 

If you are familiar with how to prepare for a Harkness discussion, you know how to construct these prep sheets. If not here  are some ideas you might look at You can shape the discussion by how you decide the construct the prep sheet.

6) Begin with an icebreaker activity, preferable chosen and run by a student

 By making personal connections with students and creating an atmosphere of  collaboration and  trust, we  let  students  know that we care about them and what they say is important. As Brene Brown says, we can show our students that we care about them  “through paying attention, listening, and gestures of genuine care and connection.” Take the time to  check in with students and begin by an activity which builds community.  Here are a few ideas.   

7) Plan ahead as to how you will open the discussion. What is the first question you will ask the students?   Proceed from the simple to the complex, from the concrete to the abstract. Students gain confidence as they begin to find their voices. One question on many Harkness prep sheets is “What clarifying questions do you have about this reading?” They can read these off of their prep sheets to begin.

8) Keep your eye on the clock! On-line conversations move more slowly and often take longer. Having everyone join the conversation, making sure  the internet  and audio is working and troubleshooting problems takes additional  time. If you reserve one hour for your on-line discussion, you may get 50 minutes of talking time.

9) Always debrief the dynamics of the conversation! Ask students to reflect on what they learned during the conversation and what, if any added value the discussion held for them and their learning. I ask the students to unmute while we all talk during the debriefing. I always ask:

               What is your big takeaway from today’s discussion? (What did I learn?)

               What went well in our discussion went today?

               What can we do better as a group next time?

               How did  I do in my role as facilitator today?

What suggestions can you give me to improve?

 NOTE: Students tend to think they have done a great job. Listen to their self- evaluation before you offer your feedback  to the group. You can also ask them to respond in a written self-evaluation that you  ask them to return, but  debriefing all together builds community, collaboration and trust.

10)  Monitor YOUR airtime. Again, a discussion is  not the time for lecture or providin vast quantities of additional information. Always keep in mind, “It is not MY discussion,   it is  THEIR discussion”

11) Be aware of  potential technical challenges-some of these can be anticipated and  some just appear! Here are the most common challenges I have encountered:

ChallengeStrategies to Address this  Challenge
Time lags slow the conversation while people unmute themselvesPrepare for this possibility  by addressing it beforehand and asking kids to be patient
 Encourage students to  use a hand signal when they want to talk next – this speeds up the conversation
Connections freeze upUse the chat box- you or another student can write  to the students whose screen is frozen. Tell them  ahead of time that if this happens they should quit and rejoin the meeting
People are not prepared for the discussion and do have their materials in front of themBe clear AHEAD OF TIME that students need to be prepared-this is also much easier to keep track of if there are fewer students in the discussion. Ask them to hold up their papers for you to see if they have done the prep work you have asked for.
 At the beginning of the discussion, ask if everyone is prepared and invite those  who may not be prepared to be honest if they are not (we are all doing the best we can, right?)  Invite them to participate to the level that they can. Do not chastise individuals  publicly in front of others
People not speaking up and/or there are long moments of silenceRephrase the question to make it simpler and easier to answer (usually this happens if a question is too abstract or high level for that point in the discussion) Return to the TEXT and ask a  lower level, more concrete question
 “Stop and Write” replaces the “Turn and Talk”. Ask students to take  one moment to think about the question and write about it on a sheet of paper- then ask them to read out their  responses
 Use  the chat function.  Ask students to THINK for one minute and WRITE their responses in the chat. Have students read these aloud and ask for comments and reactions. Students enjoy this  variant.
 Reach out and ask one student  who you think might have the courage to answer the question, ie., “Marcus, what are your thoughts on this topic?”

 Learning how to facilitate virtual conversations grounded in inquiry, mutual respect, collaboration and trust takes practice and patience! We are all still learning how to do this work. Giving students the opportunity to  design and engage in these discussions enables young people to express themselves, to be heard, to feel valued and to engage in social connection and deep learning.

“We must be guardians of spaces that allow students to breathe, be curious and to explore”- Brene Brown 

I am interested in your reactions, ideas and thoughts! Send them  and your good  ideas for on-line discussions to  me at katherinewcadwell@gmail.com or kcadwell@huusd.org

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A Reflection That I Never Imagined I Would Write

When I sat down to write and reflect upon my teaching this spring, I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would be sharing that I actually cried when I learned that school was closed for the rest of the academic year.

Nor did I ever imagine that everyone in the entire world would be in the situation in which we find ourselves right now.

Nor is the virtual classroom the format for teaching and learning that I prefer.

And yet, here I am- and here we all are- having to stop, breathe, and rethink what we can offer our students and how we can support them through this global pandemic. School buildings are closed until the end of the academic year, and we are confronted with a new host of challenges, both personal and professional.

We know that learning is deeply grounded in relationships, and this is why many of us love our work so deeply, because we can work with children and watch them grow. So how can we continue to build upon the relationships we have built with students so far in the year and how can we connect with them as human beings in a virtual world? This is the story I feel compelled to share; it is writing itself every day. This story is unfolding, and I do not know how it will end as I am in the weeds of this work right now.

As many of you know, I teach “Strategies in Classroom Dialogue” at my school- a class that is designed for sophomores who are interested in student leadership and school transformation. They become skilled in the Harkness pedagogy, an instructional strategy where students drive the conversation and use critical thinking skills to deeply analyze complex text. These young people become leaders in Harkness and work with faculty and with their peers to teach the skills of civil discourse and Harkness dialogue to everyone at school. Over the course of the year they have become experts at leading classroom discussions, presenting to faculty meetings, giving in-service workshops at other schools and presenting at state and regional conferences. 

But now we cannot have face to face dialogue, and like everyone else I have been forced to rethink everything that I was doing with my students in this Harkness class. Harkness is  grounded in personal relationships, collaboration, inquiry, mutual respect, trust, and face to face dialogue. My class has built these relationships from the beginning of the year, but now we can only see each other on a screen. I asked myself, “how can we implement continuity of learning when the concept of an “online Harkness discussion” is a virtual oxymoron?” ( no pun intended )

 So, I decided to do something radical. I reached out to students to help me design and try an online Harkness.

I pitched this idea to the students, “Hey, friends, want to try a virtual Harkness?” I asked during our first Google Meet session. A few of my students peered at me quizzically from their computer screens. I could see they thought I was crazy, but most of the class responded, “Let’s give it a try!” This is the magic that can unfold when students and teachers work together to craft learning opportunities. 

To begin, I asked each student to choose a piece of text that they thought would be of high interest for a Harkness discussion -something that they thought provided an offering or a 

message or meaning beyond the text. I told them that they each would be responsible for planning and facilitating a Harkness discussion on the material that they chose. Students selected video clips, newspaper articles, short stories, essays and poems- even an excerpt from the Black Mirror TV series. After deciding what they wanted to Harkness on, I asked them to write a paragraph as to why they chose their particular selection. One student chose an article on wealth inequality in America. She wrote:

“I chose “Privilege is a Privilege, and a Responsibility” because it is a text that questions our culture around privilege in America. In this article, Tony Schwartz highlights that despite their hard work, many people like the man at the deli are barely making it by while others may be born into enough wealth to barely have to ever work. He focuses on what this means psychologically and how our privilege and wealth can determine how willing we are to help those in need and even how difficult it may be for the privileged to see a need.  I think this is a good starting point because it zeroes in on America so that people can be more connected to the issue. At a time right now where we are in an economic crisis caused by COVID-19, many people are losing their jobs, their security, their routine, etc., this is going to become an even more prominent issue for Americans. This is one person’s perspective on the issue, but it may guide people to think about their stance on the issue and what opportunities their position can offer them to make a difference.” 

Their next assignment was to design a prep sheet for the discussion. The prep sheet is designed to direct students to read closely and consider issues raised in complex text. Here is the prep sheet that this student created:

‘Privilege is Privilege, but also a Responsibility’ Prep Sheet

What are some causes of, and solutions to, income inequality that are outlined in the article? Give three examples and explain. What assertions does the author make about privilege that relate to your life or our lives in Vermont?

Choose three other lines, quotes, or sections that you think are important for us to discuss. Write them out here.
What questions do you have about this article? Write them out and identify them as clarifying or probing.

How could someone like you make a difference for someone like the man at the deli?

Students then needed to complete their own prep sheet to see if it needed to be modified or revised (note- they had to do this themselves; my feedback came later). They then submitted a lesson plan for their discussion- including ideas for icebreaker, how to open the discussion, a list of essential questions they thought their article raised and a list of strategies as to what they might do if the discussion got off track. They also had to plan for a debriefing of the discussion. Then came the fun part! I asked each student to create a FLIPGRID video to “sell their discussion and create excitement and interest.”  We all watched each other’s FLIPGRIDS!

This week, we began our online Harkness discussions, facilitated by the students. Before the first discussion, the students anticipated that we needed new NORMS for online discussions. Here is what the students created and posted on our google classroom:

Hello and Welcome!

Here are the few norms that we are going to ask everyone to follow for our  online Harkness discussions. Please read over them and then follow the instructions below:

  1. Please mute yourself whenever you aren’t talking to avoid feedback audio.
  2. Unmute if you want to talk (kind of like leaning into the table to talk) We found that it was easiest to ‘lean in’ by unmuting. 
  3. If you have technical questions, use the chat so as not to interrupt the dialogue.
  4. Please stay on the Google Meet call window for the entire discussion.
  5. Please do not communicate with other people, even anyone who is part of the discussion, on other windows or media.
  6. If you really need to leave, please notify the group through the chat so that you do not interrupt the discussion.
  7. Please have a printed copy of the materials, your completed prep sheet, and a note-taking sheet if that helps you ready in front of you prior to beginning the discussion. You will also benefit from numbering pages/ paragraphs on any articles.
  8. Remember to use appropriate and respectful language, tone of voice and body language.- this is ESPECIALLY important online!
  9. Please remember to monitor your airtime, and that you can still invite others to speak.
  10. Lastly, but most importantly, we are all in this together, so let’s have fun, learn new things, and try our best!

Our first discussion on “Privilege is a Privilege” went for an hour until I asked the facilitator to wrap it up (I was getting a headache from looking at the screen.) During our discussions, I (mostly) stayed silent and tracked the discussion. We have limited the size of the discussions to eight people so everyone can have an opportunity to speak. After the discussion, we all debriefed what happened and made suggestions as to what might improve our next Harkness discussion.

The map of our online Harkness discussion looked like this:

A close up of text on a white background

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We will be Harknessing twice a week from now until the rest of the semester. Our first attempts have been a big success. Granted, online Harkness does not begin to resemble face to face interaction. They are a myriad of problems with connectivity, time lag and students’ body language in front of the computer- but we are trying. Students are engaged, and we are learning from one another. They look forward to our dialogues. We are getting better every day.

This new adventure we are all on will continue to unfold, kind of a “choose your own adventure” series–with few choices and no ending in sight. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. But, when we as teachers work to build a strong classroom culture, when we nurture personal relationships, and when we partner with students to create learning experiences that allow them to exercise their authentic voice bits of magic CAN happen…

I don’t know about you but, I am ready for Spring and a vacation from the computer! I will look forward to digging in my garden and staying off the screen. Mostly importantly, I am grateful for my students and this opportunity to work together in the short time we have left together this year.

And to everyone out there- MY BEST- I miss you!

Kathy Cadwell

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The Bright Spots

My principal keeps asking us to look for the bright spots, the subtle and easily overlooked places where things are working in times of tremendous change. The concept isn’t new or unique to our most recent challenges. In fact, I’ve spent a lot of this year thinking about “the early glimmers of something going right” as I’ve been re-imagining how school could work to connect more young people to their communities and the natural world we inhabit. But the last three weeks have brought my year-long Rowland fellowship to what feels like a screeching halt. What does experiential learning and student leadership look like in time of social isolation and distance learning?

It’s a curveball I never could have anticipated when I set out to spend a year with one foot in and one foot out of the traditional classroom. Educators and school leaders often use the metaphor of building a plane might-flight to describe school reform. Now, our airspace is toxic and we’re being re-routed. Time of arrival? Unknown. Turbulence? Expect a lot of it. Will there still be snacks? Don’t count on it.

So I’m taking her advice in finding a new flight pattern: be flexible and gentle with yourself and others, and look for the bright spots. For starters, I, along with literally every teacher in America, am trying to get back to the core of what matters in our craft, the one piece of the formula on which everything else is predicated: relationships. Only now, it’s seeking connection in a time of unprecedented disconnection.

But I’ll admit that I’m looking for bright spots reluctantly. I am doing it because I know that it helps. When you illuminate success you can replicate the conditions and behaviors that made it so. You can study where the magic is happening and clone it. I’m doing it reluctantly, though, because trying to think about positives right now, when it feels like the world is going up in flames, can feel daunting at best, and exploitative at worst. Who am I to get to see bright spots right now? How many of these new learnings and experiences are only possible because of this tragedy?

Meanwhile, my heart breaks. My family members are walking into hospitals wearing the same N95 they wore the day before, having sterilized it in the kitchen oven. My students are isolated at home, many experiencing instability, the trauma of job loss, food insecurity, domestic violence and myriad other circumstances I can’t begin to imagine the horrors of. Dear friends are struggling to do three full-time jobs at once: parenting, teaching school and working. Bright spots? I’m looking…

A Harvard Business Review article published last week suggests that this feeling, ebbing back and forth between deep sadness, fear and loss is actually grief. Grief can be both an immediate feeling—mourning what you just lost, and anticipatory—knowing you’re in for more loss in the future. The steps to managing grief are first to acknowledge it, then deny it, bargain for it, feel angry about it, and finally, finally, to accept it. Understanding this cycle and recognizing my own grief is helping me move into a space where I can, at times, start to see some light.

I won’t be able to feel okay about my parents going to the grocery store or my in-laws and sister going to work for a long time: ok, let go of what I can’t control. I won’t be able to pursue the athletic goals I was on track for this year: alright, adjust and be persistent. I can’t give the most vulnerable young people I know a sense of safety and love in my physical classroom: fine, but I can hold virtual drop-in hours, help with meal delivery and send hand-written notes home in the mail. 

Three weeks ago when everything was normal, I asked that my students, all seniors, stand in a circle and share their answer to this prompt: “Imagine… I made each of you an appointment to get a tattoo this afternoon—permanent or temporary is your choice. What would you get??” 

Their responses are the bright spots I’m holding close to my heart in this time of school at a distance. Some of my students said funny things, like an inside joke with a best friend. Other choices included a map of a childhood special place, a meaningful symbol, and ones own artwork. More than half shared that they’d brand their bodies to honor their families. A young man rolled up his sleeve to reveal a still-sore real tattoo he’d gotten just days earlier as testament to his dad who passed away. I ended class by telling them how awesome they are and I reminded them to wash their hands. Turns out that would be our last time together.

When we got the call that we wouldn’t return this year I cried in the kitchen for a while. Its all hit me: this isn’t going to be over soon. School without the kids? That’s not what I signed up for. I am going to need those bright spots, those memories of moments where it worked, and the virtual equivalents to come, now more than ever.

My husband gave me a hug and helped me reframe. “How LUCKY you are, to feel such sadness that you can’t go to your job,” he said. And he’s right. I am so, so grateful to love what I do so much that it hurts to do it from my kitchen table. I’m starting to see that the bright spots aren’t going anywhere. In many ways, they’re already shining brighter than ever.

Yesterday, a student who’s an accomplished competitive swimmer emailed me to say that he took up cycling because he can’t go to the pool right now. He sent me pictures of the roads he’s been riding and now we’re trading photos of picturesque open roads. This morning another checked in and let me know that she’s working overtime at her family’s grocery store because they’re the only place in town where people can shop. “I’m going to try my hardest to get my work done, but right now its people that matter most,” she wrote. 

My bright spot today is that this circumstance, strange and tragic as it is, is giving us each a window into each other’s humanity that wasn’t there before—even if we can’t see each other physically. Perhaps these limitations are where we grow to new heights in our compassion, kindness, and ability to see each other as the resilient and brave beings we each are at our cores.

And I’m going to keep looking for bright spots, because I know the kids are.


Rachel Cohen is a 2019 Rowland Fellow and humanities teacher at Colchester High School. Her fellowship work explores how Vermont high schools can better utilize the outdoors to expand place-based learning and leadership development opportunities for students. In 2017 Rachel was a Fulbright Roving Scholar in American Studies in Norway. Follow her @Cohen_Noted 

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What’s Important to Keep When Unexpectedly Becoming an “Online” Teacher

“Honestly,” I said to my thirteen students from 11 different countries, “if teaching was a job that was only online, I wouldn’t be a teacher. I am here for the relationships. I am here to be with you. I have taken online classes, and I don’t remember the instructors or any of the other participants. To me, that would not be teaching.” This was on Thursday, March 12 as my school ran a practice drill of how school would work if it were all on line. We decided that on Thursday the students would come to school and pretend they were at home working on line, and then on Friday, the 13th students would stay home and do their work online. My students, though ELL, are all boarders, so this simply meant they would be in their dorms. 

During the class period the executive committee at my school decided that all boarding students would be sent home. We would close the dorms. The goal was to have all students from 22 different countries back with their families no later than Monday, March 16th. By Monday the governor of Vermont had declared a state of emergency and required the closure of all schools no later than Wednesday, March 18th. On Wednesday, March 18th, we were asked to begin conducting all of our lessons online.

As more schools around the country face this reality, sharing ideas of what’s working, tips on what to do and what not to do seems like a practical way for us to help each other out. With a class of thirteen students I hosted a Zoom class meeting the first day of online school (March 18) All but four students attended. I just asked them to describe going home and how they felt.  The conversation lasted forty minutes. We conducted another meeting on Friday, (March 20) and three who had not dialed in for the first meeting attended this meeting. Students compared how their countries were coping with the virus, from economic strife to quarantine to the level of citizens to take the CDC recommendations seriously. 

Whatever you can do to keep a sense of community with your students; do it. If I were unable to conduct meetings like this I would be posting videos of myself in our LMS (learning management system.) Recognize that you are not an online teacher. You may never wish to be one. They are not online learners either. Take it slowly. Everyone needs to get used to the new normal. Be sure your personality shows up. Work to keep them connected to each other. In addition to these video chat meetings I post a discussion board where they can share their thoughts. And we are reading a book together in real time. I have recorded audio of myself reading it and they can listen to that or to a professional through audible. Most are choosing my recording. Finally, I am directing them to partake in writing activities that could someday become primary sources; helping them understand that what they write now will help other generations from now understand the severity of the crisis and the unprecedented nature of the time. My class is not be synchronous, nor should it be. They have other classes. Yours is not the only one. Take that into consideration when assigning work. Remember, this is scary and traumatic for most of them, be the helper and keep the safe, connected community you had in your classroom available to them online.  

Sandra Mings Lamar, Director of International Programs for a small town academy in Vermont, is a 2016 Rowland Fellow, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Botswana, and has been teaching second language English learners since 1989. 

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This post was written before the current viral outbreak. In some ways it seems even more relevant now.

You know what?  You deserve this six minute gift~especially if you think you are too busy today, or if you are feeling ineffective or worried. 

Thanks to my good friend and important educational influencer, Lucie Delabruere, I was reminded today of the importance of gratitude.  She shared this link to “Gratitude: The Short Film by Louie Schwartzberg”: https://vimeo.com/44131171 and I encourage you to gift yourself the 6 minutes or so it will take to watch. In fact, rather than write a whole post that would also take you 6 minutes to read, I’ll simply leave it at this.

At a retreat of Rowland Women last fall, 45% of attendees listed Gratitude as their top core value, based on the work we did with Brene Brown’s book Dare to Lead. In a small group session we shared ideas about “cultivating the response of gratitude” as Schwartzberg says in the film.  Some things we do include sharing an observation with friends or family at a meal, or observing one delightful thing on the way to work, or writing a thank-you note to a colleague once a week, or saying the words “Thank” ‘and “You” as we plant our feet. Nothing fancy nor time consuming, but a wonderful practice.  How do you foster gratitude?

Lauren Kelley Parren is a retired educator and current Rowland Fellow for Social Media. Rowland Fellow 2012.
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10th Annual Rowland Conference features Katharine Wilkenson

The 2020 Rowland Foundation conference will be held on October 29 at UVM. Our theme will be climate change and our keynote speaker will be  Katharine Wilkenson, the lead author of Drawdown, the  NY Times best seller.  We are so fortunate that she has agreed to come to Vermont.

Dr. Katharine Wilkinson is the Vice President of Communication and Engagement at the nonprofit Project Drawdown and was the lead writer for the New York Times bestseller Drawdown.  This powerful book describes the 100 most substantive solutions to global warming. For each solution the history, carbon impact, relative cost and savings, and path to adoption are described. These solutions, which are based on peer-reviewed science, aim to reverse the buildup of atmospheric carbon within thirty years.  

Solutions proposed in Drawdown range from wind turbines and solar panels to electric vehicles and reducing food waste.  They also include “Educating Girls,” which addresses the impact that inequities along gender lines has on global warming.  This happens to be a particular area of expertise for Dr. Wilkinson, as can be seen in her immensely popular TED Talk.

The Rowland Foundation feels privileged to bring such an experienced and accomplished intellect to Vermont at this pivotal time in humanity’s fight against climate change.  Dr. Wilkinson will engage teachers and students in a comprehensive and solutions-oriented manner, which we hope will inspire and empower all those in attendance.

Early bird registration will begin in May, so start thinking about the team of eight you’ll want to bring!

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Crosscutting Concepts in NGSS: The third leg

Our world is literally and figuratively supported by triangles. We are sheltered from the elements under triangular roofs, we carry our maple creamies atop cones of sugar, we check and balance our government’s power with three branches, we cringe if pizza is not cut into its iconic shape, and the writers of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) valued three dimensional learning. When one side of the triangle is neglected the strength of its geometry is diminished. This weakening occurs regardless of whether it is rot in the roof’s rafters, apathy and corruption in politics, or omission of an entire dimension in a curricular framework

In developing the NGSS, the committee divided the recommendations into three overarching categories. The Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI) organize the broad content topics by age appropriateness. Science and Engineering Practices the skills necessary for doing meaningful research and experimentation. And the Crosscutting Concepts outline the connections between all science domains. The framers of the standards fully recognize the challenges of this unorthodox three part structure. 

The NGSS integrate the three dimensions . . .  As a result of this innovation, the NGSS look completely different than previous science standards and implementing them requires a major shift in classroom instruction and learning (Next Generation Science Standards: Executive summary, 2013).

Despite the challenges, the drafters of the NGSS also recognized the strength in this learning triade if all three legs were implemented with fidelity. 

Self-perceptions can be blinding. From my perspective, I was that woke, veternen science teacher that transitioned from the old school Vermont Framework to the sleek interconnected NGSS with grace, enthusiasm, and success. While other teachers complained about the complexity of the content, I relished in the elegance of the connections and welcomed the value placed on doing rather than memorizing science. I congratulated myself on my ability to move myself and my colleagues towards large thematic units rather than constantly shifting between two-week content blasts. For me, the NGSS was truly a revolutionizing document that has guided and shaped my practice over the past seven years, yet was not embracing its full potential as I was unintentionally ignoring an entire leg of the NGSS triangle. The Crosscutting Concepts seem so obvious and naturally ingrained in everything we teach, I never gave the categories much thought. Only after attending a modest one day course sponsored by Vermont Science Teachers’ Association (VSTA), was my NGSS perspective rocked, realigned and strengthened. Peter McLaren from Next Gen Education, LCC convinced me of the importance of this third leg of the NGSS that I had conveniently overlooked and underappreciated. My last minute decision to attend the course, has resulted in a greater appreciation for the framework’s ability to guide educators in the development and implementation of interesting, rigorous and relevant learning opportunities. 

For me, this primer on Crosscutting Concepts was like putting on glasses for the first time after years of denying that my long-distance vision was failing. Ideas and concepts that I am familiar with as a science teacher were immediately brought into sharper focus. Using only the Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI) – despite their broad themes – the learning still drifts towards learning that is right or wrong, Goggleable, and memorizable. Putting the Cross Cutting glasses onto the DCIs, turns a content question into a thought-provoking reflection on how our natural world works. 

Let me walk you through an example that McLaren used to demonstrate the potential for incorporating the Cross Cutting Concepts. The key is to first identify a compelling phenomenon that relates to the concept students are exploring. McLaren used a YouTube video of a collapsing railroad tanker.  If thinking only about the DCIs, the short clip where a tanker spontaneously collapses brings up possible concepts including density, pressure, and gas laws. The table below highlights how incorporating the Crosscutting Concept language can convert an already interesting, thought provoking exercise into a clear and focused discussion of the science concepts we want students to understand and how the content connects to the world these learners experience and observe. 

Examples of questions clarified & strengthened using the Crosscutting Concepts lens. 
Guiding Phenomenon: Collapsing Railroad Tanker 
Crosscutting ConceptQuestions aligned with specific Crosscutting ConceptsQuestions clearly using the Crosscutting Concepts language
What were the conditions when this occurred (time of day, weather, etc.)?What kind of patterns can be observed by looking at multiple tanker videos (spatial, temporal)?
Cause & EffectWhat were the conditions when this occurred (time of day, weather, etc.)?What could be some possible causes for the collapse? 
Scale, Quantity, & ProportionDoes the size of the tanker have anything to do with the collapse?Describe and draw the phenomenon at scale.
Systems & System ModelsWhat are the different components resulting in the collapse?Illustrate the system and include relevant interactions among the components of the system.
Energy & MatterWhat could have caused the tanker to collapse?How is the movement of matter connected to the flow of energy in this process?
Structure & Function Does the shape of the container have anything to do with the collapse? Would a rectangular tanker have the same action?Explain how the structure or shape of the tanker may have influenced the collapse. 
Stability & ChangeWhat caused the dramatic change in its state? What conditions may have changed? Under what conditions is the system stable? Over what time period and conditions does the system change?
Figure adapted from McClaren presentation Engaging Students: Using Crosscutting Concepts to prompt student sense making of phenomena

With only a one day seminar under my professional belt, I am a newbie to the Crosscutting Concept world. For the moment, I am relishing this new perspective and regaining my balance atop the stabilized and strengthened NGSS pyramid. How do you balance the three dimensions of NGSS in your instruction? Do you find this additional leg empowering and enhancing or cumbersome and unnecessary? For those of you interestested in learning more about ways to incorporate Crosscutting Concepts leg of the triangle into your classrooms, there is a second VSTA offering scheduled for April 16 in Middlebury.   

Next Generation Science Standards: Executive summary, June 2013, 

https://www.nextgenscience.org/sites/default/files/Final%20Release%20NGSS%20Front%20Matter%20-%206.17.13%20Update_0.pdf, Accessed February 18, 2020. 

Erica Wallstrom
Rutland City Public School STEM Integration Coordinator
2014 Rowland & Einstein Fellow 
Board of Trustees, The Rowland Foundation

Board of Trustees, The Rowland Foundation

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