The Myth of Meritocracy: Reframing the American Dream

Given the theme of “Equity” for this year’s annual Rowland Conference, I thought it appropriate to write about the hidden barriers that can prevent success in school and life.  Particularly, I focus on the American Dream which is frequently mentioned in political rhetoric.  This blog post aims to start the conversation around equity issues, especially as it relates to those in poverty.

american-dreamThe American Dream is deeply embedded in the narrative of the United States.  Equality of opportunity is blindly assumed, with little thought to potential barriers.  A vast majority of Americans believe that if you go to school and work hard then you’ll “make it”.  Scant attention is provided to the externalities inherent in our free-market capitalist society.   The achievement ideology as it is currently defined and perceived in the United States is riddled with misconceptions. .  Most people do not fully understand why so many individuals fail in their quest to “make it” and usually blame is placed on the individual.  Overwhelming hurdles imposed by structural constraints not only limit opportunities but quell the aspirations of those striving towards becoming middle class.   As a component of social reproduction, cultural capital holds significant sway in the success of individuals both in school and in society.  Clearly the achievement ideology is fraught with misconceptions that lowers aspirations, which in turn negatively influences upward mobility. Thus, the American Dream should be promoted pragmatically, exposing the structural barriers that prevent individuals from achieving economic success in the United States.

Defining the American Dream

american-dream-2The achievement ideology is deeply ingrained in the psyche of most Americans.  It is unquestioningly presumed that if one works hard then they will succeed. The United States is based on the belief of meritocracy, which assumes equal opportunity; in other words a fair chance to “make it”.  The American Dream is an individualistic view that does not really account for external barriers.  It is widely believed that if a person is unsuccessful, then it is due to personal inadequacy.  This definition is not accurate and it inappropriately places heavy emphasis on individual agency.  People often think those in poverty are personally deficient, such as being lazy or stupid.   The achievement ideology in the United States presumes that those who fail have themselves to blame (MacLeod, 2009).  To counter this, MacLeod (2009) acknowledges that,

The view that the problem resides almost exclusively with the children and their families, and that some sort of cultural injection is needed to compensate for what they are missing, is not only intellectually bankrupt but also has contributed to the widespread popular notion that the plight of poor whites and minorities is entirely their own fault.  (p.100)

This view needs to be reframed so that everyone have a better understanding of those in poverty.  Furthermore, the current definition of the American Dream sets people up for defeat and a prolonged sense of despair.  There are stark differences in the obstacles, resources, and opportunities available to those in the lower class versus those in the upper echelon.  Acknowledgement of this dichotomy is necessary to understand how difficult it is to climb the socioeconomic ladder out of poverty.

Cultural and Social Capital

american-dream-3A major barrier to success in both school and the labor market is due in part to a lack of cultural capital.  Cultural capital is a nebulous term, but for the purposes this post will be thought of as the norms, knowledge, skills, and linguistic prowess of a particular social class (Mehan, 1992).  More specifically, it influences the ability of a particular class to navigate and operate within the socially dominant culture, which is most often much different than the culture of the lower classes.  Pierre Bourdieu, the progenitor of the notion of cultural capital, argues that schools and society reward the capital of the dominant class, providing elites with a distinct advantage (Kingston, 2001).  Sullivan (2001) complements this by saying cultural capital  possesses an “exclusionary character”, essentially handicapping those without the “right” stock of capital (p. 89).  Another equally important component of cultural capital is parental encouragement, which influences aspirations (Sullivan, 2001).  This is only a partial explanation for the academic and economic success of the socially privileged (Sullivan, 2001).  Ultimately, those in the middle class and above have a greater stock of cultural capital, particularly capital that is valued in the dominant culture.

MacLeod (2009) reveals that social capital and social networks that provide useful resources, are equally important to success in the labor market as cultural capital is.  In the assumed meritocratic free-market society, it is believed that human capital alone is enough to acquire employment, but this is just not true.  As McLeod (2009) discovers through his interviews, social connections are often necessary to get one’s foot in the door.  Another component of MacLeod’s (2009) findings is that those occupying the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder tend to lack social capital, just as they lack cultural capital.

Social Reproduction

american-dream-4The class one is born into is the social class they will likely remain through their adult years (MacLeod, 2009).  Those in the upper socioeconomic strata do not have to deal with certain hurdles that those living in poverty must contend with.  A multitude of factors contribute to social class reproduction, several have been discussed already.  Certainly there is some aspect of choice in determining one’s social class but mostly it is structural constraints that are to blame.  Family plays a crucial role in social reproduction, as do schools, the economy, race and peer groups (MacLeod, 2009).  All of these components operate to construct what Bourdieu calls habitus.  McLeod (2009) synthesizes habitus as “…composed of the attitudes, beliefs, and experiences of those inhabiting one’s social world.” (p. 15). Habitus influences one’s response to social structures in such a way that they reinforce class inequality (MacLeod, 2009).   Habitus foments particular attitudes which in turn influences agency.

Structure – Agency Dualism

american-dream-6The dominant social construction of the American Dream discounts structure and focuses solely on agency as the primary force in determining one’s outcome in life.  The reality is that structure and agency are inextricably linked; inequalities in structure inhibit individual agency (McLeod, 2009).  A paucity of stable, well paying jobs that do not require a college education has become the norm since the genesis of the postindustrial era.  Blue-collar jobs in factories that were once the foundation of the middle class are now scarce.  The labor market is now split into low-wage menial service sector jobs and high-wage technical positions that require expert cognitive skills (Levy & Murnane, 2004).  This has created a hollowing-out of the middle sector of the labor spectrum and a social division of labor (Bowles, 1971; Levy & Murnane, 2004).  Limited opportunities in the labor market is but one of countless structural constraints that restrict possibilities for those in poverty.  Though external obstacles are a dominant factor, individual agency does play a role in social reproduction.

Mehan (1992) finds that people do actively make their own choices in life, however theses choices are not made under conditions of their own choosing.   Agency can have positive influences though.  MacLeod (2009) found that one of the greatest acts of agency was moving to another location.  This changed the environment that the individual operated in and thus the related constraints.  Clearly individuals do contribute to their own successes or failures, but as noted, agency cannot be discussed without thought to structural forces.

Aspirations and Expectations

american-dream-8Hopelessness and cynicism pervade the outlooks of those in poverty due to limited occupational opportunities and generally depressing experiences (MacLeod, 2009).  Leveled aspirations play an integral role in shaping the outcomes of those in poverty.  Changed aspirations can affect expectations and ultimately new behaviors and attitudes (MacLeod, 2009, p. 149).  One’s attitude has direct implications for both academic and employment success.  A change in attitude and outlook can have a significant impact.

Often, parental roles are limited for those in poverty, due to a fear of setting high expectations that will only be crushed.  MacLeod (2009) found that one mother thought “ …it inappropriate to foster high aspirations in her children, fearing that unrealistically high goals only result in disappointment, frustrations, and feelings of failure and inadequacy.” (p.58).  In opposition of this, it has been found that parents that foster high expectations for their children tend to inspire higher aspirations and decreased hopelessness (MacLeod, 2009).  In addition to the family, peer groups can also sustain and alter the aspirations of individuals.  When there is nothing to look forward to, attitudes and aspirations falter.  Constant failure along with a dreary future leads to feelings of futility and desperation that only furthers social reproduction of the lower classes.


american-dream-5The American Dream persists despite a plethora of research that debunks the equality of opportunity myth.  What is touted as a meritocracy, is in actuality a closed opportunity structure. Despite this fact, people still believe that success depends solely on personal merit.  It is commonly believed that to succeed it is necessary to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, supporting the ethos of individualism. A vast majority of people, including those in poverty, are blind to the impact of social class.  In the pursuit of the American Dream, countless individuals fail.  Usually failure is attributed to not trying hard enough or just not having what it takes (MacLeod, 2009).   There are however, numerous structural impediments that handicap those in poverty and prevent them from ever achieving the American Dream.  The social reproduction cycle is incredibly difficult to break out of and it engenders low aspirations and feelings of despair.   Potentially the most dangerous aspect of the myth of meritocracy is that some people do “make it” and climb the social ladder out of poverty.  This illusion of social mobility perpetuates the myth that it is agency and not structure that influences success.  Ultimately, the fact that upward mobility does exist legitimates the current inequalities in society (MacLeod, 2009).  Until there is substantial recognition of the structural barriers that constrain the opportunities of those in poverty, the American Dream will continue to be but a mirage for many.



Andrew Jones, 2015 Cohort, is a doctoral student at the University of Vermont in the education policy and leadership Ed.D. program.  He has taught for six years as a 9th grade science teacher at Mt. Abraham Union High School in Bristol Vermont and is currently the science department chair.  Along with his colleague Gabe Hamilton, Andrew Jones was awarded a 2015 Rowland Foundation Fellowship to research standards-based grading practices and to implement systemic change at Mount Abe.


All images are by artist Kay Crain and can be purchased here.


Bowles, S. (1971). Unequal education and the reproduction of the social division of labor.  Review of Radical Political Economics, 3(Fall/Winter), 17-46.

Kingston, P.W. (2001).  The unfulfilled promise of cultural capital theory.  Sociology of Education, 74, 88-99.

Levy, F. and Murnane, R.J. (2004).  The new division of labor: How computers are creating the next job market.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

MacLeod, J. (2009). Ain’t no makin’ it: Aspirations and attainment in a low-income neighborhood (Rev. ed.).  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Mehan, H. (1992). Understanding inequality in schools: The contribution of interpretive studies. Sociology of Education, 65(1), 1-20.

Sullivan, A. (2001). Cultural capital and educational attainment.  Sociology, 35, 893-912. doi:10.1177/0038038501035004006



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A New Era of International Student Exchanges

via.PNGVirtual Intercultural Avenues is a multi-faceted global campus that uses 21st century technologies to give students and teachers the virtual mobility to communicate, collaborate, teach and learn beyond the traditional classroom and across borders.

via2.PNGSince its launch in 2013, Virtual Intercultural Avenues (VIA) has helped my students connect in myriad ways with their teenage counterparts abroad. Vermont students have had thousands of virtual interactions through Vimeo, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Scopia, Skype, and WhatsApp. Our students collaborated virtually on projects with students of other nationalities, participated in virtual classroom visits across the ocean, and shared snapshots of their lives and communities through video and our blog—comparing notes on vacations, music, sports, fast food, politics, and even bucket lists.

via3.PNGIt wasn’t long before we began to plan ground exchanges, bolstered by our virtual connection. When the high school where I teach, in Essex, Vermont, prepared to host French students in 2014 and Belgian students in 2015, we corresponded, planned and chatted virtually. I even attended French and Belgian parent meetings through Skype, to answer questions covering everything from Vermont weather to Halloween to safety precautions we would take when hosting their children. Our lively ground exchanges showcased Vermont while offering shared experiences for all three nationalities of students. The students practiced language and cross-cultural communication skills in their new roles as ambassadors of their schools, state, and countries. They solidified their friendships, have stayed connected, and began to plan trips of their own.


via4.PNGWhen it was our turn to plan a trip abroad in 2016, due to the unfortunate events that had recently occurred around the globe, student safety, which is always important, had a new and more serious dimension. Our parent and student meetings weren’t just about currencies and exchange rates, checked bags and carry-ons, SIM cards and international cell phone plans, and what to expect when staying with a French family and attending a French school. We also addressed terrorism and the proximity of recent attacks in France to our destinations, State Department travel warnings, and the French Ministry of Education emergency measures for schools. While the planning meetings were more serious than in years past, that did not take away from the fact that our students were also learning the very skills that would, in the future, position them to be part of the international teams that work to find solutions to global problems of the sort that dominated news in Paris and the world in 2015. In March 2016, we flew to Brussels, traveled to France, and were hosted by the same students whom the Vermont students had hosted the previous years. My students confided that they had had “the time of their lives.”

via5.PNGFrom the beginning, I wanted to promote language study; provide a culturally immersive experience that could be virtual or ground; encourage world area studies; foster cross-cultural communication skills; instill confidence in an ability to navigate in a global community; and provide the opportunity to make friends along the way.


Creating strong virtual connections for these NextGen learners, through consistent access to new and evolving communication technologies, has enabled us to create a robust and sustainable exchange that goes beyond the classroom, school day, or single school trip. Students who are using programs like VIA are building the language skills, cross-cultural communication skills, cultural knowledge, and relationships that will be required to solve global problems that transcend any one language, culture, or country.


Jill Prado, Member of the 2012 Cohort of Fellows




With the support of a 2012 Rowland Foundation grant, Essex High School teacher Jill Prado launched Virtual Intercultural Avenues in Vermont schools and abroad, linking schools internationally through new platforms embedded in a virtual global campus.

The VIA grassroots network includes middle schools and high schools in Belgium, France, Spain and Vermont.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

To Build a Better Question

aasl-1AASL’s Standards for the 21st-Century Learner mandate that we equip our students with the skills they need to pursue lifelong learning. The Common Core State Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, and C3 Framework for Social Studies Standards all advocate for genuine student inquiry, and the best thinkers in education are demanding that students take a more active role in their education to make them competitive in the global economy. One practice that can prepare students for a lifetime of engaged learning is asking questions.

What Makes Questioning a Literacy?

Literacies are how we make sense of the world; we read to gain knowledge, and we write to share new understandings. Asking and answering questions is also how we make sense of the world. It’s why young children ask so many questions—there’s a lot to make sense of and patterns about the world to discover. And yet, as children age they ask fewer questions.

aasl-4The Right Question Institute finds that as children’s reading and writing skills improve, the number of questions they ask decreases, and, unfortunately, as the rate of questioning diminishes, so does the rate of engagement (Berger 2014, 44–45). It is our belief that teaching students to become fluent questioners also increases their engagement in learning.

When we think of someone who is literate we think of a person who can read and write—someone who can do only one or the other is not fully literate. To be question-literate a person must be able to both construct and understand questions. To construct a question students need to know what the parts of a question are and how to put those parts together to ensure that the question is asking for the answer they’re looking for. Just as students need to learn the alphabet and develop phonemic awareness, they need to learn different question words and how expert vocabulary and concepts are incorporated into questions. Understanding a question is different from answering a question; it means being able to form an idea of what an answer might look like and what type of information is being sought. Knowing how to go about answering a question is an important skill, and the first step in that process is understanding the question that’s been asked. As with any literacy, students need regular practice to develop questioning fluency and to learn how to comprehend and analyze questions.

To become question-fluent, students must understand how different types of questions operate. They need to practice asking and answering various types of questions so they can understand how different question lenses change the type of question being asked and the type of answer being sought—for example, “Which form of transitional justice is most effective?” versus “How does a society decide which form of transitional justice to use?”

Just as letters can make different sounds in different contexts, different types of questions serve different purposes depending on their context. “Which form of transitional justice is most effective?” requires a different type of inquiry when discussing transitional justice in general versus the narrower and more detailed inquiry that can be conducted when a specific case is being examined.

How Are Questioning and Critical Thinking Related?

aasl-5Critical thinking is high-level thinking that requires us to analyze, evaluate, synthesize, or apply what we know. Its relationship with questioning is cyclical. Good questions—deep questions—are launching points for critical thinking. Questions, not answers, push us to think critically. As the cycle continues, critical thinking leads to more-nuanced questions. Questioning and critical thinking work together to further engagement, curiosity, thinking, and learning. As Richard W. Paul and Linda Elder have stated: “To think through or rethink anything, one must ask questions that stimulate our thought” (1999, 8). Answers are stopping points. Only when another question is asked can thought move forward.

Metaphors are often used by proponents of questioning, for example: questions are engines that drive thinking; questions are tools that help us dig deep into knowledge. We propose a rock climbing metaphor: questions are the foot- and hand-holds that help learners climb to new heights in their understanding.

aasl-6Authentic questions are crucial for cultivating both the motivation and curiosity needed to scale those heights. As Ian Leslie said in Curious, “Asking good questions stimulates the hunger to know more by opening up exciting new known unknowns (2014, 103).” A recent study reported in Neuron concluded that curiosity positively affects memory and information retention (Gruber, Gelman, and Ranganath 2014). But curiosity does more than just aid knowledge acquisition; it moves thinking forward by closing knNEURON_84_2.c1.inddowledge gaps.

George Lowenstein, psychologist and behavioral economist from Carnegie Mellon University, has described curiosity as a “response to an information gap” (Leslie 2014, 34). To feel curious, to ask good questions, we must become aware of our own ignorance. It is that awareness that enables us to ask questions that will build our knowledge. If we return to our rock climbing metaphor, questions allow us to scale great heights by providing leverage points. They scaffold a learning journey, chunking it into pieces small enough to traverse but challenging enough to keep the learner interested. The beauty of student-generated questions is that they are individualized; each student determines her or his own path up the cliff face. While some may be prepared for a greater degree of difficulty, others may need to set a less-challenging course. When students become literate in the art of questioning, they have the tools they need for lifelong learning; they can set a course that guides and extends their thinking.

What Do We Ask Questions About?

Students who lack background knowledge can find inquiry-driven learning challenging. At first, their questions may focus on minutia of assignments’ due dates and requirements. (We’ve all encountered students who want to know what the source requirements are before they’ve even decided on a research focus.) It’s difficult to start asking questions before you have some context for what you’re asking about; if you’ve never seen the sky, you don’t ask why the sky is blue.

A range of different strategies can pique students’ curiosity, but one of my (Sara’s) favorites is the write around. I am deeply indebted to Buffy Hamilton for introducing me to write arounds and the work of Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Elaine Daniels. Write arounds can take a number of forms, but the one I use most often when working with students to develop a research focus is text on text.

aasl-8Text on text write arounds involve my laying out several passages of text and/or images on a large piece of chart paper and students’ collaboratively annotating the texts by quietly writing on the text and chart paper.

I recently used this strategy with a class doing research on literature related to the winter holidays. The collaborating teacher and I sought passages that would help shift students’ perspectives around familiar stories; if you know why the sky is blue, and suddenly the sky is green, you have new questions!

aasl-9I have found this process especially useful in scaffolding the question-development process for students when paired with some of the strategies Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison wrote about in Making Thinking Visible (2011). These strategies can expose gaps in understanding and provoke questions that will lead to further inquiry.

Carol Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process provides excellent guidance for the right times to intervene and provide some structured questioning for students—when to help students find a handhold on the cliff. Students who have hit a point of frustration and are asking “What do I research?” are at a point where they need questions asked of them, and they need scaffolded support for developing a research question.

How Do We Foster Questioning in Students?

The first thing we can do to foster questioning is to make space for student’s questions. We can go a long way towards helping all students become literate questioners by giving them opportunities to ask questions and using those questions as springboards for learning.

aasl-10The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) is another way to develop students questioning skills. Designed by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana of the Right Question Institute, this process provides structure as students ask questions, analyze their questions, refine, revise and prioritize their questions. It is not enough just to have students pose questions, they also need to examine them critically. It is in the analysis and iteration of questions that the best questions emerge and that students develop their question skills. The QFT includes time for reflection on the process, encouraging students to think about their thinking and how it might apply to future learning.

For students who need help getting started with forming questions, it can be helpful to provide a list of question starts, such as “How would it be different if…?” and “What is the purpose of…?”. Scaffolding the question-asking process helps students develop fluency and confidence in asking questions and in understanding the questions asked of them. See our list of further resources for other strategies for scaffolding student questions.

The question-development process provides many opportunities for giving formative feedback while modeling questioning strategies. We can ask students why they think a particular question is useful or important, and what type of information they think they might find based on that question. Similarly, we can model our own questioning process when working with students and teachers by “questioning aloud” as we plan a lesson or a search strategy.

Sometimes student research is independent, but collaborative questioning can still be helpful. Students can be given time to develop their initial knowledge and questions on their topics through pre-search. They then present their findings to a small group, ending with a question of interest. Classmates listen and take notes, jotting down questions on sticky notes. Questions are shared with the presenter who then organizes and categorizes them, analyzing and revising them until a focus question emerges for research. This is a powerful tool both for practicing question skills and developing a better research question.

Regardless of How We Help Students Ask, Analyze, and Revise Questions, It Is Crucial That These Questions Lead to Something More.

Student questions can be used in many ways:

  • as research questions to guide inquiry,
  • for formative or summative assessments,
  • as focuses for reading texts,
  • as tools for problem solving,
  • as driving questions for project-based learning, or
  • as questions for Socratic Circles or Harkness Discussions.

Students will always need to be able to ask—and answer—good questions. By working with students to build better questions, we ensure that they will always be able to answer the question: “What do I want to know next?”

Jeanie Phillips

Jeanie Phillips is a member of the 2014 Cohort of Fellows.

Jeanie Phillips is the librarian at Green Mountain High School in Chester, Vermont.  A trained collaborative practices facilitator, she believes in the power of collaboration to foster deep  learning. As a 2014/2015 Rowland Fellow, Jeanie is designing  opportunities to increase student engagement and personalize learning  in her library learning commons and in her school.  Jeanie is also a member of AASL (American Association of School Librarians) and is currently serving on the AASL Standards and Guidelines Implementation Task Force.

This piece by Jeanie Phillips and Sara Kelley-Mudie was written for and published in the May/June issue of Knowledge Quest, the Journal of the American Association of School Librarians.  The original content can be found here as printed in that publication.

Thank you to Jeanie and Sara for their permission to republish this piece here on the Rowland Foundation’s blog and to Meg Featheringham the Manager/Editor American Association of School Librarians for her consideration.

And finally, if you aren’t familiar with Carol Collier Kuhlthau’s work, Jeanie and Sarah recommend exploring her website.

Works Cited:

Berger, Warren. 2014. A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.

Daniels, Harvey, and Elaine Daniels. 2013. The Best-Kept Teaching Secret. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Gruber, Matthias J., Bernard D. Gelman, and Charan Ranganath. “States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit.” Neuron 84 (2): 486–96.

Leslie, Ian. 2014. Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It. New York: Basic Books.

Paul, Richard W., and Linda Elder. 1999. Critical Thinking: Basic Theory and Instructional Structures Handbook. Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Ritchhart, Ron, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison. 2011. Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rothstein, Dan, and Luz Santana. 2011. Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Further Reading:

Berger, Warren. n.d. “How Can We Teach Kids to Question?” A More Beautiful Question. <; (accessed December 18, 2015).

Hamilton, Buffy J. 2014. “Moving from Our Mindmaps to More Focused Topics with Question Lenses and Musical Peer Review.” The Unquiet Librarian (October 27). <; (accessed December 22, 2015).

Heick, Terry. n.d. “7 Strategies To Help Students Ask Great Questions.” Teach Thought. <> (accessed December 23, 2015).

Ludwig, Sarah. 2015. “Using Question Lenses to Identify Conceptual Themes.” Sarah Ludwig: Sharing What I Learn about Education, Libraries, and Tech (February 2).  <> (accessed December 22, 2015).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

JSEP as a Model for Learning


Students build life-long friendships.

There is no limit to the number of strategies, techniques, and technologies that tout successful educational moments, but learning derived from the students themselves results in unparalleled outcomes. In the remote settlement of Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, students from Greenland, Denmark, and the United States gather for a three week polar science experience that exemplifies this student centered approach. A modest program with personal exploration as its central goal, connects young people with a variety of international practicing scientists. Ultimately, this program – dedicated to inspiring the next generation of polar scientists, defined by the participants, and built around its location – can provide powerful lessons in practice and pedagogy for traditional education systems.

Tuttu 101.JPG

The area next to the glacier is so inspiring as there is a dynamic balance between rock, ice, and life.

The idea of the Joint Science Education Project (JSEP) was conceived by the Joint Committee, a high level government forum, during the International Polar Year. These diplomats recognized the value of fostering international diplomacy as well as interest in polar science. For the American contribution to the program, Dartmouth’s Institute of Arctic Studies currently collaborates on its implementation with financial support from the National Science Foundation. Over the years, the program has grown and morphed into its current rendition. Despite the evolution of the program, polar science remains the dynamic and unifying platform and student growth the primary purpose.

If allowed the opportunity, naysayers could cite many reasons why the success of JSEP is not transferable beyond Greenland’s rugged, glacier scarred landscape. So let us address the elephant in the room directly. There are many advantages for JSEP that would be – at best – challenging to reproduce in schools.  JSEP selects five participants from a large pool of students from across the country, which means the American students are highly motivated and qualified; JSEP takes place in an interesting and exotic location that is difficult to get to from the U.S.; and JSEP has an enviously small student to educator ratio of about 5 students per teacher. Attributing JSEP’s successes solely to these statistics; however, prematurely overlooks the true pedagogical strengths at the heart of the program. It is JSEP’s driving philosophy that is worthy of reflection.

Lesson 1: Interdisciplinary. Using polar science as a vehicle to provide authentic field experiences opens the door to many interdisciplinary possibilities. Polar science, by its nature, connects STEM content areas. It is organized by its location rather than its subject matter. The clear distinctions between physics, biology, chemistry and earth science that are the tenants our secondary schools become blurred. Examples of research based out of Kangerlussuaq include atmospheric chemistry to measure the concentrations of gas trapped in ancient ice cores; lichenometry (using lichens as a date indicator) to calculate rates of soil erosion; and creating detailed maps of the topography beneath the glacier using various remote sensing devices.


Each country hosts an evening focused on their culture. During the Greenlandic night, students compete in a traditional game to see who is able to eat their dried fish the fastest without using their hands.

While the connections and crossover between disciplines seems obvious from our adult perspectives, experiences like JSEP are eye opening for students who have spent their entire educational careers progressing through a series of distinct courses. More than once, students share personal epiphanies noting “I had no idea I could combine physics and chemistry into one career.” While comments such as these showcase the success of JSEP, more troubling they highlight the failures of our current educational systems.

In addition to the intersections between science disciplines, the polar regions also provide opportunities to insert elements of the humanities including social sciences, government, history, and the arts. Students contemplate current issues such as mining rights as the ice sheet retreats and Greenland struggles to gain political and financial independence from Denmark. Students connect with locals to learn about the traditional use of native plants for medicinal purposes as well as consumption. JSEP also draws on the diverse perspectives provided by the international delegation of students to enhance understanding and communication about environmental change in the polar regions.

Lesson 2: Varied Expertise. Scientists, clumped as a homogeneous group, carry the reputation as challenged communicators. Sharing complex concepts with audiences of varied backgrounds is difficult for any presenter; and yet, there are assumptions that as professionals, scientists will excel at this skill for which they receive minimal training.

Greenland 2 002.JPG

Small groups of students work together to develop and answer questions. There is extensive field opportunities as well as time in the classroom to process data and observations.

Science teachers have backgrounds in STEM content. As college graduates, often holding degrees in the sciences, these teachers work to balance their understanding of content with mastery of pedagogy.  During summer months and professional development days, occasional courses or conferences focused on their content areas are squeezed in between the improving best practices in education and their personal lives. Maintaining a current license requires evidence of continued learning in their subject matter, but this patchwork of courses and credits can never provide the same level of familiarity as with scientist dedicated to their research.

Greenland End 001.JPG

Students work closely with the faculty and graduate students from Dartmouth College. Many of the students are from underseved populations. JSEP promotes confidence in students that may have questioned their capabilities to reach for highly ranked schools. Currently to former JSEP students attend Dartmouth College.

JSEP brings together these groups of specialized experts – high school STEM educators, Dartmouth faculty, and graduate students. This international collaborative team uses the graduate students’ research as the seed from which to build rich meaningful curriculum. The teachers help with the development of the lessons and support graduate students with the implementation. It is mutually beneficial as the graduate students gain experience communicating their research through direct instruction and through guiding students’ independent field work.

Lesson 3: Student driven. On the very first day of JSEP students walk along a ridge in small groups and record as many observations and questions about the environment as possible. The walk ends on the top of a bluff providing 360 degree views of the valley. The graduate students meet the group and from the vantage point use natural landscapes to give brief introductions to their research. With small teams of students rotating through these stations, students gain confidence to ask questions and connect with the researchers.

Following this day of exploration, students write three questions they are interested in pursuing. Their questions are not required to mirror the graduate students research exactly, rather the idea is to tap their own interests and quandaries and pair them with the most relevant graduate student.


Small groups rotate through stations showcase graduate research. The amazing vantage point is an ideal location to promote deeper thinking about the landscape.

Based on the students’ questions new groups are established with each graduate student working with between 3 and 4 students. The goal for each group is to develop a question, follow the scientific method and produce an end product that will communicate their discoveries to the public (each group shares their work with international travelers at the Kangerlussuaq airport). The graduate students mentor the students. This includes working directly with the students to develop reasonable, attainable questions, traveling into the field to collect data and checking in with their group through the analysis process.

Mapping with Ruth 046.JPG

Students share their learning with intergenerational travelers passing through the airport. This provides a diverse and captive audience for the JSEP students.

Allowing students the freedom to explore their own questions and then providing them the time, space, and support in order to become experts themselves results in unique and informative student produced products. There is deep understanding, strong sense of ownership, and excitement for polar sciences. On the end of the program survey students’ comments included, “This was the first time was I was trusted to ask my own questions.” “I loved working with scientists in the field. They were all so helpful and inspiring.”

It is not a new realization that providing students with opportunities to explore their own interests and deliberately integrating subject matters produces positive results in both learning and engagement. The problem is more schools, courses, and programs, need to move beyond reading and talking about these philosophies and to begin adopting and implementing them as pillars in their programs. This best practice cannot be a special day before a vacation or occasional events sporadically appearing throughout the year, rather it should be the center of planning and collaborating for teachers. JSEP provides another example of creative and committed educators working along scientists to promote STEM in the next generation.


SeaTomatoesLichtens 076

Students complete an erosion lab in Greenland.

Look beyond the spectacular backdrops in these pictures and see the faces of students connecting with their learning in engaging and interesting ways. Schools do not need to have ice sheets in their backyards to recreate this environment. Educators need to tap into what they do have.  Their communities do have institutes of higher learning with a pool of potential near peer mentors.


A similar activity is completed outside of Rutland, Vermont. Students evaluate soil erosion originally caused by Tropical Storm Irene.

Their schools do have a natural world with interesting possibilities to explore just beyond their student and faculty parking lots. Their courses do have numerous links to other content areas, current events and local issues. And ultimately their students do have interesting questions to investigate, they have the capability of collaborating and seeing projects through fruition, and they have the potential to become truly engaged and inspired by their own learning.

Greenland End 034

Final group photo. This is taken during our midnight hike to a nearby waterfall. Since we are north of the Arctic Circle, the sun never sets while we are there.


South Pole Pic

Erica Wallstrom, 2014 Cohort, at the South Pole in  Antarctica.

Erica Wallstrom is in the 2014 Cohort of Rowland Fellows and is working with her fellow Fellow on developing Rutland High School’s Global Issues Network (GIN) – which strives to mentor and motivate youth to take informed, thoughtful and sustainable actions to address the most pressing global issues.

Through the integration of academic disciplines GIN will foster communication, design solutions, participation, and understanding when grappling with complex issues that result from both the actions and inactions of students.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Embracing New Educational Technologies: Keeping Up and Keeping Track

“The world’s next generation of leaders has a responsibility to take advantage of the growing opportunities that have come with a rapid influx of technology and communication throughout the globe.”

Higher education is up against myriad challenges, from declining enrollment to rising costs and shifting demographics. The majority of college students today, for example, are non-traditional, and this trend is expected to continue, as change is a constant—the average number of jobs held and career changes has been increasing in the span of an individual’s professional life. Education is being redefined from an activity for a set age to a lifelong need. Meanwhile, student debt is an omnipresent concern. In response to these dynamics, higher education has been investing in educational technologies that have allowed dramatic changes in instruction and learning.

While K12 shares only some of these challenges—such as declining student populations and local and state-wide budget constraints—the silver lining is that K12 education enjoys access to exciting tools developed in response to the challenges facing higher education—ones that are tailored to K12 to prepare students for new models of learning upon graduation.jill 3 v 2.png A veritable explosion in educational technologies is changing K12 teaching and learning at a breakneck pace. Ten years ago, participation in virtual platforms was limited to teachers and students who were early adapters. Now, the learning curve is shorter, and teaching and learning take advantage of engaging interactive simulations, online games, online self-assessments, and virtual communication—all learning tools that provide immediate feedback to support student learning.

jill via

Virtual Intercultural Avenues

New educational technologies have the capacity to transform student learning across disciplines and grades. One such example is a virtual global campus called Virtual Intercultural Avenues—a concept that would not even have been possible just 10 years ago.

Developed with the support of a Rowland Foundation grant, VIA embeds cross-cultural experiences in the curriculums of budget-crunched schools, for students and their families Jill 1.jpgwho are trying to save for college and might therefore choose not to study or travel abroad while still in high school. Using platforms like Vimeo and Twitter (both launched in 2006), Google Classroom (2014), podcasts (2004), as well as Blogger, Skype, and Scopia, VIA is able to incorporate cultural competency in middle and high school curriculums, connecting students virtually without the accompanying financial burden of travel and study abroad.

While innovative, fresh, and exciting, new educational technologies give rise to new challenges. For example, given the exploding range of options for schools, the challenge is not the availability of technologies, but rather the assessment of alternatives.

jill 6.pngAssessment methodologies of educational technologies for K12 schools are crucial, so that human and economic resources aren’t invested in the wrong products, wrong training, and wrong processes—which in turn deprive students of immediate opportunities. Teachers and school administrators need to be equipped with the skills and knowledge to assess educational technologies on an ongoing basis, guide their implementation, and measure their impact on student learning.


Barbella, D., Brandt, L., Fong, T., Jones III, D., Li, T.N., Yuman, S., Y., Jany, X., McDonald, B., and Xiao, A.J.,”Cultural Competence.” The New York Times in Education. New York Times, 2016. Web. 05 Jan. 2016. <;.


jill 7.jpg

Jill Prado, 2012 Cohort of Fellows

With the support of a 2012 Rowland Foundation grant, Essex High School teacher Jill Prado launched Virtual Intercultural Avenues in Vermont schools and abroad, linking schools internationally through new platforms embedded in a virtual global campus.

The VIA grassroots network includes middle schools and high schools in Belgium, France, Spain and Vermont.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Trust as a Cultural Expectation in Schools and in Classrooms

gab 2I was recently fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit several Finnish schools. Maybe I expected to see something really enlightening in Finland; some amazingly creative teaching method or a particularly innovative model, but I didn’t.  I was not disappointed at all though.  We were able to confirm that much of what we are doing in Vermont is moving in the right direction.

The good news is that Vermont may actually be further along than the Finn’s in terms of innovative teaching practices in schools.  We are an extremely innovative state in terms of education.  The Finnish culture seems to be the driving force in their educational achievement.

gab 3The pervasive theme for me during this visit was trust.  It is prevalent in every part of the school and throughout the education system and it truly changes the way students access learning.  Every teacher we talked to and every principal who spoke to us shared proudly that teachers are trusted to implement the national curriculum in whatever way they see fit.  They proudly used the word autonomy over and over again (I was reminded of how I feel the Rowland foundation treats their Fellows).

Principals collaborate with teachers but they are confident that their teachers will get to know the student needs and either address them or get help in addressing them.  Teaching is a gab 1highly respected profession, although not necessarily highly compensated.  Teachers are expected to do whatever it takes to help students succeed.  If a student is struggling to get to school, teachers will call home and work with families to figure it out.  They are expected to work with students on their coffee breaks if a student needs it.  While there are plenty of teachers in the U.S. that do this, there is an expectation in Finland.  This is a duty that is part of the profession and a reason why it is so respected.

gab 4There is a culture of taking care of others rather than a fend for yourself attitude that makes these extra duties not seem like extra duties at all; it is the right thing to do and everyone will benefit from a society where people are well educated.  The Finn’s are very proud to teach their children this as well.

When looking at the bigger picture, it is noticeable that outside the school system, there is a culture of taking care of everyone with the intention of creating a better overall society.  The social democracy that is central to Finland’s economic system has a great impact on the reason why the Finnish school system reflects these cultural values.

Because there is such a focus on this issue of trust as a cultural expectation, teachers have a high degree of trust for students.  Teachers shared that they don’t worry if a student doesn’t learn to read right away; they trust that it will happen.  The idea of growth mindset that has gained traction in the United States in recent years is an unknown term in Finland.  The idea that all students can achieve though, is taken for granted.

gab 7I can imagine how different that must feel from a student’s perspective because I had an early reading experience that illustrated exactly this issue.  I didn’t make the connection until one teacher mentioned this attitude toward reading.  When I was learning to read, I was attending a Montessori school and I remember being taught to read but it was because I showed an interest.  I didn’t think about whether I was good at it or not.  I didn’t compare myself to anyone else.  I just read when I wanted to and they taught me how to decode words when I appeared to be ready and willing.  When I moved to a public school, I knew on the first day what the teacher thought of my reading skills.  I knew that I was in the lowest reading group and I knew who were the “smart” ones.

There is a high degree of equality and homogeneity that exists in Finland and this helps lessen the gaps that were so apparent to me in an American public school.  Kids are also trusted to be in the hallways; even the gap 8.PNGyoungest students go to the bathroom on their own without asking the teacher; we observed 1st grade students getting on city buses by themselves to go to and from school.  While they are supervised on the playground, the adults see this as a time that students can work out problems on their own.  They do not intervene but rather wait for students to come to them for help if they need it.  They trust students to do this.  There were about sixty students on the playground that I observed with only one teacher supervising.  We visited a 1st grade classroom that had a system for making classroom decisions.  Any student could request a meeting to discuss an issue and the class works out the problem, votes on various solutions and that’s that, without the teacher’s control.  They feel empowered in their learning environment and have a high degree of autonomy as do their teachers.

gab 5It would be easy to take these reflections and decide that we can’t change the economic system in the United States, becoming disillusioned with the possibility of change, but I have seen cultural changes happen on a smaller scale.  Enosburg middle and high school has been working on mindset for several years and we have seen cultural changes.  Bernie Sander’s recent run for president is a timely reminder of his impact on the culture of Burlington Vermont during the early eighties that I witnessed and benefited form as a teenager.  We may not be able to change the culture of our country in one shot but could we begin changing it from the bottom up having an impact on the students who are in our immediate vicinity?


Gabrielle Marquette is a member of the 2015 Cohort of Fellows

Gabrielle Marquette, Special Educator/ Consulting Teacher, received her M.Ed. from Saint Michael’s College in 2003 and her C.A.G.S. through Southern New Hampshire University with a focus on collaborative leadership.

She is a practicing special educator/ consulting teacher and has been co-teaching American Literature for thirteen years at Enosburg High School. She has been teaching at The Community College of Vermont for ten years and offers original graduate courses through Castleton University.

She was awarded a Rowland fellowship in 2015 to pursue research on implementing personal learning.

“I am committed to helping educators transform learning environments in public school settings so meaningful learning is accessible to all students.”
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Going Beyond Challenging the Educational Myth: Using relationships to combat the deficit theory

kl1Scores of books, blogs, and articles have challenged the deficit theory, which was defined by Collins in 1988 as a belief that the poor are poor because of their own moral and intellectual deficiencies. Of course, that hasn’t stopped a far greater number of people from continuing to believe in the myth of the undeserving poor. In today’s school systems, we are more likely to encounter the deficit perspective, or defining students by their weaknesses rather than their strengths (Gorski, 2008).

Jason Finley, 2009 Rowland Fellow, recently called attention to the equity traps in Act 77, arguing convincingly that the gender and income-based stereotypes of educators could negatively impact Personal Learning Plans (PLPs) and Flexible Pathways. Most teachers, staff and school administrators, as well as education policy makers would agree that we need to be cognizant of these stereotypes, but fear of one’s’ own stereotypes can also lead to inaction. The question remains, how can schools overcome their own hidden biases to combat the deficit theory?

Most educators have good intentions. Many educators also reflect on their own practices. Some educators even go so far as to recognize their own biases. Even these top educators, who are already going above and beyond many of their peers to thoughtfully reflect, are left to flounder when it comes to how to combat their own stereotypes. While many have challenged the myths of a ‘poverty mindset’, few have offered solutions. Teachers and administrators feel powerless to address access to education, since it often falls outside of the scope of traditional schools.

kl3Our culture still holds the ideal that education should be the great equalizer, regardless of whether it actually smooths the playing field or not. The first step to challenging the myth of the ‘poverty mindset’ is a recognition that classism exists and ‘the poor’ are not a monolithic group with predictable beliefs, values and behavior (Gorski, 2008). While there is still much to do in this field, my focus is for those who have already asked how schools perpetuate classism, who are stuck in limbo between realizing they have biases, as we all do, and fear of acting on these stereotypes. In this limbo, as in Dr. Seuss’ “Waiting Place”, nothing happens. Education does not become any more of an equalizer simply because we recognize stereotypes in ourselves if we do not act on this knowledge. We need more than recognition of the problem.

kl2 Schools often fall into one of two categories when addressing achievement gaps. The first type, labelled ‘the disbeliever’, does not recognize a problem. This can be based upon a lack of reflection or the belief that they are treating everyone equally by being blind to poverty, gender, etc. Stereotypes are different from facts. It is a fact that not all jobs allow parents the time to show up for parent/teacher conferences. It is a fact that not everyone has access to technology at home. It is a stereotype that parents disvalue education because they do not show up for parent/teacher conferences or provide their children with the technology needed to succeed. Facts must be recognized and accommodations made accordingly. In order for schools to be the great equalizer, educators must use scaffolding to ensure equality of access.

The second type of school is ‘the indulgent’. This type addresses the achievement gap by recognizing the many issues students have at home, whether they are facts or stereotypes, and lowering expectations for these students because they have so many other worries in their lives. There is no ‘scaffolding up’ for these students; instead the standards are lowered. When students from middle class or wealthy households have more difficult standards than those who live in poverty, education perpetuates classism. For ‘the indulgent’ schools, unnecessary fear morphs into mollycoddling.

kl4.jpgScaffolding based on facts, not stereotypes, allows education to remain the ideal equalizer our country desires. In order to sift fact from bias, schools must have relationships with their students. Although the emphasis on relationships isn’t the declared main goal of Personalized Learning Plans or Flexible Pathways, it is the unstated assumption. However, we must do more than state it. We must start shouting it from the rooftops because if it continues to exist only in the back of some people’s minds, it will never be recognized as the foundation of PLPs and will easily be forgotten when it is time to implement school change.

kl5The goal of Vermont’s Department of Education can’t be for every high schooler to have a PLP; a PLP is only the final outcome of a deeper, more difficult to define goal for every student to have a relationship with a trusted adult in their school who knows enough about the student to be working from facts, not stereotypes.


The question each school and each educator must ask is whether relationships are central to their implementation of PLPs and Flexible Pathways.


Kendra LaRoche 2011 Cohort of Fellows

Kendra LaRoche is a Rowland Fellow of the 2011 cohort, and currently teaches at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, VT.

She offers workshops to schools on the areas of differentiated instruction, formative assessments, curriculum design, and student-centered learning.  Additionally, Kendra acts as a consultant for schools, working with them to identify problems related to the achievement gap, develop and implement an action plan, as well as evaluate the effectiveness of the plan.

She resides in Middletown Springs, Vermont with her two children.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment