Weaving Strong Relationships, part 2

A many of you know, I had an “inspired” idea to bring the Rowland Fellows together in a gesture of friendship and hope to send out “something for Chuck” as he recovered from a ski accident. This is a brief update on that work, and some visuals that will tell the story better than my words.

Of course, it began with a letter I wrote to Chuck while he was in the hospital. The letter turned into the January 15th blog post “Weaving Strong Relationships” and then I sent the email. It is nerve wracking to send an email to ALL Rowland Fellows, especially as a relative newbie, and one that doesn’t know but half of the lot! But I did. I wrote a call to action, I let people know that I wanted to create “Something for Chuck” from all of us, to show our strength, to remind him of his. I asked people to send me a ribbon, yarn, strip of cloth that I would weave together in art. It was a way for me to do something, for us to do something. I didn’t mention that while I’m the only Visual Art teacher as Rowland Fellow, well… I’m not a weaver.

The mail came pouring in. One of my kids said “wow, that is a lot of mail,” the other finished “a lot of people must really care about Chuck.” That was an understatement. I set to work – first I needed a form to work from so I found a canvas stretcher bar in the closet, one that had been given to me. I fit the pieces together, strong. No need for staples or nails. I decided this stretcher bar was like the gift the Rowlands have given us all – the frame took on new meaning. I began by looping the longer pieces around and tying them off on themselves. Again, no glue or staples or tacks – just the cloth. I continued the process until I had a strand representing all 68 Rowland Fellows(it was 68 at the time), plus one for Marge made 69, all weaved together both strong and beautiful. But… I had a gap. Should I loosen and re-arrange the work? No! I had forgotten one. A very important one. I went to the store and picked a jute ribbon – unassuming, practical, tough – and weaved in the final piece. One last ribbon to represent Chuck. His ribbon is also what is used to hang the work. 70 strands in all, woven together on a gifted frame.weaving

My next challenge was in the giving itself. This seemed too precious to send in the mail. Chuck was starting to recover and there was a possibility of me seeing him in late May. But I didn’t want it to wait that long. I wanted him to get our gift when he still really would need to feel our strength and caring, when it would make the biggest difference in his recovery. Then came Jean, who agreed to deliver our gift to Chuck at the Board of Trustees Meeting on March 23rd. I prepared a small book that outlined the process for Chuck, wrapped up the gift – and perfectly, one of the first Fellows delivered it on the night when the newest Fellows were accepted into the Rowland Family.

I’ll close this update the same as I did my January 25th post… Strength is what we need most in facing our challenges and without it, nothing else will be possible. As we move forward with intention, let us do so with the understanding that each strong thread builds a stronger cloth, together.

Over, under, over, under.

abbie

Abbie Bowker, a 2017 Rowland Fellow, teaches students Visual Art at Champlain Valley Union High School where she has been teaching since 2004.

 

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Gardening and Teaching as Acts of Optimism

Gardening and Teaching as Acts of Optimism*

 

VTFlowerShow

Vermont Flower Show 2019

 

Today at the checkout counter at a local grocery store the clerk commented, “Despite today’s dreary weather, it will be warm on Saturday.”  I said, “Well, it certainly will be warm for me because I’m going to the Boston Flower Show!” Much to my amazement he said, “Wait, are you a teacher?  You’re the third teacher this morning to say that!”

 

So what gives with teachers and gardening??

The catalogs have arrived, promising a summer full of delightful flower beds and robust

big be mid July

Lauren’s back yard

vegetable gardens. Many of us ordered seeds and have begun planting them indoors with grow lights to give them a head start in the spring. The funny thing is many of us have done this repeatedly, year after year, even though the results never, ever are what our mind’s eye envisioned in February.  We plan for a future we can not see.

 

 

 

garden plan

Lauren’s plans for the front yard

Still we toil away prepping the soil as soon as we can, adding compost and manure, then edging and cleaning up the messes from last year.  How can I possibly meet the needs of each of my plants? We don’t have the time to create a separate plan for each plant, though we plan to do what’s best for group of perennials, pruning or fertilizing or supporting with stakes.  We create straight rows for our lettuces and carrots, build mounds for sprawling squash and cukes, and dig deep trenches for the potatoes. We create pots full of potential color whether hanging from a gazebo or upright on a patio. We coddle with mulch. We’re sure that this year we’ll get it right.

deck

Lauren’s deck

 

There are so many variables out of our control, though.  Despite our best efforts, a late freeze or powerful storm can lay waste to our visions.  In fact, I can predict with accuracy when the next wind storm will arrive, based on the maturation of my Delphiniums which annually get broken by gusts just as they reach their peak.  Drama is induced with infestations of invaders from aphids to slugs which assault us annually. Cute little critters like chipmunks, bunnies, and deer devour our joy and turn us into potential neck-wringers. Yet, we keep a firm eye on the future and carry on. It would be nice to have a tool to help us manage all of the variables for each of our charges.So why do we torment ourselves?  Because we are optimists. Dyed in the wool optimists. We dream of a better future and like to think we can help shape that future.

Just like teachers.  

I proudly wear a button that quotes Christa McAuliffe, “I touch the future. I teach.” What a challenge that offers.

pencilsThink of the ways our gardening skills apply to our classrooms. You know the pull in August when you see the Back to School ads at Staples.  Who can resist the colorful folders and pens? You remember the visions you had as an undergraduate about your classroom. You know the potential of each learner and are sure you can connect with them to make that happen. You know the variables and you’re still ready to take them on. The trauma some of our kids face is beyond our imagination;some variables are beyond our control.  But you do your best to create an environment where the learners can thrive. You read books, blogs and Twitter chats to enlighten us, just as the gardener pores over the catalogs. You explore classroom spatial structures with classroom setups so all kids can find a comfortable environment. You observe, monitor progress, adjust conditions as necessary, and keep a firm eye on the future. WE plan for a future we can not see.

Yet, just as the garden designer never gets the perfect garden, you realize the learners in front of you are too varied to have a one size fits all solution to learning. No matter your best attempts, some students will have needs unmet.

UDL brainUniversal Design for Learning is the teacher’s answer to the gardener’s dilemma: how do I meet the needs for each of my charges without creating a separate plan for each one of my hundred? As a technology integration coach,  I offer a workshop each week for teachers in my school called Lunch and Learn.  Anyone who signs up gets a free lunch voucher, good for any day of the week the coupon is issued. My principal is a strong supporter, realizing that a $4 lunch ticket for thirty minutes of professional development is a pretty cheap price tag. I start each session by reminding people that it isn’t about the tech tool; it is about the learning.  So each session identifies a Transferable Skill from the VT AOE and  a UDL component. In my opinion, there is little reason to use technology in most classrooms unless we are using the power of tech for UDL.

I think one of the biggest travesties in education is that many educators associate UDL as a set of tools for only some students.

Well-intentioned presenters often start UDL discussions by pointing out, for example, how curb cuts created for people with physical needs have ended up helping all of us.  They then go on to say how components of UDL, while helpful for some subset of students, can then be used for all students. The stage is therefore set all wrong! We need to lead with pointing out that UDL provides a map for all learners to access our content from whatever their starting point AND it provides options for all learners to show what they know. We can plan proactively for all students from the outset, not react as we go.  It scaffolds our attempts at providing more choice for all students so there are many more opportunities for learning. It focuses on feedback for learning, not a roadblock of assessment as an end to itself.

 

UDL reminds teachers to move each student closer to their goals, no matter where they are starting by giving us impressive options for multiple means of engagement, representation, and action & expression, also known as the what, why, and how of learning. It gives us the tools for each of our charges to succeed. No wonder we are optimistic!

Gardeners should be so lucky.

May all of your gardens bloom.

*”Teaching is the greatest act of optimism” has been credited to Colleen Wilcox, a Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools for 14 years. It’s not known when Wilcox said the remark, but she has been credited for it since at least 1997.

 

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Lauren at the Boston Flower Show with daughter Nora

Lauren Parren is a Technology Integration Specialist at South Burlington High School, and has taught at Colchester High School and Mt. Abraham Union High School.  She is a 2012 Rowland Fellow and is the Associate for Social Media.  Follow us on Twitter @RowFn

 

 

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Learning to Listen

When Lauren’s email popped up in my in box thanking me for the blog I signed up to write for the March 15, 2019 posting I thought, “Of course I did.” I remember thinking when I signed up, “I really want that free drink after the workshop and if this gets my team extra points so that we win the drink cards, it will be worth it.” We won. I thought it was worth it, though honestly, in my excitement I didn’t really think ahead to what life might be like when March 15th rolled around.  In the back of my mind I knew I had signed up for a “lull time” so I wasn’t too worried. As it happens, I will be boarding a plane at 7AM on March 15th bound for Shanghai. It will be my third trip to China this year.

When I go on these trips I am the American dignitary and expert. I arrive and am greeted by a Chinese national whose job it is to spend her day taking me to every school I need to visit, every banquet held in my honor and every meeting of important Chinese government and educational officials who have sought my input on how to improve their schools. They all hope that when I leave we will have signed a contract saying that my school will partner with their school and bring their students an American education at a fraction of what it would cost Chinese families to send their child to America, both in monetary measures as well as emotional measure.

SChinaIt is a grueling though fascinating schedule that includes making speeches, meeting parents, sitting in on classes and going to long three or four hour evening meals with six or seven courses of food. It tends to be surreal as often when I get up to make presentations the sound crew in the auditorium puts on the theme song from “Gunsmoke” or “Star Wars” to punctuate my approach.

Of course these visits include tours of the schools. At this point I have visited Shanghai, Beijing, Fuzhou, Shaoxing, Hefei, Chengdu, Xian and Weinan. At each school a team of teachers, administrators, and government officials walk me through every building in the campus. One of the most common denominators on these tours is how proud these individuals are of their schools and of the opportunities education affords their students. I am amazed each time. In Xian, as you walk into the foyer of the school there is a life size three dimensional sculpture of a soldier coming out of the wall. His face is stricken with fear and determination. The sculpture includes his surroundings which depict buildings falling all around him.

“This is sculpture our art student did. This man in the sculpture. He was a graduate of our school. He joined the armed forces. He went to the city with the big earthquake. Maybe you heard about it in America? Many children died in a school. He went to save them. He saved many lives before he died, when a structure collapsed on him.” From there we go into a museum of the school, that holds the history of academic awards, a history of past teachers and past administrators. Though the two longer walls in the rectangular room are filled with academic awards, the shorter wall, opposite of 

SChina forthe door has a few awards for sports teams: badminton, ping pong and soccer. “We know it is important to be well rounded. So we have added sports clubs.”

In another school the art students used their art work to create a student cafe. They created tables, chairs, art work, pillows, and centerpieces. Then they convinced the school’s administration to open up a coffee shop/cafe next to the area they created so they could have coffee, tea, and snacks when they studied in this incredibly beautiful space they had made.

Most of the classes I sit in are lecture based. There are 40 to 60 students in an unheated concrete room at desks lined up in a row. The teacher stands at the front and has a computer and a white board. He or she talks and talks and talks about a subject of which they are the expert, the students write copious notes and before the end of the term they will take a final on all the information and their ability to spit it back.

SChinapotSo the irony of the students finding these outlets for their creativity and moving administration to open and create cafes for them is not lost on me. It’s as if the students know they learn more when they are doing, when they have autonomy and voice in their learning and when they care about the subject. The administrators and the government and the schools bring me over as the “American expert” to teach them essentially what they would learn if they reflected just a little bit more on those pieces of their schools that they include in their tours, on those items that they display with such pride.

Then I think of American education: what is it we should be reflecting more on for our students? What are our students telling us that we’re not listening to? As I travel the world in this role of “expert” what am I missing in my own back yard?

 

 

Sandra Mings Lamar, a 2016 Rowland Fellow, is the Director of International Programs at Lyndon Institute. She started her teaching career as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Shoshong, Botswana where she met her husband, James Lamar (2017 Vermont Teacher of the Year.) Sandra Mings LamarShe received her MA in Educational Administration as a Peace Corps Fellow at San Francisco State University. She co-founded New Technology High School in Napa, CA and was a founding teacher in the Rwanda Education Bureau’s Rwandan Teacher Education Program. She and James live with their three children and their dog in Barnet, Vermont.

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French Bread Tastes Different When it ‘s Raining

I worked in a few restaurants when I was younger. I don’t remember all of the names and some that I do I’ll keep quiet about (lest someone should inquire regarding trade secrets gleaned from high quality VHS viewing in the backroom for training). I moved away right after college and have spent most of my adult life here, in Vermont. My experiences with those restaurants offered me opportunities to learn about food, preparation and service from a variety of perspectives. I worked in a bagel shop, a fast food chain, a modified chain (on the boardwalk no less), a fine dining establishment and another middle of the road locale. I’ve prepared food that people liked, people tolerated, and, likely, that people loathed. I learned to fry eggs on a griddle without breaking the yolk, evenly distribute sauce on a pizza, find the time when a burger become chili, and how to make a strawberry look like a flower to justify the cost of $10 salad (prices adjusted for inflation).

 

Based on my experiences between the ages of 15-19, I learned about habits, process and customer service. My knife skills were considerably better toward the end. I am not a chef. I can cook, passably. What I learned in restaurants helped me understand the complexities of systems change in my time in the field of education in Vermont. My experience here mirrors my careers in the food service industry. I’ve worked in an alternative school as a behavior counselor and teacher, as a clinical case manager for a social services agency, worked in an elementary and middle high school as a teacher, and in elementary schools as a principal.

My own kids are in middle and high school now. Food availability is different now than it was when I was their age. They express disbelief when I tell them that. Maybe it was where I grew up, where we were at as a family or some combination, but the concept of eating ripe strawberries in February was downright ludicrous, let alone something so abstract as cilantro or kumquat (apologies for those who think the former tastes like soap, your taste buds are wrong and furthermore, why do you eat soap?).

Habits were something that I valued as a teacher starting out. They were a fixed value in education. I knew that rote practice would help my students (How? Well, it helped me). I just was not sure how to effectively offer it, so I gave homework – a lot of it. I replicated the classes that were taught to me in high school and I had learned relatively effectively. Why would my students not? What I failed to notice is that habits come more easily to some people for a variety of reasons. I struggled with understanding of students completing homework at various times in my career and it drove me a bit batty. What I came to learn too slowly is that students – like adults – possess agency. That agency is not a fixed asset, but vacillates depending on myriad factors. I see it in my 

own children. I see it in myself now too. I have the capacity at times to read a lot and – in often very similar circumstances – I cannot read a single page with any level of comprehension. We need to allow for differences in agency within our students and staffs. Our habits inform us, but are impacted by our atmospheres (like how baking is impacted by humidity).

Process is important to culture. There’s no such thing as starting from scratch. If there’s nothing else, there’s a recipe (which likely came from trial and error). When people are nostalgic about food they often relate it a parents or grandparents cooking or a special event from their past. I occasionally feel nostalgic for food from a particular restaurant, but realize that the atmosphere, the company, the mood I’m in impacts my remembrance thereof. I almost always regret it when I try to replicate something from the past that I recall with fondness.

Food and education are similar in some ways. Everyone knows of food and where they like to eat (and yet rotisserie hot dogs at gas stations). Many people have an idea of what education is, what it should be, and how to go about making sure it is something with which they are familiar. This nostalgia for what impacted individual success ignores outlying struggle and failure. There are many great published writers from my tenth grade English course. There are some great teachers of literature. None of them were in my summer school English class that year. When we embrace the culture of the past, we ignore that we know more than we did 10 years ago (or as is the case of my 10th grade English class a few more than that, think Vanilla Ice). We know better the impact of brain based learning, trauma, poverty, effective communication,and more. The process of education needs to change with regard to how we support students. We need to change the culture to support all learners (our friend groups from high school are not always representative of all learners).

Customer service impacts restaurants and education. When I worked in the bagel shop, I was typically the only one working. I was the front end and the back end. I knew that learning orders was more important than learning names most, but not all, of the time. Some customers warrant more attention than others. Some students have greater needs. The ability to meet the market demand in education is not easy, nor is it in restaurants. Some entities market themselves through direct advertising. Education typically does not. The narrative of education plays out haphazardly and in cycles (budget, election, scandal, etc). At times the narrative comes across as expository, others persuasive. We read about proposed legislative changes and per pupil expenditures.

famework

Write the narrative!

What education in Vermont needs is someone to write the narrative. Too often, this writing happens in retrospect, in review. Rarely do you read about a good decision made on a formative assessment to revisit equivalent fractions based on an exit ticket that a teacher read at 9:30 after putting the kids to bed. The creation of a generative can tell the story of education in real time. The public needs to hear the stories of impact, equity and opportunity. The impact of legislative acts and rules continues to shift toward the facilitation of student learning. That story needs to be told, not passively. Undoing work ignores that educational institutions are introspective and outcome oriented. We are working toward equity. It is continuous improvement of opportunity. Telling that story continuously needs a forum and a format. We need to continue to move forward and build something new, not rebuild something old. Working toward a system of personalization and flexibility will have starts and stops, but it needs iteration. If PLP continues to be a piece of the puzzle that confounds, that piece needs to be revisited, not scrapped altogether. Education needs to serve all of its customers. It’s time to embrace the shifts, tweak as needed, and allow for the quinoa.

Matt

 

Matthew DeBlois, Principal

Vergennes Union Elementary School

Rowland Fellow 2011

 

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novelty: a novel idea

something shiny, something new

when I arrive with new things to do

googley apps, googley draw

fresh faced students with eager paws

eyes like saucers, hair a wreck

when I walk in, it’s all about tech

a newfound joy as I teach K-12

and with all ages I get to delve

 

for decades work was much the same

sometimes sun, sometimes rain

till a flyer I spotted on a wall up high

and knew I just had to apply

to this foundation, to join this group

of amazing people who know the scoop

of the ed biz, inside and out

and once accepted, to the clouds I’d shout

 

up to the rooftops, to the stars

with my RF13ers, the world was ours

to hold with hope, dedication and devotion

I’d never seen so much emotion,

love and care, listen and talk

at complex problems never balk

so there I was, my career injected

with a shot of adrenaline, now connected

 

to friends I’d never known,

steered off course, but felt like home

then off I’d watch, towards tomorrow

foundation fellows, dreams in tow

landing new jobs and new positions

in new schools they sailed, tacticians

of their futures, their gaze cast ahead

with the gospel of rowland set to spread

 

it took me time, intransigent self

to lift my spine from my bookshelf,

and act 46 certainly did its part

to fire intentions within my heart

so off I’ve flown, off I’ve gone,

walked across a brand new lawn

to job that’s new, a job that’s taut

a job that was exactly what I sought

 

tapping the range of new found skills

to spread ed tech like daffodils

on a springtime hillside, speaking to all

how to transform school while having a ball

let’s laugh, let’s learn, let us engage

watch lives play out across a stage

in ways that inspire, in ways that reveal

a child’s truth, so she can feel

 

happy to be alive, insane self worth

a needed human being upon this earth

C.McKaig, headshot

 

Colin McKaig, Rowland Fellow, 2013

I was an English teacher at Black River High School for 25 amazing years.  I now serve as the first Technology Integration Coach for the Springfield School District.  Go Cosmos!

 

 

Screen Shot 2019-02-13 at 2.49.44 PM Chromebooks ready for distribution at Riverside Middle School

 

Screen Shot 2019-02-13 at 2.50.17 PM

Two RMS students with their new learning tools.

 

 

 

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Weaving Strong Relationships

I was recently writing to a dear friend about strength, encouraging them during a difficult time of recovery. It was that letter that has inspired this posting.

grandmotherMy grandmother, Grace Hall Pugh, was an amazing woman worthy of inclusion in a Vermont Edition of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. A farm girl from Ferrisburgh with no name except “the baby” for the first two years of her life, she decided to get an education at the University of Vermont and get her teaching license. But life has a way of making twists and turns and while she had just begun her teaching career, she ended up getting her pilot’s license. She was Vermont’s first woman to receive a pilot’s license on March 13, 1938. She went on to co-found with my grandfather, Harold Pugh, the FlyRite School of Aviation and trained many pilots during the time prior to WWII. She and Harold managed the Burlington Airport for a number of years, and as was the way during that time, when they were ready for a family Grace turned to a more genteel profession and returned to teaching.

Grace loved teaching and always recognized her first and second grade students many years past as they themselves grew up, and grew old. She said she always could recognize them for their eyes. “The eyes never change, the rest grows, but the eyes never change,” she’d tell me. It was clear that she formed deep and lasting relationships with each one of them who also remembered her years later. She kept a keen mind throughout her life, but her body kept having troubles with health. When we’d talk about how she was doing, she’d be optimistic and positive – but I do remember one thing that used to bother her a great deal. She’d say that her well-meaning friends would tell her they’d pray for a quick recovery, or wish her good health… but she said while those things would be nice, they are temporary. What she really wanted was for them to pray for her to have strength. As she saw it, strength was what she needed most and without it, nothing else could be possible.

Strength certainly comes from within, but we all know that friends, family, fellows all help bolster and build on that strength. This is the strength born of relationship.

weavingThe life we live is filled with all types of relationship, and each and every interaction we have with one another builds it slowly, and over time. I tell my children that, like cloth being weaved of many tiny threads, these relationships build. Every interaction they have with one another is another thread in the cloth of their relationship, every thread they offer someone else, builds into their cloth. In order for us to have strong cloth, we must have strong threads, strong interactions. Over, under, over, under.

A strong cloth can be used for many things: to warm you, to give you shelter, to catch you if you fall, to be used as a sail…

The importance of building relationship with our students is instilled in us from our early teacher preparatory courses and basic things like “ask what your students did over the weekend” or “start your day with a morning meeting” are relatively easy entries into the messy world of relationship-building. While any teacher, as early on in a career as student teaching, knows – relationship-building comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors. Looking over previous blog posts from the last year, I see evidence of deeper relationship building: Alden Bird (RF2018) posted on 5/1/18 about the power of individual conferencing, Peter Langella (RF2017) posted on 10/16/18 referencing a student and the network of relationships that helped make graduation possible for them, Luis Bango (RF2017) posted on 12/29/18 sharing the story of a student in his school’s C3 program developing an Aeroponic Agriculture project. All three teachers speak to the threads that pulled together to make a difference in students’ experiences, in their lives. The threads weave to make a cloth. Under, over, under, over.

yarnAs my role of teacher has shifted to that of educator-leader through my work with the Rowland Foundation at my school, I have discovered the importance of relationship at a new level with my colleagues. While I have always maintained a strong partnership with colleagues within my department, my interconnected web of threads was spread thin across our faculty of over a hundred. My fifteen years teaching at the school provided me with a foundation of recognition, at least. My short stint as building representative for our educator’s association, my current role as “sunshine gal,” and my various attempts at previous school change efforts helped to also bolster my reputation. But relationship? A smile in the hall goes a long way, but not far enough. Trust? You have to go deeper than recognition, a smile, or a “what did you do this summer” to gain that. You need both trust and respect in a strong relationship in order to enact transformative change. It requires a long-haul approach, one interaction at a time – over time, over, under, over, under.

This trust building is easiest when there is a positive climate and an establishment of trust at the school – a strong cloth to build from. When there is a history of weak threads, or a period of mis-trust and poor relationships, or if your faculty is spread thin, you must understand that darning (as in to mend, or reinforce) must also be present in anything you do. This process is slower, more arduous, and in many ways more rewarding when it comes back together. I’ve fumbled my way through this process with our faculty over the last year and a half, with some successes but with less finesse than I’d wish. I was moved when I read the post from Jen Kravitz (RF 2012) dated 12/3/18 leading her faculty in building resiliency and balance, an excellent example of darning and building as you go. I was encouraged by the post from Mike McRaith (RF2013) entitled “Empathy is a Skill” from 3/30/18 where it was clear that the strength in the community cloth could hold the challenge of difficult conversation and deep growth. These two examples show the weaving of relationship from the perspective of educator-leaders and the growing strength of the school’s community cloth. Under, over, under, over.color

Colleagueship and leadership go beyond the walls of our respective schools, and our relationships extend far beyond the borders of our state through the work of the Rowland Foundation. Barry and Wendy Rowland’s support of teachers and educational innovation, Chuck Scranton’s masterful weaving of each Rowland Cohort folded into a larger network, and the strength of our interactions therein, is nothing short of inspirational. After all, as educators we are making a difference in the lives of our students every day. We are shaping the strength of the future.

Strength was what we need most in facing our challenges and without it, nothing else will be possible. As we move forward with intention in 2019, let us do so with the understanding that each strong thread builds a stronger cloth, together.

Over, under, over, under.

 

abbie

 

Abbie Bowker, a 2017 Rowland Fellow, teaches students Visual Art at Champlain Valley Union High School where she has been teaching since 2004.

 

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Small is Beautiful

Back in the 90’s and early 2000’s,  I worked as a teacher and staff development specialist in densely populated Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C.  It was challenging work but I loved my job and I worked with some great educators. With over 130,000 students, MCPS ranks as the 16th largest school district in the country.  Prior to that time, I had been a Peace Corps volunteer for 2 ½ years in Honduras. Suburban D.C was culturally rich and diverse with a large population of Central American and east African immigrants and turned out to be the perfect post-Peace Corps landing point for me.  They say the Peace Corps is “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” That was true for me but teaching in MCPS was the 2nd toughest job I’d ever love.

During my years in Maryland, educational technology was booming.  Great emphasis was being placed on college and career readiness and the school district dedicated loads of resources to designing and constructing a data warehousing system.  The application crunched achievement scores like SAT, PSAT, AP as well as course grades from math and language arts courses. The end result was a college and career readiness index; a magic number that supposedly indicated how prepared a student…or a group of students… or an entire school population was to move on to life beyond the district secondary schools.  

I loved it.  I drank up its colorful reports and graphs and dove right into my role as a staff development specialist.  My job was to train school administrators to use the system and to develop strategies for school improvement based on the results.  I was young(er), less experienced and eager to learn more and to help schools improve. At the time, I believed that this data warehouse and it’s algorithms and reports held the answer to school improvement.   It seemed rational, clinical, black and white. But the more I explored the system and manipulated the tools, the more I realized that data systems like this don’t always provide answers. Sometimes they just generate more questions.  And they lack heart and soul and a student face.

Fast forward to 2018 and after a few major life decisions and twists of fate, I find myself in my 15th year in beautiful Woodstock, Vermont.  It’s a big pendulum swing, but a welcomed one filled with equally wonderful colleagues and opportunities. Our educational landscape is shifting to a personalized proficiency system and it’s challenged my thinking about pedagogy and has pushed me to become a better listener and as a result, a better educator and person.   We strive to meet students where they’re at, working with them to identify not only their strengths but also areas of growth. There are “must haves” but we also allow space and time to personalize, to be creative, to be expressive and hopefully thrive. College and career readiness is still a priority but not in the deficit thinking way of the data warehouse but rather through building on strengths and interests.

NatalieAs a result of the Rowland Fellowship that was granted us last year, and with great administrative support, Woodstock UHSMS launched The Center of Community Connections (The C3). Our goal is to provide students with a flexible learning environment and utilize our community as an extension of the classroom.  It’s one-stop shopping for independent studies, internships, service learning and career exploration, We strive to complement the classroom learning by connecting people to people, school to community, interest to study and students to their educational journey.

Zach Woodstockrecently sat down with Tim, a 12th grader who has a deep interest in aeroponic agriculture.  He’s about to enter his final semester of high school and has more than enough credits to graduate this spring.  He could very well ease through his final months at Woodstock with just the essentials, but Tim has a curiosity and a desire to do more than just “cross the finish line.”  He comes from a family of central Vermont farmers and he likes to build things with his hands. For this project he’s interested in designing and constructing an aeroponic garden in one of our three greenhouses. His goal is to grow leafy green plants like spinach, kale and arugula in a misty environment and to study this method for its potentially high yield.  The system could ultimately contribute to our school cafeteria, he explains to me. One of the things that I find impressive is that Tim came to us with this idea.  He had heard that there was a structure and a support system that could accept his proposal and help to create a plan with learning goals around his interest.  Through the new C3, we now have a structure that invites Tim to open up to us, share his ideas and create his own learning goals and his own syllabus. That’s pretty terrific.

A popular book floating among Peace Corps volunteers in the early 90’s was E.F. Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.”  Schumacher inspired such movements as “Buy Locally” and “Fair Trade”, while voicing strong opposition to “casino capitalism” and wasteful corporate behemoths. Small is Beautiful presented logical arguments for building our economies around the needs of individuals and the needs of communities.  There are plenty of things that I miss about my years spent as an educator in Maryland. But I’m creating new memories and experiences in Vermont and teaching here makes me think fondly of Schumacher’s classic.  I think he would have felt very much at home in the Green Mountain State and would be embracing the educational transformation that is slowly taking root here. His writing reminds me that we have a unique opportunity to create strong relationships with our students and to connect with our communities through personalization.

 

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Luis

 

Luis Bango a 2017 Rowland Fellow.  He’s a teacher, a tech integration specialist and a team member of the Center of Community Connections (The C3) at Woodstock Union High School and Middle School.  He lives in Woodstock with his family and is super excited about making his first ever trip to Cuba this spring!

 

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