A New Path To Purpose

The transition took me by surprise. One moment, we were exploring the path that ideas take on their legislative road to public policy, and the next minute, students were disclosing their personal struggle with ongoing anxiety and depression.  At first, I worried that the doom and gloom of our semester’s exploration of climate change and species collapse might be to blame, but it soon became clear that the root of this shared experience was far deeper. In an act of incredible vulnerability, adolescent after adolescent gave voice to the loneliness and uncertainty of transitioning to adulthood in the paradoxical age of connectivity and disconnection.  

Post-graduation plans didn’t seem to tip the scale.  An even mix of students headed to the work place, to dorm rooms, and into gap year adventures expressed ambivalence about pathways that had no clear link to outcomes or impact on an ever-unpredictable world.  Absent was the mixture of nostalgia and excitement my peers and I had experienced in the weeks before graduation. As I listened to my students wade through their relationship to political divisiveness, financial insecurity, and a world that makes them feel increasingly small, I felt guilty that my biggest fear heading into college had been home-sickness.  

And then I asked the question: “Who in the room feels like they have purpose in their lives?”  Two students sheepishly raised their hands. One guffawed. Most stared at me blankly. In the conversation that ensued, it became clear that their high school experience had provided plenty of opportunity to build skills: meeting standards established by adults, pursuing truths set forth by adults, regurgitating answers deemed correct by adults.  Students learned to write essays, take tests, and, yes, do high order thinking to analyze literature, scientific data, and historical events. What was glaringly missing was the option, nay, the requirement, to turn the lens inward. While they could conjugate a verb and factor a polynomial, few could articulate what mattered to them or brought them joy.  This is the failure of public education.

When we pitched the idea of “EPIC Academy” (E.P.I.C. for Educational Path I Choose) to the Rowland Foundation, we led with our vision of students building agency through passion-driven projects they designed.  Over the course of our first year in the fellowship, we realized that passion without impact is hollow and temporary. If snowboarding or animal husbandry or musical theater begins and ends with the experience of the student, the learning does nothing to connect students to a larger network of belonging or meaning.  

The seniors in my classroom had copious talents. They starred on athletic fields and theatrical stages, in bands and in clubs.  The vast majority have food security, consistent housing, and functional families with summer plans. What they don’t have is the feeling that their existence matters.  

Passion.  Power. Purpose.  These are the tenets of EPIC Academy.  These should be the priorities of all public education.  Instead of diagnosing the extent of the summer brain drain in math computation in the first weeks of the year, we should be helping students figure out what lights their fire.  In a world of monumental challenges like climate change and income inequality, where floating plastic islands are 64 times larger than our state and college tuition grows faster than inflation, in a world where individual humans feel powerless to make an impact on the ocean of concern, we need to help our students find the places where they do have agency not just in their lives and to pursue their passions, but to effect change in the world around them.  

We can’t solve adolescent anxiety with a series of 9-week projects. We can’t prevent iPhones and Snap Chat streaks from coercing teenage brains into dopamine dependence with a new path to graduation.  But we can show students that we see them. We can stop telling them that school is here to prepare them for some condescending, future “real world” and start recognizing that they already live in…and worry about… the real world.  Educators clinging to the 1970’s belief that success in freshman biology predicts college graduation, career advancement, and a white picket fence is not only failing our students, but making them feel alone in their unease.  

Beginning next fall, the fifty students who self-selected into EPIC Academy at Lamoille Union High School will connect.  They will build deep and lasting relationships with their teacher mentor who, because of this new model of small cohort size and full-day mentorship, can truly know them.  They will collaborate with community partners who are active in the arenas that students want to pursue. Through the iterative process of peer review and community reflection, they will connect with each other.  And, most importantly, they will turn that lens inward and do the hard work of examining who they are, what motivates them, what assets they possess and can access, and yes, how to create lives of meaning and joy.  Five years from now, let us not measure the success of education by math scores and reading levels alone, but by the number of students that raise their hand when we ask them, “Who feels like their existence matters?”

Amber

Amber Carbine-March wishes she could talk to animals, but is pretty darn happy being a high school science teacher.  When she isn’t petting her miniature donkeys or paddle boarding with her wife and kids, she is usually scheming new ways to expand equity and opportunity to all students.

KH

Kim Hoffman is a former yurt-dweller and field naturalist turned science teacher. When she isn’t identifying edible wild plants with her botany-obsessed 5-yr-old, she is dreaming up ways to empower students.

 

 

 

 

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Imputing the Best Motive

As a graduate student in the UVM counseling department in the mid 90’s, I enrolled in the most difficult course I have ever taken, Robert Nash’s Professional Issues in Counseling. It was a rigorous investigation of both the ethics and the personal, moral dimensions of the helping professions, and for me it is a class I am still digesting some 20-plus years later. It was in that class where I met my future wife (I sat next to her in an almost empty classroom when we both arrived early on the first day), one of my best friends (he used Nash’s own “moral language” arguments to convince the professor to let him enroll in an already filled class), and it is also the class where I believe I truly began to learn about the gifts of humility and the transformational power of excellent instruction, the type of teaching that warrants revisiting even years later.

Throughout my education to that point, I had done reasonably well in school, but had few experiences where a teacher really saw me, or at least had the desire to challenge me in a meaningful and respectful way. I had, until then, relied on a varied skill set depending on the circumstances. Often, it was a combination of wit, charm, and doing just enough work to get decent grades, but I rarely “dug in.” Frankly, I didn’t see the point to expend more energy than necessary. I saw myself as a successful teacher after one semester of student teaching and one year of teaching high school English in South Dakota (oh, the arrogance!). Now I was training to be a counselor because, surprise surprise, I thought I would be good at it, and it seemed like it might be a little less work than teaching (oh, the ignorance!).

Nash saw right through me. Within the first few weeks, he spoke to me after class and in a compassionate but direct way challenged me to do more, to be more. And in that context of being in a program that was as much about personal development as it was about the research and practice of counseling, I took on the challenge. I did so not because I needed a higher grade or because I thought success in this class would lead to other opportunities, but because Professor Nash wasn’t going to let me settle for mediocrity in his classroom. It was time to dig deep, and it was the first time I totally absorbed myself in an educational experience. I loved it.

There is one lesson that Nash taught me that continues to resonate, and one that I try, daily, to incorporate into my life, both work and personal. It is a refrain that echoes in the conversations between me and my then classmate-now wife, and one that has the power to transform the classroom experience for both the teacher and the student: “impute the best motive.”

In this era of establishing norms or common agreements for working groups it may sound familiar, but in the fall of 1996 this was new to me. Nash suggested that in our interactions with colleagues, students, strangers, or whomever we come into contact with, we should assume that the other person is doing the best they can and for the right reasons, their right reasons. This concept, and the discussions we had on it, challenged my view of so many things. Most importantly, it put the onus on me to appreciate not only the present circumstances and motives of the person I was interacting with, but also the experiences and learnings that they carried with them. When you approach people with this understanding, it becomes difficult to judge, categorize, or make unfounded assumptions.

To honor Nash’s advice, our challenge is to truly believe that people are doing the best they can and for reasons that make perfect sense to them. It’s difficult to be frustrated by a student, colleague, or parent if you believe he is doing the best he can at that time and that his motivations are sound and reasonable given his experience, understandings, and expectations.  It is, in essence, our job to recognize a student’s best, whatever that might be, and make that best better and to let go of judgement in the process. That is a big ask of taxed, overworked teachers. It is much easier to go to judgement than it is to go to compassion and empathy, but it is what our profession demands.

In this year of Rowland work, engaging with amazing teachers and administrators throughout the state, I am constantly reminded of how much I have yet to learn. As cliche as it sounds, I’ve come to the realization that there is a direct inverse relationship between how long I have been teaching and how much I know. Each time I read an article, read a book, or have a conversation with a colleague at Stowe High or a member of my humbling Rowland cohort, I’m searching for nuggets of instructional wisdom I can pocket for later to use in my own practice. All of them are valuable and treasured, but it is the words of Professor Nash that have come back to me repeatedly this year, and when I can truly honor them, they provide the fertile soil for the growth and wonder I hope for in all my students.

Roger Rowland
Roger Murphy is a 2018 Rowland Fellow from Stowe High School where he has worked since 1997. Roger has been a counselor, Alternative Program Coordinator and teacher, and also a teacher of English and Social Studies. Roger’s Rowland work this year has resulted in a new position for the coming year teaching Financial Literacy and running SHINE, the Stowe High Internship Experience.
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Why we need to love ourselves now: A reflection on year one of my Rowland Fellowship

 

“So many years of education yet nobody taught us how to love ourselves and why it’s important.”

– Unknown

As I reflect back on my first year as a Rowland Fellow, I continue to be drawn to the quote I wrote at the top of my Rowland proposal back in December 2017.  I was drawn to this quote as it recognizes the need for students to learn how to love themselves as part of their educational experience. Throughout my sabbatical time this year, it has become even more apparent that the lack of love we have and show for ourselves is deeply rooted in our community and throughout many generations. I have witnessed so clearly the masks, struggles, and sufferings that hold many back from loving themselves. I’ve seen it with students, faculty, parents, and mostly in myself.

I have learned that we have all been taught social norms through our own upbringing, and these norms vary across communities, cultures, religions, and generations. The imaginary “parenting book” has become more complicated through generations as society has evolved, shifting greatly when  the iPhone and other digital devices were invented. Parents seek out one another to figure out if they are parenting “the right way” when really every child is different except for one basic need, love. We all need to be loved, and we all need to be nurtured.

At the same time, these social norms have also developed this imaginary book of right and wrong, good and bad. We compare ourselves to others and set a standard for ourselves that is often not accurate or realistic. Our internal voice tells us that it is selfish to love ourselves before others, that we are just not pretty enough, smart enough, able enough, or just plain good enough, and that time is of the essence, so we need to keep moving and striving to be better and do more to keep up with this busy world rather than slowing down and generating more time to love and appreciate our body, our mind, and our soul.

This is me, and this has been my struggle this year. I believe that part of this journey was meant to teach me how to love myself because no one ever taught me how or why it is important. It was never taught in my home, in my community, and definitely not in my schooling. Why don’t we teach our children how to love themselves and why it is important? We teach them to be kind to others and how to love others, but why not ourselves? Is life truly all about perception and the need to be perceived by others as kind and loving? Does that even matter if we don’t love ourselves? Can we truly even love another if we don’t love ourselves? I cannot answer these questions, but I do think they have all influenced my work and shaped both my growth as an individual and as a school counselor this year.

I have tried to create balance in the roller coaster ride of my Rowland sabbatical year. I have worked hard and often fast, but I have also acknowledged and given myself time to slow down and nurture my soul. I have found that a heavy guilt often sets in when I do choose to slow down instead of speed up. It is as if the expectations of others, or at least my perceived expectations of others, drive my need to keep going as if I won’t be good enough if I slow down. I have also seen this throughout my school this year especially with fellow teachers. It was clear through the results of a faculty survey we created around job satisfaction and wellness. Many teachers choose to work many hours before school, at night, and/or the weekend when they are not contracted to work because they are expected to get the work done, but when is it too much? When do we make a change and recognize that the teachers in our school are often choosing others (the students and the needs of the school) above their own needs? When do we acknowledge that the teachers in our own school are not well because we do not value and support a teacher who sets boundaries for themselves and chooses not to work outside the hours of the school day?

What does all this mean for our students? They are learning that it is not important to take care of themselves or set boundaries for themselves as this is what they are seeing their teachers do. At the same time, the same pressures are being passed down from the teachers to the students. We tell students to check their email regularly, get involved, play sports, join clubs, fill up their schedule with classes, stay in class for the full 80 minutes, and then “oh by way” you have a bunch of homework to do to on top of everything else you are already doing. What are we doing? We are overscheduling them, dictating how they spend their time during the school day, and only giving them five minutes in between classes and a 30 minute lunch to be kids. Then they go home and they are either overscheduled, staying up late doing homework, or on the other end, they are disengaged, not caring about school because they “hate” it, so they choose another way to fill their time, maybe playing video games or self-medicate with substances or even food. And yes, there are outliers, there are the students who have a job, take care of their family, and even those few and far between who have actually been taught how to live a balanced life and love themselves fully.

In my work thus far this year, I have realized that we cannot transform our school to integrate social-emotional learning and wellness practices if we do not see the need for ourselves. Yes, we see that our students need this, but as adults, we need this too. We need to consider proactive ways to support our own wellness as it keeps us from adding reactive “band-aids” that are not sustainable. One way to conceptualize this is through a wellness wheel, consider a pie chart where each piece of the “pie” is a slice of wellness: emotional, intellectual, physical, social, environmental, financial, and spiritual. It allows us to see that wellness is multi-dimensional, how everything is truly connected, and that life is fluid. Taking time to reflect on our own wellness through use of a wellness wheel can help us understand how to thrive as humans and empower our students to do the same.

At the same time, if we are going to teach about wellness, model wellness, and live well, how can we shift our schools, the place students and teachers spend most of their time during the school year, to become a one-stop shop for wellness needs? I believe that the creation of  Wellness Centers in our schools could be the answer. During a school visit trip to California, I witnessed schools that organically infuse social-emotional learning and wellness practices into the backbone of their school culture and environment. It was during this visit that I was introduced and witnessed the power of a Wellness Center while visiting the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). After Columbine, there was a desire to make schools safer, but SFUSD decided to address unnoticed mental health with students. They developed a wellness initiative in collaboration with the Department of Public Health and the Department of Children, Youth & Families to keep students in school, assess and address needs, and then link students back to the community. The initiative included the development of a Wellness Center at each of their high schools. The Wellness Centers they developed provide a full range of free, confidential health services such as school-wide health education and events, group and one-on-one counseling, nurse services, medical referrals, and more. A typical Wellness Center model includes a Wellness Coordinator who provides the leadership and ensures all student needs are met, School Nurses who listen, educate, provide basic first-aid, help manage chronic health conditions, and provide medical referrals, Community Health Outreach Workers who engage students in Wellness programs and partner with Community Based Organizations (CBO) to provide services to students, Behavioral Health Counselors who provide one-on-one and group-based mental health and substance abuse counseling, and Youth Outreach Workers who are students trained to educate their peers about health issues. Community partners, the school administration, and parents are also an integral part of this model. A few important factors to note are that the Wellness Center is in its own space – separate from the school counseling office (as it offers students who may need mental health support a more private, confidential space away from those who may just need academic support such as changing their schedule), and the Wellness Center is also non-punitive and advocates for more restorative practices. The Wellness Centers are also very welcoming, provide clear expectations (15 min. visit rule), utilize a thorough data tracking system (including sign-in and out), offer food and tea, and are included as part of every new student’s orientation. In seeing these practices in action at schools in and around the San Francisco area, I believe that a Wellness Center could help to more proactively support Vermont students and even be solutions to many of our educational problems including a more proactive approach to funding.

With that said, I am excited to move this effort forward at Harwood Union High School. I am excited to offer students a place to go in the midst of the chaos of their lives. A place they can feel safe and connected. A place that becomes the hub of all things wellness related. A place that teaches students how to love themselves and why it’s important. As Sir Ken Robinson once said, “Education needs to address the world around our learners but also the world within our learners.” Now is the time to address the world within our students, to teach them how to love themselves and how to love one another.

 

tara004Tara is a 2018 Rowland Fellow, School Counselor at Harwood Union High School, and President-Elect for the Vermont School Counselor Association. Originally from Michigan, Tara graduated from Michigan State University with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Health Promotion in Kinesiology. After serving a year in the AmeriCorps, she continued her studies at the University of Vermont earning a dual Masters in Mental Health & School Counseling. Outside of school, Tara teaches Buti Yoga and loves spending time with her partner, two step-children, and two furry pups. As a family, they enjoy spending time outdoors connecting with nature through hiking, snowboarding, trail running, gardening, paddling, backpacking, and camping.

 

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Leveraging the PLP to enhance Personalized Proficiency-based Learning

Schools are notorious for taking on a plethora of initiatives that, all too often, feel disjointed and overwhelming. No doubt, the intentions behind the various initiatives are rooted in best intentions, but implementation often feels disconnected for students and teachers.  We have a tremendous opportunity in Vermont, with a convergence of statewide initiatives rooted in best practice and brain research about learning to bring coherence and strength to transformational practices in the classroom while at the same time strengthening relationships within schools and communities. Proficiency-based Learning (PBL), Personalized Learning (PL), and Personalized Learning Plans (PLPs) are at the heart of these initiatives, bolstered in Vermont by state policies like the Education Quality Standards and Act 77. These three initiatives should be integrated as a unified framework for schools to embrace for transformation of learning.

Don’t get me wrong, no policy or set of policies should be the sole impetus for implementation, nor will they be successful if that is the stance a school or district takes in moving things forward. It is crucial that the rationale for any guiding policy be rooted in the values of the school and community. Revisiting (and possibly revamping) the vision and mission of the school or district should be a first step in any transformational work. Regardless, schools and districts must anchor their work in making school student-centered. It must be relevant and engaging to learners, tending to the whole student with their social, emotional, and physical development as well as their academic excellence.

Enter Personalized Learning.

Personalized Learning aims to give students ownership of their education. Increasing flexibility in the possibilities for learning experiences allow students to navigate learning through an environment that knows the learner and focuses on growth. Schools should work to ensure opportunities for personalization at many levels, whether that be in best practices in instruction and assessment within classrooms or in systemic opportunities that allow for flexible pathways to graduation. Such a system maximizes the opportunity for each individual to engage in diverse learning experiences in varied settings with a wide range of tools and supports along the way. Personalized Learning on its own, however, faces many challenges without structures to ensure validity and reliability.

Enter Proficiency-based Learning.

Proficiency-based Learning provides the framework for personalization. With clear learning goals or targets defined for content and transferable skills, anticipated instructional strategies and sequences, aligned assessment and feedback, and meaningful reporting, PBL will ensure more valid and reliable outcomes. A robust PBL system will allow students to answer these questions: Where am I going? Where am I now? How can I close the gap (or get better if I’m already there)? Teachers and students should know the answers to each of these questions while teachers have anticipated them in such a way that allows them to have instructional strategies and resources on hand to help with the answer to the last question. Clear and rapid feedback guides students in their learning. Aligned assessment brings meaning to tracking and reporting of the learning. This practice challenges some of the age-old structures and methods that have existed in schools for over a century, but will drive us toward more equitable systems. Teaching and learning will need to extend beyond classrooms and grade levels, giving students the capacity to make connections between their learning and interests.

 Enter the PLP.

The personalized learning plan can be the process that explicitly supports students in making connections between their learning and interests. More than that, it drives self-discovery through intentionally modeling and practicing cycles of inquiry and reflection. When done well, it provides a platform for engagement between students and adults as students navigate the intersection between their personal, social, and academic lives. As schools transform the notion of schooling, it is more important than ever that a process for understanding change happens alongside of and in support of the changes themselves.

PLPs at Mt Abe.

GAbe.1I have been heartened as of late by the work, although imperfect, around personalized learning plans at Mt Abraham Union MS/HS. As a teacher that has seen years of fits and starts to the PLP process, I am under no illusions that work lies ahead to keep the process fresh and relevant. I also see that some aspects of our implementation are substantially different from those of the past. As a team of teachers, administrators, parents, and students collaborated to redefine our PLP, what is most clear is that we’ve done a better job of understanding our own position in our journey as a truly personalized proficiency-based school. Gabe.2The PLP process has emerged as an essential connector of personalization and proficiency. What’s more is that students are becoming increasingly cognisant of the importance of the PLP process to understanding their own agency in learning. As I sit down with students to support PLP work, I have found it to be a place where we can converse and reflect on the convergence of their personal lives with their education. Invaluable conversations emerge and relationships are built through dialogue and discussion that is driven by the student

 

PLP Connector (1)

PLP Connections at Mt Abe. Adapted in part from Rinkema & Williams. “Proficiency, Personalization, and a Cocktail Napkin: or, How PBL Became PPBL.” Learning Personalized, 1 June 2018, www.learningpersonalized.com/proficiency-personalization-and-a-cocktail-napkin-or-how-pbl-became-ppbl/. The four areas of Equity, Community, Expertise in Learning, and Social, Emotional, and Physical development represent the strategic goals of the Mt Abraham Unified School District.

GAbeGabe Hamilton is currently the Proficiency-based Learning Coordinator and Coach for Mt Abraham Unified School District in Bristol, Vermont.  Prior to this position, Gabe taught Middle and High school Science and Photography for 18 years in Oregon and Vermont.  Gabe is an adjunct instructor for Castleton University and Southern New Hampshire University and has taught courses and led workshops in proficiency-based learning across the state.  He holds a Masters degree in educational leadership and is a 2015 Rowland Foundation Fellow.

 

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The Power of a Post

At some point, while consumed with pursuing a career in education, developing roots in the Rutland community, and locating the best trails to run on with my dog, I slipped unknowingly into middle age. I can no longer play the new teacher card at school, nor am I identified as part of the young couples in my neighborhood. I do not get carded at the grocery store and I was not immediately recruited for the student-faculty basketball game.  My 40th birthday party was the public celebration (admission) to this passage of time, but the moments I most feel (and fight) this inevitable lapse in time is when I find myself seconds away from saying the phrase “when I was a kid . . . “ When I was a kid, my mom would talk to her family on a white rotary phone with a 15-foot spiral cord snaking around the kitchen. When I was in 6th grade, the first Macintosh SE computers were added to our library and students would fight for opportunities to play Oregon Trail during rainy day recesses. When I got my driver’s license, my parents bought a massive black bag phone with a space-aged magnetic antenna for the roof of the car and forbid me to use it unless I found myself in a dire emergency. When I started college, I acquired my first email account and chatted in live time through the computer with high school friends in other states. When I was in graduate school, our professor introduced us to a website called Google and recommended it as our primary search engine. When I was a first-year teacher, a student asked me how far the Earth is from the sun in miles, and before I could walk to the textbook across the room, another student sporting a sleek handheld contraption spouted 92,955,807 miles. When I was a kid, cartoons were only on Saturdays, phone calls were charged by the minute, clothes were bought at the local department store and books were read from the paper page.

This is not to say that the 1980’s and 1990’s were better times. My parents still did not understand my life, bathroom stalls still had nasty messages scratched into the paint, and teachers still confiscated passed notes. It was not better; it was different.

Every generation experiences changes and developments throughout their lifetime. For me, born straddling the Gen X and Millennial boundary, I find myself enticed and intrigued by the power of digital communications and interactions, but comforted by face to face connections and the permanence of paper trails. I worry that students are too consumed by their electronic devices and miss out on real-time interactions with people around them, but I am leery about blanket policies that outlaw all personal device use and disregard the potential these technologies offer. I value the social networks with former classmates and colleagues that I effortlessly maintain through Facebook, but am unable to comprehend why I would want to send a temporary selfie out into the ether through Snapchat.

Repeatedly, my district’s leadership – including the technology administrators and union reps – reminds our faculty of the risks in connecting with our students through social media and we are forbidden from friending current students. My Gen X-ness understands the concerns surrounding these exchanges and feels the panic of witnessing inappropriate interactions or being drawn into drama that I am not prepared to address. My millennial tendencies, however, value meeting students where they are and modeling appropriate use of social media. Digital friends should not replace analog relationships; however, social media has the capacity to build and maintain connections that were historically impossible.  

Marian’s story clearly illustrates this point. I first got to know Marian virtually in February 2016 when she was accepted as part of the American JSEP team and added to our cohort’s Facebook page.  I physically met Marian in June of that same year in a small village of Greenland when JSEP (Joint Science Education Project, an NSF funded summer program which brings students from the US, Greenland, and Denmark together for a 3-week summer polar science field experience) officially began. The JSEP educators work very hard to build connections between all of our students from these varying religions, cultures, and personal experiences. Facebook groups, name games, dance videos, and strategic groupings are some of our strategies used to achieve this key objective. The JSEP model depends on developing strong relationships that blur traditional boundaries between students and teachers. All of us use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram as ways to jumpstart bilingual conversations, to build our international networks, and to promote public awareness of polar sciences. All of which Marian became a part of that spring in 2016.

Erica fb11

Marian and her team members collecting data on tundra erosion.

 

Erica fb10

Marian is the top of the E.

Marian is a sweet, boisterous, thoughtful, eloquent young lady born and raised in rural Alabama. She was one of the smallest 2016 participants but was strong, determined, and unflappable hiking across tundra and camping on the Greenland ice sheet. She insisted on making a true southern breakfast on the Fourth of July for all of our JSEP friends, getting up hours before the wake-up call to fry up pounds of bacon and flip over 100 blueberry pancakes. She spoke on behalf of the American team during the end of the program celebration and shared her heartfelt reflections on how JSEP changed her life, opening doors not usually available in the deep South. On November 8, 2016, Marian was an independent leader, finishing her last year of high school, and a month away from her 18th birthday.

Erica fb2

On November 8, 2016, I cast my vote for Hillary Clinton and spent the rest of that day obsessing over the constant, instant, and mixed commentary streaming through my various ethereal digital threads. My personalized, tailored, and primarily liberal-minded network of friends on Facebook mirrored my own emotional journey over that 48-hour window. What started as a disciplined feminist celebration quickly decayed into a sense of disbelief, shock, and grief. In the weeks and months that followed, I posted articles, signed petitions, and joined marches. I cried, I vented, and I tried to make sense of the events that unfolded by sharing these frustrations on my Facebook feed with anyone interested enough to follow my posts.

ERica fb9

A group of my friends at the Women’s March in Washington DC.

You never really know who you impact with a post; the tallied number of thumbs up is just part of the story. You never really know how you have influenced your students; the grades they achieve are just one indicator. On January 29, 2017, Marian reached out to her JSEP network with a post of her own and validated that she had been listening and that our social network, as fluid and as fleeting as it might seem, grounded her and provided her with at some strength and hope. Marian wrote . . .

erica fb1

Social media is powerful. Social media continues to rapidly evolve and is undeniably a permanent part of our human experience. It is capable of swaying voters’ perceptions of candidates. It repeatedly makes regular people into temporary stars through viral videos. It spreads cat memes faster than the flu. It informs the public about events with impressive swiftness. It unapologetically destroys lives and reputations with every uninformed share. It builds communities that are not limited to geography. And it helps a compassionate young woman worried about the rights of refugees, feel a little bit less lost and isolated when her ideals do not align with her physical community. Stringent umbrella policies developed by school districts to limit employees interactions in using these platforms, handicap educators’ ability to build relationships with people born after 1979 and to model appropriate digital citizenship. While awareness of the drawbacks and benefits of these digital tools is essential, they are just that, one more method that educators can use to foster interesting, versatile, intergenerational, long lasting, and meaningful relationships.

In 20 years, my Gen Z students will inevitably find themselves saying, “When I was a kid . . . “ I hope that their endings to this timeless phrase will be . . . “When I was a young, I was able to reach out to teachers, coaches, and mentors even after the particular school year, season, or program ended. When I was in school, there was a shift in educational paradigms that was not driven by technology, but was enhanced and supported by these digital networks. When I was a teenager, the globalizing world meant relationships spanned the planet and occurred in real-time. When I was a kid, things were not perfect, but it was an exciting and innovative period to be a kid.”   

 

EricaErica Wallstrom teaches Earth Science at Rutland High School during the school year and travels with students to Greenland during the summer months. Wallstrom’s teaching reflects her belief that all people are capable of learning, want to succeed, and need to belong. Her goal as an educator is to foster experiences that inspire all learners while providing opportunities for incremental, personalized growth in an inclusive, welcoming, safe environment.  

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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*

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

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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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