Regenerating Empathy

The lockdown was more challenging than I had imagined.  We all go through drills each month in public schools, practicing one scenario after another.  At SBHS we used to chuckle over the “go buckets” we were supposed to remember to bring outside during a fire (or whatever) drill.  Thengo bucket it actually happened; not a drill but a real lockdown with threats of shooting.   Naturally after some time, some of us needed to ‘go to the bathroom’. Thankfully we had those silly “go buckets” available, which allowed us to drape plastic sheeting around a plastic bucket so people in need could relieve themselves in some privacy. Not much, though.  Imagine being an adolescent having to  relieve oneself in the same room as your peers. Life altering, I suspect.  Just this week a different 18 year old from SB was arrested for spray painting the horrible racist graffiti on our track. As you all know now, we weren’t in real danger, despite the threatening nature of the messages targeting specific teachers and students. Yet the underlying tensions in the community included bigotry, racism and xenophobia.  To be sure, not all who supported keeping the Rebel name harbored such negativity (history is much more complicated than that). However, a shocking lack of empathy emerged.

What lessons can we learn from South Burlington’s experience?  It is complicated.

SB Wolves

New Mascot for SBHS

 Changing a mascot naturally brings strife, and a need to revisit history.  As our community began to recognize that the name “Rebel” was no longer a unifying term, we had to explore what underlay the tension.  News reports indicate that the name developed as a humorous response to breaking away from Burlington when the new South Burlington school was created but evolved over time to become offensive to many. We know that schools need to create a culture of belonging in order for students to succeed.  But how? We can begin by listening to many voices, sometimes coming from surprising places like a novel, sometimes from reliable sources like the Rowland Conference.


Well intentioned friends wondered why I was so affected by the lockdown and the budget defeats, saying, “But, this is Vermont!!”  Exactly.  We feel so safe, so open-minded, so accepting.  Coincidentally, my book group was reading Stranger in the Kingdom by Howard Frank Mosher in April, when the ugliness hit its stride.   This novel, set in the Northeast Kingdom in 1952 is a powerful reminder of hidden intolerance, alive and (un)well in Vermont for decades. Whether we are talking about race, class or gender inequality, schools across the state need to develop ideas to include all learners in our systems.


Reading a recent article in the St. Lawrence University alumnae magazine by Kimberly Flint-Hamilton called “Archaeology and Inclusion” my thinking was prodded.  “It can be very hard to find what you’re not looking for, even if it happens to be right in front of you.”  I am also a trained archaeologist, so the title caught my attention. In an excavation, you tend to find what you are looking for.  The ceramic specialist finds what she is looking for, as does the botanist, the specialist in bones, wood, architecture, and so on. Each of us can observe the same data and come up with different interpretations. To get to the full picture we need to hear all voices, to learn from all perspectives.  The same is true in understanding the complexity of schools in Vermont. We need to challenge the default notions of schools as conserving institutions, often unquestioningly protecting past inequities.

RuhaOne voice we need to hear is Ruha Benjamin at the Rowland Conference on Oct. 26th at UVM. I heard her speak at ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) to a crowd of thousands last year and before I left the auditorium sent a message to Chuck Scranton, Executive Director of the Rowland Foundation, telling him we need to hear her in VT.  Here is a short video with a highlight of her talk  and here is a link to not only the full talk but other media as well. Her topic this year is “Schools as Laboratories for Social Change: Regenerating Empathy at the Heart of Education,” places where we can incubate a better world in the minds and hearts of our students. Last year she said, “Teachers, if actually unified and empowered, can change the direction of history…Educators are cultural workers: either reproducing the world as it is or empowering students to create the world as it can and should be.” If you haven’t already signed up for the conference, gather together a diverse team of eight people who can spend a whole day considering, from diverse perspectives,  how to change build a culture of inclusion in your school.  Conference materials will be mailed to schools in Vermont after Labor Day and registration will then be open at the Rowland Foundation site.


LaurenLauren Kelley Parren is the Technology Integration Coach at South Burlington High School.  She has been a licensed Vermont educator for 41 years, working toward interdisciplinary, proficiency based learning for all students.  A Rowland Fellow in 2012, she is now the Associate for Social Media for the Foundation.  This summer she is cultivating beauty through gardening.


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The Value of Connecting Students, Learning, and the Community

The Value of Connecting Students, Learning, and the Community

As a native Rutland, Vermont resident, I have always felt like I belonged in my city.  I also believed that I could give back to my community.  However, over time the city of Rutland has faced many challenges and it has become harder and harder for many young people to feel the same way.  In the same regard, I have spent 12 years in the classroom with limited opportunities for students in a real world, authentic work-based setting.  We have many isolated opportunities for students to get a taste of the future or visit businesses and industries to imagine what they may want to do with their lives.  One piece we, as a community, were not as strong in was the extended “internship” for students as a part of their high school schedules.

Rutland High School provides many amazing and in-depth learning experiences and opportunities for our students.  Many more than when I graduated from RHS in the year 2000.  Thanks in part to the generosity of Barry and Wendy Rowland and the Rowland Foundation, RHS has been able to develop many unique learning opportunities that have become a model for the state.  When I started at RHS two years ago, having moved from the middle school in our district where I taught for ten years, many of the programs were solidly in place.  We have an interdisciplinary freshman team structure, a day and a half conference for students called the Global Issues Conference that connects students to global issues, and two endorsement paths students can choose to add to their diplomas:  Global Studies and STEM.  Along with the endorsements is a Capstone program students take part in if they choose to seek an endorsement.  Each of these programs has been thoroughly developed by previous Rowland Fellows and have changed the structure and learning for students in a positive way.  RHS is also unique in that the vision for the building provides a diverse and cross spectrum education for all.  We also have a Year End Studies program which has been in place for many years and allows students to focus on areas of non-traditional learning and choice for students.  With all of these opportunities in place, the framework to build upon and to create more Work Based Learning to occur was clear.

We needed an authentic connection for students to careers and to the community.  Thus Spartansour proposal to create personalized, service, and work based learning opportunities for students was developed.  Our community has many needs and our students have many skills as global minded citizens with a teenage perspectives.  Thus we decided to add a service component to a more traditional action oriented internship.  Students must give back to the business giving so much to them.  The program my colleagues and I developed is called PLACE, Promoting Learning by Activating Community Engagement.  Through our Rowland Fellowship, we discovered the professional development we needed to make this program a reality was available to us in our state of Vermont as well as in getting to know the professionals in our community.

We began our journey with discovering what we wanted to do in order to make these connections strong.  We met with many professionals as well as various student groups.  We were then ready to pilot this learning opportunity with students.

The equity lens was always on for us.  We have a diverse socio-economic population in our school.  We wanted to make sure all students had equal access to be successful in a PLACEment.  This meant we needed to make sure structures were in place to make that viable.  We began by looking at individual students who either expressed interest, were recommended by a staff member, or had substantial “room” in their schedules.  These individuals were asked to meet with us to see if they had interest in this learning opportunity.  Many jumped at the idea and others felt they may not be the right type of student.  When we began interviewing the individuals, we were able to pique areas of interest for them and then we would connect their interests to career fields.  The next step, in most cases, was to reach out to community partners.  Many partners saw a greater potential value in taking on a high school intern than one may think.  They saw an opportunity to help the community, their profession, the skills in today’s future job candidates, and to change an individual’s life.

One value of this type of learning experience is the individual successes of the students involved.  When students are connected to their interests in a real world application they can make meaning in a personalized way.  We have seen students overcome difficulties such as anxiety, because they have had success in a career they plan to pursue.  We (the staff, the community, the mentors- all partners involved) gave the students the tools and the place to feel confident.

Another benefit is to the community mentors.   Watching these students grow, will bring more partners to the table.  This work is not just about kids, it’s about the community.

An important piece to remember is that it is about the value of the individual experience.  Some PLACEments or career paths that may not seem like they will be as impactful for a student as others might be.  These PLACEments can be amazing for that specific child, because they have meaning for the individuals involved.  We need people to serve in all roles in our community.  Let’s help connect students to their passions.

Let me share a few stories about how connecting students with service based community partners has helped to enhance learning for all involved parties.

PoliceA student in our PLACE program interned with our police department.  She believed she was interested in forensics.  We were lucky to place her with the forensic custodian.  She learned about handling evidence, daily work of various law enforcement positions, and data bases for storing information.  In return, she helped to develop a training program for officers to learn the new system.  This student presented to our school board and shared that she is not the typical kid who you would think to see in a leadership role like this one.  Because she was able to gain confidence, connect her learning, and see real world application, she was successful beyond what she could have ever imagined.  For her, this experience made her believe she has what it takes and that she will be pursuing the right field.

Another student interned with the state’s attorney’s office.  She spent significant time in court observing trials, learned necessary skills such as transcribing interviews and filing, and was able to meet and listen to all parties involved in a variety of cases.  Her learning was invaluable to her and to the staff in the office.  They shared the great benefits of having a different age perspective in the office and the potential to educate more young people so they do not become victims of crimes.

Others students spent time learning in various fields: daily work of a nurse- running Pediatricslabs, interacting with clients, researching and helping others;  running a sports arena- fixing and making it safe for spectators, helping to teach young children the art of various types of sports, connecting math with daily operation; or marketing events in the community at the Chamber of Commerce, connecting the community with resources available, as well as drawing future residence and employees into the community.

Work based learning applies concepts for students and gives them experiences they will never forget. The entire community thrives when these experiences occurs.   This type of learning opportunity is not just for a short time in school, it is for life!

BiancaBianca McKeen is a science teacher at Rutland High School.  She also serves as an adjunct professor for the College of St. Joseph in Rutland, VT.  Bianca is a proud mom or two and a wife.

Bianca, along with two colleagues received a 2016 Rowland Fellowship.  She was also the 2012 Vermont Academy of Science and Engineering Outstanding Science Teacher of the Year and a 2013 Darwin Day Scholar.


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Recruiting International Students: A Public School Sends its First Acceptance Letter

Today is a notable day in my Rowland Fellowship. I’ve spent the last year and a half forming and refining a plan for how Montpelier High School, a public school, could enroll tuition-paying international students. And today, I will be sending our first ever acceptance letter to an international student who wants to come to school here. What a delight! Let me explain a little bit about how we got here.

How did we find this student?anne2.png

There are thousands of recruiting agencies in the world. It’s just that most public schools don’t bother to recruit because they have a captive local audience. It’s very common for private schools to use a recruiting agency to find international students, but not so normal for public schools. Through my Rowland work, Montpelier High School is currently listed with four different recruiting agencies, and one of them connected us with this student.

How is this different from a regular exchange? 

cap-mpsLike many other public schools, we already have international students, like those who come through a Rotary exchange, but to be clear, those types of programs don’t allow students to choose their school abroad. Students only choose the country. Additionally, those students don’t pay tuition to the school, so many schools limit the number of non-paying international students, because effectively they are getting that education for free. The program I’m working on uses a different kind of visa, a kind where the students do pay tuition, and they do get to pick the school.

Why does this matter? 

mps downtown.PNGMontpelier High School has a limit of accepting only four international students through the regular non-paying exchange. This means it’s entirely possible that a student may never encounter one of these students in their classes. If we aim to help our local students be world-citizens, we should provide our students the opportunity to get to know people who come from different backgrounds from their own. It has recently become painfully apparent that valuing differences and diversity is critical for a functional society. I’m grateful that we’ll be able to provide our students with more opportunities to practice valuing diversity, particularly in our largely racially homogenous state.

montpelier-vermont-vintage-vintage-poster-designsMy Rowland Fellowship has been somewhat unique from the others in my cohort because I have a distinct measurement of success – whether we find students to participate or not. And today marks the day when I can say that it will be a success.

I say that it “will be” a success because the success is not just in sending an invoice for tuition, but rather, it will be a success when this student graduates from Montpelier High School, having made many friends and having found Montpelier to be the welcoming community we know it is.


Anne Watson, 2015 Cohort

Anne Watson, a 2015 Rowland Fellow, teaches physics, engineering, and math at Montpelier High School. She is also the International Coordinator for Montpelier High School.
You can read more about her Rowland work and her journey to recruit international students on her blog:  A Journey to Montpelier High School.



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What is Socratic Dialogue in the Classroom?

“Socratic dialogue” is a term that is usually associated with a pedagogy in which a teacher asks his/her students deeply probing questions about the material being considered in a classroom.   The teacher does not provide answers for students; he/she answers students’ questions with more questions, encouraging the   learners to delve deeply into the material and search for the answers themselves. This pedagogy can be used in any discipline with and with any age group. It stems from the work of Socrates, who believed that knowledge that “wisdom begins in wonder” and that “education is the kindling of a flame, not the lighting of a vessel.”  While this pedagogy is not a teacher directed approach per se, it remains a teacher facilitated approach to learning.

I have used the Socratic Method in my classroom for the past 30 years, and I have become convinced that we can need to create learning environments   which deepens student voice and encourage young people to be more active participants in their own learning. We must align classroom practice with recent  research in brain  science that indicates that students learn best if they are actively engaged with the material- i.e., “the one that does the  work, does the learning.“ As Justin Tarte has observed, “The most engaged classrooms aren’t where teachers are asking good questions, they are the classrooms where the kids are asking good questions.”

Learner voice gives learners a chance to share their opinions about something they believe in. There are so many aspects of “school” and “learning” where learners have not been given the opportunity to be active participants. Some learners, especially those that are concerned about extrinsic factors like grades, may not feel comfortable expressing their own opinions. Giving learners voice encourages them to participate in and eventually to own and drive their learning. This means a complete shift from the traditional approach of teaching compliance that develops a “learned helplessness” to encouraging voice where there is authenticity in the learning. (

As we work to transform schools, we must begin to shift classroom practice from methodologies that are teacher-directed to practices that are teacher-facilitated to instructional approaches where students drive the conversations in the classroom and ask the essential questions.  The “Harkness approach“ is the term given to an approach in which students work as a learning community wrestle with materials,  exercise their voices and collaborate to make meaning curriculum materials- whether that  be a  primary source text,   a science experiment or a math problem.    The role of the teacher is redefined to be that of a curriculum planner and in the classroom, a co-learner. The role of the student is equally redefined to be an active participant in class discussions and to engage with peers to create meaning from materials.

This pedagogy moves classroom instruction one step further towards student centered learning on Barbara Bray’s Continuum of Engagement:



Similarly, the Harkness approach also encourages student voice and shifts the focus of the classroom to more Learner Driven Instruction as outlined in Bray’s Continuum of Voice:



Socratic dialogue, specifically the Harkness approach, places students at the center of the educational process; it fundamentally shifts the dynamics of the teacher-student relationship and places ownership and initiative for learning on the student. “It reduces the impact of misconception, aids students in organizing knowledge, cultivates higher order thinking skills, and helps students to direct and monitor their own learning” (Lam, 2011).

School transformation must begin in the classroom, on a daily basis. We must undo what previous schooling has done to inhibit curiosity and the creative thinking of students. “If we want to engage students in thinking through our content we must stimulate their thinking with questions that lead them to further questions. We must resuscitate minds that are largely dead when we receive them. We must give our students what might be called “artificial cogitation” (the intellectual equivalent of artificial respiration)” (Paul, Martin, Adamson, 1989).  Shifting classroom practice is the way to begin.

Perhaps most importantly, this pedagogy promotes critical thinking skills, active listening and the ability to advocate for one’s own perspective while appreciating the interests of others. It encourages community and collaboration. It provides students with a model for civil discourse, which is noticeably absent in our world today. When our candidates for public office model shaming, blaming  and the inability to listen to one other, the  work in our classrooms is more important than ever if our democracy is to survive.



Kathy Cadwell, 2016 Cohort

At Harwood Union High School Kathy works with students, faculty and administration to integrate Socratic dialogue into the fabric of her school, beginning in the ninth grade Core, the Advisory program, and the Personal and Future Explorations class (PFE) where students conceptualize their Personalized Learning Plans.
To read more about Kathy’s work with Socratic dialog at Harwood UHS make sure to visit her site Socratic Dialogue in the Classroom.
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Innocence Lost

I apologize in advance for the political bias that will be evident in this post. I mean not to offend anyone or trespass on the soul searching that transpires in all of us when we cast our votes on Election Day. I have spent all of my life in schools either as a student, a teacher or a principal, and it is in that context that I share these thoughts.

Like many of my fellow Vermont educators, I have been struggling to find the right words to catalog my feelings since the recent election of Donald Trump.  Denial, shock, sadness, grief, disbelief, anger and disillusionment have all been prevalent over the past week. Acceptance will come. I am just not there yet.

I remember being a sophomore in high school sitting in another meaningless study hall one morning and asking permission to go to the bathroom. I grabbed my pass from the proctor and headed down the long hallway, passing a classroom where a group of teachers were huddled around a radio listening intently to a far off voice. Retracing my steps a few minutes later, I noticed that one of my teachers had his head down on a desk. He seemed to be crying, not something a 15 year old witnesses every day in school. I walked past the door and stopped for a moment, surrendering to my curiosity.  That far off voice on the radio seemed clearer now and what I heard next would be forever etched into my soul. The year was 1963.  John F. Kennedy had just been shot.

Uncertain of the meaning of what I had just heard, I walked back to study hall and up to the desk of the proctor and whispered what I had just heard.  An hour later school was closed and we were sent home early to the care, support and counsel of our parents. Later that day my tearful mother informed me that JFK had died.

A few days later we were back in school hurrying from math to science and to history classes as if nothing had happened. I have no memory of the tragedy ever being discussed, the one that days earlier had caused one of my teachers to weep openly. That’s just the way things were back then. Schools taught the prescribed curriculum.

And then came September 11, 2001. By this time I was a principal of a Vermont high school. What I difference 38 years had made! Attempts at normalcy soon gave way to gatherings in the library, the cafeteria and in countless classrooms, as teachers and students tried to make sense of what was unfolding on the TV screens which dotted the school. The universal shock and horror needed an outlet and we did our best to provide it.

I am not suggesting for a second that the election of Donald Trump compares to the assassination of a president or to the worst terrorist attack in our nation’s history, but for many of our students the emotions may be similar…shock, sadness and grief.  After all, a man who, in the eyes of many, openly espoused racist views, scorned women and offended nearly every group out there other than perhaps white males, has just been elected President of The United States. Our students have watched all this play out on TV and on social media.  In the last few days there have been demonstrations in some of our nation’s schools where students are shouting “White Power.” Is Trump responsible for those racist rants?  Of course not…such attitudes come from the home. Has Trump given license for such sentiments to be voiced publicly? You decide.

As educators we know what to do. We recognize the “teachable moments” and that the lesson plans for the day need not come from the school’s curriculum guide or a textbook, but from external events and the very emotions of our students. What better opportunity for lessons on civility and kindness, including the hope that our new president can heal our divided nation. Today it may be about an election…tomorrow it will be about something else. Good teaching always finds opportunities.

How differently might I look back on my high school years if my feelings about the assassination of JFK, the end of innocence for many my age, had been given a voice in our classrooms.

Chuck Scranton


chuckExecutive Director of The Rowland Foundation and former principal of Burr and Burton Academy.
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A Thousand Tiny Moments in a Thousand Tiny Communities: The Narrative on Rural Poverty

Often I am irked by books and scholarly articles on closing the achievement gap because they tend to focus on either the racial achievement gap, the achievement gap in major cities, or both. As a current Vermonter who lives in a town with a population under 1000 and who grew up in rural Maine, these articles and books tell an unrecognizable story. The narrative of white, rural poverty gets left out because it is more difficult to pigeon-hole. It can’t be blamed on Jim Crow laws, overcrowded cities, or immigration laws. When our society focuses so much on urban, minority poverty, there is the unspoken elephant in the room: If we can’t blame the poverty on institutionalized racism like high incarceration rates, police brutality, and housing discrimination, then these white people living in poverty don’t have a good reason to be poor. It is a slippery slope from there to believing that when white people live in poverty, it is their own fault.

rural-povertyWhen books are written about rural poverty, the focus tends to be on well-known communities with high poverty. However, Appalachia, the Ozarks, the Mississippi Delta, the Dakotas, the Rio Grande Valley, and the Cotton Belt do not describe Vermont, Maine or any other New England community. New England is usually shown as an example with little poverty and therefore does not get much attention. New England’s communities should not have to be grouped into the narrative of rural America elsewhere.

The contrast can be clearly seen in statistics. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, 34.7% of Vermonters volunteer, ranking them 6th among the 50 states and Washington, DC, while other states with significant white, rural poverty are considerably lower, such as West Virginia with 20.7%. The number of volunteer hours given per resident in Vermont is 32.9, while in other states with high rural poverty portray considerably less, such as Mississippi with 26.4 or Kentucky with 27.7. Please don’t assume that the reason for this is because white people are volunteering more hours. In Mississippi, for instance, the three-year pooled number of volunteer hours by whites is 48 and by blacks is 52, indicating that volunteering is not limited by race.


New Hampshire’s Fish and Game Volunteers

However, Vermont isn’t the only New England state with these statistics. 73.9% of Maine residents engage in “informal volunteering”, such as doing favors for neighbors, while the national average is 62.5%. An astounding 90.1% of Mainers frequently talk with neighbors. And finally, 97% of those living in Maine eat dinner with other members of the household, an indication of valuing community at the micro level. (All statistics in this paragraph from Corporation for National and Community Service.)

A new narrative about rural poverty needs to emerge. It is a narrative of community, of shared resources, and a value of the land. The rural communities I know recognize everyone’s last name and their history; they are proud of the land they live on because the land has belonged to their family for generations. There are family farms that are no longer economically viable, and have been divided into small trailer parks. However, the descendents of the original farmers living in these communities help each other out and often try to make the farm fit their needs. The older generations still volunteer at the local library, school, historical societies or churches. The community gathers around people in need. Meals are prepared for those with illness or family emergencies; friends watch each other’s children. This new narrative of community engagement needs to swell and take its place in our national poverty discussion.

The current narrative that focuses on urban poverty particularly frustrates since it doesn’t recognize the statistics of US poverty. As Tom Vilsack, the US Secretary of Agriculture, pointed out in 2011, “…Rural America is a unique and interesting place that I don’t think a lot of folks fully appreciate and understand. They don’t understand that while it represents 16 percent of America’s population, 44 percent of the military comes from rural America. It’s the source of our food, fiber and feed, and 88 percent of our renewable water resources. One of every 12 jobs in the American economy is connected in some way to what happens in rural America. It’s one of the few parts of our economy that still has a trade surplus. And sometimes people don’t realize that 90 percent of the persistent poverty counties are located in rural America.”


Maine during the ice storm of 1998

There is a level of trust within New England’s towns; people watch out for each other and this crosses economic lines. There is an investment in the communities by individuals because there is less transitory poverty; often those living in these areas have been there for generations. Finally, town participation is inclusive. Families of all economic backgrounds come out for spaghetti dinners and football games. The percentage of Vermonters, for instance who are active in their neighborhoods, is over double the national average. (Corporation for National and Community Service.) This is the New England narrative I witness on a daily basis – neighbors helping neighbors, and this engagement in the community builds both trust and awareness that cannot be built when community members don’t interact. When members of a society are willing to cross economic lines and see others as individuals instead of a stereotyped group, trust emerges.

rural poverty 3.jpgThe role of community can’t be underestimated when discussing rural poverty, since many of the federal programs are difficult to access from rural areas. For instance, Maine takes up almost half of New England, but is often overlooked because it only holds 9% of New England’s population. However, 43% of New England’s rural population live in Maine and the rural poverty rate is above 15%. (January 2014 Report Community Outlook Survey Report)  However, programs like SNAP and housing vouchers don’t have the same impact in these rural areas because of limited access. “Rural eastern and northern Maine traditionally have high unemployment and under-employment numbers. …The rural infrastructure and the limited and untrained workforce does not lend itself to economic growth.” (New England Community Outlook Survey respondent from Maine)


Vermonters during Tropical Storm Irene

However, in every dark cloud there is a silver lining. The lack of infrastructure forces communities to look inward; when they know help isn’t coming from outside, they stop expecting someone else to step in and work together for a solution. This is where New England’s reputation for hard work and determination emerges. It is what I experienced as a Vermonter during tropical storm Irene in 2011 and as a Mainer during the ice storm of 1998. When the government bureaucracy finally showed up, days after the storms had passed through, they found neighbors helping neighbors. Temporary bridges had been made, roads cleared, river walls built up, and families taking other families into their homes. The looting often found in urban areas after a natural disaster was non-existent. Moments like this bond communities together and have no economic division.


rural poverty 6.jpgThe narrative of white, rural poverty must change to one of inclusive community engagement that crosses economic lines. No longer can we sit by and allow the nation to believe that poverty belongs solely to cities or a single racial group. New England poverty includes all races, and together they form a community. The unspoken bias of silence about white poverty must be broken. In its place, a new narrative emerges – a narrative of communities working together to rise up. This is not one, powerful story, but a collection of small moments. It is the moment a stranger stops to help push a car out of a snow bank. It is the moment a timber frame barn is raised through the collective effort of a hundred hands. It is the moment a meal is delivered to a new mother, hot from the oven. It is a thousand tiny moments in a thousand, tiny communities.


Kendra LaRoche, 2011 Cohort

Visit Kendra LaRoche’s blog,, to leave your own tiny moment of community teamwork in rural New England.

Kendra LaRoche specializes as a school coach, working with districts and individual schools to identify a specific goal related to the achievement gap, and develop and implement an action plan, as well as evaluate the effectiveness of the plan.  Additionally, Kendra offers workshops to educators in the areas of growth mindset, relationship building, increasing rigor, differentiation, and widening worldviews.

Kendra is a Rowland Fellow of the 2011 cohort, and currently teaches at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, VT. She resides in Middletown Springs, Vermont with her two children.

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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



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