Back in the 90’s and early 2000’s, I worked as a teacher and staff development specialist in densely populated Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. It was challenging work but I loved my job and I worked with some great educators. With over 130,000 students, MCPS ranks as the 16th largest school district in the country. Prior to that time, I had been a Peace Corps volunteer for 2 ½ years in Honduras. Suburban D.C was culturally rich and diverse with a large population of Central American and east African immigrants and turned out to be the perfect post-Peace Corps landing point for me. They say the Peace Corps is “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” That was true for me but teaching in MCPS was the 2nd toughest job I’d ever love.
During my years in Maryland, educational technology was booming. Great emphasis was being placed on college and career readiness and the school district dedicated loads of resources to designing and constructing a data warehousing system. The application crunched achievement scores like SAT, PSAT, AP as well as course grades from math and language arts courses. The end result was a college and career readiness index; a magic number that supposedly indicated how prepared a student…or a group of students… or an entire school population was to move on to life beyond the district secondary schools.
I loved it. I drank up its colorful reports and graphs and dove right into my role as a staff development specialist. My job was to train school administrators to use the system and to develop strategies for school improvement based on the results. I was young(er), less experienced and eager to learn more and to help schools improve. At the time, I believed that this data warehouse and it’s algorithms and reports held the answer to school improvement. It seemed rational, clinical, black and white. But the more I explored the system and manipulated the tools, the more I realized that data systems like this don’t always provide answers. Sometimes they just generate more questions. And they lack heart and soul and a student face.
Fast forward to 2018 and after a few major life decisions and twists of fate, I find myself in my 15th year in beautiful Woodstock, Vermont. It’s a big pendulum swing, but a welcomed one filled with equally wonderful colleagues and opportunities. Our educational landscape is shifting to a personalized proficiency system and it’s challenged my thinking about pedagogy and has pushed me to become a better listener and as a result, a better educator and person. We strive to meet students where they’re at, working with them to identify not only their strengths but also areas of growth. There are “must haves” but we also allow space and time to personalize, to be creative, to be expressive and hopefully thrive. College and career readiness is still a priority but not in the deficit thinking way of the data warehouse but rather through building on strengths and interests.
As a result of the Rowland Fellowship that was granted us last year, and with great administrative support, Woodstock UHSMS launched The Center of Community Connections (The C3). Our goal is to provide students with a flexible learning environment and utilize our community as an extension of the classroom. It’s one-stop shopping for independent studies, internships, service learning and career exploration, We strive to complement the classroom learning by connecting people to people, school to community, interest to study and students to their educational journey.
I recently sat down with Tim, a 12th grader who has a deep interest in aeroponic agriculture. He’s about to enter his final semester of high school and has more than enough credits to graduate this spring. He could very well ease through his final months at Woodstock with just the essentials, but Tim has a curiosity and a desire to do more than just “cross the finish line.” He comes from a family of central Vermont farmers and he likes to build things with his hands. For this project he’s interested in designing and constructing an aeroponic garden in one of our three greenhouses. His goal is to grow leafy green plants like spinach, kale and arugula in a misty environment and to study this method for its potentially high yield. The system could ultimately contribute to our school cafeteria, he explains to me. One of the things that I find impressive is that Tim came to us with this idea. He had heard that there was a structure and a support system that could accept his proposal and help to create a plan with learning goals around his interest. Through the new C3, we now have a structure that invites Tim to open up to us, share his ideas and create his own learning goals and his own syllabus. That’s pretty terrific.
A popular book floating among Peace Corps volunteers in the early 90’s was E.F. Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.” Schumacher inspired such movements as “Buy Locally” and “Fair Trade”, while voicing strong opposition to “casino capitalism” and wasteful corporate behemoths. Small is Beautiful presented logical arguments for building our economies around the needs of individuals and the needs of communities. There are plenty of things that I miss about my years spent as an educator in Maryland. But I’m creating new memories and experiences in Vermont and teaching here makes me think fondly of Schumacher’s classic. I think he would have felt very much at home in the Green Mountain State and would be embracing the educational transformation that is slowly taking root here. His writing reminds me that we have a unique opportunity to create strong relationships with our students and to connect with our communities through personalization.
Luis Bango a 2017 Rowland Fellow. He’s a teacher, a tech integration specialist and a team member of the Center of Community Connections (The C3) at Woodstock Union High School and Middle School. He lives in Woodstock with his family and is super excited about making his first ever trip to Cuba this spring!