Equity Begins with Knowing the Heart

mark and johnny in treeSeveral years ago, as students rolled up their yoga mats and filed out the door at the end of the school day, a senior boy slowed as he passed by.

“Thank you for making me not hate Ben,” he said. And then he speeded up and continued on his way.

As the loudspeaker announcements competed with the growing buzz of students in the hallway, I rolled up my mat, stepped into the cacophony and wondered about David’s (not his real name) words. I knew what had happened for him had little to do with me, but it was clearly a significant moment for him.johnny gilmour in triangle pose

David’s emotional intelligence had shifted. And most importantly, he had recognized that shift.

As I listened to Dr. Ruha Benjamin’s 2017 Rowland Conference keynote advocating that empathy – a feeling  – undergird 21st century curriculum design as a method for achieving equity in our schools, that moment with David came to mind.

Because of scientific findings about the intelligence of the human heart, we now know that our hearts contain 40,000 neurons that can feel, perceive, and remember. The emotional signals communicated from heart to brain determine the hormones and chemicals the brain will release. Overwhelm and angst will trigger a release of cortisol, the stress hormone, while feelings of calm boost dopamine and serotonin in the brain, the “happy” chemicals that allow us to feel relaxed and content.  David no longer hated Ben. Through neural circuitry, he experienced and then processed a change in his feelings, which allowed him to articulate what he felt to me.

adrian handstand with treeCertainly David’s change of heart was the result of many learning experiences, inside and outside of school, but it appeared that the quiet of his daily yoga class gave him the time and space to stop and pull it all together.

Recent scientific findings have demonstrated that when the heart beats in an even, stable rhythm – in other words, when the body feels calm – that there are many benefits to the brain, among them increased mental acuity, wiser decision making, and expanded intuition.

And, a strong body of medical and scientific research has proven that the regular practice of yoga poses and mindfulness techniques soothes the nervous system and lowers the blood pressure, thus countering feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, and stress, that compounded, lead to negativity, often directed at the self and then at others.

Over a period of months, David had practiced yoga daily in school along with fifteen other students. Through challenging his body in the yoga poses, controlling his breathing, and quieting his mind, he had become attuned to his own thoughts and feelings. By coming to his yoga mat, by stopping and learning to read his body and mind, David had the opportunity to meet the heart intelligence he naturally possessed. Seeing goodness in himself allowed David to see it in another person, someone he had claimed to hate.mark and adrian in open ext. angle

 Many sound arguments exist for including yoga and mindfulness practices in public schools. However, Dr. Benjamin’s theory that cultivating empathy because it will lead to equity is, to me, the most convincing of them all. The idea that the heart and mind are in dialogue has been foundational in yoga teachings for thousands of years. That western science now corroborates this ancient understanding makes clear the truth of our collective wisdom about the body.

In this context, the yogic concept of Pratyahara, which means withdrawal of the senses, is an effective tool for developing self-knowledge. In the practice of Pratyahara, we step back and away from external stimuli by stopping to consciously deepen the breath, close the eyes, and scan the inner landscape of the body. From a practical standpoint in the physical practice of yoga, drawing the attention and focus inward is necessary for executing the yoga poses safely. And, as important, practicing Pratyahara even without the yoga poses – while sitting at a desk, for example – has practical implications for cultivating the self-knowledge that can lead to empathy.

johnny in warrior II The practice of Pratyahara affords us the opportunity to stop and see how we are feeling. With this practice, we can discover what may be disturbing us. Is it a discordant relationship? A longstanding worry?  An insult on social media? Not enough time for ourselves? Answering those questions leads to self-knowledge, and then we can problem solve. We can restore our full, natural capacity for empathy, and feel better ourselves, as we trim away what blocks our openness toward and tolerance for others.

To that end, if public school professionals create time and space in the day for quiet and contemplation – even a few minutes a day or ideally a few minutes several times a day  – we will make an important step toward growing the empathy that Dr. Benjamin argues is key to achieving equity. Including a credit-bearing yoga and mindfulness class in our daily offerings provides another way to work toward this goal.

There are successful techniques that both teachers and students can use together to promote optimal heart-brain communication.

Here is a short list:

adrian in tree pose

Stop before starting something new.

Breathe consciously.

Close the eyes.

Scan the body.

Stand or sit still. Feel the ground beneath your feet.

Draw weight to your feet.

Take a short walk outside.

Perform sun salutations or a few yoga poses.




johnny and mark in tree poseI know from my own teaching experience how difficult it is to stop in the midst of the flow of the school day. But when I do this for my students, and myself, we are all better for it – more focused, sensitive, and aware of ourselves as part of a group. 

 We need to remember that compassion is our natural state of being, and achieving the goal of equity, whether through personal interactions, curriculum design, or legislation, will come first through knowing the compassion in our own hearts. That knowledge will raise all of us up.




Anne blogAnne Bergeron, M.A., I.M.A., E-RYT

Anne Bergeron began teaching credit-bearing yoga classes to high school students in 2001 at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, and then had the good fortune to have a yoga “laboratory” at the Blue Mountain Union School in Wells River where she taught high school English and yoga for fourteen years. During that time, she developed curricula for credit bearing, multiple pathway, inquiry-based yoga classes taught through the lens of Eastern cultures to hundreds of Vermont high school students. Anne received a Rowland Foundation grant in 2011 to promote cultural diversity and wellness throughout the Blue Mountain Union curriculum. She has shared her love of yoga with people of all ages, including Dalit children in India and teens in Indonesia. Anne is currently the interim Writing Center Director at The Sharon Academy and a student of Ayurvedic Medicine.




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Perspectives on Curriculum Matter

One of the most profound moments in my teaching career has to have been January 22nd, 2018. We had in-service that day, and one of the opt-in workshops was led by members of the Racial Justice Alliance, a student club at Montpelier High School. You may have heard of them. They are the group that called for the Montpelier School Board to raise a Black Lives Matter flag at Montpelier High School. Their workshop was one of many options teachers could choose, and I knew I had to attend. I had to go because I knew that whatever happened there would be important. It would be real. And it blew away my expectations. It gave me a different perspective on my curriculum that I had not seriously dealt with.

During the workshop, members of the Racial Justice Alliance took turns sharing real experiences they had had in our classes, experiences that had left them feeling disenfranchised, unheard, unseen or unrepresented in our classrooms. In the experiences that were shared, both the student and the teacher were anonymous, to protect everyone involved, but it was nonetheless an incredibly humbling experience. As these students bravely shared experience of microaggressions, it gave us, the faculty, a new lens through which we could see ourselves, our classrooms, and the white supremacy that is woven into the very fabric of the society we have inherited. As a result of this workshop, I’ll be changing some aspects of my curriculum to better represent people of a variety of backgrounds, something I should have done long ago.

To zoom out from this issue, perhaps one of the bigger problems here is that as a system, I have almost no opportunity to benefit from the perspective of other adults on my curriculum. Like many teachers in Vermont, I’m the only person who teaches my subject at my school. So when I want to talk with other people about the best way to teach Newton’s 2nd Law, I have to reach outside the school. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the perspective and reflection provided through my evaluation with the Principal, but it’s not the same as diving deep into the pedagogy of a topic with a fellow practitioner. One practice that I think could be a game changer for providing different and healthy perspective into our curricula is Lesson Study.

Lesson Study is when multiple teachers get together to co-plan a class that they will all eventually teach. They videotape the classes where it’s taught, and then get together to analyse the video when it’s over. They refine the lesson accordingly, and then the process starts again. I had the chance to participate in a Lesson Study group when I was in my first four years of teaching, as arranged through the Knowles Teacher Initiative. It was a transformative process for me, and the truth is I miss it.

It’s worth noting that Lesson Study is a regular part of educator practice in some of the highest achieving educational systems in the world. Ana Partanen writes about it in her book The Nordic Theory of Everything, that it’s a practice of the Finnish teaching system. And The Teaching Gap by Stigler and Hiebert recognize Lesson Study as “the linchpin of the improvement process” for schools. What I experienced with the Knowles Teacher Initiative was a simplified version of Lesson Study.

In lesson study, groups of teachers meet regularly over long periods of time (ranging from several months to a year) to work on the design, implementation, testing, and improvement of one or several “research lessons”.

They describe the steps to a complete lesson study as

  1. Defining the Problem
  2. Planning the Lesson
  3. Teaching the Lesson
  4. Evaluating the Lesson and Reflecting on Its Effects
  5. Revising the Lesson
  6. Teaching the Revised Lesson
  7. Evaluating and Reflecting, Again
  8. Sharing the Results

For some schools “sharing the results” means having a “lesson fair” at the end of the school year, which invites teachers from surrounding schools to check out the refined lessons. “This is a festive occasion, and it is considered an important part of teachers’ professional development”.  What a delight. I would love to spend some time thinking about how we can bring the practice of Lesson Study to Vermont schools.

Even as an experienced teacher, I don’t feel done learning, I don’t feel done improving my curriculum. I know I have a lot to learn from the people around me. The more we can get out of our classrooms, see how other people are teaching, the better our own teaching will be. Teachers know how isolating our profession can be, which means we also know the value of a fresh or different perspective. I would love to see more educational systems that intentionally help us to share perspective on what happens inside our classrooms.

Anne Watson

Anne Watson teaches physics, engineering, and math at Montpelier High School. She is a 2015 Rowland Fellow, during which she arranged a tuition-paying international student program at her school. She is also a 2004 Knowles Teaching Senior Fellow. Anne coaches the boys ultimate team at Montpelier High School and she was recently elected mayor of Montpelier.





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Burlington City and Lake Semester

Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.

Gary Snyder

Several years ago I hired a carpenter friend of mine to help me build a deck. He designed and engineered it, ordered the materials, supervised the construction, and performed any and all tasks that required actual carpentry skills. I held things, lugged lumber, poured the concrete footers, laid the decking, and did everything else that my friend felt comfortable being done by someone who didn’t really know what he was doing. Occasionally, while working together, my carpenter friend would stop, take a few measurements, and jot down an equation or two on a piece of scrap lumber before shouting some measurements my way. I would then dutifully cut this or that piece of wood down to size. The equations he was using weren’t all that sophisticated, and at one point, in a long ago high school math class, I’m sure that I learned them, used them, and forgot them, only to relearn them a decade later for the GREs and forget them once again.

Too often in school, I’ve come to realize, we ignore the deck. We ask students to learn new information and new skills without the necessary schema to bring that learning to life. And we wonder why some students lack motivation and fail to retain information we go over again and again in class. Adults see the world through a unique combination of future thinking and hindsight. With a literal lifetime of experience and a fully developed prefrontal cortex to see the forest for the trees, most adults are able to understand the consequences of bad decisions and see the potential benefits of well-informed ones. Adolescents on the other hand are fully immersed in a state of becoming. Hyperfocused on the now, it is a rare teenage who sees the value of calculus for their future engineering career, at least partly because most teenagers don’t even know what an engineer really is or does. They don’t know that at some point they might want to build a deck.

In this way traditional schooling is somewhat backwards. The primary question we should be wrestling with in approaching any topic isn’t “how best to teach this?” but “why should I learn this?” We should be building the deck so that students see what tools they need in real time. Hands on, real world learning facilitates the acquisition of both skills and knowledge in a way that going through the motions, operating on the blind faith that someday this will all become relevant will not for many of our students. This is not to say that what we teach is irrelevant. Far from it. I believe fully in a liberal arts education that spans a breadth of subjects, is inclusive of many disciplines, and prepares students for whatever challenges they choose to take on after graduation. Schools should feed curiosity, and a healthy curiosity should have the benefit of as much exposure to as many ideas and fields as possible. Otherwise, how can we make informed choices, and what choice is more important than figuring out what we want to do with our lives?   

But we can’t and shouldn’t expect our students to know what they want to do with their lives by 18. Some students, however, leave high school with a much better understanding than others of their potential and possibilities. Why is that? The most successful high school students are often those whose support networks have contextualized their education in one way or another. Most commonly this looks like “high school is a means to an end and if you do well here you’ll go on to college where your real education will begin.” For a few lucky students this might take the form of an early, authentic pursuit of a particular field coupled with an understanding adult’s guidance and support, however this scenario is much more rare than I think those of us in education like to think – especially in this day and age when the traditional white collar – and privileged – career paths of doctor, banker, and lawyer are no longer the safe bets they once were.

Peter Burlington

photo courtesy of Sean Beckett and the UVM PLACE Program

Enter the Burlington City and Lake Semester. Next year, Burlington High School is launching an interdisciplinary, immersive semester program for BHS students where the city of Burlington will serve as both classroom and curriculum. Focusing on five key themes – sense of place, community and identity, civic engagement, social justice, and sustainability – and working with a number of community partners, BCL aims to both inform and empower students, engaging them through real-world learning as we work towards a healthier community. In bringing students out of the classroom and into the city, we will work on issues facing the city, in real time, collaborating with local professionals on authentic solutions.

Peter iconWhile our curriculum will be emergent and responsive to the needs and opportunities presented by the city at any given time, some projects we envision include creating a short, ethnographic documentary about Burlington’s ever changing demographics and cultural wealth; studying the health of Lake Champlain with local scientists, making policy recommendations to our local and state governments; and collaborating with a local artist to explore the role of public art in our community, culminating in a show of original artwork. We aim to not be bound by discipline, but to be inspired by the needs of our community.

Peter waterfront

photo courtesy of Sean Beckett and the UVM PLACE Program

When students return to Burlington High School after their City and Lake Semester experience, we believe that they will return with a renewed sense of purpose and a greater understanding of how the courses at the high school can help them achieve their newly aspirational and expansive goals. They’ll come back ready to build their deck, contextualize their learning, and  find purpose in their work.


 pmcconville Peter McConville is a 2011 Rowland Fellow, teaching at Burlington High School

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Lessons from a Lacrosse Team

For nearly as many years that I taught Social Studies at Rutland High School, I also coached the girls’ lacrosse team.  The teams over these six years had girls from all of the sending towns to Rutland High School, from all socio-economic strata, and from many different family constellations.  Each year, the players came together to form a cohesive group that was working towards a common goal – of collective greatness.

We worked together towards this common, intangible goal by talking about the concrete – of “winning the ‘ship” and becoming state champions.  Greatness was the ‘ship of course, but it was also the moment when the ball flowed from one girl to the next without a drop or the moment the double team closed with precision. This goal bound us together.

Coaching a sport has a particular grind to it.  In lacrosse, I find this most early on in the season. The team is still coming together, not everyone is on the same page, and the weather is invariably awful. And yet, we always come through this hardest part of the season and are better for it.  The best parts of coaching girls’ lacrosse come after the grind but are the result of it.

Rutland lax

I have coached many teams in a number of sports. Yet, the RHS girls’ lacrosse team stands out among them.  This is not because of the state championship, but because of the girls themselves.  Some were lacrosse players from an early age; some were just learning in high school. Some were natural athletes; some were not.  They all made it through the grind of the early season as well as their own nadir in the season because of the team.

The team provided the girls a chance to be their best selves.  

A captain, L, was a force on the field and a natural playmaker… until she tore her knee and quad so badly she needed surgery. This did not stop her, as she continued to lead the team from the bench, never missing a game nor remaining quiet despite the injury. She became more important to the team off the field than on it, a 13th player, cheering and inspiring the whole bench to join in with her.

A new goalie, J sorted her way through the early part of the season by sheer guts and her laid back attitude.  At a game playing Burr and Burton, she came off during a time out and said “I’m just not feeling it tonight.” We promptly sent her back out to sort through the game. That game allowed her the chance to choose in a very real way – was she going to play for the team or just play when she wanted to.  She chose the team, always ready for the next shot, and helping us laugh at that stressful moment later on.

As a quiet, Goth freshman, C was the last person to make the J.V. team. She did not have any friends on the team and had a shaky skill set.  Through dogged determination and practice over 4 years, she found her signature shot, found her voice, and found a team of girls who supported her. Her peers chose her to be a captain, recognizing her dedication to the team and its goal.

It is easy to remember many stories about each girl on the team and recall how their particular energy and skill fit together with others.  Surely, this happens on all teams to one extent or another.  However, I have coached other teams and other sports, but I still find this Rutland crew remarkable.

Perhaps most remarkable is who they have become and what they have been able to do.  Of all the girls on the varsity teams over six years, every single one has gone to college and all have completed or are about to finish college. Team alumna include the youngest alderwoman in Rutland’s history and the Rutland’s first alderwoman of color.  They are in far flung countries and nearby towns, and all are working to positively impact their community – most typically through their jobs but also through their volunteering.

I am so fortunate to still be in touch with so many of the girls – now women.  Every time I hear of some new exploit or milestone, I wonder what made these six years of teams so special.  The girls were not just from families who could afford for them to play a sport: some worked part-time jobs after practice.  They were not just girls in the “honors track” or strong students: some truly struggled in their classes.  They were not just from families who supported their playing: some didn’t have family members come to their senior game.

So, what was it?

Did these strong girls self-select into girls lacrosse? Possibly, but I don’t think self-selection can account for all of their success on and off the field.

More likely, I think, was that the team itself created the conditions that allowed all of the girls to thrive.  The team allowed them a place to try new things, to be daring, to fall short but still be loved and encouraged enough to try again. It allowed them to connect deeply with their peers around a shared goal and experience. It meant they needed to get through the grind and low points to reach the day they made the winning goal, intercepted a crazy pass, or stood on their head in goal.

It also gave them a few parent-like adults who were steady presences in their lives – making sure they were getting their homework done, going to bed on time, making safe choices, eating well, had friends, and understood what hard work physically, mentally, and emotionally felt like.

I think of this team and wonder how we can foster these conditions for all students in our schools today.  I wonder most of all for the students who are the most quiet, the most withdrawn, the most defiant, the most hard to reach. How can we, together, create new avenues that allow students to connect with peers and caring adults around a common, challenging, complex goal?

Searching for the many answers to this question keeps me awake at night… and it pushes me each day to create systems of support and avenues for enrichment for all students.


A 2012 Rowland fellow, Jen taught Social Studies for many years in Rutland High School and Hopkins School in CT.  She is now principal at Cornwall School, where she gets to read, garden, play, and work with students and teachers. She also can be found running, skiing, and walking around with her two girls, two dogs, and husband in Middlebury, VT.
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Nitty Gritty


Nitty Gritty

It’s in the nitty gritty. -Ruha Benjamin

spikebench-1Ruha Benjamin has changed the way I see the world. Her simple pictures of benches illustrating for whom the design our public spaces is intended to bring in and for whom the design is intended to exclude, coupled with her useful tools for analyzing our world, have forever altered my thinking. I think we all felt it; we seemed to be more focused, committed and a little electric after she spoke. Ruha Benjamin had the same effect on us that a rock star might, although instead of humming tunes for weeks to follow I have been trying to focus on the design of our world and the worlds I inhabit daily. I continue to ask myself of the orchards I help tend, “how are we [am I] facilitating or actively combatting this rotten [or thriving] orchard”? In this post I propose no answers (spoiler alert) but want to share the questions that Benjamin stirred in me, the ones that have taken center stage in my thinking after our October morning together at UVM.  I wanted to write about them to help myself, as she encouraged at the beginning of her talk, to “move beyond platitudes and patting ourselves on the back to figuring out how to take seriously this idea of working in a laboratory, the idea that we don’t have all the answers but that we have lots of questions and we are ready to get our hands dirty in trying to wrestle with them.” She asked us to embrace the messy and focus on what parts of ourselves we want to grow. I want to grow my ability to analyze the design of my classroom, my practice, our schools and to use the tools she laid out for us in her talk. I think revisiting the questions she left me with might be one way to begin.

What do we need to study about how we design our schools and educational initiatives?

 appleApples and orchards. So Vermont. So brilliant. Dr. Benjamin used the word design to direct our analyses beyond single events, actions and people and to the institutions, structures, traditions, practices, and policies that shape single events, actions, and people. In response to xenophobic and racist people, actions, and events she compels us to, yes, deal with the bad apples, to hold the bad apples accountable, but also to learn to “zoom out” and ask, “what’s going on here?”  She also compels us to study hard in order to that we learn to “pull apart the intentions from the effects of our work”. Good intentions or not, effects are what matter. Benjamin encourages us to use her S tool, social literacy, to examine “the broader patterns” and to ask, “what’s fueling this” and most importantly to ask ourselves, “how are we facilitating or actively combating this rotten orchard”?

How do we/how might we challenge the overserved?

I want to develop a clearer picture of what this looks like in Vermont, where we work with students who are both underserved and overserved. Benjamin points out that working with the overserved is “ground zero” for equity work. She energizes us, “Conversations about equity and justice and social change pertain mostly to those who are currently harmed by existing systems, when in fact, I see the ground zero for these kinds of conversations needing to take place amongst those who are purportedly benefiting from these systems…this is the precisely the context in which this has to happen”. Benjamin uses the word purportedly because, she explains, living in an unjust and inequitable system diminishes everyone’s humanity and capacity. Equity work is “not charity work students are doing for others, it is work they are doing for themselves”. This is where we need to teach world building, not just resume building. Not only does it diminish everyone’s humanity to live in an unjust and inequitable world, but it keeps people in boxes, boxes of privilege, she specified. Remember the unicorn my-dream-bikebike? She wants all of her students to ride unicorn bikes and so do we. How do we encourage the bravery, the courage, and the practice of riding the unicorn bikes in our classrooms? This will help us to cultivate people whose “hearts think”. People who reject Hitler Valentines and Nazi beer pong and who see a clock when it’s a clock. I couldn’t find Benjamin’s 1 in 2 Americans supporting IDs for Arab Americans but I did find that a 2016 Gallup Poll uncovered that 32% of Americans supported requiring Muslims, including American Muslims, to carry ID cards. (msnbc.com, June 2016). We have our work cut out for us. Many of you have been doing this already; I think we could share our work more widely and become braver together. #bravertogether?

For most of our schools in Vermont there are larger and smaller pockets of overserved. There are communities like Princeton, NJ, which Benjamin references several times throughout her talk and there are also communities unlike Princeton that struggle with poverty and whose students are not served by the design of schools or society. This is probably a sticking point for us because my fingers are getting slow on the keyboard and I am not always sure how to approach challenging the overserved; many school populations in Vermont are not monolithic. So the question is how to challenge everyone, including the overserved, including the underserved. This is not beyond our collective efforts, but learning from one another to imagine a clear picture of this and to enact it together will be important.  Maybe, with our recent focus on targets and scales, we could develop targets and scales together for challenging the overserved. Bill Rich uses a quote by Rick Stiggins when he teaches about designing standards-based learning. It says, “students can hit any target they can see that holds still for them”. Maybe we need to develop a target, common language, steps to help us get there, and avenues through which to widely communicate about how we are doing as teachers, as schools, and as a state in helping students practice in our laboratories, to build empathy, build worlds, and design for equity.

Target: I can challenge the overserved* (draft!)
4 3 2 1
We will imagine what beyond proficient looks like together. “If we can see it, if we can imagine it, we can build it.” “We are asking, if things are designed to enable our growth and help us, then how do we see beyond our rose tinted lenses? How do we see the fault lines, curves, the ways in which the spikes are coming up for those for whom the system is not designed?” I am developing opportunities for students to examine the power of words and what words can do. I am also working with my students to “broaden our language for things we do not yet have words for”. I am practicing “linguistic reflexivity”.    I am beginning to consider “who is harmed and who benefits from the current design of our schools and societies”

*Performance indicators also developed from Ruha Benjamin’s talk on 10/26/2017

What’s in the Nitty Gritty?

Benjamin ends her talk with a slide asking “Now What?!” She talks about imagining the world we want and reminds us that if we can see it then we can create it. What are we “looking up and stumbling forward” toward?  Benjamin emphasizes that change will come “not in the grand gestures” and not “in mission statements” but in incorporating her ideas in “the nitty gritty”.


What do our first steps in the nitty gritty look like? Carrie Felice, a 2013 Rowland Fellow and guidance counselor at our school, wondered aloud last week about who we spend our extra time with as teachers. Which students do we avail ourselves to during breaks, lunch, extracurricular time, and beyond? Who comes with us to conferences and on our field trips? The response is not to then exclude students who are currently benefiting, but to consider how changing the design of opportunity preparation and distribution might expand who is currently benefiting and reduce who is currently excluded. As we shift the design of our schools in response to Act 77 and proficiency-based learning we can continuously consider equity traps and compare and contrast what is happening with what our vision is and continue to ask if our outcomes are matching our intentions. Where are the gaps between outcomes and intentions and where are the two closely matched? Let’s continue to share and highlight the examples where the effects of the changes match the intentions of the changes.

Along with a systems focus I think the act of deliberate reflection on both the intricacies of design and the distribution of power in our own practices, which may seem like an underwhelming place to start, is a place where quick pivots can happen. I have been asking some of Dr. Benjamin’s questions in my classroom daily; who benefits from my class on a daily basis and who doesn’t benefit, or worse, who might be harmed? What do benefit and harm look like in a high school classroom? Who do I pursue to make sure they are learning and to whom do I send emails to with resources, opportunities, and feedback? Do I give all students enough feedback in ways that work well to improve their learning? What words do I write in the margins and what are the informal conversations I have with colleagues and students? Do I listen to all students to see where they are? Do I send all students the message that, yes, you can do it, I believe you are capable and I will not give up on you. From whom do I withhold empathy and for whom do I let it flow freely? I think if I begin/continue to explore my practice with Benjamin’s questions I will find traction; I will find ideas about next steps and growth. In addition, the answer also lies in finding a variety of ways to include students in this assessment of my, our, class.

Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams (2017) wrote in their book, Creating an Ecological Society: Toward a Revolutionary Transformation, “This is the crux of the issue: if we can’t even imagine a different way of interacting with one another, the economy, and the resources we use and depend upon, then the struggle for a just and ecologically sound world recedes into the realm of Utopian fantasy. And without a vision for a plausible, genuine alternative, people understandably set their sights on reforms that will never add up to the changes needed.”  Benjamin tells us the way forward is collective thinking toward a new vision. Let’s keep our vision and our energy from Benjamin’s visit from receding into Utopian fantasy.

Editor’s note: Please be sure to watch Dr. Benjamin’s presentation at the Rowland Conference here: Dr. Ruha Benjamin at Rowland Conference 2017

Guest blogger: Kate Toland teaches social studies at Peoples Academy High School and runs the afterschool program for students in grades 5-12. She loves learning with colleagues and students and is excited about all of the possibilities Act 77 and PBL bring to Vermont.




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Inspiring Empathy through Artmaking

Inspiring Empathy Through Artmaking / Abbie Bowker / Champlain Valley Union High School

“It is my duty to voice the sufferings of people, the sufferings that never end and are as big as mountains.” ― Käthe Kollwitz

Art and empathy.  There is rarely a better match. 

Zaza Quatt

Zaza Quatt

Since 2008, the Visual Arts Department at Champlain Valley High School has participated in the Memory Project, an art project that centers around the art of giving. 

Rosie Oates
Rosie Oates

As one of the Visual Arts teachers, I have consistently organized and worked alongside The Memory Project, a charitable national non-profit organization, who invites art teachers and their students to create portraits for youth around the world who have faced substantial challenges.  Some of these youth have been traumatized by neglect, abuse, the loss of parents, extreme poverty and/or violence in their communities.


Jam Guibardo

Jam Guibardo

jonathan walsh

Jonathan Walsh 

Students prep for the lesson by reflecting on a few questions in their sketchbook surrounding the upcoming project.  These prompts are designed to open the door for empathy and understanding.  I have found that we can paint the portrait without the conversation, but it then is just an exercise in technique.  By connecting to the subject and the “why” behind the work, students gain a deeper understanding about themselves and the world around them.

   These preparatory measures lay the foundation for students to begin to consider the person that they are painting, the connection between their art and their recipient.  One of the main tenets of Design Thinking is empathy, and when producing an artwork an understanding of audience linked to intent should influence an artistic decision making along the way.  Here the path was clear.  Students response for this project has always been incredible.  Since the 2008-09 school year our school has produced 462 portraits sent to children and teens all over the world: Ukraine, Peru, Afghanistan, Haiti, Ghana, Romania, Syria and Tanzania.  


bree process sketch

Bree process sketch

Every year coming into this project students recognize this opportunity to make a real difference. Of course it is not only a lesson in humanity, but also in art.  We spend countless hours pouring over the images of these subjects – staring into their eyes, noticing the curve

bree process paint sketch
Bree process paint sketch

of their lip, the fullness of a nose… we get to “know” these people in an intimate yet distant way.  We recognize them as a subject and have begun to empathize with their plight, we imagine their response when receiving the portrait and it makes us want to work harder to get it “just right.”  We learn about paint application techniques and do a number of studies from graphite drawings to hone proportion to watercolor exploration before launching into the final product.  All these portraits from all over the world had a connection to the artist, yet were still thousands of miles away in a life recognizably distant from our own.


Bree Kolibas

Bree Kolibas

Last year was a little different.  It was a year where amazing coincidence helped us recognize that the world is not so big, that people from all around the world weave the thread of one humanity.  In the fall, we received photos of Syrian youth who are living in refugee camps as a result of the humanitarian crisis there.  And there are many people living in such camps.  According to the information given by the Memory Project at the time of our assignment, “The Syrian people have suffered greatly during the past five years of their country’s civil war, which has led to the largest and most complex humanitarian crisis in the world.  A quarter million killed, 1.5 million injured, 4.5 million refugees, and many millions more displaced or isolated from help.”  As you likely know this number has continued to grow.  This work for us here in Vermont could not have been more timely as when we were finishing painting our portraits in January, a debate raged 54 short miles south of us in Rutland regarding a Refugee Resettlement plan for their small city.  It became a local battleground for a National debate.  It was quite ugly. Students were now considering not only these children thousands of miles away, but how others like them would be received in their own home state.

class syrian portraits

Class Syrian Portraits




After the unit was complete, one student reflected in her sketchbook:

“Art serves as a form of expression and communication for myself and within my community.  Art also is a way of showing creativity and stress release.  The memory project helped me put the refugee crisis in perspective.  Before working on the memory project I had learned a lot about the refugee crisis.  However, actually seeing a picture of a child refugee it really humanized the issue for me and gave me a different outlook.  After painting my refugee child I would put myself in their shoes and think of my life as a five year old.  This made me grateful for everything I have and made me further appreciate other cultures, values, and points of view because we are all coming from different backgrounds and situations, giving us all different outlooks.” Rosie Oates (CVU ‘17)

The spring semester we found ourselves matched with youth from Tanzania. The youth of Tanzania are in many different types of situations and face many challenges.  According to the information given to us from The Memory Project, more than one million children have lost either one or two parents to AIDS.  Many of these orphaned children have undergone neglect and discrimination.  The crisis is getting worse.  Substantial poverty, lack of reliable safe drinking water, and many other factors including an influx of Burundian refugees has made the World Health Organization declare conditions in Tanzania as being a severe humanitarian crisis.   Again, thousands of miles away and yet closer than you’d think.  One student in our class was a refugee from Tanzania which created wonderful opportunity for him to share about his culture and help our students to connect with their subjects.  

class Tanzania

Class Tanzania Project



With her permission, I have taken excerpts from one student’s sketchbook to chronicle the journey from start to delivery of the portraits.  

From the sketchbook of Bree Kolibas:

Prompt: Imagine that you have found yourself in a situation like the children we are making portraits for.  Now consider what it would be like to have very few photos or other keepsakes that reflect your personal identity.  What do you think the portrait you make will mean to the child or teenager who receives it?

“I believe that this work will mean a whole lot to these children since they don’t get a lot of gifts or things to help them remember their childhood.  This will be something that they can cherish forever and be able to look back and see how they looked when they were younger.  We sometimes take having photos for granted and we don’t realize that tons of people around the world never get/got to see what they look like when they were smaller.”

Prompt: altruism n. Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.

You are making something to give away to somebody that you will never meet. What does this mean to you? What does it mean in terms of this artwork?

“I never thought of this as being an art of selflessness, I just thought about it as giving a gift to someone that would really enjoy this.  Thinking of it as an unselfish act makes me think about how special and thoughtful this gift actually is for these children.  For this unit it means a lot, first off that we have to work our butts off to really make this look amazing and like these children because they will keep these forever.  This is definitely the toughest unit because it’s not just for a grade but for a child in need.”

Prompt: How will you strike a balance between wanting to give fully of yourself through your artwork, finishing on a deadline and making something that could quite possibly be the best thing you have ever made that you aren’t going to keep?  

“Even though we will not be keeping this artwork that we worked very hard on, just the thought of knowing that we will make tons of children happy is the gift that we receive back.  The balance between it is just not looking to get any physical thing back from this but more emotionally.  As for doing my best work and meeting the deadline, I believe I can do this because this project is very important and needs to be done perfectly and timely.”


For the children and youth receiving the portraits, it is something special beyond words.  For my students it was an equally important gift.  The Memory Project delivers these portraits and makes a video to share with our class, so that our students can see the joy it brings to their recipients. Sometimes, these deliveries happen over the summer and I no longer see my students to share this with them in person.  It was so with our Tanzanian portraits.  I sent along an email with a link so that my past year’s class could see the delivery.  I had a couple of email responses in return:

From Lauren Johnson:

“I just wanted to let you know that I watched the memory project video and it was absolutely amazing to see the reactions of the kids. I really hope you continue to do this projects with many classes in the future because I think it is so unique and it’s a beautiful experience and a great way to find meaning in ones own artwork.”  (CVU Class of ‘17)

From Bree Kolibas:

Being able to watch these kids reactions to getting their portraits is so heart warming. These kids don’t have a lot but all I saw in the video was so much happiness and laughter from everyone. This shows that no matter how much you have you can still live a happy life. This small act of selflessness and kindness that we perceive it to be meant the world to them and it really showed. Seeing just how happy these kids got over getting these portraits can really make you think about your life and how small acts of kindness can really make a difference in anyone’s life. This experience was truly very meaningful and a really awesome way to share some love from so far away. This project is something that I would love to continue to do in my life, I think that everyone should be able to experience something like this. (CVU Class of ‘19)

Although our work does not give voice to suffering, as Kathe Kollwitz so beautifully did, it gives voice to hope.  It gives voice to celebration of those who deserve to be celebrated.  It creates a bridge between cultures and it brings awareness to our own thread and how we weave together the fabric of humanity.
Resources and other reading:

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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Books Are Weapons in the War of Ideas

Books Are Weapons in the War of Ideas

A version of this piece originally appeared at VTDigger.org on 8/17/17

books fire

BOOKS ARE WEAPONS IN THE WAR OF IDEAS is an oft-used paraphrase of Franklin D. Roosevelt speeches and FDR-commissioned posters during WWII.

And make no mistake about it, we are fully entrenched in the latest battle of the war of ideas that has been raging in this country since before its founding. “Others” are still misunderstood, hated, discriminated against, persecuted, and killed all over the US. And as an educator living and working in the quiet towns of Moretown and Hinesburg, respectively, I often feel like I don’t have much to offer this fight.


But, luckily, I have books.

book shelfSocioeconomic status aside, Vermont is a terribly homogeneous state. If, like me, you don’t live, work, or attend school in Burlington or Winooski, weeks can pass around here that include a mere handful of interactions with non-white people. The best way I know to even remotely attempt to understand the experiences of the amazing array of people who exist in this world is to become them in the books I read.

Recent research studies at Stanford University and Emory University show that stories books blogpositively affect the way the brain learns and processes information. In short, if someone is simply told or exposed to a piece of information, a small section of the brain activates to process that input. In contrast, when information is acquired through story, the brain’s empathy centers light up, almost mimicking the brain activity of someone who’d actually experienced the same described event or emotion.

You can’t create experience out of nothing. You can’t gain empathy by sitting idly by. Knowledge doesn’t grow without the water and sunlight of new ideas.                          

I’m not trying to say that books are the same as having had the experience, but they allow us to get a little closer to an understanding. And that little bit can mean a lot.

Since I watched VICE News’s video report on the Charlottesville white-supremacist rally, I can’t book marchshake the image of a few, brave University of Virginia students who locked arms around a Thomas Jefferson statue to oppose the vitriolic racists. I thought back to The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and her protagonist, Starr, a black teenager trying to navigate the gross injustice of her southern city. When African-Americans in Charlottesville reminded us that this event is not much of an outlier; that this is what it’s like to be black and brown in our country, my mind flashed to scenes from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a searing version of “the talk” most men of color have with their sons. When I saw images of gay men chanting at the marchers who wanted to eradicate them from the country (if not the planet), I thought of the Greek chorus of AIDS victims who narrate Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, and I wondered about all of the twisted forces in history that made white and straight and male the default form of existence. When the Neo-Nazis in Virginia chanted “Jews will not replace us,” I wanted to re-read Zealot to better understand author Reza Aslan’s take on the historical Jesus and his roots as an ordinary Jew in ancient Palestine. The interviews with the advocates for a “white state” featured too many stereotypes and misconceptions to count, and it furthered my belief that March by John Lewis, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, and Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia should be required reading for every American teenager.And, when President Trump blamed “many sides,” I immediately compared it to “Rape” by Adrienne Rich from Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972:

And so, when the time comes, you have to turn to him,

the maniac’s sperm still greasing your thighs,

your mind whirling like crazy. You have to confess

to him, you are guilty of the crime

of having been forced.  

Part of our mission as educators is to help students make sense of the world. And while I’m not advocating for indoctrination, I am urging all of us not to remain completely neutral and objective in our teaching spaces. Being apolitical is a political act in itself, and we can’t afford to miss opportunities to engage with our students on these important and relevant issues.

When the war of ideas has “many sides,” books can be the weapons to help us pick the right one.


Further Reading and Booklists:

Social Justice Books: a Teaching For Change Project

My Daughter’s Summer Reading List is Old School, and Not in a Good Way” by David Valdes Greenwood

Activism Starts with You: Novels to Inspire Empathy” by Emma Carbone

Guide for Selecting Anti-Bias Children’s Books” by Louise Derman-Sparks

Where to Find Diverse Books” from WeNeedDiverseBooks.org

Missing From the Shelf: Book Challenges and Lack of Diversity in Children’s Literature” from Pen America

Study: Reading a Novel Changes Your Brain” by Julia Ryan

Peter Langella is a librarian at Champlain Valley Union High School, an English Instructor at Johnson State College, and a 2017 Rowland Fellow. He will lead a workshop called Read For Empathy at the 2017 Rowland Conference. He is currently reading Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays by Paul Kingsnorth



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