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 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

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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On Empathy

The ability to imagine the hardships of others, to emotionally embrace their circumstances and to respond  in a sensitive, thoughtful and caring manner is a uniquely human quality.  Neal deGrasse Tyson, the renowned astrophysicist, said it well . “Humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with the feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy.  Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, the focus was on reading, writing, arithmetic and empathy.”
     We all expect that our students will respond to others from different ethnic, racial, cultural or socio-economic backgrounds with a  degree of compassion and respect. We further expect that such lessons have been provided in our students’ homes.  This seems to be a conflict between hope and assumptions.
     Recently our hearts and minds have been focused on the people of Texas who are experiencing tragedy beyond anything we could imagine. We watch the evening news with a level of despair, helplessness and sympathy. But then we turn off the TV, grab dinner and go about our daily business. Next week it may be victims of a terrorist bombing or a California wildfire. Some of us donate goods, services and money. Others, particularly at holiday times, find other ways to respond to the less fortunate. This is, after all, what defines us as Americans. But true empathy is usually best exemplified at a far more personal level…the kid sitting next to you in class, the immigrant girl who hardly speaks a word of English, the shy nervous boy with a speech impediment.
     There is not a school I know which doesn’t have somewhere in its mission statement words or phrases such as integrity, respect, responsibility, service or embracing individual differences. There also isn’t a school I know which isn’t finding it harder to give meaning to its mission in light of what is unfolding in our world and in our own country.  We watch the President disparage ethnic groups, and we eavesdrop on his inauthentic attempts at empathy, usually scripted by others.   And perhaps at some level we wonder how to respond as teachers of our nation’s young.


      It is for these very reasons and for the core values that drew most of us to education in the first place that The Rowland Foundation has defined as its theme for its seventh annual conference at The University of Vermont, “Schools as Laboratories for Social Change: Regenerating Empathy at the Heart of Education.”  Our inspiring keynote speaker will be Princeton University’s Ruha Benjamin- author, lecturer and professor, specializing in the interdisciplinary study of race-ethnicity, health, knowledge and power.  We hope Vermont educators will join us on October 26 and be part of perhaps the most topical conference we have offered to date.
     For more information, workshop descriptions and registration information, please go to
“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource or automate, but it makes the world a better place.”  Daniel Pink
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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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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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