When School Choice Isn’t Really a Choice

When school choice isn’t really a choice…A version of this piece originally appeared at VTDigger.org on 07/02/18

Much has been written about public schools vs. private schools (and vouchers, choices, etc.) in Vermont lately, but nothing I’ve read has gotten to the true heart of the conversation:

School choice isn’t really school choice because not everyone can access that choice.

school choice

I’d like to tell you about Alex, who was a student of mine at Champlain Valley Union High School a few years ago.

Alex’s parents came to Vermont from another country, and Alex spent the first few years of his life speaking a language other than English in his home. Throughout elementary school, Alex worked with an English Language teacher and a Speech-Language Pathologist. By the time Alex reached high school, he was a fluent English speaker, but he still had reading and writing deficits. Alex then worked with a Reading Specialist, and he was placed in Humanities classes that contained embedded Special Educators and paraprofessionals. He worked hard, and by the end of 10th grade his skills were improving, and he was coming to school with added confidence.

Alex’s family didn’t have much money, so when he turned 16, Alex got a job restocking shelves at a big box store, and he worked after school and on weekends to earn money for his family, sometimes nearing 40 hours/week. Alex’s school work suffered during this time as the daily grind took hold of his life. He’d often beg his older sister to drive him to friends houses for a little respite, as most of his friends didn’t live on a public bus line, just like most Vermonters don’t. It was the bus to school, a full day of classes, the bus home, a walk to work, a walk home in the dark, sleep, repeat.

Upon the recommendation of his School Counselor and me, Alex freed up time in his schedule to do extra work with math, science, English, and art teachers (as well as tutors in our Learning Center), and he took advantage of his connection with me to learn how to better access the library. He put in the work necessary to finish his assignments and, yet again, improve his skills. He reached the end of that particular plateau, and, for the first time in his life, he could see the end of high school as a realistic possibility.

At CVU, we have a community-based capstone project called Graduation Challenge that all seniors must complete. Alex wanted to work with a forestry mapping service, but his work schedule was still intense, and he didn’t have transportation to complete the required hours with his mentor in the field. So, many of us pitched in with rides when we could. It took Alex much longer to complete his project than it takes most students, and there were a few bumps along the way, but he passed the experience with solid performances on the final two components: a research paper, and a presentation of learning in front of a panel of faculty and community experts.

Alex graduated from high school.

It was hard work all around, but it was our work. It is our work.

Alex got a chance at a better life, and it was partly because of us — his educators.

The ELL teacher and the SLP, the embedded Special Educators and Paras, the Reading Specialist, the tutors and librarians, all of us who drove him to his field work, and a conscientious and gracious group of teachers who helped him in many ways that I know of and countless ways that I don’t.

We serve ALL students.

Because many students, like Alex, don’t have the luxury of choices because of their lack of privilege.

Could Alex have commuted to another school? No. Could he have participated in afterschool activities? No. Could he have accessed almost anything “available” to him? No.

Alex was lucky to live in a district with great local schools. If he had been raised in a rural, choice district, he would have only been able to attend the school who decided to send a bus to his town, if not directly to his house.

I hear stories about students using their state vouchers to attend prestigious private schools in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and that’s great for them, but please remember that for every perceived success of “choice” there’s an Alex 

povertysitting at home because there are no choices. There is no access. The easiest option, the closest option, the least-expensive-to-the-family option: that is the only option.

Please don’t forget about Alex and students like him.

Please don’t let school choice become one more place where our society makes it clear that we care a great deal about the haves and not at all about the have nots.


Further Reading:

Slow Motion: Traveling by School Bus in Consolidated Districts in West Virginia” by Lorna Jimmerson for the Rural School and Community Trust

Private School and School Choice” resources from Stanford University’s McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society

Three Big Problems with School ‘Choice’ That Supporters Don’t Like to Talk About” by Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post



Peter Langella is a librarian at Champlain Valley Union High School, an English Instructor at Northern Vermont University, a library instructor at the University of Vermont, and a 2017 Rowland Fellow. He is currently reading Pride by Ibi Zoboi.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Fate of Proficiency-Based Learning in Vermont


The topic of proficiency-based learning continues to dominate conversations in schools across the state of Vermont.  We are rapidly approaching 2020, the first year that students must graduate high school based on proficiency, instead of merely from the accrual of Carnegie units.  This deadline has some school and district administrators a bit anxious and many others wondering how this whole proficiency thing is actually going to shake out. As a backdrop to the Vermont implementation context is the recent rollback of proficiency-based graduation requirements in Maine.  This has created a bit of a stir in Vermont.

MaineOver the summer, the Maine legislature and senate voted to rollback the original proficiency-based graduation requirement policy.  In 2012, Maine became one of the first states to adopt a policy that included proficiency requirements for high school graduation. Only four years in, there was major pushback from a variety of stakeholders about the proficiency graduation requirements set forth in the state policy.  Though Maine did not completely repeal the law, they did restructure it by removing the high school proficiency requirements for graduation. Instead of being a state mandate, individual high schools can now decide if they want to have a proficiency requirement or not. It is unknown how many schools in Maine will continue with requiring students to demonstrate proficiency in order to graduate high school.  The decision in Maine is having a bit of a ripple effect in Vermont.

Depending on your particular school district and community, the Vermont response to proficiency-based graduation requirements and proficiency-based learning has been mixed at best.  report cardThere is certainly push back from many different corners, including: parents, students, teachers, and community members, among others. It seems that every few weeks there is an op-ed in the Burlington Free Press, Rutland Herald or VTDigger about someone not happy about the shift towards a proficiency-based system of education.  Despite some pessimism, a vast majority of individuals understand the basic premise of proficiency and that certain “legacy” practices are flawed.Parents and educators recognize that though proficiency-based systems of education are different than what they are probably familiar with, the “traditional” system is not adequately serving many of our students.

If Vermont happens to roll back or repeal aspects of proficiency-based learning set forth in the Educational Quality Standards and Act 77, it doesn’t mean schools have to abandon their efforts.  Vermont educators have put incredible amounts of time and energy into shifting their practices, that it would be a major blow to abandon all efforts. In Vermont we haven’t fully implemented proficiency-based graduation requirements yet, so we don’t really know the impacts.  Too often it seems in the world of education, many reform initiatives are never seen to fruition and are ditched when any challenges or roadblocks are encountered. We need to see this effort through. Proficiency cannot become “that thing we used to do”. The work is too important and the stakes are too high to stop.  We know that many traditional education practices are faulty, so we cannot go back to what we were doing before. Change takes time and hopefully those in the legislature and elsewhere understand that we will not see immediate results, especially given that many schools have only just started implementation two years ago.   

Rowland work 2

Teachers from across the state learning about Proficiency Based Learning at a Rowland Conference.

We do not know what the future holds for proficiency-based graduation requirements and proficiency-based learning within Vermont.  Regardless of what happens at the policy level, we must always act with students’ best interest at heart. The reasoning behind implementing proficiency-based learning or PBGRs should never simply be: “We have to, it is the law”.  Though we might be bound to follow policy, moral imperative should always trump political cover. Personally, I want to do what is best for students.happy students A proficiency-based system provides a more equitable school experience and offers much better data on where students are at, allowing educators to provide better interventions.  I hope that Maine’s recent rollback doesn’t distract from the amazing work educators across Vermont are engaged in around proficiency-based learning. Implementing systems of proficiency-based learning is hard work but it is best for students. Therefore, regardless of whether we are “supposed to” or not, proficiency-based learning is the right thing to do.



Andrew Jones is the Director of Curriculum for Mill River Unified Union School District in North Clarendon, Vermont. He is a 2015 Rowland Fellow.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Entrepreneurial spirit in school: fostering a new mindset through meaningful project-based learning

I have to admit: so much of what I consider my best maneuvers in education have been largely due to simple serendipity.  Stumbling over opportunities by being in the right place at the right time led me to one of the most meaningful experiences of my year–a jump into entrepreneurship with a small and unsuspecting group of high school students.  

I am no business teacher, and I don’t know the first thing about running a business.  But I can recognize a great opportunity when I see one, and that’s what I saw last year when I listened to a panel of teachers speak about their experiences with Real World Scholars (RWS) at SXSWEdu.  Stories of first graders stocking their local food shelf for three months with funds they had earned selling sugar scrubs, stories of students who helped their peers manage stress by creating fidgets with 3D printers, and stories of the Chemistry class transformed into a soap company that started it all….these left me jumping out of my skin to bring home and offer our students the same opportunity.

Doing so was a classic cannonball experience.  I somehow convinced the business teacher (Bob) that this was an amazing idea and that he should let me co-teach with him.  We pitched it to the kids: this business class you signed up for? You’ll be running a real business. No lemonade stand simulations for you.  Honestly, they didn’t know what to make of it. We’re doing what? Starting a business? Like for real?

It felt a bit like skipping rocks as opposed to cannonballing at first–gentle splashes followed by leaps of faith.  Once we had successfully applied for and received approval from RWS, we held an initial meeting to brainstorm business ideas.  It felt disjointed. Students didn’t understand why we would be meeting when the class wasn’t running until the following spring.  Although we as teachers knew how much work was to be done, it was difficult to impress upon students that idea. It was our first lesson about the amount of time it takes to launch and realize meaningful project-based learning.  We had one semester in the spring and as I write this in June, it feels as though we are just getting started.



Sophie & Anika happy about a successful bath bomb recipe



By the time our class convened for the first time in late January, we had some initial ideas about potential businesses, but that is where the real work came in for me.  Bob had clear ideas about what needed to be taught in a business class (drawing on years of experience in the field and in the classroom). Shifting to a model of discovery as opposed to frontloading information was a struggle to balance.  We spent a lot of time creating a foundation of knowledge about good business practices–perhaps more than I would have liked and likely less than he would have liked–before we jumped into ordering supplies and actually starting businesses.  We had many conversations–often where I asked questions about what it might look like to give students the responsibilities we were planning ourselves–and gradually we shifted. With a healthy dose of humor and humility, we were able to navigate teaching together and shifting practices that were once teacher-centered to truly student-centered.



Bob guides Ben through the process of in-person marketing with a potential customer

Of the many highlights this class provided my days, one of the best happened in a simple yet momentous conversation.  Three companies–one making candles, one making bath products, and one making tee shirts–all at different stations worked busily through their tasks for the day.  

Bob looked at me and said, “I’m not sure what to do.”  

“Exactly!  It’s happening, right?!  They know what to do! And you get to circle around and check-in, see how you might support them (with that incredible business mind), ask questions, and encourage.”  

That cannonball was feeling like a true splash–exhilarating.


Caption: Mariah & Cora exhibit their candles to a potential customer

Even in a student-centered model, we seek balance.  Our students and class would not have been nearly as successful as they were without Bob’s incredible knowledge of the business world and his desire to share that with our students.  Although we are asking teachers to step back so that students may step up, they can’t step too far. Students still need us–just in a different capacity. Whereas our students may have learned the basics of business models by participating in a lemonade stand simulation, building their own businesses from the ground up offers the best teacher–real experience–and they had the best of both worlds in a knowledgeable mentor to guide them along in the process.  

Co-teaching has provided me with multiple opportunities to expand my thinking and improve my teaching practice, and I believe it’s an incredible tool we should use more often as we make the shift to student-centered models of learning.  Matching up cannonballers with teachers who are ready and willing to take the plunge might be a good first step. While the water may feel cold at first, it’s nothing if not invigorating!



Lori Lisai spent her 2015 Rowland year looking to recapture the adventure in learning through games and technology integration.  (If you haven’t already considered student-created games as authentic assessments, give it some thought!) Lisai is the Innovation Coordinator for the Lamoille Union campus where she tries to lead with an equal balance of empathy and enthusiasm.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Loss Beyond Words

rowlandsVermont has lost a visionary philanthropist. Teachers have lost a passionate advocate and schools a committed partner. And I have lost a dear friend.  I speak, of course, of Barry Rowland who passed away on June 25, 2018. I can’t imagine anyone living a fuller life!

 Back in 2008 when I approached Barry and Wendy Rowland to start a foundation that recognized teachers as the key agents for change in Vermont schools, Barry looked to Wendy and simply stated, “We need to do this.” Ten years later there are 69 Rowland Fellows in and around Vermont, 35 schools are the direct beneficiaries of the Rowland generosity and Barry’s legacy can be found in every successful project he helped launch.

Barry started The Rowland Foundation because he loved his adopted state, because he believed in the power of education and the teachers who step into our classrooms each morning,  and mostly because he cared so deeply about young people, particularly those facing socio-economic obstacles. I often saw a tear in Barry’s eyes as our Board of Trustees read over grant applications and eavesdropped on the climate for learning found in some schools and the hardships faced by too many of our students. His philanthropy and generosity came from somewhere deep in his heart. Nothing gave me more pleasure than observing Barry’s pride as Rowland Fellows shared their work at our annual dinner or as he read the many letters of gratitude that he and Wendy have deservedly received over the years. Barry, Wendy and I met often where Barry would inevitably ask how a certain Rowland Fellow was doing, even years after the Foundation had funded his or her initiative.  When The Rowland Foundation celebrated its tenth anniversary this past May, Barry’s health was failing, but there he was enjoying the company of our Fellows and sharing in the festivities. It was at this event that we announced that The Rowland Foundation had received the highest award offered by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, “The Distinguished Service Award for Service to Education.”  I am so grateful that Barry was able to learn about this honor for one small family foundation from one small state!

Barry insured that the work of the Rowland Foundation would continue long after his death through an endowment which generates an annual income that for years to come will support the dreams of Vermont teachers who wish to take a leadership role in improving the culture and climate of their schools. Barry Rowland was a true visionary.

A few days before Barry died, I visited him at his farm in South Londonderry. I spoke quietly to him as he drifted in and out of consciousness. I wasn’t even sure if he was aware of my presence.  But when I told him that my greatest professional honor was running a foundation that bears his name, Barry opened his eyes for a moment and squeezed my hand. I got up, hugged Wendy goodbye and drove home in tears.

I know that I speak for every Rowland Fellow and for the principals of every Vermont school which have benefited from Barry’s generosity in expressing my heartfelt sympathy to Wendy, her two daughters and her four grandchildren for their profound  loss.

Rest In peace, Barry Rowland, a giant of a man.

Chuck Scranton
Executive Director
The Rowland Foundation
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Finding the Right Balance Between Transferable Skills and Content Knowledge

A central component of Vermont’s proficiency-based graduation requirement set within the Educational Quality Standards (EQS) is that students must demonstrate proficiency in both content knowledge AND transferable skills.  Most schools in Vermont have embraced the inclusion of transferable skills, but how this shift is framed varies considerably from district to district. Some districts have struck a balance between content and skills, while others put content in the backseat.  The successful implementation of proficiency-based learning hinges on how districts approach the skill vs. content debate.

Over the last decade or so, there has been an increased focus on transferable skills, sometimes called 21st century skills.   This emphasis makes sense and plenty of research over the last few years has shown these skills are necessary for students to be successful in college, careers and as citizens.  Being able to problem solve, communicate, collaborate, and be self-directed are critically important, especially with the changing landscape of available jobs.

Requiring educators to teach AND assess transferable skills can be a heavy lift.  To incorporate more standards into an already full curriculum requires something to give.  Many teachers in Vermont are struggling to implement transferable skills in their classrooms.  There are numerous potential reasons for this struggle, one of which is that the subversion of content to transferable skills goes against teacher beliefs and values about what is important for students to learn.   If content takes a back seat, this can be alarming to some teachers who value the content that they have historically taught.

At the high school level, content is king.  Many high school teachers went into teaching for the love of their subject. Teachers have assessed transferable skills such as collaboration, communication, and others for some time.  However, the active teaching of these skills alongside ongoing feedback is not as common. Though there are ways to assess transferable skills through content, such as using the content as a “vehicle”, sensitivity to content should be considered.  Eclipsing content knowledge for the sake of transferable skills will not support the successful implementation of proficiency-based learning in Vermont schools.

I know my position may not be popular with some.  However, I’m certainly not the only one with this perspective.  The well known education researcher E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (2016) writes in his recent book Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories, that schools in the United States have gone down the path of “skill-centrism” which has led to the “dilution of the curriculum”.  Hirsch argues that though skills are important, they are useless without some level of content or “domain knowledge”. Going against what many believe, he states that “When looking anything up, there is simply no substitute for already possessing a lot of knowledge relative to the subject” (Hirsch, 2016, pp. 83).  Hirsch’s thesis centers on the importance of content knowledge to apply skills. At no point does he dismiss the need for skills, such as problem solving, but emphasizes that the current thinking that content knowledge is irrelevant is short sighted.

So, what is the takeaway?  Simply put, skills are important, but so is knowledge.  When framing the shift to proficiency-based learning, it is important to emphasize the importance of both content knowledge and skills.  Education leaders should be aware of the possible pitfalls of undermining the role of content. Like many things in life, balance is the key.  

AndrewAndrew Jones is the Director of Curriculum for Mill River Unified Union School District in North Clarendon, Vermont.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Why I Fell Out of Love with my Job – and How I Learned to Fall in Love Again

I have the best job in the world; I get paid to learn!  I have been teaching high school since 1981 and every day I learn something new about the subjects I teach–ancient history and philosophy- and my students teach me as well about who they are and how they learn. I have always been excited to get up and go to work every day, BUT- about 5 years ago I began to become extremely disillusioned with the profession that I love.

I began to notice that many high students seem to have lost their ability to be curious and to ask questions. They seemed to have a hard time doing the hard work of thinking and the even harder work of wrestling with confusion.   The most common question students were asking me on the first day of school was “Mrs. Cadwell, what do I have to do to get an A?”

Every time I heard this question my heart would sink. … But then I began to realize that these students were doing EXACTLY what they were trained to do- to focus on answers. I also began to realize that I was trained as well. I was a cog in a wheel in a system that put a premium on a product rather than on the process of inquiry.

It became very clear to me that I needed to radically change my teaching practice- not just for the sake of my students, but also for the health of our democracy.

Our educational system is still currently in the dark ages.

photo 1

Many of us are working to redesign teaching and learning at the state and at the district level with the introduction of proficiency-based education, and this is a step in the right direction.  Yet despite these initiatives, many high school students remain in classrooms where they still sit in rows and listen to the teacher who tells them what they need to know -and then they dutifully regurgitate this information back on tests. Learning is passive. Questioning is discouraged. Obedience is rewarded. This is what my classroom looked like for years.

I realized that I was helping those young people who knew how to play the game of school to excel, while equally talented students who did not know how to – or did want to- to play this game suffered. I became clear to me that Benjamin Franklin was right when he said, “Never let schooling get in the way of your education.”

I also needed to redesign my classroom because brains of teenagers in my classes may be developing in significantly different ways than the brains of students before the invention of electronic devices. photo 2The addiction that many teens have to their devices may be changing the way their brains are wired making them more distractible, less able to focus and less likely to complete tasks. New research on smart phone and screen use by teens suggests that these devices may promote antisocial behavior, prolong childhood, and increase political disconnectedness, loneliness and depression. Ask any high school teacher or any parent and they will tell you that the enemy of focused activity, critical thinking and engagement is the screen.

The root word of education,  “Educere” is from the Latin, meaning “ to draw out” or “to be present at the birth of.”  I began to think, What if I said to my students ”this is the most important device that you own and that we are going to turn on and use everyday? What if I grounded my teaching and learning in current research on how the brain learns?  What if I focused on questions rather than answers? Most important of all–what if I stepped back and encouraged my students to step up and engage in the messy work of learning?

Socrates believed that “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel”. I wanted my students to ignite the flame of their own learning and to find their voice so I decided to do some thing radical- I turned my classroom over to my students

This is what my classroom looks like now:photo 3In my classroom learning takes place around an oval table called a Harkness table.

In our Harkness discussions, the students drive the conversation. They read primary source materials and work together to ask and answer essential questions and solve difficult problems. They may not simply write down what I say–because I am not talking! photo 4 correctI am at the table and while I may speak from time to time, I do not direct the conversation or lead students to a conclusion that I want them to reach.  Instead, they must work together to understand difficult texts, to reach their own conclusions and to solve the problems I create for them. The pedagogy is grounded in equity- all voices are valued and encouraged. I often tell my students that “none of us is as smart as all of us.” While students are talking I track the dynamics of their discussion and give them feedback on their skills of civil discourse.

This Harkness method is grounded in four critical principles of brain research; 1) that “the one that does the work does the learning,” 2) new learning must be connected to a few big ideas, 3) new learning must be useful and 4) interference must be reduced.

photo 5

In my classroom there are no cell phones; this was a rule that the students in my classroom actually developed at the beginning of the year, although they are angry with me as I am still enforcing it.  Students are not looking at their screens or at me- they are each other, as everyone has to be engaged in the messiness of learning- and this is really transforming traditional teaching and learning on its head.

At the beginning I had to teach the skills of eye contact, appropriate body language and how to demonstrate tolerance and respect for others’ viewpoints.  The greatest challenge was teaching students how to ask questions.  When easy answers are readily available on a hand held touch screen, students seemed to have lost the ability to ask probing and provocative questions. This is difficult and challenging work, but we are making progress.

Now, the dynamics of the classroom are changing. Instead of looking at me and asking,  “Mrs. Cadwell, can you just tell me the answer?” I am overhearing comments such as these, when one student said “Sam, I respectfully disagree with you on this point“ or another student responded by saying, “Evan, do you have some text evidence to back up your points?” After one lively discussion a 15-year-old boy named Matthew ran up to me and exclaimed, “ You know Mrs. Cadwell, these Harkness discussions are fun- but this is much harder than a regular classroom. In this class you actually have to think!”

I am no longer discouraged and disillusioned with my job. I am re-energized- and I am having more fun than ever as I watch my students relearning how to be curious, how to engage in civil discourse and how to take charge of their own learning.

Transforming education is not just about what happens in the classroom; it is about the type of world that we want to create.  Democracy depends on dialogue- not on shaming, blaming, yelling or tweeting. I do not have to tell you that there are not enough role models in our public sphere today for how we want our young people to act. Democracy is grounded in inclusion and civil discourse- and this begin in the classroom.

Transforming teaching and learning doesn’t have to cost millions of dollars.  It can begin right now in the classroom if teachers were supported to have the courage to learn how to step back to allow students to step up and find and use their voices.


photo of KathyKathy Cadwell teaches Ancient History and Philosophy at Harwood. More information on this work can be found at https://katherinecadwell.com/ and a documentary filmed by the Vermont Folklife Center, entitled “Coming to the Table, Dialogue for School Transformation” can be  can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8OMzfJvHZ1s&t=1440s

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Year Off From Teaching

A few months ago, I did something crazy.  Even though it’s what I want, and even though I’ve had time to get used to it, I still find myself wondering, “What the hell am I doing?”

Or, “Who am I to try this?  I’m just a teacher.”

Let me explain.

In my world, I’m realizing, things don’t change much.  Public schools are remarkably consistent.  Sure, kids don’t pass notes anymore — they text.  Homework isn’t on the board — it’s online.  And nowadays we practice active shooter drills and even talk about arming teachers.  Imagine!

But look closely and you’ll find the core of American high school has stayed strikingly similar for 75 years.  Every morning since who-knows-when, a bell has rung and sleepy-eyed teenagers have wandered off to the same basic classes, on the same basic schedule, for the same 180 days, to earn the same As, Bs, or Cs.  It’s ritual: the droning teachers, the hand-raising, the homework, the lockers, even the detention.  High school is comfortably familiar, its traditions etched into our collective conscious.  It’s a rite of passage.

That doesn’t mean it makes sense.  It doesn’t.  For instance, if I were checking kids’ incisors or tonsils, I’d get to examine one kid at a time.  Instead I’m teaching them to read and to show empathy and to participate in a democracy.  I get them twenty-two at a time.

For American schools, this too is tradition:  We know what works. We just can’t afford it.

Or can we?

Two years ago, a creative principal decided to do something about his students’ writing.  So he lightened an English teacher’s class load from five to four — and made each class a bit bigger (but not too much) to compensate.  Understand, teaching five classes is just as much a fixed reality for American teachers as the 180-day calendar.  It’s tradition.

But not this time.  Now the principal told the teacher to use that extra time — that fifth teaching period — to conference individually with kids outside of class.  This, he thought, would improve their writing.

Improve they did.

The results were immediate.  One month in, the teacher was pinching himself.  Suddenly he could really dig into kids’ writing and show them what his red pen comments never could.  But it was more than that.  Suddenly he could know his students as individual learners, as individual human beings, more than he ever had before.  This, he told himself,is what I’ve been trying for my whole career.

That teacher was me.

That experience of being freed up to work one-on-one with kids on their writing — to diagnose the individual patient rather than the group — changed my outlook on what was possible in education.

We know what works.  This works.  Maybe this time we can afford it?


A year later — this winter — I received a Rowland Fellowship — a year-long, paid sabbatical awarded to Vermont teachers — with the purpose of investigating whether this new conferencing approach to teaching is a) as good as I think it is, and b) feasible for anyone else.  What does this mean?  For a whole year, I won’t teach.  I’ll visit other high schools and maybe even colleges to see if anyone else is doing this crazy conferencing idea.  I’ll read journal articles to try to figure out if any schools way, way back in time have tried this (hint: they have).  I’ll attend conferences.  I’ll interview kids and teachers to see what they think of the writing conference model.  I’ll research.  I’ll support my coworkers, who are brave enough to try out this new plan.  It’s the sort of chance you don’t often get in your professional life — the chance to step back from the day-to-day to really try to get it right.

And it’s not only generous of the Rowland family, but far-sighted.  In a time when we’re used to educational policy being driven by those farthest from the classroom — professors, politicians, even billionaires — the Rowland Foundation is built on the refreshing and frankly savvy idea that, given time and thought-space, it’s teachers themselves who have some of the worthiest ideas about improving education.

After all, schools are busy.  Teachers are busy.  We jam twelve months of work into a 10-month school year.  We rarely get to pause and reflect.  Too often, we flit from shiny new initiative to band aid reform, without giving anything a chance to work before we move on.  It doesn’t help that our policies are often subject to the whims of short-tenured administrators and to impatient legislators.

Paradoxically, it’s this constant blur of reforms that ensures none of it ever really sticks.  Add in a lack of money, the comfort of familiarity, and the sheer scope of the job of educating the masses, and all of it helps explain why today’s basic school structure looks remarkably similar that of 50 years ago.  There is an “immovable mountain” — as Rowland Executive Director Chuck Scranton calls it — in our way.  No change comes to schools without a lot of time, thought, and hard work.

And yet, change does happen.  The school where I work is remarkably forward-thinking and humane.  Even in my eight years as a teacher, I’ve seen a number of positive changes worked into the immovable system by diligent and committed educators.  I’ve seen it work — and I want to be a part of it.

As trite as it sounds, I took this fellowship because I wanted to make a difference.  And I’m incredibly excited to get to work.  But this does feel out of character for me.  I don’t usually think of myself as a leader.  The goal of the fellowship is not just classroom but school-wide reform.  The question is — can I “scale up” my idea to promote change beyond my own classroom or department.  That’s scary because that’s not how I usually think of myself.  I’m just a teacher.  When I look down the list of past Rowland recipients, I see leaders in the Vermont educational community: future principals, curriculum coordinators, even a future mayor.  I don’t see myself that way.  Motivating grumpy teenagers to pass in their Paper Towns essays is one thing.  Trying to nudge grizzled veterans with pedagogical war stories from the year I was born to fall in line with my wacky ideas is quite another.  Who am I to try to make change?

What if no one’s interested?

Then there’s the fact that what I’m selling may be impossible to spread beyond my classroom.  There are a hundred reasons why it’s too hard to teach only four classes and to conference individually with kids:  Teachers have always taught five classes. Teaching four will make classes too big.  One-on-one meetings take up too much time. It’s impossible to conference with all of your students every semester. Better to just do what we’ve always done: chat quickly with kids during a stolen minute or two in class here and there, or even 30 seconds when everyone else is working well.  Keep your classes small and try to make it work without the individual face-to-face time. Play the long game. Things are the way they are for a reason.

For months, I’ve been wrestling with these doubts.

The last time I remember feeling this way was back in 2003, when I first decided to write the book that would eventually become Let It Rain, the kayaking guidebook that was the passion project of my pre-teaching days.  The questions, the self-doubt, was all the same:

Who am I to do this?

What if no one likes it?

What happens if this doesn’t go well?

But there are always a million reasons why you shouldn’t do something.  Just like back in 2003, I have no idea how the next  year will turn out. I cannot know if my desire to change schools to establish more flexible teacher schedules and more individual instruction will be repelled by the immovable mountain.  I cannot know if the changes I’m hoping to make are at all realistic, or helpful to anyone besides me. But I do know that sixteen years ago I did not regret taking the risk that I did.

I have the sense that these feelings of doubt are again the ones that precede something important.  And something tells me that even if I fail, even if in five years there’s no trace of my reform left, I won’t actually have failed.

I am a big believer in the idea that every now and then — maybe once or twice in your career — you stumble onto something amid the myriad of temporary reforms that really works.  And if you don’t throw your hat into the ring, if you don’t fight for that cause to get its hearing, then you’re not playing the game for real.

Starting next fall, I’m in.

Alden Photo (2)

Alden Bird is a 2018 Rowland Fellow and an English teacher at U-32 High School.  He lives in Littleton, New Hampshire with his wife.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment