Crosscutting Concepts in NGSS: The third leg

Our world is literally and figuratively supported by triangles. We are sheltered from the elements under triangular roofs, we carry our maple creamies atop cones of sugar, we check and balance our government’s power with three branches, we cringe if pizza is not cut into its iconic shape, and the writers of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) valued three dimensional learning. When one side of the triangle is neglected the strength of its geometry is diminished. This weakening occurs regardless of whether it is rot in the roof’s rafters, apathy and corruption in politics, or omission of an entire dimension in a curricular framework

In developing the NGSS, the committee divided the recommendations into three overarching categories. The Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI) organize the broad content topics by age appropriateness. Science and Engineering Practices the skills necessary for doing meaningful research and experimentation. And the Crosscutting Concepts outline the connections between all science domains. The framers of the standards fully recognize the challenges of this unorthodox three part structure. 

The NGSS integrate the three dimensions . . .  As a result of this innovation, the NGSS look completely different than previous science standards and implementing them requires a major shift in classroom instruction and learning (Next Generation Science Standards: Executive summary, 2013).

Despite the challenges, the drafters of the NGSS also recognized the strength in this learning triade if all three legs were implemented with fidelity. 

Self-perceptions can be blinding. From my perspective, I was that woke, veternen science teacher that transitioned from the old school Vermont Framework to the sleek interconnected NGSS with grace, enthusiasm, and success. While other teachers complained about the complexity of the content, I relished in the elegance of the connections and welcomed the value placed on doing rather than memorizing science. I congratulated myself on my ability to move myself and my colleagues towards large thematic units rather than constantly shifting between two-week content blasts. For me, the NGSS was truly a revolutionizing document that has guided and shaped my practice over the past seven years, yet was not embracing its full potential as I was unintentionally ignoring an entire leg of the NGSS triangle. The Crosscutting Concepts seem so obvious and naturally ingrained in everything we teach, I never gave the categories much thought. Only after attending a modest one day course sponsored by Vermont Science Teachers’ Association (VSTA), was my NGSS perspective rocked, realigned and strengthened. Peter McLaren from Next Gen Education, LCC convinced me of the importance of this third leg of the NGSS that I had conveniently overlooked and underappreciated. My last minute decision to attend the course, has resulted in a greater appreciation for the framework’s ability to guide educators in the development and implementation of interesting, rigorous and relevant learning opportunities. 

For me, this primer on Crosscutting Concepts was like putting on glasses for the first time after years of denying that my long-distance vision was failing. Ideas and concepts that I am familiar with as a science teacher were immediately brought into sharper focus. Using only the Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI) – despite their broad themes – the learning still drifts towards learning that is right or wrong, Goggleable, and memorizable. Putting the Cross Cutting glasses onto the DCIs, turns a content question into a thought-provoking reflection on how our natural world works. 

Let me walk you through an example that McLaren used to demonstrate the potential for incorporating the Cross Cutting Concepts. The key is to first identify a compelling phenomenon that relates to the concept students are exploring. McLaren used a YouTube video of a collapsing railroad tanker.  If thinking only about the DCIs, the short clip where a tanker spontaneously collapses brings up possible concepts including density, pressure, and gas laws. The table below highlights how incorporating the Crosscutting Concept language can convert an already interesting, thought provoking exercise into a clear and focused discussion of the science concepts we want students to understand and how the content connects to the world these learners experience and observe. 

Examples of questions clarified & strengthened using the Crosscutting Concepts lens. 
Guiding Phenomenon: Collapsing Railroad Tanker 
Crosscutting ConceptQuestions aligned with specific Crosscutting ConceptsQuestions clearly using the Crosscutting Concepts language
What were the conditions when this occurred (time of day, weather, etc.)?What kind of patterns can be observed by looking at multiple tanker videos (spatial, temporal)?
Cause & EffectWhat were the conditions when this occurred (time of day, weather, etc.)?What could be some possible causes for the collapse? 
Scale, Quantity, & ProportionDoes the size of the tanker have anything to do with the collapse?Describe and draw the phenomenon at scale.
Systems & System ModelsWhat are the different components resulting in the collapse?Illustrate the system and include relevant interactions among the components of the system.
Energy & MatterWhat could have caused the tanker to collapse?How is the movement of matter connected to the flow of energy in this process?
Structure & Function Does the shape of the container have anything to do with the collapse? Would a rectangular tanker have the same action?Explain how the structure or shape of the tanker may have influenced the collapse. 
Stability & ChangeWhat caused the dramatic change in its state? What conditions may have changed? Under what conditions is the system stable? Over what time period and conditions does the system change?
Figure adapted from McClaren presentation Engaging Students: Using Crosscutting Concepts to prompt student sense making of phenomena

With only a one day seminar under my professional belt, I am a newbie to the Crosscutting Concept world. For the moment, I am relishing this new perspective and regaining my balance atop the stabilized and strengthened NGSS pyramid. How do you balance the three dimensions of NGSS in your instruction? Do you find this additional leg empowering and enhancing or cumbersome and unnecessary? For those of you interestested in learning more about ways to incorporate Crosscutting Concepts leg of the triangle into your classrooms, there is a second VSTA offering scheduled for April 16 in Middlebury.   

Next Generation Science Standards: Executive summary, June 2013,, Accessed February 18, 2020. 

Erica Wallstrom
Rutland City Public School STEM Integration Coordinator
2014 Rowland & Einstein Fellow 
Board of Trustees, The Rowland Foundation

Board of Trustees, The Rowland Foundation

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Our Misguided Obsession with Interscholastic Sports: a Provocation

It was thirteen years ago, in March, and I was playing the last game of my first and only year as a member of the Huntsville Havoc, a minor professional ice hockey team based in northern Alabama. I had enjoyed a successful college career, and I was proud to earn money as an athlete, living out a smaller version of one of my wildest childhood dreams.

After throwing the largest bodycheck of my hockey-playing life on Knoxville (TN) IceBears’ largest forward, #7 Rob Flynn, the bigger player soon chased me down, grabbed me by the side of my helmet, and gripped my whole head like it was nothing more than a softball. He tugged me toward him the slightest bit before shoving with all his might, sending my head crashing against the Plexiglas that circled the rink. I bounced off and hit the ice, my vision flashing a cloudy scarlet, my mind moving in and out of slow motion. I lay on the ice, disoriented. Flynn reached down and slammed my face against the cold sheet, laughing.

I don’t know if I decided right then—struggling in pain in front seven thousand spectators, trying to hide my glassy eyes from the training staff—or not. But if it wasn’t right then, it was very soon after. I was done playing competitive ice hockey. And I was haunted by the question of how did I get here and why?

In his book, The Geography of Genius, author Eric Weiner highlights hotspots of creativity and innovation throughout human history; things like philosophy in ancient Athens, music and psychology in Vienna, and tech companies in Silicon Valley. The major takeaway is that ideas and actions flourish in communities that cultivate those very ideas and actions. 

We cultivated athletic achievement where I grew up, and we cultivate athletic achievement almost everywhere in this country, including our schools.

That’s how I ended up with flashing vision and a pounding headache that day on the ice in Alabama. I’d succeeded. I’d made it. If Eric Weiner had visited my hometown, he would have learned that we cultivated baseball and hockey players and that I was one of the “geniuses.”

And the only reason I can look back on my time in the sport with that type of reflection is because I’d gotten lucky that day. I didn’t have a serious head injury. I’d already had way too many. The mild ones and the medium ones, and the fiery hot ones that had left me with a couple of blank spots in my memory.

I’d devoted so much to that sport, that game, and I had next to nothing to show for it.

I say next to nothing because I’m willing to admit that there were—and are—positive links between competitive athletics and long-term wellbeing. A simple internet search will lead to more resources than you’d be able to read. However, I’m here to help you think about a different layer of the conversation; one that hopefully makes you question what is normal and why, and one that might make you ask questions of the folks who don’t necessarily want you to.

Here are five theses on why I think our obsession with athletics in schools is misguided:

  1. We spend too much time and energy on athletics.

Our students who play sports spend more time on athletics than any single thing in their life other than sleeping. This is not an exaggeration.

At my school, a class is three hours one week and four and a half the next, for an average of about three and a half hours a week, after passing time. When the varsity football team has a week with five days of practice and a Saturday home game, players spend about fifteen hours at football. Add several hours a week to that total when the team goes on the road for a game in one of the four southern Vermont counties. Many of our upperclass-students have three or four free blocks in their schedule, which means that a certain portion of our athletes play sports for more hours than they attend all of their classes combined. Additionally, dismissals for sports happen way too frequently, furthering the sport to class ratio inflation. I taught a class that met the last period of the day during the first semester that included a member of the boy’s soccer team. They had eight games on our class days, and he missed all or part of the class seven times. Seven. That’s a big number. And I never had a choice in the matter. The sports schedule is seen as doctrine. Once the announcements list the dismissal time for the day, Creative Writing Workshop loses to soccer at Rutland every single time.       

Most of us can wrap our minds around students missing a single class for a trip to Lake Champlain to view sunken ships, or a singing performance at an elementary school, or even an advisory trip once a year. But seven times in one semester? That just doesn’t compute. My debate team student didn’t miss any class time for his activity. My thespian didn’t miss any class time for their theatre rehearsals. My GSA member didn’t miss any class time for her club meetings. I think you get the point. We are sending the message that sports are more important than everything else. We have created a culture where a teacher is just supposed to take the absence, no questions asked, and I don’t agree with that. 

My school’s girls’ hockey team recently missed a half day of class to travel to Manchester (hours away) on a Tuesday before playing in Essex (20 mins away) the following Saturday. That’s not right. Why wasn’t it flipped? How is there not a scheduling algorithm that can find some kind of balance? We need to make sure students are given the most possible access to the most activities, and we need to level the playing field (pun intended) between our co-curriculars.

  1. Our educational choices based on brain science should apply to athletics.

Many of our students have been diagnosed with athletic-induced concussions, and I feel confident in stating that many, many more concussions have occurred without notice, for a number of reasons. How is this allowed to happen? How do we justify facilitating and celebrating activities that cause traumatic brain injuries? If a chemistry experiment was causing student concussions, do you think that teachers would still be able to perform such an activity in class? Absolutely not. I think most of you would scoff or laugh or scream at the idea of a school assignment that injures students being allowed to continue. It’s pretty near unfathomable, actually. Yet that’s what happens every day on the football field, lacrosse field, hockey rink, wrestling mat, etc. There’s even a sizable amount of new research that frames soccer as one of our most brain-dangerous sports for adolescents because of the act of heading a ball with underformed neck muscles.

Additionally, the latest research from Boston University illustrates that we need to reframe our understanding of concussions. In short, what we traditionally think of as a concussion is simply the symptoms that sometimes show up from head trauma. The real danger is the repeated hits to the head, whether the symptoms show up or not.  

And, our brain-based choices shouldn’t be limited to preventing concussions. Almost every expert agrees that teenagers need to start their day later than most of them currently do, and our Wednesday late-starts give them a much needed respite once a week. But, I have to ask, why have most schools not made the switch to a 9:00 or 10:00 AM start time to match the science? Is there something called practice that needs to begin around 3:00 PM to maximize daylight? I know I’m being slightly cynical with this particular point, but is there any truth to it? I keep landing on yes.

We have recently made many changes to our educational practices based on brain science, and for good reason. It’s time we turn our gaze toward the athletic fields and arenas and put our students’ health first. 

How can we have one set of standards for our students during the classday and quite another set for the afternoon? 

  1. Athletics heighten equity gaps.

You’ve heard it before. Some form of Athletics are the great equalizer.

They aren’t. 

I’m going to ask a series of rhetorical questions in this section. They’ll be rhetorical because I think you’ll be able to guess the answers based on the tone I’m using in the sentence you’re currently reading.

Do students from traditionally marginalized racial and cultural backgrounds and identities have the same access to athletic opportunities as their more privileged counterparts? 

Do agender, transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming students have the same access to athletic opportunities as their cisgender peers?

Do students from households most impacted by income inequality and/or generational poverty have the same access to athletic opportunities as their more affluent classmates?

Are opportunities, funding, and resources equally distributed between boys and girls sports?

  1. Privilege is often the number one reason behind athletic success.

My school has the largest student body in the state. We pull from some of the wealthiest towns in the state. Before our students even step on the field, they are already leaps and bounds above most of the competition. We need to recognize this and name this. We need to own our privilege. I don’t mean to detract from the successes our students and coaches have had (because some of it has been extremely impressive, no matter our privilege), but many of our students are erroneously judging their worth as people in this world based on their athletic win-loss record, and I think that’s a dangerous precedent to set. Vermont is a very small fish in a very big pond. There are always outliers and exceptions, but, in general, our sports teams would rarely beat the best in New Hampshire, who’d rarely beat the best in Massachusetts, who’d rarely beat the best in New York, who’d rarely beat the best in California…

When was the last time you heard a coach ask this question: How does our privilege (or lack thereof) relate to our record of wins and losses, and how does that answer contribute to the way we view ourselves, how we view our opponents, and how we interact with the world?

  1. Competition and physicality hurt democracy and community.

I know that some of you may think that equating the Dalai Lama’s reference to “force” with our obsession with interscholastic sports is an overreach on my part, but is it? Isn’t that what sports are? Isn’t it one person or one team trying to physically defeat another person or team? Even tennis players use force. Even cross country runners use force. Even gymnasts. Even skiers. 

As long as we continue to judge our worth in wins and losses and hierarchies and rankings and times, how can we ever come together as a democratic community?

Let me bring this back to my own experience as an example.

I hope you won’t be surprised to learn that the misogyny and toxic masculinity in high school locker rooms is an epidemic. It was the same or worse when I was there. When I was in the younger grades, team leaders held a kangaroo court every Monday before practice. Guys on my team were fined for behavior deemed unfitting of the group and had to put between $1 and $5 in a jar that would add up and be used for a party at the end of the season. Fines were handed out for things like hooking up with a girl considered fat or ugly. Fines were handed out for failing to hook up with a girl, even the ones considered fat or ugly. Fines were handed out for saying or doing things that were “gay.” Fines were handed out for reading books on the bus to away games. Fines were handed out for excessive studying, like if you were seen using flashcards. 

I think you get the point. After all, it’s not called toxic masculinity for nothing.

And, when the existence of a court like that combines with the culture of force and winning, the results can be devastating. When the leaders on the team are pressing younger boys to hook up with girls at all costs, and when our coaches are using terms that sound like we’re in a military battalion to describe how we should deal with the other team, it’s not surprising to me that several of my hockey teammates were accused of commiting sexual violence.

They all denied it was true. I didn’t know what to think back then. I know now that there is an almost statistical certainty that they were guilty. 

Aggression and conditioning are not light switches. You can’t tell a young athlete that it’s okay for them to hit people one moment, and then try to counteract that with talk of social emotional learning and community in the next. The external reward will beat the internal one almost every time, especially considering the time and focus disparity that we know exists between sports and other aspects of school life.

I’m currently of the mindset that we can never eradicate (or even minimize) sexual and physical violence perpetrated by men until we stop sending them the mixed message that there are some places where it’s okay to act that way. Can’t you see how Kill em!!!!! in the afternoon and No means no at 2:00 AM could be confusing?

That’s out fault. That’s society’s fault. How can we educators reconcile with that, and what can we do about it?

I have other thoughts about less violent sports and their links to grade grubbing, college admissions, and capitalism that will have to be left for another time.  

So I leave you with one final question: Do interscholastic sports help us grow healthy, compassionate citizens, or do they actually cause more harm than good in their current form? 

I’d love to know your answer to that question and continue the conversation. 

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 Savage Gods by Paul Kingsnorth. You can find him on Twitter @PeterLangella.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Building Community in the Age of Disconnection

EPIC Academy at Lamoille Union High School

It’s 8:50 in the morning.  Students are leaving their jigsaw puzzles and sleepy conversations and rollicking games of “Headbands” and finding a seat.  Some choose bean bags or bungee chairs, a couple saddle up to bike desks and begin to aimlessly cycle, and still more plop down in traditional chairs that don’t rock or roll or bounce in any way.  For every smiling face and cheerful voice, there is a pained expression and exasperated sigh. It is to be expected. They are adolescents, and it is before 9 o’clock.

Our circle isn’t perfect from a geometric point of view, but we’ve worked to eliminate the space in between us, and there is intimacy in our amoeboid shape.  Nearly everyone has put away their phones, and those who forget are generally game to stow it with a gentle reminder. After a quick greeting from the facilitator, the first round commences.  “How’s everyone doing today?” It used to require an act of bravery to volunteer the first contribution, but now kids jump in without thinking twice. Some status updates make us giggle (“I got coal for Christmas.  Actual coal.”) and some make us subtly back our chairs away (“Everyone in my house has strep throat”), but most of them make us nod with (“I’m tired. I want to be home in bed.”)  Again, all par for the course with sleepy teenagers. But sometimes the updates peel back the curtain on students’ lives and knock the wind out of us. Homelessness. Sick relatives.  Complicated custody situations. Death. When a student shares a piece of their lives, the circle lives in the moment with them, sometimes words of understanding and support springing up around the room, other times silence and heads nodding. 

Once we’ve made it around the loop, the next round commences.  Now that we’ve covered our worlds, what is happening in the world?  Some contributions are local “Did you hear about the fire in Johnson?” or “The dance recital is this Thursday.  Everybody should come!” Others reflect stories far from home- koalas displaced by wildfires, Uighurs in detention camps.  Some current events evoke sympathy or outrage or heated debate. Passions flare over the validity of the gender pay gap or animal sentience.  Students argue over the role of America in policing other nations or the appropriation of symbols by white supremacists. Sometimes they change each others’ minds, most of the time they don’t.  Many listen silently, having never heard of “implicit bias” or how plant-based diets are related to climate change. 

By 9:30, students are shuffling away from the circle and heading into their own project time. Some work with partners to customize sneakers, build an escape room, or write a musical.  Others work independently studying everything from caffeine to Korean pop music to graphic design. They congregate around tables and counter tops and couches. Some are smiling, but others still look grumpy and tired and obviously wishing to be watching Netflix instead of being in school. But, for the most part, there is kindness.  A student stops working on his project to help another solder a wire onto his electric guitar. Four volunteer to go into the podcast studio to help their friend record a segment. Because of their updates in circle, students know who might need a little love and who might need a little space. We’re all a bit more understanding when that person uses a snippy tone or seems distracted or wants to go to see their school counselor.  

We continue to battle the presence of phones and the steady dopamine drip that so powerfully binds humans to their screens.  We cannot create walls thick enough to block out the interpersonal strife and cyber bullying that preoccupies and perpetuates pain.  We can’t erase the impact of unrealistic projections of perfection on social media and the resulting feeling of shame and unworthiness.  But we can put those phones away every morning and make eye contact.  We can pause the Snap Chat stories and speak actual words received by active ears.  We can teach empathy by sharing perspectives and learning how our life experience informs our points of view.  Students can sit in the EPIC Academy studio next to peers with whom they have never shared a class and get to know one another.  In a world of division and isolation, where we often connect more over Instagram posts than real life conversation, we have the opportunity to create a community of people joined by the shared experience of being human.

Amber Carbine-March and Kim Hoffman (Rowland Fellows 2018) left their science classrooms to found a project-based, learner-centered path called EPIC Academy at Lamoille Union High School.  When they aren’t helping their students figure out who they are and what they want out of life, they can be found frollicking in the Vermont wilderness with their adorable families (and likely each other).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Taking Time To Reflect

Three years, 1,095 days, since I drove to the post office and dropped off an envelope full of my hopes, dreams, passions, and naivete. The excitement, nerves, and doubt surging through my body as I released the packet into the mailbox were most closely matched by clicking “send” on my first college application in high school. I thought I had an idea as to what the Rowland Foundation represented and the kinds of doors it opened. While some of my guesses were accurate- traveling to inspiring conferences, engaging in complex discussions around education, meeting new and awesome people- but I had no idea the extent to which my identity would be forever shaped by the lasting legacy of the Rowlands. 

This week, the students from my steering committee three years ago, began to receive information about their future academic careers. These students, who joined the committee due to frustration and confusion around the purpose of proficiency-based and personalized learning, have spent the past two years presenting at conferences, proposing legislation, attending early college, directing plays, hiking the Long Trail, and extending their learning in the ways they have determined, rather than the system leading them. These students are thriving

I spent this past week trying out new ways for students to engage with the world around them in new (for me), more authentic ways of demonstrating their learning. My Global Studies elective spent two mornings this week teaching third grade students about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Both sets of students were beaming from ear-to-ear as they discussed the impact of the changing South Burlington landscape, the impact of climate change on fish and clean water, and the impact of access to healthy foods on our abilities to learn. My ninth graders taught their peers about case studies around the world while analyzing how the governments’ decisions impact an individual’s access to education. The genuine wondering spurred by listening to the stories of the students and of the individual’s research cannot be replicated when taking a test or writing an essay. Genuine conversation and interest were the center of their work. This work has been possible because I had the time and space to reflect on how and why I believe in proficiency-based learning. I believe in it, because I see how it can center students and challenge inequity the conventional grading system reinforces. 

The risks I take in class, the conversations I have with students and colleagues are the direct result of the unparalleled opportunities Rowland has offered. My cohort has pushed my thinking beyond a realm I could have deemed possible. The Rowland leadership has supported difficult conversations and provided unwavering inclusion. The Rowland Family continues to show up when I need them most. 

As the newest potential Rowland Fellows scramble to change their fonts, double-check their references, and engage in new levels of self-doubt, know that it is worth all the late nights. The Rowland Family is here for you. 

Emily Gilmore (@Queen_Gilmore) is a 2017 Rowland Fellow and Social Studies teacher at South Burlington High School. Current sparkers of joy include: donuts, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, her cats (Minnie and Daisy), Queer Eye on Netflix, and planning her next adventure .

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Change is Gonna Come

Nothing stays the same.  All things must change. This is true in life, and it’s certainly true in the life of schools.  In a perfect world we can predict and plan for it, manage it, and negotiate the bumps in the road that change will bring.  But the world is not perfect and curveballs and side-doors and unexpected hurdles are inevitable.  

Of course, the ideal transition for a change in school leadership would look as follows: beloved leader announces a year out that she’s moving on.  Word goes forth, applications are accepted, hiring committee convenes and from a great stock of candidates a leader is selected who fits this school and its culture like a glove.  The incoming principal shadows the outgoing, with conversations that lay the groundwork for a seamless transition. One. Smooth. Turnover. Everyone’s happy.  

But again, the world is not always ideal.  And sometimes, just sometimes, a principal, for a whole host of reasons, jumps ship in the middle of the year.  I’ve seen it myself. I’ve served as an interim principal because at the time it was easier to find a replacement for me, a classroom teacher.  Given the circumstances, it may well be the best path forward. Sometimes we fish. Sometimes we cut bait.  

Such is the case I’m witnessing now: a principal who departed at the end of September.  At a time when schools should be settling in and hitting stride, this one lurched and lunged into October.  But I’m watching two seasoned educators step up and pilot this school, providing welcome stability. The first is a brand new Dean of Students, moving up this year from the classroom where her practice was exceptional.  Talk about a trial by fire. The second is the new Acting Principal, coming to this from his role as the Assistant Superintendent of Schools. These two are picking up the pieces and forging ahead, fixing the plane, as they say, while it’s in flight.

I am watching extraordinary collaboration.  Both carry constant teamwork and equitable perspectives to this journey.  In all but title, these two view themselves as equal team players, each doing all that’s necessary to heal this school, run it well, and make it a place that’s safe, loving and filled with grace.  Both are committed to doing all that it takes to create a school where everyone is welcome, a place of civility and joy.  

Several strategies are being employed to rebuild trust and improve communication.  I recently witnessed a student led assembly, where the kids welcomed the student body, teachers and parents.  Boxes for kindness comments and a newly established teacher-to-teacher recognition are helping this along too. “We want the students to see us having fun and feel the renewed joy in the building,” they said.    

Listening is proving to be an important part of this turnaround as well.  Sometimes it’s not making decisions that’s a decision unto itself. Simply allowing the educators in the building to talk, about anything, without pretense or even the promise of solutions, can be a revolutionary act in a school where this was scarce.  Listening is also crucial to regaining the trust of parents, an essential group who are justifiably skeptical about their concerns being heard. Sunday night updates prepare everyone for the week ahead, the repairs that need to be made, all informed by the voices heard.  Increased validation of the self-selected Building Leadership Team, with newfound autonomy, is another tool in this toolkit. As they said to me in our conversation about their work, both educators agree that this plane will find calm air “one conversation at a time.”  

To be sure, there are lots of books on leadership.  There is lots of inspiration out there to be gleaned from blogs and webpages.  But waking each morning and being faced with new challenges doesn’t leave a lot of time for quiet study and reflection.  Today’s challenges need to be solved now. Students need help negotiating the world now. Teachers need critical supports now.  None of this can wait while new leaders engage in quiet, pensive and intellectual conversation. As a favorite band once sang, the time to rise has been engaged.  

It’s this attitude and these actions that are worth celebrating.  Many of you have seen the same: devoted education professionals stepping up their game, jumping into the fray when so many others would not or did not.  The difficulty in this endeavour cannot be overstated. The emotional and intellectual demands placed upon those who choose these paths are large. So it’s with this message that I hope to lift my colleagues, supporting them in a critical time of transition as they work to support others, carrying burdens whose weight is, at times, difficult to bear.  Thank you. On behalf of all members of the school community, I say thank you.  

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is c.mckaig-headshot.jpg

Colin McKaig, Rowland Fellow, 2013

I was an English teacher at Black River High School for 25 amazing years.  I now serve as the first Technology Integration Coach for the Springfield School District.  Go Cosmos

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Early in my graduate program I took a class called The Neurobiology of Stress. Years now since the course, much of the learning has unfortunately escaped me. But one of our main texts, The Heartmath Solution, regularly resurfaces in my consciousness as I go through the yearly emotional peaks and valleys of teaching and turn inward for emotional fortitude. 

The Heartmath Solution provides easy to apply methods that strengthen the mind and heart. The authors make the case that simple practices, such as recording three daily gratitudes, helps cultivate heart health leading to both emotional and physical well-being. The results include lower stress levels, higher emotional clarity, and even a stronger immune system. Over time a person rewires their brain to default to optimism, hope and joy. 

As a major assignment, the instructor challenged us to record three gratitudes each morning, never repeating the same one twice for two weeks. The first few days were pretty easy (family! warm house! health!). But as time went on, the task became a bit more challenging, until I started “seeing” gratitudes everywhere, sometimes in the most unexpected places. The method was working!

Despite the simplicity of the practice, I’ll admit to having fallen in and out of it over the years. But for the last few weeks I’ve been back on the wagon, using a white board in my kitchen, the corners of loose papers in my school bag, the notes app on my phone, and even the back on my hand to jot down gratitudes as they come to me. 

In no particular order, here are a few from the list I have going:  

*My town’s librarian, Lisa. She works hard to make our little library a cozy place you just want to go hang out on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. 

*The strength I feel in my body. Activities like riding bikes and hiking mountains are where I feel most like myself, and spending time outdoors teaches me unique lessons in humility and vulnerability, which I need. My body makes those experiences possible. 

*The chance to listen. This fellowship is giving me the time to be curious with colleagues, administration, and professionals in the field, rather than having all the answers. Without such a long list of “to-do” each day, I can feel the space to be fully present, and just listen. 

*Podcasts! If I can be truly engaged and get smarter while commuting or making dinner, sign me up. Top picks from 2019 include WorkLife, Forever35, 1619, Wild Ideas Worth Living and The Cult of Pedagogy, and Missing Richard Simmons

*Live music. In October I saw the band Hiss Golden Messenger perform this song live in a tiny venue, which still gives me chills whenever I listen to it. Before he performed it he asked every teacher in the audience to raise their hand, and he thanked each one of us. 

*When a friend brings you a special treat. On a chilly bike ride last week a friend pulled a chocolate almond butter bar out of her jersey pocket for me. Needless to say her act of kindness made that day’s list!

*Freedom to fail and try again. Pushing my practice and trying new things in the classroom means that, a lot of the time, it isn’t going to go perfectly at first. I am grateful to work in a culture of second chances. 

This holiday season (or all year for that matter!), try giving yourself the gift of gratitude. It’s a quick and easy process that is truly attitude-altering. But the key is to do it for several days, so start now, and see how you can surprise yourself with the little things you’re really thankful for by the time you sit down for Thursday’s meal. 

Rachel Cohen is a 2019 Rowland Fellow and humanities teacher at Colchester High School. Her fellowship work explores how Vermont high schools can better utilize the outdoors to expand place-based learning and leadership development opportunities for students. In 2017 Rachel was a Fulbright Roving Scholar in American Studies in Norway. Follow her @Cohen_Noted 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Frontier of Education

“The idea of progress persists only because we have forgotten more than we have remembered.” – William J. Lines, Australian writer

One month ago, I read this quote in Terry Tempest Williams’ book, Red, while overlooking a Days Inn parking lot in Provo, Utah.  It was a sunny Sunday morning and I had a few hours to kill before boarding my flight back to Vermont.  I sat on a second floor balcony, watching the world awaken while enjoying my coffee with the inspiration of one of my favorite authors.  Most of the world was still quiet, and the sun peeked over the Wasatch front, bringing a gleam to the frost lying heavy on patches of grass and parking lot windshields.  My heart and mind were full with myriad emotions that I was, and, honestly, still am, trying to fully understand. In one line, this author, unknown to me, was able to put into words this feeling that had been circulating in my mind and pulsing through my veins with each beat of my heart. 

I had just emerged from a two-week wilderness expedition with BOSS, the Boulder Outdoor Survival School.  For over 50 years, this organization has been taking people into the deserts of southern Utah to learn primitive skills, wilderness travel, a conservation ethic, and something else… something more.  

And while the name might suggest that you would find a group of people living on the fringe of society – backwoods hermits lacking social skills or doomsday preppers readying for the zombie apocalypse – this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Well, the fringe part is true.  

What I found, instead,  was a community of people engaged in the act of remembering.

Simply put, they were remembering what it means to be human.  

You see, we live in a world in which we are becoming increasingly disconnected – from ourselves, from one another, from our communities, and from the natural world.  There are many reasons for this disconnection, some of which are in our control, and many more of which we aren’t even aware. We are influenced in ways, and by powers, that we can’t begin to imagine.  We are changed by all of this, and we call this change progress.  It seems inevitable, as we march towards a better future, as if we can do nothing to resist it.

At some level, I think most of us recognize this disconnection in our own lives.  We wish we were closer to our family and friends, more engaged in our communities, or that we were more intentional with our time.  And yet, it’s so easy to throw on Netflix or scroll through an Instagram feed, all the while feeling like something is missing in our lives.  We live in a world of constant connectivity, yet most of us, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “lead lives of quiet desperation.” What is it we lack, with so many luxuries in this modern age?  Connection, I think.

So, the act of taking people into a vast wilderness with extremely limited gear and resources (and no technology), in order to learn “survival” skills, becomes a fringe, even revolutionary act.  When we make fire with our own hands, procure our food for the evening from the surrounding landscape, and sit around that fire together until stars fill the night sky, we remember. This is what it means to be a member of a community.  This is what it means to contribute. This is what it means to really be human.

And this level of connection – to ourselves, to others, and to the natural world – is what so many of us are missing.

I am convinced that the future of education lies not in technological gadgetry, bigger and better assessments, or finding countless new ways to put lipstick on the proverbial pig.  The frontier of education will be in “remembering” all that we have forgotten about how we can best prepare our children to be the humans that this world needs in the future. We will gain insight by looking back, not mindlessly marching onward with the blind assumption that the future must be better than the present, let alone the past.  Like any “frontier”, we will need to strike a balance between the knowledge and insight that we bring with us, and the energy and promise of the unexplored. We must adapt and be open, but we also cannot forget.  

Let’s face it, Homo sapiens, as a species, has been around for over 200,000 years; our hominid ancestors, millions of years more.  In all that time, we somehow managed to rear and raise offspring whom became the community members that were necessary for the survival of our kind.  In many cases, based upon historical records and studies of indigenous cultures throughout the world, children transitioned into adulthood, with all of its responsibilities and privileges, between the ages of 12 and 16.  This is nearly a decade earlier than it was for me and many of my friends, and even more than that 30 year old you know who still lives in their parents’ basement, playing video games and eating Doritos. 

On top of all of this, it can also be argued that our ancestors did so sustainably, that is to say, none of those previous generations of humans brought our planet to the brink of disaster quite like we moderns.  And this isn’t the fault of our youngest generations. It can be attributed to a social programming and cultural apparatus that has us believing that the mindless march forward must be progress.

So what is progress?  

I like to turn to Doug Tompkins- adventurer, former CEO of The North Face, and philanthropist- who, along with his wife, Kristine, purchased, and then gifted, millions of acres of South American wilderness to establish the first national parks in Chile.  Tompkins is quoted as saying, “What happens if you get to the cliff, and you take one step forward? Or you make a 180 degree turn and then take one step forward? Which way are you going? Which way is progress? The solution to many of the world’s problems is to turn around and take a step forward.”

Are we on the edge of a cliff?  Yes, unfortunately, I think we are.  Our cliff is social, political, economic, cultural, climactic… you name it.  And it’s clear to me that we aren’t going to find our way out of this predicament by being bull-headed and trudging onward.  Progress, in this case, means having the sense to turn around and look backward.

Progress means remembering.

Our children, our students, need not only know how to operate the latest iPhone, but how to really connect with others, in person, and especially those that are different than themselves. They can’t exist only in virtual or augmented realities, but must be grateful for the lives they lead, not envious of the ones that they don’t.  They can’t be so hypnotized by screens that they fail to notice the brilliance of nature unfolding around them, and the reality of the destruction that our lifestyles create. They can’t be so focused on their “followers” that they fail to recognize their power to become a person worth following.

There are powerful forces that aim to shape the minds and souls of our children.  To these forces, our students are consumers meant to be influenced and political pawns meant to be polarized.  They are not the independent, autonomous, thoughtful, caring human beings we aim to create… that our communities so desperately need.  We must endeavor to push back against these systems and to question what is meant by the relentless pursuit of progress.   We need to engage in the fringe and revolutionary act of “remembering.”

Luke Foley, a 2019 Rowland Fellow and the 2014 Vermont State Teacher of the Year, teaches at the STAR Program at Northfield High School.  Foley has a unique educational background, having worked as a wilderness guide, field instructor, and program director for several schools and programs in Vermont, the western United States, and around the world. Foley received his Masters in the Arts of Teaching from the University of Vermont and has a B.A. in International Political Economy from Colorado College in 2004.  He is a 2015 fellow for the Lloyd Milken Center for Unsung Heroes and a 2017 National Park Service Climate Resiliency Fellow. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Vermonters Who Dare to Lead

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles… The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” 

– Theodore Roosevelt, April 23, 1910

Brené Brown included this quotation early on in her book Dare to Lead. Since reading the book earlier this fall, the quotation has stuck with me.  I read the book for two reasons – it is a book we are reading as an administrative team and the book was the backbone of a weekend retreat of female Rowland fellows.  Reading the book with two different purposes and groups of people allowed me to melt into the ideas and apply them, reflect, re-read, and try them again. 

I find something magical in reading a book with complex ideas with colleagues. It is something that I do not do enough of. Reading and discussing a book with purpose with colleagues – in your school/district or with peers in the same field – brings with it a depth that I find hard to achieve on my own. I also find it a nourishing experience to read a book and talk about things that have happened and how the ideas are now shaping my thinking in a different way. 

Two years ago, I was fortunate to be at a school where the staff wanted to read The Body Keeps the Score together.  Not everyone read the book, but enough people did read it and voluntarily come to discussions that the ideas about trauma influenced the learning we continued to do as a school, the systems we built to support students, and the culture we built together the following years.  

My reading of Dare to Lead with two groups has been equally formative on my practice as a leader.  I have read each section of the book at least two times but between the first read and the second, I had a chance to consider how I was practicing the idea that “clear is kind” in my work and how I did – or didn’t – rumble with vulnerability.  Then, I was going back to the text and reading it again in the context of my new thinking and learning. It is pretty interesting to me that going back a second time I often focused on new parts of the book. The ideas that most speak to me depend on what I have experienced and the shared learning conversations with colleagues. 

The part of the book that has most influenced the way I am thinking about leadership now is around core values.  While I read the chapter on core values by myself, it was only through conversation and learning with other Rowland women that I understood how my core value of love exists in my daily practice.  After doing this learning with other women, I find myself checking my leadership moves and conversations and choices based on my core values. This conscious leading through love allows me to get out of my inbox and calendar and be much more present with students, colleagues, families – and just as importantly with my own family.   

I am grateful for being part of two groups that both chose the same book to read together. To have the chance to consider the idea of leadership as conceived and shaped by a female leaders’ work has been tremendous. To have this opportunity as part of my job and professional network has allowed me to grow in ways I could not have without out focused and purposeful conversations.  I wonder how we might create these common reads for more staff and families in our schools. If we had these opportunities, we would build more common understanding, civility, and reflective practices in our whole school community. I suspect they would foster a strong school culture, one of continued learning.

Vermont Many thanks to the Rowland Foundation for supporting the Rowland Women’s Retreat this year as a way to pull together fellows around a common text and experience. 

Jen Kravitz 2012 Rowland Fellow. Principal Mary Hogan Elementary School

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Life – Work balance

We took our daughter, Louisa, to her first day of kindergarten this morning. We took pictures as the morning sun lit up her blond hair and reflected off the damp grass. We followed the bus to school in our car. We stood in the back of the classroom with other nervous parents we didn’t know and watched her settle in. 

We watched Louisa play her first soccer game as a seventh grader this afternoon. We cheered with the other parents we now call friends. We stopped for pizza on the way home. We talked with the Louisa about her new responsibilities and independence.

We will say “goodnight” to Louisa with nervous anticipation some evening soon.  We will think about how it will be to have her spend the last night sleeping in her own bed before we take her to college in the morning. I hope we will feel like we took advantage of every opportunity to be with her – to truly be present with our daughter. I hope she will feel the same way.

I expect I’m not the only one who sometimes feels like life’s moments are slipping away while I’m working a job that is hard to contain in a regular schedule. Don’t get me wrong – I thoroughly enjoy my job. I feel like I’m good at it. I feel like I make a difference. I want to do everything I can to help my students – but sometimes that comes at a price. So the question is…how much am I willing to pay? Perhaps a harder question is “How much should I be willing to pay?” And how do I know when to say “no”?

There are plenty of reasons why maintaining appropriate boundaries with work is so challenging. Teaching is personal; teaching is a passion. Students seem to have higher needs every year. Saying “no” or doing something for ourselves can produce feelings of guilt. Our culture has an obsession with busyness – sometimes it can feel like I must not be working hard enough if I’m not working all the time. And then…aren’t teachers supposed to spend evenings and weekends planning and grading? Shouldn’t our vacations be spent working through the projects we assigned? Shouldn’t our summers be filled with classes, workshops, and professional readings? 

Just in case you’re wondering, I haven’t figured out how to contain my professional responsibilities within a clearly defined workday. It’s not possible. There are late nights and early mornings of grading and planning. There are weekends and vacation days spent reviewing student work and reading books about grading practices and implicit bias. There are summer days spent taking classes and reviewing and designing curriculum. And by the way – I don’t have any complaints about this (mostly). I find meaning in my work. I enjoy learning and growing as a professional. If I ever reach the point that I don’t enjoy it anymore, then it’s time to move on to something else. Hopefully I win the Lottery before then, but I guess I have to buy a ticket in order to have any chance at winning.

I sit writing this up against the deadline because my workday has been so full I couldn’t even find time during my lunch to write over the past two weeks. My afternoons and evenings have been filled with coaching my son Lincoln’s soccer team and cheering on Louisa from the sidelines. It’s now early in the evening and I have found a (mostly) quiet space in Louisa’s school to write as I wait for her to complete her basketball tryouts. Despite this impending deadline (and several others breathing down my neck) I didn’t stay late at work to write. I could have stayed late to work – there is plenty of it. But I didn’t. I didn’t because today was the only afternoon this week that I will have the chance to ride my mountain bike. So I rode. I did it for me. I didn’t stay late at work today because I am trying to follow the advice I wrote for Louisa upon entering middle school this year – “make yourself a priority”. 

It is essential that we take the time to take care of ourselves. So how do we do that on a regular basis? How do I do it? 

Not well, but I have a growth mindset about my life-work balance. I’m getting better, and living a life that aligns with my core values has been a boon for my wellness.

My core values drive my decisions and actions every day. When something doesn’t feel right, it is usually because I’m living a life that is incongruous with those values, some of which include “Family first” and “Work hard, play harder, play often.” Perhaps I should add a core value – “Make myself a priority”. Here is how I explained this to Louisa: 

This is a big one. We spend so much time talking about not being selfish, that sometimes we lose sight of [taking care of ourselves]. You are important. What you want is important. What you need is important. Advocate for yourself with your teachers. Don’t let others be mean to you or walk all over you. Make sure your relationships (yes, even any romantic relationships) are built on trust and respect. Don’t let anyone pressure you to do something you don’t want to do.

I’d like to leave you with the advice my department chair, Carl, offered me on my first day as a new teacher. Carl was the consummate professional. He worked hard for his students. The quality of his work was always top notch. He had high expectations for himself and the members of his department. He struggled with his life-work balance. The advice he offered was to “Take care of yourself first so you can take care of your family. Your distant third priority is this job.” 

I encourage you to find ways to take care of yourself. Take that mountain bike ride right after work every now and then. Feel the sun on your shoulders and the wind in your face. You’ll breathe deeper at work the next day. Find ways to feed the fun in your life – you’ll be glad you did.

John Painter (@802Painter) is a 2014 Rowland Fellow whose work has focused on advisory. John has partnered with the Flyin Ryan Foundation to bring the writing and sharing of core values into Vermont schools. He is currently the Curriculum Area Supervisor for the Mathematics Department at South Burlington High School.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Improving Equity and Empathy at School

Last spring a group of students representing our Gender Sexuality Alliance asked to have a meeting with our district’s curriculum director and myself. We sat down in my office and the students began to make a calm, thoughtful, and well reasoned case for more LGBTQ+ representation in our curriculum. The students made a persuasive case that essentially asked the question, “Why not?” 

Giving students meaningful voice in our learning community has made our school more equitable and created a more empathetic place to learn and grow for all of our students. The recent case made by the students for more LGBTQ+ representation in our school ran parallel to a similar conversation that I had two years ago with a few of our students of color. They had helped us understand just how complacent we were in the dominant narrative’s deeply embedded systemic implicit biases, prejudices, and perpetuation of marginalization for those historically marginalized. On February 1st, 2018, their advocacy led to our high school being the first known public school in America to raise a Black Lives Matter flag. The flag raising sparked national and international attention, and more importantly has been a visible symbol of our local school community’s commitment to making our learning environment more equitable and empathetic. 

So how exactly does a predominantly white, middle class, rural high school like ours go about being more inclusive and equitable? Here are five strategies that we are using to improve. 

  1. Know thyself. As administrators and teachers we owe it to all of our students to examine our own biases, privilege, reflect on our practices, and pursue professional learning opportunities to deepen our knowledge and commitment to equity. Helping students understand their place in time and history means we as educators need to have a stronger understanding of our own. 
  2. Do the homework. The students from our Gender Sexuality Alliance raised such a simple and poignet question, “Why not review existing units and look for ways to be more inclusive?” As we improve our school’s clarity around targeted skill-based competencies, it ought to render more unit content choices more neutral. In other words, if reading comprehension is the goal, the selection of which materials and authors to read should be flexible to include more diverse authors, themes, and topics. One of our science teachers recently uncovered that a longstanding biology unit about DNA had vast and meaningful implications to inequitable incarceration rates, systemic judicial bias, and the use of cutting edge science to improve those problems. Holding up an equity lens to almost any of our units can yield similar connections and opportunities for inclusivity.
  3. Use data. The achievement gap is as troubling in our school as it is anywhere in the country. We have consistently lagged in literacy and math skills among students from low socioeconomic status. Use of data through an equity lens pushes us to ask who(?) more often. Who is accessing our afterschool program? Who is utilizing our social worker? Who is being referred for special education? Who can regularly access technology? Who is accessing our flexible pathways? Who is represented in faculty and leadership? Some of the answers to these questions illustrate the stark disparity in our system for the historically marginalized and those numbers can spark more targeted intervention and proactive problem solving. Recently adopted local school policy will also provide more strength and urgency to answering these questions with equity at the forefront of our work.   
  4. Interrupt microaggressions. Our students have reported hearing microaggressions, usually masked as jokes, on a regular basis. There are two ways that we have worked to improve this issue. One is to improve knowledge of history, context, and status of historically marginalized members of our society–in an effort to help raise awareness of the pain and implications “jokes” can have. The second is to simply improve our ability to interrupt. Relying on resources from Teaching Tolerance, our faculty actually practiced interrupting microaggressions and biased comments. It proved challenging, and having more practice and chances to collaborate on strategies has been useful faculty time together. 
  5. Look around. We have simply been looking around to reveal what implicit messages are in our system. What and who are on the walls? What gender normative language can we remove from our forms, class groupings, bathrooms, student management system, graduation, etc. Is special education a place in our school? Who is in leadership positions? How can our posters, art, book displays, school motto and hiring communicate inclusivity and celebration of all? When we examine our environment closely through the lens of equity for our historically marginalized it is incredible just how strongly and frequently the implicit biases reveal themselves.  

We have been fortunate to have students with voice helping to lead the way in our school. Our job is to hold up our end of the work too. That means not only listening to their voices, but also raising the expectations for ourselves. Waking up to the systemic biases in our school is difficult–even painful work at times. And recognizing our own privilege–no matter our life circumstances, is internal work not everyone is eager to do. Despite the challenges, making strides to create a more equitable learning environment is not only the right thing to do for our historically marginalized students, it is crucial for our advantaged students and all members of our community to lead deeper, more just, and more empathetic lives as well. 

Written by Mike McRaith in June of 2019. Mike is the recent Montpelier High School Principal and now serves as the Assistant Executive Director for Vermont Principals’ Association. Mike is a 2013 Rowland Fellow. 

Written by Mike McRaith in June of 2019. Mike is the recent Montpelier High School Principal and now serves as the Assistant Executive Director for Vermont Principals’ Association. Mike is a 2013 Rowland Fellow.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment