My principal keeps asking us to look for the bright spots, the subtle and easily overlooked places where things are working in times of tremendous change. The concept isn’t new or unique to our most recent challenges. In fact, I’ve spent a lot of this year thinking about “the early glimmers of something going right” as I’ve been re-imagining how school could work to connect more young people to their communities and the natural world we inhabit. But the last three weeks have brought my year-long Rowland fellowship to what feels like a screeching halt. What does experiential learning and student leadership look like in time of social isolation and distance learning?
It’s a curveball I never could have anticipated when I set out to spend a year with one foot in and one foot out of the traditional classroom. Educators and school leaders often use the metaphor of building a plane might-flight to describe school reform. Now, our airspace is toxic and we’re being re-routed. Time of arrival? Unknown. Turbulence? Expect a lot of it. Will there still be snacks? Don’t count on it.
So I’m taking her advice in finding a new flight pattern: be flexible and gentle with yourself and others, and look for the bright spots. For starters, I, along with literally every teacher in America, am trying to get back to the core of what matters in our craft, the one piece of the formula on which everything else is predicated: relationships. Only now, it’s seeking connection in a time of unprecedented disconnection.
But I’ll admit that I’m looking for bright spots reluctantly. I am doing it because I know that it helps. When you illuminate success you can replicate the conditions and behaviors that made it so. You can study where the magic is happening and clone it. I’m doing it reluctantly, though, because trying to think about positives right now, when it feels like the world is going up in flames, can feel daunting at best, and exploitative at worst. Who am I to get to see bright spots right now? How many of these new learnings and experiences are only possible because of this tragedy?
A Harvard Business Review article published last week suggests that this feeling, ebbing back and forth between deep sadness, fear and loss is actually grief. Grief can be both an immediate feeling—mourning what you just lost, and anticipatory—knowing you’re in for more loss in the future. The steps to managing grief are first to acknowledge it, then deny it, bargain for it, feel angry about it, and finally, finally, to accept it. Understanding this cycle and recognizing my own grief is helping me move into a space where I can, at times, start to see some light.
I won’t be able to feel okay about my parents going to the grocery store or my in-laws and sister going to work for a long time: ok, let go of what I can’t control. I won’t be able to pursue the athletic goals I was on track for this year: alright, adjust and be persistent. I can’t give the most vulnerable young people I know a sense of safety and love in my physical classroom: fine, but I can hold virtual drop-in hours, help with meal delivery and send hand-written notes home in the mail.
Three weeks ago when everything was normal, I asked that my students, all seniors, stand in a circle and share their answer to this prompt: “Imagine… I made each of you an appointment to get a tattoo this afternoon—permanent or temporary is your choice. What would you get??”
Their responses are the bright spots I’m holding close to my heart in this time of school at a distance. Some of my students said funny things, like an inside joke with a best friend. Other choices included a map of a childhood special place, a meaningful symbol, and ones own artwork. More than half shared that they’d brand their bodies to honor their families. A young man rolled up his sleeve to reveal a still-sore real tattoo he’d gotten just days earlier as testament to his dad who passed away. I ended class by telling them how awesome they are and I reminded them to wash their hands. Turns out that would be our last time together.
When we got the call that we wouldn’t return this year I cried in the kitchen for a while. Its all hit me: this isn’t going to be over soon. School without the kids? That’s not what I signed up for. I am going to need those bright spots, those memories of moments where it worked, and the virtual equivalents to come, now more than ever.
My husband gave me a hug and helped me reframe. “How LUCKY you are, to feel such sadness that you can’t go to your job,” he said. And he’s right. I am so, so grateful to love what I do so much that it hurts to do it from my kitchen table. I’m starting to see that the bright spots aren’t going anywhere. In many ways, they’re already shining brighter than ever.
Yesterday, a student who’s an accomplished competitive swimmer emailed me to say that he took up cycling because he can’t go to the pool right now. He sent me pictures of the roads he’s been riding and now we’re trading photos of picturesque open roads. This morning another checked in and let me know that she’s working overtime at her family’s grocery store because they’re the only place in town where people can shop. “I’m going to try my hardest to get my work done, but right now its people that matter most,” she wrote.
My bright spot today is that this circumstance, strange and tragic as it is, is giving us each a window into each other’s humanity that wasn’t there before—even if we can’t see each other physically. Perhaps these limitations are where we grow to new heights in our compassion, kindness, and ability to see each other as the resilient and brave beings we each are at our cores.
And I’m going to keep looking for bright spots, because I know the kids are.
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
“Honestly,” I said to my thirteen students from 11 different countries, “if teaching was a job that was only online, I wouldn’t be a teacher. I am here for the relationships. I am here to be with you. I have taken online classes, and I don’t remember the instructors or any of the other participants. To me, that would not be teaching.” This was on Thursday, March 12 as my school ran a practice drill of how school would work if it were all on line. We decided that on Thursday the students would come to school and pretend they were at home working on line, and then on Friday, the 13th students would stay home and do their work online. My students, though ELL, are all boarders, so this simply meant they would be in their dorms.
During the class period the executive committee at my school decided that all boarding students would be sent home. We would close the dorms. The goal was to have all students from 22 different countries back with their families no later than Monday, March 16th. By Monday the governor of Vermont had declared a state of emergency and required the closure of all schools no later than Wednesday, March 18th. On Wednesday, March 18th, we were asked to begin conducting all of our lessons online.
As more schools around the country face this reality, sharing ideas of what’s working, tips on what to do and what not to do seems like a practical way for us to help each other out. With a class of thirteen students I hosted a Zoom class meeting the first day of online school (March 18) All but four students attended. I just asked them to describe going home and how they felt. The conversation lasted forty minutes. We conducted another meeting on Friday, (March 20) and three who had not dialed in for the first meeting attended this meeting. Students compared how their countries were coping with the virus, from economic strife to quarantine to the level of citizens to take the CDC recommendations seriously.
Whatever you can do to keep a sense of community with your students; do it. If I were unable to conduct meetings like this I would be posting videos of myself in our LMS (learning management system.) Recognize that you are not an online teacher. You may never wish to be one. They are not online learners either. Take it slowly. Everyone needs to get used to the new normal. Be sure your personality shows up. Work to keep them connected to each other. In addition to these video chat meetings I post a discussion board where they can share their thoughts. And we are reading a book together in real time. I have recorded audio of myself reading it and they can listen to that or to a professional through audible. Most are choosing my recording. Finally, I am directing them to partake in writing activities that could someday become primary sources; helping them understand that what they write now will help other generations from now understand the severity of the crisis and the unprecedented nature of the time. My class is not be synchronous, nor should it be. They have other classes. Yours is not the only one. Take that into consideration when assigning work. Remember, this is scary and traumatic for most of them, be the helper and keep the safe, connected community you had in your classroom available to them online.
Sandra Mings Lamar, Director of International Programs for a small town academy in Vermont, is a 2016 Rowland Fellow, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Botswana, and has been teaching second language English learners since 1989.
This post was written before the current viral outbreak. In some ways it seems even more relevant now.
You know what? You deserve this six minute gift~especially if you think you are too busy today, or if you are feeling ineffective or worried.
Thanks to my good friend and important educational influencer, Lucie Delabruere, I was reminded today of the importance of gratitude. She shared this link to “Gratitude: The Short Film by Louie Schwartzberg”: https://vimeo.com/44131171 and I encourage you to gift yourself the 6 minutes or so it will take to watch. In fact, rather than write a whole post that would also take you 6 minutes to read, I’ll simply leave it at this.
At a retreat of Rowland Women last fall, 45% of attendees listed Gratitude as their top core value, based on the work we did with Brene Brown’s book Dare to Lead. In a small group session we shared ideas about “cultivating the response of gratitude” as Schwartzberg says in the film. Some things we do include sharing an observation with friends or family at a meal, or observing one delightful thing on the way to work, or writing a thank-you note to a colleague once a week, or saying the words “Thank” ‘and “You” as we plant our feet. Nothing fancy nor time consuming, but a wonderful practice. How do you foster gratitude?
The 2020 Rowland Foundation conference will be held on October 29 at UVM. Our theme will be climate change and our keynote speaker will be Katharine Wilkenson, the lead author of Drawdown, the NY Times best seller. We are so fortunate that she has agreed to come to Vermont.
Dr. Katharine Wilkinson is the Vice President of Communication and Engagement at the nonprofit Project Drawdown and was the lead writer for the New York Times bestseller Drawdown. This powerful book describes the 100 most substantive solutions to global warming. For each solution the history, carbon impact, relative cost and savings, and path to adoption are described. These solutions, which are based on peer-reviewed science, aim to reverse the buildup of atmospheric carbon within thirty years.
Solutions proposed in Drawdown range from wind turbines and solar panels to electric vehicles and reducing food waste. They also include “Educating Girls,” which addresses the impact that inequities along gender lines has on global warming. This happens to be a particular area of expertise for Dr. Wilkinson, as can be seen in her immensely popular TED Talk.
The Rowland Foundation feels privileged to bring such an experienced and accomplished intellect to Vermont at this pivotal time in humanity’s fight against climate change. Dr. Wilkinson will engage teachers and students in a comprehensive and solutions-oriented manner, which we hope will inspire and empower all those in attendance.
Early bird registration will begin in May, so start thinking about the team of eight you’ll want to bring!
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
Questions aligned with specific Crosscutting Concepts
Questions 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 & Effect
What were the conditions when this occurred (time of day, weather, etc.)?
What could be some possible causes for the collapse?
Scale, Quantity, & Proportion
Does the size of the tanker have anything to do with the collapse?
Describe and draw the phenomenon at scale.
Systems & System Models
What are the different components resulting in the collapse?
Illustrate the system and include relevant interactions among the components of the system.
Energy & Matter
What 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 & Change
What 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,
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:
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.
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?
Athletics heighten equity gaps.
You’ve heard it before. Some form of Athletics are the great equalizer.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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
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.
*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