A number of years ago, while leading a reflective discussion during a cultural learning trip in Nicaragua, I asked a student why he was now so interested in the issue of global poverty, while back home in school he acted with little interest. His reply was, "well, this is real." I'd like to say I was shocked, but I too understood the power of esthetic experience in creating "real" learning. I began to ask: Why are our learning institutions not feeling "real" to our students and what can we do to foster a stronger sense of responsibility and urgency in our students' learning? I had no answers to these questions, but I knew for certain that many of my students knew next to nothing about the world, yet possessed an insatiable curiosity for understanding the peoples and issues of our world. I want to bridge this gap.My proposal is to address what I feel are the three primary barriers in secondary education from preventing a sense of "real:"
My proposal is to create an academy within the school with an experiential, student-centered environment that fosters global perspectives across the curriculum. My hope is that, through research of various assessment and curricular best practices in place in other academic institutions, we can transform aspects of our school and tap that natural curiosity our students have for learning about our world. In so doing, I foresee creating that very important sense of "real."
The need for a sense of "real," is the crux that remains of my original goal after almost two years of grinding, bending, twisting and morphing my proposal into a successful program at Mt. Mansfield Union High School. What was once to be a "school within a school" that offered a global education utilizing unique instructional and assessment techniques is now quite differentyet, at heart, still very much the same.
In the midst of my sabbatical research, through research, discussion and a number of surveys, I came to realize two major problems with my initial proposal:
One lesson I've learned by transforming a part of MMU is the value in "bending" my plans toward a bigger goal in mind. While no longer the 'academy' model I sought to create, my initial goal of creating a sense of "real" in how the students approach the learning process remains, now offered to the entire school population.
I believe that excellent health, cultural astuteness, strong communication skills, and technological savvy are key traits that will empower students to become the dynamic global citizens that they will need to be if they are to understand, respect, and work collaboratively with others in our multi-cultural world. In order for students to become enthusiastic participants in a global context, they must feel good about themselves and know intimately their own academic skills and personal strengths. In our schools, teachers must model this self-knowledge and engaged participation.
Out of this belief comes my dream to spark students in our rural, Pre-K through 12 school to develop the stamina and broadmindedness that will allow them to participate in solving the problems we face on our increasingly threatened planet. To achieve this outcome, my project will address the reality that the ideologies of risk-taking, cultural acceptance, self-help, collaboration, and free exchange of ideas that characterize the philosophy of our emerging global society, may often contradict some of the attitudes and values that students have grown up with in rural communities.
My initiative will provide students with two integrated curriculum strands to help counter this situation. The first is a wellness strand that will equip students with lifelong tools to maintain their own wellbeing, and the second is a multi-cultural strand that will encourage them to learn about diverse cultures and global issues through the use of arts and communications technology. A vertical team of teachers will become an in-house resource for designing curriculum materials, pursuing professional development opportunities, and embracing the use of up-to-date technology for student collaboration within the state and around the globe. We will also participate with our students, administration, school board, and community in implementing our district's strategic action plan, which focuses on developing curriculum in wellness and cultural diversity.
The Blue Mountain Union School has created a professional learning community comprised of faculty, students, administration, school board, and community to design, oversee, and implement the many facets of our cultural diversity and wellness curriculum.
What follows is a list of the major components of the work we have completed to date:
By some estimates, Burr and Burton Academy has roughly 25% of its students living in poverty. This group is largely invisible, yet we know that the needs of students growing up in poverty are distinct and different from their more fortunate counterparts. The fact that BBA has a wealth divide within the school makes it uncommon. Most studies done on how to help lower income students focus on urban schools with a large percentage of non-white students who are living below the poverty line. Burr and Burton has a unique situation in that we are not only rural, but at BBA poverty is not tied to race. This makes the job of closing the achievement gap at Burr and Burton one that needs creative solutions through the particular lens of white, rural Vermont. As a Rowland Fellow, I will determine, recommend and implement unique practices and programs to help meet these needs.
By focusing my recommendations on the needs of the school, determined by the data collected, I am sure to implement thoughtful, careful changes that truly reflect the students at Burr and Burton. Therefore, the recommendations I develop will improve the achievement of not only the lower income students, but of all our pupils to continue our drive for excellence. In the end, the plan will help our entire student body become well-rounded individuals who are educated intellectually and morally for a life of responsibility, integrity and service.
The pattern of generational poverty cannot be broken with short-term band-aids, but only through strategic, long-term work. Burr and Burton Academy's endeavor is to help break the cycle through education, since it is at the heart of lasting change. We began by implementing the following new programs:
We hope that Burr and Burton Academy's focus on supporting students in poverty through directed academic interventions, along with developing habits of mind for all, will show results far into the future.
The subjects we teach in school do not exist in a vacuum, and yet we treat them as if they do. The first bell rings, English; the bell rings again, mathematics; the bell rings once more, biology. Students shuffle from room to room for 90 minutes of instruction on artificially compartmentalized subjects. This approach denies students the ability to see the world as an interconnected whole where cause and effect relationships refuse to adhere to the neatly defined lines of the typical high school schedule. As such, many students lose interest in class before the bell even rings.
During my sabbatical I will be working on an interdisciplinary curriculum centered on the ideas of sustainability and sense of place. It will emphasize community based, service-learning with an emphasis on project and performance based assessment. Since I will be retaining half of my teaching duties throughout the year, my fellowship will allow me the time to design, implement, and reflect on a new learning and teaching experience at Burlington High School. The Seminar on the Culture of Place, as we're calling the pilot course, will serve as a model for other teachers to work on their own theme-based seminars, eventually allowing for the establishment of junior and senior year academies designed along similar educational and assessment goals.
As an English major in college, I fell in love with what I refer to as landscape writerspeople in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau who can evoke the spirit of a place with a few short lines. But to keep Thoreau and his ilk confined to the English classroom is to miss a key point in his work, that the complete human must be a generalist. Thoreau was an environmentalist, a geographer, and a farmer. He was a philosopher, a poet, and an economist. He also understood the plight of the modern day high school student. "It is not enough to be busy," he wrote, "?the question is, what are we busy about?" In drawing connections between disciplines, we can make learning relevant, and we can answer the question, "what are we busy about?"
The Montpelier High School Center for Sustainable Systems (MHS CSS) will be a year-round service learning based educational program that uses the food system as a vehicle to teach sustainability across the curriculum. Through creative programming and scheduling, the MHS CSS will serve students embarked on multiple pathways. The experiential service learning will provide rigor and relevance for students of all abilities. Stand-alone programming will be available for students on alternative, independent or home-schooled paths. The center will also provide opportunities for teachers of all disciplines to bring their classes for lessons and/or units at a satellite campus.
Interdependence is a characteristic of any sustainable system. By partnering with two area non-profit organizations that work to feed the hungry and train the impoverished to provide for themselves, we will better serve our target populations. The nonprofit provides a direct connection to a vulnerable part of our community that will be a natural recipient, now and a generation from now, of the service learning experienced by the school students.
A sustainable system meets the environmental, economic, and social needs of the present generation, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. By creating the means for students to engage in the process of building a sustainable food system, we are providing for them the opportunity to develop a wide-range of skills, in context. Instead of simply applying acquired knowledge, our students will acquire knowledge while they apply themselves to the needs of their community. Like the needs of a garden in any given season, life is a moving target. Successful cultivation requires flexibility, compassion, a diverse skill set, and a lot of hard work. The MHS Center for Sustainable Systems aims to provide just that for all of our students.
The Center for Sustainable Systems (CSS) was incorporated in January 2012 and received its non-profit status May 2012. Through an annual professional development course offered through Saint Michael's College, CSS has trained over 30 teachers from 7 different Central Vermont schools. As a result, hundreds of students have been engaged through food-system connections in disciplines ranging from Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, to World History, Economics, Algebra, and Spanish. Products from the school gardens and micro-businesses include: bread made from wheat grown on school property, popcorn, biochar (fertilizer), hot sauce, and numerous fruits and vegetables that are served at school cafeterias.
A program entitled "Food, Farm, and Society" maintains school gardens during the summer months. Students from Central Vermont high schools are awarded academic credit and $9.00/hour for the work that goes beyond the learning experience.
More information about the CSS can be found at: www.cssvt.org