In my experience as an Academic Resource teacher at Springfield High School (SHS), I work with students whose academic challenges all too often coincide with struggles for basic needs - housing, food, and health care. Both from my experience and from my initial and brief research into SHS student demographics and drop-out rates, correlations can be made between economic disadvantage and disengagement from school. As I have watched a number of students disengage from school I have asked myself, what might have kept them in school? How can we provide a space for these students that utilize their interests and needs to reengage them in learning?Springfield High School's continuous improvement plan is to 'increase student engagement and belonging at school,' which aligns with the development of a new alternative program at SHS for at-risk students that might reengage them in learning through a process of creating their own pathway to proficiency or graduation. They will engage in leadership curriculum, learning both about themselves as participants in society and applying that knowledge to their daily activities in school and the wider community. I hope to use my time as a fellow to research and design this program, while engaging the student body, faculty/staff, and the Springfield community in that process. I am so excited about this opportunity for students and hope to keep their needs and learning as my focus throughout my time as a Rowland fellow.
At Twin Valley Middle High School, our mission statement is "Creating Innovators Who Will Change the World." Over the last 6 years we have used this mission statement to guide our purpose. In 2019, we used the idea of innovation to create WILD programming (Wildcat Innovators Learning Dynamically). WILD took place during the week between semesters, not unlike a J-Term in college. The final result was a culminating night of a car show, student music videos, a museum about the Civil Rights Movement and so much more. This was my first taste witnessing how powerful choice can be for students.
This year has been full of innovation for everyone; teachers and students alike worked together to create engagement given the real life limitations put upon us. The limitations did, however, create opportunities to try new and different ways of working towards that engagement. The Design Thinking Process and Curricular Choice were two major components that showed success during this time. These empower students, promote creativity, and inspire the innovation we are looking for. I plan to study how design thinking strategies and choice can work together as a driver of change in the future. I will visit schools where choice and design thinking is used in a variety of ways, because there is no singular way to be successful in this process. Armed with my knowledge, my school will engage students, staff, and community by working with teachers in their classrooms, supporting their curriculum, and using creativity to provide choice for students. Finally, we will plan more WILD programs that are student led through choice and design thinking as a culmination of this work.
When I envision the success of my idea, I see more choice in every classroom. Teachers who allow students to learn in their own way then use their creativity to show their knowledge using something that they are passionate about. My dream is that students begin to be passionate and share their interests at school and in their learning. As teachers, I feel that we are responsible for showing their beauty of knowledge and how our passions can transfer to our learning and our futures.
At Winooski High School, we can honestly say that we have tried to engage all learners. Our proficiency system respects that learners come in with varied skillsets, but that all learners need certain skills for success. Learning is the constant, and time is the variable. We offer whole group instruction, small group instruction, teacher-paced classes, self-paced classes, flexible pathways, student-created learning opportunities, and free college classes. And yet, year after year, we continue to lose kids, often to Vermont Adult Learning (VAL), which for many is a nicer way to say "dropped out.
COVID, however, brought us the opportunity to try one of the few things we have not tried, at least not for some time. Essentially, we recreated the one-room schoolhouse of a bygone era. Each teacher would teach a pod of 8-12 students, two days in person, two days remote. The teacher would begin the year with a unit that reflected the teacher's licensure area, then pass the unit to the next teachers. The students in the original Pod, having completed the first unit, then begin a new discipline, facilitated by their original teacher. While these systems may not work long-term for all students and teachers, some of the students are thriving. These students have a consistent, caring adult, consistent rules, a consistent schedule, a soft beginning and end to the school day, and the chance to personalize their learning. Discipline referrals are at historic lows, in-person attendance is solid, and learning is happening. We know, however, that for most students, in a non-pandemic year, this model will not work in the long term.
For some, though, this school year might actually save them. Students have one or two teachers all day long, which allow relationships to develop and environments to remain consistent. We think each teacher in the school can name a student that directly benefited from this model. It was this experience that led us to our desire to explore an idea, hopefully with the support of the Rowland Foundation.
In August 2020, the Hazen Union School leadership decided that Individual and Collective Health and Wellbeing and Effective Communication would be the two key learning themes and transferable skills every student would focus on during the upcoming school year. Despite our best efforts, we are as far from reaching this goal now as we were when we started. The unprecedented challenges of this past year certainly played an important part, but they also highlighted just how far away we were at the start. Because the system is so stressed, only students who are in danger of failing classes, are truant, or are exhibiting behavior issues raise red flags. The ones who quietly do their work are not on anybody's radar and are assumed to be doing fine. Yet, when asked, many articulate extremely high levels of anxiety, depression, sense of isolation, and terrifyingly low self-esteem. Every day, caring adults go above and beyond to support our students while emphasizing the need to prioritize health and wellbeing. Yet, all of us - faculty, staff, administrators, and students - are burnt out. It is not a matter of not wanting the best for each other. It is a matter of being stuck in a system that resembles an assembly line factory perpetuating ill-health rather than a place where students and teachers thrive.
In order to address this issue, I started Dare To Be Me (DTBM) amidst the utter chaos and uncertainty of the COVID pandemic. Its primary goals were to 1) reach students who otherwise might fall through the cracks of the system, 2) foster an "I can" attitude to counter the all too prevalent sense of learned helplessness, 3) practice healthy ways of being that can contribute to a life-long pursuit of holistic wellbeing, 4) provide embodied and in-depth learning experiences by getting outside, breathing fresh air, and engaging our hearts, senses, bodies, and minds.
As a Rowland Fellow, I will have the crucial time and space to thoroughly evaluate what worked and what did not work during this first year of DTBM and to strengthen its foundational pillars. I hope to synthesize deep connection to the natural world, contemplative and mindfulness practice, identity exploration, and adventure and movement into a program that is thoroughly trauma-responsive. In order to achieve this, I must immerse myself in these modalities, connect with other visionary educators, and learn from schools which offer classes similar to what I am trying to create. Meanwhile, I will remain directly involved with our school by mentoring a colleague who will teach at least one section of DTBM and by piloting a program for teachers and administrators. Hazen Union's five year plan envisions incorporating Social-Emotional Learning, mindfulness, and trauma-responsive teaching in all classrooms, while the supervisory union's five year federal Project AWARE grant aims to advance wellness and resilience in education. The fellowship will allow me to collaborate with our school and district leadership as they pursue goals and initiatives that directly align with the mission of DTBM.
Ultimately, I believe that DTBM can become a catalyst for the paradigm shift our community desperately needs: a shift towards being versus doing, towards a respectful and caring relationship with the natural world, towards attunement as the foundation for communication, and towards a school culture of holistic wellbeing.
How might we prepare students for leadership roles in solving the world's food system challenges and developing innovative solutions for climate resilience in areas including: agriculture and forestry? This is the question that is driving us forward as the need for cultivating resilience is even more pressing now than ever before. We are building on a strong legacy of agricultural education at Woodstock Union Middle High School and seeking to stitch together the incredible people, resources, and places proximate to our school.
During this fellowship, we will be engaging faculty, students, and community partners in developing a flexible pathway of learning through courses and experiences that focus on building climate resilience by engaging in agricultural, forestry and technological innovation (CRAFT). This pathway will be interdisciplinary with cross curricular connections in health and wellness, the NuVu Innovation lab, the agriculture department, science department and our Center of Community Connections program. We will immerse students in relevant, hands-on learning experiences that allow for their own voice, creative thought, and problem-solving skills to be highlighted through work with teachers and community partners to elevate their engagement in learning and create systemic changes within education.
Ultimately, we hope to create a more resilient school and students who can respond to change, unexpected circumstances, and systemic challenges with grace, critical thinking, kindness, and strength. Students will understand that they each have a role to play in this world and that taking personal responsibility for their own education is the place to begin. We believe students are more likely to take lifelong action, and make personal choices that promote sustainable food, forest, and ecological systems, if they have a degree of ownership over their learning. We will use the vehicle of study of food and forest systems to cultivate transferable skills within our students.