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The Schools of Tomorrow

How Vermont classrooms are edging into the 21st century


Published August 29, 2012 at 4:46 a.m.
Updated November 12, 2020 at 4:50 p.m.


It’s back-to-school season in Vermont and around the country. But closely observe classrooms around the state, and it’s hard not to notice that school is beginning to look dramatically different from the institution we once knew.

Twelve years into the 21st century, teachers and administrators are still figuring out what the classroom of the future might look like. Their most exciting ideas boil down to a few simple, interconnected principles: Give students a voice. Recognize the benefits of real-world learning. Let students’ interests drive educational inquiry.

Fueling these innovations in large part are a few foundations that pump independent money into Vermont schools. Chief among them is the South Londonderry-based Rowland foundation, which funds teacher sabbaticals and new programming. Chuck Scranton became the foundation’s executive director in 2008, after 15 years as the principal at Burr and Burton Academy. Reflecting on his time as a high school administrator, he recalls being frustrated that he couldn’t do more to help teachers take risks in the classroom.

“Some of the best ideas that came out of my office were because a teacher walked in, and yet, more often than not, we didn’t have the resources, or the teacher didn’t have the time, to implement what they wanted to do,” he says.

Enter Wendy and Barry Rowland, the benefactors who had already given the largest-ever donation to the Burr and Burton endowment — in fact, the largest gift to a secondary school in the state. With the Rowlands’ support, the foundation is able to give five to seven Vermont teachers $100,000 apiece each year, according to Scranton. Half of that money supports a semester-long sabbatical, and the rest goes toward implementing the program the teacher creates.

“The basic, underlying principle of the foundation is bottom-up transformation,” Scranton explains. “Real change is not going to take place in schools without teacher-leaders.”

But real change can be slow in coming. From the outside looking in, school systems may seem like unmovable behemoths, weighed down by regulations and bureaucracy and the yoke of test scores. But author and educator Tony Wagner, who will speak next month at the Rowland Foundation’s second annual conference on school transformation at the University of Vermont, told Seven Days that change is not only possible but “absolutely essential.”

“The first and most important thing … is to really define more clearly, what does it mean to be an educated adult in the 21st century?” says Wagner, the author of The Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators, among other critically acclaimed books. “The world no longer cares about how much our kids know. What the world cares about is what they can do with what they know.”

Wagner calls for nothing short of revolutionary change.

“The most fundamental point is, we have for 25 years been talking about the wrong problem,” he says. “We have formulated the problem as one of failing schools and the need for reform. Schools are not failing. Our system of education is obsolete and needs reinventing.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Wagner acknowledges that educators can be susceptible to the “reform du jour” or “fad of the month” — and that trends come and go. Even the ones with staying power face challenges. Some administrators are more fired up than others about risk taking. Harried teachers can be wary of changes that seem like just one more to-do item on their long lists. And Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca points out that individuals can be wedded to their own memories of what school is.

“Everybody’s been to school, and they have a perception of what school should look like and be, based on their experiences,” he says in an interview. “Those experiences will often be obstacles we have to overcome.”

Many Vermont schools are trying, one step at a time. Seven Days set out to explore some of the current innovative theories reshaping education, ditching jargon in favor of big, easy-to-grasp ideas. Here are four of them.

Plugged-in Pupils

The Problem: For students who grow up with a computer or smartphone in hand, the classroom of yesterday is a snore.

The Theory: “Meeting students on their turf,” as Penny Bishop, director of the University of Vermont’s Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education, puts it, means that students are more likely to be engaged in what they’re learning.

In Practice: Experts acknowledge that just dumping free iPads and netbooks into schools isn’t effective — Bishop says those “technology drops” don’t work unless they’re paired with extensive training and support. And she’s not talking about simply teaching instructors how to fire up devices. She means helping them rethink lesson planning so it’s not just the same old, same old with a dash of new gadgetry thrown in.

What does that look like in practice? John Downes, the associate director of the Tarrant Institute, has a few favorite examples. There was the French teacher who wanted to test students’ verbal abilities in addition to performance on written exams, so she equipped her kids with cameras and moviemaking software and asked them to narrate their homemade films en français. A physical-education teacher realized that students sometimes struggled to differentiate between winning a race and developing good fitness. That teacher equipped students with heart-rate monitors and graphing software that allowed them to develop statistical portfolios of their cardio fitness. “The goal was not to run faster, but [learn] how to maximize your time in your cardio zone,” Downes says.

He says that teachers are also increasingly weaving social media into their lessons. At one school, a teacher of eighth-grade science set up Twitter feeds for his pupils and then interwove the Twitter streams of real-world scientists. “The teacher felt it was compelling for the kids to feel like they were connected to a larger scientific community beyond the eighth-grade classroom,” Downes says.

That sense of connection is what Jill Prado, a French and Spanish teacher at Essex High School, hopes to provide the students in her classroom. A 2012 Rowland Fellow, Prado is working with schools in Belgium and France to develop an online social network that links French-speaking students of English with Vermont pupils studying French.

“We’re meeting the next-gen learner where they are,” says Prado. “They’re so technologically savvy.” To her knowledge, this would be the first tool of its kind in classrooms — but she’s more excited about the interaction than the innovation.

“In a virtual exchange, we basically create a situation that’s independent of the barriers of affordability,” Prado says. “We can make this kind of experience, this immersive experience, more accessible to more students.” Très bien!

The Democratic Classroom

The Problem: A top-down model of education doesn’t acknowledge the talents and curiosity that students bring to their own education.

The Theory: The term is “democratizing the classroom.” Translation: Give students a say in how their schools are run. It’s not a case of the inmates running the asylum, but it does turn upside-down the Stand and Deliver model of education — in which the heroic, inspiring teacher singlehandedly leads the way — perpetuated by glamorous Hollywood representations.

Burlington High School English teacher Peter McConville — a former Rowland Fellow, and one of the architects of the Winooski-Burlington Partnership for Change that’s remodeling Burlington and Winooski high schools — talks about the move away from this “sage on the stage” model of teaching. “That world where we’re these proprietors of knowledge is gone,” McConville says.

In Practice: Jean Berthiaume, formerly a civics teacher at Harwood Union High School and a 2009 Rowland Fellow, wanted to give students a voice in how the high school was run.

“Sometimes school is done to people, and not with them,” says Berthiaume. His plan? Bring students to the table. At Harwood, that eventually meant putting students on major committees. They could weigh in on how their school schedule would look, or what Harwood’s health and wellness policies might be. When the schools handed these students the responsibility of designing and planning their own assemblies, teens designed what Berthiaume boasts are some of the best assemblies in the state. “They’re talking about their school, and they’re owning it.”

But he stresses that these policies are more than just a nod to democracy, and that the idea goes well beyond letting students play at real-world control. “I think that student voice … is an untapped resource,” Berthiaume says. Listen to your students, he concludes, and “schools will change dramatically.”

Playing Hooky

The Problem: The concept of “seat time” is a hallmark of education, as most former pupils remember it. Students show up, sit still for 45-minute chunks of math or science or history, and, when the bell rings, they move on to their next activity. It’s the kind of mechanized schedule that’s great for training factory workers for an industrial society — less so for shaping critical thinkers and flexible problem solvers.

The Theory: More and more programs demonstrate that the classroom doesn’t have to be where all learning takes place. At some schools, students have more and more opportunities to take their studies outside the brick-and-mortar institution.

In Practice: At the Walden Project, an outgrowth of Vergennes Union High School, students leave the conventional classroom for the wide-open woods of nearby Monkton. The idea behind this 20-student program for sophomores, juniors and seniors is to make like Henry David Thoreau. Just as the Concord, Mass., author took to Walden Pond to investigate the world around him, so do the students of the Walden Project ditch four walls in favor of a world of exploration and inquiry.

“The idea is to ground them in the adult world,” says Matthew Schlein, Walden’s executive director. “I love teachers, but we really are a very small subsection of the adult population.”

For a lesson on the legal system and criminal justice, that might mean field trips to local jails and courtrooms, as well as conversations with attorneys. Art class might turn into an artist’s residency in which students work alongside a professional sculptor. “We’re kind of culture vultures in terms of looking at people in the community to augment the curriculum,” Schlein says.

A similar idea is gearing up in central Vermont, where Montpelier High School science teacher Tom Sabo — a former Rowland Fellow — heads the Center for Sustainable Systems. He started CSS with help from the Rowland Foundation, building on the idea he’d already developed in the classroom to use food systems as a vehicle for teaching the core curriculum. Sabo has since created a pilot project for summer programming that gives students both academic credit and a stipend for working on the CSS farm.

The eventual goal is to bring this kind of service learning to all students — not just high fliers or low achievers. “We make the assumption that the rest of the kids, sitting quietly in their seats, are engaged and learning,” Sabo says. But give students a real-world classroom — where chemistry is reflected through a debate about pesticide use on fields, for example — and almost all can benefit from what Sabo calls an “authentic” learning environment.

One big challenge? Real-world learning doesn’t necessarily take place on the kind of 9-to-3 schedule that the traditional school day follows. In fact, for teachers like Sabo, who are trying to merge farm work and homework, this scheduling has an ironic drawback: It segregates the two. Schools originally ran between September and June so that students would be free to help out on their families’ farms during the busy growing season.

“In the 21st century, does that work as well it did … when we were an agriculture-based country? Does that model still work in a more technological and information-based country?” asks Commissioner Vilaseca. Not necessarily.

Making the Grade

The Problem: Secondary education today is largely measured in Carnegie units — a system of credit hours devised to standardize education. The idea is that time translates into achievement. Bank enough time, and you advance to the next grade level.

The Theory: Schools such as Vergennes Union High are trying a new system of student assessment. They’re rolling out “performance-based graduation requirements” (PBGR) — a mouthful of a term that, in essence, means assessing students on ability instead of simply seat time.

Aren’t graduation requirements already performance based? One would think so. After all, no matter how diligently a student shows up for math class, if he or she can’t parse quadratic equations, advancement is unlikely. But in many cases, students can slip through the cracks — working hard enough to pass without really demonstrating proficiency.

In Practice: Ask VUHS co-principal Ed Webbley what the new graduation requirements will look like in practice, and he chuckles.

“People ask us what we’re doing, and we look at them very evenly and say, ‘We’re not really sure,’” Webbley admits. “We’re building the airplane we’re flying.”

But it’s full speed ahead at VUHS, where an overhaul of the graduation requirements (coupled with a reinvented school schedule adding more flexible time) has been in the works for eight years. This year is the first that the new assessment system will be in place, and the class of 2016 will be expected to meet the new requirements for graduation.

The system is in large part the brainchild of two VUHS Rowland Fellows, Kristine Kirkaldy and Matt DeBlois.

“Essentially, with a performance-based system, the kid has to literally prove that they know what they say they know,” says Kirkaldy. The school, in turn, will offer students a chance to earn additional graduation honors in their best subjects. They’ll pull together elaborate portfolios over the course of their time at the high school, and then help build a jury of teachers and adult community members to evaluate their progress.

The teachers envision a system that puts more weight on critical thinking and problem solving, and that recognizes the skills students acquire beyond the classroom. Webbley offers the example of a VUHS senior who, for several years, has owned and operated his own maple-syrup business. He’s drafted a business plan, tracked profits and losses, and reinvested some of his earnings in a new evaporator he trucked down from St. Albans.

“There has been no avenue for him to be able to count that as one of his academic successes, even though he’s built a business plan and done all the math to assure his profit margins,” Webbley says.

Of course, the school has run into some “uneasiness,” as the coprincipal puts it, coming from both parents and teachers. “People fear the unknown, and they don’t know how colleges will react,” Webbley says. But he’s blunt about the progress the school needs to make and the risks he’s willing to take to get there. When Webbley started at VUHS, just 51 percent of students went on to higher education. “That’s not a high threshold,” he observes.

The Second Annual Conference on School Transformation, with keynote speaker Tony Wagner, takes place at the University of Vermont on September 27.