It was just before lunch as Alex Bickart loped down a relatively quiet hallway in his small Vermont high school, his thoughts elsewhere, when he was startled by his guidance counselor, who wanted a word with him. (“My first thought was, ‘Oh God, what’s happened?’” Alex recalled.)
This was early last September at Peoples Academy, a regional high school in Morrisville, Vermont, a half hour’s drive north of Montpelier. The school serves about 250 students from eight rural communities; Alex’s town, Elmore, is among the smallest. “Our downtown,” he noted, “is five buildings.”
Alex stands out. He’s six feet, seven inches tall, with a wide range of interests: he skis, plays tennis, and competed last year in the Science Olympiad and the Vermont Envirothon, in which student teams explore natural-resource issues. And that September morning, his counselor had pegged him to be an ideal candidate for a rather nontraditional learning initiative. Which is how he wound up in a small, windowless room meeting with Bill Rich, a 1999 graduate of the Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English and the coordinator for the Vermont Bread Loaf Teacher Network. (Now 23 years old, the network fosters year-round collaboration for teachers educated at Bread Loaf; Rich coordinates the group of educators working in Vermont.)
An education consultant, Bill Rich easily connects with young people—he has taught English in both middle and high schools—and he struck Alex as affable and chatty while describing a yearlong, full-credit course that was being made available to a select group of Vermont students.
What Rich described was unlike anything Alex had ever heard before—students would be responsible for not only designing their own curriculum, but deciding what they would study. “And then he was gone,” said Alex, “and I was left with a choice: continue with the mind-numbing repetition that is every English class ever, or take a risk on this mysterious program that seemed to promise so much?”
Ultimately, he said, it wasn’t much of a choice at all, and a few weeks later he found himself with 20 other students who had traveled to Middlebury College—most from schools in or near Addison County, plus three who are homeschooled—in kicking off the second year of this pilot project titled “What’s the Story?” Designed and run by the Vermont Bread Loaf Teacher Network in collaboration with the College, the project flips the traditional approach to high school courses: Students choose their topics (the one requirement is that they involve “work toward positive change”) and design their curriculum, working in multiage, multischool teams; teachers act as coaches or mentors from the sidelines.
During the fall, students would research, blog about, and develop their topic idea, with feedback from adult volunteers. On an overnight retreat in late October, the students would pitch their ideas in short, TED Talk–style presentations. They’d then form into five teams. Each team would choose a single topic, on which its members would work—theoretically, at least—in creative, technology-aided collaboration until spring.
By design, each project should be different than any other, but to shape and assess everyone’s learning, Rich and Tim O’Leary, an English teacher at Middlebury Union High School and 2007 Bread Loaf grad, had devised specific academic standards that each student was required to meet. To pass, every student would have to show they’d developed skills, knowledge, and experience in communicating, creative problem-solving, self-directed learning, savvy use of multimedia, collaboration, and active citizenship.
In his consulting work, Rich uses brain science to help schools design personalized learning plans. “The big challenge,” he says, “is to make sure the students are really emotionally engaged in the work they’re doing. The ideal is, how do we design learning so that the work students do is going to prepare them for the rest of their lives?”
What’s the Story?” was developed in 2014–15, as an elective that involved 11 students from five Vermont high schools, each doing an individual project on family farming. Last year the project expanded into a full-credit course on student-selected topics; 10 teachers from the Vermont Bread Loaf Teacher Network acted as mentors to the teams, with about 60 community volunteers also involved, including some College staff. Most of the volunteers helped individual students refine their initial topic interests during the early “I-Search” phase; the adult responders were urged to ask “probing or clarifying questions,” to suggest resources, to “help push their thinking.”
Today, as the 2016-17 school year begins, the Vermont Bread Loaf Teacher Network hopes to keep growing its course, into what could become a model—statewide, even nationally—for the effort to make high school education more meaningful—and memorable.
“We’ve known for years that not all children are best served by sitting in the classroom in rows and having the teacher lecture them, and we’ve seen a tremendous change in the ways that people can access knowledge,” notes David Sharpe, a retired teacher who chairs the Vermont House Committee on Education as a state representative from Bristol. “The role of teachers is changing, from delivering pedagogical information to coaching students. The model where students pick a subject to research it and make a presentation—that’s the type of model that I think education is moving toward.”
Vermont has put muscle behind that movement, with two recent changes in education law and policy. After years of failed efforts to promote creative change in how high schools deliver education, in 2013 the Legislature enacted Act 77, the Flexible Pathways Initiative. The law now requires that every high schooler get the chance to combine learning experiences from within and outside the school classroom, in personalized ways that may propel more young Vermonters toward postsecondary success.
Also in 2013, the state made its education standards proficiency-based. Rather than just passing classes, in order to graduate students will have to show they’ve gained actual skills, knowledge, and experience. Vermont is leaving it to individual schools to decide how they’ll do that, but has required that new graduation requirements be in place for the Class of 2020.
Bill Rich calls those two changes a “double helix, of personalization and standards-based learning.” The key question, he says, is “how do we make high school an environment where there really is personalization, but we don’t lose the standards?”
Most students who attend Middlebury’s graduate School of English are educators working toward master’s degrees, and for these normally harried schoolteachers, Bread Loaf becomes a kind of think tank, an incubator for new ideas—and up on the mountain campus one summer afternoon in 2014, a group of Vermont teachers sat on a lawn and started talking about a new type of course.
The time was right, with the passage of Act 77 and the change in standards, and the College had brought in a sizable grant from a donor who wanted to support a project aimed at social change in Vermont. The teachers sketched out a course that could be based, in creative ways, on multimedia storytelling.
“We weren’t sure it was going to take off and work,” Rich recalls. “We underestimated the power of our design.”
“To me, the power of ‘What’s the Story?’—and where it could impact schools and school systems significantly—is in its focus on students taking the lead, and constructing their own learning,” observes Peter Burrows, the superintendent of schools in Middlebury and its surrounding small communities. Burrows has been closely involved with the project and says it’s hard to legislate the kind of change within schools that Act 77 is calling for—but “What’s the Story?” may be helping point the way.
“When you look at how ‘What’s the Story?’ has been developed and designed, students are provided with a structure,” he notes, “but within that structure, there is immense responsibility they have, to construct something meaningful to them. And they have to present that, so there’s action involved as well, which is a critical piece of what needs to happen.”
By April, the students had been working—some more than others—on their projects for several months. Team members often live in different communities—one resides up in Derby, on the Canadian border—so most of their meetings are virtual, using Skype, email, or other digital tools to stay in touch. But with deadlines looming, the teams made weekend plans to convene with their mentors in central locations to gauge their progress. Almost immediately, it was clear that some teams were doing just fine; others were struggling.
In a classroom at Middlebury Union High School, one team was focused on the state’s recent decision to cut the number of emergency dispatch centers, from four centers to two. The project idea came from Brennan Bordonaro, a soft-spoken sophomore from rural Hancock, which sits along the eastern border of Addison County, just down the hill from the Snow Bowl. That day, Bordonaro was wearing a Vermont Fire Academy ball cap; he’s been a member of his local fire department since he was 14. He’s also a hunter, a fisherman, and a member of the regional ambulance crew. His initial take on the dispatch-center cuts, he said, came from talking with locals in Hancock, other volunteers like himself.
“I went into this very one-sided—I didn’t know the other side,” he admitted. As his team gathered information and interviewed people like the state’s public safety commissioner, however, his viewpoint expanded.
“I think the real issue is that neither side talks to the other side. There just isn’t enough communication,” he said. “Each side has their own viewpoint, and neither is listening to the other.”
In the next room, teacher/mentor Ben Krahn, MA English ’09, seemed frustrated with a team that hadn’t yet refined its vague interest in solar power. The students needed to put a video together, but they didn’t know where to begin.
“I think we need to get messy,” Krahn urged. “Let’s figure out the beginning—what does the beginning look like? Is it a shot of something, or someone talking? Let’s figure out how to start it.”
There wasn’t much response. But about 25 miles away at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, another team was closing in fast on its goal.
“Breaking Binary” was this group’s title. Its three members, two from CVU and a homeschooled middle schooler, were in the media lab finishing a film on how schools can broaden perspectives and vocabulary around gender identity. Their blog was full of probing reflections, and in a week their film would win one of the top awards at the second annual Freedom & Unity youth film festival in Montpelier.
“I’ve worked really, really hard on this—I’ve been in here at least an hour and a half every day since January,” said CVU junior Eva Rocheleau, as classmate Becca Cottrell prepared to record a voiceover.
“So how,” Cottrell read, “do we as teachers, students, friends, and leaders support a safe and accepting school community where everyone can thrive, regardless of gender identity or expression?”
Hearing the playback, CVU teacher/mentor Emily Rinkema, MA English ’03, exclaimed, “Perfect!”
Later, Rinkema reflected on what she’s witnessed during the year. “We don’t always know what a student is really learning, and independent study isn’t always a well-targeted learning experience,” she said. “With this, we really see the growth. We have particular targets—and they’re getting feedback along the way.”
Dark-eyed and full of ideas, Eva Rocheleau is involved with a school club called Think Tank, which works to promote education reform. She also plays Ultimate Frisbee and sings world folk music with Village Harmony, a summertime touring choral program for teens. When she started the I-Search process, Rocheleau was first interested in the threats facing honeybees—but when she shifted her focus to gender identity, she discovered a new-found passion for the subject.
“I have to stop and remind myself, ‘Oh, I’m going to get credit for this amazing experience that’s changing my life?’ This is what I want to do,” she said. “I want to make activism documentaries. So it was almost overwhelmingly exciting for me to do that.”
Rinkema, Rocheleau’s mentor, has seen this transformation in students before. “There’s something that happens occasionally, where a course stops being a course for a student,” she said. “Partway through the first semester, that happened for Eva.”
At the third school, in South Burlington, Bill Rich was helping guide Alex Bickart’s group, which was struggling to pull together its work on foster parenting in Vermont. Later, Rich put things in perspective.
“They’re adolescents,” he said. “When given autonomy, they tend to mess up a little. It’s okay; let them mess up. Give them some feedback. It’s remarkable how much they learn about themselves when they don’t have us hovering over them the whole time, telling them what to do.”
After he was introduced to “What’s the Story?” during its first year, Bill Koulopoulos, the College’s director of academic technology, decided to make the course the focus of his dissertation for an educational doctorate at Columbia University.
“For a teacher, this is Shangri-La,” he explains, “because it brings together 21st-century skills where students learn to collaborate, learn to communicate, learn critical thinking, and they create. You provide them with the equipment, you have people from different backgrounds giving them feedback, they move from their world to the outside world, and the final product is something that could be used to advocate for change. At this young age.”
In May came the final phase. During their last overnight retreat at a center in Lincoln earlier in the month, the teams previewed their work to each other. Then they were challenged to take it to the outside world, advocating for change in some way.
On a Saturday morning, Eva Rocheleau and teammate Fiona Nelson arrived at U-32 High School in East Montpelier to lead a workshop at the Queer and Allied Youth Summit, organized by the nonprofit organization Outright Vermont. After showing “Breaking Binary,” their 10-minute film, Rocheleau explained to a classroom of high schoolers drawn from around the state the difference between first-order and second-order change.
“First order is something you can change really easily,” she said. “Second-order change might take a team of people. It might take months or years.”
She asked, “What tactics have you seen that have worked, when you want to make change?” Noting answers and ideas on a whiteboard, she asked about identifying change makers to talk with. How do you set up a conversation? What can make it a success?
A few days later, another presentation’s setting could hardly be more different. It was the monthly meeting of the Hancock Fire Department. In a small room behind the parked fire engines, 10 company members sat around a table in sweatshirts, flannel shirts, and ball caps. Brennan Bordonaro and teammate Brynna Kearns, also a sophomore at Middlebury Union, presented their film on the emergency dispatch cuts.
“We spent about eight months doing research,” Bordonaro told the firefighters. “The consolidation isn’t the biggest issue—it’s communication between departments when there is an emergency.”
There were some questions, some discussion. Then one firefighter said, “You did a good job.”
“Yeah—you did an excellent job,” added the chief, Jacques Veilleux, before razzing his fellow volunteer firefighter. “I take it the other three did all the work?” Bordonaro smiled. He didn’t have to say that he had, in fact, worked very hard.
Nearing the point of no return, the team with an interest in solar power found a late focus: net-zero homes, which produce as much energy as they consume. They finished their project just in time, though Indigo Woods, a Middlebury Union High School junior who wound up working by herself on the project’s website, wasn’t sure they’d make it.
“Different members had different ideas about how to approach the project, and what the topic should be,” Indigo said. “Sometimes it didn’t seem like we were all on the same page…but in the end, we did pull it together. And I think I learned a lot about working with people.”
Alex Bickart had a similar thought. “Beyond high school, if you’re doing a project with someone it’s not going to be a four-day thing—you’re going to be working with these people for months. It was really useful to figure out how that works.”
In late May, Tim O’Leary, the Bread Loaf alumnus who is the project’s lead teacher, turned his ninth-grade classroom at Middlebury Union over to Ella Nagy-Benson, a local tenth grader whose team’s project focused on Act 77, the Flexible Pathways Initiative. Her goal was partly to spark interest among the ninth graders in joining “What’s the Story?” next year.
“It never feels like school when you’re working on your project because you’re working on something you care about, and you’re treated more like an adult,” Nagy-Benson told them after showing her team’s film. A shy, slender Nordic skier, lacrosse player, and classical pianist, Nagy-Benson said that her participation in the course had helped her grow more confident.
“At the beginning,” Nagy-Benson told the class, “you don’t think you could do something like that, but you’re forced to step out of your comfort zone. If you’re looking to get more out of your education, I would strongly recommend ‘What’s the Story?’”
Nobody responded. There were no questions, and no one signed up. Later, O’Leary reflected on why.
“These are ninth graders—I’m pretty sure they’ve never before been invited into a conversation about their own learning.” What seems to work better, he said, is to identify a student who seems like a prospect, as Alex Bickart had been identified, then have a talk with him or her.
“So much of what we do is to give students a means of creating agency,” O’Leary said. “I think in the nature of that individual conversation, the student can see themselves as an individual.”
As the school year ended, Dixie Goswami wrote in an email that the project is “making waves and making history.” A retired professor—at Clemson and Bread Loaf—who never seems retired at all, Goswami directs the nationwide Bread Loaf Teacher Network; she’s its lead promoter of new ideas and projects.
“One way it’s making history,” she wrote, “is by giving learning opportunities and agency to young people who don’t have private resources, to do these things that are quite routine in elite institutions. The other way is by demonstrating what you can do as a member of a network that includes Middlebury College and the Bread Loaf School of English, with local communities and with schools that include economically diverse populations, forming a network that works.
“That’s a model for liberal education all over this country.”
With summer vacation a few days away, Ben Krahn, the English teacher at Middlebury Union High School, opened a desk drawer in his classroom, lifted out a stack of term papers, and dropped them back in with a thunk.“The paper a student writes: it goes to us and that’s it,” he said. “These videos, like ‘Breaking Binary’: the most powerful audience for these is other students.”
Among the 21 students who showed up for the project’s first September gathering, only one dropped out. All the rest passed. “In September, they were deer in the headlights,” Krahn recalled, “and when we finished in May, the kids had ownership. Of everything.”
“What’s the Story?” may not be right for every student, Krahn said, but “I think the balance of this and the traditional course could be a real model. ‘What’s the Story?’ doesn’t replace everything—but it gives kids practice in certain skills that you get in the traditional classroom, but you get better in a project like this.”
Krahn and his wife, Courtney, a teacher at the local middle school, met as Bread Loaf grad students; now they’re parenting two preschoolers, and they both spend the school year juggling the unceasing demands on teachers today. Courtney Krahn shared a note she had received from a student she worked with, in both her regular classroom and through “What’s the Story?”
“You have one of the hardest and most underappreciated jobs in the world,” wrote middle schooler Emily Pecsok. “After seeing how much you impacted my life, I realized I really want to become a teacher so maybe one day I can help a student in the same ways you helped me.”
To Courtney Krahn, that note said something important—and it wasn’t about her. “I think this letter speaks to how deeply students crave meaningful, intelligent and social connections,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “Because we spent time in carpools and conference calls together; because we worked together in real environments—coffee shops, public libraries; because we existed on equal playing fields; and because our work was real, she suddenly felt a different connection.
“In an educational world where sticky notes cover my desk, Common Core standards are noted on all handouts, and I’m tasked with juggling the role of teacher, nutritionist, nurse, parent, therapist and disciplinarian in the span of an 80-minute English class, there is something sacred to be found at the heart of ‘What’s the Story?’”