THE FWSU Story: Creating Problem Solvers at GEMS

Middle-level students have been hard at work at GEMS this fall in creating creative solutions to different types of problems. The brainstorming and creations of possible solutions have been found in and around our core content classes as well as our UA. 

Creative and Practical Problem Solving is one of the five Transferable Skill proficiencies that FWSU and GEMS have been working to incorporate throughout our proficiency-based learning and reporting. The Transferable Skill of Creative and Practical Problem Solving requires that students do things like: 

  • observe and evaluate situations in order to define problems.
  • identify patterns, trends, and relationships that apply to solutions.
  • generate a variety of solutions, use evidence to build a case for the best responses, critically evaluate and repeat that process to generate alternative solutions.
  • identify opportunities for innovation and collaboration.
  • use a range of tools, including technology, to solve problems, and
  • persist in solving challenging problems and learning from unsuccessful attempts.

Students in Mr. Hardy’s grade 7 math class have incorporated their mathematical understanding to create and share proposals to me on ways they would like to improve and expand the experiences along our walking path.

Last UA block, Mr. King’s Tech Ed course offering was helping students to design and build their own dragsters. This course culminated with a drag race competition to determine which design was the fastest. It was great to hear students discuss and debate the many different variables of what created the more successful designs. 

Mrs. Hardy, our Enrichment teacher, taught a course last block called Problem Solvers. When asked about the course, Jen shared the following: 

“We started the UA block with nonroutine style problems on paper and a few classroom-style escape activities. Then we moved on, to search the building for authentic problems. The problems kept rolling in, once we solved one, someone else would say how about this. Students didn’t get to them all, but some they did pursue was creating a school map, a ramp for the 1st-grade cart, and keeping plants from being trampled. They also tackled safety and congestion problems in the lobby and hallway headed to lunch. Lastly, we are waiting for quotes designed to increase the feeling of belonging here at GEMS. Students loved the feeling of accomplishment they got from being helpful and making our community a better place.”

These are only a few of the many examples of how our students are inspired to create, innovate and problem-solve at GEMS both to extend their learning and continue to improve our community.

Julie Conrad is the Middle School Principal of Georgia Elementary Middle School. She is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow her at @JulieConradVT

The FWSU Story: Fletcher School and Cambridge Fire Department Partner For Student Safety

October is Fire Safety Month and Fletcher Elementary School has teamed up with the Cambridge Fire Department to bring fire safety lessons to students both at school and at home. 

According to firefighter Kristy Wyckoff, who is also the department’s treasurer and chair of the fire prevention committee, teaching fire prevention at an early age is essential because it creates connections between the children and firefighters that help students not be afraid of the firefighters in the event of a real emergency. 

“Fires can be scary and we want the kids to know that we are there to help,” Wyckoff said. 

For several years, Wyckoff, along with a team of firefighters from the all-volunteer Cambridge Fire Department, have taught fire safety lessons at the school during a designated fire safety day in October. The lessons include a discussion about creating a home fire escape plan, the importance of smoke detectors and their maintenance, and fire prevention. Students interact with firefighters who don nearly 50 pounds of protective gear that makes them virtually unrecognizable in an effort to dismiss any fear the students might have about their unusual appearance. 

“My main goals are for the kids to learn something new each year,” Wyckoff said. “Our biggest components are learning about smoke detectors, including when to change the batteries and when to replace the entire detector. We also focus on escape plans and meeting places, encourage getting out and staying out during a fire, and sleeping with bedroom doors shut.”

In addition to Fire Safety Day, Fletcher Elementary created a smoke detector giveaway this year. Cambridge Fire Department and J&L Hardware each donated smoke detectors to be given away to Fletcher families. Students were asked to complete at least two of three suggested fire safety activities at home with their families. Once done, students and their families documented their work and were entered into a drawing for a free smoke detector. The school is giving one smoke detector away each day during October, Fire safety month. The daily drawing takes place during school-wide morning announcements. 

“The smoke detector giveaway is a great way of getting detectors into our community. And, projects like this are important because it brings the learning home in a practical sense,” Wyckoff said. “Most people are unaware that smoke detectors expire after ten years. The fire department bought the detectors using funds from our yearly fundraising events. We feel it’s important to get unexpired detectors into homes. Our hope is that it will inspire families to check the dates on their own smoke detectors to ensure they are not older than ten years.”

According to Wyckoff, students have responded with great enthusiasm and an eagerness to share what they have learned in previous years. 

“Their favorite part of fire prevention is Rollie, our robotic fire truck,” Wyckoff said.  “Their response to Rollie has been overwhelmingly positive. Rollie adds a new exciting way to learn about fire prevention.” Using robotics, firefighters can speak through rollie’s speakers, squirt water, and control flashing red lights. 

During fire safety day, students received junior firefighter helmets and backpacks filled with fire prevention goodies like pencils, trading cards, notebooks and pencil sharpeners and erasers.

“I’ve learned fire safety from the firefighters for five years now,” fourth grader Donovan Austin said. “Every year there is something different. You have to remember to test your smoke detector batteries once a month and change them every year. That is one of the most important things you can do. You can also feel a door before you open it to see if it feels warm. If it does, don’t open it because there may be fire on the other side.”

“When there is fire you have to stay low,” fourth grader Will Mauck advised. “Gasses, heat and smoke all rise. You don;t want to be breathing those in. Also, if your clothes catch on fire, stop, drop, cover your face and roll like mad. That puts the fire out.”

“Something new I learned this year is that smoke detectors all beep three times in a row to tell you that there is smoke and maybe a fire,” third graders Lorelei Sloan said. “You need to get out quickly and go to your family meeting place. Make sure you have a fire escape plan ahead of time.”

“There are so many mutual benefits to engaging with Community Partners like the Cambridge Fire Department,” FWSU Director of Curriculum Linda Keating said. “Such partnerships allow schools to expand their education efforts, raise community awareness of such efforts, and most importantly, with this project, support the safety of children and families.”

“Nothing gets the attention of young elementary students more than firefighters and firetrucks,” first and second grade teacher Kathleen Pellegrino said. “These men and women are great role models to show our students just how important it is to give back to your community and make responsible decisions. Being safe is one of our four schoolwide expectations and the firefighters’ visit is one more way to reinforce how important that is.”

For more information on fire safety and Fletcher’s smoke detector giveaway, visit  or read our family smoke detector giveaway letter.

Christopher Dodge is the Principal of Fletcher Elementary School and is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow him on Twitter @FletcherFalcon

The FWSU Story: BFA Fairfax Elementary Implements Art Integration Opportunities

BFA Fairfax Elementary is implementing a new learning opportunity this year by integrating art and core curriculum. Every classroom will collaborate to express their learning, make connections and have fun through art integration. 

Research indicates: There are powerful resources for integrating the arts daily curriculum:

  1. The arts make content more accessible.
  2. The arts encourage joyful, active learning.
  3. The arts help students make connections and express personal connections to content.
  4. The arts help children understand and express abstract concepts.
  5. The arts stimulate higher-level thinking.
  6. The arts build community help children develop collaborative work skills.

(Lively Learning, Linda Crawford)

Mrs Knapp’s language arts class was the first group to participate. Fourth grade students explored how animals can have symbolic meaning. Students learned about the symbolism of the tiger in the book The Tiger Rising, then chose an animal to represent or protect themselves. Students researched Native American symbolic meaning of animals, using iPads for image searches. With choice of a variety of art supplies, students demonstrated their creativity through creation of animal masks. They decided what the most important features of their animals were, then came up with ways to use the materials to sculpt, paint and add texture. Finally, they reflected in an artist statement. 

We are really excited to offer this integrated learning opportunity. The results of the first group indicate that students were highly engaged, experienced a deeper understanding of the content, and their creativity was on display for the benefit of all. Thank you to Kim Desjardins and Sandy Knapp for your collaboration and efforts to engage all students. We are looking forward to seeing all the different creative learning opportunities this school year.

Thomas Walsh is currently Principal of BFA Fairfax Elementary School and is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow him on Twitter @educatamount

Contributions by Kim Desjardins and Sandy Knapp

The FWSU Story: GEMS and BFA Go To School Maker Day

This year, students from both BFA and GEMS were able to go to the first ever School Maker Day at the Shelburne Farms Coach Barn, in Shelburne.

Students had the opportunity to explore and engage in experiments and projects around electronics, coding, robots, 3D printing, drones and music. This was a great way to take connect the innovative learning they are doing in classrooms with the maker community.

As an extension of the innovator classes, the middle students were also charged with collecting the multimedia for this blogpost. With the mobile technology of iPads in their hands, students documented several of the activities to compile a brief insight into the day’s festivities.

Angelique Fairbrother is the Digital Learning Coach at Franklin West Supervisory Union. She is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow her on Twitter @FWSUtech.

The FWSU Story: Fletcher Elementary Students Dig Into Learning

Fletcher Elementary School students learn the techniques necessary to carefully and precisely conduct an archaeological dig. The students joined a team of archaeologists from the Northeast Archaeological Research Center as they conducted a dig along the Lamoille River in Fletcher.

Students at Fletcher Elementary School really dug into their learning on Sept. 20 as they supported archaeologists from the Northeast Archaeology Research Center at a dig site just miles from the school. The adventure was part of a year-long theme that focuses student learning on Vermont’s past and present. 

Fletcher Elementary School third grader Koda Chipman holds an arrowhead discovered as part of an archaeological dig in Fletcher. The school’s third through sixth graders assisted a team from the Northeast Archaeological Research Center on Sept. 19.

Third through six grade students from the school learned about the techniques and equipment used to conduct a professional dig, how to catalog their findings, and the many reasons individuals and groups participate in the work. In this instance, the group is helping Green Mountain Power meet its legal requirements as part of a permit renewal process. As the company raises and lowers water levels at their nearby dam, the question remains if important historical objects underground are being lost.

Fletcher Elementary School fourth grader Stephen Duchaine assists an archaeologist from the Northeast Archaeological Research Center in sifting through soil collected as part of an archaeological dig near the school. From the site, the team collected arrowheads, pottery, heat-cracked stones, and jewelry from over 1500 years ago. 

Students reviewed objects found at the site like arrowheads, earthenware and fire-cracked stones from about 1500 years ago before getting their hands dirty by helping to dig and sift the soil and watch for new discoveries.

Students from Fletcher Elementary School sift through soil that was excavated as part of an archaeological dig by the Northeast Archaeology Research Center. Participation in the dig was part of the students’ study of Vermont, past and present.

“Getting to see the old stuff, like the firestone and the arrowhead and part of a tool from a long time ago, was the best,” sixth grader Justus Cota said. “It was great to be learning about history in an all-hands-on way.”

An arrowhead was found in Fletcher as part of an archaeological dig. Students at Fletcher Elementary assisted professional archaeologists at the dig site on Sept. 20. 

“We actually got to help,” sixth grader Eli Tinker said. “We learned how and why everything was happening and really got to understand it way more than we would from a book or a video.”

Fletcher Elementary School students examine an object found as part of an archaeological dig in town. Archaeologists from the Northeast Archaeology Research Center worked with the students to teach the process of discovering buried objects from the past. 

“It was just really fascinating,” sixth grader Colin Wolfe said. “It was like history coming to life before our eyes. The soil was telling us a story and I couldn’t wait to hear the next part.”

Christopher Dodge is the Principal of Fletcher Elementary School and is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow him on Twitter @FletcherFalcon

The FWSU Story: Advisory and “Flex” Time at BFA High School

As we work to provide support for our students in our proficiency based high school, BFA has started the year with new systems and structures built into our daily schedule. The changes center around our daily “Advisory” time with the goal of improving access to intervention and enrichment for all students.

In the past, our Advisory time was a half hour at the end of every day where students could get assistance from teachers, work on homework, attend club meetings, prepare for their exhibitions, schedule classes, review their academic progress, and hold class meetings. Students were assigned an Advisor as they entered high school and worked with that advisor through graduation. One of the goals of this system was to foster a relationship between the student and their advisor so that every student had at least one trusted adult in the building. 

Having a trusted adult in the building is an important marker of success in high school. Our Youth Risk and Behavior Survey results showed that around 80% of our students reported that they did have at least one trusted adult. At quick glance this seems like a fairly positive statistic, but when you look through the other lens, it means that 1 in 5 of our students reported that they did not have that trusted adult. It seemed that in our quest to have Advisory fill so many needs, we may have lost out on the relationship aspect that we knew to be so important.

Our approach to address that need while still providing an opportunity for all of the other important work and needs of our students had two components. First, we separated out a part of the day for Advisory based solely on connections and relationships. Second, we acquired a software system that allows students to be flexibly scheduled based on their academic and personal needs.

Ninth Grade Advisory Activity

Advisory is held every morning after block one. Students meet with their advisor for 10 minutes. The goal is to build connections between students and their advisor and among all the students in that advisory. Each advisory group has developed a schedule of activities for the week. The activities might include “Weekend Check-in”, “Trivia Tuesday”, “Game Day”, “Walkabout Wednesday” or “Question of the Week”. This gives students some predictability, purpose, and buy-in. 

Tenth Grade Advisory Group Discussion

“I love it. It’s nice to have one clear focus of connecting with kids for that time everyday”

– Will Brooks, SS Teacher

Every afternoon, we hold a “Flex Block”. On Monday, all students meet with their advisory teacher to develop a schedule for the week based on their academic needs, interests, and goals using the Adaptive Scheduler software. 9th and 10th grade students are scheduled to be with their advisors every Monday and Wednesday to work on Exhibition related tasks. Students are able to schedule themselves for the rest of their week, unless one of their teachers has requested them. 

Sample 9th grade Flex Schedule

Teachers can schedule students to come directly to their room for academic intervention or enrichment. The goal is for students to recognize when and where they will need support and plan ahead. Teachers are able to provide more timely support for students through the scheduling process. 

Students can schedule themselves for club meetings and wellness activities if their proficiency levels are met. This system has eliminated the time needed to check in with their advisor before going to another teacher for assistance. Attendance is taken based on where students have selected. It may sound complicated, but with just a few “clicks” student weekly schedules are developed based on their individual needs. 

Sample 11th grade Flex Schedule

“I like Flex Block a lot better this year. The list system we used last year wasn’t efficient. This year we have our own flexibility. I’m glad we still have Mandatory Monday”

– Abigail S., Grade 11 student

Our work as high school this year is to continue developing a culture that supports proficiency, intervention, and equity. These changes are an important part of that work. We will continue to develop systems to provide timely intervention and enrichment options for our students as they work toward our Proficiency Based Graduation Requirements.

John Tague is the Principal of BFA Fairfax High School and is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow him @jtague252

The FWSU Story: New Leadership Joins Our Schools

Two schools within the FWSU have new principals joining the team this year. Georgia Elementary and Middle School welcomed Julie Conrad as the Middle School Principal, and Bellows Free Academy – Fairfax welcomes Justin Brown, also as Middle School Principal. Both principals have had a highly successful start to the school year.

Mr. Brown, BFA Fairfax Middle School Principal

Justin is delighted to reconnect with his home community of Fairfax. With a range of experience over the past 10 years in both local and international schools as Principal of Winooski High School, Assistant Principal of Colchester High School and Principal of Vilnius International School (in Vilnius, Lithuania), he is committed to growing BFA Fairfax grades 5-8 into the best it can be. As Principal, Brown often says his primary charge is building a sense of unity and identity throughout grades 5-8 at BFA Fairfax. 

In this new position at BFA Fairfax, Justin brings expertise developing and actively building on a solid foundation of work in the areas of Proficiencies-Based Personalized Learning; sharing leadership and learning among staff and students; ensuring safe, healthy, equitable and flexible learning environments; and involvement of family and community partners. 

He is the first to say that what drew him initially, and now on his return to Fairfax, is the sense of community and focus on what is best for kids. Each day, he enjoys visiting and checking in with students and their teachers throughout their classrooms and throughout the building, as well as at after school activities.

Ms. Conrad, Georgia Middle School Principal, first day of school

Julie Conrad comes to GEMS this year having ten years experience as a high school math teacher, served 3 years as the State Mathematics Coordinator for the Vermont Agency of Education, a project manager and instructor in the Vermont Mathematics Initiative at UVM, and the last five years as the Mathematics Coordinator at Mount Abraham Unified School District. She has also been an educational consultant with various schools and districts around Vermont and New England. Julie has received her BS in Secondary Mathematics Education from the University of Vermont and a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership. She has special interests curriculum, assessment, and instruction; brain research; proficiency-based learning, restorative justice, and integration of technology into K-12 student learning. Aside from work, Julie loves to spend time with her three children playing board games. She can also be found creating and enjoying the arts (visual and performing), baking, swimming or being in nature. 

Ms. Conrad with Thomas & Amelia Weber

From Ms. Conrad… “The start of the year has been going well, largely due to the amazing staff and educators that make GEMS a great place to work and learn. My personal focus for my first year at GEMS is to strengthen our learning community through developing strong relationships. This means I am actively working to build my relationships with the students, adults, and families that make up the GEMS community. I have enjoyed getting to know the teachers and students through daily interactions, welcoming them to the building, visiting with them in lunch, and visiting their classrooms to look at the learning. The Middle School students at GEMS are amazing resources that are constantly curious and offer great ideas daily about how they think we can make GEMS better from them as learners and people. It is also my hope to strengthen communication and collaboration between parents and our school. Open House is a great start to meeting our GEMS families and sharing with them about goals around proficiencies as this will be on-going work for our school in the next few years. “

Donald Van Nostrand is the Interim Superintendent of Schools at Franklin West Supervisory Union. He is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow him on Twitter at @dsvannostrand

Be sure to follow FWSU on Facebook and #FWSU on Twitter to see more exciting things happening in our schools!