THE FWSU STORY: BFA Fairfax Students Experience World Cultures at the International Festival

On December 1st, students in BFA World Language classes attended the International Festival in Essex.


The International Festival is held in Essex each year.

The students were working to meet the Culture Proficiency in the World Language Proficiency Based Graduation Requirements. The International Festival is sponsored by the Vermont Performing Arts League as “annual celebration of cultures from around the world, bring their crafts, food, music, and dance to our doorstep.” The field trip was organized by BFA World Language teachers Kerri Brien and Alana Torraca.

“It was a great experience at the Vermont International Festival to see the other cultures around world and experience what they experience.” -Student

Students learned more about world cultures through this experience.

Students learned more about world cultures at the International Festival.

The students’ goal was to answer the question: “What is culture?” and help to create a diversity statement for BFA.  When they arrived, the students entered an exhibition hall filled with crafters from over 40 countries. They interacted with the crafters and were able to purchase items for themselves and others.


Items from around the world were available for purchase and were on display.

“It was exciting to move in sync toward a cultural competency goal with our growing World Languages program!  I witnessed BFA Fairfax students at the Vermont International Festival tasting international foods they’ve never seen before and bringing home the unique crafts from a variety of countries.” -Kerri Brien, Spanish teacher


Musicians provided students with an intercultural learning experience during the trip.

Within the main hall, there were two performance spaces featuring a variety of musicians from different cultures. Several students took advantage of the opportunity to dance along with other students in attendance.


The international food was an incredible experience for our students!

Near one of the performances spaces, the Festival had a food court where students were able to purchase ethnic food from countries including Ethiopia, Austria, Africa, Turkey, Tibet and the Philippines.

Students presented their learning to the rest of the school.

Cultural Ambassadors presented their learning to the rest of the school.

“Because Fairfax is such a small school the International Festival was a great way to view all the cultures we don’t usually see.” -Student

After a morning spent exploring culture, the students returned to BFA to begin the work of making meaning out of their experience-which is where learning happens. They created visual representations of culture. They surveyed other students and staff about diversity. The students displayed their cultural ideas at a cultural fair in the high school main lobby. They displayed artifacts (many from the collections of their teachers), videos and their definitions of culture. Students from the elementary, middle and high schools stopped to speak with and learn from our cultural ambassadors.

“As we continued to explore culture and diversity after the festival, students looked at diversity statements from other schools and discussed the need for a diversity statement at BFA.” -Alana Torraca, French teacher

Clothing from around the world was on display at school.

Clothing from around the world was on display at school.

“It’s important to show that diversity is not what you look like or what you wear; it’s about what you believe and value”- Weston, student

THE FWSU STORY: Georgia Elementary Invited to Join National Networked Improvement Community

Recently, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) invited Vermont to participate in a Networked Improvement Community for improving early learning in Literacy and Mathematics. Georgia Elementary was invited to participate, along with three other supervisory unions, and has started the collaborative project in which participants have the opportunity to work on common problems of practice and build knowledge with colleagues from other states (Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Maryland) researchers, educational experts, and other partners.

School leaders convene at the VT Agency of Education.

School leaders convene at the VT Agency of Education.

In collaboration with the Vermont Agency of Education and three other SU’s the Georgia Elementary and team will identify common problems of practice (POP) and initiate interventions for improvement while collecting evidence-based data for review.

States have implemented many policies, practices, and programs to increase the ability of educators to provide high-quality instruction, but very little research and movement have been done in the early grades. To increase the effectiveness of instruction and student achievement in the early grades, states need to test the impact of innovative strategies to increase teacher knowledge and capacity to deliver evidenced backed instructional practices in math, literacy, and other content areas in prekindergarten through third-grade classrooms.


Leaders from around the country collaborate with Networked Improvement Communities.

Georgia Elementary is excited to participate and learn from other educational colleagues within our state and country from the current research and data that is collected.

THE FWSU STORY: The Power of Wonder and Choosing Kind


Every now and then a book comes along that transcends age and gender through a compelling story and uplifting message. The best-selling book and new major motion picture Wonder has had that impact on our learning community. Over the past few months through class assignments and discussions, students throughout BFA Fairfax Elementary/Middle School have made connections with the important themes of kindness, bullying, responsibility, overcoming challenges, and friendship.


As educators, we constantly teach and practice with our students the importance of treating all members of our learning community with respect. However, the level of student engagement through Wonder has generated additional and authentic conversations and connections.

For example, each of our first graders identified a way in which they could practice kindness towards others. Additionally, this past Friday, our fourth-grade students led our monthly All School Morning Meeting, during which they shared a slideshow of our students practicing acts of kindness throughout the school. Finally, the entire Middle School will be attending a viewing of Wonder this Friday as a school-wide outing.

Wonder: Choose KindI hope that all schools take the time to read and use Wonder as a vehicle to generate important conversations. I have had the opportunity to witness the positive impact of this story on students and the motivational message for all of us to choose kindness.

Principal Tom Walsh

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


THE FWSU STORY: BFA Fairfax Welcomes New Winter Coaches

BFA Bullets“A coach will impact more people in one year than the average person will in an entire lifetime” – Billy Graham

There are a number of new faces visible in the BFA Fairfax athletic facilities this winter season.  With athletic activities experiencing some of the highest participation rates in school history, it takes a special group of people to take on the very important role of coaching our various athletic teams.  When we hire coaches, we are not only looking for people that know the game.  More importantly, we are looking for people who we believe will allow the fields of play to be an extension of the classroom; one in which students not only learn and improve their specific sports skills but also acquire valuable life skills THROUGH their sports participation.  Please join us in welcoming our newest members of the BFA Fairfax Athletics family!

Kevin Duquette – JV Boys Basketball

Kevin Duquette

After coaching for 6-7 years at the rec level, I was presented with a unique opportunity to fulfill a dream and coach some of the most talented group of young men I have ever met. As well as joining the beginning of what is and will be an incredible program. Thank you for the opportunity, Fairfax! GO BULLETS!!”

Mike Bruso – JV Boys Basketball

Mike Bruso

“I have a huge amount of time invested with this junior varsity group. I have been coaching this group since there were in first grade and wanted to continue to help them develop to varsity players.”

Jacob Kent – JV Girls Basketball

Jacob Kent

“I look forward to coaching at BFA because it’s a great way to be more invested in our community. While high-school sports are a lot of fun, they are also a great opportunity to develop positive skills and attributes in our youth at a vital age. I’m excited for a great season!”

Chris Benjamin – 7th Girls Basketball

Chris Benjamin

“I’ve been coaching for over a decade with the last six years focused on the Fairfax/Fletcher community through both the Fairfax Fletcher Youth Basketball Program as well as the Fairfax Fletcher Westford Little League.  I sit on the board of directors for the youth basketball program and enjoy watching the development of skills, maturity and especially team chemistry as players progress through the years.  I’m thrilled to continue to work as a BFA Coach with this special group of young women, including my daughter Faith, who I’ve seen develop and grow since beginning in first grade.  Go Bullets!!!”

Ben Albee – 8th Girls Basketball

Ben Albee

“I have a lifelong interest in and passion for sports. This, coupled with the real joy I find working with kids makes coaching the perfect balance. Through coaching, I hope to instill a love of physical activity, competition, and teamwork that will far outlast the athletes’ playing days at BFA.”

Danielle Rothy – Middle School Cheerleading

Danielle Rothy

“Having participated in athletics at BFA in middle and high school, I am thrilled to be back as a coach. I hope to be able to provide an amazing experience and give opportunities to the same program that gave so much to me.”

Patrick Sheehan – 8th Boys Basketball

Patrick Sheehan

“I have been a resident of Fairfax since 2006. I have coached youth Basketball, Football, and Baseball. I have always been impressed with the way Fairfax shows up to support its teams even for road games. I am excited to be a part of such an energetic and caring community!

I love the way that the Patriots Youth Football program works alongside the school teams so that the players are given a consistent message during their development. I would love to be a part of building something similar to that in Basketball, a sport that I have loved for as long as I can remember!”

On behalf of the entire BFA Fairfax Athletic Department, we look forward to seeing all students, fans, and families at our various games, races, and other events. Your support for all coaches and student-athletes is greatly appreciated and is a large part of what makes our athletic community so great.  

Go Bullets!

THE FWSU STORY: Celebrating Computer Science Week – Every Week

This week is national Computer Science Education Week. This large-scale effort is a call to action for schools across America about the need to incorporate computer science education in all grade levels. Along with promoting computer science, the initiative also calls for students to participate in an hour of code. Computer science and coding are key components in all of our schools at FWSU. The understanding and thinking skills captured by learning about code may become invaluable.

More importantly, the ideas of computational thinking and problem solving have been incorporated into classrooms throughout our districts for several years (check out these posts).  We know that our students are going to need the strategies learned to be successful when they graduate.They are also going to need the confidence and ability to walk into these complicated unstructured and undefined problems.

Two years ago we launched Innovation Labs in all of our schools to allow students the opportunities to explore, create, make, think and build ideas. We also started STEM programs in our schools to enhance the concepts of computer science, problem-solving and computational thinking. There is a lot going on – and great learning occurring.

So this week FWSU schools are coding and thinking computationally to celebrate National Computer Science Education Week. But we also have been doing this every week and will continue to do so. It is what we do.

On a final note, I ran across a fun activity in a research blog recently that you can try in your classroom, at work or even at home. It is a brainteaser and reinforces the idea that good thinkers and puzzle solvers make good coders. This activity was created by David Malan from Harvard – the instructions and thinking are below. 

Put these instructions up on the board:

  1. Stand up and assign yourself the number 1.
  2. Pair off with another person, add your two numbers together, and adopt the sum as your new number.
  3. One of you should sit down.
  4. Repeat steps 2-3 until one person is left standing.

Even in a room with hundreds of people, the last person should end up with the total count of everyone in the room. Because the adding in pairs takes place simultaneously, even if the number of people doubles in size, it only requires one more comparison. This is an example of logarithmic efficiency.  

Have fun and enjoy National Computer Science Week!

Ned Kirsch Superintendent


Ned Kirsch is the Superintendent of Schools at FWSU. You can follow him on Twitter at @betavt.

THE FWSU STORY: Students Speak Out on Solving Environmental Waste with Design Thinking

On today’s FWSU STORY, students in the “Solving With Design Thinking” class at GEMS use their voice to share solutions to a common environmental waste problem.  

Students investigating the parts of a k-cup.

Students investigating the parts of a k-cup.

Billions and billions of disposable coffee pods known as k-cups are tossed into garbage cans each year. This year’s Solving Problems With Design Thinking class at Georgia Elementary Middle School identified the problem and designed a solution.

K-Cups are a common, everyday item contributing to environmental waste.

K-Cups are a common, everyday item contributing to environmental waste.

Our solution was to find a way to separate the k-cups and direct each material to the best place to avoid waste.

In 3 weeks we collected nearly 400 k-cups.

  • Plastic cups mostly went  to the Art room sculpture center
  • 8 lbs. of coffee and filter paper were composted
  • A very small quantity of aluminum was recycled
  • No part of these k-cups entered the garbage

For three weeks we tested our solution at GEMS, made adjustments, and created an exhibit in the C-Building Lobby to share our work. The following is an FAQ about the project in the words of students from the class.

The problem solving process steps we use in the class.

The problem-solving process steps we use in the class.

Why are k-cups a problem at GEMS and in the world?

“They are a problem because you can’t recycle them easily so we took them apart to figure out how to use them.”

“They are  just a very big waste and you can only compost some of the parts.”

“They are not environment-friendly and can’t be recycled all together, causing waste.”

Students designed a tool for cleaning k-cups.

Students designed a tool for cleaning k-cups.

“The plastic cup part is not compostable or recyclable.”

“The K-cups are not recyclable after being used so they get thrown away. This is not safe for the environment. They are wasteful.”

How did you formulate a plan to solve the problem here at GEMS?

“We had a group brainstorm and we built things to make the process go faster.”

“We brainstormed a plan on what to do with each part of the k cups, and we formulated different tools to help us do so.”

“We made a system to take a k-cup apart to be used in other ways that is not the trash.”

“As a team, we decided to make a tool that helped when cleaning the K-cup. Two to three people would work in a group that would focus on K-cups in a different way.”

A k-cup light fixture. Really!

A k-cup light fixture. Really!

Was your solution effective? 

“Yes, it was effective, because we had a quite easy job cleaning the k-cups and creating different uses for them, and what we could do with each part of them. What we could not reuse was composted or recycled.”

“I think that it was very effective, and recycling the k-cups was fast and took minimal effort.”

“Yes, it was effective because we got 396 k-cups and we made a lot of crafts.”

“Yes. We came up with about 400 k cups, throughout three weeks of hard work and designing. We also made different things with them.”

Working as a team - cleaning out and separating k-cups.

Students collaborate and work as a team to clean out and separate k-cups.

Could the solution be used elsewhere? Could all k-cups be recycled? 

“Yes, if we could find a place that could combine the grounds into fertilizer and we could have the plastic melted into different objects, recycle the tin foil and the filters could be composted. This could save our landfills from overflowing with k cups and would help with keeping landfills in check by recycling.”

“I think that it could definitely be used elsewhere. If enough people were willing to participate, then they could be recycled.”

“Yes, but that would mean that everyone would have to lend a hand to the project to make boxes and also to collect dissemble and clean.”

“We found a way so that each part of the k cup could be used for something in a useful way.”

Separating a k-cup into its materials

Separating a k-cup into its materials

What have you learned from this project in terms of problem-solving, teamwork, or k-cup waste and recycling? 

“I learned that little things that we use in everyday lifestyle can have a big thing in waste problems.”

“When you work as a team, projects get done faster and more efficiently.”

Making a light up sphere out of k-cups!

Making a light up sphere out of k-cups!

“I have learned that people can solve most problems by putting their heads together and finding out a solution.”

“I learned that if we work as a team we can get many things accomplished.”

“I learned that you sometimes have to work with people you find annoying and k-cups are super wasteful.”

Our Exhibit in C-Building at GEMS.

Our Exhibit in C-Building at GEMS.

Today’s FWSU STORY first appeared on the GEMS Innovation Lab blog

THE FWSU STORY: BFA Fairfax Team Poutine Takes Second Place in UVM Aiken Maker Challenge

On Saturday, BFA Fairfax’s Robotics and Engineering Club, affectionately known as Team Poutine, participated in the 3rd Annual Aiken K-12 Maker Faire & Engineering Challenge (formerly known as the TASC challenge) at UVM, hosted by UVM’s College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences.

BFA Fairfax Team Poutine at the third annual K-12 Maker Faire & Engineering Challenge.

BFA Fairfax Team Poutine at the third annual K-12 Maker Faire & Engineering Challenge.

So, what’s with the name? Last year, when we were rebooting the team, students proposed a variety of options for a fun, new name. Of all the options, Team Poutine came out on top, with The Narwhals coming in a close second. In fact, it was close enough that we worked out a compromise: we adopted the moniker, Team Poutine, as our official name, and the Narwhal as our mascot.


Team Poutine’s official mascot!

My wife is a whimsical artist, and quickly needle-felted a Narwhal mascot for the team, who attends the events with us, and loves to ride upon the contraptions the team creates. Of course, the Narwhal needed a name, and only one name fit the bill: Poutine the Narwhal.



But why Poutine? Isn’t poutine just greasy, cheesy fries? No. Poutine is innovation. Poutine is taking components that don’t necessarily seem like they would go together at first glance–cheese, gravy, french-fries–and trying it anyway. Poutine is creating something new and glorious by reconfiguring the mundane.

This year’s challenge was to design a launcher for ping pong balls that would be both accurate and flexible, in order to get the balls through a variety of targets, from rolling on the ground to flying through the air, to banking shots in from opposing angles.

The challenge.

The challenge.

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Creating something new by rethinking the mundane.

Each team randomly selected the targets they would have to work with at the start of each match by pulling tiles from a bag.  The team then had time to strategize regarding how to best place those targets for the match, before entering their set-up period.


The team at work!

Scored ping pong balls were worth different point values based on how far away from the launcher they were set up, and whether the target was an easy or a hard target. Further points would be awarded if a team got closer to balancing the number of balls scored through all of the targets.


The team works on the prototype of their design.

Teams from middle and high schools across Vermont participated in the challenge this year, with a wide range of innovative means of approaching the challenge, from pitching style machines, to catapults, to flick’em up contraptions and even an impromptu human-breath powered launcher in the finals when one of the other teams’ original designs malfunctioned.


Students at BFA Fairfax started working together to innovate, design, and create their contraption early this fall, as soon as the challenge rules were released. After a brainstorming session early on, we had a number of design ideas that students wanted to pursue. One of the very first ideas the team tried out was to use a catapult for the challenge.  Ultimately, though, after looking more closely at the challenge specifications and discussing the pro’s and con’s of the different possibilities further, the team landed on creating a pitching-machine inspired launcher, with a pair of powered wheels spinning in opposite directions to shoot the balls forward.

The design process.

The design process.

The initial prototype the students designed was created entirely from parts that we already had available from previous challenges the team had participated in. The team quickly discovered, however, that we had never faced a challenge like this one before. The motors that we had were all geared much more for torque than speed. You can see the first prototype in action (or inaction) here.


Tools are essential, but so is good communication throughout the design process.

After some research on YouTube and Amazon, the team was able to find some new motors within our budgetary constraints that were rated for +/- 18,000RPM, and a potentiometer to adjust and control the speed of their rotation. And of course, as Uncle Ben would tell Peter Parker, with great power comes great responsibility. With the new motors, the team quickly discovered that they needed a new way to attach them to the device, and perhaps just needed a new device altogether.  As team-member, Robbie Dearborn put it, “I learned that the materials you use can change the entire plan. Some materials give you more opportunities to build in different directions; to design and build the concept you really want to build.” So, back to the drawing board they went, and then it was time to break out the 3D printer, saws, and screwdrivers!


The design takes shape!

Team Poutine learned the value of good communication throughout the design process, and the competition as well. But the actual competition wasn’t the only component. The team also presented their engineering design story to a panel of judges, reflecting on the entire process from start to finish.

The team presents their design to the panel at the UVM Aiken Maker Challenge.

The team presents their design to the panel at the UVM Aiken Maker Challenge.

When all was said and done, Team Poutine had climbed the ranks to second place overall, out of roughly thirty teams from across the state, and brought home a fun, new robotics kit to put to use for future challenges! But that’s not all they brought home with them. Team Poutine brought home a renewed sense of pride in our school and a lot of great ideas and positive energy.

BFA's Team Poutine takes 2nd place!

BFA’s Team Poutine takes 2nd place!

And this morning, they were right back at it, switching gears and starting fresh to prepare for what’s next: the FIRST Tech Challenge in Essex this February! This team of student innovators cannot wait to move innovation forward.

Harold Vance III

Today’s guest post was contributed by Harold Vance III, the Flexible Learning Coordinator at BFA Fairfax. He tweets at @SensingPlace.