Awesome Inventing and Problem-Solving in the GEMS Innovation Lab


In the final week of the Grade Prototyping and Inventing choice class for seventh and eighth graders at GEMS, the Innovation Lab was transformed into an open-ended problem solving and invention space. Students were presented with a list of problems that exist right in the lab, at school, or within the broader community. Additionally, students were free to add problems that they had identified.



The one thing all the problems had in common is that an invention could possibly solve them. Throughout the block, students were introduced to invention tools such as 3D design and printing, coding, Arduino microcontrollers, circuitry, soldering electrical components, and use of physical materials.



Students also experienced the design cycle and came to understand that invention is a problem-solving process which involves tinkering, trial and error, setbacks, and even starting over.



This open-ended inventing process created such an atmosphere of energy and excitement in the GEMS Innovation Lab!



It’s Penguin Plunge Season!

Special Olympics Vermont provides opportunities for sports training and competition for athletes with disabilities. Special Olympics Vermont provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in thirteen Olympic-type sports for more than 1,140 children and adults with intellectual disabilities. The organization works to break down barriers for children and adults with disabilities and provide life-changing sports opportunities. Unified Sports offers students with and without disabilities opportunities to train and compete together and build communities of respect and inclusion. BFA has a unified sports team competing in snowshoeing events.


The Penguin Plunge is Special Olympics Vermont’s largest annual fundraising effort with events in Burlington and at Stratton Mountain. This year’s Penguin Plunge will take place at the Burlington Waterfront on February 4, 2017.  

The event starts at 8:00am and teams enter the water in staggered waves. We are looking for participants!  So far Heather Weeks, Michelle Lunch, Madison Lutz, Achary Miner, Elliot Scannell, Tristan Metruk, Josh Metruk and Cindy Anderson are registered to plunge into the icy waters of Lake Champlain.


Want to be part of the Penguin Plunge in 2017? There’s still time to register! Those interested should register under BFA Fairfax at Come on down and support our BFA team! If you would like to contribute, you can donate at



Target 4– Engaged Community Partners FWSU staff and students engage in authentic learning opportunities with local, regional, state, and global partners to make a difference in their community, state, and world.

Indicator 0f Success – Students pursue interests and opportunities, challenge convention, and make positive contributions in their community, state, and world. Collaborative projects and partnerships are part of the fabric of the broader community

Action Step – Engage community partners in a focused, collaborative inquiry process to address community needs

Differential Discipline at GEMS

“Fair is not equal. Fair is meeting the needs of every student”   Joelle Van Lent, Psy. D


Today, Dr. Joelle Van Lent worked with Paraprofessionals to discuss the importance of student interactions and relationships with children while explaining how a sense of belonging inspires compliance to the norms and rules of of a group.  Understanding that every child is unique and that every child is at a different stage, socially and emotionally, she expressed the importance of working with students productively to help them regulate and monitor their emotions through a co-regulation model.  “Praise can be tricky….keep it brief, subtle, and specific.”


Building on a well-established knowledge base more than half a century in the making, recent advances in the science of early childhood development and its underlying biology provide a deeper understanding that can inform and improve existing practice and the way we interact with children.


The problems of any member of a community are the responsibility of every member of the community.

A great collaborative conversation today!


Target 2 – Leadership – FWSU students and staff lead innovative, personalized learning opportunities, both locally and globally.

Indicators of Success -Staff explore greater understanding of community, social issues, and the self in community.

Action Step – Demonstrate learning habits, communication, and problem-solving skills necessary for collaborative learning and leadership

Fletcher Students Explore “Tangible Learning” with OSMO

Students at the Fletcher Elementary School are armed with a new tool in their learning arsenal.


Fletcher teachers explore OSMO during a recent staff meeting.

OSMO is a revolutionary new technology that uses the camera vision of an iPad, along with a specially designed reflector, to recognize and capture what is happening in front of it. In other words, it combines digital vision and recording with the physical manipulation of materials.

“This tangible learning changes the way we teach our children how to interact with technology,” said Kira Westbroek, whose role at OSMO is to support schools with integrating the technology into the curriculum and recognizing teachers and schools that use it to its fullest potential. “Technology doesn’t just have to be flat. It’s not just swiping or typing anymore. It’s an interactive and educational experience.”

The Fletcher School purchased 15 OSMO units last month as part of a Launch FWSU Grant underwritten by the Bay and Paul Foundation. Ten Launch FWSU Grants were awarded to innovative projects within the Franklin West Supervisory Union. A team of four Fletcher Teachers, including art teacher M.C. Baker, Librarian Emily DiGiulio, kindergarten teacher Jenny Blackman and music teacher Jennifer O’Neill, received one of the six $1,000 grants and secured additional funding from Friends of Fletcher Elementary, the schools parent group, to fund the OSMO initiative.

“We wanted to apply this really innovative learning tool across the curriculum to engage learners even more in the skills that we are already teaching,” Baker said. “It is a purposeful technology connection and a compliment to everything we are already doing.”


Students use the OSMO Pizza Company application to practice math skills such as making change and learning fractions.

Baker has used OSMO in all of her art classes during the past several weeks, and every student has had a chance to experience them. Fletcher purchased eight gaming applications for OSMO that support math, coding, literacy, art and science. A favorite application of students’ is the OSMO Pizza Company, in which student pizzeria owners literally build model pizzas on the table and serve customers. OSMO “sees” every move the students make, and respond accordingly. The app teaches students about fractions and making change. Many classroom teachers have also integrated OSMO into their daily literacy and math routines.

“Students like the fun games,” sixth grader Lindy Langlois said. “But, it sneaks in a little bit of education, too. It’s like hiding broccoli with ketchup.”

Fourth grader Anna Howard agreed. “I really like OSMO because it’s just like playing a game but it helps you with your learning. It’s so much fun you can barely tell that there’s learning in there.”


A kindergarten student uses the drawing feature of OSMO to record and replay her progress.

“It’s educational and fun,” fourth grader Carver Leadbetter said. “It just makes everything so much more fun because it’s interactive. You are building and drawing things in front of the iPad and OSMO helps you record and see them in a lot of different ways.”

“This is a tool that we will steep into all subjects across the curriculum,” Baker said. It’s not just another thing we do. It’s an extension of the learning that’s already taking place.”

Despite all of the school’s students having experienced the OSMO, Baker has not always been the one doing the teaching. Art buddies – a pairing of sixth grade students and kindergarteners – puts Fletcher’s oldest students in a leadership role and makes them responsible for sharing OSMO with some of the school’s youngest members.


Two sixth grade students use OSMO with a kindergarten buddy.

“We connected with the younger kids over OSMO,” Langlois said. “We realized that we had interests in common, like coding or drawing. You learn a lot from the skills in the game but also how to be with other people.”

“OSMO has helped to bridge the gap between kindergarteners and sixth graders because the younger kids can show us something they know and they can be proud that they have learned something on OSMO from us,” sixth grader Julia Slingerland said. “For me it’s like being a helper teacher. They look up to you. They get to make the decisions about OSMO but you get to help them make the right ones. It’s cool because it’s like a bond and a new best friend except they are little.”


Fletcher Elementary purchased a variety of applications for OSMO, include games that support math, literacy, art and science.

Launched in 2013, OSMO is the brainchild of two former Google employees, Pramod Sharma and Jerome Scholler. Sharma first began exploring the combination of digital technology with physical manipulation as he worked to build Google’s book scanning machine. Scholler helped create Chrome for Android.

Westbroek said that new applications for OSMO are constantly being discovered, including using the technology to support memory in the elderly.

“OSMO is about making the technology see what the person is doing rather than the person just doing technology,” she said. “It’s about making technology tangible. Not just staring at the screen but working with the screen.”

On her work with Fletcher specifically, Westbroek said the school “has been willing to do whatever it takes to get what was needed to support students.”

“OSMO reminds me of virtual reality,” Langlois said. “It brings to life what is in front of you. It’s a learning experience but it doesn’t really feel like it in the traditional way. It brings a little bit of every subject like math and science and reading into every experience. It is a great way to learn.”


Flexible Learning Environments: FWSU maximizes flexible learning environments by redefining the school day, promoting learning experiences that extend beyond the classroom, and fostering creativity, innovation, and personalized learning opportunities for all.

Indicators of Success: (1) Staff, students and community embrace digital, social, mobile learning styles. (2) Students engage in answering authentic questions and solving problems in collaborative settings.

Action Steps: (1) Increase access to resources for all students. (2) Develop opportunities for students to demonstrate transferrable skills in authentic settings.

What do Transferable Skills and Chocolate Have in Common?

The students in Mr. Psaros’ eighth grade Initiative Time group meet daily to engage in goal-setting, personalized learning, and to work on their personalized learning plans (PLP).  Before Thanksgiving, students inquired if they could learn about how chocolate was made.  Mr. Psaros supported their interest, with one caveat: students were going to need to plan, coordinate, and facilitate the entire learning experience.  


The first step was for students to develop the questions that would drive their learning:

  • What is the history of chocolate?
  • What is the science of chocolate production?
  • What impact does chocolate production have on the local economy?

3untitledStudents took control of their learning by organizing a tour of Lake Champlain Chocolate, making permission slips for the outing, organizing buses, and creating group learning goals.  Students had a blast at the chocolate factory, and they were able to reach many of the learning goals that they set at the beginning of their study.

2untitledUsing the knowledge that they gleaned from their visit to the chocolate factory, the class decided that they would make their own chocolate, and that they would donate the chocolate to the St. Albans Rehabilitation Center as an act of service to the Franklin County community.  


In the coming weeks, students will be making the chocolate, packaging it, and delivering it to the rehab center.  Finally, students will reflect on their experiences — in their PLP — through the lens of the following Transferable Skill progressions:

Proficiency 2: Self Direction

Priority  Indicators:

  • Identify, manage and assess new opportunities related to learning goals

    Getting Started Making Progress Proficient Advanced
    I am learning how to identify and assess new opportunities that will help me make progress in my goals. I can identify new learning opportunities. I am beginning to understand  their potential impact on my learning goals. I update my learning goals based on my analysis and understanding of opportunities that might impact them. I revise and keep track of my learning goals as I develop broader life goals for (higher education and training).

    • Integrate knowledge from a variety of sources to set goals and make informed decisions

    Getting Started Making Progress Proficient Advanced
    I am learning how to gather knowledge from various sources to help me make decisions about my goals. I make decisions about my goals based on some available sources of information. I make decisions about my goals after carefully studying available sources of information. I instinctively draw on a wide range of resources in my decision making and seek new knowledge to add depth and breadth to my understanding.  

    Proficiency 4: Responsible and Involved Citizenship

    Priority  Indicators:

    • Participate in and contribute to the enhancement of community life

    Getting Started Making Progress Proficient Advanced
    I am finding ways to become productively involved with my community. I participate in community activities. I am learning ways to enhance or improve our community.   I actively engage with my community to our mutual benefit over time. I am immersed in community life and take a leadership role in forwarding improvements.

    • Take responsibility for personal decisions and actions

    Getting Started Making Progress Proficient Advanced
    I am beginning to observe how my decisions are linked to my actions and their outcomes. I see connections between my decisions and my actions. I am learning how to understand their impact. I consider and accept the outcomes and consequences of my  choices. I accept the outcomes of my decisions and work to ensure that those outcomes are positive; I apply that responsibility in multiple settings.

    The benefits of this learning opportunity have been numerous.  Student engagement has been high throughout the entire process, with enthusiasm spreading to other Initiative Time groups that have been planning their own service learning projects.  Students are practicing 21st century competencies like collaboration, problem solving, citizenship, planning, and communication.  We believe this marks an important breakthrough in our journey to increase student voice, student-driven learning experiences, and authentic learning tasks.  


Target 1 – Proficiency-Based Personalized Learning FWSU students and staff design and engage in proficiency-based personalized learning that integrates collaborative inquiry, problem solving, and creativity.

Indicators of Success for this Target -Students and staff collaborate to design authentic questions and solve problems.

Action Step -Design, model, and highlight innovative, personalized social and academic proficiency-based learning opportunities that promote collaborative inquiry, problem solving, and creativity for students

A Vermont Presidential Scholar at BFA


BFA has many great students. Every once in awhile, we are fortunate to have a student who is exemplary. Alexandre Hamel, a member of the Class of 2017, is that student. On Monday evening, Alex was named a Vermont Presidential Scholar and recognized at the Vermont State house.


A typical day for Alex begins with band at 7:30 AM. He plays saxophone for the concert band and has performed at Coffee House throughout his high school years.

Then it’s on to AP Politics and Government and AP Literature for the morning. Alex sings with the chorus during lunch and wellness and spends Support Block working for the Student Council, National Honor Society or Peer Support. His afternoon includes Advanced Calculus to help Alex prepare for the AP Calculus BC exam.


 In the fall, Alex was involved in the Fall Musical You might remember him as Mr Banks in BFA’s production of Mary Poppins. Currently, Alex is a member of the Nordic Ski team. After practice, it’s home for homework and family time to get ready for another day.


Monday was far from a typical day. Alex and his family arrived at the State House after a full day of school and work. They were joined by BFA Principal John Tague, Guidance Director David Buckingham and Guidance Counselor Katherine McElroy.


Alex had a quick photo op with Governor Phil Scott before the official ceremony which opened with remarks from the Governor and Vermont’s Secretary of Education, Rebecca Holcombe. Five students from the state’s technical centers were honored for their accomplishments. Next, Sigrid Olsen from the Agency of Education  shared the accomplishments of each of the twenty students selected as Vermont’s Presidential Scholars.

Regarding Alex, Olsen shared (From his BFA nomination):

Alex is president of our school’s student council and was able to completely revitalize and revamp the program last year. Alex has also been actively involved in our school’s drama productions, Peer Support, National Honor Society, Diversity Committee and TASC. Alex brings ideas, motivation, leadership and follow through to all of these activities. Alex has also been working the United Way to help develop a county wide Teen Institute.

“Alex is a leader in so many areas of our school. He is always the first to volunteer to help and always makes sure that all voices are heard, the group leaves with action items and the follow up happens. Alex takes on a lot but does not extend himself so far that he can’t be a strong leader. One notable example is that during his second year as a member of Peer Support (our peer counseling student group) Alex took the initiative to research and lead workshops for the new members of the group. Alex demonstrated excellent knowledge and facilitation skills during his workshops.”


And these thoughts from Alex’s personal essay:

“One of the biggest influences on me was peer counseling, which has given me the skills to help others while also helping me understand the problems people face around me. The greatest satisfaction I can receive is the happiness of people other than me. I feel that my future is still undecided and I have to make choices in order to narrow down what I want to do in the future, but no matter what I know I won’t be doing it for myself. I’ll be doing it for others.”

BFA is proud of all that Alex has accomplished. We know that his future is bright and we look forward to sharing his continued successes as he moves on to the next phase of his education and life.



Target 2 – Leadership FWSU students and staff lead innovative, personalized learning opportunities, both locally and globally.

Indicator of Success – Students and staff lead as engaged and responsible citizens.

Action Plan – Ensure students take a leadership role in their learning using rich, authentic questions, problems they identify, and diverse resources to formulate solutions

Learning Spanish in Kindergarten at GEMS

One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.
‒Frank Smith
Back by popular demand is the GEMS kindergarten Spanish program.  Each Wednesday morning, a group of 7/8 Spanish students are spending a half hour teaching the kindergartens a lesson. Not only is this an learning opportunity for our kindergarten students, it is a also a learning opportunity for our middle school students as well. Students who believe that they will have to teach material to others remember more information than students who are told that their learning will be measured by a test, according to research in the journal Memory & Cognitionpublished by the Psychonomic Society (
fullsizerender-9Two sessions began this week, and two more will begin in a few weeks.  The students must design a lesson appropriate to the age of the students, prepare the materials and teach. Themes include numbers, body parts, colors and animals. The National Network of Early Language Learning suggests that elementary school students have access to world language instruction because it is the best time to learn. Since that is currently not available to our students, having our middle school scholars available to reach out to younger students is a benefit.
Fun activities like songs, Simon says and personalized questions are being incorporated.  It is no easy task but the students are meeting the challenge and learning in the process!  We are all enjoying this authentic learning opportunity and hope to continue this now proud GEMS tradition.
Target 2 – Leadership FWSU students and staff lead innovative, personalized learning opportunities, both locally and globally.
Indicator of Success – Students and staff act as coaches, facilitators, collaborators, and co-learners in a personalized learning environment
Action Step – Demonstrate learning habits, communication, and problem-solving skills necessary for collaborative learning and leadership