The FWSU Story: Do you Mindstorm? We do!

In fifth grade at BFA Fairfax, every student completes a 6-7 week Lego Mindstorms robots unit. This opportunity grew from the makerspace that was created by Rhonda Siemons, Kendra Myers, Victoria Reynolds and Sandy Brown in 2016 with the encouragement and support from then FWSU Superintendent, Ned Kirsch and current elementary principal, Tom Walsh. The makerspace was designed to meet the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) standards for all students in grades 3-5. One of the resources used to help students learn were Lego Mindstorms EV3’s. We are fortunate to have enough kits available so that students can work in pairs with one kit. The kits were obtained through grants, one of them being the STEM Challenge Initiative, Inc. abbreviated as SCI. The goal of the SCI board is to provide affordable and meaningful STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) educational opportunities for the communities in Franklin and Grand Isle Counties. It is a great resource for educators.

By working with the robots, from building to programming them, the students learn to investigate problems and find possible solutions. In addition to content specific skills, essential transferable skills such as collaborating and communicating are learned and practiced. From the first lesson on through to the end, students have to understand and interpret two-dimensional learning to create three-dimensional robots. Troubleshooting and perseverance is the name of the game. Mathematical concepts such as estimating and measuring distance, time, and speed are practiced. Fifth grade students will also be programming using Mindstorm EV3’s as part of their Starbase program in the Spring.

Each trimester, one class works with the Mindstorms for an hour a week for 6-7 weeks. Lessons are co-taught by both Sandy Brown and Rhonda Siemons. Students are excited for the “Mindstorm Day” to come. They assemble the robot together and by the end of the unit are programming it to do their bidding (within reason). The hour goes by quickly because students are engaged and challenged. 

In the new configuration of grades 5-8, we are grateful to Sandy Brown for growing this wonderful opportunity and expanding it into BFA Fairfax Middle School. When I asked Ms. Brown to to share a little about herself, she offered the following (next time you see her, please thank Sandy for all that she does-and has done for students over the years): 

“Over a 24 year time span, I have taught in grades 3-8, with 5th grade being the one I have taught the longest. I have a  master’s degree in science education. I lived in Fairfax with my husband and two daughters for 30 years, both daughters graduated from BFA. Our family has grown to include 2 son-in-laws and 2 grandchildren with one on the way. My husband and I now live in Winooski. I am so glad I can still be in Fairfax five days a week. Teaching has provided me with the special opportunity to be with children and work in science and social studies, two subjects that I absolutely love.”

Justin Brown is the Principal at BFA Fairfax Middle School is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY.

The FWSU Story: BFA Fairfax Cross Country and Track Athletes Find Motivation and Inspiration In An Evening with Elle Purrier

It’s not often that aspiring high school student-athletes have a face-to-face encounter with a world championship-calibur professional athlete. It’s even less often, and extremely rare, to have that athlete hail from their own backyard. This was just the case on the evening of Thursday, October 17, when BFA Fairfax Cross Country and Track athletes were treated to an up close and personal evening with Montgomery, VT native, and Richford High School graduate Elle Purrier, who now runs professionally for team New Balance. Home for a two week break, fresh off her recent appearance in the finals of the IAAF World Track and Field Championship 5000 meter race, Purrier spoke with starry eyed student-athletes from four Franklin County high schools.  

Student-athletes were inspired by her down to earth reflections on coming from a rural Vermont school, adapting to college at the University of New Hampshire, and balancing the demands of being a student, athlete, and individual. Attendees were able to ask questions ranging from the typical day in the life of a professional runner, to what the differences were like in Doha, Qatar (the site of the recent World Championships). 

BFA Fairfax student-athletes were able to spend time afterward with Purrier, asking questions, getting autographs, and taking pictures with their newfound mentor and hero. Sophomores Nikki Cholewa and Kali Wooster were able to connect with Purrier on a personal level, as they shared their experience of coming in 2nd in the state championship 4×400 race last June by only one tenth of a second. Just this past September, Purrier had narrowly missed a first place finish in the prestigious 5th Avenue Mile race, held in New York City, by the exact same margin. Purrier candidly and playfully responded “it really lights a fire under your backside, doesn’t it?” As simple as they were, those words will forever be etched in the minds of Nikki, Kali and their teammates for the remainder of their careers, and years to come.  

Purrier at IAAF World Track and Field Championship

BFA Fairfax is so fortunate to have had this opportunity, and would like to thank Elle Purrier, Richford High School Cross Country coach Richard Flint, and Richford High School for hosting this memorable event. We hope to see you in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Elle!  

Geri Witalec-Krupa is an Athletic Director/Assistant Principal at BFA Fairfax is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow her @GLWit

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