THE FWSU STORY: A Parent Guide to Extended Learning During the Holidays

Our students will soon begin the holiday recess and with no school in session, parents and families may be looking for fun, meaningful activities to engage their child. Here is a handy guide for parents to make learning fun over the holidays.

Parent Holiday Guide Banner

Although these are available any time of the year, we wanted to share them with you as an opportunity to explore when students are home for the next week during the holiday break.

Discovery Education logo

Discovery Education offers a wide variety of free family resources that you can trust for you and your children. Discovery Education has collected and provided some uniquely designed resources with parents in mind.

Discovery Education has virtual field trips that provide opportunities for students and their families to go beyond the classroom walls to visit and learn through immersive learning experiences anytime— no permission slips required.

Live From the Farm: Technology and Soil Science

Live From the Farm: Technology and Soil Science

Powered by Discovery Educations network of family programming, there are also several resources to engage students learning on amazing topics like shark weektelescopes, or virtual reality. They even have virtual class pets, live animal cams.

Shark Week featured on Discovery Ed

Shark Week feature

Here are links to additional resources you can find to help parents and students with learning:

  • Homework Help: Resources to help students and parents helping students find the answers they need.
  • Motivation Station: Creative and useful ideas for parents to help motivate kids.
  • Step-by-Step WebMATH: Get help for math problems in real-time, then see the solution and how to get there yourself … step-by-step.

Discovery Ed Virtual Field Trips

Please take advantage of these free resources and more so you and your students can enjoy learning anytime and anywhere.

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.

THE FWSU STORY: Using Self Direction to Solve Problems in GEMS Innovation Lab

This year, GEMS Innovation Lab has a choice class offering for middle school students to explore and design solutions for authentic problems using rapid prototyping. This is the second year GEMS has offered this type of innovative choice class to students. You can review last year’s blog post featuring the class here.

Students review rapid prototyping process.

Students review rapid prototyping process.

Rapid prototyping is the speedy creation of a full-scale model. The word prototype comes from the Latin words proto (original) and typus (model). Prototyping allows the student product designers to design and test their products efficiently avoiding time-consuming and costly production.

Student using sewing machine.

Student using a sewing machine to create a project.

GEMS Innovation Lab provides students with a variety of tools to use for rapid prototyping.

This course allows students to become creative, critical thinkers. Working in teams students develop communication skills to create a dialogue to solve problems. The course encourages students to encourage to move beyond their current methods of thinking and engage in new, innovative methods.

The co-teachers Eric Hadd and Dayle Payne, facilitate the students to be active in their learning through self-guided discussions, questions, and the design process. While both teachers provide guidance in student discussions and questioning, they avoid giving answers to all questions promoting self-direction.


Students solving authentic problems in the innovation lab through rapid prototyping.

This innovative class allows students develop their inquiry skills, and to begin to engage in thinking more independently.


‘War at Home: Students Respond to September 11th’ – A One-Act Festival

Earlier this month, the cast and crew of BFA Fairfax High School’s One Act Play, War at Home: Students Respond to September 11th, gathered in the classroom with nervous energy awaiting the arrival of the bus. Today was the day that they had been working towards for the last two months: festival day.

BFA War at Home 1

Cast and crew preparing for the performance

Every year the Vermont Drama Council and Vermont Principals’ Association host the High School One Act festivals across the state. Between four and six schools attend each regional festival for a 16-hour day of theater, friends, laughter, tears, and joy. Students are responsible for the majority of the festival activities from the host school’s decoration and organization of the day’s events to running the Liz Lerman Constructed Response Forum after each school’s production. Students from all walks of life and communities gather at the festival to participate in the incredible world of theater.

BFA War at Home 2

Students in our ‘Phantom of the Opera’ classroom

As the BFA Fairfax bus arrived at Milton High School the energy and excitement was palpable! Students from different schools embraced each other upon arrival, the gracious hosts from Milton provided a quick tour around the building, and then students were off to opening ceremonies. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about theater is how it brings people together.

BFA War at Home 3

All the schools on stage for open mic

Next up was workshops. Fairfax students attended a range of hour-long activities; everything from makeup design, to Vinyasa yoga, and even stage combat was offered. Then the performances began. Six incredible performances from Lamoille, Milton, Stowe, Essex, BFA St. Albans, and, finally, BFA Fairfax. Each performance showcased talented actors, thoughtful stage hands, exuberant lighting technicians, creative sound designers, and more. After each show, the directors leave the students with generous volunteers to participate in Forum while the director’s have a meeting to discuss the strengths of the performance. Ultimately, two high schools move on to the Vermont State One Act Festival. In between performances, students have meals, participate in an open mic style Coffee House, and socialize with their peers.

BFA War at Home 4

Students perform at Coffee House

While all the students of course want to win, incredibly the most important part of the day to the students is the participation in festival itself. Never have you felt a more loving, excited and accepting energy as is found in the festival environment. Fairfax’s cast and crew talked at length about how their favorite day of the year is festival because there is truly nothing like the energy of being surrounded by 200+ passionate theater students.

BFA War at Home 5


Several Fairfax students received recognition for Excellence in Acting: Annalise Durocher, Nathan Langlois, and Sophie Lee. In addition, Sophie Lee, a Fairfax senior, was selected to be a member of the VT State Drama All Star Cast, which will perform at the State Festival. The Fairfax ensemble was also recognized for Excellence in Tragic Timing. Congratulations to Milton High School and Essex High School for moving on to States! BFA Fairfax and Lamoille High School will be co-hosting the State Drama Festival at Lamoille Union High School on April 7th and 8th for another incredible day of high school theater.

Special thanks to Directors Marcy Perrotte & Sara Villeneuve for contributing to this FWSU Story

Flexible Scheduling at BFA High School

Although spring is still just a hopeful thought, high school students at BFA are already planning for the next school year. The 2017-18 BFA Program of Studies was released this week and represents some of the changes that are happening at BFA to improve teaching and learning. The Program of Studies includes 23 new courses including Interdisciplinary Courses designed for our sophomore students.


The Interdisciplinary Courses were developed based on feedback from students from the Class of 2020 about their hopes after a year in our new Freshman Core. Other new courses were developed by the various academic departments to provide more opportunities for students to pursue an area of interest.


Another aspect that will be different for students next year is the introduction of a flexible schedule for classes. Currently, students are enrolled in four 75-minute classes each day. The new flexible schedule will have classes that are 45, 60, 75 and 90 minutes long. The classes will run concurrently throughout the day with different start and end times. 


Students might start the day with a 45-minute class, followed by a 90-minute class and end the day with a 75-minute class and 60-minute class. The goal is to provide flexibility for learners and match the courses with an appropriate amount of time for the subject and the learners. Interdisciplinary courses will run for 90 minutes, while introductory world language, art and band classes might last only 45 minutes. Some courses will retain their 75-minute length if that time frame works best and others will become 60 minutes long.

The new flexible schedule will allow our students who attend the Essex Tech Center, CTE, to enroll in a 45-minute class at BFA before they board the bus to Essex. BFA students currently start their day at Essex with a math, English or Social Studies course before they begin their program. Our new schedule provides that content instruction at BFA, keeping our tech center students connected to their teachers and peers, and still gets them to the tech center in time for their program.


The last change in next year’s schedule involves Support Block. Support Block is a 30-minute block that students attend every day to allow time for homework, make-up work, clubs, or quiet social interactions. Next year, Support Block will occur at the end of the day. This change was proposed by students and supported by students for a variety of reasons.


“All students, having been through all of their classes before Support Block, what they want help with and what they can handle on their own.  – Rachel P., student in her proposal to move Support Block


Students who play sports sometimes have to be dismissed early to travel for away events. Support Block at the end of the day will reduce the amount of academic class time our student-athletes miss on early dismissal days. Lastly, with support Block at the end of the day, our CTE students will be able to check in when they return from Essex and maintain their connection to their Support Block teacher and peers.


Flexible scheduling is a step toward the concept of “Mass Customized Learning” which shifts instruction from a time-based to a learning-based approach.

It’s an exciting time for students and teachers at BFA as we begin to reimagine our school day and year to improve teaching and learning and best meet the needs of our students.

Target 3 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 for this Goal – The definition of school day is flexible and responsive to the needs of students.

Action Step – Develop opportunities for students to demonstrate transferable skills in authentic settings

Transferable Skills and the Engineering Design Process at BFA-Fairfax MS


Over the past month, teachers at BFA-Fairfax Middle School have been attempting to redefine students’ Initiative Time (or Supported Study) experience to be more student-driven, with the purpose of helping students develop 21st-century skills like self-direction, creativity, leadership, and problem-solving.  Last month, for instance, students in Mr. Psaros’ (8th-grade social studies) Initiative Time visited Lake Champlain Chocolates to learn about chocolate production, then donated homemade chocolate to the St. Albans Rehabilitation Center as an act of service to the Franklin County community.  Similarly, students in Mrs. Messier’s (7th-grade science) Supported Study are choosing to participate in one of four project-based learning units over the course of the next several weeks.


While considering ways to bring together science and math principles from their respective curricula and pose a challenging, authentic problem for students to take the lead in solving, Mrs. Hamm (8th-grade math) and Mrs. Barnes-Cota (8th-grade science) had an idea.  Over the past 10 school days, students in their Initiative Time groups have been immersed in an engineering design process, building and racing two different types of lego-like cars: solar-powered and battery-operated.  Students have worked in groups of four or five, building their cars in preparation for a race against other teams of students with the same type of car.  Students have been extremely engaged, and the air of competition is palpable.  Mrs. Barnes-Cota reports that students have built cars, recognized design flaws, collaborated with their teammates to fix those flaws, and rebuilt their cars to optimize performance.


An interesting twist: this experience is the first of three.  This time, students are following the directions that come with the car kits.  Next, students will be free to modify and adapt the cars they have built to improve speed and distance.  Finally, in the third iteration, students will be given a pile of parts and just one simple direction: “Build!”  After each round of designing, building, and revising, students will be assessed (and will self-assess) on four of the five Vermont Transferable Skills:

  1. Clear and Effective Communication
  2. Creative and Practical Problem Solving
  3. Responsible and Involved Citizenship
  4. Informed and Integrative Thinking


Students must demonstrate evidence of these transferable skills in order to graduate from high school.  These Transferable Skills are also the infrastructure for goal-setting within their Personalized Learning Plans, both in middle school and in high school.  Perhaps most important to note about this learning experience is that students are in the driver’s seat (pun intended) when it comes to their learning.


Learning is a “Blast” at Fletcher Elementary


Rigorous learning and having a “blast” can go hand-in-hand, as Fletcher Elementary School fifth graders found out recently. Brightly colored model rockets soared into the sky from the school playground, leaving a trail of smoke and newfound knowledge for the school’s fifth graders.


The young scientists participated in a five-day, 25-hour learning experience at Starbase, an educational affiliate of the U.S. Department of Defense, located on the Vermont Air National Guard Base in Burlington. The program focuses on teaching students about physics, chemistry, technology, engineering, and math, along with possible careers in those fields.


“It’s all hands-on,” fifth-grader Eric Wimble said. “We learned everything by doing experiments and projects and that will help me remember better than just reading a book.”


Starbase lessons include everything from exploring an actual F16 fighter jet in the hanger to flying a variety of planes using high-tech flight simulators. Other lessons focused on learning about gravity through cooperative games and learning about air pressure by experimenting on marshmallows.


“Everything we did was related to an actual real-life problem or idea,” fifth grader Chase Murray said. “It just made sense.”


In addition to academic concepts, the Starbase program aims to foster collaboration and healthy decision-making by students, as well as building community and exposing students to cutting-edge technology. Each “Starbaser,” as they have come to be called, selects a “call sign” for themselves, just as pilots on the base would do. Students and staff are referred to by their call signs, which reflect one of more personal interests or attributes, throughout the Starbase experience.


Starbase opened its doors in 1994 and has more than 1,300 student participants annually. There are both Burlington and Rutland, Vermont, campuses.

During the program’s physics component, students study Newton’s Laws of Motion by conducting hands-on experiments that include building and launching model rockets. Many parents and much of the rest of the school turned out to watch the Fletcher fifth graders launch their rockets in early February. Other Starbase topics include fuel mechanics and aerodynamics, much of which is learned through experiments and observations of military planes that enter and exit the base on which Starbase is housed.


“Starbase is a combination of rigorous and fun academics, career exploration, and the teaching and building of community and social skills,” fifth-grade teacher Cassandra Underwood said. “It’s the whole package, and it takes place in an exciting and engaging atmosphere.”


Building blocks of matter, physical and chemical changes and atmospheric properties are all emphasized in Starbase’s chemistry strand. Additionally, technology innovations including the latest in mapping, nanotechnology, robotics and chromatography (a method for separating organic and inorganic compounds to determine their make-up) are featured.


“It just makes you want to learn more and more,” Murray said. “It’s so much fun that you can’t get enough.”

Target 3. 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.

Action Steps – (1) Increase access to resources for all students. (2) Provide students with access to content, resources and methods for learning beyond the school day and beyond the school walls. (3) Develop opportunities for students to demonstrate transferable skills in authentic settings.

Indicators of Success – Staff, students and the community embrace digital, social, mobile learning styles. (2) The school calendar and definition of the school day is flexible and responsive to the needs of students. (3) Students engage in answering authentic questions and solving problems in collaborative settings. (4) Flexible learning environments are the context for collaboration and extend beyond the classroom.