THE FWSU STORY: GEMS Inventors Share Reflections on Iteration in Prototypes and Designs

As the Prototyping and Inventing class winds down in the Georgia Elementary Middle School Innovation Lab, students are eager to share the great work they have been doing. You can read more about the class in this post

GEMS Innovation Lab

In the video below, a student talks about the concept of iterations in the inventing and design process. This foundational understanding is crucial to the class.

Another student discussed a breakthrough in 3D printing — a coin cell battery holder.

Enjoy this gallery with the latest iterations created by our student innovators!


Fun with circuits and lights!

Light-up Fingers

Light-up Fingers!

Cell Phone/iPod Holder

Cell Phone/iPod Holder

Proud Inventors!

Proud Inventors!

A work in progress.

A work in progress.

We might store our printing filament this way!

We might store our printing filament this way!




A student shows off a design prototype.



Student-designed marker holder.

The master list - How we organized our inventing sessions.

The master list – wow we organized our inventing sessions!

THE FWSU STORY: Students Explore World Traditions and Celebrations in GEMS Innovation Lab

As part of a recent unit focusing on traditions, first graders in Mrs. Dattilio’s class, under the guidance of their student teacher, Jeannine Bissonette, combined many areas of study into one great culminating event.

A student creating with KidPix in the Innovation Lab.

A student creating with KidPix in the Innovation Lab.

After reading books and having group discussions about how different traditions that are celebrated around the world, the students each spent time writing about their own special family traditions.

Students explore traditions around the world.

Students explore traditions around the world.

They took their writing to the Innovation Lab where they used KidPix to create an illustration for their pictures, as well as to create a voiceover recording of their writing.  This work was then compiled into a slideshow presentation. The slideshow, as well as a Thanksgiving Reader’s Theater, were then presented to the families at a holiday breakfast event in the classroom.


Students collaborate in the Innovation Lab to record the voiceover for their writing.

It was a fantastic way to combine so much learning into one very successful family event showcasing student work and the capabilities of the technology available to us.

GEMS students are able to express their learning in the innovation lab.

GEMS students are able to express their learning and creativity in the Innovation Lab.

THE FWSU STORY: BFA Fairfax Middle School Students Engage in Flexible Learning Opportunities

This year BFA Fairfax Middle School is implementing a school-wide Project-Based Learning (PBL) component as part of our academic program.

For the past several years our staff collaborated to create more authentic and student-driven learning opportunities with varied levels of success.  This year a group of teachers met during the summer to design a process that would integrate content, Developmental Assets, and the Vermont Transferrable Skills throughout our student learning experiences, while also embedding curricular standards.  Students will document their learning and growth through their Personalized Learning Plans (PLP) and share this information with parents during student-led conferences.

The result is a what we call Flexible Learning Opportunities.  The sessions run two days a week for two hours per day.  During these times, students are grouped in multi-age configurations by their choice of one of the strands offered, and students follow a modified schedule where they still participate in their Core and Unified Arts classes.

This opportunity is a response to the need for alternative times for our students to pursue more personalized learning opportunities.  The flexible schedule allows for more student choice in their learning and increased opportunities for project-based learning experiences.  The strands we are offering for our first session include:

  • Strategic Games – Students explore a variety of board and strategy games focusing on decision-making skills in which their choices determine the result. We started with a few games like chess, checkers, and cribbage and progressed to incorporating student choice.
  • Sports Activities – Students have the opportunity to participate and be active in a variety of team sports, individual sports, team building activities and exercises.
  • Robotic Cars – Students are building robotic cars with the purpose of racing them. Students will make modifications to their car until they reach their maximum potential.
  • Drama/Improvisation – Students are learning to play many types of characters, act out stories, and think on their feet to make up scenes without a script.
  • Maker Space with E-textiles – Students are designing and creating clothing, costumes, jewelry, or accessories using high-tech elements.  They combine fabric with microcontrollers, LEDs, programmable circuits, and 3D printed and laser cut elements to make fun and high-fashion wearables and other textiles.
  • Maker Space – Students are working with equipment in the Maker Space to reach a group or individual goal. They have the opportunity to use 3D printers, Ozobots, a large scale graphics printer, Cricuts/vinyl cutters and a fabric press, Rockerbox Stacks and SparkFun Inventor’s Kits.
  • Building an Outdoor Classroom – From the ground up, students are using carpentry skills and building techniques to help construct a large outdoor classroom in our school farm. Hands-on problem solving, carpentry skills,  and working together are our goals for this course.
  • Cooking and Baking – Students are learning the joy of cooking and baking for themselves and others while developing skills to be more successful in the kitchen.
  • Set Design – Students are building small-scale models of sets for a play based on brief plays and short stories they read.

The initial feedback from students and staff members has been extremely positive.  Students have consistently shared that they enjoy choice in their learning and like the variety of learning opportunities.  Staff indicated that student engagement levels are high, and we have had no behavior referrals during this learning time.  Finally, parents have shared that their children are eagerly discussing these learning experiences at home, which at times can be an anomaly as students progress through their adolescent school years.

We are really excited about the early success of these learning experiences.  Thank you to our staff for the extra time coordinating these opportunities, to our students for their genuine excitement for learning, and the School Board members for allocating resources to support Project-Based Learning in our school.

THE FWSU STORY: GEMS Second-Graders Become Nature Explorers in Four Winds Trip

Today’s on The FWSU Story, we are pleased to feature a guest post by Julie Ferguson, a second-grade classroom teacher at Georgia Elementary Middle School. 


GEMS students experience their first field trip to the Senesac property in Georgia.

Earlier this month, the second graders at GEMS enjoyed their first field trip, organized by Four Winds volunteers.


Students learn about trees!

It was a wonderful trip to the Senesac property in Georgia which provided children with the opportunity to learn about trees in one of the best flexible learning environments around: the great outdoors!


Students talk about their learning.

Students started off their morning with a puppet show about what a tree does and why it’s important. Then the students broke into classes and visited three stations.


Students loved exploring the outdoors!

The children learned how to identify different trees and about the parts of the tree and their jobs. These students were proud to share their new learning with their families and classmates!

Julie Ferguson Teacher


Julie Ferguson is a second-grade teacher at Georgia Elementary Middle School.




THE FWSU STORY: Students Celebrate “The Best Part of Me”

Elementary teachers across the United States have been engaged in writing projects using photographer Wendy Ewald’s 2003 book, The Best Part of Me: Children Talk About their Bodies in Pictures and Words. The book highlights and celebrates various aspects of body differences. The writing project can build community and self-esteem by encouraging the kind of reflection that comes with the integration of visual images, the writing process, and the written word. The following guest blog post by GEMS Third Grade Teacher, Stacey Sullivan, explains how her class engaged in the project.

We began our year with a writing project that was inspired by Wendy Ewald’s book:  The Best Part of Me, in which students write about the best part of their bodies and help to compose a photograph that highlights their best parts.

a student's mouth

A student shares how their mouth is the best part.

Every year I like to begin with a focus on our strengths, passions, and the things we like best about ourselves.  I want to get to know my students through their eyes, I want to see them the way they see themselves.  This was a great project for doing that.  It was also a good way to ease us into the writing process.


“The Best Part of Me” by Wendy Ewald.

Together we took this piece through the brainstorming, writing, editing, revising, and publishing steps. Students found this piece easy because they were able to write on a topic that they know a lot about… themselves!  The poem format also gave students the freedom to express themselves without worrying too much about structure.  There will be plenty of time to worry about run-ons, fragments, grammar, and syntax.  In poetry, it’s all allowed — we just chalk it up to stylistic choice!

Sullivan's Scholars!

Sullivan’s Scholars share their superpowers!

Students were in charge of the composition of their portraits.  They had imagined exactly how they wanted their body part captured and had the final say in which shot was used. The results are truly magical.

A student captures how their hands are the "best part."

A student captures how their hands are the “best part.”

Next, we are focusing on writing personal narratives.  Students have already begun the brainstorming process by listing people and places in their lives that are important to them and thinking of small moments they have shared together.  We will try to zoom in and make the story come alive for the reader by describing what happened.  We will focus on showing instead of telling.  We do this by using figurative language, dialogue, and focusing on our senses: what we heard, saw, tasted, felt, and smelled.

Teacher Stacey Sullivan

Stacey Sullivan teaches third grade at Georgia Elementary Middle School. She blogs at and is active on Twitter @sullyteaches.

THE FWSU STORY: What’s a YATST? Empowering Student Voice and Agency

Recently a group of BFA High School Freshmen and Sophomores convened in Montpelier as part of a movement to bring student voice to the forefront of high school transformation. The two-day workshop was organized and sponsored by UP for Learning.

Members of the YATST team at BFA Fairfax.

Members of the YATST team at BFA Fairfax.

Here is how UP for Learning defines itself as both an organization and a movement:

“UP for Learning helps educational institutions across the country fully engage students in their own learning through a research-based model that focuses on deepening youth-adult partnerships in schools. On the cutting edge of the national movement toward student-centered education, UP for Learning provides expert coaching, facilitation, and training to youth-adult teams. It offers strategies and tools for building a school community in which learning is engaging for everyone and youth are fully empowered. Based in Vermont, UP for Learning also conducts policy advocacy to elevate student voice in learning and decision-making on a state level. UP for Learning helps schools fully embrace student voice and youth-adult partnership as central to their school culture. Fostering student voice—empowering youth to express their opinions and influence their educational experiences so that they feel they have a stake in the outcomes—is one of the most powerful tools schools have to increase learning.” — Toshalis and Nakkula, “Motivation, Engagement and Student Voice” Executive Summary, 2012

YATST team in action.

YATST team in action.

Act 77 has given Vermont high schools policy-based “permission” to transform learning for students; it is critical the students have a voice in what changes are occurring on their behalf and how those changes are communicated, implemented, and experienced. “Student voice” can be also be described as the expression of perspectives, beliefs, and attitudes about the experience of learning, including the structures and processes, from the students’ viewpoint and in their own words. Adults have largely created those “processes and structures.”  So, what would happen if students and their voices were in partnership with those adults in co-designing the shifts in learning as high schools are remodeled under Act 77? That is where YATST comes in. “Student voice” can be also be described as the expression of perspectives, beliefs, and attitudes about the experience of learning, including the structures and processes, from the students’ viewpoint and in their own words. Adults have largely created those “processes and structures.”  So, what would happen if students and their voices were in partnership with those adults in co-designing the shifts in learning as high schools are remodeled under Act 77? That is where YATST comes in. So, what would happen if students and their voices were in partnership with those adults in co-designing the shifts in learning as high schools are remodeled under Act 77? That is where YATST comes in.

YATST team engaging in training.

YATST team engaging in training.

YATST, which stands for Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together, is a network of youth and adult teams across Vermont high schools dedicated to ensuring that both students and adults are highly engaged in school change that is responsive to our rapidly changing world.

YATST student leaders pose for the camera!

YATST student leaders pose for the camera!

Most of BFA’s school-based YATST team members are already UP for Learning veteran leaders having participated in teaching and leading their Freshmen peers last year in understanding the role of motivation, mindset, and metacognition in proficiency-based learning. Ten team members joined together for this Montpelier training to strategize a plan to engage high school students who will be required to graduate with proficiency beginning in 2020 in amplifying their voice in their own learning. As sophomores, Kiana Labor, Natalie Bates, and Theresa Trenholm are continuing their leadership this year along with new Freshmen leaders Sammy Bidwell, Jarrett Sweet and adult leaders Danielle Kicsak, Mark Ladue, Harold Vance III, David Buckingham, Linda Keating, and John Tague. One way they will do this is by expanding the leadership team to include more Freshmen and Sophomores and to co-create an action plan that addresses helping their peers and faculty understand the concept of “agency.” YATST defines agency as “personal power with purpose,” and the team will add goals and tools that promote engagement and buy-in and address the 4-Rs that build agency: Rigor, Relationship, Relevance, and Shared Responsibility.


YATST team collaboration.

These students are clearly committed to establishing a culture of student voice at BFA Fairfax. Ninth grader Sammy Bidwell sums it up, “To put more student voice into our school system will improve the learning environment. Everyone learns differently, but not everyone feels they can speak out or do something about it.”


Linda Keating


Linda Keating is the Director of Curriculum at FWSU. She is a regular contributor to the FWSU Blog. You can follow her on Twitter @Educate4ward


BFA Fairfax Class of 2017 Enjoys Graduation Tradition

As the school year comes to a close, BFA has many traditions that lead to the final ceremony: graduation. One such tradition is the Senior Class Trip. Members of BFA’s Class of 2017 embarked on a journey earlier this week to enjoy some time together in a relaxed atmosphere filled with sunshine, food, and activity.


The seniors chose to spend the day at Sugar Ridge Campground in Danville, Vermont. They boarded the bus at 9:00 AM and by 11:00 AM, were lounging in and around one of the two pools at the RV resort. In addition to the pool, students played “cornhole”, volleyball, and basketball throughout the day. Students challenged each other on the 18-hole miniature golf course.


“I loved the pool, the food, the whole thing…maybe there was a little too much sun!” -Tanner N, Class of 2017


The students ate lunch, dinner, and snacks thanks to the catering efforts of their class advisors and chaperones Judy Stewart, Ian Meunier, Amy Racicot, and Sarah Coon. Sandwich platters, chips, fruits, and veggies were the lunch offerings followed by a barbecue for dinner. Due to the beautiful hot day, water and sports drinks were consumed in great quantities all day long.


After a day of abundant sunshine and sunscreen (and a little sunburn), the students boarded the bus for the trip back to Fairfax having spent one last day bonding and enjoying a BFA graduation tradition.

“It was a great time. I would recommend it for next year’s class” -Hayden M, Class of 2017