THE FWSU STORY: New Assessment Measures Physical Fitness at GEMS

The Vermont Agency of Education has made some changes in the state assessment system this year in accordance with the Federal “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA). One such change is the implementation of Physical Education assessments in targeted elementary, middle, and high school grades.


Students at GEMS practice physical fitness in PE class.

The Vermont Agency of Education has selected FitnessGram to serve as its statewide physical education assessment for both state and federal accountability purposes. FitnessGram is a non-competitive fitness assessment developed in 1982 by The Cooper Institute and is currently the most widely used fitness assessment tool nationally. Our state views this assessment as an important measure of good health as opposed to athletic ability.

This year, in May, each student in grades four and seven will be assessed in four areas: aerobic capacity, muscular strength, muscular endurance, and flexibility. Body composition will not be measured or reported. Because this is the initial year of the testing, parents will not be receiving individual student results.


Students assess their physical fitness with FitnessGram

FitnessGram Assessment includes:

Curl-Ups: The curl-up test measures abdominal strength and endurance, which is important in back support and core stability.

Push Ups: The push-up test measures muscular endurance of the upper body.

PACER Test: The PACER (Progressive Aerobic Cardiovascular Endurance Run) is the default aerobic capacity test in FITNESSGRAM. Aerobic capacity is perhaps the most important component of any fitness program. Research indicates that acceptable levels of aerobic capacity are associated with a reduced risk of high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, obesity, diabetes, some forms of cancer, and other health problems in adults.

Sit and Reach: The sit and reach test is a common measure of flexibility, and specifically measures the flexibility of the lower back and hamstring muscles.

If you are interested in learning more about the assessment and the standards it is designed to measure, please visit:

THE FWSU STORY: GEMS Students to Create Projects in New Outdoor Woodworking Center

With generous funding from the Georgia Elementary Middle School PTCO, the first-grade team was able to purchase tools and other supplies to create a woodworking center. Our center is now complete with safety glasses, aprons, gloves, hammers, screwdrivers, pliers, a saw and miter box, levels, measuring tapes, and speed squares.

Supplies available in the woodworking center at GEMS.

Supplies available in the woodworking center at GEMS.

Eighth-grade teacher Brad King and students from the middle school built a movable table that will support flexible learning opportunities to work outside in the fresh air and sunshine – and to let our creativity run wild!

A table built by middle students at GEMS

A table built by middle students at GEMS

After a few safety lessons, small groups of first graders will be able to head outdoors to the woodworking center. With adult supervision,  the students will be able to use hammers, drills, screws, and measurement tools to cut and create anything they can imagine!

Students at GEMS will uplevel their skills using various tools and be able to apply some of the math we have learned this year in the context of their woodworking projects.  Finished pieces can also be painted and decorated, integrating opportunities for artistic expression as well.

This new center will provide every first-grader a real opportunity for connected hands-on learning and success. Students kids are very excited to get outside to make something with their hands and try out all the new tools.

Thanks to the GEMS PTCO for their generous support!

THE FWSU STORY: BFA Fairfax 8th Grade Students Find Adventure in Boston

On April 19 and 20, the BFA Fairfax eighth grade team departed on our annual trip to Boston, Massachusetts.  I was once again reminded of the importance of creating learning experiences that challenge and enhance students’ worldviews and perspectives.



During our two-day journey, our students had the opportunity to learn about the history of Boston, visit important landmarks of the American Revolution on the Freedom Trail, explore a wide variety of exhibits at the Museum of Science and the New England Aquarium, and take in a performance of The Blue Man Group and a Duck Boat tour.



The other learning experiences were also equally important.  Students implemented important life skills like time and money management, healthy and appropriate risk-taking, and problem-solving and coping with situations that cause anxiety and discomfort.  We were privileged to watch our students navigate the city, experience the architecture, interact with an urban landscape, and cope with hustle and bustle of city life.




Once again, Rhonda Siemons, our technology integrationist, created a closed group on Facebook that allowed us to engage parents, students, staff, and community members with updates of our travels— text, images, and videos.  The use of social media continues to provide a connection in real time that enhances this experience for all.

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Thank you to Jennifer Skerrett, Emily Wills, Jerry Bailey, Michelle Messier, Nichole Wehman and Dylan Callan for going above and beyond the call of duty for our students.  I appreciate all of you and your efforts to make this trip to Boston a success.  I feel fortunate to work with you!



Also, this trip would not occur without all the countless hours of coordination and planning by Sally Billado.  I want to express an enormous amount of gratitude to her for making this trip run flawlessly.



Finally, a big thank you to the Fairfax/Fletcher community for supporting this experience.  I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to go on this trip with our students.  Watching them experience Boston was an important reminder of the value of living each day and being thankful for the opportunities we get to experience.  We are confident that it was time and money well spent.  These students were great representatives of our communities.  The learning and experiences created memories that will last a lifetime.








Thomas Walsh is currently 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: How Sensory Breaks Get Our Bodies “Just Right” for Learning

Everyone processes information in different ways and has different sensory needs. As adults, we have all developed ways to meet our own sensory needs. This may look like going for a drink of water after sitting for awhile, using a standing desk, or chewing gum.

students in a yoga pose during sensory break

Children are the same as us; however, they have not yet mastered how to get their sensory needs met consistently and appropriately. As a result, students may engage in unexpected behaviors to meet their needs. All behavior is a form of communication and should be looked at as such.

a buddha board provides sensory break

We can be proactive as adults by incorporating sensory breaks or “brain breaks” into a student’s or classroom’s schedule. A sensory break or “brain break” is a fancy term for taking a break from a seated learning activity. For children with sensory needs, this is often referred to as a sensory break or sensory diet.

a quiet sensory corner provides a rest from sensory overstimulation

What are the benefits of a sensory break?

Sensory breaks can be beneficial for the development of self-regulation. Self-regulation is a skill that is developed over time and for some students may need to be directly taught. It is a skill that allows us to manage our surroundings and our reactions to the things going on around us.

a student uses the mini trampoline on a brain break

Self-regulation is an important component of social-emotional and academic success. When our bodies are calm we are better able to access the environment around us. When our bodies are overly tired or overly energetic it is difficult to focus and pay attention. As as a result, we may not be able to take in all of the information we are presented.

classroom sensory tools

Sensory breaks allow us to get our body “just right.” Sensory breaks can be used to up-regulate a body that is too tired or down-regulate a body that is too energetic. Everyone’s body responds differently to sensory breaks and therefore it is important to see how you respond to a sensory activity. For example, some people may find that running around decreases energy level but for some, this may increase energy. Regardless of the sensory activity, it is important to end a sensory break with breathing. Breathing is the best and most effective way to reset our bodies.

a play sandbox is a great sensory tool for some students

Why is it important for teachers to incorporate strategies throughout the school day?

A sensory break is a time set to get their bodies “just right” for learning. It is a time that allows for a child to rest and reset their brains so they can focus. If students are too tired or too energetic they may not be able to take in a lesson the teacher is giving. It has been suggested that children from kindergarten through third grade need a break every 15 minutes.

students color during a sensory break

Children in fourth grade and above it is suggested to have a break every 45 minutes. However, this may not always be a realistic expectation given your school day. So if you can get at least one break in every 1-2 hours given your grade level, that is ideal. Breaks do not need to be very long – around 10-15 minutes is ideal.

THE FWSU STORY: Meet BFA Fairfax Senior Minh Thu

Minh Thu is a senior at BFA Fairfax this year. She is enrolled in a variety of courses and plans to attend college next year like the other members of the Class of 2018. Unlike the others, Minh has joined BFA Fairfax for the year from her home country of Vietnam. She spent last year in Vermont as an exchange student at BFA St. Albans. Minh enjoyed living in Vermont with her host family and decided that she would like to stay in Vermont for an additional year. Her parents supported her decision and Minh enrolled at BFA Fairfax using our ability to accept foreign students through the Department of Homeland Security’s I-20 program. High School Principal John Tague recently chatted with Minh to get her thoughts about her experiences in Vermont and at BFA Fairfax.

Minh Thu is a senior at BFA Fairfax this year through the Immigration I-20 program.

Minh Thu is a senior at BFA Fairfax this year.

Where are you from? My family lives in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. I was able to be there for a month last summer.

What do you like best about Vermont? I like the scenery of Vermont. The fall season is beautiful. I like maple syrup and ice cream too!

What do you miss the most about Vietnam? I miss my mom’s cooking. She gives me recipes but they don’t taste the same when I make them!

What are your favorite classes? I enjoyed Chemistry and Anatomy and Physiology last semester. This semester, Public Speaking is my favorite.

What are your plans for next year? I will be attending Montana State University to study nursing.

Minh with her classmates

Minh with her classmates.

Are the two BFA’s different? Teachers in both schools are friendly. Students in Fairfax are friendlier. Fairfax is a smaller school which is nice, but St Albans had more sports choices.

What else would you like people to know? People should plan to visit Vietnam someday to experience the interesting culture and food. Most people know about Vietnam from the war. There have been many new developments since the Vietnam war and there are museums to learn more about it.

Anything else? I love American fast food. I have pizza every week. I like Whoppers and Big Macs, but the Whopper is better.

We love to have students in our school from across the globe. It offers our local students a wider perspective on the world outside Franklin County! We are fortunate to have Minh join our student body.

THE FWSU STORY: Georgia Students Present Maker Faire

What is a Maker Faire? Maker Faire is an opportunity for discussion, expression, creativity, and FUN! The expression on the faces of both adults and children show it all. On a February school night, the GEMS cafeteria was elbow-to-elbow as parents, children, and students attended the maker event with enthusiasm and excitement.



Everyone had the opportunity to create, make, and problem solve and a variety of diverse challenge tasks and inquiry-based learning opportunities were spread throughout the cafeteria.



Each station was unique and lured the creative thinker over to investigate, build – and hopefully solve. The following were booths/activities available:

Click the Maker movie below to get a great view of the night and activities available for all.  Courtesy of GEMS television and Christopher Dukeshire.

Thank You to the following sponsors for their support and contributions towards materials and supplies.  Children, could not only build and create but bring home their designs for memories and keepsake. Thank you so much!

  • Paul Frank and Collins P.C
  • Harrison Concrete
  • University of Vermont
  • Carolyn Branagan, VT State Senator
  • Georgia PTCO
  • Georgia Market
  • Exit 18 Equipment
  • R.L. Vallee Inc
  • Georgia Self Storage
  • Breezy Acres Garden Center



Deep into March, our students anxiously anticipate the warmth of spring in Vermont (mud season!). Day 127 of 178 student days in our calendar is just another day in the life of our schools…


Students and teachers use time throughout the day to interact with each other and engage in discovery. You never quite know what will happen as things get started each morning in our schools – but we do know it will never be mundane. Each day promises fresh opportunities for learning and growth for our students.


On gray Wednesdays, the moments can easily drift away from our memories – or may be the spark that remains with our students for a lifetime.


Whether it’s taking on a new challenge or simply enjoying chorus with a friend, the unfolding school day enriches and nurtures the spirit of our students.


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Day 127 is like so many others in our schools. It is a day of learning, a day of imagination, and a day of relationships. It is the connections we build that make FWSU a special place for each child.

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The smiles of our children tell the story – day 127 was a great day at FWSU!