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.


GEMS Students Welcome the New Year

After a long holiday vacation, students are eager to be with friends and teachers, share their joyous experiences, and launch back into the daily routine of school.

img_1380Morning Meeting is a great time to collaborate, share, and smile while working on social and academic skills at the elementary level. Everyone is excited to be back and ready for the great start of a new year in 2017!!!!

img_1385Greeting friends during morning meeting…img_1383Sharing New Years Resolutions and vacation stories…img_1397Revisiting PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support) and modeling what “Responsible, Respectful, and Safe” behavior looks like…img_1402Creating personal goals for the New Year…img_1389Looking for patterns and fractions during number corner conversations…img_1394Collaborating with peers…img_1400Writing about holiday gatherings…img_1388Practicing Fundations and tapping out sounds…img_1384Creating lines and taking turns…img_1410Brainstorming personal goal ideas…img_1414

FWSU: A Great Place for Students to Learn and Thrive

FRANKLIN WEST SUPERVISORY UNION is a great place for students to learn and thrive. Below are some recent facts about our schools and supervisory union that you may not have been aware of.


  • FWSU is the first and only school to become an Apple Distinguished School in Vermont. There are approximately 50 schools per year nationwide who receive this 5 (7)
  • FWSU is the first school in Vermont and New England to be accepted into the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools. There are 77 schools in the nation with this distinction.
  • BFA Fairfax High School scored in top 8 of all Champlain Valley High Schools in both Language Arts and Math on the 2015 SBAC. The Champlain Valley Region includes all high schools in Addison, Chittenden and Franklin counties. Average cost per pupil is $14,392. BFA per pupil cost is $12,019.
  • The BFA Fairfax 2014-15 graduation rate was 92%. The Vermont average is 88% and the national average is 79%.IMG_1855 (1)
  • FWSU is the 14th largest school system in Vermont based on ADM count. Average Daily Membership (ADM) is a count of resident and state-placed students who receive an elementary or secondary education at public expense. There are 60 districts/supervisory unions in Vermont.
  • 87% of BFA Fairfax 2015 senior class attends a four year college or two year college/technical center.  The national percentage is approximately 70%
  • This year 95% of all 4th grade students participated in a six week, ongoing,  educational experience with a school in another country.unnamed (2)
  • Every FWSU school spends less per pupil than the Statewide average of $14,095. The FWSU average is $12,742.
  • FWSU was recognized by the Vermont Agency of Education as a “clear standout” in a recent federal grant compliance review for their teamwork in conforming to federal regulations governing the expenditure of federal grant funds.
  • FWSU is the first school system in Vermont to employ a Learning Management System (LMS) for all students and families pK-12. FWSU uses Schoology.
  • Presidential Scholar 3BFA Fairfax student Bhupinderjit “Binny” Singh was one of 20 Vermont High School Students to be named a Vermont Presidential Scholar. 
  • BFA Fairfax HS has hosted 30 students from China each year for the past 5 years for two weeks in the summer. Students are immersed in an English language program taught by BFA faculty and students.
  • The FWSU blog posts a story featuring our district every school day for the last four years. We may well be the only district in the US to make this claim. To date we have had over 68,000 views of our blog.IMG_0191
  • FWSU (and CSSU) has the lowest rate of student tobacco use in Vermont based on the results of the last Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS).
  • Although Vermont schools are losing students every year, that is not the case in FWSU. Last year FWSU grew in size.
  • FWSU students in grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 11 (only grade tested in high school) all scored above state average in both Language Arts and Math on the 2015 SBAC
  • In the last 3 years, BFA Fairfax has had 5 recipients of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) Scholarship awarded at the Vermont State Athletic Directors Association Student Leadership Conference. Kayla Baczewski ’14, Chace Carpenter ’15, Ben Bosland ’16, Victoria Brown ’16 were recipients of this annual scholarship awarded to the top 10 student-athlete leaders in Vermont high schools.
  • FWSU has consistently performed under its budgeted expenditures for the past ten years, and has reduced school assessments in FY15 and FY16 based on the accumulated fund balance from these savings.



Ned Kirsch is Superintendent of Schools at FWSU. You can follow him on Twitter @betaVT

School Counseling Helps Fletcher Students Stay “In the Zone!”

The American School Counseling Association model for counselors’ time with students is broken into three categories: classroom, small groups and individuals. In Fletcher, I use a curriculum entitled, “The Zones of Regulation.” Written and created by Leah M. Kuypers, it was designed as a curriculum to foster self-regulation and emotional control in students. It is published in conjunction with a series of Social Thinking books written by Michelle Garcia Winner. Additionally, it was first recommended to me by Joelle Van Lent, a psychologist hired by our district to consult with schools as we become more trauma informed. I began using the curriculum last year and immediately became impressed in its ability to give students a structure for expressing and regulating their emotions. Currently, I am using various aspects of the curriculum with the Kindergarten class, children in small groups ranging in age from first to fourth grades and several individual students. I have also had the privilege of explaining its concepts to many teachers, staff and parents of FES.


The basis of the curriculum is that we all have four zones of regulation that we are in at different times: Blue Zone, Green Zone, Yellow Zone and Red Zone. We are in the Blue Zone when we feel sad, sick, bored or tired. We are in the Green Zone when we are feeling happy, calm, focused and ready to learn. Yellow Zone is when we are feeling frustrated, worried or silly and are starting to lose self-control. Finally, the Red Zone is when we are really mad, terrified or out of control. The first half of the curriculum focuses on helping students to recognize when they, or those around them, are in the various zones. They learn about how people look and feel in their bodies when they are in different zones.  Additionally, although it is normal to sometimes be in any of the zones, students are taught when we would expect people to be in each zone. They discover that the Green Zone is the optimal zone to be in most of the time at school because it’s when we are best able to learn. The second half of the curriculum is designed to introduce students to several types of strategies, or “tools,” that people might use in different zones. They might use “sensory, calming down, or thinking tools” in order to help them return to the Green Zone. After learning about many different tools, students create “toolboxes” of strategies that might work best for them.


“If you see someone that is in one of the sad or mad zones you can help them get happy by trying to get them to the green zone,” third grader Emma Spiller said. “To get somebody into the green zone you can try to cheer them up and talk to them. We learned how to tell what zone someone is in or that we are in and how to keep in the green zone, which is the best zone.”

“I use the zones to help me calm down,” fourth grader Chase Murray said. ” If I’m in the red zone I can do things like go to a private space or quiet area and that can help get to the green zone.”

“To get out of the blue zone, and help focus, you can sit up straight, take a little walk, get a drink of water, and that can help you get back to work,” fourth grader Jack Packard said.

“To stay in the green zone and stay calm and focused I listen to instructions and sometimes move around a little that helps get energy out,” fourth grader Logan King said said.


It has been wonderful to witness the emotional growth that I have seen in many students through the use of this curriculum. The entire Kindergarten class is now able to express a feeling or energy level by stating their zone. One student who I have met with individually for a couple of years is now able to keep himself in the Green Zone by using a tool called “The Inner Coach.” Several of my groups have been creating, drawing and naming characters to describe the inflexible thinking that might keep them out of the Green Zone. I am excited to continue to use this curriculum with more and more students at FES in a variety of settings. I look forward to seeing not only their emotional growth, but also the social and academic growth that will result from staying Green!

Target 1 – Student-Centered Learning – FWSU students will engage in personalized learning involving collaborative inquiry, problem solving and creative learning opportunities.

Action Step – Highlight, create and model innovative learning opportunities that promote collaborative inquiry, problem solving and creativity for students and staff.

Indicator of Success – Teachers embrace role of coach, facilitator and co-learner in a student-centered learning environment.




Sandi Simmons is a School Counselor at Fletcher Elementary. This is her first contribution to the FWSU Blog. 



STAR’s are Born at FWSU

Recently Juliet King, Literacy Specialist/Coach at BFA Fairfax provided mini-workshops to review STAR 360 with special educators and SLP’s. STAR 360 is a comprehensive K-12 assessment tool, allowing educators to screen and group students for targeted instruction, measure student growth, predict performance on Smarter Balanced exams and Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) assessments, and monitor achievement on Common Core State Standards.


STAR 360 includes all the features of STAR Reading, STAR Math, and STAR Early Literacy, giving educators valid, reliable, actionable data in the least amount of testing time. It’s perfect for screening, benchmarking, student growth measurement, progress monitoring, and instructional planning. Educators have immediate access to the data and insights they need to improve student outcomes. You can learn more by clicking on the link here.


STAR 360 has already provided valuable data that has allowed teachers to gain a greater understanding of their students strengths and vulnerabilities, allowing for modifications in instructional practices or curriculum as needed. The guiding question for our educators is: How is this informing instruction?


Follow your STAR’s

Target 3 – Flexible Learning Environments. FWSU will maximize flexible learning environments by redefining the school day, promoting learning experiences that extend beyond the school classroom, and fostering creativity, innovation, and differentiated learning opportunities for all.

Action Step – Develop opportunities for students to collaborate, innovate, create and conceptualize in all learning settings.

Indicator of Success – Use of digital tools to differentiate and individualize learning.

“It is Often What You Don’t See in Classrooms That is the Most Telling!”

Target 1 – Student-Centered Learning
FWSU students will engage in personalized learning involving collaborative inquiry, problem solving, and creative learning opportunities.

Action Step – Highlight, create, and
model innovative learning opportunities that promote collaborative inquiry,
problem solving, and creativity for students and staff.

Indicator of Success – Students and staff will apply existing knowledge to create original works as a means of personal or group expression.

1UntitledIn today’s educational environment, the most important thing a principal can do is to be in classrooms interacting with students and staff members on a daily basis. Without making this a priority,  I am not sure how a school leader keeps a pulse on the quality of instruction, the school climate, and student learning. 8Untitled Being in classrooms is my favorite part of my job.  I learn so much about pedagogy, behavior management, assessments, and my students from observing and interacting in classrooms.  A mentor of mine once said, “It is often what you don’t see in a really great teacher’s classroom that is most telling!”  This statement is full of wisdom and has made an important impression on my professional practice.  


Engaging classrooms and responsive teachers do not happen by accident.  It is the result of constant professional learning, high levels of collaboration, ongoing reflection, and a laser-like focus on student needs.  

4UntitledIt can be challenging to put into words the qualities and characteristics of effective teachers and the classroom environments they develop.  In the classrooms of the most effective teachers, learning is constant and respect is evident at all times.  It can be seen in the relationships, in the rigor of the learning, and the relevance of the content and learning opportunities.


In many ways state and national testing creates a similar paradigm.  Although test data is important, it is also what the tests do not assess and do not show us that is equally important!  Tests do not measure important qualities such as respect, responsibility, compassion, service to others, perseverance, or collaboration.  We are charged with preparing students for future jobs that do not yet exist.  This requires us to remain focused on skills, competencies, and dispositions that will allow students to learn, unlearn, and relearn throughout their lifetime.  It is an exciting challenge and a compelling reason to continue to look for those things we cannot always measure.


We are so fortunate to have so many effective, student-centered, and caring educators at this school.  As the landscape of education in Vermont continues to change, our students will continue to be well-served, and I hope we continue to monitor those valuable qualities we cannot assess and those important components we do not always see.  





Thomas Walsh is the Principal of BFA Fairfax Elementary Middle School and is a regular contributor to the FWSU Blog. You can follow him on Twitter @educatamount

Teaming for Transfer at GEMS


Sometimes we educators can overthink things. As we move into this proficiency-based, personalized learning world we have to sometimes sit back and remind ourselves that many of our existing designs for learning in FWSU are personalized. These current designs for personalization are already facilitating demonstrations of proficiency of content and transferable skills in our classrooms. Our work then, not only includes creating what doesn’t exist and is needed to improve student learning, but also involves constantly moving our existing work forward. That continuous revision and resign in our classrooms is the foundation of continuous improvement in our schools.


Case in point, Eric Hadd’s middle school social studies class at GEMS.  Earlier in the year, students were observed preparing for an assessment on the Constitution.


GEMS middle schoolers worked collaboratively to create a small-group framework for their review, and determined the role of technology in facilitating the process.  Each group had a bit of a different take on the task and used their devices to facilitate that work.


What could be observed was not only a deepening of understanding of social studies content, but the useful application of transferable skills to accomplish the task.


FWSU is a digitally rich learning environment for both student and adult learners.  In a proficiency-based, personalized learning culture, students and teachers are partners in the learning. The role of teachers is shifting to Activator and technology can play the role of Facilitator. Michael Fullan, a noted educational researcher and writer, refers to this as a “the new pedagogy” (The New Pedagogy: Students and Teachers as Learning Partners).  When entire classrooms engage with their teacher, each other, and the technology to deepen learning, we can move the pedagogy even further through  “teaming for transfer.”

FWSU Action Plan

Target 1 – Student-Centered Learning – FWSU students will engage in personalized learning.

Action Step – Engage all staff and students in creating personalized learning networks (PLNs) that contribute to learning and instructional practice.

Indicator of Success – Students and staff will create personalized learning networks to communicate and collaborate with others.

BFA Fairfax Middle School Students Capture the Colors of Fall

BFA Middle School has adopted a new tradition and is working to get students to think creatively, be outdoors, and use technology in the form of their 1:1 iPads. The 6th grade just wrapped up their 3rd annual Fall Photo Challenge and the art was absolutely stunning!

Photo by Lori Hamel

Photo by Lori Hamel

This optional challenge received entries from over half of the grade and five winners were selected to have their pictures enlarged, printed and hung in the middle school hallway. The 11×14 framed pictures will remain on exhibit this fall and then will be given to the talented young artists to take home and enjoy with their families.

Photo by Lucy Hackett

Photo by Lucy Hackett

Students submitted pictures taken on their iPads by uploading them to Schoology (no editing allowed) along with a few words about how the photos represented fall. All students could view the submissions, make comments and ask questions about the photographs. This proved quite popular and a lot of dialogue followed each submission.

Photo by Molly Wimette

Photo by Molly Wimette

Students were very creative, with some entries featuring completely natural scenes while others highlighted their talents by selecting and arranging items that represented fall in Vermont. Student feedback was very positive and they enjoyed the opportunity to engage in this extra-curricular activity with peers in a friendly challenge.

Photo by Hazel Albee

Photo by Hazel Albee

The panel of anonymous judges found it extremely difficult to only choose 5 photographs to frame and look forward to the next photo challenge in January that will feature a winter theme.

Photo by Michelle Lynch

Photo by Michelle Lynch

Target 1 – Student-Centered Learning. FWSU students will engage in personalize learning involving collaborative inquiry, problem solving and creative learning opportunities.

Indicator of Success – Students and staff will apply existing knowledge to create original works as a means of personal or group expression.

No Homework at BFA Middle School

BFA Blog homework1

As a middle school we have participated in numerous discussions over the past decade about the role of homework in the learning process.  Unfortunately, despite our best efforts we were never able to come to consensus about the purpose and impact of assigning homework. This year we made a leap of faith and decided to stop assigning homework to our students.

We based this decision on several factors.  Our primary reason was that current research indicates that there is no evidence that homework increases academic benefits.  One argument that I often hear is that doing homework develops responsibility and prepares students for high school.  Our school views homework as an opportunity for independent practice that should reinforce a student’s understanding of a concept.  However, often times homework is an additional burden for students and parents to complete after a long day of work, school, and co-curricular activities.  Frequently the unintended outcome is that students are practicing the concept incorrectly, further interfering in the learning process.

Another consideration for our staff was equity.  There are many factors that impact learning in and outside of school such as socioeconomic status and education levels in the home.  We know that there is a wide discrepancy between the readiness levels for learning as a result.  Equity is about providing the same opportunity and considerations to all students. Due to these important factors we concluded that assigning homework creates and exacerbates inequity.  

BFA Blog homework2

Finally, brain research also suggests the need for students not to overload their brains when learning new information. As a parent of a middle-schooler, I struggle to find enough hours in a day. Frequently, we do not arrive home until 7:00 p.m. from co-curricular activities and after having dinner we begin homework. The result is usually a battle of tiredness and frustration. Nothing about the process supports learning or independent practice.    

We have received no complaints about our decision to not have homework. We will continue to monitor this decision and we welcome feedback about the role of homework in the learning process. As for now, we feel good that students are giving us their best effort all day long and turning their energies toward other important endeavors in their life.  

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Thomas Walsh is the Principal of BFA Fairfax Elementary Middle School and is a regular contributor to the FWSU Blog. You can follow him on Twitter @educatamount

From Molecules to Organisms: Structure and Process

Target 3 – Flexible Learning Environments. FWSU will maximize flexible learning environments by redefining the school day, promoting learning experiences that extend beyond the school classroom, and fostering creativity, innovation, and differentiated learning opportunities for all.

Action Step -Provide students with access to content, resources, and methods for learning beyond the school day and beyond the school walls

Indicator of Success – Students are engaged in answering authentic questions and solving problems in collaborative settings.


This year our seventh and eighth grade students are concentrating on Life Science content – NGSS (New Generation Science Standards) Standard 4-251, from molecules to organisms: structure and process. Beginning with plant cells, moving to photosynthesis, students are on their life science journey.


Students were initially presented with information regarding cells, organelles and their functions. All living organisms and their component cells have identifiable characteristics. All living things exhibit patterns of similarities in their structure, behavior and biochemistry. The stages the students learn begin with cell function, moving into photosynthesis, from photosynthesis to how trees produce energy, then the last stage, classifying tree characteristics.


GEMS students are producing Leaf Guides that include a diagram and identifying parts of leaves, including identifying what trees the leaves belong to. They are starting with the smallest cells to leaf identification, and ultimately to producing a leaf guide that will align with tree identifications.


Fortunately for GEMS, we were able to reach out to a Georgia community member, Greg Drew, who has been a wonderful resource identifying trees on our school property for the students. Mr. Drew is a professional craftsman who creates unique and individual pieces from local wood.


For the culminating event students will have to create a drawing or a pic collage representing photosynthesis and using their Leaf Guides to correctly identify trees on our property.

It is great to have an environment that allows students to conduct hands on field studies!