City 8th-graders see tangible result

VERGENNES — A group of Vergennes Union Middle School students have something a little more substantial than a worksheet to demonstrate all the hard work they’ve put into school this semester. They have a solid wood table, which they designed and built by hand.
The students are thrilled with the attractive piece of furniture.
“The finished product is great. It’s very smooth and it’s good quality,” said eighth-grader Megan Wood, when she discussed the about 6-foot-long oak trestle table during class last Thursday.
The students produced the table as part of an alternative education path known at VUMS as a Transition Team. The program is designed to help students who may lack the tools and skills for success in high school, and get them ready for senior high before they arrive there.
Co-principal Peter Reynolds and teacher Jen Lawson developed the program for students who are not ready to move up to high school by the end of eighth grade. They may not be able to turn things in on time or have other issues that mean they don’t thrive in a traditional classroom.
“We don’t all learn at the same rate. Time has got to be the variable if you expect people to master material in order to move on,” Reynolds said. “Retention doesn’t work. Holding kids back, particularly at age 14, is not in most cases showing to be useful. We had to come up with something different.”
The alternative they developed was a literacy-intensive class for first-semester ninth-graders that kicked off last fall. However, after one semester the program was so successful that all of the students could resume standard high school courses. That gave the program an opening.
They decided to work with spring-semester eighth-graders to prepare them for the transition into high school.
Jeff Meyers, a long-term substitute for Lawson, saw the potential for working with the younger students.
“We planned to have another transition class that would be for eighth-graders who need a little transitioning before they went on to high school,” he said.
The format is slightly different from the literacy-intensive class, Reynolds said.
“We created a parallel transition team so they’re still part of their eighth-grade morning meeting, they’re still part of the eighth-grade class, but they have all of their core classes with two teachers,” he said. “We came up with a reality context that paralleled the academics, where work completion was an important quality and constant improvement was important.”
The “reality” component for the semester was designing and constructing a table, which served as a metaphor for coursework and life skills.
Students learned woodworking techniques while also learning about teamwork and focus and academic subjects like physics and mathematics.
The idea was to give them a practical context for their learning, said Meyers.
“It gives a context that’s more meaningful to the students. It becomes pretty obvious when you’re building a table that the process is pretty similar to designing and building anything — a paper, an article, an essay, designing things like a t-shirt, writing a song, working on trucks, things that they might actually say ‘I know why I’m doing this,’” Meyers said. “It’s almost the same idea of a vocational school, except more integrated, where you integrate the hands-on project with the subject areas of literacy, science and social studies.”
Student Kelsey Coleman acknowledged the practicality of the project.
“We got to learn how to use math, which is something we’ll need to use later on in life,” she said.
The students each completed a final five-paragraph essay on a topic related to the table-building process.
While many of the students normally would not enjoy writing, John Tatlock was happy with his effort and finished essay.
“I wrote my essay about the red oak tree, which was the wood we used for the table,” he said. “I feel like I put some good work into it.”
Kimberly Terry also liked the idea of combining a practical project with academic skills.
“I thought it was pretty good because we had to write a lot of essays and then work on the table,” she said.
Grace Chamberlain saw the importance of writing essays because it allowed both the students and others in the school to learn from the project.
“I thought that was helpful to us to learn about what we’re building and it’s helpful to the people who are looking at the table to see what we used,” she said.
The students started by learning about the designing process, which included brainstorming, establishing criteria for the table, and sketching. Then they moved into the building process, starting with rough-sawn wood and hand tools.
Meyers emphasized the importance of using the tools consistently — step-by-step — making them aware of the idea that learning in other spheres could also be methodical.
“You can use each tool and relate to what you do in other disciplines and academic subject areas,” he said. “That was the really exciting thing, to help them make that jump.”
The students worked together in all stages of the project, something that many of them said they enjoyed.
“It was good because we all got to work together and we all got close as a family as we weren’t before,” said Coleman.
Wood shared Coleman’s feelings about the camaraderie that developed in the group.
“I think the project was a really fun experience and it kind of made us a family because we all worked together,” she said. “We grew together on this project because we have a lot of the same things in life going on.”
Other students liked the applied learning environment.
“I thought the project was kind of different at first since we were doing more hands-on stuff, but I think it was a lot better than doing normal work because we were actually learning about woodworking,” said Justin Bernardin.
Tatlock agreed with him, adding that it was a different experience from standard schoolwork.
“It was more fun instead of doing just a bunch of paperwork, it was actually hands-on stuff,” he said.
The success of the project was clear in the pride the students had for their hard work on both the table and essays. The table is currently on display in the school library along with their essays and some photos of them working on the project.
The students are glad others will be able to see the outcome of their labors.
Wood especially liked the display.
“If it stays in the library that’s good because people can see what we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished.”

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