VUHS teacher nets $100,000 honor

VERGENNES — Vergennes Union High School English teacher Michael Thomas has been named the school’s third winner of a $100,000 Rowland Fellowship from South Londonderry’s Rowland Foundation, which has been awarding such fellowships to innovative Vermont teachers since 2009.
Thomas won his Rowland Fellowship for a proposal to develop hands-on “workshop courses” that could allow all VUHS students to design, with teacher guidance, self-directed educational projects in any area — or combination of areas — of study, in the school or in the community.
Thomas and school administrators said those workshops could help VUHS meet its goal of having graduates demonstrate academic mastery by meeting Proficiency Based Graduation Requirements (known as PBGRs), not by amassing credits by sitting in classes.
VUHS has been working toward that target for a decade, and since then Vermont lawmakers and the Agency of Education have followed by mandating that schools start phasing in similar approaches.
“I believe our transition to adopting and implementing PBGRs as an indicator of graduation readiness is at the heart of Michael’s proposal,” said VUHS Principal Stephanie Taylor, “and that improving education for all students is the intent of Act 77, which is now driving the move to a proficiency-based model. Our system of PBGRs, the work of a previous VUHS Rowland Fellow (Spanish and Community Based Learning teacher Kristine Kirkaldy), was visionary at the time and, some believe, had an influence on the legislation identifying flexible pathways.”
Thomas, 54, an eight-year veteran at VUHS, said some of his inspiration for applying came from Kirkaldy, a 2010 Rowland Fellow, and former VUHS French teacher Matt DeBlois, a 2009 Rowland Fellow who is now the Addison Central School principal.
“Part of it was just seeing the work that Matt and Kristine did and just being very impressed by the possibilities that the fellowship offered, both for individuals and for schools,” Thomas said.
According to the Rowland Foundation website, the organization favors proposals that can create “systemic change” in schools, are visionary, sustainable and exportable to other Vermont schools. Administrative support is also critical.
The $100,000 grants allow fellows to take sabbaticals to research proposals and to pay for needed training for other teachers and other items needed to support initiatives. The foundation also pays for long-term subs.
Only Rutland High School, with four fellowships, has fared better than VUHS with the Rowland Foundation. Harwood Union also has had three proposals approved.
Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent JoAn Canning said Rowland Foundation support speaks well for VUHS.
“It’s a representation of the quality of not only the teachers we have at Vergennes Union High School, but the program we offer the kids,” Canning said. “We have a cadre of teachers that are not afraid to innovate.”
Thomas, a Tennessee native with a master’s degree in cultural anthropology who switched from that field to secondary education about a decade-and-a-half ago, will use his sabbatical to visit schools with similar workshop programs.
Thomas said he would like to see what their “best practices” are, how other schools are integrating the workshop classes into their schedules (a key issue), and what kind of connections they are making for students to learn from community members and organizations.
The catch is that Thomas and the VUHS administration hope to find a way to create a schedule that would allow all VUHS students to take workshop courses, and that template might not exist.
“I don’t know of anybody that is doing this system-wide, something that all students would move through,” Thomas said.
Scheduling possibilities Thomas listed include expansion of the VUHS Community Based Learning program, setting aside the final hour of the day, or just creating a number of workshop course requirements and sprinkling the courses throughout the regular schedule. Accommodations will have to be made for the many students he hopes will find community-based projects.
Thomas believes the workshops can provide what he said has been a missing link in the PBGR chain: Teachers have worked to create electronic portfolios in which students can store work and rubrics that teachers can use to evaluate non-traditional student projects, but VUHS has not fully developed ways for students to demonstrate mastery of material.
“We saw it (PGBRs) as every student would do some sort of self-directed, project-based learning that they have passion for that fits into their life,” Thomas said. “And that’s been one the biggest challenges. Right now we have a place to put work. We’ve got a set of standards to measure work against. But we have yet to really address that question of when and where students will do that deep sort of work.”
Ultimately, it will be up to Taylor and other administrators to make decisions on Thomas’s results, with input from Thomas and other teachers who work with him when he returns, and possibly to design a workable plan.
Taylor said the potential is there under Thomas’s proposal.
“What we, and most other schools involved in this work, are struggling with is how to break free from what school has looked like for hundreds of years while still ensuring that students master basic skills and content,” Taylor said. “Michael’s proposal presents a structure which supports school-based learning while it builds skills for students to continue their learning independently.”
Thomas said one major inspiration for the workshop course model came from furniture design classes at the Shelburne Art Center he took a few years back.
“I had a particularly good instructor. I was impressed by how he worked that workshop of students, where everyone was doing their own projects,” he said. “Very little direct instruction happened. We would have questions. He would ask questions. And he would guide us and facilitate us … And each of us came out with a very personally designed experience.”
Thomas also teaches a course with a similar approach, called Writers’ Workshop. There, students develop their own self-chosen writing project under his guidance. Efforts range from short fiction to college entrance essays, and his input varies from minimal editing for students with pre-chosen topics to helping students find something that interests them to write about.
Thomas also teaches an interdisciplinary Humanities course with Social Studies teacher Becca Coffey in which a major component is an oral presentation made to other students and community members.
He also noted that the VUHS students in the Walden Project, Community Based Learning and art courses, or who attend Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center already enjoy project-based learning.
All those elements came together in his proposal, which the Rowland Foundation summed up as: “To research and design a flexible, school-wide system of interdisciplinary, project-based workshop classes to support Personalized Learning Plans and Proficiency-Based Graduation Requirements.”
When Thomas returns from his sabbatical, he hopes to work with other teachers on details that will include a scheduling proposal, professional development on running workshop courses, designing the courses, and creating community links.
But ultimately the goal will be to help all students get the most out of their years at VUHS, Thomas said, to help them become excited about their own education.
“We need a system that is prepared to let some students basically fly free into their learning, but is also prepared to help other students get to the point where they’re ready for an internship, or they’re ready to develop a personal project,” he said.
And he believes students taking workshop courses can meet those goals.
“So that’s the idea of the workshop. In that workshop, some students are checking in and then going off to do their own thing,” he said. “But for other students it’s about giving them the skills to start to become more independent learners.”
Taylor said she is ready to help Thomas and the rest of the VUHS teachers make his idea, and those of the previous Rowland Fellows, succeed.
“I am very proud of our faculty,” Taylor said, “and I am committed to supporting this proposal and to continue to support the proposals of those that came before.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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