Grant to float VUHS raft-building course

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Union High School Fusion Program recently won a competitive $20,000 grant to help float a hands-on course this summer for incoming VUHS freshmen that will combine raft-building, literature, history, math and science.
The month-long course, called “Rafting Adventure for Teens,” or “RAFT” for short, will be a joint effort of the Fusion Program, which offers afterschool and summer programs to VUHS and Vergennes Union Elementary School students, and the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (LCMM).
A dozen students will build the rafts at the museum after learning how the logs are cut and measured at a local sawmill, learn how much buoyancy is needed to make the logs float properly as they make the rafts, explore the history of logging in Vermont, read Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” during the course, lash the rafts together in Vergennes, make a two-day trip along Otter Creek to the LCMM to conclude the course, and along the way journal and film their experiences.
Students will either stay on cabins on the raft or camp out on the riverside for a night along the way, and once the rafts reach the museum they will be taken apart and the logs will be used to build some sort of structure there. A student-produced video documentary of the project to be shown at the museum is also planned.
Fusion Program Director Jill Strube, the primary author of the grant along with LCMM Deputy Director Erick Tichonuk, said the course fits in with the larger effort at VUHS to give students self-directed, hands-on experiences. That effort includes pioneering Proficiency Based Graduation Requirements (PBGRs), something along with Personalized Learning Plans that the state is now requiring all schools to move toward.
“It ties in beautifully with the Personalized Learning Plans, because we really want kids following their passions, following their ideas,” Strube said. “It also fits in beautifully with the PBGRs, because the kids need to present evidence of what they have done as to why they should be graduating, why they should get a diploma. If a student participates in something like this, they’re, no pun intended, going to have a raft of evidence as to how they have prepared for the real world.”
The funding to make the course happen came from an “LRNG Innovators” grant jointly offered by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The National Writing Project and John Legend’s Show Me Campaign.
Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent JoAn Canning pointed out the district was one of only 11 successful applicants among 164 entries.
“Little Addison Northwest Supervisory Union is named among Los Angeles, Philadelphia. We’re talking about big city schools. It was a competitive grant,” Canning said. “For a small area of Vermont to be recognized for innovation, I think it really says a lot about the quality of staff and about the wonderful opportunities that we are able to offer our students.”
Canning also praised the role of the museum and Executive Director Michael Smiles in developing an ongoing partnership with the Fusion Program, which is funded by long-term state and federal 21st Century Learning Centers Community Grants. Every Fusion session at VUES and VUHS includes instructors from the LCMM, and Canning said this particular hands-on, multi-disciplinary summer project adds to the list.
“Once again we’re using the context our students live in to solve real-life challenges and problems and address science and technology and engineering and mathematics opportunities for our kids,” she said. “It’s really exciting. We hope to not only continue the relationship, but to expand the relationship.”
Strube, Tichonuk and Ferrisburgh Central School teacher Peter Stapleford envision this summer’s course as an upgraded version of a course Stapleford offered to Fusion participants in the summer of 2013.
“That was sort of the impetus, because the kids who did that tell me that’s the best thing they’ve ever done in their entire lives,” Strube said. “We’ve wanted to do this ever since.”
It had not been offered since then in part because of safety concerns that Strube said have been addressed this time around — she said the LCMM will proved “an on-water safety team” as well as running lights for the rafts.
VUHS graduate Lane Kessler, now a University of Vermont engineering student, will also join Stapleford at the museum to boost the math and science component, Strube said, while Tichonuk will oversee the project at the museum end.
Current 8th-graders will be asked to apply to participate, and program overseers will evaluate the applications.
“They’re going to have to write a paragraph or something about why they want to do this, and what they feel they could bring to the program and what they could get out of the program,” Strube said. “We want kids who are really seriously interested, and we really want to give as many kids opportunities (as possible).”
Strube said the Fusion program does not currently offer anything for incoming freshmen. The existing 21st Century Grant is written for elementary school students and 7th- and 8th-graders, while high school students are offered credit-recovery and SAT prep courses. This course will at least temporarily help fill that gap.
“We were talking about them basically being out of the grant,” she said. “We didn’t have anything for them.”
If all goes well, Strube hopes some students can go with Tichonuk to the 2017 World Canals Conference in Syracuse, N.Y.
“We would like to take some of our kids to that conference and have them present this raft project as something that can be replicated by other schools,” she said.
That, along with the students’ journals and blogs and the video to be shown at the LCMM, is part of the project’s publicity plan, Strube said.
“We’re trying to make it so that other people know about this amazing thing our kids are having the opportunity to do,” she said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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