VUHS ‘Workshop’ allows students to pursue projects on their own

VERGENNES — As the bell rings to begin 8th block at Vergennes Union High School, a dozen students head out into the community rather than into the classroom, all embarking on a separate project and each doing so for credit in a new project-based learning class.
They are enrolled in a pilot class called Project Workshop that allows students at VUHS to study topics that interest them, and they say it is unlike any other classroom experience.
Caitlin Walsh, a VUHS senior, uses her time in Project Workshop to explore songwriting. Walsh said that she has always been interested in songwriting, and the class gives her the time and motivation she needs to write music.
“It allows me to go home and play around on the piano. It just gives me motivation because I’ve always wanted to write music, but I never really thought that I could,” Walsh said. “Being able to have this time to get creative is really helpful.”
VUHS English teacher Michael Thomas, working with the leadership development and financial resources of a Rowland Fellowship, created the Project Workshop course that is co-taught by Social Studies teacher Rebecca Coffey. Thomas became familiar with project-based learning when teaching at the now closed Rutland Academy.
Students there worked on independent learning projects three times a year. The project was chosen by the student, guided by a mentor, and eventually presented to the entire school. Thomas said he saw an appreciation for learning in these independent projects, and he wanted to bring that to VUHS.
“I really loved the learning that I saw there and the excitement, so I’ve always had that in the back of my mind,” said Thomas.
When Thomas began teaching at VUHS in 2008, many teachers had already begun working on implementing proficiency-based graduation requirements (PBGRs) and personalized learning at the school.
Kristine Kirkaldy, a Spanish and Community Based Learning teacher at VUHS, was among the group of teachers that developed PBGRs. In 2010, Kirkaldy earned a Rowland Fellowship that allowed her to further the work of implementing graduation requirements. During her sabbatical, Kirkaldy helped VUHS earn another grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to further the effort.
Kirkaldy said the second grant allowed teachers to continue exploring what personalized learning would look like at VUHS.
“We continued our work and that’s when we started thinking about ‘how can students design their own learning’ and ‘how can we support them so that they meet the guidelines and the goals that they need to meet to be successful graduates,” Kirkaldy said.
The answer to those questions began with courses, such as Community Based Learning and Humanities (the latter also co-taught by Thomas and Coffey) that gave students more control over what they learn.
Now Project Workshop is a significant extension of personalized and project-based learning at VUHS, an entire course in which students not only decide what they are learning, but also how they are learning it.
Thomas began to explore the details of a project-based learning class like this one when he received his Rowland Fellowship in 2016. Two years later, the class is now officially offered at VUHS. Thomas said that when scheduling conflicts prevented him from teaching the course he reached out to Coffey and asked her to co-teach it.
“The demand for English classes meant that we didn’t have room in the schedule for me to teach it. Since Mrs. Coffey team-teaches Humanities with me and we work well together, I asked her to take this on, and she was very excited about it as it ties in with her research,” Thomas said.
Coffey has been researching inquiry-based learning in the classroom, which aligned with the work Thomas has done to create Project Workshop. Inquiry-based learning is a key part of a project-based education, as students in Project Workshop are constantly encouraged to investigate and problem-solve on their own.
By co-teaching the course, both Thomas and Coffey are able to further explore how to put students at the center of their education. Thomas said that a student-centered education is ultimately the goal for classes like Project Workshop, and teachers are still figuring out how to best support that style of learning.
“We’re trying to learn what kind of structure in that class, what kind of process, would support students interested in doing anything (they choose to pursue),” Thomas said.
CAITLIN WALSH STRUMS a ukulele while working on her songwriting in her Vergennes living room while pursuing her independent study effort for a new course at the school, Project Workshop. The course gives students the freedom to choose and pursue a project of their choice. VUHS English teacher Michael Thomas created and co-teaches the course, which enhances the larger effort toward personalized learning at VUHS. Photo by Marin Howell
Students in Project Workshop are quite literally “doing anything,” as they have the freedom to explore any topic from Greek mythology to modern psychology. The class is made up of 12 students, each exploring their own topic of interest.
The class meets once a week for a discussion led by Coffey. Here, the students share their successes and struggles and offer support to one another. Coffey’s room serves as a backbone for the class, but students are encouraged each day to direct their own research by seeking learning opportunities in the community.
Rebecca Kachmar, a junior in Project Workshop, said this supportive discussion time has been valuable.
“The meeting with everyone has boosted my confidence, because I’m in a class of seniors and I’m the only junior,” Kachmar said. “It’s definitely helped me speak out and be more confident.”
Students have chosen a variety of topics. Senior Jack Halpin, who plans to pursue a career in the music industry, is using Project Workshop to establish himself as a musician. He said that the class gives him an opportunity to work on that goal.
“This class isn’t geared toward learning a specific subject. It’s about finding what you want to do in your future, what interests you, and creating an outlet for you to study that,” said Halpin. “I want to be an artist, and Project Workshop allows me to have time during the school day to work on my music.”
Senior Ben Clark has been working to create a Makerspace at VUHS. Once completed the Makerspace will serve as a place for students to work on independent projects, using resources provided by the school. Clark plans to apply for grants that will pay for needed equipment, such as a 3-D printer, and eventually transform an old high school computer lab into what he hopes will be an ideal Makerspace.
Clark said that Project Workshop allows him to devote time to the details of this pursuit.
“I use the Project Workshop time to create surveys and talk to people,” he said.
Clark said his goal is to make the Makerspace a permanent resource at VUHS by the time he graduates.
“Right now it’s on the runway, it’s getting some air, but I want it to be able to stay in flight,” he said.
With a handful of students pursuing their own projects, Thomas hopes the Project Workshop pilot course is setting the stage for independent learning classes at VUHS.
Thomas said he aims for a chain reaction at the school, with students observing the projects being done and beginning to imagine their own.
“I’m hoping that the culture of the school begins to think in terms of ‘what would I be excited to learn about,’” Thomas said. “I’d like to see students and teachers be so impressed with the projects that students are doing, that they begin to imagine what they would do themselves.”
Marin Howell is a VUHS senior interning at the Independent.

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