Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Bowl of Fruit

Education is like a bowl of fruit.  From a teacher's perspective, each piece of fruit represents a task, responsibility, or initiative, often on top of what one would assume are normal teaching duties. This bowl of fruit is endless; teachers always have more work than can reasonably be done in a work day, week, or even year.  And as soon as we feel like we're making progress on our bowl of fruit, well, another piece of fruit gets added to the mix.  With each day, another orange or apple gets added to the bowl... but what happens to the kiwi that rolls off the top of the pile?  How about the rotten banana buried at the bottom of the bowl?  With the number of programs and projects in your average public school, there is no chance that educators, as motivated and determined as they might be, can ever realistically accomplish all that is set before them.

Where does the extra fruit come from?  One of the main issues in education is that so many different groups have strong opinions and ideas for what public education in America should look like.  For this reason, schools are often susceptible to the influencing powers of various entities, most with good intentions, who are hoping to shape the future of education in our country.  Unfortunately, all of these separate groups, with their differing agendas and ideas (as good as they may be), end up competing for the little space, time, and energy that teachers have to give them.  Even within the structure of public education, there are influences felt from the US Department of Education, state departments of education, local school boards, individual administrators, and community groups - each with their own independent vision of what school should look like. 

Want to be a teacher?  How good is your balance?
To be fair, many teachers are gluttons for punishment; gladly taking on tasks and projects far beyond what they are paid for.  These responsibilities are often well-intentioned.  It might mean working late with a student who is struggling, joining a committee for an initiative that we feel particularly strong about, or stepping in to coach a team since no one else will.  Sometimes we're compensated for these duties; but even if we are, it typically doesn't compensate for all of the additional hours we'll put in to see this project through.

This dynamic presents a problem.  How many other "professions" offer their services for free?  Sure, there are pro bono law cases, or the Hippocratic Code in medicine, but there isn't the same expectation that lawyers and doctors will do more than they are paid for on a consistent basis.  Even if they do take on additional work, look at their salaries in comparison to your average teacher... there really isn't a comparison.

So what happens if teachers stopped performing all of these "extras"?  Schools and students would suffer.  Every teacher, administrator, and parent knows that school is about so much more than just the academic parts of the day.  Each student has their reasons for showing up each day, and, believe it or not, it most often isn't learning quadratic equations.  There are social, emotional, and physical reasons that students show up for school, and these are the arenas of childhood development that many "extras" specifically target.  So many of the responsibilities and initiatives vital to creating a welcoming, supportive, and engaging learning environment often pile up on top of the academic instruction that is the foundation of what most people think teachers do.

The functionality of our school system relies upon the exploitation of the good will of our teachers.  These programs and opportunities are important - to students, parents, teachers, and administrators- but they ask educators to consistently do more than what they are paid for, or even what is humanly possible.

And in taking on these additional projects, previous initiatives are cast by the wayside, effectively communicating to teachers that all of the hard work that went into designing, planning, and facilitating those efforts was discarded in favor of the newest vogue trend- a shiny new "piece of fruit".  This creates a dangerous dynamic in which teachers feel like they are doing work for work's sake, without ever seeing the projects come into full fruition.  This process is disheartening, leading to the frustration and disillusionment that drive many young teachers into leaving the profession. 

Now, you're not going to see me casting my additional responsibilities aside.  I will continue to stay late after school, hoping to provide support and opportunities for my students.  However, I hope that people are beginning to take notice of the changes that are necessary to the vitality of our teaching workforce.  Projects, programs, and initiatives need to be streamlined and teacher-directed.  We need to have a voice at the table when decisions are made about educational policy at all levels of government.  Ultimately, the future of American education should reflect the dreams, desires, and vision of our education professionals.  Remember, we are the experts.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

DC Recognition Week - The Vice Presidential Mansion

It's hard not to wonder, when standing in the foyer of the Vice President's house, whose feet might have stood in the exact spot I am now standing.  What might they have been discussing?  Was it small talk or were they working to address some of the gravest dangers of their time?  As a fan of American history, I love imagining the past, creating images in my mind that evoke powerful feelings of patriotism, pride, and respect.  Mostly, I found myself in awe of the incredible opportunity to enjoy and appreciate this unique honor and opportunity.

As an educator, I also was impressed with the Second Lady's incredible personal teaching story.  After over thirty years of working in schools, she still makes the choice to teach.  Having moved beyond high school, she is now working in higher education.  But she doesn't teach at an Ivy League school, or even a state college.  Mrs. Biden teaches at a community college; working with immigrants, single parents trying to make it, and the underprivileged.  I came into this meeting terribly uninformed about my host.  I left feeling inspired and empowered by her story.

Monday, April 28, 2014

DC Recognition Week - Opening Reception and Monument Tour

Did you ever look down upon what happens at the US Capitol Building?

Its a trick question... but after last nights reception with Education Policy, I can answer the literal version of the question with a definite "Yes!"  You see, myself and the other state and territorial representatives for the National Teacher of the Year Program were able to enjoy an incredible sunny afternoon from one of the premier hobnobbing spots in DC.  After eating delicious food and catching up with good (albeit very) new friends, we were escorted to the roof of the building, where a panoramic view awaited us.

The energy and enthusiasm of this entire group is incredible!  There are so many interesting, dynamic, and engaged individuals that it makes it hard to pull yourself away from conversation at night to make sure that you get the requisite sleep to be ready for all of the adventures of the following day.  Today, I get to spend the day getting a behind the scenes tour at the Smithsonian before heading to the Vice Presidents home, where we'll be received by Dr. Jill Biden herself!  Wow!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Skeptics Guide To Social Media: 5 Reasons Every Educator Should Plug In

Like many educators, I have always felt a bit skeptical of utilizing social media as an educational tool.  To me, it has always seemed to be, at best, a distraction for my students.  At its worst, it reminds me of the terrifying prophecies of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, in which futuristic societies are brainwashed by an omnipresent technology that monopolizes their time, kills their creativity, and destroys their human relationships.  With time, the unfortunate souls in those disutopian novels lose touch with reality, growing more and more dependent upon technology for survival, happiness, and connection.

Recently, though, I’ve been having a change of heart.  For a number of reasons, I am beginning to see the tremendous power of technology to connect, to share, and to reach people who normally aren’t interested in what is happening in education.  While I don’t ever intend to have a prolific online presence, I do hope to extend my influence beyond the walls of my classroom and of my school.  Social media, it seems, may be one way to do just that.

So, here it is, the “Skeptics Guide to Social Media: 5 Reasons Every Teacher Should Plug In”

1.  Go where your students are.
If even one of my students doesn’t have an online presence, I would be surprised.  Students these days are increasingly ‘plugged in’ and spend more and more time each year online.  By resisting the use of social media, we are essentially turning our back on the values of the generation we are trying to reach.  We are dating ourselves, as well as showing them through our actions, that we don’t care about the things that they think are important.  This is a great way to destroy relationships with our students before we even give them the chance to know us.
Now, I’m not saying to be Facebook friends with your students, or to adjust your days to make sure that you stay connected.  I am suggesting that teachers find a way to have an online presence through their classroom.  This might include YouTube channels, classroom Tweets, or a class blog.  While these may seem subtle, they will keep you up to speed with the world of our students, and the shift will bring immediacy and relevance to the lessons you are preparing.

2.  Tear down the walls of your classroom and share what you are doing with the world.
As educators, we are almost always on the defensive.  We are constantly being attacked by media, by the public, even by one another.  We know the value of what we are doing for a living, but we shrink away from the inevitable confrontation that comes with standing up for what we do and how we teach. 

Often, my colleagues and I are frustrated by the lack of awareness of what is happening in our schools.  We feel unjustly criticized, yet we don’t do anything to combat these criticisms.  By taking the initiative to share what we do with our communities, we give them a first-hand experience of the good work happening in our classrooms.  In doing so, they are more informed and less able to be critical of something that they don’t understand.

3.  Your students’ work will improve.
 I am amazed at the quality of work that my students produce when they know that they aren’t just writing an essay or making a video for me.  Once they become aware of the fact that their work will be posted for all of the world to see, they immediately put more energy and effort into their products.  Not only that, but they also take a lot more pride in what they do produce.

Even though the readership of my program’s blog is relatively small (but growing), my students are amazed that people are following what we do in all 50 states and several foreign countries.  It’s hard for them to grasp that people are really interested in what they are doing in school, but they take tremendous pride in the impact that they are having.

4.  It is a great way to connect with colleagues, to share resources, and to stay informed about changes in education around the nation.
 Fantastic educators around the globe are utilizing social media as an avenue to share their practices, spread quality resources, and network with other likeminded individuals.  I often look to social media to inform my teaching and collaboration.  I use Facebook and Edmodo to connect with other groups of educators and to bounce ideas around.  I use Twitter as a means for finding interesting articles that I can share with colleagues in my school to promote progressive education.  My personal and class blogs serve the purpose of expressing my teaching philosophies and sharing examples of my curriculum with the greater teaching community.
While this arena of social media doesn’t have a direct impact on my teaching, it does heavily influence the professional responsibilities of being a teacher.  I am more informed about what is happening in education around the globe, which helps me to have a broader perspective when thinking about challenges and issues in my school.  I get ideas on topics ranging from colleagueship and collaboration to community outreach and education policy.  My understanding of the teaching profession has grown tremendously with my exposure to resources I’ve encountered using social

5.  If we don’t use social media, our critics will.
The reality is that they already do.  Many of education’s biggest critics actively use social media to attack our profession and to try to persuade the masses why they shouldn’t have trust in our education system.  So far, their voices are louder.  You only need to look as far as a Google Search of the word “teacher” to see how we are portrayed to the public.  It isn’t pretty!
Often teachers complain that we aren’t treated as the professionals that we perceive ourselves to be.  This is true, but it is also partially our fault.  It is time that we shift the conversation about education away from the failings and shortcomings.  We need to create a dialogue about all of the good things that are happening in our schools.  The more that we can share the positives, the more that public opinion of education will shift to reflect this.  If we don’t engage our critics on social media platforms, then we will simply surrender our message.

As someone who specializes in outdoor and  experiential education, the last thing I want is for my students to spend more time “plugged in”, becoming more disconnected from their peers, their families, their communities, and the natural world.  However, I do see the value in why we, as educators, need to embrace social media as a means for progressing our profession.  It is a tool, becoming ever the more popular with the world around us.  If we choose to ignore it, then we also choose to turn our backs on the generations, and the society, we are hoping to shape.

Luke Foley is the 2014 Vermont State Teacher of the Year.  He teaches at the STAR Program, Northfield Middle High School’s alternative program.  You can read more on his personal blog at or about his program at  You can also follow him on Twitter @LukeFoleyVT.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Power of Knowing Our Place

Written for Northern Woodlands magazine

We have a love of wild places.  We understand the vital role that intact, uninterrupted ecosystems have in sustaining the health of our planet and in sustaining each of us as individuals.  We know the beauty of a sky full of stars on a crisp winter’s eve, and of a ray of sunlight refracted through a raindrop after an overnight downpour.  We appreciate the intricacies of nature- the caddis fly hatches, the first blooming Indian Pipe of the summer, the first fluttering snowflakes that bring fall to a close.  Above all, we are fortunate.

We are fortunate because we have these experiences that provide the foundation for our desire and commitment to care for something greater than ourselves.  Fortunate, even more so, for the understanding that we are only a small part of something magnificent and unexplainable.  Without these memories, would we care as much for the wild areas that we now find ourselves drawn towards?  Would we be stewards of our lands- learning and growing and changing in order to make sure that we do no unnecessary harm?

The answer is likely no; for without a strong connection rooted deeply in person experience, it is difficult to develop an appreciation, let alone a love, for something as fleeting as nature.  In a world where technology threatens to disconnect us completely, as a human race, from our natural world, we have these memories that we are able to draw upon to continue bringing us back to the wild places that sustain us.

Unfortunately for many people growing up in today’s world, this is not the case.  For many of my students, my classes are the first time they are truly immersed in wilderness simply for the purpose of being immersed in wilderness.  For them, it is uncomfortable, scary, and intimidating, amongst so many other emotions.  When pulled away from TV and computer screens and removed to a place where their cell phones no longer have service, they often experience an anxiety arising from their “disconnection”.  This is exactly the feeling that so many of us seek when we wander into the woods.

The trick then becomes to teach students how to appreciate this “disconnection” and to begin creating another “connection”- one with the natural world. This takes time.  A true sense of connection cannot be obtained by heading outside once a month, but only through consistent and committed exposure to the natural world.  For our students, it can take months of weekly expeditions around our school forest and into the heart of the Green Mountains, for them to really begin to feel at home outside.  But once they reach that personal connection- once they embrace the wildness around them- it is truly something magical to experience.  That is the beauty of place-based education.

Place-based education originates from the belief that, if students can know one place, they can know all places.  By understanding the complexities and minutiae of a particular ecosystem or community, students will develop the critical skills necessary to understand any place or community in which they find themselves in the future.  In a day and age when children are becoming more disengaged from their local communities and the natural world, it is a vitally important form of education that challenges students to develop an understanding and appreciation for the communities of which they are a part, human or otherwise.

So how do we use “place” to educate our students?  First, we go outside often; we are in the forest at least one day per week and in our community for another.  We often return to the same places, again and again, so that our students can see the slight changes that each new day brings.  My program has an outdoor classroom in our school forest.  In this place, my students each have an “Ndakinna”- the Abenaki word for “homeland” (many other traditions refer to this as a sit-spot).  In this little space of their own, they sketch drawings of nature in all seasons, they write poetry and prose, they reflect upon their personal journeys.  Over the course of a year, they develop a strong connection to this place and each week’s assignment looks for a way for them to communicate what their “Ndakinna” means to them.

In our outdoor classroom, we also use activities to build their knowledge of academic subjects.  We have played a game that our students have since dubbed the “Consumer Game”, which meets at the confluence of the economic concept of ‘supply and demand’ and the ecological concept of ‘carrying capacity’.  Beyond learning both concepts more thoroughly than in a classroom setting, it is a lot of fun to watch students creeping through the woods, pretending to be deer, or coyotes, or hunters- all searching for their next meal.  This lesson provides a great example of why an integrated curriculum can be so important.  In most academic settings, these two concepts are taught independently and students might never see the connection between them.  By tearing down traditional subject areas and using real world scenarios to teach, we help students see the interrelatedness of different subjects.

We have also taken on a significant project, which we call the “Layer Map”, to better understand the complex relationships and dependencies within an ecosystem.  Imagine a series of layered maps, working up from bedrock all the way to the canopy.  Think about how topography effects soil composition, soil pH, and water retention.  Then, look at the relationship between soil and moisture, and the types of understory vegetation and arboreal life that the soil would support.  Now, based upon the tree and plant species, what animals, fungi, bacteria, and insect life, might you expect?  Clearly, all of these factors are related.  In the process of creating these maps and conducting these tests, students begin to see the elaborate and exquisite web of life that we all appreciate so much.

While learning about our forests is important, it is the process, which happens next, that is so vital to the future of our planet.  With time and exposure, our students come to appreciate, respect, and love our outdoor classroom area.  They want to take care of it; they want to know it better; they want to share it with others.  Each semester ends with our students taking on projects meant to enhance the experience of our forests, not only for students in our schools, but in our community as well.

Over the past three years, we have been hard at work creating, researching, and developing projects that reflect student interest and environmental needs.  These projects have ranged from designing and maintaining extensive trail networks; to milling, designing and constructing outdoor classrooms; to teaching primitive skills classes to younger students.  Several of our students have even designed a longitudinal study on climate change based upon various environmental indicators of the changing of seasons.  Data for this study will be collected over the course of the next twenty or so years (or however long I teach) and will be compiled to see how our forests are being impacted by climate change.  Talk about a legacy that reaches far beyond a student’s four years of high school.

And these types of projects, learning experiences, and opportunities for personal growth are exactly the type of education that we need in the 21st century.  If we want our children to be citizens of our communities and stewards of our forests, then we need to create opportunities for them to develop personal relationships with these places.  Our future depends upon it.

Friday, January 31, 2014

21st Century Education… “It still takes a Village”

Student: “When am I ever going to use this?" 
Teacher: "Right now!”

21st Century Education… “It still takes a Village”

How often in your educational experience did you wonder, “When am I ever going to use this?”  As an educator, this is the dreaded question.  It questions the relevance of what we do; challenging us to identify how our teaching is preparing our students for their futures.  Many teachers hate this question, but it is an important one that we should be willing to ask ourselves and that we should be ready to answer when working with our students, their families, and our communities.

We live in a constantly changing world, and education needs to reflect the pace at which the world moves. The reality of our world is that nobody can predict what the future will look like.  We can’t group our students into traditional careers like accountants, auto mechanics, and teachers. The top 10 fastest growing jobs in 2012, did not exist in 2004.  With the exponential changes we are seeing in technology, all current projections have similar expectations for the next ten years.  Our old ways of preparing students for the future need to change.  In many ways, they already have.

As educators, we need to inspire and empower our students to be the citizens, stewards, and leaders that our communities need in order to face the challenges of this century.  This means engaging in projects and learning experiences that immerse our kids in their communities- learning from experts and working together to solve real-world problems.  If we want students who have a creative ability to think “outside of the box”, then we need to question why their education only happens “in a box”?

Many of the recent shifts in education in our state- Personalized Learning Plans, Flexible Pathways to Graduation, and the adoption of the Common Core State Standards- acknowledge that we should be emphasizing skills, not content; and student engagement, rather than conformity. Regardless of what their career choices might be, there are certain skills and aptitudes that they will need to master.  For example, it doesn’t matter if you are a lawyer in a courtroom, a businessperson giving a pitch, or a contractor giving an estimate, you will need to be persuasive and you will need to have evidence to support your claim.  You will also need to be an effective communicator and willing to work with a wide range of people.  These are things we all know and expect in the workforce. These are also skills that we are explicitly teaching in our schools.

The face of education is changing, as is the role of the teacher. With students designing projects ranging from trail networks to outdoor classrooms to greenhouses for our school gardens, I can’t expect to teach them everything they need to know about their topic.  I can, however, put them in touch with experts in each field, giving my students a chance to engage with professionals, to work on meaningful projects, and to develop skills that they can apply across a broad range of possible careers.  This is where the village comes in.

For too long, the responsibility of preparing our children for the future has been shouldered too heavily by the education system.  We need the support of our communities in order to give our students the opportunities that they will need in order to lead successful and engaged adult lives.  For businesses, this means opening your doors to interns and giving them an opportunity to see what will be expected of them in the future.  For professionals, it means being willing to share your expertise with students who have an interest in learning more about what you do.  For all of us, it means recognizing the fact that the most important job any of us can ever have is in making sure that we are preparing our children, as best we can, for the future paths that they will take.