Commentary - UVEI - Upper Valley Educators Institute

  • Jim Firmi and Andy Mellow

    Balancing Terror and Exhilaration

    When asked about taking risks as an educator, Jim Firmin understands that both terror and exhilaration come in equal parts and that positive results come from holding the tension between the two.

  • Read more

  • Being Metacognitive about Metacognition

    I spend a lot of time talking with teachers about what they care about and want to improve on. I also spend a lot of time in classrooms--both with interns and veteran teachers--seeing what’s important in their practice and what they’re working on. And in the last few years I’ve noticed that across grade levels, geography, school contexts, and stage of career, teachers are converging on the importance of helping students develop their agency as learners, and they are attempting to use instructional strategies that promote this. (In this case, agency refers to the knowledge and authority students have to take action in their learning.)

    These teachers see both the importance and need for students to take ownership of their learning, to be self-determined and self-directed, and to learn how to learn. In essence, they want students to act metacognitively throughout their learning. Metacognition, broadly defined, is “thinking about our thinking.” Being metacognitive means asking the right questions when we’re solving a problem, reflecting on what we know and don’t know, monitoring our learning throughout a process (such as how we’re comprehending text), setting realistic goals, planning a design process, and evaluating our performance and learning. It also involves knowing the appropriate times and places to use different strategies to learn effectively (a component of agency).

    It’s quite easy to talk about metacognition, and it’s equally difficult to help students become metacognitive! That’s because students’ metacognitive capacities develop over time, and, more importantly, they need to be catalyzed and nurtured by educational environments. In other words, we can’t assume that students’ metacognitive skills will just appear when the bell rings, the educational waves washing over them. On the contrary, as students age, their brains are increasingly receptive to more cognitively challenging tasks and more metacognitive thinking. However, if they’re not challenged, they won’t develop. Although the process of learning language is different, the concept is the same--use it or never develop it.

    This means that classroom tasks and environments need to sufficiently promote students’ metacognitive development. Here we often see a mismatch. A classroom poster might hang that encourages students to self-assess their learning, to explain their thinking, and to plan before problem solving, but unless students are engaged in solving actual problems, pressed to explain their thinking through thoughtful and guided questioning, and have practice with tools that help them self-assess, it’s unlikely that their metacognition will develop in intended ways.

    Teachers are increasingly aware of the need for this match. Just this fall, I observed first graders self-assessing their understanding of the daily mathematical learning targets at the end of a lesson. They were challenged to think about how well they could use a counting frame for single digit addition. Almost all students put their Popsicle stick into the “I can teach it to others” jar, so perhaps there is an overestimation of their understanding (which is common in young children), but the full potential of this practice can’t be realized in one lesson. Over time, practice--and feedback--with self-assessment creates for these young learners a habit of reflection, of turning their mind’s eye on itself, of generating knowledge about their knowledge. Hey, that’s metacognition!

    But effective metacognition is more than habits--it’s an awareness of these habits. Otherwise, without awareness, we have little agency in use of this knowledge. Teachers tell us to self-assess, and we self-assess. Teachers tell us to use a graphic organizer to plan our essay, and we follow directions. Do we know why? Do we know how we might transfer these skills to other settings? Perhaps we’re being metacognitive about our learning in that task, but an awareness of the metacognitive skills we’re applying helps us be metacognitive about our potential as lifelong learners. A true hallmark of agency.

    For more information on the research on and practice of metacognition, please read Chapter 2: Key Findings in How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice by Donovan et al. (1999)

    Commentary by Christopher Ward, PhD

    Chris is UVEI’s Graduate Studies Coordinator and member of the Program Faculty.  Along with colleagues at the University of Washington and Vanderbilt University, he received the Best Article of the Year award for the article, Situated Motivation, published in the journal, Educational Psychologist.  For more, see

    Read more about Chris.



  • Read more

  • Differentiation: How and Why it Works

    There have always been buzzwords in education-- perhaps now more than ever. For example, current phrases like personalized learning plans, proficiency-based learning and flexible pathways are hot faculty meeting topics in Vermont. But are they just buzz? Or do these concepts have staying-power?  

    If we view these topics through the lens of differentiated instruction -- something that educators and researchers agree improves student outcomes -- then it’s more than likely these buzzwords could be with us for awhile.

    Personalized learning plans, proficiency-based learning and flexible pathways all stem from the notion that students are unique and learn in ways that are particular to them. Differentiating learning means educators build on the unique experiences and understandings of each student, and continuously tailor learning opportunities for every student.  

    When educators focus on differentiated instruction, they can feel passionate, excited and overwhelmed. An example is Laurel, a middle grades reading teacher at Kurn Hattin Homes, a non-profit located in Westminster, Vermont, which serves as a charitable home and school for children affected by tragedy, social or economic hardship or family disruption.  She shares, “I believe in differentiated instruction and its benefits to my students. I know I can do it. It takes planning and implementation time. Students have to get used to it. But, it’s worth it in the long run.”

    Common questions educators may ask include, “How can I adapt materials I use for the whole class to use with smaller groups without overwhelming myself with planning?” and “How do I effectively implement differentiation in the classroom?”

    Teaching to learner differences involves new ways of thinking about five essential elements:

    • Pre-assessment: Responding to learner differences requires teachers to be informed as much as possible by detailed knowledge about students' specific strengths, needs, and areas for growth across multiple dimensions including students’ academic literacies, students’ motivations and orientations to learning, differences in how students learn, and personal characteristics.

    • Assessment: Providing students with multiple ways to demonstrate knowledge and skills providing both teachers and students with more accurate understanding of students' knowledge and skills.

    • Content: Making content accessible by modifying and clarifying content in response to a student's readiness level, interests, or learning profile (see types of pre-assessment).

    • Instruction (including both engagement & monitoring learning during instruction): Providing students with multiple ways to access content improves learning and monitoring students’ progress to provide information to the teacher about how they might adjust instruction and to provide high quality feedback to the student.

    • Environments: A classroom structured to respond to student differences should support, and is supported by, an evolving community of learners that is supportive, strengths based, and growth oriented.

    Sometimes educators have the impression that differentiating instruction means simply allowing students to show what they know through different pathways. But as the information above illustrates, differentiating is more than just giving kids the opportunity to demonstrate understanding in different ways.

    If differentiated instruction is an approach broadly supported in the research literature, why is it still not widely and effectively used? There is evidence to suggest that most teachers feel ill prepared to teach students with diverse learning needs.

    To put it simply: Differentiation for the whole class and individuals is hard.

    We welcome your stories, strategie, and challenges. Post a comment on our Facebook page.

    Commentary by Becky Wipfler

    Becky Wipfler is UVEI’s Elementary Education Coordinator.  Other commentaries by Becky, can be found at, and

    You can follow her on Twitter @UVEIwipfler


  • Read more

  • Engaging in Deliberate Practice

    Ever wonder what makes some people really good at what they do? How did Michael Jordan become the greatest basketball player of all time? What did it take for Toni Morrison to write a Pulitzer Prize winning novel? Although Hollywood might have us believe that great teachers are great because of their innate talent (an inspired teacher stands on his desk and all students suddenly care about poetry!), in reality, it’s likely that people who are really good at things practice, practice, practice. And then they practice some more. In fact, research indicates that frequent and mindful engagement in teaching techniques, prompting cycles of teaching – evaluation – revision, is the main factor contributing to increasing expertise as a teacher. In other words, deliberate practice may make all the difference.  

    What is deliberate practice?  Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity engaged in the specific goal of improving performance.  Extended deliberate practice is a key component for attaining expert performance and is thought to be more important than the role of innate ability in development towards expertise.

    At UVEI, our whole approach is focused on helping educators learn from experience. As a main focus this year, UVEI’s faculty is asking how we can encourage teachers to engage in more deliberate practice. Coaching, one-on-one support and feedback are already core components of our programs.  The hard question is: how do we encourage working teachers (a busy group) to keep intentionally practicing and reflecting on new techniques without loading up on tasks and busy work?  

    That is the question that will occupy our attention this year, and we look forward to sharing what we learn with the education community!

    Commentary by Page Tompkins

    Page Tompkins is UVEI's Executive Director and Chief Academic Officer.  He can be followed on Twitter @pagetompkins.

    Other commentaries by Page can be found at:


  • Read more

  • Four Key Goals of Participation Strategies

    My job has allowed me the time and space for reflection, the opportunity to see lots of instruction, and to learn a lot about teaching. Among the many aspects of my own practice I’ve rethought, participation strategies are my a-ha! breakthrough.

    It’s not easy to rethink existing teaching practices, let alone try or invent new ones. According to Edwin Land, an American scientist, inventor and co-founder of the Polaroid Corporation, innovation happens when there’s a “sudden cessation of stupidity.” That’s a difficult concept to accept. Who wants to believe that one’s thinking was ever stupid?  

    But, if I’m honestly reflecting, I’m afraid that I utilized only a few participation strategies in my own instruction-- and, boy, does that seem stupid now!

    There’s an amazing difference between the classroom in which a few students are wearing out rotator cuffs by waving hands in the air while the rest of the room sits silently, and a classroom where every student is engaged. In fact, according to a 2014 Grant Wiggins blog post, students are sitting passively and rarely speaking during most of their day.

  • Read more

  • From Both Sides of the Table

    UVEI Principal interns participated in a mock interview experience that attempted to replicate what a principal might face when interviewing for a first principalship. Twenty education professionals from Vermont and New Hampshire came together to offer interns a look at how an interview committee develops a candidate profile and interview questions, along with the ethical practices and considerations a committee must attend to. The committee was comprised of an assistant superintendent, principals, assistant principals, teachers, paraeducators, school board members, students, and community members. Interns received feedback (think formative assessment) on their interview in order to assist the interns in honing their interviewing skills.

    This unique model of supporting aspiring principals allows for a view from both sides of the table -- as the person leading the interviews and the person being interviewed. Through these lenses and in real time, principals interns were able to consider the complex world of interviewing.

    Key Takeaways

    For the principal as interviewer

    • Be prepared. The principal must provide a structure for the interview that allows for a quality, legal, and equitable experience for all candidates.

    • It is critical that the first contact with a candidate be with the principal. The principal can use this opportunity to represent the values of the school.

    • Create a profile that clearly states what is needed to support and enhance the grade level  or department team’s work toward improved student outcomes and collaboration among team members.

    • Develop open ended questions that help the committee link to the profile attributes.

    • Start slow, safe, and personal. Give the candidate a chance to warm up. You want to see and hear the best the candidate has to offer.

    • Know that the interview is just a part of the process to find the right match for a school. Principals should consider additional opportunities for less formal interactions between students and the candidate and teachers and the candidate. Another addition to the formal interview process is having the teacher candidate teach a lesson or read a book to a class.

    • Consider how students can participate in the interview process in a meaningful way. For example, student led tours of the the school school can offer an opportunity for students to showcase their school and offer observations about their experiences with the candidates.

    • Listen carefully and maintain an open mind by not making a decision about the candidate early in the interview. Try to limit the temptation to speak beyond asking the questions or answering questions posed by the candidate. The committee has very little time to learn about the candidate’s knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

    • After the interview follow up with the candidates in a timely manner, whether they will be offered the position or not. The principal continues to set a standard for courtesy and professionalism even after the interviews have been completed. When other positions open, the principal may want some of the same candidates to apply again. Give them a reason.

    For the principal as interviewee

    • Dress and act professionally.

    • Create a digital portfolio and send the link with your application materials.

    • Create high quality application materials and submit all requested materials.

    • Be prepared. Know the school and the district by looking at their website, speaking with community members, parents, and students.

    • Practice general themes to respond to questions. This is not a time to be spontaneous, but this is also not an oral exam. Know who you are as a leader and anticipate the committee’s concerns and reservations, such as, you are a new principal.

    • Prepare meaningful questions, questions that cannot be found on the school’s website, that offer you insights into the school’s culture, climate, expectations, vision, and mission.

    • The interview goes two ways. You want to see if the school is a fit for you just as much as the committee wants to see if you are a fit for their school.

    • Write a thank-you note after every interview that refers specifically to what you and the committee discussed.

    Interviewing is an opportunity for both sides to gain a better understanding of each other. I like to think of it as an opportunity for the applicant to share his or her passion for the field of education. When else do a group of people have to sit and listen to you talk about your favorite subject?

    Commentary by Nan Parsons

    Nan Parsons is UVEI's Associate Director for School Leadership and a member of the Program Faculty.  For other commentaries by Nan Parsons, see:


  • Read more

  • Get Smart!

    “Smart is not something you just are; smart is something you can get.”

    Dr. Jeff Howard

    I’d been teaching for about five years when I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Jeff Howard from Harvard’s Efficacy Institute. He introduced me to a number of new concepts: The Innate Ability Paradigm, Growth Mindset, Mobilized Effort, Coaching, Tenacious Engagement, and Focused Feedback. These were all fairly new ideas in education at the time, but now they are common concepts for most educators. After the time I spent with Dr. Howard, something changed in my belief system and my work as a teacher.

    I defined growth mindset for my students as the understanding that hard work, strategic and targeted effort, and tenacious engagement can improve outcomes.  As a teacher, I found it easy to create a culture of growth mindset in my classroom. It began at the classroom door with a sign that stated: “Are you ready to be tenaciously engaged?”  Students set goals individually and as a group; they declared their goals publically so that classmates could help them discover strategies for success; and we measured and celebrated the successes or created new strategies to meet the goals yet to be achieved. I had little difficulty applying the understanding that all students could develop the skills and dispositions to become better at whatever they were trying to achieve no matter where they began, whether it was writing a persuasive essay for a new recess schedule, memorizing math facts or researching who really discovered America.

    Fast forward a few decades and the teacher is now the student. I’d always been a fairly good student, especially in graduate school where I finally found my passion in teaching. But as I continued my education, the learning became more and more challenging for me. Over the  past year, I have been taking courses full time with a focus on research. This is an area I had limited experience in. Research writing is a genre unto itself. My first submission received a score of “Developing.” My first thought was that I had received what would be equivalent to a D.  I was not used to this. I moped, I blamed and I even shed a few tears. Certainly not a growth mindset or one focused on strategic continuous improvement.

    Despite the tears, I remembered what I taught my students so many years ago: In this class we work hard to get smart. So what was different in my case? The growth mindset I had for my students and cultivated in them was not as easy for me to cultivate in myself. Why is it different for the teacher than the student? I spent a week reflecting on my reaction and realized that the gift I so easily gave to my students was one I was struggling to give to myself.

    I took all that I knew and developed a plan for success by creating strategies to meet my goal, mobilizing my effort, focusing on feedback, seeking out and willingly accepting coaching, and believing that hard work would get me to where I needed to be.

    Well, I haven’t met my research writing target yet, but I am improving with each attempt. I am truly living what I expected from my students: I am working hard to get smart at research writing. I’m not there yet, but I have no doubt that I will be in the near future.

    Commentary by Nan Parsons

    Nan Parsons, MEd, CAGS, and doctoral candidate, is UVEI’s Associate Director for School Leadership and a member of our faculty.


  • Read more

  • Get That Job!

    Earlier this month a panel of eleven experienced principals gathered at UVEI to answer questions aspiring teachers had about some potentially scary topics.

    No, we're not talking about the challenges of classroom management, curriculum or state mandated tests. The frightening topic was finding a job: the application package, interview and hiring process.

    Although a lot of advice was specific to education, quite a few helpful nuggets provided good advice for almost anyone seeking a job.

    Be Yourself

    Jeff Valence, principal at Lyme Elementary School, had one of the most memorable pieces of advice, which might sound trite if the implication were not so important: be yourself. Finding the right workplace is akin to finding a spouse, said Valence. You want the relationship to be lasting. If you present yourself as someone you're not during the interview and you secure the job, it may not be a happy partnership.

    Create a Digital Portfolio

    Most principals on the panel said that they’d prefer a digital portfolio. Those of us old enough to remember teaching before the digital age will recall that portfolios were often presented during the interview in binder form. Last week’s panel of administrators largely endorsed a digital version. Several noted that the portfolio is a chance to illustrate a candidate’s tech savvy. Try creating a Google site to display work. Keri Gelenian, Rivendell’s principal, said,  “If you do bring a physical portfolio, make sure you have a copy to leave with the committee.”

    Stellar Reference Letters

    Reference letters should not be generic. A generic-sounding letter is code, suggesting that the applicant is not a great candidate, even though the letter will not necessarily state this explicitly.

    Grammar Matters

    Does your cover letter or resume contain grammatical errors or silly typos? Prepare to be relegated to the bottom of the pile. Or even worse, to the recycleing bin. In short: enlist a trusted editor or risk rejection without consideration of substance.

    Even though it’s only the end of January, jobs are popping up on School Spring. The Newton School in South Strafford is advertising a music teacher position, Hanover High School needs a photography teacher starting in April, and Woodstock Elementary is looking for math teachers.

    Have you updated your resume lately?

    Commentary by Kristen Downey

    Kristen Downey is UVEI’s Associate Director for Teacher Education.  Her other blogs can be found at and

    You can follow Kristen on Twitter @UVEIconnect


  • Read more

  • How Coaching Helps Teachers Grow

    On Wednesday evening, November 16, twenty five people gathered at UVEI to talk about instructional coaching as a tool for supporting teachers’ continuous improvement. In attendance were school leaders interested in finding new ways to support teachers’ growth. There were teacher leaders who wanted to learn new and better ways to support their colleagues. There were teachers trying to find new resources in their quest to keep getting better. And there were community members who wanted to hear more about UVEI’s work.

    This is a topic that the faculty at UVEI has been focusing on for some time. Persuaded by research suggesting that instructional coaching is a good way to address many of the limitations of traditional professional development in schools, the UVEI team spent a year engaging in a design study to try to improve our model for instructional coaching. While coaching was already a strength at UVEI, we wanted to build our skills further. We hoped that a refined model for effective coaching could be the foundation for better training and support.

    We learned a lot over the course of the year. The coaching model that emerged (proudly built on the shoulders of giants in the field) emphasizes:

    • Creating a feedback loop, in which the learner sees their own practice and desired practice clearly, learns productive ways to move forward, and takes action.

    • Structuring conferences intentionally to move practice and support productive action.

    • Shifting stances flexibly between instructive, collaborative, and facilitative approaches based on the learner’s needs.

    • Encouraging the learner to become reflective, analytical and metacognitive about their own practice.

    • Fostering equity by bringing attention to the range of student needs.

    • Using a repertoire of coaching language and questioning strategies to foster the above.

    We shared some of our areas of greatest learning, including our new-found awareness of the importance of emphasizing the teacher/learner thinking, goals and commitments over coach-driven suggestions and analysis. We also shared our renewed commitment to coaching for equity, an area that we felt we did not satisfactorily address through our study.

    The evening closed with a lively conversation during which participants discussed their plans for advancing their own coaching skills and for distributing instructional leadership in their schools. As for UVEI, our mission is to build the capacity of schools by helping them to support continuous teacher development. With this goal in mind, we plan to further develop coaches through practice embedded, collegial, and competency-based learning opportunities. We also plan to host (free) forums for those working as mentors and coaches where participants will have opportunities to talk with colleagues and work through dilemmas. If you are interested in learning more, improving your coaching or joining in, please be in touch with us!

    Commentary by Page Tompkins 

    Page Tompkins is UVEI's Excecutive Director and a member of the Program Faculty.


  • Read more

  • Meagan Leddy and Ted Pogacar

    Learning From My Intern: A Mentor's Story

    When Meagan Leddy arrived at Oxbow High School in August, I was beginning my twenty-sixth year teaching English and had agreed to be her mentor teacher.  To appreciate this story, you’ve got to picture Meagan.  She is a diminutive Dartmouth grad with a sweet voice and a smiling face.   Her glasses are bigger than her head. She dresses unlike any millennial I had ever encountered.  Let's call her style "throwback schoolmarm cool." 

  • Read more

  • More Than Dollars and Cents

    What drives the development and use of resources in a school? How are decisions made about resource allocation that can impact student outcomes? What is the connection between money and student outcomes? How can there be substantial waste and substantial unmet needs at the same time? (Grubb & Tredway, 2010)

    UVEI Principal Interns deepened their knowledge on these questions with the help of Vermont Superintendent Brent Kay at one of our interns’ monthly seminar days. What they learned is that financial management and resource allocation is more than dollars and cents.

    To know what it wants to achieve (the outcomes), an organization must know its purpose (the mission and vision). And it must rigorously monitor progress toward achieving its desired outcomes (the accountability). Dr. Kay would say that mission and vision must drive the development and use of resources in our schools. During that seminar day, he was able to help UVEI interns gain a sense of how a budget supports, rather than drives, the work of the school.

    By looking at the budgets from their own schools as more than basic accounting, interns focused on some of the indicators of continuous improvement linked to mission and vision work by trying to identify these indicators in their school’s budgets and asking the following questions:

    • Do we set high goals in our school?

    • Do we analyze student data to understand student performance and achievement gaps?

    • Are decisions about curriculum and instruction based on research?

    • Do we invest in teacher training that moves teacher practice?

    • Do we have systems in place to support struggling learners?

    • Is time seen as a resource?

    • Is the school a community of learners focused on inquiry and continuous improvement?

    • How does our budget support each of these indicators? (Rennie Center, 2012)

    In going beyond dollar and cents, UVEI Principal Interns are encouraged to see beyond discrete units of knowledge, but instead, use their learning as levers for impacting teachers’ instruction in the classroom and developing their teachers’ capacity.

    Commentary by Nan Parsons

    Nan Parsons, MEd, CAGS and doctoral candidate, is UVEI’s Associate Director for School Leadership and a member of the program faculty.  Also read Nan's commentary about growth mindset in Getting Smart.



  • Read more

  • Most Likely to Succeed

    In November, I finally found the opportunity and time to view the acclaimed educational film Most Likely to Succeed.I was surrounded by education majors and a few education professors in a darkened amphitheater at a fairly traditional university -- although presently in the process of positive disruption -- that is searching for the answers on how students succeed. Discussion after the film was facilitated by then- Commissioner of Education, Dr. Virginia Barry.

    Watching the film brought to mind a quip a former colleague of mine made her personal mantra: “Education is endlessly fascinating.” This film certainly did not disappoint in the area of fascinating, but for me, I did not find the silver bullet to education in the 21st century. Instead, I found a source of additional questions to add to my ever-expanding list of questions I have about just what kind of educational experience is best for all students to be successful. What I walked away with is a reminder that education is complex and never as simple as presented by anyone in any medium.

    Greg Whitely, the producer of the film, creates a catalyst for the discussion, beginning with his educationally disenfranchised daughter’s experience during her fourth grade year. I believe Mr. Whitely’s thesis is that if educators would just facilitate the personalization of learning, students would increase their capacity for creativity and innovation, thus increasing engagement in learning. He makes no claims in the film about student outcomes. The film’s clear message is that public schools are not teaching what students need to know to be successful in the 21st century.

    The executive producer, Ted Dintersmith, eludes to a simple solution:  If content is readily available, then developing “critical skills” is the answer to the needs of the 21st century student and employee; specifically, collaboration, creativity, problem solving, analysis and communication. The film is also clear in its view that this is not the solution for all children and that parents, even those who choose to send their children to the film’s focus school, High Tech High in California, still question the limited focus on content over the significant focus on problem-based learning and critical skills. They are also concerned whether their children will do well on traditional measures (think SATs) in order to get into the college of their choice.

    I wonder if emphasizing Dintersmith’s critical skills over content will prepare our students for the future they face. By creating such a singular focus on his identified critical skills, perhaps another skill goes missing:  What knowledge, not information, does the student bring to the group that he or she is collaborating in?

    The parents’ perceptions on the lack of content appear to be based in deep levels of learning in one content area versus shallow levels of learning in many areas of content. Dithersmith would argue that having a degree or multiple degrees, does not necessarily mean competence and a pathway to success. It means they may have content knowledge only without the ability to analyze, synthesize and apply that knowledge. If statistics were the only measure of success, High Tech High students perform 10% above the state average and 98% of students get into college.

    The question I wonder about is how do we create an environment of innovation for our students? Tony Wagner (2015), an educational researcher and author of the book the film was based on, argues that “if we are to remain globally competitive in today’s world, we need to produce more than just a few entrepreneurs and innovators. We need to develop the creative and enterprising capacities of all our students” (p. 4). Dithersmith recognizes that there is not one approach for every student. Real education is messy and any attempt to standardize it through federal and state regulations will lead to a compliance-based mindset. Humans are complicated and making change in education is also complicated. A High Tech High teacher explains the process as one where “we need to grow, evolve, and change as a school and as people. The industrial model is about standardization. Education is much more like gardening than engineering. If you create the right conditions the thing grows itself.”

    It appears that if we continue on our present path of first order change by essentially keeping our schools the same, but making small tweaks in an attempt to improve student outcomes, our students will struggle to become the learners, innovators and leaders we need today and in the future. If we attempt to create second order change in education, it will be a complicated process. As Hyland and Wong (2013) make clear in their analysis of change, “It is futile…to change just one aspect of a national policy, institutional plan, classroom approach or beliefs of one group. Stakeholders need to ‘learn change’ together” (p. 3).

    In facilitating the conversation at the end of the film, Dr. Barry responded to a question about the barriers to innovation in schools with the following statement:  “We are removing policies that create barriers. Schools that are focused on performance and interdisciplinary systems are going to far exceed what and how we are assessing today. The survival of an institution will be based on its ability to show proof points that their graduates are able to succeed in the real world.”  She closed with the comment:  “We must change the conditions of learning.”  Well said, Dr. Barry, but we cannot mandate those conditions, nor can we mandate change. We have tried for decades with limited success.

    For me, one of the most thoughtful questions that came up in the film is what do we want to be held accountable to --  test scores or high quality work? If Dintersmith’s goal is to create a conversation, he certainly has most likely succeeded. Continuing the conversation, whether you agree with Dintersmith’s thesis or not, is our only hope to foster continuous improvement in education.

    Cited sources

    Hyland, K., & Wong, L. L. (2013). Innovation and change in English language education. Routledge.

    Wagner, T., & Compton, R. A. (2015). Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world. Simon and Schuster.

    Commentary by Nan Parsons

    Nan Parsons is UVEI's Associate Director for School Leadership and a member of the Program Faculty.  Nan's other commentaries can be fuond on the website at:




  • Read more

  • New Year's Resolutions: Plan With the End in Mind

    New Years is typically a time when people reflect on their lifestyle choices of the past year, and turn towards thoughts of reform. “I need to lose weight!” “I want to donate more money to charity this year,” or “It’s time to read those books I’ve told people I’ve read but really haven’t.” I’m just kidding about that last one. Really. I totally read The Fountainhead.

    For me, New Year’s marks the time I begin to review the literature on Understanding by Design (UbD), also known as backwards planning-- a way for teachers to think about unit design. We just wrapped up UbD week last Friday.  

    This year, however, I began to think about the possible connections between resolutions and backwards planning.

    UbD can be confusing and a little heavy on jargon (Essential Questions, Enduring Understandings), but the heart of backwards planning is really common sense: Plan with the end in mind. What can students do or know if they really understand? How will you, the teacher, really know that students “get it?”

    I think these questions might easily apply to New Year’s resolutions, and the tenants of UbD might help to achieve those nebulous resolutions.

    Let’s walk through an example. And let’s take one of the most popular (and most commonly broken) NYE resolutions: Lose weight and get fit.

    Understanding by Design dictates that we first envision the end result. In our example, to weigh less and be in better shape/health. Next, we might decide on the Essential Question and Enduring Understandings of the resolution. Essential questions are provocative, open-ended, and can be applied across lots of different topics.  

    For this example, here’s a proposed Essential Question: How do we feel good in the skin we’re in?

    This question in an Essential Question because it could be answered in different ways. People might feel good in the skin they’re in by spending more time with family. Or by mastering that craft they’ve only dabbled in for years. Or by learning to love their body just the way it is.

    But for some, the answer is to lose weight and get fit.

    UbD also asks that we think about the necessary skills and knowledge one would need to be able to demonstrate true understanding.

    This might be crucial to actually keeping that resolution. Do I need to learn more about meal planning and nutrition? Do I need to have a trainer help with with an exercise routine? Do I need to learn how to cook vegetables? Simply resolving to eat less or exercise more isn’t specific enough and may leave critical knowledge and skills off the table.

    Understanding by Design is a framework for increasing student achievement, but it might also increase resolution achievement. Here’s a basic template. Try plugging in a resolution. Let me know how it goes!

    Commentary by Kristen Downey

    Kristen is UVEI's Asssociate Director for Teacher Education.  You can follow her on Twitter @UVEIconnect.




  • Read more

  • Observing a Balanced Literacy Program in Action

    On March 22, in lieu of our usual Tuesday seminar, seven interns with an endorsement in elementary education participated in a professional development day at Woodstock Elementary School (WES). The purpose of the visit was to observe, critique and understand the many components of a balanced literacy program. Aimee Toth, UVEI’s Associate Director of Elementary Education, was our guide.

    Aimee, who has also been leading professional education workshops for WES teachers, began with an overview of what we should expect from the day’s experience, and we reviewed the 5Ws (who?, what?, where?, when?, why?) that pertain to a balanced literacy program.  From there, our day of observation began. We watched a third grade literacy circle, guided reading in kindergarten, a small group book walk back in kindergarten, and a second grade read aloud and book shopping (students go to book buckets or book shelves and select five books (at their appropriate reading level) to read the following week.  We also watched expert teachers take running records to assess the reading levels of their students. It was especially nice to visit the classroom of a UVEI alumnus who is now teaching at WES

  • Read more

  • Project-Based Learning: Why it Matters

    Holland Elementary is a small K-6 school located in the heart of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. The five classroom teachers here serve forty-two students, so they get to know their kids well. After visiting the King Middle in Maine to see project based teaching practices and project-based learning in action, the Holland teachers began to implement the model in their school.  

    Project-based learning (PBL) allows students to work collaboratively in teams or independently to answer abstract questions and solve problems or design challenges that are authentic. An authentic unit is relevant to students’ lives, is realistic, or involves real-world tasks and processes. It meets a real need in the world beyond the classroom, or the products students create are used by real people. Inquiry is central in PBL classrooms. Project-based teaching involves carefully planned scaffolding (structure and modeling to help all students make progress towards the goal), coaching and assessment. Rather than content driving the curriculum, a project-based learning model is driven by student interest.

    Principal Kelli Dean, a UVEI Principal Intern Program alumni, shared her thoughts on why the North Country Supervisory Union, especially Holland Elementary, has taken on PBL as an approach to teaching and learning.

  • Read more

  • School/District Partnerships Reinvigorate Teaching Practices

    As a classroom teacher, one of my favorite pastimes was participating in professional development.  I visited other schools, attended workshops and took online courses.  I especially enjoyed workshops, since they were a chance to connect with professionals from all over the country.  The resources and excitement in those days, weeks or weekends were reinvigorating, especially in the middle of the New Hampshire winter. However after returning to my classroom, the afterglow soon wore off.  Although it was better to attend with a colleague (with whom I could bounce ideas off later), the lack of sustained focus and follow-up led to, more often than not, the materials and energy quickly fading from view.

    At UVEI, we approach professional education differently.  How is it different?  Through sustained coaching and inquiry cycles, educators immersed in their practice receive feedback and reflect with the help of a coach.  Cycles last several weeks, months or even a full year.  Instead of a “one and done” course, we spend time in each school to observe, model, debrief, plan and facilitate peer coaching and reflection.  We are currently partnering with several school districts, bringing coaching and inquiry cycles to a team or an entire school, where teachers and administrators engage in inquiries such as balanced literacy, differentiated instruction, and project based learning.

    One of our current partnerships is with Holland Elementary School, which is as close to the Canadian border as you can get without going through customs.  Each week, I make the drive north to work with the teachers and students at this tiny pre-K through sixth grade school.  Through weekly observations and coaching sessions, teachers aim to move their practice closer to “gold standard” project-based learning.  Principal Kelli Dean, a UVEI Principal Intern Program alum (and current UVEI Curriculum and Instruction candidate), helped bring our faculty into a district-wide partnership focused on project-based learning.  By the second meeting with teachers, I was already feeling new energy and momentum building as these educators brainstormed new units and approaches.  As we journey forward together, our shared goal is to reinvigorate teaching practices that are valuable and sustainable.  

    This photo of Kate Underwood and her K-1 class was taken by Becky at Holland Elementary School earlier this fall.

    Commentary by Becky Wipfler

    Becky Wipfler is UVEI’s Elementary Education Coordinator and a member of the faculty.  You can follow her on Twitter @bmwipfler. Other commentaries by Becky can be found at and


  • Read more

  • Schools Need to Grow Their Own Coaches


    Commentary published in the Valley News on April 26, 2016:  With the passing of the new Every Student Succeeds Act, there has been much discussion about the end of the No Child Left Behind era and the shifting of policy prerogatives back towards state and local decision makers. This gives us the opportunity to ask ourselves a fundamental question anew: What might lead to the schools we hope for and want? In many ways, traditional arguments about the right state or national policy levers for improving schools fail to answer this question satisfactorily. State-driven accountability and top-down mandates have not (and are not likely to) lead to better schools for kids. In fact, a growing body of evidence indicates that while policies may aid or hinder improvement efforts, they are not the main event at all.

    It turns out that in the complex world of teaching and learning, school improvement is the result of building the capacity, skills, and judgement of teachers through ongoing and deliberate practice at the school level (to many of us working in schools, this is not exactly a shock). Improvement efforts that start with and are steered by the people in the building simultaneously respect the professionalism of teachers, and depend on it. Teachers, and particularly teacher leaders, are the key to success.

    One form of teacher leadership that is particularly promising is coaching. Many people think of coaching in terms of sports, and intuitively understand coaches importance for improvement. Outside of the realm of sports, coaching is usually understood as job-embedded support that aids in deliberate practice; providing suggestions and feedback for improvement. Drawing on his experience in the medical field, author and surgeon Atul Gawande has persuasively argued that “coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.” Many local educators agree, and apply this idea to teaching. Jeff Moreno, principal at Hartland Elementary School, views teacher leadership generally, and coaching specifically, as an important strategy for achieving his school’s goals. Following an extensive period of planning based on careful analysis of school data, Hartland Elementary has developed focused goals in the areas of math, literacy and positive student behavior. Jeff indicated that “creating the position and identifying coaches is a critical strategy for all three goals. Coaches are key to fostering the discussion of ‘how can I get better’ or ‘how can I reach more kids?’” Jeff went on to say that having coaches drawn from the ranks of the effective and respected teachers at his school “provides a safe framework for these important reflective conversations to happen.” Carefully selected coaches, particularly coaches who continue to teach, are able to “use what they are learning in their own classes, and that can serve as a lab setting” for testing new approaches and providing examples for other teachers to study. Coaches’ grounding in the real, local work and culture of the school also, as Jeff put it, “provides credibility for the teacher with whom the coach is working.”

    The good news is that many of our schools are already full of coaches or potential coaches (sometimes with that title, and other times in the form of mentors, department chairs, professional development coordinators, grade level leads, subject matter experts, and more). The challenge is that many people in coaching roles have little training or support. Being an effective teacher does not guarantee that someone will be an effective coach. To be good, coaches must match their knowledge of classroom teaching and subject matter with the skills required to be an adult educator. The Hartland effort, in Jeff’s view, requires at least a five year commitment, in part because “coaches need to develop into their role over time.”  Becky Wipfler, a reading specialist and literacy coordinator at Hanover’s Richmond Middle School, whose role includes literacy coaching, echoed this sentiment. “Coaching teachers is a complex undertaking which I hesitated to jump into until I more fully understood the many facets of coaching.” Skills like carefully observing instruction, questioning and listening techniques, and relationship building are particularly important. Coaches need to learn these skills through training, practice, and feedback. In other words, coaches need coaching. Specialized training  in these areas, including opportunities to practice and get feedback, helped Becky feel more comfortable working with colleagues to improve their teaching practice.

    Identifying and developing teacher leaders as coaches is a good investment, positively impacting teachers and their students. Amy Arnold, a second year teacher at Bradford Elementary School who received coaching as part of a district wide literacy initiative, said, “When you first start teaching, it's kind of like feeling your way through a darkened hallway. You bump into things, and you are never quite sure you're actually going in the right direction. Having a coach is like having a flashlight. Coaches come into your room and observe and model, reaffirming or correcting your teaching strategies. Not only does it benefit student learning by making you a more effective educator, it helps you feel more confident in what you are doing. I also think it is great for students to see that teachers are always learning, too. When your coach comes into the room, you take on a dual role: teacher and student- and the kids are fascinated by that. It really sends a message of lifelong learning.”

    The solution to developing our schools lies in investing in the people on whom effective schooling depends. Policy should be directed at supporting and developing teachers as learners and leaders at the local level.

    By R Page Tompkins, EdD

    Page is UVEI's Executive Director.  For more information about Page, see:

  • Read more

  • The Art of Taking Risks

    As the Fine Arts Teacher and Drama Director at Fall Mountain Regional High School, Dakota Benedetto has, during her 16-year career in the classroom, sought to create opportunities for her students -- opportunities to explore, to create, to think for themselves and to learn from failure. Dakota believes that real learning requires getting out of our comfort zones, and that schools should strive to create an environment of intellectual risk-taking.  

    This year, while Dakota completes the Principal Intern Program at UVEI, she is working with a group of educators and local community members to open the LEAF Charter School in the fall of 2017 in Alstead, NH. They envision a small charter high school with an interdisciplinary curriculum, emphasizing flexibility and hands-on experiences. “The opportunity to shape this new learning community has been wonderful - a chance to help ‘change the educational paradigm,’ as Ken Robinson puts it. How cool is that?” Dakota exclaims. 

    If you ever have the good fortune to meet Dakota, you will discover that her interests outside school range from acting to dancing to carpentry. She is proficient in French, is CPR certified, studied architecture at RISD and loves social dancing. Dakota’s inspiration for living a full and varied life comes from words by Albert Einstein:  Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. “I believe that it is the challenge, the putting your hopes and heart on the line, that makes the difference in having successes. After all, how can I ask my students to take chances if I don’t do the same?” Dakota asks.

    Dakota, who is a resident of Marlow, NH, is a graduate of Plymouth State College, where she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art Education.  She went on to receive a Master in Education from Harvard University. 

  • Read more

  • The Learning by Doing Advantage

    Over the past decade, I have had the privilege of working with the Upper Valley Educators Institute’s (UVEI) administration, faculty, and students and, as a result, I have learned first-hand the impact of their philosophy: learning by doing. UVEI is a place where the art of teaching and leadership is learned through practice, and its programs heavily engage candidates with colleagues and mentors in real-life situations over extended periods of time.

  • Read more

  • The UVEI Coach: Your Personal Guide


    An internship at UVEI is a lot like the long distance thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. Both have an exciting, though somewhat apprehensive outset into the unknown, followed by an arduous journey of several months, leading to a clear and lofty goal at the end.  But the novice hiker on the UVEI trek has a priceless asset in the services of a highly experienced, trail-wise personal guide:  the UVEI Faculty Coach.

  • Read more

Page 1 of 2