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Teaching Their Teachers: Grant Advances Classroom Innovation in Rivendell District

  • Teacher Laszlo Bardos, right, and Rivendell Academy student Cam Surprenant do some calculus problems on white boards.

  • Rachel Sanders talks to students, from left, Sam Kamel, Jen DeBois and Dametres Perry, in her classroom at Rivendell Academy in Orford on Friday. She and fellow teacher Laszlo Bardos have received a grant to spread the educational philosophies of Jean Piaget among their colleagues in the Rivendell Interstate School District. Medora Hebert photographs



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
Less than a decade ago, Rachel Sanders was exploring what makes life in the oceans tick and Laszlo Bardos was looking for engineering solutions to improve computer software.

And while they’re both still eager to teach their subjects, this year they’re pursuing a different agenda: influencing the way their colleagues in the Rivendell Interstate School District are teaching those and other topics. Armed with a $100,000 grant, they will spend the 2016-2017 school year coaching other teachers in ways to help their students learn by, among other things, teaching their teachers.

 “The idea is to figure out, ‘How do students think?’ ” Sanders, in her fourth year teaching high school science at Rivendell Academy, said last week. “‘How do they trust their own thinking and learning? Can they think through a process?’”

Keri Gelenian has been gradually introducing Rivendell to the process of “critical exploration” — which de-emphasizes teachers lecturing and students memorizing in favor of giving students poems, maps and any other materials that spark discussions and brainstorming in class — since becoming principal of the academy in 2010. He learned the concept, which grew out of the work of Swiss clinical psychologist and child-development pioneer Jean Piaget, while studying for his doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“It raises questions,” Gelenian said of critical exploration. “It cuts against the normal progression of somebody telling someone what to think and know and how to do things. This gives students the opportunity to direct their own learning, where there’s no threat you’re going to be wrong.”

During the 2016-2017 school year, the grant from the Vermont-based Rowland Foundation will free Bardos and Sanders from classroom duties while they help teachers infuse the practice into the curriculum and the classroom. The duo started pursuing the grant after attending workshops in Cambridge, Mass., last summer with Eleanor Duckworth, who developed the concept while working with Piaget, and who in turn taught Gelenian at Harvard. Duckworth also has conducted workshops in the Upper Valley for Rivendell district teachers.

“We thought (the fellowship) would be the perfect opportunity for us to dive into it and help our colleagues to experience what we experienced,” Bardos said. “It comes down to, the less we say in class, and the more the students are talking, the better we’re all learning.”

Since 2009, the Rowland Foundation has been awarding up to 10 fellowships a year to teachers and counselors in public secondary schools with ideas for classroom innovations, and with the support of their principals. On its website, the foundation lists among its goals helping such educators to “alter a school’s curriculum and enhance its climate for learning.”

Upper Valley recipients include Angela Bauer and Lisa Manning-Floyd, who this academic year are revamping the student advisory system at Randolph Union High School, and Dawn Deibler, who during the 2010-2011 school year helped teachers at Thetford Academy integrate technology into their classrooms.

“It’s such a great resource,” Bardos said of the foundation. “In addition to the financial support, there’s a great community of past fellows out there who help you. It’s teacher to teacher. It’s not top down. I hear from them what works and what doesn’t.”

“We got 30 or 40 emails from them after our fellowship was announced,” Sanders added. “It’s such a welcoming network.”

Gelenian said that in addition to paying substitute teachers while Sanders and Bardos work with their colleagues, the grant will cover materials, workshops and the expenses involved in Sanders and Bardos traveling to do additional research.

If Sanders needed any more incentive, a student in one of her science classes reminded her one day last fall.

“She was working on a problem, and when she saw me coming she said, ‘Oh, go away!’ ” Sanders recalled last week. “ ‘I’m thinking! I can do this.’ ”

That was music to Bardos’ ears, when Sanders recounted the moment.

“If we’re backing off, and the students are driving the class, they don’t need to look to us for everything. They look to themselves and each other,” Bardos said. “We want to give them the confidence that they can think through any problem in life.”

Dec. 31 is the deadline for educators to apply to the Rowland Foundation for grants and fellowships for the 2017-2018 academic year. For more information about the application process, about past fellows and about the foundation, visit therowlandfoundation.org.

Science Medalists

Lebanon High School students Terran Campbell and Marina Liot won the gold medal in the electric-vehicle competition during the New Hampshire Science Olympiad at Saint Anselm College in Manchester last weekend, helping Lebanon’s new, 29-member Science Olympiad team earn the plaque for Best Grafton County School.

Other competitors posting top-three finishes for Lebanon were the tandem of Sophia Miller and Natalie VanderNoot with a silver medal for second place in the green-generation category; Zeda Wolf and Jaret Armstrong a bronze medal for third in bridge-building; and Aditi Jogdand and Jane Plomp with a bronze in anatomy and physiology.

Earning ribbons for top-six performances in their categories were Cecilia Hampton and Zeda Wolf with a fourth in fossils; Jack Davini and Polina Pivak finishing fifth in green generation; and Scott Jones and Eli Weitzman for sixth place in robot arm.

World Views

Chase Johnson of Enfield will compete in the New Hampshire National Geographic State Bee at Keene State College on April 1. He earned a semifinal slot for the state competition by winning the geography bee at Indian River School in West Canaan, where he’s in the eighth grade, then scoring high enough on an online exam to receive an invitation from the National Geographic Society.

The winner of the state competition will receive $100, a copy of the geographic society’s book The National Parks: An Illustrated History and a medal, in addition to advancing to the national bee at the society’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., in late May. The national champion wins a college scholarship of $50,000, lifetime membership in the geographic society and a trip to Glacier Bay National Park and other parts of Alaska’s coastal wilderness in recognition of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary.

To learn more about entering the 2017 geography bee, visit natgeobee.org.

High School Honors

The White River Rotary Club recently named Calvin Wilson its student of the month for his work in the building-trades program at the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center. He is a senior at Mascoma Valley Regional High School.

∎ Lebanon High School recently named Polina Pivak as its student of the month for March. In addition to her school participation in band, Students for a Sustainable Future and Science Olympiad, she volunteers with the Upper Valley Trails Alliance in the summer and works at a hobby shop. In her Advanced Placement class in environmental science, she hand-painted game boards for the Crisis Aversion game and led a game in class.

Collegiate Recognition

Connecticut College recently named Alex Woods, of Hanover, as one of its 13 Winthrop Scholars, the school’s highest academic honor for seniors “who demonstrate exceptional scholarship and promise.” A 2012 graduate of Hanover High School, Woods is majoring in English and mathematics.

∎ Vermont Technical College recently named seven Upper Valley residents to its president’s list and 26 area residents to its dean’s list for their academic achievements during the fall 2015 semester.

President’s List

By hometown, Valley students who maintained the maximum grade-point average of 4.0 follow:

South Royalton — Nicole Cyr, majoring in business technology and management; Alexandra Armstrong.

White River Junction — Sarah Day, business technology and management.

Woodstock — Kyle Rigali, electromechanical engineering technology.

Chelsea — Honour Greene, business technology and management; Eliza Amber; Fiona Milchman.

Dean’s List

By hometown, Upper Valley students who maintained grade-point averages of at least 3.5 out of a possible 4.0 are:

Bradford — Jillian Dusenbury, majoring in dairy farm management technology.

Brownsville — Craig Shaffer, landscape design and sustainable horticulture.

Hartland — Jonathan Henault, information technology.

Newport — Tristan Kemp, automotive technology.

Quechee — Eridana Harder, nursing.

Perkinsville — Ian Littlefield.

Randolph — Peter Busha, renewable energy; Lance Butler, diversified agriculture; Sean Klink, computer engineering technology; Melissa Laweryson, diversified agriculture; Phillip Lease, software engineering; Johnathan Leeser, manufacturing engineering technology; Noah Miller, software engineering; Olivia Myrick, software engineering; Nathan Perry, civil- and environmental-engineering technology; Brooke Thompson, business technology and management.

Tunbridge — Heather Clark, veterinary technology; Madison Distel; Gage Higgins, construction management.

White River Junction — Zachary Davis, information technology; Anna Guyseva, nursing; William Whatley, landscape design and sustainable horticulture.

Windsor — Emma Saucier, mechanical-engineering technology.

Killington — Wyatt Mosher, business technology and management

Reading — Nathaniel Jenne, nursing.

Wells River — Brandy Clarke, business technology and management.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304. Education-related news and announcements also can be sent to schoolnotes@vnews.com.