Tarrant Institute Prepares Vermont Schools to Pivot When Challenges Arise

On a chilly and damp autumn morning in Bethel, Vermont, in the heart of the state’s rural southeast region, 12 seventh-graders sit beneath a large yellow-and-white-striped tent, transfixed by lengths of rope they’re holding in their hands. They are practicing knot-tying skills today, their teacher explains. It is October 2020, and a new school year has begun amid a bevy of COVID-19 protocols that both necessitated and inspired pioneering new practices in education. The teachers in this pod at White River Valley Middle School say they were more prepared and empowered to find creative solutions for teaching through the pandemic, thanks to their partnership with UVM’s Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education.

Now in its twelfth year, the Tarrant Institute is changing the way students are educated in Vermont and across the nation. Housed in the UVM College of Education and Social Services, the Institute was founded with generous support from the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation. UVM middle-level education faculty and their Tarrant Institute associates are top scholars in the field of personalized education, an approach that aims to customize learning for each student’s strengths, needs, skills, and interests. They have provided long-term professional development to more than 70 partner schools across Vermont. The Institute publishes scholarly research and produces the state’s leading educational storytelling platform, an award-winning blog called “Innovative Education” that showcases creative teaching methods in action through entries like “How to do Service Learning During a Pandemic” and “How a Classroom Newsletter Gave My Students Voice.” The Institute has also provided more than $1 million in grant funding to schools, helping them realize their visions for technology, training, and teaching opportunities.

UVM first collaborated with the Tarrant Foundation in 2006 around a common interest in engaging young adolescents in technology-rich learning. The success of these early initiatives led to the establishment of the Tarrant Institute in 2009. The initial programs were designed to help schools integrate teaching practices proven to engage middle school students with technology. Since then, netbooks, tablets, interactive white boards, and other technologies have become commonplace in Vermont schools. The Institute now devotes its resources and expertise to providing comprehensive, multi-year professional development for teachers and administrators, helping schools develop infrastructures that support effective teaching practices and cultures that sustain educational innovation.

What began as a major boost for a single school is now a deeply embedded set of practices and school-wide approaches to ensuring that Vermont students are engaged learners and their teachers are skilled implementers of 21st-century educational practices.

In this pivotal moment when our education system is open to transformation, the Institute’s professional development partnerships are dedicated to improving the learning lives of young people. Tailoring its services to the needs of partner schools during this unprecedented time, the Tarrant Institute has developed a panoply of remote learning and equity-based resources. The ongoing and emerging projects represent a strong commitment to the Tarrant Institute’s original mission: to enable schools and educators to create deeply engaging learning opportunities with students, in school and out.

“We recognize that this moment in time presents unique challenges for schools,” said Tarrant Institute Director John Downes. “At the same time, it provides a unique opportunity for students to create pathways to learning outside the traditional school day and school building. What students engage in and take away from this period of history will inform not just their own lives, but could present a roadmap for schools to provide all students, moving forward, with expanded opportunities for learning in non-traditional ways.”

Teachers and administrators at White River Valley Middle School had been the beneficiaries of this support for several years prior to the pandemic. The White River Valley Supervisory Union had worked closely with the Tarrant Institute in building a new middle school from the ground up. The school now offers students and families dedicated flexible learning opportunities, including the full-time outdoor classroom, which has proved invaluable during the current pandemic.

“Our partnership with the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education helped create the conditions for this transformation to occur in how we ‘do school,’” said White River Valley Middle School Principal Owen Bradley. “We had nibbled around the edges of changing how we teach and learn, and then the pandemic came and we were pushed into being creative—and of course safe. We moved into a curriculum that fully leaned into project-based learning. Our students and faculty will never go back! And we are grateful, because we’re changing the world by changing the focus from teaching and teachers to learning and learners.”

What will the future hold for the Institute?

“We’re expanding the number and type of our partnerships,” said Downes. “What we’re seeing now is the opportunity for many additional schools and districts to think beyond the traditional school setup. At the end of the day, we’re in it to make sure young adolescents can take full advantage of not just the middle grades experience, but a wholly revolutionized outlook on lifelong learning.”

Back at White River Valley Middle School, the knot-tying practice has produced a chorus of victory cheers and groans of frustration. Students straighten out the ropes and start again. The lesson is part of the pod’s new “negotiated curriculum,” a process they’ve adopted through their partnership with the Tarrant Institute that changes the balance of power in educational settings by inviting students to become the co-designers of their own learning opportunities. The cheerful yellow and white tent is the home base of their new outdoor learning environment. Students call the space Quartz Gorge, a moniker they came up with after finding a large specimen of the rock in a nearby ravine. In this setting, where students are sawing wood for their fire pit and hauling large tree limbs to clear space for a forest classroom, teachers say students are building skills more naturally and collaboration is happening more organically. Everyone under the tent—teachers and students alike—agree: even when COVID restrictions have ended, they don’t want to lose the benefits of this new way of learning that they’ve discovered here, together.

Read the Tarrant Institute’s award-winning “Innovative Education” blog.

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