A Beacon Aglow: An Institute of Community in The Mountains of Vermont

By SHEILA BAILEY

8th grade student leading 2nd graders on a trail walk in Guilford, Vermont.

I’d like to share an experience that gave me greater confidence in how much of an impact Place Based Service-Learning can have on improving education and the quality of life, in this case in a small, rural Vermont community. This story also connects to the crucial importance of social and emotional learning in this entire process.

Some years ago, back in the late 1990’s, I traveled to the southeastern corner of Vermont, just short of where Vermont borders New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The community was Guilford, and the school I visited was a small K-8 school with a staff of approximately 35 teachers. As I drove along the windy roads following a quiet brook, I smiled thinking about the first time I traveled the road with a colleague anxiously waiting for our first encounter with a new grant site (one of 49 that year). The library that day was filled with wide-eyed, tiny faces staring at our business like suits. I guessed this was quite out of the ordinary for this school. Within the crowd was a young 7/8 student named, Becca Tustin, who described her involvement with the “shoe drive” which turned into a pile of 2,000 shoes, boots and sneakers to be given to needy members in the community. We melted as the children told their rich, engaging stories that still linger among the shelves and books of the library today.

When I arrived in the library of Guilford Central School on that Wednesday, I looked around the room to see Becca, now sitting among the teachers, along with community members, parents and a few younger students. She was by now a Senior at Brattleboro High School that year and was getting three undergraduate credits from Norwich University as a full participant in the third annual Guilford Summer Institute, focused on Place Based Service-Learning.

A few people seeing me come in greeted me with a smile and then turned to the Guilford teacher doing a presentation on “Brain-Based Learning.” I tune in with my student ears. Quickly, I remember that the presenter and teacher is also a participant in a Local Study Group (initiated by the Institute) to study and document how she assesses learning through service. This Local Study Group was also connected to the National Study Group funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

 The message is clear–in order for learning to occur, you must take care of the emotions first. We must foster emotional health to promote healthy learning. This requires a caring environment which allows for emotional experiences, which promotes resiliency and therefore builds a greater brain. Kids also need “downtime” to relax, to process, to write and to reflect in order for learning to occur. While I listened, I pictured a quote that used to be taped on my keyboard, “Learning is a reflection on experience.” I squeezed my eyes tight trying to see the piece of paper to read the name of the person who made that quote. Who was it? I continued to frustrate myself. Was it John Dewey or Jefferson?

Just then, I heard the presenter say that all humans can only truly concentrate on one thing at a time. If a child is drawing or scribbling, then he is not able to concentrate on what the teacher is saying. I decided at that point to drop the quote search and pay attention. What was interesting to me was that a participant said to clarify her understanding of the research, “if you read a book one year and the same book three years later, it will be a different book because you have a different brain.” This seemed to make sense to me if you consider that in three years you have a wealth of new experiences which mold your brain, assuming that you did not spend those three years “sitting on a chair in a closet,” as the presenter added.

The presenter went on to share more about the research and the implication that it has for teaching and learning. Researchers contend that the “ability to talk is instinctual, the ability to write is not…orality is a step before literacy.” Therefore, kids need more experiences in listening and speaking before becoming literate. This then brought out a final point which I find so key to becoming a literate community and that is “when we sit and listen to stories, we have a communal experience. Storytelling was a communal experience — it CREATED community. Now reading is a personal, solitary experience that doesn’t create community.”

The presentation ended with a task of brainstorming strategies for brain-based learning in five areas: 1. Making sense, 2. Environments, 3. Emotions, 4. Attention Skills, and 5. Time. The Emotion poster listed the following: — giving students the time they need, letting them talk, providing a safe haven, valuing each other, and talking about and valuing differences.

I reviewed the posters while sitting in the next session called “strand time.” During the Institute, participants focus on one of the three strands: “Discovery Trail”; “Gardens and Agriculture”; “Community Inquiry and Oral Histories”. I chose the Community Inquiry strand primarily because the principal, Mike Friel, whom I deeply admire for his wisdom and commitment to providing kids with what they need to succeed, was the facilitator. With his ability to encourage and support much like a coach would, he facilitated a discussion about strategies to increase kid involvement.

A newly constructed arbor for the school garden

The group talked about their vision of a school where students would drive the curriculum with their questions and concerns and that the teacher’s role would be a coach and facilitator to help students to address those questions and concerns, and to meet needs in the community all within the context of the Vermont Framework of Standards and the local curriculum. The consensus was that it will be extremely important to raise student and staff consciousness about service-learning and the role that students can and should have in shaping their futures through education, and through understanding the heritage of Guilford. A student teacher and Institute participant left our strand with a final thought, “Service-learning moves individual achievement to collective achievement. Language is a conveyance for that.”

Modeling what we now know about brain-based learning, we took some time to relax, reflect and write through poetry. A community facilitator, the well known poet Verandah Porche, passed around an old button tin with handfuls of individual words written on small pieces of paper. Not knowing what the activity was going to be, I took a very small pinch of words. Later I found out that we would be writing a poem with the words that we pulled out of the tin. I “pinched” 23 words and sorted them out in front of me. While we were allowed to fish in the tin for more words or add some of our own, I challenged myself to use only and all the words I picked in my “pinch.” The theme of the poem, of course, was supposed to be service learning. I will share my creation with you…

Reflective Discovery

Savvy rare vesper

that smells of both yes,

wrong,

crawls meekly beyond

wild tree surfaces.

Race erratic ears,

Go repay.

How?

Who?

I!

Although normally I would feel uncomfortable sharing this arrangement of words with a room of strangers, the group made me feel safe and comfortable. The school feels safe and comfortable. Is this due to their commitment to service-learning? That service-learning has over time created partnerships that have brought community members into the schools as participants in creating curriculum and activities for students?

Has service-learning contributed to their vision and belief (and now school mission) that “the central role of the school community is to help each person become a compassionate, independent and contributing member of an ever changing world?” Or contributed to their belief that “the school community will recognize and respect the uniqueness of each individual?” Or “the school community values and celebrates individual educational achievement?” I believe that it is all of the above. That perhaps service-learning has helped to shape what this community already knows as “just good education.”

Guilford students at the Kids’ Institute working on a tunnel of discovery.

I spent the afternoon “on tour” with high school students (graduates of Guilford Central and part of the 7/8 group that began all this with their teacher Joe Brooks) who were participating in the Institute. They guided me along the nature trail and introduced me to local kids who were participating in the “Kids’ Institute” the same week. These children were building story boxes for the trail, creating a rock bridge and a trail museum. I spotted frogs and fish, sat in an outdoor classroom, admired the articles that the children placed in their outdoor museum and swatted away the many mosquitoes that swarmed around me. Most of all, I was impressed by the conversations I had with the students and their adult guide Cynthia Hughes. Shannon and Alan shared their thoughts about the high school graduation requirements for service hours and we strategized together with the local School-To-Work coordinator, a plan to bring students together to address the issues with the high school admins. Robin, also a high school student who spends many hours volunteering at the elementary school, showed me his weather guide for teachers and students. His partner in this project is another student, Leigh who attends the Neptune Middle School in St. Cloud, Florida. The partnership between Guilford and St. Cloud is a whole other story…

Back at the ranch, so to speak, the day wound down with an Internet and slide show presentation by a student Ben who worked all week documenting the proceedings at the request of the Institute’s director and Guilford teacher Joe Brooks (what would we do without Joe!) Ben was developing the Web site for the Institute as well as the very first web site for the school itself. Toward evening, the group of Institute participants traveled along the back roads of Guilford to gather and celebrate at the mountain top home of Guilford Partnership Board member Mary Blair, whom I had met earlier with Joe at a Learn and Serve America meeting with Senator Jeffords and former Deputy Secretary Madeline Kunin in May 1995. While I was only a participant for a day at the Institute,this group still had two more incredible days to spend together.

As I drove away late that night, leaving behind a tiny community of service-learners, I thought about how this location in Vermont was emulating the five goals of the Presidential Summit on Volunteerism and the goals of the new Equal Education Opportunity Act. Their achievements, I’m sure, will be reflected long term in Guilford’s heritage and nurtured by the future of their children.

Sheila Bailey is the former Vermont Learn & Serve America Coordinator. This reflection was originally submitted by Sheila to Vermont’s Commission on National and Community Service, and subsequently to the Vermont State School Board.

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