GEORGIA – The Georgia Elementary/Middle School (GEMS) won high praise from a Californian education specialist last week after Franklin West Supervisory Union (FWSU) welcomed the specialist, an official from AltSchool, for a supervisory union-wide tour.

Having already toured schools in Fletcher and Fairfax, FWSU superintendent Ned Kirsch led AltSchool’s Devin Vodicka through GEMS to highlight some of the Georgia school’s more progressive practices, starting with its information lab and concluding with a student-led disciplinary circle.

AltSchool is a tuition-based group of private schools in San Francisco and New York City. It also maintains a network of technology-oriented partner schools, through which it shares ideas for modern education practices.

Kirsch facilitated the tour with the hopes that Vodicka may find some ideas in FWSU that he could share with the rest of AltSchool’s network.

It was a tour that appeared to leave strong impressions on Vodicka.

“Overall there’s a lot to be excited about,” he said after meeting with GEMS technology specialists Dayle Payne and Eric Hadd, the tour’s first stop. “There’s a lot to celebrate.”

Georgia’s information lab was billed by Kirsch as the “heart of the school now,” where students gathered to produce everything from media projects – the tour began with a short news broadcast assembled by GEMS students – to 3D printing and robotics.

Hadd highlighted that the work in the lab extended beyond the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields that parents tended to associate with technology labs, as teachers were able to blend the technical work of the lab with the work in the humanities.

“You think it’d be focused all on STEM… but we do so many different things,” Hadd said. “We’re doing global development goals… that cross over into humanities but have a lot of technical aspects.”

The global development goals, more formally known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), are a series of interdependent targets set by the United Nations to encourage more sustainable development worldwide. The SDGs cast a wide net, with goals targeting everything from poverty and gender inequality to climate change and public health.

FWSU made the SDGs a unifying theme to its curriculum this year. Throughout the tour, Kirsch would point out places where the SDGs were pasted to hallway walls and above classroom doors.

Hadd and Payne shared with Vodicka a few of the ways students had gone about addressing some of those goals through projects facilitated by the information lab.

In one instance, students explored ways they could cut down on the amount of trash produced by instant coffee K-cups in GEMS. When they realized that there’d be no way they could convince people to stop using something as convenient as K-cups, they sought to repurpose waste from K-cups as fertilizer and material for art projects, Hadd explained.

In another instance, students recycled waste from their 3D printer by melting the plastics down into a “plastic smoothie” and forming them into sheets. Those sheets, explained Payne, could then be used as material for the lab’s laser cutter.

“We collect it and we consider it a valuable material now,” Hadd said.

“Our first year, we couldn’t recycle this,” Payne said. “This definitely was teaching kids that, when you’re in the process of creating and designing, you need to think responsibly.”

In the classrooms

Kirsch, accompanied on and off by Georgia’s elementary school principal Steve Emery and middle school principal Frank Calano, brought Vodicka through several of the school’s more conventional classrooms, starting in the preschool.

Emery noted that the pre-school was in high-demand – currently, there’s a waitlist for enrolling children.

In a series of interconnected rooms, students scattered between different play areas and hands on work. One student scrawled a few doodles on a wall-mounted digital blackboard. Another mimed taking photos, his camera trained on a reporter that followed Vodicka’s tour.

Student-produced artwork shared wall-space with certain behavioral practices that Kirsch identified as “conscious discipline” – a discipline system rooted in psychology and neuroscience.

The Messenger previously covered a conscious discipline seminar held at St. Albans City School, which Kirsch said was attended by GEMS staff.

“Every time I walk in, I’m amazed,” Emery said. “Kids aren’t taking things out of each other’s hands or throwing things. They do such a wonderful job.”

Vodicka observed that it appeared the preschool took cues from the Reggio Emilia schools, Italian schools that emphasized more experiential and outdoor learning. Kirsch confirmed Vodicka’s suspicions, saying “we think a lot about play.”

In another classroom, younger students were participating in a “brain break,” where teachers broke up class time by orchestrating a short physical exercise period. In this case, it was a dance, and Kirsch immediately joined them.

“Movement is very helpful for learning,” Vodicka said, overlooking a group of dancing students, teachers and one boogying superintendent.

With the final notes of the song coming to a close, Kirsch led Vodicka to a third grade classroom, where students were scattered around tables with books or iPads in hand. In some places, students were allowed to sit on the floor. Other students stood at a counter against the back wall of the room.

The kids, Kirsch noted, were studying entirely independent of their teacher, who was able to instead focus their attention on one student’s particular needs.

“You want to lay on the floor, that’s fine. You want to sit, that’s good. You have choices,” Vodicka explained, comparing the GEMS classroom to those he’s seen in other states. “You’ll notice learner engagement has gone up… and kids are able to be independent workers.

“Some people think it’s just chaos, with no rules and no structure,” Vodicka continued before pointing out a class schedule a child carried around. That schedule identified certain goals for the students, but intentionally left out a rigid timeline. Around the room, students appeared to be more independently meeting those goals.

“You can look here and see they spent a lot of time making right choices,” Vodicka concluded.

Tables in the room doubled as whiteboards. The chairs that rung those tables, meanwhile, sat on swivels, allowing for some movement on the part of the students.

Restorative Justice

The final stop of the tour led Kirsch and Vodicka to another third-grade classroom, where students from one of GEMS’s eighth grade classes were preparing to lead a student restorative justice circle.

Restorative practices are relationship-oriented disciplinary practices designed to hold an offender accountable to those they’ve harmed.

The system also encourages community development, emphasizing “circles” as a way for community members to gather and share their thoughts with one another.

Essentially, community members – in this case students – gather in a circle and, one at a time, share a few thoughts and impressions relevant to a question asked by those leading the circle.

The trend for schools to adopt restorative practices has been extensively covered in the Messenger, which highlighted restorative practices programs in schools in Bakersfield, Enosburg Falls, Highgate and St. Albans.

While restorative practices were at least partly facilitated by adults in those schools, Georgia’s circles were led by eighth graders that had been taught the practice by a Georgia staff member specially trained in restorative practices.

It was an idea that clearly stood out to Vodicka, who remarked, at the end of the tour, “student led circles make so much sense!”

That tour’s stop was the first time those students had led a circle themselves and, according to Kirsch, they had apparently done well.

“More like the real world…”

During a break between tour stops, Kirsch and Vodicka, longtime education specialists who knew each other when their respective schools were members of the League of Innovative Schools, discussed why it seemed schools were more responsive to research trends today.

It seemed, Kirsch said, that schools were “more intentional” with moving ahead with recommendations from the latest research than they had been in the past, something Vodicka agreed with.

“I think the research makes more sense now,” Kirsch hypothesized. “I think it’s more accessible… where, what we were doing before, was based off habit. Sitting and rows, reading textbooks.

“There was nothing innovative or creative about that,” Kirsch continued. “We know in society now we need to be innovative and creative. We need to not only be solving problems but going out there and finding what the problems are and make sense of them.”

Vodicka nodded in agreement, admitting that a lot of education was starting to mirror real life, where students would be using iPhones outside of school.

“School should be more like the real world,” Kirsch agreed.

They concluded their tour, with Vodicka thanking Kirsch for the opportunity. While he narrowed his praise on student-led restorative circles as something he wished to share with other schools, he said he was overall impressed with FWSU.

“You have a lot to be proud of,” he told Kirsch and Camalo.

Vodicka also toured schools in Chittenden County last week. Kirsch had arranged those tours as well.

Restoring relationships, improving grades