Renaissance Program at Twinfield Union School: A Conversation with Debra Stoleroff
Q&A 21 August 2018
By Debra Stoleroff, Renaissance Program at Twinfield Union School
Every teacher should start out teaching Kindergarten.
Founder of the Modern Schools Movement
Q: What led you to Twinfield and learner-centered education?
A: The story that set me on the path I’m on today started all the way back in high school. I hated high school; it didn’t offer me what I wanted to learn. During that time, I sought out an opportunity to do an independent study and was able to do two before graduating. And, when I was in college, I was in an environmental studies program where I was able to design my own major.
Personalized learning has always been in my lexicon. But, I never had the intention of becoming a teacher. I tried a number of other careers before landing in the New York City area. Through a series of different paths, I ended up substituting in the lower east side of New York City and going to the Bank Street College of Education.
I started out teaching in preschool. I love a quote from Deborah Meier: “Every teacher should start out teaching Kindergarten.” That is where the focus is on what kids want. Kids are also still fascinated by learning at that point; traditional school has not yet jaded them.
I started teaching at River East, which was the youngest of the Central Park East schools that were started by Deborah Meier. This was another environment that focused on teaching thematically, though I wouldn’t necessarily say it was learner-centered. They were pilot schools, so they were public (not charter).
The student went to her and said, “This is a public school, and public schools are supposed to teach all of us. I’m not learning, so I’m ready to drop out.” The principal was ready to listen.
During my time there, I had one of those “ah-ha” moments. We created curriculum based on student interest. While it was based on a collective (rather than individual) interest, the reality was that the teacher picked the themes based on what most excited the students. This opened so many new possibilities for the learners and myself. River East was one of the most dynamic experiences I’ve ever had as an educator and is an experience I’ve carried with me ever since returning to Vermont and Twinfield—which is where I found myself in the late 80s.
Early on at Twinfield, I was teaching elementary. I had a bundle of students who I had for three or four years at a time. I would ask students and parents to come to a meeting toward the beginning of summer, after school was out, so we could collectively brainstorm what the theme of the next year would be. That allowed students to have voice in what they were learning. It also let parents have a better understanding of what I was hoping to accomplish with their children. It allowed me to interact with parents throughout the year.
This started me on the path of being more learner-centered. My kids always had choices in what they wanted to do—especially in reading. They always had the freedom to choose anything they wanted to read as long as it was at their reading level or more difficult, so they were always pushing themselves.
Q: During your first years at Twinfield, how did your elementary learners respond to the transition from an environment that was providing more voice and choice to more traditional environments in middle and high school?
A: I had a young girl from that first group of students who went into traditional middle and high school who got in touch with me and said she wanted to drop out—which her brother had already done. I had her contact the principal, who had just begun. She was someone I deemed more progressive than previous principals we’d had. The student went to her and said, “This is a public school, and public schools are supposed to teach all of us. I’m not learning, so I’m ready to drop out.” The principal was ready to listen.
Over the next year, we created the Renaissance Program (a rigorous program that provides opportunities for all students to design in-depth, credit-bearing, standards-based studies that emerge from individual interests and learning styles. Studies occur within a real-world context and through real-world experiences). And, this student—more than any I’ve ever had in my 20 years at Twinfield—took complete control of her education. Most of the studies she participated in, she never even had a mentor.
She got herself to Africa. She got herself to India. She was very interested in the cultures of those countries, especially African dance, so she got herself involved in African dance programs in Senegal and Guinea. She also had interest in herbalism, so we set up an internship program for that.
From there, the Renaissance Program just started growing. Today, about 72% of all of our high school students design at least one personalized learning experience within their four years. Many students design more than one opportunity.
Q: What does the step-by-step process of the Renaissance Program look like?
A: I ask students to write study proposals—in recent years, we’ve simply called them learning experiences. I ask why the experience is important to them, what past experiences they’ve had with the topic of interest, and who they are as a learner (e.g. what it looks like when they’re working their hardest and when they’re not).
When I know them as a learner, I can then describe that persona to the potential mentor so it’s clear to the mentor who they would be working with.
I also ask the kids to write down their goals for the learning experience. Much of the time, learners don’t know what their specific goals are because they don’t have enough experience with the topic, so I don’t necessarily press them on this aspect. I also don’t press them on laying out the steps that will get them to that goal because that’s something they will develop through the relationship with their mentor.
I take these study proposals and look for the highest quality mentors that match the students’ interests, as well as their personalities. If a student or parent already has a relationship with someone they would like to partner with, I will have a conversation to ensure it meets the quality of what we’re looking for.
The great thing about being in a public school is that we have a diversity of learners who represent the diversity of our community. I think that has allowed the entire community to know and trust what we’re doing.
I think because there has been so much success with students in the Renaissance Program, there is already a trust before I reach out to potential mentors. The great thing about being in a public school is that we have a diversity of learners who represent the diversity of our community. I think that has allowed the entire community to know and trust what we’re doing.
Making cold calls, even after 20 years, is scary. I think because I have experience with it, I’m able to enroll mentors more easily. It has also been essential that I build my flexibility to make the relationship between the students and the mentors work for everyone. Of course, this isn’t a 100% success rate. There are times where students don’t step up to the bar and a conversation needs to take place about respecting the mentor’s time.
We’ll talk about possibly dropping the study, and there’s no consequence for doing that. Sometimes they need more time to mature and can enroll again the next year or the year after that. I’ve struggled with some students over the years, but I will always continue working and advocating for them.
Q: What barriers exist that keep the Renaissance Program as a minor part of the traditional school experience rather than being the entire learning experience itself?
A: Transitions from one system to another can be messy. First, I want to point out that the barriers I note are not necessarily seen or fully understood by the kids. Most accept and work through the system rather than question it.
To understand the barriers, we need to look at some history. Vermont adopted, but didn’t require, a standards-based assessment system about 25 years ago. Standards-based assessment resulted in educators moving away from step-by-step curricula. It required students meet broad standards that allowed for multiple paths towards achievement.
Twinfield’s elementary school moved to a standards-based grading system right away, the middle school did so somewhat later but the high school (except for Renaissance) continued using a numerically-based system. Six years ago, when the state required all schools adopt a proficiency-based graduation system (which is more like a standards-based system) there was a large learning curve for the high school teachers.
Thanks to the wisdom of our administration and professional development committee, the high school educators are getting up to speed. However, they were in that learning curve at the same time they were developing our high school’s proficiency-based system and there was one particular decision that narrowed choices for students. Rather than choose broad standards with multiple paths towards achievement as graduation requirements, the committee chose more than 200 narrow indicators as graduation requirements.
Even though the teachers knew achievement of the broad standards was the goal and that the indicators led to the achievement of the standards, the students only attended to being proficient in over 200 indicators within four years. A student who was totally passionate about training dogs, for example, couldn’t translate that passion to the indicators because there were no indicators that had anything to do with animal or human biology.
As our Learning Management System didn’t allow me to create standards or rewrite indicators that went beyond the required graduation proficiencies, taking classes designed by teachers to meet the indicators became the preferred path. Less students were choosing to personalize their learning. Thankfully, the error was recognized and our system will hopefully be changing this year. As I said, transitions are messy. The factory-based system was over 150 years old. Our new system will need to continue to be tweaked as we work out the nuances.
This is all specific to Twinfield because when the state legislature mandated graduation via proficiency-based systems, they didn’t mandate requirements about or give guidance on the design of those systems. So, each district has approached graduation requirements in different ways. There may be advantages to this, but for students moving from one school to another, we may ultimately find there needs to be some consistency.
Q: What surprises you most about the impact the Renaissance Program has on your learners?
A: Having done this for 20 years, it always amazes me how many kids—as adults—end up going into the field in which they created studies for themselves in the Renaissance Program. If they’ve done multiple studies in the field and have come at it from several different angles, they’ve made it more rigorous for themselves and solidified that interest.
For example, one student who came to me in ninth grade was interested in drawing. He spent the first two learning experiences focusing on improving his ability to draw, which went from learning basic line drawing to wanting to emulate the work of a local artist. He and two of his friends took it upon themselves to reach out to this artist, who happened to be someone I know. But, the artist’s initial response was, “No, I’m not interested.”
These kids would not take “no” for an answer, so they sent her their work. Actually seeing their artwork changed her mind—she agreed to work with them. She was incredibly rigorous. She is classically trained, and by working with her, it changed how these students viewed their art. It broadened their vision of what they were able to do.
The student this all started with is now in college. During his time at Twinfield, he also designed a study in botany. I mention this because in college, he is heading down a path where he’s looking for ways to combine his interests in art and plant biology. This is just one of many dynamic stories of kids who have explored their interests and are now continuing that pursuit in college and beyond.
I think there are people who, at an early age, know what they want to do in life. And, if they are able to pursue it in a way that they grasp the concepts and are able to take charge, it just develops their natural instincts.
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