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Q & A with Michael Martin, Director of Curriculum and Technology, Montpelier Public Schools

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Michael Martin
Michael Martin

The Bridge: Tell us a bit about yourself.

Michael Martin: I’m a multi-generational Vermonter and graduated from Essex High School.  I was a French-English major at UVM, and spent my junior year in Nice on the French Riviera.  That was a good year.  As soon as I had the chance, I returned to France to do an M.A. in French through Middlebury College. The campus at Paris X-Nanterre is on the outskirts of the city, and very austere and gray, but living in Paris was an incredible experience. There’s this artistic and intellectual life that is everywhere, from the books people read in the metro to the architecture all around you. While in Paris, I taught English and worked as a translator at an advertising agency.

In Paris, I also met Magali, the love of my life, and eventually we came to Vermont. I started teaching French at Rice Memorial High School and got my teacher’s license through peer review.  Then, after that, I taught French and worked as a teacher leader at Champlain Valley Union High School, where I worked for 15 years. Adam Bunting, the new principal at Montpelier High School, worked with me there. As in Montpelier, we had talented, high-caliber teachers, and the administrators encouraged teachers to be creative. I was interested in the relationship between technology, learning, and student engagement.

In 2009, I applied for a Rowland Fellowship. The Rowland Foundation gives away half a million dollars a year in fellowships for teachers with good ideas, specifically seeking innovation that addresses school climate and culture. I led a group of teachers at CVU that worked on school transformation. Our themes were student voice, integrated learning, authentic assessment, student engagement, and extended learning opportunities, or “flexible pathways.” This includes things like internships, project-based learning, online learning, and dual enrollment opportunities.

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The Bridge: Can you talk a little bit about changing views of how schools use time, specifically?

Martin: The school calendar that we have inherited is still largely based on the need for children to help out on the farm during the summer. So we’ve had learning for three seasons—fall, winter, spring—and then, back on the farm. Or, if there wasn’t a farm, there was summer camp—for kids whose parents could afford it. And if there was summer school, it was oftentimes a sort of punitive

remediation where children had to sit in rows of desks in sweltering classrooms while everyone else was outside playing.

What’s exciting now is that we’re seeing meaningful learning opportunities in the summer, and this means that learning is taking place year-round.

The Bridge: So what happened in the Montpelier school system this summer?

Martin: We had an English-Language Learner camp where teachers used iPads to increase student engagement. With iPads you can record students speaking, or make a video, or access Google Maps. The ELL students improved their English by getting out in the community and talking to local community members.  They also visited such places as the library, the post office, and local businesses.

The Bridge: What else?

Martin: A group of students participated in Tom Sabo’s hands-on class, called “Food, Farm and Society.” Students learned about sustainable systems. They grew vegetables in the MHS greenhouse and celebrated their learning with a localvore feast at the end of the course.  Tom and his students invited me to the feast last summer.  I ate Montpelier’s best parsnips, carrots, tomatoes, lettuce and garlic with balsamic vinaigrette they made.

What I remember from this meal was how students and teachers worked together. The traditional teacher-student hierarchy didn’t seem to apply. There was a rapport and a trust–they were collaborating together to grow food and put on a great meal. They had this clear sense of purpose.

The Bridge: Other summer projects?

Martin: There was a Minecraft online-game camp at Main Street Middle School for students who wanted to develop 3-D models of virtual worlds.

The Bridge: What’s a virtual world?

Martin: It’s hard to explain without seeing it, but I’ll try. Picture students using an online platform to build a ziggurat in ancient Mesopotamia, or a medieval castle in 10th-century France, or a futuristic city on an ocean, or a space colony. In all of these situations they have to pay attention to design concerns and how to manage resources such as water, food, wood, stone.  Their task is to ensure the sustainability of the community they’ve created.

The Bridge: What else happened?

Martin: We also had a K-camp to get younger children ready to start kindergarten.  It provides the basic skills that kids need to start school in a fun way.

The Bridge: Are these just scattered summertime activities or does this suggest a new direction for schools in the future?

Martin: Well, I’d like to believe it’s the latter. I think most people realize that learning is no longer limited to what takes place during the school day, or even the school year. And students seem to have rising expectations when it comes to the question of relevance—they want to know how whatever they study relates to their personal interests and long-term goals. I also think that schools are increasingly realizing the power of site-based and project-based learning, where students can get out into the community and learn from adults, as well as from their teachers and peers. For example, 80 percent of Montpelier public-school students graduate with course credit from our community-based learning program, which is largely comprised of internships and apprenticeships.

Finally, Vermont’s Act 77 seems to point us in this direction, too. It requires schools to develop personalized learning plans—or PLPs— so that students connect traditional coursework to opportunities such as dual enrollment, online courses and internships. Most importantly, PLPs require students to reflect on the skills they’re developing, to develop passions through learning opportunities, and to set goals with their teachers and parents.

student so that they connect their traditional coursework to opportunities such as dual enrollment, online courses and internships. Most importantly, PLPs require students to reflect on the skills they’re developing, to develop passions through learning opportunities, and to set goals with their teachers and parents.