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What I learned on my Summer Vacation

It’s five minutes before class, and the teachers are getting nervous.

They pace through the Perkins Geology Museum, lingering for a few seconds in front of the Charlotte Whale skeleton or the fossilized dinosaur footprints, then moving on. The tension builds until someone finally speaks.

“Did anyone finish the reading?”

A flutter of relief.
“I tried, but I couldn’t get through it — too dense.”

“I am so glad you said that! I understood nothing. I kept going back to the same sentence.”
lesson i: When teachers return to school, they act like their students — just without the Pokemon obsession.
Having teachers act like students — in reality, letting them become students for a few days — is the mission of Teachers as Scholars, a nationwide professional development program that began at Harvard in 1996 and debuted at UVM last year. Teachers as Scholars connects teachers from eight Vermont districts with some of UVM’s best professors to explore ideas in intensive seminars. The idea is that teachers became teachers because they love to learn, and that by continuing to learn themselves, they will stay in touch with the enthusiasm that brought them to the profession.

“To inspire learning, you need to be inspired to learn,” says Rosalind Andreas, associate dean of the College of Education and Social Services and coordinator of the program. “This program helps teachers renew their excitement for teaching and discover new resources. One teacher told me that it’s like ‘a spa for the mind.’”
Unlike most teacher workshops, TAS doesn’t instruct teachers in how to teach or provide new lessons. The idea is to hurl educators of all grades and subjects into a college-level seminar for a few days and let them grapple with difficult ideas. The classes have covered everything from short stories to contemporary ethics to the Book of Genesis. The topics may not translate directly to the classroom, but that’s not the point. TAS is really about getting teachers fired up to learn — and having them bring that fire back to their school.
“When teachers can learn without pressure, they become more engaged, and that spills over into the classroom,” says Andreas. “I have never seen teachers be so positive about a program.”

lesson ii: A learning teacher is a happy teacher is a good teacher.
On this rainy July morning, ten teachers are preparing to tackle “The Ecology and Geology of the Lake Champlain Basin” with UVM professors Jack Drake and Charlotte Mehrtens. The seminar is designed to help teachers interpret Vermont’s geological history by immersing them in it over three days of fieldwork. After gathering in the museum, the teachers file into the van that will take them to Allen Hill, a beautiful spot at the southern end of Shelburne Bay, where they will create a geologic map of the region.

Mapping Allen Hill is one of the geology department’s greatest hits. For decades, students and faculty have measured almost every pebble of this evocative spot where Vermont’s geologic past is laid bare. But Mehrtens and Drake don’t sound jaded. Standing lakeside on a red slab of Monkton quartzite, the same flashy stuff used to construct Redstone Hall, they enthusiastically point out the surface scratches on the rock, still-visible evidence of the path a glacier took when it receded from here 20,000 years ago, driving the process that created Lake Champlain as we know it.
“We’d normally spend three weeks on this survey, but this group today can finish in one day — ” starts Drake.
“Because we’re teachers,” interrupts Susan Plunkett-Dunning ’73 G’76, a middle-school teacher from Essex Junction.

lesson iii: A teacher, sufficiently determined, can do anything.
With that, the teachers are off, taking to the field with considerably more enthusiasm than they tackled readings like “A Manual of Field Hydrogeology.” They beat through brush and scrabble along the shoreline. They break off samples with pickaxes and test their composition with acid. They scowl into loupes to determine the composition, and approximate age, of rocks. “This is great, this is just what kids like to do,” says Trip Westcott, a teacher from Pittsford, as he scratches notations on his map. “The challenge is to think about how to do it with my class.”

Mehrtens and Drake maintain a constant stream of information and patter as the class progresses. Drake likens the calcium-heavy rock underlying much of the area to a “giant Tums.” Mehrtens hails Jell-O as a teaching aid — placed in a pan and tilted, it provides a rough simulation of ancient rock movements. “I’m big on Jell-O!” she says, as two elementary teachers scribble notes about the technique.

For the afternoon and the rest of the seminar, the teachers are students again. Dream students who embrace the subject and crowd around Mehrtens and Drake to pepper them with questions and observations.
“I’m impressed with the group,” says Drake. “I’m learning from them.”

As they work, the teachers trade shop talk about kids and contracts and summer plans, but most of the conversation is either about the geologic minutiae covered in the seminar — or how to simplify it for kids. As she and a partner map a glacial path with a clinometer, Bristol Elementary teacher Nilene Farnsworth ’72 G’89 thinks pragmatically about what it would take to do similar fieldwork with her class. “Parent volunteers,” she murmurs, drawing a line on her map and imagining a future classroom unit. “With this equipment, we’d need lots of parent volunteers and small groups.”
Some, like Farnsworth and Westcott, plan to make direct use of the seminar in their classrooms. Others, like Lee Lichtenstein, who teaches math and science to middle-schoolers in Westford, hope to use the material in class, but value the indirect benefits of TAS even more. “It’s not so much that continuing to learn is important for me as a teacher, it’s that it’s important to me as a person,” says Lichtenstein.
Other teachers point out that the experience of being stretched by new material (TAS participants are encouraged to take seminars in any subject, and the seminars are designed to be challenging but accessible to those without a background in the topic), reminds teachers of what some of their students go through.
“I’m getting a firsthand sense of how to approach a subject when you know absolutely nothing about it,” says Wendy Jenkins, a reading teacher at the Fleming School in Essex Junction.
That role reversal, and the complex understanding it can bring, is a strength of TAS. Another is the example for students that having teachers eagerly attend voluntary classes sets. “An intrinsic part of teaching is modeling lifelong learning,” says Mary Dee, an elementary school teacher in Burlington. “Now the kids can look at me and say, ‘Mrs. Dee may be older, but she goes back to school.’”
lesson iv: “Do as I say, not as I do” is not the way great teachers operate. VQ

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