WTS: Background and Overview

In the summer of 2014, a team of eight Vermont educators—all alumni or students of Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English—created an organization committed to treating young people as leaders capable of making profound contributions to their communities. What’s the Story? The Vermont Young People Social Action Team (WTS), a year-long, credit-earning course for Vermont middle and high school students, provides the tools, resources, and expertise they need to grapple with, understand, and influence important social issues that matter to them. WTS is generously funded by Middlebury College, Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English, and the Bread Loaf Teacher Network.

Many of those educators who came together that summer continue to contribute toWTS. The director of the Vermont Bread Loaf Teacher Network and WTS is Bill Rich, an education consultant known throughout Vermont and beyond. Tim O’Leary is the Lead Instructor of WTS and also a long time English teacher at Middlebury UHS and current Technology Innovation Specialist for the district. We have two assistant instructors this year, one from BFA St. Albans and another from Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington and teacher-mentors from Champlain Valley UHS, Middlebury UHS, Middlebury UMS, a former teacher from Rutland HS, and a retired English teacher who will all contribute in the coming year.

WTS is unlike any course our learners have experienced. We invite learner-direction while still providing a unique structure and resources needed to become change agents. Each learner explores a social issue of high interest over the first six weeks and makes a researched and planned pitch to their peers to define the issue, explore its complexity, identify stakeholders, and suggest creative and positive change they envision for the topic at hand. Following these pitches, social action teams are created by consensus building. Once settled into these collaborative incubators, teams dig into their research and film together. They contact local, national, and global leaders in the fields related to their topics, posting their progress on blogs that are read by a national network of adults who provide timely, thoughtful responses. Most importantly, these youth-led teams determine the precise change they seek and produce a range of resources and multi-modal documents, including a film, that they publish to persuade their audience to act. Lastly, we challenge and collaborate with our learners to strategize ways to “go public” with their complex understanding of a social issue, multimodal and meaning-making products, and ideas for change, rather than simply publish those products and ideas to a website. Please see some of the topics and products created last year.

Treated like the leaders they are capable of becoming and supported by a large network of skilled and caring educators and mentors, our young leaders blossom. Their outward achievements, though, are rooted in a less visible achievement. Our team continues to refine our infrastructure and approach to learning in pursuit of the perfectly blended learning ecosystem, providing just the right balance of expectations, resources, and systems to enable these learners to work with increasing degrees of autonomy. This network of communication systems, human capital, and tailored resources provide the ongoing nutrients that empower these budding change agents to thrive.

“Treat people as if they are what they ought to be,
and you help them become what they are capable of being.”
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

What’s the Story? The Vermont Young People Social Action Team is an innovative, tested, replicable model of student-centered learning and leading. Our learners have shown us how great they can become when we invite them to pursue their passions within a structured and networked community committed to their ongoing success. In addition to inspiring the work of young people in Vermont, we want to teach others what our learners taught us. We’ve helped Fern Creek High School in Louisville, Kentucky establish their own WTS course under the guidance of Paul Barnwell. Also new for this year, we’ll open our WTS lab, where educators will observe our learners in action, before learning more about how WTS works. We’re eager to offer our expertise and encouragement to educators ready to imagine and create a better way of educating our young leaders.

Tim O'Leary

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