The North Branch School
The North Branch School, founded in 2001, is a non-profit, independent school serving middle school age children (grades 7-9). The school is officially recognized by the State of Vermont and meets or exceeds all licensing standards. The school is a 501 (c) 3, tax-exempt entity.
The North Branch School was founded by parents who shared a vision of a small school tailored to the unique needs of early adolescents. The founding philosophy is centered on a school concept that promotes self-directed and active learning, incorporates students’ emotional, intellectual, and growth issues, emphasizes experiential and outdoor education, and fosters a strong community based upon close student-teacher-parent relationships. With twenty-seven students and a low student/teacher ratio, The North Branch School has the ability to build a flexible, personalized and engaging environment.
The curriculum is designed as a three-year experience encouraging a safe, intimate learning community in which students can make the important transition from the elementary grades to high school. Middle school-age children undergo tremendously complex and exciting cognitive, psychological, social, and physical changes. The North Branch School is committed to using those changes as an organizing touchstone throughout the curriculum—as a way of educating the whole child and making school relevant to heart, mind, body and soul.
About the Name
The name of The North Branch School derives from the brook of the same name originating in the watershed below Robert Frost Mountain, near Ripton. From there it feeds into the Middlebury River, flowing west and north to Otter Creek and finally into Lake Champlain.
As a rising spring gathers and grows to become part of a larger body, the North Branch suggests a sense of motion and confluence, a place of origin and a place of coming together. We see the school as a nourishing element, a way station on a vital journey, a process of living and learning that deepens and broadens in time.
Our schoolhouse is located in Ripton on the Lincoln Road, 9/10ths of a mile from the Ripton General Store/Rte. 125, and just across from the Ripton Elementary School. The school building is a recycled 1850 post-and-beam farmhouse and was re-erected on our site in the summer and fall of 2003. Designed to allow expansion, we added a wing to the east in 2008. The building is sunny, open and accessible, and divided into various spaces, including two offices, a large meeting/classroom/big-room, a science room, a math room, two bathrooms, and a full basement/workshop/clay studio. The school is in a secluded wooded setting and has a large playing field and student built nature trails, bird path, ponds and gardens in the woods. Alas, we do not have a gymnasium or a swimming pool.
A Framework of Values
The North Branch School is organized around ten core values which form the basis of the school’s curriculum and approach to children as developing learners.
A curriculum that:
• Allows students of different abilities and backgrounds to succeed, with success being measured by a student’s willingness and effort to
deepen intellectually, ethically, artistically and emotionally
• Emphasizes the integration of intellectual endeavors with students’ idealism, beliefs and visions
• Is personally relevant and provides opportunities for reflection on the self
• Gives responsibility to students for creating and maintaining a vigorous and positive learning environment
A community which encourages:
• An awareness of and experiences in the natural world
• Physical activity and physical health
• Respect for people of diverse backgrounds
• A concern for the well-being of others in the school and greater community
• Learning as a life-long endeavor occurring within and beyond the classroom walls
• Openness, a sense of humor and fun
Draft of “The North Branch School Philosophical Creed” Written by the NBS class, Fall of 2003, for Class Government
"The creation and nurturing of a place to be free, supported, and encouraged in our steps to the future. Somewhere where we can grow, excel, and become through our experience at NBS the best people possible. Gaining the confidence to handle all challenges thrown down before us as we move on and through our lives. We have given others and ourselves the opportunity to see all sides of a person, good and bad, loving, evil, caring without stomping on anyone with reckless criticism. The most we can do is give someone a gift, and encourage them to use it in a good and positive manner. To be comfortable in our school, somewhere where we are supposed to learn and also develop ourselves as people, we need trust, loyalty, and confidentiality. We need this comfort to grow together as a group and as individuals and set a strong bond. We cannot force anything on anyone, we must somehow give them the reason and ability to have the desire to discover themselves, work hard, and be supportive of others. There is a delicate balance, and always will be, of what is here now, and what could or will be here in the future and how hard you must push for that future. We must be able to say that there is so much more in the future, ways that you could be a better person, but also celebrate who that person is right then, and how they have gotten there. Being able to and feeling safe to act upon feelings that will lead you to a greater freedom, not dressing to impress or worrying about the right thing to say. Wearing what is comfortable and saying what you think. Give it your all, don’t hold back, discover your limits and push them to a new standard and realm of being. Feeling like an individual within a group that you belong in. To accept ourselves we need to also in part accept others because they are a great reflection of who we are."
A Three-Year Experience
The following sketches in a general way the “journey” a student will embark upon as he/she enters The North Branch School. We have tried to suggest here the “feeling” of the school as students move through three years beginning in seventh grade.
Transition from Sixth to Seventh Grade
New students coming into the North Branch School will encounter a multi-age setting where students have a high degree of pride and responsibility in shaping the class environment. They will encounter an unusually high degree of seriousness and purpose regarding academic, community and social matters. Doing well, trying one’s hardest, and taking academic and creative risks are highly prized and consciously sought.
What new kids may initially experience is the sudden proximity to older students who’ve had a year or two building the class environment. These “old kids” are quite open emotionally, artistically, and intellectually. They are not afraid to share feelings, present a conflicting point of view, or grapple with a question to which there may be no definitive answer. Many of the issues dealt with in class are ethical, philosophical or emotional in nature. Hence, students accustomed to giving pat or standard answers will discover that they must confront not just new and complex material, but sometimes also themselves.
The school relishes humor, honesty, and truth-seeking. Experiences are shared, stories are told, and parallels between academic matters and our lives are continually drawn. Definitions of words and concepts are examined. Contradictions and paradoxes are discussed and debated. Assumptions are challenged, most often by the students themselves. We ask, “What do you believe?” as well as “Why do you believe it.” Students continually explore root questions and the sources of their understanding and ideas. On any given day the room is filled with questions, many for which there are no ready answers, many which require lengthy contemplation, and some which may not be able to be answered even in the space of a year or two.
Students will encounter a place in which the discoveries made by teachers and students are mutual. There is a palpable sense of learning together, of a collective enterprise in which each child plays an essential part. Students work to teach each other, question each other, support each other, and even enlighten teachers by example or through the suddenness of epiphany. As each student brings a unique set of talents, affinities, and learning styles, so too do these differences become strands woven into the fabric of the class community.
The school believes that a certain degree of academic, creative, and emotional tension is necessary for growth. This tension creates an environment in which students earn respect by willingly giving their particular gifts to the process and culture of learning. Socrates believed that tension in the mind was necessary so individuals could rise from the “bondage of myths and half-truths” to the greater realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal. That tension is also necessary to open ground in which the heart and mind may have the space to play and grow, and, ultimately, become an integrated whole.
First year (7th Grade)
The first year is challenging and sometimes exhilarating. There are new and older kids, a new building, environment, and school culture. Time is spent at the beginning of the year working with the new group on what it means to them to be in a new place, with new kids, at a new stage of their lives. Importantly, new students will begin to have more responsibility for their work, and they will be in a culture of students who take great pride in their work. New students will discover that the tasks at North Branch are challenging and meaningful and that caring about one’s work is the acceptable mode.
The new students will have time together in order to “bond” as a group. The formation of a group identity is important as they begin to assimilate themselves into the school culture. They have ample opportunities for discussion, reflection, debate and processing among themselves as a way of locating themselves within the school.
The new students will do many projects, activities and “courses” as a group and with the older kids. These may include poetry workshops, issues, discussions, class conferences, literature, and social studies. The new students will also be fully a part of the larger class, particularly in the areas of class government, ethics and philosophy issues, creative writing and the class “literary community.” In particular, they are introduced to the process of autobiographical narrative writing, writing passionate and logical persuasive essays, and reading poetry and novels with depth.
We (the teachers) spend a good deal of time the first year getting to know each individual kid, his or her learning style, family, and life outside of school. Having a whole year for this process creates an important foundation for the following two years. We begin to see the kids not only at their age and "level," but also over the longer developmental span. This helps immeasurably as we encourage students to deepen, take on different challenges, and respond to any difficulties or other changes.
As much as any material or subject matter, we are concerned with each student’s development of an ethical self. Their autobiographical and reflective writing opens many paths of learning in this regard. Similarly, their work and involvement in the class government and community service introduces them to concepts in empathic leadership, philosophical reason, and community welfare.
Completing the first year is a wonderful rite of passage. By year’s end they will feel a deep connection to each other and to school. The end-of-the-year ceremony for the now not-so-new students focuses on their success in navigating the first year of “middle school,” and on their integration into the class community. We highlight their strengths, and we define areas into which we hope they will grow and extend themselves. They leave the first year feeling quite proud of themselves, and ready to take on the larger responsibilities of being an “old kid.”
Second Year (8th Grade)
The work and excitement of the first year has enormous pay-offs in the eighth grade year. Second year kids are a full part of the class culture, and they naturally carry this experience with pride and seriousness. They begin to shoulder the responsibility of being leaders in the school, of teaching the new students the “ways” of doing things, of shaping the class government, leading class conferences on issues, establishing a vigorous work ethic and promoting the humor and traditions of the class.
The connections with peers of their “class” provide an invaluable touchstone. The previous year together in an intimate and open setting enables students to know each other in ways that are rare for kids this age. This closeness, and the efforts to promote it, provides a safe environment: and when kids feel safe, when they are all looking out for each other, then they are more able and comfortable to work to the best of their abilities. All of this provides a wonderful forum for community building, leadership and for making healthy friendships.
The second-year students have a huge role to play in helping new kids enter into the class, helping them to understand concepts and idiosyncrasies of the class, reading and editing new student’s work, passing on the history of the class, and modeling positive behavior. The older students take a large role in introducing the way the school runs—literature classes, creative writing, class conferences, class government, and the process and structure of math and science. The older kids are largely responsible for making it a safe and secure place to be, and when things don’t go exactly right, they have responsibility in mediating or seeking the solution. As their cognitive abilities expand, they begin to deepen in their ability to think abstractly and articulate the breadth of their vision and understanding.
Importantly, by the second year we (the teachers) know them extremely well—their strengths and weaknesses, their learning styles and quirks, their interests and affinities. We also have established a strong connection with the family/parents, a continuing dialogue that deepens as students grow and develop.
In addition to continuing the work begun the first year (class government, creative and autobiographical writing, literature, and social studies), the second year students have a few new components added to their workload. They will take on larger positions within the class government. They will continue to work on any areas needing development or extra support. They will spend a considerable amount of time setting their own learning goals and reflecting on their progress. And they will begin devising a yearlong study/mentor-ship that they will complete during their third/last (9th grade) year.
The end of the year is marked by a series of reflective writings based on what they have learned, seen, felt, and understood. The end of the year ceremony is a celebration of their achievements, and may include a public speech or reading focused on what they have learned and what they hope for their final year
Third Year (9th Grade)
The third and final year is the culmination of a lot of exciting growth and learning. The leadership roles continue to develop, but the third year is distinguished from the first two in a number of significant ways. We work to extend their natural idealism, which is kindled by the safe and secure atmosphere of the school. As they begin to look outward, their view broadens, and, we hope, begins to extend into the world beyond them.
Most noticeably, increased autonomy granted is granted to the older kids. It is expected that they can work independently and with purpose and self-direction. This shift is manifested in the leadership roles they play in leading class conferences, mediating disputes, solving problems, and defining issues. Creative writing, which for the first two years centered around autobiographical narrative, will shift to other genres, including the formal essay, the personal essay, creative fiction and non-fiction, and exploratory creative writing. Students with the desire and initiative may undertake an independent writing project, focusing, for instance, on poetry, science fiction, or intensive journaling.
There will also be an increased focus on self-reflection and developing and articulating a personal philosophy. Third year students pursue in depth the questions they have been asking and examining for the first two years. Part of this exploration involves having them write philosophies of learning and knowledge, innocence and experience. These written explorations will be a culmination and synthesis— their final “sculptures” based on themselves and the material they have encountered in their time in the school.
In addition to the philosophical, emotional and ethical development outlined above, by the time they have completed their third year, students will have developed remarkable proficiency in the written and spoken word. They will have had experience in or mastered numerous genres of writing, including autobiographical narrative, journal, poetry, persuasive essay, and the self-reflective writing. They will have examined in depth many forms of literature, including the novel, short story, poem, play, folk-tales, children’s literature, and mythology. They will have surveyed world history, Vermont history, Colonial and U.S. Constitutional history, American history, selected topics in American history (African American, Native American, and women’s history), art history, comparative religion, and a study of the Holocaust, with extensive exposure to the use and importance of primary sources. They will have navigated a three- year advance in mathematics and gained broad exposure to disciplines in science. In short, they will be more than ready for their next steps in their school experience.
The end of the year ceremony concludes with the third-year students’ graduation. They will each speak, read, or perform, and teachers will speak and read about them. The event is a joyous celebration of the school, of learning and growing, and of the kids themselves.
The North Branch School Curriculum
No brief outline of a school’s curriculum can illustrate with perfect clarity and completeness what will occur during a school day or school year. Nevertheless, we have summarized the essence of each area of the curriculum with attention given to the philosophy behind what the school does, as well as to some of endeavors in which students engage.
It should be noted that we hope and expect that in a given year the course of the curriculum will change and evolve as it is influenced by the dynamics of the group of students, the whims and inspirations of the teachers, as well as by the students’ own passions, interests and ideals.
We rotate three core themes, and each year is organized around one of them:
Year One: Freedom and Revolution (U.S. History, Civil Rights)
Year Two: Flight and the Pursuit of the Holy Grail (World Religion)
Year Three: Mapping a More Perfect World (Utopia, U.S. and World History)
The core theme allows for the opportunity to place the subjects we study into unified (but open) context, so that students can return to and reexamine topics, while deepening thought about concepts and ideas over the course of the year.
The three-year cycle is designed to have over-lap, so that topics studied one year will inform studies in the following year. At
the same time, students can always be referring back to the studies of the previous year.
Generally speaking, the art and art history topics are linked with the social studies focus; the literature studied is linked to the core theme and social studies; math is often linked to art and science; and students are encouraged to link science studies with art and creative writing, philosophy essays, ethical inquiry, math, science, community service, and
No matter what year in the cycle, students are continually involved in creative autobiographical student self-government.
An Interdisciplinary Approach
The North Branch School curriculum is based on an interdisciplinary approach which seeks to remove the walls that separate fields of knowledge. Subjects, topics and themes are integrated so that each body of knowledge unfolds in an open context, enabling students to make broad connections and deepen understanding. Students’ own experience and interests are incorporated into each area of study, so that learning is a personalized process intimately connected to each from myriad perspectives and broad philosophical depth. The themes provide a focus and touchstone across subject areas so students view subjects if, for instance, the theme is African American Studies, we may read the poetry of the Harlem from myriad perspectives and broad philosophical depth.
If, for instance, the theme is African American Studies, we may read the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, study the art of Jean Michel Basquiat, and read selections from The Confessions of Nat Turner. We may make clay models to replicate a slave auction or a lunch-counter sit-in. We may visit the photography exhibit of Teenie Harris, African American photographer, learn and sing the songs of the Freedom Singers, make a time-line of significant events in African American history, and have a guest musician who’ll play and discuss ragtime music. We will make connections between our own class Constitution and Bill of rights and the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. We may read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry or To Kill A Mockingbird. We may have a guest speaker who discusses his or her involvement in the Civil Rights movement, and we may write essays in which we analyze the views and actions of various historical individuals throughout the course of African American history. We will watch “Glory,” “Malcolm X,” and “Amistad,’ with attention given to the art of film–making as well as to the subjects and independent projects on topics of individual interest, and these projects will be presented to the class. Discussions will revolve around concepts related to power, prejudice, tolerance, oppression, and be related to the students’ own class government and social structure.
For Religion, we may spend time hiking and snowshoeing the Spirit in Nature interfaith trails in the Ripton woods. We will have speakers from a wide variety of faiths lead us on the trails to examine the relationship between faith and nature. We will visit various places of worship, discuss philosophical concepts such as God, the soul, good and evil, innocence and experience, family religious history, the role of religion in war and peace, and personal theology, We will watch films like “The Little Buddha,” “Romero,” “The Mission”, “Schindler’s List” and “Life of Brian” to see various views of religion. We will examine religious art, seeking to discover diversity, similarity and difference.
The Social Studies curriculum seeks to integrate class activity and discussion, independent research projects on related topics, field trips, guest experts, poetry and literature, and, if appropriate, films, documentary, art, and music.
The school emphasizes the use of primary sources, including memoir, political cartoons, diaries, poetry, photographs, eye-witness accounts, statistics, oral histories, speeches, slogans, documentary footage of actual events, original laws and amendments, contemporaneous editorials, pamphlets, literature, music and art—these become the foundation of the students’ understanding. Each year each student will devise research and present 2-3 independent social studies projects that are linked in some way to the broad touchstone topics.
Essential to the social studies and history curriculum is the development of critical reasoning and analytical skills, the ability to organize and evaluate information, and a facility to articulate subjective and objective responses to material. Persuasive argument, personal and expository essays, students’ own speeches based on historical information, role-playing and re-enactment are all utilized. As a subject unfolds, students assume the responsibility and freedom to choose particular branches of related study based on individual interests and are encouraged to discover and use a broad range of materials and sources by which to deepen their understanding.present their findings and work. These self-directed research projects allow students to become experts and teachers themselves as they present their findings and work.
Students are encouraged to follow their intellectual inclinations and passions as a way of becoming autonomous, self-directed learners. We encourage them to make responsible decisions about what they pursue, and we help them develop their areas of expertise by allowing them opportunities to integrate those areas into the larger curriculum. What they choose to pursue is as important as how they pursue it. Allowing students to deepen knowledge in a natural and comfortable way is integral to helping them develop skills as life-long learners.
Within the larger context of the curriculum students are given a wide range of avenues to express themselves, present their understanding, or approach questions. Within a social studies symposia or unit in science, for instance, they may have a choice of areas to research and present; in current events they can focus on issues they deem most important; in literature seminar they may select a passage or poem to analyze or a concept to illustrate; if they are leading class discussion, they may determine the teaching methods and focus of class activity. In all of these, students are encouraged to seek and use a variety mediums, materials and sources.
We ask our students to look at the ways in which they see themselves reflected in history. How do aspects of history mirror their own social or familial relationships? How are they affected by what they discover? What are the values, emotions, ideals and morals underlying the flow of historical time? When students are asked to make connections between his/her own thoughts and histories and what they are studying, the examination of history is freed from the abstract and urged into the moment.
The following is a selection of the major social studies topics studied over a three year period
World Religion: Independent projects on: Native American religions, History of Christianity, Mayan religion, Egyptian religion, the Architecture of Cathedrals, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Mother Teresa, Greek and Roman Goddesses, Vodun, Rastafarianism, The Holocaust, religious festivals and ceremonies, The origins of religion and Animism, Wiccan, The Salem Witch trials.
Utopia: Independent projects on: 19th Century Utopian Communities, Native American nations as Utopian Communities, Plato, Greek Myths, and the Golden Age of Athens, Shakers, Children in Intentional Communities/Ketura Kibbutz, Monasteries, convents, and Plum Village, Contemporary Utopian visionaries, Jim Jones and Jonestown, Dimetrodon, Ten Stones Community, UNICEF, Nelson Mandela, Apartheid, and South Africa, Nazism and Eugenics, Quakers, Sustainable Intentional Communities and Walden, The Beloved Community-Civil Rights Movement, Koininia, Co-Housing, Marxism, Communism, Socialism, Center for Victims of Torture, Gandhi, The art of Jenny Holzer and Advertising, Bread and Puppet Theater
Revolution: Independent Projects on: Documents of revolution, Che Guevara, Luddites and Neo-luddites, John Brown and Nat Turner, revolution in Transportation, Seminole Resistance, African-American social revolutionary athletes, revolution in music, Spartacus, Gandhi and the Indian independence movement, Anti-Vietnam war protest and engaged Buddhism, Communist revolution, Toussaint L’Overture and the Haitian Revolution, Cinque and the Amistad, Darwin and Evolution, revolution in Art, the Industrial Revolution, revolution in science, Emma Goldman and women’s suffrage.
Freedom: the Slave trade and Slavery, Plantation Life, Abolitionism, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow South, The Ku Klux Klan, Rebels and Pioneers, Poets, Artists and Musicians, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights movement, and Malcolm X and the Black Power movement; Films on African-American history, Jack Johnson, music of slavery and the civil rights, and the “Eyes on the Prize” documentary series.
The school emphasizes the importance of writing as a cognitive tool and as a means of reflection and discovery in all subjects across the curriculum: in literature, art, current events, philosophy, science and history, students write about the issues they encounter, the questions they raise and the answers they find. The program in writing focuses on the power of the written word as a communicative skill through a variety of genres, including narrative autobiography, personal and expository essays, formal research papers, poetry, speech writing, creative fiction, reflective journals, and journalism (in the form of writing and reporting for The Current, the school Newsletter).
We begin with the belief that all students can write with passion and style, that they all have a voice to discover and some truth to tell— about themselves and about their understanding of the world. We emphasize the technical craft of writing, but we are equally concerned that our students discover that writing is an art requiring equal measures of emotional openness, intellectual rigor and personal discipline. The school fosters a “literary community”—work is developed and deepened in a supportive “workshop” environment, great writing is celebrated and shared, and students assume an integral role in maintaining an atmosphere which encourages and rewards creative risks and artistic revelation. All the best work is published at the end of the year in a literary magazine, The Undercurrent.
"Poetry...no, sorry; POETRY. The art of using words to make a blank page beautiful; an entertainment, a message, poetry. Anyone can write it, really—given space and the time to formulate an idea. “Incandescent,” “bitter,” “felled,” “red-hot”—all words that can be used. But any word can be a good word, if you think about it. "
— Doug Woos, ‘04
"Sparkling imaginations stroll about, the young adolescent minds are being put to the test. Many thoughts come through, writing for the right one, aha! I got it. Thinking of what to write, when in fact, I’m saying it."
—Steve Hoyt, ‘04
At the heart of the writing curriculum is a program focused on autobiographical narrative. In journals, short vignettes, longer stories and sometimes through poetry and plays, students are encouraged to explore their own experience, knowledge and emotions, to use the conflicts and discoveries of their own lives as their source and well-spring. Because early adolescents are by nature experiencing great physical, emotional, cognitive and social changes, the autobiographical narrative writing allows them an ideal time and space to work out some of the kinks, to begin to sculpt a sense of themselves into something more graceful and orderly.
The stories range in topic and theme, from the joys of childhood, experiences with rejection, triumphs and failures in school, sibling rivalry, friendships, relationships with parents, growing up, the loss of innocence, betrayal and loyalty, to death and love. As they encounter what mystifies or confines them they are given the permission to navigate and negotiate their own growth—to learn to understand themselves. The writing is a tool by which they may weave or assimilate experience into the narrative fabric of their lives until ultimately they begin to feel that their writing is something very much their own, something vitally important to their conception of themselves.
"I never understood the power of writing until my last story about my mom. I had read Katelyn's story and it made me cry in 7th grade, but it had never been anything I understood. All my stories before had been like the drawings Asher Lev makes for Mashpia - stagnant creations done for someone else. When I started writing my last story something came out of me that I didn't know I had. My first two pages were beautiful, and powerful. They scared the hell out of me and I didn't write for a while. I had a scream inside of me that scared me, but I had to write about it. "
We want to stimulate students to become sensitive and discerning readers, to learn to respond to the subtleties of language and technique, and to develop the ability to discover how and when an author has revealed a vital truth. And because much of the literature is integrated with other studies and subjects, students have the opportunity to see literature in a broad context with dimensions extending beyond the covers of the book in hand.
In discussion-based seminars centered on novels, short stories, plays or poetry, our most basic expectation is that students understand the events, plot, characters and action of the given selection. More important, however, is for students to begin to understand the pleasures of close re-reading and the subsequent revelation of deeper meanings. Further, we encourage students to apply the meaning they discover to their conception of themselves and their view of the world so that reading becomes a personally relevant enterprise.
"There's a quote by C.S. Lewis that says: "We read to know that we're not alone." I totally agree with that. That's the point of literature. There is a sense of comfort in knowing that you're not the only one who's ever felt a certain feeling. One of the reasons why A Catcher in the Rye was one of my favorites is because Holden described things that I had felt. He knew things about himself that I knew about myself and to watch him make the same mistakes I have was comforting. No one ever wants to feel weird. Reading makes you feel normal and it makes you feel that there are people in the world who sympathize with you."
We want to know which passages are especially moving or beautiful, and what specifically makes them so? What are the author's intentions, and to what degree has he or she succeeded? How has the author created the world of the story, and how deeply are the students drawn into that world? What are the conflicts, tensions, and moral dilemmas the story poses? In what ways can students empathize with the conflicts that the characters face? How are the characters heroes? What makes or defines a hero? We continually encourage students to formulate their own questions and to use textual evidence to articulate their own responses.
Generally, the class is broken into two literature groups: 7th grade literature and 8/9th grade literature. The groups' reading lists are distinct but usually contain two books in common.
The Following is a sampling of the kinds of literature and writing explored in the school:
Books, Novels, and Poetry: The Pearl, Steinbeck, A Day No Pigs Would Die, Peck; Then There Was Light, Lusseyran; The Dhammapada, Siddhartha Gautama; To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee; Night, Weisel; The Secret Life of Bees, Kidd; Watership Down, Adams; Ellen Foster, Gibbons; Ask The Dust, Hesse; Call Me By My True Names, Hanh; My Name is Asher Lev, Potok; View With Grain of Sand, Symborska; Farenheit 451, Bradbury; Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony, Steinbeck; Lord of the Flies, Golding; Annie John, Kincaid; The Road, McCarthy, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain.
Grammar is covered primarily through a contextual approach. Through intensive writing and a methodical process of drafting, self- and peer editing, revising and rewriting, reading and a methodical process of drafting, self- and peer editing, revising and rewriting, reading and publishing, a premium is placed on structural clarity and lyricism.
We cover and review: conjugation of verbs, case study, phrases and clauses, linguistic transformations, parts of speech, commas, punctuation, capitalization, sentences fragments, run-ons, complements, use of nominative and objective case, object and subject pronouns, proper nouns, using quotations, writing a business letter, and other incredibly fun and exciting grammar tidbits.
In our three year science curriculum at NBS, the overarching themes are physical science, earth science, and life science, with climate, environment, and energy topics interwoven throughout. Uniting science with action, we take an integrated, active, inquiry and evidence-based approach, practicing the process of science, using data to draw conclusions, and employing engineering strategies. Using science content to make a difference, such as in reaching for Vermont’s 90% renewables by 2050 initiative, is a lens through which we study physical, earth and life science. For example we look at data from NASA and other sources on ice core sampling, sea level change, and CO2 cycles, create and test control and experimental models of the earth’s atmosphere and earth’s oceans to deepen our understanding of these effects, calculate our own carbon footprints, then make our own evidence-based claims around climate change and propose solutions. In our study of physical science, we explore the science of motion, matter, waves, electricity and energy use, trace where our energy is coming from, create and explore model circuits, grids, motors, generators and photovoltaic cells, analyze our own energy use at school, and explore alternatives and design solutions.
Philosophy and Goals
Science at NBS is intended to be a hands-on, minds-on experience, rich in opportunities for students to engage with and explore the world around them on many levels and by a variety of means. Students generate essential questions around anchoring phenomena drawn from their local environment, hobbies, current environmental challenges, ideas and events. Through experiments, research, observations, and model building we try to answer those questions, figure out how and why an event occurred, the conditions and consequences, and propose solutions based on evidence gathered, research, and deepened understanding.
Students develop skills of problem solving, communication, collaboration, self management, the ability to apply knowledge to new and more challenging areas, as well as the ability to justify their own claims. They discover and make connections among science ideas and develop scientific literacy, engage in inquiry, evaluate explanations and evidence presented to determine their credibility and validity. Tools, technology and mathematical thinking are used to collect, interpret and present data. Students learn that science knowledge is not static but changes over time.
We spend time indoors and out, conduct frequent investigations and experiments, fill science notebooks, invite visitors, travel on field trips, conduct engineering challenges and a yearly science fair/symposium. We strive to utilize our location, to get the students outside and moving with their hands on material, to make science exciting, fun, and meaningful, while integrated with math, art and humanities curricula. Our major goal is for students to develop questioning minds that make and test hypotheses as a way of thinking across any subject in order to better understand the world and to make informed decisions in their own lives and of greater societal imperative.
- Climate change, carbon emissions and human activity, making meaning through models, and working toward a solution
- Physical science of motion and forces, energy and matter, atoms and elements, waves, electricity and magnetism
- Energy sources; renewables and non-renewables; international, national, state and local initiatives; the science of photovoltaics
- Earth systems, models and mapping, chemistry, minerals, rocks, and resources, Earth dynamics, weathering, water, and erosion, the oceans and atmospheric forces, and space
- Biological principles, cells and genetics, evolution and ecology, microorganisms, plants, invertebrates and vertebrates, human biology and health.
Specific Topics Over Three-Year Science Curriculum
Scientific Problem Solving
Newton’s Laws of Motion
Work and Simple Machines
Forces and Fluids
Energy and Matter
Foundations of Chemistry
States of Matter
Understanding the Atom
The Periodic Table
Elements and Chemical Bonds
Reactions and Equations
Mixtures, Solubility, Acid/Base Solutions
Exploring and Classifying Life
Adaptations over time
Protists and Fungi
Introduction to Animals
Mollusks, Worms, Arthropods, Echinoderms
Fish, Amphibians, and Reptiles
Birds and Mammals
Structure and Movement
Nutrients and Digestion
Respiration and Excretion
Control and Coordination
Regulation and Reproduction
Immunity and Disease
Interactions of Life
The Nonliving Environment
Earth’s Energy and Resources
Views of Earth
Weathering and Soil
Ocean cycles and motion
Human Impacts on Land, Air and Water
The Sun-Earth-Moon System
The Solar System
Stars and Galaxies
General Science Skills
Scientific Inquiry and Hypotheses
Laboratory Procedures and Safety
Using Laboratory Equipment
Data Collection, Representation and Analysis
Scientists and Science History
Science and Engineering Practice
During the three years at North Branch students will explore topics in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, statistics, mathematical computation and problem solving. Topics of study include: exploring and communicating mathematically; simplifying expressions and solving equations; problem solving; coordinates and functions; two and three dimensional geometry; proportional reasoning and similarity; properties of linear functions; and representing data and finding measures of central tendency; transformational geometry; models of change; linear systems; quadratic functions and graphs; coordinate geometry and quadrilaterals; probability and counting strategies; angles and special angle relationships, triangles and right triangle trigonometry; and circles. Whenever possible, I will connect these topics to real life applications.
In general, math will be taught in a two-day cycle. Activities on day one of the cycle include: self-correcting the previous day’s practice set and actively participating during the presentation of the new lesson. The homework will usually be a mini-problem set and making revisions to the previous problem set, if necessary. Activities on day two include: correcting the mini-problem set, and beginning the practice set that corresponds to the lesson from the previous day. The homework will be to finish the practice set. The two-day cycle will be modified as needed to provide time for more complex investigations, explorations, use of technology, projects, enrichment activities, test reviews, and extended problem solving activities.
As stated above, there are two types of assignments - practice sets and mini-problem sets (MPS). While each of these types of assignments is designed to help students achieve mastery of the material, they all have a different focus. The practice set provides the first opportunity to work on new skills. Therefore, it is designed to begin as an “in-class” assignment, and, in most cases, end as a homework assignment that should be completed by the beginning of the next class. Students are encouraged to work collaboratively in class and at home on these problem sets. They are not assessed on the basis of number correct, but rather on timeliness, completeness of work, and thoroughness of revisions, if any are needed. Students will be asked to “stop light” the learning intentions on each practice as a way of communicating their confidence level with the material (Green I’ve got this; Yellow A bit murky, maybe I need more practice; Red I must have missed something important). If there are a lot of students indicating yellow or red for a particular learning intention, it will signal me that I need to re-teach and/or provide more practice opportunities. If an individual student is indicating yellow or red for a particular learning intention, it should signal them that they may need to make arrangements to stay after school for extra help.
The mini-problem sets provide another type of practice – review of skills from earlier in the unit, course, or even previous math courses. The purpose of these assignments is to make sure the skills learned at the beginning of a unit stay sharp. There is nothing worse than getting to a test at the end of the unit get asked to do problems that haven’t been practiced in 3 weeks. In general, the homework on any given night will alternate between completing a practice set that was started in class and doing an MPS, depending on where we are in the two day lesson cycle. Sometimes homework will also include some basic skill work, or, as we approach the end of a unit, a larger review assignment. Optional bonus assignments are also sometimes offered.
There will be a quiz at the half-way point of most units. The quiz is a “snapshot” to let students, parents, and me, know where students are in their understanding of the concepts presented thus far in the unit. Unit tests are the culminating assessment for most units. We will have worked hard throughout each unit to make sure that you are well prepared for each test. Tests are not designed to surprise or trick you in any way. If you have worked consistently throughout the unit and made use of the available supports along the way, you should do well on these assessments. In addition, the class(es) before a test will always include a review session with a review assignment to complete for homework.
Below is a tentative list of units/topics and the essential questions that will guide the content of each unit.
At this point they are not in order and are not organized by grade level.
Our Number System
- How/why does it work?
- How do we use algebraic tools and conventions to simplify an expression?
- How do we use algebraic tools and conventions solve an equation or inequality?
- What operations and properties can be used while still maintaining equality?
- What is a function?
- How do people describe and represent them?
- What’s the question?
- What are the mathematical tools for problem solving?
- How do I share my work and my results?
- How can we quantify the size of a 2D or 3D figure?
- How are comparisons useful?
- What are the ways we reason proportionally to solve problems?
- How are exponents related to basic arithmetic operations?
- How can exponential notation be used as a shortcut to solve problems and represent values?
- What are common ways to display data and identify trends?
- How can we interpret them?
- How can you transform a shape?
- How do transformations change a shape?
- How can you solve a system of equations?
- How can you determine the best method for you to solve a system of equations?
- How can a pair of angles be related?
- How can you use the properties of special angle pairs to solve problems?
- How are right triangles special?
- How can you use the properties of special triangles to solve problems?
Properties of Quadrilaterals
- How are quadrilaterals classified/related?
- How do you factor quadratic expressions?
- How can quadratic functions be represented?
- What methods can you use to solve a quadratic equation?
- How are the properties of circles, polygons, and polyhedra alike and/or different?
- How can shapes and figures be described?
- How many different outcomes are possible?
- How likely is an outcome?
- What do we need to do to prove something
The school believes that experiences serving the community and working with people with different backgrounds are essential for students to develop a capacity for compassion and social awareness. A portion of school time and time as a group outside of school hours is devoted to working on various projects, from volunteering in pre-schools or at the Humane Society, playing chess or Scrabble with the elderly, cleaning streams or roadsides, conducting small fund-raisers for causes chosen by students, participating in events such as AIDS or Hunger Walks, or initiating campaigns for social or environmental awareness. Previous examples include serving lunch to Ripton elders, clean-up for the
Ripton Ridge Run, doing yard-work for elderly neighbors, and making place settings for the Empty Bowl Dinner.
Ninth Grade Trip and Class Trip
An important part of the ninth grade year is consolidating the progress of the first two years and reflecting on the time at NBS and what is to follow. At the end of the year, the ninth grade class will spend 3-4 days as a group, hiking on the Long Trail or some similar rigorous outdoor experience. This trip is taken with Tal, and includes writing, drawing, discussions, solo time, and general bonding in preparation for graduation. The ninth graders spend time during the year planning the trip and raising the relatively small amount of money needed to fund it.
The school also takes a traditional All-School trip sometime in May to a destination, usually a city (NYC, Boston, Montreal) replete with cultural/scientific/mathematical experiences relating to the year’s curriculum. This is a fun trip, with a little intellectual or artistic exercise thrown in for good measure.
An appreciation of the arts is integrated throughout the curriculum. The school emphasizes that doing art, in any form, is an essential human activity which tells us about who we are and what we value as a culture. Equally important is the belief that art and the processes of creating are a means of personal discovery—a way of coming to know oneself.
Each year the focus of the arts varies, according to the topics being explored and the variety of visiting artists, musicians, and drama teachers available to work in the school. Musicians are often invited to class to perform, talk about, or develop music, artists conduct workshops, and drama teachers are invited to work with students. Visits to local performances, galleries, and plays are also incorporated.
A central component to the fine art curriculum is life drawing. Through steady practice over the course of the year, students work to become competent drafts-people, and, more important, develop their ability to see and observe.
Another focus of art is a series of mixed media projects related to students’ memories, sense of identity, and past histories. Connected to their creative and autobiographical writing, students may make mandalas, ceramic sculpture, puppets, linoleum prints, collage, copper etchings, mobiles, masks, visual journals, sculptures from personal and found objects, and life-sized drawings that are filled in with representations of
the material of their lives (they work to “flesh out” the brain, memory-bank, heart, soul, hands, etc.).
A wide range of art is shown and discussed relating to social studies. If we are studying the art of ancient civilizations, we may draw mythical creatures and make copper etchings from those drawings. We may look at Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration” series or listen to the music of Louis Armstrong and Muddy Waters while studying African American history; we may view Picasso’s “The Charnel House,” watch “Schindler’s List”
look and examine songs from the Warsaw ghetto if we are studying the Holocaust. If we are studying censorship and freedom of expression, we may examine a range of contemporary art and music involving new or radical expression. Students are free to pursue other artistic endeavors as their interests dictate through research projects and independent inquiry.
Outdoor and Physical Education
Located in the heart of the Green Mountain National Forest, the school has myriad opportunities for outdoor learning experiences. A variety of trails, streams, geological formations, wetlands and woodlands are in easy distance and provide a rich environment for discovery. The Rikert Ski Touring Center and the Middlebury College Snow Bowl offer excellent winter sports facilities.
In order to develop a full awareness of the natural world, students spend time outdoors on academic work, for fun and for physical fitness. Hiking, orienteering, geo-caching, low-level climbing, mountain biking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, pond skating, tree-climbing, ropes courses and outdoor adventure games are emphasized.
Historically, in response to students’ interests, we have offered co-ed basketball, mountain biking, cross- country running, yoga, and have had ski days at the Middlebury Snow Bowl. We skate and play hockey at the Chip Kenyon Arena, and dry-land train and ski on our field and at the Rikert Touring Center. Formally, NBS offers opportunities to compete on a co-ed soccer team, an Ultimate Frisbee team and in the sport of Nordic Ski Racing. The Official Indoor Game is Bimini Ring-Toss.
Emotional Growth/Adolescent Issues
The early adolescent years are a critically important developmental stage that provides a rich context in which students may develop and deepen their understanding of themselves, their emotions, and those around them.
Accordingly, the school incorporates students’ emotional, intellectual and growth issues as an essential part of the learning process, with specific attention given to psychologically related issues, including self-esteem, personality formation and individuation, meta-cognition, peer-pressure and conformity, race, gender and sexuality, learning profiles and parental and peer relations.
The school actively seeks ways to allow and encourage students to articulate their ideas and feelings on these and other relevant concerns as they arise, with students and teachers working together to create and maintain a safe and supportive environment.
The school incorporates related age and developmentally appropriate topics into the curriculum in order to better educate and inform students, including general health and nutrition, smoking, the use and abuse of drugs and alcohol, resistance strategies, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, dealing with stress, depression, eating disorders, puberty and sexuality.
Students and teachers may invite specialists into the school to conduct workshops on particular issues, particularly ones having to do with body image, self-esteem, and drugs and alcohol.
Conferences occur at various times throughout the week. The time is used for students to plan their work, give presentations, ask questions, resolve conflicts, and do reflective exercises or self-evaluations. The time may also be used for students to take a look at their progress on independent work. We check to see how much time is being spent on work at home (too much or too little) and discuss ways to deal with academic or social problems. Often the students offer suggestions to each other about such issues. Conferences are also used to collect work or to read and discuss student writing. Students may schedule conferences to discuss or workshop their writing with teachers and other students. If an issue has spilled over from another class, we may debate the issue or move toward resolution. If there are conflicts or problems in the class, we may use the time to seek a solution. A visit by a speaker or a field trip may become a topic for discussion. Essentially it is flexible time used to enhance ongoing activities or as a slow-down time to re-group.
Behavior and Discipline
The health of the school environment is based on the expectation that students will be conscientious and work to the best of their ability, that they will be honest with themselves and others, and that they will be respectful of the school environment. However, the school understands that occasionally a student may fall short of the school community’s expectations and that violations of trust do occur.
As a fundamental philosophy we view disciplinary issues in a broad educational and developmental context and as a part of the whole learning process. The school seeks to avoid handling such issues in a punitive manner but rather as opportunities for both communal learning and positive individual growth.
Because each student is different and each situation has its own set of circumstances, the school elects not to have a a rigid sequence of procedures. Rather, the school believes each situation calls for a creative and individualized approach.
The school’s curriculum and philosophy encourage students to take responsibility for creating and maintaining a positive, just and orderly atmosphere. In essence, the whole class serves as an ad hoc honor council, court and disciplinary committee. Thus, many issues will often be addressed and dealt with by the students themselves with the guidance of teachers and within the context of the learning and social community. On other occasions, teachers may consult together; meet with students alone or in small groups, and/or phone parents/ guardian in order to move toward a constructive and appropriate solution.
"We, the students of the North Branch School (henceforth referred to as “NBS”), in order to create a lawful and safe learning environment,
have established guidelines for our behavior. These principles and ideals are designed to ensure the protection of our personal rights and the
rights of our teachers, and to shape a healthy and fun school for all persons involved. We solemnly agree that we will not become strangers to our good ethics, and we stand by them as students and human beings.
We hold that these principles are not laws but rather ideals that we aim to achieve. We have created this document, not to restrain or limit
those to whom it applies, but to guarantee that they will be protected as much as possible; not to force our values onto future members of
the class, but, rather, to state the values of our generation."
Preamble to 2001-02 Class “Statement of Ideals and Principles”
Importantly, students discuss, write about and reflect upon the incident(s) and are encouraged to assess their actions (or inactions), consequences, and effects of the incident on the self and community. Students, peers and teachers may also seek to determine any relevant circumstances or prior issues, which may have influenced an incident(s).
For more serious incidents, parents will be contacted. The involved student(s) may have input in creating a plan of reparations, possibly including, but not limited to, writing a letter of apology or a personal reflection on the incident(s), a contract or action-plan to change behavior, a letter to parents, community service, or a classroom responsibility related to the incident.
If a problem is persistent or exists to the extent that measures within the school have not resulted in necessary behavioral changes, parents/guardian will again be notified. A conference may be scheduled with the student, parents, and teachers to discuss the issues and possible solutions. Any solution or plan will be mutually agreed upon and will involve responsibilities on the part of the school, parents, and the student(s). The plan will be given a time frame during which improvement is closely monitored, followed by another conference to look at appropriate next steps.
Work Periods and Quiet Study
Several times a week a quiet, independent study period is built into the day. This provides time for students to schedule one-on-one time with teachers, meet together on collaborative projects, seek help with academic or other issues, complete homework or work on independent study. Students share in the responsibility of keeping the environment productive and quiet.
Evaluation and Assessment
As a foundation the school uses the Vermont Framework of Standards and Learning Opportunities in order to provide structure by which the curriculum can be developed, organized, implemented and assessed. Many students will go further than what these standards envision. But the standards set useful, comprehensive goals for what each student should be challenged, encouraged, and expected to achieve.
We believe that students’ success is best measured by how far they come in a given span of time, how hard they work, by their courage to try new experiences, and by their willingness to broaden their strengths and enhance those areas which are not strengths. Students are not measured against each other but by personal standards for which they are partially responsible for establishing.
Individual pieces of work are measured by intellectual and creative risks taken and effort expended. Larger projects and long-term creative works receive focused attention in workshops, detailed written responses from teachers, and response and evaluation from peers, with an emphasis on examining and celebrating improvement and progress. Samples of work over the course of the year are kept in a portfolio and used in students’ self-evaluations.
Students’ achievement and development is observed and informally assessed in areas of language, fine and gross motor function, visual, spatial and temporal sequential ordering, attention and memory, higher order cognition and social cognition.
Three times yearly students and parents receive lengthy written narratives which focus on academic, social, ethical and emotional growth. Essentially anecdotal and descriptive, these evaluations serve as mirrors to students’ experience in school. Upon graduation, evaluations from students' 9th grade year are converted into letter grades and credit hours that will be forwarded to their receiving high schools. .
Students themselves have responsibility for assessing and reflecting on their efforts and work. This may occur immediately following a class as a way of looking at particular contributions just made, or it may be a more detailed written reflection on a larger and more substantial piece of work. Each year ends with a lengthy self-evaluation by each student focusing on contributions and growth in the class in the areas of social, creative, emotional, and academic development. The class as a whole frequently assesses and evaluates its progress as a working and social community.
Parent/Teacher Conferences and Written Evaluations
In the late fall and spring teachers meet with parents to discuss each student’s progress and development. The conferences are a chance for parents to ask questions and offer insights about their child and for teachers to reflect back what they have seen. If there is an area of concern then parents and teachers will work together to address it positively and constructively. Written narrative evaluations are sent home in October, mid-year and at the end of the year. The door is always open, particularly if issues come up at other times in the year. The school works to keep
paths of communication open so that small problems do not have the chance to grow into big problems.
Over the course of the year the school facilitate after-school activities for those wishing to sign-up. A debate team has competed successfully against other school teams in the state. We have or have had after-school clay, a music group, a science project group and a French class. We have had team entries in a Junior Iron Chef Competition, in “Mathcounts”, and the State Chess Meet. We try to respond to student passions and
interests as time and energy allows, often incorporating parental skills and abilities into this process.
High School Readiness
The school year ends with a “graduation” event to celebrate the accomplishments of all students. Our graduates generally will be more than ready—emotionally and academically—to make the transition from The North Branch School to high school. In the effort to smooth the transition, time is devoted at the end of the year for the older students to think about and discuss the upcoming change. Additionally, NBS facilitates that process by translating 9th grade narrative evaluations into grades and associated credit hours, writing recommendations, and, if necessary, meeting with administrators and teachers from other schools. A "step-up/shadow day" for our 9th graders is scheduled in February with receiving local high schools. Parents are invited and encouraged to participate in that experience by meeting with guidance department staff, who are familiar with our students and welcome them. Most NBS graduates opt to pass by introductory 10th grade courses, are highly motivated and ready to learn.
We are a small school by design, and as such cannot offer every kind of class, activity, or extra-curricular offering that a large school can. We have consciously chosen to specialize and be great in a few areas. Hence, we do not have a full foreign language program, and we do not have a full music program (though music is very much a part of the curriculum). By narrowing our scope, however, we are able to go more deeply and intensively to create a unique and memorable experience.
Though we are small, it nevertheless sometimes becomes apparent that we cannot always meet every child’s particular need. We work hard to help parents seek additional assistance beyond what the school can offer, whether it be in the form of tutoring, counseling, or other support services as the case warrants.