Let’s Hear From Students!

My previous post worked to answer two of our most common questions when it comes to ARCTIC Zone confusions and curiosities. I am now calling on all AZ students, both current and former to share their own voices in the comments of this post to help broaden the perspective and share insider viewpoints and stories.

Students, please consider the following questions before commenting on this post. I urge you to be thoughtful and thorough in your response as you consider the eyes that may fall on your answers.

  1. What did/do you enjoy about your ARCTIC Zone experience?
  2. How did/does the ARCTIC Zone challenge you?
  3. How did/is the ARCTIC Zone helping you to grow as a person and a learner?
  4. High school students – How do you feel the ARCTIC Zone helped to prepare you for high school?
  5. What else would you like to share about your experiences in the ARCTIC Zone?

Thank you for sharing your voices, students! They matter! Now and always…

Common Questions

Registration time is upon us, which brings the usual questions about how certain things are accomplished in the ARCTIC Zone learning environment. Fifth grade families are preparing for their students to enter middle school next year, and with that comes the decision about registering for the ARCTIC Zone or for the traditional curricular model. Two of the most common questions we receive are, ‘How do you make sure students are learning the same standards as those outside the AZ?’ and ‘What is the transition like for students when it comes time for high school?’ Even after five years of programming, this learning model remains foreign to many adults, so these questions are very expected and appropriate.

Standard Completion

When originally designing the ARCTIC Zone, we spent time dissecting each of the standards a traditional classroom covers throughout 6th-8th grade. We condensed and combined standards in each content area to establish what we call our program’s Power Standards. These standards are used to guide our project work throughout each quarter.

Project-Based Learning (PBL) is a teaching model that engages students in an authentic driving question or challenge for an extended period of time. It is interdisciplinary, and unlike a class project that a traditional class might use at the end of a learning unit, students learn content knowledge and skills through active exploration during the project process. We use three different types of project work to drive learning in the ARCTIC Zone.

Class Projects, like our annual Film Festival, are teacher-guided and offer students opportunities to use voice and choice in their final products. Flex Projects, like this quarter’s game of Clue, are teacher-designed and offer students many opportunities to make personal choices throughout the project process and in their final product. Student Passion Projects are student-driven and -directed. Students use their own passions and interests to design a project of their own, while problem-solving and making decisions for how to progress along the way. During frequent check-ins with an advisor, they explain their choices, reflect, and reevaluate.

One thing to consider is how flexible certain things can be when it comes to content learning. For example, on a traditional science path, a student would cover Earth Science in grade 6, Life Science in grade 7, and Physical Science in grade 8. The concepts in each curricular area are nonlinear and do not require one area to be learned before moving to the next. Because of this, a 6th grade student in the ARCTIC Zone may be conducting a project that connects to Physical Science concepts while an 8th grade student may be covering Earth Science. In this way, when an AZ student covers specific concepts may look different from a non-AZ student, but all will be covered throughout their time in middle school.

Transitioning to High School

We often have parents, guardians, and other adults who worry AZ students might struggle with a transition “back” to a traditional learning environment when moving to high school. When imagining some of the differences the ARCTIC Zone offers compared to a classroom with which most adults are familiar, it can be easy to jump to conclusions about how different the entirety of the classroom experience might be. The teaching and learning process is certainly quite different. I wonder, though, what it is adults are concerned about with the “transition.”

An AZ classroom still has a teacher in the room who offers the expectations and goals for the day, teaching and modeling specific skills as needed, checking in with students as they work. Students are still assessed on their content knowledge and project progress. They still have at-home expectations. Plus, when not in their AZ classes throughout the day, our students are in traditional classrooms with non-AZ students like art, math, computer applications, health, foreign language, etc. I also argue that time in the AZ spent practicing and developing essential life skills like organization, time-management, collaboration, communication, goal-setting, self-reflection, and the ability to ask for help offers students an extensive toolbox with which to enter their high school classes.

We have graduated two classes from the ARCTIC Zone so far, soon to be three. Students have been met with much success at the high school level. I enjoy hearing from former students and families with stories about how they are using their experiences from driving their own projects in the ARCTIC Zone within their current classroom environment.

“Different” can be difficult to accept or trust. It is good to ask questions and to challenge new concepts. It is also good to ask questions about and to challenge the way things are and have always been. “Different” might be just the thing you or your student is craving.

Student Activists

After spending first quarter exploring systemic racism and its impact on recent days and events, students have now been challenged to choose a relevant issue they find to be unfair or unjust and to work for positive change. The end goal is not just to learn more about the topic of choice but to DO something about it. This requires digging. Digging to learn more about why and how certain things came to be, who is responsible for making change, and who or what might be intentionally or unintentionally standing in the way of progress.

Each student or group of students have chosen a topic that is meaningful to them. They began by looking at their broad vision: what the world would look like if they accomplished everything they set out to do. They scaled back on that vision and determined the main goal they had in place for themselves for this quarter. They scaled back even more to divide that main goal into reasonable short-term goals. And for the past several weeks, groups have been making progress toward each of those short-term goals with the hopes of activating real change.

Here are some examples of student topics:

  • Lowering gun violence
  • Eliminating the use of racial slurs
  • Offering gender-neutral bathrooms in our school
  • Eliminating the Pledge of Allegiance in our school
  • Creating a more equitable dress code in our school
  • Eliminating the gender wage gap
  • Decreasing youth hunger
  • Eliminating stigmas surrounding mental health

Activism is about fighting for the greater good, working to ensure equity for all groups of people. This can be a difficult concept to grasp, especially for young minds. Another challenge is the limiting belief that a middle school student cannot possibly accomplish some of the large-scale ideas they have chosen to tackle. My goal, as their teacher, is to make sure every one of my students leaves my classroom knowing they are capable of challenging any obstacle that comes their way. With enough time, energy, and thoughtful effort, they can at least stand their ground. I do not expect success every time, but they either succeed or they learn. Either outcome is a win in my book.

It’s Been a While…

I have been terrible with keeping up with my blogging this year. If I’m being honest, I have struggled to know what to share or write about. In years past, I naturally wander around my classroom taking photos of all of the crazy awesome things we have going on, and the photos inspire my writing. This year has been so different in that way. With masks and distancing, I have not found as many photo ops this year, which I have found has also affected my writing.

This year has been challenging in many ways. Anyone who knows me and my classroom knows I do not like to sit for long periods of time. I love to incorporate tons of movement into my lessons. I enjoy hands-on activities, team-building challenges, design challenges, drama activities, and anything else to get students thinking, doing, speaking, listening, and working together. Social distancing has made many of these activities and ideas very tricky, and some near-impossible. It has certainly encouraged some creative thinking and problem-solving for all of us.

This year continues to push and pull us in all sorts of directions. I am regularly impressed by the grit and perseverance of my students. The truth is, mindset is powerful. I have found there are two ways to think about a tough situation. You can either think, “I have to…” or you can choose to think, “I get to…”.

I have to limit my lessons to two days per week.
I get to see my students for a full 90 minutes for each day we are together.

I have to stop doing the team-building and hands-on group activities I love doing so much.
I get to be creative and stretch my thinking with how we accomplish certain things this year.

I have to follow all of these strict social distancing protocols.
I get to be part of the solution.

I have to teach 100% virtually this week.
I get to see and talk and laugh with my students in a safe way this week!

What you think about you bring about, and I am choosing to think positively about school. What other choices do we have? This is the only middle school experience these students are going to have, so I am going to bring my best to the table for them, regardless of the circumstances.

We are making it work!

Who’s to Blame?

Today, my classes are reading a short story called Storm Warning in which a young couple with little sailing experience decides to rent out a sailboat to spend an afternoon picnicking on an island outside the harbor. An overwhelmed employee skips a few steps in order to get the sailboat checked out to the couple quickly. A bystander decides against warning the couple of the storm brewing nearby because he figures they probably know what they’re doing.

Their lack of sailing experience, paired with the brutal storm winds and whitecaps, the couple finds themselves in a deadly predicament, unable to find their way back to the harbor. A conflict between the air and boat rescue mission crews causes a fatal accident, as one of the sailers is flown from the boat, never to surface again.

After reading the story, students are asked to think about all characters in the story. There are seven total. Then I ask, “Who’s to blame?” On their own, they ranked the seven characters in order from most to blame to least to blame.

Finally, I removed myself from the discussion and told them to talk about their rankings. The expectation I set for them was that by the end of the discussion, they all needed to have the same exact ranking. So far, I have completed the activity with only one of my five Humanities classes.



  • Initially, students naturally broke into small groups to discuss with a neighbor or two and started to share their choices and reasons. This could have been because some were afraid to share their opinions to the whole group right away. It could be because they recognized the benefit of starting small and transitioning to bigger. Either way, it was fascinating to watch.
  • Eventually, the conversation somehow naturally morphed into a whole-group discussion. It often occurred when one group had a break in the action and overheard a comment from another group they wanted to chime in on. The natural transition was so fun to observe as each small group suddenly turned to join the group as a whole.
  • There were very minimal interruptions. Overall, students were very respectful with their listening and waiting for an open turn to comment.
  • Without prompting from me, students were naturally citing evidence again and again from the story to prove their point and to persuade others to change their rankings about certain individuals in the story. They also often pulled from their own personal background knowledge and experiences to support their ideas.
  • They showed empathy toward various characters at different times throughout the discussion. They often considered how they would feel if put into a similar situation and tried to justify or at least understand the actions of some of the story’s characters.
  • Some students spoke more often than others. Some kept quiet more often than not, but all chose to speak out when they felt compelled to comment. All voices were heard.
  • After not making much progress toward the ultimate goal of matching their rankings, they strategized and decided to reverse their thinking and work their way backwards through the rankings.
  • After about 25 minutes of discussion time, the entire group had a matching ranking they all felt good about.


  1. The ranking the group landed on in the end did not match one student’s original ranking. This means every single student changed their minds at some point during the discussion. This also means they allowed their minds to be changed. By entering with an open mind and truly listening to the voices and opinions of those around them, each of them was swayed at some point throughout the discussion.

    How many adults can say they walk into similar situations in the same way as my students did today? How many adults can say they are open to the possibility of having their minds changed? How many adults can say they are able to participate in a discussion in which people are disagreeing and are able to truly listen to differing opinions without interrupting others involved?

  2. As the teacher in the room, it is so difficult to keep my word and to keep my mouth shut. If I’m being completely honest, I disagree with their final ranking. That’s not the point. In fact, the point really is that there is not one right answer. Every single person in the story carried some of the responsibility.

    When we apply this thinking to current events, as we did at the end of class today, it becomes evident that all of us play a part. The fact is, when it comes to the enduring racism in our country, the current pandemic, the approaching election, you name it, there is not one person to blame, not one person who carries the weight. Each of us carries a responsibility on our shoulders.

  3. To piggyback off of this idea, a final take away for me had to do with my first class’s choice in ranking one particular character from the story. Tom, a fisherman passing by the sailboat on its way out to the ocean, has the opportunity to warn the sailors of the impending storm. Assuming they know what they are doing, he decides not to say anything and goes on with his day.

    Of the seven characters in the story, the students in my first hour class today deemed Tom the third person to blame. This speaks volumes to me. Tom is the only character who is never actively involved in the actual story scenario. He is an innocent bystander who happens to notice something odd and chooses not to say anything about it.

    Third on the list? We all find ourselves in uncomfortable situations in which we are the innocent bystanders on the side. It can be easy to redirect responsibility onto the shoulders of those directly involved. According to my students this morning, though, we all have a responsibility to speak up when we see or hear something that isn’t right.
A Decade of Work — The Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign

Tough Conversations

I think we can agree our country is in conflict. That might, however, be all we can agree on. As the political climate intensifies, as we walk through a complicated and confusing pandemic, and as we watch those around us rise in protest, the differing beliefs and opinions among us are many. As a teacher, it is challenging to know what my role is amidst such chaos and unrest.

After the death of George Floyd in Minnesota this summer, when riots emerged around us and social media erupted with negativity, aggression, and hate, my role became clear. We need to learn how to have tough conversations without demolishing every person and relationship in our path. I decided to start with racism.

Let me be clear. As their teacher, I do not ever attempt to impose my own beliefs or opinions on my students. I do not strive to change or alter their ideas. I DO hope to open their eyes and their minds to ideas other than their own, to listen to the words and experiences of other people, and to seek to understand from where others are coming. I encourage them to be willing to change their minds – not to change them. There is a difference.

Since day one this year, I have been prepping my classes for the coming days and weeks where we will be joining in some tough conversations together. We will address certain instances that have occurred in recent days, and we will reflect on events from the past. We will view these incidents from differing perspectives to try to gain insight and understanding, and we will pull from our own backgrounds and experiences to discuss our personal reactions and responses.

In order to get comfortable with the inevitable feeling of discomfort that accompanies these tough conversations, we had to set some ground rules. First, students anonymously shared the fears they had about what could happen while discussing racism together. I encourage all readers to look closely at the lists you see below and ask yourself if you have had any similar feelings in recent months. I have. And I do. I understand the gravity of my role as facilitator of these conversations. I admitted to my students I share similar fears. I worry I will say the wrong thing or that feelings will be hurt. It scares me, but I believe this is why we need to do it.

Next, they anonymously shared what they hope does happen while discussing racism together. Here I urge readers to notice the courage that exists in the words you see below.

Finally, we agreed that setting some group guidelines would be helpful in doing our best to avoid the fears listed while nurturing and encouraging the hopes. Imagine social media platforms in a world where all members were cognizant and mindful of the following guidelines. My students offer hope, strength, maturity, and respect at a time when those traits feel forgotten and misplaced. The future looks to be in good hands.

Grace & Silver Linings

After five full months away, I walked back into my classroom on Monday. It’s funny how some things are like riding a bike (colleague interactions and project planning) while others are not (setting an alarm and sitting on my rump, staring at a screen all day). However, most of us are realizing it’s not a bike we’re riding anymore. We’re riding a roller coaster of new information, new schedules, and new guidelines, and it has not always been easy on the stomach.

I made the poor choice a week or so ago to jump into the rabbit hole of community comments on social media regarding back to school (and fall sports) decisions being made by our district. It’s tough to read accusations and criticisms toward the district for which I am proud to represent. It’s tougher to read accusations and criticisms of teachers who are currently at the whim of all district-decisions. And it’s tougher, still, when you know some of the parents and community members making such hurtful comments.

The thing many do not realize is the amount of work and thought that has been put into every detail and decision made so far. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I do NOT envy anyone in positions with decision-making power right now. No decision will be made without upsetting someone. Though I admittedly do not agree with every decision so far, I do realize and respect the time, energy, and consideration being put into each one.

I also realize how concerned and frustrated and afraid our community continues to be. While some choose to lash out with hurtful words behind the mask of their keyboards, I am trying my darndest to breathe deeply and offer some grace. Those in positions of decision-making power are facing questions and obstacles no one has ever faced before. They are human. They are our neighbors, family, friends. They are doing their best. Which is what we need to do… our best.

As I sit in my classroom in these final days before the school year begins, I have a choice. I can worry about the unknowns. I can panic about preparations. I can fear for the safety of myself and my students and families. I can argue things I know I cannot change. I can cry about not seeing the faces of every student every day.

Or I can look for silver linings. Because there are many.

I get to leave my dining room desk and return to my colorful classroom. I get to see and interact with my students every week. I get to extend and deepen discussions and learning opportunities as we navigate a new block schedule. I get to flex my creativity to create meaningful projects that combine in-person and virtual components. I get to explore profound topics of race, truth, politics, equity, mindfulness, and personal wellness with young, eager minds.

I don’t know much. But I do know exerting energy on the negative stuff is exhausting and drags me down. Putting my focus on the silver linings energizes me and lifts my spirits.

This year will be unforgettable, no doubt. I’m not ready for all that lies ahead, but I’m ready to do my best.



Another year has come and gone. I think we can all agree this was one for the books. As I sit in my new hammock (thanks, Mom), reminiscing over the events of the last 9 months, I find it difficult to believe so much can happen in such a short amount of time. So many  moments. So much laughter. So many life lessons. So much for which to be grateful.

I was able to find comfort in my own rhythm this year, as it was our first year in the ARCTIC Zone where we didn’t undergo many drastic changes. I feel like I am finding my place and purpose better and better each year.

On a personal level, this year will remain close to my heart as the year I watched my dad close his eyes for the final time. The compassion and support received from my students, families, and colleagues was astonishing. Though broken, my heart remains so grateful.

This year provided many opportunities for creativity and growth, especially in its final weeks. Though challenging for all of us to varying degrees, I always try to be grateful for the chance to stretch myself.

Speaking of stretching, the pride I feel in my students’ accomplishments this final quarter is indescribable. The challenges presented were the first of its kind. The grit and discipline displayed by our youth and their families are nothing shy of impressive.

For example, our 8th graders are tasked with a culminating final project of writing and presenting their very own TED Talks. Typically, a live, formal presentation would be made and recorded at the downtown Grand Theater in the final weeks of school, but we all know how that went this year. Rather than ditch the project, we pivoted. Students brainstormed ideas, drafted and drafted, participated in feedback discussions with each other, revised and revised, and finally recorded their personal talks. I can’t lie – many students did not finish. The obstacles presented were too great… this time. But, for those who did make it to the final submit button, the world deserves to hear their voices.

Please take a few minutes to listen to the words of Jack, one of my 8th grade students, in his final ARCTIC Zone project. And then, take a few more minutes to practice your own gratitude.

“A Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste”

We had inservice yesterday which allowed opportunity to connect and collaborate with our department colleagues. Though the date for the inservice has been on the calendar all year, the way the day was used was, no doubt, different from the district’s original intent. We began the day with a mini course on Social Emotional Learning (SEL) for both students and educators alike. This was followed by small group discussions within our department teams, considering seven essential questions regarding what has happened this quarter and what is to come in the fall.

The first part of our discussion was spent reflecting on how we tackled the sudden school closure and transition to emergency remote learning. Not surprisingly, our conversation included a lot of talk that connected to our early morning course about SEL. The primal needs of our students include safety, reassurance, comfort, and connection. Beyond that, our goal this quarter was simply to motivate, engage, and empower students as best we could.

The remainder of our discussion was spent on determining priorities for the fall, predicting varying student needs after being home for so long. I was sold on the glaring need for personalization in the classroom before we were all sent home. Let me tell you, though – observations of my students and those around me over the past few months has made this even more obvious.

It’s not often everyone in the world is able to experience the same exact phenomenon at the same exact time. I have friends in Australia who are under social distancing restrictions just like we are, and though I know we are facing a pandemic, global in nature, reading their posts on social media that I can so closely relate to, still feels strange to me. It’s affecting us all. And yet, how differently we have each responded.

I see it in myself when I talk to my friends and family. I see it in my students when I connect (or don’t) with them via email or video chats. Everyone is responding in their own ways. Some are riding some awesome highs while others are experiencing some daunting lows. Some you might expect to take it all in stride are struggling while the ones who can’t seem to keep it all together on a typical day are thriving. It’s odd and fascinating, but without needing to understand all of the moving parts that go into what creates a person’s reaction to an experience like this, it reveals one important detail: we are all very different. Our needs are unique to each of us.

Some students will return in the fall (hopefully), ready to take on the world, craving challenge and opportunity. Others will struggle to walk through the school doors. And they might be interchangeable from day to day. But what I have come to realize more than ever is that the reality of this situation has nothing to do with a virus. This is every day. Every day students walk through our doors with differing backgrounds, experiences, hours of sleep, calories consumed, social interactions, you name it. That goes for adults, as well. All students deserve a personalized approach to learning based on the ebb and flow of their wants and needs each and every day.

I just finished my third book of the quarantine called Future-Focused Learning: 10 Essential Shifts of Everyday Practice by Lee Watanabe-Crockett. I strongly recommend it to anyone in education as it not only offers insight into what should be made important in classrooms today but provides numerous activity ideas for immediate implementation.


An idea introduced early in the book is one I have read over and over – that we are no longer living in the industrial age where we are preparing students for a limited number of occupations and societal roles once they graduate. What resonated with me from this book, though, is this: we need to prepare students with just in time learning versus just in case learning.

“For example, they don’t require knowledge just in case they want to become scientists, mathematicians, or historians, but rather they need knowledge that is just in time to give them what they need to continue to do what they are doing in the moment, a moment that may require scientific, mathematical, or historical knowledge.”

I see two things in this quote right now. First, all students do not need to be taught the same exact things in all content areas but instead should be exposed to all areas and able to explore them in their own ways and at their own paces. Second, isn’t the current crisis we find ourselves in the perfect example of just in time brought to life for some businesses and organizations??? Employees all over the globe have had to think on their feet, to creatively problem-solve, to concoct new methods and practices out of thin air to stay afloat in recent months. Look at our local restaurants suddenly advertising on FB live for their curbside pick-ups! Heck, Twitter recently told all of their employees they never have to return to work because they have suddenly realized it can all be done from home anyway!

For reasons related to the virus, school cannot and will not look the same in the fall, but we have an opportunity staring us in the face. When social distancing restrictions are eventually lifted, regardless of how far away that might be, we must move forward. We must look at the personal needs of each individual student and be able to respond accordingly. We must prepare students to problem-solve in real time, just in time, with creativity and diligence. We must make learning future-focused. To quote economist and professor at New York University, Paul Romer, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”





Virtual Film Festival

Though we maintain variety with all other Quarter Projects from year to year, third quarter always remains the same. We challenge students to write, record, and edit a film to enter into our ARCTIC Zone Film Festival Competition. The focus of the film is different each year, but the final product remains the same – a finished film that is judged by a panel of  community volunteers. Judges use a specific set of criteria to narrow the entries down to the top 10 films which are aired on the big screen at Micon Cinemas for families and friends, which is followed by a short award ceremony for the top three film groups.

Like everything else it seems, this year’s Film Festival was impacted by the stay-at-home order. Our final day at school was Monday, March 16th, and the Film Festival viewing was slated to be held that week, Thursday, March 19th. It was a bummer. Students questioned when they would get to see each other’s films. We assumed we would reschedule once this whole thing blew over. Then school was canceled. Yikes.

The restrictions under which we find ourselves have forced many to get a little creative with how they proceed with certain activities or events. We knew we had to find a way to host our Film Festival so we could celebrate and congratulate the hard work and dedication our students put into their film projects this year. So last Thursday evening, over 40 families tuned in to a virtual meeting where we were able to view the top 10 films and announce our winners.


I was happy to be able to give the recognition to those students who earned their spots in the festival, but I was even more proud of how many students and families showed up to celebrate together. During these very strange, uncertain times, it was an opportunity for us to come together in a unique way to share in something that matters – student success.

I’m reminded of a Swedish proverb: “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.” Let us all find ways to share in joy as we continue to also share the sorrows life is thrusting our way. We stand a better chance together.

If you have 40 minutes to spare, I would strongly recommend you check out our Top 10 Films of 2020. Feel free to offer feedback here or on the YouTube link itself. My students, like all of us, long for acknowledgment, criticisms, and praise. Be well. Share joy.

2020 Film Festival Winners
First Place: Jake’s World Tour (Jack, Oliver, Cameron, Connor)
Second Place: All an Act (Michelle, Cienna, Madison)
Third Place: Addiction (DeShea, Cameron, Isaac)