On Tuesday, March 12th, middle school students from all over the state gathered at Champlain College in Burlington to take part in the 2024 Vermont Association for Middle Level Education (VAMLE) Conference. The conference is held each year in March, and its goal is to amplify and develop student leadership in planning for school change. The theme of this year’s conference was “Creating Communities of Equity & Respect,” and each workshop provided related content and activities. 

The day began with students from Woodstock High School’s Yoh Theatre Players providing a fun, thought-provoking speak chorus based on Robin Hood, with Ska-inspired music and costumes. The performance highlighted the unjust disparities between those who have and those who don’t and lifted up some of the classic story’s themes of standing up against bullying and injustice to contemporary times. The actors moved through the seated audience, acting, singing, and encouraging participation. It was a lively and engaging way to kick off the conference!

Participants then attended workshop sessions presented by both middle school students and adult partners, including a workshop on alternatives to hazing on athletic teams delivered by a NCAA representative from Vermont State College, a presentation on the gender unicorn by Outright Vermont, a workshop on the Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) process run by students at Edmunds Middle School, and a workshop on sustainability, leadership, and empowerment delivered by students at Montpelier’s Main Street Middle School who have taken part in UP for Learning and Shelburne Farms Cultivating Pathways to Sustainability program. 


Two UP for Learning teams, one from Colchester Middle School and one from Hartford Middle School, also delivered workshops. Colchester Middle School students from the school’s I.D.E.A (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Action) Task Force facilitated a session on their Reading for Equity project, an initiative in which they bring children’s books with diverse and inclusive themes to read to 3rd and 4th graders at Malletts Bay School. Each member of the team selected a book to read and designed an activity to accompany it. At the conference, five students read their books aloud to small groups, then facilitated the related activity. The books they selected were Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell’s And Tango Makes Three, Selena Alko’s The Case for Loving, Chelsea Johnson’s Intersection Allies: We Make Room for All, Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland’s King & King, and Ian and Sarah Hoffman’s Jacob’s New Dress. After they shared the books and activities, the team answered audience questions about the initiative, and they discussed the importance of being proactive, how introducing these ideas through stories early means that children might be less likely to bully or treat other people with disrespect as they grow up. The team also shared their experiences with other actions they have taken this year, such as conducting a survey about racism and homophobia in their community. The five Colchester youth did an incredible job, speaking with confidence and ease about their work, and, judging by the comments and questions from participants, they made a big impact!


Youth from Hartford Middle School’s Getting to ‘Y’ team also facilitated workshop sessions that were designed as a mini-data analysis retreat with information from their school’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) data. The team facilitated an activity in which they asked participants to recall a time in their lives when they were not consulted on a major decision, and to list the feelings they experienced. They then asked participants to recall a time when they were consulted on a major decision, and to list the feelings they experienced. This activity relates to the goal of Getting to ‘Y’, which is to involve youth in action planning from the data collected in the YRBS, which often never gets shared with them. The facilitators then asked participants to determine whether particular data points from the Hartford survey should be considered strengths or concerns, such as the number of students who have tried cigarettes, or the number of students who described their mental health as poor. The team then asked participants to brainstorm root causes of peer-to-peer conflict/bullying at their school, as well as to propose possible solutions. The three youth facilitators, who are new to Getting to ‘Y’, did a terrific job leading the group through the activities, and audience members commented that they felt excited about what they might do to take action in their own communities. 

The conference as a whole was an inspiring reminder of the power of youth voice, and we are proud of UP’s youth facilitators for stepping up to lead workshops. Many thanks to VAMLE for putting on such a rich and engaging event for Vermont middle school students. We are already looking forward to next year’s conference!