Pushing Beyond Barriers
The Story of Transforming a School System
By Gina Meinertz
Globally, educators are seeing a need to change school systems. We believe in the possibilities of equity, all students achieving, and all students graduating ready to contribute to the common good, but we also know there are barriers standing in the way of those beliefs. The hard work to transform our system will not only mean we will need to identify the barriers but that we will also need to find solutions that include more voices and better outcomes.
Spring Grove Public Schools is on a journey to transform a traditional public school into a culturally relevant learning space that ensures every child confidently uses their passions and strengths to find purpose. To do this work, a team of teachers, students, parents, leaders, and board members created a vision of the 21st Century One Room Schoolhouse with pillars of self-paced curriculum, project-based learning, flexible learning spaces, and real-world learning opportunities.
Here are some thoughts on how a more traditional system can transform into a student-centered learning environment.
Transforming Traditional Roles and Feedback Loops
Hidden Voices: Designing A System for All
Spring Grove consistently uses design teams so students, parents, and educators collaborate to envision, prototype, and research the best next steps for our school. We use a series of improvement cycle protocols, including empathy interviews, to hear all voices. When we collect this information, the order of the collection is integral. Unlike most systems, feedback starts with our students so that the adults listen to the voices of the youth before sharing their own perspectives. This ensures the traditional power holders are listening before speaking. We also have a practice of looking at our data from a series of lenses. We start with common themes, and then take a second look purposely searching for hidden voices with concepts from equity design principals intertwined. If we are missing any stakeholders or groups, we seek out empathy interviews with these individuals. If we are hearing passionate or loud voices, we may use the “5 Whys” technique to find and respond to the root cause.
Flexibility: The Students and Families Shape Their Own Success
We know our school system will forever be changing and transforming. This is because Spring Grove offers opportunities and choices to students, parents, and staff members. This relationship of communication and trust has allowed us to continue our healthy transitions, even during a pandemic.
Here are a variety of ways we have been able to use the shifts and stressors of the pandemic to further our advancements in culturally, relevant student-centered learning.
Transformational Leadership: A Shift In How We Support Our Vision
Maybe because of the size of our system or maybe because of creative thinking, Rachel Udsuen, our Superintendent, has created a Transformational Leader position that combines Transformational Coaching with Leadership (this is the position I hold). The primary goal is to break down barriers holding back the vision of culturally relevant, student-centered learning by working with teachers, students, parents, community members, and other staff individually, in small groups, within the community, within the county, and within the state. Another role of this position is to listen with empathy, dig for voices that may have been missed, and support everyone interested to achieve desired outcomes. Lastly, the role includes analyzing systems, writing and revising policies, and supporting the system to represent the voices and perspectives of multiple stakeholder groups.
Our goal was to create a setting to support the passions, interests, and individual professional development needs of all adults, so that the adults could in turn implement deeper learning, whole child development and personalized learning experiences for students. As a coach, I personally use experience mapping to storyline the growth and needs of our system as we transform. As a leader, I work with my team using human-centered design and Studor Education to visually transform feedback loops and research into practice in a transparent way.
Impacting Community and Place
Place-based Learning in Outdoor Classrooms: An increase in Inquiry & Engagement
Our educators wanted to find ways for our students to feel safe and engaged in learning during a pandemic, which led us to outdoor learning. We reached out to some friends in Norway at Hoppensprett. They shared how they started outdoor classrooms with details about how they would instruct, eat, and learn outdoors. This inspiration helped us as we designed three outdoor classrooms in the elementary, a middle school partnership with a city park, and additional outings for many students to prairies, woods, and wetlands.
Outdoor Classrooms have been such a success from the perspective of our students, teachers, parents, and community members. Students ask more questions, observe with more detail, focus better, and make more connections between learning and life. Projects of learning include but are not limited to the following learning themes:
The city has supported our efforts by renovating three shelters to create spaces of flexibility where windows can be closed and opened to protect students from the wind and other elements. Our Communications Company gifted the internet to our outdoor shelters. Teachers invite guest speakers frequently to share their experiences and expertise to engage students with authentic and relevant learning. These students will end their year by creating a new outdoor natural reading space for all students in the school. They are organizing funding, designing a log to be transformed into a bench, and planning a native plant garden to surround their reading bench. In years beyond, they plan to increase the native plant populations around the entire school grounds and city.
Place/Based Learning: Experience Drives Learning
Traditionally, all students in seventh grade and above in Spring Grove functioned with a similar eight-period day schedule. The pandemic brought us to create a middle school pod. The teachers started teaming to create interdisciplinary units of study focused on real-world problems, self-reliance, and collaboration.
The students partnered with the City of Spring Grove to research, plan, and design a park with more native plants and natural spaces. Students learned from an environmental educator about biodiversity, habitat, and prairie plants. Using this knowledge as well as their aesthetic preferences, students designed maps and presentations to share their ideas of how to improve the park with the grant funding. Students shared this with the Mayor and Parks and Recreation committee. They will receive feedback before ordering the plants. The City and students plan to continue this project into the spring so the students can learn about soil preparation and testing, planting conditions, and will in the end complete the project alongside community members.
Choosing One’s Own Path
Independent Choice and Independent Learning in Elementary Physical Education
By Eric Aeschlimann
In most ways, this pandemic has been a tough ride for teachers but it hasn’t been all bad. As educators, if we can’t see obstacles as opportunities for growth, then we aren’t living up to our growth mindset ideals we expect our students to strive towards.
In Physical Education (PE), my system has always included a schedule of units and skill-building that allowed an introduction to skills, time to practice, and opportunities to build on previous skills. Out of necessity, the schedule depended on weather (soccer in fall, gymnastics in winter when stuck in the gym, etc.) and much of that has stayed the same. But, this year, with fewer minutes for PE, it was an opportunity to take a risk and attempt something I’d been wanting to try for a long time: independent learning for grades K-5.
I wanted to have students come to class and immediately start independent work for the first 5-10 minutes of class. In theory, if students were motivated to improve on these chosen skills then these 5-10 minutes would add up to a lot of practice by the end of the school year. After set time for practice, then our PE units would follow the same order as before: a quick chat about the day, a warm-up, and finally our daily unit/game/activity.
Once back in the gym in late January, I trained students to choose a skill to practice for the first 5-10 minutes of class. Luckily, I had whiteboards at my disposal for daily reminders, and I put 6 skills on one board and 5 exercises on another. I had skills and levels of expectation for grades K-5 on each whiteboard. It looked like this:
This became a habit: students were taught that each day they’d have 5-10 minutes to work on a skill or exercise of their choice. My goal for them was to get to their grade-level-ability or better by the end of the school year: the first number was generally a first-grade level and the final number listed a fifth-grade level. I stressed to students that this year we were behind in our typical learning and that while some kids already had some of these skills, others may not, so each should choose a skill they individually needed to improve upon. To keep the “watch me’s” at bay, I told students this was independent work time and that I would ‘test’ each of them on a different day: my goal was to check about 5 kids each day and give feedback to those students, while everyone worked independently on each of their skills of choice.
What I’ve learned in the first month and a half of this process has proven what I had hoped.
Additionally, I have noticed how much interest there has been in the pull-up bars. I have five spots for this and they’re typically full: students race to get to them so they can work on pull-ups or the flexed arm hang. We’ve also had the rope and arm ladders available during much of February and it has been so fun to see students getting stronger just by using those muscles.
I am always reminding students that if they want to get better at something then they need to practice. Climbing the rope, swinging on the rope, pull-ups, and flexed arm hangs are very real examples to students, who after a little over a month of practice, are seeing their work pay off: those who could not do a flexed arm hang have been able to hold themselves up after they work on it and play on the rope.
Students have been able to choose a skill, find out which grade level they are at, and then work on it every day they have PE and track their own improvement. It has been exactly what I had hoped for: not just me telling students what was important, but them choosing a skill and putting actual effort into improving at it. The focus has been tremendous.
I will continue to use this system of choice within my classes moving forward. I’m impressed with how much content I’m able to assess with this new system. Plus, the smaller class sizes we have had this year due to Covid-19 have allowed me to really get to know each student’s skill level better and to monitor individual progress. With elementary PE, units are still practical and necessary due to equipment set-up and the simple fact that elementary kids, in order to learn new skills, need personal practice as well as to see their peers demonstrating practice. At the older levels, however (fourth & fifth), I can see this system expanded to more than the first 5-7 minutes of PE: I can see a warm-up choice, small unit choice, or even skill-practice within each unit.
Prior Understanding Matches Findings & Bonus Discoveries
What I had previously learned about personalized learning was that students would be on task with more focus because each student’s education was tailored to their current level. Students in their ‘sweet spot’ of not too hard and not too easy would take ownership of their learning and really focus to improve their skill. This is true in my newfound experience.
A healthy side effect of this model has been how little I’ve had students give up or refuse to participate. Discipline is hardly needed, as kids simply know what to do and do it. They don’t get bored because they have eleven choices and each one at their own skill-level.
Tips for Sucess
I am excited to see how far, moving forward, I can stretch putting kids in charge of their own learning as they become independent learners. After all, students becoming independent learners is our endgame.
My suggestion to any teacher who wants to put students in the driver’s seat more often:
Personally, I tried this a couple of years ago with fifth graders, tweaked a few things, then added fourth graders. Though it might not be viable in every subject area every day, I do believe whenever individual work is being done, it is possible.
The trick for the K-3 students was to ‘train’ students prior to setting them free to explore: I was nervous about them learning something the wrong way and becoming embedded muscle memory. Therefore, I spent a few minutes on each skill and spent the first few days after not tracking or assessing, but monitoring proper technique instead.
There is a sweet spot of not too hard, nor too easy. For younger students who are not yet readers, this can be tricky; so, I used pictures and symbols with numbers underneath and encouraged kids to help each other or ask me if they forgot or couldn’t figure something out.
Application Beyond PE
This technique is not only for PE! In a math class, for example, one choice could be flash cards, another could be white-board practice, another could be manipulatives (cubes, coins, etc.), money counting, etc. On a whiteboard or poster, could be the levels. I think it is key for students to know where grade level is and beyond. It could look like this:
I was looking for a way to give choice and voice to students and hoped for focused work that led to increased assessment scores and fewer discipline issues. What I learned in my K-5 PE classes this winter was that it can be done. Students were self-motivated and focused on the task at hand; therefore, I had fewer issues with students off task.
I am excited as I look ahead to how I can expand choices in different units and settings, as I feel I have opened a new door that has endless possibilities. When teachers choose to go this route, students will become more independent and self motivated. Who doesn’t love that?
Ideas by Audrey Betcher, compiled by Nick Truxal
“I wake up each day hoping for a failure, because with a failure, I learn. With success, I move on.”
This is a fitting quote to begin with, as I don’t remember where I heard it. As a writer, not crediting my sources is absolutely terrible. (Shouldn’t I just not use it, then?)
Yet, that is the point—there is more to learn from sharing the quote (failure to cite) than from not sharing the quote (which would have been a success citation-wise). Audrey Betcher shares in her podcast “Building Stronger Communities,” available March 26, 2021 on Third Eye’s podcast, that failure has been important for growing a community willing to tackle difficult situations. For those unfamiliar, Audrey Betcher is the library director for Rochester Public Libraries, and has been for twenty years. In that time, she has led her organization to receive the prestigious National Medal for Museum and Library Services award for “significant and exceptional contributions” to her community.
To achieve this recognition, some of the difficult conversations Betcher needed to facilitate included the exact same types of questions schools are faced with daily.
In order to answer these questions, though, she needed to create an environment that celebrated risk taking, openness, collaboration, and indeed, failure.
One of the many things Betcher did in order to help build the capacity of her community to be collaborative, open, and willing to take risks was to celebrate each of these traits. She did so by inventing the following three awards.
1 | The Collaboration Award
An award that celebrates not the outcome of a collaboration but rather the quality of collaboration that occurred.
2 | The Cliffjumper Award
This award is a celebration of taking risks. Though this tilts towards the successful, it certainly is a great set-up for our third award.
3 | The Heroic Failure Award
“Where we just totally fail, but yay! The things that come out of the heroic failure award morph into something so much better than we could ever imagine,” Betcher stated in our podcast conversation.
More specifically—focusing on education, there are a few applications to be made. First, of course, is having something akin to these awards in our school or in our own classrooms. Next, however, is the application to Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, which may include tools such as “My Favorite No” or “The Robert Frost Technique.”
There is a lot of research available that demonstrates the failures of a growth mindset, and if we want to learn and grow from failure, we must keep these in mind as well. The primary issue with the growth mindset has been in terms of a focus on outcomes rather than a focus on process. Dweck, the leading voice on growth mindset, has spoken many times on this trouble spot, which she sums it up in her article for The Atlantic by saying, “The whole idea of growth-mindset praise is to focus on the learning process. When you focus on effort, [you have to] show how effort created learning progress or success.”
As educators, it’s often important to remember that we must make room for failure, appreciate it, even celebrate it to grow. Keeping that in mind, let’s lean into this failed quote one more time:
“I wake up each day hoping for a failure, because with a failure, I learn. With success, I move on.”
If we wrap failure in awards, community, collaboration, openness, and a growth mindset together, our students and staff will all be “hoping for a failure,” according to a source uncited.
by Heather M. F. Lyke
— This piece was first published in May 2020 by RPS Secondary Curriculum & Instruction --
There is an old adage that, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This year, I thought I’d try and grow the population of the specific village raising ‘my children’ (or, in my case, the 174 students I taught first semester) by widening the access my students have with adults in our community.
The First Community Collaboration
Some might assume—because I’m married to a social studies teacher or because I once had a job supporting social studies teachers—that I am well-versed in all things historical. This is far from true. While I love reading historical fiction and I’m well versed in certain literary and philosophical movements, that’s where my historical expertise ends. For this reason, when a colleague of mine pointed out that a local expert on the orphan trains of the early 1930’s was going to be giving a Community Education Class on the topic, I decided to reach out—see if she’d come in and work with my students.
My sophomores and I had started the school year off reading the novel Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. Not only do students love the snarky zest of the protagonist who happens to also be in high school, but this character’s world-view ties in well with our Native American Indian Literature state standards. Simultaneously, however, the other protagonist navigates a part of history my students and I knew very little about… So why not bring in a community expert?
My students loved Dorothy Lund Nelson’s visit. She had done a lot of research and was passionate about her topic. She had students wear name tags and she talked to them as if they themselves were orphans in the early 1900’s. For the rest of the book, and occasionally throughout the rest of the year, students would reference her visit. Plus, she left a copy of The Home We Shared: History and Memoir of the North Dakota Children’s Home at Fargo, North Dakota behind for our students to share, and when we were still together in the classroom it was checked out often.
The Next Community Collaboration
Working with Dorothy Lund Nelson is what got me started—and it led to a community connection that just keeps on giving: our Mayo High School collaboration with the Rochester Public Library (RPL).
We stumbled into this collaboration naturally because every Tuesday, when I would meet one-on-one with roughly a half-dozen students throughout the period to talk about what they were reading, I kept finding myself recommending audiobooks to my more reluctant readers and to my students struggling with fluency when reading aloud. Personally, being addicted to audiobooks, I was surprised by how many students were not aware of the audiobooks they had access to for free via our school library and via RPL. This prompted me to reach out to RPL and see if they’d have any interest coming and getting my students connected with library cards. Sarah Joynt, their librarian who does student outreach, was instantly on board.
Joynt spent the day with me and my students. Each period, she shared with students some of the many online resources RPL provides, discussed some of the in-person opportunities that teens often enjoy at RPL, answered a wide variety of questions that students had, and then got those who wanted them set up with library cards (which she delivered to us about a month later). A high-energy presenter, students leaned in and listened to her every word. They ask questions about the Bookmobile and the BookBike, they wanted to know how to get jobs at RPL, they even wondered aloud if there were ways to get overdue fines waved (yes, by the way, there is). In fact, this collaboration went so well, that now all 10th graders at Mayo High School—not just those who have me as a teacher— have had Joynt come into their American Literature and Composition classrooms to share about RPL’s free resources.
Here are a few snapshots of the magic that Joynt brought into my students’ lives:
Future Community Collaborations
There was a time in my teaching career where I though bringing in community members wasn’t worth the effort it would take. Well, color me a different color now. In both cases this year, reaching out was fast, easy, and simple. The benefits far outweigh any negatives that came with scheduling these visitors. In fact, I’m already making plans for next year—and I’m not just planning to bring back Lund Nelson and Joynt: I’ve already started lining up community experts in the field of writing to work with my Creative Writing students in the school year 2020-2021!
If nothing else has been verified by the pandemic, it is indeed that it does “take a village to raise a child.” I am heartened by, and lucky that, this year I took the time to expand my students’ village this past fall, because it certainly made this pandemic-spring a bit easier for them to navigate. We never know what the future has in store, so why not give our students as many connections as possible? And those connections can easily extend far beyond our classroom doors.
By Mark Barden
Constraints get a bad rap. People see them as wholly negative: they impede progress and diminish potential. Entrepreneurs, in particular, seem locked in a perpetual grim struggle against scarce resources and abundant obstacles.
But constraints can also be fertile, enabling—even desirable. They can make people and businesses more than they were rather than less than they could be. Constraints force people to reframe problems and get creative, and from that fresh perspective and creativity emerge new opportunities: superior alternatives at which smooth, open roads would never have arrived.
In these “interesting times” when our lives seem chock full of constraints thanks to the pandemic, it can be liberating to think about the possibilities in the constraints.
Examples are everywhere:
Google and Zappos were responding to external constraints, which is the typical scenario for startups, but the NBA and Seinfeld created their own constraints. Can you imagine becoming so confident in your ability to transform your limitations into gold that you might impose them on yourself?
As advisors to the plucky challengers of the modern world, we’ve been wrestling with this subject for 20 years. Our research spans four continents and numerous industries and we’ve reached some simple, but powerful conclusions about the mindset, method, and motivation required to make constraints beautiful, including:
With the right mindset, method and motivation, the thing that binds you may just be the thing that liberates you to achieve greater success. Good luck!
Making Educational Constraints Beautiful
with Mark Barden | 3.16.2021
Barden shares a wealth of information on how to leverage the constraints in education to create more than if no constraints existed at all.
By Bobbi Waters & Dr. J. Bruce Overmier, compiled by Heather Lyke
Teaching in a pandemic is far from simple. That’s unquestionable. Yet, there are aspects of this challenge that have benefits. For example, it has shed light on issues that previously were able to hide in shadows: one of which is how many of our students get stuck in a cycle of learned helplessness.
Recently, one of Dover-Eyota Public School’s teaching teams wanted to find a solution for helping students break the cycle. In search for an answer, they reached out to Dr. J. Bruce Overmier—a man with fifty years of experience in psychological research, with hundreds of publications to his name and who is also cited in thousands of others, and currently a professor at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Overmier’s research has often focused on the subject of learned helplessness, and he shared some advice for helping our students and teachers unlearn helplessness.
In many ways, Dover-Eyota, has already been trying to live by Overmier’s ideals, and as such, we share Dr. Overmier’s thoughts intertwined with Dover-Eyota examples.
The Importance of Celebrating Small Wins in Preventing Learned Helplessness
When Overmier replied to the teacher-group’s request, he began with, “How good of you to try to find ways to help your students and give them some resilience in these trying times...” He started with a “small win”—he began by celebrating our teachers’ finding time and momentum, despite a pandemic, to reach out to him in the first place. This aligns tightly with his first suggestion: a need to create success experiences.
Incorporate activities that immunize the students before helplessness inducing traumas.
Waters’ Dover-Eyota examples:
Celebrate the Word of the Week what students put it into action
Celebration of Little Wins & Scaffolding Help to Unlearn Helplessness
Martin E. P. Seligman, author Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
and Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, once noted that “learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.” With that at the helm, it becomes clear that students need to draw connections between their actions to their outcomes and why it is those outcomes matter.
The best therapy for helplessness is exactly the same as prevention
Waters’ Dover-Eyota example:
Scaffold & celebrate through goal setting & student self-reflection
Embracing Complexities: Being Intentional
Bobbi Waters noted, “When we give our students purpose and help them see value in their voices, their ideas, their accomplishments, we instill a true compass. We teach them to be their own source of feedback, provide their own guidance by modeling how to do this at a young age.” This gets at the heart of the issue: there are layers, and those layers have to work together for learned helplessness to be prevented/unlearned.
While what I describe sounds simple, it is not.
Lyke’s Dover-Eyota example:
Layer in scaffolds and plan for routine feedback
Perhaps, as the world slowly emerges (fingers crossed) from this pandemic, we can apply Overmier’s ideas to the educational changes that will inevitably occur moving forward. One, we celebrate each win, small as they may be, as we find our footing once again. Two, we take small steps so as not to overwhelm, and draw connections between our actions, our outcomes, and our purpose. Finally, we ensure intentionality in our planning and we understand that successful change can take time.
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.