Creating Authentic Learning Experiences
By Gina Meinertz
The educators in Spring Grove knew the value of authentic learning experiences for students. We found some success with classroom jobs, math problems from real world experience, discussions based around student interest, and student choice in assessment. While these efforts were valuable and necessary in the quest to make learning relevant, they still had not motivated all our students and had not brought together our teachers in a way that broke down their silos. What was the missing link? A community partnership grounded in place-based learning.
A community partnership is a relationship between the teachers and students of a school with an organization that is long-term and mutually beneficial. The participants understand the value of the work together. They also believe and agree on common outcomes and learning objectives from the experience. In Spring Grove’s journey to become a community-based school, we have learned what makes a partnership a bonding and motivating experience.
We have multiple successful community partnerships to use as examples: a farm partnership with our middle school, and outdoor classrooms and a heritage center partnership in our elementary, and business partnership in the high school. We also have partnerships that are ending, adapting, or just an idea. Community partnerships are a living curriculum in which the relationship and experience drive the future, which is what makes the learning experiences deeper and authentic.
A great attribute of a community partnership is that it is available and beneficial to every school and community. Every school has the opportunity to create a relationships with the people and organizations around it. Every student has the opportunity to make decisions, research, and take action for the greater good. And every community has the opportunity to benefit from more educators and students designing, analyzing, and working to improve something they care about.
Now that you are convinced that you need to create a community partnership within your school, how do you start? What steps do you need to take in order to cultivate relationships and spark a drive to work together? I will share steps with you. These steps will look more like building a campfire than walking a stairway. You will need to put the right tools and people together and then wait and support for that spark to build into a flame.
Some of you will choose to finish reading this article here, but others will be looking for some examples of the shifts and changes our teams made in creating these partnerships. You want to hear the story so that you can compare yours. Feel free to look for similarities and analyze different. Reach out to us if you would like. We know collective learning helps us all to move forward to transform education to experiences of deeper meaning.
Our middle school team has had the goal for about two years to break off from our high school programming to create a program more grounded in relationship with more developmentally appropriate growth experiences. We started with a math lab that connected middle and high school students around individual growth experiences in math. This setting was innovative with two teachers in one shared space. The space had breakout rooms, walls we could write on and ways for students to advance in math with flexibility in scheduling. The teachers and students were constantly reflecting and improving their approach, but our data was telling us our students needed more collaboration and more connection of the mathematical processes to real world occurrences.
The pandemic made us shift our programming to pods. We couldn’t have students intermingling, so we changed to a middle school teaming model where our teachers were teaming in instruction. We moved to Humanities and STEM programming with 7th and 8th grade students only. The teachers created a series of interdisciplinary experiences throughout the year including a park partnership where students worked with an environmental educator to map a native prairie and wildflower plan for a city park. They presented their work to the Parks and Rec and City Council Representatives before planting the garden in the spring. This work brought all students, teachers, and subjects together around learning and created an authentic audience, but we still saw a needed to build a sense of belonging, pride, and connection for the students. The teachers knew they wanted to continue to work together but needed something deeper to bring together the standards in a way that is consistent and developmentally aligned throughout the entire year. We used a Montessori article named “Erdkinder” to back our decision to connect our middle school age students to the land an phenomena around them. Research supports students at this specific age needing to take steps away from the cohesive family units to make connections with the land and greater community around them.
This led us to our farm school partnership. We saw an opportunity to bring the learning standards togethers around competencies. We brought in Rose Colby from New Hampshire to help us to map, connect, and create competencies that ensure interdisciplinary learning experiences that extend beyond academics. Our teachers know what life skills they are supporting while also mapping the content delivered in a way that connects and supports the content in other subject areas. Essential questions guide the learning, discoveries, and group projects students will embark on throughout the partnership. Teachers will support projects, deliver supporting content, and continue to co-create the learning with students with each weekly visit to the farm throughout this school year.
Sitting on the front porch at the farm this summer, our educators and farmer engaged in a conversation of inspiration and depth. They discussed how values guide decisions. They compared efficiency, money, power, and happiness affect the decisions we make. They discussed land ownership and the historical inequities that need to be considered as we embark on our journey. We left that front porch understanding the weight of importance this learning journey holds for us and the students. We are entering a multi-generational relationship that includes people, pigs, land, the people before us, and the sustainability of the future. We hope for all participants to question, connect, and build a foundation of decision making that will affect how they impact the world.
Our elementary teachers have been offering multi-age and traditional classrooms as an option for more than five years. Parents, students, and teachers know that giving options for student learning are beneficial for all. As a group of multi-age teachers met in a community of practice during the spring of the pandemic, we wondered how we could adapt our classroom to be safe and engaging knowing that we will be coming back to a very different educational experience than we left when schools went home in the March of 2020. I had worked with an educator from Norway and visited schools and daycare programs in Norway two years before. I had observed how the programming in this cold part of the world engaged with the outdoors much more vividly than the school from the United States that I had observed. We reach out to our Norwegian partners to find out how they were coming back to learning during a pandemic. They shared how they moved meals, classrooms, and learning objectives outside. All participants felt safer, but also more engaged and inquisitive. Our team was inspired and set out to research and create outdoor classrooms.
Our city and parents were as excited as our teachers to embark on this journey. The city funded fixing up outdoor buildings with optional closing sides to block wind. Our teachers started to use a method called storylining to map out and link standards with outdoor phenomena and locations. Students jumped into their outdoor experiences with curiosity, excitement, courage, and preparedness. Teachers co-created learning objectives by helping students to categorize their questions into learning themes.
The three teachers who created outdoor classrooms planned and planted native prairie gardens, community gardens, and improved spaces within our community. They said the experience forever changed the way they will teacher. This year, we didn’t offer outdoor versus indoor classrooms. Instead, this programming will live within our system. We will start more grow labs, start composting programming, and continue to expand on our outdoor learning experiences as an elementary system.
Heritage Center Partnership
Giants of the Earth Heritage Center is an active organization within Spring Grove. They research stories, connect families, help families to understand their history, and create educational experiences and displays. They have created experiences with Spring Grove Schools for years such as a children’s parade for the town festivities, supporting ancestorial research projects for students, and writing grants jointly. These experiences have laid a strong foundation in which to grow a partnership upon. For the first time this year, we have students researching, designing, and creating displays for the community to view. We are also hoping to move our after-school and surround care offerings to this community location this school year. This will allow our two programs to bring more ages together in experiential learning. We will create a weekly schedule in which students will engage in cultural learning activities that will be united with adults, elders, and other community members. We will also spend one day a week partnering with a mental health organization to teach students resilient and caring preventive well-being and collaborative skills to support ethics and values.
We also hope to create a research partnership in which our students work with experts to research the early histories of our community. There are some missing links of knowledge of the people who first lived in our area, and we hope to connect with American Indian tribes and archeological organizations to better paint the picture of the entire history of our community.
Career and College Partnership: Redefining Ready
We have been documenting our high school students’ progress toward College and Career ready indicators as defined by the Redefining Ready goals distributed by AASA. We support our students to graduate with these indicators fulfilled beyond their course and grade point requirements. We having been shifting our schedule to support this whole child thinking such as a restricting of our advisory time to include foci such as connecting and supporting wellbeing, coaching students in the support skills of learning, and focusing individually and in small groups on our career and college preparedness and interests. We have also created a Redefining Ready cover page to communicate more about our student’s growth and potential the Minnesota Department of Education’s report card is able. Next steps will include more individual shift of tracking student’s growth. We are creating prototypes of portfolios to collect evidence of students’ passions, strengths, and experiences that will contribute to their success.
We also created a Business Experience/CEO course where students partner with four to five businesses to use the businesses’ data and vision to implement a design cycle of improvement. Students’ participated in creating newsletter and social media pages, researched the most successful businesses in small towns, and created prototypes used by the businesses in improvement.
The partnerships in Spring Grove have helped us to create a community-based school. Students of all ages get to make a difference within the community around them. They learn from and with people of all ages to dig deeply into the values, history, and future of our small town. Place-based learning helps our students to not only be prepared for their future, but also to be empowered and important youthful members of our current society.
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