by Stefanie Whitney
I remember the day I unearthed my father’s report cards from a cardboard box in my parent’s basement. I was old enough to have felt failure in school but not wise enough to anticipate my dad’s reaction to us stumbling upon evidence of his formative years. I felt relief and recognized common ground. Maybe some of my math struggles were actually genetic? Dad did not share my feelings. As I waved his dusty cards in the air, his discontent was as palpable as my relief.
We all have stories that bolster our belief systems.
I cannot recall how old I was when my mom first described herself as not very “school smart.” I do recall, however, how firmly she believed in this story regardless of how fervently I disagreed. Her proof? Report cards. Flimsy little pieces of paper that manage to fortify entire perceptions of self.
I could tell countless stories about both of my parents’ experiences as learners. About the lasting impression grades made on them. How their experiences in school influenced my own, and how learning was often reduced to letters on a crumpled piece of paper. I feel compelled to proclaim, unequivocally, that my parents are and were wise, compassionate, intelligent, and inspiring folk. I was supported, encouraged, and challenged throughout my childhood, teenage, and college years. My parents were also deeply impacted by a grading system; so much depends upon…. I’d like to sit down with William Carlos Williams and compare notes.
And while my parents’ stories are not mine to share, I do have one story of my own to offer. This story stands out among many, in part, because it represents the lasting imprint of a lifetime of being graded.
From November 28, 2016 through the end of January 2017, I took a leave of absence from my position as a high school English teacher. I left the classroom so I could return home and spend time with my mom during what we believed would be her last Christmas. We had big plans: a 45th wedding anniversary celebration (December 10), a Christmas Eve pajama party, baking all the cookies, wrapping the tree in mom’s favorite white lights, and sharing space with one another as often and as long as we could.
On Wednesday, November 30, 2016, seizures changed the landscape of that leave.
Mom remained with us for two weeks. Within those two weeks, I was an untrained hospice nurse, a grieving daughter, and a student trying not to fail in a system I had been conditioned to prioritize. I was in week 7 of a 9 week course for the Educational Leadership program in which I had enrolled eight months prior.
We had only two more weeks. During this time, I stayed awake at night with my dad, sister, and husband to hold our breaths when mom’s labored. By day, I helped take care, entreating moments of lucidity--when mom would return behind her smiling eyes. In spare moments when she slept, I wrote papers, read textbooks, and tried to prepare for a test that required rote memorization.
Finally, admitting I needed help, I reached out to my professor and asked for more time to take an online multiple choice exam on which I needed an 85% to pass the course. I could try three times before being marked a failure. Because my parents lived too far out in the country, no Verizon wifi booster could procure a strong enough connection to take the exam at home. To this, my professor offered the idea of “coffee shops with internet access.” So, when mom was resting, my husband and I drove 15 miles to the local Perkins in the midst of an early December snowstorm. After internet drops interrupted and consequently eliminated rounds one and two, this was my third and final opportunity. We sat in a side booth, me wearing headphones to drown out the noise of stranded motorists, as spotty wifi and shock carried me through a “successful” third attempt.
Now, I just had to write two short essays to be finished with this class. And I had done the math. I asked my professor to allow me to forgo those essays, and I’d take the 'B'. We knew the time was nearing. I no longer had the mental bandwidth to write any more about the effectiveness of data used in peer-reviewed papers. I had done enough. My professor, however, had not done the math. According to his calculations, I would need to write at least one more essay to earn a 'B'.
Consequently, in between helping plan my mom’s funeral and going through boxes of pictures, I wrote a paper.
I submitted the essay one day later than the brief extension given to me. One day late because, on the due date, I was attending my mom’s funeral. I apologized for my delay and awaited his response. It came 48 hours later: “I did the math wrong; you didn’t actually need the paper.”
I have to tell you: I don’t know this professor’s stories. I don’t know why he felt bound to an “accountability” system that felt so dehumanizing. I do know he was not a bad person; he had a kind smile, apologized when he floundered with technology, and cared about his content.
I also have to tell you that there are questions I still ask myself. Could I have dropped this course and taken it later? Yes. Of course, I had that option--at the cost of retaking a class without my peer group and graduating a semester later. I’m not sure whether it was any one of these factors or a strong fear of failure that most encouraged me to power through. What if mom left while I was away? I carried that worry with me every moment I was away from home and ceaselessly called to check in.
Still today, this story is hard for me to tell. In part, because I feel like I made poor decisions. I should have had the wherewithal to stand up for myself, to recognize no grade was worth the personal cost. How was I so distracted by an arbitrary grading system during one of the most difficult times of my life? A system I no longer believed in, yet somehow was still bound by.
I offer this story as the most stubborn data point in my personal belief system. For so many reasons beyond the obvious, this story does not center a person who benefited from a successful grading system. At 39 years old, I struggled to self-advocate with the most understandable reasons against an enduring and flawed system; yet, I expect teenagers to have the capacity to self-advocate against this same system?
I also tell this story because we are emerging (albeit very, very slowly) from a collectively painful time in our world; one that, for many, resulted in both personal and professional hardships.
In this moment, a quote by Sarah Wilson, author of This One Wild and Precious Life, takes up space in my mind:
“Life has been fundamentally interrupted and all of us here have been given the most glorious opportunity to take an inventory of it. We now have a choice--collectively and individually. We can go back to our old ways. Or we can move forward into something wild, mature, and humanized.”
My fundamental interruption occurred five years ago. Whether five years, five months, or five minutes, this idea of a more humanized world speaks to the disrupted part of my conscience and heart.
Humanized. Human-centered. This concept seems so logical. But I have to ask:
If we are not centering humans, then what are we centering?
I have been asked a time or two for data to back up systemic shifts that I have come to champion. I understand why this question is asked, as we use satellite data--a term used by Safir and Dugan in Street Data: A Next Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation--often in education. Grades, graduation rates, attendance, anonymous surveys--these all fit into the category of satellite data. Useful, for sure, as this data points us in a direction. But what does the satellite data we most study tell us about what we most value?
I offer this: satellite data is not human-centered data.
Human-centered. A term I recently heard used by Cornelius Minor, educator, author, and equitable literacy reformer, as he described the concept of equitable grading:
“I am always striving for grading policies that are human-centered. And if they are human-centered, they are by nature anti-racist, they are by nature anti-ableist, they are by nature anti-homophobic or anti-classist….When I think about any anti-racist grading policy, or any grading policy that is human-centered, it really sees the human first. And by seeing the human first, it is a grading policy that centers growth over random measures of compliance.”
I have come to believe the data that most moves us to change might actually be our own: our own stories, fears, failures, and self-perceptions. Owning them, dusting off the moldy shame, sharing them with others, and finding common ground and humanity in one another’s stories. These approaches to storytelling and story listening allow us to see the human first. To be seen first as a human.
We all have stories. Stories that bolster our belief systems.
Our stories are the data that we most lean on when staring down a challenging situation.
Regarding stories, in her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown references the work of neurologist and novelist Robert Burton:
“Our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns. Stories are patterns….Because we are compelled to make stories, we are often compelled to take incomplete stories and run with them...even with a half story in our minds, ‘we earn a dopamine reward every time it helps us understand something in our world--even if that explanation is incomplete or wrong.’”
I have made all kinds of assumptions about my professor and others with whom I may disagree. In fact, I’m remarkably good (relative term) at creatively filling in the gaps of so many stories. It’s faster and easier, right? To fill in the gaps with what I think I know rather than sit beside someone and find out truths. But it seems to me that being human-centered is about taking the time to understand one another’s stories rather than filling in the gaps with assumptions.
I don’t pretend this is easy; I don’t pretend to have mastered this approach. But I do offer my personal story as one reason why I stand so firmly in my beliefs.
I know you too have stories that fuel your belief systems. Perhaps you will join me in sharing your stories, and to seek out and carefully listen to the stories of others. All the while wondering:
by Heather M. F. Lyke
— The original version of this piece was first published in April 2019 by RPS Secondary Curriculum & Instruction --
If you know me, you know my husband and I recently purchased a new home. Wanting to downsize (I wanted a tiny house, he wanted no yard, so we compromised on buying and renovating a 1970’s condo), we slowly filtered through our belongings. We pulled items out of closets that we forgot we even had: placing in boxes the linens not used in years, the sweaters we no longer wore, and the camping gear we were not even sure why we purchased in the first place.
Perhaps the hardest part of downsizing was that we sometimes run into those items we needed to get rid of but struggled to part with. Those items that served a purpose in their time but were no longer of use. Items like:
Again, if you know me, you also know I love a good extended metaphor. As I see it, downsizing our course content is much like downsizing a home. As we shift into a new school year, we often find ourselves making adjustments for the school year to come. Particularly with over a year of Covid under our belts, we have had 18+ months of needing to trim content to simply survive in a world of constant shift: online instruction, hybrid structures, and long period of quarantining highlighting how even in education less is indeed more.
In our classrooms, just as in our homes, there are always items that are easy to donate or toss:
However, also like with our homes, there are items that are hard to part with, although maybe we should:
In 2019, to get inspired to downsize our home, my husband and I (along with much of the US), found ourselves watching Tidying Up with Marie Kondō on Netflix. Now, in the fall of 2021, a reminder of all the downsizing we did has resurfaced in the form of Kondō’s newest Netflix show, Sparking Joy with Marie Kondō. Having read her first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, when it was first released, both Netflix series have served as a reminder to me of many of Marie Kondō’s key ideas (which are also reinforced by her newest book, Joy at Work). Ideas that, of course, work great in homes, but that also can be used to help create even more magic in our classrooms.
7 Steps for Applying the KonMari Method to Our Classrooms:
| 1 |
Commit to tidying up all at once.
Marie Kondō shares that the KonMari Method is most effective when you do all the tidying in one fell swoop. Kondō puts it this way:
"From the moment you start tidying, you will be compelled to reset your life. As a result, your life will start to change. That’s why the task of putting your house in order should be done quickly. It allows you to confront the issues that are really important. Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination. The true goal should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order."
With this in mind, when you decide it’s time to start tidying up your course content, consider doing it in one fell swoop. Rather than doing what I used to do, which was to set aside a day every week or so during the summer to restructure and revamp; try instead setting as aside a few evenings in a row, a weekend, or even a full week to really dig-in to the task. Just as with a home, perhaps this will help you reset your instruction, allow you to confront the most important pieces, and establish the course structure you and your students need most.
| 2 |
Imagine the ideal to prevent relapse.
Ask yourself: What is the purpose of tidying up my instruction?
Is there a certain skill your students consistently struggle with and you need more time to fortify that skillset?
Keeping the answers to questions like these at the forefront will help you stay on track, should the tiding ever get overwhelming. (And, if you’re anything like me, it will.)
| 3 |
Ask yourself questions for each item.
Marie Kondō suggests a few simple questions, moving from a rational to a more emotional approach.
When working with home items, she suggests:
Since these questions don’t really work with instruction; instead, we might ask ourselves questions such as:
| 4 |
One element Marie Kondō is most famous for is the concept of discarding items that no longer ‘spark joy.’ (In fact, her second book is even titled Spark Joy.) Marie Kondō recommends holding each item with both hands and asking yourself: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If it doesn’t, thank it for the purpose it once served and then set it aside to discard.
When it comes to course content and instructional practices, obviously this looks a bit different. We can’t easily hold up a worksheet we now only store electronically to see if it sparks joy, but we can open the file, look it over top to bottom, recall how it went over the last time it was used with students, and then ask ourselves:
If the answer to these questions is ‘yes,’ then keep it around: teach the lesson again, use that text next year, and/or continue to utilize that strategy.
However, if doesn’t spark joy, set it aside. Consider making three piles or lists for those items that no longer spark joy in you and your students:
This, at least for me, is the hardest part of tidying up. It may help to keep in mind what Marie Kondō notes in her first book:
“when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”
| 5 |
Finish discarding before moving on.
Marie Kondō notes that neat does not equal decluttered. It can be tempting to simply reorganize our material and call it good. But I can take all my pants from my closet, fold them into perfect KonMari rectangles, and move them to my set of drawers—but it won’t change the fact that they don’t fit right or that I never wear them anymore. For that reason, I have to purge items before I fold and rearrange. Only then, once I see what remains, do I really know where the best place is to store my pants. Only then, do I see if I have any gaps in my wardrobe.
Likewise, in our classrooms, we have to get rid of—or least commit to revamping—those items that no longer fit our students. Only then, once we see what remains, do we know what new format or structure might work best for the year to come. Only then, do we see if we have any gaps in our instruction.
| 6 |
Organize by category.
Marie Kondō always notes to organize by category, not by room. Classroom translation: organize by power standards/essential learning outcomes/prioritized learnings, not by instructional units or lessons. This helps ensure balance and eliminate holes.
| 7 |
Designate a spot for everything.
Everything that is left, should fill a need. **Whew!** Finally, the time comes to reorganize.
This step reminds me of what I did over decade ago when I revamped the American Literature course I was teaching. After having purged a few novels and some grammar units that were no longer sparking joy in my students, I rearranged. Because I figuratively laid everything out on the table, I was able to then see that my remaining content, texts, lessons, etc. fit into six themes. Embracing that fact, I rearranged from teaching American Literature chronologically, as I had always done in the past, to teaching it thematically. But it also meant I had some holes to fill: I was suddenly able to weave in a new book group unit and adjust how I taught grammar by embedding it into our reading and writing tasks. It was a lot of work, but, ultimately, it led to more effective learning in the years that followed.
As my husband and I experienced firsthand with our home, the act of downsizing can feel overwhelming while in the process of discarding. However, we have moved into our new home and have placed all our remaining items back in the best order.
As Marie Kondō states:
“the space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming...not for the person we were in the past.”
This is true for our classrooms, too: we need to make them a place where students can grow into who they will become in this ever-changing world...not for the students we taught in the past.
by Sweta Patel
“How do you say your name again?”
You might guess that this conversation played itself out over and over again throughout my school-age years. You’d be right. But the twist is that this particular conversation happened just yesterday between my tennis coach and myself.
I’d like to take you back to 1990 for a moment, when I entered second grade. I was seven years old, eager to fit in. And I was still “Svet-ta.” But that year, my teacher and classmates butchered my name enough times that I resolved to just change it to make it easier for them to pronounce. I was embarrassed each time anyone called me “Sweat-a” or strangely enough, “Sweat-er.” I started telling everyone (well, non-Indians) to call me “Sweet-a.”
The name that my seven-year-old self-deemed as more culturally appropriate has continued to follow me into my 30s in all aspects of my life, from my workplace to the tennis courts… and most likely, will continue to stick for life.
My own experience with my name has made it a priority for me to get my students’ names right. With each new class, I wonder how many share a similar journey. But most of all, I emphasize that if I ever mispronounce their name, I want them to correct me rather than silently go along with it. I never want to be part of the reason why a student chooses some other name because they feel it's easier for their teacher.
As I write this article, I’m forced to think deeply about why that moment in second grade hits such a nerve. Names are tightly connected to one’s identity. In creating a new name, I feel I cemented an identity split between my Indian and Americanized self. Yes, people often choose to change their pronunciation of certain words in an effort to be understood. (I know this all too well after receiving some funny looks when I asked a teacher for a “bowel” to eat my snack in. It’s how I always heard my parents say it!). But in the case of adopting a new name because others couldn’t pronounce it easily, I feel it was a forced change… that my choice had been taken from me.
In the years that followed, I struggled with the yo-yoing back and forth between my two identities. I still remember an open house night during seventh grade. My mom was sitting next to me, listening to my choir teacher talk about the class and expectations. The teacher must have asked me a question, and I answered back with a soft voice. My mom turned to me afterwards and said, “What was that? Where’d your voice go? I’ve never heard you speak so quietly before.” You see, “Sweet-a” was soft-spoken, unsure of her voice and opinions. “Svet-ta” was confident. She spoke and laughed loudly.
A more telling moment happened in eighth grade when I passed a bathroom mirror at school. I remember a surreal moment where I was taken aback by the brown skin reflected back at me. I had come to feel very white in those school halls.
And now, years later, to my Indian friends, I’m still Svet-ta” - a popular Indian name that signifies “purity.” I cringe every time I have to introduce myself to a non-Indian in front of other Indians as “Sweet-a.” I feel overly American in those moments. I’ve tried to teach these same non-Indians the correct pronunciation, and they do try… but the continued butchering makes me cringe even more. So, the two names have stuck.
I don’t know how much of these dual identity experiences and feelings are connected to the moment I adopted a more easily pronounced name. But I do wonder that had I been able to remain “Svet-ta” in school and at home, whether I would have felt more comfortable bringing my Indian self into the classroom. When we’re young, we’re eager to fit in and are quick to reject anything that gets in the way as ‘uncool.’ We try to scrap parts of us that others don’t accept as easily. As an adult, we know that one culture isn’t necessarily better than the other. “Sweet-a” is a nagging reminder of how I shoved my Indian heritage down and hid it away. I regret the feelings of shame that contributed towards the divide.
With a new school year almost upon us, I hope that all staff are mindful of working hard to get student names right, the way the student is requesting that it’s pronounced. After one or two failed attempts, students generally just silently accept it. Instead, staff can double check with: “It’s really important to me to get your name right. Please tell me if I’m still missing it.” That statement can go a long way in preventing mispronounced names from sticking not just for that one class and for that one school year, but for the rest of their life.
So many in my extended family have similar stories: “Chirag” is “Shiraq.” “Hemant” is “Harry.” “Suresh” is “Sam.” “Roshan” is “Ro-shawn.” And on and on the newly created names go, in an effort to provide “easier” names. My cousin often tells the story of always running to class whenever she’d find out there would be a substitute teacher that day. She didn’t want the class to laugh when the sub would predictably mispronounce her name. So she’d walk up and quietly give her adopted name before her classmates arrived.
One idea that districts might adopt is having a place within their student management system (SMS) to include the phonetic pronunciation of students’ names. Imagine if each parent/guardian who registers their new Kindergarten student had a chance to write in how their student’s name is pronounced. This information could then be integrated into their student profile page.
Parents/Guardians of current elementary or middle school students might get a pop-up message when they access the SMS system to enter the phonetic pronunciation. Current high school students could enter the information on their own.
This change would allow staff a better chance of getting student names right on the first try. It would also help to lessen student anxiety and embarrassment around butchered names. And not to mention, graduation ceremonies would be a lot less painful for students and their families. I can still clearly recall last year’s ceremony: A student walked up to accept her certificate and told the staff member, “How did you get my name wrong? I’ve been here for four years. Really?”
To help our students know that we see them and that we hear them and that we value who they are as they stand before us, we can start with their name and take care to do our best to get it right.
by Jean Prokott
We'll see how this year goes. That's what teachers say on August 1st, the exact spot of the year when mowing the lawn is no longer novel and when one single pumpkin shows up at Michael's, and suddenly your stomach hurts, so you abandon the cart in the middle of the aisle and run out the door.
It's my first year. Last year was my first year, too, and I had a first year back in 2008 (student teaching), and then another in 2009 (first year on my own), and then another in 2010 (new district), and then another in 2013 (this district), and then 2020 (online). It's human to mark time, especially when we define the year by nine months, like nesting mothers. Oftentimes, beginnings are celebrated. The new school year allows for this—busses weave their caterpillar selves in a parade through the suburban streets, Target sells out of oatmeal-colored cardigans, hallways smell like fresh books rather than freshmen—and it's worth our Cheers. Once summer says goodbye, we're a little ready even if we don't admit it, and we raise our glasses and thank it for its dedication to the company.
To be a first year teacher is to start planning too early, or to start planning too late. The anxiety of a blank calendar, or an overdone calendar, becomes nightmare fuel, as do the faceless heads of future students, new PLCs, new rules, new norms, new shoes to break in, literally and figuratively. You wonder how long it will take for students to know you're a cool teacher or how long it will take them to respect you, you wonder the protocol for going to the bathroom, you wonder how to set up your gradebook. During a teacher's first year, the stress of choosing the correctly colored paper is somehow equally as important as writing an entire unit plan, and prioritizing depends on which lottery ball you pull from the machine that morning.
So, 2020 felt like that, because I had no idea how to teach online—it was new platforms, new technology, new norms, new ways to build student relationships. (On top of this, of course, there was a global pandemic, if you've heard of it. Also we were all very tired.) It didn't matter how long you'd been teaching when you started the 2020 school year. You were a first year teacher. We survived by softballing the phrase we got this! over and over, we were selective about the "effs" we decided to give (sometimes it was zero effs, a few times it was negative effs), and we figured it out, as teachers do, and we did a good job, because we are good at our jobs.
Here we are once again. During my first in-person meeting since March 2020, I sat in a small room and felt a stomachache. While a PLC and I collaborated on a writing diagnostic, I thought about my classroom desks, which need to be cleaned, and also my entire curriculum for three preps, which needs to be rewritten. Should I sharpen some pencils and tidy them like a floral arrangement in a coffee cup, or should I write a unit test? These are the same, somehow. I feel like I've forgotten how to talk to students, face to face. I spent the last school year teaching to SpongeBob icons and Helvetica letters, so I've forgotten what students look like, and when I pulled up class lists last week, I saw that students had grown weird mustaches and landed on haircuts that might have been dares. It was a grid of aliens. What do we say to these awkward, beautiful beings? We got this? So, 2020, amirite? Will they answer? How do I put them in groups? How do we count our traumas? Will I learn names, since they'll be wearing masks? Is decorating your mask too corny of an icebreaker? Are they sick of adults asking them how they're doing? How do I teach students how to read, or how to write? If I sit with this last question, the answer moves farther and farther away, and years of schooling and experience bubble as they sink to the ocean floor, to live in a pineapple under the sea.
For a few years, I taught new teachers through Winona State University's Teacher Preparation Collaborative—folks who'd gone to college for other careers and found their way to the secondary classroom. These classes were the second week of June—I'd gotten only two days of summer before diving in—and it was difficult to be optimistic after a long school year. But the first-years' excitement was always contagious. They'd put their lives on hold to become teachers, so they helped me to see the work was worth it, that there was magic in school, that magic was fueled by nostalgia. They hadn't been tainted by the political nuances or roadblocks I'd met during battle. The first-years were me a decade ago. She was nervous, but she was all-in.
One good thing about last year's first year, and again this year's first year, is we are learning this together. Whoever learns to tie her shoes first bends down with the rest of us to loop our bunny ears. While our traumas, losses, weight gain, coping skills, relationships, etc. are different, what we have in common is that we must use each other to advocate for ourselves. If the last school year and the pandemic has taught us something, I hope it is that we are allowed to be vulnerable. Lean, hover, take a mental health day. We tell our students to prioritize their mental well-being far in front of algebra problems or pages 3-20 of The Scarlet Letter. I don't think new teachers hear this (or tell themselves this) enough: it doesn't have to be perfect. Get off Pinterest. Nobody who is normal or who has a life actually has that color-coordinated HGTV classroom. Your Expo markers are a little dry, sure, but the kids in the back can still read the board.
We'll see how this year goes. We should find our people at school and vent and learn with them. We should learn to be comfortable with sending "I need help" emails to administrators without worrying we will look weak—do it as a team, if you need to. Administrators should make clear on day one that they encourage, and will respond to, these emails. Don't let anyone pretend things are "back to normal" no matter how much they want them to be, because normal is something else now. Put the brakes on a meeting whenever you'd like to declare: this doesn't matter right now—Covid is still here and kindly excuse yourself. Remember that the things you love about school—that caloric nostalgia—will still be there. You have students and Crayolas and those ingredients are enough. Absolutely do not compete with one another, do not brag, do not declare you are doing a bad job. Pray for snow days. Have a movie day and feel good about it. Build in independent reading time and don't feel bad for it, and do your own independent reading with the students rather than plan or grade. We're tired, we're green, we're ready but won't know it until we're in it.
Students are not behind and neither are we. It's their first year, too. There is no rush. There is no "lost time*" to make up for—there is only the time we give ourselves to heal.
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.
We recently had the great pleasure of speaking with Lazerbeak and Ilan Blanck on our podcast, where we discuss mental health, creativity, curiosity, and a growth mindset. One thread that, authentically or through sheer force of will, pulled these pieces together was the ability to create and foster a thriving community—a talent Lazerbeak and Ilan have proven to be particularly adept at over their many years in the music industry.
The piece that most intrigues me is that students thirst for community and belonging, yet when educators spend time on building a culture and community, it’s often we tend to build it for our students. Occasionally, we build it with our students. In terms of clubs and organizations, we sometimes build it through our students. However, I have yet to see an educator help students learn how to build a community in which they can belong.
In trying to break down the component parts that we may use to help students with community building, we journeyed through several layers of an umbrella process. Ilan represents these umbrella parts by recommending that we:
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Of course, we can teach structure and organization. Through the conversation, Lazerbeak and Ilan elucidated that the organization of a community requires building an organized system that others can easily join. This also requires having a structure to reach out to those we admire or value—a clear system through which we can reach out to others. Structured discussions are wonderful in class, but we need to have the skills to engage in face to face or digital environments—to make calls, send emails, begin conversations, or “send out feelers.”
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Following up can include strategies of organization (one strategy they shared outside of this podcast is to keep a list of names and conversations as they take place). We can, of course, also lean on calendar reminders, clock apps, and other technologies to be notified to follow up.
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The piece that may be the hardest to teach—essentially having a tone of approachability—they luckily also had specific ideas for.
So! I am sincerely curious as to who is out there. This is my attempt to reach out and see if we can interact a little more often. I’d like to belong to a community of people who want to grow. I want to be a part of a community that wants to grow together and that wants to help others to grow. What say you? And even if you aren’t interested—thank you for being engaged enough to read this far.
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.