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.
by Jean Prokott
Until the day I retire, or die, or as luck will have it both at once, I will feel the same way about education theory and articles and professional development as I do now, which is that I find it entirely abstract without the acknowledgment that the system thwarts much of it from succeeding; that is, the hard work is put on the teachers, who have no control over the arrangement of the school day, or the Horace Mann scheme itself. I am not concerned with the amount of work, because the work is valuable and sometimes enjoyable. Rather, I am concerned about teacher morale when most things we create, in theory, work best in a fantastical (dare I say utopian) system we are not afforded.
Sir Ken Robison’s TED talk comes to mind as I consider the question: are there so many books on theory because we’re starting bottom-up rather than top-down? Why hasn’t school changed? Or, at the very least: why don’t our professional development seminars and theory texts begin: we know you’re boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past BUT…
Many communities and school boards are in the midst of discussions about Critical Race Theory (CRT), which has inspired my thoughts here, as has Cathy Park Hong’s book Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, which I listened to on short walks between my online classes last winter. The book is part literary criticism, part memoir. I recommend it highly. Hong explores how Asian narratives have become a single narrative and does so in a raw, poignant, and even humorous way. (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk comes to mind as well).
There are mountains of discussions we could have about CRT, but I won’t address those here. Instead, I want to discuss what obstacles arise even when we have control of our curriculum. I want to explore how intersectionality might put some of us in a box.
It’s important to note that I am writing as a cis white woman. If one were to Google “stock photo of English teacher,” my picture would probably come up. I have many blind spots that my government-issued teacher Ray Bans cannot bring to focus.
The Minnesota English standards appropriately direct teachers to use diverse texts, both teacher-chosen and student-chosen. For the most part, teachers are not directed to use specific texts, nor are they directed to read “Black authors” or “Asian authors.” The term “diverse” allows autonomy, but I am indecisive here. I love autonomy in my classroom. I attempt to bring in as many intersectional voices as possible. (The resources, or “book room” needed to do so is another article.) However, as Hong’s book made me consider, this forces teachers to say “we need an Asian story,” “we need a Black story,” “we need an Indigenous story,” or “shoot, I don’t have time for the feminist story, what do I do?” Other than to say “students, please keep in mind this is only one experience,” I’m lost. To give students access to as many absent narratives as possible, I have to, ironically, put those voices in a box and define them by the authors’ or protagonists’ identities.
This is not our “fault.” We are doing the best we can within the literature repertoire that understands kids need stories that expand their worldviews. (Unfortunately, the CRT debate has made this complicated for teachers to explain. Telling someone else’s story does not negate one’s own. Discussing one’s privilege does not mean they haven’t overcome obstacles.)
The challenge with the standards is the system, in that we rely on the one story, year after year, because of access to materials and time, and the weight of the job. As much as I am embarrassed to acknowledge this, I’ve had the thought that teaching A Raisin in the Sun ticks both the “Black” and “woman” boxes.
What then happens is we teach children the same absent narrative each year.
A wonderful resource is the Minnesota Humanities Center, which offers an abundance of stories that address the absent narrative. These resources help us fill a gaping hole. It also takes an incredible amount of time to explore every story, a rewarding, engaging, and time-consuming task. Time is always in short demand. One wonders whether we’ll have time inflation any time soon and the time economy will crash.
But if we change how school works, we might make more room to find these voices.
The teachers I know are impeccably well-read. Our professional development is diversity focused, compelling, and student-centered. But the school and “factory” has looked the same for the last 200 years, and for most of those years, they have mostly told cis white male stories. I wonder if the best way to make room for the rest of the narratives is to change up the system, which was built for white middle- and upper-class students.
I’m not entirely sure what this looks like, but we cannot dismiss it as impossible. I became a teacher so I could infiltrate and fix the problems from the inside, and I’m doing the best I can by keeping myself as well-informed as possible. I listen to National Public Radio 39 hours a day. I participate in book groups. I write for an amazing Education online magazine. I know we can’t beat the system on our own. What we can do is keep our personal bookshelves diverse when we find time to read for pleasure, and we can ask our students what they’re reading and which stories they’d like, and we can rely on our colleagues. I don't want you to apologize for not having time, because finding the best literature is a second job. My point here is to tell you I’m on your side, to tell you: we can’t beat the ocean’s current, but…
by Dr. Louise Waters
Education innovation is beset by seemingly intransigent, although opposing, forces. The first is well known to any change agent. It is “Can’t Because.” We can’t do x, y, z because we tried it before and it didn’t work. We can’t because our children / families aren’t ready for it. We can’t because our context is unique. We can’t because our school is under-resourced. Etc. Etc. Etc.
A less obvious barrier is the true believers “Can and Must”:
Lasting innovation and the hope for achieving systemic equity goals must bridge this divide. But it needs the “Can If” orientation described by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden in their book, A Beautiful Constraint. As I have experienced it, those with a “Can If” orientation view change as a Rubik's Cube with three dimensions: Strategic, Human, and Execution. Like the colored cubes embedded in the larger Rubik’s Cube, the components of each dimension are continually changing, providing new opportunities and constraints. All must be managed and aligned for innovation to lead to permanent institutional change.
The Strategic dimension incorporates the need - the call to action and a compelling vision to address it. Taken together these energize passion and purpose. It also includes the strategy to identify the barriers and assets already in place and the path to leveraging them. These constraints and opportunities are embedded in both the Human dimension - how to get buy-in, alignment and momentum from stakeholders - and the Execution dimension - how to make sure that each step of the strategy actually works and moves the system closer to achieving the vision.
Let me make this concrete. In the 1990s I became principal at a Bay Area Elementary School, the school two of my children had attended. One was a strong traditional learner and one struggled with severe dyslexia. Neither had been well served by the systems it had in place. The school was extremely diverse with no dominant ethnic group and situated in a working, middle-class community. The families were heavily immigrant or recent arrivals to the suburbs and were supportive but not demanding of their safe, welcoming, physically attractive school. The staff was complacent with the achievement level and with gaps attributed to language, culture, income and family structure. The likelihood that it would or could change to truly meet the needs of children like either of mine seemed low. If I came in as the knight in shining armor with all the answers for school improvement, I was going to be dismissed with Who are you to tell us how to do our job? or Yes, but our kids come from families who don’t prepare them for success! But if I entered trying to win their approval and agreeing with their complacency and prior beliefs, I would be complicit in maintaining the status quo.
However, I also came into school-site leadership after eight years as a professor of urban education and a school reform coach in low-income Black and Brown schools in nearby Oakland. I knew we could do better and the achievement gaps I had observed here were not inevitable. I had also seen how assessment and data could be used as entry points for fundamental change. And I knew from both research and practice that the traditional assessment, grading and retention system negatively impacted all students and had devastating effects on students with IEPs and low-income students of color. It was a key element of the systemic racism embedded in American schooling. Like most aspects of systemic racism, it was taken for granted and largely invisible, simply “normal,” to people who had risen through it - here and at schools across the country.
Armed with data and the knowledge garnered from years of supporting schools in changing their outcomes by changing their assessment and grading processes, I had a vision for using this entry point to transform my new school. However, as a parent I knew the staff was highly seasoned, one of the most traditional in the district. It would be easy to trigger backlash and resistance. My goal: to move them from what would surely have been “We Can’t Because” to a more open “We Can If” that would allow us to align on a path to greater impact and equity. I knew this would mean a fundamental disruption in teaching and learning.
The strategy I began evolving then, so many years ago, I have come to term Disruptive Incrementalism. Disruptive Incrementalism is a contrarian theory of change. In accepted practice, particularly in the world of “Can and Must” believers, a visionary leader is hired and / or a long, blue-sky design process engages a large group of stakeholders to create a vision. Once leadership and vision are in place, implementation plans are created. Often implementation is delegated to a small, select staff with little transparency and engagement. The timeline is often very short. Disruptive Incrementalism turns this process on its head: First build trust with outstanding execution and early wins with a good-enough, equity-oriented vision. Then collaboratively iterate, deepen the equity vision and tailor to the local context.
Disruptive Incrementalism and Human Change
A veteran staff has seen innovations come and go, often poorly implemented, misaligned, time consuming, and seldom sustained. They have little reason to get on board. Trust is built through doing, not talking: getting early wins and being responsive. Here is the strategy for change in the human dimension:
In working with the staff at my school, this meant building an easy consensus that the hated elementary grading system had to change. It included a narrative K report card, an effort-based 1-2 card, and traditional letter grades at 3rd through 5th. A clear pain point. Second was shrinking the change. Initially this initiative was not about mastery grading, portfolios, the language arts program, homework, etc. It was simply designing a new K-5 report card. Obtaining district permission was a huge trust-building first step. Calling out equity as a piece of the initial good-enough vision set the stage to later deepen the discussion of inequities in the current practice. And finally, there were bright spots to build on. The kindergarten team used a variety of performance assessment tools, a number of teachers had writing portfolios, and so on. My job was to highlight these and why they worked - building internal models rather than simply holding up easily dismissed external exemplars.
The next steps involved generating buy in via authentic engagement. This meant bringing those pioneer teachers together and exposing them to the relevant research and to their own classroom inquiry, building a design team focused on implementation not on vision. Each of them had a long history of pushing their own practice. Now they were working as a team encouraging each other and prototyping new approaches to grading. This I later came to call collaborative innovation. As they began fleshing out a new system and were provided the time and autonomy to experiment, others wanted to join - a process of demand pull.
By the end of the year, the pioneer group had the skeleton of a new report card and a plan for building the grading practices to support it. Presented at a full-faculty meeting, everyone was invited to join in extensive, paid, summer work. Those who did not choose to come committed to abiding by whatever the group had put in place, knowing that it was a pilot that would be iterated over the following year and subsequent summer. This second more inclusive stage I have come to call collaborative iteration. “We can make this work if we…..” Over those first two years the fluid teams - sometimes by grade and sometimes focused on content areas or specific populations like English Learners, expanded their sense of accountability from their own students to all students. In later years the report card, assessment system, and design team grew to include all elementary schools in the district. The sense of responsibility also expanded. Teachers began to feel responsible for all students in the district.
Disruptive Incrementalism and Execution
Attending to the human dimension of change means building trust and hope. Can staff trust that they will have a voice, that you will deliver, that there will be results? Much of the way you build trust and hope this is through how well you execute:
As I mentioned, my first big win was gaining permission to pilot a new report card in a district seen as highly centralized. The fact that I personally led the work and had visible support from top district administrators both validated and empowered teachers. The involvement of “Can’t Becausers” and “Can and Musters” meant issues of implementation were addressed all along the way. To address concerns, increase participation, reduce overwhelm and shorten timelines, different teachers prototyped different pieces of the system. Each component was needed for the new report card to be successful. Some created mastery exemplars for grade-level performance in math, reading and writing. Some designed electronic lesson plan templates or grade books that worked for mastery grading. Others thought through how this type of report card would fit in with traditional practices like the GPA honor roll (eliminated) and parent conferences (became student led conferences). Still others worked on parent communication. Feedback from parents, students and teachers identified best practices as well as execution disconnects. Many were addressed immediately before the next report card. Substantive issues were put in the parking lot for summer iteration. Problems were surfaced and addressed. Champions emerged. Trust was built as iteration continued.
Disruptive Incrementalism: A Strategy for Systemic Change
Many strategic guidelines are detailed above:
A word about goal and vision iteration. This is the contrarian aspect of Disruptive Incrementalism. Don’t invest time and political capital on a blue-sky vision and lofty goals - both of which will probably not be reached anytime soon. Instead, start with something that has wide support and is concrete and achievable in the near term - but that is aligned to a long-term vision that substantively disrupts inequity. In doing the actual work, staff will expand their understanding of the issues and their belief that deeper change is possible. In designing a new report card you have to address what is the role of effort, of achievement, of mastery, of improvement - and how does this play out with a student far below grade level, an emerging speaker of English, a student with an IEP, etc etc. With strong facilitation, these questions drive people to the research and to classroom cycles of inquiry. If this is done in a learning, not a punitive or lecturing, way and if that inquiry is public and inclusive (we called it “The Committee of Whoever Comes”), fundamental change can happen.
With strong facilitation, the measurable, systemic, equity goals can be teased out and called out and understanding deepened. Over 7 years we built a district-wide, K-5, developmental, standards-based report card. It pulled from authentic assessments and supported an academic program that aimed to meet every student, whatever their skill level. A critical element was a comprehensive formative data system for all schools. A wrap-around extended day program with multi-layered tutoring provided intervention. Morning extended day included 4 primary language academies to build primary language literacy. This was systems change, not simply a new report card.
By the end of the first year, teachers were able to articulate a clear, measurable goal: All children would grow at least one year in reading, writing and math and students below grade level would grow at least a year and a half. After tracking data for three years an additional goal emerged for students entering the school with no English proficiency: grade-level achievement after four years. While few staff would have believed this possible at the beginning, most came to see that if data showed a significant number of students could meet these markers, it should be possible for all. That same data system, one which codified and tracked formative data, allowed for the close monitoring of these goals. In fact, individual data for each of the 900 students lined the wall of the faculty conference room for ready use in staff meetings. These goals and this comprehensive vision, especially when they became district wide, could have sparked rebellion and been shot down before change got started. Approached with collaboration, iteration and demand pull - the processes of Disruptive Incrementalism, changes few would have foreseen did happen.
Two final corollaries of Disruptive Incrementalism are important to note if the goal of education reform is systemic change that sustains over time. These are:
Education change strategy seems to swing from researched-based fidelity to creative autonomy and back again. Disruptive Incrementalism has the opportunity to bridge these predictable poles. Neither autonomy nor fidelity are good in-and-of themselves. Rather they are means to an end. The goals are equitable access and outcomes across teachers, classrooms and schools. This is not possible without common standards along with consistent expectations and practices that allow alignment. The lack of these is an underpinning of systemic racism that allows the best teachers, practices, and programs to go to the students with the strongest advocates and most privilege. Consistency is also necessary for teachers to collaborate. If teachers cannot share data or curriculum, they have little concrete to collaborate about and little opportunity to identify best practices.
At the same time a system that is lock step does not allow teachers and schools to contextualize for specific communities and students. It also does not allow them to bring their own passion and tap into the passion and creativity of their students. Impact and equity need both. In the report card project, common standards, rubrics, exemplars and key aspects of the curriculum supported consistency and high expectations. But this approach also allowed teachers the latitude to build, borrow or iterate many aspects of their practice. For instance, the development of schoolwide, K-5, student-led conferences equitably supported student agency and grading transparency. However, the exact structure and artifacts of a given teacher’s conferences invited creativity. So too did integrated units collaboratively built by teacher teams.
By starting small, under promising and over delivering, and calling the full range of school voices into the iterative design process, the so-called report card work attracted little attention beyond the boundaries of the school. The number of advocates increased, coming to include parents and students themselves. And their understanding deepened. By the time more fundamental changes were part of the vision, what could have been major issues, like the end of letter grades and the honor roll, brought inquiries not protests. And the trust that had been built meant that when true problems arose, like incompatibility with the district’s online grade book, teachers became problem solvers not saboteurs. The practice of summer collaborative iteration was in place and frustrated teachers were willing to do work arounds until then. The spread to other schools was viral - teacher to teacher with pioneers from other campuses asking to join the summer work. The actual district-wide move to a new report card was uneventful. No concerns rose to the level of a complaint to the Board, let alone a public outcry. And the district-wide extended day program was celebrated.
This, then, is Disruptive Incrementalism. It has an end goal of disruptive, systemic change. However, the process is incremental: building the understanding of complex change, a trust in implementation, and buy in from a range of stakeholders. It takes into account the three faces of change: strategic, human, and execution. And it leverages the cautions of the “Can’t Becausers” and the passions of the “Can and Musters” to move systems. I returned to my school 10 years, two principals and many teachers later. A new teacher gave me a tour pointing out school highlights, not knowing my role in any of them. Most were products of the “report card” work now institutionalized. 20 years later my granddaughter moved into the district to start kindergarten. The comprehensive extended day program, designed to support meeting students where they are, was still a touted feature of every elementary school. I do not know how many of the deeper shifts have lasted, becoming invisible as they, too, just became part of “Who we are and how we do things.” That, too. is Disruptive Incrementalism, where invisibility and longevity may be the ultimate markers of success.
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.
by Jean Prokott
The book cover was a black and white pixelated picture of Mr. Hoffman with long California hair, holding a surfboard at his side. Three staples were smashed into its left margin. It held my very first publication: a poem titled “Scatological” that was written in rhyming couplets, one of which ended with the phrase “for you a just a crayon.”
The poem was legit the worst.
And bless Mr. Hoffman for pretending it was good. He was my AP Literature teacher in 1999, and the book was creatively called Mr. Hoffman’s AP Literature Class, Fall 1999. Everyone had a poem in this book—and we each had our very own copy of the book—our class collection of poetry.
I’d like to be humble, but I thought my poem was the best, and I’d convinced the whole class to get on board with this sentiment. Mr. Hoffman used to make transparencies of my essays (remember transparencies? in my first year of teaching, I melted a hot number of those in the photocopier) and projected them to the class with all the best sentences underlined. I don’t think anyone cared much, except for frenemy Sarah, who also sometimes had essays projected, so the dust settled at Jean’s the best writer in the class except for when Sarah is.
I loved every single thing about writing, and Mr. Hoffman played a substantial role in that. It was only to thirty small-town kids, but he published my work. High school years were a hot mess for me, and I am grateful he offered me overhead projector light.
My nickname in high school was “English Teacher,” and even though I tried to Jocasta myself out of this prophecy, it happened that twenty years later I, too, was smashing staples into the left margins of poetry my American Literature students had written as a contemporary response to Transcendentalism. Each student, just like in my 1999 version, had their very own poem on their very own page.
If my students knew what kind of garbage I wrote in 1999, there is no way they’d trust me to be their English teacher. I cannot explain how exponentially better my students are ahead of my personal curve. Those sophomore poems are pretty damn good. People need to see.
That is, this is not a story about surfboards and scat, but rather a reflection on what it means for kids to get their work out there.
Building Confidence: forming a foundation trust for students to share on
Convincing my high school students to publish doesn’t mean in a formal sense. For some, it means sharing their personal writing (not the “peer review” of a literary analysis, but a poem, personal narrative, or short story) with a large group of classmates, and that’s enough. It takes a lot of confidence for a kid to pass around thirty copies of his poem to students who just-so-happened-to-also-take-the-class. In my classroom, this act alone is publication. It allows us to start in a place we will never get rejected.
The creative writing workshop is the groundwork of confidence, and I’ve found this works best when the class observes the one-one-one I have with a student after their workshop. It allows me to model a “confidence/constructive” dialogue. Usually, I will tell them what I love, tell them what’s “muddy” and needs some work, and then throw out a “but what if you tried this! when you revise?” because it helps them understand the effort is worth it—their teacher is stoked about their work. On the really good days, after we wrap things up, I hear one kid say to another your poem was amazing after they’re in the hallway, and I do a villain laugh: ha ha, got you to care, suckers!
Not every workshop is perfect, I make a lot of mistakes, but this is a good first step. Students who truly embrace this first publication are the ones who meet with me about more formal opportunities.
I don’t require kids to publish as part of my curriculum (I think some kids might be a bit too fragile for rejection). However, I do show everyone how to do it. And I’m successful at healthily harassing kids to send out their work. When there’s a flier for a contest, I tape it to the dry erase board and draw 40 arrows pointing to it, when there’s a student who needs an extra nudge, I’ll photocopy the flier and drop it on her desk.
Each year, Rochester holds a Martin Luther King, Jr. poetry contest for K-12, and I have had a few students win or place in that prize. I put the flier on the board with the arrows and mild threats to submit, but one year I went to each student and told them which of their poems could win the whole thing. Only some submitted, and I think a few did just to shut me up. And when the “fine, just leave me alone Ms. Prokott'' kid won, it was truly a gift to say, well, Garrett, I flippin' told you. You have to give me half the prize money.
The best way I nudge students is with secondary dialogue on their drafts, such as you need to publish this immediately, let’s talk about how to get things out there! Or on my sophomores’ personal narratives and poetry: please, please sign up for creative writing next year!
Many teachers, all of my colleagues, do this. And again, this is not to be a trick—I genuinely want the students to do these things, and I take it a little personally when they don’t.
Submitting for Publication: steps for students to get their words in print
This is a note I posted in Google Classroom before I talked about publishing with my seniors:
When it comes to formally publishing work, I take students through the process of using Submittable, which is a free website that most professional publications use. Luckily, it’s easy for them to sign up: they just need an email address. I recommend their personal one so they may access post-graduation.
My school doesn’t have a literary magazine or a newspaper, but schools with those could hold contests in a similar way; this year, our yearbook has a poetry competition and winners will be published. But in my realm, beyond Submittable, opportunities sometimes fall into my lap. My colleagues put any mail they get for creative writing contests in my e-or-mailbox; a friend will let me know of a contest at his university; an editor will send an email to high school teachers informing them of a contest; a parent will send a note.
The opportunities above led to my students publishing online and in print over the last few years. The editor of Up North Lit emailed me about their high school contest, and I convinced some students to send poems. One of my students won the contest and had three poems published, and another had a poem published. It is worth noting that I submitted to the adult contest and got a big fat rejection.
There are opportunities hiding in the community, too. Students have published Op-Eds in the local paper, students have organized or attended poetry slams. Two of my seniors were locally published because a parent emailed that she was looking for young, female, writers of color for Rochester Women Magazine. I knew a few students perfect for the break, so I gave them her information, and they published two beautiful pieces last spring. The day the magazine came out, they sprinted up the stairs, handed me a glossy copy, and told me exactly which page to turn to.
Providing a Sense of Place: being vulnerable and embracing vulnerability
Distance learning has afforded many weird opportunities, but one I intend to keep is that I have started to write letters to my students. Last year, I wrote my class of 2020 a three-page singled-spaced monster letter that included a personal anecdote about a car driving into a gas pump. I wrote my sophomores a letter about the George Floyd murder to amplify the importance of rhetoric and of Raisin in the Sun. Instead of a syllabus this fall, I wrote a letter (a “letterbus” [student eye roll]) to introduce myself. I wrote my seniors a letter in response to the Amanda Gorman inaugural poem.
I don’t know if they read these letters—it might truly be a TL;DR situation—but the ones that do, I hope, know that their teacher loves to write herself, which very much matters.
Here’s how I see my role:
It’s remarkably cheesy, but Mr. Hoffman’s AP Literature Class, Fall 1999 is one of my most important publications. I’m a bit of a pessimist—adamantly critical of toxic (and sometimes regular) positivity—but it’s one of the stories people might post on Facebook during National Teacher Appreciation Week regarding the “teacher that changed them.” (I intend to send Mr. Hoffman a copy of my poetry chapbook, The Birthday Effect, once it comes out this month, no note or anything, just to show him what’s up—something I have looked forward to for a long time. Also, why do I feel vindictive about it? That’ll show that jerk to believe in me!)
Teachers know we don’t know the long-term impacts of the nudges and notes we leave on our students’ writing. My students don’t know a lot of my praise comes from the jealousy that they are such better writers than I ever could have been in high school. It’s just not that hard to get excited about their work. I throw a few tools at them, smash a stapler, and they take it from there.
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.