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 know there are barriers standing in the way of that belief. And the hard work to transform our system will not only mean we will need to identify the barriers, but we will need to find solutions that include more voices and better outcomes.
Spring Grove Schools, a K-12 public school district in Minnesota serving just under 400 students, is on the 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. In this article, I will share ways for a more traditional system to transform into a student-centered learning environment under the themes of:
- Transforming Traditional Roles and Feedback Loops
- Impacting Community and Place
- The Importance of Telling Your Story
Transforming Traditional Roles and Feedback Loops
Hidden Voices: Designing A System for All
Spring Grove consistently uses design teams so that 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 of feedback 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 principles 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. Below you will find a mix of examples of how the flexibility of our system is allowing us to become more culturally responsive and student-centered before, during, and after the pandemic
A few years ago, students were asking for more personalization with math instruction. A math lab was established where students from many grade levels came together to learn math in one functional space with multiple educators. This year this space shifted to hold one of our middle school pods who are learning through STEM and Humanities interdisciplinary experiences in a more collaborative format. These shifts happened because of research, feedback, the continuous improvement cycle, and COVID19 restrictions. As we approach next year, we will use these same sources of information to drive the future of this learning lab.
Elementary parents and teachers have had opportunities to choose between multi-age classrooms for years. Instead of lessening choice during a pandemic, we added outdoor classrooms, Tier One Classrooms for the children of Essential Workers, and classrooms that allowed you to group with family members or students who attend the same daycares. COVID19 requirements also caused schedule changes that we will be offering in the future. Staggered entrance and dismissal time was highly supported to keep our space trauma-sensitive and relationship rich, but we’ve learned it needs to be shortened and moved. We also have feedback that will need us to consider choices in where students eat in the future. Some students are missing the cafeteria this year as they have needed to eat in their classrooms to remain safe, while other students enjoy this more intimate eating atmosphere more. Our leadership team knows we have details to iron out to ensure we can offer a choice so that our students are comfortable and respected in these new opinions. A successful system is one that adjusts and responds to the voices of all.
We have a group of students who are active in the Minnesota-Learner Centered Network organization. They contribute with leadership and insight in building improvement processes, scheduling discussions, and other initiates to drive our school’s transformation and success. Students have contributed in creating the math lab and flex seating spaces, and are now helping to design two science labs and classrooms with the goal of creating more flexibility in instruction and experience. Students have the goal to also redesign the cafeteria to be a flex learning space.
Mental health awareness is a high need at this time, so our students are partnering with experts to lead our schoolwide education and support response. They are also creating wellness, mindfulness, and trauma awareness videos and live experiences for all the students in Kindergarten through 12th grade. They plan to continue to grow efforts such as these by organizing students around social action, deliberation, and interest areas during power hour next year.
Just a few years ago the administration tried removing bells in the high school. The next year teachers asked to bring some of the bells back. This year, the high school schedule has again eliminated bells and the expectations that students can work in the school, in the community, or at home if they are not involved in direct instruction. This was designed to keep people safe during a pandemic, but this will remain even when safety through distance is not the primary decision factor. Our teachers and students have experienced a calmer system that holds students accountable for their thinking and actions instead of solely for their time. Our teachers and students are building trusting relationships that are less about compliance and more about partnerships in learning. Evidence in this lies in our one distance learning day and our development of power hour. Students were trying to develop the concept of a Power Hour in our building for a few years but our barrier was the trust of students to move freely about the school or even to leave the building unsupervised. Now that we have implemented a space of trust and movement, nobody wants to give that time up, including the teachers who once questioned. To support students as we Redefining Ready National College and Career Readiness Indicators and our profile of a learner progressions, we have added Advisory time to build relationships, check-in about questions and expectations, and ensure students are preparing themselves for life, careers, and college. If they are not finding success, we use the guidance of Ross Greene’s work and these questionnaires from Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey’s work from How to Personalize Learning to discuss and create plans to overcome the barriers or teach skills to find success. Our system is evolving to be less judgmental and more supportive for all students.
Music needed to shift with COVID19 quite distinctly. We moved music education to the gym and outdoors when feasible, we ordered new masks and equipment, and we started to offer a new Music Inquiry course. If students felt safer or more engaged with independent and small-group music experiences, they created their own learning plans for success. Students wrote their own music, researched artists, and explored how music interacts with the human experience. With this freedom, students built connections with the community and analysis of societal themes in ways they had not experienced before.
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, the Superintendent, created a Transformational Leader position that combined Transformational Coaching with Leadership. This is the position I hold. My primary goal is to break down the barriers holding back the vision of culturally relevant, student-centered learning. I work with teachers, students, parents, community members, and other staff individually, in small groups, within the community, within the county, and within the state. I listen with empathy, dig for voices that we may have missed, and support everyone interested in their desired outcomes. As a leader, I also spend time analyzing systems, writing policies, and supporting ways to make sure the system represents 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 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 and 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 had 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.
Other interdisciplinary projects included the start of a weekly Socratic Seminar discussion using Philosophy for Children and other current and relevant resources that encourage analysis of relationships and systems, promote belonging, and help students to hold deep, life-changing discussions in a place of safety and respect. Using themes such as Hidden Figures, the US Sustainability Goals, and the concepts of utopias and dystopias, our students are seeing that learning and life need to be similarly authentic and relevant to invoke meaning for all, in fact, we have these two paintings hanging on our wall.
Community Partnerships: Improving the World Around Us
Connecting within the community is a way of life for students of Spring Grove, but the opportunities increased greatly in recent years. We received a grant along with Mabel-Canton and Caledonia Area Public Schools to start a Business Experience/CEO course in high school. The school partnership was based around a series of challenges to improve the businesses in all three communities. Students met with leaders from the organization to create a plan for their human centered-design process before creating surveys and other analytic and research tools used in the Launch Cycle design process. Students celebrated helping to build their first Habitat for Humanity House in our town. Students learned many essential skills and worked side-by-side with community members in this meaningful work. Seeing one of our families move in upon completion brought pride and joy to all. We also partner with area organizations in quail restoration, ancestral research, theatre productions, and service-learning experiences. Next year, we will be adding opportunities for students to be certified in areas of healthcare and trades. We are looking at more partnerships between districts to offer career pathway options and work-based learning experiences for our students.
Beyond student partnerships within the community, our educators and leaders are pursuing ways to support the improvement of our practices through collaboration in the community. We partner with a University to bring authentic experiences with culturally relevant, student-centered practices to student teachers. I serve as a University Supervisor who coaches student teachers in outdoor classrooms, multi-age classrooms, and our middle school pod. The teachers and the student-teachers create a co-teaching partnership engrained in the belief that we are all learners. By sharing our practice and sharing our reasons why we do what we do, our teachers are engaged in more action-based teaching methodologies supported by research.
Representatives from across our county came together with the goal to bridge organizations to acknowledge racism and create systems that promote belonging and safety for all. Using the Minnesota Education Equity Partnership (MNEEP) as our guide we have used quantitative and qualitative data to paint the picture of our place. The MNEEP team and our leadership team created an equity education event leading to a county-wide equity plan where we create principles to align our policies and practices around equity. We have a goal to value all people and increase the diversity of the workforce within our district, city, and county.
The Power of Story
Feed the Good Wolf
Have you ever heard the story that teaches us to feed our Good Wolf? This story that is ascribed to the Cherokee, encourages us to be our best selves while quieting our fears. This story can also be applied to a system. Where we focus our attention will be the places that feel supported and grow. That is why and how you tell your school’s story is so important.
Our little city has a pandemic story to share, and it is a story of partnership, pride, and transformation. By creating trusting relationships, designing unique opportunities, and working together to follow the guidelines and recommendations of COVID19, we created a system that kept our students safe while improving our educational system. When other schools needed to work distantly or in hybrid, we came to school. Of course, our students had times they needed to quarantine and needed to learn distantly, but the majority of the 2020-2021 school year was face-to-face indoors and out. Students and staff were diligent in wearing masks (even though they were annoying) and they stayed six feet apart. They ate outside the school and in their classrooms. They separated into pods and adjusted to a new system of one-way-stair and hallway traffic. Our data shows that staying in school with these new safety measures was great for our learners. Students, parents, and educators truly appreciate the relationships and learning they have gotten to experience in our system. We do have pockets of students that need extra support after going home last spring, but the amazing thing is that our staff is seeing this as a confidence gap. These students need to practice independence. They are not missing learning. They are missing the skills to use their own strengths to conquer the next learning challenge, and we are prepared to support them in this work by focusing on our Profile Learner characteristics and how we can embed them into our reporting and parent feedback loops
Our school also has many learner stories to share. We have been capturing a series of video stories to share with our parents and community. No matter the restrictions, we need to share the learning stories of the people coming to our school every day. We captured growth and flexibility from adults and students sharing stories of grit, creativity, rigor, and reflection. These stories show how everyone in Spring Grove is contributing to a system that celebrates and transforms for the students they serve.
Leaders, teachers, students, parents, and community members are turning their attention to the positives. In a time where many systems are drowning from the demands and shifts of a pandemic, our system is celebrating change, focusing on growth, and telling our story of transformation.
Profile of a Learner Progressions: Teaching the Whole Child
The profile of a graduate community input process started last year has helped us to create the first version of our Profile of a Learner Progressions (in draft). We are using these progressions to guide discussions around what it means to be a learner. And what it looks like to support different learners in different ways. We are using progressions to help students and teachers to identify cultural, instructional, and future relevance in their learning.
Most of our school, including many of the high school courses, have moved to standards-based grading. Our next steps are to move to competency-based grading systems to track not only academics but also Redefining Ready indicators and Profile of a Learner dispositions and skills. Right now, our teams are preparing to prototype and implement the profile of learner competencies into instruction, assessment loops, and reporting methods. We have the goals to use these whole child focal points to increase learner agency, student co-creation of learning experiences, student-led conferences, and empowerment within our system.
Profile of a Learner Competencies also intertwines with the Storylining, the methodology many of our teachers use to weave together standards, questions, student inquiry, and learning themes into instruction and assessment with a focus on depth and relevance. The concept of storylining blends phenomena-based storylining taken from science curriculums (Illinois example); with the Montessori principles of a three-period lesson; the Visible Learning work of learning intentions and success criteria; and student inquiry-based, place-based, and experiential learning. I used this Storylining Folder to teach staff the essentials during a summer session, and continue to coach and support the implementation over time.
Spring Grove Schools is a student-centered school built on empowerment, trust, and innovation. The people of the school and community used the barrier of a pandemic to transform a system into a place of engaged learning with a more clear purpose for our work ahead.
For more, see:
- What is Place-Based Education and Why Does it Matter?
- What the Pandemic Taught Us
- Podcast: Outdoor Learning Leads to Curious Students
Gina Meinertz is the Assistant Superintendent at Spring Grove Public Schools. Follow her on twitter.
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