Minnesota New Country School: A Conversation with Aaron Grimm and Paul Jaeger
Q&A 02 March 2018
By Aaron Grimm, Minnesota New Country School, and Paul Jaeger, Minnesota New Country School
The advisor and advisee are co-workers in the field of learning. They are unafraid to test one another, and both are working with joy and intensity to best themselves.
High School General Advisor and Q-Comp Lead
Q: What is the role of the advisor at Minnesota New Country School (MNCS)? What do the relationships (and the building of them) between advisor and learner look like?
Aaron: An advisor’s goal is to build positive relationships and find out how to intrinsically motivate students. It’s important to note, the advisor isn’t alone in this endeavor. The advisor receives support in meeting their students’ needs from many other positive adults in our buildings—School Social Worker, Behavior Interventionist, Special Education Staff, Paraprofessionals, and Administrative Support Staff. We have a collective goal of building positive relationships with “our students,” which has lead us to using more inclusive language when we talk about them. Everyone is always saying “our kids” rather than Aaron’s students or Paul’s students. This work truly takes a village.
Moreover, advisors spend multiple years (looping) working with students. When it comes to building trust with students and their families, building these multi-year relationships is advantageous. Although I’m officially a grades ⅚ teacher, I know every single student by name before they get to that level. By the time I work with these students, I have a really good idea about the strengths and challenges of each. This knowledge allows me to issue growth challenges to students in bold ways, which ultimately leads to a feeling of mutual respect between teacher and student. I respect the students’ determination to take on the challenges, and they respect my recognition of meeting them where they are and pushing them just beyond their comfort zones
Paul: Choice is a core value of our learning community. We believe young people are in the best position to choose the advisor they will work well with. We trust them with these important decisions, and our hope is they will move toward an advisor they think will draw the best out of them. In the elementary years, due to our small size, each grade has just one advisor. But, once they reach the secondary level, the choice comes into play. Naturally, many factors can influence their decision.
A student yearning for social connection could base their advisor decision on the advisory their friends are angling to be in. A student looking for romance might try to work their way into the same advisory as the apple of their eye. At the end of the year, each secondary student submits their top three picks for an advisor (to work with the following year), and we work collaboratively to make sure they end up with one of those options. Sometimes they choose well; sometimes it goes the other way. No matter which way it goes, there is power in being able to make that decision, and it is a decision our students weigh heavily throughout the year.
As an advisor in our secondary school, I occasionally visit the elementary school and hear 4th graders discussing the advisors they hope to work with at the secondary school (which begins in 7th grade). Many of our young people arrive at MNCS from places where decisions have always been made for them. Extending this choice to students is a way for us to communicate through practice that this will be a different place for learning.
The advisor and advisee are co-workers in the field of learning. They are unafraid to test one another, and both are working with joy and intensity to best themselves. The advisor serves as an ally to and for the advisee within the community. As an advisor, a line from Harvey Milk has become a mantra for me: “You gotta give ‘em hope.”
When a student joins our community, the first thing we do is set up an hour-long conference with them and their family. During this time, I’m interested in learning about their education story to date. What have they enjoyed about it? What has been difficult for them? What do they hope might be different here? I’m mostly curious to learn about the things they like doing outside of school, the things they pay attention to when they are free. (It is important this be done to better understand them as a person, not merely as a means of steering one of their passions into a first project.) After talking for a while, I like to ask what they would like to learn more about? Then, I listen very carefully. To me, an advisor is at their best when they are listening good ideas into existence.
Our learner-centered environment affords us with opportunities to get to know our students and grow our community. We are not pouring energy into designing curriculum; we are guiding students through their project work.
Q: What difference does it make for the educators at MNCS to be part of a teacher-powered, learner-centered environment?
Aaron: An advisor’s (teacher) role is different than a traditional teacher in that the foundational goals are to form personal relationships with all of their students and help run the school. They are part coach/advocate/mentor/encourager/planner…the list goes on. An advisor’s job is to help each student engage in their learning and with our school community. Our staff, including teachers, take on many other extra duties in order to make our school function at an optimal level.
We also serve on various administrative committees that help push action and decisions to help our school run. For example, I serve on the Building Committee, the Supporting Students and Teachers (Intervention) Team, and the Technology Team. I have my school bus license, and I’m the head toilet plunger for the boys bathroom! We all take on various duties based on our personal strengths and abilities to commit extra to our learning community.
Developing quality relationships with students is critical in any educational setting and paramount in a learner-centered environment. Without positive and professional relationships in place, nothing else matters. Advisors at MNCS are learners first and teachers second. The most crucial subject for us to learn about and understand is our students. What do they care about? How do they motivate themselves to get stuff done? If they need help, do they know how to ask for it?
Fortunately, our learner-centered environment affords us with opportunities to get to know our students and grow our community. We are not pouring energy into designing curriculum; we are guiding students through their project work. We do not spend precious time grading student work (*we do not have grades); we ascribe worth to the things they are doing well and, if given permission, offer them growth challenges in areas they can improve.
As an advisor at MNCS, one job I have is to help my advisees find their Yoda(s)—the people who can teach them the things they want to know. One of the great freedoms we all have is being able to decide who our teachers are. This might be an actual teacher, but for many, it is someone else entirely: a YouTuber, a blogger, a friend, a community elder. For instance, one of the students I am lucky to work with has an abiding interest in green architecture. I am out of my depth in that particular field, but one of our community members has been a practicing architect for two decades. Putting students in touch with the right teacher(s) is an important part of our work at MNCS. Of greater import, in finding the right teachers, students are learning how to learn what they want to learn.
Overall, we all HAVE to start looking at measurements of student success outside of standardized test scores in order to start this revolution.
Q: We know the teacher-powered model is not a prerequisite for a successful learner-centered environment. But, do you believe a teacher-powered model alleviates barriers that often show up in a more traditional administrative structure?
Paul: As teacher owners, we sink or swim together. The stakes are high and gone are the traditional scapegoats: the incompetent administrator, the madcap superintendent, the unhinged department chair. At MNCS, the strength of our community (colleagues, students, parents, community members) is positively dependent on our willingness to look to one another when the going gets tough to find the best way to do right by our kids.
I’m not sure this can play out well in a more traditional structure. There is room for experimentation in those places, but it is difficult to get everyone paddling in the same direction. If everyone is not paddling in the same direction, it is hard to get far from the place of origin. Of course, I do admire those individuals paddling hard for the other shore.
Aaron: As a huge believer and practitioner in Teacher-Powered Schools, I know it helps our school do what is right for students in a less bureaucratic manner. Is it more work than a traditional teacher? I think it is just different. When it comes down to it, I understand that if I want this school to succeed, I need to do whatever I can to make this place successful. This environment was more what I was hoping for when I thought of a teaching career. I can have a direct impact—mentoring and helping students.
We still have to follow policies and procedures, but we are a small vessel versus an ocean liner when it comes to navigating 180 degree turns. There are many schools that use a more traditional structure that are still able to focus closely on students’ needs, so I know it is possible.
Overall, we all HAVE to start looking at measurements of student success outside of standardized test scores in order to start this revolution. One of our founders and long-time teachers Dee Thomas always said, “We need to do what is right for kids.” I think the people at the top (Principals, Directors, etc.) should really work for the teachers and encourage ownership of decisions with school staff. If everyone has input and ownership (meaning you have to help implement) in decisions, there is no one to blame if it doesn’t work besides the team. It gets rid of the scapegoat mentality. Here is a simple example: A school team decides that instead of having custodians and lunchroom/playground staff, you will split these duties up on a rotational basis amongst staff and students. This is a huge budget saver, and students learn the value of taking care of their community.
Q: You initially started 20 years ago with only a secondary level. What has adding the primary level allowed for?
Aaron: Adding grades K-5 to our existing program was a huge lesson for our staff. We knew after almost 20 years that we needed to work with kids earlier. In year five of our elementary, we are still making tweaks to our program based on staff input, program focus, data, and parent feedback. At the primary level, we are focusing mainly on basic skills in reading, math, communication, being a curious learner, the student’s role in the community, and developing a positive sense of self. We also begin to teach the project process (for project-based learning). In our grades 4-6 classroom (which is two classes of 36 kids total), we have been exploring mindfulness, authentic communication, and how to take care of ourselves physically and emotionally.
Mixed-age learning binds our community together. Our upperclassmen serve as mentors to our younger students at the secondary school. This helps draw new students into the fold.
High School General Advisor and Q-Comp Lead
Q: What does mixed-age learning look like at MNCS? What are the benefits you’ve seen by mixing ages?
Aaron: Our elementary building utilizes mainly multiage classrooms, as the Kindergarten classroom is the only room with one grade. After Kindergarten, we have 1-2, 2-3, 4-5, and 5-6 groupings. Mixing ages helps students understand their learning level is not grade-based. In this spirit, we are now moving to individualized Math and Language Arts instruction, thanks to mentoring from Impact Academy in the Lakeville School District. Helping students find the optimal level of challenge in their work seems to be the key to unlocking their intrinsic motivation. We push the idea of mentorship from our older students to our younger students, as we all know students determine the culture of the school much more than the adults do.
Paul: As Aaron said, mixed-age learning binds our community together. Our upperclassmen serve as mentors to our younger students at the secondary school. This helps draw new students into the fold. Our veteran students benefit from this, too, as they get to experience the vim and vigor our new students bring to the table. For example, one student arrived to our advisory halfway through last year and quickly launched into an ambitious project: designing and constructing a giant sphinx-like sculpture in honor of their cat, made entirely of pennies. Veteran students marveled at the boldness of the project and were inspired as this student executed on their unique and beautiful creation. When the project was complete, the student had glued over one hundred dollars in pennies to their sculpture, and it now serves as an inanimate mascot for our advisory.
Q: What is one of your favorite learner stories?
Aaron: All positive learner stories seem to start with a change in a kid as they start seeing worth in themselves. They stop believing the “I am not smart” narrative that may be stuck on repeat in their head. One of my sixth grade students used to struggle with confidence, focus, and comparing herself to others. When she reached 4th grade, I began noticing her confidence was growing. Fast forward to this year, she has completed two insightful projects—her last one on the Atomic Bomb in Hiroshima.
I work really hard to give her compliments and positivity, which always leads to her breaking into a huge, whole-face smile. I invited her to attend an education conference with me as I wanted her to know that I recognize her tremendous efforts and positive story. I could tell that she was extremely honored. She went from a student who chose to fly under the radar because of a lack of confidence to a student who has gained a sense of self that I hope will change her life forever. I hope she never forgets her abilities, drive, and sense of curiosity.
Q: What’s on the horizon for MNCS? What’s one thing you’re hoping to achieve in the next five years?
Aaron: Over the past few years, we have taken the leap (after many years of talking about it) and invested heavily in helping students with Mental Health needs and awareness. We are in year two of having a School Social Worker and Behavior Interventionist (I would never go back to our old model). We will continue investing in and being curious about our students’ needs, rather than blaming them for struggles they may be having. Two huge things we hope to address based on student and parent surveys are establishing our own food program for breakfast and lunch and creating a physical activity space/gym for our students.
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