Eastern Carver County School District: A Conversation with Brenda Vogds and Brian Beresford

Q&A  11 December 2018
By Brenda Vogds, Institute for Personalized Learning, and Brian Beresford, Eastern Carver County School District

 

I think it’s really important to let people know that what they’ve contributed up to this point has made a positive impact. You can then invite them to look at what they’ve done from a different lens.

Brenda Vogds
(former) Leader of Personalized Learning and Innovation for the Secondary Schools

This interview was conducted in September of 2018. At the time, Brenda Vogds was the Leader of Personalized Learning and Innovation for the Secondary Schools in Eastern Carver County School District. She is now the Director of the Institute for Personalized Learning.


Q: What path led you to leading learner-centered transformation in Eastern Carver County?

Brenda: My first failure in education made me pause and think about education as a whole. I was a really successful high school student—I knew how to play the game. When I got to college and entered my freshman year, it didn’t take more than two weeks for me to realize I had zero skills to make myself successful at the university level.

My sophomore year, I failed a five-credit calculus course that I needed for my Accounting degree. I’ll never forget having a phone call with my dad and him saying, “You need to figure your stuff out. You are paying money to go to school right now, and you just failed nearly half your credits for the semester.”

At that point, my GPA had fallen to a 2.2. I had one semester to bring my GPA up or else I’d be kicked out—I was on a trajectory to dipping below a 2.0. I had to do a lot of soul searching in that moment. I didn’t know who I was as a learner or what I needed to do to be successful.

I was on the accounting path because I felt it was an easy topic in high school and that is how I should decide what to pursue in college. I eventually decided I wanted to combine teaching and accounting. With this hybrid interest, I had to transfer schools to enroll in a program that had a four-year degree for teaching accounting.

In the first course I took at my new school, I had to disassemble an entire computer and put it back together. That was the entire course. My final exam was: “Does it work?” If it didn’t, I couldn’t pass the class.

That was my first opportunity to see how education can be done differently. Rather than sitting in lectures as the professor clicks through PowerPoints of how to disassemble a computer and what it looks like, I could actually do that myself with my own hands. I kept questioning the system at that point.

 

People were aghast—”Why would you do that?” That’s when I realized we had a problem that needed to be fixed. That was the start of my initial passion for transformation.

Brenda Vogds
(former) Leader of Personalized Learning and Innovation for the Secondary Schools

Going into education as a business and marketing teacher, there wasn’t much of a curriculum to follow. I assumed in my head that everyone had this freedom to create when I first began teaching. I couldn’t imagine being so locked in step by the curriculums they were handed.

I remember being in my first staff meeting and hearing people say, “But, that’s not in my textbook.” For me, they were having these really weird conversations. I was thinking, “Why do you care about your textbook?” Then, I started actually asking, “Couldn’t we do this backwards?” Couldn’t we look at the standards and say, “Here’s the standard, how do we teach that?” People were aghast—”Why would you do that?”

That’s when I realized we had a problem that needed to be fixed. That was the start of my initial passion for transformation.

Not too long after I started teaching, I was lucky enough to find myself in a Technology Coordinator position where my Assistant Superintendent really thought differently about things. She would come into my office, and I would keep saying, “What if instead of buying that curriculum, we looked at what the standards were, pulled them out, and started talking about what we really want kids to know and be able to do—versus following things chapter-by-chapter?”

My Assistant Superintendent completely agreed and asked what the steps were that could get us there. That was the first opportunity where I got to lead change, and I haven’t looked back since. Once you see it and see people start to operate differently, there’s no going back.

Brian: I had the unique opportunity when attending a private grade school to go through a program that was using an Individual Guided Education (IGE) model. Although much of it was simply getting the next worksheet when finished with the current one and being able to go at my own pace, there was an element of mixed-age grouping.

In this setting, the teacher would provide individualized instruction based on the information they had about each individual student. For me, that was great. I didn’t need a lot of direction, and I appreciated that individualized approach.

When I got into high school, which was my first public school experience, I quickly realized how good I had it before because my high school was a complete one-size-fits-all approach—and that size did not fit me at all.

When I landed my first teaching job at a low-income school, we had so few resources. However, that turned out to be a huge benefit. It forced my team and me to sit down and ask, “What do we want fourth graders to learn in Social Studies?” Having that opportunity to plan around the standards and not being reliant on simply what already existed like Brenda described, I feel we had an advantage in creating something new and meaningful.

 

I began developing a keen interest as a teacher in thinking through what it is we want all learners to know and be able to do—and, what are the variety of resources we need to help each learner get there?

Brian Beresford
Leader of Personalized Learning & Innovation (Elementary)

Fast forwarding to when I moved to Minnesota, where resources were abundant, I actually felt like I was taking a step backward. The first day I was setting up my fifth grade classroom, I was delivered a large box of packets and told that was what I was going to need to teach Social Studies. I felt like I was back in high school. There was a script, and I was on auto-pilot.

I began developing a keen interest as a teacher in thinking through what it is we want all learners to know and be able to do—and, what are the variety of resources we need to help each learner get there?

As I’ve transitioned into different roles within the district, I’ve constantly asked myself what I need to do in my role to really transform the learning that is happening in Eastern Carver County Schools.

Q: What have you found to be the best way to enroll an educator in making this transformational shift, when they have spent time and effort developing their craft within the context of the old paradigm?

Brenda: As a team, we spend a ton of time talking about how we value the work people have done. Personalizing doesn’t just exist for our learners; it exists for our adults as well. When we think about who the people are in the room, we consider their needs and how they can be validated. I think it’s really important to let people know that what they’ve contributed up to this point has made a positive impact. You can then invite them to look at what they’ve done from a different lens.

We spend a lot of time on growth mindset and starting with the question, “Do you have a growth mindset? Do you believe you can learn and adjust in different ways?”

Brian: Under Brenda’s leadership, we’ve brought on Personalized Learning Coaches and created a Personalized Learning cohort that we now require all educators and administrators to go through. In that cohort, one of the things educators do is visit classrooms at different levels.

I might be a 12th-grade Biology teacher in a Kindergarten classroom and being able to remove myself from my context and not be so tied to the content I created, I can see what a five-year-old is able to do. It might have me ask myself, “What should that look like at the 12th-grade level?” It’s an easier conversation to have because you aren’t scrutinizing any single teacher’s work or planning. Rather, you’re having this professional and intellectual conversation about learning and wondering, if it looks like “this” at this level, what can it look like at my level?

Brenda: This cohort has been going on for five years now and it’s the one thing over that period that has stayed in place. We’ve had a lot of shifts and growth through different leadership, but it’s the one thing we’ve been able to hold onto because people value that experience so much.

Q: How have you created the space for this cohort to thrive?

Brenda: Oftentimes in education, teachers are told: “For anyone who would like a substitute teacher, we’ll get you one, so you can go visit another classroom.” With that system, nobody does it because it’s too much work to create the lesson plan for the substitute to execute.

What we’ve done, as Brian mentioned, is make participation in this cohort an expectation. We knew things were changing on a larger scale, including the language we used in Eastern Carver County Schools. We needed everyone to understand what we were saying because there were multiple definitions floating around the district for one word. For example, if you talked about the term “personalized learning,” that could be interpreted as everything from teacher led choice to true learner agency. Common language is important, but common understanding is what takes you from ideating to implementation. There were misinterpretations both of what we were asking and of what everyone was producing in response to that request.

Brian: When we began our work in personalized learning, there was a sizable group who was initially involved in authoring a strategic plan. However, when the plan’s action steps were rolled out to the masses, I think one of the errors we made was making people feel like we were telling them, “You’re doing everything wrong and now you need to do it this way.”

That wasn’t at all what we intended them to hear, but I understand why that is what happened. Most learning environments were very teacher-centered, and we were envisioning a learner-centered approach. When you contrast it that way, it makes it sound like “that” was wrong and “this” is right.

 

Visitors to Eastern Carver County Schools always seem surprised by what learners can do, particularly at fairly young ages. My reaction to that is always, “Ok, now that you know, what are you going to do differently tomorrow?”

Brian Beresford
Leader of Personalized Learning & Innovation (Elementary)

Since then, we’ve developed a self-reflection tool where educators look at themselves on a continuum of skills that are required for a teacher-centered versus learner-centered classroom. There are certainly times where a more teacher-centered approach is valid—like a lesson in safety—so it makes sense when using that framework. Allowing educators to have a conversation and ask, “Where do you see yourself and what style is appropriate in what you’re teaching right now?” is a great tool to have.

Q: How has the culture of communication between classroom educators and administrators changed?

Brenda: When I first came into the district, I noticed a lot of opportunity for organic growth on the teacher leadership level. We had a teacher leadership committee that was started that really allowed teachers to sit around a table together and say “here’s what we’re thinking…” Once they grew their idea into something that was actionable, they could quickly move it up through the administration.

Our superintendent at that time allowed a lot of risk and freedom in what we were doing, which enabled that committee to exist. Because we had so much teacher leadership in the beginning, our teachers actually got ahead of our administrators. We had to take a little bit of a step back and ask what we could do to have our administrators really partner with the educators to lead this work.

It wasn’t that they needed to know every action that was being taken, but they did need to know why it was being taken. In terms of our roles, one of the biggest challenges is figuring out how we can work with our administrators to develop the same knowledge the teacher leaders are developing, so they don’t get left behind.

Q: Since you transitioned from the traditional setting to a learner-centered approach at Eastern Carver, what changes have you noticed in the young learners?

Brian: Self-awareness and self-advocacy. Visitors to Eastern Carver County Schools always seem surprised by what learners can do, particularly at fairly young ages. My reaction to that is always, “Ok, now that you know, what are you going to do differently tomorrow?”

Brenda: One of the things that you’re always told in a more traditional teacher training environment is that you need to set your expectations high because kids will live up to that. It always cracks me up because it means: “I (as the teacher) have the only say over where your education level should be.” What I’ve seen is that student agency piece where learners are able to come to you and say, “Hey, here are the things I’m interested in and how I’m going to tie it to X, Y, and Z.” Not only do you get that passion, but you discover a different level of expectation because they are setting the level higher than you would have ever expected them to be able to do.

Q: As you look ahead, what are some things you’ve been thinking about to further your transformational work?

Brian: One of our biggest missed opportunities as school and district leaders is not using our youngest staff members as leverage points to change paradigms. What we hear from so many people who are participating in the shift to learner-centered is, “I’ve never worked so hard doing this, but I’ve never been this gratified in the work that I’m doing.”

When you enter the profession and you haven’t created things that serve the legacy model, I think it’s a missed opportunity not to tap energy and talent of people by asking, “What would you do if the system didn’t exist?” Because for a new educator, the system isn’t yet clearly defined. What we tend to do is say “we’ll mentor you into teaching,” which means enculturating them into how we have always done things. Then, in two or three years, we put them on committees to help maintain the status quo.

Brenda: We need to really redefine what success looks like. We’ve talked a lot about creating a graduate profile, but what the profile really points to is a community conversation. So, what does our community value around education and what they want for our children’s futures? If we could put some parameters around that, it’s going to set us up for a different level of success.

No longer will success be defined by a 4.0 GPA or the number of clubs and organizations you’re in. We certainly need high standards, but what do we value as a community that helps redefine what success looks like and gives us a north star to guide us? How do we align all of our resources to that new north star? It’s going to be different. I don’t think everyone is ready to engage in that process yet, so we have to ask ourselves what steps we need to take to get ourselves to that conversation.

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