If I’m going to complain about something, I’m going to try to fix it.
Innovative Programs Director
Q: What was your educational experience like growing up?
A: I grew up in a small school—K-12 was all in one building. My graduating class was 23 kids, so we all knew each other pretty well. I was active in every extracurricular I could make time to join because school was hard. So, the extracurriculars were what got me up in the morning.
In elementary school, I received reading services. In high school, math was a huge struggle. But, during my study hall, I loved helping out my teachers. All through high school, I knew I was probably going to end up in the education world because I loved going down to the elementary level and helping teachers and their kids.
I went to the University of Sioux Falls and received my undergrad there. For the first time ever, I actually fell in love with math. It started to make sense to me thanks to my math methods course work.
Q: What made you lean into the teaching profession?
A: Because school was hard for me, I wanted to figure out how to make school meaningful for all kids. And, as someone who used to despise mathematics and could now teach it the rest of my life, I acknowledged that if I’m going to complain about something, I’m going to try to fix it. When I was 21, I was an intern with the state legislature. I was fascinated with how the political world in our state was operating. And, I got so upset about what was happening with education; all I could think about was how I couldn’t keep complaining and not doing something about this.
At 21, I pulled out a petition and ran for the state legislature. I didn’t win, but that was the mentality I had. That was my attitude for education overall. I can sit here and complain about the system and how some kids are simply getting pushed through the cattle gates—”great job, the year is finished, now you can move onto fourth grade even though we know you’re not ready for some of that material.” But, I couldn’t continue going down that road without asking the right questions, which in my district typically starts with “What if we did this?” and “What’s the next step to make that ‘what if’ come true?”
Q: What exposed you to new ways of thinking about education?
A: My first teaching experience was at a school with 90-100% of my kids receiving free and reduced lunch. My kids came to school with tough lives operating in the background, and they were expected to sit for eight hours in a classroom and learn these things that I didn’t feel were necessary for what they needed at that point in their lives.
The system I grew up in and the system they were growing up in was ignoring the individualized support they needed. By the end of the year, they were moving onto fifth grade whether they were ready or not.
Even at that point, I didn’t know what else school could look like. I knew school to be one thing for so long—a teacher-centered place. At that point especially, technology wasn’t all that big yet, so knowledge was still solely coming from the teacher—that’s where it was.
After a stint away from teaching, I got back in the K-12 space as a Technology Integrationist at the middle school level. While in that role, my middle school principal made a connection with learner-centered leaders in Chanhassen, MN at Eastern Carver County School District. We took our team up to their district and observed what they were doing with middle schoolers, and I thought, “Wow, if they can do this at the middle school level, what can this look like at the elementary level?”
Q: When it comes to any kind of learner-centered transformation, most people are inclined to start with high school. What made you think about elementary school instead?
A: My background as an elementary teacher and Technology Integrationist at the elementary level led me to realize we don’t give our kids enough credit for what they are capable of truly doing when we stop giving them all the answers or the steps to be successful. When we let them struggle and find their path, we can celebrate that success.
I always had this thought in the back of my head that said, “These kids can do it.” I knew we were going to have to put some structures in place, but when they were ready to go, we could gradually release those structures.
Even after visiting Chanhassen, I still wasn’t sure how we could make it happen. But, we were fortunate to discover another school in Maine called Cornville Charter School. When we walked into the school and talked to the teachers and really dug into their work, we discovered they didn’t have grade levels at all. Kids walked in as five-year-olds and were put into learning situations that matched where they were.
If kids came in already knowing their letters, sounds, and had their first 25 sight words down, they were ready for something else. Of course, you also have learners who come in with none of that knowledge. Typically, those two groups of kids will be put in the same classroom with the same teacher and expected to learn. That just doesn’t make sense to us.
We walked away from that experience realizing, “That’s what we want. How do we create what they’ve got and put it in our system so that it makes sense for our community?” We took that trip to Maine three years ago and began our journey as soon as we got back.
Q: Your journey has been going for three years now. But, a similar learner-centered effort was made in your district a few years earlier. Tell us a bit of that story.
A: The possibility for this work began six years ago. Through the support of the Bush Foundation, a series of organizations were provided with grants they could use to partner with schools interested in investing in their capacities to make big changes. The support of the Bush Foundation has impacted not only our district but also several other districts in our state looking at school change.
Through this investment, we were able to partner with South Dakota’s Technology & Innovation in Education (TIE) to invest in the district’s professional development, curriculum redesign, and school visits. This three-year cycle grant was awarded to all three levels of the district: elementary, middle, and high school. Then again in 2017, another 3-year cycle grant came through that enabled us to build on the work already begun with another organization, 2Revolutions. This 2017 grant’s focus was to continue building capacity with staff and providing professional development.
Another major factor for this initial level of change came from an incredible leader in the district, Dr. Kevin Lein. I would be mistaken not to also highlight his work. He was the one who came to the administrative team and said, “I want to do something different with time in the high school.”
At that time, Dr. Lein was the only one who was interested in transformational work. He recruited teams, and they traveled around the country looking for ways to think about time differently. There was block scheduling and the traditional eight period days, but he wanted time where you could have lectures very similar to college but also longer periods where you could have labs. And, he wanted to be able to make it fluid, so you could choose how each day was structured based on what was needed that week.
On his journey, he came across a more customized approach, so the next cohort of freshmen were immediately introduced to this new way of learning. What wasn’t considered that time around was a focus on the soft skills. Today, we use the 16 Habits of Mind from Costa and Kallick. Back then, we basically dropped them in the middle of the ocean and expected them to swim to the shore.
Some of them made it, and some didn’t. The problem with that was we didn’t put life vests on them. We didn’t gradually release them into this new environment. For nine years, they were told when to go to the bathroom, what time they could eat lunch, what’s next on the agenda, what class to go to, and what study hall they needed to report to. Then, as freshmen, they were dropped into the ocean with none of that support.
If they were a third-grader and their zone of proximal development in algebraic thinking was “here,” that’s where they started. Where they landed didn’t matter.
Innovative Programs Director
What we saw with our high school freshmen is what you see with college freshmen. The only difference with college freshmen is they are paying quite a bit of money to skip class. Fortunately in high school, our freshmen weren’t losing money. They may have lost some time through the first go-around, but eventually they were began developing those soft skills.
One important lesson we learned had to do with choice. Every freshmen was dropped into this system, regardless of what they might want to experience. That created an outcry. Parents were upset because the system didn’t work for all the kids. They’d say, “My kid needs to be told what to do.” We heard it all.
With that initial reaction, our school board said, “We really believe in this and don’t want to lose it, but if we keep doing it this way, we’re going to lose kids.” The district decided to offer a choice to parents and their kids.
Q: With those lessons learned, what else made you able to accelerate your transformational work so quickly?
A: While we were using Cornville as an example, they are a charter. We obviously still had to consider how a public district could make this happen while remaining accountable to state assessments and guidelines. There were things we had to make sure were in place, but for the most part, we were able to take down a lot of weight-bearing walls.
Our school district, at the elementary level, had been standards-based for 10 years, so when we have visitors come and they don’t have that as a baseline to operate from, we let them know they are at least two to three years out from being able to begin doing what we’re doing. You have to get everyone to understand what standards-based grading and reporting is.
With the standards-based practices already in our system, we were able to take those standards, align them in a learning continuum, and really start to focus on the question: Where do learners end their K-12 journey?
We focused on pre-assessments to find out where each learner’s zone of proximal development was. If they were a third-grader and their zone of proximal development in algebraic thinking was “here,” that’s where they started. Where they landed didn’t matter. We just monitored things from there, making sure we remained accountable to the state, but we were beginning to think differently about what that meant.
When schools visit us and they see the great things happening here, we always say, “Don’t try to duplicate what you see here…” If people just replicate it, all we’ve done is create a new system with a new name; that’s not the purpose of this work.
Innovative Programs Director
With our first cohort at two elementary schools, we offered parents the choice to enroll their kids into the cohort. 150 applied, and 94 were selected due to the balance of class size required by the state. With such a long waitlist, we decided to introduce a second cohort the second year. But, this became a problem because two-thirds of the elementary school were now participating in this new system, while one-third were still participating in the traditional system.
Going into the 2018-2019 academic year—our third year—we sent out a survey to all of the first-grade parents and all of the remaining traditional parents in that school. 94% of Freedom Elementary parents came back saying they wanted their kids in personalized learning. In three years, we only had 6% saying no, so the school board said, “If that’s the cry of the community, then that’s what we’re going to do.” For the first time this year, Freedom Elementary School is completely personalized. And, over the next couple of years, we’ll have cohorts in every single elementary school.
Q: What is one question you wish more people asked about your work?
A: I wish people would ask us what the first six weeks of school looks like when starting this work. When schools visit us and they see the great things happening here, we always say, “Don’t try to duplicate what you see here. Go back to your community and think about what will work for your learners. There might be pieces of the structure that can work for you, but don’t replicate this.” If people just replicate it, all we’ve done is create a new system with a new name; that’s not the purpose of this work. I wish people would spend more time asking, “When did you guys want to quit? When did you feel like the kids really started to understand the learning process? How persistent did you have to stay with the whole process?”
We just had a school from our state come visit us, and they were walking away thinking, “We’re doing so many things wrong. I wish we would have known ‘this’ and thought about doing ‘that.’” I always stop them and rephrase it.
I tell them, “You’re not doing anything wrong. What you’ve done is learn from something. Now, I challenge you to go back and understand that even though you put in all this time and built these incredible pieces you thought were going to work, it is now time to make a change. You can’t stop making a change because you think you’re just going to have to make another change in the future. You have to keep going.”
Learning is so fluid that you’re not going to hit a sweet spot right off the bat. I think schools need to understand that. They also need to understand that you can have everything spelled out perfectly for your learners and build a beautiful learning continuum, but until you have learners in front of you and ask them how you can help them with their learning, you’ll never know if what you’ve created is actually useful for them.
When schools go to make this change and they find themselves in a valley, they think they’re doing something wrong when in reality it’s just part of the process. They need to ride the valley out and begin climbing back up the hill.