Education commissioner tours Westonka classrooms

After hearing about the innovative personalized learning work happening in Westonka Schools, Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius decided to see it for herself. On April 14, Cassellius paid a visit to classrooms at Mound Westonka High School and Hilltop Primary School.

Prior to the school visits, Westonka Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Mark Femrite provided Cassellius with an overview of the years of foundation work that led to Westonka’s current personalized learning platform. This included the creation of professional learning communities for staff, school site visits to learn “best practices” and presentations by various experts in the field.

The district’s goal is to create a school system that has the capacity to meet the needs of all learners that is affordable, sustainable, effective and efficient. “We want to help students develop skills to take ownership of their learning and develop a solid preparation for post-high school education and career opportunities,” Femrite said.

Westonka’s Edge 21 Technology Plan and 1:1 mobile device integration have been important tools in personalizing learning, as has the hands-on work by Technology Integrationist Kristin Wallace and Elementary Personalized Learning/Academic Coach Natalie Buelow, Femrite explained.

HIGH SCHOOL STEAM
During her visit to MWHS, Cassellius had the opportunity to meet several high school students and see their projects from STEAM Integrated Physics. The interdisciplinary course, which was introduced at the high school this year, takes the traditional STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math and adds an “A” for art. As instructors Sarah Morinville and Laura Hensley explained to Cassellius, the goal of the personalized, project-based course is to spark students’ imagination and help them innovate through hands-on learning. The teaching pair developed curriculum that offers quality project choices that authentically assess both art and physics standards.

Hensley incorporated in-process critiques from her art background into the course, which allow students to ask questions and provide feedback to their peers during the design process. This helps foster a “growth mindset” in students by giving them opportunities for trial and error and allowing them to problem-solve as individuals and together as a class. Each unit includes multiple project options, and the work is self-paced. Some students found that they were able to complete a particular project quickly, while others spent several weeks problem-solving and tweaking their designs.

One of the projects Cassellius got to see was a giant mobile that was engineered to rotate freely from the classroom ceiling. It featured feathers made from a variety of materials—including paper, wood and 3D-printed plastic—and an object representing a “1 ton” weight.

“The meaning behind the project is to show that the smallest things, like recycling a plastic bag, can make a ton of difference for the environment,” senior Breanna Hrkal explained. The mobile project took Hrkal and her partner over two months to complete, but they were very pleased with the end result.

Throughout the course, the students also had opportunities to consult with professionals in the fields of engineering and robotics. The instructors told Cassellius that seeing how science and design intertwine in the “real world” has been eye-opening for many students.
“We have students who considered themselves to be more ‘art-minded’ who are now thinking about going into engineering,” Hensley said. “They wouldn’t have given that career path a second thought before this course.”

TEAM TEACHING AT HILLTOP
After MWHS, Cassellius visited Melissa Abernethy and Gretchen Campbell’s first grade classroom at Hilltop, where she saw team teaching in action. The educators explained that their seminar teaching model and learning environment help foster independence in their young learners.

Their colorful and welcoming classroom features a variety of flexible seating options for students. Students are given choices in how they demonstrate their learning each day. “Some parents had questions at first about what this class would look like and how it would work,” Abernethy explained. “Now, everyone can see that this is really working well for the kids.”

Abernethy and Campbell showed Cassellius an example of the students’ monthly learning plans, which establish monthly goals for each student in reading, writing, math and behavior.

“They are tweaking things every day to make it work better for their students,” Buelow said of Abernethy and Campbell. “These two [teachers] are the first ones people come to in the building for support, and they’re always willing be resources for their colleagues.”