New Blog

Hello dear readers,

Though I took a hiatus from using my Growing Up in America platform as an active writing space last year, I am still blogging. If you have the time and interest, my current writing can be found at  This blog is  a component of a Discourse Analysis course taken as I work towards a PhD in the Learning Sciences. It has inspired me to get back on the horse.

As always, thank you for reading.

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Wild and Precious Life

When I heard the news, I was standing on the white waxed tiles of a second grade classroom–fighting the familiar sheen of summer sweat as I imagined 7 year old children filing in the door with backpacks and questions and the world at their feet.

As I contemplated the location of the computer tables and the weight of 22 young minds, my cell phone buzzed in my palm. A classmate from college I hadn’t talked to for months popped up on screen. “Prof. Farrell…” the text read. My stomach dropped. I fumbled to open my email on the handheld screen. The news barreled in like a freight train.

He was gone.

After overcoming all of those close calls, months of radiation, and hours spent reassuring his college students that the hacking cough was merely an annoyance, Jim Farrell left us silently in the middle of the night. I didn’t see it coming. To me, the man who defined my undergraduate experience was invincible.

When I made the drive back to a brand new apartment in an unknown city, thinking again about the nature of life transitions, I shielded my tear-stained cheeks from neighboring cars stopped at red lights. I watched as a slideshow of memories merged with my view of Indianapolis’s 38th street and Fall Creek Parkway.

Next to the homeless man holding cardboard on Keystone Ave.,  I saw Jim’s gangly frame  in the green grass of St. Olaf College– sporting wool socks and Birkentocks.


Through the car horns and muffled rap music of a hot summer afternoon, I heard his wise and quiet voice. “What we are is stories,” he mused.

At age 22, grief remains foreign and confusing territory.  I cannot grasp the weight of absence–the depth of the hole that has been left behind. Maybe I never will–forever enveloped in waves of feeling, followed by sleep and food and a numbness that crackles like one of those horror movie television sets with no signal .

When I first met Jim Farrell, I was 18 years old and an open book. I was fascinated by questions of identity–searching for myself at a liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota. I was a regular freshman cliche. Like so many idealistic undergraduate students, I wanted to “make a difference.”

When I arrived on the Hill of St. Olaf College, everything I owned stuffed into the family station wagon and hauled up the steps of my freshman dorm, I was given the opportunity to think about what it means to think–to decide what I wanted to know and demand my professors teach me that. It was Jim Farrell who gave me this power.

In my first two years, I developed an independent major titled Growing Up in America: A Systems Thinking Approach. Its work was the product of Jim’s endless support, connecting mind, and mentorship. The experience began as a “study of American identities” … and it turned into more.

As I answered questions from the front of our American Conversations classroom, trekked to Jim’s 6th floor office in the snow, and began to take my education into my own hands, I acquired a set of skills that would change my view of the world.

While navigating the inner workings of college dances and shifting friend groups, I learned the art of “dense facting.” Through this practice, I unpacked the complex meaning of college life–thinking about how an understanding of why things are the way they are could lead to social change.

The strangely conjugated verb “to dense fact” is an expression for seeing the connections in everyday life. It was everything I wanted from education in a nutshell.

The stitching on a pair of blue jeans transformed into a study of department store history, globalization, and “branded selves.”  My dorm room was a museum.  Under Jim’s direction, we took inventories and thought deeply about what our possessions said about us. There were stories in everything.

I learned that I could write a captivating essay about something as mundane as a paperclip.  I didn’t want the experience to end.

So I kept it going. We kept it going.

Semester after semester, I had the great privilege to collaborate with a man who understood me as a student and as a person. Jim shaped my story, and taught me the importance of telling it.

I could tell you about the summer research we performed on our current college sustainability program, or the work we did on the topic of Emerging Adults, electronics, and the environment. I could share the results of our independent study on the politics of parenting and the unique “momosphere” of blogging mothers. I could even summarize the work of my senior project–an endeavor entirely inspired by hours of incredible discussion with a professor who had an incredible penchant for shifting the frame and introducing a new and challenging lens.

I could share of these things for minutes and hours, but they are not what I saw as I made today’s tear-stained drive (besides, you can read about all of them within the archives of this blog.)

Instead, I’d like to show you a few of my memories of Professor James Farrell–a 64 year old man who lived hundreds of lifetimes in one. Here they are, in stream of consciousness:

  • Sticky fingers, mismatched mugs, and clinking spoons. We laid graduate school, relationships, and family vignettes  across the table outside of the campus coffee shop every Thursday. Espresso ice cream and smile lines. Sometimes with coffee. Jim told me not to worry so much. Control what you can control, keep reading the New York Times, never stop writing, take on the world.
  • Grass-stained knees and a circle of twenty-somethings designing new systems on a Friday afternoon on the quad. What if we thought more like children? 
  • Balancing notebooks on my thighs as I swiveled in that giant leather office chair–surrounded by 1,000 books stacked on mismatched shelves stretching to the ceiling of that office in the turret of Holland Hall. Feminism and Frank Lloyd Wright and 200 volumes on the 1960s. My face is red as I chase another idea around the labyrinth Jim has built. He listens silently  as my eyes flit from shelf to shelf. My hands gesture emphatically. He nods, then offers a one line response that wraps the loose ends I’ve unraveled into a neat package. He proceeds to open 5 more doors I’ve never seen before. I am inspired and humbled. Another session of Jim Farrell therapy ends. I leave with a yellow post-it note list and ideas that ping against the sides of my skull like hail. Who will clean out that office now? What will they find in those stacks of legal pads and boxes upon boxes of books with annotated margins? What will happen to his notorious green pens?
  • The metal bird taking us home to Minnesota after a weekend of sustainability conferencing in Pittsburgh lurches beneath our feet. I chatter nervously about the weather and upcoming due dates and the future as I struggle to still my shaking limbs. Jim places his latest article and pen in his black briefcase. He looks at me calmly. “Everything will be okay.” When the cabin descends yet again, pushing my stomach to my throat, he puts his hand over mine.
  • In the cover of the book he gave me at the end of our 4 year journey together, there was this inscription:

The professor had managed for years to live two lives. Both of them very intense. He would willingly have cut down on his university work, would willingly have given his students chaff and sawdust–many instructors had nothing else to give them and got on very well–but his misfortune was that he loved youth–he was weak to it, it kindled him. If there was one eager eye, one doubting, self-critical mind, one lively curiosity in a whole lecture-full room of commonplace boys and girls, he was its servant. That ardour could command him.” – Willa Cather The Professor’s House

To Andi-

Thanks for being that person in every interaction we’ve had. You’ve been such a joy to me!

Your friend,


I share these fleeting moments and exchanges because they are pieces of a beautiful friendship.

As he did for me, Jim Farrell undeniably altered the mindset of every student seated in his class. Beyond the typical college essays written in a caffeinated haze, Jim taught us all to hope. He taught us to be citizens, to question, and to find passion in all areas of life. Channeling the poet Mary Oliver, Jim challenged us; “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” He rooted us in the idea that we live in our stories.


Jim used to call himself “Dr. Death” as a tribute to his fascination with the way we deal with death (particularly when it comes to graveyards and posthumous inventories.) He was so infatuated with death, he once wrote an entire book on the subject. To think about Jim as “Dr. Death” today feels morbid and darkly ironic, but weirdly appropriate. In his lectures on birth and death (and all that comes between,) Jim led us in the discovery of life. He unearthed the “whys” that had been squeezed out of us by the end of adolescence, and inspired thoughts that would otherwise go unthought.

I am grateful for Jim Farrell. Without him, I would not sit where I am sitting–positioned to teach 7 and 8 year old children with the odds stacked against them to question and wonder and think in systems.

What we are is stories. Thank you Jim, for helping me to learn to write mine. This one’s for you.

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It's Spring! Outdoor class sessions become the norm.

It’s Spring! Outdoor class sessions become the norm.



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An Education of Villages and Artwork


We pull off of a rural gravel road  into the parking lot of Prairie Creek Community School, sensing the joy as soon as we open our car doors and swing our sandaled feet into the dust. Beneath suspended solar panels, children climb and run and laugh. Parents line the roundabout–peering out from behind SUV and minivan windshields as their children soak up the first taste of Springtime sun.

We walk through the bright red doors, greeted by a central library, a sky high ceiling, and lovingly scuffed wood floors. There is a “word wall” chalked above the fiction books. One teacher steps over a line of backpacks in the hallway to shuffle her children out the door.

Though we are indoors, there are signs of nature everywhere. The classrooms surrounding the library are labeled “Robins” and “Kestrel” and “The Rookery.”  The office smells like a well-worn book, and the building is alive with footsteps of children preparing for the weekend.

Touring this lively charter school with three fellow SFER members, I see the lessons of Campus Ecology, systems thinking, and exploratory education at work. As we move from Prairie Creek Community School’s historic entrance to its whimsical attic, we hear about its rich history and arts-based model.

Like the local Arcadia Charter School, Prairie Creek features project-based learning and education that goes beyond basic skill sets and standardized tests. Though the school has gone through many transitions since its 1920 beginning as a private one-room school, Prairie Creek’s mission statement retains many of the original traditions and themes outlined by the building’s founding population. For example, classes are still taught with a strong multi-age component– students having the same teacher for grades K-1, 2-3, and 4-5. When May arrives, the children can still be found parading about the town of Castle Rock–returning to their playground to dance around the May Pole in a tradition begun by their 19th century predecessors.

Prairie Creek Community School was authorized by the Northfield Public School District as an arts-focused charter school in 2002.  The school is run by its own board of governors–several of whom have children enrolled at Prairie Creek and also hold leadership positions at St.Olaf College.

Climbing the steps to the upper floor of Prairie Creek feels like climbing the rungs of a ladder to the top of a giant tree house. When we reach the art room nestled into the corner of the lofted second story, the circular patches of carpeting arranged on the floor make me want to sit cross-legged and paint for hours. The school’s Director explains to us that this space serves as a reflection of Prairie Creek’s goals in action–a place for creativity, collaboration, and inquiry. Each year, the school implements an art residency. This year the guests were from the Flying Foot Forum–a Minnesota dance company “that fuses percussion and percussive dances with many other forms of music, dance and theater, telling unusual tales, creating a wild variety of characters, and exploring universal ideas in inventive and exciting new ways” ( Members of Flying Foot worked with Prairie Creek students to put on a whimsical rendition of Alice in Wonderland–a culmination of everything they’d learned that would continue as a theme for the rest of the year.

In addition to this exciting yearly residency, the students of Prairie Creek also participate in an annual tradition of “city planning.” Each Spring, when green returns to the frozen midwestern landscape and most children begin to chomp at the bit for summer, 4th and 5th grade Prairie Creek students throw their minds and bodies into a 5 week project of epic proportion–recruiting younger children to help out.

Building to scale, these kids design and construct their own villages. Collaborating with their art teacher to raise homes and banks and shops, they see imagination turned into reality. Beyond aesthetics, the children negotiate banking systems, the implementation of government, the concept of the “land rush,” and the unpredictability of social structure. Generally, the kids opt for a Democracy. The Director chuckles as he remembers the year there was a Dictator.

I shake my head in disbelief as he speaks–imagining the leaders these children will become. They are building relationships and understanding the structures that run this country in ways that most American adults never will. In this project, they will fail and succeed over and over and over again.

I am amazed. I am also thinking about how this all works with a strict testing agenda that applies to district and charter schools alike. When I ask Director Tyler about how this kind of learning fits into the national emphasis on standardized testing, I receive a melancholy smirk. “That’s a great question…and one we are always thinking about.” He went on to emphasize the way that every charter school functions differently. Some focus on improving standardized test scores and pushing for college entrance and success (like Hiawatha Academy.) Others, like this one, see testing as more of an inconvenience.

The Prairie Creek Community School walks the line of testing very carefully. Director Tyler admits that the Math scores of his students are slightly lower than the average in the State, but that this is the risk of moving from an emphasis on foundation skills to an emphasis on holistic learning.

Thinking about achievement gaps, I follow up with a question about diversity and student recruitment. The Director’s eyes light up. This is a question he has also spent many hours pondering. There is a stigma that accompanies Prairie Creek’s reputation–the assumption that its population is reserved for the children of white upper class Professors working at the nearby prestigious Carleton and St. Olaf Colleges. Though it’s true that the format and location of the school does attract this demographic, Director Tyler is working hard to make sure that the benefits of a Prairie Creek education are not reserved for such a narrow niche.

Prairie Creek has made an effort to print all of its information in both Spanish and English, distributed it in communities of all income levels, and increased its special education staff dramatically. The school currently receives Title  funding, features free and reduced price lunch, and continues to strive for more racial diversity. However, because word of mouth is the primary method of recruitment, and siblings of current students are given priority in enrollment, this kind of diversity is not coming very quickly to the student population. Director Tyler also noted that the area where a large Latino population in Northfield resides is located right around the corner from a high-performing district school.

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Beyond generous blocks of time for art and language (there is an emphasis on Spanish,) Prairie Creek teachers foster a cohesive school-wide community by implementing the Responsive Classroom model, using the “16 habits of mind” as a guideline, and relying on narrative as well as traditional assessment.

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From kindergarten through fifth grade, parents of Prairie Creek students can expect a tri-annual anecdotal report on their children and a 40-minute one-on-one conference. Teachers are expected to devote two hours per student to these Fall, Winter and Spring assessments, and each conference and narrative assessment demonstrates just how well the educators know the kids they are working with. Four full school days are set aside and devoted to the preparation and fulfillment of this feedback. Because teachers retain the same students for two years at a time, the relationships between families and educators become incredibly strong. Parents expect to work alongside their child’s teacher to set goals, track literacy development, and assess progress without formal grades. 

Furthermore, the presence of all teachers at every school-wide recess session means that most teachers know every child in the entire school–whether they’ve had them in class or not. This opens the door for informal “check in” conversations each week–discussions where teachers can bring up concerns about individual students with their peers and develop conscientious  plans of action. This kind of communication and collaborative environment for both students and teachers is why Prairie Creek has recently become a model environment for special needs student populations.

After our tour of Prairie Creek’s vibrant classrooms, quaint gymnasium, and museum-like wall of class photos, we had the opportunity to hear from two K-1 teachers. Flitting about a well-organized meeting room as they prepared the space for a gathering of next year’s kindergarten parents, the two women were the simultaneously images of endless energy and exhaustion. Their voices were draped in patient overtones as they talked about the range of ability levels in their classroom, the importance of “peer learning” that is fostered through “cubby buddies,” and the advantage of having 1/2 of your class be confident on the first day of school when you teach each cohort for two years. It is clear that these women are part of a strong family of teachers–one that looks out for all children collectively.

When we ask about the recent development in the school’s special education program, the women both tear up. They are moved–almost beyond words. Equipped with a range of paraprofessionals and a mission to embrace special needs children as an integral part of the community, Prairie Creek takes its child-centered approach seriously. The special education staff and students are included in every aspect of the day, and there is no “exclusion room.”

Because the population is so small and the community so closely knit, this is a place where all students can strive. Prairie Creek is proud to have a population of special education students that is higher than the public school average. The teachers and their Director are all emotional as they talk about their special needs children–noting that these are the kids who add the kind of diversity that is often overlooked.

In the last five minutes of our visit, these three passionate educators sum up their school: “This is a place where every child has the right to a beautiful experience.”

I walk out of those red doors smiling and curious. I am left wishing that this kind of innovation and exploration could continue from elementary school through college. When do we stop thinking in stories and embracing the building of villages and start worrying about test scores and “real world” success?

This is not a school model fit for every single child. In fact, I don’t believe there is one method or formula that can work for all of this country’s students. However, there is much to learn from Prairie Creek Community School.

Someday, I hope to build a village.

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Co-Teaching Campus Ecology

On April 22nd, fourteen St. Olaf students assemble themselves into two neat rows–fidgeting as they take their seats beside the blonde wood of the Boe Memorial Chapel pulpit.

Several of these young men and women have never attended a religious service in this holy space. Despite the Lutheran affiliation of the liberal arts college they call home, this beautiful stainglassed venue is both welcoming and intimidating. What does it mean to be “religious?” they’ve wondered on several occasions.

This is the ceiling they saw as they sang the St. Olaf fight song for the first time. The multicolored line of international flags inspired as they attended orientations for studying abroad in Spain and Ireland and Norway and New Zealand. The towering silver organ pipes accompanied dozens of musical performances and provided a backdrop for countless guest speakers.

The space these students fill is riddled with overlapping stories. It is a place for reflection, love, appreciation, critique, and wonder. Today, this cohort of fourteen has the opportunity to share their story–fitting the familiar exploration of their “Campus Ecology” class into the unfamiliar format of a “chapel talk.” They have wondered about the capacity of religion for social change, criticized and complimented the way religion works at St. Olaf college, and brainstormed ways to move ideals to action.

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As a co-teacher for our St. Olaf Campus Ecology class this semester, I’ve had the opportunity to work with this group of passionate students boasting diverse majors. Throughout the semester, they have all become invested in our democratic educational environment.

This is a course that aims to bridge the curriculum of the classroom with the curriculums of everyday life. The recurring St.Olaf experience of “Campus Ecology Chapel” on Earth Day each year is just one example of our experiential learning.

Dreamed up by St. Olaf senior Elise Braaten in 2004, Campus Ecology began as the senior project for an independent major titled “Wild and Precious Life: Educating for an Ethic of Sustainability.” Elise taught the course alongside my mentor Professor Jim Farrell—convinced that students needed to understand the environment and systems at play around them.

Each year, the course follows Braaten’s initial vision of “practical idealism,” incorporating:

  • Plot projects: A study of the things we do not take the time to notice. Students select a piece of land on the St. Olaf campus and visit it at least once per week–chronicling the natural world around them. They incorporate readings and discussion from class as they study the sound of the chickadee in March or the beer can whose blue ink has stained the snow. Through these plot projects, students come to “know” the world around them in a new and dynamic way. They are incredibly creative with the loose guidelines we give them–participating in intellectual play and reverting to a childlike sense of wonder as they write about playing in the mud, talking to trees, and living completely in the moment. This project is meant to be reflective and groundbreaking–leading students to question what “education” really means.


  • Campus Tours: Throughout the semester, our group has taken tours  of the St. Olaf power plant, the innerworkings of the cafeteria, the LEED Platinum Certified Regents Hall, the St. Olaf Power Plant, and the natural lands. These tours show students that every piece of the St. Olaf community has “experts.” Our professors are not only the PhD certified men and women at the front of our classrooms, but the amazing people who serve our food, power our dorm rooms, and orchestrate the everyday complexity of our small city on a hill.

After learning where their food comes from and why, students experience their cafeteria completely differently. Examining the electricity use of our campus, they think harder about turning off the lights. Furthermore, Campus Ecology students are often inspired to share what they learn with their friends–changing habits and encouraging a more sustainable St. Olaf culture through peer education.

We always follow up our touring experiences with discussions about how to “frame” environmentally friendly behavior–combatting the pessimism and overwhelming nature of the environmental movement with messages of hope. In this sense, we take a “local to global” activism approach–engaging our immediate community and branching outward to think about how we can create change on a larger scale.

Here are several images from just one of our tours: The St. Olaf Power Plant.

  • Seeing the moral ecology of everyday life: In the classroom, we have units on the “nature of cars,” parties, religion, the “real world,” education, clothing,  and electronics. Working with Jim Farrell’s book The Nature of College ( co-written by former Campus Ecology students) as a constant reference, we unpack the objects and practices of the college student’s lifestyle from an environmental perspective.
  • Reflective Journal Entries: In addition to their multimedia plot projects, students are asked to keep a Campus Ecology Journal. Written in 3-4 times per week, this journal allows connections to occur between personal experiences and the content of the course. The best journal entries occur when students begin thinking outside of the box. For example, one student wrote a Mommy Manifesto after our class period devoted to the “politics of parenting.” Another wrote an 8 page single-spaced essay about her definition of “fun” and how it differs from the version offered by society and popular culture. One student, a musician, was inspired to write an original song inspired by our course’s discussion of “time poverty” in American culture. He performed it with several of his classmates for our Chapel Service.

In all journals, students work creatively to research the things they wonder about–following their interests in a way that isn’t possible in many of their other college courses.

  • Final Projects: Each year, after spending a semester discussing what it takes to change norms in a community, students are given the opportunity to impact their St. Olaf community. In previous years this has included the development of materials for the SustainAbilities Program, environmentally themed “annotations” placed around campus, and work on student-run environmental campaigns. In 2012, the Campus Ecology class drafted the activities that would make up the SustainAbilities Representative Handbook. I was fortunate to be a student researcher working on the SustainAbilities co-curricular education program over the summer of 2012, and much of what we accomplished would not have happened without the Campus Ecology class.

 This Spring, Campus Ecology students will use their final projects to lay the groundwork for a “Green Dorm” being piloted next Fall. This dorm will be inhabited by students who have pledged to take on more sustainable habits, have conversations about the environment, and attend frequent sustainability events held in the dorm. These students will come from different academic and personal backgrounds. Our class will work together in small groups to design the programming for the dorm. 

Each Spring, Campus Ecology is co-taught by a senior student—bringing new perspective to the table and demonstrating just how much peers can learn from each other and reconsider the construction of the “normal” classroom environment.

This quote from Mary Oliver begins our course.

This quote from Mary Oliver begins our course.

It has been a privilege to work with the students of Campus Ecology and with Jim as we continue to think about the question “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This question spurred our innovative course, the SustainAbilities program, and influenced how St. Olaf College will operate as it continues to commit to environmentally minded initiatives and perspectives.

Watching in Chapel as the students of Campus Ecology 2013 perform Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” an original song, and several of the readings they’ve selected, I am awestruck. Even though I am a “co-teacher,” they have taught me far more than I could ever teach them.

I’ve brought my research, academic background, and personal stories to the table, but they’ve brought the curiosity, commitment, and incredible capacity to connect. Looking up at them from my place in the front row pew, I realize that this is my utopian vision of education in action. These students have taken a common context of information and run with it–reaching places and ideas we never could have predicted. This Chapel Service (and the discussion and journal entries that follow it) are far better assessments than so many of the tests these students will take. This is a narrative of learning.

I spent this past January preparing for my role as a co-teacher. As I drafted lesson plans, re-read course material, and browsed our list of 28 freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior students, I worried about the dynamic of “teaching” my peers.

Within the first few weeks of leading class every other class period, my worries and fears eased. It became clear were all teachers. I was merely a discussion leader–offering questions and links and context as the students went in a thousand directions.

Here is what I’ve learned from Campus Ecology 2013:

  • Be comfortable with silence. Those uncomfortable moments that follow a question posed to the class do not mean that it was a bad question. Give the students room to process, and you will get the best answers.
  • Knowing each student as a person is good for everyone. Because I interact with the students of Campus Ecology in class, in our shared dorm, in the cafeteria, in sports and clubs, and even at parties, we understand each other in ways that are not typically possible between teacher and student. Because we have such diverse interactions (and because I read their journals each week,) I know about the stress they’re facing and the experiences they’ve had growing up.
  • Sometimes, less is more. It’s important to invest time and energy into preparing for teaching a class, but it’s also important to leave room for spontaneity and simplicity. Some of our most exciting class periods begin with small group conversations or activities. For example, Jim Farrell and I once had the class split up into groups of 4 or 5 and discuss sustainable behaviors on campus, barriers to these behaviors, and incentives to overcome these behaviors. After giving the students time to discuss, we compiled a master list. This activity required little planning, but it was incredibly valuable. Students naturally integrated concepts from their readings, and they were excited to think about making their shared ideas into realities. This was the beginning of a community organizing experience that would continue throughout the course, and it helped to foster our sense of shared Campus Ecology culture.
  • You don’t have to be perfect: In Campus Ecology, we talk often about “perfect standards”–the idea that if you are going to commit to an organization, activity, or political campaign you must know everything about it. We discuss the “perfect standard” as a barrier to sustainable behavior and civic and political engagement–leading students to feel like identifying as an “environmentalist” means that they must live every moment of their lives sustainably or risk being judged.

Together, we recognize that it is human nature to seek a consistent identity. As young adults faced with contradictory expectations from society, our parents, our peers, and an increasingly mediated world, we feel fragmented in many ways.

After several discussions about the “perfect standard,” I realized that I was applying this same concept to my job as a “co-teacher.” In the beginning of the course, I was afraid of failure. I was afraid of not knowing. I imagined a student asking me a question and stumbling through “I don’t knows.”

Now, I recognize that the greatest “teaching moments” happen when I don’t know everything about a concept. This way, we are able to research and wonder together. Students with different interests and expertise enter the conversation as leaders. Our classroom community is strengthened.

In several of the journals I’ve read, Campus Ecology students have recognized their experience in the course as “life changing.” This is a sentiment I shared in my own journaling experience when I took the class in 2011.  As a co-teacher, I feel it all over again.

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Back in the Chapel, Amanda’s cello notes weave sweetly around Helen and Olivia’s voices as they sing Charlie’s lyrics and he strums along. Kyle shakes the tambourine purposefully, Ben keeps them all together with the driving beat of his electric bass, and I feel the tears trickle down my cheek.

This was Campus Ecology embodied in one sextet– sharing a song about community and reverence and living in the present. Surrounded by all 28 members of our course in an unlikely setting, I felt like part of an incredible family. One that will live on long after the week of final exams. I can’t thank them enough.

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Teaching “Precious Knowledge”


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Looking into the tear-streaked faces of four Arizona high school students projected on a college auditorium screen this evening, I felt a now familiar wave of tingling inspiration. As has been true in so many of these instances, I also felt the confusing sting of privilege.

Surrounded by nearly 100 of my predominantly white peers, we took in scenes of a Tucson High School classroom where teachers dared to tell the truth about American history–unveiling systems of oppression, stereotype, and unequal opportunities that have defined our nation. We watched as educators told the stories behind the lines of nationalistic social studies textbooks authored in Texas. Rather than rattle off facts about Benjamin Franklin’s kite innovation and Founding Father glory, they authored a curriculum that includes social justice movements, hidden realities, and a Civil Rights Movement that is still being fought today.

In these “Raza Studies” courses, Tucson students learned the values of love, respect and self reflection through lessons centered on Chicano and Latino culture and tradition. Moving beyond the knowledge of standardized tests, teenagers understood social justice pedagogy. They were empowered to express themselves and embark on deeply personal journeys of self-exploration and philosophical discovery. Bridging their communities with their classrooms, they are learning holistically. Armed with a sense of purpose in education, the teachers of these Raza Studies courses are transforming the dysfunctional relationship most students have with school into an almost familial relationship.

Erin McGinnis, the woman seated quietly at the back of this St. Olaf College auditorium, was the force behind the camera filming these passionate kids. As they took on a project to “fix social problems” in their school, she was observing from a tiled corner. When the students organized to put on a Unity Festival (filled with student-written and performed rap pieces, artistic murals, and organized fundraising,) she had a front row seat. When her lens found the sunburned white face of Tom Horne, the current Arizona Attorney General and former Education Superintendent of Public Instruction, we movie-watchers realized the necessity of her presence.

Like the teachers and students she films, Ms. McGinnis is a storyteller. In her tale, there are villains and victors and underdogs. Throughout the course of McGinnis’ 70 minute PBS documentary Precious Knowledge, we juggle themes of hope and loss.

In her time spent at Tucson High School in the 2008-2009 school year, Erin McGinnis witnessed and recorded one of the biggest political and Civil Rights battles the state had seen in decades. Fueling the fire are Horne and his band of conservative compatriots–politicians and community members spewing concerns about the “un-American” nature of a curriculum that includes Mexican culture. Horne paints his strange dystopian picture again and again, asserting that classes which cover historical figures like Marx, Chavez, and Che must have communist agendas. “Red Scare” rhetoric in tow, Horne disguises his argument as one of “equality.” In one opening interview, he claims that dividing students at all on the basis of ethnicity is anti-American. Instead of acknowledging Latino roots, Horne claims that we should all just “see personality.”

In each of his comments, Horne pushes the idea that we are a society that has surpassed the need to talk about race or disparity. Though he never took the time to visit a Raza Studies classroom himself, Horne’s political agenda revolved around cutting the program–saving valuable American tax dollars from a program designed to “turn kids into angry radicals.” Horne tookd pains to depict Tucson High School educators as hate-filled and divisive–failing to read a curriculum based on concepts of love and open to students of all ethnic backgrounds.

As Horne spoke in conference rooms and legislative meeting halls about nationalism and the threat of students who learn about protest, I wondered: Shouldn’t American “nationalism” include the histories and traditions of other nations? Are we not a country founded by immigrants? Are we so elitist that we believe any knowledge of other cultures is a threat to our nation?

When Horne and his followers pushed a Bill to ban the Raza Studies program (which was originally implemented via community demand and school board approval,) the students organized. In beautiful bouts of creative protest, articulate teen testimony, and crescendos of hope, they fought back–demanding ownership of their educations. This was liberal arts at its finest and most authentic.

Despite the epic soundtrack, the Civil Rights resistance scenes, and the inspiration behind individual stories, the underdog community of this moving documentary ultimately lost a battle. A bill was passed, the program cut, and a group of High School kids and teachers were demonized by a high-stakes public relations campaign.

And yet, McGinnis tours the country with this DVD. All four of the students she followed went on to college. Their proud Latino teachers continue to fight–teaching open classes on Sundays, drafting appeals, and setting up court dates. They could focus on implementing their innovative program in Charter Schools (ruled privately and released from much bureaucracy.) However, they’d miss out on the population that needs these ethnic classes most. They’d leave hundreds of district public school kids un-empowered and struggling to find a sense of place in a country and a system that doesn’t seem to want them at all. One that ignores the truths of history and heritage.

I watch this film and I feel the familiar rush. “I want to be a part of this,” I think. And then I remember. I am a white suburban female with a soon-to-be bachelor of arts degree from an ivy-towered liberal arts college on a hill. What can I share? What can I say to my future Latino students hailing from lower income communities?

I cannot teach a course on Chicano history with the power of the educators in this film. I cannot speak Spanish to a group of parents with so many unanswered questions. I cannot change the color of my skin or the circumstance of my upbringing. But I can acknowledge my ignorance…and my passion. I can learn from and alongside my students. I can address the complexity of history and throw myself into a new community.

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Be the Change: Visiting Hiawatha Leadership Academy

image from

image from

Lined up beside a staircase made of cream-colored brick, a dozen children wore shirts of blue, green and maroon. “I seek to understand,” “I am the change,” and “I’m 100% HEART” printed in crisp white font across their backs. On the front left shoulder, the logo read: Hiawatha Leadership Academies.

Hushed by a smartly dressed young woman standing before them, the children folded their arms behind their backs. “What is it going to sound like when we go into the classroom for guided reading?” she asked, arranging the children neatly. “What is it going to look like?” After a few moments of silence, the teacher began to usher her little herd up the steps. “Keep thinking about what your next activity is going to look like!” she called out encouragingly.

As the line of students to snaked its way closer to a literacy room destination, our group of 9 SFER St. Olaf students was left standing in the hallway of Hiawatha Leadership Academy with darting eyes. Shepherded by our bubbly tour guide across tiled squares, we took in inspiring banners, family portraits, and countless university emblems. The Mission statement of the school was everywhere–empower students with knowledge, character, and leadership in preparation for college graduation (the expectation) and meaningful citizenship (the goal.) Climb the Mountain to College! was the never-ending chant.

Peeking into the morning meetings of classrooms on the first floor filled with children from K-2nd grade, we saw that cross-legged interaction on multi-colored rugs was the norm. Outside one classroom door, a boy stood quietly. He was participating in a morning warm-up game–waiting to be called back to fulfill his important role.When we asked him what he was doing, he whispered.

Down the hall, students listened to their bright-eyed teacher tell them about the schedule for the day. Outside of each classroom a university flag waved–marking the identity of each classroom. The St. Olaf “Oles” could be found adjacent to the Florida “Gators” and a few steps away from the Boston University “Terriers.” Abby shared that on some days the children sing the “fight songs” of their classroom colleges.  7 years old and filled with college spirit.

Taking in a landscape of watercolor artwork, multi-lingual signage, and a slew of bulletin boards related to setting goals, our group was amazed at the normalcy of observation. At Hiawatha, it is clear that the staff and children have grown accustomed to being watched. Lesson plans and objectives for each day can be found posted on classroom doors and written on whiteboards. Every single day the principal can be found observing unannounced in any room. Feedback is constant and well-utilized, and conversations about improvement happen weekly. As visitors, we carried folders equipped with observation forms, schedules for each grade level, and a copy of the school’s mission statement. Everything about the operation of this building was transparent– with students expected to be positive representations of their school and its work at every moment.

When we stepped into a gymnasium lit by towering frosted glass windows and filled with the smell of squeaky sneakers and basketball leather, heads hardly turned. A class of 2nd grade students was seated quietly in a grid laid in masking tape on the hardwood. Their attention was focused on the peers standing before them–actors from various grade levels navigating a makeshift stage. These students were preparing for their evening performance of The Festival of Lights, and this was a dress rehearsal. As the cast read from stapled scripts, manipulated hand-painted props, and  told the Ukrainian folk tale of the “white mitten,” the second grade audience was more than attentive. The incessant hush sounds made by the teachers in the back row  (remembered from my own elementary days,) were not necessary. The clapping for the final bow was enthusiastic and polite. These kids were masters of self-control.

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image from

Before scattering in groups of three to observe in separate classrooms, our SFER Members were treated to a short history of Hiawatha Leadership Academy–a charter school that fits the bill of the famous “KIPPster” style of inspiration and vision.

As Minnesota’s first network of college prep urban charter schools, Hiawatha Academies (founded in 2007) includes an elementary school and a middle school. Similar to many growing charter models, Hiawatha serves 450 students in grades K-5 and adds a grade each year to continue serving these students as they move from K-12. In the next stages of development, Hiawatha Academies hope to expand to a total of 5 schools–2 elementary, 2 middle, and one high school. Closely aligned with Teach for America (TFA,) the school’s staff includes many TFA alumni (including its Director.) Though the carefully developed model is being replicated to fill 5 schools, leaders of the Academies recognize that keeping things small is key to charter school success. Hiawatha Academies will cease expansion after the five school goal is achieved–content with the impact that comes with serving approximately 5% of Minneapolis students.

In their theory and philosophy, Hiawatha Academies claim simple “guiding principles.” However, the ramifications and details of these statements are undeniably complex. The focus, Hiawatha claims, is hard work. As seen on their website and in promotional material, the 5 Hiawatha Academy Guiding Principles are listed:

Our Approach

1) High Expectations

Our motto, “Scholars Today. Leaders Tomorrow,” embodies our high aspirations for the academic and character development of our students-whom we call scholars. We aim to prepare all of our scholars for college, for leadership, and for reaching their full potential as individuals.

2) More Time

Our much longer school days and school years provide our scholars 40% more learning time than a traditional public school provides. This extra time will result not only in closing the achievement gap, but also in preparing all of our scholars for college-level classes their junior and senior years of high school.

3) People Matter

The quality and commitment of our teachers and other staff are what makes the greatest difference in the lives of our scholars. We want to make our school a place where great teachers want to teach. We strive to create a collegial, professional and stimulating work environment where everyone has sufficient support, a real voice, and the tools they need to be successful.

4) Results Count

The performance of our scholars on standardized tests and other objective academic measures is essential in assessing their readiness for college and leadership. In addition to standardized tests, the Academy uses six-week interim benchmark exams and portfolio project-based work.

5) Building Leaders

We believe in the civic leadership and character potential of all children. All children should have access to a college education and the chance to provide leadership for the common good.

Beyond Guiding Principles, Hiawatha Academies also adopt a clear set of school values affectionately called H.E.A.R.T. (Honor, Excellence, Always Try Again, Responsibility, and Team.) Students and parents sign on with these values from the beginning of a child’s educational experience, and a clear culture of goal setting and character development is established.

By 3rd grade, many of these kids can tell you where they want to go to college, what they want to major in, and what they want to do post-grad. With teachers on call until 8:30 PM, parents invested in a clear mission, and students equipped with a tool belt of skills to serve them in both academic and career settings, Hiawatha’s heavily broadcast formula for success feels watertight. Children living in low income and high risk communities are given a chance to be caught before they fall through the cracks. Creativity and exploratory play have free rein in music, dance, and art classes, while classrooms are a highly structured environment of clear and high expectations.  90 minutes/ day are spent on literacy skill development at the elementary level, and data on student progress is gathered daily. The teachers are young, bright, and invested. The staff includes multiple skilled translators for Spanish speaking parents, and the elementary school has programs for Spanish education with branches for native English speakers and native Spanish speakers. With several classrooms named after countries, the school has the feel of a miniature global community.

In first impressions and eye-catching pamphlets, this school is a dream. There’s no doubt that the public lotteries scheduled for the coming year will have a large applicant pool (and for good reason.) And yet, despite the uplifting flood of college optimism and energy, I found myself batting at concerns in the back of my mind. After a 30 minute visit to a Kindergarten classroom, the list of questions grew.

A saying made famous by author Robert Fulghum

A saying made famous by author Robert Fulghum

Entering the “Taiwan” kindergarten classroom, an early emphasis on self-control was immediately clear. Split up into two groups on opposite sides of a sprawling room, about 2 dozen 5-year olds were hard at work learning about beginning word sounds. In one corner, students hunched over whiteboards on the floor–writing the letter T in both upper and lowercase, and then drawing a word that begins with the letter T (Tiger was by far the most popular choice.) Meanwhile, another group sat in rows before a giant pad of paper, watching as a 20-something teacher with a Starbucks iced drink in her hand gestured emphatically at words with the first letter mysteriously missing. “I was so sleepy this morning that I forgot to fill in the beginning sounds for these words! Can you help me fill in the blanks?” Nodding happily, the kids craned their necks to get a better look at the _ouse, _ed, and  _illow (written beside magic marker pictures.) “I’m so silly! I meant to write house, but I only wrote ouse! Can you find what makes the h-h-h sound?”

Eyes darting to a bank of letters at the bottom of the page, tiny students raised their hands. When a child seemed restless, the teacher directed him or her to “take a break”–sending them scurrying to a neon green carpet square to sit in cross-legged isolation until control had been regained. Every few minutes, positive reinforcement was released “I love how you are practicing self control!” “I love how these friends in the front row are listening and raising their hands quietly!”

When a handful of students giggled at the hilarity of the incomplete word “illow,” their teacher was quick to call attention to classroom norms and expectations. “Friends, you know that we teachers like to be silly with you sometimes and have fun learning. It’s okay to laugh sometimes, but we need to get our self control back fast!” The children had been laughing for all of three seconds. I found myself wondering; “isn’t school supposed to be fun?” Though I understood that this teacher was working to prevent the possibility of the entire group losing focus on the lesson, (and introducing self control skills that would lead to important time management and self regulation in middle school and high school,)  I couldn’t help but feel like the environment was a bit militaristic. Laugh for three seconds. Cease. Re-focus.

When an iPhone alarm timer placed on a nearby desk went off, it was time for the two groups to switch “stations.” The two young teachers stood across from each other with their groups huddled around them. None of the children moved. After two kids were selected to demonstrate what it looks like to switch stations safely and efficiently, the rest of the group was allowed to follow in their paths. The students walked in lines around the desks clustered in the middle of the room. Any student who deviated from the designated path, broke into a run, or flung his body onto the carpet a little too crazily, was asked to return to the starting position and try again. A bell was rung, and the students had to the count of “3,2,1” to collect themselves. After a total of 30 seconds (including a brief episode where one student who had been asked to “take a break” more than once was pulled aside,) all were seated quietly and working diligently at their stations.

In classrooms with children from higher grade levels, SFER St. Olaf members reported a similar emphasis on stations and group work. Experienced with the expectations of stations from earlier years, the children moved seamlessly from project to project–impressively able to focus despite a high noise and activity level. The ability to transition and compartmentalize is developed throughout elementary school at Hiawatha–leading to more autonomy at the secondary level. Though the SFER members visiting these classrooms found the environment distracting, the class worked like clockwork. As occurred in the kindergarten classroom, classroom management was preventative and prompt.

In our hour spent touring and observing Hiawatha Leadership Academy, I thought a lot about what it would be like to teach in such an organized, collaborative, and  data-driven environment. As a 2013 Teach for America Corps member, I know that this is the sort of school so many TFA alumni seek out after a few years of teaching in original placement regions–a space where TFA affiliation is highly sought and familiar “best practices” emphasized. I imagined the 9 hour school days, school-issued cell phones, constant communication with parents and school leaders, and the “big brother” feel of 1-way mirrored observation rooms that were built in the Hiawatha middle school (Adelante College Prep) last year.

I felt conflicted–simultaneously attracted to the clear structure of an Academy with solid goals and ways to measure progress toward them, and worried about the likelihood of “burnout” and frustration with the level of rigidity. This feeling is becoming more and more familiar as my exploration of varied models in education continues. Each school brings with it different inspirations and challenges. No matter where I find myself in the coming years, compromise and flexibility will be necessary. My philosophy about classroom management, community building, and the day to day work of lesson plans will shift and take shape. Because it’s a strong possibility that I will be in a charter school classroom in Indianapolis by the time August is here, visits to schools like Hiawatha Leadership Academy are invaluable. This is the model that so many think of when the term “charter school” comes up in conversation. Its story is the college-centered “success” tale that so many private donors invest in. To understand  and consider this school’s mission and community is a wonderful place to begin

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Office Space and a CSA: Visiting Arcadia Charter School

Walking into Arcadia High School in Northfield, MN, the administrative desk and row of “waiting room” chairs flows seamlessly into a library of diverse fiction books. I grasped a pen capped with an artificial tulip and signed myself in as a “visitor.” The sound of 16 and 17 year old students exchanging ideas and banter registered as a constant murmur.

When I peered around the corner, the scene was straight out of an article about Google and innovative work spaces. Sprawling desks with red swivel chairs were clustered in groups of 2 and 3. Teenagers with headphone-plugged ears typed away on laptops–their feet propped on formica surfaces.

A group of middle school students in the corner added neon rubber tubes to a towering roller coaster construction project built in the name of physics. Two boys with faux-hawk haircuts sat together strumming guitars casually. On the cork board panels surrounding each workspace, photographs, hand-drawn cover art, and post-it note to-do lists were plastered.

Beginning our tour of Arcadia (formerly called ArtTech High,) the school’s Director pointed to a smirking teenager surrounded by the paper-strewn chaos of his desk; “Sometimes it looks like an office environment in here, and sometimes it looks like a teenager’s bedroom.” Working in a teenage bedroom may sound like a nightmare to most adult professionals, but Director Krominga embraces it. It is a piece of the unique structure and culture of a school with a population of 126. These students must manage their own space and time. There are no bells or tones to signal the end of a class period or lunch hour.

Image from Arcadia students hard at work during a dress rehearsal.

Image from Arcadia students hard at work during a dress rehearsal.

Meandering through the makeshift hallways of this warehouse turned charter school, computer labs merge into bean bag lounges, a black box theater, science and math classrooms, and a few more clusters of “office space.” Student art covers every surface. The evidence of Arcadia’s emphasis on project-based learning is tangible around every corner.

Students in grades 6-12 sign on to a school wide contract–engaged in a culture of collaboration, choice, and creativity. 75% of the school’s high school students also went to middle school in this building, and it is common for a student at Arcadia to have the same core group of teachers for 7 years.

Learning more about the dynamics of the school, I felt more and more as if I were touring a college rather than a building serving students ages 12-18. Mr. Krominga explained to us the intentionality behind this feeling. Throughout middle school, the day for Arcadia students is structured–split into more traditional time frames of class, art, extra-curricular activities, and time to work on assignments.

Once the students make the transition from 8th grade to the high school (a transition, Mr. Krominga admits, that means at least a handful of his students will leave for more traditional models of education,) members of the Arcadia cohort can expect to see their time spent sitting in class cut down significantly. Instead, hours spent working on individually tailored projects designed to meet a set of learning objectives and criteria are the norm. With only 18 students per grade level, it’s much easier to adjust assignments and schedules to each student and his or her intellectual curiosities.

Taking it all in, the prospect of following your own path of interests as a high school student was inspiring. But still, I wondered about the notorious stress of standardized test scores and “achievement” that comes with being a publicly funded school. How did parents feel about their children’s ability to compete for college spots at the end of the day?

Mr. Krominga nodded knowingly. He’d had this question before. To prepare students for MCA testing, a series of lessons, theories, and principles must be learned–all staff at Arcadia acknowledge this reality. Just as a college freshmen must navigate General Education requirements, students at Arcadia face the choices of which classes will fulfill requirements for subjects like biology, physics, science, and chemistry. This experience begins with a general survey course and is followed by quarters and semesters spent examining choice branches of a field–allowing in-depth study for students who discover a passion. Overall, Mr. Krominga is confident in the branching path his students take–proudly asserting that each grade level performs well on MCA tests.

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When Arcadia kids reach senior year, it isn’t ACT scores they’re obsessing over (though they are a valid stressor.) Instead, students develop Senior Projects–representations of the journey that is high school life. Reflecting on coursework and personal growth, the projects have limited formal requirements. Mr. Krominga tells us about a few of his favorites–remembering with a smile that the projects that look like they will never work out are usually the best of all.


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In 2011, students at Arcadia (the ArtTech,) began harvesting vegetables grown in their own campus greenhouse for delivery to 13 families who signed on to be part of the school’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project ( The greenhouse is only one piece of an impressive addition the school added–one that includes a science lab, art room, and multipurpose space. Both inside and out of the greenhouse, students learned the fine (and extremely practical)  arts of community gardening and grant application.  With grants and funds from the CSA families, ArtTech was even able to hire a farmer-in-residence.

Now a staple in the culture of Arcadia, the greenhouse is an interdisciplinary tool–calling on students’ mental and physical skills. The building is used to teach lessons in subjects ranging from biology to economics, government, and math (

This year, one senior student has adopted the CSA as her final project. Throughout the Spring semester, she will develop an operations manual to ensure that the operation continues to live on long after she graduates. We hope to invite this student (and a few of her passionate peers) to speak with a St. Olaf Environmental Studies class about their experiences with the CSA and  Arcadia greenhouse.

Scribbling away at a notepad as Director Krominga rattled off a list of charter schools in Minnesota to explore, I was impressed by Arcadia’s model and history. After recognizing the title of “ArtTech” was a marketing nightmare (drawing in students and families who mistakenly believed the school was run entirely through flipped classrooms or dance classes,) the current version of Arcadia was born. Armed with the same goal to marry technology and the arts, the school is now more accurately known for its approach to project-based learning.

As Mr. Krominga fondly says; “students should really be allowed to play all the way through high school.” He is saddened by the way parents begin worrying about test scores and college entrance when students hit 7th and 8th grade. A switch flips, and the exploratory learning that was so acceptable for 6 and 7 year-olds suddenly becomes a setback to future success. In this sense, innovative charter schools like Arcadia are more readily approved when they are at the primary level. To open a high school like this one feels like a risk in a system that is cemented in so many of its ways.

On this note of education reform, Krominga has a firm opinion: the current system does not prepare students for the modern world of work. Rather, he believes that the traditional model of public education, equipped with bells and strict units and standardized tests, is a relic of the industrial era–a time when children were to be prepared for factory work. 2013 is the era of start-ups and flexible work hours and connective thinking, and Arcadia is preparing students for the future.

Listening to Mr. Krominga speak, I am inspired. I am also nervous. As the Director of Arcadia openly admits, charter schools by definition do not fit everyone. There are many children who need the structure that Arcadia lacks. Furthermore, the school operates well because it works on such a small scale. To expand or “replicate” this model could lead to failure. In the movement of education reform, this point is key and must be approached carefully. Building reform within communities is where success begins.  The 20-year old charter school movement should not be seen as a replacement for our traditional public schools, but as an alternative and a supplement. To identify the needs of a specific community (as Arcadia students learned when they designed and built their own CSA,) is a complex and unique process. No two charter schools should be exactly alike.

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