Month: January 2019

Learner-centered leaders help learners understand everyone’s journey is different

This post is part of a series connected to the podcast Shift Your Paradigm: from school-centered to learner-centered. My colleague, Randy Ziegenfuss, and I will be sharing our learning and thinking along the way and cross-posting to the Shift Your Paradigm site.

In Episode 41, we spoke with Travis Lape, Innovative Programs Director in Harrisburg School District (SD), Shana Wagers, Instructional Coach at Freedom Elementary School, and Landri, a young learner in the Freedom Elementary program.

Key Competency

Learner-centered leaders help all learners understand that everyone’s journey will be different.


A typical day in this public school starts with a morning meeting and includes reading, math, and content areas. Learners are grouped according to needs and not age. Groupings are labeled as Littles, Middles, Molders, Olders rather than second or fourth graders.

Learners may attend studios with students across multiple groupings. Learners flex based on where they are at in the learning continuum and what they need. Their learning journey starts where they are instead of with same-age level peers. This has allowed the flexibilty to move learners where they need to be during their school day.

This work started in the high school over 10 years ago. The educators looked at different schedules – blocks, modified, etc. But, they were looking for more of a college schedule with varying blocks of time to meet different learning needs. They developed a customized look for their learners.  For example, some learners might not need a whole year of Algebra 1. Through the early years, they determined they needed to rethink some ideas to make sure they were meeting all of the needs for all of their learners.

The high school now offers two paths – traditional and customized. In the customized path, learning is flexible. Learners control the pace – moving as quickly as works for them. Additionally, they can take more time.  Check points allow for the school to monitor progress.

Travis is thoughtful in sharing their learners express voice and choice. Learners use their creation devices – iPads – to determine how to communicate their learning. In the traditional path, learners may have more paper/pencil tests and move at the pace of the class. Teachers differentiate for learners.

In the elementary school, learners have set blocks of time. In the middle school, learners have greater opportunity to schedule their own courses. In a four block time, facilitators advertise their offerings. Middle school learners then schedule their day based on what they need. For example, students will advocate for themselves. If they have a conflict between a science lab and extra help for math, they work with the facilitators to solve the issues. The middle school use Personalized Learning Tools to facilitate this process. It takes six minutes for the process to occur.

The organization is making bold changes – such as implementing the tools to offer students opportunity to schedule their own day. The school also focuses on Habits of Mind and growth mindset. Learners recognize everyone’s journey will be different, and everyone is there to support each other. Learners work in mixed groups to learn the Habits of Mind.  Sometimes the best learning happens when one learner can explain it to another learner.

Landri shared how her voice contributes to learning. She reflects she and her classmate are working on different math tasks. While she is creating a Write About project after her Mastery Check, her classmate completes another task.  Learners choose how they want to show their understanding.  Learners are taught multiple productivity apps on their iPads.

What kind of leadership competencies do leaders need to have to do this work?  Leaders need to think differently about how they support staff and teachers. It is tough to tear down a system that has been built by others. This has not been a top-down initiative. A team observed other schools, identified strengths, and possible opportunities for change in their own system. Leaders and teachers are on the ground everyday. They have had to empower teachers to make decisions, even if those decisions don’t work. The leadership has to be flexible and feel the heartbeat of the facilitators to better support them.

As a result of that support, the teachers are encouraged to share their voices. Constant communication between leaders, facilitators, and learners is essential. Together, they figure out what can be put in place to improve. The leadership recognizes it is all a process to make sure it is done well.  Everyone in the organization has agency, and that is a big shift in terms of leadership. It can be uncomfortable for leadership as well as new staff members.

This learning environment puts differentiation on steroids. Facilitators learn quickly that in any one room, there could be learners across many standards. Faciltators need to better understand the standards across grade levels.

If teachers are not accepting the agency or invitation, how do you support and enroll them in the conversation? Engage in conversations, develop team norms and standard operating procedures. Facilitators may also need to support in content, math and reading, etc. The facilitators might have pacing and grouping questions or concerns. The leader needs to function as a go-to resource!

Is this shift systemic?  Starting to move forward. For example, Kindergarten has WIN – What I Need groups – 15 minutes, four times per day. Learners are grouped based on need in letter groups and math groups.

What advice would you give to other leaders? We did not get here alone. We encourage others to look at a lot of different models, and ask questions. Travis tells schools not to replicate Harrisburg’s program. Instead, schools need to look at their context critically.  Leaders also need to raise expectations because learners will meet them.  Travis also tells leaders to, “See it to believe it!”  Secondly, he tells leaders to engage in conversations with their your core team. Discuss what the team wants for learners when they leave. Systems are different. communities are different. And needs are different.

Leaders also need to know it is ok to make mistakes and fail. Struggles made this team better, even through the range of emotions – frustration and struggles. Reflect to make it better and the positive changes will keep growing.

Landri encourages learners to think flexibly if something doesn’t go your way. She also tells others to trust their facilitators because they know what they are doing.

The art of teaching and leading is being able to be fluid. This transformation is a long-term process which requires analysis of contextual factors. Learner-centered leadership shifts the agency and voice from the leader to those they are working within the organization. This process isn’t a straight line from point A to point B. Instead it is a messy curvy line with detours and failures along the way. Learners will understand every journey will be different. The norm is not that everyone gets the same and travels together. The norm is that everyone’s journey is different. As leaders, we need to be intentional about supporting our teachers, be on the ground with them, celebrate the positive/less productive risk-taking.

Connections to our Practice

  • Our elementary students learn success skills through the Leader in Me program.
  • We have a traditional path in our high school, even though students have options.
  • We have been working to support our teachers in our Project Wonder program at the middle school.

Questions Based on Our Practice

  • Would two paths work in our system?
  • How would our learners feel about creating their own schedules?
  • How are we teaching Habits of Mind or growth mindset in our secondary schools?
  • Do our learners trust their teachers – that there learning experience is better because of them?
  • How could we scale Project Wonder?

Next Steps for Us

  • Take a look at the software scheduling tool. How could a tool like that support our work?
  • Consider running two paths simultaneously in middle school.

Learner-centered leaders are open and responsive to feedback

This post is part of a series connected to the podcast Shift Your Paradigm: from school-centered to learner-centered. My colleague, Randy Ziegenfuss, and I will be sharing our learning and thinking along the way and cross-posting to the Shift Your Paradigm site.

In this episode, we learned about Nautilus School with leader Milissa McClaire Gary and a young learner Andrew (AJ) from the Nautilus school located in Chicago.

Key Competency

Learner-centered leaders are open and responsive to feedback.


When asked what teaching and learning looks like in Nautilus School, Milissa shared there was significant collaboration to get their learning space ready for the learners. The curriculum, activities, and experiences are designed to meet what learners need academically and socially.

AJ described his day which begins with morning meeting and Daily 5. He participates in yoga twice a week, STEM challenges, geometry, enjoys recess and lunch in the dining room. and ends the day with wrap-up. AJ shared he has been learning about electric cars and will share what he has learned through an Animoto video at the school’s portfolio night.

Milissa was working with teacher teams in Chicago Public Schools, and worked to bring Nautilus to life. Through the work, observing classrooms and reviewing neuroscience research (including executive functions and mindfulness), Melissa determined the need to create a new school since current systems are not set up to support the most effective kind of learning and success. After planning with other community members, the school opened its doors in September 2018.

What is portfolio night?  Students developed two individual goals and learner-centered projects in the first couple of weeks of the trimester. The learners access their  neighborhood library and online classroom resources for their research. Portfolio Night is similar to parent conferences or report card pickup.

There are no letter grades at Nautilus, but there is a language that has been developed to indicate how the students are progressing towards their goals. Students then review their self-selected work in their portfolio. They present their videos also.

By the end of the year, the school hopes the students will be running their own conferences. To do this, Nautilus staff are working with learners on speaking and articulating their learning for parents.

The school is working to release agency in its learners. Students set goals for learning during morning meeting every day. Students use set processes to review their progress. Even on the parts of the day which are more free choice or play-based, learners determine what options work well in their space.  Learners complete self-checks and monitor how they are doing. Learners also use a free choice calendar, which was designed by the learners.

Nautilus is digging into open-walled experiences and shifting to a more learner-centered environment. They are currently thinking about assessment and how it will evolve. They are determining how they and the learners can articulate what they are learning.

Helping parents see school differently is important as Nautilus seeks to increase the number of students attending the school. Community members and parents are generating a buzz on social media. Word of mouth is spreading.

You cannot do this work by yourself; it has to be a collaborative effort. As a leader, Milissa does not hold all the responsibility of developing the school and generating all of the ideas. She uses her coaching background to engage the whole team in reflection while she learns alongside others. Leaders need to constantly have the eyes open for what lessons they are learning on a daily basis.

AJ reflects that Nautilus is a friendly time and place for kids to learn. He appreciates they have a class pet, a lemonade stand, yoga, and working with the teacher on Daily 5.  Some of the work is also different from his previous school. He notices there are fewer worksheets and more choice in his learning. AJ reflects on his learner-centered goal. He wants to learn more about electric cars, and has created an Animoto. AJ brainstormed about next goals, and pondered about learning more about his friends.

What advice do you have for learner-centered leaders? It is really important to partner with parents and  know kids deeply.

Connections to our Practice

  • We have done several surveys to seek input from learners, teachers, leaders, and parents.
  • We have elementary learners creating student-led conferences as an outcome of our Leader in Me process.
  • We struggle with deep parent engagement.

Questions Based on Our Practice

  • Do we know our learners deeply?
  • Are we open and responsive to feedback?
  • What is our attitude towards feedback? Do we seek it out, or do we only accept it when we receive it?

Next Steps for Us

  • Talk with leadership team about venues for feedback. How can we truly partner with parents?

Learner-centered leaders place the agency in the hands of the learner and transform their learning environments

This post is part of a series connected to the podcast Shift Your Paradigm: from school-centered to learner-centered. My colleague, Randy Ziegenfuss, and I will be sharing our learning and thinking along the way and cross-posting to the Shift Your Paradigm site.

In Episode 43, we learned about an innovative learning environment – North Star Teens in Hadley, MA. with Kenneth Danford and a 15 year old learner – Nolan Saito.

Key Competency

Learner-centered leaders place the agency in the hands of the learner and transform their learning environments.


Norh Star is not a school – instead it is a learning environment. Most teens do choose to go onto college after attending North Star.

Adults offer classes and students decide whether or not to attend. There is significant 1:1 time, and opportunities are provided for teens to control how they spend their time, while some classes may look like a typical school in which an adult is teaching in the front of the room. In addition to participating in North Star, many of the teens are homeschooled.  

Nolan reflected that a major difference between North Star and school is that students set their own pace. He can study what really interests him at the pace he needs to go in order to absorb what he needs to absorb. Nolan participates in tutorials to cover math, learn Spanish and cover science. He does school work online with Khan Academy and reads books to learn.  

For many of the North Star teens, their learning is fluid, and there is not a clear line between what counts for North Star and what counts for homeschool. Students under 16 are homeschooled.  The structure allows for pursuit of motivation and passion and complying with state requirements.

North Star has about 60 learners and serves local teens in western Massachusetts. There are other sites – Princeton, upstate NewYork, Leesberg VA, etc. – serving local teens through the Liberated Learners Network.

How does North Star represent a learner-centered environment? North Star was born out of shifting tables from requiring students to complete specific learning experiences to inviting students to participate in learning activities. Ken and his colleague wanted to get rid of the assignments which were created by the teachers and required of learners. Instead, they wanted to put the control in the hands of the learner.

North Star supports learners with all of their passions. For example, Nolan is a dancer who practices 3 hours a day. He has always gotten up early to practice violin before school. Attending a traditional school makes it difficult to pursue these passions.

Community and people who volunteer to teach at North Star are diverse. Nolan participates in a class on Tuesdays called Essential Shelter. It focuses on architectural history. He participates in a Monday class – Guitar, Spanish, making boats. Other classes include math, making bread, making lunch, and how to listen to classical music. North Star also has a band, a theater group, and even debate class. Nolan reflects that students can think about a class, and it will appear. Students participate in the classes only if they are interested.

What are some leadership competencies which are needed to lead in this type of a learning environment? Ken first identifies the leader needs to treat the small program like a business. Funding, keeping the doors open, is a challenge.  This is true for other small non-profits. Leaders need to have a team ready to tackle the challenges of starting this small business. Don’t underestimate the seriousness and need of a team to start a small business.

Ken shares you have to be willing to take “no” for answer. You might create a class and students have no interest in participating. You have to be able to accept the “no, thank you!” If that is going to frustrate you, then this isn’t for you.

When Ken can suspend his judgement and agenda, the good stuff – respecting kids, watching them blossom and challenge themselves, make friends, etc happens! Ken’s job is to make sure North Star is a safe place for the learners. He is not in charge of making sure Nolan learns fractions or the periodic table.

No one gets turned away for financial reasons. Many families get a fee reduction if needed.  Ken then works with the team to raise that money through special events and fundraisers.

The biggest piece of advice Nolan offers to other learners or educators is to not be afraid of what you don’t know. Nolan has a cousin who was considering homeschooling, but he had reasons why this wouldn’t work for him. For example, he thought he wouldn’t be able to go to college. Nolan argues homeschooled learners can go to college. Fear of the unknown can hold people back from leaving school and broadening their mindset in a different learning environment. Short answer – Don’t be afraid!

Ken shared you need to trust yourself, and everything counts. Ken doesn’t propose everyone leave traditional school. Instead, he hopes that everyone knows they could leave traditional school, and North Star would be there to support them. He offers he attended traditional school, his kids attended traditional school, and many North Star siblings attend traditional school. If school is working, great. If it isn’t working for you, there is another way.

What is next for Nolan? He anticipates taking the GED test, and eventually attending college, although he is not sure when he will go to college. He has goals and knows he wants to stay connected to the arts in the future.

Learner-centered leaders release agency, transform their schools, and create new options!

Connections to our Practice


  • We have an online academy – which does allow students flexibility in terms of time for completing course work. Students could participate in athletics in the morning, and complete their online work in the afternoon. In this case, we are still controlling the content.

Questions Based on Our Practice


  • How do we listen to our learners and create opportunities based on their interests?

  • How often do we take no for an answer?

  • How can students earn credit for outside learning?

Next Steps for Us


  • Engage in conversation with the learners to talk about their learning experiences.

Learner-centered leaders know change permeates the whole system

This post is part of a series connected to the podcast Shift Your Paradigm: from school-centered to learner-centered. My colleague, Randy Ziegenfuss, and I will be sharing our learning and thinking along the way and cross-posting to the Shift Your Paradigm site.
In Episode 44 we spoke with Dr. Cory Steiner, superintendent in the Northern Cass School District in North Dakota. We learned about the audacious goals and vision, driven by their Profile of a Graduate, that are focused on creating a learner-centered school district. Northern Cass School District is a public school district located in Hunter, ND. It has 635 learners in grades PK-12 with a student-teacher ratio of 15 to 1.


Northern Cass has adopted audacious goals – including moving to a competency-based model by 2020. They offer big school opportunties in their small school system of 635 learners. They took  6-8 months to work with educators and learners on a 3-year transition which will eliminate grade levels, offer credit for learning beyond the day,  rethinking grading, and making sure kids move at a pace which works best for them.

Significant planning is in process to make this happen. They started several years ago with the Teacher Leadership Academy. Professional learning is a key compenent in this work. The District partnered with a local university to provide a masters degree aligned to the District’s vision. Administrators partnered with professors to teach courses related to District content. The school considered a school within a school model, but decided they wanted to do more for all learners.

Community engagement has been critical – using a personalized learning team (including learners) and a parent group. Engaging parents and community members in conversations around potential concerns (transcripts, credits, etc.) has helped build the vision and understanding while addressing various pieces.

Northern Cass recently developed a Portrait of a Graduate to guide this work- identifying eight areas (collaboration, communication, critical thinking, leadership, growth mindset, organization, accountability, and self-reflection.)  Every conversation focuses on how the work will support students being choice-ready to leave their school with the discreet skills and dispositions. Next year, the school will use the first 10 days at elementary and 6 days at the secondary level to directly teach the skills through activities designed to help students better understand the skills and ideas in the Portrait of a Graduate.  The POG is the guided pathway to getting to personalized learning.

Along the way, there have been high points and challenges. Cory shared about his Jaguar Academy – a school within a school – and how it really focused on pace.  Students quickly completed required courses and then moved to passion courses and internships. He reflected his kids are ready to own their own learning, and sometimes the adults need to get out of the way.  

The majority of the staff has embraced the idea of learner-centered, and believes they are doing the right things for their learners. Learner-centered is what is right, even though it is a heavy, heavy lift. Some educators have struggled with this change because the school district has to build its own system.  At times, there is stress because you have to build the system as you go and you don’t know what it will look like until you start doing it.  Also, there is always more work to do… revamp the curriculum, build in a learning management system, etc.  

Cory reflected on site visits to gain new ideas. While visiting and viewing these other learning environments, the educators could see what is possible. He knows Northern Cass’ learners are as capable as all other learners. He realized that the district has not given ownership to the learners. He realizes they have to do a better job of teaching the skills to the learners. While they have learned significantly from other districts such as Lindsay Unified and Harrisburg, Northern Cass has had to design its own original system.  Everyone’s context is different.  

Agency is at the core of this work. What does it look like in Northern Cass? How have the adults embraced the agency? Cory shared the teachers need to give up their control and know that it is going “to be ok.”  Controls such as tests, retests, etc. can be given up, and it will still be ok. Teachers are starting to let go some of those controls.

How have you as a superintendent reshaped the control? Cory has full trust that the people in the district will do what is right for their learners. He knows his staff truly care about the learners. The educators want their learners to have their best day every day. He trusts that teachers will work at a pace that works best for them. When teachers are not doing what it is needed, they may need more resources or time. Additionally, he has had to rethink his role in professional learning, reflecting on the best way to involve his own voice. Using teacher leaders for direct instruction on programs/initiatives and allowing time for professional conversation is often more important than leading the professional development.

Leaders need to be empathetic. We need to honor the work that our teachers do, and celebrate our successes. Leaders also need to focus on their why. What is your why and how does it drive your work every day and in every conversation? The why needs to become more than the a mission or vision.

Leaders need to find a medium area to let their runners run, and ensure every one makes an effort.

Leaders also need to be willing to fail. If you are going to try to do this work, you have to be willing to take the risks to do what is right for kids.  Don’t make excuses for doing what is right for kids.  People who are struggling in this system are people who don’t live in this system.

What advice would you give?  Stop waiting for things to be perfect before you start. Be willing to take small steps instead of waiting. Leaders also need to find a way to give up the excuse of not being able to afford it. Provide opportunities for teachers to see other people doing the work. When teachers believe it, they will do it. Let your runners go, and figure out what you need to do to support everybody else. The change permeates the whole system – teachers, leaders, clerical support, and parents.

To flip the system, we need to create agency throughout the entire system. Sometimes we may feel personal frustration, and we have to slow down and be empathetic. Trust and empathy are critical throughout the change process.  When we feel stress, it is important to have the conversation, be vulnerable and empathetic, and seek solutions.

Connections to our Practice

  • We have worked to build our Profile of a Graduate and learning beliefs.
  • We have provided two years to build a shared understanding – with runners and teachers who need more time.
  • We have developed a school-within-a-school model in our middle school.

Questions Based on Our Practice

  • Does everyone understand our why statement?
  • How do we surface parent concerns?
  • How do we create action groups which include diverse stakeholders including learners?
  • Do our adults have agency?
  • Are our adults able and willing to give up control?
  • How can we better understand how others feel?

Next Steps for Us

  • Talk with leadership team about venues for feedback. How can we truly partner with parents?
  • How can we organize some more site visits?