127 Ways to Learn About the Kenowa Hills Public School District


Laura Hilger learned about the Kenowa Hills School District in in 127 steps, when she visited classrooms to learn more about their systems level change. Kenowa Hills is a learning community that is working towards transitioning to a personal mastery system, and step by step, they are deciding how to navigate through their journey. This past month, I was lucky enough to get to visit all of the buildings, and visit classrooms at all of the levels, including the early childhood center. Not that I was counting, but that’s 127 classroom visits. 127 opportunities to see personalized learning in action. 127 times that I was able to get to see the great work happening in Kenowa Hills.

I remember when I stepped into my very first classroom as a teacher. Despite all of the profound experiences that I had in my toolkit that made me think that I was prepared for that moment, I was struck with a fear. While fear in the classroom was a new feeling to me at the time, it would become my best asset over the span of my career, because of course I didn’t have everything I needed; education is a daily practice. One that rips and roars through you, and when you’re doing it right, one that requires you to be better than the day before, and learn from failure because that is what your students need from you, and what society demands of you.

A teacher has produced more sweat and tears than what he or she exhibits in front of the students. I still consider getting to visit classrooms a gift. It is something that I don’t take lightly because when I walk into a classroom, I know that the teacher has produced more sweat and tears than what he or she exhibits in front of the students. I am reminded of the iceberg illusion where everyone sees the success, yet forgets everything that person went through to get there. Or maybe, when there isn’t success, the honest vulnerability and reflection that is required to try again. And again. And again. Teaching is so hard, and it’s even harder when you know you have to do it every day, all day long. The same needs to be said for the leadership as well.

Do you want to really know what’s going on in a school district? Try visiting more than 100 classrooms. It paints a solid picture. I built my picture of Kenowa Hills in 127 steps. If you’re part of a school district like Kenowa Hills that is working on a paradigm shift, trying to manage complex change, and you decide to have someone tour that many classrooms in the middle of the complex change? It’s a sign that district leadership trusts the work of their staff to lead the change.

Bold Moves

We need bold moves in education. The World Economic Forum just came out with their new number:

Dr. James Johnson, Jr. talks about the new normal being that the only certainty is uncertainty. Students need us to help them be prepared for the unknown. There isn’t a teacher I visited in Kenowa Hills who isn’t taking risks with their practice.

You might be thinking, “So what? Isn’t that what teachers are supposed to do?” You bet. That is exactly what teachers should be doing. But the difference in Kenowa Hills, in every one of those 127 classrooms I visited, is that they are all doing it together. They are not cookie cutter classrooms, where every teacher is on the same page of a textbook on the same day. Nor does their learning throughout the change process look the same. Rather, they are united in a common vision. Do they agree all of the time? No, but they sit in a room together, and figure out how to navigate the future of their learning community as a team. They have embraced an instructional framework, and other essentials that go along with their transition to personal mastery, which is leading to systems change. They are making changes to their practice, and little by little, you can see the evidence in the students.

When teachers step back, students push themselves forward. When teachers step back, students push themselves forward. The silence and the wait time of a teacher can be the most powerful method to see the transfer of high expectations from students.  While there is vulnerability when using this strategy for both the teachers and the students, that is where becoming slightly uncomfortable exists and when we are slightly uncomfortable, we are emotional, and when we are emotional, we are learning.

Here’s the thing-we’ve known for a long time now: What we’ve been doing in schools isn’t working anymore. There are a lot of people talking about personalized learning, performance-based learning, and competency-based learning. It’s gaining momentum around our country. But where the script really gets flipped is in the notion that what we need are competency-based systems.

We have always had pockets of excellence in our schools. There have always been effective teachers, effective leaders, effective practices, and effective learning spaces. But when we talk about competency-based learning, what we really need to be talking about is system-level change. That is what is ultimately going to impact student achievement. If everyone is teaching in isolation and assuming all power and responsibility for learning lies only with the teacher, we won’t reach our goal, which is ensuring equity and student agency within our learning communities. We need teachers to give up some of the power and share leadership of the learning experience with students. That is what makes student agency come alive.

Navigating change in a classroom is huge; navigating it at a systems level is a revolution.

View a slideshow of student quotes overheard during my classroom visits to Alpine Elementary, Central Elementary, Zinser Elementary, Kenowa Hills High School and Kenowa Hills Middle School:

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