Rethinking English Class in Farmington, Minnesota


During a KnowledgeWorks-facilitated professional development workshop on design thinking, then-principal Jason Berg asked his ninth grade English teachers to identify what it was they hoped their learners would take away reading To Kill a Mockingbird.

“They rattled off a ton of things,” says Berg, who now serves as executive director of education services at Farmington Area Public Schools in Farmington, Minnesota. Traditionally, To Kill a Mockingbird is usually taught with the intent to elevate themes of morality, social inequality and systemic racism. “But does just reading the book bring out the value? Is there more that teachers need to do?”

“Does just reading the book bring out the value? Is there more that teachers need to do?”

Jason Berg
Executive Director of Education Services, Farmington Area Public Schools, Farmington, Minnesota

In past years, Farmington’s ninth grade English teachers would do a literary analysis on the book with their students, along with a research paper, but in thinking about what they really hoped students would experience in their classroom, they opted to completely restructure how they taught the book.

Sarah Stout, who has been a teacher with the district for eight years, highlighted she and her team’s desire to reimagine their curriculum to ensure their students became “critical thinkers” rather than just “complacent readers.”

“We asked ourselves, what do students actually need from English class, versus what we want out of English class? It’s changed how we choose our literature and our writing assignments,” says Stout.

Last year, all of Farmington’s ninth graders still read excerpts from To Kill a Mockingbird for class, supported by a project-based approach that allowed them to extend their learning through a focus on social action. This year, they’re taking the redesign even further: students have the option to read To Kill a Mockingbird, but they’ll also have the choice to read contemporary pieces that may better reflect their own experiences with some of those key themes, including The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, among others.

“As we design our curriculum, we’re thinking about the skills we want students to have, versus the texts we might use,” says Adam Fischer, who has been with the district for four years. “When our kids leave our classrooms, they’re prepared for real-life things, skills they can use every day that aren’t just specific to a text we’re reading. Everything we’re doing is something they can use. I feel like we’re really making a difference.”

How is personalized, competency-based learning different from traditional learning?