• North Park Inspires in Kentucky and Texas

    Posted by Jeff Cacek on 12/17/2016

    Recently, I received an email from a colleague with the subject line: look familiar?" I clicked a link and began viewing a news piece from an NBC affiliate in Austin, Texas. The piece was about a school in Eanes Public Schools that is implementing programming and space that looks very conspicuously like our Learning Studios.

    There is a good reason for the resemblance. This school district has contracted with the Cuningham Group and is working with John Pfluger and Judy Hoskens to remodel their learning spaces. John and Judy used video and the sketch of our 2nd Grade Learning Studio to inspire this design team. The results are impressive. Additionally, I have received correspondence from a school in Fort Campbell, KY that has been inspired to transform all of its instructional space into Learning Studios.

    While it feels satisfying to inspire others, it feels even better to observe the learning our North Park students experience in our Learning Studio. If you want to see for yourself, give us a call: 763-528-4305.


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  • Why Learning Studio?

    Posted by Meredith Shafer on 4/15/2016

    Collaboration has been an integral part of what we do at North Park for many years, but 3 years ago collaboration truly evolved for our 2ndgrade team. 


    In order to meet the needs of our 21st century learners, we began to focus on 21st Century Learning Skills: Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, and Critical Thinking.  We felt the best way to meet these needs was by integrating more technology and engineering into our day.  This called for increased collaboration among students, and the teachers worked more closely together as well.  Students began walking to read or work in classrooms that weren't their homerooms.  It was great getting to work with and get to know so many more students and work more closely with each other.  Although we were seeing great things come out of this collaboration, one of the biggest drawbacks we faced was the distance between classrooms and not being able to nurture those relationships.  Two classrooms were already connected with a movable wall, but the third classroom was in another part of the building.  This made it difficult for students to transition smoothly and for conversations among teachers to happen more frequently.


    About half way through that year, after a trip to our multi-purpose media center (This large space housed our EL office, a computer lab, the library and a 4th grade classroom), we looked around and wondered, "What if we were all in here together?" This started us on an amazing journey to create the space we now call the 2nd Grade Learning Studio.

    During our design sessions with the Cuningham Group, we acknowledged that we were creating something unlike anything we had in our school, or really any other.  Students would be learning in a different way and in a different space. We needed a different name to describe the place we were creating.  As we planned and designed the space, we spent a long time debating names and sharing ideas before arriving at the term Learning Studio.  This new name reflected the change in learning that would take place inside the walls. With our programming evolution and the innovative space it demanded we create, the term classroom no longer fit but Learning Studio was perfect.  


    Today, content in our Learning Studio is obtained in a variety of ways.  Students work with teachers in small groups and large groups.  Students also learn on their own through technology or individual projects.  They have also found that they learn so much from each other!  Everyone is a teacher and a learner in our Learning Studio.  We are constantly surprised by how much the students grow and change as they confidently navigate through a day in the Learning Studio.


    I could never go back to teaching the way I did in a traditional classroom. I have grown and learned so much during my two years in the Learning Studio that it would be impossible to go back to how I taught before. I value the collaboration with my teammates (who I frequently say I couldn't breathe without!) and enjoy getting to work with so many students in one year. Students grow and learn so much in a short amount of time and that has everything to do with what is going on in our Learning Studio.

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  • Learning Is... Architectural Design

    Posted by Jeff Cacek on 4/4/2016

    "Education is what people do to you and learning is what you do for yourself," - Joi Ito


    Many of the professionals at North are devotees of TED talks. The annual TED conference 2014 took place in Vancouver a couple weeks ago. Since, I have spent a lot of time sorting through the presentations that have been posted online in search of new favorites. The first talk that has caught my attention - and spurred my imagination - was presented by Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab. Ito argues that innovations that do not make it into the "real world do not count." Ideas that do not become reality are worthless.

    As our third graders entered into their year-long Project-Based Learning (PBL) unit, their teachers understood this idea. Students were charged with redesigning our school courtyard that has become a poorly maintained patch of overgrown weeds at the center of our school building. Many initial ideas were quite unrealistic - a ferris wheel is neither practical nor small enough to function in the space available.

    In short order, the collaborative student groups brought more reasonable ideas to scale and put them on paper. This is where there was a turning point in their projects. The adults in their learning studio knew these 9 year old digital natives were capable of learning the web based architectural drawing application Sketch-Up. It took the students about a week to acclimate and become comfortable enough to put their ideas into Sketch-Up. Next, cost analyses were performed to prove the viability of their projects and presentations were prepared. Each group presented their project to the larger group of 90 students and 4 finalists were chosen to move forward to be judged by a panel consisting of school district administrators, a parent and one of the architects who had facilitated their learning studio design.

    Throughout the process, I was astounded with the skills I observed students acquiring and practicing. Most of all, I was impressed by the level of collaboration that I saw students exhibit throughout the process - there was never a hint of competitiveness as students learned from one another. It was not unusual to see groups sacrificing lunch and PlayWorks time in order to serve as audiences providing feedback for practicing presenters. In the end it paid dividends as the judges were blown away by both the presentations and designs. It was difficult to choose an overall winner, so the panel created an award for each design team. In addition to an overall winner, there were winners of most original idea, best use of space and best presentation.

    Next, our winning team will join our grant writing team to secure the funding to make these ideas into reality. This design will make it into the real world - it is going to count.


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  • Does Testing Assign Importance?

    Posted by Jeff Cacek on 2/5/2015

    I have always loved Mark Twain quotes. There are very few thinkers who could at once be playfully humorous and sharply critical of the human condition. Recently, I thought of one my favorite Twain quotes: "Man is the only animal that blushes - or needs to." While I always notice what could be mistaken as the archaic use of "man" to represent all of humanity, I believe he meant for this quote to be gender specific. It would be easy for this post to turn into a meditation of gender equity, but instead, for just a moment, I will insert the "A human" instead of "man" in order to focus the discussion on how amazing human consciousness is.


    I was reminded of this quote this morning as I was reading Sir Ken Robinson's Out of Our Minds. Sir Ken wrote: "In one respect, at least, human beings are radically different from the rest of life on earth. We have the ability to imagine. As a result we have unlimited powers of creativity…imagination is the primary gift of human consciousness." While the ability to blush in embarrassment is certainly a very human trait, so is imagining and creating. In the age of high stakes testing schools are often duped into allowing students' creativity skills to atrophy. The results of such shifts could be catastrophic. Creativity is an essential skill for success in the modern economy. That is not an attempt to downplay the importance of reading and math - without these basic skills, our students will be hamstrung in their future endeavors. However, they will also come up lame if they have inability to imagine and to turn those ideas imagined into reality - an excellent working definition of creativity.

    As we become firmly entrenched in Testing 2015, you may find yourself asking your student about her reading and math. Be sure also to ask about how she is using her imagination. Ask her what she has created recently. Encourage her to imagine wildly and do her best to make reality of her ideas. You may be shocked to learn what fantastic things she is creating at North Park. By mastering such a skill she will learn many other important things; such as, the importance of taking risks, experiencing failure and persevering to find success. In the end, you will have a child who has the confidence and skills to make the world her own.


    Questions about high stakes testing abound. The most relevant of which is: what about the value of those skills not tested? In this age of the tested child it would be easy to succumb to the pressure of reading and math MCAs. This pressure can make educators - and parents - feel like everything else is secondary. Graphic arts, music and physical education have a tendency to disappear in this environment. Social studies are often neglected and science becomes another opportunity for reading interventions instead of content rich inquiry activities. No other skill takes as much of a beating as creativity.

    Few thinkers have articulated the importance of creativity as much as the great physicist Albert Einstein. Two of his most oft quoted statements on the subject are: "Creativity is intelligence having fun," and - considering imagination as the foundation of creativity a la Sir Ken Robinson, "Imagination is more important than intelligence."  However, schools often make the mistake of discounting or forgetting the importance of creativity - perhaps because it is not tested.

    There is no MCA for the 4 C's of 21st Century learning (nor do we hope for one!). We don't spend weeks taking the MCA - Collaboration or MCA - Creativity. Does this mean we should not provide opportunities for student mastery of these essential skills? If so, where do you find a research-based intervention for building such mastery? Of course, you know the answers to most of these questions. The interventions lie in art and music classes and inquiry activities in the science lab. But they also reside in the learning studio and the classroom. Encouraging imagination and creativity throughout the day is not only possible, it is essential. This is something we require of our students at North Park.


    It is true there is no high stakes test that assesses creativity - if you discount the tests of everyday life, that is. However, at North Park we are currently embarking on a journey to find our own assessments for the essential skills. Over the past two years we have struggled with developing ways to measure mastery the 4 C's. Creating such rubrics sounds a lot easier than it has proven to be. Luckily, in November the organization Leadership 21 released rubrics for assessing creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking. North Park was at the front of the line in the acquisition of the rubrics. Currently, our second grade team is piloting the communication rubric as it pertains to project based learning and we hope to share all them with the rest of our school in Fall 2015.


    We have learned many things in our journey to become a center for 21st Century Learning. First, our state tests do not measure everything our students need to be able to do. Second, this is no excuse for not providing the amount of practice necessary for our students to master the 4 C's. Again, this is not an attempt to short-change reading or math - it is to complement reading and math. It is our argument that the tested skills have little value or meaning without mastery of the so-called soft skills of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. The 4 C's give the tested skills more power. We look forward to the day when measures of each student's mastery of the 4 C's are held in as high regard and as commonplace as those that measure math and reading.


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  • 21st-Century Skills Through the Lens of Equity

    Posted by Jeff Cacek on 9/12/2014

    "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty. As our case is anew, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country."

    - Abraham Lincoln


    As North Park enters its third iteration 21st Century Learning in beta I have been taking some time to reflect upon why we have steadfastly pushed ahead into uncharted territory.

    My first thought centers on the fact it is a shame that this territory is not better charted - a place where mastery of 21st Century Skills is every bit as important as mastering reading and math. It is clear that our students will need to use communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity with ease in order to find success in the current economy. Information synthesis and creation using all available resources and flexible mastery of the ever-changing tools of the digital age will be important to be functional members of families and social networks, let alone employable. It seems ludicrous that more focus on mastering these skills is not a part of the programming at every school. However, at the end of every Minnesota summer we are reminded why doing what seems so logical can require a lot of courage.

    With the beginning of the "Great Minnesota Get-Together" different people are reminded of different things. School administrators are reminded of MCA scores. It is understandable as much can be at stake when we seek validation via test scores. Don't get me wrong - the skills of reading and mathematics are absolutely essential to being good students, workers and citizens. I can't imagine a time when these areas are not central to curriculum and instruction. However, the North Park Leadership Team learned last year from the writing of Dr. Yong Zhao that they are not the only essential skills. From Sir Ken Robinson we learned that sometimes it seems like we have duped ourselves into putting disproportionate emphasis on these two skills - because they are the direct causation of our validation via test scores - that we forget about the big picture. We forget that reading and math do not need to be taught in individual vacuums comprising the whole of the school day. We allow ourselves to forget the majority of the skills our kids will need to master to be functional adults.

    It does not take years of investigation to determine which schools are most negatively affected by this mindset. The schools that spend six-and-a-half hours teaching mostly reading and math - slower, louder, repetitively - tend to be the schools that have the highest levels of students living in poverty. They tend to be the schools that have majority populations of students of color. They are often the schools that have the fewest students speaking English as a first language. These are the schools that are more likely to spend a disproportionate amount of the day doing interventions focused only on reading and math. As a result, they are less likely to have project based learning or comprehensive music, visual and digital arts programming - learning opportunities that refine skills that we have come to recognize are every bit as important to building a successful life.

    By continuing the methodology of More, Faster, Louder and denying students in low performing schools regular opportunities to practice and master the myriad other skills they will need to be successful in a highly competitive workforce, we marginalize the same groups of students over and over again. This marginalization is not just relevant to school, but to life.

    To rethink how we attend to improving test scores is to rethink how we attend to improving the quality of learning for all of our students. Providing opportunity for mastery of 21st Century skills is an issue of equity. At North Park, we are committed to providing our students such opportunities.

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  • Learning Is... Project Based

    Posted by Alicia Bjork on 5/2/2014

    During Summer 2013, a special opportunity was provided for teachers at North Park when a consultant from the Buck Institute was contracted to deliver the 3-day Project Based Learning 101 training. Thirty-five members of our professional learning community were able to learn the ins and outs of PBL and plan a unit for implementation this year.

    In third grade we decided to take a problem solving approach to our first PBL unit. It has been our intention to do something relevant to improve the North Park community. We started by presenting our third graders with the following question:  How can we transform our interior courtyard into useful space for our school community?


    The students started this project with the limitless imaginations of  children.  Our first drafts included water slides, roller coasters and whole towns complete with joke shops, grocery stores and McDonalds. Throughout the year students have worked to revise these initial ideas into original, well-developed plans that I never would have expected to come from 8 and 9 year olds.

    After going through several "reality checks", their plans and their imaginations have transformed them into innovative thinkers who develop creative solutions to problems.  Or, in the words of one of our third graders, "we worried about negatives that we might have and used the engineering design process to think about solutions." Their words, not mine.


    They presented me with many problems and solutions that I hadn't thought of, such as growing more plants in the courtyard will improve our air quality.  Or that we should include raised garden beds to make the gardening experience accessible to students in wheelchairs.  They told me that taking care of our courtyard will give all students a real-life lesson in responsibility and included a greenhouse or retractable glass roof (that limitless imagination is still there) that will allow us to grow plants year round.  

    I have no doubt that the skills that they have acquired during this project will not soon be forgotten and will prove to be useful throughout their lives.  They have left the dream world of children and are now focused on dreaming up better world or at least a better courtyard, for all of us.  I could not be any more proud.

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  • Inside the Learning Studio: Grade 2

    Posted by Meredith Shafer on 4/17/2014


    In the 21st century, teachers are tasked with the job of preparing students for a future we can only imagine. Our children may someday work in fields and jobs that do not even exist right now! Even the content on the internet is constantly growing as it doubles every few months. It is impossible to "fill" their brains with all the information they will need to be successful in our ever-changing world.

    In our Learning Studios, we focus on learning skills that will help prepare them for this future world. As you know from previous blog posts, we call these skills The Four C's: Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, and Critical Thinking. These skills allow students to be successful no matter the content area because their skills are flexible.

    Our Learning Studios allow students to work on these skills with the teacher as a facilitator and guide. Students learn by doing things on their own, with other students, and with teachers in small groups. Instruction is individualized and focused on the needs of the students. There is a lot of choice from where students sit, to what they read, and even how they show what they have learned. Technology is integral. Students in the Learning Studios are experts at using iPads and computers. They use both to access content, practice skills, record observations, and create a variety of projects to share what they have mastered.


    Our students have the opportunity to practice 21st Century Skills through hands-on engineering explorations and student-driven project-based learning. The Learning Studio allows for plenty of flexibility, movement, and choice during these projects. The structure of the programming and procedures in the studio allows for students to get help when they need it and they quickly learn that everyone is a teacher and their classmates are excellent resources!

    The Learning Studio prepares students for real-world work situations where they will need to collaborate with others, problem-solve by using critical thinking skills, use creativity, and communicate with others in a variety of ways. It is truly superior to a traditional classroom!


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  • Relevant Assessment

    Posted by Jeff Cacek on 3/28/2014

    As you know from previous posts, at North Park our students are mastering more than the requisite reading and math skills. Reading and math mastery will always part of the foundation of any excellent education, but in order to be competitive in the 21st Century job market, mastery of additional skills – communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking (the 4 C’s) – are essential. At North Park, we are on the forefront of schools providing students practice of the 4 C’s.

    We are passionate about this commitment to our students and we want to be able to measure growth toward their mastery. However, no high stakes test exists that measures these essential skills. There is not a 4 C’s section of the MCA, MAP test or any other standardized assessment. This will not deter us, though. In our collaboration with Wilder Research and the University of Minnesota, we are partnering with 2 highly respected organizations to develop tools to measure what our students can do.

    With Wilder Research, we have created a logic model defining outcomes for students and staff in the area of 21st Century Skills. The logic model will serve to support our development of a 21st Century Skills rubric our students and teachers will use to assess growth in communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity skills. The 21st Century skills rubric will help us to develop a program evaluation tool to be used by objective evaluators in order to measure program effectiveness. Additionally, Wilder will conduct stakeholder surveys to better understand our needs and successes.

    Our assessment of programming will not stop there, however. Professor John Comazzi of the University of Minnesota School of Architecture has expressed fascination with the compelling environments provided in our Learning Studios. Recently, we entered into an agreement with him to conduct research in the role space plays in supporting 21st Century skills programming. Professor Comazzi will specifically attend to how the Learning Studio spaces increase student engagement and provide flexibility for collaboration and minimizing wasted instructional time. The results will be used to assist the creation of similar learning spaces at North Park and elsewhere. In addition, other university researchers will be engaged to help measure student engagement and academic progress.

    Clearly, we are interested in quantifying the effectiveness of our programming at North Park and the growth of our children. One day, we hope to see 21st Century skills valued as highly as reading and math and we are leading that movement.

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  • Choice Matters

    Posted by Jeff Cacek on 3/3/2014


    As if sending your 5 year old to school isn't difficult enough by itself, making the decision as to which school your child will attend can be agonizing. I have been through it many times for my own children. In a state that provides choice through open enrollment it is becoming more and more difficult to determine the best fit for your child. As a parent, I have been mindful to not lose sight of the years beyond Kindergarten - when my wife and I made a decision about elementary school choice it has always been a K-5 decision. At North Park, all-day, every-day Kindergarten is not new. We have been doing it this way for well over a decade. While some schools may need a year or two to work through the bugs of new, expanded programming, at North Park, we are moving forward with the business of Kindergarten rigor.

    We are currently enrolling children who will turn 5 by September 1st for our 2014-15 Kindergarten class. Every year, as we begin the process of greeting the next year's newest students, it is a time for excitement for what is to come and reflection on what it is we do at North Park that is different from many other schools.

    If you have paid any attention to education over the last two decades you are aware of our national - some would argue international - compulsion to have the highest scores on standardized tests of reading and math. There is no argument against the importance of language and math literacy that is rational. However, is the compulsion to perform well on tests that are assessing only these skills prudent?

    Lost in the drive to "reform" education in the United States is preparing our children to be successful in an economy based on ideas. It is essential that students learn to read, write and use mathematics to find, understand and solve problems. Will these be the only skills necessary for our children to thrive in our current and future economies? No. If a child graduates from high school with only the skills to meet proficiency on a math test and a reading test, that student will be doomed to a marginal life - our system of education will have failed her by focusing a mere fraction of that child's needs.

    At North Park, we understand the importance of math and reading literacy - we spend a significant portion of our school day learning these skills. However, unlike many other schools, we allow students to practice skills that as important to their future success in a constantly changing economy. Our students practice the 4 C's (Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking and Creativity) every day. At North Park, it is understood that mastery of the 4 C's is every bit as important as mastery of reading and math.

    Our Kindergarten programming is rich and rigorous. Like many schools, our morning program is focuses on reading and math - children become readers, writers and begin mastery of math. Unlike many other schools, our afternoon program is also quite rigorous. It is not about nap time, it is about science, technology and social skills building. Our students leave Kindergarten with the stamina and skills to excel in 1st Grade 

    Our students learn to read, write and begin their journey to proficiency in math. They also learn how to log onto laptops and create their own Google accounts. By the end of 1st grade, our students know how to use Google applications to create documents and spreadsheets. They can copy/paste pictures into their digital work and learn to use iPads.

    In 2nd grade, each North Park student creates a personal web page to serve as an electronic portfolio to follow them through high school. They learn how to create podcasts and work collaboratively with others to create and deliver presentations. They practice the engineering design process to solve problems using math, science and the arts. Our 2nd graders also learn to use audio/visual applications in documenting their work.

    Our 3rd graders are currently digging into Project Based Learning (PBL). Their PBL topic is design based as they are determining what to do with the currently wasted space of our courtyard. Students have spent the first part of the year learning about the problem and, in groups of 4, learning how to effectively brainstorm ideas and collaborate on solutions. Each group has created a design proposal using the Google architectural drawing application Sketch-Up. Currently, the groups are completing cost analyses of their plans in preparation for bringing them to the larger group and collaborating on a final grade-level proposal. Oh yeah…..and they will take the MCA Reading and Math tests in a few weeks.

    The fascinating and imaginative learning that is happening in these grades would not be possible without our North Park families, however. Our students' parents and guardians did their homework, visited us for a tour and decided to send their children to a school that is doing something that will better prepare kids for future. I invite you to come explore our kindergarten website, then stop in for a tour to see what North Park is all about.


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  • Learning in the 21st Century

    Posted by Jeff Cacek on 12/13/2013

    "We are currently preparing students for jobs that yet exist, using technologies that haven't yet been invented, in order to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet."   -Karl Fisch,  Author of YouTube viral presentation "Did You Know?"

    "There is a profound gap between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need in typical 21st century communities and workplaces."   -Partnership for 21 st Century Skills

     Schools have been operating in very similar fashion since the 19th Century in buildings that remain shockingly similar to their predecessors. In the 1800's, the purpose of the public school system was to turn out "obedient specialists" - people who could work in factories or in services industries. These schools were appropriate when manufacturing jobs were building our economy into the largest and strongest in the history of the world. But the foundations of our economy have changed and the skills required to be successful are very different.

    Manufacturing jobs are no longer common in the United States. Jobs requiring repetitive tasks are few. The successful adult in the 21st Century economy is able to think independently on the job, is highly flexible, can collaborate effectively, problem solve and communicate well. Creativity and the ability to learn continuously are essential. Embracing the quickened pace of change while maintaining the ability to be innovative will serve our children well. These are an awful lot of skills that our kids will need to master in order to have successful lives. This will not happen if we focus on maintaining the way we have done school for the last 200 hundred years.

    At North Park, we are making intentional, thoughtful and strategic changes to our programming and building to lead the way in meeting the needs of our students. While we still learn reading and math skills, we do so in many different contexts. The traditional math and reading curricula are still delivered, but much more is accomplished by our students in the typical day. We consciously expand our focus beyond the traditional to include the 4 C's of 21 st Century learning (communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity). Our students begin the mastery of these skills with the integration of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics into each day at North Park.

    As we expand our programming to support the 4 C's, we recognize that the same old classrooms in which students are expected to sit down and be quiet will no longer suffice. This problem is being solved by the design and implementation of Learning Studios throughout our building.  We hope you will follow along to learn more about us!

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