Kaneland teams with NIU to stimulate teacher-leaders, personalized learning

Nearly two dozen teachers, mostly from Kaneland Community Unit School District 302, are trailblazers in a new school-university collaboration that will produce instructional leaders focused on providing personalized learning for students.

Sarah Mumm and Patrick Raleigh, Kaneland’s directors of Educational Services for the EC-5 and 6-12 levels, respectively, are behind the unique partnership.

Mumm and Raleigh proposed, helped to develop and even are teaching some of the NIU College of Education courses that lead to certificates of graduate study, endorsements or the M.S.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction with a specialization in Teacher Leadership.

Their goal was simple: to advance teacher-leadership in their district while also cultivating the innovative philosophies of the Pewaukee, Wis.-based Institute for Personalized Learning in every Kaneland classroom.

Bringing the college’s Office of External and Global Partnerships to the table made their vision more than just a School Improvement Day workshop.

“Research really shows that job-embedded professional development is the most effective for change within any educator, and that’s what we’re trying to build as a cohort,” Mumm says. “Our professional development is pretty good, but we often forget to look at the outside world at what other districts are dealing with.”

The expected outcomes are vital, Raleigh says.

Patrick Raleigh
Patrick Raleigh

“We need more instructional leaders – boots on the ground – in the classrooms,” he says. “It’s truly not something that comes with a title or by stepping out of the classroom and going into administration. Some of the most effective instructional leaders are your colleagues next door.”

An initial meeting between Kaneland and NIU in September 2019 launched the process.

During the following months, Mumm and Raleigh wrote the curriculum for two new courses: TLEE 503: Personalized Learning in the Elementary School and TLCI: 505: Site-Based Curriculum Development.

Meanwhile, Department of Curriculum and Instruction Chair Sally Blake worked with Clinical Professor Kim Suedbeck and faculty to determine the coursework and sequence that would meet the expectations of the district and the state.

Blake also gained university approval for the program and its stackable credits.

“The major strength of this is it’s not just been the university telling the school, ‘Here’s what you have to do.’ It’s coming from the needs of school, and Patrick and Sarah have been amazing colleagues. They are the application experts,” Blake says.

“We are accused of living in ivory towers at universities, and not really thinking of the real world, but when you bring in real-world professionals and have them help you develop and work on ideas to improve what’s really happening – what the current data supports – then it’s a team effort,” she adds. “This collaboration is going to make so-much-better teachers.”

Classes began last August for the 12-credit certificate, the 24-credit endorsement or the 33-credit master’s degree.

Starting with TLEE 503 was intentional, Mumm says, to set the foundational pieces of key knowledge needed by teacher-leaders, how to understand curriculum and the curricular review process and how to understand the relationships between, and personalities of, school staff.

Sarah Mumm
Sarah Mumm

It ensured that personalized learning was the clear emphasis and objective, Mumm says.

“To really make sure you are customizing your learning experience for students is an ultimate goal for us, for sure, and should be in education. It’s rare that you go somewhere and get a cookie-cutter thing and you’re happy with it, but schools for a long time have allowed that – and that’s something that, educationally, we want to change,” she says.

“If you philosophically disagree that students should drive learning, you should drop the program,” she adds. “We didn’t want to wait until Class 6 to tell you that.”

Kaneland, home to nine instructional coaches across its six schools, proudly embraces and evangelizes the personalized learning model as well as the “critically important” need to create affirmative academic relationships between students and teachers.

“Truly, it’s a philosophy that we deeply believe in,” says Raleigh, who is pursuing his Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from NIU.

“All kids should have a voice in their education. All kids should have some choice in how they learn, and they style in which they learn, and we want to share that message and share that with practitioners,” he adds. “It’s good for kids – it’s not good just for Kaneland kids – and NIU offers us a platform that’s far-more reaching than what we have in our own district.”

Working teachers who graduated from college some time ago might not have found that in their undergraduate curriculum.

“The preparation for teaching has evolved and shifted: It focuses on teachers being able to deliver instruction to individual students, and there’s a huge focus on reflecting on your practices and on tailoring your practices for individual students,” Raleigh says.

“It’s about meeting kids where they are,” he adds, “going from where they may have been passively sitting in a classroom , or they may have not been receiving instruction at their appropriate level. Now they are.”

He includes himself among those who needed to adapt and reframe.

Sally Blake
Sally Blake

“I know that when I was going through a teacher-education program, I never thought to empower students to advocate for their own ways. I made one lesson plan. I would differentiate for the one or two kids who needed that,” he says.

“But the benefit to student, and the benefit to parents, is that their own specific educational needs are being met when this philosophy is adopted and put into play,” he adds. “You start to see wherever they’re at – whether they’re on grade-level or above and beyond. They’re receiving valuable feedback, and they’re learning how to learn and not just learning how to go through and play the system.”

Mumm, who earned her Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from NIU in 2006, and has taught for her alma mater as an adjunct since then, says teachers also will profit as the numbers of instructional leaders climbs.

When teachers are officially evaluated, she says, “they really try to ramp it up as kind of a dog-and-pony show, and they’re not getting the feedback they need.”

“They need the day-to-day feedback on, ‘Here’s what I did today. Help me brainstorm what could have gone better,’ ” she says, “as well as a place and a person to go to with data and say, ‘This is what my student data looks like. Help me fill some gaps or celebrate some of the higher achievements.’ ”

Unfortunately, Mumm adds, “our current evaluation system doesn’t allow for that to happen without some penalty to it.”

“We wanted to establish teacher-leaders and instructional coaches whose job was to never evaluate you, never to give you a rating by the State of Illinois,” she says, “but to give you that critical feedback without the fear of, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s this mean for my job?’ You need that in-between.”

Kay Caster, assistant director of the college’s Office of External and Global Programs, is confident that the seeds Mumm and Raleigh planted will bear fruit.

Kay Caster
Kay Caster

Even experienced teachers can “enhance their instructional expertise so they can assess where the students are and, collectively as teachers or cooperatively with another teacher, develop a strategy, direction and instruction that will directly align with their teaching purpose for that unit and then ensure that the students actually learned,” Caster says.

“The program is based on current research, on using data to inform instructional strategies as well as to meet student learning needs. It’s purposeful and oriented to what will increase that learning,” she says.

“It’s also NIU being very in tune with our partners,” she adds. “This started with an approach, where we listened to actual people out in field – ‘This is what we need.’ – and collaboratively got involved in creating curriculum that is meeting teachers’ needs right now.”

Although the program is only beginning it second semester, its originators remain optimistic.

Raleigh is excited to see enrollment from outside Kaneland, including students from Aurora, Plano and Rockford who bring different perspectives and who can champion the philosophy in their own districts.

“We are trying to normalize, or get more and more people to understand, the importance of the impact that personalization has on learning,” he says.

“It’s difficult to change practices that you might have been doing for five, 10, 15 years, but the best part about these courses, and the way we’ve designed them, is that you can take a class on Monday night and go adapt your lesson plan on Tuesday,” he adds. “There are a lot of tangible takeaways that are going to immediately improve practice, immediately improve your relationships with students and your conversations with students.”

Mumm, meanwhile, has found validation that “we’ve made the right decision” by watching teachers react to the curriculum.

“The first class is set up that, as an assignment, you decide what the assignment is. We just tell you, ‘You’ve got to show your work.’ And for educators, they were very uncomfortable with that,” she says. “But if you’re going to turn around and do this for kids, you’ve got to experience the frustration of it and then the excitement and joy of it as well.”

She also believes that the movement will spread, citing a message from a principal of one of the students who had seen the personalized learning philosophy in action and wondered how to encourage more teachers to follow suit.

“I want to see these teachers take what they learn, apply it and then become peer-advocates, and really roll out more personalized experiences for students because this is the wave of the future,” Mumm says. “Students need to drive and own their learning, and we have to have the structures that allow that.”

Want to partner with the NIU College of Education
for professional development?

NIU designs its programs to be flexible in how, when and where coursework is delivered. Likewise, teachers can work full time in their current jobs while completing their coursework and maintaining their personal lives.

For more information on School District Contract Cohort Development with the NIU College of Education Office of External and Global Programs, contact Kay Caster, assistant director, at kcaster@niu.edu.

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