Neither the pandemic nor a recent district merger has kept Williston Basin School District #7 from continuously strengthening its commitment to putting students first. The combined district, located 60 miles south of the Canadian border in petroleum-rich western North Dakota, now has over 5,000 students and 700 staff. Social and emotional learning (SEL) is currently embedded into each school day to give learners valuable skills and the personal attention they so much need to navigate this challenging time. The high value placed on each unique learner in the district is further evident in its innovative education model, learner-centered approach and unique Innovation Academy with self-paced, nontraditional learning paths.
Leaving behind a whack-a-mole culture
Educator Lisa Newson began her career teaching technology to kindergarteners, and after five years in the classroom, she moved over to tech. She recalls a sticky time during the process of technology integration when the culture in the school had begun to lose sync with the district’s larger vision of empowering students. It was pre-pandemic and her district was using a different classroom management tool. With no contact support button for staff, every time it stopped working, the job of getting support fell on her as the tech person managing the program. She recalls having to go through three or four levels before getting to someone with an understanding of what she needed. It was a weeklong process, every single time she called.
Having never lost sight of the learners ultimately affected by every technology decision, Newson also questioned the current student monitoring mentality that seemingly boiled down to, “How many times can we close out a tab on a kid?” Unfortunately, that was the obvious option as educators monitored student screens with that system.
“The culture that came from using the other monitoring tool was very whack-a-mole, which I didn’t care for, especially coming from a kindergarten background where it’s so vital to be involved with your students actively,“ she says.
In early conversations with Hāpara during the 2018-2019 school year, Newson will never forget hearing Hapara’s Robert Bailey say something like, “We don’t support the whack-a-mole approach to classroom management because it doesn’t help kids, instead we want to support you in engaging with your students.”
“That spoke to me on just such a core level that I was very much on board from the get-go,” says Newson. Feedback from teachers she worked with echoed her sentiments. These feelings were especially true for those who didn’t like sitting watching what their students were doing on their screens and closing out tabs all day. For them, Hāpara offered a different focus that put students first. More amazingly, Hāpara’s approach helped shift the mindset of those staff members who had grown comfortable in that knee-jerk response mode. Showing educators alternatives, like using focus sessions and filter sessions to manage their classrooms, moved the needle toward more student responsive practices across the board.
“The way that Hāpara is built makes it so much more intuitive for teachers to engage with their learners rather than simply closing tabs. When using Highlights, as an educator you have the opportunity to talk to your student about their activity in your classroom instead of simply closing the tab and moving on—or closing it again, again, and again, whack-a-mole style!”
“That opportunity can be utilized in so many ways to not only help the student stay on task, but to help educators learn more about how their students may learn better and how they can best help them do so. As importantly, it enables teachers to approach kids about digital citizenship in ways that are natural, and much more effective than a forced conversation or lesson.”
“Hāpara gives the teachers so many tools and all student-first tools. It’s not about tightening things down for kids, it’s not management for kids; it’s thinking of the student first and what we can do to support them.”
One indicator of a distinct, more embracive environment is that students no longer actively look for work-arounds, which had been a constant battle between teachers and kids with their previous provider, like the popular student search to bypass a monitoring tool cited in a Bloomberg Businessweek article.
How Workspace amplified the students-first mission at District #7
What sets Hāpara apart in Newson’s mind is how the design of Workspace inherently promotes self-paced learning and a deep understanding of research. She sees how the four sections of Workspace instill the research process of “I have a goal, something I want to do or understand or learn, now here are the resources, here are the steps I need to take.” She emphasizes, “Students need to be taught this, it’s not something inherently understood by people, and you can really see that in the world right now.”
At Williston Middle School, students research a very timely topic, substances, in their 7th Grade Health class. Early in the semester, they discuss how to access valid and reliable information with their teacher Rachel Anderson, who also teaches PE and has completed the first two Hāpara Champion trainings. Later diving into their substance project on Workspace, they are given links to plenty of teacher-recommended sites with research-based information from experts so they could compare and contrast the resources from their own online searches.
When Anderson began to create her substances curriculum in Workspace, she was understandably apprehensive. For inspiration and ideas, she turned to the Discover section of Hāpara Workspace, a searchable collection freely available to users of Workspaces created and shared by other teachers. Anderson discovered another teacher had created and shared a great substances Workspace. She was very excited not to have to start from scratch, and instead, tweaked the Workspace, added checkpoints in Google Classroom and started using it with her students.
Now a few years in, Anderson reports, “The kids really like it. The format just makes more sense to them. It’s easier to see everything and where to go next, whereas Google Classroom doesn’t do that. They can easily see what they’re done with and what they still need to do.”
With students able to figure out things in Workspace, they have opportunities to learn more on their own and take those problem-solving skills outside of the classroom. Reducing undue stress for students plays into social and emotional health, which she and her department are increasingly emphasizing. In addition to formal SEL time, Anderson creates a space at the end of each week where she assigns no work and is available to listen. This also supports the mission of putting students first. They get to relax, self-direct and be kids for a moment. Since this began, students seem happier and she’s heard that they’re less rowdy in their other classes.
From pandemic to district merger, Hāpara puts students first
Hāpara was already in place when instruction went fully online in March 2020 at Newson’s district. She shares that teachers were able to push out and open tabs remotely to actively engage students in their lesson via Hāpara, eliminating worry about the kindergartener not being able to get onto the right site. Or, she adds, “In secondary you have thirty 8th graders in a classroom online session and it’s a hot mess express because they’re all doing something else. It was so useful to just lock down their screens for a minute with a friendly, ‘Hey guys, focus!’”
Additionally, there were times that she was able to remotely get small children with non-English speaking parents into class. “Hāpara was an absolute lifesaver with all those little aspects; it really started to shine for our district at that time,” she notes.
Sudden shifts have accompanied the recent district merger, such as the district technology trainer getting pulled into an interim principal role. With a full-on 1:1 student Chromebook ratio and more online curriculum formats being used in classrooms, teachers have been grateful for Anderson stepping in as an on-demand resource for them. To avoid overwhelming her adult learners, she’s gradually bringing her team up to speed on Hāpara basics with scheduled monthly training and reports that the interface is pretty user friendly even for less-tech inclined teachers. “The more my team uses it, the more they like it.”
Newson concludes, “Our district, like many, has experienced some turbulent times in the past couple years. The patience, willingness to help, and responsiveness of the Hāpara team across the board has not only been lifesaving, but also comforting,” she says.
In the range of positions Lisa Newson held over the years, it is evident that people share the common need to feel heard and valued regardless of age or position. She is no different. That is why she is a fan of Hāpara.