Innovative Educators

Minnesota-based teachers, professors, and administrators help students with fresh approaches

Ron Ulseth teaching students.
Ron Ulseth, Director of Academics and Research, Iron Range Engineering

photo by tj turner

“Teaching is one of the noblest of professions,” Calvin Coolidge said in a 1924 speech. “It requires an adequate preparation and training, patience, devotion, and a deep sense of responsibility.” And those words hold up to this day. Despite budgets and administrative support that can shift under their feet, Minnesota’s educators are pushing themselves as hard as ever to give their students steady career paths, strong cultural identities, hands-on technological skills, and limitless creative outlets. The best educators ensure that the whole student is uniquely cared for—in the classroom and beyond. Here are some Minnesotans leading the way.

Ryan Dixon & Vanessa Goodthunder, Language Teacher and Director, Lower Sioux Head Start

Reviving the Dakota language with a new school and app

Dakota is the first language of only five members of Minnesota’s four Dakota communities, which today number about 3,000. Thankfully, Vanessa Goodthunder and Ryan Dixon have created a year-long, pre-kindergarten Dakota immersion program to keep fluency in the indigenous language alive.

Goodthunder and Dixon secured a $1.9 million federal grant to open Lower Sioux Head Start—in Dakota, called Cansayapi Wakanyeza Owayawa Oti (“Lower Sioux children are sacred”)—this summer. Located near the Lower Sioux Government Center about 7 miles east of Redwood Falls, the school can enroll more than 70 children, from birth to age 5, in an immersion program where they speak Dakota first.

Dixon, the school’s language teacher, translated early-learning materials—including flash cards, children’s books, and work books—to accompany curriculum they got from the Bdote Learning Center, a Minneapolis-based Dakota and Ojibwe immersion program.

After working as a tribal liaison in Gov. Mark Dayton’s office last year, Goodthunder serves as the new program’s director. She and Dixon are also developing a language-learning app with a grant from the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. Planned for release next year, it is modeled after Jeopardy, Kahoot!, and Ellen Degeneres’ popular Heads Up! app. It will focus on speaking Dakota—to stress fluency, not just proficiency.

“From historical trauma, we’ve seen language lost, lost identity, loss of land,” Goodthunder says. Between the late-19th and mid-20th centuries, the U.S. government forcibly enrolled tens of thousands of Native American children in boarding schools that punished them for speaking their native tongues. Like many Native Americans, Goodthunder’s ancestors stopped passing down the Dakota language, focusing on English in hopes their children might have better lives.

For Dixon, fluency stopped with his grandmother. But he says his elders explained to him that their Dakota ceremonies needed to be done in the language. “When we’re at the point in time where we can’t do that,” Dixon says, “where nobody’s doing the ceremony, we’re not Dakota anymore.” -Erik Tormoen

Jordan Herman and Kevin Wotaw at Pillager Middle School.
Left: Jordan Herman, Right: Kevin Votaw

photo by mitch mccallson, on behalf of sourcewell

Jordan Herman & Kevin Votaw, Science Teacher and English Teacher, Pillager Middle School

Amplifying middle-school career guidance

At Pillager Middle School in central Minnesota, English teacher Kevin Votaw and science teacher Jordan Herman have developed a new curriculum called Metier—which is pronounced “meteor” and is defined as “an occupation or activity that one is good at.”

“Are we a little early?” asks Votaw. “Of course we are. That’s the point. We had heard of [college] students changing their major six times. We wondered, what can we do about that?”

Between demanding academic schedules, extracurricular activities, and after-school jobs, a lot is expected of high school students, so this program tackles career planning at a stage when there are fewer outside pressures. The curriculum combines exercises that help middle schoolers understand their unique identity, and then introduces potentially compatible career options.

Metier has been so well-received that it won a 2017 Local Government Innovation Award from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and received over $300,000 in grants from the National Joint Powers Alliance (now known as Sourcewell), a government agency that has provided financial assistance to education entities for more than 40 years.

The program starts with the Compass Craftsman stage, for fifth and sixth graders. Through tests, this stage identifies how students learn best (based on psychologist Howard Gardner’s Eight Multiple Intelligences), perform best (based on the Flow Genome Project’s four profiles of peak productivity), and receive appreciation best (based on anthropologist Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages). Then, the Flowblazer stage allows seventh and eighth graders to explore one career path per month in areas like robotics, business, agriculture, and energy by listening to guest speakers, taking field trips, and doing hands-on projects.

Last year, both instructors focused on launching Metier in middle schools across central Minnesota, including Little Falls and Bertha-Hewitt. This coming year will see the program in Wadena, Pierz, and Browerville, too.

“We’re not trying to ‘develop talent,’” says Herman. “We’re trying to find their interest and encourage it at young age.” -Joe Donovan

Brenda Mack, Former Director, Northwestern Mental Health Center

Making professional mental health services accessible at school

Her belief that all students deserve quality mental health resources led Brenda Mack to develop the School-Based Mental Health Service at Northwestern Mental Health Center (NMHC) in Crookston. The service removes all physical and financial barriers, so kids without insurance or anyone to give them a ride can take part.

While working as NMHC director, Mack created the program to provide free therapy, mental health evaluations, and skills-development activities to 20 school districts in northwestern Minnesota. Either a NMHC employee or a qualified mental health practitioner on staff served 780 kids during the 2016-17 school year. For her efforts, Mack was honored with the 2017 Outstanding Service Award by the Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health.

“Parents don’t have to take time off work to try and get their child to a mental health facility, which may be a four-hour round trip away,” says Mack, who is now an assistant professor of social work at Bemidji State University. “Providers are co-located in the schools, so they build relationships with teachers and administrators and students. The apprehension about seeing someone and talking about your issues is diminished somewhat because you’re seeing these people in your school every day.”

According to Tricia Hellerud, who  manages school-based services for NMHC, its resources come from a Department of Human Services grant, insurance, or district funding. “Each school is staffed and funded differently,” she says. “We have made it work however we can in a more rural area, so kids and families get served.” -Reed Fischer

A portrait of Michael Walker, the Director of Minneapolis Public Schools' Office of Black Male Student Achievement.
Michael Walker, Director, Minneapolis Public Schools’ Office of Black Male Student Achievement

photo by rebecca rabb

Michael Walker,Director, Minneapolis Public Schools’ Office of Black Male Student Achievement

Changing the societal narrative for black males

Michael Walker was a good student at Minneapolis’ Roosevelt High School. He had a 3.1 GPA and an interest in basketball. But he says not once did a counselor sit him down to discuss college as an option.

“That’s disheartening,” says Walker, who now, 20-some years later, directs Minneapolis Public Schools’ Office of Black Male Student Achievement.

The office, launched in 2014, aims to help black male students thrive academically. It comes in response to alarming statistics: In Minneapolis Public Schools, black males who speak English at home rank at the top in suspension rates and at the bottom in graduation numbers, attendance, and reading and math skills.

Walker, as the office’s inaugural director, started by spending 100 days listening to black male students in high schools and middle schools across the district. They told him they didn’t feel welcome. Teachers afforded their white peers more disciplinary leniency. They rarely saw other black men in teaching roles. One student told him, “No matter where we go, we’re perceived as monsters.”

From this, Walker devised the B.L.A.C.K. class (Building Lives Acquiring Cultural Knowledge). Five days a week, during school hours, 20-25 black male students meet in a classroom at each of the eight participating Minneapolis schools—four middle schools, four high schools. They learn from black male tutors, set academic and personal goals, and vent about what’s going on in their lives. They also determine in-class cell phone policy and the consequences for arriving late or not turning in an assignment. “It sets ground rules that they buy into,” Walker says, “and it starts the process of saying, ‘My voice matters.’”

Walker formerly headed the YMCA’s Black Achievers program and served as assistant principal at his alma mater, Roosevelt High School. For B.L.A.C.K., he made sure to hire black male teachers with counseling or community-based training, so the young men could see them as mentors, even uncles. “My belief is that, absent a relationship, you can’t teach a child anything,” he says. “But present a relationship, I can teach you whatever you want.”

An impact study showed that B.L.A.C.K. students saw average GPA rise by .2 point in two years. Those in a control group, meanwhile, saw a .2-point dip. “My job is not to fix black boys,” Walker stresses. For schools to participate, administrators and teachers must take classes, too—on such topics as implicit bias and black male student engagement. “My job is to fix the system,” he says. -Erik Tormoen

A portrait of Annmarie Thomas, Associate Professor, University of St. Thomas.
AnnMarie Thomas, Associate Professor, University of St. Thomas

photo by tj turner

Annmarie Thomas, Associate Professor, University of St. Thomas

Creating fun classroom experiments with real-world applications

About 10 years ago, AnnMarie Thomas founded the Playful Learning Lab at the University of St. Thomas. The lab combines four elements the associate professor considers crucial to student engagement: joy, whimsy, surprise, and new playmates. “When we play, it’s not about a set outcome,” she says. “It’s about creativity, exploration, and trying things.”

In practice, this means Thomas’ students have bungeed from trapezes to learn the physics of harmonic oscillation. They have coded digital shapes that change color with pitches sung by a chorus, and they’ve designed a set for a dance troupe now touring globally. It’s fun, but also rooted in problem-solving applications for post-graduate careers.

After receiving degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology, Thomas came to teach at St. Thomas in 2006 for its hands-on engineering program. She soon partnered with St. Paul’s Circus Juventas for her engineering design class. Instead of a final, students put on a circus explaining physics to elementary schoolers.

To go even deeper, Thomas organized the Playful Learning Lab, a research team of about a dozen paid St. Thomas undergraduates. In 2009, they made electrically conductive playdough (hint: it’s in the salt), inspired by Thomas’ desire to teach circuitry to her 18-month-old daughter. It became Squishy Circuits, a brand that sells the playdough—plus LED lights, tiny motors, and other tools—to teachers around the world. One former student now runs it as a business.

Since then, others have engineered explosive cakes, designed creative engineering curriculum for deaf students, and helped break down indie-rock band OK Go’s complex music videos—which often involve intricately timed, domino-effect sequences—into digestible, hands-on classroom projects, where K-12 students make their own chain-reaction machines and sound sensors using such items as popsicle sticks, old toys, and string.

The lab is working to bring its award-winning, music-to-colors visualization software (Code+Chords) to the K-12 classroom, too—originally developed in collaboration with famed Twin Cities men’s chorus Cantus.

After the artists, musicians, and chefs (creating musical pastries and a way to measure truffle aromas), Thomas wants to find even more playmates.

“I have students who, a few times a week, make and take calls ranging from, ‘We’re designing a new type of drum’ to ‘We’re a museum looking for new ideas,’” she says. “We never go in assuming we know the right answer. We consider everything we do a work in progress.” -Erik Tormoen

Digital Extra: Electric Playdough

Watch professor AnnMarie Thomas give a TED Talk about Squishy Circuits—her homemade playdough that conducts electricity.

Ron Ulseth, Director of Academics and Research, Iron Range Engineering

Enabling students to create real-world engineering solutions

When engineering professor Ron Ulseth imagines the “ideal classroom,” he envisions something completely hands-on. From his own experience as a student, he says he has “horror stories” about the traditional model of engineering education: In-class time was spent in lectures, and out-of-class time was spent answering close-ended problem sets on paper. “Go to lecture, do your homework set, take an exam, rinse, repeat,” Ulseth says. “There was very little opportunity to be creative.”

In 2009, this dissatisfaction drove him to help found Iron Range Engineering (IRE), a four-year degree program at Mesabi Range College, developed by Itasca Community College and Minnesota State University, Mankato. This past spring, IRE was recognized as one of the top 10 emerging engineering programs in the world in a report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

IRE is headquartered in the northern town of Virginia—a major hub for Minnesota’s mining operations. Ulseth envisioned a school where the fundamentals of structural engineering, for example, could be learned by addressing real-life engineering problems that were flummoxing engineers on Minnesota’s Iron Range.

In their junior and senior years, students in the program complete four large, open-ended projects for a company, and about half of them take one semester to apprentice with an engineering firm. This past year, Boswell Energy Center had an air-compressor problem at its Cohasset-based plant. No one at the electric utility company could figure out why their air compressors weren’t working at optimum capacity.

Ulseth dispatched three engineering students to Cohasset to find a solution. After a semester researching large-scale cooling systems, the students not only presented their findings to the engineers at Boswell with design alterations, they had also learned the fundamentals of thermodynamics and polished their communication skills along the way.

IRE has since been replicated at metro-based Normandale Community College, as Twin Cities Engineering. In 2019, a new model of the program, called the Iron Range Engineering Bell Program, is set to enroll students in four semesters of apprenticeships, taking 150 students a year in addition to the original model’s 25. In this new model, students placed in industries nationwide will earn salaries that exceed the costs of tuition.

Even better, 50-60 percent of Ulseth’s 160 grads so far have found valuable engineering work right in northern Minnesota. IRE has stymied what Ulseth calls a “brain drain” problem, in which the region’s brightest minds are often pulled to universities, and then jobs, outside the region. Not anymore. -Joe Donovan

Digital Extra: Iron Range Innovation

Hear professor Ron Ulseth explain why the Iron Range Engineering program is the future of hands-on education in a TED Talk.

Mark Gordon, President and Dean, Mitchell Hamline School of Law, delivering a speech.
Mark Gordon, President and Dean, Mitchell Hamline School of Law

photo by steve woit

Mark Gordon, President and Dean, Mitchell Hamline School of Law

Reaching underserved potential law students with online tools

After both William Mitchell College of Law and Hamline University School of Law saw declining enrollment, the two St. Paul schools formed Mitchell Hamline School of Law in 2015. Along with consolidation came innovation: The school launched the Hybrid J.D. program, a blended online law curriculum—the first accredited by the American Bar Association. (No fully online programs are accredited.)

“Any law school in the country would have written an accreditation request to the ABA that said, ‘Technology is the way of the future; we need to experiment with it in legal education,’” says president and dean Mark Gordon. “That’s not what this request said. This request said, ‘It has been our mission as a school for over 100 years to expand access to legal education, and we think we can use technology to further that mission.’”

The Hybrid program consists of online courses, maintained by troubleshooters 24/7 and lasting 11-12 weeks per semester, plus 10 intensive on-campus sessions. Costing about $30,000 a year, the program has attracted many older, mid-career students, along with stay-at-home parents, military personnel who have to move a lot, and those tied to a location far from a law school, whether that’s a rural town or a Native American reservation.

When Gordon joined as the first president and dean of Mitchell Hamline in 2015, he noticed potential for the Hybrid program to work for another type of student—one he had seen often while president of Defiance College in Ohio from 2009 to 2015. There, 40 percent of the entering class were first-generation students. Their struggles ranged from having to support family members to turning down important unpaid internships that more-privileged students could afford to take.

That’s where Gordon’s brainchild, the Gateway to Legal Education program, comes in. Launching next spring, primarily for minority and first-generation undergraduates, the free online curriculum lets students nationwide explore the early stages of a law career without sacrificing financial security. Funded by private donations, the course includes mentorship from a Mitchell Hamline student and regular professor feedback, plus a week-long summer session at the school. This on-campus portion answers skeptics who say quick, on-your-feet thinking, learned through the Socratic method of in-class debate, is vital to a legal education, making any online alternative dubious.

To this, Gordon also points to a third-party study comparing the Hybrid program to Mitchell Hamline’s traditional, classroom-based model. So far, it has found no statistical difference in educational outcomes.

“Whenever we have had Hybrid students in environments where they’re compared to other law students, they have flourished,” Gordon says. Case in point: Last summer, two Hybrid students were named the world champions in the International Negotiation Competition for Law Students. -Erik Tormoen

Digital Extra: Digital J.D.

Listen to graduates of the first accredited online law curriculum at Mitchell Hamline University discuss their plans for the future.