Hanna Nur art and trigonometry drawing

“Star Weaver” shows a young woman holding the night sky in her hands. Look closer, and concepts of trigonometry appear. Unit circle, Trig angles, Pythagorean theorem and others. The piece is a final project in senior Hanna Nur’s co-created trigonometry course, in which she’s mastering trigonometry concepts through her passion for art.

Co-created courses work to pair a student’s passions outside of school and plans for career and college with credit needs in specific subject areas. Any student at Spring Lake Park High School can choose to co-create a course by working with a teacher to achieve identified academic and life competencies.

“Co-created courses are opportunities for students and teachers to partner to build a course tailored to student interests,” says Melissa Olson, director of curriculum and instructional practices. “A student works with a teacher to map out how and when they will demonstrate the competency criteria for the credit and design their own learning experiences to get there.”

How it works

A co-created course might be one trimester long or last a whole year. Sometimes they offer a schedule solution for an elective a student wants to take. Sometimes, they are a core subject area where a student wants to complete the learning through the lens of a personal passion or career interest.

Three teachers at the high school are guiding co-created courses this year: Kathleen Stalnaker (Language Arts), Des Anderson (Math) and Rachel Andrisen (Science). For all three, this is the second year of co-creating learning experiences with students.

The co-creation begins with an essential question – what do you want to learn? Students keep their goal in mind as they use a 3D design process to break it down into segments. The teachers make sure students design their learning experiences to align with academic and life competencies they need to receive the credit.

One high school student is learning physics through the lens of baseball. Another is learning math through art application. Another is learning biology and chemistry through an interest in beauty products, specifically mascara. Another is applying an interest in graphic design to produce a magazine.

I like to help students marry language arts with something very practical. They’ll get a language arts credit but will get that through something they are passionate about and could have a practical application in their lives. Kathleen Stalnaker, SLPHS language arts teacher

Co-created learning is not an independent study. Independent study has fewer outcomes. For co-created courses, the credit outcomes are more defined and require student and teacher to find the balance between freedom and structure. Because of this, teachers are finding it’s helpful to have a shared hour in the schedule for their co-created courses.

“When you hit a wall in your research, we need to talk,” says Rachel.

For students who don’t share a co-created hour with her, Rachel connects weekly with a personal message and invites them to meet up with her during Support and Enrichment Time (SET).

Learning tied to passion, plans

Senior Kyle Tusler is designing his Language Arts learning with Kathleen. Next year, he plans to attend Mankato State and he’s thinking about computer programming as a career path. In his co-created course, he’s creating a video essay about the evolution of music throughout the world.

“I wanted to get more familiar with video editing and do something a little more advanced and serious,” says Kyle. “I enjoy music and I wanted to learn more about it.”

In addition to researching and presenting a topic of personal interest to him, he’s learning how to produce a video essay and tapping into interests he is exploring for his future.

Kathleen appreciates that this format allows students to do reading, writing and speaking in a way that suits their needs as learners.

“What’s great is watching kids pursue something they’re interested in and gaining skills they don’t even realize they are gaining – a lot of language arts that doesn’t feel like language arts,” she says.

Rachel is working with one student whose ambitious goal is to master all the competencies for two credits – biology and chemistry – within one course.

“We cover a lot of the basics and then apply them. For basic cell structure I asked, ‘what are you interested in in your regular life?’ That’s what I want out of co-create. I want it to be relevant and interesting for her,” says Rachel.

Another chemistry student is researching properties of mascara that make eyelashes fuller. She’s doing research on what makes cells grow and determining what to look for in the mascara to test different claims. In addition to academic outcomes, she’ll be able to give one heck of a recommendation for mascara.

In math, Des is working with one student who is applying an interest in history to algebra and looking at the history of some of the topics they are learning. Another student is applying an interest in psychology to the study of shape for his geometry course.  

In each case, teachers help students define the learning outcome they need to achieve, locate resources and work with them when they hit roadblocks.

Hanna Nur worked with Des last year for geometry and is back this year for trig. Their process starts in a more traditional way. Hanna studies, takes notes and does practice problems sharing what she’s learning with Des along the way. As she learns, she’s also integrating an interest in art. Culminating projects are pieces of artwork that show outcomes and are accompanied by a written explanation and reflection.

Some art for Hanna’s geometry and trig courses will end up in her Advanced Placement (AP) art portfolio. She’s putting the final touches on that portfolio now before submitting it to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design where she hopes to attend next year to study graphic design and illustration.

“What I enjoy most about co-created is that I get to explore so many different things,” says Hanna. “I am able to combine something I was interested in with a topic I've always been unsure of since middle school.”

This kind of reflection is gratifying for teachers.

“The most empowering for me is that I have students who haven't traditionally done well in math now telling me they never would have done this well in a math class,” says Des. “These same kids do really fun things and get creative with outcomes and see connections you wouldn't normally see in a curriculum-based class.”

Learning yourself as a learner

In addition to the defined course learning outcomes, it’s clear that students pursuing co-created learning experiences are learning the most about themselves.

“It's been really nice because I get to work alone. I thrive in quiet environments, rather than the noise of a large classroom,” says Hanna. “Co-created may not be for everyone, sure. But fostering independence and building awareness of your own skills through trial and error most definitely is.”

Students learn if they could be productive working on their own. Some learned they couldn’t yet make and keep to a structure for their learning.

Kathleen had one student who flatly stated, “I am not self-directed; this was not a good choice for me.”

Others thrive pursuing their spark with what Rachel calls a level of accountability and communication. All of the learning about themselves as a learner is beneficial for their future.

Students aren’t alone. Teachers are learning, too.

“We’re definitely learning a lot about ourselves,” chuckles Rachel. “The real world is interdisciplinary. The chem teacher has to go back and do biology. It’s kind of fun going back and forth.”

After more than a year of guiding students on their co-created journeys, Des isn’t sure if the learning is deeper but she’s confident it is more meaningful. 

“You don't need to do deep learning on every little thing....if it's not applicable to your life,” says Des. “I think this is a real opportunity for students to take the reins on their learning and their learning journey. It's a really different way to engage in school and I see a lot of kids looking for things like that.”

Students Hanna Nur and Caleb Rahn discuss their co-created experience at SLPHS