ROOTed in Place Project Spotlight: Place & Community Based Learning in Spring Grove, MN

Through state park adventures, farm partnerships and play & documentary initiatives Assistant Superintendent, Gina Morken, is creating a holistic approach that integrates academic learning, community engagement, and a celebration of rural identity.

January 5, 2024 |
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Explore the transformative education initiatives in rural Spring Grove, Minnesota, fueled by the ROOTed in Place Grant, generously funded by Compeer Financial. Assistant Superintendent Gina Morken, teacher coordinator Julianna Lile, and students themselves share insights into projects like state park adventures, farm partnerships, and unique play/documentary collaborations.

Nestled in the rural community of Spring Grove, Minnesota, a transformative wave of education is sweeping through the halls of Spring Grove Public Schools. At the helm of this movement is Assistant Superintendent, Gina Morken, a passionate advocate for progressive education. Through the ROOTed in Place Grant, generously funded by Compeer Financial and distributed by the Rural Schools Collaborative, Morken is pioneering innovative place-based learning initiatives that go beyond traditional classroom boundaries.

This grant is catalyzing change in how rural education is perceived and experienced. Morken's expertise in place-based, experiential, and community-based learning has taken root in Spring Grove Public Schools, sparking a series of projects that not only enrich students' academic journeys but also weave education seamlessly into the fabric of their community.

In this article, we delve into the ROOTed in Place initiatives led by Morken, highlighting the exceptional projects undertaken by 6th, 7th, and 8th-grade students. From state park adventures to farm partnerships and collaborative play productions, these initiatives embody the spirit of rural education, instilling pride in students and fostering meaningful connections with their community. Join us as we uncover the stories behind these projects, celebrating the dedication of the rural educators, the enthusiasm of students, and the vibrant spirit of rural education in Spring Grove.

8th Grade: Adventure Education

8th grade students fishing on their state park field trip.

For 8th graders at Spring Grove Public Schools, the ROOTed in Place Grant materialized into a remarkable state park project, fostering a holistic approach to learning. In our interviews with students Lauren, Roland, and Tyler, they shared insights into their experience, emphasizing the development of crucial skills such as problem-solving, confidence, resilience, work ethic, and wellness. The students took charge of designing projects centered around these skills, planning an entire day dedicated to hands-on learning. Beyond the confines of the classroom, a 45-minute bus ride led them to a state park.

8th grade students canoeing on their state park field trip.

Reflecting on the experience, the students highlighted the value of teamwork in a hands-on setting, expressing gratitude for the opportunity to learn beyond traditional classroom boundaries. The students also noted that the trip brought them closer to their classmates, which strengthened their relationships in the classroom. Further, the project deepened their appreciation for their teachers by providing insight into the amount of effort that goes into daily lesson planning and instruction.

This state park initiative not only immersed students in the natural beauty of their surroundings but also allowed them to apply academic skills in a real-world context. The blend of experiential learning, problem-solving, and community exploration set a precedent for future educational endeavors, establishing a connection between classroom education and the vibrant landscapes that surround them.

7th Grade: Farm Partnership

7th grade students observing a pig pen at a local farm.

The 7th grade farm partnership at Spring Grove Public Schools epitomizes the ROOTed in Place initiative's goal to bridge the gap between classrooms and communities. Students Kiah and Ethan recounted their experiences, revealing a unique blend of education and community engagement. The farm visits, occurring every Wednesday, allowed students to cook with pork sourced directly from the farm, interact with goats and other farm animals, and actively participate in planting seeds. The direct interaction with farm owners provided an authentic learning experience, reinforcing the significance of community collaboration in education.

Our interview with Kiah and Ethan highlighted not only the practical aspects of their farm visits but also the emotional connections forged with their rural surroundings. The ROOTed in Place Grant's funds facilitated a hands-on approach, requiring students to create budgets, shopping lists, and actively participate in grocery shopping.

7th grade students cooking pork from the farm they visited.

This holistic experience not only taught practical skills but also provided valuable insights into the efforts required to put food on the table—a lesson extending beyond the classroom into the realm of everyday life.

Through this farm partnership, 7th graders not only learned about agricultural processes but also discovered the intricacies of sustainable living. The ROOTed in Place Grant not only empowered educators to create these experiences but also ensured that financial constraints did not limit the depth and breadth of learning beyond the classroom walls.

6th Grade: Play/Documentary Project

6th grade students rehearsing for their performance of the 2016 Disney movie, Moana.

In the 6th grade, students at Spring Grove Public Schools embark on a unique journey through a play performance based on the 2016 Disney movie, Moana. Various community members help direct and organize the play, including two high school students and educators. The annual 6th grade play represents a longstanding tradition in the school, spanning decades. However, with this year’s ROOTed in Place grant, Spring Grove was able to create a partnership of various students, educators, and community members to help coordinate the play.

Our interviews with students Tyson, Ryland, Abby, and Liberty delved into the intricacies of this collaborative play production. They not only highlighted the joy of participating in a play but also emphasized the unique partnership that has evolved over the years. The ROOTed in Place initiative has redefined this tradition, turning it into a partnership that extends beyond the confines of the school.

The students not only delved into the world of theater but also actively participated in creating the entire set. The play, prepared during the first half of the school year, serves as a precursor to an upcoming partnership with the creator of the documentary "Decoding the Driftless," a celebration of the origins, diversity, and resources of the Driftless Region.

The second half of the year will see these students collaborating with the documentary creator, planning a community event featuring the documentary and creating projects inspired by its content. This multifaceted approach to education not only enriches students' understanding of the cultural aspects woven into the play but also extends their learning into the broader community through documentary-based projects.

A Drive to Tie Education with Place

Through these interviews, it became evident that the ROOTed in Place initiatives are not just about producing a play, visiting farm animals, or watching a documentary. They are about creating immersive experiences that transcend traditional educational boundaries. By combining artistic expression with community collaboration, the 6th-grade play/documentary project is sowing the seeds for a generation of students deeply connected to their cultural heritage and community.

In our conversations with Assistant Superintendent, Gina Morken and Teacher Coordinator, Julianna Lile, both proud products of the Spring Grove community, we gained invaluable insights into the genesis and aspirations of their ROOTed in Place initiatives.

7th grade student holding a handful of seeds to help spread on the farm.

ROOTed in Place, a project close to Morken's heart, was born out of a desire to reshape the educational landscape of rural communities, transforming perceived limitations into opportunities for students to thrive.

Morken shared her dedication to securing funding that fuels place-based, project-based, and community-based learning. Drawing on her own experiences growing up in the area, she emphasized the importance of giving agency to students, fostering a sense of pride in their rural roots, and showcasing the untapped potential within small communities.

Her multifaceted role extends beyond the confines of the school, acting as a community liaison, establishing connections between the school and the broader community.

Julianna Lile, an English/Language Arts teacher with deep roots in the Spring Grove community, provided a unique perspective on the farm partnership project. Growing up in a farming environment, she seamlessly blended her personal experiences with educational goals. Lile spoke passionately about the project's ability to transform classrooms, allowing for a more dynamic and purpose-driven approach to education. Her reflections emphasized the importance of purpose-driven teaching, instilling a sense of purpose in students that transcends traditional academic metrics.

7th grade students learning about the local farm.

Both educators highlighted the challenges and triumphs of introducing innovative projects like the farm partnership, acknowledging that community-based initiatives require constant adaptation and education. The pushback they faced became an opportunity to engage with the community, defend the educational value, and pivot towards a more comprehensive understanding of rural education.

Morken's involvement in a rural cohort of the superintendents association underlines the broader impact of the ROOTed initiatives, not just within Minnesota but as a beacon for rural education across the nation. The ROOTed in Place Grant, while creating immersive experiences for students, has also connected educators with diverse opportunities, fostering collaboration and knowledge-sharing beyond local boundaries.

In their commitment to reshaping education, Morken and Lile embody the spirit of ROOTed in Place—rooted in the community, connected to the land, and dedicated to providing students with an education that goes beyond the traditional classroom. Their vision extends beyond the status quo, challenging established norms to create a learning environment that is both enriching and empowering for the next generation of rural leaders. As these projects continue to unfold, the collaborative efforts of Morken, Lile, and the entire Spring Grove community promise a future where education is not just a journey but a celebration of rural identity and potential.

Rural Schools Collaborative is thrilled to support Gine Morken through the ROOTed in Place grant, as she is truly rooting her students in their place, while using these valuable life lessons and connections to tie back into the classroom curriculum. Rural Schools Collaborative is extremely grateful for Compeer Financial’s support of the Grants in Place Program and the one-time ROOTed in Place Grant.

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