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Primary Inspiration Sites group provides support, ideas for pioneering teachers

HIGHLANDS RANCH – Sometimes it can feel a bit lonely for teachers who are pioneering new, innovative techniques in their classrooms. That’s why the World Class Education Department created Primary Inspiration Sites  -- an effort founded to provide these cutting-edge educators with needed support from both the District and from other innovators in the District.

DCSD Elementary Curriculum Coordinator Mary Lisa Harper took the lead, because she knew what these intrepid educators are going through. She, herself, felt alone after setting up the Primary Innovation Studio at Mammoth Heights Elementary School. Eventually she inspired other teachers in her school and elsewhere to change instruction and their classrooms, but it wasn’t easy.

“Shifting your practice is heavy lifting,” Harper explained. “It is even harder to do it alone. You can choose to do it alone, like I did three years ago—but it is a lot easier if you have support. If you have a team of four or five people, especially in the same grade level, it is so much easier to move forward together.”


Harper wanted to provide elementary school teachers from across the District with the support that she didn’t have, so she invited a group of pioneers to join her monthly.

“I wanted to do it because there are so few primary teachers that are doing this. I wanted to meet with primary and elementary teachers to see what was working for them and talk with them about what is going on,” Harper said.

“It has been a huge benefit,” added Pioneer Elementary Teacher Kristin Kinner. “Teachers who hadn’t done it before were able to hear from teachers who had tried things and hear what had worked and what hadn’t.”

In fact, Kinner helped to mentor Lone Tree Elementary teacher Kim Leroi and now, despite the fact that they are at different schools, across the District, they have collaborated on sustainable learning units, as if they were team teachers.

“[Kinner] could address some of the concerns we had.  She is in the trenches with us. It wasn’t someone saying, ‘this is what you should do.’ She is doing it with us,” explained Leroi

The best part is that the collaboration has benefited students at both schools, who have had the opportunity, thanks to the teamwork, to work with experts in the community while designing and creating pollinator gardens at their respective schools.

“It takes it to the next level, where they have ownership of their learning. They are in charge of what things should look like or what they want to share,” Kinner said.

While creating the unit wasn’t easy, especially for someone new to sustainable learning strategies—Leroi says it was much easier to take the leap with a partner.

“We were really on a journey where we did not know where we were going to end up,” Leroi said. “It is a challenge [to change your instruction], but if you have a support system in your school, and outside of your school of teachers that are actually primary teachers doing this work and seeing it be successful, that is the key.”

Recently the teachers gathered at Wildcat Mountain Elementary School for their final meeting of the year. It is easy to see why the group has been such a great incubator.

“It was about finding those five-star people who had the mindset – to realize that we had to do something different for kids,” explained Mary Lisa Harper.

Each educator stood up and shared a unit they were working on, from a classroom bill of rights created by students to a menu of learning options that students create and utilize daily in the classroom.

“I would love to see more of this happening across the District,” Kinner commented.


From the beginning, Harper says one of her goals was to create a safe place for ideas and growth. It was not tied to evaluation and was completely voluntary. Additionally, Harper knew that this effort would be most beneficial if it was teacher-led, rather than District-led, so she stepped out of the way.

"I have to hold myself back,” Harper said. “I did not tell these teachers how to do it, but I supported them as they constructed their own understanding of what their ‘how’ would be. Their ‘how’ is different than mine. The best gains blossomed I have stepped away and let them own the process and the results.”

Harper says these teachers are essentially writing the book for this type of instruction. The goal is for them to build their practice to a point where their classrooms can be Inspiration Sites – a place other teachers can visit to see how it works.

This is already happening at Wildcat Mountain Elementary. Regularly, teachers, including Kristin Kinner recently, visit Kristen Wright and Erin Cordova to see how sustainable learning works in their classrooms.

Editor's Note: Please check back. We are working to update this story with more quotes from Inspiration Site teachers.

May 16, 2016 | By rmbarber | Category:

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