CharterFolk Contributors Kirsten Carr and James Dent – Innovative Blended Learning at Work

Hello CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a co-authored contributor column from Kirsten Carr, the Director of Engagement and Partnerships for Navigator Schools, and James Dent, co-founder and the Chief Academic Officer of Navigator Schools. They have written an interview column with Kirsten posing questions, designed to highlight key aspects of Navigator’s student-led classrooms, and James providing answers.

Kirsten Carr and James Dent

Kirsten Carr and James Dent

I provide bios for Kirsten and James below.

Kirsten Carr is the Director of Engagement and Partnerships for Navigator Schools, focusing on strong school safety and culture and opportunities to share the Navigator model with students all over the Central Coast while maintaining strong relations with authorizers. As a parent of two charter school alumni, Kirsten has been a charter school advocate for almost 20 years, with a career history in community development and communications. As the Executive Director of two nonprofits, the Gilroy Visitors Bureau and the Oldtown Salinas Association, she focused her attention on improving and strengthening the visitor and business activity of both communities. Named one of the 40 under 40 to watch by the Silicon Valley Business Journal in 2009, Kirsten received her Bachelors in Political Science from Virginia Tech and her Elementary Education Credential from Santa Clara University.  

James Dent believes that ALL students can achieve at incredibly high levels. He is a Navigator Schools co-founder and has served as founding principal of both Gilroy and Hollister Prep Schools and as Executive Director. He is now the Chief Academic Officer of Navigator Schools. Prior to founding Navigator, James moved up the ranks in the public school system, from teacher to assistant principal to principal, always producing exceptional student results through high-quality teaching and outstanding student engagement. His commitment to innovation is evidenced by the constantly evolving blended learning model at work in Navigator’s classrooms, which is highly responsive to student needs. James is fluent in Spanish, the proud father of 6 children, and an avid spear fisherman. James received his M.A. in Educational Leadership from San Jose State University and his B.A. from UC Santa Barbara.

CharterFolk Contributors Kirsten Carr and James Dent – Innovative Blended Learning at Work

Imagine student-led classrooms, not in the generic, feel good sense, but in a way which mirrors today’s workplace similar to Google or NASA. This collaborative work environment places a premium on leadership skills and teamwork while focusing on problem solving through effective verbal and written communication. Think about a classroom space designed for collaboration with students equipped with iPad Pros often leading instruction and discourse, making pedagogical decisions, and planning future learning activities based on their own team’s performance.

Now, welcome to Navigator Schools where we have not only envisioned true student leadership development but have begun to implement that vision. We don’t have to imagine those scenarios as daily we see our students break into squads of 3 to 4 where they work in teams on the current common core standard. The team dynamic in each classroom capitalizes on the strength of heterogeneous groupings and the high level of engagement created by active student involvement to provide an opportunity for all students to learn. Embodying the primary values of service to others and empathy, no squad moves on until all members of the team have mastered the content.

To share the history of squads at Navigator Schools, I’m interviewing James Dent, one of Navigator’s  founders, current Chief Academic Officer, and inventor of squads. 

Talk to me a little about the “why” behind the squads model at Navigator?

In most traditional classrooms, the teacher stands front and center. Their main role is to talk and deliver key learnings, while the student’s role is to listen attentively and learn from the teacher. And yet, if our students are to be successful in college, the workplace, and beyond, they need so much more. They must be masters of their own learning, with the ability to be collaborative teammates and leaders, giving and receiving critical feedback to one another.

“The Learning Pyramid,” developed by the National Training Laboratory, found that the majority of students only remember about 10% of what they read, but retain approximately 90% of what they learn by teaching others. This finding asserts that teaching is a powerful mechanism for stamping and deepening one’s own learning.

The squads model flips the traditional classroom on its head, putting the students at the front and center of their learning content. Students in the classroom are not only in charge of their own learning, but for ensuring their fellow squadmates learn the content as well.

What are squads?

Squads consist of teams of three students, each with a specific role. Each role is interdependent upon the other, and critical to completing the daily learning objectives. Content instruction is often “flipped.” While teachers may begin with a mini-lesson on the key learning objective (“I do”), the bulk of the content (“We do, You do”) is then pushed onto the squads. With intentional lesson planning, the squads model can be tailored to fit any subject matter or content.

Do students have specific roles in squads? And how are they selected?

Students are selected initially by interest and also instructor observation of collaborative skills, desire to help others, interest in leading, plus academic competency in subject area. Squad roles do rotate so students have the opportunity to take on various roles.

Squad Roles

Team Leader role

  • Serves as a “teacher assistant,” live coaching three squad leaders on content and facilitation
  • Collects in-the-moment data on misconceptions and reports to teacher

Squad Leader role

  • Facilitates the discussion, includes everyone
  • Updates tracker: participation and work completion
  • Asks targeted questions

Quality Control role

  • Sets halfway and warning timers
  • Ensures use of rubrics for peer editing
  • Encourages the squad is meeting the requirements for the assignment
  • Makes sure materials are all put away before transition

Presenter role

  • Reports out for the squad during whole group discussion
  • Ensures instructional materials are presented appropriately
  • Maintains pace of instruction

Teacher role

  • Coaches the team leaders in supporting the squads
  • Collects in-the-moment data on misconceptions and determines appropriate stopping points to address whole class misconceptions
  • Ensures instructional content is student-facing so that it is conducive for squad work

Squads classroom layout

How do squads differ from traditional group work?

Traditional group work does not always incorporate the explicit development of student leadership, team skills, and shared accountability that is needed for successful learning to occur. Squads work results in high-quality, intentional learning. Students are the source of the content and the ownership of their learning. Team members are responsible for ensuring all of the other squad members “get it.” Rather than simply being left alone to work in a group, squads students learn and apply key roles and protocols to optimize participation and collective responsibility.

Do squads have a larger impact on a scholar’s overall development?

The squads model provides a supportive learning environment for students to develop Navigator’s graduate aims, which envisions students as:

  • Continual Improvers,
  • Academic Scholars,
  • Creative Problem-Solvers,
  • Courageous Change Makers, and
  • Collaborative Teammates.

Not surprisingly, these attributes are also top qualities that employers seek on new college graduate resumes.

From a developmental standpoint, the squads model plays positively on middle school students’ developmental stage, which emphasizes the critical importance of peer influence during early adolescence (Steinberg & Monahan, 2007). As educators, we can fight against this natural tendency, or use it to our advantage by setting up classroom environments that leverage positive academic and social peer influence.

What do students and teachers say about squads?

“I like squads because when I don’t know the answer it is most likely that one of my squad members does know the answer and I feel like we all support each other, and we also understand each other’s situation.” – HPS 6th grader                                                                             

“When a class moves from the traditional model to squads, we watch them come to life! At first they are hesitant to explore the freedoms and responsibilities of the model, but once they discover that they don’t have to rely on others for their own learning, they don’t look back! Neither do the teachers!” – Norma Knox, Middle School Vice Principal and Founding Teacher                                                           

Is there a way for people to check out squads in action? 

“See It in Action” Videos:

Navigator Middle School Squads Video

Middle School Proof of Proficiency Video

6th Grade Student-Led Guided Reading Video

Eighth Grade Math Leadership Video

Middle School Kids Teaching Kids Video

If a school was interested in pursuing a squads model, what are the top three things you would tell them to do?

Number one – work on teacher mindset because we are so used to what school “looked like” so we need to rethink what students of that age really need, both socially and academically. Next, I would focus on how the current curriculum and technology could be leveraged to be used most effectively in squads. Traditionally this means 1:1 technology and classroom space and television which can be utilized to project to small groups of students where they can collaborate. Finally, training your student leaders and thinking of your job more as an academic coach and less of a deliverer of academic content. 

While this all sounds cool, how do we know squads work?

Just walk through the classrooms. I’m kidding  We are fortunate to have Navigator alumni currently in college share with us the impact squads had in their confidence, ability to work in a team, and leadership skills. We have been able to witness this first hand by utilizing their skills in our own professional development. Additionally, Navi students are continuing to outperform their peers in local schools on standardized tests. 

Who do people contact if they want to learn more?

While I would love to say, “me”, I know I’m not always the quickest to respond to email so I would say they should reach out to Justin Steiner at