Sunday, April 14, 2013

Kicking off at The Met

Since leaving NZ a week ago it's been a whirlwind, starting with two days in New York before hiring a car to drive to Providence, Rhode Island. Providence is home to The Met - a Big Picture school, founded by Dennis Littkey And Elliot Washor. It was great to see in action what I had been reading about. Since then we have flown to Boston for a night so that we could get up early enough to fly to Toronto, hire a car and drive to Westmount High School in Hamilton. The next day, Friday, we visited Mary Ward High School for the day. Now we're in Calgary and I'm still a bit blogless! I had intended to blog my way through but at the moment am faced with three unfinished drafts! So, I shall begin - one school at a time:

I did regret not being able to investigate Providence more. The part that I saw was picturesque with cobbled streets and beautiful achrchitecture. The Rhode Island art school contributed to the artsy feel of the place. We had breakfast in this great cafe which relied on local and organic produce and emphasised the importance of staying local and supporting the community. It made me reflect on the potential Hobsonville point community has to create a sustainable culture which embraces and supports innovation and creativity. This idea of strong partnerships set the scene for the day.

The Met campus was built in 2000 and it wasn't flash learning spaces and technology that stood out (they didn't really feature at all), but rather the strong and positive relationships between students and advisors and the general buzz of students engaged and in control of their learning. It was quite difficult to pin down any specific structures and while this was frustrating it was also an indicator that the lack of visible structure was probably due to students learning being so personalised - getting on with their own learning, with schedules dependent on what their needs were at that time. I have been quite an avid reader of Big Picture material and possibly my take on what I saw was slightly clouded by my expectations of what I thought should be happening. Staff who talked to us were very Big Picture positive and students were delightful and very much part of the vision, however, at times it felt like I was in the midst of a marketing campaign.

Don't get me wrong, what I saw was a very successful model that is definitely working, but it's a model that comes with lots of glossy brochures (Maybe that's an American thing). I also got a sense that its a model that is relatively fixed and I'm of the firm belief that a successful educational model is one that is continually evolving. Maybe, because it is so pedagogically based, it can afford to be more static? In reflection it was good to see my idea of a perfect model flawed, just for the fact that it required me to challenge my own thinking. For example, a state numeracy test has been recently introduced and to deal with this they pull all their 9th graders together and teach them maths in a fairly traditional way. Relationships are so strong that the students appeared to be coping with this shift, however, it seem to contradict the teaching and learning that The Met advocates for - through authentic and rich tasks, developed around students passions. It was a reminder of the importance of keeping teaching and learning at the forefront, and not be dictated by structures and assessment.

The Met is set out as schools within a school. We spent the day in Unity. A couple of structures that are in place is the 'school' coming together as a group in the morning for a 'pick-me-up' which could be notices, achievements, current events etc... Two days a week are designated to Internships, where a number of students are mentored and working with people in the community on career paths or interests that are relevant to them. Each day students are in school they spend time in the morning and afternoon In their advisory. This is when they talk about and plan what their learning will look like for the day. In between this time students are either working in advisory spaces, attending interest models and working on big projects. We were able to see students pitch their business plans at their business awards which resulted in real partnerships and funding. Students ownership of their proposals in an authentic environment was impressive and really defined who they were as learners. Despite my perceived 'fuzziness', academic rigour was at the forefront. Students don't move on because they are another year older. They move on when they can meet expectations and learning outcomes, displaying evidence of their learning in authentic contexts.

It's been 6 days since our visit to The Met so this blog is a bit behind schedule (much to the amusement of my colleagues - as I have mentioned posting it every day!).

The Met visit was very much a 'one way experience'. We were there purely to see their model, not to engage in discussions which shared teaching and learning experiences. We even got to meet Denis Littkey (bit of a movie star moment). I was a little disappointed when he shook our hands, then poof... He was gone. What I learnt, or rather, what was reinforced for me: an open mind is crucial. Also, the importance of leaving what you know at the door - use it later to help form thinking, but to go into these school visits with no expectations / judgements of what you think it should be like.

What I came away with: recognising the value of the advisory role in ensuring all students needs are met and that no one slips through the gaps. The power of partnerships - The Met has done this well, forming and maintaining partnerships, which enable successful internships and ensures learning is happening in and outside of the school building. Passion and interest projects which engage students and enable learning to be personalised. The importance of applying an academically rigorous structure to students projects to ensure depth and breadth. The Met has developed a model that is highly successful for their students. Students are engaged and passionate about their learning. They are pursuing their interests in authentic contexts and students see themselves as professionals in their pursuits.

We aren't about applying the Big Picture model to our environment, but are about identifying what works well and creating a teaching and learning environment relevant for our students.

Overall, a great start to our tour of innovative and future focused schools.

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