2012-13: iZone, Student Choice, and Laying out the Year Ahead

The NYC iZone at Validus Preparatory Academy

When I last wrote, nearly a month ago, I posted some pictures of the chalkboard we were using to plan classes for the upcoming school year.  Now, from this mid-summer vantage point, I’ll take this opportunity to step back and provide a summary of our plans and how we got here.  This post will serve as an introduction to the series of posts I’d like to write as I drill deeper into expectations, goals, and philosophical explorations.

Validus Preparatory Academy is now part of the New York City iZone, an initiative that “aims to increase student achievement in K-12, college and career by supporting innovative educational models that will best meet the needs, motivations and strengths of each student.”  As a staff, we’ve spent the last few months learning what this means to us, and our individual sense-making has been gradual, requiring patience.  By design, the goals of the iZone open-ended: essentially, we are charged with innovating in our school and in our classrooms, and we receive various supports to help us do that.  Along with my colleagues, I continue to ask many questions about what I’ll be expected to do, what I’m going to be accountable for, to whom I’m selling my soul (or the soul of our school and our students), and what else is on the horizon, but for now the message coming at us is that we’re supposed to innovate, test-drive new technologies and new ideas, and see what works.  I’m wary of soul-selling (this partnership comes with funding tagged for spending in specific ways), or being beholden to technology, or sacrificing the messy humanity of my classroom, or having my ideas co-opted, sterilized, and assembly-lined.  iZone leadership seems to understand that “programs are replicable, but not a panacea,” and they are “committed to learning from and contributing to the knowledge base around what innovations increase student achievement,”  Based on my experience with the iZone so far, I’m ready to trust its mission, cautiously.

Beginning in the Spring, a leadership team of Validus teachers and admin met with iZone folks and worked to develop five Big Ideas for framing our upcoming work:

  1. Students are grouped by interests, needs, and strengths or a combination of the above and not by their age.
  2. Students can look at, evaluate, and make choices based on summaries of their learning.
  3. Students and adults can take part in democratic structures.
  4. Students and adults can expand their conception of what a classroom is by learning in, interacting with, and experiencing the world outside of the school walls.
  5. Student, adult and community wellness is identified, analyzed, and championed.

All teachers were asked to volunteer to facilitate or participate in meetings about these ideas.  We were asked not to worry about practicalities, but to discuss our highest ideals.  I co-facilitated meetings about Big Ideas #1 and #2; students and staff were invited, and it was fantastic to engage in these sorts of conversations.  We were able to keep our thinking big, and we were not distracted by possible obstacles.  Students were excited to have choice about their course options.  We brainstormed dream course programs (that would make seniors want to stay all day, for example), and found that students want plenty of access to advanced science classes, philosophy, sociology, current events and politics, computer programming, a variety of foreign languages, and theater classes.  They want “hands on” work, and they want more of the interdisciplinary projects that they’ve come to expect at Validus.  Juniors and Seniors wondered how Freshmen could be trusted to make the best decisions for their futures.  We brainstormed ideas around this, we talked about classroom structures that would most appeal to students, and we discussed the role of non-negotiable (for now) structures like state exams and graduation requirements.  We did not make decisions, but we took plenty of notes.  Other teams of teachers and students held similar meetings about the other three Big Ideas.  Invigorated by the democratic nature of these meetings and the untraditional venue for student voice in planning the future of their school, I wished that there were more hours in a day so I could sit in on all of them.

As the leadership team continued to meet, they took our notes into consideration, they consulted with iZone people, and they revised our set of Big Ideas into five “Year One Ideas” (a full iZone plan is five years in scope).  Those Year One Ideas are as follows:

  1. We are going to group students by interests, strengths and needs and not by age.
  2. Increase the use of JumpRope by all stakeholders including students, parents and teachers.
  3. Bring an e-portfolio system to crews/classrooms to archive and present student work.
  4. Build the number of internship and vocational opportunities available to students.
  5. Build blended (instruction augmented by online / packaged / teacher produced lessons) learning classrooms.

In the coming weeks, I hope to write a focused post on each of these.  Here I’d like to summarize the work we’ve done so far on idea #1.

11th and 12th Grade Academy

Our first step toward grouping students by interests, strengths, and needs was to make a few structural changes.  We changed the bell schedule so that a one-credit course meets three times each week for about 70 minutes.  We decided that for year one, we would set up an “11th and 12th grade academy.”  Students in these two grades will be able to choose their courses from a course catalog, with no restrictions based on grade level.  There will be pre-requisites for some classes, and students will be required to take certain classes that satisfy graduation requirements (for example, all juniors must take a Global History course that culminates in that Regents exam).  None of this is revolutionary: it sounds to me a lot like college, or even a larger, well-established high school, but it feels revolutionary to us.  We’re a small school, with under 400 students, and we’re a bit understaffed.  Many of our students do not come from families in which generations have attended college.  There will be plenty of scaffolding involved: we’ll teach what a pre-requisite is, we’ll set examples for how time is managed differently when courses meet for long periods, less often, and we’ll engage in plenty of long-term planning and goal setting as students choose their courses.  Even more exciting to me is how we went about filling in these classes.

Once the Year One Ideas were developed, we continued to meet with students, and they continued to share their ideas about the classes we should offer.  Next our newly-minted 11th and 12th grade team met to discuss the courses we could possibly offer.  Now, limitations began to come into focus, but we did our best to maintain our ideals within the realm of reality.  We will be teaching approximately 160 11th and 12th grade students.  There are not the ideal number of teachers to do this: we have two ELA teachers, one Chemistry/Art teacher, one Physics/Math/Special Ed teacher, one Math teacher (me), and one Global History Teacher who’s course load is set: three sections of Global meeting double – for six periods per week.  Then we have one more Special Ed teacher who will be pushing in to as many courses as she can, and a few teachers from the 9th and 10th grade teams who have room in their schedules to teach an elective or two.  Ideally, we would have two full-time teachers from each content area (one assigned to each grade level in the old model), and several dedicated Special Ed and ELL teachers, but reality is.

So the lot of us sat down to brainstorm, and that’s when these chalkboards happened.  We moved back and forth between elation that anything was possible and dejection that, for example, when one teacher on a team is the Physics/Math/Special Ed teacher, we’re just not quite going to have the flexibility or time or human resources to do everything.  Alas, Year One.  With our notes from Big Idea meetings and Year One meetings in hand, and with knowledge of the credits we were each responsible for making available to our students, we shared individual ideas, and wrote them on the board.  We then looked at all these possibilities, and with acknowledgement that they wouldn’t all happen at once, we discussed possible connections between the courses.

This is where another exciting feature of our new schedule comes in.  I noted above that Global History will meet for six periods each week.  At three weekly 70-minute periods per credit, this course will award two credits per semester.  Six period courses can also be collaborative: so when our Chemistry/Art teacher suggested that she’d like to teach a Photography course, and an ELA teacher proposed one called “Monsters and Mythology,” the two of them got to talking about how they could create a course that meets for six periods per week, awards one ELA credit, and one art credit, and where planning responsibilities are shared.  When I proposed a course that had to do with the mathematics behind the structure of computers and the internet, another ELA teacher got to thinking about how he could incorporate dystopian literature and writing about social concerns into such a class.  These collaborations could come in two forms: they could be full-on collaboration with two teachers in the class at once, or they can be package deals where students will sign up for two courses that share themes (an Expedition, in the parlance of Expeditionary Learning).  These possible six-period Expedition courses are central to maintaining our ideals of interdisciplinary work and shared planning (we remain an Expeditionary Learning School, first and foremost); we’re excited and proud to come up with this structure.

I’m a little ahead of myself.  With the brainstorm complete, we used a Google form to create a course survey that students would take on the last days of school.  We organized it by content area.  We asked them if they would like to take a course in each, and if they said no, we asked them to elaborate on that.  We then asked them to gauge their interest in each of the possibilities from our brainstorm, with each course title accompanied by a one-line description of what the course would entail.  I proposed these titles for bearing math credit: “The Internet”, “Statistics, Data, Logic and Truth”, “Games and Your Brain”, “Money”, a traditional “College Prep Trigonometry”, “Pre-Calculus”, and “Linear Algebra”.  Even for something as specific as Chemistry, we proposed three different titles: “Plastics”, “Ethanol”, and “College-Prep Chemistry”.

Of approximately 160 students, 112 took the survey, and we are satisfied with 70% representation.  Most students were excited to see their ideas in action and their input valued.  They had plenty of questions about the content of particular courses.  Their conversations with each other were rich during and after the survey.

The day after students were done with school, our team convened to look at survey results and finalize our course offerings.  Again reality attempted to squash our ideals, as we realized that we’re only going to be able to do a fraction of what we want to do in this first semester.  The big picture is intact, however.  We’re trying something new, and we’re not just doing this once.  We ended up with the following list of courses:

  • AP English
  • Fitness
  • School Technology
  • Monsters & Mythology (ELA, will tie to Global History as much as possible)
  • Pre-Calculus and Physics (these are two separate courses that will overlap and will be offered to students as a package deal)
  • The Internet (Math and ELA, 6 periods per week)
  • A t0-be-named Global Literature course that will tie to Global History
  • Photography – one section of which will connect to Monsters & Mythology, the other to Global Literature
  • The Physics of Sports
  • Yoga
  • Money (Math)
  • Words & Music (ELA)
  • Linear Algebra
  • Cycling
  • Health
  • Several Regents Prep and Remedial Courses in various subject areas

We then took this list, and worked together to fit it all into a schedule that would maximize shared prep time for our team, and facilitate pushing in to each other’s classes as often as possible.  Each of us has one day per week where we have to teach four periods in a row (nearly five straight hours of class), so we’re agreeing to take care of each other with shared lunches and willing ears.  We did some trouble-shooting to make sure that students really would have choice within this schedule.  When we handed our color-coded spreadsheet to our perennially overworked programmer, she was elated.  This has been the most democratic scheduling/programming process I’ve ever heard of.

It’s not over.  In September, students will choose their courses.  It is not perfectly open-ended choice.  Courses have already been put into their meeting times, so for each of the eight different “period buckets” in a week, students will get to choose one course.  Some may be disappointed to find that two courses they want overlap, but we did our best to minimize this by making sure that no courses that have just one choice of meeting time meet during the same period.  After working through a series of possible scenarios, we were confident that all students will be able to make satisfying decisions.

Our next steps are to draft up our courses, put them into a course catalog, and plan out how those first days of school will go.  Now that I’ve written my longest entry yet on how we got to this point, I’ll be sure to keep up with how each of these next steps go.

My purpose for writing this post is to keep a record of my experience here.  I don’t really expect (m)any people to read this far.  If you did, I’m sure you found something unclear or you have further questions.  If this is indeed the case, please be so kind as to add all sorts of clarifying and probing questions in the comments.  Thanks.

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