Washington State Charter Schools

Last week Vicki and I went to an Educators’ Night put on by an organization called Washington State Charter Schools Association (WA Charters for short).  To be honest, when we signed up for the event we had little idea what to expect. We both knew that there has been an ongoing legal battle over whether or not Charter Schools are constitutional — just under two weeks ago supporters of the schools won a huge victory when a King County Superior Court judge ruled in their favor. We went in excited to learn more and see what was already happening the the eight existing Charter Schools that are open across Washington State.

The event opened with mingling followed by opening remarks by Steve Mullen, president of the Washington Roundtable and one of the original board members of WA Charters. Steve advocated in Olympia for charter legislation from the mid-1990s to 2004, culminating in the successful passage of a charter law that ultimately was overturned via referendum. While he knows the previous legal battles well, his opening focused on the future of Charter Schools in Washington and the importance of reaching students who are underrepresented and/or underperforming in their existing public schools.

16708446_1429702317074801_326630255262463517_nAfter the talk, the group of educators in attendance divided into breakout sessions focusing on various topics. Vicki and I went to a session to learn about what it takes to start a new Charter. We heard from visionary leaders who had participated in WA Charter’s School Incubation Program as well as those currently running schools. The conversation was fruitful, and I left daydreaming about what a fully experiential Charter School in Seattle might look like.

After the session, we had a bit more time to mingle and we spent that time chatting with Dan Calzaretta, the founder of Willow Public School in Walla Walla. Dan’s school will open in the 2017-2018 school year and it will fulfill three goals: Provide a rigorous, personalized education to all students, ensure that all students finish middle school with the skills necessary to excel in advanced high school courses and create an engaging, innovative school where all students find joy and purpose. While his vision for the school is impressive, I was struck by his process of getting the school to inception. To gauge what parents truly cared about in their children’s school, Dan and his team went door to door to talk to people in person. Because of the high population of Spanish speakers in Walla Walla, they made sure that in all of their interviews. community meetings, and marketing materials were in both English and Spanish. His passion for his students was clear, as was his dedication to moving away from a “one size fits all” model of public education.

In the days after the event I have grown increasingly excited about the future of WA Charters and the education reform taking place in these schools. Educators’ Night gave me just the nudge I needed to learn more and get involved, and Vicki and I plan to go volunteer at Rainier Prep in Seattle where one of her former students is the Special Education teacher. Stay tuned, we’ll post an account of that experience in the coming months! In the meantime, check out this video of reflections from the WA Charter’s Incubator Program.

Experiential Education School Models

Last week I had the great pleasure of visiting four different schools modeling experiential education in action. I came away so inspired about what is possible and all the different ways this kind of learning serves students. I was in Washington, DC with my friend Madhu Sudan who is exploring ways to encourage experiential education in India, so we set out to connect with educators I know and look at a few schools.

unnamedWe started with Mysa School, a micro school in Bethesda, Maryland started by my friend Siri Fiske last fall. Eighth and ninth graders spend mornings on a menu of individualized lessons depending on their needs; some may be advancing algebra skills while others work with a writing tutor, take a martial arts class nearby, or explore scientific concepts with an NIH researcher. In the afternoons and for one full day a week, they engage in project-based learning using Washington DC and the surrounding area as their classroom. Combining individual skill-building with group learning and an emphasis on community makes for a lively and engaged student body. The school has done so well even in its first year that they are planning to add an elementary campus in Georgetown.

unnamedOur next stop was Episcopal High School in Alexandria, VA where my friend Jeremy Goldstein runs the Washington program. Episcopal is a very traditional school with a sprawling campus and beautiful buildings, excellent teachers and engaged students. The program Jeremy runs gets students into DC every Wednesday afternoon to add an experiential component to classroom learning by engaging with political leaders, NGOs, museum educators, and service learning providers. They even managed to continue a tradition of taking the whole school to the Presidential inauguration this year, adding an alternative experience at an elder care facility watching the Kennedy inauguration and interviewing residents who were present at his. Faculty members have the opportunity to create connections with what they are currently teaching, and students are exposed to real world issues more challenging to encounter from their campus. Many find summer opportunities based on their experiences, and when it comes time to plan their senior spring month long “externship,” they are well informed and eager to commit to an area of interest.

Our third stop was a meeting with Noah Bopp who created and runs a semester program for high school juniors called the School for Ethics and Global Leadership. Noah is from Seattle and went to Lakeside School, my alma mater, so I had heard about the school for a long time and wanted to learn more about it. Most other semester schools are in remote locations and focus on wilderness experiences, but these 24 students each term spend time engaging with issues on all sides of the political spectrum, examining the concepts of ethics and leadership in depth, meeting with high level officials and wrestling with complex and fascinating topics. After being exposed to a number of people and issues, each student has the chance to work independently on one specific thing and create a policy brief which they actually present to a panel of experts. They end the term with both a broader and deeper understanding of how government works and their role as citizens.

unnamedFinally, we visited a public elementary school called School Within School. My friend Marla McLean is an art teacher and one of the originators of what started as a program in a school 23 years ago, and is now a full-fledged Pre-K to Grade 5 school in southeast DC. At the beginning, four classrooms began collaborating and used an Italian educational model called Reggio-Emilia which is teacher-run, relies heavily on art, reflection and documentation of student work, and has ties to the world beyond the classroom. The program was so successful they eventually moved into their own building, agreeing to add medically-fragile students and those on the autism spectrum to their ranks. The school is a lively learning center and you can feel the loving community the minute you walk in the door. There are two art studios, each staffed by an Atelierista who connects art to everything happening in and out of their classes and engages the students in deeply meaningful and enjoyable learning. I had the opportunity to observe one of their other programs more closely, as a volunteer in the kitchen classroom. Here a master chef runs Foodprints, essentially a farm to table experience each class gets to participate in on a weekly basis. The day we were there, second graders tested the soil in the school garden beds for nutrients, created pictures of seeds, tubers and bulbs to learn the difference, and, in small groups, made a delicious lunch of four vegetarian dishes which were eagerly consumed by the class (and volunteers!) at the end. The school partners with organic farmers for the produce they can’t grow themselves, and teaches environmental stewardship along with cooking and dining etiquette. The teachers, parents, and students work hard to find funding for what is not covered by the district; it was incredibly inspiring to see what is possible in a public school when values are aligned with action and everyone is committed to what is best for children.

I came away from the visit convinced more than ever that experiential education is the most transformative form of learning, as it engages the whole self, involves reflection, connects to the world outside the classroom, and is so much fun! It was great to see a variety of examples of it, led by committed educators making a difference, one students, one classroom, one school at a time.

Educator Journey Series: Shayna Cooke

unnamed-1Welcome to our new Educator Journey Series! Each month, just like the Student Journeys Series, we will feature a guest blog post written by one of our colleagues. They write about how they got into their work, lessons they’ve learned, and their innovative approaches to shaping the future of education. This week’s Educator Journey post is written by Shayna Cooke. Shayna currently lives in Richmond, VA, where she teaches Upper School Science at Collegiate School. 

 

The first time that I ever set foot outside of the US was in 1995, the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college. I was asked by one of my professors to be a research assistant for the summer on Lake Baikal in Siberia/Russin. I was excited and nervous. I had never been anywhere of note without my parents at that point in my life and though I was ready for the independence, I was apprehensive about it as well. I would say that this was the trip that started the course of my life. I was bitten by the travel bug that summer in Siberia and never looked back. I traveled somewhere new, somewhere international, every year after that trip to Russia until I had touched down on every continent, except for Antartica. At first, I traveled alone. Coming home to make enough money to be able to head off again, and then I began teaching in Independent Schools that had a solid focus on global travel and found the beauty that is experiencing the world with a group of teenagers. Since I started teaching, I have had the pleasure of traveling to Costa Rica a few times, Australia twice, France, Namibia, India, Belize, and South Africa to name a few of my experiences with students. There is something magical about seeing the world through the eyes of a student, especially ones that, like me, have never ventured far from their parents or the borders of their own country. The awakening that happens within these young people is obvious and miraculous. These experiences help our students to really understand the plight of the world, to get a feel, first hand, of how the world looks, feels, and smells. These experiences give our students exposure and empathy, two pieces of the puzzle that will help to make them global stewards and responsible citizens. It is the pleasure of my life to be able to show my students the world and to help make a difference for them.
 
unnamedTeaching global competencies is an essential part of being an educator in the 21st century. The benefits of teaching these skills to students and, in turn, future generations, are immeasurable. Global education develops the skill of being able to view the world from different lenses; to develop a sense of empathy that is essential as part of the human spirit. The question is, how do we do that? Where do we start? This presentation will give tips on how to incorporate global issues into curricula with specific examples that have worked in a science classroom. From weekly “hot topics” to in-depth Project-Based Learning initiatives, globalizing your curriculum is a way to expose your students to life outside the walls of their schools and helps to foster curiosity of other cultures and countries. We live in a world that grows smaller every day, as advances in technology have shortened the distance between “us and them”. It’s important for our students to develop the perception that there is unity within diversity and give them a sense of belonging to a larger world community.
 
 As educators, we need to make a commitment to real world learning for our students. We need to provide opportunities for our students that encompass authentic and meaningful learning experiences that will encourage our students to become the solution-seekers and problem-solvers of the 21st century. The development of students as global citizens is a monumental task turned over to the teachers that guide them through the learning process. There is no specific place within our curriculum that speaks specifically to “global education” because it is a fluid and all-encompassing focus that should be interwoven throughout. The question is then: “how do I bring the world into my classroom in an authentic and meaningful way?”
 
unnamed-1The secret to globalizing the curriculum is that it can be done in small pieces, one at a time, that add up to a comprehensive world-view by the end of the year. In my curriculum, I set aside time each week for my students to present their “hot topics”. Hot Topics involve any topic pertaining to biology that is new and exciting around the world. The student researches and plans their mini-presentation (as a homework assignment) and is prepared to take questions after they present. Each presentation takes 2 – 3 minutes and inevitably leads to in-depth discussion about a region or the research that was presented.
 
I also use Project-Based Learning (PBL) activities to incorporate intensive global study. PBL is the tool that allows me to cultivate these essential skills with my students: collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and empathy. These skills are what will be useful to our students as they enter the global workforce. It is clear that they will be called upon in the near future to solve immense global challenges, and in preparation for these challenges, I ask them to solve real world problems in a very authentic manner. From designing a cell-based sensor for early detection of an Ebola infection, to creating recipes for the World Food Bank to aide the global food crisis, to using cellular respiration/photosynthesis as a platform to research and propose solutions to our energy problems, my students are thinking, designing, researching, and intelligently proposing solutions to very real world issues.
 
unnamed-3Because I teach biology and infectious diseases, the entire world has a place in my classroom. When we are talking about Photosynthesis and Cellular Respiration, I can ask my students why deforestation in Brazil is negatively affecting Greenland; which allows for discussion of these regions and their ecosystems, the different environmental concerns for each region, global climate change and how much humans are contributing to it, and I can then ask my students to propose a solution to this problem. The Ebola outbreak has been a fantastic case study for my Infectious Diseases class in terms of immunology, epidemiology, socio-economic status and the relationship that has with access to appropriate medical care, medicine, ethics, the geography of Africa and specifically the “malaria belt” and why this area is so prevalent with disease. I ask my students to propose a solution to the late identification of an Ebola sickness or a solution that address the reintroduction of survivors back into their communities. The possibilities are endless when using strategies of project-based learning with students and these projects require a level of critical thinking, empathy, and collaboration from our students that other learning tools simply do not.
 
It is difficult to find actual usable information on the web about how to incorporate global education into our curriculum. I think these websites below do a good job of starting you on that journey, however, in most instances they fall flat on the “how to” aspect. I am working on another blog post that will give very specific ideas, examples, and strategies as to how to globalize your classroom. Stay tuned here!

Considering Higher Education?

12715823_1145288665504402_762337878648045399_oWhether you work in the education field or not, you have undoubtedly heard the constant buzz about higher education reform. People are asking questions like “is a college degree worth it in 2016?” and “is the amount of debt I’ll graduate with manageable?” Free tuition to public universities is one of the cornerstones of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Experts are diving into how exactly colleges set their prices and debating what “affordable” really means. New research indicates that our collective student loan debt has reached $1.2 trillion dollars, yet it’s becoming increasingly harder for recent college grads to find employment. The “underemployment rate” for the highly educated millennial generation is believed to be around 44 percent – which means they are either unemployed or working in jobs that do not require the degree they have received.

Purpose_for_kids

Find your purpose.

So what are we to make of this crisis? How do we advise young people on the decision of whether or not the typical trajectory from high school to college is right for them? Having recently graduated with my Master’s in International Education from SIT Graduate Institute and a healthy amount of debt, I find myself feeling torn.

I believe the most important thing we can do is encourage students to make their decisions about higher education intentionally. A college education is not right for everyone, and even those who decide to pursue an advanced degree do not have to do it in the standard timeframe. Here is some food for thought if you or someone you know is considering a path to higher education.

  1. Consider taking a gap year between high school and college. Of the many benefits to taking a gap year, studies show that universities are “reporting an increase in GPA, greater engagement in campus life, and of course greater clarity with career ambitions” (American Gap Association).
  1. Ask yourself these 10 questions to start a college search. My favorite: “How have you done your best learning?” For me, an experiential approach to education was non-negotiable. I landed at Warren Wilson College for my undergraduate studies because of their unique Triad approach to education: a balance of academics, work, and service-learning. What type of environment will best support your learning style?
  1. Look into opportunities to really explore your passions before you decide. Sure, college is a time for exploration – but how are you supposed to decide on an area of study without taking your passions for a test drive? I love this video of Allan Watts’ “What if Money was no Object?” Ask yourself what you really love to do and seek out opportunities to explore those passions.
  1. Research alternative models. If you think a traditional college might not be right for you, you’re not the only one. New and innovative alternatives are popping up all the time. My friends and colleagues in Portland, Oregon, for example, are starting a new type of affordable college called the Wayfinding Academy. Students will be on an individualized quest to complete a comprehensive portfolio of experiences, not a set degree program. Similar innovations exist at the graduate level as well. Open Master’s is a community of self-directed learners who want to pursue higher-level studies without paying for graduate school. I highly recommend listening to Blake Boles’ Real Education Podcast in which he covers many ways in which we all can be self-directed learners.
The Wayfinding Academy Creed.

The Wayfinding Academy Creed.

The bottom line: do your research, then choose your own educational adventure. Despite the current system, there is no “one size fits all.”

What advice would you give young people considering higher education? Tell us in the comments below!

What If Money Was No Object ~ Alan Watts from Edgar Alves on Vimeo.

Most Likely to Succeed

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Outdoor Preschool

When I think about innovation in education, on the one hand I am daunted by all that needs to be done to fix our broken systems. I often feel overwhelmed by the achievement gap, inequity and lack of access to quality programs.  On the other hand, I am inspired by what I see happening in pockets all around me, if I look hard enough. From programs that open access to a broader range of students in independent schools, to outdoor preschools like Tiny Trees (inspired by models in Scandinavia like this one), to public school students like this group setting up computer labs in the developing world even though their school no longer houses the program they created.

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Most Likely to Succeed Film Poster

The latest school to catch my interest is called High Tech High. It’s a public charter school in San Diego that has retooled its academic program around project based learning. I had heard about the school before, but when I watched the documentary film Most Likely to Succeed, I became reinvigorated by what is happening there. Students work on team-based interdisciplinary projects, each taught by a pair of teachers for one semester at a time. The students stand firmly at the center of their learning, so the teachers have been trained on how to set up a learning environment to support that pedagogy. The film focused on a ninth grade class taught by a humanities and a physics teacher. They explored ancient civilizations from a literature, arts and science perspective. The guiding question was “What factors cause civilizations to rise, thrive, and/or fall?” Using ancient texts, modern political situations, and mechanics of gears and wheels, the students worked in groups to explore the question from multiple angles.

High Tech High

High Tech High

At the end of the term, they hosted a huge showcase for their parents, guardians, and community members. They demonstrated the theme dramatically through Greek tragedy (all parts played by boys as would have been in that time period) and the Malala story (all parts played by girls to emphasize the importance of girls education). Then they showed the technology through a giant puzzle mechanism made up of all of their gear boards put together. It’s hard to describe, but somehow they were able to capture the rise and fall of civilizations through these two means in a very compelling way. As they spoke about their work to the visitors who came to see it, their learning, pride, teamwork and perseverance were evident. It was clear during the course of the semester they were also learning interpersonal skills, public speaking, problem-solving, collaboration, and self-advocacy, referred to as “soft” skills, and perhaps the most necessary for success in the workplace.

To the naysayers worried this kind of learning is not rigorous enough, they don’t cover enough material, they can’t quantify their progress, I point to a recent study done at a prestigious east coast independent school where the highest scoring students on all test measures (finals, APs, SATs) took the same tests three months later and failed them. Given the amount of content that can be found in one’s smart phone these days, what is learned through these kinds of comprehensive projects seems much more relevant to life in the real world than learning how to take tests. Now if only colleges and universities will agree…