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What would happen if the school bell never rang?

Posted by Joyce Lin-Conrad

Aug 17, 2015 10:06:00 AM

Cue the acoustic guitar, the tambourine, then finally the eight-year-old lead singer of the band, Jo Jo and the Gang, in a clear soprano: “Oh, bacteria, you’re a prokaryote! You got a cell wall protecting your nucleoid!”

IMG_2986Every week, projects like "Bacteria Cell Song" (written, recorded, and performed live by one of our upper elementary rockstars) remind me of the power inherent in any student-driven learning experience. At AltSchool, teachers are always cultivating the focus and flow that comes when children are engaged in an activity that ignites their passions. In the case of our young singer, the project doesn’t end with the song. She plans to incorporate her interest in fashion and is designing a dress to wear in a forthcoming music video, which will surely bring to life lyrics like “cytoplasm is like Jell-O.” By mixing biology, music, design, poetry, and production, “Bacteria Cell Song” is a wonderful example of integrating skills and content knowledge across the disciplines, engaging students’ real-world motivations along the way.

As a school, it’s a challenge to create a structured environment that excites deep engagement in our students through projects like “Bacteria Cell Song.” As parents, we want our children to do it all: long division, biology, painting, creative writing, yoga, coding, piano, soccer. We also want them to be self aware, to have the ability to navigate conflict, make good decisions, and seek out problems.

But the school day is only so long— how can we fit it all in?

Perpetual transitions: the challenge with a modular school schedule

IMG_2969At AltSchool, we tried a more familiar model with elective-style classes taught by specialists. In theory, this meets everyone’s needs: students participate in a diversity of experiences; parents feel good knowing that their children are getting, for example, 90 minutes of Mandarin instruction a week, or 45 minutes of art; and dedicated classroom teachers get the breaks needed to plan and take a breath.

But we found that this model required students to make too many transitions each day, interrupting the very focus we hope to nurture. If we silo experiences around, say, music, or tinkering, we miss an opportunity to model the real world in all its interconnected complexity. We also were taking a one-size-fits-all approach when not every student or family wants to delve deeply into foreign language or martial arts, which ultimately limited our ability to personalize.

Reimagining a personalized, interdisciplinary, and real world-based curriculum

So we went back to the drawing board to reimagine how our daily schedule can inspire T-shaped learners— those who obtain a breadth of knowledge across all academic subjects and standards, while diving deep into specific areas of interest. Our goal is to support a flexible, personalized, interdisciplinary day for students, teachers, and parents. We want to expose a student to ideas and provocations she would never seek out on her own and to be able to choose which areas warrant deeper exploration. We believe dedicated classroom teachers need an environment that allows them to fully utilize their many talents and one that provides them with curricular resources that truly support a classroom’s needs. And we want parents to be able to find unique programs before and after school that are fully in line with family priorities.

To fulfill our vision of providing flexibility, depth, breadth, and deep personalization throughout the schedule, we’re taking a three-pronged approach: 1) long, focused blocks for interdisciplinary projects; 2) a network of experts from the local community; and 3) co-curriculars offered before and after the school day.

1) Long-focused blocks for interdisciplinary projects: Our new school day features uninterrupted study periods where students can take a deep dive into a particular interdisciplinary project. Last year, students programmed a gum ball machine to dispense a piece of gum in response to a secret knock. Others learned to use Sketch-Up to create a blueprint for a construction project. Time -- to plan, trial, change course, document -- made these projects possible.

IMG_31892) A network of experts from the local community: We’re building a program that will connect classrooms with experts in their field.  A teaching team will be able to book time with an art historian who can co-teach a six-week arc that weaves together semiotics, visual arts, and literacy. Another classroom can request a session with a capoeira master to wrap up a unit on Brazilian history and culture. Another can work with a robotics expert for an entire semester on applying ratios and rates as they build prototypes of programmable robots. In each case, the use of the specialist is customized to the interests and needs of class members. Our in-class use of experts allows students to get “just-in-time” instruction and support in ways that are relevant to projects that are meaningful to them.

Ultimately, we think this level of flexibility for our educators will increase the amount of time students spend in that state of flow during the school day. Content will be seamlessly integrated into themes and units each class is already exploring, and students will benefit from the magic that is dedicated classroom teachers and experts from the community collaborating and learning together.

IMG_54613) Co-curriculars offered before and after the school day: For the windows of time before and after school, we are building a world-class team of specialists who will offer robust, seasonal co-curricular courses like improvisation, maker lab, and Mandarin language arts. For an additional cost, students can enroll in the courses that most interest and motivate them, and that work with their daily routines and other out-of-school activities. The co-curricular program allows us to expand our offerings across the network based on parent demand and teacher recommendation.

This fall will be our first iteration on this new model. As a community of students, parents, teachers, and employees, there are sure to be challenges, but we’ll be working together to move the vision forward. What subject matter will Jo Jo and the Gang tackle next? Who will they meet along the way? I can’t wait to find out.

Ready to write your own version of the Bacteria Cell Song? Apply to AltSchool.

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Topics: School, Classroom Stories, co-curriculars