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In Practice: Whole-Child, Personalized Learning

Posted by The AltSchool Team

Nov 17, 2016 11:01:36 AM

At AltSchool, everything we do is geared toward a whole-child, personalized approach to education that fosters student agency. To facilitate this, our educators work to develop all parts of a childnot just their academic abilitiesand to create experiences that are tailored to the specific learning abilities, needs, preferences, and interests of individual students. Our ultimate goal is to empower students as creative, resilient, inquiry-driven citizens who are able to self-advocate, develop strong relationships, navigate complex information, and drive their own learning in diverse environments beyond the classroom.

Jaqi Garcia, an educator at AltSchool East Village, shares what her class of fourth through sixth graders is working on now.

Taking a Cue from our Community
Our class started a project in October on immigration histories of Manhattan, with a focus on non-dominant perspectives. We’re situated in the Lower East Side, which has a rich history of immigrant communities, so it’s relevant for students to understand the space they inhabit. Understanding the historical context of the area and how it affects where we live today is an important concept for students to grasp. And as we began the new school year, it also provided a great opportunity to orient students to our surrounding community.


A Whole-Child Approach to Immigration Curriculum
As an educator, I’m always looking for ways to focus on the whole child by integrating non-academic and academic skills into projects. Global citizenship, cultural competency, and perspective taking are three non-academic skills that were key to this project, because learning about different cultures helps students develop a number of essential life skills. On the academic side, students learned about history, ecology and English language arts by investigating lesser-known histories of people who shaped the land, studied early ecology and resources of the landscape, and wrote essays comparing and contrasting topics ranging from immigration through Ellis Island to the underground railroad.

Another goal was to personalize the learning experience for students. The essential question we posed in relationship to this project was, “How does distribution of power effect the lives of immigrants?” We learned that 40% of New York City’s population is foreign born. I sought to help students develop their own uniquely personal perspectives as they examined their familial geographical histories in order to understand how their own lives and the lives of others have been effected over time.

Two students in the class are foreign-born, half the class has parents who are foreign-born, and the entire class has at least one grandparent who was foreign-born, so this project presented a valuable opportunity to make learning personally meaningful to each and every student as an individual. One student was particularly excited to explore his family history by writing about Cuban immigration to Manhattan!


What Happens When Learning Feels Relevant
Throughout this project, we will cover history, ecology, science, writing, perspective taking, critical thinking, compassion, ethics, and more. We’re currently working on map-making, where learning is personalized based on students’ interests. For example, some students are interested in mapping what Manhattan looked like in the 1600s, while others are creating graphic representations of their neighborhoods, comparing the past to present day. We’ve also explored the local community through field trips to theSchomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Ellis Island, and the Tenement Museum. Students understand that immigration is a big part of what built New York City and our country, and they are able to relate conversations about current issues to what happened in the past.

I’m really impressed with the depth of knowledge that students are developing, how engaged they are, and how they’re able to understand the relevancy of historical events in today’s world. Students feel empowered by learning historical information or reading an article from the newspaper and being able to form an opinion on it. It’s also been interesting to see the roles students have taken on: One student asked to write an argument-based research essay and has taken on the role of a historian.

“I think it’s important to study the history because we are the next generation of people who can right the wrongs of our past, but we can’t do that if we don’t learn about them.” ---August, Grade 6, when asked why it was important to study the history of the African Burial Ground in New York


Establishing a School/Home Connection
Students really enjoyed their trip to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and have continued exploration with their families. A number of students have been moved to watch documentaries on the various topics we’ve discussed on their own time. Students have also asked their parents to take them to the library to check out more books on these subjects. As an educator, it’s incredibly rewarding to see students develop deep curiosity, seek out information independently, and drive their own learning outside of school.

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Topics: School, Learning in the Community, Classroom Stories, Project-Based Learning

Portfolio Day at AltSchool Fort Mason: Discovering Systems

Posted by Katie Gibbons

Apr 28, 2016 12:22:09 PM


The students and teachers at AltSchool Fort Mason celebrated their work this trimester with a Portfolio Day. Students presented their deep-dive projects to parents and teachers, sharing their insights and receiving feedback.

Combining different skills and areas of study is the key to project-based learning at AltSchool. This trimester we continued our site-wide study of systems with a focus on places, as a way to further investigate how and why this concept is so important to our humanity and development. The students were provoked, inspired, and challenged to dig deeper into these concepts and express what they understand about them. They used these concepts to delve into science, history, engineering, mathematics, persuasive writing, altruism, communication, and collaboration.

Students in various grades studied the world at different historical points: from Ancient Egypt to the feudal system in the Middle Ages, and from present day problem-solving for world peace to tracing the evolution of systems in civilizations throughout time.


Lower Elementary 1: From Hunter-Gatherer Communities to Ancient City Life


This trimester, one Lower Elementary class studied how systems intersect with places. To bridge their previous study on professions, the class continued to study communities, but this time from an anthropological point of view. Their essential question centered around how communities move from primitive to developed. Starting with the dawn of human culture, the class spent time investigating what life was like for hunter-gatherers, before moving on to discover the rich and organized world of Ancient Egypt.


Lower Elementary 2: Feudal System and Medieval Times

To begin this arc, the second Lower Elementary class turned their dilapidated garden plot on the Fort Mason hill into a thriving ecosystem, capable of producing crops, to study the lives of farmers in feudal societies.


Shelter and architecture, agriculture and food gathering, trade and commerce, civics and politics, and faith and religion were explored each week in longer project-based deep dive sessions. Activities such as castle building, party planning, catapult constructing, sewing, pretzel making, manuscript writing, and chivalrous sword practice all stirred the imagination of the class to better understand this time period and societal system. To add even more artistic experiences, the class partnered with Little Opera to write and present their own songs reflecting their understanding of feudal system roles.

Upper Elementary: Systems of Peacemaking and Game Design

This trimester, the Upper Elementary classroom explored systems of place by seeking answers to the question “What does it mean to be a peacemaker?” and studied different Nobel Peace Prize winners including Malala Yousafzai, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela.


In the middle of the trimester, students participated in the World Peace Game, a political science simulation in which students fill the roles of government leaders, the World Bank, arms dealers, and the United Nations. During the game they worked together to solve several world crises through negotiation. At the end of the trimester, teachers combined the students’ social justice learnings and their love of game design into one project. The students designed board and video game hybrids that aim to promote peace.

Middle School: Ancient and Modern Systems

The Middle School students explored the many systems of a contemporary city through the lens of ancient systems -the Roman Latrines, Greek and Roman Aqueducts, Mayan Number System and Hieroglyphs, Indian Stepwells, Mesopotamian Agriculture, Chinese Gas and Water Pipelines, Iran’s Baghdad Battery, Asian Paper Making, and Ancient Inca Terraced Farming. Students built a working model and a presentation detailing their depth of understanding and presented their models and research findings.


Towards the end of the trimester, each student selected a modern system that they have experienced problems with, including inequality and gender bias, and brainstormed a solution to impact the evolution of their system. They pitched their solutions to parents in the SHARK TANK. Parents gave them feedback, suggestions, ideas or contacts to help them change this system. Students are currently working on real, actionable solutions to change their worlds. Next trimester they will present these solutions at an official TEDx event at AltSchool Fort Mason, inspired by TED Talks and the concept of ‘ideas worth sharing’.

School-wide projects like this are made possible by our amazing educators who are empowered by AltSchool’s commitment to project-based learning. Our educators can guide and direct students to create projects they are passionate about and tie their learning back to core skills like reading, writing, and math.  

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Topics: AltSchool Fort Mason, Project-Based Learning

How my 8- and 9-year old students became entrepreneurs

Posted by Mary-Kate Murphy

Feb 22, 2016 2:07:47 PM


How can we make core academics come to life? We teachers continually ask ourselves this question as we design curricula. And this question led my class to harness math skills and the enterprising spirit of our city. They became entrepreneurs.

My 8- and 9-year old students just finished a project where they designed their own companies from the ground up. Students built and pitched business plans, conducted market research,  “manufactured” their products, positioned and priced their offerings, and eventually sold them in a marketplace, where adults (with real money!) bought their products. Students also learned the art of giving, as their profits went to a charity of their choice.

But they learned so much more than being business owners. They applied core math skills, they learned from the failures and successes of real Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and they drove their own business decisions. Here’s a deep dive into what they learned:


Mastering 2nd and 3rd grade math skills through real-life scenarios

By the end of 2nd and 3rd grade, students need to master the following core math skills:

  • Performing fundamental math operations, including addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division
  • Calculating money, knowing the value of bills and change, and making change from larger sums
  • Manipulating fractions and understanding decimals
  • Producing bar and line graphs and analyzing data

Many of these skills need to become second nature, like telling time. To master these skills within their project, students:

  • Calculated the cost of their raw materials, margin, and projected profit and loss. Based on their calculations, they decided how to calibrate their production in order to maximize margin.
  • Practiced physically counting money and change. Some memorized certain transactions so they could quickly serve their customers.
  • Graphed data from a class-wide market research survey and interpreted that data, to understand which products to make.

They applied these core math skills in the context of growing their businesses. Memorizing math operations wasn’t just about memorizing; math had utility.


Learning from real entrepreneurs

A magical thing happened when I told families that we were studying entrepreneurship: parents lined up to volunteer and share their experiences in business with the class.

During our morning meetings, several parents led sessions on what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. Students asked questions like, “What happens if my business fails?”, “What happens if some of my products do not sell well?”, and “How do we know what to sell in the first place?” We heard real stories about failure, trying again, and grit. We learned the importance of diversifying to find the right product-market fit. And we learned how to conduct market research, from structuring survey questions to graphing the data.


Developing ownership over one’s learning process

When it came to select projects, one student baked cookies, another sewed handbags, and another framed photos he took himself. By choosing something they were interested in, students had a vested interest in their success..

I asked one my students, “What was the hardest part of this project?”

The hardest part was figuring out how many Rice Krispie treats to make and sell at the market. If I made too many, I’d lose money. If I didn’t make enough, I could’ve made more profit. So I asked my teachers how many people would be at the market. They said about 40. I thought that not everyone would buy Rice Krispies, so I decided to make about 20. I think I was right, I sold out right at the end.

I love how his answer shows how he both identified and solved a problem in order to meet his goals— crucial skills for the 21st century.


Giving back to the community

My students were so proud of their individual and collective contributions, including making $365 to donate to The World Wildlife Fund.

Mary-Kate Murphy is an educator at AltSchool Alamo Square. She is dedicated to igniting curiosity and a love of learning through real-world experiences.

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Topics: School, Classroom Stories, Project-Based Learning