Saturday, February 12, 2011

Allowing Today’s Students To Focus So They Become Tomorrow’s Experts at The iSchool

The iSchool which I featured as the Immunization to an Uninteresting Curriculum has become even more interesting. The school is helping students become experts through their area of focus program which allows students to select a two-year focus for their studies enabling them to really concentrate on their area of passion.  In its first year, the program is already increasing motivation and attracting college interest.

The first thing that impresses me about the program is that it addresses a personal frustration of mine. Like many traditionally schooled students, I was learning-dependent, believing my passion was to do what I was told, get good grades, and finish school so I could reap the promised rewards.  I did all that and at 19 stood with a college diploma in my hand, scratching my head with no idea what I was going to do next.  iSchool students won’t have the problem of wondering what they want to do with their lives.  They are given the opportunity to think about what they want to do with their lives today.  

I had the opportunity to learn more about this program at the recent EduCon conference conversation where Alisa Berger and Mary Moss, the school’s co-principals shared their ideas and elicited feedback from attendees.  While the program is still being formalized, some of the ideas school leaders and session participants discussed that might support students in focusing on their area of expertise include.  

  • Exploring Passions and Interests with Area of Focus Profile
  • Teaching Assistanceships or Field Experience
  • Focus Fairs
  • Developing a Plan That Connects School to Area of Focus
  • Helping Students Build Personal Learning Networks
  • Quarter or Semester Check Points
  • Honoring the changing of passions

Here is more about each component.   

Exploring Passions and Interests with Area of Focus Profile
Students at the iSchool are not only encouraged to think about what their interested FIX WORD are, they are also asked to document this in their personal Area of Focus profile.  There they answer questions like:
  • What are your interests/hobbies outside of school?
  • When have you experienced “flow,”  which means a time when you have been SO engaged that you lost track of time?
  • Which classes/subjects have you enjoyed the most?  
  • What about them did you enjoy?
  • How do you like creating best i.e. writing, video, photos, audio, sculpting, painting, music

Students can receive this as a focusing document as they enter the iSchool.  This enables them to always think about their passions, interests, and what it is they want to focus on. Students may also have opportunities to be exposed to areas beyond current experience (perhaps career inventories, in which they might discover unexpected long term goals, aligned with strengths and interests, from which to back map).  There are also websites and blogs like My Child’s Path that expose students to a variety of possibilities they may not have thought of.  

The Area of Focus profile is similar to talent profiles (see samples here) used by schools like The Island School which follow the Schoolwide Enrichment Model.  These profiles can be digitized in a data base as is the case with The Renzulli Learning Differentiation EngineTM.  Once the profiles are digitized you can align engaging, individualized resources to students passions, talents, interests, and learning styles.  It also provides a convenient tool for connecting students.  Additionally, it really helps educators differentiate instruction and build student-teacher relationships by giving every staff member a deeper insight into all their students.  

This simple tool helps strengthen the student / teacher connection because it drives home the importance of teaching students, not subjects.  

Teaching Assistanceships or Field Experience
Students will choose between Teaching Assistanceships or Field Experience Apprenticeships.  Both provide a valuable mentor-type experience for students. Field Experience Apprenticeships will enable students to serve in the community for a business or organization of interest.  Teaching Assistanceships will give students the opportunity to work side-by-side with a teacher in a subject they love. What's interesting with Teaching Assistanceships is the circular mentor relationship that occurs with the teacher serving as a mentor to Teaching Assistant and the Teaching Assistant in turn serving as a mentor to younger students.  This might resemble the work that occurs at Chris Lehmann’s Science Leadership Academy.  For more information visit this link.

Focus Fairs
To help students determine their area of focus, in addition to the Area of Focus profile that helps students think about what they may want to develop expertise in, The iSchool hopes to hold “Focus Fairs.” At these fairs community experts with businesses and organizations who have field experience opportunities for students can come to let them know about what it is they do and how [this student] STUDENTS might get involved.  They can explain more about their business, future career opportunities, and what further education might help them best prepare them for work in this field. Students and their families are encouraged to recruit participants for this event.  
There will also be booths set up by subject where teachers who teach different subjects can discuss with students what a teaching assistanceship might look like.  They’ll discover what kind of opportunities for deeper study in the area may help prepare them for, and what it is they will be doing in an assistanceship with that particular teacher.  In future years there might also be other students who selected particular areas of focus at each booth and the school is considering having students who select a particular area make videos at the end of each year to advise fellow students what they learned to help them determine if this is the right path for them.

Developing a Plan That Connects School to Area of Focus
Once students select their area of focus they develop an area of focus plan that helps to align student’s school work to their area of focus.  Making this explicit connection is powerful always keeping at the forefront of the student and teacher’s mind the answer to the age old question of, “Why do we have to learn this?”  

Helping Students Build Personal Learning Networks
A part of the area of focus plan might be supporting students in developing their personal learning networks connecting to others who share their passions in authentic forums much in the same way high school student Armond McFadden has.  Armond has a love of buses.  He participates in transportation discussion boards, has a blog about buses, contributes photos (another passion) of buses to relevant online communities and he has created a bus video series with a substantial following.  He also has real life connections with MTA workers. As a high school student, he has already established himself as an expert in the community.  

Quarter or Semester Check Points
Students will have quarter or semester check points where they reflect on their learning so far. This might include how well they feel they’re addressing their area of focus, if they feel this is the right choice for them, and what has made them feel this way.  This These reflections can become a part of a students ePortfolio and might be captured in a way that best meets the students’ learning and creation style.  For instance, one student might have a photo montage with captions, another a video, another a voice thread, and another a blog.  

Honoring the changing of passions
In many cases, traditionally schooled students have not spent much time thinking about what their passions are.  At the iSchool the staff and peers certainly do their part in helping students discover their passions, but upon pursuing a particular path, sometimes students change their minds and that’s okay.  It’s just as important to have time to discover there is something you thought you liked, but once immersed you learn it’s not really the right direction.  Part of the journey indeed is not finding your passion / area of focus but discovering what it means to explore possible passions.  

What education should be about
The iSchool’s Area of Focus program provides a vision for the future that should be a part of every child’s education.  Unlike many other schools who are misleading their students to believe the key to success in life is doing what you’re told and getting good grades in high school and college, the iSchool keeps it real. They know the key to success for their students is helping them discover what they love and supporting them in the discovery and development of their passions.  In a school setting the staff and students can make direct connections to what they’re learning and how it relates to the area of expertise they are pursuing.  Not only does this give students a focused vision for success, it keeps their school experience, real, relevant and engaging, and after all, isn’t that what school should really be about?  

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Hats off to Shelley Krause and Kate Fridkis for their feedback and ideas in the development of this post and of course to Alisa Berger, Mary Moss, and their staff for providing this wonderful learning opportunity for their students.
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