Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Immunization for an Uninteresting Curriculum Found at the iSchool

Here I sit in this boring class

Oh how slowly the time does pass

A wasted hour every day

Doing busy work, but receiving no pay.

-Excerpt from a poem I wrote in science class at age 14

As I shared in my first post when I launched this blog, the primary reason I began working in education was to address the issues of boredom and irrelevance which I had experienced in schools. This is my constant reminder as I see other kids like me who are literally bored to tears in class. My teachers, some who threatened to quit if I were to remain in their classes, had to deal with kids like me who screamed out in Marc Prensky-fashion, “Engage Me or Enrage Me!!!” I demanded my teachers make class relevant, stimulating, fun. Unfortunately back then such spirited outbursts usually fell on deaf ears or landed me in the principal’s office. Alternatives were sparse as there was little opportunity for my voice to be heard. Today, as Sir Kenneth Robinson shares, kids like me would fall victim to a more current epidemic…the rate of children who are diagnosed (and prescribed medication for) ADD/ADHD. His opinion is that students are being diagnosed and drugged to cope with an uninteresting curriculum. I agree and provide for you a prescription to treat kids suffering from the uninteresting curriculum syndrome…

The iSchool

At the iSchool all students are involved in real-world, authentic curriculum where they are involved with addressing actual societal needs. The school has interesting, high profile “clients” throughout New York City and the students are working on exciting projects. For instance, one of the projects students are working on as part of their global studies program is assisting in designing a teen exhibit at the future September 11th museum at ground zero. The students are perfectly suited to the task of being in touch with what teens know and want to see, but here’s the interesting part. When you think of who is visiting this museum, sure, it’s the local kids, but in Manhattan there are kids from around the world. So these teens have to research perspective of September 11th from teens around world. What might an Iraqi student be interested in seeing, or student from London who experienced the subway bombing? These are the questions these students are figuring out answers to, and then designing a museum exhibit to meet their needs.

In addition to the school-directed projects, students have the opportunity to explore a wide range of options. They work with their advisors to set goals, select courses, and design independent studies that meet their personal interests and needs. These may include art, foreign language, music, technology, and roboticts. There are also student run organizations driven by student interest and may include athletics, school newsletter, student government, or the student computer support team. The school also supports students in experiencing a variety of career fields through problem-based courses and internships.

These projects last for 9 weeks each, 8 hours per week. Like all classes at the iSchool, all material exists online and includes clear goals, objectives, deadlines, and expectations. Part of what the students need to do when working on these projects is connect with an expert. For instance in the climate change project, every student is connected to expert scientists and science journalists. What’s also interesting is that in general, these 9th grade students take the responsibility of finding and selecting their own experts. Since the school was built on the premise that access to technology is a right, not a privilege, this task is much easier as the experts can be of amazing support without having to physically be onsite. This is also fantastic because the walls of the school are broken down and students are connecting with students and expert adults around the world both online and through video conferencing.

Another philosophy the school’s co-principal, Alisa Berger shared that I found extremely interesting and enlightening was based on a white paper by Greg Nadeau about Virtual Education Spaces. Alisa contends based on her experience and research, that one-to-one isn’t quite the panacea it is touted to be. Instead, she argues that the key is a virtual education space. She believes student ownership of laptops, doesn’t provide all the assumed benefits. Instead, what’s important is that students can access “their” work, just like 21st century employees who can log in from any computer including using vpn at home. She shares that providing ubiquitous access, but not one-to-one alleviates a plethora of issues. For instance, there are a lot of problems with reimaging because students with their own laptops love to customize them. Her laptops automatically reimage and it doesn’t matter. This results in the devices being indestructible. She doesn’t have to worry about inventory issues that have become a nightmare and burden for some one-to-one schools. Finally, she says she has piece of mind that she doesn’t have to worry about safety or breakage issues that can occur when devices move from school-to-home across a school. As Alisa shares, most kids today have some sort of computer at home. With this option it doesn’t have to be top of the line as the virtual education space provides access to all school software and resources as long as the student can find someway to obtain internet access. For the students with device or internet issues, Alisa and/or her staff figure out a way to either secure devices or figure out alternate internet access options (i.e. libraries, community centers, family members).

With all this technology, one might suspect the students may not be getting their physical-world needs addressed. Especially as you notice what was once the school gym has been turned into an area called the “Creative Commons” filled with bright light, thinking and conferring spaces, a video conference area where students recently connected with NASA scientists, and high-speed/power computer stations. Well, the school has developed a fascinating independent study program that replaces gym. Students must submit their own personal fitness plan which they carry out in the community aligned to their fitness goals and interests. Student options are limitless from plans that include shooting hoops, running, weight lifting and dancing. The students are empowered to become self-directed in determining options and interests that work for them and determining, with the guidance of school staff, how to meet those goals.

By this point you may be thinking this all sounds wonderful, but if kids don’t pass the regents they don’t graduate, so how do they account for that? There’s a plan for that, and coincidentally happens to be a plan that has been at the top of my mind lately. They offer online courses for all the regents. The tests are offered every 9 weeks and many students are motivated to complete their modules successfully in advance of the test. The model has proved extremely successful with all the kids who’ve opted to take the test early, passing. The school has designed their own online Regents classes, but not by choice. This is a tremendous undertaking and they would have much preferred an option to buy, however, none currently exist!!! They are still looking at options going forward for such partnerships. This, I believe, is an area of GREAT NEED across New York City from which all students can benefit.

If you’re an innovative New York City educator reading this, you may be wondering just what kind of students attend this school. The population is diverse on many levels from performance level, to race, to interests, to socio economic status. This year the school has sorted through 1500 applicants who completed their Online Admissions Activity that includes these three questions:

  • Why do you think you would make a good iStudent?
  • Which aspect of the program most appeals to you?
  • At the end of the 10th grade we ask students to identify a Focus of Study, this can be anything from Dance, Visual Arts, Computer Programming to Entrepreneurship to Scientific research. If you were asked to select this focus today (and it does not have to be from the list above – it can be anything) what do you think it would be and why?

Based on their application and personal interview, 110 students were selected who were thought most likely to be interested in this type of environment. Once at the school students are always striving to answer the question, “What is an expert?” and “How do I develop expertise?”

At the core the school’s philosophy is that more important than anything is the deep intrinsic belief system of not only their students, but also the teachers they hire. In fact the principal’s have even played with the idea of an eHarmony-type personality screening to accurately get at the heart and minds of each individual’s deep belief system and passions. They truly must believe that this way of non-traditional teaching is the best possible prescription for student’s achievement and success.


  1. I want to work in a school like that...

  2. It was good to see you there the other day, Lisa!
    I enjoyed reading about our school from someone with your particular focus, and that you were seeing it for the first time.
    I also think it's important to note that, though we think that large bureaucracies, like the NYC Department of Ed, lean much more towards stasis rather than progress...this school is very much a pilot of the DOE and the Division of Instructional and Information Technology! Reason to be optimistic, yes?

  3. for the focus of study, can it be something like, let's say, graphic arts?

  4. It sounds good, but how it fit for elementary schools? I like to see a model ISchool.