If students designed their own schools…
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If students designed their own schools…

It’s crazy that in a system that is meant to teach and help the youth, there’s no voice from the youth at all. If students designed their own schools, what would school look like? SANDY: Crime and Punishment is first and foremost a test. Probably something like this: no quizzes, no grades, not even classes. And most of the time, no teachers or any adults in the classroom. Sandy: It’s a completely alternative academic program. We have 9 kids in it. We look at the 4 main bodies of learning: English, Math, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences. This is a school within a public high school, designed by the students themselves. The program, known as the Independent Project, runs for one semester and is divided into three parts. All follow the same basic rule: design your own learning. Every monday, each students comes up with a question he or she is curious about. It should be related to one of their core subjects. Peter: The most important thing about your question is that you actually want to know the answer. They spend the week doing research or experimentation. And on Friday, they give a formal presentation to share what they’ve learned. Peter: If the question is yours, the answer is going to feel great when you obtain it. Peter: My goal every presentation is to be as engaging as possible and make my care for my subject as infectious as possible – try to make everyone catch it. The week I visited, the questions touched on diverse topics that included… unexplained mysteries, the novel Crime and Punishment, the naturalist John Muir, a local music establishment called Music Inn, and HIV/AIDS in South Africa. Jake: For a week, I went out and took a flight lesson and built myself a model airplane. Each day, I wanted to know why a wing generates lift. And it was that question that kept guiding me through all this research and it was fun research. These weekly questions usually take up half of their time. The other half is spent on their individual endeavor, which is a much more ambitious project that they work on for the entire term. Some learn to play an instrument for the very first time and put on a recital. Sergio: In two short years, I’ve learned to play the piano fairly well. I can play with other people. I’m in a band now. I can hold a beat.
I can play. Others work on writing a book and a collection of poems. Matt: I try to write 2 to 4 hours a day.
A 1 hour day is really bad and a 5 or 6 hour day is excellent. Some choose to devote their time to researching topics such as education or the environment. Again, it’s whatever they decide, as long as it demonstrates effort, learning and a mastery of skills. Joe: The thing you center your semester around doesn’t have to be academic. It can be something that you can really develop a strong passion for. Peter: This year my Individual Endeavor has been a complete blast. I’ve been making a mockumentary of the kids in my school. It’s been an organic process, a lot of improv. There’s no script. I’ve been making it up as I go. I think I’ve gotten better work from having it open ended. Your friends can suddenly think of something and you build onto that and they build back onto that and you have something that’s 20 times funnier than you originally thought. Aside from the weekly questions and the Individual Endeavor, students also spend the last three weeks working on a group project, called the Collective Endeavor. Here, they are starting to debate what they should do. The goal of the Collective Endeavor is to produce social impact and to make a difference. Peter: Just tell me why you’re clearly not digging it and I want to know why. But as you can see, it’s also a chance for this group to practice collaboration skills and to unite around a common cause. Self-directed learning in small doses can be found at many schools but few public schools have taken it to this extreme. Giving students full control of their school day was a big gamble on the part of the principal, Marianne Young: “My personal and professional investment in these opportunities is to create a school and a way of educating young people that allows them to be completely invested and to stop trying to move every kind of human being through the same gate.” When the Independent Project was first proposed, it was met with a lot of resistance from some of the teachers, who felt there were too many unanswered questions.
“What’s the role of the teacher? Who decides what’s good work?
Who decides what earns credit and merits a diploma from this high school? The project did find strong support from the guidance counselor and a few teachers who became advisors. So Principal Young agreed to pilot it not once but twice. This is the second pilot. Lisa Baldwin: It’s a pretty good risk to
take on a student to allow them an opportunity for this sort of independent freedom and thinking because it can’t really fail. I can’t tell you how many times the question get me thinking and then I go and try to learn or refresh. Everyone has gained or will gain something positive. After two trials, what tangible benefits do they see? First the Independent Project seems to accommodate different types of learners: both the straight A students and those who have been struggling academically. Sergio: I have dyslexia so it’s very hard reading and writing and doing those sorts of things. School has always been a big problem for me. If not for this program, I don’t know if I’d be graduating. I don’t know where I would be right now. So I think this has been my savior and got me through the last two years of high school. Free from assigned work and tests, they are able to focus on the one thing that motivates everyone to learn:
their own passions. Joe: I think I’ve stayed up at night doing work more times this semester than in previous 3 years of high school. Sandy: I think every single person wants to learn about something. Even kids who are barely going to classes – they want to learn something and whether that’s auto mechanics or the physics of skateboarding or how ice cream is made. Everybody’s interested in something. And this gives you the room and space to really learn whatever you want. Another key benefit: learning becomes a group activity. There’s mutual support every step of the way, starting with the morning check in. Mike: It’s called the Independent Project but I don’t think it can be any more dependent on a number of things. This program is really dependent on people working together. It’s dependent on people pushing each other, giving constructive criticism, giving support, giving praise. It’s dependent on people using resources and finding resources. It’s dependent on being creative. It’s dependent on learning how to ask a question. Peter: Group dynamic is everything. That’s like one of the most important concepts of this program: You are not only doing it for yourself but you’re doing it for your group-mates. It’s like a team. Sophie: I enjoy being with people as interested in what they’re doing as I am in what I’m doing even though we’re not doing the same thing. Peer support also means peer pressure to stay on track and follow through on your commitments. Annalena: If you blow off the independent project, you’re letting 8 of your friends down and that feels a lot different than getting a D on a test. It feels a lot worse so in that way, there’s a lot more pressure to do well than in normal school because in normal school you’re letting down one person, whereas here you’re impacting a huge group of people really negatively. Do you guys criticize each other?
Yes, period. Yes. That’s definitely the hardest part. The most visible benefit however is the ownership that students feel over their learning. Sandy’s presentation on Crime and Punishment sparked a lively discussion but didn’t go as planned. Although no one else noticed it, he felt he lost control of what he wanted to say. SANDY: I just faltered and I couldn’t get
the grasp on the book I wanted to grasp. And what really frustrated me was that I wanted to give them a taste of what I have learned and it felt like the taste I gave them was probably rancid. I slipped up on that and that kind of made me upset. For the following week, he assigned himself a five page essay so he can present his thoughts more coherently. During another presentation, Joe started to describe a logic problem he learned to solve. Before he could present the answer and without any prompting from him, the other students formed two small groups and solved the problem themselves, using two different approaches. Sandy: I like the way you guys did it. That’s a much more innovative way to do it. This is like, I don’t have anything else, I’m just going to go for it. Peter: The world we’re coming into right now – we’re going to really be on our own. We’re not going to be able to rely on our elders telling us what to do. It’s going to be us telling us what to do and responsible for the next generation trying to help them. The only way we can learn lessons and be individuals and autonomous is if we do it by ourselves. Are students capable of teaching themselves? And is it enough for teachers to be mentors and coaches? These are the tough questions being asked and tested at the most innovative schools around the world. Marianne Young: I think the more options we have in our schools the more students we will help develop into the citizens we need. And it’s ok for you to need a little bit of a different approach from mine. Mike Powell: The power of a young mind is pretty impressive. One, they’re so resilient. Two, they’re extremely creative.
Three, they’re fearless. They’ll try anything. So the qualities that many many teenagers have go very well with a program like this, which makes sense… it was developed by a teenager. The Independent Project itself continues to evolve… but students are taking pride in the fact that dozens of schools around the world have already expressed interest in their model and may soon replicate their program elsewhere. Sandy: It would mean the world to me if just one other school saw this video and said, “Let’s start an Independent Project.”
That’s all I want. If that happens then more students will finally get to have their say in how to reform education for the 21st century. Subtitles by the Amara.org community

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