High school program changes: thoughts?

iVillage Member
Registered: 07-23-2002
High school program changes: thoughts?
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Tue, 04-23-2013 - 12:33pm

Yesterday the small rural K-12 school that my teens attend announced its plans for next year. The issues they're trying to address are very small enrolment, and a tiny staff whose time and skills are not being optimally engaged -- such that students with other options (like grandparents living in a larger city) are tending to drift off to live elsewhere.

So the plan is that each month would be divided into an Academic half and and Elective half. Two weeks of every month are called Academic Intensives, and include a large-self-directed component. They would focus only on core courses: math, English, sciences and history. Each course would have periodic group-based teacher-led labs or seminars or tutorials, but most of the work would be independent, based out of textbooks or off the computer.

The remaining two weeks each month would be available for "Immersive Learning." There would be electives offered according two overarching themes each year, and students would be encouraged to choose one of the two, which would fill one of those two Immersive Learning weeks. It would be possible to switch between them, and it would also be possible to take both, though the assumption is that the academically-inclined students would just take one. For next year one of the themes is "Valley Learning" and pertains to ecology, agriculture, nutrition, foods, small business skills and a few others. The other is "Mountain Learning" and pertains to backcountry sports and survival skills, avalanche science, wilderness first aid, mapping, geology, photography. Month by month the focus moves through these various thematically-related areas of learning. Students who had not chosen to do both streams of electives would have one of those weeks available for supervised self-directed study of their academic courses.

So most students would have one week of immersive electives a month, two weeks of classroom-supported academics and one week of entirely self-directed academic study.

Part of this would work really well for my kids: eg. the increased proportion of self-directed academic study during the Academic Intensive and self-study weeks. But for ds16 in particular, the elective expectations don't seem likely to suit his needs. He's a kid who is passionate about music, politics, philosophy and computers. This year and last he has been happy to graze through the school's funky collection of electives (he's been doing courses in Outdoor Education and Personal Fitness all year, and next week he's doing a week of small engine repair). But next year he would really like the freedom to be able to focus on academics and on developing his own interests via electives, rather than being exposed to new areas. He'll be doing choral music as an elective (in another school district, not during regular school hours), and he wants a course in computer programming, possibly law, political science or psychology, and digital media / design. Apparently he could work with staff to create an elective for himself in one or two of these areas, but they would have to fit into this second Immersive Learning week -- which would reduce his school time devoted to core academic courses (math, sciences, English, history) to half of every month. A lot of the more traditional option courses (Spanish, creative writing, theatre, art, shop) disappear under this arrangement, replaced by funky areas of learning like building snow shelters and pressure-canning. Because dd14 is still at an age where I think it's helpful for her to be exposed to things she might not naturally gravitate to, I think the Mountain and Valley elective streams offer some interesting possibilities. 

When I asked dd14 what was "intensive" about the Academic Intensive weeks. She said that her impression was that contrary to now, "during math they would expect everyone to actually do math." She said that with a smirk -- but it might answer to some of her frustration about the slow pace of progress of classmates in some of her current academics. She is free to move ahead under the current regime, but in some courses there's still a fair bit of group learning which depends on other students being at point X in the curriculum. On the other hand, the more intensive focus would also allow her to move faster, not just her classmates, so maybe the mis-match would continue to be a problem.

I'm not sure how ds will have his elective interests met, but that issue aside ... based on your own experiences, that of your children in high school or just your gut feelings, how do you think a format like this might have worked? Does it sound like it has possibilities for gifted students? This whole plan for next year is a work in progress and I feel like if I can figure out my feelings about it and articulate my ideas I stand a good chance of being able to influence how it takes shape. Anyone care to contribute their impressions? 

One bonus: if dd10 were to join the high school for an academic course like math next year, she'd have two weeks of classes and then two weeks with complete flexibility for travel and other pursuits. Because she'll still be mostly homeschooled that additional flexibility will work well.

Miranda

Miranda
in rural BC, Canada
mom to three great kids and one great grown-up
unschooler, violist, runner, doc 

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iVillage Member
Registered: 04-16-2001
Tue, 04-23-2013 - 2:07pm

My initial concern is the seemingly rigid two-week blocks, especially for core courses.  If a unit takes a kid 2.5 weeks to master, do they get almost to the end, drop it for 2 weeks and then easily pick it up again, or do they have to wast time in review.  Similarly, the 1-week block for intensive field or other studies seems limited.  Does it make more sense to have 4 weeks of core, with 2-week blocks for the intensives (alternating perhaps).  No system is perfect, but I would think at least 3 weeks would be needed to really master concepts at the later high school level.  

Does this mean there very limited interaction among students to discuss readings or do labs if they are all at different points in the material?

Given the situation, has your son expressed any interest in early college or even a boarding school kind of situation (have to be a pretty special school so not sure if such a thing exists).

I know of schools that do block scheduling, but have never heard of using 2-week chunks of instruction time.  

iVillage Member
Registered: 04-16-2001
Tue, 04-23-2013 - 3:34pm

It is certainly true that what is good for one kid, may not be good for another.  And what works in one subject, may not in another.  Or even unit by unit - some are just more interesting than others.  My boys would be happy to spend extended time in a lab or discussing politices, but Spanish or Beowulf, not so much!

I agree that a month seems to long, but two weeks seems too short (JMHO!).  The kids that need more time over all subjects would seem to end up using the self-directed time to just review their core courses and not get the benefit of that time to study other things.  

Is the goal for the teachers to be able to direct kids to more interesting stuff in those "non-core weeks"?

It must be a real challenge to meet the needs of all students, especially when it sounds as if some of the more interested learners end up leaving the school for high school.

OTOH, sounds like it may work quite well for your three.  

iVillage Member
Registered: 07-23-2002
Tue, 04-23-2013 - 3:38pm

I think the idea is that that fourth week (of self-directed study) could be used by students to focus on academic material that they need to or want to do extra work on. So a kid who takes 2.5 weeks to master, I dunno, balancing molar equations, say, could review and consolidate during the fourth week and arrive ready to start on the nuclear chemistry unit. 

Much of what happens academically at this school is already multi-age and multi-level. There is fairly limited interaction already between students when it comes to core courses, especially in the STEM realm. In the humanities there's more, but it's often held up by the slower pace of some students and it drives my kids nuts to have to wait all the time. I'm guessing that labs and literary discussions would be a little more scheduled next year. I think that next year students would be told "We'll be discussing Life of Pi [or doing the lab on melting point] the first week back next month so be prepared," rather than having it tentatively planned for "as soon as everyone finishes the reading which should be next Wednesday, but maybe not." I don't know. ... it's really hard to envision how it will all play out.

Your thoughts about a one-month academic block are thought-provoking. I think there is some concern that a solid stretch of nothing but core academics that lasts longer than a couple of weeks would be deadly for the kids who aren't at all academically minded. At the parent-school meeting last week we were talking about how some kids hate the transitions from subject to subject throughout the school day: they just begin to get into something and then it's time to switch subjects. They do better when given bigger blocks of time to really focus and delve deeply. Some kids, on the other hand, need variety and novelty to engage them or else their focus starts to wander and their engagement with the material falls off. And I think those general differences apply over more of the medium term as well. When they were unschooled, my kids tended to completely immerse themselves in something for a few days or a few weeks and then move on. I know some students whose natural learning style is to have a bunch of different things on the go at the same time and move between them as whims dictate. The parents of those kids are really concerned about the proposed changes because they're more immersion-like. 

Miranda


Miranda
in rural BC, Canada
mom to three great kids and one great grown-up
unschooler, violist, runner, doc 

iVillage Member
Registered: 07-23-2002
Tue, 04-23-2013 - 4:01pm

Yeah, I think it might work well for my kids. My ds, though, is not thrilled about spending a week out of every month in his senior year doing nothing but elective streams chosen by other people.

Miranda

Miranda
in rural BC, Canada
mom to three great kids and one great grown-up
unschooler, violist, runner, doc 

iVillage Member
Registered: 02-17-2004
Wed, 04-24-2013 - 9:11am

Hmmm - what are the advantages of having 2 solid weeks of academics then 2 weeks of electives instead of 2 days academics, 2 days electives, 1 day free choice (to catch up on academics, independent study, etc)?

iVillage Member
Registered: 04-09-2006
Wed, 04-24-2013 - 1:18pm
The proposals are interesting...maybe an effort to get away from what can be seen as the drudgery of doing math, etc. at the same hour every day all year (for example). Maybe the subject offerings could be expanded in the future? I have seen several foreign language programs in action with the traditional fifty minutes per school day format...it seems that years and years pass and few who have gone through Spanish IV can actually speak Spanish...maybe a different paradigm could be used for things like language learning? I seem to remember that Cornell College in Oklahoma has 3 week intensive courses...that might be ideal for a language immersion experience. (I know you said that Spanish is NOT going to be offered...I'm just chattering here.) Only one of my kids went to high school (another homeschooled all of high school, and the other has three years left and no intention of going to a bricks and mortar high school) but I think the proposals for your school would have been much more enticing to my kids than the traditional structure of the schools my son attended. Deborah
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Registered: 07-23-2002
Wed, 04-24-2013 - 1:51pm

Edited to include the message I was replying to, for clarity:

"Hmmm - what are the advantages of having 2 solid weeks of academics then 2 weeks of electives instead of 2 days academics, 2 days electives, 1 day free choice (to catch up on academics, independent study, etc)?"

The main advantages are two-fold, both relating to our relative isolation. First, they allow for extended field trips. That's important when you live so far away from the resources you might want to make your electives work and your education complete, or when you want to take advantage of outdoors-focused learning. For instance, the first two fall outdoors experiences would likely be canoeing the length of the lake (50 km, wilderness camping) and staffing a back-country checkpoint and overnight cabin for multi-stage wilderness trail race. For both of these the prep (food, packing, etc.), the journey and the central activity would take at least 4-5 days. Even on other areas of learning and more traditional field trips, we have so little within a 2-hour radius that multi-day trips make more sense. The basic field trips I remember from school: to the zoo, the science centre, a cheese factory, a symphony orchestra, TV station, museum, theatre production,  -- those sorts of things are hours and hours away from us. Even the things in our area take a long time to get to: there's a railway museum two towns to the north of us, near the site of the "Last Spike" that connected the cross-Canadian railway system shortly after the birth of our country. But it involves a 90 minutes of driving, a half-hour ferry ride and another hour's drive on the far side. That can't be done in a single school day. We're just such a long and winding way from anything.

Secondly, and probably more importantly, the week-long-blocks allow mentors to be brought in from elsewhere, and this has traditionally worked very well for the school. For instance next week a theatre director and a professional writer are coming in to mentor and lead workshops and performances as part of the annual Arts and Writers' Festival. Over the years we've had documentary film-makers, puppeteers, aboriginal education experts, animators, first aid instructors, painters, dancers and so on come in for similar stints in the past. Getting them here and back home costs $250-750 and takes a full day of travel, so it makes sense to book them for a full week.

Miranda

Miranda
in rural BC, Canada
mom to three great kids and one great grown-up
unschooler, violist, runner, doc 

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Registered: 05-13-1998
Wed, 04-24-2013 - 4:54pm

It sounds interesting on paper. I could see it working in the elementary stages very nicely but I admit, I'm having a hard time really envisioning this in action at the high school level.

I know my DS 12, would suffocate if faced with 7 hours academic blocks for 2 weeks of every month, even though he does enjoy his academic subjects and would appreciate self-directed time. Daily band, art and theatre classes are what make middle school both sociable and enjoyable for him. Not to mention, are subjects for which daily class is beneficial for growth. I'm not sure how they could prepare for marching season or put on a play if they only had a week a month to work on it. Of course, you said those electives dissapear in this system so I'm sort of bringing in apples to a discussion on oranges. Still, based on what you said, I can't see my own DS thriving.

I think DD 16 would have really enjoyed this in the early years but she'd resent the limited options on electives at the high school level. Even though classes are supposed to be self-directed, I think she'd get annoyed by the longer hours focused solely on academics too. She tends to feel "trapped" in longer classes. She didn't love the block schedule her old high school because of the class length and and she doesn't love the 2.5 hour college course she's taking now (even though it's only twice a week.) She works fast and then she wants to move on.

Of course, I could be putting a totally wrong spin on the program. I'd almost have to see it in person to really wrap my head around it.

iVillage Member
Registered: 07-23-2002
Wed, 04-24-2013 - 10:04pm

It's not seven hours of academic blocks. Wow! Is that how long your kids are in class? Crazy. Our school days are shorter: 9:00-12:15 and 1-3, so five hours with a good break in the middle and another 15 minute break in the middle of the morning. Blocks are an hour, but for kids doing self-directed learning there's a fluidity and looseness that comes into play including the freedom to socialize or to beg off and go for coffee or home early if you're clearly ahead of where you need to be. I'm pretty sure it would work well for my kids. But you're right: probably not for all kids.

The lack of elective choice would probably be a shock for your kids, but here the elective selection has been minimal all along. (No music at all. One Spanish course. No Physics. No theatre.) This way theoretically the electives are at least being facilitated by people who are passionate about those areas. 

FWIW, there have been week-long theatre workshops here that have been quite successful, sponsored by the school for middle schoolers and the younger high schoolers. Big improv component, minimalist in a lot of ways but pretty cool stuff. Not the same as a big production of course in terms of the polish and marketability of the end product, and a different sort of experience than that, but super worthwhile for the kids.

Miranda

Miranda
in rural BC, Canada
mom to three great kids and one great grown-up
unschooler, violist, runner, doc 

iVillage Member
Registered: 04-09-2006
Wed, 04-24-2013 - 10:39pm
Classes in my eldest kid's second high school started at 8:00 and ended at 4:15. There was a short break for lunch. I think the amount of time he spent in class is not uncommon for US schools. Deborah

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