P4C School Innovation Tour: NYC iSchool

logoNew York City’s iSchool is in its infancy, only now in the middle of its fifth year, and the Partnership for Change School Innovation Tour, consisting of 30 teachers, students, administrators, and community members from Burlington and Winooski, spent the afternoon there this past Monday. Though none of the schools we visited were perfect, or represented an ideal we should strive to reproduce, they were all innovative and thought provoking, planting wonderful seeds for the school transformation journey our communities have embarked on. The iSchool impressed me with the focus it places on student choice and the need for relevant learning. They model this through their Modules, “intensive, nine-week interdisciplinary courses developed around real-world challenges. Modules are designed to develop students’ understanding of big ideas and broad global concepts, and their development and application of 21st century skills – the kind of things the leaders hope students will remember and still need to know and use 20 years from now.”

That all sounds a little official, so let’s get to the fun part.

We observed a number of iSchool Modules first hand, including:

Bash the Trash: “Based on the percussion ensemble Stomp, Bash the Trash will transform everyday items into percussion instruments…students will learn about creating instruments, rhythm, notation and basic percussion while creating a musical and visual performance.”

iNews: “In this course students will learn professional techniques in reporting, writing, and editing through an intensive ‘journalism bootcamp.’ The second half of the course will ask students to design and contribute work to the iSchool’s iNews network.”

Sixteen: “An anthropology class that investigates the coming-of-age experience…students collect artifacts, video footage, and writing that capture the story of how 16 is lived, and engage in ethnographic research to document a youth subculture in film.”

Public Forum: “In the Public Forum debate module, debaters argue a topic of national importance in terms that a layperson would understand. Debates are between teams of two people, each side either affirming or negating the topic. Students will be required to attend one interscholastic tournament during the quarter.”

NYC Ecology: “iSchool students are uniquely positioned to collect and analyze data on many different aspects of the urban environment. By working closely with NYC based conservation groups we will develop and implement an educational outreach program for middle schools focused on the unique qualities of our city’s ecosystem.”

If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking…COOL! I want to take those classes! Even more, I want to create my own class!

Well, so do the students at the iSchool. Their approach, outlined for us by one of their assistant principals, is simple. At the conclusion of, and throughout the school year, teachers propose a variety of modules, they survey the students and ask them which modules they want to take, and those are the courses that run. I’ve never seen such a clear and consistent approach to honoring student choice. The school prizes relevant, real world learning, but also believes that learning doesn’t have a certain “look” or “feel,” nor for that matter does “school,” which is why they’re setting out to do things differently, and to make sure their learning opportunities reflect both their local communities and the changing world around them.

The iNews teacher confided to me that the pace can be frenetic and even unnerving. She’s often a bit frantic, frequently teaching new courses and adjusting to fluctuating student desires. On top of that, her prep time is less than what I and my colleagues at BHS have, and her teaching load changes more frequently, but the ethos of the school is based around what’s best for students. Their assistant principal praised her teaching staff to no end, saying they worked tirelessly, and that they make their choices based on what best serves the needs of their kids, even if it’s not always what’s most convenient for the staff.

Seeing the power of student choice in action is one of the stories I want to keep telling and I strive to see reflected in the evolution of our local schools.

Closer to home, Burlington High School is making a bold foray into choice driven courses this spring with the beginning of its YES (Year End Studies) program, which is offering a dizzying array of two week long electives meant to prioritize both student interest and teacher’s passions. Check out the list: you’ll be amazed. You’ll want to sign up!

If you’re interested, here’s some more on the NYC iSchool from their website:

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