This post is part of a series connected to the podcast Shift Your Paradigm: from school-centered to learner-centered. Lynn and I will be sharing our learning and thinking along the way and cross-posting to the Shift Your Paradigm site.
In Episode 21, we return to Maine and a second visit with RSU 2 (Regional School Unit 2). You may recall earlier in Episode 6 we spoke with superintendent Bill Zima, and Mark Tinkham, principal. With this episode we dig more deeply into what learning looks like in RSU 2 through the eyes of two learners/graduates: Will Fahy and Rose Warren.
Learner-centered leaders listen to learners and support them as they develop agency.
Students at RS2 relate their learning to freedom, exploration, and flexibility. Teachers empower learners to utilize their choice, voice, and freedom as they move along their learning path.
Learners value being empowered and learning about topics which are of interest to them. For example, Rose, redesigned the school’s health curriculum to be more inclusive of the LGBT community. Will studied food science and investigated perceptions of people and how they viewed processed food. Students select project ideas at the end of their junior year, and they work with their advisors to develop the idea for a Capstone Project.
Capstone projects are facilitated through Google Classroom, where students submit and edit proposals. Every Capstone Project includes goals, has a research component, at least 15 hours of field work/interviews in the chosen topic, and a 25-minute oral presentation. A capstone Committee of teachers and administrators facilitate the Google Classroom, and the research paper is embedded in the senior English course. During the presentation, two staff members assess the project. Following the presentation, the student participates in a reflective exit conference which contributes to the final assigned grade.
On presentation day, underclassmen register to view several different presentations. This allows underclassmen to learn more about the process and the outcomes so they have experience from which to draw when they create their Capstone Proposals and Projects.
Time management and motivation can be two potential challenges in this learner-centered environment. Because the students own the learning, these factors are internal. Some students may need more support. Rose suggested one way to combat these challenges is to encourage learners to learn about something they really like and connect to.
Learners have opportunities to hold themselves accountable for their learning. Rose wanted to be engaged in literature class discussion so she completed the reading. Will genuinely wanted to see how his experiment unfolded so he developed the work to satisfy his personal inquiry. As he truly enjoys learning, he became a member of Academic Decathalon with the sole purpose of expanding his knowledge (India, World War II.) Loving to learn has prepared him for college.
Does voice and choice exist across the organization? Yes. For example, in AP Language Rose learned about genetics through art. Rose suggested completing a project in which the students developed an art project instead of an essay. The teacher was open to and supported this idea. Teachers are open to feedback from the learners about the content.
Thinking about the idea of leadership, what other opportunities are available to develop leadership? Rose shared examples of students leading clubs, and Will shared an example in which he took the leadership role to build some of the content for the courses and Robotics Club. Everyone is encouraged to assume a leadership role.
Developing connections with faculty is imperative. Rose shared, “Students can work with teachers and administrators and do something they are passionate about – if they just ask.” She shared insight about how students contributed to ideas about events such as a Courageous Conversation Event.
Bill reminds us to “Listen to the learners. We can’t give them agency. They have to develop it themselves.”
Connections to Practice
- How can we provide more opportunities to listen to learners? We have the Superintendent Advisory Council and recently added a high school social media council. What else can we do? If we want to hear more about food service from our kids, could we create a child nutrition focus group?
- Is our curriculum biased towards one group of stakeholders?
- What opportunities do our students, K-12, have to work on extended projects connected to interests and passions? As we develop more opportunities, how do we ensure that we engage them in the design process?
Questions Based on Our Context
- Years ago, we discontinued the graduation project. How could our students benefit from a Capstone Project?
- How often do our students learn about topics in which they are interested?
- What barriers would need to be navigated in order to implement a Capstone Project or similar project?
- Would our students say they have voice and choice in some or most courses? How do we more actively listen to our learners?
- As leaders, how do we help everyone in the organization – teachers, leaders, parents – assume more agency? Is this an opportunity to practice enrollment?
Next Steps for Us
- Engage learners in a conversation around the concept of a Capstone project.
- Brainstorm a list of areas of focus in the district and schools that we want to engage the voice of our learners as we build the idea of agency in each of them.
- Intentionally create opportunities throughout the grade spans for learners to engage in extended projects that connect to interests and passions.
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