Thursday, January 6, 2011

Teaching in the "Beyond the Walls" Program

I feel it important to put the timeframe in perspective and I will explain that later in my post.  It was 1995.  To me it seems like yesterday but in terms of how technology has changed it was really another life time. Note many people had cell phones and the ones that were out there were big and almost brick-like (example from Motorola). Power Point as part of the Office Suite didn't exsist.  The year before (1994) Netscape had made it easier for us to actually get around the "World Wide Web".  ICQ (1996), Hotmail (1996) and Google (1998) hadn't come around yet.  Although we had heard about these fancy things called Smart Boards, nobody in education could say they had actually seen one.  It was also the the first year for Geocities - and how exciting it was to make our very own webpage and set down roots in cyberspace.  Occassionally students would go online to find information but generally research was still done in the library with books and encylcopedias. 
That September marked the begining of my 4th year of teaching and I was excited to be taking on a new job as a teacher in the "Beyond the Walls" program at the same school that I had started my teaching career in three years earlier.  Its a program that was dreamed up a couple years before I started teaching and had been in operation for a year before I came to the school.  I spent the next two years teaching in this program before the program folded (reasons were many and some are speculative but when you have something that is not "mainstream" in a very traditional school it can cause problems).
We had a group of 32 students, 2 teachers and 2 volunteers (one was a professor at a local college and another was a lady in the community who just really enjoyed literature and writing).  Students (and parents) applied to be in the program.  We had regulations in regards to ensuring we had a balance of students in the program (girls/boys, grade levels, academic achievement levels....etc.).

Our approach involved experential education, individualized learning, student driven curriclum and, in the area of mathematics, mastery based learning.  We were young and enthusiastic and there was much that was great about our program but I will be the first to admit that we were driven more by a sense of what we though education should be than by research of what works in education.  Even as a teacher things have changed as a result of having this kind of information at our finger tips.  We probably would be a lot more methodical if we were to set up a program like this again.

Here are some of the things that happened in our program:
  • Each year we would pick a theme that we would focus on.  This theme would culminate in a month long trip at the end of the year.  One year we chose "Canadian Unity" and did a trip through Quebec and Ontario.  The next year we decided on a double theme and focused on geology and theatre culminating in a trip down the West coast and returning through Death Valley, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park.  The students worked in groups to plan sections of the trips.  They needed to find destinations that linked to our theme and then gather and share information related to that section of the trip.  They would make connections in locations that would include finding places to stay, finding people in that community who would be able to present to us or give us tours, finding places to go (usually tourist places so that was the easy part), mapping out that part of the trip...etc.  They basically had an outline of what their trip package should look  like and when we did that part of the trip they were the guide.  Being the guide included teaching the other students about the section of the trip.  As teachers, we would come up with activities, explorations and discussions that linked to the year theme throughout the year.
  • Community Service was a weekly part of our program.  Students would commit to two different service projects each year (one for the first part of the year and one for the second part).  One afternoon a week students would go out and work on these projects.  They kept journals and had supervisors fill out forms.  We (teachers) used every 2nd week as joint planning time and on the opposite weeks we went and joined in on various projects with the students.  Students did share experiences and reflections from these activities during our weeklly group meeting.
  • Mathematics was done on a mastery basis.  We put it together in packages and students would work through packages, take tests and once they had reached a certain level they were able to move on to the next package.  Students were encouraged to do peer tutoring, work in groups and also come to use for help as they needed it.  There were times where they would ask for a group lesson on a topic.  Looking bakc now I can it was pretty dry.  If I had it to do over agian our packages would be much more hands on and focused on problem solving.
  • We had this great science volunteer from the college who would come in with these science project ideas, present them to the students, have them work on the projects and be available to them to work on the project and to teach them science as they were working on the projects.  He never lectured the whole group much as he just moved around and talk with people as they were working on their projects and talk to them about science or asked them questions that they would need to find the answers to by the next time he came.  We did projects like the egg drop (where students had to figure out a way to make some sort of case that you could put an egg in and then we would drop it from increasing heights to see if the egg would stay in tact), spagetti bridge building (where we would put increasing amounts of weight on the bridge), recycled boat building (where students made life sized rafts out of recycled materials and then we saw how far across the lake they could get in their boats)...etc.
  • We had a volunteer who was passionate about reading and writing come in.  Our formal language arts program was built around the concepts of writers workshop, book clubs and book projects (as opposed to the very standard book reports of the time).  Again, when our support person came in she would meet to conference with single students or groups of students.  We did not restrict writing to traditional formats - groups of students could work on a script and then present their final project dramatically - individual students could create a poster or an advertisement to get some message across...etc.  There were guidelines surrounding how many of each type of project needed to be done in a given year.
  • Students completed 3 major projects each year.  Each major project was meant to be an indepth study of some topic they were passionate about and last approximately 3 months.  All projects needed to be presented to either the whole class or us upon completion.  Students did not stand for boring lecture style presentations so everyone got creative in how they presented (dramatically, with games or hands on activities, by creating simulations...etc.).   There was a process to follow that included presenting and meeting with us about the project idea, creating a timeline, thinking about a variety of resources (with a real encouragement of making people connections to learn)....etc.  One of the three projects needed to be individual and one had to be with at least one other person and the third it was up to you.  Some sort of final project (besides the presentation) was required.
  • Students took responsibility for themselves and others.  Each year they would come up with their own mangement plan in regards to how to ensure that we had a focused work space and that people were getting their work done.  The day was often pretty open as we only scheduled things like once a week class meetings, once a week current event discussions (which had assigned leaders and often resulted in some type of action), time when our support people would come in to answer questions or meet with students on what they were working on, group gym time, scheduled service time.  The rest of the time the students had to figure out what they were doing themselves so there was a real need for some way to ensure people were on track.  Both years the students decided that they should be accountable to small groups and they created a point system that would give them privledges througout the week (mainly the privledge to move freely aorund the school - if you were behind they felt you should need to stay in the classroom and get caught up - and they would help the ones in the room in regards to bringing resources to them.)   Students kept timelines outlining what they would complete each month in all areas and during small group meetings they all looked at how others were doing.
  • We believed in learning from failure.  We did not step in and correct unless we were seeing a disaster that would be hard to fix coming.  We supported getting things back on track when the time was right.  Even with timelining we had students who had to lose a lot before they would take the initiatve to get it back on track.  It was not always easy to watch but I believe our kids learned the most valuable lesssons in these times.
  • We focused on community building a lot.  We started the year with a retreat where the focus was building connections amoung us.  One year we biked from Banff to Jasper in Alberta.  Some of our students were avid athletes while others struggled every pedal of the way.  They pulled together and at the end everyone had done every mile on their own (including some very large hills).  Another year we did a retreat at a local camp where we spent much of our waking time tied together in groups and did a lot of adventuring style activities in between.  We had class meetings and debriefing sessions and focused a lot on the ripples we create with our actions (both positive and negative). 
  • We did other trips but they were often tied in to student's major projects.  One example would be a group of students who did a project on the Canadian Navy who planned a 2 day trip to the base on Vancouver island for our whole class.
  • There is more I'm sure as these are just the things that I can think of off the top of my head.
I'm sure there is more that I'm forgetting.  Was it for every kid?  I would say yes because we tailored it to students when we saw that they needed more or less of something.  We did have groups of kids who wanted lecture style lessons with certain skills or topics and we could make that happen for the ones who wanted it.  It was messy and choatic but I believe there was some great learning going on.  We tracked our students before and after program and.  They went back in to regular classes for grade 11 and 12 and even without the "curriclum" from the three years they were in our program they did well - in fact almost all of them had higher averages in grade 11 and 12 then they had in grade 6 and 7 before coming in to our program.  Teachers reported that our students were great workers and knew how to study.  When we tracked our students through to post secondary we saw great things as they had learned the skills that allowed them to successful there.  We had struggling kids who had never enjoyed school who became passionate learners when they could spend time studying topics of interest to them.  We had gifted students who had alwyas been bored who were now excited.  There were a few students that it didn't work for and they slipped through the cracks... knowing what I know now I feel that we could have made it work for them with a bit more guidance and support.  They went back in to regular classrooms and still did as well as before they came to our program.

Its a lot to describe and it may not be exactly the way that education should look today but I think there is a lot in it that speaks to real student learning.  It is also speaks to it being doable.  Because the program was so individualized and there was so much collaboration and peer tutoring/partnering going on, I really believe that anyone of my students now (who have multiple complex needs) could fit in to a structure like this.  I do not believe this is the only structure or even the right structure but I do believe that inclusion and education reform have to a joint effort and we have to think in terms of inclusive classrooms when we look at education reform.  When we think about what type of classrom would work for EVERY student I think we get closer to creating true learning enviornments for our students.

On a final note I want to go back to the technology references at the beginning of this blog entry.  I wanted to frame it because I believe that the skills that many focus on through social media today are the same as the skills we focused on without the social media back in the day.  I think its great that we have all these great tools now and would love to teach a class like this again with everything that is there now (as I can see so much potential) but my thought was that we need to focus on the skills and not the tools.  We can't just use tools for the sake of them being "cool".  This is a message that I've seen over and over again when reading about educational technology and I completely agree with the message.

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