Power Unicorns and Keegan Creatures

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A streamer saying “One of the 13 Most Innovative Schools in the World” greeted us near the entrance to the Metropolitan High School and I hoped they’d let me in even though I didn’t have an appointment.  Priscilla, the receptionist graciously helped me out and eventually, Brian came and introduced me to Rebecca, one of the graduates and Idalys, one of the students.  They toured me around the campus mentioned by President Obama in one of his speeches: “That’s why we’ll follow the example of places like the Met Center (a Big Picture Learning school) in Rhode Island that give students that individual attention, while also preparing them through real-world, hands-on training the possibility of succeeding in a career.”

The school operates like a launch pad to the real world treating students as capable adults who can direct themselves rather than children to be spoon-fed with the state-approved boxed-set of curriculum.  They solve real life problems through projects they choose themselves.  They are involved in community work, give-backs and internships. They have one-on-one advisories instead of a classroom that feels like prison.  They may spend three days a week at the Met and two days outside gaining as much practical experience as they can.  They can shape their own education including being able to take college classes.

In each building, there is a social worker who checks in on the students’ emotional and mental health and sees that they’re educationally on track.  But the heart of the process is the student as the center of learning.

“1) The Advisor works with each individual student in the class to help them discover what interests and motivates them. 2) The Mentor, a lawyer, engineer, small business owner, etc., guides each student’s internship. 3) The Parent is actively enlisted as resource to the Big Picture Learning community.  4) The Student (and fellow students) interact to reinforce each other’s passion for real work in the real world.  The result is a self-teaching community of learners where no one feels left-out, and each helps motivate the other.”

It makes so much sense, you wonder why aren’t more schools switching to this method but there is already a growing number of schools across twenty two states of America which are part of the Big Picture Learning network.  The model has also been adopted in countries like Australia, Canada, Israel and the Netherlands.  The Met in Providence, Rhode Island is the prototype initiated by Elliot Washor and Dennis Littky.

In the schools that Big Picture Learning envisioned, students would be at the center their own education. They would spend considerable time in the community under the tutelage of mentors and they would not be evaluated solely on the basis of standardized tests. Instead, students would be assessed on exhibitions and demonstrations of achievement, on motivation, and on the habits of mind, hand, and heart  – reflecting the real world evaluations and assessments that all of us face in our everyday lives.

Both my tour guides, Rebecca and Idalys are passionate about organizing and managing events. Idalys has raised funds through a walkathon in memory of a Met staff member who pass away.  Rebecca currently works at the Black Box Theater, a venue for cultural and community events.

I wonder if there are students who don’t take too well to the unconventional way things are done and Rebecca says that if they enter the system from a traditional school, it may take adjustment but they soon catch on that they’re responsible for what they learn and get out of Met.  A student one time was caught not doing the internship that he was supposed to do so after that incident, measures were placed to avoid abuse of trust and freedom.

We entered the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship where Nick introduced us to students who started and grew their own businesses.  John produces ice-cream-inspired candles while Keegan creates his own hand-screened printed art on shirts. Even though he is in high school, Keegan is already involved with the Rhode Island School of Design and aiming to be as prolific as he can be as an artist.  Talking to the students, one can see that they do find their own way in and out of the Met campus.  They grow at their own speed and pace.

Curious about our family road trip and research about education, Nick throws me a question about what impressed me most about the schools and learning centers that we visited.  I told him about being struck by the Macomber and North Star which were technically not schools but informal centers for self-directed learning.  However, visiting the Met that day made me realize how the same self-directed ideal can also take place within a more structured school setting.  What’s even more amazing is this is not a private school.  It’s a public school where students enter by way of lottery.  That means that even though they use quite radical, out-of-the-box methods, they still operate within the system, get state funding and comply with requirements.  Within this typically constricted environment, they are able to break out of the box and do the unthinkable, even the unimaginable.  Except for visionaries like Elliot and Dennis, ideas that seem “unthinkable” and “unimaginable” are most certainly not.

Read about Dennis Littky, the co-founder’s story:  Radical’ Educator Pushes Boundaries and Brings Results: Dennis Littky Story

Profile: Dennis Littky

About Elliot Washor

Check out this book by Elliot Washor: Leaving to Learn: How Out-of-School Learning Increases Student Engagement and Reduces Dropout Rates

There are a number of videos, too:

Elliott Washor

Dennis Littky

Ten Minutes about the Littky Method

Personalization and student engagement

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Check out Keegan Creatures on instagram: https://www.instagram.com/keegancreatures/

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