Friday, June 14, 2013

Another year of school

Rose and the Doctor at school on Fictional Character Day
Classes have ended at the local high school. Sophie and Noah are in the midst of exams. This represents the completion of Sophie's second and Noah's first year of full-time school. They've also just completed course selection for next year. It feels like a suitable time to reflect and look ahead.

It's a tiny high school and it seems to be getting tinier all the time. There are some compromises that are inevitable, but of course there are some tremendous advantages. Chief among the advantages is the fact that at a school this size each student becomes the co-author of an unofficial Individualized Education Plan. The teachers know the students very well indeed. The teachers are few enough in number (five!) that they communicate and co-operate extensively and naturally so that they can each get a holistic view  of the student and his or her interaction with the courses. At a school of this size no one ever says "we can't make an exception for just one student!" It is a school made up of exceptions. And so my kids have found it a comfortable place to be.

Despite Noah's incredibly strong written English abilities (he scored perfect marks on all three of his final English essays and his History 12 teacher thinks he's amazing), his jaw-dropping musicality on viola and his deep affinity for choral music and Corazón, he seems to be leaning towards sciences at this point. He took both Biology 11 and 12 this year, and Pre-Calc 11, and seems to have done very well. Next year will be his senior year and he'll fill in the rest of his pre-university science roster, as well as taking a Programming 12 course. I hope he'll continue to be happy at school next year: a lot of the social interest and challenge this year came from sharing classes with five fairly academically-minded Grade 12 students. But they're done now, and at this point there are no other students in 11th grade planning post-secondary studies.

Sophie is still registered in her age-grade, but this year ended up in accelerated courses for pretty much all her academics. The level of challenge is a better fit for her, especially in English (she was already ahead for math and science) and she is looking forward to sinking her teeth into more specialized sciences next year. She too is more interested in sciences than anything else. Because they held her actual declared grade level back in keeping with her age, she has three more years of high school, which is a lot of time to fill. We'll have to see how that plays out as she gets older.

Next year will bring a further evolution of the high school program. Students will get very little traditional classroom time. Each month will include the option for one week to be spent in non-traditional "immersion electives," most of which are out of the classroom, focused on things like agriculture, back-country survival skills, sports, ethnobotany and a variety of other possibilities. Students who choose not to do a particular immersion elective will be in school but with fewer teachers about. They'll have tutorial time on Mondays, where they meet with a teacher one-on-one to keep tabs on their goals, planning and progress through various courses. They'll get one or possibly two "seminar" classes per core course each week, where they will explore that subject in a multi-grade group-based manner -- possibly with some direct teaching, by doing labs or a group project or exploring ideas through discussion. And for the non-core courses, and for all the rest of the learning in those core classes, they'll be doing self-directed study. A lot of the content comes from textbooks, but increasingly many of the courses are based on-line.

During non-elective weeks, the schedule will be similar, but with a little more classroom/seminar time. So there's almost none of the traditional "sit in your desk with your age-mates and be taught by a teacher" stuff left by next year. The school has been experimenting with non-traditional learning for a long time, but it feels like this is the tipping point. Essentially traditional classroom-based learning is gone.

I like the model. The electives capitalize on the passions and expertise of the teaching staff and on the unique things our valley has to offer by virtue of its environment. The in-school model of seminars and self-directed course-work seems like an efficient way to use 5 teachers (most of them part-time) to administer over thirty different courses to fewer than forty different students. It also allows highly capable students to theoretically move ahead quickly and in their own directions. I say theoretically, because they will also need the motivation, the work ethic and the organizational skills to make that happen. I think my kids, because they've been self-directing and self-structuring throughout their lives, will probably do just fine. Certainly Erin did well with a very self-directed model through this school, and Noah has managed pretty well this year with his self-paced math course. Sophie is diligent and organized and I think she'll make it work.

But I'm not sure it's going to work for a lot of kids. Will a brief weekly tutorial with a teacher be enough to ensure that they actually do that self-directed work throughout the week? Even the Grade 7 and 8 kids will be part of this model to a significant extent. I hope there's a good safety net to catch the kids for whom the personal responsibility for self-direction is too much too soon.

And I'm not sure how it might play out for Fiona. She had thought of doing Math 9 at school next year for the collegiality of being in classroom with fellow students. But if "doing math at school" consists of a weekly multi-grade seminar and a lot of self-study, is that enough of what she wants to warrant having to abide by the school's time-line, the testing and grading, the constraints on her out-of-school activities? We'll be thinking and talking about that.

At any rate, the year seems to have been very successful for both kids, and they're happy with where they're at. With the two of them there full-time I kept expecting to feel some wistfulness about the end of their homeschooled educations. But it hasn't felt like that at all, and it didn't with Erin either. That's because I've never really thought of homeschooling and schooling as being two competing choices for us. They're just two possible equally leitimate answers to the questions we've always asked the kids and let them have full autonomy over: how much structure do you want for your learning, and how and where do you want to get it?


  1. The high school there sounds like the perfect model for our own school here in Faro. We have just 47 kids from k4 through to Grade 12.

  2. I wonder if your kids' educational paths/successes have influenced the direction the bricks and mortar school is taking?


  3. I doubt we've had a significant influence on the direction... the school tried something similar to this more than a decade ago, so they've been philosophically aligned with it for a while. (Interestingly it was pronounced a dismal failure at the time: the kids were thrown into it with little safety net and no preparation. This time, there's an attempt to create more scaffolding, and these kids have had experience with more electives and more self-directed learning that the first experimental group did.) I wouldn't be surprised, though, if knowing that parents of four of the current high school students (mine and two others) are experienced unschoolers has made them more confident about the plan getting a positive reception.


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