A Visit to Rivers and Revolutions

A couple of weeks ago, I had one of those moments where things you always kind of knew and believed were realized in real life. It was one of those moments where your whole perspective on what is actually possible changes; one of those turning points when something you’ve been looking for is tangible. I can think of all of the times I’ve had one of these change moments in my life.

  • Summer camp during my counselor in training summer #1- learning that my world wasn’t just about me, and that I had the power to impact and improve the experiences of others.
  • Day 1 of my first college education course- I’d always known what I didn’t want to do… this was almost more of a “duh” moment than an “ah ha!”
  • Project Based Learning professional development in my third year teaching- Talk about meaningful experiences in the classroom
  • Attempting to leverage my first Learning Management System- there’s free tools that can make your teaching life better. Free. Tools.
  • Sitting at MassCUE and listening to a discussion on gaming philosophy and gamifying a classroom- this just made so much sense as I continued to be stymied by the handful of kids checking out of my class
  • Friday November 6, 2015- visit to Rivers and Revolutions…

I don’t have any physiological data to support the claim I am about to make, but in each of these instances, I believe the chemistry of my brain changed. The connections between synapses functioned differently after one of these moments. I realize and understand things and can create from this new environment like I never could before.

Rivers and Revolutions:

On Friday, I visited Concord-Carlisle High School’s Rivers and Revolutions program. The program was created by Michael Goodwin -Doris Kearns Goodwin’s son… cue history buff fan girl geek out.

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It seeks to flip traditional education on its end. Or maybe, it seeks to return to the philosophy of education before the systematic approach was developed. The program is based around skills- based synthesis. It is fundamentally interdisciplinary and based on student inquiry.

The students, Juniors and Seniors in an academically driven upper middle class school district, spend a semester only taking this single course with about 50 students total. There are 5 teachers involved in the program- English, science, math, social studies, art- but they don’t behave like regular teachers. The correct word for them could be coach, or counselor, or maybe facilitator if we want to use some jargon.

My visit consisted of sitting with, and joining in on the day’s lesson. A group of students were in charge that day, as is one of the requirements of their grade for the course, and they were leading the entire group in a full day of lessons as a part of their unit on air. The day’s lesson focused on bubbles, and students were examining bubbles across disciplines. They’d created an art project during their examination of the scientific properties of bubbles, and today’s lesson began with a discussion on metaphorical bubbles and the concept of a social bubble. The lead students facilitated a discussion that began with independent writing, and then built into a 45 minute class- wide talk on the merits of social bubbles, their role in society, and how the perception of bubbles can impact social interactions.

We played in these, all a part of the metaphor!

We ended the day playing in these… all a part of the metaphor!

I have never seen such animated, fully engaged students. Over the span of the discussion, which was cut off for time constraints though I am quite clear students could’ve continued for hours on the topic, I’d venture to guess 90% of students participated. The class is inclusive, so this 90% included students of ranging abilities and backgrounds. When a comment was offered, the class wasn’t silent, but instead was heard to have hums of agreement and support. The conversation winded around, relating to current local events, students’ lives, the make up of their community in the class, the country at large, quotes from recent literature they’ve read, and much more. Teachers sat with students at group tables and offered thoughts among the crowd. They did not steer the conversation. The lead students asked prompting questions and directed the conversation when needed, probing for more from their peers.

It.

Was.

Beautiful.

I glanced around the classroom and noticed a quote on the wall. It was a Samuel Beckett quote and it read, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

The student I was sitting near noticed me scrawl it down in the notebook they’d gifted us, the only book they used in the course which was essentially a nicely bound sketchpad for thoughts, ideas, drawings, or anything else students wished to capture. She said, “I love that quote too… you know, my group taught yesterday and it didn’t go as well as today’s lesson is going. But, we’d planned, and we kept at it, and instead of it being a total flop, we focused on improving the process and examining where we’d gone wrong. Thats what the emphasis of this group is, and its what Goodwin tells us. The goal isn’t the end product, its the process, so it is ok that yesterday didn’t go great, because we will get better anyway.”

What! That was a junior in high school, folks, articulating the meaning and merit of learning. We preach that we want to create life-long learners and a love of learning and this kid just explained her process and offered it to me with such eloquence and simplicity. She wasn’t worried or anxious, she was confident in her learning, and safe in her adventure. Holy crap, guys! This is what it is all about!

Next, we sat down with Goodwin… as the students affectionately called him. He explained the bumpy road they’d all traveled to get to this point in the program. He had created the concept during his time earning is M.Ed at Harvard, and planned to open his own school to make it a reality. When he pitched the idea to his principal, his principal asked him not to leave, but instead to stay and implement the program within CCHS’s model: a school within a school. More on this remarkable principal later…

Goodwin explained that at first, these high powered kids were fearful about this program that could be perceived as a gap in their studies. But, after a pilot program during the summer months proved hugely successful, a group of brave students, and teachers, jumped in for a full semester. He remarked that there was a special beauty in that group taking that risk together.

We spoke to alumni of the program who recalled their first days staying in a single classroom with a group of students that weren’t in their usual clique. One senior girl remarked that she was actually glad she didn’t join the program with friends, because it really forced her to put everything into the program. “You can’t hide, you’re with each other all day long doing interesting but difficult things. You can only be fake or quiet for so long before you just have to be a part of it,” she explained. It reminded me of camp- the community building, the focus on developing a child as a whole person.

Another student said, “Day 1 Goodwin drills into us that we are all brave to try this hard thing, and that each of us has something wonderful to give to the group- it help bind us together since we were all from such different parts of the school.” With this mentality, students in APs were successfully working with and learning from their peers in lower level classes, in the SPED partnership programs, who’ve had truancy issues, or mental health struggles. Rivers applied to everyone. My school community struggles with a classism that at times is so overt it shocking. Students in the upper level courses not only do not want to associate with students in lower levels, but they vehemently believe those students will a. take from their learning opportunities by being present and b. lack any positive offering to the community. This sentiment is just assumed, obviously, and so therefore the groups draw lines and parents support those sentiments in their line drawing as well. The Rivers program saw that truly fall away. Imagine the change that could bring to your school community.

Wellesley High School has instituted a similar program called Evolutions, and this image is used to describe their mentality around interdisciplinary teaching.

Wellesley High School has instituted a similar program called Evolutions, and this image is used to describe their mentality around interdisciplinary teaching.

Back to the principal for a moment- Mr. Badalament. When posed with this arguably crazy idea, he didn’t shy away. He explained how he processed the merits of the program. First, he considered the curriculum expectations of his high school and came to these conclusions:

1. a majority of his students building wide passed MCAS by grade 10.

2. A majority of his students, if they wanted to take an SAT II, took SAT II prep courses because of inherent gaps in the school curriculum

3. the school had a growing attendance problem and a growing emotional health problem that needed focused attention, that he believed this program could solve (*Spoiler alert… to a large extent it has*)

4. he believed in interdisciplinary teaching and project-based learning

5. he believed that a majority of his student body would attend 4 year colleges no matter what based on their socioeconomic status

Essentially, in our time with him, he explained that the curriculum maps and stress of content in the junior and senior years were self imposed by teachers, and clearly were a disservice to SOME students.

This concept shifted my entire perspective on the purpose of the work we do. Likewise, I felt empowered to have control over the development of quality education in a tangible way.

My school currently seeks ways to implement this model in our own high school. We’ve had a summer pilot run with success, but alas budget, as it so often does, has posed limitations. Hopefully, given the clear value of this type of program, we can find a way. Until then, I’ll keep working to grow my mind and develop my philosophy… and “fail better”.

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