Visit to schools in Sacramento and San Jose

Friday, another city in California.  This time state capital Sacramento! I was visiting the Big Picture Met school there.  This is a school with about 60% free school meals its also a relatively small school.  Director Vince Wolfe and his team are an incredibly caring group of educators.  As i’m sat in his office, a former student came in to show her published work in a catering magazine.  She had been a baker in her internship and was working in the catering industry.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Sacramento Met, meeting Vince was inspirational and I also got to sit in on some student presentations.  Vince gave me a lot of his time and was passionate about education, his school and knows all of his students incredibly well.

So alongside asking Vince a lot of questions, I sat in on a couple of presentations.  Students were presenting their learning in personal exhibitions and ‘gateway’ presentations. Seeing the presentations were really powerful and taught me a lot holistically about the school.  They also helped me to structure my own investigation further about the school.

Many of Big Picture schools approaches are powerful and can be taken back to the UK. Particularly the integrated nature of its pastoral approach. Its a genuine student centred culture that works.  On one level I could be reflecting on the role of the form tutor in the UK.  However, this role should be revolutionised reflecting on the advisory at Big Picture, where the advisor knows the student very very well.  So, one presentation from a student called Gabe I will write about here.  Gabe is in an advisory (where he is taught English and reflects on other social aspects of his learning) with his advisor Phillip.  Phillip is not only deeply caring for his advisees and challenges their presentations with profound questions, he is also hilarious.  The relationship with Phillip and his advisees is incredibly strong.

Gabe’s presentation was focused on his learning generally  through his advisory.  His mother was in attendance and the advisory class were also present.  Phillip and a panel of 6 advisees assessed the presentation and gave him some feedback (using a rubric) after the presentation. Following that, Phillip discussed privately with Gabe and his mother on his progress.  Gabe had to present on his progress in several different areas listed below.  These tasks will be done quarterly.

  • Internship (where he spends 2 days a week) explaining how he has grown and including an artefact to demonstrate how the job works.
  • 25 page autobiography, a clever way for students to reflect that is built up over the 4 quarters.  Google docs professional font style/size/spacing etc.
  • Two book reflections (5 pages long each)
  • A cultural event reflection
  • Community service of 40 hours
  • Health and wellbeing – PE
  • His academic performance in his 3 subjects plus English
  • STP project (not sure what it means)

Gabe is an 11th grade student (year 12).  His presentation is one hour long.  I wonder about the efficacy of these forms of tasks with A level students to support their transition to university or work. I know they have an extended project qualification in the UK, but this could be way more powerful if designed carefully.

Gabe begins by talking about his internship, he has been working at a dog daycare.  He has been successful and enjoys the internship and now is employed there part time.  He has been given increased amounts of responsibility throughout the internship, this is an actual job rather than ‘work experience’ that often happens in the UK.  Phillip asks questions about wider life skills i.e. is he saving his wages and other important details of finance.  He also asks Gabe to clarify what he means about working independently and collaboratively and if the two are contradictions.  He moves onto his STP (?) where he is fundraising for to maintain the dogs in his care.  He is applying Math to this project through market research for example.  Later he may present on this project and I think assessed against Big Pictures 5 learning goals.  Probably useful for the UK context for developing the whole child beyond academics.

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Gabe is setting clear goals himself, such as anything less than $500 fundraising would be a failure.  His cultural event was to visit a local church choir performance organised through his advisor.  This is a great idea, particularly for students from backgrounds with less cultural currency.  One student I talked to went to a Bernie Sanders rally with a group of other students. Not knowing much about politics before his visit he had at least some understanding of the electoral process afterwards.

Gabe had also read 2 books, one of which was ‘Of Mice and Men’ and was able to have a discussion around the characters with Phillip who had also read the book.  Students are accountable because they have to turn in reports and present in order to graduate. The autobiography task was another great takeaway for me when Gabe presented an significant event from a poor relationship with his primary school teacher.  This really is educating the whole child.  These are also tasks that could be easily integrated back home.  The stronger relationships between student and advisor need some more thought due to the amount of time they spend with each other at BP.  How many times at a parents evening i’ve spoken to parents and not really knowing their child other than some data on a spreadsheet!

Talking to Vince about some of these activities, he highlighted the importance of authentic writing.  An autobiography is authentic as are the hundreds of emails for example students write to and within places of work, thereby learning to write professionally.  They write resumes and letters to their internships and so on.  This is why the quality of written work I saw was so high.

Finally, Gabe presented his grades (all B’s) and why he is there using his digital portfolio. They are using Schoology to allow students and teachers to record and monitor progress.  This is linked into their google docs.

On Thursday I also visited Bulldog Tech in San Jose.  This was a short visit.  It was good to see students in large open learning spaces and working on projects.  7th grade (year 8) students were working on a large project in the sunshine outside building Wendy houses for children of veterans.  Maybe this was not a good day to fully understand how the school functions.

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