Lessons Learned: How a Progressive New School Adapts to Realities

| August 17, 2012 | 3 Comments
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Brightworks

When we envision a well-rounded, progressive education for our kids, we think of a vibrant environment that nurtures students’ passions, provides structure for rich and deep learning, a place where kids can get their hands on projects that are meaningful to them.

That’s the goal at Brightworks, a small, K-12 private school just starting its second year in San Francisco: to re-imagine traditional modes of education so that curiosity and creativity hold sway over standardized tests and worksheets. But in the course of creating this space for students’ interests, the school has also had to refine some of its original ideas to make room for realities like assessments and how to group students.

Brightworks first opened last fall, billed as a progressive school that allows kids to follow their own passions. It’s organized very differently from traditional schools. Teachers are known as “collaborators” and the curriculum is centered on “the Brightworks arc,” which divides learning into three phases – exploration, expression, and exposition – based on a central theme. The students explore a theme, design projects around that theme, then present their work to the community. The idea is that these projects – such as building a wooden stage for a play they’ve written or using aerial silks to demonstrate kinetic energy – provide the context for learning core academic skills.

As with every experiment, the first year has provided plenty of opportunities for refining, according to founder and co-director Gever Tulley.

“It’s been a great year. We’ve had great moments and we’ve had hiccup-y moments,” Tulley said.

Or as one parent, Amanda Moore, puts it, “It’s been everything we expected and nothing we expected.”

CREATING A STRUCTURE

While the school still follows the basic “arc” structure it started with, Tulley says there have been a lot of refinements. One major change has been how students are grouped. The year started with kids of all ages — six to 12 — working together on everything. But that proved problematic. What’s easily graspable to a 12-year-old might be far over the head of a six-year-old, and what might be new and interesting to a six-year-old could bore a 12-year-old. Now, students are grouped into age-based cohorts, or “bands,” so that age-appropriate work could move along more smoothly.

What happens during the day is more or less fluid at Brightworks — in fact, a typical day is hard to describe, as the school values spontaneity and student-directed work. Overall the typical structure involves a few key parts: 1) Morning Circle, when the entire school gets together to check in and make announcements; 2) “band” meetings, or small-group reflections where students check in with one another and the teacher about where they’re at in a certain project arc and what they plan to do that day; 3) Exploration or Expression phase activities, often involving a field trip or a visit from a professional in some field; and 4) Closing Circle time when the entire school gathers again to reflect and part ways.

The Brightworks Arc

Tulley admits that the collaborators still struggle with the most appropriate way to integrate core academics into project work. “You don’t want to compromise the quality of the project phase by cramming a math exercise into it,” he says, but there are still plenty of teachable moments (building wooden structures involves math, for example) and collaborators are trying to build their knowledge base and comfort zones around those.

MEANINGFUL ASSESSMENT

“We’re still in a lot of discussions about meaningful ways to assess children without the harm of grading and testing,” Tulley says, adding that many students at traditional schools have optimized the ability to cram for a test, then to purge the information post-test. “I think that’s something that we’ll develop over time.”

Student assessment at Brightworks takes the holistic approach. At the end of last year, teachers pored over student work, progress, accomplishments, behavior, and everything else that contributed to a student’s experience and put together a two- to three-page narrative assessment sent home to parents. These assessments were specifically tailored to each student, but were based on a template that Brightworks staff put together based on “all of the things we want our students to eventually be,” says Director Ellen Hathaway — including qualifications in academic areas.

Assessments are specifically tailored to each student, based on a template that staff put together based on “all of the things we want our students to eventually be.”

The assessments covered three areas: students’ project-based learning, social and emotional learning, and skills acquisition and quantitative learning, according to Program Coordinator Justine Macauley. “Rather than assessing the students’ work product, we looked at their work and development during the process of their project,” asking questions like, Are they a supporter of other students’ projects or do they spearhead their own? Do they listen to others? Do they self-advocate? What subject areas do they gravitate to? and How adept is the student at organizing him/herself, their projects, their process?

This coming school year, staff will be looking at the same three areas broadly, but with more specific focus on certain areas depending on the projects and the arc topic, Macauley said.

Another change is the frequency in assessments: They’ll happen three times a year, instead of just once, which Hathaway says will be more effective and far easier for teachers to manage.

A YEAR IN REVIEW

Many parents and collaborators are excited to be part of the growing Brightworks community and are surprised by the positive effects the school has had on its students. Others are skeptical about both the model and its execution. Does this open-ended, student-driven approach mean that kids aren’t learning core academic skills? Is there too much time for free play? Are there adequate assessments in place so that learning can be measured?

One of the critics, who commented on the previous article on Brightworks, responded to a few questions via e-mail on the condition of anonymity. Despite an appreciation for the school’s mission, the commenter — who claims to be familiar with the inner-workings of the school — finds that the departure from traditional curriculum at Brightworks forgoes academic rigor, daily structure, and basic classroom management. “Children need schedules to feel their environment is a safe and predictable place,” the commenter said, adding that there may be “students as old as 10 who don’t know how to do multiplication or how to use a dictionary. “There are basic skills we need as adults to succeed in our culture, like critical thinking, analyzing, evaluating and synthesizing information.”

These are common concerns when teachers and parents investigate a model like Brightworks. Is it okay to let a child learn to read and to do basic math later than what’s typically done in traditional schools? Do students exercise critical thinking and analysis at Brightworks, or does the lack of structure inhibit learning?

For Amanda Moore, a teacher whose daughter is six and attends Brightworks, the results are evident in what she sees everyday. “The real feature of my day is that I show up at 3:30 and she does not want to leave. She feels empowered by her education. She understands that she’s responsible for things,” Moore says.

Brightworks

Students work on projects throughout the school day.

Adds Tulley, “Each child has his or her personal narrative through the school. That seems to be working really well. They each have an individualized experience. It feels like they have a story to tell; it feels personal.”

That’s also important for parent Angela Wall, whose nine-year-old will attend Brightworks this fall. During the past few years while her daughter has attended traditional schools, Wall says she would see her “flourish during vacations in developing her curiosity and seemingly become frustrated” during the school year. “I want her to be set up with a lifelong love of learning,” Wall says. “And I’m not convinced that the education she’s currently involved with is doing that. I see it squashing some of her passions, slowly.”

Wall says she arrived at Brightworks as a huge skeptic, grilling the collaborators and founders about academic skills, assessment, and even college admissions without standardized tests (although apparently, Brightworks has been talking with Stanford University about providing different admissions requirements for students who’ve been schooled in alternative ways). And she left feeling “very very inspired and ignited intellectually,” finding that Brightworks prioritizes collaboration between students and the ability to tackle a problem, embrace failure, and try again above all else – key skills in a collaborative age.

NOT FOR EVERY CHILD

Still, this school is not for every child, nor every parent, and part of Brightworks’ struggle is to accurately assess a kind of educational model that doesn’t have much precedent. “What we’re trying to develop is something difficult to test: the habits and abilities of a lifelong learner, someone who seeks challenge and enjoys looking at topics that they haven’t encountered before,” Tulley says.

Though for some parents, this kind of experimentation is worrisome, for parents like Amanda Moore, it’s ideal. “My six-year-old is learning how to draw a bird,” she says. “She’s learning math by measuring a wing span. I’m less worried about her being able to meet a reading benchmark. The question is, can she meet a challenge?”

Above all, says Tulley, Brightworks’ commitment to grow and evolve in conversation with its parents and community will be the key to its success. This coming year will involve more vetting and relationship-building with some of the professionals and experts they’ve brought in to collaborate with educators, for instance. They’ll also bring in a fresh crop of educators to accommodate a few more students and develop a more focused, pre-planned Brightworks arc.

“It may all fail,” says parent Angela Wall, who has committed to trying Brightworks for a year. “But I also want my daughter to know that people fail – and that when you go through failures, you figure out how to move on.” Sure, she says, “I’m taking a leap of faith with this school. But I’m willing to take that leap.”

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