To break out of “systemic failure,” educators must rethink basic assumptions of what schools should look like, said Alisa Berger, a co-principal of the NYC iSchool, a new small high school that opened in New York City in 2008.
The school, which started with a class of 100, incorporates a heavy dose of technology into the classroom, but both Berger and her co-principal Mary Moss emphasized that technology be used as a tool to support teachers and students, rather than the focus of the curriculum. More importantly, technology helps the students and teachers at the iSchool engage in meaningful, interdisciplinary, real-world projects, said Berger and May at a session at the ISTE conference here in Denver.
For example, students at the school used tech tools to engage in conversations with students in London, Afghanistan, and Israel to talk about the September 11 terrorist attacks and their impact on world affairs, said Berger.
That project demonstrates the emphasis on interdisciplinary studies that both Moss and Berger said was a key element of the structuring of the new school. Each class students take fulfills credits in multiple content areas, rather than just one.
Another example Berger mentioned was having students design a green roof for their school. Using environmental science and engineering skills, students created several proposals that they then pitched to companies in order to secure funding for the project. After receiving feedback from the companies, students then came up with a final version.
To keep up with the demands of state standardized tests, students at the NYC iSchool take online classes, which allow them to move at their own pace, spending more time on the concepts they struggle with and allowing them to bypass areas where they are already proficient. That strategy has allowed many of the school’s students to pass state exams normally given in 11th and 12th grade, which teachers at the school hope will free up student schedules in their final two years to take classes that they are most interested in.
Finally, encouraging students to take ownership of their learning and reflect on what they’re interested in and what learning methods work best for them is a key element to the success of the school, said Moss and Berger. To help create a student-centered environment, each student is assigned an advisor, with whom the student meets at the end of each grading period to discuss his or her performance. In addition, students get new schedules every nine weeks, and they get to choose and rank which courses they’d most like to take. The school provides ample opportunities for feedback and reflection, which help inform students, teachers, and administrators as to what’s working and what’s not.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.