In addition to the Academic block, we also have a singular method for validating student individuality and interests through Student-Directed Learning. There are no “after-school” programs in our design. We want to send the message to our students that what they are interested in matters, and if our goal is to make the world work, they will need to learn much more than the standard curriculum. In other words, there aren’t “school” topics and “other” topics; it is all about learning. We have five categories of activities students can be involved in during Student-Directed Learning time.
- Wellness. As a society, we are doing a terrible job at teaching our kids how to be well physically, emotionally, or mentally. Part of that is not having “time” to teach these things—something which our model has already resolved. The other part is honoring student interests. If a student hates to run, running the mile for a grade is counter-productive. However, with guidance, each student can find healthy interests that will count toward their personal wellness goals. Allowing students choice in this area will mean they are more committed and more willing to consciously work on wellness than they would be otherwise.
- Academic Pursuits. Some students love to learn, some need help learning, some want to get college credit while in high school, some want to get certified in PHP, some are motivated by badges. Setting aside time specifically for individual academic pursuits gives students the opportunity to pursue learning they care about.
- Personal Project. Whether you call it Genius Hour, 20% Time, or Personal Passion Project, we see these independent projects as a powerful opportunity to not only validate what students care about, but to put them in contact with experts in the fields they care about. Working with a school mentor, students set goals, plan each step, and determine what success looks like. Mentors push them further, ask questions, and set high standards. These projects are always celebrated and displayed for public appreciation.
- Foreign Language. We firmly believe that sending students out into the global society we live in today without a usable knowledge of a foreign language is a tragedy. Students must learn a foreign language. The problem has been that foreign language instruction have been bound by whatever teachers in the school could speak. Technology has moved so far past that, it is time to let students learn whatever language drives them to want to learn. Be it a more traditional language like Spanish or German, or a more obscure language like Samoan or Navajo, if a student is motivated and wants to learn, we do everything possible to make that happen. Foreign language teachers become experts in teaching kids how to learn languages, not just one language. We connect students with language experts, using technology if necessary. Community members and colleges/universities become resources for speaking practice. We include in this the opportunity to learn a coding language as they have many of the same characteristics as more traditionally defined foreign languages.
- Contribution. There is little more that students can do to create friendships, understanding, empathy, and self-worth than to make meaningful contributions to the world around them. Whether it is reading to elementary school children, tutoring a peer that is struggling, or making hats and scarves to send to another country, service keeps students grounded and aware of the struggles of others. Actively doing something that makes the world work not only gets us closer to our vision, but gives students a taste of what is possible. If giving back is really that powerful and important, it makes sense as part of the school day.
We believe there are certain aspects of education and living that students must be involved in, but we can let them do it on their terms in many cases. If a student is passionate about skateboarding, we encourage them to learn more about it for their Genius-Hour project. If a student wants to use a zombie-themed running app to help them become a better runner, that becomes part of their Wellness time. If a student wants to learn Swahili because it sounds cool, we utilize the immense resources of technology to fill their Foreign Language time. If a student loves history, they can use their Academic Pursuit time to work on the requirements for a digital badge. If a student is really good at math, they can use their Contribution time to tutor other students who struggle. As you can see from this small example, the possibilities are almost endless if we are truly willing to honor our students’ needs and interests. This is not a free-for-all; there is accountability and standards attached to any learning experience. But, Student-Directed Learning time forces us to choose what we can control (the environment and structure of learning) over what we cannot control (what, when, and how students want to learn).