Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Independent Project

For the past three weeks or so, I have been thinking and talking about ways to introduce change to our high school without completely disrupting the existing schedule and routine there. Something that would plant seeds of possibility without having to institute system-wide change.

I heard about The Independent Project about a year ago when an article in the New York Times came out. "Kids Rule the School," it said. Well, that's it, my whole philosophy in four words. Sounded good to me.

When we were confronted with a group of teachers who wanted to start a charter in our district, I started looking for ways that the district itself could make innovative change that would affect a similar number of students. As I've said in previous posts, change that takes place outside the walls of the district buildings is change wasted, as far as its influence on the mother ship goes. I wanted the whole school to observe and be affected by the project.

It also seemed to me that a project that invests itself in the idea that kids are in charge would, naturally, involve fewer adults, less of the establishment that is busy keeping up with the demands of the traditional model.

And it would cost less. Bang for the buck, that's what I'm looking for.

The Independent Project was a group of eight high school students who were given total control over what they wanted to do and learn for the period of one school semester. Part of their time they would spend collaborating, part would be spent on independent study, followed by sharing what they learned with the other members of the group. Adult involvement was as facilitator rather than teacher.

A good deal of time was spent on understanding and establishing a system of group process. As adults we talk a lot about how important collaboration is in the outside world, but the opportunities to actually learn and practice it in schools are thin on the ground. For the Independent Project, it would be the foundation of their work.

My proposal to my Board is to establish an Independent Project at our high school or middle school (I actually think it'd be just as valuable to middle school kids). Here is the summary I gave my Board earlier this week: 

The Independent Project at Mt. View
I propose that Mt. View launch our own version of The Independent Project, based on the original, with alterations according to the needs of our system (and possibly a name-change as well!)

All students will be encouraged to apply, regardless of student record, for this school-within-a-school project. There will be openings for approximately 30 students. Applications will be required, but every student who applies will be admitted, either in the Fall or during the next session (I suggest a cutoff date). The purpose of the application is to help the student through the process of deciding if the project is for them.

A student leadership team might be established in advance to create an application process, determine how the groups of students will be divided and perform other required administrative tasks. The teacher/facilitator could work with this group.

These students will be divided into 3 groups of ten or thereabouts. Students decide what they want to learn, how they go about learning it, and how to show the results of their work. The groups will be entirely autonomous; the students are in charge, and the teacher/facilitator follows their lead and helps where needed.

They will work both independently, and collaboratively. Students will be in charge not only of what they work on, but how they work together; learning group dynamics will be an important part of the Project.

Brookline, Mass. has a democratic "School-Within-a-School" that has a mandatory "town meeting" once a week as a forum for discussion and debate. SWS has an Agenda Committee consisting of six students and a staff member. The Agenda Committee facilitates the Town Meeting. I would recommend our project have a similar structure.

We will hire a facilitator to perform the following functions.

  •  Facilitates establishment of group norms, structure and dynamics;
  • Facilitate connecting students with the learning opportunities they need, i.e. ideal teachers, out-of-school resources, etc.;
  • Keep in touch with every individual student on his/her learning progress;
  • Keep track of what standards each student achieves while participating in the Project;
  • Act as liaison with the regular school.

The Facilitator will NOT spend the majority of his/her time with the Groups; the job is to coordinate and facilitate; the students are in charge of everything else.

The Facilitator will produce a report at the end of the semester, with input from the students on the success of the first semester of the Project.

I can think of many challenges, not the least of which being that our high school still counts credits toward graduation, so what happens when these kids re-enter the school community with deficits in areas that are required for graduation? Then would receive credits for work done as part of the Project, but they might not be in areas that are needed.

We're just going to have to be creative. Issues like that are challenges, not obstacles. We're adults. We'll think of something.

It's a start. A minimum investment in something that can change kids' lives, even the life of a school.  Thirty kids, trusted to create something for themselves.  It's not going to be a universal success. All high school kids are accustomed to certain expectations, and there might be a bit of a shock when the tables are turned and they are expected to establish their own goals. It's a process.

But think of the conversations that will come from it! Think of the change in the dialog about education, when we have these kids to look to, kids who are changing the game. Think of theory turning to reality! Chaos is not a bad thing, says a friend of mine. From chaos comes change. I don't think The Independent Project at Mt. View will result in chaos, but it will be a disruption. It's worth the risk for the possibility that our hearts and minds will be turned a little bit toward the true potential of school.


  1. How schools interpret Maine Learning Results varies greatly. Part of the commitment needed by the school is to allow a differnt kind of assessment than its usual fare -- one that decides what a teen knows, not what he doesn't know. Some teens might prove this through multi-media projects, some might apprentice themselves to someone locally, or a particularly creative student might prove ability to communicate in writing by scripting a play or writing a ballad of a particular period in history. Some kids might prove their knowledge by studing for a CLEP or the Auplacer rather than produce extensive written work. Documentation is part of the, uh, joy...and the creativity, because it encompasses knowledge of cross-curricular connections, the real life part.

    Perhaps the trickiest part is to properly train mentors who understand this part.

    Because we have a Homeschool Access Law here in Maine, there might be some interest in connecting that peice, too -- and some of the unschoolers would be familliar with logging and documentation.

    Also important would be acceptance of what Maine requires for credits and subjects in order to graduate instead of what the school might require that is different or more strict.

    It's certainly a different kind of happy.

    Good luck.

    Lorri C.

  2. Thanks, Lorri...your comments on assessment are really interesting. We're hoping to move to a standards-based assessment system very soon, so we're undergoing the culture change that will allow for students to be able to demonstrate what they know in the way that appeals to them.

    I agree about mentors/facilitators for this group -- they need to understand how not to be in charge. Also, grad. requirements will be an important issue to sort out.

    Thanks for commenting!