Oregon High School (OHS) serves 458 students in the rural town of Oregon, IL. Due to local industry loss in the 2008 recession, enrollment has dropped by 20% over the last five years, while the low-income population has risen to 47%. Operating at a deficit, the district has endured three straight years of cuts to faculty and staff, and “non-essential” elective offerings are vanishing through attrition.
Even so, both the faculty and administration at OHS have a strong, progressive attitude towards the school, demonstrated best by the OHS vision statement, adopted by faculty in 2010: “to be the premier small school in the state of Illinois.” It is true that vision statements often talk in vague generalities, “success for all students,” or “increasing opportunities,” and it may seem like this is perhaps the most general of all. However, its intent was a call to action – the small faculty of only 28 has two Illinois State Teacher of the Year Finalists, has more National Board Certified teachers than the rest of the county high schools combined, and, most importantly, has an administrative chain-of-command publicly and explicitly inviting experimentation and risk-taking in developing creative approaches to 21st century curriculum. In short, with an inventive faculty and administrative green lights, the faculty consciously decided not to wait for the “next big thing,” but instead to create it. It is from this context that the OHS Open Program – the program seeking entry into the Coalition of Essential Schools – was created.
Within weeks of the vision statement mentioned in the above response, a volunteer committee of administrators and interdisciplinary teachers had formed the Adaptive Leadership Team, tasked with imagining solutions to the problem of traditional education and answering the most essential question of our school: What will 21st century education look like?
Rather than look out at current trends in non-traditional learning, we looked inward – what was our vision for our students? Would we still want to be teaching them the same way our parents were taught 50 years ago? How, exactly, do we make responsible, productive citizens in the 21st century using a 19th century model?
After a year of seeing big ideas crash into the walls of state graduation requirements and the OHS master schedule, the Adaptive Leadership Team put out the Open Program as a non-traditional learning option custom-made for Oregon High School.
At its essence, the Open Program is a year-long experience that seeks to empower sophomore students to take control over their own learning – its content and its pacing – in a supportive, collaborative environment that values community service. However, we realized quickly that to ask students to become independent, we needed to teach “independence” the same way we taught other skills: by introducing it and scaffolding students to mastery level.
Open Program students travel as a cohort through three classes: English, Algebra II, and an elective class called Open Lab. This class is designed to explicitly teach the four tenets of the program: independence, creative problem solving, collaboration, and cross-curricular knowledge. Here, students run simulations and experiments, reflect on classroom culture, and develop vocabulary like “metacognition” and “growth mindset.”
The final component of 1st and 2nd quarter is the planning of a student-designed, student-implemented, community-minded project that will form their second semester curriculum. Students are encouraged to follow their passions here, but the projects must, in some way, be of a benefit to the larger community. Some examples from the past two years include student-led camps for elementary school students, the creation of a Talent Extravaganza at the high school, an awareness campaign for mitochondrial disease, a how-to book for teenage blacksmiths, and the programming of an online stoichiometry calculator for student chemists.
In second semester, the Open Program reaches full implementation. Students no longer move between three classes. Instead, they populate a new “learning space” with personal tables and organizational cabinets for a three-period block of time. The teachers rotate in, one each hour, facilitating student progress, and then return to their traditional sections. During this time, Open Program students enjoy the freedoms that they have trained for in first semester:
• Freedom of movement – independent students move between computer areas, “collaboration stations” for group work, and silent reading couches.
• Freedom of content – grades are standards-based, so students can choose to read any grade-level texts or write about any topic they choose.
• Freedom of pacing – students can choose to work three hours on math one day, and not do any math the next day. End goals are clearly defined, and poster-sized timelines displayed by student workstations keep students aware of their weekly progress in their writing portfolio, math standards, and project completion
Like any constructivist concept, the Open Program has its own unique challenges. Central among these is the balance between structure and freedom, both for teachers and learners in the Open Program.
Recently, during a “Town Hall” meeting (a bi-weekly session for students to reflect and share ideas as a community), a student confessed to feeling guilty about asking teachers for help. In short, her point was this: “if the Open Program holds independence as a core value, I should be able to do everything myself. When I can’t, I’m not independent and I feel like I’m failing the Open philosophy.” After other students confirmed feeling this way, it allowed a discussion about the wider view of independence, one which includes self-awareness, self-evaluation, and self-advocacy – knowing how to seek resources is, paradoxically, what helps make us independent. Underneath this, though, I realize that creating individual balance points – between “teacher-guidance” and “student-construction,” between “freedom” and “parameters,” and between “recovering from setbacks” and “becoming desperate with anxiety” – will be an ongoing dilemma for the Open Program.
When it began, the Open Program was the brain-child of innovative teachers looking to create something “brand new.” The planning, evaluation, content, and context of the program were imagined without the slightest consultation of theory or pre-fabricated units. Yet, upon analysis, the Open Program has not created anything brand new at all – instead, it is simply another example of a constructivist culture of learners and teachers, one that joins hundreds of other incarnations as part of the Coalition of Essential Schools. In a way, though, that is the beauty of constructivism. More than the other curricular cultures, it has an amorphous quality – it can be shaped and molded to fit a lesson, a unit, or in the case of the Open Program, a year-long experiment; its curricular philosophy can exist in a military academy or a Summerhill, for it encourages instant and fluid adaptability, even if it means deconstructing an already constructivist classroom to begin again with a sudden new vision. In this way, it seems, there is a certain Zen to teaching using the CES Vision: the more that teachers insist upon strictly following its rules, the less effective its result – but the less a practitioner tries to “get it right,” the more and more right it can become.
At this time, none.