BY ATHENA FOSLER-BRAZIL
With the commencement of the 2018-19 school year, Carmel Valley High School is beginning the process of shifting both their philosophy and curriculum from the model they have used for over 20 years to a new education model known as Big Picture Learning.
According to CVHS principal Tom Parry, this model of education is used in a number of small high schools across the country and is focused mostly on student-driven learning and assignments, the main goal being to foster a passion in each individual and allow that momentum to carry through the rest of the student’s education.
“Students get to pick what projects they want to do,” Parry says. “As a teacher or advisor, it’s our job to figure out what standards or competencies they must integrate into those projects in order to get grades.”
The implementation of the Big Picture Learning program is still in its beginning phases, and though the staff of CVHS anticipates some challenges, they remain optimistic.
The model allows students to study what they find interesting, Parry says, but they must also be able to tie their research and learning into subjects mandated by the state of California so they can receive grades in each subject category. For example, a student interested in nursing might start a project about the history of the profession, how it impacts society and how they can make steps in pursuing that career.
“We have all the same requirements, but how it looks in their day is different,” the principal explains.
The CVHS school day now begins with advisory, where each student meets with an advisor before having “exploratory time,” where students compile a personal to-do list of goals for the day. Their advisor then looks over the list and decides what standards the student needs to exhibit within the goals they have set for themselves.
Math is the only mandatory class for students, and they can choose from a variety of online math classes based on what they are interested in. CVHS students still must take standardized tests, though the way their projects are assessed is not test-based.
“Our assessment isn’t through testing,” math and science teacher Jeff Schatz says. “There’s an exhibition where you present your learning to a group.”
The exhibition process is designed so students can clearly articulate and present their research and retain the information after the project is over.
Another key piece of the Big Picture Learning program is getting students involved in the community through internships. The students will decide on a future career they may be interested in and then identify opportunities in the community where they can get experience in the field.
“A lot of students don’t yet realize that their interests can lead to employment,” English teacher Brenda Buran says.
A current student interested in pursuing mechanics is searching for an internship in the field where he will figure out if he enjoys the profession and gain job experience.
Once students have found an internship opportunity, they will spend Tuesdays and Thursdays off campus at their internship, and their advisors will come check in to make sure everything is going well. Once this model has been in place for a few years, CVHS hopes to have a bank of internship resources in the community that they can help students access.
A challenge that all students face in high school is staying motivated to complete work, and without a structured rubric or grading system the CVHS faculty has to find other ways to motivate students.
“It’s a little bit easier to motivate the kids because the subjects are what they’re choosing,” Parry says, “That’s huge.”
The 19 students currently enrolled at CVHS also realize that they must meet certain requirements in order to participate in their internship as well as graduate, and the close relationships that form in such a small school environment provide support for students to remain motivated and on-task.
Buran says, “It’s a much more specialized and deep level of learning.”