By Marcy Stamper
“They don’t have to talk about manipulating multi-variable equations in algebra — that might not be that exciting to them,” said Kim Odell, an instructor at the Independent Learning Center (ILC) in Twisp, where students have just finished presentations about their first semester.
Indeed, when asked about their presentations, students talked about mixing music tracks, using horses in therapy, and the TV show “My Little Pony,” rather than what they have been learning in math or history.
These are what the school calls “joy projects,” an opportunity for students to build on a personal passion and explore its wider cultural significance or origins.
“Some joy projects are so deep and meaningful that’s all they talk about,” said Odell. “They can present their semester in any way.”
Jesse Tissell, who has been creating music for his own films since he was 9, is working on instrumental music tracks for singers for his project. Tissell, a sophomore, has been composing and mixing music to suit the sound bands and singers want.
Tissell wrote his first movie script with a cousin and filmed it in his backyard. He still makes and sells films, most with a Western theme. “They’re all kind of goofy, what I’ve done so far. The one coming out next month has a redneck superhero,” he said.
Tissell has also used his filmmaking skills to help his classmate Jesse Schulz with his joy project. Schulz built his project around his enthusiasm for the animated TV show “My Little Pony” and has been interviewing people about their conceptions of masculinity in American culture and documenting them on film.
While “My Little Pony” is primarily geared toward an audience of young girls, it has attracted a significant following from boys and men who appreciate its theme of friendship and relationships. “It basically taught us how to open up ourselves,” said Schulz’ classmate Tim Baker, another fan of the show.
Baker, a junior, is doing his own project on muay Thai shaolin, a Southeast Asian martial arts form he has practiced for 14 years. In his first presentation, he explained the history of shaolin and how it has inspired different cultures. He plans to demonstrate shaolin as part of his second-semester exhibition.
Although she grew up with horses and has known people with disabilities, Janie McMillan had never encountered the field of equine therapy, which became her joy project. As part of her research, McMillan will be volunteering at Methow Valley Riding Unlimited in the spring, where kids with special social and behavioral needs participate in the Let ’Em Ride program.
Focus on meaning
The exhibitions of learning, in which students explain their short- and long-term goals to classmates, teachers and community members and reflect on how well they met the goals, are required each semester. But students don’t have to cover everything they are learning; instead, they can focus on something with particular meaning for them, said Odell.
Still, students can’t just watch television or write a report about a favorite musician for their projects. To help students develop their projects, Odell and her fellow teacher at the ILC, Sara Mounsey, had students pose 35 questions about their topic so they can understand its broader implications. This helps them go from the basics — for example, writing about the characters in the show or defining equine therapy — to what the school calls “distinguished” questions.
Some students reach a more sophisticated level of inquiry on their own. Schulz, the “My Little Pony” fan, came up with the idea of looking at the societal implications of attitudes about gender by talking with his classmates, said Odell.
Each student must present a project proposal, explain how he or she will go about researching the subject, and create a product, such as a research paper, website or documentary. One student is so excited about computers that he used his presentation to teach his classmates and even administered a mini-quiz on computers.
“We want them to get away from a basic understanding to a more proficient understanding. Not just ‘who, what, when, where?’ but ‘why do we care?’” said Odell.
Doing her presentation was a bit nerve-wracking, said Kayla Reece, who is working on a website about photographic techniques and black-and-white nature photography, which is also part of her senior project. “It was a responsibility to stand up in front of the school,” said Reece.
Shaylon McBride is also combining her joy and senior projects, investigating how people’s conception of body image affects their emotional well-being. The project, including interviews and a study of popular culture, fits into her interest in becoming a counselor for people coping with chemical dependency, she said.
Sharmé Johnson became interested in coffee after a summer job as a barista, but her project has taken the subject much deeper. Johnson is looking at fair-trade coffee certification and whether the program returns more money to the growers. “Not very much goes back — just about 10 cents a pound,” said Johnson.
The ILC borrows the joy projects, internships and competency-based assessments from the Big Picture Learning model. In addition to taking inspiration from Big Picture, the ILC uses approaches drawn from alternative education, such as linking learning to the real world and adapting subjects to individual students’ needs, said Odell.
In the Big Picture model, all students must study the core subjects — English, history, math and science — do an internship, and do one or more joy projects. Even the approach to the core subjects at the ILC is different — students are graded on their competency and evidence of a deeper understanding of the subject, not just on homework, said Odell.
Schools can formally become part of the Big Picture organization but, for now, the ILC is only working with a consultant from the program, said Odell. Even if they do join the network, there is no official licensing process. Instead, it involves coaching, conferences, books and materials, said Jeff Petty, the consultant and founder and director of the Puget Sound Consortium for School Innovation, an initiative of Big Picture Learning.
The ILC student body is still small enough that the teachers can tailor subjects to individual students as needed, even though the school has attracted so many students that it is maxed out, both in terms of classroom space and staffing. In addition to the 20 students enrolled at the ILC, Odell and Mounsey work with eight Liberty Bell students on independent study projects. Odell and Mounsey each work only four days a week.
“A lot of kids have never been asked about their passions — they just take classes and answer questions,” said Odell. This approach lets them take an active role in their education, she said. “The kids are passionate and want to keep coming to school.”