Self-directed learning gains popularity
Students at the Methow Valley School District’s Independent Learning Center (ILC) completed their first week of school on Friday, launching the school year with energy and a sense of purpose.
The ILC, a high school option affiliated with the Big Picture Learning model, is the educational home of 30 students who are engaged in self-directed learning.
ILC principal Sara Mounsey said, “I’ve never been with a group of teens who are this enthusiastic about school.” Mounsey attributes the extra gusto to the coronavirus pandemic.
“They’ve all had this collective experience that they have been navigating in the past six months, mostly alone,” she said. “It has enabled growth and brought forth this amazing flexibility, as well as a sense of gratitude for all they have.”
Now that the students are navigating the continued uncertainty about the pandemic together, Mounsey said, “their level of enthusiasm for opportunities provided by the school and the community has grown.”
Some of the opportunities Mounsey refers to include a construction class, a welding class and an automotive tech program, offered by teacher Trent Whatley, as well as a series of agricultural science-based field trips to Red Shed, a local “feeding garden” that provides free food for people who couldn’t otherwise afford fresh produce.
Some ILC students are busy remodeling the school’s second building on the TwispWorks campus — an expansion called the Treehouse, which will complement the school’s existing building, the Bunkhouse. When the Treehouse is complete, it will house the automotive technology classes.
The expansion is timely, said Mounsey. “Originally we weren’t sure quite how we’d be using the new space,” she said of the remodel that was in the works before COVID hit last March. “But now it’s clear that we couldn’t be opening the school with 30 students without the extra space, due to social distancing requirements.”
The Big Picture
Not only does the new space provide the ILC with the opportunity to serve more students, but it also empowers students to think about how to best use the space, Mounsey said. “It allows us to take student-centered design a step further,” Mounsey said.
Student-led learning is a core component of ILC philosophy, Mounsey said. In 2015, the ILC adopted the Big Picture Learning model, which emphasizes three basic principles: learning must be based on each student’s interests and needs; the curriculum must be relevant so students can do real work in the real world; and students’ growth and abilities must be measured by the quality of their work and how it changes them.
The Big Picture Learning framework has allowed the ILC to evolve and change school culture, Mounsey said. “We believe that students are more excited about and engaged in their own education if they are the principle agents,” she said. “As our understanding of the potential of the Big Picture Learning model and our ability to deliver it grow, we are able to implement it with great fidelity.”
One of the school’s offerings that Mounsey highlights in particular as instrumental in student engagement is the internship experience, directed by Internship Coordinator Kelleigh McMillan, which prioritizes a “leave to learn” philosophy, with students leaving the school to learn from local businesses, nonprofits and community members. “The students participate in interviews and job shadows,” Mounsey said, “and then the internships grow from there. The internships allow students to learn about what they might want to do professionally, and also — equally importantly — what they might not want to do.”
Because of the student-centered design inherent in the Big Picture Learning model, Mounsey said, “more students are accessing the ILC as a choice. There are more kids advocating for a style of educational programming that meets their needs in a different way. The ILC is an option that fits for them.”
The ILC follows the same coronavirus protocol as the two other school district buildings, Mounsey said, including operating with Monday/Tuesday and Thursday/Friday cohorts. While three of the 30 ILC students in grades 9-12 are fully remote, the other 27 meet in person for two days each week, swapping in-person learning days with remote learning days.
“The kids are committed to doing their part to keep us open,” Mounsey said. “They’re realizing that their personal choices impact others in a far greater way than ever before. They’re asking themselves, ‘How do we want to show up for each other? How do we want to show up for our own education?’”
Mounsey said the students are also very aware of public perception of their campus, which is not tucked away on an isolated piece of property like the other school district buildings but is instead located on the bustling TwispWorks campus. Mounsey said, “The students are asking themselves and each other, ‘How do we want to represent ourselves in the greater community?’”
“It’s a pretty powerful takeaway [from the pandemic],” Mounsey continued. “The students realize how critical personal responsibility is.”
Downtown Twisp residents and businesses may notice changes in ILC students’ behavior: chiefly, the closed campus. Students are not free this year to venture downtown for lunch or scavenger hunts as they were in the past; they’re confined to the campus during the school day — yet another reason that the second building is proving invaluable.
Originally, ILC staff thought they might need to close the communal kitchen in the Bunkhouse, Mounsey said, because they couldn’t ensure that utensils were sanitized in a way that was consistent with the district’s COVID protocol. “But the students took ownership of health and safety protocol,” Mounsey said, “and determined that they could bring their own silverware and wash it individually. I’m so impressed with how seriously they’re taking this.”
Ultimately, Mounsey said, “It feels like these kids are saying ‘We want the community to trust us; we have a responsibility to do this right.’”
ILC students are headed to Outward Bound this week, Mounsey said, as they have for the past few years. The difference this year is that they have nearly 100% participation. “Each year participation creeps upward,” Mounsey said, “and this year the kids are uniquely enthusiastic to be back together, to spend time together and have shared experiences.”
The shared experiences at Outward Bound are bonding, putting students in positions to demonstrate leadership and teamwork, to step out of their comfort zones, to trust one another, and to experience something brand new to them. “The day at Outward Bound always builds community as well,” Mounsey said.
As a result of the pandemic and the school closures last spring, Mounsey said, students are aware of the value of opportunities like Outward Bound, and how quickly those opportunities can evaporate. “They want to take advantage of them while they can,” she said.
In fact, Mounsey noted, “Students are nervous that school is going to shut down again.”
“None of us really knows,” Mounsey hastened to explain, “but we all feel really optimistic right now. Everyone is taking the reopening of school for in-person learning very seriously. The students all know that they play a role in how long that will be possible.”
Although some of the ILC’s programs and operating procedures are different than that of the other two MVSD campuses, one thing is a constant: the relief of students and staff to be back at school. Of the ILC’s reopening, Mounsey said, “It has been cathartic for students and teachers alike.”