Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Secret Behind the Met Center in Rhode Island

Text Box: The Met Center’s web site lists the following items:  a student-teacher ratio of 15:1,  high standards, and  strong family engagement.   Its hallmarks include  internships,  individual learning plans,  advisory, and  a breakthrough college transition program.

Hmm. It sounds like any other school. “High Standards” for most of us means “We use expensive textbooks and expect our students to do onerous homework.” At the Met, the standards are for rigorous work in the student’s area of passion.

“Advisory” for most schools might mean “we have a guidance department” and “we help students find possible careers.” In the Met, the advisory is the class and the classroom. The advisory appears to be the heart of the program. The advisory system links one adult to 15 students and that adult (the “advisor,” but most of us would call that adult the “teacher”) builds a three- or four-year relationship with the student. There are other teachers, but one advisor guides the student through a mix of subjects. The students look at issues in the advisory, focusing on quantitative reasoning (math), empirical evidence (the scientific process) and communication (language arts).

Confused? I was when I first heard of this school’s system. I thought, “How can one teacher teach all subjects?” That’s the wrong question. We should be asking, “In my school, how can a student get a sense of direction when he or she has to deal with at least 5 different teachers each year, 20 teachers through high school? Where is the common thread binding all of these subjects in the student?”

That’s the secret behind the Met. One adult cares about (focuses on) one student at a time. I know at least one school district that claims to teach “one student at a time.” The Met Center actually practices this.

Five pillars of Big Picture Schools

(as interpreted by a math teacher who visited The Met in Providence, RI, part of the Big Picture schools association)

1 Multi-year relationships -- The teacher stays with the same students for three or four years. The teacher teaches more than one subject. In the case of the Met, a high school in Providence, RI, the teacher stays with the students for all four years of high school.

2 The teacher is a facilitator. Teacher = Advisor = “how can I help you?” The teacher coaches the student to choose activities to cover skill areas (language skills, quantitative reasoning, etc.) rather than special subjects, like trigonometry, algebra or chemistry. One of the teacher’s prime activities is finding suitable mentors for the students.

3 Tests are by exhibition. A “stand up” demonstration of understanding is valued above a written test. The students take the state’s standardized tests and other written tests, but the school focuses on the exhibition, which is the product of at least nine weeks of work.

4 Learning through interests – the internships (set up with the teacher) are selected by the student. Academic learning is filtered through the student’s interests.

5 “I’m more than a letter in the alphabet.” Evaluations are made by narratives, not by a letter grade. The teacher can afford time to write two pages of narrative about each student during the grading period because the teacher has only 15 to 20 students to meet with over a nine-week period. (I observed an “advisor” who met with students throughout the class day, asking for updates on on-going projects. This sort of focus can come from a narrow focus of one adult on a small group of students.)

Text Box: The Met’s learning goals fall into five categories: personal qualities, communication, and empirical, quantitative, and social reasoning.  Empirical reasoning, the school explains, means to “think like a scientist: to use empirical evidence and a logical process to make decisions and evaluate hypotheses.”   Communication goals include: “to understand your audience; to write, read, speak, and listen well; to use technology and artistic expression to communicate; and to be exposed to another language.”  From the Met Center’s portfolio web site /met/metintro.pdf

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