School Spotlight: Avalon is project-based

This is the second in a four-part series about Avalon School, a model charter school in St. Paul. (Click here to read the introductory post.) During my visit, I had the opportunity to ask some students about their projects. They were clearly motivated to do the work and passionate about the projects they put together. 

Nissa, a 9th grader, told me about a band she was researching. She became animated as she told me how she wanted to learn about the band members’ lives to see what inspired them and then analyze the lyrics of their songs. Ali, a sophomore who loves both history and art, combined those two interests to learn about her own family’s migration to the United States. She showed me maps of the world where she had drawn her family’s migratory route from their hom

 

 

 

 

 

e countries. Different colors represented different years and people on their journey to today. She had additional maps showing her exploration of her Native American roots and her research to learn to bead a belt which she had already started creating.  Ali was so fascinated with her family’s migratory route and the things she had already learned she was considering expanding her project and presenting it at the end of the year.  

The biggest benefit of the project-based approach, said Avalon teacher Tim Quealy, is “it starts with the student in mind.” The projects allow for “high student engagement, interest and the material is tailored to individual student needs and pace.” Tim, who has been at Avalon for 10 years, said the reason he stays is because of the projects. “The kids are engaged. They are passionate about their projects. Doing this would be impossible in a traditional model.” 

Starts with the student 

A lot of responsibility for learning is put on the student at Avalon. Students are responsible for making sure they show proficiency on all the standards required for graduating. They have help from their advisors, but create their own paths through projects and seminars. Seminars are more traditional classes, where a teacher leads the learning and the standards taught are pre-determined and posted for students to review as they create their schedules. When students are planning their independent projects, part of the process involves identifying the standards they will cover as they write their proposals. Teacher advisors need to approve each proposal, which includes reviewing the standards to make sure they fit the scope of the project. Teachers also act as schedulers and counselors during this process, recommending standards to include or suggesting seminars that are available to cover the standards the student will not be able to address in their project.  

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This massive poster hangs in the school cafeteria as a constant reminder of Avalon’s project-based focus.

For grades 9-12, the independent projects are what impressed me the most. Students come up with topics they are interested in learning more about. They design a project that allows them to explore the topic of their choice while demonstrating proficiency on the standards they’ve identified. It is up to the student to take the first crack at putting these two pieces (topic and standards) together. The teachers are there each step of the way, but the students have ownership over their learning and a deeper, more personal understanding of the purpose of standards and education than most of their peers in other schools. 

At Avalon, student learning is not separated into content areas. Instead, each student has their own unique interdisciplinary experience. Nissa, who was researching a band, for example, is blending music standards with research, writing, and analysis standards from language arts. Ali’s project on her family history includes history and geography standards blending with art, nonfiction reading comprehension, research, and writing standards. If she chooses to expand her project, she would have the opportunity to pull in additional standards as well.  

Preparing students for independent learning  

To have students be as independent as they need to be in the high school, much of the preparation happens in Avalon’s middle school. Middle schoolers still have projects, but they follow a schedule with their classmates. Each middle school student completes four projects each year and presents one at the end of each term. This allows teachers to teach the project process. By the time students are in high school, they’re ready to be much more independent. 

A little more structure in the middle school doesn’t mean there’s less enthusiasm for projects. Anna Wesley, who teaches middle school language arts, said her favorite thing about the projects is “seeing kids excited about learning. I’ll have a class of 11 year-olds rushing me to show what they found about their topic because it’s something they are passionate about.” She also said in middle school they are already good at reflecting on their learning. “They know their strengths, their areas of growth a lot more than most adults. They also learn to self-advocate and communicate with adults. They know we are on the same team, working together” and it has a positive impact on their interpersonal skills. 

Coming up 

Projects on this scale are only possible with a different kind of daily schedule. Check back for part three in this series – about Avalon’s daily schedule. 

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