This is the third in a four-part series about Avalon School, a model charter school in St. Paul. (Click here to read the introductory post and here to read about student projects.) During my visit, the nontraditional schedule stood out as one aspect that was instrumental in making everything work.
At Avalon School, one-on-one meetings with students are an integral part of every day. Not surprising to most teachers, giving that extra attention and guidance results in students doing amazing things. The problem is finding the time to have these meetings. Avalon’s solution is in their schedule.
When I was teaching, one of the things I was always trying to incorporate into my classes was one-on-one meeting time with students. This was never easy to do, even though I felt there were lots of benefits to having them (from assessing reading levels to simply checking in on kids to see how they are doing because adolescence is hard). The routine of being a classroom teacher made it difficult, but I had lots of other excuses too – one class had 23 students and another had 39! Meeting with each student individually would take twice as long in one class and then my pacing would be all off!
An Avalon teacher’s schedule
The main difference in the teachers’ day from a traditional model is far less large group instruction time and lots of one-on-one meetings with students. Teachers are scheduled to teach seminars during some periods and the rest are slated as independent project time. During the independent project time, students work quietly while the teacher sits or stands at a desk and students appear at their scheduled time for one-on-one meetings.
I soon realized these meetings are the essential way teachers at Avalon do their jobs. It’s the way they keep tabs on all of their students and all of the different independent projects the teachers advise on. Some students, who might need a little more support, have a standing meeting every week. Other students schedule their meetings as needed. Sometimes students need to schedule meetings with multiple teachers or even multiple teachers at the same time. In grades 9-11, for each project, students need at least two teachers to approve the proposal and sign off when it’s finished: the advisor and one other teacher. The other teacher is usually determined by the type of project and the content area for which many of the standards are aligned. Seniors need at least two teachers plus one community member for “The Senior Project”. Luckily not every meeting needs all participants present.
At each meeting, the student shows their progress and the teacher supports, mentors and evaluates the work to make sure the student is staying on track. It’s a team effort. During this time, the other students are working on their projects. More flexibility is given to older students as some leave campus to conduct interviews, meet with mentors, or go to other learning areas within the building to access the information or materials they need.
An Avalon student’s schedule
A few students showed me their schedules. They all had advisory blocked out for a short period in the morning. After that, most had large blocks of time scheduled as independent project time with one or two seminar periods. Some students had more seminars, but for many, the students were responsible for getting their work done within the project time which meant all but one or two periods plus a short advisory in the morning.
Break down walls
Tim Quealy, a high school teacher, said the projects also allow Avalon to break down the walls between the school and the world. “There are students who went out and lobbied for issues that were important to them, like the environment or LGBT rights. We can have students do internships. Lots do PSEO [Postsecondary Enrollment Options – a program that allows 10-12th grade students to earn college credit]. We have partnerships with area non-profits. Because the senior project requires a member of the community be part of the project, students get to meet and work with experts in the field.”
One advantage Tim pointed out that Avalon is just lucky to have is its location. “We are near lots of non-profits, and close to the train and ten colleges or universities.” The location and proximity to transit makes working with experts in the community feasible. Students can either schedule time to go out to meet with community experts or the experts can visit Avalon. Individual students can customize their schedule to whatever they and their parents are comfortable doing.
Because Avalon is primarily projects-based, teachers realize it is difficult to meet all standards through projects, especially when students are designing their own projects. Ali, a sophomore, explained it to me. Because she likes history and art, she said it is really easy for her to come up with independent projects related to those areas but it’s difficult for her to come up with projects about math. Instead, she can take seminars – or more traditional content area classes – to earn those credits.
The other thing about seminars is they tend to sound like elective classes – but because they weave together specific standards, students can earn credit and display proficiency on core subject standards, too. For example, to tackle a majority of language arts standards for a course this term, teachers offered students a Shakespeare seminar and a film studies seminar. Math and science seminars tended to be a little bit more traditional sounding (ex., Physics), but incorporate a lot of small group work and lab work.
Tim said with both projects and seminars, “we are asking kids to manage their time, set priorities and advocate for themselves.”
Avalon School is unique in another way – there aren’t any administrators. Check back for the final part in this series – what it means to be a teacher-powered school.