Big Picture Schools, an outsiders point of view

Even though I was welcomed and enjoyed my time at the inner-city Big Picture model High School I am going to talk about, I was still an outsider because I was a long term substitute, so my time there was finite.

My opinion is purely my own, I have my Certificate of Eligibility with Advance Standing (CEAS) in Social Studies which means I am highly qualified to teach Social Studies, but my teaching experience at the time of this writing is limited to Student Teaching (3 months) and 2 long term assignments, each for 3 months.

The Big Picture Learning design is a dynamic approach to learning, doing, and thinking that has been changing the lives of students, educators, and entire communities since 1995. All of components of the design are based on three foundational principles: first, that learning must be based on the interests and goals of each student; second, that a student’s curriculum must be relevant to people and places that exist in the real world; and finally, that a student’s abilities must be authentically measured by the quality of her or his work.

The Dirt; well it’s not all dirt.

Big Picture schools have small class sizes.  You get to know your students and their individual strengths and needs and you can spend time with each student building on their strengths and helping them overcome their weaknesses.  I have seen marked changes in some students I have worked with and I am proud to say I had a hand in helping them improve.  I will admit though, that the amount of students I saw improvement in is not as many as I would like to see.  Most of the students just didn’t have the motivation to do the assignment or project expected of them and as an inexperienced teacher, I suppose I lacked the ability to motivate them.

Project Based Learning: (learning must be based on the interests and goals of each student) encourages students to pick topics/subjects they are interested in and learn about them.  I had students who can talk about certain diseases, drugs, conspiracy theories and aliens at length.  It’s great to hear a student talk about something other than video games or the latest you tube sensation.  However, as a Social Studies teacher, I feel they are missing content.  I realize it’s not important to know why Thomas Jackson was called Stonewall Jackson or even that Stonewall Jackson is a completely different person than President Andrew Jackson, I don’t expect students to become History experts.  I do expect that they know the difference between the Civil War and World War II as well as what century slavery ended and what century the United States became its own country.  I want our future leaders to be able to analyze and debate by thinking critically.  Unfortunately, I don’t see enough that happening, projects seem to be glorified book reports in the form of long power points.  I don’t know what the solution is, since students are supposed to pick topics that interest them-and rarely is a student voluntarily going to pick a Historical topic to do a project on.

Curriculum: (a student’s curriculum must be relevant to people and places that exist in the real world) All students need to know why what they are learning is relevant to them or they won’t see the point in learning it.  My biggest reservation in the curriculum is there is no NJ Core Content Standards Curriculum associated with Big Picture curriculum.  The three months I was there I was told I could teach whatever I wanted!  Every other high school in the state has a curriculum that a teacher must teach by the end of the school year, it does not appear to be the case at a Big Picture school.  Which, part of the difficulty in teaching content is the amount of time student are actually *in* school.

Internships:  A great thing about Big Picture schools is they try to prepare students for the working world by getting students into businesses  to see what it will be like.  I had something similar in high school, we called it co-op, short for cooperative education, but it worked differently (more effectively in my opinion).  Students are expected to cold call businesses they are interested in going to and asking if they can interview an employee, if they get their foot in the door, they are expected to ask if they can follow the employee around for a day (called a shadow day), if they are permitted to do a shadow day they are then expected to ask if they can do an internship at the business for the school year.  That’s a lot for a 15-16 year old to take on!  If they do achieve an internship somewhere, they will be at the internship 2 school days a week, during the school day.  Those that don’t get internships spend the school day trying to find one, that’s a long day for the students and teachers!  While this is a great experience for the students who achieve internships, I feel they spend too much time out of school.  Big Picture students only get 3 days of English and 3 days of Social Studies and I believe 4 days of Math and Science, but it could be 5 days.  If my opinion mattered, I would suggest the students have academics 5 days a week and if they want to do an internship, they can forfeit their electives and do an internship instead.  My reason would be because these students are missing the content and skills they will need in college; or in the work force for that matter.  Most students I worked with at this school do not know how to write a professional email…

Assessment: (a student’s abilities must be authentically measured by the quality of her or his work) Big Picture schools have an end of marking period presentation they call “Exhibitions” as a culmination of their performance that period.  I simply love it!  Students have to stand in front of classmates, their parents and their teachers and talk about how they did that marking period.  They have to show their work, demonstrate something they learned, explain something they improved on and something they still need to work on.  Once they have completed their presentation, their classmates can ask them questions and hold them accountable for not doing their work (if that is that case).   While I haven’t seen a poor exhibition result in better performance the following marking period, I do see the value in having a students own up to doing or not doing their work in a public setting, it at the very least makes them reflect on their performance instead of seeing a report card and wondering why they got the grade they did.

Overall, I feel blessed to have experienced the Big Picture model and by working out some bugs, I see a real future in this type of school.  Unlike the other schools in the city, this school has a very high graduation rate and I think that is because there is a real sense of community in the school.  Students ask teachers they don’t have for help with projects and those teachers are happy to help, upper class men help students with assignments that are more challenging, the Principal knows every student by name and seems to know each well, and parents come in every marking period to see their child’s exhibition and offer feedback.  If I was offered a job as this school, I would take it with open arms because the good at this school outweighs the bad.  Where ever I end up teaching, I will be using some of the practices I learned at this school.

I’ll leave on a positive note: During a parent-teacher conference today after the student’s exhibition, her father said to me ” Some people are led to and some people are pulled to do something.  You were led to this.  You have made an impact on my daughter and the other students.”  He added that he was sorry I was leaving.  I am sorry too, but at least I know that my best was good enough, at least in his eyes.

If you are still here, thanks so much!!  Leave a comment please so I know you were here.

Jaime

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About Jewelry by Jaime

Social Studies teacher Jewelry Designer Jeep Enthusiast
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2 Responses to Big Picture Schools, an outsiders point of view

  1. lmdunne says:

    Nice post, Jaime! It sounds like you left an impact on your students and also learned about your own teaching style. Sounds like this was a great teaching experience. Good luck as you seek out the next one!

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