The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 62 Transcript
Jennifer Gonzalez, host
GONZALEZ: I feel like we’ve reached a point where most teachers embrace the idea of student-directed learning, the philosophy of being the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage. We can also appreciate the value of cross-curricular studies, blending math and science, for example, or integrating arts and music into history class. So why are so many teachers still basically using the old model, where we plan and deliver the lessons, in separate subjects, in lock step, using the same traditional schedule as always?
Two reasons, I think: One, because it works, more or less. We move students through the system, they learn some stuff, pass tests, and graduate with an acceptable repertoire of knowledge and skills. Acceptable. Enough to function, to continue on to college and survive, more or less.
Except that lately, more and more voices are telling us that this repertoire of knowledge and skills isn’t quite cutting it. They aren’t quite as adept at problem-solving and collaboration and inquiry as they need to be for the 21st century.
The other reason we stick to the traditional framework is the one I believe is more powerful: It’s because we don’t know how to change. We have no template for what school could look like if we restructured it to reflect priorities like cross-curricular connections, student self-efficacy, and inquiry-based learning.
Well, I have a template for you today: The Apollo School is a program that operates inside a regular public school, Central York High School in York, Pennsylvania, which just happens to be right down the street from where I did my student teaching in 1993. Apollo is a block of three classes–English, social studies, and art–all blended together and co-taught by three teachers: one from each subject area. Students arrive in the morning and set their own goals for the day based on whatever project they happen to be working on at the time. Projects are developed cooperatively by the student and his or her teachers, and each project is aligned with standards in all three subject areas. Students schedule one-on-one time with teachers as needed, and teachers teach mini lessons that students can sign up for; these lessons are not mandatory, however. Students only sign up for them if they fit with the goals of their current project or if they have a high interest in the subject. At the end of the Apollo block, students then resume a regular schedule for the rest of the school day.
While you listen, think about how you might be able to apply this structure within your school. Maybe not this exact model, but something like it. Could you combine two class periods into one and join forces with another teacher? Could you offer formally delivered lessons as an option, but also allow students to work independently if their current project demands it? Could you make these shifts toward being more of a true guide on the side?
Before we get into the interview, I’m going to tell you where to find Apollo online in case you want to explore the program while listening: It’s theapolloschool.weebly.com. There you’ll find a description of the program, get links to student projects, and learn a little more about the teachers.
Two things before we get started: First, I’d like to thank Kiddom for sponsoring this episode. Kiddom is a free platform that helps you personalize learning for every student. A lot of teachers love the idea of ‘personalized learning,’ but without the right tools, it’s still just a buzzword. With Kiddom, teachers gain access to an unlimited library of standards-aligned content, coupled with beautiful, actionable reports to see exactly which standards need more work and which students need more help. To learn more, visit cultofpedagogy.com/kiddom.
I also want to thank you for the reviews you’ve left for this podcast on iTunes. Reviews really help raise the visibility of a podcast, which brings more listeners in and gets these ideas into more classrooms. If you think more teachers need to be listening to this podcast, head over to iTunes, search for the Cult of Pedagogy podcast, click on Ratings and Reviews, click Leave a Review, then tell me what you think! Thanks so much.
Now here’s my interview with Wes Ward, Jim Grandi, and Greg Wimmer, the facilitators at the Apollo School. I should explain that we’re coming in a few minutes into the interview: I hit “record” a few minutes too late. What you’ll hear first is Wes Ward, Apollo’s English teacher, describing their first failed attempt at starting the program.
WARD: It was called Modern American Perspectives, and we were planning on incorporating a little bit of literature and then some history to balance that out and to teach the class in a double period or a double block, keeping those same kids for two blocks in a row. And during that time they would have both an English teacher and a social studies teacher floating around. The principal gave the go ahead. We included it in the course selection guide, and then like five or six students showed interest in it, so it never ran.
In the meantime, Jim Grandi, who teaches down the hall from us and who I had worked with previously at a different school district, jumped in the mix and said, “Well, what if you offer the same kind of course but included art as well? Maybe it could draw more of an interest from the artistic kids at the school.” We’d always been open to working interdisciplinary anyway. It didn’t matter how far we expanded out or how tight we made it.
So with that, we went back to the drawing board and drew up a course description and asked our principal if we could do three blocks, not just two, and incorporate all three classes. And we didn’t think he’d say yes, but he did. And we spoke at an assembly toward the end of the year after the courses were already picked for the next year, the master schedule was already built, and we had this emergency meeting for the rising 11th and 12 graders the following fall. We said, “Hey, this is a course that we’re trying to offer. We need some kids to sign up for it.” And we had about 70 students who showed interest, which after that summer when they logistically figured out the scheduling and some of those students who were interested became not as interested, they dropped off the radar, and then we were left with about 40 our first year, and that’s how it all began.
GONZALEZ: OK. And tell me a little bit about what made you kind of … I guess get restless with what you were already doing before and make you really want to try things this way?
WARD: This is Wes again, I know from my perspective in English class, every time I would teach a piece of literature, I would find myself talking about history, and I thought, how convenient would this be and really beneficial to the students if they would have a history buff in the form of a social studies teacher here to bounce ideas off of and to really challenge and push the kids to dig up more context of the poetry or the stories or even the articles we were reading. I know Greg felt the same way as far as history went as well, and I knew he’d be open-minded to cross over subject areas and just have both of us there at the same time, and then when Jim showed interest in joining forces, it was a no-brainer.
The Concept of Mass Customized Learning
GONZALEZ: When I was looking through some of your stuff, and this might have just been some emails that we had exchanged at some point, you were talking about this term I had never heard of called mass customized learning, and that one of you anyway had read a book called Inevitable. This may have come from Greg, I don’t remember exactly. So could somebody talk a little bit about that concept of mass customized learning?
WARD: Inevitable was a book Chuck Schwahn and Bea McGarvey wrote a few years ago, and it was basically about knocking down the walls of a typical classroom almost literally, so that we can get rid of this siloed idea of school where you go into one silo on the farm, and then when the bell rings, you go into the next silo, and then the bell rings, and you move onto the next one. To carry out that metaphor a bit further, why can’t we just co-exist on the same farm together and learn and share among each other without having to segment ourselves up from the rest of the population? And so I wouldn’t say their book really changed our mindset, but it kind of affirmed what we were already thinking that we wanted to do as we grew bored and tired of an educational system that’s over 100 years old that was designed for a purpose back then, but that purpose isn’t necessarily the only purpose now.
WARD: And so it became kind of like our motivator to push this as far as we could. And luckily our superintendent was a big proponent of the book, and he actually had his administrators read that book before we saw it, and then the summer before we ran the pilot program of the course, we actually went to a conference in western PA, Bedford, PA, where Bea McGarvey was a keynote speaker, and we got to meet her and talk to her about our ideas and what this Apollo program was going to look like. This was before it ever even began.
So the idea behind mass customized learning isn’t just project-based joining forces with other teachers in your building to do whatever you want. Mass customized learning means, to use another metaphor, like when you go to the doctor, if all four of us went to the doctor right now, and we each had different ailments, the doctor wouldn’t stand up and give all of us the same prescription, the same dosage, the same way at the same time. He would treat us differently, because we needed different things. And that’s kind of the idea behind mass customized learning is why do we still have teachers writing a single lesson plan and standing up in front of an entire class and giving all of the students the same information at the same time in the same way, when they all have different needs and different interests?
So, with that, we decided that our thread of customized learning or mass customized learning would be to give students more of a choice and more of a voice in what they were doing. But we also maintain traditional teaching here at our high school as well outside of the Apollo program. There’s teachers who prefer to teach in a traditional way, and there’s also students who prefer to learn in that traditional way as well. We have some courses that run in a hybrid format where they may meet with a teacher for a little bit but then be working independently or working in groups, and then they’re meeting back with the teacher again. We have online courses where students check-in once a week with their teacher, but the rest of the work is done online. So mass customized learning isn’t necessarily Apollo. Apollo is one spoke of that wheel.
GONZALEZ: Oh, I got it. So the whole school is actually running on mass customized learning, and you are one of the options.
WARD: Yeah. Our whole district has subscribed to that philosophy from Bea McGarvey and Chuck Schwahn’s book. We just happened to have this idea at the perfect time and place and got to go ahead to run with it, because the district was confident that it could fit into this bigger model.
GONZALEZ: Got it, got it. OK. That’s actually an interesting piece to this. Just so you know, right as Wes starting talking was when … I’m using this new software, and I realized I had never hit record, so I missed a little bit of that logistical stuff at the beginning, which is actually OK, because I can just sort of summarize it in my intro. But I think it would be a good idea for us to introduce you guys one more time. The person I was talking to was Wes Ward, and Wes, tell us one more time what you actually teach in this program.
WARD: I’m Wes Ward and I teach the English component of Apollo.
GONZALEZ: OK. And then we’ve got Greg Wimmer.
WIMMER: Hi, I’m Greg. I teach the social studies piece of the Apollo program.
GONZALEZ: OK. And then Jim Grandi.
GRANDI: Hello, I’m Jim, and I teach the art component of the Apollo program.
GONZALEZ: Fantastic, and I’ll summarize some of the other stuff that we talked about in my intro, so we don’t have to re-record that, sorry.
GONZALEZ: So you said that there are not any special qualifications for getting into this, that a student basically just signs up for it and that’s it.
GRANDI: There’s really no requirement. Obviously we like to speak with the kids before they sign up, just to give them an idea exactly what they’re getting into, because it is a commitment of sorts, and once you’re in it, it’s tough to get out of that in the thick of it. But we have students that have IEPs, 504 plans, we have gifted students, we also have students from all backgrounds–athletics, non-athletics, from AP kids to kids that have never even taken an honors level course let alone an AP course.
GRANDI: But what we’ve found is that all of those labels don’t necessarily subscribe to what you might think, how they would perform. Most of the time they’re all over the map, and what I mean by that is even we have some GIP kids, the gifted students, who struggle the most in our course, and it has nothing to do with intelligence, it just usually has to do with the fact that they traditionally are really good at being told what to do and executing that directive. And this is not like that. This is an opportunity for them to explore and research on their own, and they have to have a little bit of independence on that. And some kids really struggle for that. So we don’t really have a specific way to kind of target group kids to even find them, because there’s students that … we always have them. I’m like, “Wow, that kid just really surprised me,” for good or bad. We don’t have a specific way to target them just yet, so we can’t omit anybody.
GRANDI: You know what I mean?
GONZALEZ: Yep. Have you had trouble with space up to this point in terms of not having … like having to turn kids away, basically, because you’re at cap?
GRANDI: No. No, not at all. In fact, ideally I think we’d like to be somewhere around 45 to 50 tops, but it takes a lot of time to meet with each kid each day. So anything more than that would be a lot. I think that when you think of the traditional setting, and we all have colleagues that have students that might have 25 to 30, even sometimes 32 kids, in a class or students in a class, they don’t understand how three of us can share 40 kids for three periods. But in reality, the amount of one-on-one time that we provide these students and the time it takes for them to build their projects and then execute them, it just takes a lot. So we’re not really … we’re advertising to get students involved, but it’s not like we’re kind of putting a big net out to catch as many as possible. We want to catch the right students who the program’s right for, not necessarily quantity, it’s more quality.
GONZALEZ: Right, right. Do you all meet in one location for this whole morning program?
GRANDI: Yeah, we do. We meet in the morning, at 7:45. We usually meet in Greg’s room. And luckily, all three of our rooms are in one wing. There’s a lot of art classes around this, around their rooms as well, including myself, and then we have a student work area, which is kind of a center area where it’s really open. There’s some furniture in there where it promotes collaboration and/or isolated work, depending on what the student needs at the time. So space isn’t really an issue. We have one big kind of art room, which is more like a makerspace, for students who need that. We have … we usually use Greg’s room for more of kind of maybe small group meetings that are private, and Wes’ room is kind of near the end, and it’s usually used for more of a quiet space for students who might be really, really needing just total isolation to either read or something like that.
GONZALEZ: Right. OK. So let’s talk a little bit about what’s actually required of these students in this semester in terms of what do they have to get accomplished over the course of that semester?
WARD: Go ahead, Greg.
WIMMER: So when you break down Apollo, it actually turns out to be six grades in the gradebook for each of us. And I’ll talk specifically about the projects right now. Over the course of the semester, students build four independent projects, and those projects are connected to a set of themes that we developed. The 11th grade themes revolve around an American element, and the seniors, the 12th graders, revolve around what we call self in the modern world, kind of introspection before they graduate and leave something that they’ve been accustomed to now for 12 or 13 years.
And so those projects, the requirement within the projects, is that they include an element of art, English and social studies, and there’s a lot of liberty that comes with that. You know, if we’re talking about an American element, it can be anything from fashion in the 1920s to a culinary piece from the 1940s between Japan and America. And so the students can kind of run in whatever direction they want within some pretty loose bumpers. And so if you drill down each project then a little bit more, you’re going to see that the students are going to tie each of their projects into thinking skills. We use four thinking skills that guide their work: reasoning, perspective, contextualization and synthesis. And so they have to determine how they’re going to process the information within each of our areas. That sounds like a really big thing for a student to kind of sit back and analyze their thinking process, but that’s one of the hallmarks of Apollo is how can we get students to think about how they’re processing information along the way, and not just creating another product? Because I think in the past students associate projects with products, and it gets mixed up along the way.
And so the projects go from there and ask students to also infuse some soft skills. We had originally started off with eight soft skills that ranged in anything from empathy to leadership and time management. But we soon realized that the two soft skills that students really needed to work on was time management and communication. And so I’ll get into those, or someone will get into those in a little bit.
But the projects themselves were really a way for students to understand that each of our subject areas don’t work in an individual silo, that how we look at history can also include elements of design or literature or whatever they’re investigating, haiku or romanticism. So it’s really an opportunity for students to escape kind of that prescribed social studies path, English path and art path.
Students also, I’m going to … I’ll go into the projects just a little bit more, students are also then required to link each of their projects to state and national standards. It was discussion that we ended up having with students at the beginning of their projects that teachers have this kind of masked disguise of standards, and the lessons that we teach have to be connected to these standards, but Jim, Wes and I decided that we were going to give the standards over to them since you have 40 students running in 40 different directions. They were the ones that needed to self select the standards. And so it’s really genius to see them a week into their project realize that they’re hitting the wrong standards, and then they go back and are able to change them and make the standards work for them. I think Jim attests to this pretty well. It’s a really smart way to align the big “instruction development” with the assessment component of Apollo.
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A Sample Student Project
GONZALEZ: Let’s take a look at an example. I was going to have you walk me through a typical week, but I think let’s hold off on that first, so that we can dig into these, because I think it would help me understand better and probably the person listening to look at a typical project of a student’s and see where those thinking skills and soft skills get woven in, and how they link those to the standards. Can you think of something that students have done in the past that would be a good example?
WIMMER: You want to take this one, Wes?
WARD: Sure. We just had a student this past semester who came to us just for her senior year. She hadn’t taken Apollo as a junior. And she was right at the top of her class, straight-As, and she had basically mastered school, more of a science-minded student as well. So taking an art, English and social studies class combined was new to her, and something that she was a little apprehensive about, but she made herself do it, because she knew it was her last shot as a senior. So for one of her projects, and I think she would tell you it’s the one she’s most proud of, she calls herself a test tube baby, as she was. Yeah. She was born as a twin, she has a twin brother here at the school as well, and a test tube was used for fertilization purposes, and it’s something that’s always fascinated her about herself, but she’s never really had the curriculum available to explore that in her biology classes.
So she decided to select that as her topic and try to weave in art, English and social studies somehow. So the first thing she did was she researched the heck out of in vitro fertilization and test tube babies, and developed this digital mind map through probably a website that Greg steered her towards. And just every time you turned around, another button was clicked to open up a passageway to more information, and then you would click a link there, which opened up into more. And it was just an exhaustive display of research in the world of science and fertilization in general.
So she did that for Greg, and for art she decided to do a painting, except instead of using brushes, she actually used test tubes. So that was her utensil, and so she would dip that into the paint, and she painted an abstract piece using that. In the meantime, she had reached out into the community and had talked to a fertilization specialist, guys if there’s a better word for, or a title for that lady, let me know, but I believe that’s how she referred to her. But yeah, she went to a clinic in downtown New York and talked to them and weeks later, after the project had come to fruition and they found out about her painting, I think there’s been talks of her taking the painting there to hang up in their lobby.
WARD: It’s still on display here, so that hasn’t happened yet, but I know that’s part of her plan. She also did another art piece, which she didn’t have to do, but she’s a go-getter like that, and she did a 3D sculpture made out of copper that she cut and soldered together herself. And from this, it was a pyramid shape, with different tiers to it, and the tiers were supposed to reflect a different caste system, this was also part of an art and social studies and English part of the project as well, by the way, because she was reading, for me, Brave New World.
WARD: And from these different levels in this caste system of this three-dimensional pyramid, she hung test tubes, she suspended them with string, and she included different things inside of the test tubes, including like artifacts from her childhood. I know one thing she stuffed inside one of the test tubes was a part of a scarf, a piece of a scarf or a hat that her grandmother had stitched for her. Another one contained some vitamins that she has to take on a daily basis, because of health issues, possibly related to being a test tube baby. So a lot of different personal connections, but also real-world connections too.
And then for me she read the novel Brave New World over the course of a few weeks. She found an online study guide, 20 pages’ worth, printed that out, completed that on her own. And what we have the students do upon completing a project is they then come to us, and it’s kind of like defending a thesis of sorts. The three of us sit at a table and the students come in, as Emma did, and she presented her findings from Brave New World, and the study guide that she completed and both of her art pieces along with her digital mind map. And she defended it and explained it and connected it all and it was awesome.
How Apollo Meets Required Standards
GONZALEZ: So I’m listening to this, and my mind is going, first of all, it sounds like a pretty incredible project, and so personalized, which is really nice. The piece, I’m trying to think for my listeners now, and I’m thinking they’re wondering right now about the social studies piece of this and where the social studies standards came into play.
WIMMER: Well, speaking to that specific project, it would obviously come more under the guise of social sciences. But one of the great parts of Apollo is that we have time, and so that includes a lot of individualized time with students, pretty much a one-on-one discussion. And so I know that this student and I had sat down on numerous occasions to talk about bioethics and how can these decisions made on the behalf of all parties involved be justified in a test tube environment and beyond in a more medical sense as well. And so obviously that contributed to her work, and then it also then tied into her presentation in her mind map that she had created. I mean the mind map was beyond a level that I would ever expect just because it didn’t include just research. She did individualized family research and interviews, and she incorporated facts and information about fertilization that layered in with her family’s answers. And so it was a true synthesis and fusion of ideas with personal interpretation.
As a teacher in Apollo, I think one thing we’re all really good at is being able to look beyond just the typical hard standards that the state requires. And so it is being able to see not just this for that and that for this, it’s being able to allow students the opportunity to push beyond those and then if we truly do have a question about a standard, we’ll ask the student or have a conversation with the student about their justification. But, yeah. It’s about these liberties that we have and how we connect them is really up to the student.
GONZALEZ: Is there ever a point where you sort of … I mean, you’ve got an entire semester to cover a certain body of standards, so if one student’s single project doesn’t quite get to a certain section or maybe it leans more toward two of the three focus areas, and it’s a little light on one of them, would that come into play then in their next project that they would think, “OK. I’ve got to go a little heavier on, say, the art this time or on the social studies, because it was a little light in that area last time”?
WARD: You could. This is Wes now.
WARD: I don’t know if one of us already mentioned this, but at the start of every project, we have the students kind of designate which standards they’re going to work towards, either showing mastery of or just practicing to get better at. And so unlike most classrooms where, you know, the teacher is drawing up the lesson plans based on standards that are some invisible thing under lock and key that students don’t even know exist, we actually share PDF files of all three of our subject area standards to the students, so they have them all semester long, so they’re constantly aware of the expectations from each of us and what they’re supposed to be mastering. With that being said, we know it’s unrealistic to visit each standard in any class, in any subject equally throughout the year.
WARD: Somebody once did an inventory of Pennsylvania’s Department of Ed standards, K-12, and came up with a number like 23 years it would take an average student to devote an equal amount of time to, and we’re given 13.
WARD: So we basically need to double the time. So what we encourage the kids to do is not ignore certain standards but to take a look at the standards and look at the ones that challenge them the most, ones that they know they’ve either missed or just had never been exposed to before, whether they struggle with them or it’s just brand new and we encourage them to focus on those standards. And back to what your question asked, then yes, once you’ve shown us that you can include figurative language in a narrative piece or identify the main idea in a work of nonfiction, well how about we just put that to the side for the next project and try something else that challenges you a bit more?
GONZALEZ: Got it, got it. The reason I’m getting so nitty gritty about the standards is I’m trying to think about what the naysayers are going to be responding with in their heads. I’m thinking if I’m a social studies teacher, probably in particular with social studies, there’s a list of things that I need to tick off my box throughout the year to make sure I cover, cover, cover, cover, and so to try to shift that person’s thinking to even open up to a possibility of a program like this, there’s got to be some, I guess, reassurance that those things will still be addressed, it’s just that maybe not perfectly equally, but they will all be touched on and practiced and addressed. And the fact that you’re giving the students ownership of that, it’s really taking it to a completely different level, because they have a better understanding of why they’re doing things, and they’ve got more accountability with themselves.
WARD: Another thing that’s probably important to mention, Jenn, is that when the students arrive on a daily basis, and we have that family meeting in the morning, that’s the time where we advertise what mini lessons we’re teaching that day. So it’s entirely possible that Greg would be teaching a lesson about this particular conflict or this issue in current events or even something from the 19th century. So there are still traditional-looking lessons, but they’re optional. It’s kind of like going to an education conference and having that smorgasbord of possibilities to choose from. And so Mr. Grandi might be offering an art lesson at the same time that I’m offering something in English, and the students get to pick and choose which one is more beneficial to them in their project at that point in time. Knowing that we can turn around and offer the same lesson the next day, and they can switch and go to the other one, if need be.
GONZALEZ: So that’s … OK, I want to get into that, because I forgot all about the mini lessons, and I want to do a typical day. So I’m going to just wrap up the whole piece of sort of the curriculum and how you’re assessing everything, and then we’ll just start walking through. When you actually do these sort of assessments, this is that sort of defense of the project where they’re sitting down, and that’s how they’re going to get their grade, is sitting down and doing kind of a conference with you guys. And this is when you kind of go through and make sure, and they’d explain to you how they met the standards. And is that also when you go through the thinking skills and the soft skills?
WARD: Well, they would have identified those earlier in the project. So they’re given pretty much a blank slate of a rubric, and then they identify which thinking skills they’re focusing on, and as Greg mentioned, last year we had eight soft skills to choose from, but this year we’ve kind of assigned these two, communication and time management. So that’s always part of the rubric as well.
And with those two pieces, the soft skills, we simply look back to our clipboard. We keep a daily tally of how often students are meeting with us, whether that’s in our mini lessons or those one-on-one lessons that they schedule with us. We’re looking at how consistent they are with scheduling their days, because they use this online program where they actually map out each of their days in Apollo, four hours’ worth in half-an-hour increments, letting us know where they’re going to be and what they’re going to be doing, because they don’t have to stay in one of our classrooms. There’s a wide open space for them, it’s called the student work area, where they can work, and they can also go to our library or sit at one of the tables that’s around our school and in extreme situations, they might even leave the school to go interview somebody in the community or to go shadow somebody in a certain career. And so we really try to push them beyond that normal setting, and that all comes out in their reflective piece at the end too when we sit down to evaluate what they’ve done.
GONZALEZ: So I’m wondering, they’re basically evaluating themselves, and you’re working with them to say, “How did I do during this project on my communication skills? How well did I do on time management?”
GONZALEZ: And then they’re looking also at reasoning, perspective, contextualization and synthesis?
WARD: And they’re identifying one of those skills for each of us, so they might pick reasoning for my English portion of their project, contextualization for Greg in social studies, and then maybe they’ll go back and repeat reasoning for art. We encourage them to have a variety. We don’t want them to have the same skill for all three subjects on any given project, but there are times when it’s just more beneficial to double up.
GONZALEZ: Got it.
WARD: But most times it’s three different skills.
GRANDI: But the idea is that they choose one skill for each one of our subjects for each different project, so eventually they’ll go through all four of the skills for each one of our subjects through the course of the four projects.
A Typical Day
GONZALEZ: OK. So let’s talk a little bit about just the daily logistics. What does it look like when they show up for the Apollo school that day?
GRANDI: Basically around 7:45 we kind of corral them together into Greg’s room and we call that family time, where that meeting can last anywhere from five to 10 minutes, just like, little bit of housekeeping things we might have to take care of to we’ve had full-on one-hour to two-hour discussions where they’re really generating the conversation and driving the topic about their own education, and they’re really meaningful conversations. So those can be completely organic in that sense, and really rewarding. That’s another thing I would claim to say I’ve never had that experience, really, in a traditional setting.
But in a traditional day, and average day, they would leave at about 8 o’clock, and then they would schedule their day, and then really from that point in time, scheduling their day also includes them scheduling us. So we have an option on our site where through some software that the students will actually click on our schedule, kind of like a doctor’s office, and see where we’re available, and depending on what suits them and what’s available or what’s open on our end, they can schedule time with us, one-on-one time, small group time, whatever that is. So those are like 10-minute increments.
So you can, as a student, say, “You know what? I need to see Mr. Ward right away, so I’m going to go on his schedule, and I’m going to schedule him at 8:10. And I don’t need to speak to Mr. Wimmer at all today, or if I do, I’m going to speak to him later, and maybe Mr. Grandi, I’ll speak to him around 11.” So they really plan their day fully, and they’re not … which is different, because they’re not waiting for us. We’re kind of there for them, and you know, I think that’s one of the things that they really appreciate. A lot of the times when you’re doing these really in-depth projects where sometimes they just don’t know where they’re going, you know, they’re kind of stuck, and if we’re having conversations with students, they don’t want to interrupt, and so they kind of sit around and wait, and then we’ve all had that, and that waiting time is just a killer.
GRANDI: It just kills momentum. This way they know, “OK, I have a 10 o’clock appointment, so I can work on all these other things, and at 10 o’clock, I know I definitely get to see Mr. Wimmer at that time, and I’ll get my question answered.” So we’ve tried to kind of implement these systems in place that, you know, they can kind of be as productive as possible in that day and also plan their mini lessons if they want to attend a mini lesson, if they have … sometimes we have students that are interviewing people outside of the community, not unlike what we’re doing with a Skype session. So they have to plan all of that, and that really comes back to their time management piece at the end, and they’ll share that with us, and along with our data about how many time they schedule us, that’s when we really talk to them about whether their time management actually improved their project or maybe it kind of held it back from being totally successful.
GONZALEZ: And these mini lessons that you all offer, this is probably the piece that most resembles traditional teaching. You just straight-up delivering a lesson on some aspect of your content?
GRANDI: Yes. But here’s where it might not be traditional, not only in the fact that it’s optional, they can choose not to attend if it’s not relevant to their project. But we also let it open for them to actually request mini lessons on topics that we wouldn’t necessarily generate.
GONZALEZ: Wow. Imagine that. Students requesting that you teach about something.
GRANDI: So they might say, “Can you teach us about … ?” I had one, “Can you teach us a lesson about Frida Kahlo and women painters or artists that were inspired by her?” “Yeah, just give me two or three days to put that together, and then I’ll have that lesson for you.” So it’s really about customizing, personalizing the learning for them, and that’s why it makes it such a unique program.
GONZALEZ: Do you ever have students teach the mini lessons?
GRANDI: Yeah, actually. We started to do that. Greg, actually, you could talk about that? The skill swap we started to do as well?
WIMMER: Yeah, so one of the things we really value is that every student usually has something that they can add to the group. And so we have some students that are extremely good at technology, some who are good at building an online presence, and so we thought why not have those students share their abilities and talents with one another? And so we built this idea of the skill swap that you hear in more grownup settings, but this was an opportunity, and so we had one of our students share … she has an Etsy store, and so she talked about how she built her Etsy store and how she branded herself on social media. And so it was a really unique perspective that a student would be sharing her personal business with everyone else, but it reinforced some of the soft skills that we work on. Obviously communication is big, and this student had developed into a young lady who was extremely comfortable at putting herself out there. And so … anytime that we can celebrate the abilities of our students and have them share that with each other was … or we saw as something that could be valuable.
Learning from Early Missteps
GONZALEZ: That’s fantastic. When you got this started, you know, looking back over the time that you’ve done this program, what can you see as mistakes that you made, and what lessons have you learned since getting it started?
WARD: I think we overestimated the amount of work students were able to do. They’d done school a certain way for most of their lives, and then we sprang upon them with this project-based idea in which we’re also incorporating these mini lessons and these one-on-one meetings, and we want them to focus on soft skills that they really hadn’t directly been taught or expected to do perhaps since, like, early elementary years. And then on top of that, we have these assessments where they would take basically quizzes in each of our content areas, and we based those quizzes not just on our content but on thinking skills and during the pilot program, that first year, each of us was assigning eight of those assessments, one per eight of our thinking skills. And so for one marking period, that’s one half of the semester, students were having to complete 24 assessments on top of two projects that lasted about three and a half to four weeks each.
And the students were exhausted. And many of them, whether it was by choice or necessity, waited until the last week or so to try to complete all of these assessments, and as you can imagine, they weren’t as successful as they wanted to be, and we owned, you know, a lot of that ourselves, we took that as our own fault. But one of the aspects of the course that we really wanted to drive home to them was the opportunity to redo. In life, we’re able to redo a lot of the tests that we’re put through or that we are given. But in school it’s like this once and done opportunity. So we wanted to reinforce that through their projects and assessments that if they didn’t do as well as they wanted to the first time, they could always rework it or redo it and submit it again for review. But we kind of sacrificed that when we had so many assignments for them to complete in such a short amount of time, because again, we underestimated what they were capable of.
So this year, we cut it back for the second time around, we cut it back. Instead of eight thinking skills with eight assessments for each of us, we did four. Now, we still have those students, as you will, in even a traditional class that procrastinate, and when you give them a deadline, that means, OK, that’s the day that I’m going to do it.
WARD: No. Not do it by, but that’s the day or at least the night before I’m going to sit down to do it. So we still have that, but we also have students who start working on those the first week and chip away at them little by little.
GONZALEZ: Would you say that just in general, the outcomes have been what you’d hope they would be? Are you still feeling pretty excited that this is, like, I don’t know, this sort of feels like the way school should be? So have you gotten the results that you thought you were going to be getting?
GRANDI: I’ll say personally, the relationship piece is really amazing. I mean not only do I feel … I think working with two other people that you can appreciate their input, which a lot of times we vote on specific things as a democracy and you know, as a … when there’s three people, you don’t always win, and I think that’s one of the things that I’ve learned. Maybe my idea’s not the best idea. To me in my classroom, maybe it is, but when you’re really working with a group, it’s really pushed me in that sense as an educator.
But I think outside of the relationships with the learners, is really where it’s grown. I mean we’ve had some of these young adults have come up to us and just flattered us with praise that I can’t even tell you, things I’ve never even thought that I would hear, things about how they would be scared to death to come to school Sunday night from anxiety, and how they love coming to school now, and they never have had conversations with adults or their teachers before, more than just, “Here’s your homework, here’s your test.” We have real conversations with these people, I mean, these are people.
GRANDI: And I think that those types of relationships that you build are amazing. I think that the projects, I tell people all the time, I try my hardest when I’m teaching traditional classes to plan really interesting lessons and projects for the kids to do. But I can’t plan these projects. I could never plan a bioethics project for the whole class. I could never plan … you know. So I couldn’t even hit all of the standards that I wanted to hit. This way I like, I track all the standards that the kids hit. And as a class, they hit more standards as a class than I would ever have them hit if I was directing every single lesson, and I think that what I’ve learned from all of this is kind of to let go of some of the things that we were, you know, kind of geared and taught to do as educators going through teacher school. It’s a really great feeling, I think, and I think it could get better. I don’t know how, I mean I’m sure there’s more, more people, affecting more lives in a positive way, I think.
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
GRANDI: We’re all looking for that.
English Language Arts: The Paper Load
GONZALEZ: I have one more question, actually for Wes, because my background is in English language arts, and one of our biggest problems, right, is paper load, and grading and giving students feedback on their writing. And I’m curious how that has changed for you with the Apollo program. Is it a little bit less of a workload?
WARD: It’s less as far as quantity goes, but it doesn’t seem like it takes me any less time. For example, I had a student, or we had a student, who was doing a project. It was based around this armor, this body armor from like the 13th or 14th century, this medieval armor. And I’m probably even mislabeling that, Greg. But he wrote a poem that coincided with this armor, because through talking with him, and Jim just touched upon how we had the great fortune of sitting down with these kids, sometimes for 20 minutes, one on one at a time and really picking their brain about their project. And I really wanted to push this student who had this fascination with body armor about why, why he was exploring this topic, nobody had assigned this to him, why he was doing this. And it came out that when he was younger, a few years ago, he lost his mom in a car accident. And ever since then he’s worn this hat that she had given him, and he even has permission to wear that hat around school, and in a sense, that’s his armor.
And so he was writing a poem about this hat and really how it’s protecting whatever is left of his childhood, because he feels like those years were taken from him. And so he wrote this poem, and it was good, but there were some things I needed to show him with some figurative language and some different sound devices he could incorporate to make it sound more poetic. And so he went back to the drawing board and did it again, and then we met again and sat down and talked about some more changes he could make. And long story short, a week and a half later, he had written like eight versions of this poem. So in a traditional class, I may have read that poem twice before a final draft.
WARD: But with this, I really had the opportunity to sit down and work with him in all probably like an hour …
WARD: … over the course of a week and a half, just one-on-one instruction on how to make this better. So yes, my paperwork load might seem smaller, but my time working with the students is not.
GONZALEZ: Right. But it sounds much more ideal, because you’re actually … you’re doing what all English teachers want to be able to do, which is give them that feedback and give them that time, and you have that now.
WARD: Yeah. Exactly.
GONZALEZ: Well I’m just so excited to share this with teachers. I think … I do feel that we’ve sort of just gotten to the very surface of it, so I’m probably going to get in touch with you to see if maybe I can get some documents, maybe get a look at the rubric that you use and maybe link to a couple of student projects that people could see?
WARD: All right. We do have that Weebly site will showcase some of those projects that we mentioned earlier.
GONZALEZ: Yes. Let’s give people the URL for that.
WARD: That is theapolloschool.weebly.com.
GONZALEZ: Good deal. And I’ll make sure that I provide a link to that also on the website. Well thank you so much for giving me all this time at the end of a long school day, I appreciate it so much.
WARD: Yeah, no problem.
GRANDI: Thank you, Jenn.
GONZALEZ: I’d like to thank Wes and Greg and Jim for giving me their time, and sharing their program with us.
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