Across the country, parents, students and educators are considering how schools can better prepare students for the dramatically evolving world into which they are graduating and engage a new generation of learners in more problem-solving, hands-on experiences around high interest topics.
Menlo Park City School District's Hillview Middle School is doing just that, under the banner: "School. Only different."
During the week of March 17-21, Hillview launched a week-long learning choice program called "Mini-Courses." Teachers and community members collaborated in planning unique experiences that allowed for the sharing of personal interests and strengths. To this end, nationally recognized Principal Erik Burmeister challenged his staff to create week-long courses based on anything they felt especially passionate about.
The result was 43 vastly different courses encompassing everything from scuba to baking to design thinking to crime solving, and almost anything else a child could dream of learning. During the week, students took a hiatus from their traditional classes and participated solely in the subject of their choosing.
Lessons in chemistry, writing, physics, PE, woodshop, music and more were communicated not with textbooks and tests, but with hands-on activities, an extensive roster of guest speakers, over 85 exciting field trips all over the Bay Area and a closing day of performances and events. During the week, students logged over 2,500 miles by train, bus, van and on foot to visit places like the Marine Mammal Center, the Army Corps of Engineers Bay Model, Castle Rock Park, Elkhorn Slough, Angel Island, Blackhawk Museum, Stanford Anatomy Lab, Apple Computer and Electronic Arts.
Over the past two years, Hillview has embarked on a process of re-design to bring its teaching and learning standards, along with its campus climate, on par with its state-of-the-art new buildings. The mini-course program proved to be fun and exciting; more than that, however, it was a proactive response to the need to prepare students with the 21st century skills of creativity, collaboration, problem-solving and decision-making, critical thinking, adaptability and flexibility, and communication.
The program also gave the staff the focused opportunity to experiment with new approaches to teaching. Math teacher Sayre Dolan spent his week leading a course called Outdoor Survival; students visited Hidden Villa Farm for ropes course and survival training, and had first aid and survival instruction from EMTs. The trip culminated with overnight camping at Memorial County Park.
"The best part for me, as a teacher, was that kids were asked to go outside their comfort zones to experience things that they normally might not, meet new people and have experiences with different people than they would usually hang out with," Mr. Dolan said. "I also loved the opportunity to get to know students that I don't have in class and have a different perspective of the students than I get in the classroom."
Mini-courses creatively address the expressed desire of students to have more opportunities for engagement around topics that interest them. While parent-child communication during the middle school years may often leave kids rolling their eyes and parents wondering what really goes on in those adolescent minds, during mini-course week the walls came down as students returned home effusive about what they learned and experienced.
"I was lucky enough to have four eighth-grade boys over to our house after their first day of Behind the Scenes Sports," parent Daren Tuchman said. "The boys came in gushing with excitement. Each one was fighting for airtime to share with me different stories from their day.
"They loved hearing about the deaf athletes' plights to overcome their adversity and succeed. They surely loved the Sports Illustrated columnist sharing his stories of encounters with famous athletes! As parents we all yearn for our kids to express details of their day at school —to have all four of these boys engaged with me for so long was fantastic!"
The Behind the Scenes Sports course, taught by beloved Hillview PE teachers Harry Bell and Phil Eaton, toured the Stanford athletic facilities and AT&T Park. The students were visited during the week by organizers from Special Olympics of Northern California, and by Friday had planned and produced their own sporting event for Encinal School's special day class.
Ms. Tuchman, a parent of a special needs student and a son in the Behind the Scenes Sports course, continued, "The boys were each sharing how they were going to help these kids and how 'cool' it was going to be!"
Parent Timothy Harris enjoyed the enthusiasm from his children all week. "When I got home each night, I was greeted by children eager to show me photos on their phones of their day's activities," he said. "Yes — my children urged me to view content on their phones!"
As a camping chaperone, he accompanied 60 students on an overnight trip to Memorial County Park. The opportunity to see teachers interacting with students in completely new ways was a highlight for him. "It was so invigorating to me, as a parent, to see professional educators use the camping setting and experience to teach important lessons," he said. "Confidence, self-reliance, challenge, teamwork, inclusion, problem solving, respect and exploration were among the many lessons taught."
As successful communities such as Menlo Park strive to graduate the next generation of leaders, too much stress can sometimes be put on the rigorous academic standards expected. A week of choice learning allows students to open their minds to lessons in essential skills and traits necessary for the work environment, like collaboration and resilience, without even knowing they are gaining that crucial knowledge.
Social Studies teacher and golf enthusiast Marianne Santo led a course called Play It As It Lays, which met all week at the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course. Ms. Santo said: "I really liked the character discussions that came out of my course. Given the nature of golf, we were able to highlight the importance of having good character, being honest, and respecting others using the game as the centerpiece."
A week immersed in a self-determined topic opens students to the possibilities of further involvement in their communities and helps put students in a state of mind ready to return to their academic classes with renewed energy. As eighth-grader Anna Baran said: "I noticed that a lot of the courses, in a way, continue on after the week. After Caring for Critters, we may start volunteering at the Humane Society or other shelters. The week was extremely relaxing, especially because it was in the middle of a stressful time for eighth-graders. Not having to think about projects or homework the full week was amazing. It was a great stress-reliever. All I did the whole week was learn about things I had chosen to learn about."
School-community collaboration was in full force throughout the week. One needed only to drive past Hillview along Santa Cruz Avenue early Monday morning to see the car show taking place for the All About Cars course. Dozens of local car collectors graciously displayed their vehicles — from a 1915 Model T to the most tech-savvy Tesla — for students to appreciate.
Several downtown businesses and shoppers were interviewed by Principal Burmeister and teacher Diane Glasser's Designing Menlo Park students as they employed the design thinking process to gain an understanding of how Menlo Park could be better engineered. Their week concluded with a presentation of design ideas to Mayor Ray Mueller and several members of the Menlo Park City Council and Planning Commission.
Students enrolled in the Author, Author course taught by Hillview's two librarians Tracy Piombo and Theresa Fox spent the week immersed in the life of a writer, including videoconferencing with three award-winning authors: Wendy Mass, Chris Crutcher and Rita Williams Garcia. Participants wrote a chapter of a novel with help from their teachers and the community of writers assembled for this course, and met with publishing professionals to have their work reviewed.
The campus was buzzing when the DEA arrived complete with hazmat suits and a meth lab to give students in the CSI and Law Enforcement course hands-on lessons in real life crime fighting. Seventh-grade student Lindsey Johnston remarked, "It was awesome! Did you know they make a drug bust every day?"
The CSI course leaders, science teacher Heiko Ritter and French teacher Amy Kingsley, reached out to the Menlo Park Police Department for guidance, and were rewarded with an enthusiastic response from Sgt. Tony Dixon, who facilitated access to MPPD Chief Bob Jonsen and Evidence Preservation and Collection Officers Claudio Ruiz and Gonee Sepulveda as guest instructors.
The course took a field trip to the SFPD SWAT facility and Mission Police Station, and dusted for fingerprints with FBI agents on Friday. These remarkable opportunities made possible to Hillview students by community members and agencies are indicative of the type of experience all students had that week.
The community will be able to see more of the Mini-Course program later this month when Hillview releases a short documentary film about the experience. The movie was completely filmed, edited, and produced by the Documentary Filmmaking Mini-Course led by activity director Brian Darmanin, and supported by acclaimed documentarian Ralph King and a top-notch team of volunteers.
The hard work and determination of Principal Burmeister and his staff, supported by countless hours from parent volunteers, launched the Hillview Mini-Courses this year. Funding was equally provided by the Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation's Jeanie Ritchie Grant Program, the Hillview Parent Teacher Organization and the school district.
Teachers, students and the community will be surveyed to determine whether the Mini-Course program will become an integral part of the school's emergence as a leader in 21st century education.