Following my visit to Highline and Gibson Ek Big Picture schools in Seattle, Jeff had recommended that I also visit the New Village Girls Academy in Los Angeles, to see the Big Picture Learning model in action in a profoundly different context.
New Village is a small 130–140 capacity High School, currently with 108 students on roll, and all female, serving young women who have previously or are currently experiencing significant life traumas — including related to gang involvement (there are 32 active gangs locally) and all levels of abuse. 70% of the student cohort have experienced some kind of physical abuse or trauma. In addition, approximately 45% of the cohort are teen parents or currently pregnant, and a large number live in residential foster care.
Inspired by the shadow a student challenge from School Retool I tried to approach the day from the point of view of a student, moving through the same schedule with them, and it was a deeply emotional experience on many levels. From the moment of my arrival to the end of the school day an extraordinary degree of calm pervaded the whole school campus, and as always it’s the little things that make the difference in building school and organisational cultures.
On arrival I was welcomed by the Principal, Andrea Purcell, whose desk is right in the open reception area with the school administration (rather than some office far at the back of the building). She personally greeted every student and member of staff as they arrived, as did everyone to each other (including me) and as they moved around the space, making tea/coffee and getting breakfast. It was a lovely start to the morning with so much warmth and kindness. One student, who is 7 months pregnant and living in foster care, had her 17th birthday today, and a big effort was made to sing to her and give her a card when she arrived.
The school has 17 members of staff including a full time social worker, a college councillor and internship coordinator, and part time psychologist, and all staff members and students know each other extremely well — their collective lives are inextricably intertwined, and although small schools tend to have a strong family feel, New Village takes it to another level. The strength of relationships and respect between staff and students was evident throughout the day, with staff seamlessly supporting each young person to connect and pull together the multiple areas of their lives — school, internship, family, foster home, child, childcare.
In my previous post on Big Picture I mentioned the power of Internship in driving all learning, but in this context the importance and impact of internship acquires a whole different meaning. Around 70% of students take part in internships over the course of the year, with placements across a whole range of businesses and charities in LA, and students spoke passionately about their experiences of internship and with great insight. School leaders also bring in experts to the classroom at every opportunity (including today an expert in fountain pens!), and build in as much offsite activity as possible exposing students to a whole number of exciting learning experiences and places beyond their normal life horizon. If anyone needs to be inspired to imagine alternative and positive futures it is this group of young people.
I think I would also add meditation to the ‘6 things I loved about Big Picture Learning’. At New Village, ‘quiet time’ takes place twice a day for 20 minutes, at 10am and 1pm, and is a hugely calming and reflective period, and a way for trauma to be managed across the school. The school works with professional meditation experts who train students in mediative approaches at the beginning of the school year, and offer ongoing support throughout the year. Remarkably there have been no incidents of violence or fighting on campus since its introduction.
It was also interesting to discuss with staff how many students find meditation difficult, sometimes because they are tired having been up with their babies all night, and the moment of relaxation exacerbates the tiredness, and sometimes because the buzz of day to day activity is an important distraction from the challenging and complicated realities of their lives — during meditation internal thoughts, worries, fears and emotions often surface and become overwhelming.
The most profound experiences of the day for me were probably threefold: firstly watching this group of young people learn, with staff skillfully defining and scaffolding conversations to draw students in, allowing them to take discussion in multiple directions, and moving conversation from cultural slang and references in their day to day lives (e.g. childbirth or relationship problems) to highly sophisticated discussion around a set of topics, all related to projects, exhibition, and internship. Students were under no pressure to engage, and it was interesting to see that even those that in a traditional classroom setting you might assume to be disengaged (e.g. looking distracted) would often jump in at a later point with a highly insightful or perceptive comment, or in depth response to a question.
This picture just said it all to me about the spectrum of learning at New Village — George Orwell and Aldous Huxley alongside Caring for your Baby on one of the classroom bookshelves.
Secondly, listening to and participating in general discussion with the students throughout the day, where they talked about day to day life experiences that in other contexts would be seen as horrifying, atypical or exceptional. In this context it’s just ‘normalised’, with students able to support and empathise with each other, and discuss things without fear of judgement or being unusual or weird. They are in one sense all going through similar things to their ‘peer group’ — being a mother, and talking about their children, being the dominant activity in many of their lives. ‘So what are you doing for the rest of the day?’ I asked one student as the school day finished at 3pm — ‘Going back to my mom’s to look after my 8 month old son’ was the reply.
And thirdly, thinking about the Big Picture network of schools, I was intrigued to discover that there is a Big Picture affiliate school in LA (a private school) attended by the children of the rich and famous. This school’s curriculum is based on the Big Picture learning model, and staff attend annual CPD and professional learning events with others from across the network. Additionally students from across Big Picture schools attend national events together, including the Big Bang conference which is the main event, building a broad and diverse student community beyond locality.
I’m struggling to think of any school model that I know of where the instructional approach and pedagogy can be adapted to meet the needs of literally ALL young people — from the offspring of the super wealthy, to the most impoverished and vulnerable within society.