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The Innovation Academy: A School Within a School

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the micro-school movement. Micro-schools, which have been defined as "schools that serve less than 153.5 kids," are a way to test new ideas, provide the flexibility that larger schools lack due to their size and to help students pursue more personalized learning paths. While micro-schools vary in a number of ways, what they all have in common is a push to make learning more authentic. The beauty behind micro-schools is their willingness to iterate outside the boundaries of traditional education and try out new learning models that better serve students.

At the Roosevelt Innovation Academy (IA) in Lima, Peru we're trying to test the boundaries of traditional education by striving to make learning more engaging and authentic. With a small cohort of 46 students in grades 10, 11 and 12, students pursue interdisciplinary courses as part of the IA as well as three International Baccalaureate Diploma courses.

Our Story

The IA began in 2013 with a cohort of 15 eleventh grade students as a way to provide students more academic program choices aside from the IB diploma program that most students at the American School of Lima take. The program has since grown to 46 students divided between grades 10, 11 and 12. Our first group of students graduated in 2015 and are now headed off to university.

The founding class of the Innovation Academy.

How it Works

“Students who are in real contact with problems which are relevant to them wish to learn, want to grow, seek to discover, endeavor to master, desire to create and move toward self-discipline” Carl Rogers

At the heart of the academy is our interdisciplinary approach to learning. Students take four courses (English, Media and Design, Business, and Independent Project) with the same cohort in order to collaborate continuously. The four courses are led by the same instructor to ensure more customized learning for each child. By collapsing the schedule and placing four courses together, students are able to have long blocks of time working on their projects without the interruption of changing from class to class. This schedule also allows students to take the three required IB Diploma courses that they need to graduate with a U.S. Diploma.

The IA schedule allows for long blocks of time for students to work with one teacher and a small group of students.

Typically, students take math, science and Spanish at the IB level in addition to the four courses that are part of the IA. With our current schedule, we see students for five hours at a time on Tuesday and Thursday and for shorter blocks on Monday and Friday.This schedule allows us to incorporate the five key elements that define the Innovation Academy: Interdisciplinary Courses, Collaboration, Autonomy, Relevance and Redefined Rigor.

1. Interdisciplinary Courses

In the IA, we don’t separate disciplines; our courses are integrated into the projects we do. For example, in the eleventh grade unit on documentary film students learn script writing and research skills as part of English, filming and editing techniques as part of Media Literacy and the principles of economics for Global Business Management. What is unique about the IA is that these skills are not taught in separate classes by different teachers, but rather integrated into a unit with a final product that has a purpose and an authentic audience. When students are reading and discussing "Naked Economics" for example, there is no distinction between English class or Business class and all of the principles being discussed are meant to be applied in the final documentary film.

While classes appear separate, projects combine the elements of all three subjects as in the documentary films students create about an issue with Lima, Peru.
In the documentary film unit, students study the principles of documentary film and economics to create a documentary about a local issue in Peru.

2. Collaboration

We believe that creating work together breeds more learning and more innovation, so we encourage students to collaborate on projects and seek ongoing feedback from their instructors and peers. In addition, our students collaborate with professionals in our community through internships and by visiting experts related to the projects that they are working on.

Students have the chance to gain real-world experience through internships.

When it comes to grading, students also have the chance to collaborate. Since we are a school within a school, we still need to give traditional grades. We've modified the process of crowd source grading that we learned about from Duke to enable students to work together on creating and defining the standards of the class. By pairing this idea with a growth chart, on which we give students ongoing feedback, we have tried to turn grading into a collaborative activity. Finally, the Innovation Academy is designed to allow for a lot of teacher collaboration. As a team of three teachers, we each lead one of the cohorts (Grade 10, Grade 11, Grade 12) but we do not work in isolation. Our schedule has been built to allow us long periods of time during the week to design student learning experiences as well as discuss ideas we are prototyping in class.

3. Autonomy

Our goal is to create a "community of learners" that is free to inquire, follow their own interests and explore topics based on their own curiosity. The research shows that when students are given autonomy and ownership over their work, they are more likely to be engaged in what they are doing. In the IA, we entrust students with autonomy to choose their projects and partners, to leave campus when needed, and to design their own learning experiences. We even allow students to determine what they assign themselves for "homework" as part of their Independent Project.

Students design their own homework as part of the Independent Project in order to explore and identify interests with depth and rigor. Students must effectively plan and create work using skills that they have learned independently. For accountability and feedback, students update the class and instructor on their progress every two weeks

Rather than dictating all of the work students have to do at home, we also free them up to choose their own homework. This becomes their independent project and it’s designed to help them explore areas of interest that they might want to pursue in the future. Granting autonomy is not always easy, but it is an essential component of the learning process (see the work of Peter Gray, Carl Rogers, and Seymour Papert).

4. Relevance

We strive to have students see the relevance of their work immediately by working on projects that have value beyond school. Rather than passively absorbing content, we have students construct their knowledge and their skills through authentic inquiry. But what does this look like in practice? In tenth grade, students created a magazine about the best businesses in Peru. During eleventh grade, students have created documentaries that focus on an economic issue in Lima as well as designed advertising campaigns for local companies. By their final year, students combine the skills they have learned to start a business that directly benefits our school community. We also seek to make learning more relevant by making it public so students have an audience beyond just their teacher.

Student work is made public through personal blogs and Twitter accounts.

5. Redefined Rigor

Rigor for us is defined by the quality of work students complete rather than the quantity of "stuff" we have them complete. We focus on what Seymour Papert calls "hard fun," by allowing students to bring their interests and passions to the challenging projects we work on. In addition, by focusing on one project at a time we allow students to go through several iterations to create work they’re proud of. Over the course of the year, students work on three main projects in addition to their Independent Project. This allows students to dive deeply into each project rather than working on a series of fragmented tasks.

Beautiful work is the result of incorporating student interests into challenging projects while providing them with the chance to go through several iterations.

Next Steps

In the IA, we are constantly researching and testing new ideas. One of the benefits of being a small program is that we are able to quickly try out ideas that we are reading about as well as respond to the needs of our students immediately. For example, at the end of last year students felt that the feedback and grading process could be more transparent and rigorous. After discussing the issue with students, we came up with the idea of a "Defense of Learning, " where students will "defend" what they have learned through the use of evidence with a small group of peers, mentors, and outside experts. As well, we have tried to incorporate more whole-group field trips so that students can practice the skills they need out in the community with guidance from both their peers and instructors. While students enjoy the autonomy of being able to leave school in small groups to work on their various projects, they also enjoy being able to practice these skills in the "real world" with a support network.

A film produced by IA student Franco Dañino on a recent field trip to practice the skills being learned in class out in the “real world.”

For us, it is about putting theory into practice. By being attentive to the needs of our students, testing new ideas and reading deeply about education we are constantly striving to provide our students with experiences that that they feel are challenging, engaging and relevant.

Learn More

The Innovation Academy at The American School of Lima is made up of Corey Topf (Grade 12), Bill Cotter (Grade 11), and Joe Bonnici (Grade 10).

To learn more follow us on Facebook at Roosevelt Innovation Academy and on Twitter @fdrinnovate.

Here is a link to a sampling of the books that guide what we do.

Note: Some of the ideas in this post also appear in Corey Topf's blog post "The Best Innovations Lead Us Closer to Authenticity."