Ukiah Unified School District

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The Power of Partnership, Innovation and Learning

School Desk Blog: Give our kids the reins and see them soar

Envision a school environment where each child feels seen, safe, challenged, and acknowledged. What would a school like that feel like and look like? What would one observe upon walking onto that campus? What would the students say when asked how they like their school? Now add to that vision student-driven curriculum, that is interest-driven, that brings back frequent field trips, called Leaving to Learn, as a basis for expanding students' knowledge of their community and world?

Envision students working with a mentor in their chosen area of interest, gaining real-world experience, building their hands-on knowledge while building their resume, making them not only more fluent in their path of study, but more hireable in the future. Does this sound different, scary, too new, doubtfully doable? When we hand over the reins of their education to the students themselves, are they actually capable of co-creating their educational studies with their advisor, mentor, and parent? Will the students actually succeed? The answer is yes, and it’s happening every day at Big Picture Ukiah.

When I joined the teaching staff at South Valley Continuation High School five years ago, I wouldn’t have believed that learning which was driven by the student’s interests, internships, projects, and public displays of their learning could be so powerful. Teaching was my second career after dancing in a small company in San Francisco. While becoming accredited, I realized I was older than most of my cohorts at Dominican University. My inexperience with new technology, as well as my mindset, had me feeling out of touch. What was familiar was a more traditional approach to teaching: the “sage on the stage” format; delivering a predetermined curriculum which I was responsible for teaching and the students were responsible for learning, was what I understood teaching to be. Songs and independent projects in my Spanish classes notwithstanding, I was in tight control of the curriculum delivered. There was little opportunity for students to succeed outside of the accepted curriculum.

Big Picture Learning changed all of that. Our principal, Kris Swett, was tired of seeing South Valley graduates around town, and upon asking them what they were doing, getting the answer “nothing” one too many times. It became disheartening. Always open-minded and searching for and creating new systems of his own, Swett came across Big Picture Learning. Big Picture Learning is quite simple: each student has a learning plan which describes their life vision, goals, and an action plan for learning. Students are encouraged to access their prior knowledge, are allowed to explore what they are passionate about, and are put in the position of seeking out and receiving real-world experience in the area of their choice. Via this experience, students create projects that challenge them to think like mathematicians, scientists, historians, anthropologists, or politicians. They learn to be great communicators, consistently persevering and striving to be the best people they can be. 

Evidence is accumulated through digital and hard-copy portfolios, journals, research notes, photographic portfolios, and more. The students’ learning culminates in public displays of their learning four times a year. During these exhibitions, the students talk about what they did over the course of the quarter, semester, year. The students display their evidence as well as spotlight what they did, built, attended, created, and learned. Probing questions are asked of the presenters, not only by teachers and administrators but, most importantly, their fellow students. Everyone in the classroom has the opportunity to practice critical thinking, high-order questioning and deepen their understanding. Students are lifted up by lifting up each other. In turn, students and parents alike are given the opportunity to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. For some families, this has been the first time they have seen their student speak in public, or complete a project, or feel a positive self-concept over what they have achieved. The positive effects are money in the bank. 

The feeling one gets when seeing a Big Picture Ukiah at SVHS graduate around town and excitedly having them share their latest accomplishment is priceless. Janet Martinez, a 2019 Big Picture Ukiah graduate, currently works at Schat’s Bakery in town. Upon a recent visit, Janet shared with me that she had recently graduated from the Medical Assistant program at the Mendocino County Office of Education. From the beginning of her time at Big Picture Ukiah, Janet had identified that she wanted to go into nursing, that she liked helping people. Two years later, Janet has successfully held down a full-time job while attending and graduating from the MA program at MCOE and is on the road to living her dream of becoming a nurse. 

Another student, John Pearce, wanted to open up his own gaming store in Ukiah. John spent time writing up a business plan, deciding what he would want to sell in his store, and designing a logo for his shop. John is now store manager of Gateway Games on State Street in Ukiah, where he is also part-owner and operator. John is living his dream of being a small business owner in his chosen area of interest, doing something he loves. 

Virginia Allen had the dream to be a veterinarian. She began her internship with Dr. Haynes at the Ukiah Veterinary Hospital and is now employed there and is learning about being a veterinary technician. Other students are active in our Native Student Alliance or have started and are running their own student groups (think electives, enrichment) in areas of their interest, including photography, yearbook, basketball, meditation, painting, hair and makeup, nails, event planning, Esports and more. 

Students who control their education get hooked on learning in a way they never have before. By acknowledging a student's prior knowledge, by asking them what they would like to learn more about, and by achieving academic rigor via the students’ own design, we have enabled kids who others may have given up on or who may have given up hope for themselves, a new hope for a future as an engaged and active member of their community. 

We now see our students giving back to their community in ways unheard of before. Mercy Ruiz and Miranda Ashurst recently presented to the Ukiah City Council and the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors urging them to make whippets illegal in local smoke shops. They were successful in getting a measure on the ballot! Give our kids the reins to their future and see them soar! Yay for Big Picture Ukiah!