Our #edci336 class visited the Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry (PSII) on Friday (right in downtown Victoria) and it blew my mind. I loved it. It is totally inquiry based with a few “classes” – math and French. They have really tried to flatten hierarchy and there are no grades – there are 80-something students and 6 teachers which is about a 12:1 student:teacher ratio. Apparently public schools have that same ratio of adults:children but they set it up differently so not all the adults are doing everything (some are just counsellors, some are just teachers, some are just in the office) – because of that the ratio of student:teacher in the classroom is much higher. Instead of classes they have “sessions” in the morning where students can go to learn about a topic they are interested in (usually the sessions are suggested by the students)…it was a bit like EdCamp Vic in that way.
Visiting PSII made me wonder if I will survive working in the “Mainstream” system. I loved how authentic PSII felt and how everything just seemed to make sense. There was no “hid[ing] behind a veneer of academic aloofness and obfuscation” (Kirkness & Barndhart, 1991, p. 11) – people were real and honest and logical and just doing what made sense. I was also really struck by the fact that the students were so well-spoken and passionate about all these different things and seemed to know who they are – just some really cool and also confident kids, assertive but respectful (like the one guy who told me he had to work so he couldn’t explain his project to me then).
I loved that the students just kind of organically started calling the teachers by their first names and that the teachers can be who they are – Jeff (the principal, teacher, counsellor, admin assistant) talked about how PSII looks for weird people when hiring – people can bring their talents and interests to their teaching (one of the teachers is also a circus performer, over half of them play a musical instrument, etc.). I love that because I want to be able to be myself in my teaching, instead of having to put on a fake teacher voice or dress a certain way or change myself to fit the mould of what a teacher is. Sometimes it seems like bells, hand raising, students sitting at desks facing the teacher, and whatever else are just phoney structures imposed to make school look like what we believe a school is supposed to look like and to try to maintain control – but they take away from the authenticity piece and let teachers hide behind those structures in some ways I think.
Jeff also talked about how relationship and accountability are so linked – the students are on task because they know the adults are there to support their work and they are constantly checking in whether via their e-portfolios or in person. We were also talking with Jeff around whether this model could work in a larger setting and he was saying that you might not be able to do it with a higher ratio but you could have “learning pods” so you replicate this around the school in little groups.
It struck me that a lot of what I liked about PSII and other settings I have liked is they kind of run like camp. At camp we try to figure out what the kids’ interests are and try to find them resources or facilitate their experiences so they can do what they want to do. Also the socio-emotional, relationship building piece is a bigger part of camp. Jeff said PSII starts with a morning circle meeting with the teachers every day and it reminded me of the “staff circles” we would have with PWILD, a camping club I was part of at Duke.
PSII also kind of seemed like the working world – students showed up in the morning, figured out what they needed to do that day and worked on it until the end of the day. Sometimes they said they work on their stuff at home depending on if it makes sense that day or not. Sometimes they come in early if they are trying to finish something. They are linked with the real world – one student was working on some coding for a company and couldn’t tell us what because he was under a non-disclosure agreement. They are pretty techy focused – maybe the only thing missing for me from PSII was the outdoor ed component.
I was also talking with Jeff about how it is hard to do things like this when you are working in a school that doesn’t do things like this. A few of my classmates said to me that even if you can’t work in a school like this you can see what bits you can take away and implement in your classroom. Valerie (my EDCI 336 teacher) made the point that in elementary school you have your students for the whole day so you can structure your classroom this way and have it be more wraparound. It’s almost as good as having the whole school culture congruent with this way of doing things.
I hope that’s true…one thing I worry about is that it’s easy to do things a certain way when everyone around you is doing them that way. You really have to be committed and know what you believe in if you want to do things differently and stay true to yourself and not lose sight of that way you want to do things. I worry I would question whether it is right to do things the way I am doing them if it is totally different. I have seen that with incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing and being into my work/life/practice…when I was working in Indigenous environments (VIU and the Downtown Eastside) it was so easy and natural and organic to do things that way. Now that I am at UVic in a non-Indigenous environment I am having a lot of trouble incorporating that piece even though I really value it and am trying to bring more of it in…it’s just much harder when you are not already part of circles, community, etc and everyone is doing things a different way.
Valerie’s class is totally different from all the other classes in our PDPP program at UVic and I think she was saying you have to be willing to fight the faculty and not be popular…basically you just have to stay true to yourself.