Yesterday I had the privilege of traveling to Harrisburg and attending the PA Symposium on the Arts and Education. I heard about the conference through the PA Thespian Society (a chapter of which I advise at the high school), and because I recently began my doctorate studies in educational leadership, I thought I would find the day beneficial. My principal approved the request, and I spent the day attending various workshops and networking with educators and arts advocates.
While the overview of ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act that replaced No Child Left Behind) contained the usual mind-numbing political language, the presenter (a former music teacher) packaged the information in a user-friendly format that helped me understand how monies are allocated from the federal and state levels and the impact the terminology ("arts and music") and placement of said terminology has on schools receiving funding . . . when the government gets around to reviewing and approving requests, that is.
Part of the day's schedule included a variety of workshops to choose from. The first one I attended blew my mind. At Central York High School, three teachers -- English, Art, and Social Studies educators -- team-teach a project-based program called The Apollo School. Essentially, the program pairs student passions and ideas with the three content areas in a personalized, project-driven curriculum. Here's an example: one student has an interest in fashion design. She read The Great Gatsby and analyzed the characters, themes, symbols. She then researched the 1920s, particularly the role of women in society and politics. She applied this knowledge to her project, which was an up-cycled dress in the flapper style, but with literary and sociopolitical symbolism embedded in the design choices.
Students can work independently, as the fashion designer above, or in groups as they design projects. In its third year, the Apollo program has a fluid yet structured schedule -- "Family Meeting Time" starts each day and can last anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours; students must sign up for specific times to meet individually with instructors to stay on target for their goals. The instructors provide broad themes that guide the students through their personalized learning, eventually leading to seniors considering their role in the modern world before graduating.
They shared some statistics -- they have a 99.2% attendance rate because kids want to be in school; kids share feeling less anxious about school because they love their projects and the process; test scores have gone up significantly for the Apollo learners (an over 50 point increase on the CDTs, compared to an average of 26 point gain for non-Apollo students). And they were honest about the fact that this program is not for every child; and about the fact that if the group becomes too large, then the model doesn't work as well. The teachers were true collaborators who are willing to learn alongside their students -- exactly what education should look like in the 21st century.
An hour with these folks was definitely not enough, and I plan to reach out to them for more ideas.
I attended other workshops -- one on using dance in gym class (wait, not "dance," "Movement." A simple term switch makes all the difference, honestly!) and another on a project-based creative collaborative in Hershey which allows students to write original plays, musicals, songs -- and to perform and workshop those pieces, to add technology components, to compete and produce. A keynote speaker discussed the impact of race and opportunity on creativity and the arts. A town hall meeting was held with educational leaders.
Thankfully, I had a two-hour drive home to attempt to process all that I experienced throughout the day. Leaving my classroom for the day is never easy, even when I know it's in the capable hands of the retired English teachers we are fortunate enough to have on the sub list. Taking a day "off" means creating and writing plans for classes, coming back to piles of papers to sort on my desk, and potentially re-teaching some concepts (especially if one of those English teachers isn't available!). Teachers will do anything not to call off under normal circumstances because of how much extra work it is to have a substitute. It's a paradox: A day "off" comes with a lot of work. But, with all that said, I am glad I had the opportunity to take the day to attend the conference, and I am already thinking of ways to apply what I learned yesterday in my classroom and ways to learn more.