Program expands definition of education

Castle View plan emphasizes projects, student-led learning

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Castle View High School will introduce a new project-based mosaic program this fall to 96 freshmen and sophomores.
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Castle View High School Principal James Calhoun believes the majority of high-school students are compliant and somewhat disengaged, with untapped reservoirs for deep learning. A new program that will be introduced at CVHS this fall is designed to reach that core.

By meeting students where their interests lie, and building the learning from there, Calhoun believes their intellectual passions will ignite.

The project-based approach to learning is called Mosaic. It's unique to Castle View, though it's modeled after — and includes elements from — similar programs already used in school districts nationwide.

The pilot program launches in August with 96 volunteer freshmen and sophomores.

Sophomore McKinley Breen didn't hesitate to sign up for the program's inaugural year.

“I've never been in project-based learning, and that's why I'm so excited,” Breen said. “Most of my classes are incredibly boring to me. The one exception was my humanities class. It's a mini-Mosaic.”

Michael Schneider, one of the four Castle View teacher who will devote themselves to Mosaic full-time in 2014-15, taught that humanities class. Assignments included researching poverty-plagued countries, then presenting the findings to a parent audience; parents then chose from among the student-highlighted countries to make donations that went directly to those in need.

“It wasn't just a fake project; we made someone's life better,” Breen said. “I loved that.

“You don't have to just take notes. You learn by doing, and you learn on your own. That's great for me because it's hard for me to even sit at the movie theater.”

That level of enthusiasm is exactly what Calhoun hopes all Mosaic students will experience.

“If we define what a student has to learn and force him to learn it, the very best we get from him is compliance,” Calhoun said. “And that's not good enough in our society.

“If we get students to pursue what they're passionate about, it's going to lead to learning things that are meaningful to them.”

Calhoun described it as flipping the standard educational model that starts by telling students what they need to know. As an example, he pointed to a teen who loves to skateboard. Most schools consider that a hobby engaged in outside the school. Under the Mosaic program, it could instead become the centerpiece of a student's curriculum, a springboard for the study of physics, science and math.

Like the learning it's designed to inspire, the program eventually will spiral outward to encompass all Castle View students — and ideally, even the elementary and middle schools that feed it.

Each student will have an individualized learning plan that emphasizes education free of bell schedules and classroom walls, building their own schedules and learning to manage their time. But students will be guided in their chosen project, meet weekly with advisers, and participate in group seminars and electives.

“Students will be accountable for their learning path,” Calhoun said. “We want to create an environment where learning takes place when the students are ready for it. It doesn't have to be first period. It could be after school or during the summer.”

Castle View is coordinating its Mosaic programs with community partners, businesses with leaders willing to mentor students and involve them in the work they do.

“These are real-world problems and real-world solutions (done) outside the walls of our school,” Schneider said. “Within each of those projects is true interdisciplinary learning.

“The number one thing we need to do is get students to take ownership of their learning, not be on their own and do whatever they want, but to give them a real purpose for their learning. I'm tired of telling students what to learn, when to learn and how to learn it. I don't mind telling them what they need to learn to get their diploma. But when they do it, how they do it, what books they read — I don't feel I have to tell them that.”

That kind of student-led learning prepares them better, Castle View leaders believe, not only for college, but for a high-tech, rapidly changing world in which jobs that exist today may not be relevant tomorrow.

Four teachers are devoted full-time to the program as it launches this fall, and seven more are working part-time on it. Several other teachers are “on deck,” Calhoun said, training to join the effort in anticipation of its growth in future years. In total, almost a quarter of the high school's 110-teacher staff is working on some aspect of Mosaic.

“Am I confident this is the way of the future? No, I'm not,” Calhoun said. “Am I confident change needs to be made and this is a step in the right direction? Yes, I am. I'm more than confident; I'm convinced we've got to do something different.”