As an example of a progressive school, Jennings Community School (JCS) recognizes the large difference between active and passive learning experiences. The brain learns more, deeper, and with longer lasting effects from real life learning experiences. In one-way learning experiences such as listening to a lecture or merely observing, learning can occur but has less impact and fades more quickly as compared to involvement and participating actively. The school places its students in situations where they have to think, solve problems, and interact with others in situations as close to life as possible. Students must establish goals, create learning plans, establish courses of action, and be held accountable for results. Learning happens most effectively through experience and activities where students hold important roles and exercise responsibility—in other words by John Dewey, learning by doing. With experiential learning, everyone is a learner, and everyone is a teacher. JCS teachers see themselves as “facilitators of learning” in helping students be responsible citizens, achieve fulfilling careers, become self-directed, lead healthy lives, and become lifelong learners. The various items around this wheel describe key features of the school.
The advisor-advisee program is the heart of the JCS. Each student works with an advisor with an advisory group, the major subdivision of the school. The advisor helps the student establish a Personal Learning Plan and means for its accomplishment. School process requires daily contact, regular meetings, and parental involvement. The advisor’s role includes many functions: friend, helper, guide, counselor, appraiser, record keeper, critic, facilitator, expediter, and arranger. The advisor helps the student grow in all areas–intellectual, social, physical–and to develop talents and uniqueness. The advisor is an educational broker. Like a travel agent, the advisor asks students where they want to go and helps make the best educational plans and schedules for getting there. The advisor helps parents and students fashion and design programs that best fit the needs of students. The advisory group of 15-20 students establishes a supportive home base where the group can plan activities and feel included.
Personal Learning Plans
Every student has a Personal Learning Plan (PLP) at Jennings Community School. The PLP, tailored to their needs, learning styles, and school expectations is established by the student in consultation with their advisor and their parents. It contains goals, projects, how to achieve goals, and progress toward goals. The PLP is reviewed and updated periodically by the student, advisor, and parents. Goal setting and its attainment are elements for success at the school and in life.
Project-Based Learning involves a student or several students working on a topic of interest. The process includes researching the topic, gathering information, organizing information, and reporting on their findings. The reports may take the form of a written essay, a dramatic presentation such as a play or musical, and always include a public presentation before an audience of peers and adults. Student interest areas vary enormously, and projects provide an outlet for exploring what may range from a passing interest to a lifelong career or avocation. Exploring a topic requires a fairly rigorous application and demonstration of many skills and knowledge areas. For this reason, project-based learning has become an important part of the school’s curriculum and mode of operation.
An interdisciplinary curriculum removes the boundaries between school subjects and increases the likelihood that skills and knowledge from different disciplines are applied to solving problems or learning about new topics. This description departs from standard school curricula of separate subjects or often referred to as “silos of knowledge.” The real world is not made up of just biology or just literature. Rather the brain sees the world in totality with a mixture of understandings and learnings. It learns from complexity, although it sometimes requires specific knowledge. The mistake many schools make is to assume that dividing knowledge into separate areas will somehow combine in the brain as a more generalized picture of the world and knowledge. It does not happen for most people. It is important that students see the broader picture of the world, its features, its problems, and its advancements to understand better how the world works.
Service Learning Opportunities
Service learning offers opportunities for students to make a difference in their school and the community through their efforts and to apply school learning, resulting in the good feelings of self-efficacy or knowledge that “I can make a difference.” Examples include volunteering at a community agency such as the Habitat for Humanity, helping in a food kitchen, maintaining the school’s computers, or touring visitors. JCS expects every student to serve in a role that accomplishes important school tasks. The school requires service of every student.
Learning Through Travel
Trips to various places in the United States and beyond increase understanding of different cultures, history, geography, and other important learnings. Students plan trips by researching budgets, meals, lodging, maps, and using the Internet for learning about destinations and route highlights. Trips include such activities as journals, interviews, photography, and reflection. Many students report that trips have been among the most important stimulating and eye-opening learning experiences of their schooling years.
Courses, Seminars, Workshops
The school provides specific courses on topics of importance and standard school subjects often in a seminar or workshop mode to increase active learning with participation and involvement. These might include, for example, the science of nutrition or modern politics with students carrying out activities that stimulate interest and volunteering, exploration, or community action. Many seminars or workshops emerge from world, state, and local current events. Community resource people share their experiences with students as “sparks,” to spur interests, excite ideas, and serve as jumping off points to new vocabulary and concepts. The world and all of its complexity and variety need to be understood by students.
Restorative justice is a process where people affected by an injustice have an opportunity to discuss how they have been harmed by the wrong and to decide what should be done to repair the harm. Three key ideas support restorative justice. First, understanding that the victim and the surrounding community have both been affected by the action of the offender. Second, the offender’s obligation to make amends with both the victim and the community. Third, and the most important process of restorative justice, is the concept of ‘healing,’ or the collaborative unburdening of pain for the victim, offender, and community. All parties engage in creating agreements to avoid recidivism and to restore safety that allows the victim to have direct say in the judgment process. The process helps offenders understand the harm they caused while demonstrating to the community that the offender might have suffered harm. Healing by reintegration of offenders into the community, strives to restore harmony, health, and well-being by comprising personal accountability, decision-making, and the making right of harm.
Students as Resource
Students as resource is a concept that recognizes the worth and value of every student and that each has gifts and talents to share with the community. Schools short of resources such as money and staff often overlook the greatest resource in their midst, that of the students themselves. Students can teach, help, handle responsibilities, initiate, manage, and make decisions given an environment where their talents are given rein and appreciated. For example, students can tutor, teach about a passion to others, and participate on the school’s Board of Directors.
By serving an internship in an organization for some time, students learn a great deal about how an organization works, how adults interact, and their abilities and potential. These include internships and formal Work Experience programs for pay. Both immerse students in real-world community organizations and businesses outside the school. Students learn the importance of record keeping, writing skills, and math skills which increases their motivation to improve their academic learning in school. Students learn that punctuality is critically important, schedules must be met, behavior must conform to norms, dress is important, and courtesy is essential to the organization’s bottom line. These are real-world learnings of great importance and have a great impact on students.
JCS gives every student access to the internet and other technology resource to use for projects, satisfy interests, or other learning activities. All students are expected to become proficient at word processing, e-mail, graphics programs, presentation programs, internet searching, and other uses of technology tools.
Cooperative learning refers to a learning strategy in which small teams–often as an aspect of project-based learning—each with students of different levels of ability, use a variety of learning activities to improve their understanding of a topic. Each member is responsible for helping teammates learn, thus creating an atmosphere of achievement. Students collaborate through the task until all group members successfully understand key concepts. Cooperative efforts result in participants striving for mutual benefit.
Exchanges help students to understand how another community or culture works by exchanging positions for a time. For example, a student or several students go to a rural community for two weeks and live in homes of students and attend their school often followed by a reverse exchange in which the rural students attend JCS. Exchanges have occurred across town and national borders. Students report these as powerful and stimulating learning experiences. They learn how other families manage, how other schools work, and how to tap new resources. Often exchanges contain values different from their background and thereby broaden understandings. Exchange experiences better prepare students for the real world of diversity they will experience during their lives.