Wednesday, June 15, 2011

An Alternative to High School: Humanities High School

Special thanks to the many people who read, edited, commented on a draft of this that had been posted on Google docs.  Deeply appreciative of your insights and commentary.

I. Introduction

…And the ultimate critical and empirical test of any educational reforms in a semiotic society is not limited to changes in students’ or systems’ statements, discourses and capacity to critique same – but, as it was in Dewey’s time, the capacity to contribute to the building of democratic institutions, civic spaces, public dialogue and indeed, the capacity of such reforms to have material consequences in the distribution of resources of all types.
    - Allan Luke, “Two Takes on the Critical” (from 2002. Education in Semiotic Democracies: Teaching and Learning Beyond the Nation. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.)

There are three concepts that frame the thinking in the development of Humanities High School (HHS): equity, leveraging learning everywhere,and  rhizomatic learning.

1. Equity

In conceptualizing an alternative to traditional forms of secondary schools, Allan Luke’s synopsis of what educational reforms might engender is critical and (in)forms our sensibilities about learning outcomes privileged at Humanities High School.  We want learners to be able “to contribute to the building of democratic institutions, civic spaces, public dialogue.”  Lost in the current rhetoric about schooling as preparation for workers is the more important objective to develop and inspire global citizens who are critical, creative and recognize “the capacity of such reforms to have material consequences in the distribution of resources of all types.” HHS is dedicated to developing learners who are passionate, responsible and proactive in matters related to social and economic equity.

2. Learning Everywhere: Leveraging Social Media and Community

The second consideration that informs decisions about HHS is encompassed in the Academy’s vision statement: Learning Everywhere.  We understand, even appreciate, that learning is not confined (nor has it ever been) to school.  Rather, learning takes place within and beyond the school. To that end,  HHS stretches the understanding of “school” by deliberately leveraging Web 2.0 tools to connect students, teachers, and mentors with one another and with those beyond our formal system. Through social networking services like BuddyPress, Diaspora*Alpha, and media sharing sites like Vimeo or YouTube, social bookmarking services like Diigo, research tools like Zotero, EasyBib, Citeulike, online games such as Minecraft, as well as microblogging services like Twitter, or Tumblr--learners are able and encouraged to access others and resources. Whereas HHS is not a “high tech” school, it does require students and faculty to employ technologies as a learning method. In keeping with the policies of the XXX School District, students may bring to school and use any Internet ready device responsibly.
3. Rhizomatic Schooling: Where Knowledge is Collaborative

The third consideration informing HHS is an understanding of learning based on rhizomes and knowledge making that is collaborative. In contrast to the traditional view of education in which schooling is understood as a function of transference of expert-determined content from teacher to student, HHS will be developed as a rhizomatic community.  A rhizome is the horizontal stem of a plant, usually found underground. From the plant's nodes, it sends out roots and shoots, each of which can be self sustaining.  The rhizome is all about middles. Marcy Driscoll (2004) writes:

The rhizome is a tangle of tubers with no apparent beginning or end. It constantly changes shape, and every point in it appears to be connected with every other point (p. 389).

In conceiving of HHS, the idea of connectivity is central to the design. In defining the rhizome, Deleuze and Guattari (2002) write that it:

has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance. The tree imposes the verb 'to be,' but the fabric of the rhizome is conjunction, 'and . . . and . . . and' (pp.24-25).

At HHS, we imagine learners (students, teachers, librarians, and mentors) resembling a sea of "middles,” a continuous forming and reforming of alliances based on need, interest, direction, redirection, assessment, and commitment.  Unlike the design of many traditional high schools, the rhizomatic school is based on joining and rejoining as opposed to a hierarchical structure where the teacher dispenses content often determined by an external "expert" to the student who receives the content. 

The rhizomatic school understands knowing as a generative process and requires a shift in teacher talk from telling to inquiring alongside students; from talking often to listening and conversing.  Such shifts reveal the uncertainty present in dynamic learning and destablalizes the belief in an expert based curriculum.In this manner it is most significant how the rhizomatic school reveals the fallacy of content-driven teaching as the method that better ensures there are no w/holes in students' knowledge.A rhizomatic perspective not only expects "holes" in knowing but understands and appreciates these opportunities for new learning. Knowledge is not situated as a knowable list of objectives.  One concern educators voice about student-centered classrooms, is the worry that students won't learn as much as teachers will not be determining all of the content, nor sharing their insights and knowledge with the class.  They worry that although they might teach students A and B concepts x and y, neither will learn concept z as only student C will have occasion to learn that.

In the rhizomatic school, thinking resembles the tangle of roots and shoots, both broken and whole.  Problem framing and decision-making rest with all learners: teachers, students, mentors, local community and global partners. Again, Driscoll’s description of rhizomatic learning is important. She writes:

Break the rhizome anywhere and the only effect is that new connections will be grown. The rhizome models the unlimited potential for knowledge construction, because it has no fixed points…and no particular organization (p. 389).

It is expected at HHS, that as learners work solo, in pairs, small groups, with the teachers, and mentors--new alliances will be formed and broken leading to the potential of new connections being learned/unlearned/relearned. Further curricular and programmatic decisions at HHS are based on an understanding of knowledge as collaboration (Cormier, 2008).  Dave Cormier (2008) in "Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum,"  clarifies an important shift in what "counts" as knowledge from the prior century to contemporary times. The expert-centered pedagogy where content was defined as a list of knowable objectives is problematized by a sociocultural perspective (Heath, 1983, Gee, 2008) as well as the presence of the Internet. Cormier (2008) writes:

The existing educational model with its expert-centered pedagogical planning and publishing cycle is too static and prescribed to accommodate the kind of fluid, transitory conception of knowledge that is necessary to understand the simplest of Web-based concepts. The ephemeral nature of the Web and the rate at which cutting-edge knowledge about it and on it becomes obsolete disrupts the painstaking process by which knowledge has traditionally been codified. (np)
In contrast to the expert-based curriculum, Cormier writes that the "rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predetermined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process" (np). This understanding of knowledge is ahead of the belief in standards that still is informing national, state, and local curriculum decisions.  We understand this to be a tension worth exploring with students as we are obligated as a public system to adhere to Standards. 

II. Humanities High School

At HHS, learners, teachers, and community-based mentors work collaboratively to provide students with the occasion to compose a cohesive liberal arts education that privileges the arts, humanities, problem solving and problem finding. HHS is committed to preparing students to be global citizens positioned for career and college choices.  

In year one we anticipate enrolling 80 students who previously earned none to 30 high school credits.  From year two on we will annually enroll 80 students, creating a fully functioning high school with about 240 students by year three and about 300 students by year four. We anticipate that students will complete graduation requirements at varied rates and therefore we will determine entry into the gateway experience, internships and capstone project by the number of credits earned.  To be awarded a high school diploma, students will successfully earn 120 credits, including coursework specified by New Jersey Department of Education, and complete a high school project.

1. Design Principles

Five design principles exemplify the core values of HHS:

  1. Academic Excellence: Academic excellence is achieved by leveraging learners’ passions and curiosities in the development of  multi-disciplinary units of study. HHS core curricula are problem-based, relevant, foundational, inspirational, and intentional. The curricula are designed to develop learners’ critical and creative thinking dispositions, embed 21st century multi-literacies, and privilege the arts.

  1. Personalization: Every student is known well by HHS educators. Personalization is achieved through advisory, personal and communal learning plans, shared ownership of curriculum, mentorship, full inclusion, dynamic assessment, problem-based learning, internship, e-portfolios, community based learning, and public exhibitions.
  2. Active and Experiential Learning:  Learning takes place at school and in the larger community. The HHS community empowers learners to compose minds-on and hands-on work that is beautiful and subject to private and public critique. Everyone teaches and everyone learns. Faculty learning is privileged in the design of the school term and day.

  1. Problem Framing: HHS is committed to guiding learners to be “problem finders” who know how to determine problems, frame critical questions, and apply creative and critical thinking to develop additional questions and solutions.  Curricula are framed as compelling questions and negotiated with students, and understood as complicated conversations (Pinar, 2008).

  1. Purposeful Design: Governance is shared among faculty, students, administrator, and central office liaison. Learning at HHS is a combination of school time, virtual time, and community-based. HHS collaborates with civic, arts-based, and community groups.  The physical learning space had been designed with the understanding that learning is embedded in practice, collaborative, must allow for teachers, mentors and peers to be responsive to “just in time” needs, and fosters creativity.

2. Academic Preparation

The core curriculum at HHS is multi-disciplinary, problem-based, relevant, foundational, inspirational, and intentional. It is designed to leverage faculty and students’ interests and passions, develop critical and creative thinking dispositions, embed 21st century multi-literacies, and privilege the arts. Faculty and students work in multi-disciplinary teams to design curricula that are aligned to the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards and based on compelling questions.

Designed to inspire greater levels of academic achievement by linking student interests, passions, and curiosities to educational experience, the HHS curricula are based on posing and answering questions, and finding, framing, and solving problems.  As a result, multiple disciplines are often combined.  For example, incoming students might address the questions: “What does it mean to see? How are seeing and observing similar and different?” through different disciplinary lenses.

By leveraging teachers’ and students’ passions, learners become practiced at critically and creatively thinking about issues that impact society. In traditional high schools, discrete courses, marking period, midterms, and finals are often the method through which students earn credits applicable for graduation. At these schools, course work is tied to a traditional 180-day calendar.  In contrast, HHS students do not take traditional courses tied to seat time or discrete disciplines and are encouraged to work virtually, as well as in person. Utilizing Option 2 (N.J.A.C. 6A:8-5.1(a)1ii), personalized learning plans are developed with students and their parents/guardians that fulfill the Morris School District graduation requirements while emphasizing students’ interests, emerging as well as established. These experiences can result in: project-based courses, virtual offerings, community-based internships, college courses, and capstone projects.  

At HHS, there are no AP offerings or separate honors track. Courses are suitably rigorous and tailored to students’ zones of proximal development (ZPD). Whereas we anticipate a range of experiences learners will bring to the school, we also anticipate that learners may well need academic support, especially our learners who may be newly arrived to the United States or in need of special services.  No remedial model is used at HHS. Instead, mediated learning experiences, such as dynamic assessment based on Lev Vygotsky’s (1986) concept of ZPD and Reuven Feurstein’s (1980, 2006) theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability are employed. Dynamic assessment embeds intervention within the assessment procedure.

Students are awarded high school credit tied to satisfying the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content standards via a pass/fail evaluation system that includes public exhibition, the development of an e-portfolio, and the capstone project. State assessments are issued at HHS as required. Assessment is ongoing, seamless, and is a shared responsibility between students and their teachers and mentors. Students compose e-portfolios that are reviewed by learners, teachers, and community mentors, and that exemplify mastery of New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards.  Report cards are narrative in nature, coauthored by students and teachers. Student transcripts indicate successful completion of core subjects and credits earned.

3. Governance and Faculty

HHS privileges the arts and humanities. Educators with experience and credentials related to the fine and practical arts, humanities and design/technology compose the majority of faculty positions.  These educators are joined by mathematics and science specialists with deep disciplinary knowledge who are able to situate their studies within a problem framing curriculum. Discrete subjects such as English IV, Biology, Geometry are not offered, as an integrated approach is stressed.

At HHS, teaching is shared among faculty which consists of certificated teachers and administrators.  Every educator teaches. Additionally, community partners also teach, not in place of certificated staff, but in addition to. Governance is shared through a visionary planning board (VPB). The VPB is composed of faculty, students, partners, parents/guardians, and other community stakeholders. Membership on the VPB is determined by election (for teachers and students) and appointment (administrators, community members). 

4. Acceptance Process

Maintaining the racial balance presently found at XXXXX  High School will guide the acceptance process of students into HHS.  Parents/guardians of students interested in attending HHS will indicate their interest via a form the District will provide and a lottery will be used to determine who is admitted. 

III. A Year in the Life: Close Up Look at Learners at HHS

During the time students earn the first 60 high school credits, they work within a Learning Commons concept--a dynamic, collaborative environment, combining individual space, group space, lab space, in-depth research service, with access to a librarian and ESL/bilingual services. Students at HHS are issued an Internet ready device such as Mac Book or iPad3 and work within a wireless environment.  Organized by trimesters, students work in teams, individually, and with teachers and mentors as they explore a common set of initiating questions designed to help them frame and respond to community based problems.

It is expected that most students will complete 30 credits during a school year, although we recognize that students may need more or less time to do so.  A first year then usually consists of students working to successfully complete several projects (usually three) in succession, interspersed with expeditions, community-based mentorship, and reflection.

1. Symposium

The Symposium emphasizes student inquiry, critical thinking and craftsmanship and is taken by all entering students. Students conduct original research and share results in team presentations that are expected to be multimodal.  Learning expeditions—deep investigations of rich academic and civic topics—enrich the multi-disciplinary work students while earning their first 30 credits.  Students maintain an e-portfolio of their achievements in academics, service, fitness and the arts, and present them in formal review. The e-portfolios and public exhibition of work form the core of student assessment.

2. Gateway Experience

After students have earned 30 credits they are able to enroll in the Gateway Experience. As community based learning is privileged at HHS, the gateway experience bridges school and community, affording students the opportunity and responsibility to work for 10 hours a trimester in a community-based enterprise such as a business, non-profit organization, or with a professional group.  The community-based work may be conducted in person, virtually or a hybrid version of the two.

3. Internship

Students are expected to participate in community-based learning through internships. It is expected that students (having earned at least 60 credits) will participate in community-based internships of 4 to 8 hours per week that are related to their studies. Internships are arranged with businesses, nonprofit organizations, and professional groups. Related academic course requirements are often embedded into the Internship experience. Additionally, students may opt for a multi-week internship (up to 3 week period) during their last year at HHS.

4. Capstone Project

After completing 80 credits, students are ready to design and complete a capstone project. Students complete a project (graduation requirement) with an external mentor and are supervised by a core faculty member. These internships may be conducted virtually and will include connecting each student with a community mentor and a sustained internship. Internships may be conducted throughout the world and will not be limited to the United States. Fourth year internships are arranged with each student and may extend the third year Internship or be developed newly. They may be conducted across the calendar year and are not limited to the notion of a “school” year.

5. Exhibition

In spring of each school year, HHS students and faculty are expected to present aspects of their work via public exhibitions.  The exhibitions are a combination of:

  • Maker Faires, featuring innovations
  • Art and Design Shows
  • Performances
  • Research Symposium
  • Film Festival
  • Culinary Arts

Works Cited

Cormier, Dave. 2008.Rhizomatic education: community as curriculum. Innovate 4 (5). Donwloaded from here on 6.10.11.
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. 2002. A Thousand Plateaus Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London, UK: Continuum.
Driscoll, Marcy P. 2004. Psychology of learning and instruction, 3rd edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Allyn & Bacon.
Feuerstein, Reuven; Falik, Louis; Rand, Yaakov & Raphael Feuerstein. 2006. Creating and enhancing cognitive modifiability: The Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment program . Jerusalem: ICELP Press.
Feuerstein, Reuven; Rand, Yaakov; Hoffman, M., & R. Miller. 1980. Instrumental Enrichment: An intervention program for cognitive modifiability . Baltimore, MD: University Park Press.
Luke, Allan. 2002. “Two Takes on the Critical.” In Education in semiotic democracies: Teaching and learning beyond the nation. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Pinar, William F. 2008. What is curriculum theory? Taylor & Francis e-Library.
Vygotsky, L.S. 1986. Thought and language. Cambridge. MA: MIT Press.


  1. this looks great Mary Ann.

    i esp like this:
    a shift in teacher talk from telling to inquiring alongside students; from talking often to listening and conversing.

    and this:
    We understand this to be a tension worth
    exploring with students ....

    would love to know more about this:
    The physical learning space had been designed with the understanding that learning is embedded in practice, collaborative, must allow for teachers, mentors and peers to be responsive to “just in time” needs, and fosters creativity.

  2. Incredible Mary Ann! Wondering if this is a model you plan on replicating. Starting an elementary/middle school this year with many of the same foundations, we would love to expand to HS. Here is where we are year 1, this model is expanding to Denver Public Schools and Costa Rica in 2012

  3. Fabulous - I like the distinction between the Symposium and the Gateway and the Exhibition. I also appreciate the elaboration describing technology use - whereas the focus is clearly not on the tech itself but the empowerment from the use. Thank you -;) can I visit ;)

  4. Thanks Monika. Am wondering if the space has to be inside the high school as an exclusive thing, Community spaces make sense.

  5. @Mrs. Tenkely: Thanks so much for the link. Interested in knowing more about how the work you describe will be used in DPS. I'm just trying to get this off the ground right now.

  6. @Diane Lauer: Thanks Diane. When we have it opened (2012 hopefully) I'll let you know. We are doing smaller variations on this in the upcoming year. Trying to test out ideas.

  7. Mary Ann.. although i think we knew it in our hearts, recent events here have nudged us into thinking, definition of space is much like definition of culture. or perhaps it's very key to keeping culture.

    while it's harder to maybe do, harder for most of us to trust, because it is so different, we're now thinking that designated homebase space could play out better if it's small/modest. at least if we're going for city as floorplan.

    comfort, like definitive objectives, curriculum, etc, often keep us from being mindful. often keep us from immersion into life - into our communities.

    the hard part.. taking that jump from.. there is no one finding/using best suited spaces that already exist, that already host expert mentors, personally for each learner.

    we say it often, but living it, being vulnerable in context - making school life, or doing life and calling that school - that's the challenge. that's the opportunity.

  8. Monika, so agree and so pleased for you to be venturing out in this manner. It is indeterminancy that learning happens with power.

    Keep me posted. I am collecting some fine examples of alternatives.

  9. Mary Ann,

    This is a wonderful post! I see so many similarities to my dream school.

    This struck me:
    "The rhizomatic school understands knowing as a generative process and requires a shift in teacher talk from telling to inquiring alongside students; from talking often to listening and conversing."

    Traditional teaching is dead. Coaching, facilitating, advising, whatever label fits the action-- inquiring with students is the needed process. I would love to talk further.

  10. Michael, sent you a direct message w/ phone # & got yours via twitter. Yes, we should talk. Monika is setting up a skype after the 4th. I can skype or ichat or talk on the phone. My new iPhone allows for conference calls too. A CO, WI and NJ connection. Dream schools need not be defined geographically anymore. I have been thinking a lot about that as I learn more about the progressive schools happening outside of NJ.

  11. Very interesting ideas here. Are you forming the idea that 'traditional' schools as we know it are dead (an anathema) spaces for deep learning and learning is actually occurring within spaces where meaning is negotiated by learners. Knowledge being in a continual state of flux, dependent on the social meanings and discursive practices embedded in society at large and via immediate social and professional communities such as school, peer groups, family (immediate and extended), and recently online and virtual communities. I tend to think that this is occuring within what I call the eCloud
    Hope this makes sense....

  12. I think traditional schools do serve some students well. Choice matters. This isn't a replacement as much as it it an alternative. I listened (and read) your blog post and agree. Leveraging social media via the Net creates potential spaces for your idea of an eCloud. I think of it as rhizomatic--infinite middles.

    Thanks Nathan.


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