Thursday, October 9, 2014

School Tour: Brightworks

Brightworks learning area
Brightworks. One of the first few schools we have toured. And boy, am I impressed or what!
I apologize in advance for a rather lengthy review. But there were way too many things that I loved about Brightworks. 

Bright, energetic space. Check!
Enthusiastic teachers. Check!
Small classroom sizes. Check!
Progressive curriculum tailored to student's interest. Check!
Project based hands on learning. Check! Check!

I absolutely loved what I saw. Reflecting back on my school years, this is a school that I would have wanted to go when I was a kid. 

K classroom
The tour itself was innovative and different. As we were let in to the facility, we ( as in adults and the kids) were allowed to wander and take in the different aspects of the school - the K class room and their little library loft, the kitchen, workshop, small spaces for kids to focus on English and grammar, learn maths, social science etc. This was followed by a small presentation on the schools charter, learning philosophy and then we had age appropriate (called "bands") breakout sessions. 

The kids learn physics, geometry, algebra, science etc through real life projects - like they are learning now about lenses and photography; they learnt about mirrors the last semester and actually built a mirror with many lenses to roast a marshmallow. The kids worked and reworked the prototype and actual device till the rays could be concentrated enough to roast the marshmallow just right. Each project is called "Arc" and has 7-10 kids from an age "band" with a staff coordinator. 

English and Grammar Learning Area

The kids learn to read and write and draw as they work thorough these projects - initially researching (called explorations phase) and prototyping , then building( called expressions phase)and lastly demonstrating and showcasing their projects via written and oral presentations (called exposition phase).

After each project, they take a week to decompress and chill out ( lay on the floor and read or just draw). Next project is then planned based on interest and what skills kids/teachers want them to learn and the entire school space is reconfigured to support that. For instance, they added a black room to help kids understand photo development process. 

Photographs exhibition wall
Few other things that are different from "regular" schools - mixed age classrooms, using real materials to build stuff, using power tools and having exercise routines to help build hand-eye co-ordination, going on field trips every week. 

But its not all free will and fun and games. As one teacher put it, he is trying to teach his middle schools maths and social science. If the kid is not interested in learning that he has to justify and explain it to Gever (Founder)  or Ellen (school director). More likely the kid returns enthused about why he needs to learn rather than be "indulged" and give a pass. The older kids also teach younger kids that help them hone empathy and deepen their understanding. 

Parents of kids and kids themselves were there at the tour to respond to questions and how they like being at school. Some of the K parents gave examples of how their kid plays with Lego's or blocks "better" since starting the school. They will quickly try to draw what they want to build before attempting to build complex Lego structures. That is impressive to me!

One parent whose kid is in middle school there did mention to me to go to public SF schools for elementary years and then come to Brightworks in middle school when kids need more motivation and closely monitored social atmosphere to gain confidence and thrive. Not to mention that would save some serious $$$ as well. 

K reading nook above their classroom

Some more background/notes on Brightworks:
  • Mixed age small school in a warehouse setting - 120 kids all in the same facility. Not sure what the plans are when the school grows in size.
  • Handful kids in High school. As the schools is pioneering in project based learning, they can't create a transcript (today) that will be accepted in a Berkley like under graduate school. But who knows in next 15 years - Berkley or a Stanford may start accepting students with such "alternate" experience and may even start evaluating them differently at the time of college admissions! 
  • Kids create a portfolio of projects over their lifetime to showcase their learning's and skills. Which personally I would value more than transcript grades. But my practical side doesn't agree with it yet.
  • Outdoor  time is on a playground 2 blocks away 
  • Everyone including K kids go on fields trips using public transportation. They learn about navigating the city, using clipper card etc. The older kids also learn about nutrition ( by buying lunch or just a packet of chips & soda for lunch and then getting hungry during the rest of day )
  • Currently backed by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as well as Paul Allen Foundation. I respect them both immensely as well as the work done by the foundations. But I worry what happens if the funding runs out? 
  • Parents volunteer in classrooms and on field trips or by sharing expertise.
  • Community lunch on Fridays by parent volunteers to learn cooking and sharing
  • School starts at 9:30. But before and after school care available.
As an adult Brightworks is a brilliant concept. Having learnt my basic skills in a regular school; Brightworks would be an excellent way to channel curiosity, learn how to create things ( prototype, re-iterate, build, test, correct till you are satisfied), tenacity and patience to ensure "real life" skills. Skills that are important when you enter workforce. 

But as a replacement to mainstream education, I am still a bit hesitant. 
I got the feeling that kids learnt in depth about projects that they worked on. They have pockets of deep information. But am not too sure if they have baseline education in all subjects all across the board.

The founders and teachers agree, Brightworks is not for everyone. 

We will probably visit once again to understand their plans on growth, future funding, how kids who leave Brightworks for public high schools or college adjust to "regular" style of learning having done things differently all their school lives. 

Or maybe start with a summer camp for my son if they offer one to test waters before making the plunge. 

No comments:

Post a Comment