The staff of Timberline Secondary have come up with an interesting way of expanding the educational opportunities for local high school students with what they call “Flex.”
It’s part of what the school district is referring to as “transforming learning” in our region, “which is less about curriculum and content and more about how we engage our students,” according to Nevenka Far, district assistant superintendent. That includes incorporating “flexible learning environments, personalized learning and providing more opportunities for students to develop their core competencies.”
To accomplish this, Wednesday’s schedule is a bit different than the rest of the days of the week.
The four instructional blocks – A, B, C and D – the students get every day are still taught on Wednesday, they’re just condensed into shorter blocks in the morning to free up the afternoon for Flex.
Then in the afternoon, students get to decide whether they want to take support, enrichment or other types of opportunities in two separate one-hour blocks.
To create “support opportunities,” two common areas are set up – one in the cafeteria for maths and sciences and one in the library for humanities – where students can go to get one-on-one help with assignments, nail down concepts they are struggling with or finish class projects.
“Enrichment opportunities” are ways to further the knowledge or skills they are gaining in their courses, such as spending more time in the metal shop to work on an especially complex project or get together with a couple other members of school band to create a jazz quartet.
In fact, the possibilities are as wide-ranging and diverse as the kids themselves.
Opportunities available for students during Flex range from yoga sessions to basketball or volleyball clinics, referee certification courses to mountain biking in the Beaver Lodge Lands right through to metalworking, woodworking, photography instruction with a local professional or trips to the rock climbing gym or archery range.
“What we were finding was that a lot of our kids just can’t find the time in their timetable to take the electives they want or to try new things or explore areas of passion,” says teacher Lindsay Heslop, who, together with David Hrysio, also teaches a Flex block each Wednesday called “At Issue,” where they put on an interactive lecture about current events and social issues, “and it is very low risk for students, because it’s not graded, so all types of kids feel welcome to attend our lecture or go try archery, for example. Because there isn’t a mark attached to it, it’s all about learning and experiencing it for the sake of learning and experiencing it, which opens it up to everybody.”
Hrysio and Heslop regularly have 100 students or more voluntarily take their lectures, which tells them they’re doing something right.
This is the second year Timberline has been running the Flex program, and Principal Jeremy Morrow admits the implementation of such a vastly different way of looking at education – even if it was just for one half-day of the week – has absolutely had its bumps.
In fact, when they were gathering feedback from parents, only about half of them thought it was even an idea worth continuing to explore.
Parent concerns, Morrow says, were the same ones the teachers had when discussing the program’s implementation, which was mainly accountability and participation levels.
The problem with the rollout, Morrow admits, was that they were lacking the accountability aspect. There was no reason – other than the learning they would engage in simply for the sake of learning it – for the students to not simply skip Wednesday afternoons. After all, it wasn’t mandatory for them to attend, they weren’t taking attendance and there were no grades or credits to be had for showing up.
They feel they’ve addressed that this year, however, since the school has implemented an internal website where students will register each Wednesday morning for the Flex blocks they want to attend in the afternoon either using their phones or through computers in the school. Then the teacher of each Flex block session takes attendance and marks in the software whether the students actually attended, the same way they would during a regular block.
Students who choose not to participate in Flex or are using the afternoon sessions on Wednesday to volunteer in the community – or even pick up shifts at work – need to have a permission slip from home signed and returned to the school, Heslop says, making attendance accountability during Flex blocks similar to regular blocks through the rest of the week.
Morrow admits attendance still isn’t where he’d like to see it, but says its an idea they’re committed to continuing to work on until all the fixes have been tried.
Because the education system, he says, isn’t working for a lot of kids the way it is.
“The number of kids over the last few years, according to our satisfaction surveys, who like school, who feel safe at school, has been increasing, but the number of kids who are reporting that it’s not preparing them for their future is increasing year by year, as well. We need to make sure that we’re relevant to kids – that we’re connecting with them in meaningful ways – and Flex is an attempt at restructuring how we do things, but it’s not the end of the journey for us. Flex is the beginning of disrupting our thinking and imagining what is possible.”
He says he heard an analogy once at a conference that really resonated with him, comparing a free-range chicken and a battery hen.
“A battery hen is pellet fed,” Morrow says. “It’s an efficiency model. They’re given the exact thing needed to get the growth you want out of them. But if you were to take them out of their cage, they wouldn’t have the strength to stand on their own feet. They wouldn’t have the capacity to fend for themselves.
“We need to take the cage away. And the cage has been the bell ringing every 75 minutes and sending the kids to the next class and then to the next class.”