Big Picture Learning schools exist throughout the country and the world. They are in rural environments and urban environments. They serve both large and small populations of students. Some Big Picture schools exist in gleaming new buildings, while some can be found in retrofitted structures which haven’t been in use for some time. In short, Big Picture schools (like the students they serve) often look dramatically different than one another. Each is its own unique environment where students can flourish as individuals within a community of learners. However, there are many elements within our learning design that are uncommon and distinct, which pull our network together and distinguish them from most other schools.
ONE STUDENT AT A TIME – The entire learning experience is personalized to each student’s interests, talents and needs. Personalization expands beyond mere academic work and involves looking at each student holistically.
ADVISORY STRUCTURE – Advisory is the core organizational and relational structure of a Big Picture Learning school, its heart and soul, often described as a “second family” by students. Students stay with an advisor and a group of fellow classmates for four years, building close personal relationships that last a lifetime.
LEARNING THROUGH INTERESTS AND INTERNSHIPS (LTIs) – Real world learning is best accomplished in the real world. Big Picture students intern–often twice a week for an entire school day–with experts in their field of interest, completing authentic projects and gaining experience and exposure to how their interests intersect with the real world.
PARENT AND FAMILY ENGAGEMENT – Parents are welcome and valued members of the school community and play a proactive role in their children’s learning, collaborating in the planning and assessment of student work. They use their assets to support the work of the school, and often play an integral role in building relationships with potential LTI mentors.
SCHOOL CULTURE – In Big Picture schools, there is palpable trust, respect and equality between and among students and adults. Students take leadership roles in the school, and teamwork defines the adult culture. Student voice is valued in the school decision making process and visitors are struck by the ease with which students interact with adults.
AUTHENTIC ASSESSMENT – Students are assessed not by tests, but by public displays of learning that track growth and progress in the student’s area of interest. Assessment criteria are individualized to the student and the real world standards of a project. Students present multiple exhibitions each year and discuss their learning growth with staff, parents, peers, and mentors.
SCHOOL ORGANIZATION – Schools are organized around a culture of collaboration and communication. They are not bound by the structures of buildings, schedules, bells, or calendars. There is an interdependence between school and community.
LEADERSHIP – Leadership is shared and spread between a strong, visionary principal; a dedicated, responsible team of advisors and other staff; and students. The community functions as a democracy. A pervasive sense of shared ownership drives a positive culture dedicated to ongoing improvement.
POST-SECONDARY PLANNING – Students develop plans that contribute to their future success–be it through college, trades, schools, travel, the military, or the workforce.
PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT – Regular advisor PD is conducted at each school by principals, other school staff, and BPL staff and coaches. A Big Picture School is a community of lifelong learners who embrace continuous improvement.
Big Picture Learning’s distinguishers exist as a comprehensive whole. They are interrelated and inform one another – none work in isolation. It is the seamless integration of reflection-based action and the distinguishers that result in the powerful success of the Big Picture Learning design.
A high-quality education starts with relationships. A diverse learning community, built on powerful relationships, ensures that the emotional and intellectual needs of students are met. Education can be personalized by supporting the development of meaningful, sustained relationships among teachers and students. In the Big Picture model, every student is known, respected, and appreciated by an adult (advisor) who has high expectations and the ability to guide student academic progress. Student work is also personalized, reflecting the individual student’s interests, talents and needs. Advisors have the flexibility to tailor and pace the curriculum according to students’ needs. Each student is assessed based on performances linked to specific, customized learning goals.
- Small class and school size – the 6-12 grade structure in a small, tight-knit environment minimizes school transitions and allows for deepened relationships over time
- Advisory – Adult advisors assist each student in creating learning plans, setting academic goals, preparing for exhibitions, developing internships (high school only), and addressing school issues and individual needs. Advisors work with students over multiple school years, visit students’ homes and serve as a point of contact for the family.
- Student learning plans – Each student creates an individualized learning plan in partnership with their parents/guardians, advisor, and internship mentor. These learning plans are presented multiple times throughout the year at student led conferences.
- Internships – High school students complete internships based on their interests and connected to learning goals.
- Portfolios/exhibitions – Each student will present her best work through a digital portfolio and quarterly exhibitions.
Young people experience some of their best learning outside of school walls. Incorporating work and college experiences into students’ high school studies increases the relevance of their class work and leads to enhanced engagement. Students see very real connections and applications of learning, and develop the skills necessary to succeed in college and career contexts. These experiences foster a sense of responsibility and maturity among young people, supporting their path toward adulthood with a sense of self-esteem that often increases their school success.
- College preparation and participation – beginning in 6th grade, students explore a variety of college options and learn about the skills needed to be successful in college and career contexts. Students prepare college essays, take college entrance exams and take both pre-college and college classes. Students are supported in the college application process and in seeking out financial assistance.
- Job shadows and internships –one to two days each week, high school students work in internships at businesses or community organizations related to their interests. Internships may last for one school term or extend over multiple years. At their internships, students complete substantive projects that further their learning goals and are of service to the organizations with which they work.
- Service learning –middle school students have opportunities to engage in community issues and participate in a variety of kinds of service that are linked to their interests and academic projects.
- Experts in classrooms – disciplinary experts partner with teachers around projects relating to real-world issues; local professionals serve on exhibition panels to help evaluate student work.
Common Intellectual Mission
Students, teachers, and other stakeholders work together in a joint intellectual effort based on high standards. Authentic, intellectually challenging curriculum, performance-based assessments, adaptive pedagogy, and multicultural teaching are utilized to prepare students for success in the college and/or career of their choice. A culture of achievement and learning is prevalent and cultivated by knowledgeable and skilled teachers throughout the middle and high school years. Appropriate support systems are in place for students to attain at high levels.
- High standards and performance-based assessments –Students must meet high academic standards through a rigorous course of study. Standards are clear and explicit to students, aligned with state and national frameworks, and coherent across teachers and disciplines. The curriculum is organized around common habits of mind (such as analysis, reasoning, application, and communication) that are consistently reinforced across classrooms. Student writing, artwork, and other projects are displayed prominently throughout the school to demonstrate the commitment to placing learning at the center of the school’s mission. Collaborative review of student work drives instructional decisions, and students have frequent opportunities to share, reflect, and receive feedback on their progress. A well-crafted, consistent system of performance assessment is based on common school-wide standards, integrated into daily classroom practice, and shows students what they need to do by providing models and demonstrations of the kinds of work expected from them.
- Authentic, intellectually challenging work -Teachers and students engage in authentic, in-depth learning experiences that are focused on preparing all students to work independently and to meet the skill and content demands of college and postsecondary life. Teachers link the curriculum to students’ own lives and interests, as well as to community, national, and global perspectives. Learning occurs through challenging inquiry and project-based curriculum and is centered on students’ personal passions, interests, styles, and needs.
- Adaptive pedagogy- Access to challenging curriculum and assignments does not automatically translate to student capacity to succeed. High standards cannot work without high supports. The school environment provides a range of opportunities for student success. Teachers use multiple instructional strategies to support active learning and give students different entry points to learning. There is highly structured group work with scaffolding as well as explicit instruction on academic skills, such as teaching students how to study, to approach academic tasks, to read and write at a college level, and to evaluate their own and others’ work. Teachers provide continual opportunities for practice and revision, and support students in developing courage and confidence to work continuously to improve their successive efforts. Extra afterschool support is provided as needed.
- Multicultural teaching – School staff display a serious commitment to promoting respect for diversity and creating a context within which students’ experiences can be understood, appreciated, and connected to the curriculum. Connections to the community are essential; teachers use their knowledge of the community to advance student learning. They acknowledge the realities that students encounter and work with them in pro-social ways to increase equity and opportunity. Teachers plan, teach, and learn together through learning communities. Families’ participation in the school is a valued contribution that staff members pursue through persistent outreach.
- Knowledgeable and skilled teachers who work collaboratively- Teachers are experts in their subject matter, the needs of diverse learners, and the learning process. All teachers understand and apply strategies to promote language learning and literacy development. Common planning time allows for more thoughtful and effective teaching within the classroom, greater coherence across courses and grade levels, and opportunities to develop a collective perspective on teaching and create a stronger school culture.
- Technology integration – Technology is used as a tool to facilitate, collaborate, communicate, and conduct inquiry learning. Technology is pervasive throughout the school’s learning environment to help students pursue their interests and develop workplace skills.
Shared Leadership & Responsibility
School leadership is shared by school staff, district, students, and families. The school mission, vision, and goals are clearly defined and understood by all. Stakeholders participate regularly in data-driven decision making focused on improving student achievement. Roles and responsibilities are clearly defined with support and accountability systems in place to ensure effectiveness. Students and staff have opportunities to develop key leadership skills.
- Advisory board with staff, parents, students, and community members
- School town meetings-PMU’s
- Student leadership programs
- Instructional Leadership Team and Professional Learning Communities
The school is seen as an asset to the community and community members are engaged with the school and with individual students. Community and family connections strengthen relationships in support of children and facilitate student success. To make conversations possible, the school communicates with parents in their primary language and provides translations as necessary. The school supports adult learning by partnering with community agencies to offer literacy or continuing education classes for parents. Community businesses contribute to student development by providing real world relationships, relevant learning opportunities, and rigorous expectations. Intentional cooperative relationships are built between the school and post-secondary institutions to ensure student learning opportunity and success.
- Partnerships with families – Student-led conferences, student learning plans, services for parents (computer access, language classes, other services as desired)
- Partnerships with the community – Industry partners for internships, community service opportunities, comprehensive support services
- Partnerships with postsecondary institutions – Colleges and universities support students in visits and course-taking; college transition specialists help students navigate the admissions and financial aid processes