Monday, May 14, 2018

Reflections on "The Best PD Ever!" Part 2- ISB's Futures Academy

This is the second part of my school visits blog post series. If you would like to read about the trip's purpose, objectives, and other background information, as well as about what I learned about Design at the International School of Beijing, please visit this blog post.

*** Disclaimer: These five days of school visits have been extremely busy, interesting and intense few days, and I have no doubt I did not get the full picture of the history, present, and plans for the future of each of the programs I observed and conversed about. If you notice and inaccuracy, I apologize and would appreciate if you could contact me so that I can represent these hard-working educators and their work more accurately.

  Image result for future's academy beijing

The Futures Academy at the International School of Beijing

On both school visit days, we met with Kelsey Giroux (@Kels_Giroux), who graciously and skillfully took us through the past, present, and future of ISB’s Futures Academy. The Future’s Academy first started as a Middle School program for students in grades 7 and 8, and later on was expanded, yet in a somewhat different direction, to the High School (grades 9 and 10). One of the things I appreciated most about ISB educators has been their openness about the processes and the products of the innovative programs- their successes, but also their struggles. I am proud to b
e a part of a global community of innovative and forward-thinking educators!

Middle School Future’s Academy (“FA”)


  • 2013-2014- Startup year. Documentation and preparation. No students were admitted to the program. 
  • 2014-2015- Program begins with grade 7 students.
  • 2015-2016- Program expands to grade 8, and includes about 70 students (40 in grade 7, and 30 in grade 8) 
  • 2016-2017- 80 students in MS FA (A HS FA program is offered for grade 9 students) 
  • 2017-2018- 85 students in MS FA (HS program rolls up to grade 10). 
  • 2018-2019- Enrollment projected to be approximately 80 students (HS program will shift into three interdisciplinary courses) 

Program Overview:

  • Purpose: the MS FA was designed to address the school’s strategic initiatives 
  • Pedagogical Focus: Initially, Project Based Learning. It then morphed into broader approaches (inquiry, design-thinking, etc.) 
  • Service: Offered to grades 7 and 8. Capacity is at 88 (44 students in each grade level). 
  • Funding: Comes out of school or FA budget.
  • Subject integration: Humanities (ELA & SS), science, math, and Mandarin. Later on, integration with Mandarin was dropped, and there was a more flexible integration that varied in each project. 
  • Curriculum Writing: Projects were designed by the facilitators in the first year, and continued as the program evolved.
  • Standards: Similar to the entire school, Common Core Math, Common Core ELA, NGSS for Science, C3 for Social Studies. The FA program addressed the same standards as non-FA students did. 
  • 21st Century Skills: Each project includes at least two “L21” skills. These are included in assessment and reporting as well. 
  • Design-Thinking: All projects are anchored around ISB’s design-thinking process 
  • Project Based Learning: 
  • Facilitators: Six full-time facilitators total (2 Humanities, 2 Math/Science, 1 Math Specialist, 1 Learning Support/ EAL) 
  • Documentation: Students’ Process Journals: 
    • Online 
    • Sheets to work on specific skills/ areas 

    Special Projects: “Ignite” Weeks

    Throughout the year, MS FA students are working on special projects aimed to “ignite a spark in each student and inspire their passions within and beyond Futures Academy”. This is done outside of the FA curriculum in three different one-week projects (I call them "sessions" here). These projects are chunked as follows:

    Session #1: MAKE IT 

    • The focus is on building and creating). 
    • Example student-initiated projects would be upcycling, designing fidgeters, fashion, and cooking.
    Session #2: EXPRESS IT 

    • The focus on communication/arts. 
    • Example projects: Custome design, designing and sewing one's own flag
    Session #3: PERSONALIZE IT 

    • More free choice- students get to design their own projects.

    The Ignite Project facilitators created a short but comprehensive project planner to ensure project facilitator think about all the necessary elements: 
    • Guiding question 
    • Focus area (L21) 
    • Skill focus 
    • Voice and choice 
    • Planning- how to incorporate the ISB design process 
    • Logistics- supplies or space 
    • Max number of students 
    FA's Sample Project Planner

    Important Takeaways- MS Futures Academy:

    • The Futures Academy is a parallel program to the “regular” MS path. It is important to plan and articulate well how the programs are similar and different, and to ensure communication is ongoing and open, and that there are proper understanding and support for the creation of the program from all stakeholders 
    • Not all students are passionate in the same way. It is difficult for some students to come up with passions. Some kids benefit from more guided choices while others work very well with less guidance. 
    • Student-driven learning is not something kids know innately. They need to be prepared from an early age. 

    High School Future’s Academy (“FA”)

    Program History

    The High School Future’s Academy program came about after the creation of the Middle School FA program (see timeline above). The idea was to design a completely personalized learning opportunity for grade 9 and 10, with the essential question in mind: What are we doing for all ISB students? (which was different than the way the MS program was conceived and how it ran). The HS FA team dedicated thought to the program planning and implementation, and two and a half full-time teachers were hired for the job. It seems that things moved very quickly upon implementation, and perhaps, as a result, some of the fundamental assumptions they held, turned out to not materialize. For example, an “Ideal Candidate” profile was created, but those who signed up for the program did not match those characteristics; World Languages (Mandarin, in this case,) was designed to be an integral part of the program, but later on they realized it was too linear and the workload too demanding to be integrated into such program, so they had to exclude it. Another area they grappled with, was that it is still a school-within-a-school type of program, and some teachers expressed their concerns about it being a separate program for a few selected individuals.

    From Past to Present

    Since its inception in 2016, the High School Future’s Academy had developed quite a bit. Currently, students in grades 9 and 10 can choose which path to take, and this year, there are 8 students participating in this more personalized learning path. As mentioned earlier, learning is facilitated by two full-time teachers and one part-time teacher who plan and guide learners. These facilitators meet every other day to look at common assessments, rubrics and more. They report that this planning time is essential to the smooth flow of the program.

    Students in HS FA work on both group- and individual projects simultaneously, and facilitators are required to cover a variety of English, Science and Design standards. Although many of the projects students choose to do include math-related skills, the facilitators are not required to cover any specific standards or skills.

    The length of projects ranges from two to about eight weeks (groups projects are on the longer end). Facilitators believe that shorter projects work better. They also realized that even at this age/stage, not all students have developed deep interests yet, and are using project ideas to try things out. They believe that if you start such self-directed learning experiences earlier, kids would know how to function in this environment, and what they like to do. As a result, projects could be lengthened and more complicated.

    Facilitating Projects

    Projects begin with students pitching their ideas to their cohort and the facilitators, and get help in refining and specifying the specific area they would like to investigate. Teacher modeling is a big part of the facilitators’ work.

    As the facilitators planned and evolved with this unique course, one of the most challenging areas they reported was students’ progress management. Therefore, they spent a lot of time creating documentation to support students throughout their learning. Here are a few of the systems they put in place:

    • All Standards were unpacked and re-written in student-friendly language (as “big ideas”). They printed them on note cards, and have a digital version of them for those who prefer a digital version.
    • Each student has a section of the collapsible whiteboard panel to organize their space
    • An erasable calendar is used to write important deadlines for each student
    • NGSS standards note cards are displayed publicly, and students can place a standard card in the correct place on a magnetic chart to keep track of work and progress with that particular standard.
    • Individual student Excel spreadsheets with separate sheets for each subject and standard were created. Facilitators use these sheets to keep track of student progress in relation to the standards.
    • The learning environment includes three spaces- two more connected for instruction and discussion (with a TV and a projector), and a separate quiet space for individuals or groups (with a round table and whiteboards)

    As this program evolves, ongoing changes take place as well. At this point, there are only eight students in the program, and all those involved are coming up with creative ways to offer a more integrated and attractive program for their school population. Here are some program enhancements that are taking place at ISB’s Future’s Academy:

    • Next year, FA will be offered in a different way- There will be a change from an every-other-day schedule to a program embedded throughout the day
    • Students are getting more training and support to become more self-directed and independent.
    • More supporting documents are being created to support and manage student progress
    • To prepare students from an earlier point, now the grade 8 Future’s Academy includes a self-paced project
    • There is an emphasis on teaching group work skills, as sometimes students argue a lot. Teaching them how to compromise in a way that would lead to progress is important
    • Making use of a long-term student portfolio to reflect on progress is being considered


    • My most important takeaway today was the realization that no innovative program can be successful without sufficient planning and student preparation. If we would like to create a personalized learning path for our students at ICS, it is crucial to start teaching them who they are, what their learning styles and curiosities are, and most importantly- how to make decisions about their own learning, from an early age. 
    • For innovative programs to be successful, it is important for teachers to have sufficient time to conceptualize, predict and prepare all the materials and systems to support such learning. For example, for us adult trained educators it may take many hours (or years…) to skim through articles and find quality materials. Expecting students to do this work would mean students are potentially sacrificing valuable time for redundant work rather than analyzing and synthesizing relevant materials, or making progress in their learning. Don’t get me wrong, I completely believe in the importance of teaching students to locate and critique sources, but if we had them do it all the time, it might be taking too much time.

    This has been an excellent part of my visit. Seeing the endpoint and keeping the journey in mind is helpful when designing a schoolwide experience. Kelsey Giroux, one of the talented FA organizers and facilitators, has shared that this is her third year in the MS and HS Future’s Academy. She said it had been a long process of learning and understanding how to support students, focus their learning, and to help them plan which standards and strands to focus on at each point. So, whatever it is we will be planning at ICS-Addis, we have to be ready to follow the design-thinking process ourselves- to plan, execute, iterate and reiterate again and again, until what we create works well for our teaching and learning environment.

    Additional Resources about ISB's Futures Academy:

    I hope you enjoyed reading about ISB's Futures Academy. It has been an insightful and unique opportunity for me, and I am happy to share my learning from these forward-thinking individuals and schools!

    Coming up next, the incredible facilities and personalized-learning programs at Western Academy of Beijing, specifically, their fascinating "FLoW" program ("Future Learning of WAB")!

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