Imagine you are on an airplane, mid-flight, and you strike up a conversation with the passenger beside you. Together you start comparing high school as you know it from your hometown. If you are from BC, you would likely share some personal experience while outlining the basic framework: 30 students per classroom, 1 teacher per room, different curriculum for each course, 4 classes per day, 5 days of school per week, 8 courses per year, bells to dictate start and end times, etc. Although your description may include some variations on school culture and unique attributes, the basic learning environment would likely sound similar regardless of who was telling the story…unless you are from Thomas Haney!
Six weeks ago I began a new position as Vice Principal at Thomas Haney Secondary. I have held off blogging about the school until now as I wanted to have time to experience the culture and understand the model before sharing it publicly. Although I am certainly not an expert, I feel confident describing what makes Thomas Haney so incredibly unique!
Thomas Haney is part of the Canadian Coalition for Self Directed Learning. Following a unique model, each student is on a personalized learning program where they have the ability to explore their passions and focus on their strengths as they work towards graduation. Students develop competencies necessary for life after graduation including communication skills, planning, an understanding of their learning style, organization, negotiation and technological literacy skills.
When students begin grade eight, they become part of a multi-grade Teacher Advisory (TA) Group. Essentially, this becomes their home base or family at school. TA meets at the start and end of each day. Students stay with the same teacher for TA throughout their five years of high school. This allows for very strong relationships between teachers and students, and allows parents to have a key contact at the school for communicating about their child. The teacher advisor is in frequent communication with the other teachers to stay informed of the progress the students in TA are making in their coursework.
Each day, students use their planner to set their learning goals for the day. They use the morning TA time to determine what they are going to work on, where they will be working, and what their weekly goals are. The teacher advisor signs off on the plan after discussing it with the students.
Each course at Thomas Haney is divided into twenty learning guides. As students complete learning guides, they track their progress in their planner to communicate with their TA and their parents. Teachers from each course will pace the course and communicate with students about which learning guide they should be working on. The school is not self paced, though the structure and learning is self-directed so that the students have opportunities to decide what to work on when, and how to demonstrate their learning. This often leads to creative explorations where students follow their passions and engage in projects that meet the learning outcomes of multiple courses at the same time.
As students progress through the grades, their schedules allow them more flexibility, and more control over their own learning. In grade eight, all students are in set classes all day. Each of the eight set classes meet three times per week. Many choose to participate in our grade eight laptop pod where every student has a laptop with the necessary resources instead of a bag full of textbooks. On Mondays, grade eight’s join all other grades in a one hour ‘Y’ block where students choose where to work and what to work on.
In grade nine, each course meets two times per week instead of three. The remaining blocks become work blocks, where students plan their own day and choose their work areas. Each department has a ‘Great Hall’ where students can choose to work. Teachers also have flexible schedules with a mix of set classes or time in the great halls supporting learning. In grades ten through twelve, most courses meet for one set class per week with the expectation that the student attend the great hall at least two times per week to work on that particular course.
What is the result? Well, here are some of my first impressions. First of all, the teachers have an increased amount of time to collaborate as they are often in shared work spaces that lend themselves to natural collaboration. Next, the relationship between students and teachers is very strong. As you walk through the great halls you see teachers sitting next to students working one on one or in small groups, allowing for individual attention and meaningful dialogue.
What surprised me most, is how able the students are at handling the increased responsibility. Almost all students rise to the challenge and as a result, there are very few behaviour issues. As you walk through the school you see students from all grades working in the same areas, helping one another, and working with the teachers to guide their learning. While working on curriculum, students are also developing competencies that range from time management to creativity. As an example, just last week, two students who had never worked together before began talking and decided to create this amazing spoken poem about social justice. They will share it live at the upcoming Maple Ridge Social Justice conference. They will also share this with their Socials and English teachers to see what learning outcomes this project meets.
The open structure and flexible scheduling also lends itself nicely to unique school events during the day such as the recent ‘Poetry Slam’ contest pictured here that took place in our English Great Hall. Next week for spirit week, all students dress in colours representing their TA’s, and participate in a variety of events culminating with the annual Gym Riot where the colours compete in friendly competition.
Finally, what I have recognized in my short time here, is that the staff and students of Thomas Haney absolutely love their school. They are incredibly proud of the unique model, and appreciate learning in a way that models what we see in the changing workplace. Graduates leave feeling ready to embrace the world, with the competencies necessary to navigate their next adventure in life. And, if that next adventure finds them on a flight, I can assure you they will have lots to talk about when they spark up a conversation addressing what high school is like in their hometown.
It’s always good to hear about first impressions when one has become part of the institution. I am always thrilled and proud to tell my travel companions about the amazing place I where I work, what it has meant to me personally, and to all three of my sons. Even though only one of them actually graduated from THSS, all three achieved our seven exit outcomes and have “sought challenge and experienced success” in their lives. When my eldest son began university at the age of 29 he complained, “Mum, these people don’t know how to write! Thank goodness for the “7-step paragraph!”. For those of you who are new to THSS, the “7-step paragraph” is a basic method taught from grade 8 on which clarifies a student’s thoughts. It is one reason our students have scored extremely well on writing assesments, just one of the ways THSS students excel.
As an original member of staff I can’t imagine working anywhere else in our district. Dealing with change and being able to witness students reaching their potential in so many ways feeds my soul and affirms my selfish reason for being an educator. I want the people who succeed me to be caring, well-rounded, able citizens. For twenty-one years I have be privileged to be a small part of thousands of amazing students’ time in this wonderful community.
THanks for sharing Heather. It’s really neat to see how many staff here have also had their children attend Thomas Haney.
Sounds like a great opportunity for students and staff to explore the inquiry model of learning. I also like the TA times as a great way to develop the culture of a school and transition new students. Thanks for the brief description of your new school.
Sounds like a great adventure.
Thanks Bryn. It’s very cool to see a very different model. If you ever want to come visit on pro-d just let me know!