Visiting Millbrook High School: A Once-In-A-Blue-Moon Opportunity by Xiaojing Hou

Since September 16th, my BRS colleague and I have started to visit Millbrook High School. This is a once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity for us to experience an American public high school and IB (International Baccalaureate) Program each Friday over a period of two months! Based on my own observation and reflection, the following three characteristics of its curriculum design contribute to create an environment where authentic learning takes place.

With Ms. Natasha Wilson, Assistant Principal of Millbrook High School
With Ms. Natasha Wilson, Assistant Principal of Millbrook High School

Block Scheduled Classes

Millbrook High School adopts block scheduling for their classes. Each class is approximately 80-90 minutes in length. Every day, students have 4 block classes starting from 7:20 in the morning to 2:20 in the afternoon, with a 30-minute lunch break in between. Theoretically, this system of block scheduling affords students equivalent amount of time in class as compared with 8 periods of classes, leaving more free time for self-study and extra-curricular activities. Nonetheless, block scheduling has been a controversial practice as it can bring either a learning hell or a leaning haven in specific circumstances. It has merits of keeping the completeness of teaching and ensuring more in-time hands-on practices that promote active learning. On the other hand, it is rather challenging for teachers to keep students busy and on-task in an entire duration of 90 minutes.

I conversed with several students and was surprised that they took such elective courses as Creative Writing, Agriculture, Civil engineering, Entrepreneurship, Fashion and Strategic Marketing. It was totally beyond my imagination that Entrepreneurship, Fashion and Agriculture appear in a public high school’s curriculum.
I was also impressed when someone showed me a room in which disabled students were taught how to do the laundry with washing machines. Students’ interests and development needs are highly reflected in the curriculum.

A group of students are doing teamwork based on reading the book: Things Fall Apart
A group of students are doing teamwork based on reading the book: Things Fall Apart

What is the key to success of block scheduled English class? My supervisor, Mrs. Abbott, a very nice and excellent teacher in the school presents me the answer: being well-structured and tight. She never lectured more than ten minutes. Most of the time, she made good use of Whiteboard and projector to provide clear-cut instructions to keep students on-task. Each task, being it individual work or group assignment, reading or writing, usually required 10-15 minutes to finish. Students were expected to hand in their in-class assignments (either a piece of paper or a poster) to demonstrate their learning progress. Mrs. Abbott successfully integrated all four skills in her English Language Arts class each day, and frequently used quizzes as a formative assessment tool to detect learning progress with precision. Sometimes, Mrs. Abbott taught how to use technology to cite sources and basic written text format for their own projects. I believe Mrs. Abbott’s block class is a learning haven for students.

Inquiry-based Curriculum

Students’ individual work based on the reading of a short story Thank you, M’am
Students’ individual work based on the reading of a short story Thank you, M’am

Inquiry-based curriculum is another highlight of Millbrook High School. Grade 11th and 12th students enrolled in Diploma Programme are expected to write an extended essay of 4,000 words describing an independent research project, complete 150 hours of creative, action and service activities(CAS), and take part in a critical thinking class called Theory of Knowledge(TOK); whereas in Grade 9th and 10th, Middle Years Programme is organized around three major concepts including Intercultural Awareness, Holistic Education, and Communication. Students take the core courses of English, social studies, mathematics, science, physical education, foreign language, visual and performing arts, and technology.

A unique constitutive part is Personal Project in Grade 10, which contains four components including a process journal, a paper, a product and a presentation. Each student got a pamphlet of Persona Project Guide at the beginning of the semester, in which there were detailed instruction, timeline, journal forms, and rubric of the Personal Project. The final Personal Project will be evaluated by a panel on 13th-16th of December and will be graded into their final English score. The English teacher is mainly responsible for the personal project. But in the whole process, supervisors meet with their students twice to offer additional help. Every three students are assigned to one supervisor (other subject teachers) to join the group in the English class to listen to students’ preliminary report on their topics and give further guidance and suggestions. Students need to take advantage of their after-school time to initiate their project and finish by December. It’s very obvious the personal project is an opportunity for students to reflect on their ability to initiate, manage and direct their own inquiry and to master basic research and resource integration abilities required in college.

Picture 1 & 4: The School Symphony and Music Studio; Picture 2: a corner of Agriculture classroom; Picture 3: a corner of life-skills training classroom
Picture 1 & 4: The School Symphony and Music Studio<br />Picture 2: a corner of Agriculture classroom; Picture 3: a corner of life-skills training classroom

Whole Person Education

We are attending Pep Rally in the gym
We are attending Pep Rally in the gym

When I was informed of the upcoming Homecoming Week, along with the Pep Rally before the school soccer game, I had no idea what it was at all. While witnessing such an all students-involved event, I was totally drawn into the crazy and contagious atmosphere. Every student was attentive and actively engaged in dancing, singing, interactive games or cheering groups. When a group of disabled students walked into the gym, everyone in the gym simultaneously stood up and gave them sincere longer applauses. I was awed by students’ natural empathy and respect for the disabled. Meanwhile, I was sad to think of the fact that Chinese public high school students were still buried in countless exercises of Math, English, Physics, Chemistry and other cliché subjects, while their American peers are preparing themselves to be whole persons and embrace a flat world that new opportunities and challenges emerge.