Mysa School is a modern-day, one-room school house. Our students learn in a cooperative, multi-age environment; this is a collaborative, interdisciplinary school community where students chart their learning pathways, in close consultation with faculty. Students are empowered to choose how knowledge is constructed and how to demonstrate understanding. This results in a truly student-centered learning experience, where students are gifted with open and flexible physical spaces, a number of technological tools, and individualized curricula.
Mysa does not rely on scripted programs or adaptive software to design personalized programs. Our structure and relative size is deliberate: faculty members collaborate to create individual learning plans based on frequent and extensive learner feedback. We carefully consider student evaluations of engagement, level of challenge, and time to determine menu activities. Learners also structure their time as they see fit. They are empowered to work on menu activities in any order she or he chooses, and faculty organize their weekly class schedules around students.
Mysa learners also engage in six-to-eight-week interdisciplinary units of study, based on student and faculty interest, as well as relevance to the community. These complement their studies in traditional, grade-level subjects, such as algebra, science, world languages, and literature. We call these “Connect Units,” because they integrate multiple subjects, meet numerous academic standards, and leverage community resources. Within our Connect Units, learners engage in collaborative conversations with mixed-aged peers and pursue unique lines of inquiry.
For instance, an eight-week Connect Unit on food included learning in all subject areas, at the same time. Learners used skills in language arts, mathematics, science, world languages, and the social sciences to study the origins, industrialization, and inequities in access to food in the United States. Students worked in core subject areas all related to the concept of food, integrating curricular conversations in order to promote deeper and more meaningful learning. Mysa students and faculty also took weekly trips related to food issues, such as urban gardens, foraging hikes, service at local food banks, and re-enacting a justice-oriented “grocery walk” through a local “food desert.” This unit culminated with a three-day camping trip to a rural Maryland farm, where students enjoyed nature, communed with animals, and worked on an actual farm to better understand the production and cultivation of seasonal produce.
Mysa School uses a “mastery model” of education and assessment. A mastery model simply means that students move at their own pace. As students master skills and content, they move on. In this way, covering a course and receiving credit is not contingent upon spending a certain number of hours in a class, but rather moving along as one learns the material. A mastery model allows students of different ages and grades to work together at a level that suits each student’s learning style, interests, needs, and pace.
Students spend time each day working semi-independently according to their own completely customized academic program. Every student has an individual learning plan and set of lessons that are unique to that student. The learning plans are based on our outcome curriculum and chart a course for the skills and content that each individual student needs to master.
Student’s individual classes and lessons draw from a variety of local and online resources. These resources might include whole programs, online classes, thematic units, individual lessons and learning games. MYSA School utilizes resources and curriculum from around the globe to teach and move students through academic subject mastery. We take advantage of the expertise in each subject that is available virtually on the Internet and next to impossible to get from any traditional classroom. During individual work time, subject-area specific teachers will be available to guide, explain, give a lesson or lab and assist the students in their work
Because the work is individual and the goal is to master skills and learn ideas, students are continuously assessed as they progress through the material at their own pace. In this way a student who excels in a particular area is not tethered by classmates or the teacher’s lessons and a rigid timeline, but rather can move independently at her own pace taking the time she needs to learn the material deeply.
At the beginning of each week each student will get his or her weekly “Mysa Menu.” The menu includes all the work that the student is expected to complete that week (during the individual learning blocks of time). In some respects the work goals are similar to those one might see in other schools. However, the Mysa Menu is completely customized to meet the needs of each student in each academic subject. The menu includes not only the academic “to do” list for the week, but other items the student needs to complete (e.g., clean the hamster cage, practice your foul shots). The student can pick and choose what she wants to do when, with ample choice in how she organizes her time to complete her weekly lessons and tasks.
Every day, students work in small teams on a problem-based learning task or project. For the most part, these tasks will be focused on real-world problems that demand solutions drawn from multiple disciplines and that take into account many perspectives. Topics for group projects might include issues related to poverty, clean water, transnational terrorism, global health, homelessness, equity in education, and cyber governance. As groups work on these issues they will need to draw from multiple disciplines and uncover the complex layers involved in addressing these problems.
The collaborative group projects will emphasize what is known in education as “place based education.” Place based education connects the classroom to the community by immersing the students in the local heritage, culture, landscape and opportunities. In the DC area there are a plethora of resources, places and people that we will work with and learn from as students address real world problems and journey out into the real world to ask questions and apply what they know.
Another component of the collaborative work is to utilize the multidisciplinary nature of the projects to help with the transfer of ideas. Research on learning and the brain shows that when something new is learned, a new neural pathway is created in the brain. As that learning is reinforced, so too is the neural pathway related to that learning. It requires great effort to connect what is learned in one context to other contexts. Transference is the transferring of an idea in one context to another context. It is that “a-ha!” moment when one sees a connection between two things that were not previously recognized as being related. In the brain it is literally establishing a new neural pathway between two already established neural pathways – like building a link between two railway systems. When connections are made across ideas, disciplines, and previously learned concepts, then the neural pathways become more complex, solid, and deeper. In setting up the group projects, one of the goals will be to emphasize cross-disciplinary and transferable concepts so that the students have exciting “a-ha!” moments, literally adding more depth and complexity to their knowledge, their minds,and their brains.
The collaborative group work will be a place where students learn a much needed skill in today’s world – how to work with other people. The group projects will have deliverables that the group must produce together, including papers, presentations, and action plans. In this setting, the goal will be to help students get along with each other, to teach students strategies for working with other people – to navigate interpersonal relationships. Working with others to solve a problem is a crucial skill in life that is often not taught in schools. Yet there is nothing quite as satisfying as a team that works well together and creates something meaningful. It is also just fun to work with your friends.