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WISE Struggles to Guide Students Properly

David Beal, Staff Writer
May 31, 2011

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During second semester there comes an exhilarating day for freshmen, sophomores and juniors all across campus.  Sometime in February, counselors pop into each English class and distribute that colored course sign-up sheet asking: What do you want to learn next year?

For some juniors, this is a particularly exciting day because they can finally sign up for that WISE “thing” they’ve been hearing about for three years—“the class where you can leave campus early!”
WISE is “English 4 Wise Individualized Senior Experience,” an alternative senior English course.  For the first semester, students come to class and read the senior literature requirements at an accelerated pace.  During that time, they choose an independent study project for second semester.

Instead of coming to class second semester, students  spend at least five hours per week at a “third space” that isn’t home or school.  Students generally intern, volunteer, or take a class; third spaces this year include preschools, hospitals, design firms, and music production classes.

Students each have a faculty mentor, and they meet with each other biweekly during second semester and discuss how the project is going.

Additionally, students keep a journal with 1,000 words per week, and they do research related to their topic.  At the end of the year, students give a 30-45 minute presentation on their experience, which is evaluated by parents, students, teachers, and other community members.

WISE is reputed to be the class to take for students who are creative, passionate, exploratory, and independent-minded.  The intent is to push students outside the boundaries of Miramonte and Orinda, and to improve their work and communication skills in professional settings.  Students are supposed to face real-world difficulties and, ultimately, demonstrate personal growth.

Teachers Pete Clauson and Alison Burke introduced WISE to Miramonte ten years ago after a WASC accreditation recommended more opportunities for seniors.  “It’s an authentic way for students to learn as adults do,” says WISE teacher Elizabeth Aracic.

It sounds like a perfect class; at least, that’s what I thought when I enrolled last year.  But certain structural challenges are inherent in independent study courses, and WISE is no exception.
For their entire school career, students have been learning within specific and mostly uniform classroom paradigms.  When we sit in a classroom for 45-50 minutes each day, a teacher can directly control and test our educational experience to a large extent, as long as we demonstrate a minimum level of engagement in the course.

In independent study courses, these paradigms are shifted.  WISE has to deal with this loss of direct control by creating expectations for students: journals, research, a third space.  “WISE exists in a climate of education right now that’s all about accountability and measurability and commonality.  It’s not something the SAT board can create a test for,” says WISE teacher Steve Poling.

Whether it’s due to the current climate of education or not, the course has to reconcile students’ projects with its own curricular standards, and sometimes this can make students feel that they have to turn their experience into something that it isn’t.

The academic intention of the program—to develop students’ abilities to write high-volume reflective writing—is sound.  The attention WISE lavishes on the “personal growth” standard is somewhat more problematic.

This concept is a touchstone in WISE; you’ll never stop hearing it if you take the course. There’s nothing inherently wrong with crafting a narrative about one’s growth over a semester, but in WISE, communicating and evaluating that growth becomes murky.

Although it partially depends on the attitudes of the students’ mentors, teachers, and evaluators, one tends to hear and see somewhat generic, quotidian responses to the growth aspect of journals and presentations.  Since that growth is by definition “personal” and hyper-subjective, it’s understandable why it’s tough to criticize.

But in some ways, it limits the course.  Some students have difficulty conveying WISE growth, and the guidance and feedback they receive can be inconsistent: “I bring up a problem with my experience, and the adults instead focus on a different problem that I didn’t know I had,” said an anonymous student.
Keeping a WISE journal with the goal of monitoring “personal growth” exerts a subtle pressure on students to put experiences into an emotional box.  Students will inevitably grow during their second semester, but sometimes it feels like they are being told what they learned or how they grew.  There are many ways to show growth, and WISE might benefit from a more open definition of this concept in future years.  This would eliminate some of the unfocused rhetoric that inflates both WISE journals and the class in general.

Taking WISE is a gamble in a few ways.  First, not all students who have signed up will be able to enroll.  Currently, there are two periods of WISE, one with Aracic and one with Poling.  Due to budget constraints and lower interest, however, WISE will only have one period next year, with all students in Poling’s class.

WISE may not be exactly what you expect it to be.  You, future WISE students, need to be determined, focused, and willing to make compromises—and not just at your third spaces.  Navigating the WISE mechanism inside the gates of Miramonte may be your biggest challenge of all.

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