Learn by doing 2.0: Hillview Middle School produces mini-course week 2015

by Parke Treadway on April 15, 2015

“School. Only different” is back in Menlo Park. Following a successful debut last year, Hillview Middle School is again producing its Mini-Course Program this week, featuring the return of popular courses like The Hero’s Journey and Crime Scene Investigation, plus creative additions including Fun with Physics and The Art of War.

During the week, students are forgoing their traditional classes and participating solely in the subject of their choosing. Lessons in biology, writing, physics, PE, woodshop, music and more are being communicated not with textbooks and tests, but with hands-on experiences through on and off campus lessons, an extensive roster of guest speakers and over 80  field trips all over the Bay Area, culminating in a day of performances and events.

Hilliview mini_Barrett MooreHillview enjoys a growing reputation as one of Silicon Valley’s most innovative and creative public middle schools with its 1:1 iPad program, success in closing the academic achievement gap, and willingness to try new ideas. The Mini-Course Program is no exception. Created as a response to student desire for more choice around academic programming, Mini-Courses allow teachers to choose subjects they are passionate to teach with students choosing from over 35 diverse topics.

This year saw the return of Hillview’s Washington, D.C. tour for eighth graders, offered as one Mini-Course choice with an increased focus on history and civic engagement. Led by five faculty members, over 70 students embarked on this adventure that was made available to all students regardless of ability to pay, thanks to community support for the Mini-Course program.

As with all new and complex ideas, much was learned by implementing the first iteration of Mini-Courses. In an example of putting the design process to work in education, the program was evaluated, and administration re-empathized with stakeholders areas for improvement. In fact, the future of the program was not guaranteed. Student and parent surveys found overwhelming support for the Mini-Course goals of collaboration, choice in learning, hands on activities and community involvement.

Teachers loved being with their students in a whole new way, but wanted some adjustments to the schedule and planning time required to dedicate themselves to this challenging week. Trusting the administration and Mini-Course planning team to address their concerns going forward, the Hillview staff ultimately voted by a 2 to 1 margin to commit to Mini-Courses as a signature event in Hillview’s curriculum.

When Mini-Course 2.0 commenced on Monday (4/13), it was with renewed energy and anticipation from teachers, incredible support from parent and community volunteers, full commitment by the Menlo Park City School District with resources and funding, and nearly 900 students excited to be at school for a whole week learning things they never thought possible in middle school.

Author of this post, Parke Treadway, is part of the Hillview Mini-Course Planning Team

Top photo by Chris Arrington; second photo by Barrett Moore


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