MS students looking forward to greater course choice next year
MS student with laptop and keyboard

By Jessica Thompson, Newswire

“The best middle school programs allow students to explore a broad range of topics and activities while also allowing them to choose areas they would like to explore much deeper,” according to Jon Hill, Middle School (MS) Principal at the International School of Beijing (ISB).

And the notion of choice is precisely what ISB’s new MS elective program is designed around.

“[We’re adding] more opportunity for student choice and deep exploration in subject areas that excite our students,” says Hill.

Specifically, with performing arts, visual arts, design and technology, ISB is moving away from standardized, required classes, and towards flexible, elective courses where students can direct their learning. From the start of 2019-2020, students in grade 6 will take quarter-long classes in drama, design, music and visual arts, plus choose one elective in each semester.

And grade 7 and 8 students will choose two electives each semester, experiencing electives from three clusters – “Make,” “Perform,” and “Enrichment” – over the year.

“The Make cluster of electives will allow students to think, make and learn as artists, designers and engineers; the Perform cluster provides opportunities to develop theater, choral and instrumental music abilities,” says Hill. “The Enrichment classes are short, nine-week courses that provide a relaxed, social learning experience within non-traditional subjects without the stress of academic grades.”

These large and important changes are consistent with exciting developments in the High School and the Elementary School, where reforms to what students will study next year are all focused on the general principle of choice and flexibility.  

“ISB is innovating across the school,” notes Hill.

MS students on mat

Mastery, autonomy, purpose

When asked why choice is paramount to the future success of students, Hill quotes Daniel Pink’s book Drive, about the secrets of motivating people.

According to the MS principal, students gain a sense of autonomy through the ability to choose electives and have the option to pursue projects they actually want to pursue.  

Students demonstrate mastery as they develop their skill set through more profound learning experiences, the theory goes. And as students connect learning to real-world problems, they gain a sense of authentic purpose.

“We want to see highly motivated and inspired students, who want to use their skills to benefit others and themselves,” says Hill.

Teachers take lead role in course changes

Teachers took on the lead role in designing their courses, with guidance from Middle School leadership and the Office of Learning (OOL), which oversees course design across the school.

“Our teachers are passionate about their subjects and have great ideas about how to infuse these new courses with meaningful learning so that students have a fabulous experience,” says Hill.

The OOL ensured the courses follow ISB curriculum standards – and that they not only build on Elementary School experiences but also prepare students for High School.

MS student with saw

A closer look at an elective

To truly understand the significance of the new electives, you need to see one in action.

“The drama elective will empower young people with confidence, creativity, and communication skills through engaging lessons and fun, collaborative projects,” says MS drama and dance teacher Hannah Northcott. “They will learn essential skills that will help them become successful in whatever course or career they choose to do in the future.”

In her time teaching drama, Northcott has seen how these courses can help students become confident individuals. She cites Arianna B, who joined the MS production as a shy sixth grader.

Arianna says, “The transformation that drama provides young people is unreal. drama helps you come out of your shell. I’ve discovered that I need to take more risks when it comes to new things and not be afraid to make mistakes.”

When it comes to the launch of the new electives, Northcott is most looking forward to spending more curricular time with the students and coaching them to realize their potential.

The new drama program will combine curricular and co-curricular activities such as the annual MS production and the International Schools Theatre Association (ISTA) festivals.

“You need drama,” says Hila G, another former students of Ms. Northcott’s. “Not just for fun, but to learn. It can help you with anything.”

MS students with robot

New electives part of a larger vision

According to Hill, the new electives are a pivotal part of ISB’s larger vision and transformation of the Middle School.  

The Middle School has a history of exciting programs, including the Futures Academy, which is an integrated-subject, project-based optional program for grade 7 and 8 students.

“From these types of initiatives we learn and grow as a Middle School to better serve students and families,” Hill says.

And over the next few years, he wants ISB to continue to be a leading school in areas of social-emotional learning, student health and well-being, integrated-subject learning, student leadership development, learner-driven approaches, inclusion of students with learning needs, elective programs, parent education, and improved instructional practices. “The best middle schools are constantly adapting to the needs of students, and the ISB Middle School aims to maintain its reputation as a world-class middle school program,” says Hill.

“We hope that the new elective program elevates our students’ enthusiasm and joy for their Middle School experience by giving them a sense of identity and ownership of their overall program,” he adds. “By allowing students to go deeper into subjects of their choosing, we expect to see higher-level projects and products from our students, as well as increased community connections.”

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