Seventh graders in Tony Granito’s advisory class at Bellevue Big Picture School are hard at work using scissors, paper and tape to create miniature rocket ships. The drinking straw-powered, pencil-sized spacecraft will be put to the test in the coming days to see how far they can soar. Like the rockets, students at Bellevue Big Picture are reaching new heights.
This year, Bellevue Big Picture School has 300 students enrolled in grades 6-11. In 2015, it will graduate its first class of seniors, the same students who helped launched the new Bellevue Big Picture as ninth graders in the fall of 2011. Three years after opening its doors, how is the school preparing its students for success in college, career and life?
At Bellevue Big Picture, the road to success begins in middle school. “The Big Picture design is really centered on personalized, interest-based, community-based learning,” explains Principal Bethany Spinler. That plays out in several ways.
Bellevue Big Picture students have teachers called advisors. Their advisors start with them in sixth grade and stay with them all three years of middle school. Advisors lead the advisory class that every student takes five days a week. The same advisor also teaches either the math and science block or the language arts and social studies block. That means advisors have the same students for three periods a day for three years. The curriculum changes every year for advisors, but the students are constant, giving them an opportunity to really get to know students’ successes and challenges and adapt to meet their needs.
A major component of the middle school advisory class, which is unique to Bellevue Big Picture, is college and career exploration. Each year of middle school, the students visit local colleges and connect their work in middle school to future post-secondary goals. Students examine their own interests and begin to connect those interests with the course content and the world outside. Students learn about different careers from a variety of community members who speak to their class. Recently, social studies students learned more about what it’s like to work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, during a visit from two NOAA officers. The NOAA visitors showed them how to map the ocean floor, information that can be used in the real world to update nautical charts. The seventh grade Humanities classes explored oral storytelling during a trip to the Duwamish Longhouse in Seattle, where they met with a Salish cultural leader and experienced traditional stories, song and dance.
Students also go out and interview people working in fields they want to study further. “Every student has identified, ‘what interests do I have.’ For example, ‘I want to be a veterinarian. I want to be an engineer. I want to be a cupcake baker,'” Spinler says. “So part of their project is to find people in those professions and interview them. They ask, ‘Tell me what you do as a cupcake baker or veterinarian’ and that becomes part of their career project they present at school.”
What they learn in those informational interviews becomes a significant piece of their digital portfolio, which they share with their advisor and parents at regular conferences. Students lead the conferences, which are held every 10 weeks. “It’s helping kids own their learning and be reflective, and to engage parents in that process,” Spinler shares. “It’s really powerful.” Each student has a personalized learning plan, or goals they’re working toward. In advisory class, they monitor their progress throughout the ten weeks and report back during the conference. They also use that time to set their next goals.
Bellevue Big Picture students work the same curriculum as other district middle schools, but here there is an increased emphasis on project-based learning, or PBL, as well as incorporating the personal interests they’ve identified in their advisory classes. PBL requires students to respond to a complex question, problem or challenge with an authentic product or presentation, while also honing 21st century skills such as collaboration, communication and critical thinking. “That’s where they tap into, ‘What am I interested in? What are my strengths?’ ‘I’ve always wanted to be a web designer, now my teacher’s giving me a choice of how I demonstrate my understanding of a science unit, so I could create a web page about it.'” Spinler explains. One sixth grade group even made a video game to explain the parts of the cell. “It’s exciting to see how creative they are. The grand hope is that it’s increasing student engagement.”
While collaborating on their paper rocket project, seventh graders Cameron Rao and Sebastian Brinkman said they like this approach. “I like the projects because they’re more engaging,” shared Brinkman. Rao agrees. “You learn more than from a lecture from teachers. Instead of sitting in class, they show you the project and then we go do it.”
As Bellevue Big Picture students transition from middle to high school, PBL work continues. They still have advisory class each day. They still lead conferences with their advisors and parents. But in high school, the college and career piece has them trading the classroom for the “real world,” with internships every Thursday in local businesses, non-profit organizations, and even district schools and offices. “They’re able to advocate for themselves, communicate professionally and navigate the world of adult interactions, which is such a strength of our school,” Spinler says.