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Emilie Springer: The Winds of Hope project and personalized learning at Nikolaevsk School


In the 2021-2022 school year, Billeen Carlson at Nikolaevsk School offers project-based courses using a hybrid learning model, combining aspects of on and offline instruction. Her classes have a cap of 15 per class and are available across the school district. KBBI's Emilie Springer has this look at Carlson's work on the Winds of Hope project.

This week Kiki Abrahamson brought my attention to The Winds of Hope project (on the display at Homer Council on the Arts in the youth Jubilee exhibit. The project is a cooperative effort between Nikolaevsk educators Karen Ruchti and Billeen Carlson and Abrahamson. The three educators designed and organized a schoolwide research and presentation project to raise awareness of the United Nations Global Sustainable Development Goals and integrate art into the learning of special education students in an inclusive environment. 

Each student created a windsock to demonstrate something he or she found meaningful about goal #14 “Life Below the Water.”  They also each created a personal presentation to share observations and findings with listeners, these can be accessed electronically in the Council gallery.

     Carlson shared the project write-up with me and though it has interesting art and research components, what truly caught my attention before discussing it with Carlson was this background paragraph:

“Nikolaevsk prides itself on its inclusive environment, meeting the needs of all students where they are at.  Often, students who might find themselves in separate or even intensive needs classrooms in other schools are in a general education classroom with the support of the special education teachers and aides.  General education teachers at Nikolaevsk automatically modify and differentiate instruction for each student and, more importantly, teach and encourage each student to modify and differentiate their learning for themselves, following KPBSD’s personalized learning goals.”

     Carlson describes what her role as a secondary generalist means: “I am responsible for teaching 6 to 12 grades and I teach whatever the kids need to graduate. So sometimes I’m teaching art, I’ve taught life skills, employability skills, I teach social studies and Language arts but it's pretty much anything that I have to pick up.” 

     This is where I get to hear about Nikolaevsk’s “personalized learning model.”  “The kids know what their objectives are and they have their learning tools.  They pick and choose how they want to learn most of the time and what materials they want to engage with and what kind of projects they want to choose from,” she says.  “I am there primarily as a facilitator and tutor.”  Occasionally, if they are really struggling on their personal project they’ll ask me to lecture.  

     As a parent, I think back to the time of year when my children were having to participate in hours of on-line lecturing in their school systems and how for a short period of time I enrolled them in Connections homeschool because the required screen time for a full day of school seemed brutal.  It was also the topic of the first piece I wrote and recorded for this series “What can the community do to support a return to in-person education?” that aired on October 23, 2020.

     Later, Billeen tells me about students who are Nikolaevsk affiliate but fully remote learners by family choice.  She has four external students who participate from Seldovia, Nanwalek and Ninilchik.

  “It’s a neat way of working!  Our school is good at it,” she summarizes.  “Everyone knows that there have been a lot of challenges with COVID but there is some good stuff that’s come out of it.  One of our Ninilchik student’s is in a family who travels all the time and they need the flexibility of education outside of a school building but the family doesn’t want the responsibility of providing homeschooling material and being the only ones supporting the learning.  So, I’m the teacher of record.  I provide material on-line, we text, I talk with the student all the time,” she says.

     We talk again about the Windsock project, “the cool thing about the project that HCOA brought in, was that the grant was to provide art opportunities for special needs students and it's considered to be best practice to be as inclusive as possible with all students and that's the general model that we have with all of the included grades in addition to a special needs student with a full time aide who is with rest of the class most of the time. 

“I was looking to find a way to integrate the UN Global Goals somehow into the classroom or into a project and then Kiki wanted to do an art activism piece with her art project and it just seemed to mesh work perfectly.” 

At the same time, this project was an example of something more directed for the students than usual.  In general, for a research project like this the outcome might be a windsock or, as Billeen puts it, “I might have gotten some propaganda posters and an essay, a funny narrative or a series of haikus. The output is always really unpredictable and student driven.  To ask them to follow the step-by-step procedure was definitely unusual.  But, they enjoyed it!”  

     Windsocks are on display at Homer Council on the Arts through the end of the month and student commentaries can be heard through QR codes. 

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