Sunday, October 13, 2013

Notes from visit to Polaris Academy in Chicago

Polaris Academy K-8
Oct. 11th, 2013
One Sentence Take Away: Your school culture is largely determined by what you celebrate.

This week I visited Polaris Academy in Chicago. Polaris is a K-8 charter school on the west side of Chicago with over 400 students. Polaris is an expeditionary learning school, which means that its philosophy is built upon student led learning with authentic hands on learning throughout the wider community. For example, last year, the 7th graders at Polaris wrote and published a book honoring members of their community that work to "keep the peace" and stop gun violence in the Chicago area. Here is link to a news story about their project: WGN news clip.

I was welcomed by a caring staff including (but not limited to!) head of school, Michelle Navarre, director of academics Roel Vivit, and director of operations and finance Carol Clavadetscher. A number of kind, polite, and helpful students gave me a tour of the school and served as a student panel to answer some of my questions.

My primary question for Polaris was how do you teach character? Here are a few key points I took away that help answer that question:

Polaris developed five key characteristics to value which are: Compassion, Integrity, Critical Thinking, Active Citizenship, and Exploration. Explanations and examples of the five characteristics are posted throughout the school, for example:

Polaris taught those characteristics directly by discussing them, explaining them, adding them into curriculum in a multitude of ways, including text choices and using a teacher advisory model which they call, "crew".

Polaris celebrates those characteristics consistently. Using methods such as "who was an all-star today in class" and other student nomination structures, students are celebrated at every turn for exemplify the five points. In fact, on every Friday the school gathers in the gym to honor students who will become "light leaders". "Light leaders are students who embody one of the five traits so well that they are honored as an example for their classmates to always represent that characteristic. In my time there it was clear to me that this was a very big honor which the staff and students took seriously. Nominations come from students that are then discussed in staff meetings to determine final say. Here is a picture of the board of all the light leaders in the school...only a few students have been honored for more than one characteristic.

Students can also give each other "points" of recognition for smaller helpful moments by filling out a little cut out hand. The pictures below provide an examples:

Overall, I was very impressed with Polaris. They clearly have very dedicated staff and the students were helpful, positive, and friendly. By emphasizing and celebrating the characteristics that the staff themselves decided were the most valuable students have a high level of "buy in." The school has a safe learning environment for students to explore and grow in a healthy way without worrying the pressure to never make mistakes or not be good at something right away. 

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