JAMES CITY — On Friday morning, teams of freshman at Warhill High School competed with one another to see who could build the highest tower using spaghetti and marshmallows.
The noise level in the room rose as the clock ran down. Several groups built towers that stood tall for a moment but slumped over to the groans of the ninth-grade architects.
The competition was one of the final activities during a week of orientation for students entering Warhill's Pathways Project. The Warhill-based project is an innovative pilot program for freshmen in the Williamsburg-James City County district, funded by two $50,000 grants from the state Department of Education. The 100 participants in the program had to apply for admission and compose roughly a third of Warhill's freshmen class.
District administrators say at Pathways, traditional classroom practices will be set aside in favor of hands-on activities, self-paced learning, group work and career preparation.
But before students, who were middle schoolers just a few months ago, can begin the program, they need to "unlearn how they are currently doing school and learn this new way to do school," said Warhill Principal Jeff Carroll.
That is why freshmen entering the program spent five days this week learning about the new approach to education in an orientation at Warhill.
The spaghetti activity reinforced some of the basics of "design thinking," one of the core tenets of the program. Design thinking gets students to think before they act, to map out possible scenarios and outcomes before undertaking a task.
"It's taking the basic planning skills we learned in school and making them more hands-on and more collaborative," math teacher Rose Roberts said. "When you think back to writing an essay, outlining is a very basic type of design thinking. But in this case we're doing the work collaboratively."
Roberts is one of six Warhill teachers leading the new program. The Pathways teachers are composed of Warhill teachers who were interested in learning the new approach toward education.
Last fall Carroll visited High Tech High, a San Diego-based charter school and the subject of the educational documentary "Most Likely to Succeed." In April, Carroll took a team of teachers to Salt Lake City to observe the teachers at Innovations High School – a school where students learn at their own pace, using a blend of online instruction and teacher-led courses.
"We are taking some ideas from Innovations, some from High Tech High," Carroll said. "We are not looking to recreate High Tech High here."
The Warhill faculty developed the curriculum for the 100 Pathways students, and the courses are certified by the state Department of Education.
Carroll said the excitement of rethinking how to best do school has bled over into the rest of the faculty.
"People have just been energized by it," Carroll said.
The courses are aligned to state standards, but Carroll said the school is proposing alternatives to the SOL test for English and Social Studies courses. He said he does not yet know when the DOE will approve the aternative assessments. Students will take the math SOL.
In the classroom
While Pathways students earn the same credits as their mainstream counterparts, the content and style of the Pathways classes stand in contrast to the typical image of a classroom with students seated quietly taking notes from the board.
Students will begin each day in a double period of either humanities or physics, each taught by two teachers.
Roberts, who is helping teach the physics course, said the curriculum is "something I've never heard of anyone doing before, at least not on a high school level. In Physics by Design they are going to be designing an actual amusement park."
The Humanities by Design Course is co-taught by an English and social studies teacher. Carroll said students in this course would "explore global issues and connect those to local community solutions."
"They are going to know why I'm doing this and it connects to my daily life," Carroll said. "Its not, 'Ugh, I've got this piece of poetry here from this dead white guy, and I don't know who it is and I have to answer five questions on this to pass a test.' It's going to be very different from that."
During their third block, Pathways students will take online math and English courses with a teacher to help facilitate. Students can move at their own pace. For their fourth and final block of the day, students can take a language or elective and will be with the rest of the Warhill students.
Several of the students at Friday's orientation session said they were excited about the new approach. A group of boys said they felt privileged to be in Pathways and looked forward to avoiding the worst part of school – being forced to sit quietly after they finished their work.
"(Here) we get to design the way we learn so we can learn better," said Joseph Saunders, 14.
The group collaboration and self-paced learning are intended to equip students for life after high school, when jobs will demand more than the ability to sit quietly and follow instructions. Career preparation is a major aspect of the program, but Carroll said that process would look vastly different depending on the students.
During a presentation at Berkeley Middle School this spring, Carroll gave the example of three different potential Pathways students, each with an interest in medicine. One could take rigorous courses in order to graduate prepared to attend a four-year college, another could get their EMT certification in high school and graduate ready to begin a two-year paramedic course and a third could graduate with a certification to get hired as an occupational therapist aide.
"We are not trying to lock you into a specific career or job, but some of the seniors I talk to don't have any idea what they want to do," Carroll said. "We are trying to build that awareness."
Scotty McElroy, 14, said he likes being able to think about his career before graduating.
"Instead of going to a university or college and doing something and then figuring out you don't like it, you can actually do that here, and explore before you go to college," said McElroy.
Students will spend time each day exploring career options. Carroll said once students have some ideas of job interests, they will introduce them to courses and internships to get a taste of that job before they graduate.
As Pathways teachers implement this new style of teaching and career preparation, they have the benefit of a team of professors from the College of William and Mary who will research the benefits of the program as it progresses.
Mark Hofer, one of the William and Mary professors in the School of Education working with Pathways, said helping Warhill develop the program was beneficial to the William and Mary staff as well.
"It's been good for us faculty members to keep us grounded, "he said. "We have these great ideas and research and theory but it's great to see how it plays out in practice."
McKinnon can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.