Monticello academy allows students to learn in new ways

High school resumes after break with non-traditional classes

Monticello High School students Brandie Heims, Marissa Manternach, Mackenzie Swallom, Faith Brehm, Eva Larabee and Ellyn
Monticello High School students Brandie Heims, Marissa Manternach, Mackenzie Swallom, Faith Brehm, Eva Larabee and Ellyn Fenton work on "Arrgh!," a pirate-themed video the students are making for the school's four-day Short Film Academy. All the girls are juniors, except for sophomore Eva Larabee. (Cliff Jette /The Gazette)

Winter break is over, but Monticello High School is not back to normal.

The students were all there Thursday, but they moved from room to room without regard for periods or schedules. They carried pirate costumes, junkyard parts and antique tables and chairs — almost anything except textbooks.

School’s out, it’s time for the Academy.

For the second year in a row, the school suspended regular classes during the first week of the year in favor of special classes the school calls “January Academies.”

The nine, daylong academy courses replaced students’ normal class lineup starting Wednesday and ending today. All of Monticello High School’s students are focusing on a single, specialized subject.

The program originated with district teachers’ desire to give students more opportunities for practical work in the classroom. The academy subjects are designed to be interdisciplinary and hands-on, with teachers from multiple subjects collaborating on each of them, said Gretchen Kriegel, Monticello curriculum director.

“We wanted the students learning in a way that was authentic and hands-on, and went on from there,” she said.

The courses cover a diverse range of subjects; from designing a new school from scratch to learning the ins and outs of living on your own.

Students said they greatly enjoy the academies, both this year and last. They said they were a lot of fun and it gave them a chance to ease back into the school year after more than a week off for the holidays.

The academies often take an indirect approach, particularly compared with traditional courses that are more familiar to students, teachers and parents. From an observer’s perspective, it’s not always obvious exactly what lessons teachers want the students to learn. The content is more subtly communicated through the actual real-world work the students do.

Students in the “Panther Picks” class recreated the premise of the “American Pickers” television show — sorting through antiques and artifacts donated by the local community to auction off for charity.

It was freshman Taryn Schoon’s first choice because she enjoys that show, but also because she thought the class would be easy.

She said the class was fun, but she wasn’t calling it ‘easy’ anymore. Schoon was part of the team responsible for appraising and tagging the donations. Her team indexed more than 300 items Thursday afternoon. Everything from old magazines to lamps to antique fire extinguishers littered the band room floor — and Schoon said they planned to receive more donations right until the public auction today.

“It’s been a lot harder than I thought,” she said. “I’m having to use a lot more skills.”

The students need to apply multiple disciplines to get the job done, said teacher Shannon Guyer. Their ability to research history is challenged when they appraise the donations, which requires math in order to come up with a fair price as well as the writing skills needed to come up with an accurate and compelling description. Their public speaking will be put to the test during the auction.

“I think it helps them realize what they do in school has a purpose in life,” said Guyer.

Guyer normally teaches special education, so she appreciates that the academy classes integrate the entire school population. Students are organized into academies by their interest, not grade or ability level. That means freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors are all together along with the school’s special education students.

In some cases, students are able to pursue topics in which they have a strong personal interest.

Junior Ellyn Felton, 16, and her friends make YouTube videos for fun in their free time, but they’ve never had any sort of training in video editing and camera operation. They got that chance, thanks to the Short Film Academy.

Felton and her fellow filmmakers put a lot of energy into their project, a parody of “Pirates of the Caribbean” set in the Midwest.

“We were working on it yesterday, when suddenly we looked up and everyone was gone. We asked, ‘Where is everyone?’ and the teacher said, ‘Class is over,’” she said. “Oops.”

It’s hard work, but it’s also a lot of fun.

Mixed in with the fun is the knowledge that the students have to prepare to stand by what they create. Each of the classes has its own unique evaluation set for the last day, Monday.

Guyer’s students will be evaluated based on the success of their auction, while Felton’s film will be judged by the other filmmaking teams in her academy. Some of the other courses are bringing panels of community members to critique students and GIVE them feedback.

School administrators are pleased with the program’s reception, and are just starting to establish teacher teams to try something similar at the elementary and middle school levels.

For now, there are death scenes to film and old furniture to be polished.

Monticello Academy classes

  • Are We So Different?: Students explore prejudices and fears and what life is like for those who are different
  • B Positive: Students work in teams to use problem-solving skills to eliminate poor habits and behaviors
  • Build Your Own School: Student teams design their “ultimate” high school considering the necessary curriculum, architecture and financial support
  • Exploring the Arts: Local artists visit with students to explore a variety of fields in the fine arts
  • Junkyard Wars: Student teams build a small working vehicle using parts scavenged from the junkyard
  • Living On Your Own: Students explore some of the challenges of life after they finish their academic careers
  • Panther Picks: Donations are scrutinized, assessed and repaired by students to be auctioned off for charity
  • Short Film: Students break into teams to create a short film

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