Our Journey to the XQ – Key Design Elements of Círculos

Circulos Images.003

I have at least a few blog posts to write now that our Círculos concept has officially been granted super school status by the XQ Institute.  We’ve actually known for a few months that this was coming, so you can imagine how hard it has been not to share.  Obviously, there are some good stories to tell about how we got here, and about the amazing team members and collaborators who have made it possible.  But I thought it would be nice to start with an overview of some of the key design elements of the program.

Community Values

It would have been easy to respond to the invitation to “Rethink High School” with a Jetson’s-like school of the future.  Instead, we wanted a school that could blend state of the art instructional practices with an authentic connection to the values and identity of our community.  From using a Spanish name to integrating community partners to incorporating circle discussion practices and protocols, Círculos is a school that reflects the tremendous assets of our Santa Ana community.

Our Manera de Ser, or “way of being,” outlines the habits of mind and cognitive skills that we envision for all of our graduates.  These ways of being are defined by the 6 C’s – Courageous, Critical, Capable, Creative, Curious, and Communicative.  We aspire to develop students who go on to the college and life with a broad set of skills and a growth oriented mindset that will allow them to pursue their goals, learn from their mistakes, and persevere en route to success.  These are the types of skills that help define what it means to be a santanero.  We want students who are deeply proud of their identity and heritage – and that sense of belonging and inherent

Our Signature Pedagogy

The name of our school captures the spirit of our endeavor – the circle.  We take our inspiration for the circle discussion from a variety of sources, from the well-known classroom practice of Socratic Seminars, to the emerging role of circles in establishing Restorative Practices on school campuses, to the discussion protocols of some of the most prestigious private schools in our country.  We want academic discourse, and we want a lot of it.  We want authentic connection between teachers and students and community members every single day.

Every morning, the day begins with a circle check-in.  This practice, common in some schools that practice daily advisory classes, allows students the opportunity to check-in physically and emotionally for the learning of the day.  Students and adults alike share their triumphs and challenges, and offer support and solidarity.  The morning circle is also the time to make public commitments to learning goals for the day, giving students a chance to articulate what it is that they will be focusing on.

Every afternoon following lunch, students gather for another circle, this time to break down a shared text.  This daily commitment to textual analysis and academic discourse will deeply root students in literacy practices that will prepare them for the rigors of college coursework – a heavily text-dependent learning environment.  In essence, our students engage in a socratic seminar every single day.  You can imagine their level of comfort engaging in sustained academic discourse after four years of daily practice.

Ambitious Place-Based Learning

Círculos will have no central campus.  This is the statement that brings the ambition and unorthodox nature of the school into sharpest focus.  School no longer occurs primarily within a building we call a school.  We take the community and world around us as our canvas for learning.  Círculos aspires to offer one of the most ambitious place-based learning environments in the country.

Imagine the first day of the semester, coming together to hear Mentor Teachers pitch the project they are planning for the coming semester.  One mentor intends to investigate the factors that drive homelessness in Orange County.  Another mentor is interested in understanding the development of urban farming and sustainable food production practices.  A third mentor indicates her intention to learn more about community health and the systems that potentially lead to improved outcomes for the community.  Students listen intently, because after hearing all the overviews, they then have to rank-choice vote for their top selections.  And the project they choose will dictate the physical location of “school” for the next semester.

Each project will be the home for a circle of 25 students.  Students studying the factors and impact of homelessness might take up residence in a City of Santa Ana office.  Those interested in understanding sustainable food production might spend their semester studying at the urban farm plot at the Orange County Heritage Museum.  The group looking at systems to improve community health may spend most days at Latino Health Access downtown.

A-G Aligned Curriculum & Robust Intervention Support

Academic rigor is at the heart of our Círculos design.  Our students will continue to work to meet the requirements of an A-G aligned curriculum through a flexible learning program that integrates blended learning into whichever physical space our students find themselves.  In other words, technology allows us to turn any physical space big enough to accommodate a circle of students into a classroom.  A portion of every day will be dedicated to supporting students as they progress through their A-G aligned coursework, supported on a digital platform.

To ensure students receive the targeted content learning support they need, we’ve developed what we refer to as “intensive” days.  Intensive days refer to the targeted support and tutoring that comes as students leave their normal project homes to meet up with mentor teachers who can work with them specifically within areas of struggle.  For example, a student struggling to make adequate progress within an Algebra class, could spend one or two entire mornings during the week working closely with other students and a mentor teacher who focuses on developing their algebra content knowledge and skills.  In this way, students experience a deeply personalized approach to helping them pace through their A-G coursework.

Professionalism at its Best

Sometimes people equate blended learning or place-based learning with veiled attempts to undermine the role and importance of certificated teachers in classrooms.  Círculos assumes exactly the opposite.  At the heart of any genuine shift towards personalization is the need for powerful, caring relationships between teachers and students.  We even add the word “mentor” in front of teachers to reinforce the sense that teachers are more than content delivery agents – they are a critical component in the development of young people.

In fact, anyone familiar with the design and management of a flexible learning space will likely tell you that the complexity of the work calls for increasingly skilled teachers.  So much so, that a major element of our Círculos design calls for the creation of a comprehensive training and professional learning component for our staff of mentor teachers.  Imagine the degree of competency required to support students as they move through both an A-G aligned curriculum plus engage in such ambitious project and place based learning.  To that end, we are developing what we call the Codex – an interactive learning space for teachers that reinforces our professional values, builds instructional capacity within our signature pedagogy and other key strategies, and highlights the skills and mindsets embedded within our Manera de Ser.  It’s an ambitious professional learning agenda, and it absolutely relies on highly skilled and motivated teachers.

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