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The Independent Project

Sam Levin took a brave move and formed a school within a school that really worked for students who were not into their current educational environment and wanted to quit. Why did it work?

In the Fall of 2010, Sam Levin, a junior at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Mass., had a vision of how he and his peers could enjoy school more. They were tired and unhappy with their school experiences and learning so Sam decided to create a semester-long project that would put the students in charge of their own learning, and his high school allowed him to do it. He called this student-designed and student-lead course, “The Independent Project.” The program changed the focus of education onto the students, rather than on the teachers or a curriculum. The pass/fail program was extremely successful and is still in existence today. In fact, many other schools around the world are inquiring about it and are creating something similar. Even colleges are having an overwhelmingly positive response including highly selective colleges that have accepted many Independent Project graduates.

Overall the project is designed to free students up from assigned work and tests from teachers to allow them to focus on their passions. The project creates less stress for the participants because the evaluations are formative rather than summative — intended not to judge, but to help students improve their work. The program consists of 9-12 students from all academic backgrounds and interests who are chosen by the “student and teacher administrators” to participate based off written applications and interviews.

It consists of 5 components that were originally developed by Sam and his fellow Independent Project classmates.

1) Daily Group Meetings to connect with the others about how they are doing and what is going on in their life and in school.

2) Exploration and research on a weekly question the student chooses to explore in any subject that they report back to the group.

3) Reading, discussing, and writing about any book(s) they want.

4) A semester-long individual project on a subject that excites them (the only requirement is that the project requires effort, learning and mastery, i.e. playing an instrument, cooking, making a TV show, etc)

5) Group collaboration on a three-week-long group endeavor with a final presentation.

In comparison to traditional classrooms and schools, the informal research shows that these students:

  • Love the program
  • Feel like the project prepares them for the real world by learning how to take self-responsibility for their own learning and decisions.
  • Become more inspired about school and life.
  • Learn to make good decisions and choices.
  • Are more self-motivated.
  • Feel less stress.
  • Work with their peers more effectively.
  • Become better at managing their time.
  • Learn a great deal about accountability.
  • Ask more questions and have a greater awareness of how to answer them.
  • Construct their questions more carefully.
  • Become more thoughtful in the way they consider ideas and evaluate sources.
  • Instilled a sense of ownership of their education that stays with them after the program ends.
  • Become more interested in passions outside of school.
  • Gain self-confidence to explore their interests.
  • Get strong teacher support when needed.
  • Enjoy independent learning and academic freedom.
  • Gain confidence because they can’t fail and the program is individualized.
  • Don’t mind the busy-ness of the project because it is easier to get through because students are interested in the material, compared to slaving through something they don’t want to be doing and don’t value as much.
  • Go onto college successfully if they want to.
  • View the program as a good compliment to their normal classes
Sam Levine

The challenges.

  • Not a lot of students apply because it involves more work than taking regular classes and that they have to push themselves to do it.
  • Teachers that work in the project must support what the STUDENTS WANT TO LEARN, instead of deciding themselves what the student will learn. This can be a hard shift for the teacher and even more work.
  • Peers evaluating each other.
  • Working through challenges as a peer group.
  • If the Independent Project is teacher-driven, it will not work.
  • Staying on task at first to meet deadlines that were not enforced by authorities.
  • Students believing that some classes are better taught by the teacher such as Chemistry.

Meg’s Notes

An empowerment program like this is really exciting in helping education shift into the 21st century. The success of it tells me that this type of education must begin early in a student’s life. I believe that the ability to work out challenges between students will not be as problematic if students start learning how to do this early in their education. In i.b.mee.’s pilot programs, we have found that 5 year olds can on their own, come to a win-win easily when they know how to “check in” with what they are really wanting and then be able to communicate it to the other child, really hearing each other, then coming to an agreement. Once this skill is learned, it becomes second nature to work out challenges between two or more people. I also believe that teachers in a program or school like this will enjoy teaching even more because the intrinsic motivation of the students will be high and in return, will make teaching less stressful. Programs like the Independent Project are leading the way as models for educational reform. They are extremely powerful!

Learn more about the Independent Project below.

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Independent Project

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“The Independent Project represents a model for and of my generation. Students will be more powerful, more passionate, more intelligent and more creative human beings if they have control over their world, rather than being forced to be uniform creatures who they may not want to become. If The Independent Project continues, it will continue to be one of the strongest statements in the community and, furthermore, one of the strongest statements in the country for the trust and opportunity adults can give to young people. …Right now, the future of the project is a bit up in the air. If the project dies, however, with it dies a huge opportunity to shift the attitude and process of putting young people in charge of themselves and in charge of their world.” Independent Project Student