Episode 2: The Gift of Unlearning
What happens when students use curiosity to carve their own path.
Students and educators at the Met School in Providence, Rhode Island, discuss trading in traditional schooling and academic expectations to help young people discover their passions while successfully pursuing their interests in the real world.
Ever wished you’d had the chance to try on a major before shelling out major cash? And just maybe, having that clarity early on would’ve helped you get to where you wanted to go even quicker.
Well, that’s what we’re exploring on today’s episode of Changing Course.
We’re taking you to the Met in Rhode Island, a school that’s traded-in traditional schooling for a more student-centered, self-directed approach.
We’ll look at how unlearning academic traditions centered around statewide testing (or test scores) and learning to lead with curiosity has helped students not only quickly discover their passions but also, graduate with real world experience.
Katie From the Met School, RI:
“I have worked with nurses, lawyers, neurologists. I got a new job recently in a nursing home. It's a really nice place. Everybody's always surprised when I tell them my age. They're like, "Oh my god, you're only 17?"
Michelle From the Met School, RI:
“They're the valedictorian of their individual plan. You know, every kid here has their own high school. It's theirs.
Carissa From the Met, RI:
“It's all about the experiences that you get here rather than the test scores or the grades that you're getting, um, since it's so individualized. It's like the opposite of traditional schooling.
JONATHAN: From Teach For America’s One Day Studio, you’re listening to Changing Course.
I’m Jonathan Santos Silva, a 2010 Teach For America Corps Member myself on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and since then, I haven’t stopped partnering with educators, students, and communities to reimagine education.
We have so much to learn from schools across America moving education in a new direction, and a change in course will happen one school at a time.
Today, we’re taking you to the Met School in Rhode Island, a network of schools helping students connect self-driven academics to real world experience. Alright, let’s go!
JONATHAN: The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, also known as the Met School, is a network of six small, public high schools located across Providence and Newport, Rhode Island. Today, we’ll be focusing specifically on the Liberty building, which is located in Providence on land originally home to Wôpanâak (Wampanoag) and Narragansett Native peoples.
Although only about 21 square miles, Providence is the third most populous city in New England. As one of the oldest cities in America, it was also one of the first to industrialize, becoming known for textile manufacturing, jewelry, and silverware industries.
Today, it is home to several hospitals and higher learning institutions, which have shifted the city’s economy from manufacturing to service based industries, creating an environment primed for professional exploration.
At the Met, each student is a part of a small learning community of about 15 students called an advisory. Students are supported by ‘advisors’, teachers who help develop personalized curriculum around their students’ interests and connect them to mentors (local professionals) who help them pursue their interests in the real world.
Let’s hear from our guests, starting with Michelle Portilla, an advisor at the Met School’s Liberty Building.
Michelle: My name is Michelle Portilla. I'm originally from New York City and I am an advisor at the Met.
JONATHAN: She’s also Rhode Island’s teacher of the year, but she’s too humble to say it to y’all.
Michelle: I've been here for 12 years. It is a super fun job and what I like about it the most is that I can, you know, have a different day every day. And that's what I needed as a student, and that's what I try to give my students.
I share this with my kids all, all the time is like I wanted to be a lawyer. 'cause on TV, like I was gonna be in court and I was gonna argue with people, I love to argue, this is great. and then I got an internship and I figured out that like lawyers do a lot of research and the court is like minimal in comparison to like the real day-to-day of their lives.
We ask young people, “what do you wanna be when you grow up?” You know, we ask five year olds that and kids have answers. Things that they envision but it's really important to figure out, what is a day to day in that job like? And then what does it take to get there? Do I wanna be in school for, you know, an extra 10 years because this is really something that I'm passionate about?
and to give students an opportunity to connect with content in a way that excites them and motivates them is what it's all about. You know, it's all about creating students that want to keep learning because they're excited and passionate about what they're learning about. It's all about giving them real life skills. You know, I know how to really shake somebody's hand and write a cover letter and write a resume. Like these are things that you might not get at a traditional setting, but you will get a ton of practice on in ours.
Jonathan: Yeah, no, that makes a lot of sense to me. It, it's funny I was talking to my mother. She was saying how, like, there's a lot of times we get upset at kids for not doing something that we didn't actually teach them. We just kind of expect them to know. And I think that's true of what you were just talking about as well.
You know, we look at, uh, schools and we're upset that, you know, uh, our kids don't know how to shake hands or they don't know how to write a cover letter or they don't, they're not prepared for the professional setting or even that they're not good with their money, those are not like in the standards. I, I, I don't know, not ELA standard, not the math standards…
Jonathan: So like on that point, like how does the Met as a, as a community of educators, how do you identify those things that just are not captured in the traditional standards and say, but this has gotta be part of what we do in order to make sure our kids are successful?
Michelle: Yeah. So, we do work collaboratively on the adult level to really push our thinking in terms of, you know, what are some ways that we can make sure we're doing right by our students and really exposing them? So, one thing for example, that we've been trying to talk about as a staff is like, how can we incorporate more exposure to STEM, right? Uh, in ninth and 10th grade, especially, you might not know what you like if you don't know about it. Right?
I had no idea that someone is making like glue that goes in your bones to fix a broken bone instead of needing surgery. But that is someone's job out there. And you know, the more that we can expose kids to the variety of the things that are happening, um, the more that we can potentially spark an interest. So on an adult level, we're definitely having those conversations.
Jonathan: So tell me a little bit about a recent day. It's a Met day, but maybe it's not a, it's not a typical school day elsewhere, what is that like?
Michelle: Two times a week, I get to go around the community and visit kids at their internships. So um last week on Friday, I went to one student who was at a classroom, um, in a preschool. I actually have two kids there, so I spent one hour with like babies, one student and babies. I think they're all like under one or under, you know, one and a half. Um then I went to another kid and they have, three to five year olds. After that, I went and dropped off a mannequin head to, my student who is at a hair salon. She put some something in my hair, and then took it out expeditiously so that I didn't look ridiculous. And after that I went to another kid who's super interested in like schools, learning more about growing your own food. Um, so this place called like Eat Fresh Rhode Island and it was pretty cool.
Jonathan: I mean, just, you had me at mannequin head, like this is not the, not the typical teacher day.
Jonathan: And definitely very, um, uh vibrant for you, I'm sure it keeps you on your toes.
Michelle: For sure. Yeah.
Honestly, a lot of our work is getting out of the way of the kids. Like the- they come with questions, you know? Have you ever met a little kid who just has 1,000,001 questions? The philosophy is like every time that the kid has a question, we're like, okay, cool. Let's go figure out the answer to that. Let's go find out how you find the answer to that. You know, I think our world is different now, when, when I was in school someone told me I needed to memorize like Christopher Columbus was 1492, right?
Michelle: But like kids today have all that information on their phones, on their computers, accessible to them. It's not about facts anymore. It's about how you find information and it's about what motivates you to find that information. And so like our whole philosophy is about that, is about, you know, shifting that narrative. Like I'm not a holder of anything. You're the, you're the one who creates a path to find information. I don't hold anymore or less than you, you know, some of my kids know way more about their content area than I ever will.
Jonathan: But what about the academic side? You know, I, I think a school can do internships and kids look forward to the internships and then they drag their butts back to class 'cause oh, I gotta do boring class... what makes the academic side at the Met different?
Michelle: Right. Well, when Katie learns about, you know, history, she's learning about history within the context of the medical field, versus when Carissa's learning about history and she's interested in political science, she's learning about political science, and so on and so forth.
JONATHAN: Katie and Carissa are Seniors at The Met. We’ll be hearing from them a bit later
And then what I sort of do on my advisor end is I try to make a bridge between, okay, so let's all focus on like the 1800s so that we get a clearer picture of like, this is what was happening in the medical field and this is what was happening here.
So like kids can come at it from a lens, but we just talk about a general topic and then flesh that out a little bit more fully through their own interests and perspective.
Jonathan: Something you said earlier was needling around in my head when you talked about your desire to be a lawyer coming from, like seeing what you saw on TV.
Jonathan: And I know for me growing up in a uhhh family of immigrants, it also was like lawyer-
Jonathan:... doctor, like there's certain fields may, maybe an engineer, uh, like, like a lot of my Nigerian friends, like pharmacy, like, like there are certain careers that, you know, your family understands. They realize that it's a lucrative field. It can be pressure. It's support in the right direction. You want kids to go to college and have a... But it can be, it can feel hard to then say, well, no, actually I want to take a detour, do you ever encounter that as a, you know, as you engage with young people and, and engaging with their families to help them understand the why behind the Met giving kids, like some, like self-direction to determine for themselves what they want to do?
Michelle: I mean, yeah. A 100%, um, you know, I'm also a daughter of immigrants and I definitely felt that pressure. I think it's something that I can relate to with my students. But when we, when we have these, we have these learning plan meetings three times a year. And the parent, the student, the mentor, myself, are all invited to these meetings, as well as any other staff members that they work with at the school. I can't tell you how many kids come in freshman year. Every kid wants to be a doctor or they wanna be a makeup artist, or they want to be a rapper, and so like, cool. Like we got your three options and we're working our way through it. And every mom is like, ‘my kid is not about to be a rapper.’
Michelle: And, um, as we have those conversations, you know, part of it is helping the student understand why does your mom have this concern about rappers? So we're gonna do a lot of like industry research.
We're also gonna find out about like the everyday musician and we're gonna do some informational interviews with someone who's an everyday musician as like, ‘man, I gotta make my rent. So I'm trying to figure out these other side hustles.’ Right? And so then you kind of frame that conversation, okay, cool. We just learned that this guy needs another side job. Maybe they're doing real estate on the side 'cause it's flexible hours and you still get to use that sparkling musician personality, et cetera, et cetera. And we come up with a plan together with the family, with the student, where everybody has a little bit of voice and we come up with something that feels realistic and attainable and doable.
And part of it is teaching students how to like advocate for themselves, right? Like they start off as 14 year olds, they leave here as 18 year olds and you know, your power dynamics with your parents are usually pretty different in that, that timeframe. But part of it is also, you know, a lot times it's, it's families too. It's, it's, um, there's a mentality of like, I came to this country and go make all the money that you can. I had to have that conversation with my parents when I decided to become a teacher, right?
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Michelle: They were like, you wanna be a lawyer.
Jonathan: Right. Teacher-
Michelle: What's going on?
Jonathan: Teachers don't make any money, like-
Michelle: Exactly, exactly. Um, and so we talk a little bit out, like, do you wanna go to work every day? And it's like, you hate getting up in the morning. Do you wanna go to work every day and you love it, but you can't pay your bills and is there a middle ground that you can find that we can work towards? So that's why one of the things we really push for our kids is that they walk out of the Met with a real life certification, something that will help them once they graduate, at least make a little bit more than minimum wage, or maybe take some college classes so that they have an experience of what that experience might be like.
<music bed starts back up>
JONATHAN: When we get back, we’ll hear all about those experiences from the students themselves, but first, we’ll take a quick break.
MIDROLL AD BREAK
JONATHAN: The Met opened in the fall of 1996 with 50 freshmen as the first “Big Picture Learning” School.
Big Picture Learning’s sole mission is putting students at the center of their own learning and instead of being evaluated solely on the basis of standardized tests, they would be assessed on exhibitions and demonstrations of achievement, on motivation, and on the habits of mind, hand, and heart – reflecting the real world evaluations and assessments that all of us face in our everyday lives.
What started as a reimagined form of education in one school, has since made its mark globally, with over 100 schools in nations including India, Kenya, and Australia.
In addition to an advisory, internships in the community, and individual learning plans, a “Met education” also includes a breakthrough college transition program. But the Met isn’t just a school with a really cool internship placement program. It’s so much more than that.
Joe: You can't decouple the internship program from the entire education. It's, like, all woven together.
JONATHAN: That’s Joe Battaglia, Director of Curriculum and Instruction at the Met.
Joe: I'm a former TFA member from the first TFA year in 1991. And I worked at Big Picture in The Met for many years. So in general, students come to The Met or any Big Picture school to pursue their passion in the real world. And they do that with an advisor like Michelle who manages their personal learning plan for all four years.
It's always difficult to describe The Met in Big Picture schools, because you can't just say, oh, there are schools that is just focused on kids with this internship school. It's, like, each pro- program is built differently that their journeys are all different, where they wanna go is different. And we wanna take them to where they wanna go, and we wanna expose them and push them, but we're not gonna say, oh, you're gonna, this is where your endpoint is. Like, this is your jumping off point. They're doing a real world project that is designed to give back to the place of work and be real, but also meet, um, academic and educational goals that are on their learning plans.
JONATHAN: Once at a site, students develop a rigorous project that they can work on with their mentor and back at school with their advisor. These projects become the foundation for the student’s learning plan and provide opportunities for the student to explore and master content, skills, and reasoning.
Let’s hear from Carissa, a student from the Met's Liberty building.
Carissa: My name's Carissa Lombardi. I'm a senior here at The Met. I'm really interested in sociology and public health and public policy and how those all intersect. So right now I intern at the Healthy Communities Office and I'm doing work to try to prevent teen substance use.
Jonathan: Oh, wow. Cool. Why don't we start there? Tell us a little bit about your work, and what you do, what you get to see and experience as an intern in the office there?
Carissa: Yeah, definitely. So my mentor is a community organizer for the Mayor's Coalition on Behavioral Health.
Carissa: And she organizes, uh, everything around the youth substance use and, um, so I hopped on to help her expand and, uh, work on the subcommittee which is a group of teens that all come together to try to organize for events and other initiatives to uh prevent substance use.
Jonathan: So how did you even figure out that this was something you wanted to do? Like, how did you identify that opportunity as like, this is what, you know, where I wanna take my education?
Carissa: Yeah. So coming into The Met, I've always had sort of an interest in politics and organizing and how that kind of works. So my freshman year I came in and I was a part of, um, Planned Parenthood’s Youth Empowerment Group. Um, and then from there I found an internship with a community organizer at Planned Parenthood. Um, and she did work specifically around policy organizing. And I loved learning about that. From there I was involved with my school's entrepreneurship program and I thought that was really interesting because my business idea was also around politics, so learning about that kind of interested me and sociology policies and stuff like that. So then there was like an email that was sent out saying that they were looking for an intern at the Healthy Community's office and so I happily applied for the position and I ended up getting it and, um, yeah.
Carissa: Thank you. Thank you. Yeah.
Jonathan: That's awesome. You know, we were talking to your teacher, uh, Michelle, your advisor earlier, and she was saying how in the freshman year there's like three jobs, everybody wants to be, most people anyway, want to be a doctor, they wanna do hair or they wanna be a rapper. And so I wonder, like what brought you to The Met? And I think that there's an interesting backstory to this if I'm not mistaken.
Carissa: Yeah. So I'm a legacy student at The Met. My mom was a part of the very first graduating class here…
JONATHAN: Carissa’s mother was one of the 50 freshmen who started at the Met back in the fall of 1996.
Carissa: and then my sister, uh, graduated in 2018. And they've... My mom's always been like super encouraging for my education. And she always, she always kind of implied that I would go here. But I knew that I wanted to go here when I came to the orientations and I heard about the amazing things that other students were doing. Freshman year, I still didn't really know what I wanted to do. I knew that I had this like small interest, but my internships, freshman year, while I was a part of the Planned Parenthood Group, and that was like what I was really, really passionate about um, my actual internships were at, the local television station here in Rhode Island and then a part of like an engineering program. So The Met really gave me opportunities to explore what my interests were. And at the time, yeah, I was interested in film and maybe possibly going into engineering, but it didn't take me long to know that I didn't really wanna do that. So yeah, getting the opportunity to do that and then also have the Planned Parenthood Youth Empowerment Group as parts of my education that helped me discover what I was interested in.
Jonathan: That's really cool.
Jonathan: It feels like, and, you know, I'm an outsider, but it feels like The Met is very different than most other schools. So coming in and in ninth grade, were there things that you either needed to learn or unlearn about education? Like how was it to come from say maybe, and I don't know, actually, maybe that's the first question. Was your middle school like this, or did you come from more of a traditional setting and what was the transition like?
Carissa: Yeah. Oh my gosh. So the middle school that I went to, it was just a traditional middle school, but it was like super, super competitive. And while, I do think I got like great education there, I mean, they gave me great like foundations of learning and like writing skills and math skills that I needed to know, it was like super, super stressful, even as a middle schooler. So coming here, it definitely feels not at all like that because I feel like all the students here and all the staff members here really try to support one another rather than make it a competition of who has the highest GPA because it's all about the experiences that you get here rather than the test scores or the, or the grades that you're getting since it's so individualized.
Jonathan: What was maybe the hardest part about like taking on, you know, the leadership for your education, and like making choices, like I'm gonna do this internship versus like just, you know, showing up to class and doing exactly what you're told?
Carissa: Yeah, definitely that part, I think every Met student, like comes in not knowing how to do that, but then leaves with like the expertise of, I don't know, a college student after doing it. Because freshman year we were all required to make cold calls to businesses to basically request an internship. And on my like first call, the person that answered was so rude to me and it made me never wanna do it again. Um, but you know, with the help of my advisors and, and other staff members, they encouraged me to keep doing it, and that definitely worked out in the end. So yeah, learning that resiliency, which I think is really important in the real world yeah, that was something that they taught me here within the first few weeks.
Michelle: We sort of help kids practice how to cold call and stuff like that.
JONATHAN: Again, Michelle Portilla, educator and advisor at the Met.
Michelle: Once they get a- an informational interview, which is the first step, they usually just try to ask like five or ten questions. Myself would come with them and then we try to like feel out the situation. If we think the mentor might be willing to bite, then we kinda propose the first step which is called the shadow day. It's just a one time thing and if it feel like a good fit at the end of that day we'll kinda come in and talk about, can we do a little bit more? Can we make it a traditional internship experience?
Carissa: Yeah. Something that I think is super important and critical to our success here is that my advisor always asks me like what, what she could do to help. And that's, that's been super, super important.
Jonathan: And on this idea about the support, I mean, it's probably different for you with your mom being an alum, but like...
Carissa: Oh yeah.
Jonathan:... What are the ways that your family support you? 'Cause I, I know Michelle was saying a few times a year, student, family, advisor all get together. So like, what is that like the family piece of having them involved in supporting you through this journey?
Carissa: Yeah, that's definitely also something that The Met is very big on. Families are always involved with our education as well. So I know some students aren't the biggest fans of having that as well, because it makes it a little more transparent to their families (laughs) what's going on, but it's always very... It for me, it's always been super helpful to hear my mom's input as well on, what could be doing better in school, or different ideas for, for new projects, things like that. But yeah, that happens like three or four times a year. We'll all get together and have that conversation.
Jonathan: A big part of your educational experience are the internships.
Jonathan: And I think that's probably what people, you know, their, their attention is drawn to.
Carissa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jonathan: But you also have classes or you have, or you have academic time, I guess.
Jonathan: How do you and your advisor, you know, work together to make sure that what you're doing out in the world and what you're learning in the classroom, like reinforce one another and that it's really helping you get to where you want to go in life?
Carissa: Yeah, that's a great question. So we have, uh, different assignments that sort of relate to our internship. So there might be an assignment that asks us to do like research about what's going on at our internships or based on what projects we're doing there. Um, and that might, might tie back into like science and um empirical reasoning, and then we also have to do a lot... We have to do a lot of writing about these internships, so that relates back to, uh, English and, they call it communications here and then same thing with math and history as well.
JONATHAN: Thanks Carissa. Here’s Katie, another student at the Met.
Katie: My name's Katie. I'm a senior here at The Met. I'm interested in nursing, that's my main major that I wanna go for. And, hopefully, I can go to a graduate program and get my degree to be able to be a neonatal nurse, which is a nurse for newborn babies.
So, at first I wanted to be a pediatrician. I like working with kids so I knew I wanted to do medical. But, I didn't know I wanted to like become a nurse until, I wanna say last year is when I realized that I wanted to be a nurse. Um, I got my CNA license and I started working at the hospital.
JONATHAN: CNA, as in a Certified Nursing Assistant.
Katie: And so I really enjoyed like seeing what the nurses do and just being in the setting. And so that's why I decided that I wanted to become a nurse.
Jonathan: Hmm, My mom, well, I can't even remember back this far. But way back in the day my mom was a nurse, a CNA. And she talks to me about that work. And so I have a lot of respect and appreciation for the work that CNAs do. She worked with, um, she worked in a nursing home so with a lot of older folks. And so it just seems like a really rewarding job but also a challenging job.
Katie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jonathan: And so, what's that like when you are, you're a student, right? And so, in a lot of schools, they won't even let you pick your classes, nevermind be out there you know, in a CNA type of job. What has it been like for you to be given that responsibility to be able to, you know, serve patients and do really amazing work at such a young age?
Katie: So I really enjoy, I got a new job recently actually, um, in a nursing home. It's a really nice place and so everybody's always surprised when I tell them my age. They're like, "Oh my god, you're only 17?" And I'm like, "Yeah!", and I'm over here doing CNA work. They're like, "That's great." And it is such a big responsibility because you're helping people who can't really help themselves. I have worked with past nurses, lawyers, neurologists. Yeah, I do enjoy it. And like The Met makes it super flexible for me to do that. Some days I like go to work and I don't really need to come to school as long as I have all my work down and I'm on top of it and do what I need to do, then they allow me to like have a day to work and like be able to do that because, um, since I took my CNA class here it kind of counts as a real world learning opportunity to do out there.
Jonathan: So, can you walk me through a little bit, like you, your progression? So, your first, freshman year.
Katie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jonathan: What was your internship then? And how did you work your way to this, um, really important role that you have now?
Katie: My freshman year internship, it was medical related, but it was at a veterinary hospital. So, I mostly worked medical wise with vets. I really enjoyed it, I did a lot of things there. I was only 14 and I was drawing blood from animals. Even though I was like super scared, it was really cool. My mentor was great too, she was super awesome.
JONATHAN: Here’s Katie’s mentor, Dr. Claire McCaffrey in her own words.
Dr. McCaffrey: I'm Doctor Clair McCaffrey. I'm veterinarian. I was working on a practice in Rhode Island when I was first introduced to the Met, um, Michelle and her students.
You have to make them a priority in a way. Like, my patients are my number one priority 'cause that's my job, but also second is the students and making sure that they learn each day and can grow and get something out of that. That does mean that I am there at least an hour or more longer afterwards on days that I have students because I don't have time to do my notes until later. So, it puts me behind the eight ball but it's so worth what I can do for them, and I know that being there and being consistent and being someone that they aren't afraid to ask questions of and aren't worried about trying new things is…I think that was one thing that Katie was worried about with drawing blood that, like, what is she couldn't do it? And I'm, like, "If you don't do it right that teaches you how to do it, like, the next time." And she actually got on the (laughing), her first try. So, you know, there's, it's just I'm really happy that I have the opportunity to work with the Met
Dr. McCaffrey: She was quiet when she started but developed more of an interest and found what she was curious about. And from there she started with small tasks, just kind of learning how to hold the syringe, draw vaccines, things like that. And then with supervision or an animal that was cooperative or my own dog she gave a vaccine to. You know, starting there. So, 'cause that's the sort of relationship that we built. And, yeah, I just thought it was a great experience.
Katie: She like made me, she kind of adjusted like the learning to fit me, what's best. And that's what like I really liked about that, is that for me personally, to learn I need to have like a really great teacher who understands me. And so she really did that, she like put the work in so I could have a better understanding. She printed out images, pictures for me to see. I got to draw vaccines there, which was also cool.
So that was my freshman year. I was really shy though so I didn't really stand out much or like usually ask if people wanted help or anything because I'm like, I was very to myself. Um, and I wish I could've gone back because now I like, through more internships I've kind of grown to ask people like, "Hey, do you need this? Do you need that?" And like I will do the work without being asked to and then in my 10th grade year I got an internship in the 2nd grade class at the elementary school. So, that's where I kind of got the experience to work with kids. And then, I did CNA 11th grade and then this year I'm working in a nursing home with a, my CNA license.
Jonathan: That's, I'm not, I'm not like surprised listening to you.
Katie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jonathan: I can, you know, you, you're coming across confident and, and, and mature. But I'm still, it still blows my mind. I think it's dope, to be honest that you're already doing this and you're figuring it out along the way, what you wanna do.
Jonathan: Uh, you mentioned your first, I think it was your first internship, uh, mentor.
Jonathan: Who was a really good teacher?
Katie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jonathan: And, you know, I think sometimes we get lazy and we think of teachers only as teachers in a classroom.
Jonathan: And so, I'm glad you brought that up. What are the things that a great educator does to help a young person like you figure out the path that you wanna be on?
Katie: So first, like to me, would be building a relationship and a bond. I'm still in contact with my 9th grade mentor. She's kind of like my real life mentor too. So we talk a lot about, um, like colleges, she's helped me with that and so Michelle too, she just, she just really asks you like, "Are you sure you wanna do this?" She gives you options if you're not sure if you wanna do it. So, like she kind of goes out there and find what's best for us. Like there are some days where I just walk into the class and she goes, "Hey, I found this opportunity and I think it'd be great for you." And I really enjoy that because that's what happened with my CNA, I wasn't sure if I was gonna take that. And she was like, "Hey, I think you should do this, it would be great. And you wanna do nursing so I think you should do it."
And I'm really glad that I did because I wasn't going to originally. And now like I really enjoy my job and what I do at my age right now. So, just a relationship I would say, it's really helpful. And like that connection with student to teacher and it can just build and be so much more. And you guys can keep in contact with the future and like help with that student's future still too.
Jonathan: You shared some awesome advice for teachers. What advice do you have for young people? You know, maybe they're not doing any, an internship but they, like you, have a vision for what they wanna do in life. Like what advice do you have for them for navigating, maybe they're younger, maybe they're just getting to freshman year or they're about to be a freshman. What advice do you give them to take, to get the most out of their education? Whether it's in the school or out.
Katie: Putting yourself out there, looking for a job that's kind of focused towards your interests or even getting an internship that way because then you build connections with the people that you work with and they would wanna contact you and see, like you might even get a job there. At my vet, um, internship, I could've gotten a job there, I was still too young at the time. But I know that students can also get really good jobs just by internships. They also have somebody that can recommend them, like see how they really work. And that could go into their future too, like getting into a good college, recommendation letters. Looking for classes too 'cause you can still take college classes even if like the school that you go to doesn't offer them. I know some students that don't go to The Met who still take college classes with me. So, finding and building up those credits I would say.
Jonathan: Because The Met is so well known for the internship side of the, of the things I think, it's easy to gloss over what makes The Met special.
Katie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jonathan: We've heard a lot about the culture. Right, you're doing this really hard stuff, you're getting out there in the world doing like adult work.
Katie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jonathan: Um, and I could see how that could get really trying. But you've got this community there at The Met that supports you. What is, what is it that's special about the, the community at The Met?
Carissa: For me, I've had...I've been very lucky in that I've had like amazing mentors and I think that for me, what really helped me and like pushed me, was them having pretty high standards in giving me a lot of independence at internships as well, because then it's like the opposite of traditional schooling. So I'm really learning through experiences where I'm taking the lead on whatever project I'm being assigned to do there.
The school community is really what sets the school aside from other traditional school settings. Because it's not only like the learning that is different, it's also just the school culture in general. Like going from a traditional middle school to this school, there's not nearly as much like bullying or toxic social situations. Um, and I think that's because, like I was saying at, at the very beginning, the school really works together to make sure that everyone's succeeding.
Katie: I would definitely say even if there are times that you wanna give up or you don't believe in yourself, like there are others out there that will. There are times when I would cry because like I'm so stressed out over this work. And then I have teachers and peers that are so comforting and are telling me that I can do it. And that just makes me really think that, "Wow, I can do this if like I put my mind to it and put my all into it, I can definitely do it." And I'm very grateful for everybody here in The Met, through those 4 years. Like 'cause, like I said, coming in I was super shy, to myself, I did not wanna put myself out there and I was just like, like a little shy animal in my corner, but now I've definitely like bloomed and I've been more confident in the things I do. And I'm more out there and I just, like before I didn't even wanna get a job because I was too shy like to talk to others. But I'm really happy with my job and so the fact that I went from being someone so shy to someone now who is like very into their schoolwork and very like happy to be out there and doing the work that I do. And that's really all thanks to The Met because if, I feel like if I went to a different high school I would still be the same shy person with like no, like I probably wouldn't even have my CNA license. And I wouldn't get to learn all these things in the medical field that I think will help me in the future and college. I'm so ready like to graduate and get started into my future career.
JONATHAN: The advisor-mentor relationship is also key to student success at the Met. Here’s Katie’s advisor, Michelle Portilla, and her mentor, Dr. McCaffrey to elaborate on that.
Michelle: In the case of Dr. McCaffrey, um, I'd worked with her before so, I think the next time I came around, I was like hey, ‘you're top tier mentor. There's a ton of medical kids, so I'm gonna send you three of them and you do a shadow day with each of them and then see who fits like, who fits the best’, and so that's, you get to kinda like cultivate relationships and then once you know that mentor, you might know, some mentors are like ‘nanana, I don't want to take three just like send me one, pick the one’ and I'm like ‘okay cool. I'm gonna pick the kid that I think is the best fit.’
Dr. McCaffrey: Yeah, I had to get the okay from all the technicians there cause they're the ones that really make our day move forward and then the other doctors so... Cause there were some days I wasn't there and they'd be in charge of that. You know Katie would invite me to her presentations as well. So I got to come to some of those and then, we did, there was the medical panel that we went to, to talk to more students. And that was a lot of fun. Rounded up some other medical like pharmacists and human doctors and had a little panel for the students for that and that was entertaining. You got so many people to come, I was surprised for the interest.
Michelle: It was awesome. Yeah.
Dr. McCaffrey: And then Michelle kept us updated on all the technical insurance coverage and schedule and then... they came in and it was easy and a lotta fun. Veterinary practices are busy, so I think finding that person that is interested and just telling students to get out there. Email, contact a bunch of people, you know, through your school, on your own, and just find somebody that'll take a chance on you. Don't be afraid to make mistakes and ask questions and be who you are and believe in yourself. I am honored that these students and men and women trust me in that way, to be a mentor for them. And I'm, I want to be the sort of mentor and trusted adult that I wanted as a kid. So, and it's just really amazed me to see how far they've gone and to know that I've been a small stepping stone along the way. And that makes me so happy.
JONATHAN: And finally, some words from Michelle Portilla about making individualized education sustainable for teachers.
Michelle: Two things, one is, you know, it's not super sustainable if you're in a traditional school and they've got you on page 47 on April 2nd or whatever it is, right? Um, like it's, that's not super sustainable if, if that's the context and I'm super blessed to be in a situation like this, where I have that flexibility and freedom, but if you do have a little bit of flexibility and if you can incorporate it, one thing that I think is important is that it's not really about, like, I'm not, I'm not bringing a differentiation in terms of content because their interest is bringing in the content. I'm bringing in differentiation in terms of how you find information.
Some kids are like naturals at it, like they're great at going and finding information. And then you're like, oh, you trust that source? And then they're like, oh, let me go find three other examples or somebody who says the opposite, and they pick that up quickly. I think it fundamentally all boils down to trust in an individual. Right? I have to trust my students that they do want to learn, that they do have that curiosity and that they will pursue their passion and follow their heart. Right?
Jonathan: Right. I wonder if there's any advice that you have for folks who want to get on that journey, the unlearning and then the getting out of the way of, of kids’ genius?
Michelle: Number one is get to know the human in front of you. Right? And I think, you know, any teacher who loves their work is doing that already, so that's probably a given. Number two is in as many spaces as you can, when a student asks for something that's a little different than what you had in mind, really wonder for yourself, ‘what do I lose if I go with it’, right? If I, if I go with it, if I go with their vision of it, what am I losing? And if you realize that you are losing something that you think is important, then step two to that is like, is there another way for me to get that thing there?
JONATHAN: Here are some closing thoughts from Carissa.
Carissa: The thing that makes a teacher good for me is having that piece where they ask the students and get student feedback on what they could be doing better or how they can help their students. So even if they are a teacher at a traditional school asking their students how their assignments are going and trying to work together, uh, to create a plan for how that could, how they could either improve or ways that they could manage these assignments, because that's been super helpful. I think students should recognize that they do have power in what they, what they can do with their life. I mean, I know school takes up a giant amount of your time, but in school you could really think about how you're gonna apply the knowledge that you're gaining to your interests.
JONATHAN: And here are Katie’s final thoughts.
Katie: Their motto, their whole one student at a time thing. Not every student is the same and each like learning experience should be fit for that student. And so, for me, that's why I got to do a lot of medical related things and it's perfect for the path that I'm going into. So I think the whole learning plan that we do is great because everyone here has different ways of learning and different paths that they wanna go to in life. But there's one teacher that adjusts to every single one in each class. People should kind of know that for students, is just that not all of them learn the same or are the same. A plan for each student helps the student learn more and the teacher learn more along the way.
[Theme music fades in]
JONATHAN: That’s it for this week. Thank you so much for listening to Changing Course, from Teach For America’s One Day Studio. I’m Jonathan Santos Silva. Peace.
JONATHAN: Pack your bags y’all, because on our next episode, we’ll visit a school in Hawaii that connects students to their culture, their language, and their community in powerful ways.
Alex From DreamHouse, HI:
“Three things that you need to remember and you need to ask yourself, when is your time to step forward? When is your time to step back? And when is your time to step out?
JONATHAN: That’s next time on Changing Course.
And if you loved the podcast, be sure to rate, review and follow ‘Changing Course’ on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
JONATHAN: Changing Course is produced by Teach For America’s One Day Studio in partnership with Pod People. Special thanks to my main man Michael Kress, Craig Hunter, Laura Zingg, and Georgia Davis from Teach for America, and the production team at Pod People: Rachael King, Matt Sav, Aimee Machado, Danielle Roth, shout out to Chris Jacobs and Shaneez Tyndall and Erica Huang.
Last but certainly not least, thank you to the students and staff at The Met School who shared their time and experience to help us make this episode: Carissa, Orly, Katie, and Joe Battaglia, Arthur Baraf, Dr. Claire McCaffrey, and Michelle Portilla.
I’m Jonathan Santos Silva. Peace!
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About the Show
Changing Course is a podcast from Teach For America’s One Day Studio that explores what’s possible when schools empower students in their own educational paths. Every episode, host Jonathan Santos Silva shares stories from students, teachers, and administrators about how they’ve reinvented traditional approaches to traditional education.
Jonathan Santos Silva
Jonathan Santos Silva (South Dakota ‘10) is the Founding Executive Director of The Liber Institute and creator and host of The Bored of Ed, a podcast that amplifies the voices of inspiring BIPOC educators who are changing the face of education. He has provided technical support to South Dakota’s Native American Achievement Schools and has served as a school founder and principal, instructional coach, and education consultant.
Joe Battaglia, Curriculum Director
Joe has worked in education and non-profits for 25 years as an educator, coach, administrator, and director with experience building and scaling successful education programs, schools, and professional development programs. Joe started his career in 1991 as sixth grade ESL language arts and social studies teacher in Southern California, through Teach For America. From there he taught English outside of Boston where, in 1998 he saw Dennis Littky and five students present their learning from a new school in Rhode Island—the Met. Joe immediately moved to the Met to follow a passion for personalized student learning. Joe has been an advisor and administrator at the Met and a coach and director at Big Picture Learning to support the unique learning personalized and real-world design for students. He is currently the Curriculum Director at the Met in Providence, Rhode Island.
Michelle Portilla, Advisor and Teacher
Michelle Portilla joined Big Picture Learning in 2009. Her roles include working as an advisor at the Met High School in Rhode Island, piloting a program called College for America, developing courses for Learning Big Picture, and helping other schools implement Big Picture best practices as a school design coach. She received her B.A. from Wheaton College with a concentration in history, and a master's degree in teaching from Brown University in secondary education with a focus on history. Michelle is dedicated to working towards educational equity, thinking about ways to intentionally celebrate identity and intersectionality in educational settings, and learning about the practices of innovative and progressive school models. Michelle is originally from New York City, but has love for Little Rhody. She spends her free time playing with her dog, listening to music and learning kickboxing.
Carissa Lombardi, Student
Carissa is a senior at the Met High School in Providence, RI. She is interested in psychology, journalism, and social justice. Carissa is a legacy student and says she always knew she would come to the Met. She has had numerous internships in different fields ranging from journalism and videography to community organizing. In the future, Carissa hopes to become a journalist.
Katie Rodriguez, Student
Katie is a senior at the Met High School in Providence, RI. She is interested in pursuing the medical field. In her time at the Met she has earned various certifications including CPR, AED, CNA, EMT and is about to start a phlebotomy certification course as well. Katie plans to work in these certification areas while pursuing her dream of becoming a neonatal nurse.
Orli Juarez, Student
Orli is a senior at the Met High School in Providence, RI. She is interested in psychology, writing, and travel. Orli chose the Met because of its internship opportunities and advisory model. She has had numerous internships in different fields ranging from journalism to education. In the future, Orli hopes to become a bilingual mental health counselor.