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Personalized Pathways: A Day in the Life

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go back to high school as an adult? Would it feel the same or be vastly different? How has technology changed the way classes are taught? Would I still remember the content, all these years later? These thoughts swirled around my head as I got up the brisk morning of November 21 and got ready for school.

In this piece, a member of the school district’s communication’s team takes us inside Madison West High School to give us a look into the day in the life of a student in Personalized Pathways.

I had the pleasure of shadowing Vivek Sivan, a ninth grade student at West High School who is part of our first cohort of students in the Health Services Pathway, to experience some of his classes and see firsthand what Personalized Pathways is all about. Vivek was chosen because of his passion for his classes and his eagerness to share his experience.

Pictured here: Vivek Sivan, ninth grade student at West High School

Remind me: What is Personalized Pathways?

This is the first year that Pathways has been in Madison schools. It was implemented in each of our four comprehensive high schools – East, La Follette, Memorial and West – and I was anxious to see how it has been going so far.

While you’ve probably heard about it or at least of it, it’s not always an easy concept to grasp without seeing it in action or hearing about it from a student involved. Students who enroll in a Personalized Pathway get a unique high school experience in which a theme – our current theme is Health Services, and West’s specific theme is Health Equity for Social Justice – is incorporated into all of their core classes: English, science, social studies and sometimes math as well as in the elective course Health Science Exploration. You won’t hear Pathways students asking, Why are we learning this? Every day they are applying their learning to real-world scenarios and learning through experiences “in the field.”

In Vivek’s first class, US History, I got a front row seat to watch this “interrelated coursework” in action. Woven into the curriculum on the American West was today’s cause and effect lesson on the diabetes epidemic in Native American communities. I sat back and listened to the discussion:

“What’s another cause or effect?” Vivek’s teacher Blair Feltham asked. Unlike most high school classes I remember where I’d raise my hand and hope to be called on (or in some cases, the opposite), students seemed comfortable sharing their ideas discussion-style.

“Loss of identity” one voice called out.

“Starvation,” another offered.

“Can I say an effect?” a student asked. “So, effects were blindness, kidney failure and amputation.”

Vivek and his tablemate discuss causes and effects of diabetes in the Native American community

“Now, do me a favor,” Feltham continued. “As you’re thinking about cause and effect, see if you can think about community effects. When so many people are dying of diabetes or going blind or losing limbs, what is the effect on the whole community? If there’s a lot of death in your community, that might lead to stress.”

A voice came from across the room: “It gets normalized,” they said, connecting this to hopelessness.

“Poor diet and poverty?” another chimed in. “If they can’t afford good food, they have to go to the really cheap aisles with chips and junk food.” A few students Mmm-hmm’ed and nodded in agreement.

“There’s one more cause I’d like to get in there,” Feltham said, said, hinting at what she was looking for. “One more thing specific to the Pima. Before white settlement, the Pima got to farm, they were able to eat traditional foods. But what happened that changed that?”

“The diversion of the Gila River,” a student spoke up, “thereby not having the water to farm, they couldn’t sustain produce, whereas basically the rest of the white area around them did now have water.”

“Yes,” Feltham answered. “The Gila River Dam, which historically gave water to people in that part of Arizona. But it was dammed. And so all the water got sent upstream to places like ranches on farms run by white people. So we can connect that to with loss of identity.”

Hear the classroom discussion continue in this audio clip.

Students in various Pathways classes at West High School working on projects together

Focus around a theme

I wanted to know what Vivek thought about this kind of learning. “The really great thing about Pathways,” he said, “is that all the classes are interconnected, the teachers talk to each other.” While his US History class, as you just heard, is studying the long-term effects of federal policy on Native people, his English class had just wrapped up a unit on Native American literature.

“In Health Science, we were also learning about natural causes and what can cause this kind of stress. So it’s so interconnected. It makes you get a bigger idea of what’s going on. And it does tie into health care, while at the same time teaches you the fundamentals of what you need to know in that class.”

With the focus on health, I was curious to know if Vivek wanted to go into the field. “I’m interested in medicine. I want to be a doctor when I grow up – a cardiologist, and so when I saw the Pathways, it offered a lot of courses that directly tied into health care and social justice.”

Vivek works with his classmate on a project in Biology class

Although some students already know they’re interested in the health science theme, others decided to apply for other reasons. In addition to attending classes at West with Vivek, I also visited our other high schools to hear from other students, their families, and staff. I’ll share some of what they told me here too.

Sharon, for example, a La Follette student, wants to study film and photography. Simon, a student at East, wants to go into animation. But they all find value in the Pathway for different reasons, be it the smaller learning community or the experiential, hands-on approach to learning.

Vivek also told me there are many kids in the Pathway that don’t yet know what they want to do, but this allows them to try it out in high school, before having to choose a major in college. The Pathways program gives students the opportunity to explore possibilities for their future.

“Instead of going into college, choosing a major, and then being like ‘oh man, this is not the major that I want, this is not what I want to do with the rest of my life,’ you get that exposure in high school, so you can really concentrate your focus on what you want to do with your life and for your community.” - Vivek

A stronger sense of community

As I traveled with Vivek from one class to another, I noticed several of the same students went with us. Because not everyone in the school participates in the Pathway, the students in the program get the benefit of being a part of a smaller learning community, seeing the same peers in many of their classes.

Eric Kestin, the father of an East High School Pathways student, told me: “As parents, one of the reasons we were excited about him applying for Pathways is that we felt it’d be a smaller, if not class sizes, a smaller cohort, which we were happy about because we felt it would make kids less likely to fall through the cracks – not that there are cracks necessarily – but just because it’s such a large space. This is a smaller group of kids, so that would be helpful.”

Listen to the full interview with Eric.

“There’s been a great sense of community between the kids, because you have your classes with pretty much all the same kids. For me, that’s really important that I am comfortable with my classmates. And in my classes now, we all get along. I think that’s really important for your education, because if you’re not comfortable with your teachers and your classmates, you can’t learn and you won’t want to participate in class.” – Isabel, La Follette High School student

Pictured here: Sharon and Isabel, two ninth grade students at La Follette High School who were recently featured on our Spanish-language radio program ¿Qué pasa en nuestras escuelas? [What's happening in our schools?] to talk about Personalized Pathways. Hear their interview (in Spanish).

Staff collaboration

Being in a smaller learning community also means the Pathways teachers can get to know you even better.

As Vivek went to some of his other non-Pathway classes such as AP Computer Science and Spanish, I sat in on a meeting with Lisa Koenecke, Pathways Learning Coordinator, and the Pathways teacher team at West. I was able to see firsthand how the teachers collaborate with each other, sharing information and ideas about specific projects and specific students, with the goal of giving students a more personalized education and high school experience. They meet twice weekly. At the meeting I attended, they discussed upcoming parent-teacher conferences, field trip scheduling, and the next integrated project – a project that students work on that spans all their Pathways classes.

Mikaela Hagen, La Follette High School teacher

Mikaela Hagen, a Pathways teacher at La Follette High School, told me her team also meets twice weekly. One meeting focuses on supporting students if any of them are missing homework or having any problems. Here they can talk and find solutions and share strategies or successes that they’ve had in their classes or with their families. The other meeting is focused on the integrated work, the projects, lessons and homework that connect all the classes.

Listen to the full interview with Mikaela.

Experiential Learning

Another key component of Personalized Pathways involves hands-on experiences related to the theme, such as going on field trips to Madison College or the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and having visitors to the classroom.

Fifteen Pathways students recently enjoyed a field trip to Edgewood College where they learned about health-related careers, like nursing. Read the full article here.

Pictured here: Students at Edgewood College looking at an image of a skeleton

One notable visit to the classroom that several students brought up in their interviews was a visit from UW–Madison medical school students in the Doctors Out To Care (DOCs) program who brought cadaver organs into the classroom that the students could look at and study. The students were excited to see a liver, spleen, heart and brain.

At La Follette High School, the students are working on a project about agriculture. In their U.S. History and Biology classes, the students are thinking about how industrialization connects with sustainability, both historically and in a current context. They’re talking about how animal husbandry and slaughtering practices have changed, and studying how agricultural practices impact biodiversity. To see this in action, they took a field trip to a local farm where the farmer talked with them about how he is making changes on the land that his family has farmed for generations.

College and career preparedness

For students who know they are interested in a potential career in health services, one of the elective courses that students can take in ninth grade is Health Science Explorations, in which they discuss possible career paths related to the field. This was the last class of the day for me and Vivek.

Vivek's daily log showing different potential careers and his level of interest in each

At the beginning of class each day, a possible career is listed on the board in the front of the room along with information about it, such as what they do and an average salary range. This shows the students the broad range of careers available to them if they choose to pursue this field in college and beyond. The students fill out a daily log with facts about that career and what they found interesting about it. They also rate their interest in that career on a scale of 1 to 5. Some careers listed over the last few weeks included psychologist, certified tumor registrar, medical writer, Centers for Disease Control disease detective and dental lab technician.

Is Personalized Pathways for you?

All eighth and ninth grade students are encouraged to apply to Personalized Pathways for 2018-19, which will continue to center the Health Services theme. The priority application deadline is December 21, 2017. You can apply online at mmsd.org/pathways.

About the author: Taryn Soza is part of the Communications team at the school district’s Central Office. She has supported the implementation of Personalized Pathways and plays a key role in communicating about the program to students, families and the community. In this piece she takes us inside Madison West High School to give us a look into the day in the life of a Pathways student.

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