Currently, charter schools make up approximately 90% of all public schools in New Orleans, a percentage that dwarfs that of any other major U.S. city. The city is incredibly diverse, both in race (60% black, 35% white, 5% Latino/Hispanic) and socioeconomic status. Many charter schools here seek to close a perceived “achievement gap” by applying strict academic standards in a high-stakes environment.
But the staff at Bricolage Academy thinks differently.
“New Orleans school models value academic achievement over other stuff. At Bricolage, we’re preparing kids for jobs in 2030 when there will be no ethnic majority; hence, we are choosing equity over the achievement gap,” explains Josh Densen, Bricolage’s founding principal and former KIPP teacher.
And equity is only one part of the equation. Originally born of 4.0 Schools charter school incubator, Bricolage is a manifestation of Densen’s mission recipe: one part “equity,” one part “innovator.” At Bricolage, students are offered a “learner-driven, but standards-based” education, combining the traditional with a more personalized sense of teaching and learning.
Walk into Bricolage Academy’s Innovation room, and you won’t see a single chair. Kindergarteners are out of their seats, building pulleys and answering questions like: “How do you get to 8?” instead of “What’s 5 plus 3?” Students roam the classroom, observe others work, and most of all, determine whatever activities they do.
The school looks like a Maker Faire for Kindergarteners, and it’s happening in the heart of the Big Easy--a hotbed for new charter models and the freedom to try.
Following his stint in a KIPP school, Densen knew that he was looking for something beyond high-stakes and standards-based teaching. So prior to opening Bricolage, Densen began to gather bits and pieces of what other schools were doing--including two notable Northern California private schools, Nueva and Brightworks.
San Francisco’s Brightworks, a school housed in a warehouse reminiscent of a startup co-working space, is truly Maker. It combines collaboration-based curriculum with auxiliary programming from the Tinkering School. Densen loved it: “It was an industrial space, free-form, kid-created.” He also researched the Nueva School, which has a PBL-based Innovation Lab. Witnessing this firsthand inspired Densen, who wanted Bricolage to become “Nueva, but public.”
But then Densen left schools and ventured into the world. He began exploring Maker Faires and read books that focused on learner-centered design. Take Creating Innovators, by Tony Wagner. It was after reading this book that Densen added the “innovators” tagline to Bricolage’s mission statement.
“In terms of K-2 innovation, I view it as a foundational Makerspace,” Densen explains. “Kids are in charge. How? We give them as much freedom and autonomy as possible.”
Fast-forward to 2013, and Densen’s vision is a reality.
Bricolage opened its Kindergarten doors in September 2013, drawing on elements from Maker Faires and Nueva-like charters. Seventy-five students engage in activities that teach them standards-based content and put them in the driver’s seat.
In math class, students are engaging in what Bricolage teacher Megan Gilbert refers to as a “workshop model.” Students are working in groups on varying activities, yet all learning the concept of adding whole numbers.
Case in point: in one corner, students are using Every Day Counts and Calendar Math to understand how to get to the number seven, as opposed to memorizing the concept of 2+5. In another corner, students are building pyramid-like structures with chunky plastic sticks. In a third corner, the teacher is giving a student advice on addition problems.
“At Bricolage, teacher talk is very limited,” Densen says, to which Gilbert adds, “Kids aren’t spending a ton of time whole-class.” This makes sense for math in particular; the entire Bricolage math curriculum has been developed by one of the designers of Math in Focus, a standards-aligned product that emphasizes problem-solving and ownership over one’s own learning.
Literacy instruction is similar in its focus on varying activities and practice. Densen explains that that the instructors “deliver a balanced literacy model of instruction--the foundation of which is the readers and writers workshop (about one hour each of those daily), but it also includes Interactive Read Aloud (15 min), Shared Reading (15 min) and Word Study (20 min), which is essentially phonics work.”
Ultimately, student-directed learning comes to a tee in the Innovation Room, reminiscent of Nueva’s Innovation Lab. The Innovation room has no chairs. One wall is filled to the brim with drawings and building materials; the opposite wall is filled with write-ups and models, which almost entirely cover an “IDEAS” label in the center. Here, the students learn high-level concepts with minimal instruction.
“We challenge students to ask the questions, rather than show them steps.” Densen explains. And what teacher is perfect to facilitate this kind of space? “We hired Paul Reynaud, a 25-year veteran and master teacher who’s a Maker himself.”
In the Innovation Room, and unlike in many high-stakes charters, noise is present and encouraged. But in the midst of the noise, students are applying what Mr. Reynaud told them about simple machines (like inclined planes and pulleys), using blocks and clay to manufacture contraptions that include at least one simple machine in design. (Note to self: simple machines are usually a concept introduced in late elementary, if not early middle school science classrooms.)
“The focus isn’t on classroom management,” Densen says. “We’re challenging the students to get the prince to the top of the tower. We’re challenging them to make a building that includes at least one of [their] simple machines.”
With regards to technology, you may see students using their iPads during Free-Choice Fridays, a time when students get to choose their activities for the rest of the day. Or you may see them playing wit DreamBox during math class (“DreamBox aligned with our math instructional philosophy: heavy on the conceptual, and was personally adaptive so all kids regardless of their level could learn using it,” Densen says).
But Densen is careful to point out then in terms of new products, he and his team always ask a crucial question: “Where is the purpose of the technology?” Densen clarifies that technology falls in line with Bricolage’s school view, “if it is personalized, student-driven and embedded into our existing school/instructional model.”
Bricolage hopes to expand by one grade level each year, until the school reaches K-12. However, Densen is adamant about one crucial aspect of expansion: after 12th grade, he has no further plans to open another school. And in a world where many charter systems are looking to expand into NOLA, Densen’s approach is (for lack of a better term) unique.
“We aren’t trying to build a school model that can scale,” Densen explains. “We want to get this one right.”