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West Jordan Journal

Student-led learning: Ascent Academy has nailed it!

Dec 04, 2022 11:34AM ● By Jet Burnham

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Students at Ascent Academy, a charter school in West Jordan, get to make a lot of choices. They get to choose how they will show what they’ve learned. They get to choose a subject they want to study in depth. And they get to choose the design for Principal Crystal Thomas’s fingernails.

“I'll do whatever they design,” Thomas said.

Students draw their nail designs on paper and Thomas randomly selects one from what has grown to more than 150 options. Her nail technician matches every color and every detail from the students’ design, no matter how far out of Thomas’ comfort zone their colorful designs are.

“I think they need to know that they're important, that their design, their little polka dots, were important to me, that we put them all in the right place, because they put them there for a reason,” Thomas said. “It shows them that their art is important and of value to me. They need to know at a young age that what they do is important.”

This philosophy of student-led, personalized choice is in harmony with Ascent Academy’s charter philosophy, based on a school-wide enrichment model which encourages students to decide which methods they use to learn and to express themselves.

 “We really believe that students should have ownership in their education, and they should have involvement,” Thomas said.

Each quarter, students choose one of the 10 SEM expression styles to create a project which demonstrates what they’ve learned. For example, to show their understanding of fractions, one fifth-grade student used her violin to illustrate music note values, which are fractions of a beat, and a group of fifth-grade boys made a video showing how a zombie had eaten 6/10 of a finger and 1/2 of the leg of their victim.

            Students also get to choose a topic of study for six-week-long student-led cluster classes multiple times a year. They meet weekly to explore a topic with support from a staff member.

In the Community Improvement cluster, students brainstormed ideas such as repainting the school crosswalk and making kits for the homeless. In the Fitness Cluster, they brainstormed fitness activities and then tried a new one each week.

 Staff members facilitate the cluster classes but provide little direct instruction.

“A cluster isn't for me to teach,” Thomas said. “It's for them to find something and facilitate their own learning of it.” She learned this lesson when she facilitated the “Eating the Alphabet” cluster. She thought the students would want to taste foods that started with each letter of the alphabet, but on the first day, the students told her they wanted to make a cookbook.

“So we spent six weeks trying recipes and they all left with a cookbook that they made,” she said.

Kindergarten teacher Ericka Parry let the students in her art cluster tell her what they wanted to learn. They wanted to experience an art gallery, so she had them walk through the school halls to observe the artwork on display. They read a book about colors and decided they wanted to create colors of their own. She provided paints for them to mix together to create a new color, which they also got to name.

At the end of each cluster session, students will have made a product or performed a service. One year, an older group built a Rube Goldberg machine and then used it to teach younger students about physics. One group made a board game, another built birdhouses. The students in Parry’s cluster hope to paint a group mural.

Rachel Clark, the school social worker, was thrilled to facilitate a book-making cluster with first and second graders. When the students said they wanted to talk to real authors and book illustrators, Clark arranged for virtual visits with actual authors and illustrators.

“It's so fun to see when you give them the chance to decide how they want to learn, and what they want to learn, it’s interesting the directions that they go,” Clark said. “They get to do this the way they want to and look at how engaged they are and how much they’re learning. It’s student-led so I had no idea where this was going to go. They are the ones that decided they wanted to make real live books and they wanted them to look like a real book.”

Clark was impressed with the creative stories and illustrations the students came up with.

 “You can tell some of these kids have the aptitude and they’re just running with it,” Clark said.

The students hope to share their stories with the whole school.

“We’re going to ask our librarian if we can display our real live books in the library so that kids can read them,” Clark said.

Thomas said students love cluster classes.

“The school is buzzing with energy on our cluster days,” she said.

Vice Principal Kathy Butkovich said the crafting and cooking clusters are some of the most popular. Last month's clusters included a cooking class for middle school students and a Japanese cooking class for fifth and sixth graders.

“I thought cooking Japanese food would be really fun and I would get to try sushi,” Anna, a fifth grader said. She previously took a sewing cluster and made a stuffed animal.

Anna said when she gets to choose which class to take, it’s more fun and entertaining.

“You get to do more interesting stuff—stuff you love,” she said.

Ascent Academies of Utah was named Utah Charter Network’s 2021 School of the Y