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Aurora Institute

Finding My Future: My Big Picture Learning Experience

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Izaiah Jones

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation, Rethink Instruction, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education

Drawing and writing, these are some of the things I love – some of the things I never thought I would be able to do until I attended Choice High School in Tonasket Washington. At first, however, I was absolutely terrified of this school. It was the first time I was going to be around other people my age in almost two years and I wasn’t sure what to expect. If I am being honest, I went into my freshman year fully expecting to leave Choice a few weeks in and go back to being homeschooled. But within just a few days of attending I was unexpectedly surprised – my teacher had asked me what I wanted to learn about! I was so confused I didn’t know what she meant. Why would she be asking me that question? She was the teacher! I thought about it really hard that day trying to think of what I could do. The first thing I decided on was my art. I wanted to learn as much as I could about it. A few days later I also decided I wanted to invest some of my independent work time at school on writing. 

Group of students standing in front of mountain
Students and staff outside of Tonasket Choice High School in 2023

My Desire to Draw

I always wanted to draw. It was something I always admired – my mom, dad, grandma, cousin… they ALL were artists. I would sit and stare at my grandma’s drawings on her walls, wanting and wishing that someday I could do that. Of course, I would go home and pull out my lined paper and start drawing my heart out. I would draw for hours at a time lost in my own world. Soon I started making stories with the characters I would draw. 

After drawing for a while, I would take a step back and look at everything I did… but unfortunately I was always disappointed. My drawings never looked anything like my grandma’s drawings. They looked awful, I thought. Tears would run down my face while I thought about how much of a waste of time it was to try and make stuff as good as my grandmother’s drawings or even as good as my cousin’s. It seemed almost impossible. 

The only reason I kept drawing was because of my family’s encouragement. My mom would tell me that I was getting better and better each time, and that one day I could make money from them, if I kept going. That was what kept me going, I wanted my drawings to go more places than just the refrigerator or the walls, I wanted people to see my drawings and be inspired.

Drawing by the author
Recent art work by Izaiah

My prior schools didn’t really care for my drawings or really anybody’s drawings. Once in middle school, I spent a lot of time working on a drawing of some kids having a snowball fight for an assignment and I was so proud of it when I was done. However, when I turned it in my teacher told me that I should just stick with landscape drawings like I always did. 

Then COVID-19 had hit and I was out of there. I was stuck at home a lot and I ended up watching a lot of people online draw and eventually I got back into it. During this time I also found a passion for writing stories, I found myself drawing all the characters I would create and I was really happy. I started drawing more and more, and with each drawing my skills grew immensely. I found some of my old drawings a few weeks ago and I was shocked by how much I had grown in such a short amount of time.

Connecting My Interests and Learning

Eventually the time came when it was time for me to go to high school and I was given the opportunity to go to a school called Tonasket Choice High School, which is a Big Picture Learning school. All I knew going into it was that it wasn’t the regular public school and that was good enough for me. 

I started to realize how different this school was compared to my school before. I wasn’t being told what I needed to learn and I wasn’t working at a pace that was going to be impossible for me. And don’t even get me started on those standardized tests that conventional schools make you do all the time! Right now I am in my junior year in the best high school I could possibly imagine for myself. I am writing a book, I am getting pretty good at digital art, and I think I know what I want to do with my life after high school. I’d say that was honestly a huge goal of mine that I thought I would never accomplish. I haven’t been pushed around and degraded for not knowing how to do things that other kids know how to do and I am not overwhelmed and depressed by letters (AKA grades). 

I have found that something called competencies are much more efficient when it comes to categorizing and evaluating my learning. Our competencies are: Personal Qualities, Knowing How To Learn, Empirical Reasoning, Communication, Quantitative Reasoning, and Social Reasoning. These Learning Goals are broad descriptions of the knowledge and skills that we learn and develop and the frames that we use are our measurement tool. After each lesson we use the frames to find where we are in reference to the competency goals and what we learned.

Graded scores are so arbitrary. The D- doesn’t tell you what you did wrong or what you needed to improve, it just sits there and mocks you. With competencies it doesn’t put a label on what you did saying you did good or bad. The most important thing I have found about competencies is that you are doing it, you yourself are reflecting, not some random person who might have zero respect for you. The way we use competencies is after we learn something we identify the competency and then use a rubric to score how much new learning we’ve had on that topic. In our school it is expected that we show growth in all of the competencies throughout each year.

My Hopes For What School Could Be

I think that there should be more schools like this one. At my school I have the ability to work at my own pace, I am learning actual things that are going to help me in the real world, and I am treated like a fellow human being. Here I am able to learn whatever I am genuinely interested in and I am supported by my advisors, who often help me get started with finding resources. Also, I think all schools should just use competencies instead of letter grades. I know that there are students out there (because I was one of them) who get genuinely depressed when their report card comes in and the letters on there aren’t the ones you were expecting. Overall, I think that competencies are so much more efficient and a way to give positive feedback when it comes to evaluating your learning.

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Izaiah Jones is 16 years old and a Junior at Tonasket Choice High School Big Picture Program. Izaiah enjoys taking care of animals, writing, drawing digital art and cooking. In their current learning plan some of their goals are learning how to cook, improving art skills, and gaining proper social skills.