Teaching at MetWest: A Big Picture School (Part 1)

It is a Monday and the schedule at Oakland’s MetWest calls for an 8:30-10AM session with an Advisor/Teacher. I enter a spacious, well-lit room where 18 ninth graders are sitting in a circle with Nick Palmquist. He is wearing black jeans, a button-down grey shirt over the jeans and dark tennis shoes. The assignment for these students had been to write down their goals for high school. I noted that more than half had a sheet of paper in hand.

Nick–students call him by his first name–began by holding a multi-colored cloth volleyball and stating what his goals have been for life and teaching. He then passed the ball to his left. Student didn’t say anything and passed the ball to another student who read off his goals. As the ball went from student to student, their goals fell into a familiar pattern of ninth graders: get good grades, graduate, and go to college. Two students said they wanted to get “good” jobs. After the ball traveled around the circle and returned to Nick, he summarizes what most students had said were their goals and says: “we are about to close the circle. Does anyone have “any appreciation to share.” He waits at least five seconds, no response. Nick then say” please return to you tables.”

Students pick up their chairs and put them at tables where two students sit. The tables and chairs are arranged in a horseshoe facing a front whiteboard with the open center space holding a small table upon which Nick’s laptop and erasable markers rest. Students sitting at tables see classmates across the open space. On one side of the whiteboard is marked “Homework.” Listed are the following:

*Semester goals + vision board/road map–due Tuesday AM

*Observation notes on my learning this week–due Monday AM

*Binder check Tuesday

Nick passes out a two-page worksheet from which the rest of the lesson unfolds. The worksheet lists “Lesson Targets”: “I can explain and creatively portray my reflections on my first semester and how they connect to my goals for myself.” Students answer the questions on the handout from information Nick gives them in a series of slides about the percent of students in the nation who finish high school, go to college, and complete their degree; how much money high school and college graduates earn annually and over a lifetime and similar information about educational outcomes. Included is a section on calculating grade point average (GPA). The handout ends with a long section on “Reflection and Goal Visioning,” asking students to connect the goals they discussed in the circle to their current progress as MetWest ninth graders.

Over the next 45 minutes, Nick and students go through a series of slides projected on the front whiteboard. One slide, for example, is marked “Show Me the $.” It lists annual earnings of a high school dropout ($24,492), high school graduate ($33.904), and college graduate ($55,432). As he goes through the slides, Nick asks questions, usually choral ones with no name attached. Some students respond. During whole group discussion of each slide, Nick also calls on particular students by name for a response. Student responses pick up considerably as the money one earns annually and over a lifetime depending on the school credentials students acquire get absorbed. At one point, there is a great deal of student cross-talk, Nick pauses and waits for students to quiet. They do. Nick continues with slides.

The slide on grade point average and Nick’s calculation of it on a transcript of an anonymous student  segues to getting these ninth graders to calculate their GPA. Nick passes out their actual transcripts and asks students to figure out their GPA. He then makes clear what students are to do for remainder of session. Complete the blanks on the handout with headings such as “Semester 1 Reflection and Goal Visioning.”  Under that heading are questions with space for students to fill in:

*What are your big, life goals? Write them, in one or 2 sentences, here.

*Look at your report card grades.Do they reflect where you want to go? Be very specific.

*What are your goals for your grades for the coming quarter and semester?

*How will you actually achieve this? Do NOT write, “Imma do my homework.” Be more specific, and think about the reasons that will propel you to do this.

There is a section on the handout labeled “Advisor and Teacher Support.” Nick asks:

*How might I, as your advisor, support your learning more? Be as specific as possible! This is my job!

*What types of learning activities will help you become more engaged and learn more next quarter. This is an opportunity to help shape how we learn! Really think about this!

*We will be writing goals at our next internship visit. Think about at least 2 goals that you think are important for your continued growth in your internship.

I look around the room and see all 20 (two more students had entered room) writing their answers to the questions in the handout. At that point, I have been there an hour and leave Nick’s advisory group to see another one elsewhere in the building.


MetWest is a small California high school (about 160 students in 9-12 grades) located in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). It is part of a network of Big Picture schools in the nation. In a recently built facility housing an elementary school, social service agencies, and a television studio, MetWest’s atrium is spacious with walls covered in photos, posters, each teacher’s advisory students, and upcoming events. Classrooms are on the ground and first floors of this part of the complex.







Demographically, nearly 60 percent of the students are Hispanic, nearly 30 percent African American with the remainder split among  Asian, white, and multiracial students. English Learners comprise just over 20 percent of the students. Nearly 80 percent of the school is eligible for free and reduced lunches.

As one of about 65 Big Picture schools in the nation (the original Met is located in Providence, Rhode Island), MetWest replicates the model with a schedule of three days of academic/advisory classes and two days when students are out of the building working as interns in businesses, public agencies, and places where adults agree to mentor the intern for the quarter. There is an all-school meeting chaired by students that gathers on Fridays. The overall aim of the program is to engage students by putting them “at the center of their own learning.” Or as the literature says:

[Students] would spend considerable time in the community under the tutelage of mentors and they would not be evaluated solely on the basis of standardized tests. Instead, students 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.

The weekly schedule:



Displayed in the school’s atrium are listings of advisor/teachers and their students with internships.




For media articles on MetWest, see here, here, and here.

In subsequent posts, I will describe other MetWest teachers in their classes, internships, student exhibitions, and the different ways that this school defines “success” and “failure.”




Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

2 responses to “Teaching at MetWest: A Big Picture School (Part 1)

  1. Lee Swenson

    Good article, Larry. Do you want to get together for lunch in the next couple of weeks?



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