Here today at New Technology High School in Sacramento, a 5 year old charter school which was written up in May’s Educational Leadership issue on Reshaping High Schools.  I arrive at about 9, and students are happily milling in the courtyard, readying for the day;  I am warmly welcomed by the administrators.   They enjoy a late start Monday, so teachers can have professional time from 7:45 to 9:15.

New Tech teachers and students: welcome to the blog; thanks for hosting me today.  I invite and encourage you to respond to this by clicking on the comment line at the bottom right of this entry.  You can write your reaction to something I have written, or you can share what you think is best about  student learning at New Tech, or you can write about what you think 21st education should be.  

I am with a sophomore today, “Carol,” and we are beginning here in World Studies, a integrated World History and Literature double class, with two teachers and 40 students.   As I walk in, all students are on desktop computers, working in their journals. 

I see a “graphic organizer” (student’s term for it) sheet that students are using to compare world revolutions, honing and sharpening their critical thinking by identifying similarities and differences, comparing and contrasting.   The revolutions, from left to right, are the Glorious, American, French, Mexican, and Chinese Revolutions, and I love the worldly focus– that it is not just US and French.   From top down, the chart asks “Causes of Revolution,” “Ideas used to Justify Revolution,” and “Outcomes.”  

The teacher has told me this is a very project-based class (the whole school’s philosophy is Project Based), and now a group of four, following Carol’s lead, is working on a project organizing sheet– dedicated not to the content of the project, but to the process, things like “action items, persons responsible, next steps, due dates”.   These students are learning as much about (and accountable for) good group project process as they are the content of the topic– which is great preparation for their future.    The students are relying on each other for the project’s success, and speaking in strong terms to each other about their responsibilities.  Carol says “you could have texted me” if you needed help over the weekend.    Ten groups are focused on the task, all over the room, and the teachers are circulating, “signing off” on the project organizer sheet.   On one wall are a series of paper sheets, stating from left to right: “Initiation,” “Planning,” Research,” “Analysis,” “Construction,” “Delivery,” and “Wrap-Up.”     Carol seems to be just flying around the room, working at a pace I have rarely seen at schools, a pace you’d see in a newspaper newsroom maybe, but not so often in a high school classroom.  

Carol’s computer displays her very impressive (this is a sophomore) six page, single-spaced paper complete with pictures, maps, and links, analyzing the causes of the very recent “revolution” in South Africa, in which Mbeki was deposed in a revolt of the ANC.   Love how current and contemporary this is– all the students were given a choice among a list of contemporary political turmoils, including Venezuela, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and North Korea.    Her paper opens with a paragraph summarizing recent events in South Africa, then reviewing each of the five historical world revolutions (above), and then she explains which of these is the best parallel to contemporary SA.    Carol is speaking to her seat-mate: “Do you know how long the French Revolution was, it was heck of long!”   The students have had to integrate into their analysis 15 vocabulary words, such as “upheaval, intervention, interim, null, conciliate, dispensing, prerogative.”  Marzano tells us research has demonstrated strong evidence that vocabulary needs to be taught with serious purpose, and it is great to see that here.  Carol has chosen the Chinese revolution as her parallel, “because there are a bunch of small groups fighting each other for what were the best goals for their country.”  She goes on to identify each of the South African groups and what their goals are.  

We are writing this paper as if it is a textbook chapter, so at the end of the paper she has to write 30 “review questions,” like the ones you see in a textbook; twenty of the questions are to be lower level, Carol explains to me, and ten are higher thinking questions.   How excellent, instilling in these kids the skill of thinking about what would be the key questions of their topic.  Example lower level questions she is writing: “Why did the French people revolt?”  “What caused the social divisions in Mexico?” “What were the English people and the Parliament afraid of?”  “What are the people of South Africa blaming the migrants for?”  Her essay/higher thinking questions: “Do you agree that China relates the most clearly to the crisis in South Africa?”  “If you were a citizen in South Africa, would you be upset with the number of migrants entering your country?” “Do you think it was necessary for William to lead England to war against France?”  “Do you think a revolution in South Africa is necessary?”  These papers will be collected, at year-end, and the best selected for a school-published world history textbook, one these kids will have written (!)– which makes this work more authentic, more personal, more relevant.  Carol points out a Modern World textbook on the desk next to the computer, but tells me quickly “honestly I haven’t even read anything in it.”    Instead she has used the internet for all her research.   Isn’t this an awesome inversion: instead of students learning history by reading a textbook, they are learning it by writing one, complete with pictures, maps, and review questions.   

Looking around the room, I see forty students engaged, at work, focused.   Yes, they chitchat a bit with seat-mates, half about their work, occasionally other things, but this is what happens in any professional environment and is good for kids.   Carol is multi-tasking with the student next to her, who is looking at his online grade report and seeing what his current status is, and worrying about what it means for his relations with his parents and rewards from them.    Carol is advising him how to improve his grades and get more credit for his work.  

One teacher has gathered around him all the students working on North Korea and Venezuela, and is giving them an impromptu, just-in-time, immediately pertinent, discussion review of these country’s politics.   The kids are engaged (because they are writing about these countries right now), and dialing in to the teacher: He is asking about North Korea: “Is this government working?”  “Who is benefiting from this government?”   Venezuela now: “What type of leader is Chavez?”  “Why do you say he is a dictator?”  “What does he call himself?”  “Was he elected or did he gain power from violence?”  “Who was he supposed to benefit?” The poor.  “How?”  Discussion here of land reform.   “Who did it hurt?” Another student: “Didn’t he also take over the oil?”  Teacher explains meaning of “nationalizing the oil companies.”    Now: “what revolutions does this compare to?”  The teacher is referring to, and directing students to, their graphic organizer (which this school seems full of!) for the assignment, requiring kids to identify the sources used, the knowledge of the current country, their “understanding” of the situation, and requiring they provide “images” which represent the issues affecting the political event they are studying (good non-graphic representation!). 

Leadership class now.   Teacher is having the kids manage a school-election process this week for a new school mascot– what this is going to entail is that some students put together the packet of information with the images and copied so it is all over campus, and then others will create a poster and flyer for all the information that is going to happen for this mascot election.   One table will do a timeline for the week, another table will be in charge of a poster of what we are voting on, this other group will create a poster for each of five options.    The room is great– lots of posters: Gandhi, Einstein, MLK, Kahlo, Paris, an Iceberg, Halfdome, Everest.  Students  are now hard at work all around the room.   Busy, engaged. 

“Carl” comes over to tell me his secretary/VP of the student council, he is a senior, and has had the role for a long time.   He tells me the school is best in its “familial environment;” he is friendly with teachers, that it is a “home” for me where he feels very comfortable.   He feels he will have connections here forever, and he thinks this is different from what happens elsewhere.    “You have to be actually engaged here, you have to be really at work.”  “In a lecture there is no reason to be engaged, like in history, you have no reason to engage unless you already have a predisposition to like history.  But here you are given a problem to solve, and everyone responds to a problem, makes you much more engaged.”   He goes on: “It is also much more social, which all humans require, to be social, and you work together socially to solve problems.”    Carl wants to go into educational policy, he tells me: “it interests me, my background is that my dad is into anthropology, my mom is a teacher, but I had sworn to myself I didn’t want to go into education until I came here to New Tech, and it totally changed me and made me really interested in educational policy.”   He is an ambassador for this school, and tells me of a time he spoke with policymakers from New Orleans and was appalled by what they said.    He thinks he will get a teaching credential, teach, and go into policy, or maybe become a journalist, teach, and then educational policy.   “I want to do the kind of stuff that New Tech foundation does, and go into politics eventually, not because I like politics but you need political and governmental support to make these changes happen: work with non-profit organizations and learn different approaches, then go into a policymaking role where I can really influence schools.”     

Carl tells me he is a “poster child” for New Tech.  When he was choosing schools, he wasn’t sure what to do, but what really influenced him is that his parents didn’t want him to go here, strongly advised him against it, which was what put him over the edge to want to come here.  They didn’t because they thought he wouldn’t thrive here because he is a traditional, rote learner, great at memorizing things, and this school didn’t cater to that kind of learning.    So they feared this would be a bad match for his learning style.    In the first quarter of his freshman year, he told his parents they weren’t giving him enough responsibility and he has been much more independent since.  “This school gives me a sense of self-awareness, more so than that of many adults I know.   It gives you that self-awareness because you really have to work with others, really depend on them and they on you, and you have to learn how to manage that, how much you can take on, how much work you can do.”    “This is the only place I have ever seen, ever, that you will get a teenager asking for more work, more things to do.”   Something that really interests me about this alternate mode, project-based learning is how good it is for kids who might have done just fine at a traditional school (doing school, playing the game of school), who would have worked hard and earned a 3.8, but wouldn’t have ever really stretched, wouldn’t have grown as much, wouldn’t have been as prepared for the collaboration and problemsolving the 21st century requires.   Carl seems a great example of this.    

I ask Carl about the hardest project he has had– and he starts laughing, with great energy as he begins telling me about his Grapes of Wrath junior year project.   They had to turn the Grapes of Wrath into an e-book book for LEP high school students in Half-Moon Bay, migrant family children– providing a two page summary spread for each of the 31 chapters; containing 50 vocabulary words and 50 historical facts; and providing an illustration for every chapter, and talking about a symbol or concept in every chapter. This makes it a total of 62 pages, for a group of three.    A “grueling project,” he says.  They then sent the e-books to another school where a teacher’s friend works with LEP students.  Carl tells me he wrote his on adobe in-design, but others used powerpoint or flash.   I admire greatly the way in which an English project has a real-world actual application, the collaboration required, and the technology integration.  When I asked the teacher about the genesis of this excellent project, she says it began when she was telling her friend, the Half Moon Bay teacher, about teaching her students the famous Steinbeck novel about migrant farm workers. Her friend responded that she greatly wished she could teach the novel to her students, from migrant farm working families themselves, but there was no way their English was good enough.  

Looking now a local newspaper article about this school posted on the wall.   The headline reads “It’s Not Geek High,” and it opens “High school has never looked so cool.  There are no bells to ring in these clean and uncluttered hallways.  No hall passes are needed either.  The classrooms are spacious and bright with natural light.”   The school is affiliated with the New Tech Foundation.    The article tells of a time a “Geo-Literacy” class prepared a presentation for the Sacramento Mayor on the West Nile virus– talk about authenticity. “The mayor needs to know everything about the virus including how it is transmitted, the symptoms, and what’s being doing for mosquito abatement.  Maps of the affected areas are important as well. The information is comprehensive, the presentations creative. Students are creating everything from West Nile raps to powerpoint presentations… This is where high school meets the real world.  New Tech offers few electives and no AP courses… The goal for all New Tech students is to hit the ground running after high school.  Life after graduation is an on-going dialog for staff and students.  A recent visitor to the school (and there are many), asked a panel of students what their plans were after graduation, and every single one of them had a plan.” 

The Leadership classroom has a poster for its mission statement: “We as the leadership class will represent the student body as a whole, excluding no one student above another.   Therefore we resolve to communicate responsibly with each other and the student body, to involve students through encouraging school spirit, actively seeking out the opinions of others, and free thinking.   We will do this by working together as a leadership class in order to support the students, we will do this by being proactive not reactive, taking initiative and respecting all inside and outside opinions.  So that in the end school is more enjoyable for students and staff.  As a leadership class it is important to be the best we can be in order to better ourselves and others.  So that all will remember New Tech is not merely a school, it is a lifestyle.  Be Fierce! ”  An adjacent poster says “It’s Leadership; it’s like the military, they don’t care if you’re tired.” 

It’s fun to be here and see their energy around picking a school mascot, something they haven’t gotten to yet, the principal tells me, because they have been so busy and because they don’t have sports teams.    The options being considered here are Argonauts, Timberwolves, Purple Pride, and the Purple Pack.    While making a poster, a student tells me she likes it here because it is “more professional.”  I ask her what she means by that, and she explains that “there are no bells here.  You do projects, you have to do presentations, and you have to dress up to do the presentations.  It is more like the real world.”   

Students are finishing their projects, many of them gliding seamlessly from the desktop computers on which they are doing photoshop mascot designs to tables where they are painting posters.  Stacked on one table are a bunch of manuals for community emergency responder training, which I assume is another activity of this class.  

After lunch, we have a thirty minute advisory period.  Today’s topic is what do we value–what is important to us.    The kids are split off into randomly assigned pairs, so as to widen their social circles.   First discussion question: What is the most important thing you have done in your life this year, 2008?  A student near me mentions their internship this summer at Sacramento Shakespeare, which was great because he fulfilled his internship requirement for graduation and because he learned a lot about acting and set construction.    Next:  What are the hardest and easiest emotions for you to express and why?   This question is harder– students near me venture sadness for hardest.    Next: What is something few people know about you?   Next : What do you value in a friend? Trust is most commonly mentioned.  What is something you’d like to do better?  What is a motto you try to live by?  “Life’s too short to fit in.”  “Hakuna Matata.”  What are five words a friend would use to describe you? My adjacent junior: “Collected, funny, confident, calm, athletic.”   Next: What is the greatest challenge you are facing? “Auditioning for a play– having to sing YMCA for it.”  Another student: “My sister is moving today to Texas, and taking my nephews with her, and it is hard to see them go and not knowing when I’ll see them again… And my ex dumped me.  This weekend sucked.”  Next: What do you like most about yourself?  What do you value most in life?  “Friends and family.” 

This is what is called a Super-Advisory; it meets once a week for half an hour, and is multi-grade levels, an intermingling of students from all four grades.  The other four days a week, students meet in advisory, which is just by grade level, in groups that stay together and have the same advisor for all four years of high school. 

Onto Geometry class; everyone goes immediately to a desktop computer, and begins doing their daily “warmup” on “geocad.” It is about forty students here, with two teachers.   The warm-up requires they copy in their notes certain mathematical statements (2=2; 2+3=2+3; 2+3=3+2; 5=5), and provide a reason for the statement using their own words and the formal terms in their textbooks.  

Now the group is split into two; one goes with a teacher for “workshop,” the other stays for a project.   For this project, due next week, the students have to use Autocad to construct a puzzle, and the teacher explains quite carefully that he will be the “consultant” for groups working on their puzzle, and he explains the role of a consultant.   First, we spend time talking about what puzzle we are going to create.  My group here is going to do a word-search on the autosketch program.  The assignment reads as follows:  “Dear GeoCadd students: This year, the New Tech journalism staff is set to publish our first series of school newsletters.   The publication staff and teachers have discussed having a puzzle section for the publication.   The students of GeoCadd have been given the commission to develop a series of solitary puzzles like Sudoku or a crossword and solutions to be published for the periodic newsletter.  Puzzle and solutions submitted will be judged by the publication staff and your fellow students in a gallery walk format.    Submissions will be judged based on the quality of: 1. Instruction and Strategy Guide; 2. Solution using Statement-Reason proof; 3. CADD design of the puzzle meeting publication criteria (see rubric); 4. 20 copies of the sample puzzle for judging (presentation day).   Your team must be ready to have your entry judged on Oct. 15th, 2008, in order to be considered for publication.   We look forward to all the puzzles that will make our new publication more enjoyable!” 

Our group of three is working on this, in autosketch, and employing some excellent trial and error technique.  They have designed a box for their word search, and now putting in lots of letters trying to make it take the format they are intending.   I go around the room and check out the other projects they have already done, on display on the walls.   “Sketch-a-House” required them to become familiar Sketch-up, and conceptualize a home, build it using sketch-up, and calculate the square footage.    “Zednellim building project” has them conceptualize a high rise building using basic shapes in Sketchup, learn basic area formulas for these shapes and use them to calculate the total area of their building.    “Plot the Dot” introduces them to AutoSketch and has them work with a lot on a sloping hill, divide this lot into several smaller lots, and calculate the true lengths of the sides of their lots using the Pythagorean theorem.   “Equal Access” has them in a situation where they design access ramps for the disabled to get from one level to the next, and learn and apply trigonemetric ratios to meet required lengths and angles for their ramps.   

A poster on display throughout the campus is headed “Habits of Mind.”   For 9th grade, we have “1. Persisting, 2. Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision, 3. Managing Impulsivity, 4. Gathering Data through all the Senses.”   For 10th: “1. Listening with Understanding & Empathy, 2. Creating, Imagining, Innovating, 3. Thinking Flexibly, 4. Responding with Wonderment & Awe.”  For 11th: “1. Thinking about Thinking, 2. Taking Reasonable Risks, 3. Striving for Accuracy, 4. Finding Humor.”   For 12th: “1. Questioning and Posing Problems, 2. Thinking Independently, 3. Apply Past Knowledge to New Situations, 4. Remaining Open to Continuous Learning.” 

For the puzzle assignment, the students have a VERY comprehensive and detailed rubric.   It is broken into 40% for Math Content, with reference to particular content standards; 20% for work ethic and final project; 20% for CADD content; 5% for Written proficiency; and 5% for Oral proficiency.     Each subsection has great amount of specifics.   Our teacher, who is the “consultant” today, is checking in on students, and acting the role of a “boss” with professional employees, trying to treat students as their future supervisors will treat them, so they will be better prepared for that. 


Now Biology.   We begin with a check-in– “how was Thursday and Friday [with the sub]?”   Students exclaim: “He was anti-computers!”  Would seem that students are expectant of regular computer use, which I like.   The teacher was away with students last week at “Forestry Challenge” in which the NT team here placed sixth out of 29 schools.    The room displays hand-written posters that resemble posters I have seen in every other room, and which clearly are the result of some school philosophy.  They are in pairs, one headed Need to Know, and the other one Knows.   For example, one Need to Know lists “partners? What’s a blueprint? What materials are provided?  How can we compare a cell to a city? What are organelles?”  The Knows next to it says: “Deliverables: 2 analogies, 1 set of cell models.  Presentation October 21st, 3 internal deadlines.” 

Students log onto their PeBL account, which all NT students use; it is headed with a logo and the saying Collaborative Learning Environment: New Technology Foundation.  They get tabs for “my school calendar,” “my mail,” “School,” and “My Classes.”  Carol click into her classes, and then to her biology entry document and downloads and saves a document into her personal files– all very easily, while multitasking in a funny conversation with her neighbor about people they like and don’t like.   Carol is looking for the rubric to download, but can’t find it– “look, there is no target.”   Just as in Geometry/CADD class, there is for this multi-day lab project a so-called “entry document,” in this case a letter to the students from Genentech corporation (on corporate letterhead stationery), laying out this work-group’s project.   Carol knows immediately what she is to do next: to prepare from this assignment her Knows and Need to Knows, and she opens a word document and begins note-taking on these topics.   The teacher reinforces: “Make sure you do good Know/Need to Know lists.”   The Genenetech entry doc. conveys to students that the company would like to “find a better way to simplify the cell components and its functions in a variety of analogies. You will need to complete the following: 1. Create a blueprint/map of the cell. 2. Create a blueprint/map of the city you will compare to the cell. 3. Choose an object to compare to the cell. 4. Make a blueprint/map of this. 5. Create a powerpoint with the functions and components as assessed in the rubric. 6. Presentation of the powerpoint.  These powerpoints will be used in our training sessions for general knowledge and understanding of the animal cell.” 

I speak to the teacher, quickly.   He says this project was originated by a teacher colleague here, and he has developed it a great deal since.  He tells me the “letter format” (Genentech) is a tool they use to make projects more authentic, but he then says that he doesn’t use the “letter” entry very often.  More often he opens with a powerpoint with an “authentic problem” which students then have to work together to solve.    He gives me an example from the previous unit of study, where he presented a forest burn authentic problem, and then students had to work together for several weeks on a restoration plan for the forest burn.   Each of four students took a different role in the project, one a hydrologist, one a park ranger, one a forester, one something else, and they then collaborated, each from his or her vantage point of expertise.    Love it. 

Our teacher uses several different Call and Response techniques for drawing class attention.  One is a callout “Se Puede,” the response being “Si, Se Puede!”  Students are volunteering the “Need to Knows” for this biology project: “What kind of presentation? How are we going to create a blueprint? What’s a blueprint? Graded by groups or individual? What’s Human Genetic info? Diagrams? What can we use for analogies?”   The kids ask about workshops, and teacher explains very clearly and emphatically that he will present as many workshops as the students request.    I am getting a clarification about this school’s format: workshops are the term here for teacher presentations, but the structure, which I love, is that teachers only provide workshops as needed, in response to student demand, when they are pertinent and relevant.  Again, a brilliant inversion; how often we see teachers present abstract information, at the teacher’s initiative, disconnected from what students are doing and without student appreciation of the value of the teacher presentation.    Instead, teachers here only present because students are requesting the information, for their immediate use, and with their clear recognition of the purpose.   Really excellent.   The teacher now begins answering some of the questions on the Need to Know, and very nicely provides samples of student work in this project from previous years. 

The teacher explains how groups will be chosen: “you all will fill out a job application, and then all applications will be anonymized.  All students will read all job applications.  We will then go down the results of yesterday’s test, and begin with the highest scoring performer, who will select his partner from the pool of job applications, and then go on down the list.”   What an interesting way to make students more thoughtful about the importance of job applications and to better prepare them for completing them.   It also gives students the other kind of experience, managerial experience, training them how to select employees from a stack of applications.  This is cool.  “The job you are applying for,” he explains, “is a cell biologist at Genotype.”     He explains then both the education required, and the salaries provided, for a cell biologist (BA and MA, $115,000).   The teacher tells me that this format of lab partner choosing (by job application) is his own design, and that for the next lab, students will apply by preparing and submitting a resume. 

I watch Carol as she completes her job application, typing into a template she downloaded from her on-line course calendar.    After the routine information, she focuses on her employment history, which the teacher suggests they complete with their experience in part-time work, volunteering, and chores.   Completing this is their homework tonight; some students email it to themselves, others download it onto a jump drive.