Luis is kind enough to help me to a humanities/government class for the second half of the period. Students are discussing very acutely the debate Friday, expressing disappointment that the candidates limited themselves so narrowly to topics of Iraq and the Middle East. Now students are shifting gears, writing on their laptops answers to questions on the board about the effects of globalization and europeanization on French political institutions; about the main causes of French economic problems, and about students’ proposed solutions.
While the students work, (with great concentration), I have a great conversation with the teacher here. She tells me she has taught at several other independent schools, and I ask her what is different here at Bay. She tells me that it is more integrated curricularly, more inquiry based and genuinely more student-centered (not just rhetorically): the students don’t use textbooks, the students really have the onus on them, it is more project-based here, they don’t have exams but rich culminating research papers or projects. She also tells me that this school may be most different in the quality of the collegiality on the faculty: they really have to collaborate closely, and her colleagues are strong intellects in their own right. When I ask how it is that the culture of the faculty is this way, she points to intentional hiring, and that people get what they do here, and if they don’t want to collaborate, if they want to be solo practitioners, they recognize this place is not for them.
She also shares with me her excellent Comparative Government course syllabus
. Really rich intellectually, and strikingly parallel to a course I took as a freshman at Harvard, it is better for its use of clear course outcomes/understandings, (“Understand connection between political and economic development;” “understand politics as the struggle to balance individual freedom and collective equality.”) and its use of core essential or guiding questions (“What can the US learn from other systems?” “Does economic growth promote democracy?”)
Having told me that they don’t do exams here, but use authentic assessment via rich and challenging student projects, she shares with me her excellent final independent research project assignment
. For this, they have to apply the template analysis that they have performed as a class on five countries to a sixth, of their choosing. After assessing and establishing the key elements of the state’s political, social, and economic frameworks, students must originally evaluate key problems the states are successfully and unsuccessfully addressing and must assess how the state can serve as a model to others, and how the state is reconciling freedom and equality.
Students are now discussing and debating the effects of globalization on France, citing and quoting from an impressively academic article
they have read on the topic. One students wants to discuss the dynamic that as the borders open, and there is increasing international interaction, it has lead to the surprising rise of the nationalist French right. Another student: “If you think back to the readings, and how Chirac wanted a multipolar world, it hearkens back to France not wanting the US to dominate.” The way I see it is killing two birds with one stone, by imposing these regulations and subsidies France not only is able to stop the market from homogenizing what is available to consumers but is also able to limit the influence of the US on French markets.” Another student poses: “Does globalization necessarily have to by definition as cultural industries get passed between countries have to homogenize cultures– does globalization of cultures mean that one culture will become globally dominant?” A student answers this very interesting question with reference to his own experience this summer in Japan, and the hybrid Japanese teen culture there. Outstanding conversation here.
Spanish 2 class; conversing in Spanish. “Cual es la capital de Uzbekistan?” I should out “Tashkent,” to no avail; that doesn’t fit the plan here. Looking for answers like: “No lo se. No tengo la menorida.” Conversing about emotions now, nice involvement by the students. The questions he asks relates to their real lives. How do you feel when you are in class and the the teacher talks the whole time and students only listen and take notes? Aburrido. Bored. What about if your parents say they will take you to an amusement park, and then change their mind. Enojado or desilusionado. What if you have a math test in an hour and you didn’t study last night? Nervioso. After whole group teacher-student conversation, now we are discussing in small groups at tables.
A great poster on display in the hallway here, quoting Kropotkin: “Think about the kind of world you want to live and work in. What do you need to build that world? Demand that your teachers teach you that.“
Math 2 class, mostly sophomores. I am told by a math teacher that the philosophy of math instruction here is constructivist, collaborative, guided discovery math. This class begins with a several minute centering meditation, and I am told most math classes begin this way.
Now the students are all at work; they are in groups of 2-4 (they tell me they get some degree of choice about with whom they can work), each at a whiteboard, and they are diligently working through a sheet titled “Investigation 7.” Students tell me there is no textbook, and that this is the class-time norm; students are given problem sets called investigations, and they work their way through them, one or two a week maybe.
This one begins with a heading: “in previous investigations you studied how sine, cosine, and tangent can be used to help you model the behavior of a right triangle. In this investigation, you will extend those ideas to include triangles which do not contain a right triangle.”
“Two park rangers are in fire watch towers. They both spot a fire in the distance; one of the ranger recognizes the location and knows that it is 4.9 miles from that tower. The rangers also use surveying equipment to measure the angles shown in the diagram at right.”
Following are five or six questions following the logic of the scenario. Looking around the room, I am struck by the fact that though this 80 minute math period is immediately following lunch, there are no droopy eyes. Students can sit, stand, move around, or sit on a table– there is flex for their physical posture learning preference. They are using graphing calculators a little. They are explaining their reasoning to each other, and have the burden (good) of articulating their understanding. The teacher is circulating, working on a tablet laptop and making her own drawings on the white board alongside the students’ work. “Wouldn’t the same pattern hold if you changed the numbers here?” A student offers a remark, unsolicited: “I like this Katie, this is fun!”
I go group to group, asking students to tell me how this way of learning is different from at their previous school, and by which method they better learn the material. Students agree widely that the method is very different here: at every previous school, they tell me, they had a textbook and the teacher just assigned homework problems and they came in and the teacher taught them the material and the problems. Here, it is so different, they work in groups and have to learn it themselves. Some say his way is hard, or harder, than the other way; some say they enjoy working in groups and prefer that. When I ask them if the learn more, they aren’t sure at first; they hesitate as they think about it, trying to go back and compare (the question is a stretch, especially if they haven’t thought much about it). But after some cogitating, most tell me they think they do; because they have to figure it out themselves, because they write it twice, once on the whiteboard and once on their notes; because they have to explain it to each other; and because by having to the work themselves in class, they have to pay attention rather than tuning out.
As I watch Math classes now, I am drawn back to my own high school math education. Over the course of my grade 9-12 years, I had three Math teachers, one of them for two years. In 9th, and again in 11th and 12th grades, the instruction was very traditional, teacher directed, and I hated it. The teacher stood at the board, we all sat in rows, we trudged, led by the nose, through a thick dry textbook like we were on a death march though a thickets of x’s and y’s. Day after day, the teacher presented new material and worked through sample problems. For me it had zero emotional resonance, very little progress to new topics, and very little if any real-world authenticity. One aspect of the math curriculum I hated then and resent still is that the fine school I attended had a mandated Algebra 3 curriculum between Alg. 2 and PreCalculus for all but the very best students; the result was that despite having been a very successful 8th grade Algebra 1 students, I didn’t get to Calculus by 12th grade; the added year of Algebra 3 in 11th grade put me in a 12th grade PreCal class, and another year of repetitive high algebra/trig work, without anything new. I think that 1984 curriculum pattern was criminal– does anybody still do that? (I apologize if they do).
Tenth grade for me in high school was a curious exception, and I look back at it with mixed feelings. By my lights, Mrs. B., friendly and pleasant, hardly taught us at all. We had decent quality geometry textbook, one of the ones with comic strips or Escher drawings fronting every chapter section, and all we ever did in class was work in small groups through the book, section by section. Mostly Mrs. B. sat at her desk; occasionally she circulated, maybe checking on our math work, often just gossiping. Socially, for me, new to the school and shy, the opportunity to bond with my two seat-mates (we never changed partners) was a huge advantage; this class format provided me very significant social growth, which in retrospect is no small thing. I learned the basic tenets of geometry, but never rose to any greater grasp of conceptual mastery or intellectual prowess in the subject. Indoctrinated to think that teachers were supposed to stand in front and teach us, I have long thought Mrs. B a failure as a teacher; but now, I am coming around to see her as having had a better approach, a better format for her instruction and our learning– a better system that was not very well executed. She should have given us more challenging assignments, she should have been more attentive to checking our comprehension, she should have sought to provide us more real-world applications for the subject. But I also think that on some level she was aware that providing us this social seat time did have a value of its own– that even as she was slacking as a Math teacher by letting us go off-subject so much of the time, she was still offering us opportunity and support for our growth as adolescents.
Lunchtime- we wait in a short line, then serve ourselves very lovely home-style, natural and healthy food, (from Acre Gourme
t) whole wheat quesadillas, black beans, curried chicken salad. It is really a terrific, high quality meal. Everyone eats in the great hall, teachers and students, and though they tend to congregate in different parts of the hall, there is plenty of intermingling, providing a nice sense of community via shared bread-breaking.
We chat at lunch about why students chose Bay. Luis says it had a strong community here, and that he was really drawn to the 1:1 laptop program (partly due to his difficult dysgraphia), which only a few schools had, and more particularly, he is a big PC fan, anti-apple, so was happy that Bay school runs on a PC laptop platform. He also really liked the school’s commitment to teaching science, technology and ethics/spirituality; he says this and adds, “even though I am an atheist, religion is really important in the world right now.” He points out that some schools do some of these three, but only Bay does all three. Another student emphasizes says that when she visited high schools she just felt most comfortable here, another one liked that at Bay “everyone knows your name here.”
I also ask about the hardest, most challenging assignments the students have had here. Three students in a row, without having heard each other, separately say “the Africa project
freshman year.” This is a several month, much supported enterprise where each student picks an African nation and writes four linked six page papers on that country’s precolonial, colonial, and modern history, plus a final essay identifying the nation’s biggest problem and proposing solutions to it. The student who studied Swaziland, for instance, wrote of the challenge of AIDS, and suggested education was the needed remedy. Another student says his most challenging assignment this year came in US History, for which he had to write a comparison analysis of motivations for immigration to the US from the Pilgrims up to today’s immigrants, an 8 page paper.
After we eat, Luis is working on a script for a play he is in; I am sitting with students in a reading period called Book Bridge
. Every Monday, students gather either for SSR or a book group dedicated to reading and discussing a common title; the time is intended to promote stronger student independent reading.
Now in Chemistry. Students here take four courses a trimester; each school-day has four class periods for 80 minutes each.
Teacher begins, lots of friendly energy, how was your weekend? Teacher tells us she campaigned for Obama in Reno. My guide Luis and his friend are very proud of having earned their business license this weekend for a startup they have making Tshirts, What the Fabric it is called. This is an outgrowth of a student enterprise here on campus, where the school stimulated them to make T shirts as an alternative fundraiser to bake sales.
I ask again for a syllabus– students here are very digital, Luis just emails me the syllabi rather than digging it out of a backpack or binder. Something I really like on the syllabus is her statement that “the course will be primarily lab based and we will focus heavily on developing your skills in experimental lab design.” Great to see that focus on not just doing labs but designing labs– in this an earlier era success was possible for skilled chemists who ably followed lab routines; in a new age, success will only be secured by the greater meta-ability to not just perform an experiment but instead to design it.
At first my blogspot was blocked by the campus wifi student network; my guide Luis noticed this immediately and, and I like this a lot, took his own initiative immediately, emailing the tech office here at the school to unblock it. I asked whether I should try to do something, but Luis is very confident of himself as an “actor” here, and assured me he had it covered. And indeed, it is now unblocked. Hard not to see a possible link between this student’s initiative as a problem-solver at school with his entrepreneuralism, in having started a business already.
After a short review problem on the board, students are distributed into groups. A problem set is being distributed, with the answers providing the combinations to a locker in which is stored reward chemistry, in a kind of scavenger hunt mode. “This is the coolest thing we have ever done in chemistry,” a student exclaims. Excellent use of not-too-intense pressure, collaboration, and competition to motivate students’ focus on problem-solving. The problem sheet has four questions, three of them grounded in real-world word problems. These are hard problems; the kids are all leaning in, graphing calculators blazing away, as they talk to each other, work out different methods. Nice to see lots of laughter; they are really working together as a team, to my observation, and the urgency keeps them focused.
The solutions are found, locker number and combination numbers each being answers to the four questions, and students race down halls to find their “treasure.” Nice. I ask a group, as they cheerfully eat their prize candy, what the best things about Bay are. Some cite particular teachers; I ask them to generalize; they tell me it is that their teachers love them, that there is strong community among teachers and students; that their teachers are “really funny.”
Just came out of morning meeting, a lovely ritual with a religious aspect, not surprising at this school whose mission is dedicated to prizing world religions and founded by a Episcopalian priest and church leader. The headmaster, whom the kids refer to as Father Malcolm, opened with a call and repeat mantra, reciting the school’s “guiding precepts
.” Very nice, hearing students state and express their commitment to things like “We value living with kindness and honesty.” The chaplain then stepped in, and shared a short homily with us, keying off of Buddhist precepts and the concept of not speaking slander. Today’s message is to not speak slander or violence to ourselves, in our inner voices, something she said we all do but harms us. Notice it, be aware, and try to offset these inner, hurtful voices to ourselves. I was reminded of the research and writings of Marty Seligman
, Learned Optimism, Authentic Happiness, and The Optimistic Child. His psychology argues that one of the largest causes of depression is our over-attention to these inner, negative voices, and he, like our chaplain today, offers advice on how to combat them. I myself spoke on this same topic in a speech last spring, From Hollowness to Happiness
We are now in US History; I am with my guide today, “Luis.” (All student names are pseudonyms). We are in a nice rectangular classrooms with gorgeous views of the Bay, out to the Marin and the Golden Gate Bridge. After a few procedural announcements, and attention given to the importance of good writing, students are asked to choose one of four options regarding immigration by going to one of four corners in the room, where they will discuss the merits of their option before making their argument. Our four options are Open Ourselves to the World; Make Emigration Unnecessary; Admit the Talent We Need; Restrict Immigration. We now have students in all four corners, engaged in good discussion and analysis; our students are “doing the learning” here today, and recognizing and appreciating history as an argument, an intellectual debate we enter. Something else I really appreciate is the teacher asking the kids, for homework but to begin thinking about already, is what might a 5th option be, beyond the ones identified. This is essential, to unbox the debate and invite explicitly, insist on, creative thinking.
I review the teacher’s syllabus
, which is very impressive. The course is organized not chronologically but thematically– which she says is wise because it how historians in the real world do it. The themes chosen, and I love this, are the ones the teachers have determined are “most relevant to today’s world and most necessary to prepare ourselves to grapple with the imminent future.” The themes are Immigration, Identity and Power (in the Civil War, Progressive Movement, and Civil Rights Movement); and US foreign policy and its relationships with foreign perceptions of our nation.
Now each of our four groups is articulating the logic of their position on immigration. Option 3, admit the talent we need, is the most popular among the options. “We cannot support this huge influx of immigration but we need to stimulate our economy with highly skilled workers.” “This option takes our own complex social problems into account; it allows us to both improve our internal situation and assist the world.” After the arguments have been made, students are invited to change groups– demonstrating a commitment to open-mindedness– “you can move at any point” the teacher repeats. Now the groups are asking each, challenging each other, with provocative questions. One restriction group asks the make emigration unnecessary (by funding development abroad) group “How will you fund this?” This same group is challenged a second time: “Have you reviewed the track record of US efforts to help foreign nations?” A question to the close-borders group: “How will closing the borders affect the way overseas nation view the US; will it make them see us as more elite and superior?” Response: “We are just trying to get our economy going again, it is not that we are superior, why would they want to come here anyway when our economy is so troubled, and finally– lots of other countries restrict immigration too.” A question to the Admit talent we need group: Won’t that plan just hurt other countries by sucking away their skilled labor? Response: We have a great plan for that, they can come for five years, enhance their skills and training and then return to their home country better able to serve it. They go on to acknowledge the selfishness of their plan, but explain that at this juncture we need to be selfish, we need to fix our country economy. The group for making emigration unnecessary explains they will fund hospitals and education elsewhere, especially education because a lack of education is at the root of economic problems.
Debate over, kids are asked to do a quick-write journaling, about anything new, troubling, puzzling they learned in the course of the debate, which is good practice for memory retention– one brain research book suggests we call them “Dend-writes” because of the way written reflection builds dendrites in the brain.
Teacher asks– did this exercise (the debate) bring up more questions, more answers, more questions than answers? (!). One student says that he thinks we don’t have enough information to really effectively debate on this. The teacher responds — we are not experts, no, but there do exist online lots of statistics and information we can draw upon and employ more frequently in our discussions. A great point: debating develops good argumentation skills, but argumentation must be rooted in good, hard data and good, qualitative evidence. The teacher pushes them: what examples do we have already of this kind of evidence. “Lots and lots of resources are available!” The teacher pursues it– at what point will we become experts? She insists– don’t sell yourself short, you can be more informed than many pretty easily, don’t hold yourself back, be political actors with the information you do have and continue to pursue gaining more information.
Nice meta-element about debates– how did we do in this free form, less structured debate? How can we make these debates more effective in the future? Good focus on how we are learning and how can we improve our classtime learning. The teacher then nicely asks them to apply this same logic about better debate formatting to the presidential debates, noticing the structure of the debate.
Moving on: we are now discussing a lengthy NYTimes magazine article
about the impact of immigration on a small town in Illinois, and the efforts of town officials to respond. Very current, very real issue about real people. The teacher is asking good questions eliciting from the students key factual information about the story. The teacher probes– the town officials say their concern is illegal immigration, but what does the writer suggest are their real, underlying concerns? Students are now doing a great job digging for subtext and motivations.
All students here at Bay have their own laptops; at this point they are all open, and students are taking discussion notes straight onto their computers. I can see half a dozen screens– all but one student has their screen exclusively devoted to their note-taking; one other student is surfing simultaneously, but only things pertinent to his school schedule or our discussion (i.e. not myspace or facebook).
Good morning; arrived here at Bay School after a lovely bicycle ride along the SF waterfront. Few schools have a more glorious location than Bay School’s here in the Presidio. If you are following along, please remember live-blogs flow chronologically from bottom to top, and each entry is topped by the time it posted.
Mark Edmundson has long influenced my thinking: he is one of the best of a breed of college professors in academic subjects who really think hard about good teaching practice. Conceptually he and Gerald Graff have a great deal in common: absorbed in academic controversy, excited about teaching the controversies, reflective about how to engage students in critical thinking and analysis. One of the first books I ever reviewed, in Berkeley’s East Bay Express in 1993, was by Edmundon, Wild Orchids and Trotsky; I remember writing he had captured some very interesting ways to provoke thinking and enliven a classroom.
Now this past week, a new article by Edmundson in the Times provokes us again. Geek Lessons, it is entitled, and he makes the case that good teaching must be un-cool; to be cool is to be “knowing,” and to be a good teacher, by contrast, we must challenge the knowing, we must embrace the act of un-knowing. “Good teachers, by contrast, are constantly fighting against knowingness by asking questions, creating difficulties, raising perplexities.”
Good teachers are unafraid to be eccentric, geeks, surprising. Recently, shadowing at Branson, I was delighted to hear a student describe the next teacher as “great, because she is really out there;” I observed that there are many reasons, including brain research on memory forming and retention, to think that surprising teaching is effective teaching. Quoting Edmundson again: “Good teachers matter because they can surprise you out of your complacency and into new views of yourself and the world. Or — and often this is just as valuable — they can induce you to struggle to affirm intelligently what you’ve previously believed in indolent, unconsidered ways. :
I am reminded here about Pat Bassett’s well known, and justifiably so, article that good education is counter cultural. Edmundson repeatedly in this article makes the case that good teaching is always shaking kids worldview up, pushing them out of conformity. “Because really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does. Teaching is about being what people are now prone to call “counterintuitive” but to the teacher means simply being honest….Good teachers perceive the world in alternative terms, and they push their students to test out these new, potentially enriching perspectives. Sometimes they do so in ways that are, to say the least, peculiar.”
Now, there are objectionable elements here in Edmundson. I am a bit apalled at his suggestion that a good high school teacher would act in such a way as to humiliate a “cool student” by tricking him into a misunderstanding in order to demonstrate how conformist he is. No good teacher would do this. He also, on the article’s second page, seems to rail against technological tools in the classroom, making him appear a bit of a Luddite. “Many teachers are afraid to ban computers from their classrooms. It will make them unpopular, unhip. ” The grounds of this complaint aren’t entirely clear, other than that students will use the laptops in ways other than what the teacher intends; I would suggest that that kind of concern reflects a bit too much of an embedded “teaching as transfer” ideology– that the students had better be spending their entire time learning listening to what the professor is teaching them. That isn’t good 21st century teaching– we use technology to empower students to construct their own knowledge more effectively, and hold them accountable for their product, rather than micromanaging their minutes in our classrooms.
The way he weaves his argument around, in and through an anecodote from the movie Almost Famous does nothing for this reader. I liked the film, a bit, and I appreciate the effort I suppose, but nothing about the story here really interests me.
But all that notwithstanding, I side with Edmundson in giving a great hurrah for eccentric, exceptional, alternative, questioning, and surprising teachers.
Back at Urban
this morning, with, as always, great appreciation to the welcoming hospitality of its administration. I say back because I was here with teachers and administrators for three days in August, for Howard Levin and the Urban faculty’s brilliant technology integration symposium. My learning those three days, both about technology integration and about authentic education, was huge, and greatly influences this project.
I am here with a junior, “Sally,” and we are starting our day at Video production class. Sally and I enter, and she comfortably introduces me to Chris, her teacher; all the teachers here are addressed by their first name. I am glad to be here; I was very engaged by Chris’ presentation in August on using digital tools to teach media literacy, (rather than teaching the use of digital tools).
Chris begins interacting informally with kids– and speaking from his laptop about news of the day. Class more officially begins, slides into it, without any bells; I don’t think they have any bells here. It was interesting that at CART they made such a big deal about not having classtime-bells– it was very significant to them, I suppose because it counters the vast majority of public high schools, but bells are less common at independent schools. He then gives us a little overview of the day– starting with looking at some clips from movies, then working on projects.
Visual Literacy is the central topic: His first slide revisits the 5 things to consider when analyzing visual literacy, and by reiterating them, we keep the overarching themes of the course better in mind– the key understandings: 1. Creator, 2. Medium, 3. Audience, 4. Content, 5. Motive. Chris uses slides, and I recall this from before, with a enormous proportion of white space, and just a few, 5-15, words on a slide. This minimalism, less is more, may make the use of slides more effective– the focus is better, the retention greater.
We watch a very engaging scene from Touch of Evil, a long tracking shot, with romance, drama, and suspense– all holders of attention and good for memory retention– the kind of stress. After its conclusion, the teacher asks for observations.
Urban is justifiably renowned for its laptop integration program
, which I am going to try to keep taking note of, the role laptops are playing in class. In this class, about half the kids, have laptops out of bags and on the table, but nobody has it open.
Students venture opinions speculating on the plot and motivations of characters. Next we watch longer tracking scene from Altman’s the player, and students are observing– comparing to touch of evil, that it lays out all the main characters– the students have good close observations about the camera work. There is mention of another film, but the name can’t be remembered; a couple of students immediately pop onto their laptops and find the right film, within seconds. A few more scenes are seen and discussed; students are sent off with homework reminders.
Discussion in advisory– the adviser kindly welcomes and asks me to speak about my project, and what I think 21st century education is. The kids strongly respond, and have lots of opinions. We talk about technology integration, and the laptops, which the students tell me helps them a lot, though has the drawbacks of being potentially distracting and perhaps means you won’t master basic things, like simple computation (48+12 is what again?) or handwriting. Their conversation continues: one student explains very articulately that although technology can be very distracting, and she remembers when her dad got a cell phone and that was all he did, she thinks that having early and frequent exposure in youth to technology actually makes you better able to manage and handle the potential disrupting influence. One student says she still hand-writes out most things, because she prefers it and it is less distracting; another says he never handwrites anything and is SO grateful to not have to. I ask about critical thinking, and one student talks at length about how Algebra helped him to intellectually recognize that there are underlying core principles, explaining the things that are happening at the surface, and that you can seek out those underpinning explanations for everything. He gives the example of taxation: he now can see into the logic that taxation represents a form of slavery.
After the larger group breaks out, a smaller group keeps talking to me, with their own strong interest. A student contrasts an Urban education from her preceding, K-8 education, which she calls very structured, whereas here at Urban, she is so regularly, consistently, given open-ended assignments, she is able to choose her subjects for investigation, that every project is much more personal to her, she is pursuing her own interests, and it doesn’t even feel like work in the same way, not a burden but pursuing her own interests. Another student talks about how her middle school was very project based, with excellent, physical, hands-on projects, and here it is similar in challenging projects, but they are less physical, more written and computer based. We speak about what was her hardest assignment, and she tells me about a tenth grade assignment for which she had to write a 15-20 page topic of any topic at all, one of her choosing. She chose to write on the rise of social networking websites, and why they are so popular. Clearly Urban provides a strong commitment to students’ personalizing their education in a wide variety of ways.
The students also bring up the topic of Urban’s grading policy– they are given no grades at all, all year, but over the summer do learn their gpa only, as teachers are assigning semester grades for college applications, but not for student use. They are very enthusiastic about this system: they tell me that they never are graded on papers or tests, but get written responses from teachers applauding their accomplishments and pointing out how they can do it better. So they are never competing, they tell me, for good grades, and they say it promotes much more “intrinsic motivation” and a very different “student culture” (their terms, they use) for learning, and learning how to learn, not just trying to get good grades.
AP chemistry — Sally tells me this is the only AP course at Urban, which has moved away strongly from APs. Sally tells me she thinks that AP has become too stressful, too much about the test score. But this class is not just about the AP test– it really about the learning. This class is not just test obsessed. In the final weeks of spring, there will be more test practice and prep. Here is class, the teacher explains that with so many students away at Ashland, this class is a little abnormal, but they are working on review. Here, students are working in a very energized collaboration going over last night’s problem sets, comparing answers and trying to explain to each other how they got different answers, as the teacher moves around and supports.
Sally is kind enough to bring me over to check out a Social Studies Class– Contemporary Issues– which is right up my alley. This is a sophomore class, and the subject today are the Presidential debates, which are happening tonight. One student says that the San Francisco Examiner today endorsed McCain, and at first he said he was surprised, but then he started explaining the ownership of the newspaper, and how that might have influenced its endorsement. Now the students are distributed into groups of three, and have been provided discussion questions “How important is this debate and why?” Should the debates be held tonight? What are you going to look for?” The teacher tells them, as they break up, that they should have one notetaker in each group, and that “If you don’t have fun, you are in trouble.”
Groups distribute around the room, sitting on the floor in some cases, one in a little sunny alcove. The teacher circulates. I sit in on one group, the teacher far away: students are citing articles they have read, one discusses at length things he has seen on Stewart’s Daily Show how McCain keeps talking about being a POW, and another student responds: Yeah, he is really milking it. But then again, she goes on, so did Kerry in 2004, Kerry really contrasted his service with Bush. Students are discussing the candidates debate strengths– Obama, one students says citing her research, talks too much like a professor sometimes, and people don’t respond well to that; another student respond saying that something to look for tonight is whether McCain will lie, and Obama counter with anger to a McCain lie, that it might be good if Obama gets worked up about something and we see a new side to him. A boy says he wants to hear from the candidates how they are going to restore America’s image in the world, which is so tarnished; he says he thinks Obama will help just because he will send such a strong signal to the world that things have changed. This entire conversation is all the students’. All around the room, these students are very engaged. Now the group I am sitting in on is discussing what a field organizer is for a campaign, and that one girl and her mom might do that for Obama, and they are discussing how to do that– understanding here migrating to action.
There is a bulletin board in this classroom with New York Times clippings. The teacher is now reconvening the class, and they are identifying key things to look for in the debate tonight– their homework is to write about the debate– what you anticipated, what you were looking for, what surprise you. We are also being shown a short clip from the PBS Newshour about the economic crisis, and students are taking notes.
Back in Chemistry– they did an experiment I missed while I was in the issues class, aluminum and iron oxide, which created aluminum oxide and liquid molten iron. Now they are working out in small groups the calculations. The teacher is moving around, and takes one student’s worksheet, and displays it on the board, saying this work is pretty good, and they are looking at it together. Did some get different results?
Urban is more digital than other schools I have seen. When I ask Sally if I can see her course syllabus, she doesn’t reach for her binder or folder, she reaches for her laptop, logs onto first class, and opens the course folder– all instinctively. When the chemistry teacher asks them to do a quick-write assignment for him at class end in anticipation of their upcoming “interims”, he asks them to email him. This one is about what the students are most proud of for their progress thus far, and what are their goals for the next part of the semester. Interims are mid-term conferences, where students and teachers closely review these topics.
I review the Chemistry course syllabus, and like the stated goals, which include that “you will deepen and extend your knowledge; you will apply these chemistry principles in labs: at times I will give you a detailed procedure to follow, while at other times you’ll need to create your own procedure.; you will look forward to coming to class.”
Over lunch, Sally and I discuss Urban at great length. She tells me that she chose to come to Urban rather than a larger, very respected school further down the peninsula. She visited both schools, twice, and had a hard decision, because the other school has much better weather than here in San Francisco. But she chose Urban because it is much more project based, much more creative, much more personal, and much more open-ended in its approach to education; the other school she says is very traditional, with letter grades, more lecture formats, more competition. Sally explained to me she realized that the quality of the education was a better reason to make this decision than the weather. She says she likes that all teachers here are called by their first name, you feel like you are more working together. A few other things– she has a lot of homework, last night 3-4 hours, but it is heaviest on Thursdays, so that was exceptional; she says she really enjoys her work and it is not such a burden. She really likes that as a junior and senior she gets to choose almost all her classes, rather than following a prescribed 11th grade program.
Sally’s older sister is at Yale; we discussed how well prepared she was by Urban for Yale, and I learn that she has performed very well there. Her written work at Yale always earned her A’s for its literary skill and original ideas; the only place she has had any difficulty perhaps is in the classes where she may have to memorize long lists of facts or terms, which she is not as prepared for as she might be if she were a graduate of a intense “cram school” like a well known LA school which Sally refers to and I will not name. Sally tells me that you really learn to write well here at Urban: you write all the time (she gives me a long list) and get tons of feedback. Sally and I discuss our shared opinion that strong skills in writing and original idea generating is much more important for life than knowing how to memorize a lot of terms.
In the hall outside of Spanish we meet a friend of Sally, who tells me the best thing about Urban is that it suits his need for visual learning rather than elsewhere where they lecture most of the time– that he really needs to visualize things to understand them well, and in Calculus, for example, the teacher is able to use the smartboard to effectively display the problems and graphs (he also tells me the Urban teachers are fast- becoming much more proficient in their use of the new smartboards).
In Spanish all conversation in en espanol; the teacher begins class by showing us a video from BBC mundo, a news report about a restaurant soles for dogs. Students are sharing with teacher what they saw in the video. We are now doing a quick true or false game quiz on the smart board. And now, small group conversations using today’s terms; great, warm energy in the room and lots of laughter. Very nice use of the smartboard in here too, moving around the lesson schedule efficiently. And now, we sing. “Cancion de julieta venegas… nuestra heroina.” We are filling in the blanks of the song using the reflexive form of Spanish verbs through the song– “Que Lastima pero adios/me despido de ti y me voy.” Great way to learn, using contemporary popular music, associating it with grammatical forms and ingraining it with the musical accompaniment making ti easier to retain and retrieve. Our teacher makes a small mistake in the use of the new smartboard technology, for which she apologizes to me and tells me that it is an intercambio between her and her students: she is the expert at the Spanish, they at the technology, and I respond to her that intercambio es excellente for los estudiantes.
Sally and I duck out so I can get a chance to see another Elections class, though we take a quick peek in Civil War, where the teacher is working individually with her students on their history papers. Here in Elections, juniors are discussing tonight’s debate, and we are predicting what will be the foreign policy topics tonight. Will the economy come up, and how can it fit into a debate about international matters? A student says outsourcing is a critical topic, and is economic with implications for foreign policy, and the teacher says are you sure, and the student responds it is all about globalization. Another students suggests energy independence is another place where foreign affairs and economics intersect. Moving away from economics, a student says he is looking for the NATO expansion question tonight, and what to do about Belarus and Ukraine when Russia is only semi-acknowledging their full independence. Now the teacher is going around the room, asking students one by one to declare the single key thing they are looking for tonight. One is looking for what Obama’s Iraq withdrawal plan is; another for how the candidates will handle North Korea and Pakistan, volatile nuclear weapon holding nations; the next wants to know more about African policy; this student is interested in the question of whether a Democratic candidate can finally speak more directly and emotionally rather than over-intellectually and academically; and onto a wish for speaking to China policy. We finish with a short video of Obama and McCain on 60 minutes.
Here in English– American Romanticism. Glad to be here, especially because I so much appreciated Jonathan’s presentation at the Urban Tech Symposium last month on his use of online conferences for students to test out their ideas. In his session, he explained that he really wanted to support students developing their own ideas in an open-ended way; for class, students in a conference group, three or four, test out ideas responding to the text, give each other feedback, and develop their ideas. Sally and the class are reading Moby Dick right now (How cool is that?), and Sally’s conference piece takes the position that “by chasing a whale in his journey, he is chasing his own identity… But this fascination will evolve into something more; Ishmael’s obsession will only generate jealousy. Since whales have their ‘own proper individuality,’ which is the single longing Ishmael desires, it only makes sense to interpret that Ishmael wants to be a whale himself. He goes on this journey as a whaleman, only to return as a whale.” Love it.
Class is beginning, I appreciate Jonathan’s welcoming me and letting me share my project with the students. Jonathan himself, in conversation at the tech symposium, helped me shape this project, so I am indebted to him for that. Jonathan begins class with a reference to tonight’s dance, and a recognition of the emotions of a dance and the emotions of Romanticism– which is a nice emotional hook for where the kids are at on this Friday afternoon; next students are split into groups which each will discuss different sections of the 70 pages of reading due today. They are to discuss and discern what’s on the board:”what’s the point?! How do you read, interpret, make meaning of this chapter? Present the pith, the meaty interior.”
Sitting with a three student group here, discussing the chapter the prophet. I know from Jonathan’s session that this is his consistent goal, students doing the thinking, empowering them rather than dictating to them. This group is plumbing for what is the greater truth of this chapter– looking at the text closely. “There is all this imagery of the soul… Ishmael is so judgmental… Ishmael has the weight of the world. That is kind of ironic, that the more that Elijah tries to push this message on Ishmael, the less he is interested.” Jonathan pushes them, gives them some urgency to their task, which is so important I think, introducing a small amount of the right kind of stress to keep them on task and focussed.
Now groups are presenting their “piths.” For the ship: “He is drawn to the boat because of how ‘whaley’ it is.” She cites the text with a specific quote to support her point. “Perhaps he is doing whaling for the right reasons, so to choose that boat makes him think he is getting somewhere, on the right track, it inspires him that it is the real thing, a genuine old whaling ship. ” Jonathan points out a similar quote to reinforce her point, that he is drawn to an old fashioned concept of whaling. A classmate offers another quote about every man being held in captivity, and she identifies a “paradox” in the concept, which is very nice. Very grounded here in the text. Another girl wants to pursue the question of freedom on the open ocean. “Seeing the world is more about the power of your perception than the vastness of your panorama,” Jonathan leads us to from the text as we work on what Ishmael seeks from the sea.
There is a really sane schedule to the day here; a total of four periods, each for 70 minutes; with 15 minute breaks between first and second and third and fourth, and the 50 minute lunch break between second and third. And this is Friday, which with Monday are the four period days, whereas other days are only 2 block periods for two hours each (and a study hall period), if have my facts straight on this, which I am not sure I do.
Now new groups are presenting their chapters’ piths. Jonathan moved us along, telling the kids they were “perseverating.” “The Ramadan chapter represents most of what Ishmael is uncomfortable in his life,” a student ventures. Ishmael is a really descriptive guy, but he seems uncomfortable with women and about death. Followup: what is it that bothers Ishmael about Ramadan. Pushing them for more specific explanation, with support. Ishmael is not just starving his body, but starving his soul, another student ventures, and Jonathan digs– in what way is he is starving his soul? Laughter is important to Jonathan; he frequently seeks to induce it– and expresses his wish to be a better comedian for his students, which I really like.
We have moved into the English classroom adjacent to the lab for the english period of the three hour lab. We begin with a rocking and silly video projected, Quack
, which features vocabulary words, each vividly characterized with music, dialogue, and many evocative or dramatic images for about 60 seconds. Today, it is ornate, austere, cerebral, incommodious, noisome, cacophony, veritable, verbatim, concurrent, evade, impede, askew, accolade, torrid, trepidation, fraught, wane, temerity, oust.
My ambassadors, Timmy and Jimmy, tell me they think the video is really helpful– they say because it does such a good job giving them a vivid image of each word, that they can visualize the meaning makes it easier to remember. Most have a scene emotionally evocative, and situated in really specific places. Michelle says she is more likely to remember torrid because she heard and watched them say the cave is torrid, and she will be able to visualize the cave location which torrid describes, and remember that it looked really hot. I have been intrigued by brain research reports about how much memory is improved when tied to really specific geography, because our brain is built by natural selection to especially effectively remember new learnings associated with particular places.
After the video, the kids take a little quick matching quiz of the 20 words– and my ambassadors both get 100.
The class-room here is absolutely amazing– every square inch of the high walls is busy in a great way, decorated with books, cover out hanging from big clips, 100s of them; student prepared posters; literary posters; and a set of bookshelves with hundreds more titles. Very stimulating; I love it. Every book, or most, seem to be somehow related to the field of bioengineering: Robin Cook novels like Coma and Contagion, Kathy Reichs books about pathology, etc.
We are now working on multiple intelligences– the teacher has passed out a survey, designed to elicit everyone’s individual intelligence areas. Good attention at this school, I am noting over and over again, to the meta-cognitive. Of course, that should be no surprise– Cognitive comprehension is the first of the school’s five core design principles.
After students have taken their survey, they are to either work on a powerpoint project to strengthen vocabulary. For each word, they prepare a slides on which they use the word in writing which connects to them personally and/or associate an image with it.
The other activity for them right now is to go-online with their laptops and work through a teacher-created “rags to riches” online game
to better “familiarize them with bio-engineering content.” Nice use of laptops, game playing, and challenge to develop knowledge of core terms. I tried the game myself– it is challenging and a bit addicting.
During break I walk to the rest-room, and notice many students in the central atrium texting, talking on their cellphones, or listening to ipods. I ask my “ambassadors” here, Timmy, Jimmy, and “Michelle” who has joined us, about the policy, and they tell me that here the rule is you can use your phone if you are doing so in a non-disruptive way, responsibly. Not in the middle of class, and if you abuse your use you will be “confronted” by a teacher, but they treat you like adults– you can use the technology responsibly. We compare this to working as an adult in a professional environment. This goes in synch, they tell me, with other school policies, like not having bells, not having hall passes, etc. When I ask if anyone uses smartphones in class for academic purposes, they tell me that there is no need– they all have laptops available to them anytime they need.
Students are doing a lab here, with good self-direction and collaboration. Wearing lab coats and goggles, they are swabbing inside cheeks, smearing and staining it, then studying the result under the microscope.
Here now with “Timmy” and “Jimmy,” my ambassadors this afternoon, in Biomedical Engineering Lab (whew! not something we had when I was in high school). Three teachers here for 45-50 students. Pretty conventional lab space, but nicely appointed, the chairs seem like $100 chairs. We are here in the advance science topics lab at the start- measuring the water in magnesium hydrate; the teacher told the class a story about hitting, killing, a bird in mid-air with a golf stroke, and asked the kids whether that was likely to happen a second time: the point being that one-time data points may be very meaningless unless they can be repeated, but the story hooks them by its drama, humor, and personalization.
The teacher provides me a course outline, complete with these UbD essential questions: “What the heck is BioEngineering, and who the heck cares? How would you go about becoming a BioTechnologist? What would you be doing if you were a bioengineer or in some related field? What are the tools and techniques of bioengineering and how can they be used to improve our quality of life? Are the practices of bioengineering compatible with your personal ethics/morals/beliefs? How can bioengineering be used to improve the health problems of people living in the SJV caused by environmental problems? How does your environment and culture influence you? What are health issues related to the environment?”
And these UbD Understandings: 1. Bioengineering includes a broad group of definitions based upon the manipulation of living things for human gain or the application of science and technology for the improvement of our quality of life. 3. Humans are defined by both their DNA and their environment. 4. The relationship between DNA and protein is the basis for life and one’s nature. 6. employing HOMs and teamwork are tools for efficient and effective work. 7. Environmental problems are complex, requiring study from many points of view. Biotechnology can be applied to studying environmental issues or may be used in offering solutions to problems caused by the issue.
At this point in the lab, the group of four is working on lab calculations. One student explains to me, very acutely, that they all do the calculation, and then check to see if they got the same answer, and if not, they work together to see where their calculations went wrong. The students are doing all the work here, the teacher moving around in support.
Nice conversation here with this group of four. These students have a great ability to reflect upon on their schooling, because they have a daily experience of comparing and contrasting, attending, as they do, two schools. “Here, I am NEVER bored,” in contrast to the other school, “where I am bored everyday.” Here it is “always hands-on,” “you have lab three times a week” compared to “once a month,” and you use all the equipment in the lab, rather than looking at it wistfully. At the other school the assignments are all about step by step very specific directions, but here they just give you little sets of directions or some supplies and say do something with this, and then expect you to ask questions.
I ask about the hardest thing they had to do here, and the students tell me about Spring Showcase
. For environmental science, you had to come up with your own experiment, and you have mentors from off-campus, (one student said her mentor was an aquarium scientist), and it runs out over three months, and you present all your findings and research to the public at a big open house in three media: powerpoint, poster board, and essay form, an essay of 4-12 pages. The outside public attends the open house, making it truly a public demonstration. The labs also participate in a competition of showcases judged by a panel of outside experts, with scholarship rewards. They speak about showcase with a very positive affect– it is not a drudgery, clearly, but it is a challenge.
Great conversation with the three teachers who collaborate to teach Law and Policy; they have 72 students in the morning, 45 in the afternoon, the three of them. they explained that each has a designation, “teacher-on-record” for English, US History, and Law– but they call it that, teacher on record, in quotes, because they work so hard to make the integration seamless, where they are all teaching all subject in an integrated fashion. That said, though, they also really respect each other’s discipline expertise. Wonderful enthusiasm– they love teaching here, and explain that in contrast to other school environments for teachers. “Teachers here say hello to each other in the hallway, they really feel a common purpose around the CART design principles,” they explained to me.
The teaching is really focussed in support of projects– right now the students are preparing for a town hall in which ballot issues will be presented, and they are researching in the real-world the legal and policy implications for each issue, while each teacher ensure her disciplines standards are being met. They provided me a syllabus I want to summarize, but no time now. They explained the two hours mid-day is great– one hour for planning, one for a break, but often they overlap.
I asked in what ways does the administration here support the teachers, and they offered very nice endorsements. First, the teachers here are really treated and respected as “professionals, not condescended to or patronized. ” Second, there is a great deal of trust in the school, and the teachers can really trust that the administration is highly competent, and the teachers feel trusted by the administration. Third, the administrators are very available, you can always go to them, and they really treat your concerns as important, significant, not to be dismissed, but really worthy of their full time and consideration. Fourth, they show great dedication in support of the teachers– I heard of a new teacher being hired and having both administrators here meet her, observe her teaching at length, and then accompany her to a series of district interviews. I asked whether something in the culture of the school might facilitate the trusting environment, and there was some thinking that yes, the design principles helped with that.
We concluded by talking again about the kids. It was noted that there is a real wide diversity of learners here, some very strong and some not, but that this new approach really changes the equation. Some students find it hard to adjust to, the project based format, and they are stunned that they are not being directed every minute task by task, but that they grow into it after a while. They say it is great to see some students who were not always high achievers elsewhere respond and really rise to this, really perform and surprise themselves; interestingly they also said that some students who were really successful in previous, conventional schooling, were challenged here, and had to tap into new sides of their intelligence and develop new skills for success here– which is a great concept, that this is hard for kids sometimes who found previous schooling easy.
It is the two hour break, now. CART has almost 1400 students, but divided into AM and PM groups of about 700 each, divided into some 12 labs. The am group is here from 730 to 1030, and then the teacher have two hours for break and collaborative planning with no students on site before the pm group gets here at 1230. This is brilliant– you can’t do collaborative and integrated instruction without rich common planning time, yet most schools cannot provide that, which they have here so strongly every day. Each student then has only one class here– a Lab it is called, for the three hours they are here, taught by 3 or 4 teachers and integrating English and Sciences or Social Studies, getting credit for four classes.
I enjoy a 45 minute conversation and walk-around with John Forbes, the Dean of Curriculum and Instruction and co-author of the Ed. Leadership article I liked so much. (Thank you for the time, John. ) John said so many interesting things I wish I had a tape recorder, but here are a few bullet points. He said he is unaware of any other US school doing integration like they are here, at least any other public school– integrating four class periods into one integrated unit. I was fascinated to hear that he has almost zero discipline cases to manage (from among 1400 students); he attributes this in part to the self-selection of kids who come here, but much more to way the school is structured. Kids don’t have to change subjects every hour following a bell, and don’t have to adjust constantly to changing teacher expectations. Plus, having multiple teachers in a classroom really helps with discipline– the teachers can tag-team, trade-off, support the students, be advocates for individual students, be problem-solvers on the spot. There is also more accountability for teachers and students when there are multiple adults in a room.
John said the dropout rate here is less than five percent, whereas it can be as high as 25-40 percent at other public high schools in the area, and looking around, I am not surprised. The first week in, right at the start, he has kids who arrive and are a bit stunned, it is so different from what they are used to, so much cleaner and adult and professional, that sometimes they are intimidated and want to leave right away– but they counsel the kids to be patient, to give it a try, and most of the time they stay. John showed me the very corporate (in a good way) looking theater, seating probably 100 or so, with a great deal of technical equipment, and said that every student has present, in teams, from the stage. He says he has to hide this sometimes, when advertising the school, because kids would avoid it– public speaking and presenting being so daunting– but that once the kids have done it they say it is one of the best things they have done.
Finally, we spoke about measuring success– John said they are really working on that here. He cited Collins and his social sector monograph of Good to Great, and quoted Collins’ to the point that social services have to define their own success, not having the market available to do it for them by stock price or profit margin. So, the school is embarking on a success measurement process, keying off their five design principles, such that can measure student progress on each: Cognition; Academics; Real-World Connections; Technology; and Personalization.
Here is a list of labs, which can also be looked at here
: Forensic Research and Biotechnology; Biomedicine; Environmental Research and Technology; Biomedical Engineering; Engineering and Product Development; Robotics and Electronics; Architectural Design; Economics and Finance; Marketing and Advertising; Law and Order and Policy; Psychology and Human Behavior; Multimedia-Digital Video Production and Broadcast; Multimedia– Graphic Arts and Web Design; Network Management and Computer Maintenance; Web Application Development; and Interactive (Video) Game Design.
Remember, each student takes only one of these labs, for half a day, for a full year; sometimes they take a second year in the same lab, sometimes they switch to a new one the second year.
Back in the classroom now, reviewing what we discovered in lab. (On the whiteboard is the course wiki address– I check it out and it hosts the assignments. Teacher told me that he is just getting the wiki going, still, but I like it. ) We have determined, by class-time’s end, that the patient, Billy, has suffered from a pesticide poisoning, but we know not the source. The plot thickens– and class is dismissed with the mystery still lingering, still puzzling us– and drawing us to come back tomorrow to learn more.
Jackie, my ambassador for the morning, has to run to the bus; we speak briefly. I ask her to compare her learning here with her home school, and she tells me she thinks she learns more here, and remembers stuff better, because she has to do it with her hands, she learns it here “kinesthetically” (she uses the word herself, without my prompting it), rather than solely linguistically (again, her term). At her home school it is all lectures and words.
The 68 of us are now here in the lab, two adjacent labs– it feels a little bit more crowded here, but not at all impossibly so. Working in groups of three (good practice, perfect group size), they are working at one of three stations: blood, urine, or stool. I am at the stool table; we are analyzing the stool, trying with some urgency to determine Billy’s illness. The stool must be compared to the negative and positive control samples; they are pouring water through the stool into a beaker, and testing the ph. of the beakers. Time to trade stations (time is not going slowly, this place is hopping), and some groups are lagging a bit– the teacher calls out “this is what happens in a hospital, people; the doctor comes into the lab and says ‘we need these results stat, people!'” I have been really interested in reading in the brain research about how stress diminishes learning, in large amounts, but a little bit of stress– time pressure, urgency, challenge– can enhance it.
Now are on to the blood– glucose testing to determine if the patient (“Billy”) is diabetic.
Here in the lab, the school’s vision statement is on display: “The CART vision is to create an environment where students learn to use their minds well, to apply what they learn in school to lifelong endeavors, to be technologically literate, and to develop the skills and self-confidence to succeed in the globally competitive workforce.”
The teacher also provided me what is called the “Biomedicine Matrix: Overview of Project Flow.” I immediately recognize the Understanding by Design (UbD) formatting, (I am currently enrolled in an on-line UbD course). The overarching questions, (and regular readers know I am always looking for framing, guiding, and essential questions), are “How healthy am I? How healthy is our community?” Different unit/projects are defined, each with a theme and an essential question: CPR: How do I assess health in a medical emergency? The Brain: How healthy am I as a learner? Medical Professions: What medical professions work to keep our community healthy? Genetic/Developmental health: What are the major genetic/developmental health issues in our community? Communicable disease: What are they in our community.
Onto the urine. Teacher tells me this is not at all normal– usually they split up the group in two, so this is much more crowded than usual, and so is crazy. I say they are doing beautifully, and she says they are great kids. She then says “you put scrubs on kids, and they start acting like they are doctors– it makes a huge difference. ”
The two teachers are constantly one the move, stepping with a hustle, checking on groups, answering questions, prodding them on. “How’s the poop doing?” one teacher calls out.
Spent the break talking to two of the teachers here– both very engaging, very proud of the school, very committed. The only school of its kind in the US, one teacher tells me, as he tours me around this spanking clean facility. Hanging from the ceilings are beautiful, gorgeous banners each displaying an inspirational figure and a two word phrase to go with them: Edison, Sandra Day O’Connor, others; I will write them up later.
As we walk, the teacher is a non-stop stream of telling me what they are changing, what they are starting, what they will be doing next year– the place seems constantly in motion. A new neural lab, a second anatomy lab. He tells me that there is some competition for the precious lab space, they need more, because sometimes he wakes up from a dream and realizes he has a new lab for the kids to do to learn the concept.
He tells me they use no bells, and that students come to recognize that if they are late, they miss out– it is their loss. Labs aren’t replicated–you miss it, you’ve missed it. We talk about integrating brain research in instruction, and he tells me I just missed the unit that biomed lab begins every year with, a unit on the brain, where they don’t just learn the anatomy, but really focus a lot on how the brain learns, and the kids become much more self-aware of themselves as learners (Jackie had also told me excitedly about the brain anatomy lab, and the actual sheep and human brains they got to observe).
After the break, class is opened by the science specialist teacher, writing lecture notes on a smart board, explaining how the lab we are about to do will work– a lab about “blood, poop, and pee,”– so she is presenting how to measure hyper and hypo-osmotic. And now we are headed to the lab.
I am talking now to “Jackie” (not real name), my “ambassador” for the day; the ambassadors are selected by teachers.
She tells me “I like coming CART because they really respect you and treat you like adults. At my other, regular high school– they look at us like we are just teenagers, and when people usually think teenagers, they think irresponsible, we are all the same person, we are all just adolescents. But here it is a professional environment, and you get the feeling right when you walk in. Dressing in scrubs for our biomedical lab, we feel like we are really people at work. The technology here at CART, we get to use it like every day; our “home schools”– the regular schools attended the other half of the day, either don’t have the technology or we don’t get to use it because they’re afraid we’ll break it. “
Last year Jackie was in a different “lab,” Multimedia– graphic and web-design. In that program, the students made websites and logos. They made radio commercials and a movie; they actually worked with businesses. For example, they made a logo for google, and helped an agricultural company make a logo for them, and the company is now using one student’s design. For that lab, the students didn’t dress in scrubs, of course, but every Friday they had a meeting for which they had to dress professionally.
Jackie’s ambition is to be a neonatal intensive care nurse; she will be the first in her family to go to college.
Each student has their own laptop for the time they are here at school (the laptops stay here, and the a.m. students share with the p.m. students). Right now, as Jackie and I speak, the teacher is having the students use their laptops to locate nursing and medical colleges in California, and identify and record their admissions requirements. As I watch, a baggy pants wearing male student approaches the teacher to ask “Do you have to become an RN first in order to become a cardiac nurse?” They proceed to have a good and informative conversation about that career path.
I drove to CART
from Martinez this morning; it is here in Clovis, right next to Fresno, to visit here at a charter high school jointly associated with Fresno and Clovis. The school was featured in a very interesting article written by teachers here published last spring in ASCD’s Educational Leadership, the issue on Reshaping High Schools. More on that article later. (If you are reading along: I am posting hourly or so, and know that in liveblogging, the chronology goes from bottom to top.)
Beautiful entrance lobby, great open space, soaring ceiling, skylights. 700 kids streaming in with positive affects at 730 in the morning.
I am spending the morning in a bio–medical lab program; the kids will be in this class for three hours, 730 to 1030, before returning to their regular high schools for afternoon classes. There are maybe 60 students in this large, modernly furnished, attractive space; the room feels full but not crowded. The teacher, 1 of 3 in the room, dressed in medical scrubs, which is great– sets a tone, models a working environment. Looking around the room, maybe a third of the students are wearing scrubs too.
Teacher opens asking the students at table to provide their hypothesis for the illness suffered by the student in yesterday’s case study– an emotional story of a sick child, with many symptoms present. Yesterday, apparently, they had discussed the case in groups, and now he was asking them to offer a theory, and defend it. Infectious disease? Food Poisoning? Anyone ever had food poisoning? What was that like? Connect to personal lives. Ideas are ventured, and the teacher asks them to defend with supporting details.
Next we watch 10 minutes from a very compelling episode of House, projected digitally. The scene is of a high school student in class, getting ill– really connecting to these kids and their lives, emotionally grabbing them. Why is he ill? As House and his team frantically seek the answer to his illness, so now do the students. I think this use of TV drama is just great– not for an hour, not even thirty minutes, but 5 or 10– very effective for engaging and emotionally motivating students– I know I enjoy it.
Handouts are provided, and now the kids are working themselves, quietly but focused. Teacher is circulating, checking in with groups, but mostly they are self-directed, not needing much prodding or prompting. No droopy eyes here, not much yawning– they have a purpose, to solve this mystery.
I speak to the teacher, the one wearing scrubs. He is an English teacher, he tells me (I am a bit surprised). The kids get English credit, and other credits, for this class— so he is leading them in a class exercise in reading the medical mystery, critically thinking about it, and writing about it. He has distributed a handout that is a graphic organizer for the kids thoughts on the source of the illness.
The students now, table by table, venture a second diagnosis, refined from the first. He encourages them to think differently– not be afraid to disagree with each others- urges them to think outside of the box. As they offer answers, he keeps asking them “and why?” When the answers begin converging, lots of consensus growing around one answer, the teacher pushes back– “let’s have someone offer a counter-argument, let’s have someone argue against this.”