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.
September 29, 2008
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 Gourmet) 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).