October 2008

1. Hello everyone. Sorry to be offline for a few days, longer than ever, but I am just back from three great days in Tucson, visiting, as a Head of School candidate, St. Gregory College Prep. Wish me luck; it is a great school! Next week might have to be a slow week too for the blog, as I have more interview visits to Boston and Seattle. And the numbers are growing for the blog; October 16 saw a new record 92 visitors in a day, and the overall number of unique visitors is now 687. A little shout-out to the students at Stockton’s Franklin High School, four of whom posted really great responses, and, it would seem, some several dozen of whom visited the site.

2. Although the topic of this blog is 21st century schooling, it is obviously an exercise in form as well as content, and if you are interested, as I am, in the blog form, I strongly direct you to Andrew Sullivan’s article on blogging in the current Atlantic Monthly. It is brilliant; to quote: “Blogging is therefore to writing what extreme sports are to athletics: more free-form, more accident-prone, less formal, more alive. It is, in many ways, writing out loud.” I love this.

And this, in which Andrew (whom I knew a tiny bit during college) explains the intimacy of the blog: “And that’s what makes blogging as a form stand out: it is rich in personality. The faux intimacy of the Web experience, the closeness of the e-mail and the instant message, seeps through. You feel as if you know bloggers as they go through their lives, experience the same things you are experiencing, and share the moment. When readers of my blog bump into me in person, they invariably address me as Andrew.” Here’s hoping my blog readers will address me as Jonathan!

3. The new issue of the Atlantic also has an awesome article about DC Superintendent Michelle Rhee. There is so much to admire about Michelle, (and for this fellow educational leader, so much to envy!). I admire and aspire to her fast paced vigor, and have mixed feelings but find myself attracted to her multi-blackberrying style (it is an iphone for me): always on the move, but always electronically plugged into communications from all directions. Clearly she is not perfect, and I think she has been brusque with her public constituents that independent schools could not tolerate. But her “relentless pursuit” approach to excellence is really great. (Did everyone catch McCain and Obama arguing, in the third debate, about which of their educational plans was more favored by Rhee? When have you ever seen Presidential candidates battling for the favor of a school superintendent?)

4. Love the article this week in the Wall Street Journal: Get Rid of the Performance Review! Seriously, when does the process of performance review really add a lot of value, and how often are we all engaged in it pro-forma just to say we have done it, or because we know we have to? Does it really build trust and collaboration between supervisors and subordinates? The author, a UCLA management professor, calls for a switch to“Performance previews instead of reviews. In contrast to one-side-accountable reviews, performance previews are reciprocally accountable discussions about how boss and employee are going to work together even more effectively than they did in the past. Previews weld fates together. The boss’s skin is now in the game.” Bring it on.

4. Still excited about the CWRA, the College and Work Readiness Assessment, and I was delighted to receive an email from a director there, Chris Jackson, who tells me he has been reading this blog. In Tucson this week I found myself touting it again and again: boards and other constituents have every right to demand we become more accountable and more transparent in schools, that we employ in greater data-driven decisionmaking. See the Rhee article above for one example of this. But that said, we have to be choosy about what data we collect: we know that what gets measured gets done, so let’s make sure we measure what we want to do. I don’t want kids to DO multiple choice choosing for the rest of their lives, so I am not sure I want to measure that with too great a significance. I do know I want kids solving complex problems for the rest of their lives, (god knows there are plenty of complex problems to be solved!), and this is what CWRA measures! For another take on CWRA, read this piece written by my friend Mark Desjardins, the head at a CWRA flagship school, Holland Hall. Chris is looking for advice on how to spread the good word about CWRA more widely; if you have suggestions, let me know and I will pass them along.

5. Very nice entry in the excellent dialogue blog between Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitz ; this one from Diane, who nicely addresses two important topics. First, she brings those of who are enthusiasts for hands-on learning back to earth a bit, appropriately, reminding us there is still a whole lot of important knowledge to be gained from books and traditional study. She is right– there is much we cannot learn by hands-on activities about literature, history, and science! But, I will still insist, that we can teach this “book-learning” more effectively than we are doing so in most cases. We can borrow from Wiggins, Graff, and others to insist that we frame the learning students pursue from books with the essential questions and the key problems in the field which we are studying. This will guide their reading in a far more effective way, and though not literally hands-0n, will mimic physically active learning by engaging students in active minds-on learning.

Ravitch goes on to confront educational initiatives that are business-model driven, such as paying teachers for student test scores, concluding on this note: “Now that our economy has been plunged into crisis by bad economic and business decisions, we must recognize that education is a distinct profession, like medicine and the law. It has its own ideals and values. It cannot, should not, be run “like a business.” Or it will fail “like a business.”” (And remember, Diane Ravitch is the conservative in the running dialogue of this blog entitled Bridging Differences).

6. Nice, succinct, teacher-friendly piece here from the Creative Educator on 8 principles for effective project design. We all know, some of all too well, that well-intentioned project based learning can sprawl out from under our control into a time-sucking mess. Indeed, many teachers I think try it, and then back away. These tips will help. My favorites: be very focused on giving students clear timelines for the project, and ensure students embark with a clear and meaningful problem on which to focus.

7. Some great things at the Angela Maiers blog, which rightfully is a Bloggers Choice nominee in the Best of Educational Blogs category (maybe next year for this blog!). She has here a helpful summary of a recent Alan November presentation, including his succinct three key 21st century skills: ability to do quality research on-line; effective global communication skills; and the ability to be self-directed. And listen to his recommendations for doing so: they are great. 1. Turn every classroom into a global communication center, connecting children to authentic audiences worldwide; 2. Build student independence rather than dependence; and 3. Stop blocking and teach students digital literacy.

Mandarin Class: Before it begins, I speak with the students here for a bit, asking them what they like most about the school.   These kids, ninth graders, are very articulate about the value of the international community: they like very much getting to know students from so many international backgrounds and different cultures;  they like the trips that the school takes to different countries, such as China and France; they like learning so many different languages. 

Now class is beginning; we do some quick vocabulary review, and then we move to the workbook and look at exercises and practice sentences there.   At the end of the class,  there is a free-form vocabulary with lots of laughter.    After class dismisses, the teacher and I discuss the upcoming trip she is taking (day after tomorrow!) to China with 13 students, which seems a terrific learning experience; she also says she has the students do several projects over the course of the school year, including a joint project with the Italian class, for which they will research and report on Marco Polo. 
IB Math.  Class opens with a a worksheet displayed on the smartboard, and the teacher checking for comprehension of different questions.  One student comes to the board to work out a complicated problem. I like, (again), that the learning is beginning with problems and questions.  After the student works something out, he pushes the class to think harder: why can’t we do it simply backwards– and it is good to see the students thinking as he pushes them. The teacher explains he emailed out this homework assignment, which I like- a good use of digital tools and moving in a paperless direction. 

Now he has projected a graphic organizer for functions, and asking students to work with him in completing it.  Our teacher is facilitating, but not telling very much.  “Tell me about the domain and range of y=2x+3.”  He continues to push them, with followup questions.  He asks them to provide him an example of a quadratic equation, and then, after it has been volunteered, he asks us to graph it.   Good Socratic methodology here.  Students are now going to the smartboard and working out graphs of different functions; there is a nice level of student involvement and attention. 

Nice conversation with the teacher after class ends; having taught 19 years, half of them in IB, he has a lot of perspective on the different approaches.  He tells me he really likes the IB, that it supports more interconnected thinking across different intellectual disciplines, and that ToK helps to integrate and provide coherence.  He also praises the IB for its greater emphasis on critical thinking and problem-solving, in contrast to the SAT and other, multiple choice testing, though he also acknowledges that for some kids this is a big and challenging shift: they might be more comfortable in the multiple choice formats, and have to stretch to the the depth of thinking the IB requires.  He also speaks of the challenge of keeping seniors fully engaged in the spring, after their admission to college; they want to slack just as the class goes into high gear to prepare for May IB exams.   He tells me a lot of his classroom problems come from the IB tests; that they are good and rich problems.  
In a ninth grade art block period now, and beginning in the Film and Video section.  I introduce myself, and my project; one student calls out “our school is the best!”  I ask him why, and he very articulately explains it is best because of its international orientation: that at this school they have partnerships with schools and groups in other countries, they are working on a project to help build a school in Senegal, that they have trips to lots of countries and the opportunity to learn many languages.    He is very sincere in his enthusiasm for all this; very nice.   In the 21st century, it is essential for our kids to be truly international-minded.  

Our teacher opens with some instruction in video technique, and then out come the cameras. He is sending them off in groups to film, and sets some ground rules for the activity.   The kids are eager to get going: they want to do the art, and are chomping at the bit; their eagerness makes it challenging for the teacher to continue to set out the parameters for the event. 

I take a minute to look at a current article in the Washington Post by Jay Matthews, a big proponent of the IB and the AP.  In keeping with his writing style, the article is a bit cranky and grouchy, but that said, it is entirely a well taken point: Colleges and Universities ought absolutely to give credit to IB coursework on a par with that of AP.  (By this writer’s contention, IB far exceeds AP in the quality of its coursework and teaching of critical thinking and problem-solving.)

The video students disperse; I head down to the basement to view more arts.  In visual arts the students are happily engaged constructing silhouettes on a background, working to visually communicate their ideas about global warming.  Thought it is right after lunch, everyone is fully engaged and chipper.  The girls tell me they like this class because they are allowed to talk, and they are very sincere in this enthusiasm.   The teacher is consulting with students individually; she tells me she presented yesterday on silhouette technique, and facilitated a brainstorming session with the students about global warming images.   

Pop over to the performing arts studio for a theater class.  Very active, students moving, throwing balls, in the moment; now doing a mime activity where they express to each other without words their emotions and impulses.   Lots of laughter. Now they are nicely articulating their reactions to the previous exercise. 

IB English.   Our teacher asks the group to work in pairs, right at the outset:  “work out exactly what is happening here [in the unidentified passages from Shakespeare she has distributed] you can do a modern paraphrase, or explain what you think is happening, line by line.”  She passionately underscores the importance of this close reading: “Every word counts, every word a stepping stone to meaning.”  As she makes the assignment, she tells them “There is nothing secret about this, you can be noisy as you need to be” (!).   Immediately students jump in, looking closely at the text and trying to explain to each other their thinking.  

She posts these questions on the board: “Who is speaking to whom? Why? What are the general and specific situations evoked: Literally what is happening?  What are the moods, tones, feelings, evoked?  Select individual words, phrases, lines, and discuss their impact.”  

Again, as is my preference, the learning here begins with questions and problems.  Here are passages about which you know not, and it is for you to do the work, collaboratively, to make sense of and draw meaning from.   It is not for the teacher to tell you the answers.   I like especially the moods, tones, feelings questions: the more the students are able to tap into that, to feel it themselves, the more likely they will construct and retain knowledge about it; memory formation is highly sensitive to feelings and moods. 

The room is bedecked with posters covering a full wall displaying famous poems, handwritten: Ozymandias, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, The Second Coming, Little Fish.   Quotes from Faulkner (“My mother is a fish”) and Churchill: “History shall be kind to me, for I will write it.”  I like it. 
They are now reading a passage, the teacher leading the discussion, pushing it to them: “Do you like this?  Is this powerful?  Why?”  “That he calls her my sweet, it is demeaning” one student offers.  Another: “He is really trying to objectify her, especially because she is a noblewoman, so he has to take everything away from her, he has to deprive her of her pride, so he can have his way.”  “Also we noted there is this constant play and irony about who is innocent and who is guilty.”  Good thinking here.  Onto number four, and back to students working in pairs.  Nice mixing up of the time; I have been really struck in some previous observations of English classes that there are times when very fine English teachers have facilitated very fine classroom discussion for too long.  They proceed brilliantly for 20 minutes, but by the thirtieth, half or more of the students have checked out.  The teacher him or herself, enjoying the intellectual topic and having still 2-5 students still engaged, proceeds, but as great as this teaching is, it has to be modulated with time-shifts and alternating modes of classroom activity. Brain research says even adults can rarely sustain high levels of intellectual focus for longer than 25 minutes. But this is just right here, alternating small groups and whole groups effectively. 

A student analogizes a Shakespearean dialogue to the debate of “Joe Sixpack” and “Eastern elitists”, and I always like seeing kids tie scholastic topics to current events.    “OK, What’s going on?” she says, kicking back up the class-wide discussion.  The teacher draws an analogy from the Shakespeare to the recent movie “Tropic Thunder,” and the kids are thrilled to learn that she saw this popular movie.  A big response; they like that she likes what they like, that they have this common ground. 

The teacher announces at class end they will watch a film tomorrow, but she needs guidance from the kids: can we use the smartboard to view a film?  Several students offer her advice and counsel– which is something I love about technology in schools, that kids can be experts too, that they can teach teachers, that it levels the dynamic in healthy ways. 

Friendly chat with this very experienced teacher as the period ends.  She tells me proudly there is nothing contemporary here– this is good old English literature learning.   She says she thinks excellent teaching cannot be reduced, simplified, distilled: it is hard to capture in a bottle, it is rather things that cannot be taught or learned, things like humor and passion.   The best teachers, she says, are those who had excellent teaching themselves.    She is quite impassioned as she says this, it is meaningful to her.   I agree with much of what she says: good, great teaching is remarkable heterogeneous, and I am glad that it is so.  Much of what she is saying corresponds to what I am reading about learning and the brain– the brain retains best what comes to it from surprise, from emotion, from humor– from the kind of teaching she is describing.   She tells me too she thinks the IB is marvelous; she worries a bit that Language 1 has become a bit too much in the bureaucratic stage, that the staff has taken it from the visionaries, but she is confident that will improve.  She loves TOK, and she loves the breadth of IB.   She makes another point: she says that she doesn’t refer to IB much in her teaching, she doesn’t talk about the exam or what IB is looking for, and she dislikes it when teachers seem to emphasize it too much.  She doesn’t teach IB, she tells me, she teaches Literature, and one outcome of her course is the IB test, but that is not at the core.  Interesting. 
IB History
Nice chat with the teacher before starting class here; he has taught here 12 years, and really likes it:  he likes the internationalism of the student body, their open minds and appreciation for each other.  He likes teaching history from an internationalist perspective: it is more open-minded, less jingoistic, more critical.   He tells me that he really likes the IB emphasis on “doing history,”  and explains to me today’s upcoming lesson as exemplary of that: a close reading of the Hossbach memorandum and trying to read Hitler’s intentions from it.  It is great that the kids are supposed to do their own thinking about primary texts, construct their own interpretations.    I ask how his teaching has changed in the last five years, and he tells me, very succinctly, and I love this: “Less me, more them.”  

Class opens with students working in pairs, talking to each other about teacher provided discussion questions: “What was the Stresa Front? Why did these countries come together?  What was their common concern?   What divided the Stresa Front and how did it benefit Hitler’s foreign policy?  Hitler viewed the Franco-Soviet Pact and Franco-Czech Pact as an opportunity, and not primarily as a threat.  Why?”   Regular readers know I am all about questions and problems preceding instruction, and this is a nice demonstration of that.    Start always with kids addressing challenging quandries, and then proceed accordingly.    At one point the teacher calls out “I don’t hear you talking enough,” which is a lovely inversion of the stereotypical traditional teacher demanding students talk less.  The teacher circulates, checking students’ comprehension pair by pair while others work on. 

I take a peek at the course syllabus for this two year, IB “Higher Level” World History course: the syllabus is organized into categories of skills, topics, methodologies, assessments, and resources; the skills list begins with “comprehend, analyze, evaluate, and integrate source material” which is nice historical “doing.”  Kids are asking good questions, and our teacher is letting the kids’ questions lead a good proportion of the discussion.   The teacher is also helpfully referring to a highly simplified schematic of the European map, which I think helps students to better visualize and hence conceptualize the issues at hand.  Kids are enjoying stories from history,  and one pops in to make a link to contemporary politics, comparing French leader Poincare to John McCain. 

The teacher is asking the students to read original sources in their reader, about the re-occupation of the Rhineland.   Now the discussion rages– why didn’t the French respond?  What were they thinking?  How did Hitler get away with his bluff?   A student ventures an “alternative history” she has heard about, envisioning how differently things would have developed if the French had responded to Hitler.   Our teacher leads us into a semi-philosophical treatment of history, considering cause and effect and its being, in part, an illusion when we grapple with the high contingency of human events moment-to-moment.

As he assigns students their homework, close reading of sources, he reminds them the source analysis model they are to use–  “Origin, Purpose, Value, Limitations”– to every primary source they read. 
It is advisory period this hour, and Russ tells me advisory is an important part of school, a main delivery tool for student counseling and support.   This particular period I am observing a really cool community service fair, for which 16 different San Francisco organizations are here with booths, sharing their opportunities with students; school-based clubs are also presenting, recruiting students to join their causes.   Kids are circulating, viewing the different booths, much like young professionals at a job fair: this is great experience for them.  San Francisco Symphony, Habitat for Humanity, San Francisco Zen Center, Lighthouse for the Blind are examples of outside groups, but the students have great things too, like something Russ seems especially proud of, and which I love too, an IHS Kiva Club.  Others are Films for India, Student Multi-cultural Alliance, and tutoring at a local public middle school. I like the energy here very much.  Community Service is a required IB element, at the “core of the hexagon.”  It is grouped into something referred to as CAS: Creativity, Action, Service


Good morning; I am back in San Francisco for my fifth SF school visit, today at International High School, an IB school of some 300 students.  I am greeted warmly by IHS head Russ Jones, and am now beginning my day in an 11th grade IB Chemistry Class.  If you are reading along, welcome; please know that a live-blog flows chronologically from bottom to top, with each new entry headed by the time it was posted. 

After a quick presentation on the smartboard, the teacher is now checking in with students, asking them about what they found interesting, what they learned knew in their reading the night before.  In a really neat way the teacher is guiding them to appreciate the issues of realism and anti-realism in the study of atomic structure, and the Heisenberg uncertainty theorem, and he ties it to their study of the Theory of Knowledge, (ToK), a IB course which teaches study to critically think about how we know what we know, and is to be applied to all subject areas. 
Looking now at the structure of the atom,  and working to visualize it as best we can with different images presented.    The student next to me shows me the course overview/syllabus, which is a copied version of the IB Diploma programme official teacher’s syllabus for chemistry.   Using the smartboard effectively, the teacher is drawing arrows and showing the exchange of electrons in atomic dynamics.   Working to visualize how we measure an atom, he asks students to estimate their “atomic size” by what their diameter is- and gets a meterstick to measure himself this way, which is a nice kinesthetic demonstration.  He goes on to talk about another school where they tried to replicate the proportions and scale of an atom by using an entire football stadium, and it wasn’t enough, which was a helpful visual image to understand the concept.   Now a clear presentation about the details of the atomic number.    After presenting some more details about the different kinds of Hydrogen atoms, and how they are represented, our teacher takes us to a quick explanation of the history of WWII, helping us appreciate the significance of “heavy-water” hydrogen, which helps us see the relevance of learning these details– which is good.  He tells us about a change in the IB chemistry syllabus, that the IB wants us “to know the uses of isotopes”– i.e. the practical relevance.  It is great both the IB recognizes the value of students learning real-world applications of this learning, and that our teacher emphasizes this in his teaching.   After a forty minute presentation, the last ten minutes are dedicated to students working on provided problems, both at their tables and up at the smartboard, problems like determining the average atomic mass of Carbon from the percentages provided of different Carbon isotopes.  He makes a fun small point to the class– “I like to calculate the isotopes of the universe, because it shows how global we are, how big we are thinking, just from this one little classroom.”  As they do one problem on the board, he resists the temptation to calculate the answer himself– go ahead and do it, please.   Keep pushing the doing to the kids!    Students are adeptly using their TI calculators to determine the answer. 
As class ends I chat with the teacher for a bit; he has great energy and is a fan of the IB: it is more conceptual and flexible (but still rigorous), he says, than other curricula he has taught in the sciences, and allows a broader range and diversity of students to really engage with the sciences.  He enthuses that the IB program really requires students to design their own experiments– which he says is hard for them, but good for them.   He and the head, Russ Jones, then tell me about the Group IV projects at IHS, for which teams of students, drawn from the different sciences, collaborate to research and present real-world solutions to problems posed. This year the theme is greening the school, and the students are each asked to design enhancements to the school’s rooftop garden, making it more environmentally friendly.  Each group has two journalists assigned, and they are keeping the records, and will produce at the end of the project a website presenting their proposed solutions.  I love this– the team approach, the real-world problem-solving, and the requirement to present finished product publicly.   

Good morning, I am here today in Stockton, California, at a 2500 student public high school here, Franklin High School.  I am visiting in the school’s 15 year old, 500 student IB (International Baccalaureate) program.  Regular readers know I am greatly interested in and attracted to IB, and I did two weeks of training in IB this past summer in New Mexico.   The administration here welcome me warmly, and I have been assigned to shadow a junior whom the IB coordinator (justifiably) raved about, whom we will call “Penny” today. 

Thank you, Franklin folks, for welcoming me today.  If you are reading this, I warmly invite and encourage you to post a response, using the comment line at the bottom right of this entry: use it to respond to something I have written, or to share with me and other readers what you think is best about teaching and learning at Franklin, or what you think are the most important aspects of 21st century schooling. 

Our day is beginning now in US History.   The teacher is setting up groups, and when he says one of the assignments is to look at the review questions for a textbook assignment, he tells the students to look for the bad questions, and says that it is terrible how poorly some of these review questions are written: “you students are much smarter than the textbook writers,” he says.  “Make up your own, better questions.”   He also tells us he hopes to share some snippets from recent Presidential debates, but the network might block the sites; he says it is frustrating how much of the internet is blocked by  “the district.”    

Students form up groups, and are reviewing  a bill of rights handout; there are ten statements, and students need to evaluate as a group whether each is is constitutionally protected.  Number 1, for instance, is “A man wants to purchase a 12 gauge shotgun for protection.”   Groups vary around the room: some are really conversing, but in others they are sort of settling in individually.   The statements are good introduction, but some are not quite complicated enough to elicit good debate.   Nonetheless, I like that the learning here is starting with problems (are these actions protected?), and then the students are working in groups to solve.    As the students struggle with one (“A town does not like the religious beliefs of a certain group, so it forbids them from building a house of worship”), they call the teacher over for guidance on the breadth of the first amendment, and he helps guide them to appreciate the significance of the 14th amendment.  A minute later, looking now across the room, the teacher is working with a small group, talking about religious schools and public schools, and how the religious schools seem to have much more money available to them: he is speaking here about schools, and fairness, and equity,  topics that connect to these kids, that hit them where they live, and they are really interested.   The teacher comes back over to talk with me, and expresses some frustration about the lack of resources and technological support: the campus has no wifi and no laptops, the desktops don’t easily load the DVD resources they do have, and they can’t get support, and many of the websites they want to visit are blocked by the district.  It is terrific, all the things he wants to do with these students, and we should all wish for greater resource support for his initiatives. 

Penny looks at the handout sample quiz, and tells me that their real tests are nothing like this worksheet– instead, she tells me,  “we just get a little prompt and have to write and write and write!”  One such sample exam included the following “little prompts”:  “1. Explain the powers of the president.  Compare the specific constitutional powers with those that have been assumed by presidents over history.  Explain the powers of the president as commander-in-chief and the limits on this power by the Congress.   2. Discuss the following topics: Executive abuse of power, executive privilege, line-item veto, executive agreement, executive order, war powers act, use of force resolution, war powers resolution.  Answer the following: Is the President’s right to safeguard certain information, using ‘executive privilege,’ confidentiality power, entirely immune from judicial review.  3. Explain why the top appointed positions in the executive branch are not part of the civil system.  Describe two ways the federal bureaucracy helps to shape laws passed by congress.”    Nice, open ended writing prompts– and good practice for the essays of the IB.  Another exam the teacher shows me offers a real case study in the first amendment; this government and history class does a lot of teaching and learning via case study.  The case study here sets up a scenario of a township establishing daily prayer in schools, and a suit has been filed against it.  The case, and assignment, concludes: “the district says that the “will of the people” should be upheld because if the majority is denied the right to control policy, the whole political system will disintegrate… explain how and why the court will rule.”   Nice; very IB. 

Walking over to French class now, Penny tells me about her ambitions for college and plans for law school.  She tells me with great enthusiasm about her summer, during which she took an engineering course at the University of Stockton (full scholarship) and even better, a two week law course at Stanford Law School, for which she also received a full scholarship and, during the mock trial, was awarded a prize for best student attorney!   Her eyes gleam with well-deserved pride as she tells me about this fine accomplishment.    I ask her about how she was alerted to these opportunities, and she said the IB program here really does a great job to connect the kids to these things, and has them take the PSAT every year, which helps link them to the opportunities.    Penny’s parents are immigrants from Guatemala and Mexico; her mother is in housekeeping and her father in truck driving and invests in properties.  Penny takes care to point out that though they do not have a college education (her mother did start college in Mexico, but didn’t finish), “they are really smart, and have worked really hard to be successful.”  

In French class here we have thirty students, all but three of them girls.  I ask Penny for why she thinks the class is so disproportionate, and she tells me maybe it is because “French is the language of romance, and the girls are more interested in that.”    She also tells me that more kids take Spanish because it seems more relevant here in California, but her ambitions are to go East for college, where, she says,  French will be more common.   Besides, she tells me, and I love this, she is already fluent in Spanish, (at home she speaks only Spanish), and she might test out for Spanish anyway: this way,  she says proudly, she will graduate tri-lingual (!).  

Our French teacher is now reviewing vocabulary for Le Petit Prince; it is fun to see her explain terms using only French, but gesticulating and acting things out.  We know that vocabulary requires explicit instruction, and this is a nice demonstration.  For une armure, she refers to Charlemagne and to ferre, and taps her arm and says clink, clink.    Penny leans over to me and says “she is so funny, she will do anything to help us learn the terms.”   The French classroom has a nice nod to international-mindedness, a requirement of IB.  The department is called World Languages, and the “Power Standards” of the department are stated as Five Goals: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities.  There is a map of the world with French speaking countries shaded in green.    The students have done some reading aloud from Le Petit Prince, and now the teacher is discussing key topics and themes from the story– in a somewhat mono-modal, sage on the stage manner.  Penny explains that the first three years of French instruction is pretty much directed instruction in language skills, but in the fourth year it becomes much more about discussion and debate, all in French; the 12th graders this morning had a debate about poverty in France, for example, and the teacher recorded student oral reports about poverty as part of their mandatory IB “internal assessments” (IA’s). 

Onto Math, PreCalculus.  About 33 students at desks in row, and a teacher presenting at a smart board, quite adeptly. About a dozen desktops line the back of the room, but no laptops.   The lecture is about the determination of rational roots, which seem very abstracted from real-world applications.   The teacher is now nicely demonstrating the usage of the graphing calculator, using a neat projection tool I haven’t seen before: it displays on the smartboard a huge vertical graphing calculator on the left, which you can actually use on the smart board, punching the buttons and having the real response, and on the right of the smart board is displayed an enlarged version of the calculator screen– it is a great visual tool for teaching graphing calculators.    Penny shares with me her course outline for this Math class, which is a two-sided sheet explaining class rules: it is very clear, very direct, and very emphatic in its stress on rule-following and consequences for not doing so, but there is no communication about course goals, essential or guiding questions, or what the teacher intends for students to take-away from the course. 

The math teacher is very effective in manipulating the smartboard, moving from problem to problem,; she is demonstrating answer strategies while asking students in the room to work out the problems themselves simultaneously.

{I am still thinking a lot about problem-based learning, which I wrote about in the previous posting, and which is a term I am using to try to capture a broader category of instruction than does the more commonly used “project based learning,” which I would deem a subset of problem-based learning.  I am so taken with something Ted McCain wrote in Teaching for Tomorrow: that we need a fundamental shift in orientation from the normal teaching approach.  Normally we teach subject matter first, and then assign students problems to test/assess their acquisition of that learning.  But it makes so much more sense, it so much more a real-world analogue, to give the problems first, and then “teach” by facilitating students as they work to address the problem.    I enjoyed lecturing myself as a teacher– (mostly history and social studies, for about 8 years);  in retrospect I enjoyed lecturing way too much– it was so much fun for me that I didn’t focus enough on how much fun it was for students, and even more importantly, ( thought not un-relatedly), I didn’t focus on how much my students were learning as I lectured.  

But as much as I did enjoy delivering those lectures, what I recall loving most of all was another mode of instruction: exam preparation.  I would give my students 12-15 challenging essay questions in advance, and tell them that the exam itself would feature 4 or 5 of them, of which they would have to answer 3 or 4.   One example I seem to recall from a US History course went something like this: “‘The history of the United States from the American Revolution to the present is a history of significant progress in the expansion of liberty for all people,’ Agree or disagree, with at least four examples.”   But after giving out these questions, I arranged for times that students could gather, sometimes at school, sometimes at a student’s home, sometimes at a cafe.  I would bring, usually, my signature “bagel box,” and for the next 2-4 hours, students worked in groups figuring out their answers, while I facilitated and supported, answering questions but usually only with another question, or a suggestion of a pathway to the student’s answering it better himself.   I loved this role.  

Now, I don’t remember ever having an experience quite like this in high school myself; I cannot remember ever really having an effective high school study group session,( and I don’t remember very many times at all in which we had good problem-guided learning of any kind, with one exception discussed in the paragraph below).  My college, though,  had a fairly unusual semester schedule, which strikes many as weird, but which I have often defended, and only now am I re-thinking why I liked it so much.  The schedule entailed 12 weeks of regularly scheduled classes, followed by not a day or two for “reading,” or exam prep,  but instead a full two-week “reading period,” followed by two weeks for exams; hence often you had a complete three plus weeks of no scheduled course meetings in which to prepare.   I know that I did often 75 or even 90% of my learning in these three weeks.  I mean, I went to lectures, usually (sometimes only sporadically), but I rarely kept up with the reading during those the 12 weeks of regular classes.   I have often criticized myself for this lassitude, but in retrospect it makes so much more sense– the regular semester just wasn’t a good model of instruction, and it didn’t work for me.  What did work for my learning, because (I know recognize) it was problem-based learning, was reading period.  The university library hosted (to my amazement, as a freshman!) bound volumes of previous years’ final exams for each course; I got into a habit of going on the first day of reading period to the library to copy those previous final exams, and then spent the next three weeks diligently, even vigorously, attacking those questions.  Sometimes this happened in very stimulating study groups.  This approach had the right mix for me of motivation and direction; instead of spending my learning time listening to and observing someone push information toward me, now I was the actor, I had the initiative, I was the doer, on a mission: to answer these questions and solve these problems.    But why did this have to occur only in the three weeks of exam preparation: why couldn’t the entire semester been better structured to support this? 

I said above there was an exception, in my high school learning: I did have problem based learning in the example of about half a dozen terrific research paper assignments.    In tenth grade it was a twenty page paper for our English class, on topics we selected from the general subject of India.  ( I wrote about the mentorship of Nehru by Gandhi).  In 11th grade it was an American Lit. assignment comparing several works of fiction (I took on the “political novel,” comparing The Last Hurrah to All the King’s Men.)  Best of all happened in 12th grade, and was certainly the class that was head and shoulders above any other high school class I had the good fortune to enjoy: a Historical Methods class, in which we learned to conduct historical research by primary source, with the topic of study being the 1960s.  Now, I certainly was fascinated by the sixties, and thrilled to have the chance to study it in depth, but I learned so much in this course not just due to my selecting a topic of interest, but because we conducted original research upon it.   I remember a paper I wrote on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, for which I interviewed personally several participants, which was thrilling to me and I worked so hard on this; a second paper was a study of a key figure in the Defense Department during the LBJ Vietnam buildup, and I poured through primary sources as I prepared a 25 page paper, gleefully trashing weekend after weekend, skipping out on party after party, to spend dozens of hours in a nearby University library doing my research.}

Now onto English class, and The Grapes of Wrath; as we walk over, Penny tells me her appreciation for IB and its preparation of her for college.  She says she has to work a lot, but it is worth it.   Our energetic English teacher welcomes me warmly, and tells me she is trying something entirely new in class today, which I, of course, tell her is great– I am all for innovation and experimentation in the classroom.  The omnipresent smartboard is in full use here, with a sample of writing displayed, and the teacher says to the class “if we had this given to us on an IB exam, how would we proceed with a ‘close read?'”  One student volunteers there is an inner conflict in the passage, and the teacher says good, but explain and defend.  Another student volunteers there is an opportunity for “a philosophical reading here.”   A third is interested in in the role of burning and fire imagery here, and what that might suggest for understanding the novel.   Students here are doing the work– and our teacher keeps putting it to them, asking questions, pursuing followup, allowing for extended quiet moments  for student thinking.  She won’t step in to do it for them.    “Why would Steinbeck design it this way?” she asks.  “What is he emphasizing?   How does burning have anything to do with change?”    Question, question, question; I love it.   Students really working the fire– it destroys, it is urgent, it is instinctual.    Listen to her: “Let’s anchor our ideas in the actual words.  Remember, a close read uncovers in specific passages ideas about the entire work.”   I like how this is tied to IB expectations and the exam; maybe you could call it teaching to the test but I think the IB test is so high quality I don’t mind teaching to it.  Nice praise and enthusiasm: “Beautiful, Excellent!”   One student says that a phoenix rises from the ashes, and the teacher says we know about that from Harry Potter, don’t we, and there is a round of laughter– always connect, always connect learning to previous knowledge, even if it is from “popular culture,” and this teacher hits that mark here.  She just now makes another reference to Bugs Bunny, nice.  “Nice, great, love it!”   

Today we will do a lesson in empathy– “does anyone know what empathy means?”  She assigns the kids over the weekend to find a story, unrelated to Steinbeck, about the Dustbowl, and read it and come to class ready to share it.   Penny says this is what you do in college– independent research.   “This is magnificent you guys, you are so lucky, how fun is this, you get to go find new stories to better understand the main story we are reading!”   Now the teacher is telling her own personal story of her grandparents being “Oakies,” and the journey here, and a terrible crisis of a grandmother in labor and a 13 year old teenager sent for help; the whole class perks up (even more than before), more attentive, more interested: this is an emotionally compelling story, personally related to their learning, and about a teenager in an emergency which all these kids relate to: this is excellent teaching.  “The mom is going to die if this boy messes up,” a student observes, with real empathy.  The students here are all imagining and envisioning the circumstances; the teacher explains that this is empathy they are feeling.    Brain research tells us that you have to tap into student emotions, their feelings, in order to help them encode.  Teacher: “I want you to understand this is not a book in a vacuum, this is a real story from a real time with real experiences being depicted, and I want you to connect with that by finding other stories of the Dust Bowl and the migration to California.”   She hands out a second homework assignment requiring a close reading of the tale of the turtle in Grapes of Wrath. 

Onto a discussion of “muckrackers.”  What was Steinbeck muckraking? Who else were muckrackers?  Upton Sinclair’s Jungle is the first example, and our teacher tells the story of the novel in a very emotionally compelling way– nice storytelling teaching.   “Someone explain to me the haves and the have-nots.”  Kids taking good stabs at this, and the teacher pushes them further.   She then ties it to the current day– is this still the case?   From Upton Sinclair she takes us to Michael Moore’s films.   Columbine comes up, and our teacher marvelously connects the event to her personal experience; she tells the students she learned of and watched the news of Columbine right here in this very classroom we are in today as a freshman student at this school; she goes on to say she also watched news of 9/11 in this same classroom as a senior.  I love this connectedness.    Now she is onto situating Steinbeck as a muckracker.   Wonderful tying now of Wrath, and a quote from Steinbeck, to the “theme of the year: why art matters?”  I can’t believe the class is almost over– it has flown by.   The teacher can’t either; she asks “how many cupcakes would it take to keep you here over the lunch period to continue our discussion of Steinbeck?”  Really lovely enthusiasm.   More connectedness: we are in Stockton, a major agricultural center here in the valley, with many migrant workers here in town experiencing some truly Steinbeckian experiences, and the teacher is helping the students make that link.  Teacher: “How are things going to change?  What can we do to make a difference?”  Students venture forth very personal, very passionate comments about how to effect change.  The teacher then ties this conversation back to IB Global Lesson day– which today is Poverty in the world.   Really great stuff.  “Yes, yes,” our teacher calls;  “Yes, Yes” the students respond.   Charming. 

At lunch, I accompany Penny to the Christian club she is President of; it is called New Life.  Today they are hosting a traveling group which is promoting peaceful schools in the name of Rachel, the first girl who died at Columbine.  The school has had an assembly already with this group (we missed it) and now is having an after-session with the Christian group; there is a cross they travel with onto which they ask students to drape icons of their life.   Penny leads the group of 25 in a very lovely prayer, praying among other things that we learn today.  The group then has a somewhat desultory conversation about the meaning of Christ in their lives. 

Onto Chemistry.   The smartboard has displayed a S.O.D. for today, and we are learning about heat capacity.  Another young teacher; Penny told me earlier that several of her teachers are very new to the school and very young, and she says surprised, really good.    The Science Lab building has marvelous large windows for most classrooms onto the hallways, which could make for great classroom transparency, except that in several cases the windows are boarded over with signs or posters blocking the view.    What does this mean?  What is heat capacity?  the teacher asks.  Now he is putting a problem on the board, and answering it, with a little interaction from the students.  After his presentation of one problem, he sets up another, asking the students to do it themselves (!).   He quickly presents the answer.   A shift; he then moves onto a new activity, dividing the class into two groups and assigning one to be pro-microwave ovens, and the other anti.  They move their chairs to a big circle to ready for the debate.   I love this format, and I really think group work is great; Marzano, who endorses strongly group work in Instructional Strategies That Really Work, says that group size needs to be tightly managed, and that effectiveness tails off in groups over five or six; these groups are 8 and 15, and I am not sure they are as effective as the teacher might wish; by observation it is easy to see how the group of eight really has most students’ attention but that the larger group, well, doesn’t.   But it is a great activity.   He says that he likes to do these debates with real-world issues he kids can relate to, which is a nice point.   The teacher comes to chat; he has nice energy, and is to be commended taking on this responsibility, having only just graduated from college in June (!).   The debate commences:  the Pro side offers reasoning that it will cost less than gas to use microwaves, and you are less likely to get burned by the microwave than by a gas fire stove.  Now he turns to the Anti-side.  “Microwave food sucks.”  “Every time you stick food into that hunk of metal, you are making your food get deformed.”   Student energy rises considerably during the debate; there are smiles everywhere, clamoring for attention, eagerness to participate.  The format is working to engage kids, surely; there is only a little more to be done to enhance the content.  A good start. 

And now Physics: Penny tells me she “recently we did a lab where we were supposed to create an egg-holder which could protect eggs from breaking.”  The room has posters about a “mythbusters” assignment with four questions:  What myths are being tested?  What different experiments do they design to test myths?  Was it necessary to change or modify any experiments during testing?  Were the myths confirmed, plausible, or busted? 

Penny and I speak about rigor: The hardest assignment Penny had last year was a history research paper, 3 pages long and bibliography, following a very specific format.   Penny wrote her paper on the effect of the Industrial Revolution on Women, for which she also had do a presentation orally.  She tells me it was really valuable for her to do the oral presentation; she finds that a really great way to express herself and her thinking.   She also had a challenging assignment last year doing a three page paper on potassium.   The students here at this table are also telling me about their upcoming IB EE papers, (Extended Essay, 4000 words), one of the jewels in the IB crown.  They are both excited and daunted by this requirement; one students says he is developing his topic from the subject of WWII, and Penny says she wants to work on the intersection of US government and world politics. 

Today is a review day in Physics; he asked the students to review their notes in anticipation of an upcoming test, and to identify questions they have.  Now, today, he is wide open: what do you got?    A student asks an acceleration question, and he jumps into it.  Next is a collision of different masses question, and he says if it helps you to answer the problem, draw out a diagram; I have terrible artistic skills but I still draw it out,” which is a nice endorsement of what is sometimes an under-utilized teaching technique, non-linguistic representation.    I like it when a student asks a good question about negative velocity, and the teacher puts it right back to the class, asking them to think about it: he resisted the temptation to tell, to provide the answer, and left it to the students to do the learning work.  As I have seen elsewhere here today, this teacher seems highly proficient with the smartboard, and manipulates its effects frequently to good effect.  

A very nice day; thank you again, Franklin High School! 


1.  Nice article this week in EdWeek about the initiatives being undertaken in many states to develop new curricula in 21st century skills development.     The article discusses what is meant by this, pointing out that in this new century a higher order of thinking and problem-solving is required: in critical reading, stronger communicating, and the use of technology.   One state calls teaching these skills “future ready” preparation.   I particularly liked reference to “global literacy” and “problem-solving with a global context” being included in the mix here.  

2.  I read a short little book from Corwin Press yesterday that I really liked.  It is low key, short (like 80 pages), teacher-directed, almost understated, but really valuable and immediately applicable.  It is called Teaching for Tomorrow. (Teaching Content and Problem-Solving Skills). Author Ted McCain offers a nice quick chapter on how the world is changing and why we need to rethink the skills kids need, and then the heart of the book is a chapter called Six Ways to Teach for Independent and Higher Learning.  Some of the ways include resisting the temptation to tell (always a weakness of mine), progressively withdrawing from helping students as we transition them to independence, and, my favorite: “Making a fundamental shift– problems first, teaching second.”  I am seeing this as more and more the key: whether from the writings of Wiggins, Graff, or Wagner, or my observations at New Technology,  Bay  or College Prep schools, good learning always, (ALWAYS) starts with an interesting question or a complicated problem or a difficult project.   Then, the teacher facilitates student activity in the direction of addressing the challenge before them. 
3.  But is there good evidence for this alternate approach?  How do we know students are learning more effectively this way?  I had a nice lunch yesterday with Jason Ravitz, research director of the Buck Institute (and an old friend from college).  Buck is dedicated to promoting innovation in teaching and learning, and has a particular interest in advocating for the efficacy of project and problem based learning (I am drawn to the latter term, thinking it is more inclusive of learning that begins with problems, good questions, or projects).   Jason’s role as research director is to develop the ways to measure the efficacy.   He directed to me to a few sites and resources summarizing some of the positive evidence, including these two (one and two)  articles in  Edutopia:
To quote the conclusion of the second article, by Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond:

A growing body of research has shown the following:

  • Students learn more deeply when they can apply classroom-gathered knowledge to real-world problems, and when they take part in projects that require sustained engagement and collaboration.
  • Active-learning practices have a more significant impact on student performance than any other variable, including student background and prior achievement.
  • Students are most successful when they are taught how to learn as well as what to learn

But that said, schools need to innovate and experiment in their own way, and find their own way to measure the results.   The approaches I am describing are very wide ranging, very non-prescriptive, very allowing of heterogeneity in teaching.   They do all ask, however, students to be conducting a large share of their own learning as they confront and tackle challenging problems with the very strong support of their teachers. 

Hello College Prep: 

Thank you for welcoming me today; I am here shadowing a junior and blogging about the cool things I see happening in student learning here: “observed best practices.”  The liveblog is below; it flows from bottom to top chronologically over the course of the day, and each new entry is headed by the time I posted it.  
Please consider responding, by clicking on the comment line just below to the right.   Respond to something I have written, or share with me and other readers what you think is best about teaching and learning at CPS, or what you think is most important for learning in the 21st century.  
Last class for the day, my seventh.  AP Biology.  Love some pieces of this course description, including its heading: Adapt, Migrate, or Die!  I also like the statement that “emphasis is placed on the development of college level communication skills such as essay writing and critical thinking.”  Great appreciation for learning of key skills for college preparation, and hence de-emphasizing the mastery of a breadth of facts.    “The course is also laboratory oriented.  Students are encouraged to be well-prepared and knowledgeable concerning proper use of lab equipment.  Some labs will require competence with computer data collection and analysis.  In addition, a major project on animal behavior is assigned during the spring semester.” 
We begin with the circulation of donuts, which I heartily endorse.  I mean, I want to see healthy diets in our schools, of course, but I also really want to see students having every opportunity to keep stoking their mental furnaces.  
The teacher then kicks in with a digitally projected outline of chromosome numbers of selected organisms, and there is a very short discussion.  The next slide displays a whitefish blastula mitosis microscope slide, which is helpful to see before we are sent to microscopes ourselves.  It has been a useful, 10 minute teacher presentation.  
Out come from the microscopes.  Students are asked to pair up, and they get right to work.  Tim tells me that most often class is a powerpoint lecture, with the teacher explanations frequently, and helpfully, supplemented by short films and videos on topic.    They are studying the times for mitosis, and organizing their data into phases.   Great attention to task around the room, with the teacher circulating. 
I go and get a soda (that hot math classroom left me parched) and see a large group of underclass students circled around a picnic table, on which there are a bunch of chess boards. Great excitement here about chess.
A quick conversation with a few students: they tell me the best things about College Prep are the “approachability of the teachers,” and the “overall sense that academics are important here– that everyone really gets that we are here to learn. ”  They tell me they chose College Prep both because people were really friendly here, and because of the greater academic focus of the school climate; one girl says to me the kids here were, and I love this description, “dorky in a good way.” 
Having recorded results on the whiteboard, students are attentive as the teacher explains the timing of different mitosis phases: they are learning forward with good attention, I think because the analysis is more interesting because it is being performed upon results that they themselves generated.   
Math IV A.  College Prep has a distinctive math tradition, with students working in groups through complex problem binders.   Really worth visiting the course description posted online; it has long been my understanding that the math curriculum is College Prep’s greatest distinction.   I love the way the description states the first course goal: “problem solving as the central means of instruction” which is exactly what this blogger thinks should be every high school course’s approach!  Second is a good command of basic facts based on understanding as well as memorization; third is clear communication, both oral and written [which is great to see in a math course, and should again be a goal universally]; fourth is the appropriate use of technology. 
After a one minute demonstration on the whiteboard, our student groups are off and running, working at tables of four while the teacher circulates.  The room in animated, upbeat, despite the fact that the sun is beating on it and it must be nearly 80 degrees in here.  The classroom walls display posters celebrating the power and history of Math: one is headed A World of Mathematics, Science, and Technology; another Harmonious Connections: Math and Music. 
Tim tells me that he finds this mode of learning very different from the traditional lecture format, and very different from his experience learning math prior to College Prep.   He says though that after a “learning curve” (his term), it is a better way to learn.  You really have to work together with your table group, you can ask them things that you might not ask a teacher at the whiteboard, the team really supports each other.  The teacher still does, he hastens to point out, offer some lectures to help students, but they are most intermittent and responsive to the problems the students are working on.   The students here have no textbook; they have a rich binder containing a large number of problems and some brief instructional overviews, which the College Prep teachers have written themselves.    These students learn by doing these problems, rather than being taught how to do them and then separately trying to do them.  
The students are doing a problem that goes like this: “The ancient Babylonians loved 60; they made 60 minutes in an hour, and 60 minutes in an arc….  Questions: 1. What did the Babylonians like about 60 and 360?  2. Why might time units and angle units be so closely related?  3. Convert a provided example of a geographical location from “babylonian” degrees to decimal degrees.  4. Here’s another reason for the definition of a degree: every day the Earth revolves round the sun through a central angle (measured at the sun) of about 1 degree.  Explain how you know this is true.” I love these “Math” questions; they are rich, real world, and require students to explain their thinking and reasoning.  The teacher offers some insight to the second question by projecting topographical maps on the board, and showing how the angles work there, in a very nice, real-world way.
It is great to watch Tim help a table-mate with a problem; she says she thinks she understands the concept but can’t figure out the problem.  Tim jumps in and very helpfully explains it to her (“it looks like I was mixing up the xs and ys”).   I can’t help but think that he is going to come away with a much more lasting understanding of this himself, because of the processing he has had to do to explain it to another, and encoding it in his brain in ways that are underscored by the social experience of explaining it.   The kids really, really pay attention to each other as they receive their explanations, giving their full attention in a way I just don’t see happening so much when they listen to a teacher at a blackboard.   As they are getting the explanation, they are talking, repeating the logic, exclaiming things like “oh that is why I did that,” or “noooo, I still don’t see it”– none of which students can easily do when a teacher is explaining it from the whiteboard.   This is really good stuff.   I like watching the way they lean– reaching across the table (these tables I think are about a foot too wide for the way they are being used, but it really requires them to lean far forward, which is a great learning posture) and as they reach they use their mechanical pencils to point out things on their partner’s graphs: pointing, drawing, sketching, gesticulating: wielding these pencils as extensions of their fingers (and hence as the ultimate powerfully “digital” tool) and as adeptly as a fencer wields a sword, and here this is indeed a mighty pen.   As students help each other to solve a problem, they high five each other.  This is an after-lunch, hot room (I am boiling), but every single student here is fully engaged and on-task.   
Now, the teacher is using a graphing calculator program, projected on the whiteboard; the formula he is using isn’t quite working, but the students are quite attentive, offering advise and trying to assist.   It is a good energy.  
Astronomy.   Another nice lab space; love the high ceilings.   Tim tells me as we walk over about the contrast of his K-8 and 9-12 education.  He attended a locally well-known private K-8, respected for its traditional academic excellence program.  He says both schools had a rigorous educational philosophy, his word-rigorous, and that the first school certainly prepared him well for College Prep: “I came into this school really ready for English, Science, Math; it made the transition really easy.  Other students from other schools had more of a learning curve to come up to CPS.”   But the K-8 program was in contrast, he said, more externally focused: more about appearances, about the uniform, about following directions.  “The methods were different, a lot of homework, a lot of work, but you learned it well.”  College Prep, however, is more internal: about supporting students’ desire to learn, about people’s individuality (there is still a “decent amount of work; it’s kind of a supplement rather than a priority.”)  Here there is what he describes as “laid-back, but interested.”  “It is not like there is test, test, test; if you don’t get all your homework done they don’t maul you.” He goes on: “They want you to learn, not to have to do the work: the learning is important thing, not the completion of assignments.”   He says he looked at other schools for high school, but chose College Prep because on his visits here it was friendliest, had the most welcoming community, students were friendly and made him feel comfortable.  Teachers, he said, even when he visited, included him in conversations.  
The astronomy teacher is lecturing about new star formation, and there is some attention, but it when the questions start flying that the energy in the room really lifts.  What is the force of gravity?  What is the LHC studying and what is its status?  Do smaller mass stars take longer to form?   Isn’t the spontaneous formation of stars against the law of entropy?  Are you going to talk about the weird philosophical stuff, like what is the universe expanding into? Why should there be any matter at all?  Are we going to learn about string theory?   Nice questions.  Only boys in this class; Tim tells me it is just a coincidence.  A little bit hard for some students here right now, it being right after lunch, in a darkened classroom, and a pretty abstract lecture.  
Tim tells me that one of his favorite things about astronomy is that the teacher collects questions from the students– he really wants the class to be driven by student questions– and then he researches them, and every week or two he spend a classtime answering them. 
Lunchtime, I accompany Tim to his Student Life committee meeting, which he co-leads; this is a communication tool from students to the administration.  Students on the committee meet monthly with the director of student life and the headmaster to share concerns; a main agenda item this meeting is about the shuttle transportation from BART.   Good discussion here of real-world problem-solving.    Next up is a discussion of composting and the biodegradable utensils, and how to manage that stream of trash in an environmentally friendly way.   This group also manages a calendar of “food days,” with communications to the students about the calendar via the school First Class email system.   And onto a Ping Pong club, and how to better maintain the tables; brainstorming follows for strategies.   The big thing for the agenda is “CPS Day,” actually a pair of days in April that these students are planning for, at which the first day there will be a series of forums on important issues, and the second day a work-party day for action both on campus and off.   Good student leadership here, with real responsibility.  They are working hard on thinking about how to provide all students opportunities to do what they want, and there is good brainstorming about how to do so.   As they talk about particulars, they are also considering what themes they might organize the forum around.   Theme ideas include Global Warming, Green, Technology, Facebook, the New President. 
“Tim” has an open period, and he is spending it practicing his guitar learning alongside his biology teacher, who is also learning to play.   They take me up to an environmental science lab, where they are watching a film about electric vehicles.   The room has wonderful posters displayed of student research projects, oversize, printings that must be 3’x3′.  They are organized with images, graphs, maps, and headings of introduction, methods, results, and an abstract.   Subjects include: “Environmental Education in the East Bay,” “Water Quality in East Bay Creeks,” “Environmental Justice and Perceptions of Environmental Risk,” “Green Certification in the Bay Area,” “Impact of Snowmobiles on Hydrocarbon Levels in Sierra Meadows,” “Area Effects on Species Variation in a California Oak Woodland,” and “Bats as Ecological Indicators: A Pilot Study on the Sacramento River.”  Excellent, real-world, authentic learning by doing and powerful skills in communicating are displayed here.   The teacher tells me about how they are presented at a year-end symposium to which parents and community members are invited, which is great, Sizerian, exhibitions. 
The video over, our teacher is now facilitating a discussion of Who Killed Electric Car?  The screen asks us to think about the Suspects: What role did each play?  Hidden agendas? and a lis of Consumers, Batteries (technology), Hydrogen Fuel cells (competing technology), Car manufacturers, state agencies, Oil companies, federal government.   One student asks a sharp question contrasting Toyota’s business model and economic strategy with those of the US carmakers.   After a class-wide discussion of the film, the students are asked to form groups of three to analyze the film. 
The teacher comes over to chat, and has great initiative.  Something I like about teaching here is that you ask them to discuss, and they just do.  This is a “dream job.”   She tells me about the great projects I see displayed on the walls, and says the students work on them all spring, with a lot of independence.   They do many labs in the fall to prepare, and tells me about the first lab, where she trained them in the scientific method conceptually, and then asked the students to design their own lab experiment studies on the impact of acid rain on a life-form of their choosing.   She says these are terrific students to work with; she expresses a wish for more of a block schedule and she tells me of her love of field trips, which is of course essential for an environmental science course.   She came here after years of public school teaching, and then a doctorate at Cal.; she expresses appreciation for a background in both subject mastery (the doctorate), and pedagogical development (public school teaching). 
After a quick break and a nice snack in the lovely, sunny teachers room at College Prep, I am now with my student guide, “Tim,” in US History.  Tim tells me about his previous period English class, which I did not attend, and for which they are reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Tim tells me energetically that the class opened with the teacher distributing to every student a little paper cup with “pills” in it, and directing the students to take the pills, and then spend the next half period observing their reactions and each other, and taking note of their emotions.  Tim reports it was very powerful, they felt feelings of paranoia, of anxiety, of being watched; clearly this class was effectively tapping into the moods and dynamics of the book.   He says after half a period, they switched gears and discussed the experience, and he tells me it was an animated conversation. 
Our teacher has projected an outline for today’s presentation on a screen, and it is headed by the “important questions.” (Regular readers, or RRs, know that I am a bit obsessed in looking for guiding, framing, or essential questions, so I am happy to see this).   Here they are today: “Why did the war end when it did?” and, in what is a great academic question, I love it, “was the American Revolution really revolutionary?”  
Following the projected outline, the teacher is now lecturing on the legacies of the war: Tories and Anglicans being the big losers; Slaves and the influence of the war on slavery.    Students are busily taking notes: some in spiral binding, some on laptops.   There is now a close study of the “barriers to freeing slaves:” a. property; b. believe that whites and blacks could not live as equals; c. lack of an alternative for what to do with former slaves; d. belief that an absence of slaves would make a republic impossible; e. profit.” 
In the teacher’s course description, I really admire the following: “Our understanding of history is mediated.  The details of the past come to us through the observers who have reported the events, the archivists who have assembled historical artifacts, through other historians who have interpreted the records.  Therefore, as we practice researching, interpreting, and writing history, we’ll also practice evaluating bias in media, an essential skill in contemporary society.” 
After about 15-20 minutes of lecturing, he directs the class to the revolutionary question vis a vis slavery, and asks: “Who cares to make a thesis or an argument?”  One students points to the revolutionary rhetoric, which influenced the civil rights movement, which he accepts and then asks about the reality– is it revolutionary, for slaves?  Students offer sharp analyses here; very nice.   Then a return to lecture, with attention now to the impact of the war on women and their rights and roles. 
Now, “in conclusion, in what ways is this war revolutionary, or not?”  A student: “Very little change for women occurred.”  Another “instead of major changes, the war planted a lot of seeds for future change.”   “New ideas had been created, but the old ways were cemented by the laws more firmly.”   Teacher: My idea is that it was ultimately conservative.  
Discussing the party-forming in the critical period, he asks what is the purpose of a party, why do we have parties today?  Nice tie to contemporary politics, and good question asking of students?  One student offers a brief answer.   Next a question about competing values in the Articles of Confederation– “anyone see any internal discord here?”  Nice allowance of a lengthy quiet time for students to form their insights.   A student recognizes the tension of strong government and individual rights.  This is rich, this discussion, but brief, cut-off by time.   
Now we are in an Advanced English seminar: Canon and Challenge.  (Love the name). Our teacher, in a very professorial mode, is lecturing from a music sand in a very charming, (and traditional, collegiate) manner, and the subject today is the final book of the Iliad, the meeting of Priam and Achilles.  This teacher and I share the view that their meeting, this conversation, is the very probably the single finest moment in Western literature.   In a nice moment, the teacher asks students to fully imagine themselves in the role of Priam, having to kiss the hands of the man he most hates in the world, his son’s killer- a nice way to try to connect to the emotional resonance of this event and bring it into the student’s own hearts and minds.  Students are volunteering their perspectives about the meaning of this moment: “this is a triumph of humanity,” one student suggests, and the teacher responds yes, absolutely.  The teacher next recounts a personal story from his own life– the tragic death of his grandmother at the hands of a reckless teenager, and his grandfather’s decision not to press charges.  This is powerful, a great teaching moment; it is emotional, personal, connected, and offers a strong analogue to the event of Iliad Book XXIV.  Teachers should more regularly do this, offer their own emotional and personal connections to the subject, and invite students to do the same.  I love the teacher’s passion for the topic; he concludes by sharing his lament that it will be another two years before he again has the opportunity to teach this best of all poems. 

Good morning, it is great to be here at College Prep.   I am warmly greeted by school Head Murray Cohen, and am now beginning my day in a Spanish Class.    If you are following along, welcome– this is live blog, so it flows chronologically from bottom to top, with each new entry headed by the time it was posted.   This is my school visit/student shadow number 11.  

Class begins with students sitting comfortably on the floor, even lying down; some seniors are not present yet, as they are at a college info session, so the class is small.  We begin with some  Spanish language music, and now beginning conversation; there is a lot of laughter here.  Students are clearly very comfortable in this environment; they re drinking milk or coffee, assisting each other with the tasks.  The teacher is going around the group as each answers questions from the workbook, for a total of about 5 or 6 minutes.  Conversation is entirely in Spanish; this class is called Spanish Seminar: Literature and Writing.  Going to the school’s website, I find the course web-page easily.   I like what I see about the course’s structure, including conversations about current events, and the requirement that students do their own creative writing in Spanish, using specific literary devices.   The room’s walls display friendly papers on which students are introducing themselves in Spanish, with pictures and drawing: one reads “Hola, Lola.” 
The school’s website homepage is one of my favorites.  The use of a single defining photograph is really nice, and the little introduction is great: “We’re more than 300 students and 50 teachers. We’re friends and we meet each day to do what we love– ask hard questions, delve into the possibilities, and expand our capacities to ask, to delve, to expand even further.  And, seriously, we’re having a great time doing it.”   I love this: it is great that it frames education as the asking of questions, something I am always looking for, and that it about our expanding our capacities– in part to better ask and to better expand.  Concluding with an emphasis on fun is great too.  Why not insist at the outset that schooling will be joyful, and pursue that vigorously. 
Back in Spanish; a CD is playing quick conversational prompts, and students in pairs respond by chatting to each other with expression and gesticulation (and laughter).   This is the fourth different activity we have done here in thirty minutes; it is nice that the modes keep changing.  In a fifth class-phase students answer higher level questions from the teacher, and now, in a sixth, they are taking seats at desks and doing a reading response. 
Nice conversation with the teacher about the curriculum here.  This is a non-represenatative day, she explains, because it is the one day of the week they focus on grammar skills in anticipation of the AP Language exam.  Every other day she focusses on creative writing, but today is the “less interesting day.”  I like this balancing act, preparing kids for an AP without letting it overwhelm the curriculum.  She says that she takes care to mix up the grammar day, so it avoids “monotony.”    I ask her about her teaching evolution (she has been here 25 years), and she tells me she has to keep it changing to keep it interesting.   She then explains that the lower level language courses have changed even more, becoming far more interactive.  She says she doesn’t like most US language textbooks, they are too staid, too directive.   Instead she tries for a task-based language learning approach she says is popular in Europe, where they teach language more effectively.   She tells me enthusiastically that in the task-based approach, students learn as they do, and don’t even realize how much they are absorbing.   I like it, and I want to learn more about it. 

Good morning!   Thanks for visiting; I have upcoming visits Thursday to Oakland’s College Preparatory School; Friday to Stockton’s public high school, Franklin, and its IB program; and Monday to International High School in San Francisco.  

1.  I hope others are also paying attention to and enjoying the teacher blogs the NY Times is hosting this school-year.   Great stuff.    On Saturday they published a great one from Matthew Kay, a teacher at Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy, (a school, from the sounds of it, I would love to see.  Listen to its three word motto: Learn, Create, Lead).   This column confronts the laptop dilemma, and opens marvelously with the story of how upperclass students shake their heads when applying 8th graders express enthusiasm for the laptops, because by their upper years, they have learned “to put technology in its right place.”   Integrating technology, this fine teacher explains, requires a lot of trial and error, and a lot of “maturation,” and he draws a beautiful analogy regarding the evolution in the usage of ed. tech between that of an individual student and that of an educational program (a brilliant example of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, by the way).   Mr. Kay recounts his own experiences being distracted by, and misusing, the technology available, and recognizes that his students will do so too, as freshmen.  But as he has matured as a teacher, so have his upper grade students: “”they know that the distractions that attract thirteen year olds and confound young teachers are only themselves distractions from the real benefits of technology.”   Kay then identifies the key benefits technology brings: better communication and collaboration both between teachers and students and among students; better opportunities to publish for the outside world and receive feedback from outsiders; and better development of critical thinking and discrimination of information.     Kay concludes with recounting an answer he gave to undergraduates asking him how best to use technology in the classroom (“Very carefully”), and then says, and I endorse this highly: “When prudently used, the technology prepares our students to make the most of a world we can’t yet imagine.” 
2.  Another interesting little piece in the Times about cheating in high schools, which, statistics report, is nothing short of rampant.   As problematic as it is, it can be diminished by focussing attention on school culture, on the “bad soil, rather than the bad seed.”   Create school cultures where integrity and honesty are emphasized, and schools establish a strong honor code, and cheating will drop. 
Myself, I am all for promoting school cultures where the meaning and importance of integrity and ethics are explored, clarified, communicated, shared, examined, (critiqued), and teachers and students jointly pursue a trusting community.  I prefer the concept of integrity to the honesty, which I fear places too much emphasis on strict adherence to rule following and a too greatly  simplified concept of the virtue of truth-telling.  Honor codes can take many forms, and some are brilliant, and others too rigid; hence it is hard for me to blindly endorse honor codes without exploring the details: do they allow students (and adults) to learn from mistakes? do the recognize complexity and acknowledge circumstances? 
Finally, about cheating: I have to believe that much of the time cheating in intertwined with “playing the game of school.” If we structure our class-time and our student assessment in ways that are about authentically doing, and in ways which promote honest collaboration, students will have much less inclination to cheat, and cheating will provide much less advantage– or isn’t even possible to do. 
3.  Another great blog to watch is Curriculum Matters over at EdWeek.  It is run by two of that publications best reporters, who very intelligently comment on developments in the education business.  Both of todays postings are useful.  One discusses the topic of teachers wearing political buttons in the classroom– a hot button issue right now.   Does doing so dampen political discourse, does it negatively impact students ability to debate and discuss in a safe and open environment?  The second posting today addresses evaluating student technological literacy, and that NAEP is developing new tools for that.   In their entry here, they cite an EdWeek article last year about other initiatives in technological skills assessments, including iSkills from ETS, which I am eager to bring to my next school. 
4.  Jay Matthews at the Washington Post has a Andy Rooney-like grumble in reaction to the new 21st century skills report.  It is titled “Why I Don’t Like 21st Century Reports.” Now,  I appreciate Matthews for his enthusiasm for the IB (Supertest), but I greatly dislike his ranking of schools nationally based on their participation in the AP, which many of us are realizing is putting too many eggs in the basket of breadth over depth, of content coverage over thinking skills.    In this column, he writes his frustration that the call for a 21st century school revolution is too detached from the day to day realities of the classroom, and that the authors have no appreciation for the challenge of just teaching students how to do fractions.    Some of this piece reads as crotchety.  Now, to his credit, he endorses the concept of teaching 21st century skills, and he is completely right we must avoid “All-at-Once-itis.”   But I think he is wrong to say that the writers of these reports are too far ahead of the practice of this kind of teaching and learning.  I have seen it happening, and seen schools doing this teaching brilliantly– schools like CART in Clovis/Fresno, New Technology in Sacramento, and Bay and Urban in San Francisco.  

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