Humanities class; we open with a puppet performance by three students.   It is a creation myth, the dramatization, with a dialogue between a god figure and the earth itself. After the 5 minute presentation by three students, the teacher asks them to tell the story of their play, and explicate it.  Students are now writing in their journals– usually these are “warm-ups,” but today, coming mid-way through class, they are “cool-downs.” Regular readers know I am a big fan of taking class time for students to write and consolidate their thoughts in their own words, and that one brain research book likes this practice so much they call the activity “dend-writes.” This is the assignment: “What are differences you noticed between the myth your group performed and Greek mythology (either Prometheus or other stories you remember reading from summer reading.)”

The student sitting next to me asks about my project and then tells me she learns best when she gets to research things herself, look up information, do the digging, and then puts thing in her own words. She adds that “hands-on” things really help too.

Now, our teacher is using the white board to organize the ideas, setting up a chart of comparing the myths of the Greeks and the “others.” Identifying similarities and differences is research supported best practice for learning; here the ideas are nicely coming from the students, who are doing the thinking here. Students have also been distributed graphic organizer sheets for organizing their notes in analyzing the myths. One student observes that in Greek myth man has been provided intelligence and independence, but in the myths of others the purpose of man is to serve the gods. Lots of good thinking here– in Greek myth we find a deeper sense of tragedy, in Greek myth there is more ongoing interaction of Gods and men than in other myth. “You guys rocked this activity,” the teacher tell us–“Kudos to you, you identified on your own all of the essential components.” Nice, specific, concrete, praise and reinforcement. She goes on to tell us this chart can serve as a brainstorming pool of ideas to draw upon for their upcoming compare and contrast essays. The teacher suggests they choose how to do their pre-writing: you could use a Venn Diagram, or a chart like this one today, you could do a traditional outline: I like that the students can choose what works for them best, and I like her helping students recognize and appreciate there are multiple pathways to a solution. And of course, the emphasis on non-linguistic representation is great.

Now students have laptops open, and are beginning to take notes from the teacher’s powerpoint presentation, but before she begins, she coaches students on some particular note-taking techniques. This is great, that she does so, and something that needs to happen much more often in high school classrooms generally. She is using the projector to display on the whiteboard, and the presentation is nicely interactive. One slide says “What sorts of things do myths explain? What might they teach us?” Rather than telling us, she has us think about it first, and then offer their ideas. A nice little reference to the “essential questions” which they are pursuing in this course, which I appreciate, the Wigginsian conceptual reference. The teacher is showing us a framework for two column note-taking; again, a good, pro-active measure to teach explicitly techniques for note-taking (another best practice instructional technique endorsed by Marzano).

After lunch, in advisory. The ninth graders, in two advisories, have joined together here for this 20 minute advisory time. First, we are going over posters prepared by students after a solo hike, with lots of fun and silly quotes. One poster is headed: “I love my advisory because” and the various comments are “we are close.” “Everyone is cool.” “There are a bunch of great people.” Another poster states atop it “Favorite part of retreat”: “the people.” “Meeting everyone.” “Endurance courses and trusting people.” “Getting to know people.”

Now we are planning a dance and a Halloween Haunted House. Students respond with great enthusiasm to the prospect of building a haunted house for the middle school students. A vacant laboratory classroom is designated; tarps will be purchased for room dividers. Students are excited; they are already buzzing with ideas as they imagine their ideas for the project.

Something very evident on the campus here is that the classrooms, which face an interior courtyard on two floors, all have large floor to ceiling windows adjacent to the doorway. Hence, when walking through, every classroom is on display with full visibility. I love this transparency; Tony Wagner, in his Global Achievement Gap, calls for a cultural transformation where classrooms are more like theaters rather than closets. Think of of analogous professions: surgeons operate underneath viewing platforms; lawyers must argue cases in public courtrooms. Doing so doesn’t compromise the “autonomy” of these professionals, but it does, appropriately uplift both the accountability and the sharing of best practices in these professions.

My guiding student has a study hall period, called here PAT: “Personal Academic Time.” So, I am sitting in on an eighth grade Spanish class for a time here. The teacher is using a digital project to display an outline on the whiteboard, and is using marker pens to fill in the outline with classroom discussion about Dia de los muertos.

Now I jump over to an 8th grade Science Lab– a beehive of activity over here. Working in groups, moving around the room, often standing at their tables rather than sitting, enthusiastically exclaiming their observations, they are entirely engaged by the project at hand. I ask a student what the project is, and explains they are creating, in large ziplocks, the “perfect snack.” Boxes of yummy looking Captain Crunch, M&M’s, Reese’s Puffs, Cheez-its, and Nut stand on tables all across the lab; students are measuring out weights on pocket scales to come up with the right proportions and to arrive at a tasty snack that has between 350 and 400 calories, at least 6 grams of protein, and at least two grams of fiber. To calculate the necessary ratio of snacks which in combination will generate the perfect “healthy” snack, they are using calculators and running equations with sharpened pencils.

They are allowed to eat as they measure, probably partially accounting for all the energy in this room at 12:15– never underestimate the significance of continuing to fuel student learning and activity. This is certainly an activity that they can tap into personally– few things are more deliciously sensuous to an 8th grader than snack foods, and everyone has an opinion about which snacks are best. That is a formula for relevance: topics that appeal to all senses, (these snacks come in shiny boxes, smell great, crunch, and look to this hungry observer like they taste great) and that are easy to opine and argue about!

I ask the teacher for the source of this fine lesson; she tells me she invented it entirely herself. Nice. At class-time completion, the teacher does a debrief. First question: what surprised you as you went about this exercise? Great question; she waits for answers.

Mandarin class, with a native speaker in attractive Chinese dress. This class keeps shifting gears, frequently, which I think is great, avoiding any feeling of monotony. In just the last twenty minutes the students have: read together a sentence on the board; listened as the teacher modeled this same sentence at different speeds; worked through a sheet of symbols and drawings to reinforce new vocabulary and syllables; jumped up and moved around to do quick role-playing interactive conversational scenes; engaged with the teacher with quick one on one conversations; and responded all together in a quick vocabulary run-down. The students are praised for their work today. Now the students are provided a website to download Chinese software onto their laptops– a nice use of technology.

Good morning, and welcome to my first out-of-state shadowblog. (If you are following along, please know that Live-blogs read from bottom to top, chronologically; each new section is headed by the time it was posted). Today it is Tesseract School in Phoenix; I am accompanying a ninth grader here at this one-month-old high school. One month: this is a brand new high school program, opening this year with about 20 ninth graders, built on top of a longstanding K-8 school. Perfect, being here, for one of this project’s goals is to pay particular attention to the innovations at new, young, and start-up high schools. Bay School is only in its fourth year this year, and CART in its seventh, so this is the third under-ten-year-old school I am visiting.

I arrived at campus at about 9, but have been visiting first with founding upper school head Chris LaBonte, with whom I worked closely for four years at my previous school. We walked and talked– he has a lot to say about what they are doing here, and manifests/radiates great pride in this new high school (and about the middle school program which shares the site with the new high school). He showed me the student lounge, which originally had another designated use, but he insisted students have that space; he welcomed the students to decorate it themselves, but also explained to them that nobody cleans it but the kids, and the day it must be straightened by a teacher is the day it is locked to the students. It was very orderly; these students are taking their responsibility.

Chris also told me of the balancing act he does to maintain the students’ good will and and friendliness toward him with his disciplinary obligations, and that maintaining the former while fulfilling the latter is his goal. So far, so good. I ask how he is accomplishing this, and he pointed to two things: borrowing a tip from his spouse, a therapist, he says he seeks to be always highly emotive and positive in every interaction with students, and second, he strives to be relentless honest with kids.

Moving around the campus we see the high school student rock band, jamming loudly. Chris tells me this was an important initiative his, and that the teachers here have been very supportive, even with the noise. In another classroom, some ninth graders are in drama-video class, all with MacBooks open, editing their video productions, while others are moving around campus freely, shooting scenes they have scripted– all of them displaying a fine sense of purpose and focus.