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.
October 16, 2008
Liveblogging Oakland’s College Prep, Oct. 16Posted by Jonathan Martin under General
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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.
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.