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!