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.
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.