October 2008

Here now in Neurobiology; great lab space with lots of room for both seats in front and plenty of working lab space.   Class begins with students working on questions posted on the board: “What do areas IT & MT mediate? How does consciousness work?”  Students are immediately engaged, focused but not silent, with thinking and writing about these questions.  Love how it sets the tone right from the top of each class: students are here to do their own thinking and learning, not to be talked to.    Our teacher is very energetically circulating, checking on comprehension. 

Fascinating syllabus: this is a great example of what Stan described as the college-level work he believes he is already doing.   I love that high school students have the opportunities to select this kind of topical, contemporary and current, academic field in their secondary years.   The curriculum, as published in Rubicon, is built around a lengthy series of good questions: some of the most essential of these questions to my reading are: “What is the relationship of mind and body as explored through mental illness?” “Why do we need to sleep?” “How are male and female brains different and how does that influence behavior?”  “What is the biology of homosexuality?”   Wiggins says that essential questions are those that are interesting and significant enough that’d we want to, that educated adults already, discuss at a dinner party or “on our own time;” these questions are beautiful examples of that. 

Excellent example of relevant and personal instruction: when our teacher momentarily misremembers a student’s name, she grabs it right away as a teachable moment, explaining to us what is going on in the synapses of her brain in that moment of mistaken memory.   Now she is drawing diagrams and designs on the board to illustrate, and there are many such drawings on the board, which is exemplary instruction via non-linguistic representation. 

Above the board are another series of guiding questions for scientific inquiry:  “The circle of life: how is it connected to everything else?  How do we find out the truth of things we cannot see? How do we see through bias?  What are the checks and balances in the system?  What does it look like; how does it work? ”  Great to have these inquiry questions so prominently displayed for constant reference for how students should be thinking as they go about their learning here in the lab. 

Our teacher here enjoys providing demonstrations physically, using her own body to do, which certainly helps visualization and should help retention.    We are learning now about the anatomy of the spinal chord and cerebral cortex, and the teacher is doing an elaborate design on the board.  Only one student has her laptop open, and I look over and see her viewing a google image display.  So I go closer to see, and right here during the lecture, as she is taking notes, she has “image googled” the spinal chord, and she is tacking back and forth from the white board to her laptop screen images to better illustrate her notes.   I ask her why she is doing so, and she tells me, entirely unprompted, that she likes to use google images this way because “I am a visual learner.”   This is excellent, I think: that she chooses to (and is welcome to!) employ her laptop for her lecture note-taking, that she is savvy enough to google image topics they are studying in lecture, and that she has the self-awareness of her own learning to explain to me she does so due to her visual learning preference.   Nice– I’d like to see more teachers suggest to students they use google image search as a complement to note-taking in a wide variety of subjects.  

As time runs out, our teacher very nicely has students stop and take the last few minutes to summarize to each other what they have learned today: a simple, but effective and important, way to reinforce and strengthen retention. 

Excellent lunch in the new “cafe.” I love that it is called a cafe, not a cafeteria; words and names make a difference, and this is a very positive semantic advantage.   Stan tells me he really likes the cafe because it makes him feel like a college-kind of space; he knows because he has been visiting colleges lately.  I ask Stan about his preparation for college, and he tells me he believes, partly from his ongoing communication with recent HRS grads, that he is very well prepared for college, because he is already doing so much college-level work all the time at Head Royce– the caliber of readings, the load of assignments, the thinking they have to do here.  I ask what have been the most challenging work, and he tells me of a junior history paper he wrote, a ten page paper on US-Israeli relations.    He says the assignment was very well structured over several months with many interim steps and due dates, which made it much easier to accomplish. He says he used books from the Berkeley library, the school library, and on-line resources, and tells me of closely examining a 1980’s US-Israel treaty as a key primary source.   The other that really lit him up last year was the required science project, which was entirely open to any topic of their choosing.   He prepared a project on the influence of music listening on mental agility, by having subjects perform web-boggle games while listening to classical music, up-tempo music, and silence.   He chose it because, he told me, his parents were often giving him a hard time about listening to music while doing his homework, and he wanted to demonstrate that it didn’t negatively impact his learning.  I love this: the project-based learning, the students’ open-ended choice, and the way the activity had such personal relevance for him. 

We are now in Psychology with a good friend of mine  teaching the class.   She begins, to my surprise, by playing guitar and singing a sentimental U2 song, “One.”  After a few verses, Stan actually sings along, adding his baritone.  Really great, I think, for our teacher here to surprise her students in this way, and to show her vulnerability, her human side, to her students: she shows that she is a learner too, that she is able and willing to take risks.  It is great modeling. 

She explains to me they have just finished their psychoanalysis unit, and have now moved on to their behaviorism (Pavlovian conditioning) unit; she tells me that this movement follows well, because it such the extreme opposite from psychoanalysis.  I love this recognition and instruction on her part: psychology as an academic field can be understood an an argument, a dialectic that we as students can enter and perceive not as simply a mass of facts but as movements in debate with each other, marshaling evidence and contesting received wisdom.   Good example of what I would describe as quasi- Graffian instruction. 

After her charming song, our teacher begins with a youtube video from the sitcom The Office, one where Jim trains Dwight to need an Altoid every time Jim reboots his computer; Jim as Pavlov, Dwight as the dog.   Regular readers will recognize my appreciation for this: I think the convergence of digital projectors and youtube make for a very powerful instructional tool, where teachers can connect with kids via short, funny, to the point, video that will amuse and tickle them, and enhance their comprehension and retention via this non-linguistic medium which kids really respond to. 

Taking a quick look at our teacher’s syllabus now.  Nice essential questions: “What are the long term effects of ‘operant conditioning:’ are our students ‘punished by rewards?'”    “What are different theories explaining moral, social, and cognitive development?”  “What does social psychology tell us about social relationships, specifically conformity, media and persuasion, self-justification, aggression, and prejudice?” 

Now watching another video, using her technology well, to see conditioning experiments on infants from long ago; that the child was treated so terribly elicits in the students quite an emotional reaction (such that they will better retain and recall this information, brain research tells us), and also stimulating a real-world example of the ethics and ethical issues in experimentation. 

Looking around the room, I really appreciate the many posters on the walls: Gaugin, Degas, Magritte,  Dali, etc.  The bulletin board is lovingly festooned with pertinent New York Times articles and student work.   Above the bulletin board are displayed the essential questions for English 9, a good Wigginsian touch.  “How do our parents, friends, and culture shape us?  Are we always in control of how we view ourselves or how we are viewed by others?  Are our identities stable and permanent or can they be changed? [!!: perfect for ninth graders!!]  Do our actions define us: why or why not?   What happens when one’s identity is challenged by others?  What is the point of reading, writing, and storytelling?”   I think this looks like a terrific ninth grade English curriculum, really designed to connect with the personal concerns and social-emotional issues of students that age. 
Nice discussion here, with our teacher asking nice followup questions, students relating the study of behaviorism to their own experiences.  One students tell us he is skeptical, his point of view is more rooted in neurology.   Don’t want class to end so soon; this could happily keep going another 20 minutes, I think. 

AP French.   We’re reading and discussing Moliere today; it is certainly stretching my limited French proficiency.   Lots of questioning: they are digging deep into the text and rooting out the subtext in the Moliere.   
Stan takes me down the hall; I duck into an open-doored classroom for a lesson on Pericles’ Funeral Address, fun for this blogging Hellenophile. The teacher is doing two things as she presents the key ideas: she is ensuring the students have a close identification of similarities and differences (a classic learning best practice [Marzano]) between the Athenians and the Spartans, and also regularly connecting the Athenian world to our own, the similarities and differences between this ancient world and the real, personal world the students live in.   “Is there anything he says Athens is like that sounds bad to you?”  One students expresses a perceptive observation– “how do we know Athens was really as good as Pericles say they were?” Our teacher commends the acute question, and takes us to the point that societies organize around ideals, and it is important to understand their ideals but good to be critical too about their reality. 
Math, with “Fern,” as Stan calls him.  For this class period, we are reviewing for an upcoming test, Stan tells me.   Today, students are working on the review sheets; the teacher offers students the choice, either or, of doing review sheets or challenge problems.   “I am just here for help,” the teacher says.   Kids are working, partly alone, partly in pairs, helping each other out.   Fern tells me he really likes this approach for the classroom; he sees himself as having evolved in the past five years to being more of a facilitator, asking kids guiding questions rather than answering them directly.  He spends a few days lecturing, giving the kids a LOT of information, and then he allows a week for them to work on review and challenge problems, working to master the material.   When I ask him how he has come to evolve the lesson planning in this way, he says it is by listening to the kids, responding to what they tell him works best.    He admires that in this context they are asking each other, first, for assistance; he also likes that with the mixture of review and challenge, “there is no ceiling here” for kids, they are all challenged.   He tells me that this works well for this class, but it won’t work perfectly for every class; he tells me that he thinks 21st century learning is about adapting the methods to the class.   He is also pleased about a test-administering practice he has, of giving the kids three days to choose among for taking the test, which he says he does to respect the fact junior year can be so stressful (universally, at all schools) for students. 

I ask a pair of students next to me about whether this way works for them, and they tell me it really does.   They say it “gets you more in a groove, working the problems and following your own self-motivation.  The teacher is always available for help, but usually you ask your partners.”  Big praise for working with partners; they say it wouldn’t work otherwise.  “It is good because certain people can do certain things; everyone has different capacities in math, so we can really help each other out.” 
Home room, every Wednesday for twenty minutes with advisers.  Snacks here, very important, very appreciated.   Students mixing and mingling, relaxing and laughing and eating.  Two teachers here casually interacting.   Behind me, one student is explaining math to a classmate; two others are looking at an online magazine spread.   Students here have been in the same homeroom all four year.   Stan tells me “homeroom builds up over the year– just to have it over the four years, by the time you are senior it gives you a kind of identity you feel affiliated with your homeroom, it is a nice feeling of home, you can come to when you need during a break.   I definitely say you grow kind of a group personality, a friendly atmosphere; it is nice to have the two teachers to have as advisers, you can always come to talk to them if you have particular problems; my adviser helped me with a baseball video I did.   The advisers really help out, they can talk to another teacher if you have an issue, they are the first person you talk to if you have a problem; if you have an issue about what classes to take they can give you lots of advice.”  
A senior, “Stan,” (all student names are pseudonyms) has generously offered to be my guide today. As we walk into the courtyard he tells me about the new campus.  He says, in a sweet and nostalgic way, that he occasionally misses the “old” a little bit, but that this new campus is beautiful, “like a college campus.”  Without my prompting, he enthuses about the cafe on campus, that it has great food and really adds a lot to campus culture.  I am struck by this, and I bet there is a lot to think about the value a campus cafe adds.  Already we have heard how the cafe is used for Irish poetry reading over scones, which is great.   I imagine students respond to an on-site cafe because it adds a feeling of real-world contextualization; students appreciate, I am hypothesizing, being respected as young adults with almost a “semi-professional” status, and their ability to go to a cafe over the course of their day must enhance that (which is, perhaps, akin to the students at CART who wore scrubs for their three hour biomed lab.)

Stan has a free period this hour, so he brings me to the art studio, where I am sitting in on a 3D arts class for freshmen.   One student tells me she chose Head Royce for ninth grade because it was small and offered personalized attention, and she says she really likes it here because the teachers really help her.    Regular readers here know I am especially intrigued by art classes as modeling fine lesson planning: the students do the work, the teachers coach and critique.  Certainly happening here.  A student tells me the class usually begins or is punctuated by the teacher’s providing brief instruction of method, or displaying art work from other classes, talking about the techniques they used.  But, she goes on, most of the time the students are doing the art, and the teacher “is really good about answering our questions.”  We are working today on “armature.” The teacher one moment calls out “Guys, remember the faces are not just have a happy, happy, day smile; they are necks and chins and cheekbones. “
Students are talking, chatting, socializing as they work, without their chatting being any significant distraction from their productivity.  It is spirited, it is lively, it is great.    Again, a brief quick demonstration, “just-in-time” delivery on how to paint the base; the instruction in art classes is nearly always so tightly tied to the application, another way in which art teaching models good pedagogy.   A student tells me about how much she appreciates having art in her daily schedule, that it is a real break where it is more laid back and she can be more creative; without art in her schedule, “the day would be a lot harder.”  Another agrees: “in art we work hard, but I like it because we can be creative, we can stand and talk and create our own things.” 


Good morning; I am here today at Oakland’s prominent and renowned Head Royce School, visiting in their brand new upper school campus.   It is beautiful, with a central gathering courtyard complete with a cafe.   This is my seventh school visit this fall.  If you are new to reading a live-blog, please know that it flows chronologically backwards, from bottom to top; each new section is headed by the time of day I posted it. 

First off this morning I am in a 12th grade Irish Lit course; Barry Barankin teaches it and tells me about the weekly routine, which I love.  Each week they take on a different author, reading him or her for the first three days and writing in the style of.   The teacher tells me there is an emphasis on writing from their personal experience, drawing upon the topics and concerns that matter to them.  Very nice to see that the students here are not only learning “about poetry;” they are learning to “do poetry.” On Thursdays, then, each week, the class gathers in the (brand new!) on-campus cafe.  Barry brings Irish tea, and the students trade off bringing fresh baked scones; there, in an authentic Irish manner, they read their own “poetry-in-the-style-of” to each other at the cafe.   
Class is beginning and the teacher is effectively guiding them through various assignments by navigating the on-line portal course conference,  displayed by digital projector.   The students nod assent, knowing confidently they can easily return at to this at any time.  About a third of students in this room have laptops open. 
When I ask Barry if I can view his course outline, he directs me to the syllabus on-line in the schools publicly accessible Atlas Rubicon Curriculum map.   Regular readers know I look for guiding or essential questions for courses: this syllabus is beautifully replete with them.  Some examples: “What is the role of literature in shaping political and cultural identity?”   “How does poetry operate on both the intensely personal and universal level?” 
We are discussing the poetry here, seminar style.   The emotion of the poetry, the passion, is connected to the teacher making a personal reference, very vague, of youthful passion– and it is so remarkable to see how much the students rise in their attention and fascination by that connection having been made.  Now this topic matters, now it is real– it is about lovers and relationships.  
As we discuss the poetry, Eavan Boland’s poetry, we are discussing gender roles, “taking the quotidian, taking a woman coming home, and we are showing a larger context and deeper insight from that.”  Students respond; gender roles are significant to adolescents, and the teacher knows that.    The students again rise with interest when we read a poem of a couple’s argument, and the possibility that the man cheated on his partner.   Again, these are real issues to these kids. 

* Visited today at the new site of San Francisco Friends School, where they have renovated an enormous 100 year old Levi Strauss factory.   High ceilings, natural light, and a sense of history blended with modern retrofit construction make for a wonderful school setting.   Head of School Cathy Hunter invited me to visit and “shadowblog” for a day, which I am eager to do in the weeks to come. 

* Nice piece in today’s NYTimes in their “lesson plans” blog about publishing student stories online.  Doug Noon, an Alaska teacher, wants his sixth grade students to understand that “global citizenship begins with local knowledge. ”  Using a web platform creates a reading audience larger than the teacher; now we can “tell our stories to anyone who cares to pay attention.”   Publishing on-line also helps forge a medium for cross cultural exchange; students in Australia have contacted Doug’s students for expert local information on Alaska.  Doug’s own blog is here; for samples of his students’ on-line work, click here
* Excellent new Lego robotics product newly on the market, called Lego WeDO.  Only $120, it belongs in every elementary school program, to stimulate our kids to be future engineers and creative problemsolvers.   Click here for the EdWeek article about the product. 
*Intrigued by the possibility of teachers using twitter with students– for assignments, reminders, quick messaging.    Twitter however is an entirely open platform, lacking in the confidentiality schools require.   Here comes a privacy controlled twitter equivalent, intentionally designed for educational purposes, Edmodo.   Love to experiment with it when I get the chance.   Here is a blogger’s take on Edmodo. 
* I have written already several times about the importance of what Marzano calls non-linguistic representation in teaching and learning, and it is something I look for regularly as I visit schools.  Here is a link to a website dedicated to the proposition we need to cultivate and utilize visual literacy; and they have a very cool “periodic table” of visualization techniques.   Really interesting and valuable.   I am indebted to my blog buddy at Poughkeepsie Day School, Josie Holford, for pointing the way to this at her blog, The Compass Point.  

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