Kate has a shortened choir class in the last period of the day, and sad as I am to miss it, I remember Kate telling me how terrific the history classes are at Athenian, and so I ask her if maybe we can peek in on a history class. We walk around the lovely campus and duck into an Ancient Civ. class. When we first enter the room, we are not sure there is a teacher here; maybe the teacher is absent? No, now that I have been here 20 minutes, I think I have identified a teacher, sitting quietly in the corner. That said, I LoVE the fact that it has been so hard to discern who the “teacher” is.

Today, one student is making a presentation on the technological innovations of the Mesopotamian civilizations, and he has a quite impressive digital presentation featuring images organized in an outlined version of the key innovations. As he presents, his classmates ask him good, sophisticated questions– if the Assyrians were the first to employ horse-drawn chariots, then what about the Egyptians’ experience of attack by the Hyskos? Our presenter argues that we may be mistaken in not appreciating the possibility that the Hysksos were themselves related to the Assyrians. This is great stuff. I love seeing how much our presenter himself is learning even as he presents, in thinking about and thoughtfully responding to his interrogators. I am not alway sure his answers to their good questions are accurate, but you know what– they are still prompting him to think harder, and analyze, and consider possibilities. In observing it, I know I much prefer to see this kind of speculation (though he might do better in acknowledging the speculative nature of his answers) that to hear him say he just doesn’t have any idea (or recite some flat affect minimal answer that he read somewhere and remembered without really understanding it, even it if was more accurate). We need to employ this learning technique more often– so much of good teaching, and good learning, is about good questioning.

Our student-teacher also goes out of his way to make repeated links from his ancient Mesopotamian studies to significance for our society today, which, though a bit forced and quite a bit distant, is still valuable. Now he makes a homework assignment to the class– having learned about how the Mesopotamians invented the wheel, our students here are assigned to re-invent the wheel, and are provided a two page hand-out spelling out the details. It is not just an assignment, he adds, it is a competition for who can make the best, and he gives us fairly clear criteria for his evaluation of the wheel. To these eyes, the assignment looks very challenging, but I love it– problem-solving, creativity, a challenge and competition. Good stuff.

{I am drawn back to remembering a high school course I took as a senior, a course about which in retrospect I have always had very confused and conflicting reactions. It was a select, honors only, 12th grade seminar which met each Wednesday evening for three hours, and it was entitled Phil. Disc. (Philosophical Discourse). It was a great honor to be selected, and being a member of the seminar conferred upon oneself a kind of designation as being in the school’s intellectual elite. I liked that. What I decided at year’s end was I didn’t like philosophy, and that I was not cut out for philosophy. Ironically, of course, I have since studied and taught philosophy extensively, and I love it. What went wrong?

It is confusing too, because the course seems to have been taught, at first blush anyway, in an admirable manner. Each trimester, I think it was, students in pairs were given full responsibility for presenting a philosopher for the full three hour seminar, and expected to do so in an interactive, engaging manner. I recall one night presenting John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism, and having students play the board game Life, and consider the experience of play for its insights. So the topic was good, and the concept of instruction wise– what went wrong?

In conducting this blog project this fall, I have been thinking more and more about this, and have arrived at a few tentative conclusions. First, I think the teacher mistakenly abdicated her teaching delivery to too great a degree. Yes, we needed to do the work, we needed to actively grapple with the ideas, but she needed to do more to use a fifth, a quarter, a third of the time to present clarified ideas and frame for us the issues with which we were grappling. And second, she owed it to us to offer us more support for our preparation of the presentations. There should have been, for one or two weeks leading up to the presentations, maybe daily meetings in which she could coach us in our planning, and troubleshoot our ideas, and not just answer our questions (which I think she did make herself available for) but help us identify what questions we should be asking her.}

Math class, PreCalculus. Teachers here are all on a first-name basis with students, and Kate endorses that approach, it helps makes teachers seem more like your friend. The classroom here has four whiteboards, and nearly every one of the boards is fully covered in equations. Class begins with students turning in completed problem sets. Our teacher tells us the unit test is coming soon, (no calculators, he repeats), and so he is leading a guided review of the unit material– writing key tenets of logorithmic functions. As he writes on his white board (he must go through many a pen), he calls out and elicits volunteered comments and answers to his questions, which I think works well for the students who already understand this. Some students venture to ask him good and important questions for better comprehension. After about 40 minutes of this type of review, he directs kids to work on the review section of the textbook, the answers to which are due tomorrow, and again, students are doing this work collaboratively with neighboring seatmates.

Lunchtime; after grabbing a quick plate of food (very nice), Kate leads me to her club meeting for Round Square, a club which supports the school’s involvement in this international consortium. Kate herself has been to a Round Square convention, in Peru last year, and is wearing a Round Square sweatshirt. The club meeting is primarily dedictated to a fundraising plan, selling pies, to support a Round Square project at a school in Kenya; the students read a circulated letter from a student there who is a beneficiary. They organize the pie selling, and discuss other initiatives upcoming– in an almost entirely student-led manner. We walk back to drop off our plates, and, en route, Kate stops to speak to a classmate about an upcoming prep meeting, preparing for her mentorship responsibilities with middle school students. She explains that she and her partner will be presenting to them on strategies for coping stress, but that she herself, Kate, has to miss the prep meeting (on stress management!) because she has a mandatory choir rehearsal, which I find mildly ironic, but Kate seems to have it all in stride. Outstanding, all the student leadership happening here!

French 3 class– we are beginning with a student’s presentation of how to prepare crepes, all en francais, of course. She is wearing an apron, and providing us a demonstration– I like the authenticity again, and the relevance– who doesn’t like crepes? Sitting here, watching her, I have to wonder whether we are going to have the opportunity to sample prepared crepes?!? Aha, I see plates being passed around– food really is a great learning device, appealing to so many senses and really relevant to everyone’s concerns! The teacher then has kids go around the room reporting on the topics they presented last week, and it seems clear they had every opportunity to choose subjects of their liking and personal interest, which is great. As they eat their crepes, students are writing short evaluations on note cards of their classmates’ presentations last week, another opportunity to use their French writing skills in a real and significant way. Kate’s topic was Marcel Marceau, and she tells me she enjoyed demonstrating his mime skills.

After a short conversational lecture about WWI and Verdun, with good student participation, we now jump onto the digital projector and a French news and culture website, with a video about Verdun (all in French, of course). I just love the way the web, and web-video, is enriching foreign language courses today. After about 7 minutes of video, conversation follows about the historical events,a nd about reasons for emigration and immigration, with inquiries about why students’ own families immigrated to the US– which is a nice link to personal experience which better engages student interest and ownership for the subject, something which “foreign languages,” by their very “foreign-ness” sometimes lacks for some kids. (I am not saying kids should feel this way, I think international understanding is greatly important for students, but for some kids, the way they are asked to learn “foreign language” does nothing to help them find and feel the relevance.)
Classtime keeps jumping, which is a good thing, something I look for, we know that attention spans don’t last much longer than 20-25 minutes, and good teaching reflects this knowledge. Students are now using their workbooks to answer questions about immigration and related vocabulary. Again, students are working with neighboring seatmates in easygoing collaboration, something that feels very “normal” in the Athenian culture. As students do the work, the teacher is circulating, checking for comprehension and offering quick coaching. The tcher reconvenes the group, and has volunteers offer the answers to the questions they were working on. Pretty wide participation in discussion, and the teacher springboards off of one question to ask students to share what they are doing for community service this year, which everyone answers in French– once again, connecting language learning to the students’ real-life experiences. I was glad to learn that Kate’s service will be at Mosaic Project in the spring, being as I am a big fan of the excellence of Mosaic Project.
The teacher then provides the students a three minute break, which is much appreciated in this long, 80 minute period. She tells me that all the language teachers do this on the long-period day, and that it is essential, with which I agree. She is very sensitive to the fact that language learning demands an enormous amount of concentration, and students needs this break. We speak about teaching at Athenian, and she tells me she appreciates much about being here, including the beauty of the natural environment (which is extraordinary!) and the relationships she is able to form with kids. I ask her how long she has taught (since 86), and how her teaching has changed, and she tells me that it has changed most of all via her use of technology. “I realized a while back I had to make a decision about whether to jump on the technology bandwagon or not, and I decided to do so.” She credits the workshops at Urban School especially for supporting her technological proficiency development, but then does point out that you have to be moderate and avoid going overboard with it.
Back at it from the break– listening to music, following along with lyrics, filling in the missing words from the songs on a handout (an activity I also saw happening at Urban, come to think of it). Check in with students about their comprehension of the song’s lyrics, and now onto the next thing: grammar instruction on the white board, comparing and contrasting passe compose and the imparfait. Good student attention and involvement here.
I’ve been reading in Wiggins recently his categorizing of three modes of teaching: delivery, facilitation, and coaching. Wiggins offers that there is no exact or universal proportionality for the three, but that in very rough terms we might consider that they each occupy a third of of classtime. This French class has nicely displayed all three, not exactly in equal thirds but in a very nice mixture. This grammar lesson was fine delivery; the music lyrics, workbook practice, and the Verdun video discussion all demonstrated skillful facilitation, and the student presentations (and evaluation of them) effective coaching.

We are now in a designated community service period, which is an awfully nice concept for any school– this time is provided for kids weekly. Ninth and tenth graders use this time for distinct activities, such as campus recycling; upper-class students instead have it available for student-led initiatives, and this period “Kate” is working with clasmates on a fundraising and educational campaign for Darfur. Students are painting posters and enjoying their time; we are in a student commons building in the middle of campus which is very appealing. The posters are for an event the students are planning, on December 3, for which they will be hosting a Darfur refugee, screening a Darfur documentary, and presenting student performances and a silent auction. Kate tells me it is entirely student produced! Good opportunities here for student leadership and student “authentic education.” Excellent– so meaningful and productive for student growth, personally relevant, engaging their innovation and organization.

Good morning– It has been a month since my last live-blog school visit, but I am happy to be back on it. I am here this morning at Athenian School in Danville, CA. Athenian is an independent 6th to 12 grade school of about 450 students, and I am shadowing today an eleventh grader we will call “Kate.”

Our day is beginning in Biology; Athenian has a schedule that shifts day to day, and today is a block schedule day of four class meetings, the morning two periods having 85 minutes each, and then regular 50 minute classes after lunch. The Bio classroom is a nice space of high ceilings, glass cabinets, and microscopes lined shelves. Student posters are on the walls, displaying presentations on various biological topics.

Our class begins with a projected display of a sheet with background information on photosynthesis, and our teacher begins by guiding students in formulating the balanced equation for photosynthesis. Students then work through the materials by answering prelab questions, answering them each individually but also collaboratively discussing the questions with nearby seatmates and supporting each other to determine the answers. Our teacher then re-summons the students’ attention, and quickly elicts the group’s answers to these factual questions.

And on to the lab itself, which energizes students; they ask good questions about the lab project details, and jump out of their seat to get their materials. With good enthusiasm the labis conducted, blowing bubbles into beaker jars to try to infuse carbon dioxide into the process, carbonic acid, and other fun, vigorous activities, and then back to seats for return to attending to the teacher. He asks followup questions about the lab, and then offers a graphical representation on tehewhiteboard of the what is happening inside the cell during photosynthesis.

Students then review the results of their lab experiment, organizing them carefully in a provided graphical organizer, and comparing the results– we know that comparing and contrasting is the best way to think and learn, and so this is very useful. Nice experience of students doing the work of learning, and analyzing results. Keep them thinking and explaining!