December 2008


End of day-
As I exited, had a pleasant farewell with Head of School Janet Durgin.   She shared with me her appreciation for Research for Better Teaching, an excellent outfit, and one nugget from RBT, the 10-2 rule.    She explained that by this rule, teachers should strive to not lecture or lead discussion for any longer than ten minutes, and for every ten minutes of presenting, students should be provided two minutes for consolidating this new learning.    Nice idea, and I am glad to know that RBT and its signature book, The Skillful Teacher, are mainstays of teaching professional development at my new school, St. Gregory’s.  

3:20
Emily had wanted to bring me to her Lit class, Dystopia and Decline, but sadly it was a reading period today, not too much of value for me to extricate.   Diego is in Pre-Cal, which I observed already this morning, so he kindly escorts me to the science wing, where I am here now in Bio-Chemistry class.  Wade welcomes me back (I was here this morning during exploratory), and we briefly discuss our shared experience at, and appreciation for, United World College (NM). 
Wade tells me he is preparing a lab for the students for Thursday, but today it will be video and demonstration, because “the students need theory before practice.”  We begin in here with a video lesson, drawn from http://www.Learner.org, displaying the molecular chemistry of acids and bases.   Our teacher interrupts the video to explain some of the terminology in it.   It is about a ten minute video, and I again notice my appreciation for the usage of short (not long) videos into classroom teaching– I think it it effectively utilizes a medium appreciated by students and is able to give images and non-linguistic representations of concepts that are often hard to deliver otherwise.      Now, an overhead projector displays a slide of the Ph scale, 0-14, and a 15 minute overview lecture on the scale, with some questions from the students– (“Can you give us examples of bases other than drain cleaners?”)  Now, kids are reviewing the writeup of the same topic in their textbooks.  After a further ten minutes lecture on the PH scale, our teacher now uses a large beaker, injecting a universal indicator, to show us the change of colors in the beaker as he dilutes the liquid.   A student asks a fine question about whether you could move this acidic water beaker to a strong base by continuing the dilution, and our teacher explains the answer to this, alluding to the technique of serial dilution. 
2:05
Lovely lunch with Head of School Janet Durgin, and my thanks for the sandwich.   We had a great discussion about schools and the work of school leadership, and I appreciated her thoughtfulness about priorities and goals.   She told me about another school she admires greatly, the Watershed School, which is also doing really innovative work in 9-12 education, and is using CWRA– love to learn more about Watershed.    I share with Janet many of the things I have seen here that I really admire, that put the school in the top set of schools I have visited, including the intellectual content of Brandon’s class, the excellent cooperative learning in Pre-Calculus, and the support for curricular innovation in Exploratory. 
Janet walks me back to class, and we enjoy walking past the brand new classrooms, each built with ground to ceiling windows of some six to eight feet breadth, displaying fully the action of each classroom.   A teacher walking with us remarks how much she likes it– that you can experience just by walking through all the learning that is happening here. 
Now in Humanities,  and we are printing off the the theses that we are working on right now, which follow a reading of the primary sources that are the subject of the week (this week is a letter by Jefferson on Head and Heart).     Diego wrote very nicely about the tension in Jefferson of pragmatism and romanticism– I love his intellectual sophistication to see and appreciate the cross-currents here:
In 1776, as the new nation of America began to flourish, Thomas Jefferson fell in love with a married Englishwoman named Maria Cosway. After Maria returned to England, Jefferson wrote a letter to her in the form of a ³dialogue between the head and the heart,² debating his love for her. This letter, presented as a conflict between pragmatic and romantic thought, sums up the conflict within Jefferson himself. Jefferson ³put pragmatic considerations above unyielding principles² (Nation of Nations), cutting taxes, regulating government, and establishing efficient one-party political control. However, he also believed in an ³agrarian republic,² where rural life could nourish ³honesty, independence, and virtue.² A conflict of mentalities like this would be unimportant in most writers or philosophers, but Jefferson is not so much a product of his times as a creator of them. This debate could only happen during this era of good feelings and hope, because only during times of relative stability can new ideas can really be born.
Our teacher asks us to write a list of the important or interesting stuff in the history chapter we are reading this week (Causes of the Civil War), dividing this list into the stuff we get and the stuff we don’t get.    Groups quickly form, and I really like this approach of how to engage with, draw from, the content of a textbook.  Students jump into action in small groups.  
The course relies on a thousand page document including dozens of primary texts and a syllabus, and the teacher offers to firewire it to me because it is too big to email, but I pass.  Instead I will just copy in the key framing questions: 
  

A quick overview:  The United States is a nation of immigrants, and very recent ones at that.  This is something we have all come to believe without question, but it¹s actually a very strange and distinctive part of our cultural identity. Even many of the Native Americans who were displaced by Europeans were themselves relatively new arrivals, in some cases ruthless conquerors whose new habits changed the very land beneath their feet.  In this course we will attempt to make some sense of what it means to be American.  Where do Americans come from?  How did they get here? How have their unique backgrounds and beliefs helped shaped the society that evolved on this continent? What does it take to become ‘American’?  Who decides? How have Americans, over time, chosen to explain all of this to themselves? 

 

 

 

Excellent essential questions, some of the best I have seen, questions that kids care about, that are meaningful to them.  
Now into the list-making– here is a teacher starting by asking kids to identify the problems, to tell him what they don’t get, to set him up by clarifying to him what they’d like him to teach them.  Nice.   Haven’t hardly ever seen this, and I like it.   What is on the list?  Party System, LeCompton, Dred Scott, Lincoln-Douglas, Election of 1856, the Know-Nothings, Secession,Kansas Nebraska Act.  “Anything else on the stuff you don’t get list?”  
Another student asks “How did the South think they were possibly going to survive, didn’t they realize they needed stuff from the North to survive?”  Great question to generate the teaching of this important topic, and now he and the students are offering good insights, comparing and contrasting this issue in the Civil War to the parallel issue in the Revolutionary War?   
Laptops are all open, all over the room, and I can see many screens, open to word, on which students are writing notes from the lesson.  He begins in on Kansas-Nebraska, and asks students to look up what year that occurred in, which they diligently do.   Our teacher talks now about the Race to Kansas– explaining how popular sovereignty had a perverse effect, which the kids are engaged with.   And onto the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and its effects– and he draws an analogy to Obama, the way that the debates launched Lincoln parallels the way the 2004 Convention keynote launched Obama.   (Always like to see analogies to contemporary topics of interest).  Into now an analysis of the development of the Republican party, its origins and growth over the 1850s, (frequently interrupted, entirely understandably, by inquiries abotu the relationship of the 19th c. Republican party to today’s Republican party– inquiries that he needs to push aside, something I entirely sympathize with, but I am intrigued by noticing that the large interest in this question is representative of the way in which students, entirely naturally, really want, frequently, to tie their historical learning to current events). 
11:45
Here now in Historiography, after a hurried transition from exploratory, and a hand-off from Emily to “Diego.”   Emily tells me that I will love this class, because teacher Brandon is so crazy– full of amazing stories.  I have written before, but I will say again, that I LOVE when a student praises a teacher for being crazy, or wild, or weird– it is the best kind of compliment.    Diego too, as we walk over, tells me that this is an amazing class, and that Brandon is an incredible teacher, they have already read here Marx and Hegel (!).   
Brandon emails me his syllabus.  Second school in the last three where my gmail was blocked; I am not sure why this keeps happening to me.   I look over at Diego’s laptop to see the syllabus: “Historiography is the study of how history is written.  In this course we will look at some of the most influential works and student the contexts in which they were written.   Most importantly, we will use the texts to think about how we think about history.   The main assignment for the class will be to write a twenty to thirty page research essay on a historical topic of your choice.  I want to encourage as many of you as possible to take on topics relating to the local history of Sonoma County or the Bay Area.”   
Lots to like about this– I love the long paper, I think that is it just key to provide kids truly challenging– and large– projects to tackle.   There is great concern that the “term paper” is dying in the US, but not here, not at all.   I also love that it is a choice, and that it is local– really push kids to choose something real, relevant, personal.   I wonder whether there is any “publishing” of these histories, and I hope there will be– which I think can be such a valuable end piece and product to motivate students and enhance the relevance of their work, that they are publishing on-line for general audience readers interested in histories of Sonoma County or the Bay Area.   Such an incredible era we are in, where we can freely publish online for wide popular audiences, and I think we should grab it for enhancing student learning. 
Class begins with Brandon telling me that the class is reading Arendt (Fanon and Foucault still to come!), and that on the board are six or seven terms: imperialism, emancipation of the bourgeois, Jews, Bismark, The Boy who wanted to shake and shiver, nation-state, Frankfurt Assembly, Wagner’s Ring, nationalism, dialectic.    Students are asked, for six minutes at class beginning, to write freely, connecting two of these terms.   

Diego: “Nationalism is what comes from the overpowering nation. And overpowering is essential because it is all about power the whole thing revolves around which is more powerful.  Can the state keep the nation and the nationalism in line, or does the nationalism overpower the institution of state?   The thing that keeps recurring in Hegel and Marx and Arendt is this idea that if we get the people in line with the state (i.e. the nation in line with the state), we have peace, harmony, world spirit, freedom, whatever.”  

I like this way of starting class– begin with a problem or project, let students work and think, then move to teacher-lead time, rather then vice versa (which is more common, sadly).   Now Brandon is leading us in a rich conversation about these terms, with lots of participation and critical acumen in place.   Teacher: “What imperialism do to the state?”  Student “It will impose its law on the people–which contradicts the original intention of a nation state.”  Teacher: ”  The alignment of imperialism and nationalism causes contradictions, because the state is supposed to protect rights, and this is the opposite.”  Passion here.   And now into the storytelling, for which Brandon is (justly) well regarded, and I am stupidly looking at the syllabus, missing part of it which I regret deeply.   A prince in a castle,  demons and devils, very gothic.  The hero is being beaten, spanked and bludgeoned.   I will make nary a sign nor nary a yell, despite the torture.  Acting out the torture, Brandon’s continues his storytelling with great intensity.  Special healing water emerges from the princess for the hero to resuscitate him.  The cycle repeats itself– the second morning the princess is coquettish– and her body is gradually transforming itself from black as night to a snowy white.    Our hero asks the maiden– is everything white?   Flirty– sensual– yes, everything is white, she replies.   You know how it ends: marriage, money, everyone is happy.    The story over, he asks us to fit the story into the Hegelian history of progression through historical stages.    Our students are on fire now with their analysis– the teacher points this out to me personally and says “this is going into the blog” and indeed it is.    Into the French revolution now, with the aristocracy fallen and displaced:  “But link it now to the story.”     If I get this right, Brandon’s storytelling is drawn from rich, historically contemporary, satires, parables, allegories, and he spins the stories out richly, and asks the students to do the work (!) of critically linking the allegory to the history.
Examining Arendt, and identifying how she fills in gaps in Marx.    “Let’s delve into the nuances of Arendt, now.”     Nothing formal, throw stuff out, what’s in there-come on, he encourages students.    I like the shifting gears here, there is a natural give and take flow between teacher talk and student participation, and the mid-period storytelling time helps break it up.   Attention seems to be staying strong, now at minute 60 of this class, which is rarely the case (both brain research and my own observations tell me), but I worry that it can’t last much longer, despite the high quality of this lecture/discussion.   “Let’s check back in on the theme of the dialectic; what are good examples from our learning this fall?” Shout-outs: Hegel,  Church and state, morality and passion with the synthesis being right and will.   Now back to Arendt– she too is identifying and articulating a dialectic, that of nation and state.  
Excellent college preparation, so empowering for students to have this pre-collegiate introduction to critical theory, and for them to enter into the argument discourse Graff describes as being the huge hurdle for many of university learning.   
Gearshift now, back to storytelling– which helps considerably re-engage attention– now the story being Wagner’s Ring cycle.  
Diego tells me his 30 page paper is on the Hundred Years War–and Joan of Arc, because he finds the ideological movement centering on her very interesting, particularly in Shaw.    Other paper topics are the CIA, IRA, serial killers/Zodia, the history of soy, the history of yoga, the Marxist family (from DasKapital), Martin Luther King, and baseball.  
 
10:30
In exploratory now, a special class time that happens four times a week, but in two alternates, each twice a week.  Emily takes me to review the options for this exploratory time, and we can choose among frisbee golf (but it is freezing out), Balkan singing, Woodburning (?), and we choose “Out of the black and into the blue” a science exploratory.   The teacher explains as we enter that this is a tour of the deepest depths of the ocean, and farthest reaches of the universe, but due to budget shortages they can only do this visiting virtually.   All students have their macbooks open, this being a laptop 1-1 school, and are directing themselves to Celestia.   Today we are touring, via celestia, the solar system.   Students are working on the downloading of the program. 
As Math class ended, I had a friendly quick chat with the teacher.   She asked me what my mission is, and I told her “celebrating 21st century education,” and she asked me if I define 21st century education as being primarily the inclusion of technology.    I told her that while that is an important element, I see it much more broadly than that, and directed her to my writing on the topic here in the blog.   I tell her that by my lights it also includes schooling that draws upon contemporary writing and research in best practices;  that provides students skill developing in critical thinking, problemsolving and innovation; that is international minded in our new era of globalization.  
As Emily and I sought this teacher’s science classroom (which took some doing, everything having moved rooms in the last two days!), and we walked to the second floor of the newly opened building (“I’ve never been over here before”), she tells me she thinks my project interesting.   Schooling, this fine 16yrd old explains, has conventionally been about preparing productive workers, able and ready to follow directions and work hard for the employers, so, she goes on, it is a bit of a revolutionary concept of mine, that schooling should be for innovating.   I tell her yes, there is the 19th c. factory model of education, training compliant workers, and I think there is a 20th c., even elite, model, of top schooling which was to train professionals who could read and follow complex language “textbooks”– law journals, legal references, medical journals, academic professorial articles and research– and then follow along in this grid.   The latter, this mid-late 20th c. professionalism, did require what our best schools taught– ability to read for a high level of vocabulary and sophistication, and write within it too.   But, I told Emily, think how different it is now: whereas doctors “only” had to read complex medical journals in the seventies and eighties,  they could reasonably expect and trust the authority and accuracy of those publications they read (lawyers too).  Now, doctors have to respond to patients who are quoting all kinds of wiki-like medical websites, and doctors have to go those sites too, and evaluate the accuracy and significance of non-authoritative medical writing– a wholly different skill set which we have to teach and our kids have to learn to be successful in a new internet era.  Similarly,  so much of medicine and law that is rote is now outsourced abroad or to automation, or easily accomplished by the incoming, lower rung professionals; truly successful doctors and lawyers have to reinvent their role, reinvent their tools, innovate in a way that wasn’t necessary for top-notch success 25 years ago.   

Emily responds with a good point– (very self aware, she is)– that private schools trying to be innovative, and teach these 21st c. skills, might have a problem in that the parent-consumers might not get it– the parents might demand test scores or AP achievement because that is what they, the parents, remember being the measure of excellence from their own schooling, and so parents might fight schools that try to go in this new direction.  Very wise– I tell her that parents need to be educated too. 
Next to me now here in this exploratory Emily is playing the demo of celestia, and we are zooming form earth to moon in sharp, beautiful pictorial images.   This is cool, she says.   Emily continues to zoom around, but when I ask her what she is doing on celestia now, she says she is trying to figure out how this thing works, it doesn’t seem to be functioning quite right– and she is trying to uncover why that is.  Like it– confusion and obstacles are good things, they require our students to puzzle the problem out, to use their “puzzlers” as Dr. Seuss calls it in The Grinch (which I just read aloud to my son last night).    Very quiet in here, a bit eerie with a dozen students in the room, but they mostly engaged with celestia (though one is knitting!).  
Emily and I duck out and we walk over to Balkan singing exploratory.  Emily tells me Balkan singing is very lovely, and that it is being taught this fall by a junior girl– the music director used to teach it, she said, but he was too busy so this student took it over.   (Love schools which welcome student initiative and empower students this way).   Here a group of 7, six girls and a guy, are singing in a lovely acapella, with rounds, our student-teacher keeping time with fingersnapping.  Rejoice.   Our next song is in a Balkan language– not sure which one– and I love how music learning can be such a fabulous entry point into acquaintance, appreciation, perhaps eventually some understanding of other cultures.   Beautiful singing here. 

9:30 

  

Good morning– Here today at school visit #21- at the gorgeous, brand new campus of Sonoma Academy.   Brand new this fall; in fact, one of the buildings in which I am attending classes today only opened yesterday! 

 

If you are reading along, welcome, and please know that in liveblogging we flow in reverse chronology, with the most recent posting at top, and each new entry headed by the time it was posted. 


I am warmly welcomed by head of school Janet Durgan and two juniors who are hosting me today, and we hurry off to PreCalculus.  15 students are seated in rows facing the whiteboard, and our teacher kicks off with a reminder to students not to eat in class.   Now she is reviewing for us graphs of sin and cos, asking how many degrees are in a radiant, and whether her diagram of a section of a circle is more or less of a radiant.  Students, on this very foggy morning, sleepily offer tentative answers to her called out questions.   “Are you all good?”


Now she breaks us up into teams for whiteboard practice of topics for the test tomorrow.  “2s or 3s,” she calls out, and when the kids say threes, she says “OK, but make sure that third person doesn’t slack off– I want everyone involved. ”  Important: Marzano says research does support cooperative, team learning, but group size is critical, and has to stay small. 


Whiteboards emerge from against the walls, large ones, and are set down on lab tables for student groups– to my surprise (and delight), these groups are working standing, not sitting.  I know not every classroom necessarily can accommodate this, standing, but it is good for kids and learning I think, gets more blood going, gets more movement in the kids, much better than just sitting.   Sleepiness quickly dissipates as students work on these problems.  One groups works sitting down, and that is Ok, giving kids the choice, but I am glad that most are standing, and I wouldn’t want the choice available if they all chose to sit. 


She is offering one point extra credit per correct answer per team.  Everyone who has a right answer within a time limit– I am increasingly aware how much I like a little gentle competition, especially team competition, in class and learning.   It is this epiphany from the brain research– a little stress is a good thing for learning, it motivates teams and gives them a goal to strive for, and sets them going.    Sometimes progressives in the vein of Kohn bash competition, but it is all a matter of degree, and I really think it works in the rooms I observe. 

 

 

 

 

I think every class should start like this– kids come in, form up teams right away, and spend the first twenty minutes tackling problems, standing up, working in small teams, competing.   It whets their appetite, and then when the teacher says let’s learn a new technique for what you were working on, won’t students be that much more interested and engaged– this is news they can use for their competitions.   I just really like this– the kids are doing the work of learning here, they are teaching each others, they are working under very light, effective stress. 
Sitting now with my host, “Emily,” and her group.   They have found one answer to the question, but the teacher comes over to tell them she wants all the possible answers.   M: “I don’t understand how there could be more than two answers to this?”   It is a great question and it asked, one-to-one, to the teacher, and the thinking happening here is so rich.   Our teacher doesn’t answer entirely, she draws a diagram, and then says I want you to think about it before leaving for the next group.  
The school’s website is very attractive– I like the faculty pages, such as the one of this Math teacher I am with right now.  The website articulates the curriculum by calling the main subject areas “disciplines,” a language that is very collegiate, and very nice.  It is something that I have found Gardener especially to write about, (The Disciplined Mind),  and it tries to capture the concept that these categories are not about a flat “subject”– a body of knowledge, a content set– but rather an approach, an action, a way of doing something.  Rather than math being the set of facts, it is a cast of mind, it a method of analysing the world.    I really like this quote from the website about Math-Science: 
  

Considerable emphasis is placed on understanding and appreciating the richness of mathematics and applying mathematical tools to complex and real situations. There is extensive use of technology, instrumentation, graphing calculators and computers to assist in problem solving, data collection, modeling and analysis. 

 

 

 

Regular readers know that I will particularly like the quote’s commitment to learning math by applying its tools to “complex and real situations.”  So excellent a commitment, and yet, especially math classes in my observation now of twenty of them this fall, so hard to accomplish. 
I also really like this language: 

Learning is anything but rote at Sonoma Academy. Innovation, creativity and problem solving are the standards here… We are constantly looking for ways to innovate and make subjects more relevant to students. 

My research last winter at Columbia University was how school-leaders can stimulate and facilitate great innovation by faculty members, and at times I was challenged, by colleagues and by board members, respectfully, that surely change can’t be just for the sake of change, surely we need to promote innovation in teaching and learning for particular purposes and goals rather than just in the abstract.   My answer is a bit of a waffle, I am afraid– of course that is true, of course we want to see teaching innovation aligned with a school’s strategic initiatives, and as stated here, there is a broad direction identified for innovation: toward making learning more relevant (a highly worthy direction).    But I still think that innovation for its own sake is valuable, and I’d hate for it be too rigidly restricted from above.   Reinventing the wheels results in many, many different iterations of the wheel, and a Darwinian analysis would suggest that those that are most effective will be most replicated.  But teaching and learning that stays stuck in a rut; when we are teaching the same way we taught last year and last decade, (and the same way we learned), then how can we learn from the comparison and contrasting?   Let’s see schools as Edisonian labs, with teachers and students experimenting all the time in schooling,  and doing more of what works and less of what doesn’t, year after year.  
After a good, rich team problem solving, our teacher checks students’ homework for completion, and then follows up on a problem she notices seems to have been especially difficult.    Our teacher shows the problem, says afterwards “tada; these are ones where you really do get to do a little dance when you get it right.”  Fun. 
1:30
Had a very nice lunch (thank you Crossroads) with the Advancement and Upper School directors here, learning about the school’s work in recent years to transform the upper level curriculum from an AP to a homegrown advanced studies curriculum (related NYT article).  We discussed the importance of supporting teachers in teaching to their passions– to their strengths– honoring who they are and their right to teach in the way that is their best, drawing from the wisdom of Parker Palmer.    We also speak of our shared observation of how intellectually sophisticated students here are, and the curriculum here is- very impressive.   My hosts tell me that that is the most common observation of visitors, the school’s intellectual sophistication.  Another teacher tells (half-jokingly) me of his first year here (a while back), right out of college, sitting in on a 12th grade Ethics class, and finding himself in that class “way over my head more times than I’d like to say.” 
During the entire lunch hour the school’s jazz band plays in the “alley”– the main student zone here– a great, loud set.  I am told that many days there are student performances in the lunch period.  I am also told that in some ways Thursday is the worst time to be here– arts are so much at the core of Crossroads, and yet Thursday, the way the schedule works, is the relatively art-free day the way the schedule works.  
But I do have a brief chance here to see some Crossroads arts, sitting in now quickly on a choir rehearsal (and in a minute heading to theater).   Students here are warming up by doing a conga line of shoulder/back rubs, and warming up their jaws, tongues and teeth.   We walk across the street to an instrumental room, and the kids rock out to a “Hey Little Dreidel, Come on Do Your Thing” song, very uptempo, really great.  
A student walks me from choir to theater, and tells me of how much she LOVES Crossroads.  I ask her why, and she says especially because of all the arts here– “I only wish we had MORE art here,” she tells me, and then explains that though sophomores usually only take one art, she is taking two and a half (I hope I have these details right).    Arriving in the theater class, I see some students are working on the blackbox stage, but the teacher is harder to find (which is a good thing– I love it when I see students fully on task, but don’t see the teacher).   I do find her, and she tells me that this is a “directing module,” with students learning to direct.  They are divided into three groups, and each, in different locations, is working on a scene.   The teacher tells me they began the unit by doing a series of wordless scenes, and learning directing skills in these workshops, but now they are more independent– she says in general she tries to have 11th and 12th graders be pretty independent in their theatrical learning, which I commend her for.    It is really fun, excellent, to watch a student as director, sitting taking notes as other students perform a scene, and then listen to her feedback.  “We had a little trouble this this part, from getting you to the crying part after seeing a spider.”  The actor on stage says she is unsure how to be sexy in this scene, remembering something from the past, and the student director coaches her on this.  I am sure there are (?) plenty of other high schools where students learn the skill of theatrical directing, but I haven’t seen it in action anywhere else- it is great.   Our director brainstorms– “maybe it’d be better if he were carrying something as he came in, maybe keys or glasses or something.” Then, a stage direction:  “be a little rough with her.”   Another direction:  “Can you make it seem almost like you, I don’t know how to say this, almost like you are solving a mystery?”  Excellent, trial and error, learning by doing here, the kids really empowered and clearly doing something important to them.  “Can you hug him after you say ‘yeah’?”    Try this, but “we’ll see how it works.”   Very cool.  “Can we have a visual pause after ‘I miss you’?”  “Um,  I am not sure I like the hug there, can you kiss instead?”    “Your reaction there– after ‘Jesus,’ try to be a little hopeful.”  “Don’t just chew the gum, remember you just got refused, so show your reaction, while you are chewing look like you are thinking about all this.”
12:00
Here now in Debate class; in the previous 90 minutes we had a quick break, and Film class.    During the break J. and I spoke about my project, and my idealism that good schooling entails providing students relevance and meaning in what they are studying, and my acknowledgement that it is sometimes hard to accomplish.  J. tells me with great enthusiasm about the excellence of his English class, the one we were in this morning, in the way the students are able to talk about topics that really matter to them, that they care passionately about, issues of race and gender in contemporary society. 
Onto Film class: International Film History: Modernism and Postmodernism.  The teacher apologizes to me that they are watching a film for the entire period, so I will not see any “teaching” per se, and of course I tell him not to apologize.  He offers me, very nicely, a stack of handouts from his class so I can appreciate its curricular content, and indeed, it is very impressive.   No outstanding essential questions seem to guide the syllabus/course description, but instead a sweeping subject is established in quite a dazzling intellectual display: 

This course is designed to offer a general survey of International film history from its modernist/avant-garde years through its development as a viable commercial and influential cultural form on the international market.  Aside from examining a wide range of film texts, we will work to position these films in a broader historical, artistic, national, and socio-cultural context.   You should leave this course with a general sense of 20th century art and film history– an understanding of the films, the facts, and the key players. 

Lecture outlines provided to me include Karl Marx (Theory and praxis, commodity, labor power & alienation); Italian neorealism; Formalism and Realism; The French New Wave Film Movement; and Art Cinema as Mode of Film Practice and Domesticated Modernism.    Remarkable, the intellectual content here in high school; the course is not just collegiate but has markings of graduate level intellectual content within it.   I think this is great, and has a place in the good high school program, though it takes some work to reconcile with my competing priorities– particularly my priority that students not spend too much time in school watching and listening, that they spend the bulk of time working, problem-solving, applying learning.   At times, I know I move hard in this direction– and find myself very much frowning upon lengthy lecturing and class-time used primarily as content delivery.   But there is a place– a course like this surely offers its students an incredible introduction to the discipline of critical theory and a very useful (and very large) content knowledge of vocabulary from intellectual history and cultural theory. 
 Our first persuasive speech– on the topic of homework, and why students are doing so much in this era.   Our speaker establishes the rise, from 39 minutes a night to 68 for the average 6th grader, as rooting in anxiety about international competition.  He compares statistics from nations with higher and lower test scores, and finds the US having the most homework, lowest scores.   He concludes with fine oratory passionately calling for a reduction of homework for US students.  
Our second student offers advocacy on behalf of hunters and hunting.  Nice posture, nice timber in the voice.  “Times are changing, poverty is increasing, children may have to hunt in order to eat, rather than going to school!”   A bit gloomy, this message, but spirited. 

Our third defends the octopus from environmental degradation, warmly expressing a love for the species.  
My host here, J., is fourth, and offers a fierce case on behalf of Christmas, the holiday, criticizing the Puritans for their effort to ban Christmas, and his speech very gradually, but very surely, becomes more and more satirical.  We must protect Christmas, because it it were to end, it would be “especially hard for the elves, just because they are small we should not forget about them.”   Elf Infestation would rise, a flood of illegal elf immigration, were Christmas to end; al Quaeda would recruit elves into their ranks, and the efficiency of elves (all gifts delivered worldwide in a night!) would make terrorists much more dangerous.   
After six or seven presentations, our teacher asks for comments, and we get a smattering of comments: they were good, but sometimes I wasn’t sure what the topic was sometimes.   After a couple from the kids, the teacher offers her feedback– expressing concern about those speeches where the subject isn’t introduced right off, directing feedback to one student that the voice tone was too monotonous, to another that the student’s movement was too distracting, then more broadly that the speeches suffered from grammatical errors and poor word choice.   She praises one student for use of repetition and anaphora; she calls upon students to ensure there is real “meat and potatoes” in the content of persuasive speeches, not just rhetorical flair. 
10:00
Calculus class–we begin with a quiz of about 10 minutes duration.    Quiz concluded, our teacher quickly runs us through the problems on the boards, with lots of shout-outs from engaged students, and explains certain concepts as he needs to.  Students ask him good followup questions, clearly confident in doing so.  He goes on to present a nice, interactive, lecture on function in calculus. with diagrams for illustration– with frequent interruptions and interjections from the kids, most of whom are involved with the lecture.  The presentation runs for the length of the class, from 9:15 to 9:55. 
The school has a gorgeous website, with a real design sensibility and lovely, lengthy essays about the school’s philosophy, history, and programs.   The hompage has a large, powerful motto displayed proudly, and I love it: Reason Soundly, Question Thoughtfully. 

9:00

Good morning.  Today is school visit number 20!  I am here in Santa Monica at one of the most prominent philosophically progressive schools in the National Association of Independent Schools, Crossroads School.   If you are reading along, welcome, and please know that liveblogging flows chronologically from upwards, not downwards, with each new entry headed by the time it was posted. 

Class begins promptly on time, this class of all boys mostly arriving early and enjoying a morning rise from some loud hip hop music before class begins.   This is an English class, and students are reading Lahiri’s Namesake here.  Students are turning in their own namesake papers– a reflection piece about the meaning they find in their own names, and our teacher is assigning them a “found poem” paper from the Lahiri:
Found art is a hot art movement right now, with artists building paintings and sculptures around things they’ve picked up on the streets. (“Found” meaning artists use things they have found around them, things they haven’t created themselves). Found poetry is the process of taking words, and phrases from a piece of prose and reframing and configuring the words in poetic formatting in order to create meaning. 

• From the list of words and phrases that appeared in your novel, circle the 20 that seem most significant to you. If you don’t know why a word or phrase is on the list, don’t circle it. 
• Using the words and phrases that you’ve selected ONLY FROM THE BOOK, create a Found poem that depicts or expresses a theme from the novel (loss, immigration, survival, assimilation, cultural awareness, cultural disorientation, self-acceptance, tradition, history, generations, conflict, name vs. identity. 
• Proof and edit your work and publish your final copy in final draft format. 
• When you have completed your poem, attach a brief, written reflection to explain the theme you are putting forth in your poem and what factors in the novel lead you to this particular theme.

In class now: “Today I want to talk about our assignment– on your names, the teacher tells us, and I want to do a fishbowl activity.”  She invites five to join an inner circle, which will discuss a prompt– derived from their writing assignment.   She explains the fishbowl process, where those on the outside circle can come into the fishbowl by tapping on someone inside it.    “In your experience, with your names, what is the defining power of your name?”  One student begins by explaining the cultural traditions of Korean names, and that no one really thinks about their name and what it means.    Another student disagrees– “I think my name has a lot of importance, it is the first thing you learn about someone, and it is your nametag for the rest of your life– it is the first emotional connection you have of someone.   If you don’t know someone’s name, that person doesn’t exist for you, it connects you more to someone, knowing their name.”   Another speaks of the cultural traditions built into his name, and how important that is to him.   Lots of laughter here, and good attentiveness.  Our teacher is setting the prompts, but she is really letting the students do a high proportion of the talking and thinking here, which I appreciate.     Now there is beginning a clamor of students eager to join the circle, waiting for a chance to “tap in.”   We are now discussing names that carry with them very heavy pressure of expectations, and a student speaks about being named for his grandfather, who was a very powerful and successful person, a chief of his native tribe and a national leader in all of his home African nation.   Big pressure, he says, but also a motivator.     It is a nice conversation, it is a topic that is personally relevant to these kids, that they find meaning in– it is about their own names, and through the discussion I think they are learning more about each other, about their backgrounds, and maybe by reflection learning more about themselves.  
The course is called English 4: We Real Cool, as in the Brooks poem.   The subtitle is Songs of Global Multicultural Youth and Identity, and here is a quote: 
 

In Gwendolyn Brook’s “We Real Cool,” the young characters in the poem must decide what type of destiny they wish to create for themselves within the context of their environment; it is the classic struggle for many adolescents. This course studies traditional and contemporary “coming of age” stories through the lenses of multicultural literature, poetry, and music with a special reference to hip hop. Research shows that young people from ages 12 – 24 are the most heavily securitized, media-targeted and media-obsessed cohort in history. With the presence and global success of the hip hop movement framing and blurring the lines of race, language, and culture, this course examines what it means to define personal and cultural values. Further what does it mean to unearth your individuality in a consumer-oriented society which produces and profits upon “cool” and “youth images”? By privileging the voices of multicultural writers, students will be able to shed some light on the complexities of identity formation and youth subcultures in the United States and abroad. 

 

 

Very nice, the italicized section above, a strongly framed “essential question” for guiding the course of learning here, a question that genuinely speaks to these kids. 
The teacher is assigning them in lieu of a final exam the project of finding someone to interview, someone who immigrated to the US, and put yourselves into their shoes, and then turn the interview into an Anna Deveraux Smith monologue.   She tells us this is not about mimicry, it is deeper than that, it is really trying to get into someone’s experience.   We now read a monologue from Smith, taking the identity of Ntozake Shange, and are applying ideas from the monologue to the character of Gogol in The Namesake.   
My student, J., kindly gives me a peek into his school on-line platform, hosted on Whipple Hill’s “Podium” software, and it looks very impressive, and very handy.  He quickly finds the syllabus for me there.   
Class concludes with quizzes distributed; a very nice class here.   Among the things I really valued here was the breaking up of the time– the class, of 55 minutes, is segmented nicely, with the fishbowl taking about 25 minutes, the Smith discussion 20.  I think it is really valuable for teachers to recognize the challenge of sustaining attention on a singular activity for longer than 30 minutes.  I chat very briefly with teacher at end of class; she tells me she came here first a dean for 11th and 12th graders, and college counselor, but talked her way into the opportunity to teach some English classes too; she appreciates, she says, being able to design her own courses.  
3:00
Here now in drama class, a double block, after a very nice lunch with three administrators.   Just before sitting to eat, we chatted with the curriculum director here, who had met this morning with the student council: she told us that she regularly asks the student leaders what impact they wanted to have on the school educational program, and they told her today they wanted more rigor, more challenging work. “Not more work, more challenging,” she clarified.   A lot to delve in here, and definitional work to do on this front, but it is great to hear that from our students, and I bet a lot of them feel this way all the time– give me some real problems to work on.  Landis, the Head, piggybacked on this and said that he and the upper school director, Melinda, interview every senior during senior year, seeking their feedback about their educational program, asking them what should be done differently in the future.  This is a great concept, these senior interviews, something I want to implement. 
Over sandwiches (thank you, Wildwood!), we discussed what I had seen, and I was really glad to be asked questions like what did I see that surprised me, what did I as an informed outsider observe.   I really want to commend the leadership team here for their inquiring nature, which they attributed in part to the Critical Friends work that is done here in an ongoing way.  The upper school director spoke of the influence upon her from the book 1776, in which General Washington is praised for his clear-eyed view of everything around him– he was a better leader for his ability to not put too rosy, or too shady, a gloss on things, but to see them as they are.   These leaders here seek that- to see things as they are.   It is like the famous  Lawrence Lightfoot quote about good schools. 

The search for good schools is elusive and disappointing if by goodness we mean something close to perfection. These portraits of good schools reveal imperfections, uncertainties, and vulnerabilities in each of them. In fact, one could argue that a consciousness of imperfections, and the willingness to admit them and search for their origins and solutions is one of the important ingredients of goodness in schools.

I asked them about how they supported and evaluated teachers, and Melinda spoke again about the model she uses from an ASCD conference she attended.  In it, observation does not occur in the traditional pre-observation, observation, post-obs routine, but instead happens frequently, unscheduled, in short blocks of time, with brief followup notes thereafter.  Landis talked about how the first few visits are a little strange sometimes, that you feel interfering maybe, but that after 3 or 4, you develop a more regularity to your visits and they start to really add up to something valuable.    Melinda said she’d email me the article about this mode of observation, and I will link it here.   She said that a new dimension they are adding to the observation/evaluation work is that of having administrative colleagues watch videos of teachers teaching, writing up individually their reactions and evaluations, and then comparing notes– a really valuable exercise.   We also have a good conversation about internet filtering, and the pros and cons of it in schools. 
A student does a very emotional gripping scene (Ibsen?), and the teacher gives him great, grounded, specific feedback.   “Your goal to strip things down is really working, what I didn’t see sometimes is what you needed from her, what you were hoping to get from her by telling her these things, can you try that again?”   A student: it was honest, I liked it.  another: it really did feel like you were connecting, I got goosebumps.  Another: It made the words in the monologue touch you, it is really nicely written, and you really read it with the words in mind.
Our student performs again, and then again a third time, as the teacher pushes him to improve and excel.    And on to another student’s piece.  Teacher after it: Where do you want to go with this piece?   The student says it is hard to perform in this art room, we have been relocated here from the theater because they are doing dress rehearsal for the middle school play here.     These teachers give really rich, frank, feedback– what they like and what they don’t like, in front of everyone.   For this second student recital, the teachers are now pushing the student to speak her lines to the other character, how do you want the other character to feel, how do you want your words to affect him?   “I want him to feel stupid, and I want him to feel bad.”     After this try, the teacher says that is an interesting start– it may not be the right start, but it is an interesting start, which is a great thinking out loud, trial and error, experimental mode of teaching.   It is the teacher saying I am not your teacher because I know all the answers already, but because I can work with you to ask you the right questions and suggest different possibilities.   As she tries the piece one more time, the teacher keeps pushing and pushing, on one line in particular, a biting reference to “he”, the teacher interrupts again and again, how does “he” make you feel, how does “he” make you feel, how does “he” make you feel?   Mining the emotional depth here. 
After 45 minutes, during which two students have performed monologues, the students lobby for a 5 minute break, and after some wheedling, it is granted.    I love what I am seeing here, I think it is really great, and I still also think it is a little hard for those not center stage (all but two so far) to sit and watch.  They are attentive, they are engaged, they are learning and making great critical comments, but I wonder how to reconcile the goals of having them learn from watching others and critiquing others while not leaving them to sit and watch for 90 minutes.   
I am so attracted to good art and drama teaching, and as I have written in this context before, I keep wondering why teaching in the more “academic” curricular areas cannot be more like art teaching.   In this format, teachers set a challenge for the kids– they look at a masterwork, or see a demonstration perhaps, but the students are posed a problem, a goal, a task.   Paint something like this, do a scene in this manner.   Then, the students prepare– they work on and tackle the challenge of it of solving the problem and presenting the solution, with teachers supporting them and answering questions and coaching.  Then, the student performs, or shares a draft– and the teacher (and fellow students) give feedback, lots of feedback, lots of it positive and encouraging, and some of it critical but in a trusting and supportive context where the criticism doesn’t feel harsh.  Then the student does it again, and then again, and sometimes then again, with feedback each time, learning by doing, learning by trial and error, learning by such good, rich, specific feedback.   This kind of learning is happening brilliantly here in drama, and I see it in art classes, and it happens often with good athletic coaching,  and why can’t it happen more often in math, literature, foreign language?   (This whole riff is very derivative, it is a lot of what I am reading in Grant Wiggins, but reminded of it by seeing it here right now in a good demonstration.) 
Before the next student starts, she asks if I should just go, and the teacher asks her– tell us what you are working on today, what are your goals for this time?    Again, a totally cool teaching approach: can we export this to other arenas– in literature class, what skills of reading or writing are you working on this week?   Square up to the particular challenge we want to tackle within the large, amorphous curriculum subject (Math, English).   The student tells us that her goal today is to really connect with the other character in that scene, to really communicate and relate that way.    Teacher– “today, take the doing it well pressure off, just let that previous work go, and really see that other person.  Now the students are responding, really nicely.    Teacher– “this is a really great place for you to be working, really nice, honest work, you really connected the second time through, you took the direction well and really made it your own, and really brought the monologue to life.”   Great stuff, consistently.   
1:00
Literature class is coming next, and students here exclaim that this next class is a great class.   Papers are due today, on the novel Beloved.    George shows me his paper, and warns me that he really strongly disliked the book (a book which I love, but that’s ok).   From George’s paper:

 “Beloved crosses the boundaries of many literary genres in its attempts to get across a myriad of ideas.  It toys with the backdrops of both history and slavery to shed light on the suffering on its characters to that the reader may better understand the inner turmoil each person in the story must face.   Ultimately, however, Morrison fails to deliver a concrete story, making the entirety of her telling incredibly vague (in all probability intentionally).   One of her favorite strategies is to not tell the story in chronological order without making it clear when certain events take place.  Unfortunately, from start to finish this gives the reader the strong and perhaps foreboding sense that they are reading an all-too-elaborate prologue for the actual story that is to come, as opposed to a book.” 

Our teacher collects papers, and expresses her hope for creatively titled papers– George’s title is Beloved Literary Analysis– and the best titles we hear is Dearly Beloved and Bewitched.   Our teacher writes an agenda on the board: Turning in projects/debrief writing process; wrap-up on Beloved/mini-demo; introduction to new unit, ‘the self.'” 
Debrief– “It was really good we got a double block for work time, we could really get a lot done, we could get in the mindset.” (nice point)  “I really liked how the work time was laid out.” Another student expresses wish for even more work time– and there is a discussion of whether three work periods would be too many or just right.     Teacher points out that students can/should be pro-active in seeking her out for help, that she is here every morning before school, or students can set up a meeting by email.    A student says he really liked the sheet with the prompts, and that there was a draft due date, that really helped, that it was really well planned out, that he liked writing his own thesis.   “I found I spent less time writing this because whatever I wanted to write about, it was easy to pick, I knew where I wanted to go with it, the whole process came faster because I enjoyed what I was writing about rather than being forced to write what someone else wanted me to.”   They are expressing appreciation here for new 11th grade opportunities in developing independent theses.     This is a regular favorite of mine– find ways for students to personalize their work, to own it, to choose it, and their investment in it will be far superior.    “I like that we could use your [the teacher’s] book– which had a whole lot of notes in it, which really was a great example of active reading.”  “I didn’t love this book, but I enjoyed the unit, and the big essential question (“What is Betrayal”), and the connection to Medea.”   (Great connection).   
The teacher hands me a syllabus for her course, called Genre and Style.  The Essential Question for the course is “How are we all connected through the great themes of literature?”  (A little abstract for my taste, this question, but I LOVE courses headed and organized by essential questions)   Units include One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (What is Madness?); Beloved (What is Betrayal?); What is Love?; Catcher in the Rye (What is the Self?); Everything is Illuminated (What is memory?); Hamlet (How has Hamlet changed the face of Literature?). 
Students express pride in having read this difficult book, and the teacher praises those students who didn’t like the book but incorporated their thoughtful criticism into their writing.  
We move into the students sharing what they wrote about.  “I wrote about how slavery impacted the lives of the characters, which proved to be kind of a broad topic to pick.”   The teacher adds “you also wrote about how even after slavery was abolished they were still impacted by the experience of slavery.”   Another: “I’m writing about how no one in the book really has the right understanding of how slavery has skewed what everyone feels and thinks about love.”  “I took the prompt about colors, and how Morrison used them to better her writing, but I changed it a little bit– I used the symbol of red and that color scheme and talked about how red usually represented pain, slavery and suffering, and the rest of the colors represented freedom, and how freedom opened up the rest of the spectrum of colors.”   “I talked about the line between love and obsession– that by Beloved taking and always wanting more love and never giving any back it took all of Sethe’s happiness away.”  “Intent vs Impact– that whole idea, which proved to be more important with Beloved.”   “The color red, and how it is a symbol to depict the struggles of freed slaves.”   “How Beloved represents the past, and how to get on with the present you have to deal with the past.”   “Intent vs. Action– looking at definitions, and how in the end action has the biggest impact.”  
Our Beloved conversation concludes right at about the thirty minute mark– which is good timing to my eyes.  Too often I see good, sometimes excellent, classroom conversations go bad by going long; English teachers can facilitate terrific analytical conversations, but by minute 35, even the best gets bad as brains just can’t maintain focus, most of them, most of the time, that long.     Speaking of timing, I have to take a minute to commend these kids for going from 830 to 1 before getting their lunch– they are troopers.  I am getting hungry, (and I am no kid).  They tell me they are used to it, and know to bring lots of snacks, which their teachers kindly accommodate. 
Time for a “mini-demo” on Beloved– I saw the word “demo” on top of the Spanish quiz too, and guessed it was Spanish for quiz (Spanish I didn’t recognize).  Turns out “demo” is a Wildwood word, effectively a synonym for quiz or test.   Demonstration of learning, I suppose.   The demo reads 
“You may use your book in this demo.  I am equally interested in how you explain your ideas as much as what your specific ideas are.  Therefore, for you to meet standards on this timed writing, you will need to refer to specific incidents int he novel and work to connect that evidence to your claims.  Make sure that you clearly express and support your viewpoint, and keep in mind the perspectives of the characters and the author.   
So, what is betrayal?
Love the simplicity and open-endedness of it, love the italicized “is.”  
Nice conversation with our teacher her, who is very happy to be here at Wildwood, her second year here after teaching lower school previously in Brooklyn.   She especially appreciates the relationship of respect and trust she has with the kids, relationships built in part from the advisory program which is so strong here.   She expresses gratitude for taking a chance on her, her not having taught upper school before,  and for the great support she has been given her, and the strong professional development she has received.   She says it has been good, the visiting by others to her classroom, her visiting other classrooms, the trainings they have in house here.   I ask what have been her greatest influences on her teaching, and she immediately goes to the teaching she enjoyed as a student at Spence School (NY) and Columbia University– she says that when she teaches Auden here, she emails her Columbia professor who is the executor of the Auden estate.   
Our teacher takes a minute to go pick up some papers elsewhere, trusting these students in her absence.  
Students who are finished are provided a 5 minute break, a friendly proviso to a double period– and snacks break out. 
Onto the next unit on the syllabus, and the What is the Self? unit.  Quick intro– Catcher in the Rye and selections from The Bell Jar.    Brief brainstorm to start– The Self– So what do you think?   The essence of the self.  It’s me.  You.  Individual. Character.  Your soul.  Your chi. Your spirit.  Personality.  Traits. Appearance.  All that you embody. Presence.  Conscience.  Unconsciousness.  Subconsciousness.  The part of the yourself you can’t put your finger on.   It changes over time.  Your culture.  What influences you.  Thoughts. Talents. Interests. 
What stage in your life is more difficult to define your self?  
Childhood.    What about now?  Yeah, I think now-around now-adolescence.   Why is it difficult?  You’re not yet completely independent, but you are your own person, you are making your own decisions,  you are not just part of your parents.  Who decides who you are?   You.  Me.  The people you surround yourself with.  Society.   You’re kind of categorized, maybe, you don’t really decide who you are, society molds you into what they want you to be.      Who is in control?  It is not black and white, there are some experiences that shape what you are.    Everything we see becomes a part of who we are.    Everything we do and experience gets added to the self, and makes up the self.   Our teacher beautifully quotes Dickinson to good effect (but apologizes for eliding two lines of the poem, before correcting herself).    The self interprets everything around it, all of life is funneled through the self.  
Good alertness and attention here.   Our teacher establishes how Plath and Salinger complement each other, both writing in the voice of an adolescent in the mid-20th century, and then explains that from that parallelism, we can better see how they are similar and different, and I really admire this kind of compare and contrast teaching, which Marzano establishes as the most effective instructional strategy.    

11:20
I posted early this hour, so my reading along students could see what I’d written this hour.   I fear I am being more disruptive today than usual– not by any intention or different actions on my part, but every school is unique, and somehow these students are more dialed into what I am doing, and more interested in it.    That they all have laptops available at the ready also made it easy for them to jump on to the site.    Apologies if I am disrupting. 
Our teacher hands out conversational scenarios for the students to study and prepare for next week, when they will act out the scenes in Spanish.  In one case, a bossy chef demands of his assistant the ingredients for making a paella, and the assistant has to tell the boss he doesn’t know what ingredients are.     The students ask is they have a rubric for this assignment– something they clearly expect here, interesting how normed into this culture rubrics are– and she says she did distribute them earlier this week.   A conversation ensues about missing assignments, and whether they can get them via email, and the pros and cons of that.   
“Any preguntas?” she asks, and class concludes, though we stay here for the next period, which is in this room.  
11:10
Spanish class– lots of laughter as we begin here– very humorous this morning.  I am with the same set of students as in Math– the way the school and schedule works here, they “travel” as a group together.     “Listos para examen?”, our teacher asks the class.   No, our class answers, and she goes to the board to write out a “nosotros/pagar/dinero/la maestra.” The students shout out, offering up Ella nos lo pago.     Kids asking her about the test, and how it is to be graded; the teacher is breaking it out section by section, and there is curiosity about how it will be totaled up.    We are offered lots of practice sentences on the board, working on verb forms from the infinitive form.   Some jocular expressions of stress in the room about this upcoming test– “todas paginas?” one student asks in surprise, when trying to confirm what will be on the test. 
Our test is distributed– one section asks students to create sentences from the subject and verb infinitive provided and identify the direct objects; one to write sentences using the preterite tense; one to fill in the blanks with correct vocabulary term from a list provided.  
As the students work on their test, I am remembering the good conversation I had this morning with some teachers here about the service learning and internships students do here.  Like at High Tech High, actually, internships are a big part of junior and senior year, spending two afternoon a week doing either service in the fall, or interning in the spring at different sites. 
  

Students in their first year of Senior Institute spend one semester making a contribution to their school community, choosing from a wide variety of options on either the secondary or elementary campus. Students spend two afternoons each week in a job at the school that they have applied for. Students may serve as a teacher’s aide, work in the office, help in the library or write for various school publications. Students also begin planning an independent community involvement project that they will complete in their senior year. This project is the basis of the student’s Community Involvement Graduation Exhibition. The project must be something the student does independently or as a team that makes a difference in the community and has a tangible outcome or product.

It is carefully structured and integrated as they describe it, and takes care to avoid the piecemeal approach of just racking up hours for community service, which has been a growing problem at a lot of schools, according to a recent New York Times article, which I want to link too here, but for some reason I can’t seem to load the Times via the school WiFi– maybe there is just a glitch.   

Our teacher heads next door to turn down the music, and asks me to make sure no cheating occurs while she is gone, which of course I agree to– prompting giggles in the room as she exits. 
I think I am seeing a first– as I am writing on my laptop, students done with their test are on a laptop, reading my blog as I am writing– and now I am writing about their reading my blog.   Fun, mirror house effect here.   

10:30
Math Class, Pre-Calculus.    Our teacher greets me, a little unsure what to make of me, and tells his class that he thinks this is the first time anyone has ever blogged his class.   George tells me that his teacher is a brilliant former rocket scientist; the teacher shares with me that every day is different in its format, and today is more of a lecture day.    
He begins by talking about geometry, and the definition of a radiant.  “This course has a lot of new terms and vocabulary, and here is a great new word for you, ‘subtend.'”  He continues with key geometric vocabulary: tangent, chord, secant (“yes,hesecant” he puns) etc.  
George says that his teacher is incredibly organized, and has prepared for kids a complete comprehensive syllabus for the year, with every day scoped out in detail.   The school’s math curriculum is defined at the website curriculum page, and is structured in an integrated approach.      I review all the meticulous pages of the syllabi, and enjoy looking at the page explaining “Projects and the Habit of Connection.  “The objective of precalculus projects is to connect the study of the mathematical principles with their usefulness in practice.   Both common and specialized applications will be studied.   Students will hopefully gain an appreciation for the role mathematics does play or could play in their lives.   Many of project questions are open to interpretation and can be answered in different ways.”   George hands me from his very nicely organized binder a sample, “Project 2- Functions,” which covers bonds, taxes and mortgages,  and asks questions like “What is the functional relationship between a bond’s price and yield? How do investors make or lose money by owning corporate bonds? What is the tax advantage of selling a house with appreciated value?” 
The syllabus papers continue with rubrics, each built on the school’s Habits Mind and Heart: Perspective, Evidence, Connection, Convention, Service to the Common Good, Collaboration, and Ethical Behavior.     As an example, Habit of Collaboration has four subsection in its rubric: The student demonstrates the ability to (1) have a working relationship with other students and with the teacher; (2) ask for help when needed; (3) offer help, if able, when asked; (4) express a positive attitude about the class and the work.    Each can be rated on this grid with an E, M, A, or D-  Exceeding, Meeting, Approaching, and Does Not Meet Expectations.    The Habits page on the website says:

Wildwood’s secondary program is built around developing Habits of Mind and Heart that will serve students in their life-long pursuit of learning. Our curriculum, assignments, assessments, and all else we do at Wildwood are based on these habits.

It is neat to see that this broad and lofty goal, expressed on the website, about habits being the basis for all assessments, is very actually being realized in the mathematics curriculum syllabus here. 
Our teacher continues to take us through different geometric analyses of chord intersection problems, demonstrating how angles can be determined.   He draws a beautifully rendered circle, and the students exclaim at its perfection.   Now he is asking the students to apply the analytical tools he just taught.  “any inscribed diagonal that subtends a diameter is a right angle.”  With the remaining time, he offers us some review of key geometric ratios and relationships.    He then asks “Did we discuss drinking beer at the tavern?”   The kids say that no. So he draws a beer glass with a shape of an upside cone, in contrast to a typical water glass, and explains that you get that shape because you get only 1/3 the quantity of beer.   “Any questions about circles?”  Nooo….  We are ready to move on.  

9:30

Good morning, and welcome to my blog today at Wildwood School.  This is school visit number 19 for me this fall, and in keeping with my intent to focus on “young schools,” my tenth visit to a school less than ten years old (here, it is the high school that is less than 10 years old).   If you are reading along, please know that liveblogs flow chronologically from bottom to top, with each new entry headed by the time it was posted.  

The folks here at Wildwood have been wonderfully warm and receptive, and organized!  The security guard in the lot greeted me by name, and I enjoyed a lovely tour of the school this morning by the Outreach Director.  The layout of the interior here at this 6th to 12th grade, 400 student site, is very open, with each two grade unit having pods or quads around a small interior court, the classroom having windows onto the interior court, and loft-offices up above. I greatly enjoyed observing the middle school students rehearsing for their performance this evening of Animal Farm in the school’s theater– they were dancing to a dance choreographed by an 9th grader, I was told, and one eighth grader came over to tell me, on her own initiative, that the dance was a dance of hope at the end of the show to offset the doom and negativity of the novel’s conclusion, to say that there is still reason to hope for peace and justice.   It was very eloquent, and very sweet.  
Everywhere we went I was introduced teachers and administrators, and informed I would be shadowing “George,” whom everyone gave a smile and not about– clearly everyone here is “known” by everyone else, it is great.   We spoke about the curriculum some as we toured, that for instance the kids all take Spanish, and have only that option for foreign language, and I am told that this one option is in part a reflection of the school’s adherence to the ten principles of CES, Coalition of Essential Schools, and the principle of depth over breadth.  
My day with George begins in an hour long advisory class, which today is a bit unusual in that some students are missing attending the school’s first ever session of “affinity groups” meeting– some are at the students of color affinity group, others at the white allies affinity group, and still a third at the GLBTQ group.  Advisory is certainly a point of pride here– a “home” for students at school, and George’s adviser refers to herself as a “mother” for her group, and offers to take me in for the day.   Here in advisory we are reading aloud an article called Shattering Stereotypes by an Asian-American teenager here in LA– and these kids are being remarkably frank about these sensitive topics.   The article concludes: “Prejudice comes from ignorance, and I don’t know many people willing to admit their stupidity.  But I’m good at being stupid, so I’ll go first: ‘Hi, My name’s Lia, and I’m prejudiced.'”   
“Seminar” now in advisory— we review the rules: what happens in seminar stays in seminar (and yes, we note the irony that I am blogging here, but I clarify I am not naming names, and will not report anything too sensational), limit your airtime, no interruptions, two people jump in, one jumps out.   We remember the Goals of seminar– To gain a deeper understanding of the text, yourself, and your peers.   Three questions– 1- What did you think was the most important line of the text– Let’s go around the room. 
The first student speaks to endorse the last sentence of the piece, the one quoted above, and says she thinks it is rare and hard to admit you are “stupid” about something, but it is really valuable to do.    Next- a citation of a line about the fallacy that having diverse friends means you can’t be racist– and our student concurs that having friends of a different race won’t necessarily change what you you sometimes feel about that other race.  Another students expresses her strong sentiment that racism in the US has not ended with Obama’s election, that she cannot believe people think that, that she wants to yell at them “You are a Doo-Doo Head!” She tells us she intends to major in communications in college to promote better communications among people in the cause of fighting prejudice. 
Wildwood’s website has a nice “take a tour of a day in the life of a student” slide show– haven’t seen that at many other sites, and I like it– and it is a good pictorial tour to go along with my narrative. 
The other questions would have been about (2) analyzing the difference of tolerance and acceptance, and (3) to think about an incident of your own experience when you yourself were stereotyping someone and you didn’t realize it until later.     One student very sincerely shares a story about having his bike stolen as a boy, and someone telling him that it was some black kids who stole it, and that when he was walking home he saw a black kid and accused him of being the thief– it is really nicely rendered, this recollection and its implications.  A student counters maybe it would have been the same if he had been told a blonde boy stole the bike, wouldn’t he have accused the next blonde kid he saw, but the response is that there is a significant difference because of historically-laden stereotypes of race, but not hair color.  Really impressive, honest, sharing and critical analysis.    Going over time here, but the involvement in the conversation is strong, and the students stick with it, even with all the movement in the hallway. 

2:30
Back to Biology, not sure I understand exactly how the schedule works, but we are back.   Our teacher begins class saying that this afternoon he will be lecturing, quips that he knows students love learning by lecturing, then defends learning by lecture as a valuable skill for the future, and a good way for the kids to learn what he thinks is really important for them to learn. 

I am thinking now about a matrix for gauging the nearly 100 classrooms I have been in so far, and recognizing there are really two axes– there is conventional teaching, and alternative (primarily project-based) learning, and I can say that I have seen conventional teaching that was both very effective and not so, and I have seen alternative learning that was very effective, and not so.   Put conventional on the leftside of the x axis, alternative/PBL on the right; put not so effective as low on the y axis, and more effective high on the y axis.    HTH has very strongly demonstrated consistently effective teaching and learning, but it has been not always only been especially alternative/PBL; to return to the NTHS comparison, I would say that the teaching wasn’t always as consistently effective as was it here, but it was certainly more consistently alternative.    In other words, NTHS learning ranged along a vertical plotted line on the right side of the matrix; HTH learning ranged across a horizontal plotted line near the top of the matrix.   Again, I am not trying to pass judgement, just honing my analysis of the choices and practices of the two.    

Teacher hands out a project assignment: Exploring Evolution, Organism Showcase.   It is topped by something I love to see, “Essential Question:” and it reads “What evidence of evolution do the phenotypic traits of an organism hold?”  The “Showcase Article” reads “Drawing from the knowledge that we have gained about natural, artificial, and sexual selection in our biology class, you will be creating a 250-400 word article that showcases the unique evolutionary trait acquired by a specific organism (animal, fungus, plant, bacteria, or virus).  You will demonstrate how the unique phenotypic traits that have allowed it to be uniquely suited for a specific environment.” 

Lecturing now– on the “animalia systems,” starting at about 1:40.    Fun here, as he is reviewing the systems (circulatory, etc), to list them, say they are mostly not that interesting or “sexy,” then getting to reproductive systems, and saying they are very sexy– and he pops out the video– on “penis-fencing.”  The room gets all of a sudden MUCH more energized– which is what I keep seeing– when teachers talk about subjects teenagers are really interested in, they rise, and nothing gets them (or most of us adults too) more than sex.  So big kudos here.    This video is flatworms penis fencing– at spike.com.  Can’t give you the link here; the wifi blocks my access to it.   A three minute video– and another great display of what I have been noticing, that short videos of 3-6 minutes in length are terrific additions to classroom lectures/presentations, they are very engaging, very memorable, very visual for learning.  I am not impressed with 45 minute videos, they suck up too much time and the ratio of value add for time isn’t good enough, but 2-5 minutes, bring it on. 

Onto an “evolutionary story” he wants to tell us– a story/theory.   He starts 4.6B years ago, the early earth.    I like repackaging lectures as “stories”– so long as they are indeed compelling narratives…    But this isn’t really too much of a story.  He begins with telling of Anaerobic organisms, and then charts, with words and arrows, their development into Cyanobacteria, and onto to division into Plants, Fungus, animalia on one side, and prokaryotes on another.   I wonder why not turn this to the students– give them a sheet with the diagram of systems evolution charted but with blank spaces, and give them the terms, and have them use on-line or textbooks to “discover” the evolutionary pathway and “solve” the puzzle.  It might take a little more time, but I think it will have a lot more retention.    He is asking good questions as he goes– “what happens with the build-up of O2?”   Onto Linnaen taxonomy.    Working on a mnemonic for taxonomy– Hank suggests King Philip Came Over For Great Sex–which again, may be more memorable for teens than Kings Play Chess On Funny Green Squares.  After about 20 minutes on taxonomy, we are told that none of this really matters anymore, because we are moving now into the DNA genetic era of typing.    Tomorrow is the flatworm dissection– which sounds great, they do do a lot of labs here, which is great.  
115
Great time at lunch, walking, talking, and eating with a trio of juniors here– made me miss being in high school.  We talked a lot about the robotics team these guys are on, and their big spring national competition— my guy, Hank, is the mechanical captain, and his friend is the programming captain.   They take me into HTH to show me the robots they built last year and the year prior, and showed me pictures of the tournament in Atlanta.   We also spoke about internships– Hank’s friend has one set for the spring at a visual robotics lab, where he will be programming algorithms for robots to evaluate and identify objects visually.   Hank hasn’t settled on yet– he wants to do something more in mechanical or electrical, and he isn’t finding many opportunities here anymore– it is all only programming.  I ask the guys how their high school is different, and they say it isn’t for everyone, it isn’t for students who just want to learn everything out of textbook and lecture, because here you really have to do a lot of hands on stuff, which these, very bright, guys, think sets them up for the future much better.    I ask about homework, and they tell me they have less here at HTHI– that several of their teachers “don’t believe in homework,” and that the work they do have here is never just busy work– and that the latter is the school philosophy (but the former, that teachers don’t believe in HW, would seem to me to be representative of the very wide latitude teachers are provided here to set policy).   Nonetheless, they are confident that they are learning more here, compared to their friends at more traditional high schools who do much more homework.    They also said that many friends at other schools are envious, that many of them wish they were here but couldn’t get in. 

Beginning in Math class with a cartoon (an i saying “Be rational” to a pi sign, which is responding “get real.”) and a warm up exercise, evaluating different equation and explaining differences.   Our teacher is checking homework, and says hello, saying she will be talking a lot to day, but that will be unrepresentative, an unusual day that she is talking this much.   I am sitting on a couch in the back of the room, and that there is a couch in a math classroom at all is indicative of the more casual environment prevailing at HTH. 

Feeling like a very traditional math class here so far, our teacher writing on the whiteboard answers to homework questions that were tricky for kids.  She had warned me today was a traditional day.   I know the teacher here regrets my not seeing a great project day, and her Digital portfolio page has a nice display of some of the math projects she has going on.   She is lecturing now: “How do we tell if there will be real or complex roots?”   She gives an equation, and students are offering their answers, which she then displays.  

And now the good stuff– the new project is being distributed.  It is headed “iproject” and she is asking of them to choose one of 5 options for students to demonstrate their understanding of complex numbers: iDesign, creating a design for a T-shirt or bumper sticker; iComic, creating an original comic strip; iStory by an original short story; iPoem; and iSong.  She provides more comic/cartoon samples, one of which has an i with a barred line across it, and the slogan “keepin’ it real” beneath, and another with Calvin and Hobbes chatting, Hobbes explaining that imaginary numbers include eleventeen and thirtytwelve, and that he knows this by instinct. 

Nice brainstorming of words for the project, with lots of fun suggestions in an open, supportive, fun way. 
11:30
Biology Lab– our teacher begins class with a friendly chat, our teacher soliciting from kids ways in which they feel silly or embarrassed about how they used to dress.   Fun.   Onto the fluorescent protein purification lab, with following closely a quite elaborate, two page set of lab instructions– today they are on their fifth day of working this lab, purifying the FP proteins, using a microcentrifuge to do so and observing the results under UV light. 

As students work, wearing yellow lab aprons, I chat with the teacher.   He tells me this is high fourth year here, and it is the only school he has taught at.   I am impressed by his story– he tells me that he was approached and recruited by HTH to come teach, after he had done some kind of interaction with kids (internship?) while in industry, and the kids had come back raving about how great he was working with them.   He wasn’t credentialed then, but in accepting the job immediately got his emergency credential, and then worked his way through the HTH in-house credentialing program, earning his actual credential just yesterday.   He complained that the state credential requirements had a lot of dumb stuff, tasks and things, that were really irrelevant, but he had to do it and did.    He spoke of how HTH tries to stay connected to the real world and industry, and that he does so himself as a teacher– spending every summer working in a lab in Switzerland, and writing new labs for students from there.     It was really great to hear him talk about this; he says he is thinking he ought soon to take a year and work again in the industry, to stay up to speed, and spoke about how fast changing biology is, and you have to stay current, and take great care not to fall into a pattern of teaching what you learned when you were in high school, so long ago.   

John, the teacher here, very kindly offers me a cup of coffee, which I happily accept– he has a coffee pot going in the corner of the room.   Nice of him to do, and there is something really appealing about teachers who have coffee pots going in their classrooms. 

I ask the kids, as they do this meticulously spelled out lab, how often they design their own labs, given just a problem or question or challenge.   These students tell me they don’t really do that often, but then shifted and told me about a beginning of the year project where they designed and delivered a cell division lab for sixth graders, and about ways they do larger projects– such as an alternative energy project they did last year, on the topic of tidal energy, and actually built inside a fish aquarium a tidal wave electric generator, deriving half a volt from it, powering a little led light.    They used a little tiny pool pump to generate a tidal current, and continue to tell me about the details of that with great enthusiasm and pride.  Nice. 

Back in all-session, debriefing.  He is asking the kids how they could account for variant results, and a student answers human error, and he pushes back– more specifically, what errors could have occurred?    “Hopefully you gained an appreciation for process over this many-stepped lab, and you have a visual of the course of your events, and you have formulated a game plan for getting through it.  Not just following each step as you get to each step, but knowing in advance all of your steps, and anticipating what is coming and how to prepare for it.”   He says this lab is something he did in college, that it is really cool high school students get to do a lab like this.   Understanding biochemistry, DNA, proteins.  A student says: “I think this lab made me better understand the importance of a specific procedure– nobody was trying to mess this up, but the mistakes made were small little things about timing or amounts but that ended up making the difference between getting the fluorescent protein or not, because each little step in the protocol mattered so much. ”  Nice. 

Meanwhile, students are walking the halls sharing and exulting about their new pet rocks, the ones they got in history this morning from their study of the seventies– and they are really loving them, naming them, displaying them to friends.  It is silly and nice. 

10:30

Good morning– back for a second day at High Tech High, but today at a different school site, (across the street), called High Tech High International.   This is school visit/student shadow number 18 for me this fall.  If you are following along, please know liveblogging proceeds chronologically from bottom to top, with each new entry headed by the time it was posted. 
Warmly welcomed– I was late– mistook yesterday’s schedule for today’s– but everyone has been really nice.  I am here with “Hank” today, who is already fun to be with., and we are in US History with Melissa, and today’s topic is the seventies, and we are doing centers– groups of six students rotating among four table, each with a seventies subject.   I am at the Pet Rock station, on which there is a pile of rocks, a “pet rock birth certificate” for each to complete, a little handout of four pages information about the fad, and then the discussion questions: “Can you come up with an explanation for the popularity of this weird fad? Has there been a similar fad recently that is equally as off, but popular?”   Lots of laughter, and very nice collaboration here among the students as my table– they are really thinking about the rocks as an opportunity for developing a personal identity, as a marketing fad, and much else.  One answer: “Everyone wanted choice, and could put their own personality that and imagination.  People are drawn towards safe, solid pets or ideas, reaction from corrupt government.”  Our teacher is circulating, asking provocative followup questions and offering lots of warm praise– “you guys made really good connections.    The other centers are The Hostage Crisis, Feminism and the Seventies, and “you love the seventies, OK?”  For the latter, students are viewing an online video from I love the seventies, and answering questions like What was the message of Good Times?  and How did John Travolta further change the image of the white male?   (For viewing the table group is watching a laptop screen, and listening to headphones plugged into a single console which is then itself plugged into the laptop). 
The teacher tells me she does these centers fairly regularly, especially when the subject provides fun and intriguing topics that work well for centers.    She is here now with my group at the feminism table, and she is asking “what damaged women’s image in the fifties which created the backlash in the seventies?”   She is giving good background information to students, but always in response to their questions, responding to their inquiries, which is more spontaneous and more relevant to these kids.   On the walls are giant post-its,  one for each decade, with simple summaries of main developments for the US in the arenas of international, economics, and social change.   
FireDrill!  We all proceed out, and then while we wait, I have a very chatty conversation with a group of students who are eager to share with me their views of the schools.   We discuss primarily the comparisons of the three HTH schools, the original, International, and Media-Arts.   They tell me that the three schools, which are all within a block of each other, are very distinct, with very little mixing; that the schools intend the curriculum to vary only by 1%;  that at the flagship HTH you can get to be very sophisticated at engineering, and here at international you’d be very adept at current events.   Although some of these students chose one of the other schools for their first choice, they are all glad to be here and have good pride.  We discuss sports, and students do do soccer or volleyball, no football, but the culture doesn’t valorize athletes here at all– you don’t even know who does sports, they are not any more cool, and it is cool to be a good student worker.   We see other teachers and are friendly with them, and they all seem young to me– all under 40, many under 30.   I ask the students why they think that is, and they hypothesize it is because the schools are so young, they have hired only in recent years, that to be successful here you have to be really passionate.   One student adds it might be because students interview all teaching candidates, and rate teacher candidate lessons, and maybe that tilts the hiring to younger and more enthusiastic teachers.  He tells me students ask candidates questions about how they do project based learning, how passionate are they about their subject, and how do they make lectures more interesting. 
A mini lecture now at my feminism table about the Roe v. Wade decision, with our teacher talking about its controversial nature, how it was about women’s control of bodies, and she lays out different perspectives. 
Our teacher hands me a copy of her syllabus: “During this school year, we will become a community of learners in order to help us improve as writers, readers, and researchers.  Our study will be rooted in the study of American history, literature, and culture.  We will explore various themes that cross disciplines.  Our intention is what it is to be America; how we came to be, why we made choices we made, and the implications of our decisions.”    It also speaks of emphasizing the Habits of Mind approach– Significance: Why is this important?; Perspective: What is the point of view?; Evidence: How do you know?; Connection: How does this apply?; Supposition: What if it were different? 
It is interesting for me to compare and contrast what I observe about High Tech High (HTH) and New Technology HS (NTHS).   Both are, rightfully, seen at forefront of 21st century learning, both have received considerable national media attention, both have received a large amount of foundation grant funding, and both have the word technology in their name.   My observations are clearly and necessarily limited to my observations of just a single site on a single day– but nonetheless, here I go: Both put project-based learning (PBL) at the heart of curriculum and instruction– but to this observer, NTHS does so in a significantly more pervasive and more scripted (you might say rigid) way– where every minute of every class seemed to be the result of intentional PBL planning and implementation, whereas at HTH, the PBL, though a highlight of the website, is something they go in and out of, using as the teacher teams see fit, but not being limited by it or to it (Every minute of my time at NTHS I saw PBL happening, where it has been happening here only a minority of the time of student learning). It would seem that HTH teachers have considerably more autonomy and latitude for designing their curriculum by their own lights, drawing upon the PBL as they see fit, but not nearly so rigidly confined by it (indeed, this autonomy/latitude in HTH’s Design Principles).   At NTHS, teachers nearly always taught in teams in each classroom, and you saw them following a game plan, but here I have mostly seen teachers going solo in a classroom, doing what feels like much more their own thing.   

NTHS felt to me also much more traditional and “public school”– class sizes much larger than at HTH, teacher-student relationships much more formal and somewhat more distant, student behavioral expectations a little tighter.  Here, HTH feels more private/independent school like to me– especially the more progressive independent schools– in the way that teachers here are usually (not always) addressed by their first name, classes are only 15-20 in size, students are sloppier– not in a bad way, but just more likely to be lounging around in common spaces, sitting on tables,  casual.    More– I don’t have any statistics to support this, but to this observer the student socio-economic mix here at HTH seems tilted significantly to the higher end of the spectrum than at Sacramento’s NTHS— I would guess that the proportion of students whose parents are college graduates, and the median family income, is much higher here at HTH; the HTH student mix would not be easily distinguished from some of the private school populations I saw in San Francisco independent schools, though perhaps there is a little more racial diversity here).  Another difference which is very clear is how intentional, and alternative, HTH has been about its interior architectural design, whereas the one NTHS campus I visited was indistinguishable from any other public school in its architecture/design- and this could be in part a matter of funding, that HTH had more of it to make this more possible.   I am not trying to make any judgements here about why or how these things make one school (school-system) better or worse, just making the observation.  
3:40
World Religions, with the school’s Director teaching, Brett.  Good spirit and energy for a Monday afternoon; several students working on Rubik’s cubes.  Azer tells me with enthusiasm we might “get” to do Socratic seminar today, which he clearly really likes.    Brett checks in with students at class beginning– is this a busy time?  Yes, the chorus resounds.  Good– keeps you from being naughty, he says.   He apologized for missing class Friday, a meeting he had to attend.    We exit our seats to gather around the television for a quick youtube video.  I’d offer you the link right off, but the wifi here denies me access to youtube, sadly. (Boo).   Search for it, it is Allan Watts on Work and Life, and it is in cartoon style from the South Park guys, Trey Stone and his collaborator.    It is profound, if simplistic, commenting upon how much we delay living and instead focus on preparing– only to find that life is really for living.  
Sent back to our seats now, we are provided a writing prompt– The Meaning of Life, it is headed, with three options: The attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value; Embracing the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and dying; Your Answer. 
Azer is writing steadily next to me: 

I believe that simply the meaning of life is to live.  There is no point but to pursue happiness through means which do not infringe on another person’s pursuit.  We are bred to always aim for the end.  The end of the period, the end of the day, end of the month, school year, education and so on.  The real point of life is to break this habit, and enjoy the ride. 

We are now split into pairs– and discuss.   Azer tells me about his awesome 10th grade humanities course which he called PostModern Political Philosophy, and Azer tells me influenced him greatly.  He sets the class into something called inside/outside circle– where student sitting in the outside ring are today observing, those insider are discussing, (and they will all alternate for Wednesday).    Azer, to nobody’s surprise, gets up to move to the inside circle.   Students in the outer circle all volunteer to track a student on the inner and take notes on what your person talks about.   Before getting started, we review the ground rules.   “No interrupting, no attacking, no raising hands.”  “As an added twist, I’d like to have the hot seat, by which someone in the back can come to the front if they have a pressing need to say something.”    Brett kicks it off by saying “I will do my best to not talk or intervene, which will be hard for me,” a sentiment I am very sympathetic to. 
Discussion ensues– the students doing the “work,” not the teacher– so valuable, and so rare.  We are exploring this meaning of life concept– one suggests “it is to feel meaningful and accomplished by the time you die. ”   Another: you have to be happy with the journey, not the goal or end-line.   What societal pressure puts on people– we are all talking about goals and dreams and college– Something I like to think about that puts me in a tailspin sometimes is what does a person really inside of them want, how can we separate what we want from what society puts on us and makes us want.   What does a human want at basic, like an animal.    Another: people tend to go with what is socially acceptable, and that drives us.  Azer:  “Does anybody else feel like society is totally at fault for forcing you to think in a certain way?   What if nothing were forced on you?  You would always know what you really want and what really makes you happy?”   Another: I would have no interest in going to college if that were not the societal norm– I wouldn’t do it if my parents wouldn’t kill me for not going.     Another: I don’t think it is all of society’s fault– you can still choose to not do what society says.   A reference to a philosopher– don’t choose a job for the money, but for what will make you happy– Thoreau, someone suggests.    Brett avails himself of the hot seat to redirect– what role does religion have in helping some discover the meaning of life?  Several more students move up to the hot seat, eager to contribute.   Something that incites is an argument that religion is only a crutch for people who have nothing else to live for.   But a response: It is really different for a lot of people, some go to religion from family, some it is the only option they have, for others it is the only thing they have to live for, it varies for so many.  
So interesting, the space in this building, the huge glass walls though which you see students in hallways, common space, classrooms, you hear some ambient noise from outside this effectively ceiling-less room.   It is a little distracting, it is not perfect– but I still see it as an entirely acceptable compromise for the value it brings. 
Another student comes to say that there is too much selfishness here– we are talking too much about what makes me happy, what is my life for, but we should reframe it to ask what if the meaning of life is to serve others instead.   
The conversation turns to the topic of the video– why do we constantly postpone our pleasure, and shouldn’t we instead live in the moment?   Why do we wish for June, year after year?  But others counter– there has to be a time for working hard, for stress, and then when you reach an end, you get a greater pleasure for the contrast and the accomplishment.  Rich, good debate, but as I often wonder about classtime– it might be terrific for 20 minutes, and good for 25-30, but as we surpass 30 minutes attention spans wander, (I know mine does), and it’d be better to offer a transition after 25.   But really good stuff.  
2:20
Grabbed lunch at La Salsa across the street, and am now back in the equivalent it seems of “homeroom,” where students are doing work in a period they call internship time, but is being substituted now with work time to catch up with school-work, there being so much right now. In internship time they’d be discussing the course of their internships, working on their resumes, work on assignments for internship, update their digital portfolios.    It is usually unstructured time, and Azer tells me “that is OK because they trust us– it is time where you need to get done what you need to get done. The teachers stands back, not knowing the inner workings of your internship, and so they allow you to act accordingly. ”   Laptops are available, and many have pulled them out for working more on the credit card/investment project referred to earlier.   Azer’s internship is at Qualcomm; in October students did a two week immersion of 40hour weeks at their internship site, and now he is doing two afternoons a week (6 hours) .   Other students have internships at the zoo and a prosthetics company.   Azer’s project at Qualcomm is to test out a new website in development.     
Internships are a key element of  a High Tech High education, and exemplify one of HTH’s three Design Principles, namely the second one, Adult World Connection.   Regular readers know this is a constant of mine for good schooling– how effectively is the learning connected to the real world, and how can we treat high school students not as “kids” but as junior professionals.      Here it is viewed in both directions– students do internships and have “power lunches” with professionals, but also: 

The HTH facilities themselves have a distinctive high-tech “workplace” feel, with windowed seminar rooms, small-group learning and project areas, laboratories equipped with the latest technology, ubiquitous wireless laptop access, and common areas where artwork and prototypes are displayed.

To see the Design Principles in a “note-card,” click here. The other two original principles are personalization (which is a familiar one to your good high school blogger, as it is a signature trait of the schools I have led, and I think is perhaps the most singular common element and market appeal of private-independent schools generally) and common intellectual mission, which as defined here is a contrast to what happens at many private-independent schools, inasmuch as it represents non-selective student admission and no “tracking” of students by ability. 
It would seem a fourth Design Principle has been added, which I really like, called Teacher as Designer.   It includes the ideas that curriculum is designed by teachers and reflects their passions, and that teachers meet for an hour daily (!) for common planning and professional development, which I think is a professionalization long overdue.  An hour a day should become a mantra for our schools. 
The postcard on Design Principles concludes with the following, which could be used widely– 

Questions for Reflection and Discussion
How does the school ensure that each student is known well by at least one adult?
How does the school make the adult world of work visible and accessible to all students? 
What are the common expectations for all students, across all subject areas? 
How is this a place where teachers can and do learn?

The postcards come from a new publication HTH is producing, called Unboxed, a Journal of Adult Learning.  I have signed up for a free (!) subscription; it looks very cool.   The current issue contains a very valuable piece on PBL project planning, so important, because in this blogger’s humble opinion, good PBL is so good, and not-so-good PBL can be so bad.  There is also a fine piece much appreciated by this blogger,  called Blogging to Learn.  The author, a HTH teacher, uses blogging by his students for their process of learning, and directs them to use blogs for information gathering.  But I find especially interesting his use of his own blog as a teacher communication tool to his students: 
 

I now have another blog. It is useful for my students to see that I use this medium for honest, reflective thinking much in the same way that I ask them to do. In my case, that thinking is about issues that relate to my work as a teacher, which is a good corollary to the thinking they document in their blogs about issues related to their work as students. 

I like it– and want to do the same. 
More from the HTH website.  Earlier this morning I raved about how much I admire the interior space here, which truly distinguishes itself from every other school I have visited.  Here is a lengthy and thoughtful discussion of the school’s facilities and the philosophy behind them; I would suggest any school planning new facilities for secondary schooling check this webpage, and come visit this site.    Let me quote a nice passage: 
HTH buildings aim for a high level of “transparency” to make each school’s particular culture of learning readily visible to its inhabitants.  To this end, every wall surface in the school’s public and circulation spaces offers a place either to exhibit student projects or to look (through abundant expanses of glass) into the school’s dynamic seminar rooms, conference rooms, and specialty labs.  Even the ceilings are used to showcase student work, with projects such as mobiles and sculptures suspended from the exposed truss systems.  Fifteen minutes of wandering through any High Tech High building should be enough to give any newcomer a strong sense of what that particular HTH learning community is about.
Unlike traditional school buildings, HTH facilities are transparent, with easy viewing to and from all offices, conference rooms, and seminar rooms. Copious amounts of glass create an atmosphere of “visible learning.” Large areas such as commons rooms and studios are located along main circulation routes to promote a sense of openness and coherence.
Like the other charter high schools I have visited, CART, New Technology, and Metro High School (Envision), HTH emphasizes project based learning, though it doesn’t seem to be quite as all-pervasive here as it did at New Technology.   (might be just the day).   The website hosts a nice introduction/overview to seven of its signature projects; taking a look at one, San Diego Field Guide, it looks great, and I’d strongly suggest schools consider using these available resources for developing PBL in their schools. 
12:10
Biology, lab today, everyone in lab coats, gloves, and goggles.  We are studying bacteria, and examining in petri dish gels growth of bacteria from around the school (the boys’ bathroom, under the urinal, especially bad).   Here is a course syllabus, here a course outline, here a overview of projects.  The What is Life project looks great, and I like its use of Wiggins like essential questions on a truly fascinating topic.  
Great focus in here on this good, if conventional, lab.  The students are genuinely interested in comparing bacteria prevalence in the boys and girls bathrooms, and are working well in teams on the lab reports.   One student explains to me how this is part of a broader unit on DNA and evolution, that bacteria is good to study because it reproduces so quickly you can see the evolutionary patterns.  He says this unit has many labs, but isn’t sure whether there is a culminating project.    Another volunteers they are looking forward to the forensics project in spring. 
Teachers here are all on a first-name basis with students; the environment all around feels very junior professional, (especially now, with students in lab coats).    An excel table is projected onto the large screen, and students enter into the table their data collected from this lab, for better comparisons.   

11:00
Here now in Humanities class, with Pat Holder, a very enthusiastic teacher who has a huge map of the world up on the wall, and a sign over the entry door which reads “Do you know your rights?”   Azer tells me that his teacher is “really into globalization.”  After a brief setup by our teacher, students are paired up and we are reviewing ID terms, for each of which the students need to be able to answer these “essential questions: Does it help facilitate the use of discourse and reason in a democracy amongst all members?  Can we consider it a democratizing force?  Why or why not?”  And these additional questions: Can you ID the term and where it is from?  Give a concrete example/explain how it works in detail?   Give me the significance/importance?       The terms for them to review are: “User generated content; Broadcast media; communications media; fame and interactivity; Filtering; Published author; mass amateurization; transaction costs.” 

Pat’s website is very appealing, and his syllabus for this course very comprehensive.  He emphasizes that this is “OUR Class”– where everyone’s point of view and perspective is valued.   In the syllabus he lays out the key framing concept for the class: 

This year we will be exploring social/historical issues and literature under contemporary 

themes; our primary means will be completing challenging projects relevant to our lives.  The 

explorations we undertake will be arranged thematically, not chronologically, aimed toward 

developing applicable thinking skills instead of disassociated factual-clutter for our minds.  Our 

unwavering goal will be to empower our abilities of personal learning and action as we identify 

the directions of our passions and develop a lens of critique and reason to look through.  Our 

class will strive to become a community of inquiry and communication working toward a 

practical understanding of the world beyond HTH.  

I appreciate very much of this: the thematic approach over chronological, and the preference of good thinking and analysis over broad content coverage. 


Azer is writing with good purpose, and around the room students are pretty focussed, with occasional laughter.    The current theme is, as Azer told me, globalization, but here, for the purpose of relevancy, we reframe it as “global-‘i’-zation.”   The assignments and readings are here
As part of the curriculum here on globalization and participatory voices in media, the teacher has assigned them a very cool project of using the web to broadcast their voices: “Utilize the technologies and/or e-forums we are exploring in class to have your voice heard by the world.”  For this project, students have published their own websites, and now are seeking ways to market them, bring them to broader attention, and also are using google analytics to track their visitor traffic.    A competition is running too amongst the groups for how many visits they can attract, and the high water mark, three weeks in, is 266.     I love this– it is a project crafted to meet the interests of digital natives, but not just their interests, the tools they will need to employ to be successful in the new era.    Lots of emphasis here on how students can address the marketing problem of driving traffic to their site– recognizing the critical point that it is not just enough to publish to the web, you need to have savvy to think about how to bring people to it. 
 The web provides such an amazing and constantly available (and nearly free) way for students not just to learn about the outside world, but contribute to the broader world’s knowledge.   
At one school I visited I saw a very cool project science students were doing studying the problem of eelgrass and non-native species infestations at Puget Sound marinas, and problem-solving and designing solutions to these problems.   Why not then post these proposed solutions to a website with a carefully designed url that will pop open relatively early when a marina manager goes to the internet to search for solutions to the problem in the real world? Or at another school, recently an astronomer spoke of the NASA project of sending people to Mars.  Why not have students brainstorm the obstacles to such a thing, problem-solve possible solutions, and publish them to a public website where they might contribute to the project. 
My student’s website is here, and I encourage you to click on it, (not so much because it is so interesting, but because it will help my friendly student guide in his contest). 
Learning periods here are about 70 minutes, in a schedule pretty humane to high school students, beginning at 8:40 am and running out to 3:40.   (only five minute passing periods though). 
Now all the students are examining their analytics site, and reporting to the teacher their growth in traffic– Azer reports he has drawn 93 new visitors to his site. 
9:55

Good morning readers, I am very excited to be writing from High Tech High in San Diego.   If you are a first time reader, welcome; please know that live-blogging flows chronologically from bottom to top, with each new entry headed by the time it was posted.  

I am very happy to be here at the school featured and highlighted in Tony Wagner’s book, Global Achievement Gap, the book which has been the single greatest influence on my project this fall.  In that book, Tony celebrates the project based approach, and high level of accomplishment, and true 21st century problemsolving and critical thinking that happen at this school.   I read Tony to say this is the best high school in America, but that an inference from his book, not something he says explicitly. 
I was welcomed here warmly, first virtually by email, and then this morning in person, by Special Programs Director Simi Rush.  Thank you Simi.   On Friday my family and I drove to Santa Barbara, where we stayed with our good friends the Weiss family on the campus of the lovely,  student-centered Crane Country Day School, which Joel Weiss heads.   Yesterday I drove the rest of the way down here to San Diego. 
After parking, I walked the very clean and contemporary looking courtyard separating HTH and the HT middle school, and then checked in with Simi at the front reception.    Simi introduced me to my student for the day, whom we will call “Azer” today, a junior at HTH.   Azer and I head to class, round the corner from reception, and my head snaps– this is a sharply different interior space than I think I have observed anywhere– and it is really cool, I love it.   I have a rule not to take photos, but it was hard to repress the impulse to take pictures.    Instead, I will direct you to a photo here which does a pretty good job of capturing it.  In a warehouse, or even light industrial factory kind of way, we enjoy very high ceilings with lots of exposed steel support beams, ducts, and insulation.  Every classroom is “walled” almost entirely by windows providing classrooms almost complete transparency as you walk the halls. Regular readers know that this is one of my pet causes– let’s make classrooms theaters; let’s use classroom architecture to metaphorically (and actually) show off to the world what we are doing in every classroom and break down the barriers separating one classroom from another, and separating classrooms from the world.   This place does so brilliantly in its spatial design.   As I come into the first classroom of the day, one of the students asks me how I like the classroom and building, calling my attention to his pride of the space, and when I tell him I love it, he expresses his especial appreciation for the high ceilings, telling me “subconsciously they make students fell more free, less constrained.”  
Here in our first period, I am in a PreCalculus class, and our students are working on a long term project on Debt and Investments.   Azer tells me his group is working on an investment analysis, including a excel spreadsheet showing long term returns from different choices, and a brochure explaining the pros and cons of different kinds of investments.    Our teacher comes over to Azer’s group to review their drafted brochure.    She gives feedback on word choices, font design, capitalization.  She asks them about the differences of common and preferred stocks, and they converse about ways to make that clear, the pros and cons of different stocks.  
Other students are working projects analysing  credit card debts.  One student calls out to Amy from across the room– when we interview someone for this project, how long should we talk to them?  Amy answers “Until they walk away,” and then explains further that it depends on how much they have to say.  
As I understand it, all HTH teachers are required to build their own digital portfolios, in the same way that students must, and they must similarly conduct their own “action research.”  Amy’s teacher site speaks of her research on the challenge of meeting High Tech High’s expectation that via project based learning, all subject matter be made relevant to students, and the particular challenge of making high school math relevant.   I sympathize– on my visits to schools, it is most often in my observations the math classes that are most detached from kids’ lives and interests.   But to Amy’s credit she has pressed ahead, and has written here about her initiatives to make math meaningful. 
Looking around the room again, students are very engaged, leaning over laptops together working on their projects, the exhibitions of which are due Friday.  Amy has told them they should be feeling a little pressure, and “working your tails off” for the exhibitions.   It is interesting– students do respond, we all do, to the right amount of pressure– too much is unhealthy to be sure, but too little pressure has its own faults, and it seems our teacher here is trying to find the right balance.   Amy is looking closely now at Azer and his partner’s very comprehensive, large, spreadsheet, and asking good questions about it, forcing her students to defend and explain their choices for how this excel works.   She asks them to cite their sources, and reason aloud how they arrived at these answers.   They are comparing Treasury bonds, Municipal bonds, annuities, etc., with good sophistication.    I really like the questions she is asking, and attention she is giving them, and I start thinking about the problem of rampant cheating in high schools.   In this kind of format, students doing comprehensive projects with public exhibitions and one-on-one defenses, how could they cheat?    These students are being held accountable in a myriad of ways, and cheating just wouldn’t make sense in this format.  
Amy is reviewing with them the rubric for their project, being wonderfully friendly, encouraging, and blunt– good on the math, but the brochure is a mess, you need to get on this, and finish that.    The rubric has categories for the project brainstorm, the math employed, the public education involved, and the final product.  
Amy takes a minute to say hello to me, and we discuss the challenge, the high challenge, of making high school math relevant and meaningful.  I compliment her for her project based approach, and contrast it to math that is taught just for the SAT test; she tells me, rightfully, that she does have to balance things in her approach, and sometimes she just really needs to teach the kids things they will have to know for freshman (college) calculus– and “it might not seem interesting to them, but they will be screwed freshman year if they don’t know it.”   It is a good reality check she provides me, and I appreciate it.     Lot more I could learn about how she does this.   Here is a course outline, showing the projects the students do and the math skills they learn, 
Evening
Finished the afternoon with a long, 100 minute conversation with one of Envision’s key administrators, Kyle Hartung, who has in a short period of four years been a teacher, school director, and now organization leader.     He told me a lot more about Envision’s structure and philosophy, and cited the value of its connection with Stanford’s School Redesign Network, something I should learn a lot more about– a brainchild, it seems, of the always excellent Linda Darling-Hammond,  who should be a strong Education Secretary contender for the new administration.      He also took pains to explain the critical flowchart-model of the Envision approach, which is to begin instructional design with well defined, top-notch,  performance assessments, and then go backwards (as in Wiggins) to design project based learning experiences to get kids to these performances.   
To get a better flavor of what this means in practice, he directed me to The Envision Project Exchange, which is an offshoot of the school network that I had not at first seen when trolling the Envision Schools website.   It is a nice piece of work, this site and its curricular demonstrations, and when you dive deeper into the site, looking at sample curricula, you can see more about the standards the projects teach to, and the assessments they use for the performance assessments.    
Kyle also directed me to to two fine graduating student portfolios, making the very reasonable point that we can in part evaluate schools by the work of their graduates.  Here is one and two
Kyle and I had a wide-ranging discussion about these and many other topics; I appreciate his time and thoughtfulness.   He offered me a book suggestion, which I am ordering promptly and passing along– Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship in Schools.
245
Liz’s Math class has a sub today– they are watching a video and working on a project– so I jump over to the Politics/Government class taught by Justin– the class/teacher which generated the Election Exhibit.    Our teacher begins with a quick overview of the day, and asks students to get the right stuff out, and put backpacks away, and “put your game face on.”  Justin hands out a document with a Heart of Darkness writing assignment, with some very good questions requiring student critical thinking.   I always like assignments asking students to enter an political discourse, take a position, and defend it– (as Graff says we must teach argumentation explicitly in order to orient students into academic discourse)– and the topic I like best here asks about Marlow’s Worldview, and has students choose one of the following: “Do you think Marlow is racist and Anti-African?  OR Do you think Marlow is speaking out against the treatment of Africans by Europeans?  Does Marlow represent someone who is more enlightened? Does he have a more progressive view of humanity? “
Taking a look at Justin’s very nice, impressive, online syllabus now,  I love to see that he establishes at its top “Our Essential Question:  What does it mean to be a modern human being, living in a modern world?”  It is beautifully Wigginsian, it establishes an underlying theme that can be returned to again and again in their studies for comparison, and it is real, it is relevant, it is something adolescents forming identities should really be able to relate to.   It is fleshed out just a bit more, to say we are learning about “who we are, where we have been, and where we are going as human beings?”   The syllabus also nicely establishes clear and comprehensive skills and knowledge goals, and provides a terrific reading list.     
Class begins with our teacher giving a ten minute explanation of how to use quotes effectively in expository writing– (and his online page on this is very nice), and then, keying off of a digitally projected computer slide, asks students to write in their journals a short piece incorporating and responding to a provided quotation from Conrad.   He offers good advice– you may not need to use all of the quote, but only select parts of it, “always be economical”– and our students are pretty focussed here on their writing piece, as he moves around the room, checkin on each individually.   Students having completed their pieces, they are asked to “table-share” what they have written, and he coaches them on how to give good feedback. 
2:00
During lunchtime here, I attend the Student Leadership Council (SLC) meeting with “Liz.”  
A long and detailed agenda is provided, and we begin with the reading of a letter from a facilitator, and then go around the table for “check-in.”  There is a rich discussion here of how to start a new club, as one visiting student seeks to start a dance club.  The group of about 10 students is being advised by one teacher, and the students are nicely asserting their own leadership.   At check-in, one 12th grade speaks about the pressure of college applications, and that they are due in a month’s time!   One of our leaders here speaks of an idea to go as a group soon to serve at a soup-kitchen, and there is warm enthusiasm here for an SLC event, building the group bond.  
The regular part of the meeting begins, and the leader here works with the group to assign roles of facilitator, co-facilitator, notetaker, process observer, sergeant at arms.    The first formal committee report begins on the topic of launching a new mentorship program, tentatively being called “senior buddies” to support the mentorship of freshmen by seniors.   After a quick report, the group peppers the presenter with good questions about, for instance, the process of matching seniors to freshmen, and about how to handle those students who will not want to participate, and how to focus the project on those students who will really benefit. As the presentation concludes, careful attention is given to defining action-items.   
Onto the next item– teacher-candidate interviews, and members are invited to join in on tomorrow’s interview of a science teaching candidate.   A quick discussion breaks out about what are good questions to ask prospective teachers, and the one which generates the most enthusiasm is this: “Do you like teenagers?”  The kids remember one candidate who answered this question “really weirdly,” indicating that maybe he did not, and, apparently, he was not hired.   
Our group moves on with great gravity to planning the prom, and issues with prom sites.   Winter dance planning is also underway here, and students are seeking to work with other schools on a jointly sponsored event.   A planned winter festival is discussed, and ideas for it are generated including jumpy houses, pie eating contests, etc.  Some ideas are drawn from private school events, (like at Drew or Waldorf, they say), but great concern is thoughtfully and sensitively expressed that the students here don’t have the money they do at those other schools, and so we can’t charge here 50cents for jumping in a jumpy house.  (“But I WANT to jump!” says one).   
During this long session our teacher adviser is almost entirely silent, even leaving the room for several minutes, which I appreciate, this deference to student leadership.   Our next topic is the problem of the lunch lines, their length and cutting in line.  It is a very serious topic for these kids, and they are grappling with the concerns of staffing the lines, whether two lines can be maintained, and other related concerns.  
And onto comments received in a comment box, a very small number of which anonymously expressed obnoxious and derogatory remarks– which this group takes very seriously.   Ideas are generated about whether and where to move the comment box, and then onto how to better educate the community on bigotry against gays.   Students suggest an assembly, a serious one (with no texting allowed! someone says), where the values of the school are really emphasized, and one student eloquently emphasizes that this school, Metro, is a school where respect and tolerance and diversity are very important, “it is why we come to Metro, and why we love Metro.” 
Our process observer reports as the session ends that there still needs to be more respect for the speaker, and we need to watch for “ranting.” 
12:25
Spanish class.   Very vibrant in here, student work on all walls, very colorful and busy.     One board displays student-made posters advocating political positions for the recent elections, en espanol.    Reading, analogies, vocabulary is the agenda for today, our teacher tells us as class starts.   Liz provides me a copy of the course objectives, which is a list of concepts to be learned month by month.    There is also a list of cultural themes, such as Macchu Picchu, De Compras, and El Mercado.   
First up today, two students present a poster with a cartoon displaying in a series of panels a day in the life of two students in a Spanish class.   They are enjoying themselves presenting, with lots of laughter.   Relatively small classes here at Metro– about 18 in this Spanish class.  (Compare to 60, with 4 teachers, at CART and 30+, with two teachers, at NTHS). 
Students now take a textbook from the center of the table.    Students are asked to look at the pictures, and then write about what they think they are going to be reading about.   Students volunteer in English and Spanish terms likes weather/tiempo, and landscapes/paisaje.   The teacher reads the passage herself first, and then asks students to read the same passage. 
After the read-aloud reading, the teacher asks students individually to categorize the words in the passage into Cognados (cognates), Verbos (verbs), Conocidas (familiar), and Desconocidas (unfamiliar).   Students at my table are doing the task- and also multi-tasking; one student asks another to text message a friend to tell him to go onto facebook to chat with her, which she is doing at her seat throughout the period on her iphone or itouch. 
Our teacher now facilitates students providing work examples for each of the four categories, and fills out her chart pretty quickly.   Next, she provides her students what she calls logographic clues, images she draws which she suggests students can use to better remember words, and explains this multi-modal technique might help visual learners better master their vocabulary.    And back to the textbook; students are asked in table groups to review statements and determine if they are true or false.   After reviewing the T/F as a class, the teacher has students move on to the comprehension questions, which she says students can find in the text.   They are doing this at my table as a group, usually by translating the questions into English and then talking about the answers.   One student calls out that this is too hard, and the teacher comes right over to help.  
Envision Schools’ site, founded in 2002, speaks of their motivation to combat high school drop-out; 7000 high school students drop out every day, their site says, and it is their purpose here to provide the kind of secondary schooling which combats that.   I think this can be a powerful driver for school design– the purpose of making each and every school day relevant, pertinent, meaningful, fulfilling, engaging, rewarding enough such that each student REALLY wants to come back the next day, and resist the siren call of the diverting life of the neighborhood.    It is a tall order– but it can “drive” a school vigorously in the right direction of providing true purpose for their students.  
 
Up next here in Spanish is a task, a project, for students to create analogies; she has provided some 7 or 8 prompts, such as “symbol and what it stands for” with the example being “rose: love.”     The student next to me is writing on his poster board (this room being colorfully festooned with student posters) “An individual is to a revolution as the stroke of a brush is to a mural.”    Others are “Cause is to Revolution as Inspiration is to Art,” and “Weapons are to War as Friendship is to Love.”  
10:40

Good morning, and welcome to School visit 16, today at a charter high school in San Francisco, Metropolitan Arts and Technology High School, or just Metro.     Metro is a part of the Envision network of schools, which have four sites now in the Bay Area, and whose schools are based on project-based learning.     I am live-blogging, so this runs chronologically from bottom to top, with each new entry headed by the time it was posted. 

School is starting now at 9:10 am (it runs out to 3:40), which, like I was just writing about at Redwood Day, is really respectful of the sleep schedule of teenagers.   First class is Advanced Art. Our teacher for this 90 minute block period is setting out expectations for the day, and inviting ideas from students on doing a so-called “collaboration” page for their art project.   My student for shadowing today, who has a very cool name I wish I could use (she tells me the same, that her name is very cool), we will call instead Liz– greeted me at 8:40 and gave me a very nice tour of the roughly ten classrooms on a rectangular floor plan on the bottom floor of a large public high school.    She is proud of her school, and tells me it has had three sites in three years.   She normally takes a before-school morning drop-in African drumming workshop, which she missed this morning in order to tour me.  
In Art, Liz shows me the book she is working on for this project, which is to re-fashion an old book in ways which represent her identity.  She has painted in it, written provocative quotes, and cut out a whole in it hold a bottle which contains her six word memoir (“is my experience worth six words?”).    
Liz explains to me that for collaboration pages, you invite someone else who you know to add something to your creation, letting a little bit of another person into your self-identity.   Liz is going to incorporate self-portraits (“totally hilarious”) of her friends into her book, and then write about their impact on her life.  As in most art classes I have visited, the mood here is good, and students are nicely balancing their concentration on their art with their casual conversation and laughter with classmates (much like the workplace environments most adults prefer). 
I asked Liz why she chose Metro: “I definitely knew I didn’t want to go to a big school, it seemed like my friends lost their identity at big high schools, and I wanted to know my teachers.  Metro offered art and technology, two of my favorite things, and I visited the school during ‘exhibitions’ and I liked the people here, they were my kind of people.   At Lowell, the academic magnet school, people seemed overly academic, and I wanted well rounded people, people passionate about their interests, not just about getting good grades.  It is more diverse here, and people are strange, and people are free to be themselves.” 
The teacher here gives me a syllabus to look at, which explains this is both a fine arts and an art history course, interdisciplinary.    It explains that students will be expected to master a specific set of studio techniques, and will have a great deal of written work as well, including a major research paper about an artist.   There is also a rubric for work ethic and leadership, carefully laid out, explaining to students the particular behaviors they should manifest to earn an A, B, or C. 
I was introduced to Envision schools by an associate of mine who is Research Director at the Buck Institute, which does research on project-based learning.  My friend, Jason Ravitz, suggested that great teaching and learning was happening here.    The pbl approach culminates, as it should, in exhibitions, and the school here recently presented an exhibition on election eve.    Local TV covered the event here.     The exhibitions were produced in a social studies class which Liz is very passionate about, Government and Politics, in which students created and produced their own TV ads about various issues.   For “Liz’s” ad, see it here.    Nice use of technology, nice culminating exhibit, nice key-in to current events with relevancy to these students.   
Anna, the art teacher here, tells me of the journey that brought here to Envision schools.  She previously taught at Eagle Rock School in Colorado, about which she is very passionate for its outstanding experiential education.   While there, she learned that a previous administrator at Eagle Rock was a founding principal here at Envision, and that brought her here.   She strongly advises me to visit Eagle Rock if I get a chance, and tells me it has an outstanding professional development center too. 
Anna goes on to tell me what she likes about working here, including that it is small, she really gets to know other teachers and collaborate with them, and that she can really participate in the decision-making at the school– she seems to feel very vested in it.    She likes the interdisciplinary commitments here too: “Art is connected to other disciplines,” she says, and gives an example of the political exhibitions,  and tells me here in art they learned to do editorial cartooning as an extension of the politics they were doing there. 

Much upcoming, and some new commentary.

1. Upcoming school visits include EnVision’s Metro High School (SF) Thursday, Dec. 4; High Tech High Monday and Tuesday, Dec. 8 and 9; and Wildwood School Wed., Dec. 10; and Sonoma Academy Tuesday, Dec. 16.

2. Jay Matthews at the Washington Post has returned to the topic of 21st century skills– regular readers here my remember my response to his cranky column bashing 21st c. skills advocates two months ago. In this most recent piece, he acknowledges his crankiness, and moves to accept that there is some reason to accept that we should place a higher priority on teaching students to think creatively and evaluate analytically. (I would add to solve complex problems, at a minimum). I appreciate his point that there is nothing terribly new about what we are calling 21st c. skills– these were certainly valuable things to learn in preceding centuries– but I think there is a sound argument that as the world changes, these intellectual skills are more important than ever. I am not quite as enthusiastic as he is about teaching high school students a lot of factual content to memorize, but I will happily accept the following:

The most important conclusion of Silva’s well-sourced 11-page study is that the best learning happens “when students learn basic content and processes, such as the rules and procedures of arithmetic, at the same time that they learn how to think and solve problems.

Matthews goes on to ask where is this happening– this kind of teaching– and it is fun for this blogger to find the example cited being that of New Technology High School (NTHS). Regular readers of this blog know that my visit and student shadowing at NTHS was perhaps the most impressive of my 15 school visits thus far (I visited at the Sacramento campus, but the programs are very consistent as I understand it across the several sites).

Also good to see Matthews quasi-endorse, if mildly and a bit back-handedly, the College and Work Readiness Assessment, which is another favorite here at Good High School; Matthews, who wrote Supertest to praise the virtues of the IB, also takes another opportunity to praise IB warmly.

The Silva article cited above has prepared a thorough research analysis for Education sector on Measuring Skills for the 21st century; I plan to return to review this report soon.

3. Delighted here at GoodHighSchool with the recent research publication by the MacArthur Foundation: Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project. Click here for a two page summary, and here for the NYT article about the research report. This very large study, with a team from several universities and conducted over several years, brings us the entirely unsurprising “news” that teens like to spend a lot of time on “new
media”– particularly the internet, social networking sites, and communicating via other digital tools. More important than this “revelation” is the following:

“It may look as though kids are wasting a lot of time hanging out with new media, whether it’s on MySpace or sending instant messages,” said Mizuko Ito, lead researcher on the study, “Living and Learning With New Media.” “But their participation is giving them the technological skills and literacy they need to succeed in the contemporary world. They’re learning how to get along with others, how to manage a public identity, how to create a home page.”

The report emphasizes two main points: new media strengthens and extends their
social lives in ways much more often positive than negative, and we all know how
important socializing, and social development, is for our adolescents; and,
perhaps more interestingly, (but still unsurprisingly), it greatly strengthens
their ability to delve deeper and pursue further their passions and interests,
in what the report calls “geeking out.”

Some youth “geek out” and dive into a topic or talent. Contrary to popular images, geeking out is highly social and engaged, although usually not driven primarily by local friendships. Youth turn instead to specialized knowledge groups of both teens and adults from around the country or world, with the goal of improving their craft and gaining reputation among expert peers. While adults participate, they are not automatically the resident experts by virtue of their age. Geeking out in many respects erases the traditional markers of status and authority.

Great stuff– let’s keep working to provide our students the tools, the training, the support, and the respect for their usage of digital media.

4. Interesting article last spring by Rothstein regarding performance incentives in education, asking many tough questions about how appropriate, and how effective, they can be in the educational setting. Rothstein argues that “goal distortion, gaming, and corruption” are almost inevitable consequences from performance incentive plans (pip), even when pip’s do raise average performance slightly. He delves into whether pip’s in corporate settings really are as prevalent, or as effective, as school pip advocates suggest, and answers that they are not. He also considers the importance of intrinsic motivation for teaching in the teaching profession, arguing not that we should diminish the importance of better compensation in general for educators, but that pip efforts might be particularly unsuited to a profession that is as much an avocation as a vocation. He also points out how devestating pip’s can be to teamwork and employee morale. Diane Ravitch brought me to Rothstein article from her blog posting today. She also points readers to a new book, Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us, which I am ordering promptly. (I am a little sorry to see Ravitch throw a punch at Michelle Rhee, whom, from a distance, I have apparently more appreciation for than does Ravitch.)

5. More on the topic of the distortion educational testing can cause– cheating is apparently on the rise again. The AP reported on the new Josephson Institute survey, finding 64% of high school students have cheated, and yet 93% of them are pretty self-satisfied with their ethics. This concerns me, certainly, as it is supposed to, the way the results are presented and articles written. Nonetheless, there is much cause for more nuance and more thoughtfulness when examining the issue. I’d suggest first we separate things out more than these discussions do: cheating is one thing, stealing another, and ethical self-satisfaction an altogether different third thing. As for cheating, we do need to recognize that a huge proportion of high school students are being educated in an environment which encourages them, even demands of them, that they “Do School,” or play “The Game of School,” to quote the title of two books on the subject previously reviewed in this blog. When we test kids relentlessly, testing them on what we deem important rather than on anything they view as meaningful or relevant, and we tell them that the results of this testing will count for more than any more authentic assessment of their human wholeness– well then, what can we possibly expect other than widespread disdain for the testing, and hence cheating. This also explains the seemingly irreconcilable statistics about the numbers who cheat with the numbers who view themselves as ethical. What these kids are saying, I would hazard, is that they believe themselves to be ethical in the ways that matter or are meaningful. As for this second point, nuance requires us to recognize that there can be no simple yes or no answer to a question about satisfaction with personal ethics and character. Life is insanely complicated, adolescence even more so than adulthood I would suggest, and student growth occurs by not answering such a question with a single worded answer, but grappling with it– what do these terms mean in my life, and what are the many ways in which I struggle to fulfill my personal goals in the way I treat others and maintain my integrity. Life is hard, and kids struggle, and they cheat and they lie. I don’t like it anymore than anyone else. But these kinds of scare-tactic anxiety raising statistics don’t really help us address what really matters: are our kids finding their high school years personally fulfilling them, is their schooling genuinely serving them in advancing upon their goals, and they intrinsically motivated to address real-world problems? Let’s address these things first, then worry about whether they are cheating.

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