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.  
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. 
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.   

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. 

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,