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.  
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. 
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. 


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.