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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.