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.”
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.
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.
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.