End of day-
As I exited, had a pleasant farewell with Head of School Janet Durgin. She shared with me her appreciation for Research for Better Teaching
, an excellent outfit, and one nugget from RBT, the 10-2 rule. She explained that by this rule, teachers should strive to not lecture or lead discussion for any longer than ten minutes, and for every ten minutes of presenting, students should be provided two minutes for consolidating this new learning. Nice idea, and I am glad to know that RBT and its signature book, The Skillful Teacher, are mainstays of teaching professional development at my new school, St. Gregory’s.
Emily had wanted to bring me to her Lit class, Dystopia and Decline
, but sadly it was a reading period today, not too much of value for me to extricate. Diego is in Pre-Cal, which I observed already this morning, so he kindly escorts me to the science wing, where I am here now in Bio-Chemistry
class. Wade welcomes me back (I was here this morning during exploratory), and we briefly discuss our shared experience at, and appreciation for, United World College
Wade tells me he is preparing a lab for the students for Thursday, but today it will be video and demonstration, because “the students need theory before practice.” We begin in here with a video lesson, drawn from http://www.Learner.org
, displaying the molecular chemistry of acids and bases. Our teacher interrupts the video to explain some of the terminology in it. It is about a ten minute video, and I again notice my appreciation for the usage of short (not long) videos into classroom teaching– I think it it effectively utilizes a medium appreciated by students and is able to give images and non-linguistic representations of concepts that are often hard to deliver otherwise. Now, an overhead projector displays a slide of the Ph scale, 0-14, and a 15 minute overview lecture on the scale, with some questions from the students– (“Can you give us examples of bases other than drain cleaners?”) Now, kids are reviewing the writeup of the same topic in their textbooks. After a further ten minutes lecture on the PH scale, our teacher now uses a large beaker, injecting a universal indicator, to show us the change of colors in the beaker as he dilutes the liquid. A student asks a fine question about whether you could move this acidic water beaker to a strong base by continuing the dilution, and our teacher explains the answer to this, alluding to the technique of serial dilution.
Lovely lunch with Head of School Janet Durgin, and my thanks for the sandwich. We had a great discussion about schools and the work of school leadership, and I appreciated her thoughtfulness about priorities and goals. She told me about another school she admires greatly, the Watershed School
, which is also doing really innovative work in 9-12 education, and is using CWRA– love to learn more about Watershed. I share with Janet many of the things I have seen here that I really admire, that put the school in the top set of schools I have visited, including the intellectual content of Brandon’s class, the excellent cooperative learning in Pre-Calculus, and the support for curricular innovation in Exploratory.
Janet walks me back to class, and we enjoy walking past the brand new classrooms, each built with ground to ceiling windows of some six to eight feet breadth, displaying fully the action of each classroom. A teacher walking with us remarks how much she likes it– that you can experience just by walking through all the learning that is happening here.
Now in Humanities
, and we are printing off the the theses that we are working on right now, which follow a reading of the primary sources that are the subject of the week (this week is a letter by Jefferson on Head and Heart). Diego wrote very nicely about the tension in Jefferson of pragmatism and romanticism– I love his intellectual sophistication to see and appreciate the cross-currents here:
In 1776, as the new nation of America began to flourish, Thomas Jefferson fell in love with a married Englishwoman named Maria Cosway. After Maria returned to England, Jefferson wrote a letter to her in the form of a ³dialogue between the head and the heart,² debating his love for her. This letter, presented as a conflict between pragmatic and romantic thought, sums up the conflict within Jefferson himself. Jefferson ³put pragmatic considerations above unyielding principles² (Nation of Nations), cutting taxes, regulating government, and establishing efficient one-party political control. However, he also believed in an ³agrarian republic,² where rural life could nourish ³honesty, independence, and virtue.² A conflict of mentalities like this would be unimportant in most writers or philosophers, but Jefferson is not so much a product of his times as a creator of them. This debate could only happen during this era of good feelings and hope, because only during times of relative stability can new ideas can really be born.
asks us to write a list of the important or interesting stuff in the history chapter we are reading this week (Causes of the Civil War), dividing this list into the stuff we get and the stuff we don’t get. Groups quickly form, and I really like this approach of how to engage with, draw from, the content of a textbook. Students jump into action in small groups.
The course relies on a thousand page document including dozens of primary texts and a syllabus, and the teacher offers to firewire it to me because it is too big to email, but I pass. Instead I will just copy in the key framing questions:
A quick overview: The United States is a nation of immigrants, and very recent ones at that. This is something we have all come to believe without question, but it¹s actually a very strange and distinctive part of our cultural identity. Even many of the Native Americans who were displaced by Europeans were themselves relatively new arrivals, in some cases ruthless conquerors whose new habits changed the very land beneath their feet. In this course we will attempt to make some sense of what it means to be American. Where do Americans come from? How did they get here? How have their unique backgrounds and beliefs helped shaped the society that evolved on this continent? What does it take to become ‘American’? Who decides? How have Americans, over time, chosen to explain all of this to themselves?
Excellent essential questions, some of the best I have seen, questions that kids care about, that are meaningful to them.
Now into the list-making– here is a teacher starting by asking kids to identify the problems, to tell him what they don’t get, to set him up by clarifying to him what they’d like him to teach them. Nice. Haven’t hardly ever seen this, and I like it. What is on the list? Party System, LeCompton, Dred Scott, Lincoln-Douglas, Election of 1856, the Know-Nothings, Secession,Kansas Nebraska Act. “Anything else on the stuff you don’t get list?”
Another student asks “How did the South think they were possibly going to survive, didn’t they realize they needed stuff from the North to survive?” Great question to generate the teaching of this important topic, and now he and the students are offering good insights, comparing and contrasting this issue in the Civil War to the parallel issue in the Revolutionary War?
Laptops are all open, all over the room, and I can see many screens, open to word, on which students are writing notes from the lesson. He begins in on Kansas-Nebraska, and asks students to look up what year that occurred in, which they diligently do. Our teacher talks now about the Race to Kansas– explaining how popular sovereignty had a perverse effect, which the kids are engaged with. And onto the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and its effects– and he draws an analogy to Obama, the way that the debates launched Lincoln parallels the way the 2004 Convention keynote launched Obama. (Always like to see analogies to contemporary topics of interest). Into now an analysis of the development of the Republican party, its origins and growth over the 1850s, (frequently interrupted, entirely understandably, by inquiries abotu the relationship of the 19th c. Republican party to today’s Republican party– inquiries that he needs to push aside, something I entirely sympathize with, but I am intrigued by noticing that the large interest in this question is representative of the way in which students, entirely naturally, really want, frequently, to tie their historical learning to current events).
Here now in Historiography
, after a hurried transition from exploratory, and a hand-off from Emily to “Diego.” Emily tells me that I will love this class, because teacher Brandon
is so crazy– full of amazing stories. I have written before, but I will say again, that I LOVE when a student praises a teacher for being crazy, or wild, or weird– it is the best kind of compliment. Diego too, as we walk over, tells me that this is an amazing class, and that Brandon is an incredible teacher, they have already read here Marx and Hegel (!).
Brandon emails me his syllabus.
Second school in the last three where my gmail was blocked; I am not sure why this keeps happening to me. I look over at Diego’s laptop to see the syllabus: “Historiography is the study of how history is written. In this course we will look at some of the most influential works and student the contexts in which they were written. Most importantly, we will use the texts to think about how we think about history. The main assignment for the class will be to write a twenty to thirty page research essay on a historical topic of your choice. I want to encourage as many of you as possible to take on topics relating to the local history of Sonoma County or the Bay Area.”
Lots to like about this– I love the long paper, I think that is it just key to provide kids truly challenging– and large– projects to tackle. There is great concern that the “term paper” is dying in the US, but not here, not at all. I also love that it is a choice, and that it is local– really push kids to choose something real, relevant, personal. I wonder whether there is any “publishing” of these histories, and I hope there will be– which I think can be such a valuable end piece and product to motivate students and enhance the relevance of their work, that they are publishing on-line for general audience readers interested in histories of Sonoma County or the Bay Area. Such an incredible era we are in, where we can freely publish online for wide popular audiences, and I think we should grab it for enhancing student learning.
Class begins with Brandon telling me that the class is reading Arendt (Fanon and Foucault still to come!), and that on the board are six or seven terms: imperialism, emancipation of the bourgeois, Jews, Bismark, The Boy who wanted to shake and shiver, nation-state, Frankfurt Assembly, Wagner’s Ring, nationalism, dialectic. Students are asked, for six minutes at class beginning, to write freely, connecting two of these terms.
Diego: “Nationalism is what comes from the overpowering nation. And overpowering is essential because it is all about power the whole thing revolves around which is more powerful. Can the state keep the nation and the nationalism in line, or does the nationalism overpower the institution of state? The thing that keeps recurring in Hegel and Marx and Arendt is this idea that if we get the people in line with the state (i.e. the nation in line with the state), we have peace, harmony, world spirit, freedom, whatever.”
I like this way of starting class– begin with a problem or project, let students work and think, then move to teacher-lead time, rather then vice versa (which is more common, sadly). Now Brandon is leading us in a rich conversation about these terms, with lots of participation and critical acumen in place. Teacher: “What imperialism do to the state?” Student “It will impose its law on the people–which contradicts the original intention of a nation state.” Teacher: ” The alignment of imperialism and nationalism causes contradictions, because the state is supposed to protect rights, and this is the opposite.” Passion here. And now into the storytelling, for which Brandon is (justly) well regarded, and I am stupidly looking at the syllabus, missing part of it which I regret deeply. A prince in a castle, demons and devils, very gothic. The hero is being beaten, spanked and bludgeoned. I will make nary a sign nor nary a yell, despite the torture. Acting out the torture, Brandon’s continues his storytelling with great intensity. Special healing water emerges from the princess for the hero to resuscitate him. The cycle repeats itself– the second morning the princess is coquettish– and her body is gradually transforming itself from black as night to a snowy white. Our hero asks the maiden– is everything white? Flirty– sensual– yes, everything is white, she replies. You know how it ends: marriage, money, everyone is happy. The story over, he asks us to fit the story into the Hegelian history of progression through historical stages. Our students are on fire now with their analysis– the teacher points this out to me personally and says “this is going into the blog” and indeed it is. Into the French revolution now, with the aristocracy fallen and displaced: “But link it now to the story.” If I get this right, Brandon’s storytelling is drawn from rich, historically contemporary, satires, parables, allegories, and he spins the stories out richly, and asks the students to do the work (!) of critically linking the allegory to the history.
Examining Arendt, and identifying how she fills in gaps in Marx. “Let’s delve into the nuances of Arendt, now.” Nothing formal, throw stuff out, what’s in there-come on, he encourages students. I like the shifting gears here, there is a natural give and take flow between teacher talk and student participation, and the mid-period storytelling time helps break it up. Attention seems to be staying strong, now at minute 60 of this class, which is rarely the case (both brain research and my own observations tell me), but I worry that it can’t last much longer, despite the high quality of this lecture/discussion. “Let’s check back in on the theme of the dialectic; what are good examples from our learning this fall?” Shout-outs: Hegel, Church and state, morality and passion with the synthesis being right and will. Now back to Arendt– she too is identifying and articulating a dialectic, that of nation and state.
Excellent college preparation, so empowering for students to have this pre-collegiate introduction to critical theory, and for them to enter into the argument discourse Graff describes as being the huge hurdle for many of university learning.
Gearshift now, back to storytelling– which helps considerably re-engage attention– now the story being Wagner’s Ring cycle.
Diego tells me his 30 page paper is on the Hundred Years War–and Joan of Arc, because he finds the ideological movement centering on her very interesting, particularly in Shaw. Other paper topics are the CIA, IRA, serial killers/Zodia, the history of soy, the history of yoga, the Marxist family (from DasKapital), Martin Luther King, and baseball.
In exploratory now, a special class time that happens four times a week, but in two alternates, each twice a week. Emily takes me to review the options for this exploratory time, and we can choose among frisbee golf (but it is freezing out), Balkan singing, Woodburning (?), and we choose “Out of the black and into the blue” a science exploratory. The teacher
explains as we enter that this is a tour of the deepest depths of the ocean, and farthest reaches of the universe, but due to budget shortages they can only do this visiting virtually. All students have their macbooks open, this being a laptop 1-1 school, and are directing themselves to Celestia
. Today we are touring, via celestia, the solar system. Students are working on the downloading of the program.
As Math class ended, I had a friendly quick chat with the teacher. She asked me what my mission is, and I told her “celebrating 21st century education,” and she asked me if I define 21st century education as being primarily the inclusion of technology. I told her that while that is an important element, I see it much more broadly than that, and directed her to my writing on the topic here in the blog
. I tell her that by my lights it also includes schooling that draws upon contemporary writing and research in best practices; that provides students skill developing in critical thinking, problemsolving and innovation; that is international minded in our new era of globalization.
As Emily and I sought this teacher’s science classroom (which took some doing, everything having moved rooms in the last two days!), and we walked to the second floor of the newly opened building (“I’ve never been over here before”), she tells me she thinks my project interesting. Schooling, this fine 16yrd old explains, has conventionally been about preparing productive workers, able and ready to follow directions and work hard for the employers, so, she goes on, it is a bit of a revolutionary concept of mine, that schooling should be for innovating. I tell her yes, there is the 19th c. factory model of education, training compliant workers, and I think there is a 20th c., even elite, model, of top schooling which was to train professionals who could read and follow complex language “textbooks”– law journals, legal references, medical journals, academic professorial articles and research– and then follow along in this grid. The latter, this mid-late 20th c. professionalism, did require what our best schools taught– ability to read for a high level of vocabulary and sophistication, and write within it too. But, I told Emily, think how different it is now: whereas doctors “only” had to read complex medical journals in the seventies and eighties, they could reasonably expect and trust the authority and accuracy of those publications they read (lawyers too). Now, doctors have to respond to patients who are quoting all kinds of wiki-like medical websites, and doctors have to go those sites too, and evaluate the accuracy and significance of non-authoritative medical writing– a wholly different skill set which we have to teach and our kids have to learn to be successful in a new internet era. Similarly, so much of medicine and law that is rote is now outsourced abroad or to automation, or easily accomplished by the incoming, lower rung professionals; truly successful doctors and lawyers have to reinvent their role, reinvent their tools, innovate in a way that wasn’t necessary for top-notch success 25 years ago.
Emily responds with a good point– (very self aware, she is)– that private schools trying to be innovative, and teach these 21st c. skills, might have a problem in that the parent-consumers might not get it– the parents might demand test scores or AP achievement because that is what they, the parents, remember being the measure of excellence from their own schooling, and so parents might fight schools that try to go in this new direction. Very wise– I tell her that parents need to be educated too.
Next to me now here in this exploratory Emily is playing the demo of celestia, and we are zooming form earth to moon in sharp, beautiful pictorial images. This is cool, she says. Emily continues to zoom around, but when I ask her what she is doing on celestia now, she says she is trying to figure out how this thing works, it doesn’t seem to be functioning quite right– and she is trying to uncover why that is. Like it– confusion and obstacles are good things, they require our students to puzzle the problem out, to use their “puzzlers” as Dr. Seuss calls it in The Grinch (which I just read aloud to my son last night). Very quiet in here, a bit eerie with a dozen students in the room, but they mostly engaged with celestia (though one is knitting!).
Emily and I duck out and we walk over to Balkan singing exploratory. Emily tells me Balkan singing is very lovely, and that it is being taught this fall by a junior girl– the music director used to teach it, she said, but he was too busy so this student took it over. (Love schools which welcome student initiative and empower students this way). Here a group of 7, six girls and a guy, are singing in a lovely acapella, with rounds, our student-teacher keeping time with fingersnapping. Rejoice. Our next song is in a Balkan language– not sure which one– and I love how music learning can be such a fabulous entry point into acquaintance, appreciation, perhaps eventually some understanding of other cultures. Beautiful singing here.
Good morning– Here today at school visit #21- at the gorgeous, brand new campus of Sonoma Academy. Brand new this fall; in fact, one of the buildings in which I am attending classes today only opened yesterday!
If you are reading along, welcome, and please know that in liveblogging we flow in reverse chronology, with the most recent posting at top, and each new entry headed by the time it was posted.
I am warmly welcomed by head of school Janet Durgan and two juniors who are hosting me today, and we hurry off to PreCalculus. 15 students are seated in rows facing the whiteboard, and our teacher kicks off with a reminder to students not to eat in class. Now she is reviewing for us graphs of sin and cos, asking how many degrees are in a radiant, and whether her diagram of a section of a circle is more or less of a radiant. Students, on this very foggy morning, sleepily offer tentative answers to her called out questions. “Are you all good?”
Now she breaks us up into teams for whiteboard practice of topics for the test tomorrow. “2s or 3s,” she calls out, and when the kids say threes, she says “OK, but make sure that third person doesn’t slack off– I want everyone involved. ” Important: Marzano says research does support cooperative, team learning, but group size is critical, and has to stay small.
Whiteboards emerge from against the walls, large ones, and are set down on lab tables for student groups– to my surprise (and delight), these groups are working standing, not sitting. I know not every classroom necessarily can accommodate this, standing, but it is good for kids and learning I think, gets more blood going, gets more movement in the kids, much better than just sitting. Sleepiness quickly dissipates as students work on these problems. One groups works sitting down, and that is Ok, giving kids the choice, but I am glad that most are standing, and I wouldn’t want the choice available if they all chose to sit.
She is offering one point extra credit per correct answer per team. Everyone who has a right answer within a time limit– I am increasingly aware how much I like a little gentle competition, especially team competition, in class and learning. It is this epiphany from the brain research– a little stress is a good thing for learning, it motivates teams and gives them a goal to strive for, and sets them going. Sometimes progressives in the vein of Kohn bash competition, but it is all a matter of degree, and I really think it works in the rooms I observe.
I think every class should start like this– kids come in, form up teams right away, and spend the first twenty minutes tackling problems, standing up, working in small teams, competing. It whets their appetite, and then when the teacher says let’s learn a new technique for what you were working on, won’t students be that much more interested and engaged– this is news they can use for their competitions. I just really like this– the kids are doing the work of learning here, they are teaching each others, they are working under very light, effective stress.
Sitting now with my host, “Emily,” and her group. They have found one answer to the question, but the teacher comes over to tell them she wants all the possible answers. M: “I don’t understand how there could be more than two answers to this?” It is a great question and it asked, one-to-one, to the teacher, and the thinking happening here is so rich. Our teacher doesn’t answer entirely, she draws a diagram, and then says I want you to think about it before leaving for the next group.
The school’s website is very attractive– I like the faculty pages, such as the one
of this Math teacher I am with right now. The website articulates the curriculum by calling the main subject areas “disciplines,” a language that is very collegiate, and very nice. It is something that I have found Gardener especially to write about, (The Disciplined Mind
), and it tries to capture the concept that these categories are not about a flat “subject”– a body of knowledge, a content set– but rather an approach, an action, a way of doing
something. Rather than math being the set of facts, it is a cast of mind, it a method of analysing the world. I really like this quote from the website about Math-Science:
Considerable emphasis is placed on understanding and appreciating the richness of mathematics and applying mathematical tools to complex and real situations. There is extensive use of technology, instrumentation, graphing calculators and computers to assist in problem solving, data collection, modeling and analysis.
Regular readers know that I will particularly like the quote’s commitment to learning math by applying its tools to “complex and real situations.” So excellent a commitment, and yet, especially math classes in my observation now of twenty of them this fall, so hard to accomplish.
I also really like this language:
Learning is anything but rote at Sonoma Academy. Innovation, creativity and problem solving are the standards here… We are constantly looking for ways to innovate and make subjects more relevant to students.
My research last winter at Columbia University was how school-leaders can stimulate and facilitate great innovation by faculty members, and at times I was challenged, by colleagues and by board members, respectfully, that surely change can’t be just for the sake of change, surely we need to promote innovation in teaching and learning for particular purposes and goals rather than just in the abstract. My answer is a bit of a waffle, I am afraid– of course that is true, of course we want to see teaching innovation aligned with a school’s strategic initiatives, and as stated here, there is a broad direction identified for innovation: toward making learning more relevant (a highly worthy direction). But I still think that innovation for its own sake is valuable, and I’d hate for it be too rigidly restricted from above. Reinventing the wheels results in many, many different iterations of the wheel, and a Darwinian analysis would suggest that those that are most effective will be most replicated. But teaching and learning that stays stuck in a rut; when we are teaching the same way we taught last year and last decade, (and the same way we learned), then how can we learn from the comparison and contrasting? Let’s see schools as Edisonian labs, with teachers and students experimenting all the time in schooling, and doing more of what works and less of what doesn’t, year after year.
After a good, rich team problem solving, our teacher checks students’ homework for completion, and then follows up on a problem she notices seems to have been especially difficult. Our teacher shows the problem, says afterwards “tada; these are ones where you really do get to do a little dance when you get it right.” Fun.