My most frequently “re-tweeted” Blog post has to have been a post I did a few months ago entitled How We at St. Gregory are using Tony Wagner’s Global Achievement Gap. In the last three months, it has had 174 visits. In that post, I wrote that one of the things we were doing as a faculty to engage and respond to the book was to write in each department an narrative (or several) of exemplary St. Gregory class sessions which demonstrate effectively the kind of teaching and learning (we think) Wagner is calling for.
On p. 65 of his book, after a long series of brief vignettes where Tony describes high school classrooms which are not working to promote the learning of the skills kids need, he then offers a three paragraph passage of an Algebra II class that is effective: it is one where “the teachers use academic content as a means of teaching students how to communicate, reason, and solve problems.” We are using this phrase as our touchstone, though we are adding to it as follows: using academic content as a means to teach students how to communicate and collaborate, reason and analyze critically, and solve problems using creativity and innovation.
I have collected now about a dozen, and I will periodically be publishing them here; we are also preparing for publication later this month a little booklet of these exemplary “Wagnerian” classroom narratives. This one is written by Dr. Michelle Berry, and (as all of them have been, for consistency of format and style) edited by Stefanie Teller. Please let me know what you think by posting a response; many more to come!
AP Government – Unit on Constitutional Law
The teacher begins the unit on Constitutional Law by announcing that, over the course of the month-long unit, each student will have an important role to play every day in order to make sense of complex Constitutional questions and critique the wisdom of the United States Supreme Court. This is heady stuff that asks seniors in high school to do work typical of first year law school students. Through imagination, collaboration, and critical thinking, the students being to unravel the problems presented every day in the Supreme Court that enable the Constitution to continue on its dynamic path as a living, breathing set of guiding principles for the longest standing democracy in the world.
Each student in the class is assigned to a group of four. (This is done randomly so that students find themselves with both friends and acquaintances, strong students and not-as-strong students.) The students are then given three different dockets of 4-5 Supreme Court cases. Each group is responsible for selecting the case they will role-play in class. Students choose who will role-play the petitioners, the respondents, and the two lawyers. When the role plays occur, nine of the other students comprise the Supreme Court for that day and the remaining students play the role of the general public. The “public” students are assigned political ideological orientations, and after the “Supreme Court” makes its decision, the members of the “public” post on the course blog about their reactions to the decision in accordance with their assigned ideologies. The students who are in charge of the day’s case also write 1500-word analytical essays about the cases they have chosen not to role-play in class. Everyone who is not responsible for the docket of the day is responsible for understanding any precedents that exist for the particular Constitutional question being asked (sometimes there aren’t any) before they come to class since they may be assigned to be a justice for that day.
Class opens with a brief reminder from the teacher about the historical context of the case on which the class is about to deliberate. From that point on the teacher is quietly facilitating the proceedings without being overly involved. She offers a subtle guiding hand when needed, but mostly allows the students to delve into the case on their own. After the justices are “briefed” by the petitioners and respondents, the lawyers give oral arguments followed by a question-and-answer session during which justices must adapt to the arguments and ask analytical questions of the lawyers. This requires agility of the mind. At that point, the justices “deliberate” and finally render their judgment. The entire class then discusses whether or not the AP Government Supreme Court reached the same conclusion as the real Supreme Court (very often it does not), and with heated debate the students discuss their opinions about both the actual decision and the class’s decision.
This particular unit lasts about a month during which the students must learn to share their workload, since some parts of the assignment are harder than others and part of developing and mastering collaborative skills learning to evenly disperse the responsibility for any given day. The students are also constantly accessing information. They do this by using the website oyez.org. The site contains the actual Supreme Court decisions and recordings of the actual oral arguments. This helps the Supreme Court literally come alive for the students. Students get to use their imaginations by wondering what it would be like to be a lawyer presenting before the Supreme Court, a respondent in a momentous case, and/or a Supreme Court Justice who is making weighty decisions. Students in this class do not memorize anything (although they are held accountable for the big ideas on the final exam). They actively engage in their own learning, analyze big issues that affect the democratic society that they are inheriting, implement all of the seven skills for survival, and even have some fun along the way.