Last week, St. Gregory hosted its Upper School Curriculum Night; I attended many classes, and viewed many wonderful examples of outstanding, innovative, technologically integrated lessons informed by contemporary best practices happening at our school.

Some notes about what I observed.

In AP Chemistry, Dr. Scott Morris offers a full set of lectures by podcast, available for all students (they are public) who might have missed a class, or needs to review difficult material.

In St. Greg’s brand new Design/Build Tech Innovation class, Mr. Dennis Connor explained that this course was designed in an unconventional manner.   Rather than beginning with the educational content or skills outcome, and building a course to get there, the Science teachers who designed this course set out to provide a rich, project based learning experience for our students.

In this class, students are collaborating; they are identifying projects they want to accomplish and researching how to do so, developing their research skills togo with this.   The teacher explains they need real science knowledge to make their projects fly, and need use math in many steps along the way.   This is a pass-fail course; it not about grades, but it is about a real-world experience.   Projects vary widely; some students  are building medieval trebuchets and some are designing apps for iphones.  “I push them, and push hard, to ensure their projects are educationally valuable.”

In each class, students present to each other their progress and receive critiques and consulting from classmates; they are also blogging about their projects, and thus constructing a new collective knowledge.  From the teacher:

Designing, building, and creating are the cornerstones of the class as the students pursue knowledge. Whether prototyping a product for a person, a community, or the entire world, we are all students learning to solve problems.  This course is designed to give you, the student, the opportunity to explore and discover new knowledge, to gain expertise in some new skill, and to share that skill with your fellow classmates.

This course started with the simple idea that the educational experience should be about solving problems and managing projects. These objectives could be achieved in an active learning environment of students designing and building products for themselves and the world.   Problem solving and project management are the skills we wanted to see develop in our students. With the help of the teacher, students define a problem and choose a project they are passionate about and that they want to explore.

During this process the goal is to find projects that are rich in educational objectives and that will challenge the students to take ownership of their learning experience.  In the design process, students research the skills and knowledge they need to accomplish their goals.   In the building stage, students use their knowledge to create and construct a working product.  The process of designing and building provides a unique hands-on learning experience, a chance for students to learn by doing and an opportunity  to innovate.

Ninth grade English, with Dr. Kate Oubre, was an energetic classroom; right away our teacher enthused about an upcoming interdisciplinary project with the Biology class, in which they will read Frankenstein and Brave New World, study genetics, DNA, and genetic engineering, and do a project across these two disciplines on bioethics.   Learning to interpret is so important:  “Being a good reader of texts is essential in our time, as much if not more than ever. There are texts everywhere–in advertisements, movies, the internet. Literature gives us a way to look deeply into texts and focus on what they say directly, what they say “in between the lines,” and what they choose not to say.”  Dr. Oubre jumped immediately then to a Shakespeare unit, in which 12th graders read the play first, and then prepared and present a lesson or series of lessons to the 9th graders about the play.

Dr. Oubre’s entire course is hosted on a class moodle site; all papers are submitted there, and she is able to comment on their work and help them maintain a digital portolio of their essays and assignments.   Each day in class they are able to write, revise, and edit each other’s work on the moodle site using their laptops. Currently, the students are working on a digital short about their summer reading.

AP Government with Dr. Michelle Berry is a place where students are expected to create original pieces of research contributing to the shared knowledge of the world.   The students this year are using for their textbook the wiki-document that their student predecessors in last year’s course wrote collaboratively: a student generated wiki-textbook for AP Government.

This year’s class assignment, however, is to generate their own video production via a project-based learning experience.   The project is to determine, as a service to the US Agency for International Development (USAID), whether the agency should use “democracy” as a significant criterion for allocating assistance.  To evaluate this issue, they must ask themselves tough questions: should our own US democracy be a template, and how successful is our own democracy?   Are democracies more just and more efficient in resource distribution and in overcoming poverty and corruption?

The students have to work collaboratively in teams, and across teams, to produce a video which they will post online and they will send to the US AID.    Dr. Berry explained that each week she posted a poll online on her website, and students have to respond to the poll and then discuss.  “We don’t just study government and democracy; we act it out and live it in our classrooms.”   She also explained that although her students do well when they choose to take the AP, never less than a 3, she doesn’t at all teach to the AP test.

In Algebra II/Trig, Michael Herzog begins each class with a set of challenging problems on the whiteboard: each day then opens with the message to students that we are here to problem-solve.  Students open their laptops, and enter their answers into a google form document provided; from his desk, the teacher can see each answer as it is submitted, and can see both trends (in general, which problems are mostly easy to solve, and which concepts need more attention), and particulars (which students need more help).  He can even go to individual student desks while this is all happening for immediate interventions.

Mr. Herzog, a former and long-time electrical engineer, explained his intent to connect frequently from Algebra to engineering and computer science, and introduced his assistant, funded by a National Science Foundation grant, a U of AZ Ph.D. computer science student.  Kiam told us of his own high school days, which he remembers as being mostly about memorization, but he found he couldn’t do the hard problems when they called for anything other than applying formulas: this was a teaching/learning error he is determined not to repeat.  The two teachers demonstrated how they were studying the computer logic employed in on-line computer games and comparing it to, and applying it to, the logic of Algebra and matrices.

In Spanish 3, Sr. Luigi Catalano has taken popular Spanish poems, and built them into a formatted online document where students have to enter certain words in the proper form; when complete, they can submit and get immediate feedback on how they are doing.  Other times, in class, he has students all work on the same, single google document, responding to the same writing prompt with their thoughts.  From his desk, he can see who is doing the assignment and who isn’t, how well they are doing, and who needs more help or prompting.   After each has entered a paragraph responding to the prompt, he then has students rotate: one student writes a question about another student’s paragraph, and then a third student has to answer the question.