A few months ago I read a great post by my valued Connected Principals colleague, David Truss, entitled No Office Day. Periodically, Dave, who heads an international school in China, deliberately spend an entire school day not in his office but in classrooms.
Today I finally took that day, and have now every intention of doing so at least monthly for the rest of my career (please try to hold me to this intent, and know too of my intent to lost 20 more pounds: these are challenging resolutions to abide by).
Here is my report, in a post that also seeks to enhance my blogging style with more pictures than usual: I know I have to make my posts more visually appealing.
My first classroom visit was to Sr. Rabinowitz’s Spanish classroom; I was greeted as I came in with a Buenas Dias, Como Esta?
I answered, of course, Muy Bien, y Tu? This 7th grade classroom was in the course of transitioning to a new exercise, a dialog they were to conduct and trasncribe into their notes; one of the great things was the entire set of directions for the exercise were given, of course, en espanol– nearly the whole class is conducted this way.
Our students were asked to take on the roles of store vendor and client, and the client is seeking to buy three items of clothing, get the vendor’s opinions on them, ask the cost, and then buy the clothing.
With that prompting, students jumped in, with great gusto and good focus; our teacher roamed the room, checking in and offering guidance as necessary.
Next it was onto Civics class, an 8th grade class taught by Holly Wasson. Controversy and political debate are not avoided in this class; instead Ms. Wasson dives into the controversy to better teach critical thinking, analysis and debate. The current unit addresses a particularly heated and controversial new film, Waiting for Superman, which our students are watching, note-taking upon, and preparing to critique and evaluate. Among the questions/topics they must take notes upon are the following:
- What is NCLB?
- Does NCLB work, in your opinion?
- List the barriers students encounter K-12.
- Should great teachers earn a higher salary?
- Should students’ test scores be used to evaluate teachers?
- How big a role should technology play in the classroom?
Seeing our students engrossed in the film and their notes, I myself took in the film for a few moments before moving on.
Earth Science was already finishing class as I came in, under the direction of Mr. Jeff Decker: students were working on taking notes about the properties of water as I came in, having just seen a video segment from the fabulous documentary, Planet Earth. Jeff and I discussed the value he finds in showing short video clips on his smart board, adn we spoke too about the role of video in all facets of education today.
Jeff just himself is participating in his three-year evaluation, and took advantage of our new opportunity for faculty members to do switch out a “paper trail” self-evaluation for a video-taped lesson with reflection for his self-eval. He told me that he has been through many (many!) evaluation processes in his 20+ year career, and this was “refreshing,” a very positive change from the previous. He told me that for it was very valuable to look at himself teaching and reflect upon it; there were four things he was aiming for in the lesson, and he could clearly see where he had “dropped the ball” in one of these four, and he could see the focus get lost and the lesson become a tad disjointed. “I saw holes– not gaping, horrible holes of course– and you know, an old dog can learn new tricks.” Now I don’t think Jeff will mind my writing this: he knows that as his head, it is a far, far more positive thing for me to see him reflecting, learning, and growing than it is a negative thing that he found a “hole” in one part of a lesson plan.
The first block having been completed, it was mid-morning break time. One of my favorite elements of St. Gregory’s day is that we refuse to conform to the norm that students and teachers must spring in 3, 4, or even 5 minutes from one class to the next, allowing next to no time for students and teachers to have a post-class question or conversation, pack stuff up, take a bathroom and drink break, say hello to a friend, perhaps eat an apple, and then get to and settle in to the next class. Uncivilized, in my opinion, is such a schedule– as normal as it is for the vast majority of schools.
Morning break includes morning meeting, over which our Middle School Head Heather Faircloth presides. In her first year as division head, after two on our faculty, she is doing a marvelous job: “Mrs. Fair,” the kids call her.
This morning the earthquake and tsunami was on everyone’s mind, and she opened morning meeting, in our “bosque” area, with inquiry: Who know what is happening in Japan? After the facts are elicited, she asks everyone to think for a minute in reflection: if you had only five minutes, what would you take with you out of your house? Answers come from our student: food, water, an ID, change of clothes, family photos, batteries.
In a very nice way, Mrs. Faircloth then tied this international tragedy to a local initiative. Millions of Japanese are without food and water, are hungry tonight; children and families just a few miles south of us in Tucson are hungry too, and let’s use this impetus to motivate students for our food drive for Homer Davis elementary school students.
Mrs. Faircloth also took a few minutes to promote a “pay it forward with kindness initiative” in the middle school community, and to praise a group of swimming students who did well in a meet, and she celebrated a St. Gregory 7th grade student who recently placed second in a national competition sponsored by NASA. Enjoy this student’s video:
After morning meeting came Mr. Dan Young’s 6th grade geography class.
He began class, as he often does, with a check in with students, asking each about their weekend, their favorite foods eaten, and restaurant tips. Clearly, in this way, his students really build a bond of security and trust with Mr. Young, so important with all students, and perhaps particularly with 6th graders, all new to our school.
After the icebreaking, Mr. Young took us straight to Japan, discussing with the student the causes of the tsunami and showing news videos of the effect– a very apropos geography class discussion.
In Mr. Mike Mann’s 7th grade English class, students were working on a reflective writing about their study of the play, Antigone. After summarizing the plot’s conflicts, setting, and back-story, the students were to take on the project of imagining themselves as Antigone, and then Creon, and what steps they would take in such a situation as those characters. Mike explained to me that this work of “moral imagination” related also to the students’ current fictional reading, To Kill a Mockingbird, for which students were recognizing Atticus Finch’s moral empathetic powers.
Mike also told me of his thoughts on an upcoming possible assignment, asking students to re-imagine Antigone as a present-day moral drama, situating it among high school students in 2011 and consider how they too, today, experience such moral conflicts.
On the board in his class was a list of leadership attributes, such as flexibility and listening; this was not from any Antigone discussion (though it could be good lessons for Creon!), but rather from his 8th grade class’s consideration of MacBeth. Students were using the list, and the play, for an assignment essay comparing MacBeth’s leadership qualities to those of any single historical or literary leader they chose.
For sharing about my visit to Mrs. Ginny Encila’s art class, I will let the pictures speak for themselves (with apologies for not being a better photographer):
I took then a lunch break, and cheated by popping into my office on this, my no-office day. But then after lunch, time for 6th grade Math with Ms. Bonnie Miller. She began by pointing out that today is PI Day, (3.14), conducting a quick and entertaining lesson in the significance of PI and how it is determined and used.
After this, students began working on their laptops in a self-paced on-line learning system called ALEKS, which Ms. Miller has her students working in for two to three hours a week. In it, students work through a wide array of arithmetic topics as they prepare for Algebra. Ms. Miller is a big enthusiast for ALEKS: she says students are really able to spend their time working on and learning what they need to learn, individually, rather than having to cover over and over again arithmetic lessons many of them have long since mastered– and for those that need this help, here it is for them. She can monitor where they are getting stuck and step right in to help them individually.
Ms. Miller and I strongly agreed during this conversation that it is essential that this be paired with a rich, applied skills PBL classroom culture, and she told me of her ongoing work with these sixth graders managing their student store, and of their upcoming elaborate, four week long bridge-building project, for which they will have to operate as a company making a proposal to build a bridge to solve a particular set of problems.
From 6th grade Math I popped over to 8th Science, for which Mr. Decker was leading a class discussion and lecture about the elements and molecular formulas and then it was time to race over to the gym to see 7th graders play Ultimate Frisbee with their new PE teacher this year, Amy Kublin.
Finally, from the gym I hurried over to the “Purple Plaza,” a Roman-style garden patio behind our theater, where our 8th grade students were engaged in a public recital of the Aeneid– storytelling in classic form, with both narration and character voicing.
Mr. Jeff Clashman, the Latin teacher, listened to each chapter (“book”) intently, and evaluated them with a rubric that included effective transitions, posture, enunciation, and voice modulation, and, of course, at least two sentences in Latin. He also insisted that they work to evoke emotion in their audience, and to, one time, “break the fourth wall and address the audience.”
It was a fine and fitting end to my first, but not last, “No Office Day” at St. Gregory.