Live-Blogging at Branson, Sept. 22
At the end of the last class, my guide for that period said to me he had one last important point-- he said he had been thinking about it, and he wanted me to know that the most important thing for a teacher to have, that it made all the difference, was "passion."
Drama class, in the assembly theater. Class begins with a yoga exercise, which is clearly good for the kids, and makes all kind of sense in this context, end of the day, energizing the body and brain. A bit awkward for me, but great for the class.
My guide told me as we walked over that this class is terrific, partly because the teacher is "really out there," and I think that is always so interesting and so meaningful-- students' appreciation for teachers for being "different." Brain research I have been reading lately underscores how much better our brain retains learning that is fresh or original or associated with surprise, and the great craving we have for variety A teacher who is "out there" will be much more frequently surprising, and hence much more likely to stimulate brain processing and retention.
As the kids discussed their scenes, one student noted that a particular scene is about romantic relationships-- and the teacher responded that ALL the scenes are about that, that all drama is. Good teaching is in touch with topics emotionally resonant with their students, that hits them where they live, and this observation by the teacher I think was very knowing, and represented very effective instruction.
Class-time here is nicely structured around students doing, and teachers providing feedback and facilitating student critique. After the scene, observing students offer their feedback, and it is very impressive, full of very close observations and fascinating analogies-- for instance, an elaborated and sophisticated comparison of the acting in this scene to a Grand Slam tennis tournament.
The teacher now conducts her own critique and feedback, and it is very powerful. She is really pushing the kids to think harder about their character's motivation, to really deeply understand their characters. Lots of questioning-- what did you hear, what are you thinking?
Received warmly by the teacher here; he shared with me his other, cool project, the Wonderfest, the Bay Area Festival of Science, that I referred to earlier, from the assembly this morning. Think its great, having a science teacher who is also a science festival director.
Students were already here when we came in, during lunchtime (?), graphing by hand a chart of reaction times, and finding their own bell-curves. The reaction times were measurements of their own reactions-- the teacher apologized (mostly jokingly) for the 19th century quality of the hand graphing, and I would agree only if this were the only way they ever graphed. But in this case, it seemed a fine way to personalize and form a more lasting memory of the concept of a bell curve-- these were their own physical responses, so it is very kinesthetic, and they are constructing the pattern themselves, not just letting a computer display it for them.
Chatted with some students, told them what I was here for, and they told me what they liked about Branson. I heard again about the strong relationships and rapport teachers and students enjoy, and I really appreciated one girl discuss how at Branson students are wildly talented in very individual ways, that Branson seemed to really provide for and support student individuation and pursuit of their passion.
The Physics course now is a Conceptual course, and we discussed briefly the pros and cons of where to situate physics in the high school curriculum schedule. I told him of my enthusiasm for ninth grade conceptual physics preceding Bio and Chem; he said he was glad schools were experimenting with that, but that he worried that some of the fundamental concepts of physics were just too hard for ninth graders to grasp.
Course outline is called something I haven't seen before: the "Physics Constitution." It sets out Course Goals, which I think are great, though I am so question-obsessed I wonder whether it'd be preferable to pose them as guiding questions. Instead of, for instance, the course goal "To see how these principles explain many (all?!) of nature's most interesting phenomona-- from sunshine and lighting to human inventions and even humans themselves," I'd suggest posing it atop the sheet: Course Questions: "How does physics explain everything-- or how much can physics principles explain about the world's phenomona?" (Maybe it is just semantic, maybe it is no real difference, but I think it is preferable to ask students emphatically from the start to come to the subject as questioners, and stating it this way makes it more likely than framing the course goals as statements. Other terrific course goals stated here are to develop increased powers of reasoning, observation, measurement and problem-solving" which as we know, if really accomplished, is far more likely to be lasting and life-long significant, and then this one: "To appreciate learning and wonder for their own sake-- in the moment-- rather than as a means to end." I also like on the course outline the assignment of 7% of the grading value a requirement students "design and build two contraptions to compete in the Marin County Physics Olympics."
"Graph-matching"-- students told me about class on Friday, where students studied speed and velocity and interpreting graphs by using a sound sonar device that measured bodily position and movement, and hence students had to replicate graphs provided by them, demonstrating steady movement, speed forward, and speed backwards; then velocity. Again, using their own bodies makes the experience far more likely to be remembered and learned.
I like the quotes plastered on the walls in this classroom. "The fish is the last to see the water." "I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education." "How wonderful that we have met with paradox; now we have some hope of making progress." "Is not life 100 times too short for us to bore ourselves." "I love to doubt as well as know." All correspond to good science learning: questioning, doubting, critical thinking, and active, exciting learning.
US History class. Lots (dozens) of great posters and evocative pictures in this room, really helps create emotional engagement from students. Looking at the syllabus, it reflects an AP curriculum with lots of key terms to learn (historiography, mestizos, Magna Carta etc.), and then framing discussion questions: "What is history?: come up with a working definition." Who are your heroes, and what is your criteria? What factors drove Europeans to America? What is genocide, how does the term apply to the European discovery of the Americas, do you know of any modern day examples of genocide? I really like this last question especially-- linkage and relevance and emotional relevance and similarities and differences.
This week's assignment is a paper requiring the students to defend British imperial policy, and saying they must consider both sides of the argument, and include refuting paragraphs. I like the requirement to adopt alternate points of view, and the teaching of argument: that British imperial policy is not a fact or a bunch of facts but a constructed "argument"-- as Graff tells us we must teach this intentionally-- and that students must both defend a position with supporting facts, and an engagement with the alternate argument.
Students are hungry, starving in class, and the teacher welcomes them to go get his Cliff Bars from his desk, and they eat in class and are grateful and re-energized. Certainly we know kids cannot learn if they are hungry-- and it is nice to see the degree of commitment, and the rapport, enjoyed here. I also like that six students have laptops open, note-taking on them.
Very Socratic here: not a lecture at all. Thinking hard about the British position. What have we done for you? How have the colonists been served by London? Lots of questions, and followup. "How did the Navigation Acts assist New England? How else?" "Really, what is the Tea Act, really?" A favor to the East India company, really, he explains. What was the American response to all the new laws? Student: "Failure to comply." and what was the British response to the failure to comply? How did the British respond? Asked repeatedly, patiently allowance for students to think it through, until a student says "they ignored it."
Nice analogy by the teacher, of British salutory neglect, to Branson rules-- if there were no rules enforced at school, example with regards to school dances, and suddenly there was a crack-down, how would students respond? A knowing chuckle around the room-- this connects to their real lives, on a meaningful and emotionally stimulating issue. Will help with memory retention, and pattern recognition.
Talking about polls, another connection to student opinion about the dance and possibility of canceling it. Makes it real, and emotional. Like it.
Next question: "Do you think the British and Americans could have found common ground?"
Governors: " What are the duties, roles, tasks of Governors? What do they do?" Followup questions ask what is the evidence to support an answer... Defend your position.
Lots of thinking here.
Nice brief chat with the Math teacher-- who has been here 16 years. Really thoughtful about differentiating her student groups, thinking hard about what each group needs. For her honors students she offers them a lot of additional challenge problemsets she writes for them herself and has them work on in groups, which she says is very animating for them. And she is thinking hard about how to do more to motivate students not as engaged in Math.
Stepped outside class for a few minutes, observed in the courtyard French students preparing and rehearsing a French skit. Loved their energy and enthusiasm, and that they were practicing use of French in real-world situations. One comment in particular struck me: the students know they need to invest extra drama and emotion into their skits, because that is how the teacher does it. We know so much more know about how emotions help encode memory, and so I think this really is enhancing their language learning.
Shifted over now from "Joanna" to "Allen." We walk over to the lower campus, for PreCalculus. The teacher warns me there will be a quiz for the period but before the quiz she reviews a function problem. Tomorrow, the teacher tells the class, will be a student-centered day, so they should prepare and bring questions. Kids taking a quiz now.
Joanna tells me walking over that often assemblies feature outside speakers, but today will be announcements. Last week they welcomed a woman who spoke about child slavery in Nepal. Joanna says that most assemblies are organized by clubs, and that the club she is co-president of, the diversity club, will do a number of assemblies this year. The clubs generate their funds from bake sales; tomorrow her club meeting will be working on budgeting for the year. I really liked hearing from Joanna about how clubs are provided two club meeting periods a week, for 30 minutes.
Rocking music, really pumped up, is playing as students gather-- a real upper.
Assembly opened by, presided over by, the student council president. Head of School Woody Price has a name drawn from a hat, and that lucky student gets to, along with six of his friends, have lunch with Woody on Friday.
We see a video about a girls' school in India that Branson teachers have visited. Branson will be hosting two girls and a chaperone from the school, and being arranged are visits to the school by the girls, and touring the Bay Area. Like the international-mindedness.
Joanna announces her diversity club meeting, and then two students from the Obama club report on having been to Reno for presidential campaigning in the critical swing county there.
Sports announcements, yearbook, then a girl comes up to share the first meeting of the new video game club! After that, there is a wonderfest club and competition, science and engineering it sounds like. Questions on all kinds of science-- wonderfest.org she says it is. Sounds great. French club will be working on a project to support Haiti after its recent hurricane. A teacher announces a project Fridays testing water quality, with the results going directly onto the web and serving real-world monitoring purposes, which seems great.
Now we are onto a game of Bear-Cowboy-Ninja, in a competition between grade classes. It is a paper-rock-scissors game. Fun for me to see a former student of mine representing with great spirit the senior class in the game. Assembly is very animated here--certainly gets the blood going for these kids.
Ceramics class, in a crowded studio, because they are renovating another space for a new ceramics classroom.
On the way over up the hill, Joanna told me she had her choice of many options for high school, and chose Branson because when she visited, everyone was really friendly and welcomed her, and it felt like a really comfortable place to be.
Students jumped right in to work when we arrived-- taking out their projects, and beginning work. It is an ipod day, so most students are plugged in as they work. Joanna says they are, in Adv. Ceramics, able to do projects of their own choosing, and she takes her inspiration from an artist who does work about her children, and taking off from that, she is fashioning from clay a show, as part of an old lady and her shoe depiction, with children to be sitting all over it. The teacher had asked them to do outside research on art and artists, and it was in doing so, reading a ceramics magazine, that Joanna found her inspiration.
This class is mixed, with kids at a lot of different levels. The teacher explained to me that she has given up on a course outline, but uses a syllabus, because there are so many different things happening, and she is always changing things around, responding to where the kids are at.
The teacher shares her syllabus with me:-- atop it are two questions (always looking for questions)-- "How do I think like an artist today? How do I work like an artist today?" The goals below are a little more specific--provide a safe environment that respects artistic expression, and foster a mastery of ceramics- but it the "you will" section that returns us to the top questions: i.e.: "you will generate and analyze solutions to problems using creativity and imagination;" "think like an artist every day;" understand why art plays an important role in everyday life;" and "understand what it means to be an artist." Having been someone myself, and I am ashamed of this, who struggled to enjoy art prize art instruction, I am now intrigued to find myself so drawn to art teaching as a model for broader quality instruction. I think that every subject could borrow this course outline as a template-- changing the word artist from the top two questions and the "you will" list to the different disciplines. So, at top of a math course sheet it would say "How do I think like a mathematician today?" Of course, the statement "generate and analyze solutions to problems using creativity and imagination" requires no substitution at all-- it could be, (should be) on every course outline in every subject.
Similarly, she says of her "grading policy" that "unlike lecture course with written tests, the studio arts depend on other criteria for measuring a student's progress. Grading is done in collaboration with each student through rubrics and individual consultation. Class critiques will take place routinely so that you have ample opportunity to gain feedback, make adjustments to your work based on that feedback, and hone your criticism skills." I read this and I wonder if I am being too provocative in saying that these three sentences could equally apply to any school subject's grading, rather than having it begin with the statement "unlike lecture courses with written tests." That is not to say that we cannot ever have lectures or written tests, but that all the rest could still apply.
Teacher circulating very nicely, doling out lots of praise as she gives feedback, prods them along, helps them set goals, offers assistance. Students are chatting in a very low key way with each other-- the ones not on headphones-- about social topics, as they work (though the quiet down when I approach, my presence altering the natural experience of the event). I am struck by how this experience is so much more like what I think is real life workplaces-- hard at work, individual work and some group projects, getting feedback from supervisors (much more feedback here than in most workplaces), accountable for outcomes but not supervised in every moment.
This is Joanna's third year in a row in Ceramics-- with the same teacher. She told me that only two years of art is required, but she likes it so much she came back for more. Nice the school provides for kids who have a passion they want to pursue like this.
Problems posed on board, distance and time, two trains problems: students are working out their answers themselves in notebooks, and the teacher is circulating, checking on student work.
Looking at the course syllabus, I appreciate the teacher's suggestion students work together ("two heads are always better than one") and it is great that he offers his accessibility-- telling his free periods, lunch time Mathlab, inviting emails for help.
Before we got started this morning I met with Joanna and another 11th grader, "Allen." I asked them what they thought the best thing was about Branson, and they told me it was hard to decide--it is all so good. They went first to "student-teacher dynamic: you can ask any question, they always make time for me; you can have inside jokes with teachers that usually you can only have with friends." I asked them about "learning by doing" and they immediately told me with enthusiasm about science class, where "we always do experiments," and an Engish Poetry class where they do their own "spoken-word." Allen enthused about a ninth grade class with a former teacher who put them into their own Lord of the Flies kind of experience (after reading it), and had a "symposium on love" where they wrote about love and then sat on couches and had open-ended discussions.
I also asked about what the most challenging tenth grade assignment was, and they told me abut a ten page history paper which Allen described as, and I loved this, a "Rite of Passage." They could choose any topic they like (!), and had to research and write about it-- it was a whole new process, Allen told me.
Students doing word problems, with good focus; teacher circulating.
Good morning and welcome to my third student shadow-live blog at "good high schools." Today I am at Branson School, an independent 9-12 school in Marin County. I am here this morning with "Joanna," a school junior, who commutes to Marin from the East Bay. We are starting the day in Algebra 2 class.
Remember, if you are following along, live-blogs proceed chronologically from top to bottom.