Urban School of San Francisco, September 26
Back at Urban this morning, with, as always, great appreciation to the welcoming hospitality of its administration. I say back because I was here with teachers and administrators for three days in August, for Howard Levin and the Urban faculty's brilliant technology integration symposium. My learning those three days, both about technology integration and about authentic education, was huge, and greatly influences this project.
I am here with a junior, "Sally," and we are starting our day at Video production class. Sally and I enter, and she comfortably introduces me to Chris, her teacher; all the teachers here are addressed by their first name. I am glad to be here; I was very engaged by Chris' presentation in August on using digital tools to teach media literacy, (rather than teaching the use of digital tools).
Chris begins interacting informally with kids-- and speaking from his laptop about news of the day. Class more officially begins, slides into it, without any bells; I don't think they have any bells here. It was interesting that at CART they made such a big deal about not having classtime-bells-- it was very significant to them, I suppose because it counters the vast majority of public high schools, but bells are less common at independent schools. He then gives us a little overview of the day-- starting with looking at some clips from movies, then working on projects.
Visual Literacy is the central topic: His first slide revisits the 5 things to consider when analyzing visual literacy, and by reiterating them, we keep the overarching themes of the course better in mind-- the key understandings: 1. Creator, 2. Medium, 3. Audience, 4. Content, 5. Motive. Chris uses slides, and I recall this from before, with a enormous proportion of white space, and just a few, 5-15, words on a slide. This minimalism, less is more, may make the use of slides more effective-- the focus is better, the retention greater.
We watch a very engaging scene from Touch of Evil, a long tracking shot, with romance, drama, and suspense-- all holders of attention and good for memory retention-- the kind of stress. After its conclusion, the teacher asks for observations.
Urban is justifiably renowned for its laptop integration program, which I am going to try to keep taking note of, the role laptops are playing in class. In this class, about half the kids, have laptops out of bags and on the table, but nobody has it open.
Students venture opinions speculating on the plot and motivations of characters. Next we watch longer tracking scene from Altman's the player, and students are observing-- comparing to touch of evil, that it lays out all the main characters-- the students have good close observations about the camera work. There is mention of another film, but the name can't be remembered; a couple of students immediately pop onto their laptops and find the right film, within seconds. A few more scenes are seen and discussed; students are sent off with homework reminders.
Discussion in advisory-- the adviser kindly welcomes and asks me to speak about my project, and what I think 21st century education is. The kids strongly respond, and have lots of opinions. We talk about technology integration, and the laptops, which the students tell me helps them a lot, though has the drawbacks of being potentially distracting and perhaps means you won't master basic things, like simple computation (48+12 is what again?) or handwriting. Their conversation continues: one student explains very articulately that although technology can be very distracting, and she remembers when her dad got a cell phone and that was all he did, she thinks that having early and frequent exposure in youth to technology actually makes you better able to manage and handle the potential disrupting influence. One student says she still hand-writes out most things, because she prefers it and it is less distracting; another says he never handwrites anything and is SO grateful to not have to. I ask about critical thinking, and one student talks at length about how Algebra helped him to intellectually recognize that there are underlying core principles, explaining the things that are happening at the surface, and that you can seek out those underpinning explanations for everything. He gives the example of taxation: he now can see into the logic that taxation represents a form of slavery.
After the larger group breaks out, a smaller group keeps talking to me, with their own strong interest. A student contrasts an Urban education from her preceding, K-8 education, which she calls very structured, whereas here at Urban, she is so regularly, consistently, given open-ended assignments, she is able to choose her subjects for investigation, that every project is much more personal to her, she is pursuing her own interests, and it doesn't even feel like work in the same way, not a burden but pursuing her own interests. Another student talks about how her middle school was very project based, with excellent, physical, hands-on projects, and here it is similar in challenging projects, but they are less physical, more written and computer based. We speak about what was her hardest assignment, and she tells me about a tenth grade assignment for which she had to write a 15-20 page topic of any topic at all, one of her choosing. She chose to write on the rise of social networking websites, and why they are so popular. Clearly Urban provides a strong commitment to students' personalizing their education in a wide variety of ways.
The students also bring up the topic of Urban's grading policy-- they are given no grades at all, all year, but over the summer do learn their gpa only, as teachers are assigning semester grades for college applications, but not for student use. They are very enthusiastic about this system: they tell me that they never are graded on papers or tests, but get written responses from teachers applauding their accomplishments and pointing out how they can do it better. So they are never competing, they tell me, for good grades, and they say it promotes much more "intrinsic motivation" and a very different "student culture" (their terms, they use) for learning, and learning how to learn, not just trying to get good grades.
AP chemistry -- Sally tells me this is the only AP course at Urban, which has moved away strongly from APs. Sally tells me she thinks that AP has become too stressful, too much about the test score. But this class is not just about the AP test-- it really about the learning. This class is not just test obsessed. In the final weeks of spring, there will be more test practice and prep. Here is class, the teacher explains that with so many students away at Ashland, this class is a little abnormal, but they are working on review. Here, students are working in a very energized collaboration going over last night's problem sets, comparing answers and trying to explain to each other how they got different answers, as the teacher moves around and supports.
Sally is kind enough to bring me over to check out a Social Studies Class-- Contemporary Issues-- which is right up my alley. This is a sophomore class, and the subject today are the Presidential debates, which are happening tonight. One student says that the San Francisco Examiner today endorsed McCain, and at first he said he was surprised, but then he started explaining the ownership of the newspaper, and how that might have influenced its endorsement. Now the students are distributed into groups of three, and have been provided discussion questions "How important is this debate and why?" Should the debates be held tonight? What are you going to look for?" The teacher tells them, as they break up, that they should have one notetaker in each group, and that "If you don't have fun, you are in trouble."
Groups distribute around the room, sitting on the floor in some cases, one in a little sunny alcove. The teacher circulates. I sit in on one group, the teacher far away: students are citing articles they have read, one discusses at length things he has seen on Stewart's Daily Show how McCain keeps talking about being a POW, and another student responds: Yeah, he is really milking it. But then again, she goes on, so did Kerry in 2004, Kerry really contrasted his service with Bush. Students are discussing the candidates debate strengths-- Obama, one students says citing her research, talks too much like a professor sometimes, and people don't respond well to that; another student respond saying that something to look for tonight is whether McCain will lie, and Obama counter with anger to a McCain lie, that it might be good if Obama gets worked up about something and we see a new side to him. A boy says he wants to hear from the candidates how they are going to restore America's image in the world, which is so tarnished; he says he thinks Obama will help just because he will send such a strong signal to the world that things have changed. This entire conversation is all the students'. All around the room, these students are very engaged. Now the group I am sitting in on is discussing what a field organizer is for a campaign, and that one girl and her mom might do that for Obama, and they are discussing how to do that-- understanding here migrating to action.
There is a bulletin board in this classroom with New York Times clippings. The teacher is now reconvening the class, and they are identifying key things to look for in the debate tonight-- their homework is to write about the debate-- what you anticipated, what you were looking for, what surprise you. We are also being shown a short clip from the PBS Newshour about the economic crisis, and students are taking notes.
Back in Chemistry-- they did an experiment I missed while I was in the issues class, aluminum and iron oxide, which created aluminum oxide and liquid molten iron. Now they are working out in small groups the calculations. The teacher is moving around, and takes one student's worksheet, and displays it on the board, saying this work is pretty good, and they are looking at it together. Did some get different results?
Urban is more digital than other schools I have seen. When I ask Sally if I can see her course syllabus, she doesn't reach for her binder or folder, she reaches for her laptop, logs onto first class, and opens the course folder-- all instinctively. When the chemistry teacher asks them to do a quick-write assignment for him at class end in anticipation of their upcoming "interims", he asks them to email him. This one is about what the students are most proud of for their progress thus far, and what are their goals for the next part of the semester. Interims are mid-term conferences, where students and teachers closely review these topics.
I review the Chemistry course syllabus, and like the stated goals, which include that "you will deepen and extend your knowledge; you will apply these chemistry principles in labs: at times I will give you a detailed procedure to follow, while at other times you'll need to create your own procedure.; you will look forward to coming to class."
Over lunch, Sally and I discuss Urban at great length. She tells me that she chose to come to Urban rather than a larger, very respected school further down the peninsula. She visited both schools, twice, and had a hard decision, because the other school has much better weather than here in San Francisco. But she chose Urban because it is much more project based, much more creative, much more personal, and much more open-ended in its approach to education; the other school she says is very traditional, with letter grades, more lecture formats, more competition. Sally explained to me she realized that the quality of the education was a better reason to make this decision than the weather. She says she likes that all teachers here are called by their first name, you feel like you are more working together. A few other things-- she has a lot of homework, last night 3-4 hours, but it is heaviest on Thursdays, so that was exceptional; she says she really enjoys her work and it is not such a burden. She really likes that as a junior and senior she gets to choose almost all her classes, rather than following a prescribed 11th grade program.
Sally's older sister is at Yale; we discussed how well prepared she was by Urban for Yale, and I learn that she has performed very well there. Her written work at Yale always earned her A's for its literary skill and original ideas; the only place she has had any difficulty perhaps is in the classes where she may have to memorize long lists of facts or terms, which she is not as prepared for as she might be if she were a graduate of a intense "cram school" like a well known LA school which Sally refers to and I will not name. Sally tells me that you really learn to write well here at Urban: you write all the time (she gives me a long list) and get tons of feedback. Sally and I discuss our shared opinion that strong skills in writing and original idea generating is much more important for life than knowing how to memorize a lot of terms.
In the hall outside of Spanish we meet a friend of Sally, who tells me the best thing about Urban is that it suits his need for visual learning rather than elsewhere where they lecture most of the time-- that he really needs to visualize things to understand them well, and in Calculus, for example, the teacher is able to use the smartboard to effectively display the problems and graphs (he also tells me the Urban teachers are fast- becoming much more proficient in their use of the new smartboards).
In Spanish all conversation in en espanol; the teacher begins class by showing us a video from BBC mundo, a news report about a restaurant soles for dogs. Students are sharing with teacher what they saw in the video. We are now doing a quick true or false game quiz on the smart board. And now, small group conversations using today's terms; great, warm energy in the room and lots of laughter. Very nice use of the smartboard in here too, moving around the lesson schedule efficiently. And now, we sing. "Cancion de julieta venegas... nuestra heroina." We are filling in the blanks of the song using the reflexive form of Spanish verbs through the song-- "Que Lastima pero adios/me despido de ti y me voy." Great way to learn, using contemporary popular music, associating it with grammatical forms and ingraining it with the musical accompaniment making ti easier to retain and retrieve. Our teacher makes a small mistake in the use of the new smartboard technology, for which she apologizes to me and tells me that it is an intercambio between her and her students: she is the expert at the Spanish, they at the technology, and I respond to her that intercambio es excellente for los estudiantes.
Sally and I duck out so I can get a chance to see another Elections class, though we take a quick peek in Civil War, where the teacher is working individually with her students on their history papers. Here in Elections, juniors are discussing tonight's debate, and we are predicting what will be the foreign policy topics tonight. Will the economy come up, and how can it fit into a debate about international matters? A student says outsourcing is a critical topic, and is economic with implications for foreign policy, and the teacher says are you sure, and the student responds it is all about globalization. Another students suggests energy independence is another place where foreign affairs and economics intersect. Moving away from economics, a student says he is looking for the NATO expansion question tonight, and what to do about Belarus and Ukraine when Russia is only semi-acknowledging their full independence. Now the teacher is going around the room, asking students one by one to declare the single key thing they are looking for tonight. One is looking for what Obama's Iraq withdrawal plan is; another for how the candidates will handle North Korea and Pakistan, volatile nuclear weapon holding nations; the next wants to know more about African policy; this student is interested in the question of whether a Democratic candidate can finally speak more directly and emotionally rather than over-intellectually and academically; and onto a wish for speaking to China policy. We finish with a short video of Obama and McCain on 60 minutes.
Here in English-- American Romanticism. Glad to be here, especially because I so much appreciated Jonathan's presentation at the Urban Tech Symposium last month on his use of online conferences for students to test out their ideas. In his session, he explained that he really wanted to support students developing their own ideas in an open-ended way; for class, students in a conference group, three or four, test out ideas responding to the text, give each other feedback, and develop their ideas. Sally and the class are reading Moby Dick right now (How cool is that?), and Sally's conference piece takes the position that "by chasing a whale in his journey, he is chasing his own identity... But this fascination will evolve into something more; Ishmael's obsession will only generate jealousy. Since whales have their 'own proper individuality,' which is the single longing Ishmael desires, it only makes sense to interpret that Ishmael wants to be a whale himself. He goes on this journey as a whaleman, only to return as a whale." Love it.
Class is beginning, I appreciate Jonathan's welcoming me and letting me share my project with the students. Jonathan himself, in conversation at the tech symposium, helped me shape this project, so I am indebted to him for that. Jonathan begins class with a reference to tonight's dance, and a recognition of the emotions of a dance and the emotions of Romanticism-- which is a nice emotional hook for where the kids are at on this Friday afternoon; next students are split into groups which each will discuss different sections of the 70 pages of reading due today. They are to discuss and discern what's on the board:"what's the point?! How do you read, interpret, make meaning of this chapter? Present the pith, the meaty interior."
Sitting with a three student group here, discussing the chapter the prophet. I know from Jonathan's session that this is his consistent goal, students doing the thinking, empowering them rather than dictating to them. This group is plumbing for what is the greater truth of this chapter-- looking at the text closely. "There is all this imagery of the soul... Ishmael is so judgmental... Ishmael has the weight of the world. That is kind of ironic, that the more that Elijah tries to push this message on Ishmael, the less he is interested." Jonathan pushes them, gives them some urgency to their task, which is so important I think, introducing a small amount of the right kind of stress to keep them on task and focussed.
Now groups are presenting their "piths." For the ship: "He is drawn to the boat because of how 'whaley' it is." She cites the text with a specific quote to support her point. "Perhaps he is doing whaling for the right reasons, so to choose that boat makes him think he is getting somewhere, on the right track, it inspires him that it is the real thing, a genuine old whaling ship. " Jonathan points out a similar quote to reinforce her point, that he is drawn to an old fashioned concept of whaling. A classmate offers another quote about every man being held in captivity, and she identifies a "paradox" in the concept, which is very nice. Very grounded here in the text. Another girl wants to pursue the question of freedom on the open ocean. "Seeing the world is more about the power of your perception than the vastness of your panorama," Jonathan leads us to from the text as we work on what Ishmael seeks from the sea.
There is a really sane schedule to the day here; a total of four periods, each for 70 minutes; with 15 minute breaks between first and second and third and fourth, and the 50 minute lunch break between second and third. And this is Friday, which with Monday are the four period days, whereas other days are only 2 block periods for two hours each (and a study hall period), if have my facts straight on this, which I am not sure I do.
Now new groups are presenting their chapters' piths. Jonathan moved us along, telling the kids they were "perseverating." "The Ramadan chapter represents most of what Ishmael is uncomfortable in his life," a student ventures. Ishmael is a really descriptive guy, but he seems uncomfortable with women and about death. Followup: what is it that bothers Ishmael about Ramadan. Pushing them for more specific explanation, with support. Ishmael is not just starving his body, but starving his soul, another student ventures, and Jonathan digs-- in what way is he is starving his soul? Laughter is important to Jonathan; he frequently seeks to induce it-- and expresses his wish to be a better comedian for his students, which I really like.