Observations at Different Schools

Currently I am enjoying my 9 day break for Thanksgiving, but I can’t seem to stop thinking about my school and my students.  Yesterday I went to two different schools with very different school cultures and resources from my school.  Both were private schools with a rigorous selection process that served students in the Bay Area.

In the first school I observed two physics classes where the students were working on a project to redo a lab they had previous done (their choice of which lab to redo) and push for more accurate results and eventually submit a formal lab report.  This process was self-directed and the teacher was about to mostly hang back and answer questions and occasionally make rounds around the room to check on progress.

The first thing I noticed was how different the classroom environment was.  The classes are capped at 16 students, making 4 lab stations of 4 students.  Each lab station had two computers to supplement the 1-1 iPad program, giving 6 technological devices (not counting phones) to ever 4 students.  They also had what appeared to be limitless supplies from Pasco and Vernier to allow them to take high quality data that is automatically graphed.  With iPads for every student, students are allowed to use Wolfram Alpha for tests and classwork, which opens more depth in the types of problems they can solve without getting frustrated in the mathematics.  It also serves as an equation sheet that they can call up by typing in the name of a physical quantity (eg “Work” produces F*d).  If students wanted to try something new they could bounce ideas off the teacher and find some materials to help them test a problem.

Once I got over the vast amount of resources in the classroom, I noticed how different the class culture is as well.  The overall school culture is very casual, with students moving from class to class without bells.  Depending on the individual’s schedule, there may be breaks between one class and another, allowing students to check in with other teachers, finish something in their previous class, or get ahead in their next class.  Since I was used to students racing out the door as soon as a period ends, it was amazing to see students choose to do work during a 15-20 minute break when they did not need to.  Even more amazing was that the teacher was able to leave the students in the room working on their labs during this time to get coffee and spend a few minutes out of the room.

After talking with the teacher, I learned that they students come with a lot of natural “buy in” and he was told that he worried to much about how to hook the students into a lesson.  The students were already ready to go, because it was a part of the school culture (influenced heavily by the admissions process) and needed little reinforcement from the teachers.

Another thing I really liked was their schedule.  It was very complex and would take a while to adapt to, but allowed teachers to choose whether or not to have blocked classes or regular classes.  If a teacher taught 2nd period there was a place on the schedule for 2L right after the normal period 2 or 2* on a different day.  The teachers chose which one they wanted to take and the students had a break during the other period.  The physics teacher always chose the block style (2L) so that longer labs could be done, but other teachers might prefer the shorter periods with the ability to see students more times per week.  AP students have both periods, increasing their instructional minutes per week (but loosing a break in their day).

There was also a “Meetings” period that was just an office hours time for teachers.  Students chose where they wanted to be and had time to do work silently or get help from a teacher.  This was a time to make up work or retake assignments.  This seemed to function in a similar way to our AI period (study hall) but allowed students to choose where they wanted to be and get the help that they needed.  The schedule seemed to allow a lot of flexibility to both students and staff, emulating college practices to prepare the students for their next step in education.

In the second school I went to (my high school), I helped proctor a chemistry class with my mom.  This school also had 1-1 iPads and I saw how great a focusing tool that can be.  In the class students worked on a chemistry project where they were looking up information on different common chemical compounds (eg, NaCl, or table salt) and following a series of prompts.  The class was quiet, with occasional questions from one student to another as students worked on their iPads.  During this time no effort was required on the part of the teacher.  The students just worked for the full 85 minutes.

This school also recently switched their schedule around and have a similar “office hours” type period.  All students have a free period where they can just hang out (quietly) or go to 1 of 3 “resource rooms” that are set up by subject (math/science/tech, language/religion, english/social studies).  Teachers also have a resource period where the go to their resource room and field any questions from students.  The rooms are great; they have a few tables with chairs, bookshelves with textbooks for those subjects, and computers.  Unfortunately, the period that students can go to these rooms may differ from when some of their teachers go to these rooms, so not every student/teacher pair can meet up.  Still, it seems to work for the people that can (and a math student could always get help for a math teacher that isn’t their teacher), and other students just have a quiet time to work, either in the library or other open areas.

Both of these schools had a culture that was way different from my own.  Students, in general, had a lot more buy in to their education and worked in a much more independent manner.  Their schedules were structured to facilitate that independence and give students a lot of choice in how they used their time at school.  Because of the high buy in and pro-school attitude, they used their time more productively and student seemed to have more initiative and personal responsibility.  I wonder how this culture can be created and adapted to schools like my own, where student attitudes start out in a very different place.

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