This morning I headed over to the iSchool, part of the NYC21C initiative from Chancellor Joel I. Klein. The school has been tasked to redefine a 21st century school, and their model was really exciting to see in action.
I found out about the school through Christina Jenkins, who teaches design at the high school. She told me her design class was a last minute curriculum decision, and one that’s been well received by the students. She’s interested in getting her class together with our class to give them a chance to discuss and critique each others’ work.
The iSchool structures its curriculum around a set of learning modules, 9-week clusters that focus on big ideas. The modules are complementary with online courses that teach some of the material that isn’t necessarily dependent on a good teacher to learn (like plant cell structure). Many of the classes are mixed grades, and the online classes allow students to move at their own pace. They also offer some traditional classes, called Core Experiences, where students study things like literature and science labs. Physical education is fulfilled through each student’s independent activities, allowing them more time in their days for things like debate class, art, guitar, and science classes like the physics of natural disasters or food science.
The iSchool gives their students responsibility and choice, and believes that learning should be developmentally appropriate and real-world relevant. They strive to get their students working on meaningful projects with outside companies from the start. On top of that, the school sends students out for internships 3 hours per week beginning during their freshman year.
Another thing that stood out was the way the school handles advisory. Each student meets twice weekly with a group of 10-15 students and their advisor. Every student gets personal attention, and no one gets left behind.
It’s no surprise to me that this is a school offering a design class in its curriculum. Their values of creative and critical thinking, big ideas, and interdisciplinary studies are all themes that are echoed in the study of design. I’m excited to go back and see Christina’s class in action!
Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School
We spoke with Christy Herbes and Elise Pelletier from the BCAM art department to try and get something set up for Project: Interaction. When I followed up with them, Elise was very kind to invite me to come spend a day with their students.
I started the day at 8:30am in Elise’s classroom where she was planning a lesson while an English class met in the background. For second period I observed a Media Arts class taught by Christy Herbes. There were about 18 10th grade students. Third period I observed Elise’s 9th grade (required) art class. There are about 30-35 students in each of her four blocks. Fourth period is lunch and planning. I grabbed lunch with Elise’s student teacher Anna and ate with the two of them. After lunch Elise has an advisory period where students are assigned a teacher to spend the time with. There were about 10-12 students for only a half hour period. Fifth period I observed Mr. Howell’s Geometry class, a classroom full of 10th graders (about 26).
135 students in the freshman class
4 cohorts, that change at the quarter if needed
They just completed visual narrative projects. Elise explains to me that they process began with brainstorming and a mind map. Then the students worked to sketch images to go with the words. Later, when making their final silhouettes they can refer to the sketches to get unstuck. After the final product, they work on an artist statement for their work. The visual narratives help them explore identity, a key social exploration for 9th graders. (Images below)
She posts their work to the class blog so they can see what the other classes are working on, otherwise they’d never see it. No one takes their art home
All students wear a BCAM polo shirt
From EP: The school puts all students into a single track. There are no different levels within each grade because the school’s staff isn’t big enough to support them. They must teach to all levels. Math and English are split up.
- the students sat and read for awhile, then wrote responses to a series of partisan statements
- – Example, “Agree or Disagree: Behind every great man is a great woman.”
- – Example: “Agree or Disagree: Sometimes it is necessary to to do something wrong to get what you want.” (This quickly devolved into a discussion about cannibalism as a survival technique. Some kids are really animated and standing up to make a point. They’re empathetic?)
- – Example: “Agree or Disagree: What goes around comes around.”
- – Example: “Agree or Disagree: There are circumstances or events that justify killing someone.”
- The students are all at different reading levels, and some have a hard time reading aloud.
- EP uses Adobe Illustrator to make worksheets for class
- Prints one copy out large scale, which she cuts up and later tapes to each table.
- EP asks a student in the hallway whether she’ll be coming to DICE (?). The girl can’t because the event is after dark and it’s not safe around her house at night.
- Media Arts – Ms. Herbes
- Students have a “Do Now” posted at the front of the room. They’re expected to come in, get their individual binders, and write a response to the daily reflection.
- Students had turned in a research packet for the monument they’ve chosen to create
- The principal popped in just before class, then headed into the hallway to shuttle kids on to class
- Lecture: Review monuments where they left off from the previous class. MLK monument
- Students are encouraged to take notes and they’ll be able to use them on the quiz
- When students were having side conversations Christy stopped talking and waited until they got quiet. She looked all around the room, specifically landing at each student who had been talking.
- When describing the WTC Sphere a student referred to the 9/11 attacks as “…shit got blown down…”
- Another quieting tactic: “Hey guys, I can’t compete with you.”
- During the lecture students continually asked if pieces of information were important
- When she showed a quotation about a monument it opened up a discussion from the class about it
- Christy explicitly tells students which pieces of information will be on the quiz
- There are a lot of girls brushing their hair during class. The girl in front of me checked herself in the mirror at least 3 times.
- Christy reads some of her lesson plan from a sheet of paper (Was this her writing notes, or the writing of someone else?)
- Today’s art class focuses on history and meaning. Students use what they already know about history to apply the knowledge of those events to the study of monuments
- There’s a reward for students who are finished with work early.
- During this class there was a tiff going on in the back of the room. One tall, athletic boy kept approaching one of the girls. He passed her and she mumbled something. His response, “Whaaat. I ain’t touched you in ova a week. I oughta smack you.” He moved on, talking with other girls, then came back. Eventually the two were embracing in a very suggestive way.
- Students were handed back their research packets and asked to look for images for their monument
- They all go to the front of the room to check out a Macbook laptop from a communal cabinet.
- The class listens to Pandora, with one student selected to be the DJ each week.
- About five minutes into the image searching activity they’ve mostly lost focus and the whole class is having side conversations.
- Christy encourages a student to consider, “What makes this person a hero?”
- Most of the students in class are singing or dancing or moving to the music in some way.
- The teacher in this class speaks their language. She changes her tone and approach to match what the students know.
- – Example, “That’s totally hot, right?”
9th Grade Art – Ms. Pelletier
- There are 3 adults in the room: the head teacher, the student teacher and a class aid
- EP uses a bell to get everyone’s attention
- The class starts with an exercise to get them familiar with their vocabulary list. They are given a series of statements to fill in the blanks. They statements are taped to the tables, and students must walk around the room to answer them all.
- It’s total chaos.
- The kids have short tempers and get angry with each other at the slightest misstep.
- Conversations about the vocabulary words quickly move into social conversations.
- Each student has a sketchbook, essentially a visual notebook full of notes about techniques.
- When they’re finished writing in all the answers from the exercise they get a stamp for completion. Then they go over the answers as a group and correct any they had wrong.
- To quiet the class, EP says “Shhh…” and asks them to be quiet. She calls names when needed. At one point she asked them to put their “lovely eyes” on her.
- To review the answers she has one person at each table share their answer.
- Next, they are handed out photos of a scene taken by a student photographer. They get a worksheet and have to decided what each statement tells them about the work. Teachers walk around during discussion to help them.
- The art class is about thinking as much as it is about making!
- EP uses “Shhhh” more frequently. Once she says Shh outloud and snaps the clicker on her pen at the same time.
- Finally she calls a student out: “Talk again and you get detention.” This works to make him stop talking.
- For the exercise about the photo she breaks each sentence down to lead a discussion about the work. [Need to guide them through. Can’t just hand them an assignment and expect them to get it.]
- Half of the class was falling asleep. A couple girls have been sketching from a how-to book the whole time. [So cool that they’re sneaking around wtih a drawing book!]
- The next assignment is for them to work on their artist statements. They talk about the concept of writing in first person. EP advises them, “Write a story opening sentence that makes people want to read your statement… Or else they won’t want to read it.” Student response: “I don’t wanna read it either!”
- The teachers walk around, helping students through their thinking before they begin to write.
- The classroom was really loud, even though they were supposed to be working independently on homework.
- Students who have something to show already come to the front to ask for approval on their work from EP.
- The back of the class is rowdier than the front.
- When some of the kids throw out some crazy ideas, EP handles their questions as if they’re legit inquiries.
Advisory – Ms. Pelletier
- This is essentially a study hall.
- EP is aware of the homework and quizzes the students have in other classes
- some of the kids socialize, some do homework
- Most of the kids have questions for EP
- There’s a lot of talk about classmates, drama, issues, parties and social events going on
- During advisory, EP sits at the tables with the students. It’s different from earlier when she was standing in front of the class.
Math Class – Mr. Howell
- He goes through the same practice of quieting the class. He first asks politely, then gives a threat. When he raises his voice the class gets quiet. [He lost patience as this went on.]
- He comments that the students were rowdy the previous day. He begins his plea with empathy: “I know some of you are struggling… but your cohort’s grades are better than the other cohorts…”
- Class activity: Define a set of words using the book, then draw a picture for each.
- They’re working on a polygons unit. He teaches them to draw a triangle using the information given in a problem, and how that drawing might help them learn the missing information.
- He’s interactive with the class and is really enthusiastic about getting the triangles right. He actively asks questions of the class.
- He speaks their language, turning a math proof around to ask them, “Does that seem fair?” He involves them in the process, as if the answer has not yet been discovered.
- He’s quick moving between activities to keep their attention.
- The girls got very creative when construction paper was handed out. They messed around with it, making 3D objects. Not so much from the boys.
- The class was interrupted by a group of guys coming in to advertise flashback day.
- The teacher does a great job walking around the room and getting to a lot of different students to help them.
- He also has to troubleshoot glue sticks. [Not in the math teacher manual?]
- He’s attentive to the classroom; picks up coats from the floor.
- When students finish their first constructions they ask the teacher for approval.
- He points out spelling errors in students’ work and helps the student understand his or her mistakes.
- The students respect this teacher.
- The teacher is unfazed by the chaos in the room.
- He checks students’ work as they go along and asks them questions where appropriate. He’s really enthusiastic about their accomplishments.
I’m in town visiting my family in St. Louis, Missouri this weekend and thought I’d try and get into a school while I’m here. I was interested in observing the differences in student behavior, teacher planning and curriculum structure between the NYC high schools and the massive, 2200-student public high school [that I attended] in my home town.
My overall observations:
- Students behave the same! There were the same groups of kids: punks, jocks, nerds, slackers and they all behaved exactly the way I expected. However, these kids seemed A LOT younger than the Brooklyn 9th/10th graders I work with. They didn’t have the same awareness, but I was also seeing them in context of school instead of after school.
- I sat in on three math classes: an upperclassmen Finite class with mixed skill levels taught by Allison John, a 10th grade honors Alg 2/Trig class with Staci Noyes, and a Geometry B class taught by Jason Koehrer, with students of all grades who struggle with math. There was such a huge difference between the ways the teachers spoke to the students, and the students’ level of interest in the course material.
- In the honors class, the teacher explicitly made reference to the big picture. She talked about the broader goals of being a mathematician and related solving complex math problems to solving complex problems in the world. The students were all engaged because they are already motivated to learn.
- In the Geo B class each student had a small white board, and as a class they worked through problems. The teacher used the white boards as a way for students to take ownership in their work; they had to share their proofs with the class instead of confining their thinking to their notebooks. The students were also rewarded with “fun” activities (riddles) and candy for good work during the class.
- The finite class was a hard read since the students all come from different places. Some of the students were engaged and asking good questions, but some could have cared less. I did not see a lot of real world application in that day’s lesson, and found myself a little confused about the material, too. (I wonder if design-based learning would benefit these students the most?)
After class I spoke at length with Ms. John about the math department’s curriculum planning and about her own efforts to unite her fragmented class. She explained to me that Finite math is a tricky class to teach. Many of her students are seniors who have already checked out, knowing they won’t need the credit from her class for their future plans.
The math department has been performing common assessments for the last 20 years, believing that any student regardless of teacher should earn the same knowledge in a math class.
Other departments at the school are not as cohesive, and the English department has just begun to unify their curriculum in this way.
When asked, Ms. John believes the success of the math department’s curriculum is due to the strong leadership of Mr. Wade, a teacher who has led the department for several decades.
Ms. John also spoke about the revisions being made in the district’s math requirements. They’re asking all schools in the district to simplify their math curriculum tracking, only offering three options for students entering 9th grade and reducing the stepped Algebra A and B courses to just one class.
The state used to require end of year tests for all students regardless of their level of schooling. They’ve changed the program and now require testing after significant milestones.
Ms. John and I also spoke about teacher incentives. None of the teachers at the school get paid more or less based on their test scores, teaching ability or department or school involvement. When I asked about incentives based on students’ success, Ms. John told me if that happens she fears teachers will reduce the complexity of their lessons to only include test relevant material. This is a threat to students, who should benefit from a holistic model of teaching.
The school I visited was not using design- or project-based learning in their math classes, except on a few small-scale projects. For example, Mr. Wade’s geometry class makes an architectural drawing to demonstrate their understanding of the way math shapes the design of buildings. I definitely see potential here for design and interdisciplinary studies to be incorporated into lessons. It may even get some of the apathetic kids interested in subject matter they’d otherwise ignore.
Note: I also got to witness a student coming into Ms. John’s free period to ask her for help. The student was entirely frustrated by math and acted as if she would never ever study it again because it was so challenging. It was awesome to see the teacher help her out of the pit of despair and encourage her to keep trying. The student left with a new plan of action for tutoring and finding helpful resources for her challenging class.
New Design High School
I visited Corey Willis’s senior design class at New Design High in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. At their high school they treat design like every other core class, with students required to take a design class during each of 4 years at the school.
When I asked if I could visit another class to see how design is being used in core subjects, he responded, “Well, you could, but you won’t find any design there.” I was a bit disappointed, but would like to do more research to find out why that is.
- This classroom was total chaos compared to many of the others I’ve visited! The students were up and active, and totally focused on the tasks they were involved in. There was a palpable energy in the room, where everyone was excited about what they were doing.
- There was also music on in the room, adding to the excitement.
- about 20 students
- Everyone is making clothes for the Paper Fashion Show. Each year they take this week out to prepare.
- In my notes I remarked several times about how happy all the students seem to be!
- The teacher’s in on it too; he’s content making his own clothes for the fashion show.
- almost all of the students in this class are dancing to the music
- many show no hesitation to grab a pencil and sketch their ideas
- they’re making things and wearing them as they get made
- the classroom here is filled with handmade posters and signs that talk about the classroom values and rules (In other classrooms I’ve seen a lot of standardized posters instead of handmade.)
- Corey tells me, “It’s normally computer and ‘save the world stuff’ here.”
- some students are very careful, while others are just throwing stuff around, ripping the paper and shaping it as they go.
After the class ended I had a chance to speak directly with Corey.
Is class always like this? Are students always this alive?
Hm… well… yea. They are. (smiles)
How do you develop the design curriculum here?
We try to hire teachers with different skill sets, and we meet as a group and plan classes based on teachers’ skills. We are a collaborative department.
Do students continue their design education after high school here?
About 20-30% of students continue to design school.
How do you share the students’ work with the rest of the school?
For the fashion show, we turn the hallways into a runway and show off our creations for the rest of the school to see. If you go to the school’s website and check out our blog you can see last year’s results.
How do you document the classes and process?
I’m the one who does the blog. We post process photos there, too.
Do you use any online resources? How well connected is your class?
Other than the blog? Oh. We aren’t sure where social media fits in to the design department. (Corey mentioned that there are several issues with opening up comments to the larger community. Mainly, there is no point person in the infrastructure who’s able to respond to comments and inquiries, so no one ends up doing it. Same with Twitter.)
Have the students received any other fashion design training? This seems like pretty complex stuff here.
The students begin working on construction during 9th grade. The [other design teacher] starts them by teaching pleats and basic sewing/fabric construction techniques. By senior year they have a toolkit and can use the elements they need.
**Unless noted, all responses are paraphrased from notes.
Content Prototype: Which questions to ask?
Prototyping 2 – Content & Questions
Last week I conducted my first prototype. I wanted to find out how teachers would respond to the questions I was thinking about for data collection in my thesis.
Gathering the Audience
I invited about twelve teachers to participate, asking them to send me their phone numbers, twittter handles and email addresses via a Google form. I also asked them to report which of the following times were best for them to respond to messages.
Seven teachers participated in the prototype. I had two teachers from a Westchester public school, two from private schools, and three from New York City public schools.
I created a seriously stripped down Ning network for them to report their answers to me each day. I wanted to give them a semi-public place to respond to the questions I was asking, while also observing to see if they would engage in conversation with one another.
Based on their reported preferences, I divided the participants into two groups: an afternoon group to be contacted around 3pm, and an evening group to be contacted around 7pm.
Each day I sent them a question to be answered on the Ning page.
The first two questions were about process:
What was the best part of class today? Why?
How did your class flow today? Did you have extra time or not enough? Why?
Since so many of the first responses were null because of snow days, I decided to change the format of the question on the third day, asking them about the effects of snow and asking them to respond via email instead of on the website. This question was less reflective than the others, but I wanted to find out how they would respond to a more concrete inquiry.
How have all the unplanned snow days affected your classes? What will you do to make up lost time?
The fourth and fifth days focused on success and failure in the classroom.
Think of one method or activity that has been working very well in your classes. What is it? How can you do more of it?
What was your most recent failure in class? What steps did you take to recalibrate your
The first two days were well represented by the NYC public school teachers who hadn’t been affected by snow. On the third day, when I asked about a specific topic and had them respond via email, I received four responses that were all thorough. The closest I came to my desired results of reflection and discussion was on day 4 and 5. I believe the structure and content of the questions about success and failure were most effective because they asked about a generic impression; they were open ended enough that any teacher could answer them in relation to his or her own experience.
Many of the responses were prescriptive. This could have been a result of my existing relationship with some of the teachers, who know I am learning how to teach.
For example, on day two:
Classes were a bit slow, due to a special schedule. Content-wise, classes flowed very well. In my short periods, I reviewed content that we covered over the past few days, added a couple of challenge problems, then brainstormed ideas for a laboratory inquiry experiment. In my long period, students designed, executed, and wrote a report on a heat of combustion lab. There was enough time for everything (for once), seemingly because attendance was unusually low.
Only three of my participants were able to answer on a regular basis. In their feedback some of them expressed disappointment in themselves for not being able to participate more regularly. Also the “weird week schedule” was blamed for lack of participation.
Most of the teachers reported to me that the questions were relevant to their teaching practice. My own insight is to include more questions that ask about thematic content, rather than specific examples, which will ultimately lead to more prescriptive answers.
On the fifth day one of the participants responded to another one in discussion. It was exciting to see her reference his response, knowing that she had read what he wrote and was building on it. This is the type of interaction I would like to encourage throughout the community I will build.