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Fieldnotes- 2/12/13

Laura H's picture

Fieldnotes- 2/12/13, 10am-3pm

Classes: 11th grade American History (Ms. R), 10th grade English (Mr. T)


As I wait outside of Ms. R’s classroom, a few students are in the hallway waiting for their classes to start. There is a big white board on the wall outside the college counseling office and it has an “SAT question of the day on it.” The students waiting for their classes begin to discuss the question and try to figure out which is the correct answer.

This seems like a great way to give students something to focus on at a time when they could get restless in the hallway.  

Students slowly trickle into Ms. R’s 11th grade American history class. Most students are there within the first 5-10 minutes after class officially begins. The students are friendly and say hi to me as they walk in. Ms. R quiets them down by turning off the lights and saying “screens down please” (in reference to their laptops). She asks me to introduce myself.

I like that Ms. R has me introduce myself to the students. It makes me feel as though I have a part in the class and makes it easier to begin getting to know the students and make sure they feel comfortable around me. She also tells them they can ask me about college because they are all beginning to think about applying to schools.

Today the students are working on their individual projects/presentations about the Progressive Era. They each picked a topic and are creating some type of presentation, which they then will post to Moodle for others in the class to look at and learn from. They all open their computers and begin to work individually, and I stand at the front of my room a little unsure of what my place is. Ms. R seems very open to my participation and even suggestions for her class, but I still feel a little nervous but just jumping right in. After five or ten minutes of observing, I decide to go around and see what projects the students are working on. The topics range from women’s suffrage to rights for Native Americans to religion and politics. To an outside observer, it might look like the students are just on computers, talking to one another, and listening to music, but they are all actually working on very sophisticated projects. Many of them use Prezi or other presentation programs, and their work is creative and artistic. Johanna tells me her topic is the tension between Christianity and feminism. She tells me while her family is not religious, she personally is very religious and believes in God and the Bible. She says, “I grapple with my religious side because I’m also a feminist.” She tells me she wrote a poem for her presentation and decided to record it and upload it to Moodle.

I realized that after I made the move to just start asking students about their projects and getting to know them, they were very responsive and excited to talk about what they are working on. Some had headphones in so I wasn’t sure if I should try to disrupt them, but I got a chance to talk with almost half the class. It’s clear they are interested in what they are learning and they want to show others. Johanna’s topic is very personal and I’m surprised by how open she is to sharing with the class. It is also interesting that they are allowed to use so many different types of presentation methods for their projects. This appeals to the different learning styles everyone has.

Marcus begins to play music out loud on his computer and no one seems bothered by it, including Ms. R. The music gets louder and him and Ashley begin to dance and sing along. She uses curse words a few times, and Ms. R doesn’t seem to notice.

This seems to be one of the consequences of allowing so much freedom. Sometimes students will say or do things that in a traditional classroom might seem very inappropriate. This class is making me question what I believe is “appropriate” or “inappropriate” in a classroom setting.

During lunch, the students are allowed to eat anywhere in the building. They get an hour and 10 minute break, but I’m not sure if they can go outside. Since this school is in the city, I didn’t notice any outdoor basketball courts or fields to play on. Some students go into classrooms and watch videos on their computers, some sit in the hallways, and some eat in the cafeteria. Most of the teachers take this time to get work done or chat with students.

It is clear the students are given a lot of freedom and I have yet to witness any behavior issues even during this unstructured time. One thing I wonder about is that it seems as though they are on their computers a lot, throughout the whole day and often during lunch. While they do talk and interact with one another, it seems like most of these interactions are based around their phones or computers. I hear one student say, “It’s looks so nice out I just want to leave.” While this school is very rigorous academically, I wonder about the benefit of having outdoor, computer-free activities.

The project for today’s 10th grade English class is a podcast. The theme is “Crossing Boundaries,” and the students have to interview someone outside of the school on anything that relates to this topic. Mr. T writes the steps for this project on the board: Prep, 45-minute interview, Log, Edit (record narration, mix in music), and finalize an 8-10 podcast.

Again, this is an example of the project-based curriculum at this school. This is a unique project for an English class that I have not seen before. It is interesting that the students are developing skills in a range of areas: interviewing, listening, editing with the program Garage Band, and learning how to craft a story.

To give an example of what a finalized project might look like, Mr. T plays them a piece from “This American Life.” Before he plays it, he tells the students, “We’re going to need to define a word before we listen to this, the word is ‘transgender,’ does anyone know what that means?” One students says it is when someone has a sex change operation, but Mr. T clarifies that transgender can be someone who has the physical characteristics of one gender but identifies as another.

I am glad to see issues of gender addressed in this classroom, because it is certainly a topic that is often either not addressed or not allowed in schools. While some students are confused by the podcast, asking if the children in it are “actually boys,” or “actually girls.” Mr. T clarifies by saying that this is an example of “crossing boundaries,” that the lines of boys and girls are not so clear. The students seem very interested in the podcast and are extremely mature about the topic.

Mr. T asks the students to write down what they notice about how the story is created as they listen. He occasionally pauses the podcast to ask for some ideas. Students mentions things like the use of music and background noise, or the emotion in the stories. He pushes them to think about even more specific details, such as when there is a pause after someone speaks. He notes that the best podcasts have both a story as well as a reflection.

This is a clear example of the teacher’s role at this school. There are rarely moments of  “banking,” where the teacher is lecturing or providing information. Rather, the teacher creates projects and then facilitates the learning through these projects. He emphasizes collaboration by asking students to “call out good ideas,” to help others as they write possible interview questions in their journals.

After they listen to the podcast, he has each student pair up with someone they don’t know well and go out into the hallway to practice interviewing. They use the starting questions they came up with and interview and record each other for 10 minutes each.

The students seem excited to have the chance to get out of the classroom and interview one another. It also gives Mr. T a chance to look through Moodle and start to see what ideas people have come up with for their project. While he occasionally goes around and sees what everyone is going, he trusts them to do their work and come back to the class on time.



Questions/thoughts I am left with:

I am still unsure about the place technology, and in particular cell phones, have in the classroom. Students generally seem focused when they need to be, and they appear to be getting the work done. However, I personally feel uncomfortable with all the cell phones out on the tables or in students’ hands. While the computers have a clear educational purpose, cell phones are more for texting and playing games. From what I understand the cell phones are allowed because the teachers believe the students should “regulate” themselves. They understand that the students will be exposed to all of these distractions in the real world and should know how to be productive even when they are around. However, I think about how even in college, it’s thought of as disrespectful to have your cell phone out in a classroom. I hope to have the chance to speak to Ms. R and Mr. T more about the challenges as well as the benefits of having these devices in class. 


jccohen's picture

engagement, technology

Laura H,

Your notes richly convey the presence -- and something of the ambiguity -- of technology in the classrooms at your site.  I'm especially taken with the role of podcasts here; the American Life segment models this, students try it out right then and there, and this genre is also connected to a larger project.

I share your questions about tech/cell phones as perhaps too pervasive and distracting; you raise this in relation to free time as well as class time.  It's true about technology as a temptation toward distraction in our lives, and it's a question that sometimes comes up for me at BMC...  I wonder whether they talk about this at your site with students, which would seem to me one way to at least name this as another learning challenge.

The level of precision in your notes helps me see/begin to have a sense of what's going on in these classrooms.  I notice that your 'story' about Johanna stays with me as a compelling particular and I look forward to your giving us more of these vivid instances.