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Field Notes 2/26/13

Laura H's picture

February 26th, 2013

Ms. R 11th Grade American History
Mr. T 10th Grade English

Today was a fun day in my field placement because Sarah came with me for our cross-visit! We talked a lot about some issues I’ve been thinking about and she brought to my mind some things I hadn’t thought of before.

As usual, the students in Ms. R’s American History class were working on their big “benchmark project.” I learned that each quarter there is a benchmark project, with a clear grading rubric. There are multiple parts to this project. Last week the students researched the causes of the Great Depression and studied the New Deal. This week they are researching the causes of the Great Recession. The final project will be a comparison of the responses to the Great Depression and the Great Recession. Ms. R has almost the identical assignment as last week, with 3 sources and guided questions. She only says a few words at the beginning of class and then tells them to start working. Sarah and I are walking around looking at their visual depictions of their projects from last week and they are clearly excited to “show off” their work and explain it to us.

One thing I really noticed this week was how the school emphasizes visual presentation and displays that everywhere in the school. Ms. R’s class was covered in students’ visual depictions of explanations for the Great Depression, and they were very creative. One pair drew a plane crashing with money flying out of it and someone commenting, “Oh no, the stock market was on that plane!” When I complimented them on, they seemed so excited about their work. I took some pictures of the types of visual presentations they have on the walls of the building and have posted them here (sorry if the quality isn't so great!). It’s nice to see that this school is encouraging creativity and not only focusing on reading and writing.

For some reason the students seem particularly restless this class. They are messing around on their computers and talking to one another loudly. At one point, Tanya and Jon get into a fight about whether Jay-Z is a better rapper than Nas. They begin yelling at one another, in a friendly way, and while some students look over, most ignore them or have their headphones in. Ms. R comes over and smiles as they have the dispute. I watch and wonder whether she will say anything about how they should focus or get back to work, but she doesn’t. After a few minutes the fight dies down. When Ms. R and I look back at them, they both have their heads on their desks as they are worn out from yelling and Ms. R laughs.

This was the first time I witnessed at class get somewhat “out of control” as we would typically call it. I was pretty surprised that Ms. R did not interject these students who were fighting and tell them to work. I found myself encouraging students to focus if they were trying to talk to me about something not related to the assignment. This is where I see clear differences between Ms. R and Mr. T. While no teachers at this school “force” their students to do anything, Mr. T check ups more on students throughout the class period and makes sure they are on task. Since this is Ms. R’s first year, I wonder if she is still getting used to this system on independent, project-based work. Additionally, I wondered if because the assignment this week was the exact same as last week, they were slightly bored. At the same time, I can definitely see the benefits of learning through “inquiry or discovery” research, rather than having someone tell you what happened, especially when it comes to history which can be so subjective.

In Mr. T’s class, the students are continuing work on their podcast assignments, but this part of the project is more collaborative because they are creating a radio show with 3 or 4 individual pieces. In teams, they have to assign a point person, come up with deadlines and a work plan, and put together their piece. At the beginning of every class, Mr. T stands at the doorway and tells everyone walking in to sit with their podcast groups. He then goes around and checks in on their workplans and point people.

This is a clear example of Mr. T’s role as the teacher, he constantly guides the students through each step of the project and checks up on all the deadlines. While I think giving students freedom and responsibility to do their own work, they are still in high school so I think it is good Mr. T gives them a little more guidance while still making it clear he isn’t forcing them to do the work. I also know for me personally, I have the kind of personality where I like having clear deadlines, so I might have trouble being productive in a class such as Ms. R’s. Additionally, I clearly see the benefits of having students work in teams like this. They have to learn to work together, draw connections between their pieces, figure out the logistics of combining their pieces, and be responsible about choosing a point person.

I begin talking with one group that decided to write a “slam poetry” piece about the theme of the project “crossing boundaries” and record it for the introduction of their piece. They play me the recording and I am blown away. I don’t even want to try and describe it in these notes because it will not do it justice, but I asked them to e-mail it to me when it’s finished so I can share the lyrics then. We talk about how slam poetry is a way to express yourself and change the world. One of the students makes a joke and them being “young black youth changing the world.”

I love that these students have the opportunity in Mr. T’s class to express themselves creatively. It is clear in this class that all the students are so engaged in the project because they truly enjoy the work. The address difficult issues of race and racism, yet in a very sophisticated, respectful way. They also seem very comfortable talking about these issues with me even though they do not know me well and even though I am the only person who is white in the group.

Three educators from Tennessee come to observe Mr. T’s class and he sits with them while the students work on their projects. I hear him explain the school’s philosophy to the teachers, and it is clear he is very proud of the work they are doing. A few quotes he says stick out to me:
-”I do a lot of creative projects and I don’t have to jump through hoops to make it happen.”
-”It’s important to get them to understand that the process really relates to the product. Like if they miss all these little deadlines their product won’t be good. I break it up into small chunks for a reason.”
-”I try to structure it in ways that they create work that has meaning in the world.”

To me, these quotes epitomize this school. One thing Sarah pointed out to me today is that the values and mission of this school is reinforced in everything they do, and this is very true. Mr. T’s projects are extremely creative and offer students opportunities to engage in the arts and other aspects of education. Yet he is able to do so because he goes to a school that gives him this kind of freedom with his curriculum. Additionally, the project-based learning is a way to get students to understand that the process matters, and that essentially, cutting corners to taking short cuts won’t create good work. It can be hard for people, let alone young people, to understand this all the time, but I think it is constantly reinforced at this school. And lastly, I love this quote about creating work that has meaning in the world. That is truly why I think Mr. T’s class is so great. Whether the students are talking about a novel they are reading or someone they interviewed for their projects, Mr. T makes this class feel relevant to their lives and to the world. In fact, one student told me that last semester they were writing essays about language as culture, and got into a heated debate about whether one should try to learn standard English in order to “succeed” in the world, which was a topic we discussed in my Schools in American Cities course. I’m not sure the students completely understand how unique and significant it is that they are talking about these issues in school, and I’d be curious to talk to them more about it.