Aim High Magic Observed
This reflection comes to us from Steve Davenport, Aim High board member and former Head of School at The Athenian School in Oakland. I VISITED THE St. Paul’s site on Wednesday, July 6th. As always the day starts as one community, gathered in a circle so that every person is visible and present to every other person. The circle, with 2 staff members in the center facilitating and this day, leading a game – a version of Simon Says that allows grown-ups and children to be silly together – is a language that says much better than words can: we are a community in which each of us is treasured for who we are and a ritual that celebrates that fact. That the children have caught on to this is obvious on their faces, and in their body language. They are alert, glad to be where they are, expectant of the good things that will happen this day. The energy is palpable. I followed a science class of rising sixth graders and their teacher into the botanical garden across the street. The garden is in itself a place of intense beauty, a marvelous place just to be on a summer morning, exotic in the center of a busy city, not one that a sixth grader is likely to enter on his or her own. The assignment: to observe. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? And what questions do have about these? How many of us ever actually stop, be still and notice? The students are making their own information, not being fed it, and of course are performing the fundamental scientific act of observing phenomena and identifying the relevant questions about it. Next I dropped in on humanities class of rising 7th graders. The subject Pirates, but the deeper subject is the context in which pirates operated- how there wouldn’t have been piracy without the voluminous trade between Europe and the east which forced merchant ships to congregate as prey between Madagascar and the mainland. What were the working conditions and pay for sailors on merchant ships, or in the navies where the captain had absolute control over your life that might have induced you to become a pirate? It is hard to believe that the children didn’t emerge from this lively discussion more aware of context, of systems, connections. Then to a math class which the teacher starts by challenging the students to put an array of numbers on the whiteboard at the front of the room on a number line in 4 minutes , “Starting right now!” Immediate intense focus to win the race against time! Some of the numbers are positive, some negative, some whole, some fractional, and one is expressed by an unsolved long division problem. There are the same number of numbers on the whiteboard as there are children in the class, and at the end of the four-minute race to finish, the teacher holds a stack of cards in her hand, each card with the name of one of the students and asks each child, as she draws from the top of the stack to come forward and place one of the numbers on the line. Thumbs up if you agree, sideways if you are not sure, thumbs down if you disagree, and why. Everyone knows he or she will be called on, so everyone is important, and because no one knows when, everyone’s alert. Then, after everyone is sworn to absolute silence, each child is given a slip of paper with a number on it, again either negative or positive or expressed in a fraction or decimal. Now the class is challenged: “You have four minutes to get in a line in sequence, the lowest on the left, ascending to the highest on the right with no verbal communication.” Smart kids, they write their numbers on the whiteboard, labeling them with their names and use the resultant info as their guide and beat the deadline. Teamwork and math combined. Everyone intensely engaged, working hard, and having fun. Next the class is divided in two, one teacher taking some of the children who need more help to a different room. In the room where I stay, the teacher hands out individual whiteboards and calls out numbers to be placed on a number line. As soon each child is finished he or she shows the answer to the teacher for immediate corroboration or correction. The process is efficient, brisk. Superb time management. How much can you teach in one short class period? At Aim High a whole lot. On the board of an Issues and Choices class for rising 6th graders; OBJECTIVE: “I will know how important it is to prioritize and manage my time.” The teachers and students work with a chart that when filled out identifies assignments to be fulfilled, due dates, etc. so as to identify priorities and manage time. Much discussion about this and other methods, specific examples from their current homework assignments, what works for some and doesn’t for others. Near the end of the class a FINAL Word: one of the students summarizes the class, tells what was learned. And to get out the door, each child hands in an idea or plan written on a piece of paper, an EXIT TICKET. Another highly interactive class in which the skillful guidance of the teachers keeps the students engaged in very relevant material. Another humanities class: Focus: mythology, this week, western, specifically Atalanta. Objective: perform the myth as a play with active voices. Agenda/Do Now: identify story parts: characters, plot, setting, resolution. Homework: read the myth, labeling the story parts. The energetic discussion, largely Socratic in nature, during the first half of the period,fused the unlocking of this specific myth with developing the ability to derive meaning from all kinds of narrative. In the second half the students perform the myth, each taking a part and reading it as in a radio drama. Again, total engagement. No perfunctory reading here. That the students are willing to be so animated, so out there in front of their peers, is sign of their engagement, their understanding of the myth, and of the comfort they feel in this supportive community. Summary: I came away inspired. I’d spent a fascinating morning in a very organized, happy, intensely busy community in which the students are fully engaged in highly designed, effective curriculum delivered by teachers who are stars.