Friday, March 15, 2013

New Paradigms Make Exciting Teaching

This year our new principal, Noel Dougherty, formerly a beloved teacher and Dean of Students, has redesigned faculty meetings to be context for teachers to share best practices emerging or growing in their teaching. This focus has begun to transform faculty meetings from places where announcements are made into celebrations of experimentation and innovation in our classrooms and beyond.

In our first meeting, one of our college counselors, Mike Salmon, talked about a case studies program he is developing for parents so that they get a clear idea of the nuanced process of admissions. Parents are given a number of student portfolios and school profiles and they are required to make mock admissions decisions based on collected information. After the parents make their decisions, real admissions officers weigh in on how the process might have actually evolved. This program is gaining momentum in its popularity. What becomes clear is how layered the admissions process has become.  Who colleges admit is, in part, a marketing strategy for colleges trying to anticipate success, and by extension, opportunity for recognition for their institutions via the accomplishments of its graduates. I guess that's always been the vision of college admissions, but I never knew how layered the process was. For our parent community, the program offers experiential education in college admissions. An informed parent is much more likely to be an ally than one who is operating out of ignorance about a process.

In our most recent faculty meeting, two teachers presented. Tenth grade history teacher, Ken Sommers, talked about a case studies program that's been growing roots at our school called Axis of Hope. The premise is that students engage in a day long seminar in which they role play various groups in world conflicts. For two years the program focused on our sophomores and invited them to experience the complexities of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. The genius of the program is that students develop empathy for their roles and find themselves representing sometimes radical views with an understanding of both the radicalism and the human, emotional tangle of people fighting for what they believe is their homeland and religious epicenter.

The man who runs the program, Carl Hobert, is a master educator with a clear sense of allowing students autonomy in the context of his very structured debate between groups. His experience with Outward Bound methodologies would be clear to anyone familiar with Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, ELOB. Since Ken first introduced the program at our school, it's grown to include case studies in the Rwandan genocide and invited seniors to explore the complexities of immigration in the United States.

The second teacher who presented was our biology teacher, Mike Newhams, who spoke very openly about some dramatic changes in the AP Biology curriculum. In an effort to recognize how our understanding of science continues to evolve, course designers suggest less content and more concept. To meet this objective, the course has become organized into four categories called "Big Ideas." Newhams observed that this had allowed him to more organically navigate relationships between concepts such as evolution and cellular processes like mitosis. This change has freed up time allowing an extension of what used to be short labs into longer inquiries that can extend into weeks. Students have been able to explore ideas that emerge naturally in the course of discussions. Newhams notes that students were increasingly encouraged to hypothesize as practicing scientists. Though the teacher felt the adjustment had not been easy (he cited feeling some loss of control), he admitted that the new approach has allowed for a substantially improved learning environment for students.

OK, you can say it now. I am so lucky to work at this school. These teachers are playing, experimenting, moving beyond their comfort, allowing for the unknown to seep into learning. These things represent best practice in learning. They give latitude to learning and invite learners, parents and students alike, into thinking. Isn't that what quality teaching is all about?

No comments:

Post a Comment