Over the decades, in visiting thousands of classrooms as a superintendent and researcher, a goodly number of teachers I was about to watch would approach me and say, ” I am not teaching today, I am showing a video,” or “my students will be doing worksheets,” or “today I am giving a unit test.” As if these activities were somehow separate from teaching, not what they or I would consider “real” teaching. Of course, they knew that the lesson was surely part of their teaching repertoire but these activities, they believed (and assumed that I would share that belief) were less important than covering content, leading a discussion, or explaining concepts. They had a picture of a teacher in front of the class guiding a discussion, explaining content, or demonstrating something and the activity I was going to observe was, well, not teaching.
Catherine Clausen (a pseudonym) didn’t believe that at all. Clausen teaches biology at one of Summit’s charter high schools. I saw her teach a 90 minute, culminating lesson to a unit about environmental toxins like zinc and copper that affected the molecular structure of the mustard plant, one that is common throughout the Bay area.
Before describing the lesson, a few words about Summit charter schools.
There are eight in the San Francisco Bay area (and two in Washington state). They serve approximately 2,500 students of whom nearly half are Latino, 20 percent are white, 11 percent are Asian, seven percent are multiracial and six percent are African American. Just over 40 percent are poor (a proxy measure used for poverty is the number of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch). Ninety-eight percent of students graduate and are accepted to at least one four-year college. Founded in 2003, the charter school organization has grown incrementally into a very complex program that aims for every Summit student (they enter through lottery) going to college. Each school focuses on cognitive skills, content knowledge, real life experiences and what staff calls the “habits of success.” Block schedules create 90 minute sessions for teachers, nearly all are below forty-five years of age, to teach academic subjects through project-based learning, provide interventions for students who lag in reading and math, mentor students, and integrate intensive, ongoing professional development throughout school year. Much of the foregoing academic work is conveyed through an online Personal Learning Plan–every student has a Chromebook–where teachers tailor their activities and materials to match student differences. Students submit there work electronically and teachers provide immediate feedback. In addition, for eight weeks during the school year, Summit students take Expedition Learning, a series of electives in the arts, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), planning for college, well being, and leadership). Much has been written about the interacting pieces of this complex program (see here, here, and here).
In her third year teacher at Summit, I saw Clausen teach a 90-minute block on February 29, 2016 to 24 students who were completing their “Bioremediation” unit. The lesson had a series of activities bracketing a 60 minute timed assessment of the unit students had completed (to see the sequence of class activities, see “Agenda”–slide 4). The word “test” was not used. Each student had asked a research question at the beginning of the unit about the effects of students adding different toxins (zinc and copper) to the mustard plant. Students posed hypotheses, added different toxins that were part of the local e-waste generated by large companies such as Google and Apple, and collected data on effects to determine whether their plant was a “good or bad” bioremediator. The timed assessment now was for students to write up conclusions from the data they collected and analyzed and turn in a final lab report.
Before the writing began, Clausen has a “warm up” activity (see Warm Up, slide 2) to start the class. Each student goes over the rubric for assessing unit and making a determination of how well they did on each of the categories in the rubric (e.g., “making connections and inferences, explaining evidence, conclusion”). Each rubric has six specific levels of performance so students could judge their work. After 10 minutes, Clausen directs students to pair up and discuss questions the teacher posed: “What did you identify on each rubric that you don’t want to forget during the timed writing? What will be personally challenging about writing the conclusion today in the assessment?”
Then the teacher turns to the 60 minute timed writing of their conclusions (see Slide 5). As part of the timed test, students watch a video, make a drawing of what happened to the molecular structure of their plant after certain toxins were applied, and answer questions in writing their conclusions. Teacher instructs students that they can use their notes, Internet, and other sources to write but they cannot ask the teacher content questions. They are to work independently and no collaboration during timed assessment.
She asks students if they have any questions. Four students raise their hands and ask about the writing, evidence, etc. Students then take out their Chromebooks, put earbuds in, and after Clausen starts the stop watch on the screen showing 60 minutes, they begin watching the video (see slide 2).
During the test, Clausen walks up and down aisles to monitor how students are doing. Students are using the Chromebooks and also writing on paper. With 50 minutes left on stop watch, she tells students that they need to work on their drawing. She sits at a table in rear of room and can see how each student is working on the assessment.*
As I scan the room, every student is engaged in task. Occasional sniffles, coughs, and sneezes interrupt the intent silence of the room.
At 38 minutes left, the teacher says that “you have 9 more minutes to complete drawing.” As the stop-watch counter inexorably drops to the last 10 minutes. She alerts students to time left and says: When finished with Conclusion, review entire Final Lab Report and make sure it is ready for submission (see slide 5). With zero time left, Clausen tells students: “Shut your computers” and she counts down from 5 to zero. All lids are shut. All students comply. “Whee,” she says, “you have finished your assessment.”
The teacher congratulates class (see slide 6) and announces the final task: “Peer Feedback and Final Revision of Lab Report” (slide 7). Clausen asks students to pair up, check each other’s list of things to do for lab report and grade your partner’s Conclusion. Clausen walks around listening to pairs converse and says: “I hear you are using language from the rubric. That’s awesome.” After a few minutes more of pair discussion, she directs students to click SUBMIT button for test including drawing and Conclusion. One student ask Clausen, why get feedback if we don’t have time to revise what we did. Teacher says that they have until midnight tomorrow to make changes.**
The teacher designed and put into practice a culminating lesson that combined both content (Bioremediation), and cognitive and time management skills that students have to learn and practice. This 90-minute class, organized around a test, clearly was part of her design for communicating content and practicing important skills. To her, taking a test was teaching and it mattered.
*Clausen reviewed the draft and clarified a point about her role while students were taking the test for the timed 60 minutes. “ While they worked, I was opening their Final Lab Report documents in real time (as they were typing) using the [P]ersonal ]L[earning]P[lan] tool. I did a quick look-through of each student’s lab report and made a color coded seating chart that recommended lab report sections that should be revisited before the final deadline (Data Analysis, Hypothesizing, etc). That way, in the final 10 minutes of class, students could see real time feedback and a teacher suggestion for homework before the final deadline.
**Clausen also clarified the due date and lab report. She wrote: “At the end of class, I reminded them that the final due date was the following day at midnight, so they could use their peer feedback forms to edit all sections of the lab report except the conclusion so that the integrity of the objective (to practice skills aligned to external assessments- timed write) was preserved. The lab report feedback form they completed at the end of class was about the entire report, which included many other skills (i.e. Asking Questions, Hypothesizing, Interpreting Data and Info, etc). ”