Room 409 at Los Altos High School in the south San Francisco Bay area is one of the most spacious for an academic subject —nearly the size of two regular classrooms–I have ever seen in the many schools I have visited over the years. I marveled at its carpeting, recliner chairs near the teacher’s desk and horseshoe arrangement of 3- and 4-desk clusters facing a table in the center of the room where Michael Moul, a 12 year veteran teacher, presides over his AP class.
Well over six feet tall, the stocky and goateed Moul is wearing a blue shirt, and dark slacks. He looks out on the 32 students in the room. He is also faculty adviser for the Talon, the school newspaper. Twelve desktop computers sit on the ledge below a wall and tall windows in the rear and side of the room that Talon staff use.
Los Altos High School is a Bring-Your-Own-Device school. * The high school district adopted BYOD two years ago for its three schools after teacher- and administrator-initiated pilot projects established that well over half of the students had laptops or tablets they could use for their classes and enough teachers were sufficiently skilled to integrate the hardware and software into their daily lessons. For students who lack a device, forget theirs, or if one dies suddenly in school, students can easily get a device elsewhere in the school. Teachers decide how to weave technologies into their lessons; there is no district prescribed one-best-way for teachers to follow.
The lesson I observed on September 6, 2016 is the final part of a four and a half week unit on the Narrative Essay that began with the first day of school on August 15th.. In this unit, Moul spent the first two weeks of the semester on building community in the class, setting norms for small group work, and reading excerpts from Machiavelli, George Orwell, James Baldwin and others. Students then analyzed the structures of the essays they read. Moul also uses Socratic Seminars during the unit to have students discuss various writers’ essays and reflect on their own writing before beginning their assigned narrative essay (see here).
Moul’s 50-minute lesson (the class meets four times a week on a modified block schedule) begins a moment after the tardy chime sounds. There are 32 students in the class sitting at clusters of three and four desks facing the front white-board. Today’s lesson is divided into four parts.
1. Since there was a national holiday on Monday, Moul asks the students to close the lids of their devices and then begins with a question: what “good news” do they want to share with class? For a few minutes he listens to what students call out about their long weekend: “it is a four day week,” one says, for example. Then he reviews the assignment of writing two drafts about a story they read and how this AP class differs from Honors English class in the number of drafts they will do. More drafts, more revising, he says, is crucial to writing essays. On Friday, the class had looked at the first draft of a student-written “model” essay entitled “The Vulture” (see here).
2. He segues to the next part of the lesson where he tells students to read the second draft of the student’s essay, make comments and then re-read the first draft and make comments on what changes they see between the two.
Students open lids of their tablets and laptops and proceed to read and type in comments for the second draft. From my perch in the back of the class sitting at a student desk, I see that every student appears to be on task. Moul walks up and down aisles between clusters of desks pausing to see what students are jotting down on their screens and stopping to answer student questions.
After about 10 minutes, he asks students to re-read first draft—“I’ll give you 7-8 minutes”—and asks them to put in their notes the differences they see between the two drafts.
3. Watching the wall clock, Moul asks students to stop and to form their groups. Here is where the clusters of three and four desks closely set together become a venue for small group discussion. Moul reminds students to turn their desks to face one another since eye contact is important in looking at group members and not have one’s eyes glued to screen.
In this small group activity, students discuss what they saw as differences between the two drafts of “The Vulture.” I scan the groups and note that all are engaged in talking to one another. I see no student off-task. Moul continues to walk around and listen in to different groups’ exchanges. “In a few moments,” he says, “we will start chit-chatting.”
After a one-minute warning, the teacher ends this activity and asks students to turn around their desks to face front where he is sitting.
4. The final activity is a whole group discussion of the differences between the two drafts and what students saw as improvements in the second draft. About one-fourth of the students raised their hands to respond to teacher’s request for thoughts in this 12 minute activity. After he called on a few students and they spoke—Moul, sitting at a small desk in the center of the classroom horseshoe said, “let me call on people on this side now.” After students comments, the teacher would offer his opinion of the second draft, saying, for example, “I didn’t see much in the conclusion; there needs to be a balance between narrative and exposition.” When one student comments on use of dialogue within a narrative, Moul points out how dialogue helps the flow of the essay.
I scan the class and see that most students turn to listen to one another during the whole group discussion.
Chime sounds to end the period. Moul says “wait” and students sit as he goes on to remind class that their draft is to be turned in Thursday, two days hence—school is on modified block schedule. Teacher releases students and says: “have a great couple of days.”
* The high school has over 1900 students (2015) and its demography is mostly students of color (in percentages, Latino 28, Asian 21, African American 2, multiracial 2, and 45 white). The percentage of students eligible for free-and-reduced price lunches (the poverty indicator) is 22 percent. Fourteen percent of students are learning disabled and just over four percent of students are English language learners.
Academically, 99 percent of the students graduate high school and nearly all enter higher education. The school offers 20 AP courses—37 percent of the student body take at least one AP course and of those students taking AP tests– 83 percent have gotten 3 or higher, the benchmark for getting college credit. LAHS has been rated repeatedly as one of the top high schools (52nd out of over 1330 in the state and 339h in the nation’s 26,000 high schools). The gap in achievement between minorities and white remains large, however, and has not shrunk in recent years. The per-pupil expenditure at the high school is just under $15,000 (2014). See here, here, here, here, and here.