A 27 year veteran of teaching in the Oakland Unified District (OUSD), Shannon Carey greets me at the door when I arrive at 8:30 on Friday, February 1st. She is wearing a UC Berkeley shirt (teachers that day wore clothes that advertised where they attended college) over jeans and dark ankle boots. The classroom furniture is arranged in a horseshoe with tables seating two tenth graders each facing one another across the open space in the middle of the horseshoe. There are two large couches in rear of room. The walls of the large classroom hold whiteboards in the front of the room with nearby easels showing assignments and homework. Posters adorn other walls.
The schedule for this period is listed on the front white board:
Friday, February 1, 2019
I can reflect deeply on my strengths and weaknesses [Shannon mentions later in the lesson that this is the objective of the lesson]
8:30 Independent Reading
8:50-9:40 Non-Cognitive Variables: Self-Assessment and Interviews
As I scan the room at 8:45, everyone is reading a book or article—no devices or online reading that I see. Three students are sitting on the well-cushioned couches in the rear of the room. A sampling of what students are reading around me:
*Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
*Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay
*Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods
In the open space within the horseshoe sits Shannon with her laptop. Sixteen students are there that morning. They walk in toss their cell phones in a box that Shannon holds and go immediately to their tables and take a book out of their backpack. The first half-hour is Independent Reading.
As students are reading, Shannon who is responsible for teaching English and Social Studies and integrating both into her Advisory role in helping students become college-ready, scans classroom, walks around and checks students’ notebooks and assignments lying on table (students know this morning routine and have papers lying on tables). She picks up and date stamps the students’ “work samples” such as “Semester Reflections” and papers from other classes at MetWest. Shannon submits these to OUSD Alternative Education for certification that students are part of Independent Study schools, ones that have greater flexibility in students’ schedule and program than regular OUSD schools.
After a half-hour, Shannon segues to next part of lesson. She asks students to put away their readings and says: “I need everyone’s eyes on me.” She then begins a whole group discussion of handout on “Non-Cognitive Variables.” She cautions Juan to stop playing with stapler and Hunter to put away his book–he is sitting across from me and continues to read Food of the Gods.
Teacher asks: “Does anyone know a relative, adult, or friend who has gone to college?” Half of the students raise their hands. Shannon calls on students by name to tell about who they know and what they were told about college.
Shannon then turns to “Noncognitive Variables” handout. “Does anyone know,”she asks, what “cognitive” means? A few students offer answers and teachers builds on their responses. She summarizes a definition–“mental processes”–writes it on whiteboard and asks class to write it down. Then asks choral question : “How many of you knows someone who is school smart?’ Students call out and raise their hands. “What else do you think you need besides school smarts?” Student says: “high test scores.” Shannon replies that high scores does not mean you succeed in college.”
What ensues is a whole-group discussion of non-cognitive variables–what teacher calls “people skills,” “soft skills,” and “social skills.” Asks class to take notes. As the teacher-led discussion proceeds with questions from the teacher and responses from different students, Shannon’s energy is obvious.
Calling it a mini-lecture, Shannon displays slides on front whiteboard of noncognitive variables listed on handout. She and class enumerate each one with teacher coaching individual students to define each one:
*Positive Self-Concept or Confidence
*Understands and Deals with Oppression
*Prefers Long-Range Goals To Short-Term Or Immediate Needs
*Availability of Strong Support Person
*Successful Leadership Experience
*Demonstrated Community Service
*Knowledge Acquired in A Field
Shannon asks different students to read each variable, group defines it–teacher asks students to put the variable in everyday language (“dumb it down,” she says), and then directs class to rate themselves on each variable on a four-point scale (e.g., 4= “This really, totally, positively describes me” to 1=”I do not think this describes me at all”). As the whole group discussion unfolds, teacher constantly scanning class for students who are not attending, cautions them, and returns to Q & A of discussion.
For variable on “Oppression”, a student with head scarve talks about sexism she recognizes in and out of school. Other students chime in. Shannon uses example of family discussions about immigration and fears about deportation. Teacher makes point that it is less a personal problem and more of a systemic, social problem.
Class’s progress through variables on handout halt as three students enter classroom nad give announcements on new tardy and absence policies. Also announce that they are selling cookies and candies for Valentine Day. They exit.
Shannon asks individual students to read variables. For some, she offers personal examples from her life and occasional student chimes in with his or her experience. She asks Mohammed to read last variable and asks him for his “Knowledge of A Field.” She reminds him and others about internships they are involved in and their passions about cosmetic make-up, video gaming, and working with animals at a veternarian’s office.
Now, for final segue in the lesson, Shannon turns to questions listed in handout such as “Which two variables do you feel you most demonstrate/ Give TWO reasons why you think this.” And “Which noncognitive variables did you score the lowest in?” As she scans class, she calls on Kevin to stop bothering student at his table. She asks students to read these questions and assigns class to answer them and turn handout in Friday.
As time for session comes to a close, Shannon passes out green detention slips for being tardy and walks around checking on students’ completion of their assignments. Students begin packing up, picking up their cell phones, and wait for the buzzer to sound. Session ends at 9:40.
I move to a different classroom to observe another Teacher/Advisor.
MetWest is a small California high school (about 160 students in 9-12 grades) located in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). It is part of a national network of Big Picture schools. In a recently built facility housing an elementary school, social service agencies, and a television studio, MetWest’s atrium is spacious with walls covered in photos, posters, each teacher’s advisory students, and upcoming events. Classrooms are on the ground and first floors of this part of the complex.
As one of about 65 Big Picture schools in the nation (the original Met is located in Providence, Rhode Island), MetWest replicates the model with a schedule of three days of academic/advisory classes and two days when students are out of the building working as interns in businesses, public agencies, and places where adults agree to mentor the intern for the quarter. There is an all-school meeting chaired by students that gathers on Fridays. The overall aim of the program is to engage students by putting them “at the center of their own learning.” Or as the Big Picture literature says:
[Students] would spend considerable time in the community under the tutelage of mentors and they would not be evaluated solely on the basis of standardized tests. Instead, students would be assessed on exhibitions and demonstrations of achievement, on motivation, and on the habits of mind, hand, and heart – reflecting the real world evaluations and assessments that all of us face in our everyday lives.
Displayed in the school’s atrium are listings of advisor/teachers and their students with internships. Here’s Shannon’s:
In subsequent posts, I will describe other MetWest teachers in their classes, internships, student exhibitions, and the different ways that this school defines “success” and “failure.”