Teaching at D.Tech High School: English (Part 2)

Wearing a tie, button-down shirt, and slacks, Nathan Pierce, a veteran of 19 years in classrooms of which the last  four have been at d.tech, begins his senior English class with digital slides on one of the walls in a spacious room holding 30 students. He directs his students to look at agenda for the day and the upcoming project of shadowing someone in the middle of their career.

Desks are pushed together to form a long row on both sides of the room with a space in the center where a podium/table with Pierce’s LCD and class handouts are piled. Students face one another allowing for much interaction in this horse-shoe arrangement of furniture and space.

It is first period of the day, following the Advisory when students met with their teachers between 8:45-9:15. No bells or chimes mark beginning or end of the period.


Welcome to Design Tech High School, hereafter d.tech, in the San Mateo Union High School District.  Authorized as a charter in 2014, the school has moved quarters three times, the last occurring in 2018 when they leased a new building located on the campus of Oracle, a for-profit technology company.  The high school cost $43 million to build and Oracle agreed to rent the building to the charter school for one dollar a year. While d.tech has its own school board and is independently operated, this is the first public high school located on a corporate site.

The d.tech building houses about 550 students. Admission to the school is by lottery with priority given to families residing in Sequoia Union and San Mateo Union high school districts. For students living outside of those districts, a waiting list is available.

Demographically in 2018, the largest racial group is white (48 percent) followed by Asian and Filipino (24 percent), Latino (14 percent), African American and multi-racial (13 percent). Females are 42 percent of the enrollment. Fifteen percent of the students are poor as measured by families eligible for free and reduced price lunch. Ten percent of students are identified as special education. I could find no data on percentage of students who are English Language Learners.

Insofar as academic achievement on standardized tests, data are limited. On state standardized tests, d.tech students scored 71 percent proficient (state average is 49 percent) and in math d.tech students were 62 percent proficient (state average 38 percent). For the two standardized tests for college admissions, the average highest score for the SAT was 1270 and for the ACT was 26.  Seventy-seven percent enter four-year institutions and 16 percent go to two-year community colleges.

What draws students to this charter school is its commitment to design principles anchored in intellectual analysis of problem finding and solving and empathy for those who seek solutions to their problems. D.tech’s mission is clearly stated:

We believe that the world can be a better place
and that our students can be the ones to make it happen.

And design thinking makes that mission concrete, according to Ken Montgomery, co-founder and Executive Director of the school,

“Design Thinking is not just a human-centered problem solving process. It is also a capacity building strategy. By teaching design thinking all four years at d.tech, students are able to identify and solve problems, develop a sense of optimism and self-efficacy, and have creative impact on their environment to make the world a better place.”


Return now to Nathan Pierce’s senior English classroom. The lesson I observe on this late-September morning moves swiftly over the 54-minute period. All students have Chromebooks at hand. Some lids are open; some are not. Cellphones are on desks or in pockets.

In this lesson, there are three parts. The first section of the period is about the Career Shadow project due in December. The first page of the handout describes the project.


Pierce goes over each piece of information on the above first-page of the hand-out. He points out experiences of last year’s class who did this very same project. He describes how one student shadowed an airline pilot; another a trainer of guide dogs.  Teacher emphasizes that who each student chooses may lead to an internship of a possible summer job. He then asks: “Is there a way to game the assignment?” A student responds: “Shadow your parent.”  Or, Pierce, adds: “Pick someone you have known for years.”

Pierce then goes on to say that if students try to “game” the project, they should know that “I talk with each student about who they are shadowing and I can tell whether you are gaming the assignment or not.” He then points out the importance of trying to meet someone in a career they know little about but tickles their interest. “Meeting a stranger,” Pierce says, “is hard but past students have done so and learned a great deal.”

Then teacher brings lecture/discussion to a close by urging students to pick someone soon and begin scheduling the shadow. A student asks if they can do the shadow on a school day. Pierce says: “Yes and no”. On regularly scheduled days filled with academic classes, shadowing wouldn’t work but on Lab Days when students schedule their own time slots for working on assignments that is a possibility, he says.

Pierce then segues to second part of lesson by saying: “Let’s switch gears. I’ve been talking too long.” He directs class’s attention to the ongoing unit for students on writing a screenplay. He has laid out a detailed unit outline–a tutorial– filled with with videos to watch on each step of writing a script, assignments to turn in, and where to find answers to their questions (see here). All of these directions and assignments and playlists are loaded onto students’ tablets. How the unit will be graded is also included:

The Basics of grading this assignment

* The Script (20pts – you and I grade)
*Collaboration(20pts – production team grades)
* Production (20pts – I grade)

Pierce is ready to show a video “Spec Scripts” and tells students to watch an “Indy Mogul 101” tutorial. The video begins. Students appear to be engaged as the video goes over each step of formatting the script. When montages are described, Pierce stops the video and  explains further what it is with examples. Video resumes and discusses action scenes. Teacher stops the video and says when it comes to action scenes “keep it simple and easy to read.” Pierce points out that the upcoming 101 video blogger (see above) recommends Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill as examples of action scenes. The video continues with the actual formatting of a screen play. Pierce asks for questions and a few students ask about further details on parts of screen play. He answers them.

The final part of the lesson is independent work time. After student questions are answered, Pierce tells students that the rest of the period is for them to work on their screen play or plan for Career Shadow assignment. About a dozen students leave the room and got to hallways or alcoves to work by themselves or in pairs or trios.

I leave classroom and go into alcove where a trio is working and ask them what they are doing. One replies that they are figuring out which of the story lines for their screen play they should choose. They had presented the three to the class last week and got feedback so now they have to decide. I then move to a student who is working alone and ask her what she is doing. She has decided for her screen play to use a heroic archetype–she shows me sheet where 12 kinds of heroes are used in screen plays. her story, she tells me, is of a poor boy who wants to become rich. He goes fishing with his father and one of the fish he catches (and secretly keeps for himself rather than share with father) is a magical one.  The fish can fulfill the boy’s wishes. There is a demon, however, who also wants that very fish too. The demon comes after the boy and there is a struggle. She tells me that is as far as she has gotten so far. I ask her, what kind of hero is the boy–there are 12 archetypes. She tells me he is a “transcendental,” explaining that he is a hero with a tragic flaw.

Just after 10:10 these students in hallway and alcove pack up and students in the room leave for their second period class. I thank Nathan Pierce and ask if he could send me links to videos, handouts, and description and requirements for screen play project. He does send me the links that evening.


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