Teaching at D.Tech High School: Government (Part 4)

Spencer is doing his three-minute talk. Since the semester began, every one of the 30-plus seniors in Government signs up for a day to talk about topics important to them. Topics range from singing, sharing art work, dancing, and similar interests.

Spencer chose to talk about himself. Eyes focus on Spencer as he tells about his family, life before and during d.tech high school, favorite foods and drinks (some of which he brought to share with class), and other topics. Then Spencer asks for questions. One student asks: “What is your ethnicity?” Spencer replies: “Three-quarters Chinese and one-quarter Korean.” Another student asks about the paper straw that he is using. “Do you want me to use a metal straw,” Spencer asks questioner. Laughter ripples across the room.

The three minutes are up. Spencer then asks the class for feedback on what he said and brought. A bunch of students compliment Spencer for his clarity, humor, and self-confidence in talking about himself. Spencer thanks the class and then asks for students to evaluate his introduction by raising their hands. Four is the top evaluation of performance and one is the poorest. Spencer calls out the each number and nearly all hands go up for a four. He returns to his seat and the teacher informs the next day’s student to be ready for tomorrow’s class.

Welcome to Ken Klieman’s Government class this late-September morning in 2019. The 32 seniors are sitting at tables facing the front of the room where the teacher’s table holding the LCD projector and white board are located.

Klieman, wearing a green polo shirt, grey chinos , tennis shoes, and what looks to me like a Greek sailing cap, has been at d.tech for the past two years arriving at the school in 2017. Although new to the school, he brought a quarter-century of teaching experience in Bay area middle schools.

The lesson that I observe following Spencer’s three-minute Introduction is nearly all focused upon the process of teaching and learning over the past six weeks in the class. I noted that a number of teachers I observed mention that they will be evaluating their classroom work using students’ anonymous responses to teacher-constructed surveys.

Klieman started off the lesson by having students look at scatter plot graphs that he had created from student responses to a survey about how the class operates (e.g., “Do You Know What Assignments Are and Expectations?” “Is Workload Do-able?,” class discussions, tests, teacher’s grading of students’ performance, etc.). The teacher had arrayed the graphs on tables outside of the classroom. He had also included questions that students had asked to be posted . Klieman asks students to look at their classmates’ responses, take notes, and be prepared to discuss their interpretations of the scatter plots when they return to their seats. They leave the room.

After 10 minutes, student return to their tables with post-its and scraps of paper with their notes. Klieman directs the class to take out their notebooks and title a page “Understanding Data” and put their name and date on it (they will turn this sheet in later). But before launching into students stating their views of the scatter plots, Klieman says “I am going to babble for a few minutes”

Leaning against the LCD stand, he talks about what the class has covered thus far in content and how they have worked on homework, projects, and essays. He says that in his opinion students have not experienced or are ready for academically rigorous courses in college. Deadlines are missed, extensions are continually requested to get extra time to complete essays, research papers, or projects. Other teachers, he remarks, too often say: “take more time to finish up.” He says the school has “coddled” students.

According to Klieman, he was trying to convey the importance of raising their standards through self reflection. He told me: “I often say ‘I cherish the 72 year old you, that is why I have high standards for the 17 year old you. I want the future you to have a beautiful life.’ “*

He acknowledges that there are difficulties that students experience during a major move across the entire high school from a traditional grading system to a system of grading fitted to competency based learning. Recognizing the occasional confusion and glitches in grading, he still wants students to better self-manage themselves insofar as assignments and time they allot to work on them. A few students chime in responding to the teacher’s comments. Of these, some agree with what teacher says but most keep quiet.

Klieman then returns to the task of interpreting scatter plots. He asks students to pair up and exchange observations. He directs them to write their thoughts and interpretations on the sheet of paper they titled “Understanding Data” particularly on how much and in what ways they are learning content and acquiring skills in the class so far this semester. Scatter plots offer a basis for making statements about the entire class.

After about ten minutes, the teacher segues into a whole group discussion with some students raising their hands to contribute and others entering the discussion during pauses. Klieman records what students say on a pad he is holding.

Klieman then summarizes what he has heard from students about particular Government assignments. He projects a slide onto the front whiteboard showing all of the assignments they have worked on during the semester. He stands up on his desk and asks students which of the assignments listed on the slide didn’t work and for what reasons. A number of students raise their hands and point to particular homework and essays that were unclear in what the teacher expected and also required heavy time commitments. They express concern for how grades are calculated as the competency-based learning system kicks in. As one student says: “Grades do matter.”

At the table where I am sitting, the three students there identified two assignments and write it into their notebooks. As I look around the room during this whole group discussion, nearly all of the students are either writing in their notebooks, offering suggestions or listening to what they classmates say.

As the discussion trails off, Klieman says that he will take their feedback seriously and integrate it into future assignments and workload. There are a flurry of student comments about the existing deadline of midnight to electronically submit assignments. The teacher makes clear that the deadline will move from midnight to 10PM.

Klieman says: “I care about the whole you. I want you to get sleep. Having a midnight deadline is not in line with the central value of nurturing good life habits. That is why I am non-negotiable on 10 p.m….. I am not going to bend.” The teacher ends this segment of the interactive discussion by saying: “Hey, I’m your third base coach urging you to get to home plate safely.”

As the period is coming to an end, he asks students to hold up one-to-five fingers (more fingers, more positive rating) as to the worth of looking at scatter plots, discussing workload and particular Economics assignments, and offering suggestions. He then asks students to turn in the sheet of paper they filled out.

After the class packs up and leaves, three students stay behind and they sit with Klieman to discuss particular assignments and upcoming projects. After another 10 minutes, they leave. He and I discuss a few items I did not understand about the lesson. I thank him for letting me observe the lesson.


*This sentence comes from Klieman after he reviewed the draft I had sent him.

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