Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The latest iteration of "progressive" schooling

This is all pretty old-hat.  I taught in a similar school years ago.  And the wash-up of A.S. Neill's "Summerhill" should be instructive.  These days it has 172 rules.  In the end kids just don't learn much in such schools without adult pressure from somewhere -- usually the home

On a crisp autumn morning, Tsi-Ann Calixte furiously pounds on her Chromebook’s keyboard, hashing out details on a project she’s spearheading for her 14-person team.

As she sits at a collaborative table reflecting on a job well-done, half a dozen colleagues surround her, tapping on their own laptops.

It looks like a scene from the floor of an ambitious start-up, but the little worker bees are just 8 years old.

AltSchool, a new private Brooklyn Heights “micro-school,” is experimenting with a technology-driven approach to education.

Every pupil gets their own tablet or Chromebook; wall-mounted video cameras called “superpowers” record children’s learning moments and kiddie confessionals for teachers to review.

Every student gets a to-do list called a “playlist” where they focus on whatever interests them, from writing an opera about water exploration to creating vessels that protect an egg when it falls.

“Kids like being in a place better when they have agency,” says AltSchool founder Max Ventilla, a 35-year-old former Google exec based in San Francisco. “My 2-year-old orders lunch for himself, and he’s much happier having the lunch he ordered.”

Ventilla was inspired to create the school three years ago, after shopping for a preschool that fostered “self-knowledge” and “entrepreneurialism” for his older child, Sabine, now 4.

In 2013 Ventilla launched the first AltSchool in San Francisco’s formerly gritty, now hip Dogpatch neighbourhood. There are currently five locations throughout the Bay Area serving Silicon Valley offspring, each with just 25 to 100 students.

Now it’s come east. An AltSchool in Brooklyn Heights opened last month, serving kindergarten through third grade, but eventually going up to eighth grade. Next September, a Lower East Side location serving K through sixth will open — though AltSchool avoids such classifications as “grades.”

Instead kids are divided into three broadly defined classrooms: pre-K, “lower elementary” for younger kids and “upper elementary” for older kids.

“There’s no such thing as a third-grader,” says Ventilla. “There’s each child who has their own experience.”

Other terms AltSchool avoids are “teachers,” “schools” and “classrooms. Rather there are “educators,” “learning labs” and “studios.”

If it sounds like a dotcom start-up, that’s by design. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg led a $100 million financing round for the school last spring, and Ventilla has poached moguls from Apple, Uber, Zynga and, of course, Google for his expanding, for-profit education empire.

The new Brooklyn Heights outpost sits on the second floor of an art deco-style building on a cinematic, tree-lined street one block from the promenade and just a few minutes from DUMBO’s tech hub — and hundreds of start-ups.

The school day begins between 8 and 9am. — AltSchool has flexible start and end times to accommodate parents, some of whom haul their kiddies from as far away as Westchester and New Jersey to experience education 2.0.

There’s nothing so pedestrian as roll call — kids sign in via an app on an iPad at the entry. It’s connected to an online platform called My.AltSchool that tracks everything from a child’s Personalized Learning Plan to allergies.

The schedule changes daily, but midmorning on a recent Wednesday, some 6- to 8-year-olds studied Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” on their Chromebooks in one corner, while others engaged in writing lessons. There’s no bell to signal the end of a period or recess. Instead, “learning blocks” are meant to end organically.

“Bells feel too disconnected from the real world,” says Mara Pauker, the co-head of AltSchool Brooklyn.

For their daily recess, kids have free run of Pier 5 at Brooklyn Bridge Park and its impressive playground, sports fields and sweeping view of the Manhattan skyline. Physical Education happens at least three times a week, and includes trendy yoga and capoeira in a sprawling common area.

Tests are rare, but not entirely absent. As an alternative to standardised tests, individualised “Measures of Academic Progress” are administered quarterly.

“[It’s] not radical, just different,” says Pauker, who previously taught at the controversial Blue School in lower Manhattan.

AltSchool, which costs $27,500 a year, operates on the traditional school calendar, but parents are encouraged to take family vacations when it’s convenient for them — perfect for a jaunt to Kyota, Japan, in time for cherry-blossom season or a family trip to Austin for South by Southwest.

If it seems a bit out-there — that’s the point.  For Ventilla, the traditional school model is very broken.

“There’s a need for schools that are created this century. [Most] schools are terrifyingly similar to the schools I went to 30 years ago,” says the NYC-bred founder who went to the tony Buckley School on the Upper East Side and Andover, before earning two degrees from Yale.

Many parents seem to agree. AltSchool says 4,000 applications flooded in for 200 slots nationwide this year, but the school couldn’t provide NYC-specific numbers.

The application process isn’t the traditional private-school interview — here, prospective students gather in groups and are evaluated based on how they interact.

Vladimire and Benjamin Calixte of Kensington, Brooklyn, were eager to get their 8-year-old daughter Tsi-Ann into the school.

She was previously going to a Montessori school that was cheaper and closer to home, but the couple felt that AltSchool was superior.

“She’s a girl who needs to advocate for herself and we felt the school would bring that out in her,” says Vladimire, a therapist in private practice. She praises the school’s weekly “town hall meetings” in which students gather to demo projects and hold discussions. “The message they send is, ‘I hear you, I see you, you’re important to me, and you matter.’ ”

Benjamin, a stay-at-home dad, was initially sceptical, but now he’s a believer. “We questioned if [the kids are] just going to be on computers, but it’s phenomenal,” he says.

But not everyone’s drinking the Kool-Aid.

“Utilizing a model that is centrally tech-focused and individualistic in nature will serve to diminish the interaction and overall social maturation of students,” says Jae Gardner, CEO of tutoring and educational consulting company the Ivy Key.

And the emphasis on self-directed learning puts some parents on edge.

“When they come out, are they going to be academically prepared?” asks Upper West Sider Rachel Fremmer, who has two daughters in New York City public schools and is active in the schoolsystem’s governing body. “No curriculum is fine if you have a really motivated kid, but [what] if you have a kid who just reads comic books or plays Minecraft all day?”

But AltSchool parents insist their kids are getting a good education.

“[They] learn to balance and prioritise,” says Benjamin Calixte, a born-and-bred Brooklynite. He recalls one of his daughter’s first days. “[She] smiled from ear to ear [and said], ‘This isn’t a classroom!’ and I said, ‘That’s right, it’s a learning space!’ ”


Common core and the perils of new math

What is this, you ask? A question from a fifth-grade PARCC exam that was given to Massachusetts students last spring. I read through the whole test recently — fractions, volume, perimeters — and when I reached this one, I went through a multistage process.

Stage one: Panic. “Area model what-huh?” Stage two: Frustration. Can’t a poor kid just do long division and be done? Stage three: Extrapolation. Is this the Common Core? The future of education? To the barricades!

In the pitched debates over whether to replace Massachusetts’ MCAS exams with the Common Core-aligned PARCC tests — and whether to keep the Common Core or blow up education, again — new math litters the landscape like spent ammunition. “Partial sums addition.” “Area models.” The “lattice method,” which turns a basic multiplication problem into what looks like a Sudoku puzzle from hell. Parental panic translates to political will.

One thing to remember about new math is that it predates the Common Core curriculum standards — and it probably won’t disappear if the Common Core falls. It’s part of a broader philosophy that the Common Core embraces: that kids should know not just the standard algorithms, but the concepts behind them. It’s not just whether you can do long division; it’s do you get long division? Can you explain it in words?

This can feel like a ridiculous task, like finding words to describe the color “blue.” But some people actually like this way of mathematical thinking. I showed the “area model” question to a colleague who sat down calmly, figured it out, and was impressed. To him, the old long-division algorithm had always felt like magic; this was breaking down the math into its component parts, the way I use blocks to help my first-grader with addition.

Teaching math this way has consequences. Richard Phelps, a critic of the Common Core and the author of several books about testing, notes that once you get to higher-order math, you can’t be reinventing the wheel with every problem. He compares the standard algorithm to learning to type with a QWERTY keyboard: Eventually, it becomes part of your muscle memory.

In fact, the Common Core says students should learn standard algorithms, too. So PARCC raises a different philosophical question: What should a test be testing? If you understand what division does, how much more do you need to know? When I use a calculator, after all, what matters is the inputs, not the code that the machine uses to get the right answer.

That’s one of Phelps’s critiques of PARCC: The questions tend to be more complicated, involving some wordy new formats — like presenting a math question that a fictional kid answers wrong, then asking students to explain why he’s incorrect.

“I think the fairest test questions,” Phelps said, “are the ones where the format is the most straightforward.”

Which brings us back to that “area model” question. I asked Jeff Nellhaus, PARCC’s chief of assessment, why it was on the test. Nellhaus, it should be noted, helped to develop MCAS back in the 1990s. He said this question is meant to measure one of the Common Core standards: how much students understand the connection between multiplication and area. A student who can do long division will get partial credit, he said. And he imagines that a question like this could provoke a big classroom discussion.

“Think about math and why it’s so boring: Students get worksheets where they have to solve 50 division problems,” he told me. “This kind of problem actually makes them think and gets them engaged.”

Well, yes, but so does a classic word problem, the kind that doesn’t require a whole new vocabulary. I’m all for encouraging students to think rather than simply regurgitate formulas. But the developers of PARCC need to be careful, and not just because a new-math zinger can scuttle political support for a test that’s largely quite good.

There’s a difference between teaching methods and testing skills — a difference that might mean everything to a stressed-out kid on a timed test. For that kid’s sake, PARCC ought to be tough. But it also should bend over backwards to be clear and fair.


Should school prayer be abolished?

Comment from Australia

Industry minister Christopher Pyne has come under pressure because of remarks he made about school prayer. Pyne’s critics want to see religion banished from Australian schools — and from society in general.

But religion doesn’t lead directly to radicalisation any more than a glass of red wine with dinner leads to rampant alcoholism.

So praying is not the problem. People should be free to speak to their gods and to listen to what they think their gods as saying to them. That’s not the problem.

The real issue is how people respond to what they think those gods want from them.

Far from driving prayer out of schools and away to the shadowy margins, religion needs to become a mainstream subject in the classroom.

But religion needs to be handled in our schools with great care. Many fine Australian Muslims deplore what a few extremists are doing to us in the name of Islam.

They and their families want to enjoy all the benefits of our free and open society, to enjoy our lifestyle, and to splash around in the surf on weekends like everyone else.

And they know this way of life is under threat when the deadly antics of fanatics fuel suspicion and fear. Teenage assassins are a scourge here and now.

So religion in schools can’t just be about prayer. Children also need to learn from responsible teachers about the historical, social and cultural elements of religion.

Our children need to learn about religion; what it is, why different religions appear to teach different things, and why some Aussie teenagers are prepared to kill in the name of their god.

Teaching about religion, teaching about prayer, and teaching about citizenship go hand in hand. Leaders of our churches, synagogues and mosques need to work with our teachers to open the minds of our kids, and to dispel the evil idea that a god commands murder.

Substituting ethics classes for religion is not going to hack this problem. Like it or not, religion is a hot topic in our society.

Pretending it’s not relevant, or dismissing it as meaningless bunk is to miss the point completely. No one is asking you to be a believer too; you are just being asked to open your eyes.


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