So I went back to high school for one day

Since the time I graduated from high school in the 1970s the world has changed.  Or has it? Has high school changed?  There were three grades at high school, because there was junior high instead of middle school.  The “board of education” was a paddle for misbehavior. (Being “hacked” had nothing to do with computers.)  There were six periods of English, math, science, history, PE and an elective.  But is it really that much different now?

I decided to shadow a student for a day at a local high school. I thought it would be better way to see what a student experiences in high school, rather than going on an organized tour or simply observing a class from the back of the room.  I would try to do the work that the students were doing in a manner as unobtrusive as possible.

In my high school day I learned about African American history, analyzed various texts about cultural perspective and learned how to divide polynomials.  As an adult it turned out to be very engaging content.

I arrived to the high school a few minutes before the bell to meet the student that I would follow.  As an older white guy dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt with a backpack, was I fooling myself that I could blend in? I had told the principal that I did not want to follow some very high achieving student leader, but someone more “typical.”  She told me she asked a few students who declined the “opportunity” to have an adult follow them around all day. No surprise, but fortunately, one student agreed.

My first class was AVID, a course originally developed in San Diego by a teacher who wanted to encourage students whose parents did not attend college to be prepared for that possibility. When I was in school you were either on the college track or you were not.  I found an empty seat at a desk, all of which were arranged in small groups.

The teacher started the day with a warm greeting and a genuine interest in how the students had spent their holiday weekend.   On this day the topic was African American history for Black History Month.  Only two or three of the students were African American.  Students brainstormed in their groups about events, places, leaders and causes in the civil rights movement. They were to individually write a poem on this topic and then work as a group to come up with a group poem.  One student did not hesitate to speak up when the instructions were not clear to him and the teacher found another way to explain the process.

We started English class with independent reading and then wrote a reflection on what we had read. I turned in my paragraph.  I read about Reeshma, a daughter of Indian immigrants, who at first desperately tried to fit in.  Finally, she embraced her differences and became a leader in her school.  We then read other texts about how one’s cultural perspective influences one’s view of the world. The teacher asked thought provoking questions and gave students time to think and answer.  We then developed an outline for an expository essay on this topic with a clear thesis and evidence to back it up.  As I am writing this article I am aware that I have no specific thesis, just observations.  The work was begun as a group and then continued as individuals.  Once again the desks here were arranged in small groups.

The school was spread out more like an attractive college campus with many separate buildings.  Students walked calmly, chatting with friends on their long trek across the campus.  The students didn’t pay any attention to me as I walked along with my sophomore student and his friends, but a couple of adults had a quizzical look.  By the way, I was properly registered as a visitor.

Instead of algebra or geometry, the math class is called Integrated Math.  Once again I was struck by how the teachers are very warm and also very respectful of the students.  There is no stiff, hierarchical distance. As a psychologist who enjoys working with adolescents, I can identify with resistance to arbitrary rules.  Students are able to leave the classroom to use the restroom at any time without any disruption.  Everyone stays on task. I was impressed with how engaged the students were in each class.

I don’t remember a lot from my algebra classes except the basics.  The teacher very carefully explained division of polynomials.  After her thorough explanation, the students were to work on a problem in their small group and then present it to the rest of the class.  In every class the teachers were constantly moving around the room, as opposed to sitting at a desk in the front of the room. At the end of the class the students took an individual quiz with a problem and turned it in.  I thought I had learned how to do it, but I just had to have the teacher verify that it was correct.  Yes!  The teacher told me that she would review the results to see if many students did not master it, in which case she would re-teach it.  What if just a few students don’t get it? –I will find time the next day to work with them individually during class without calling attention to them.  By the way, she’s also in her classroom every day at lunchtime for anyone who needs help.  And she coaches boys’ volleyball.

Lunchtime.  The hardest time of day for a new student.  But instead of going down to the lunch court we head to a lounge where the basketball team hangs out.  We watched videos of the team that they were going to play that night.  The students selected segments that they wanted to watch on the big screen.  In between there were comments about what is the best way to invest in the stock market.

It was a long trek across campus to Spanish class, which had another friendly and enthusiastic teacher. Since I am already fluent in Spanish there was not a lot for me to learn.  The desks were in traditional rows and I was more of an observer, which made the class seem a little longer, because I was not challenged.  In fact, I had wondered if the block schedule with 90 minute classes would make the classes too long.  Students take four classes per semester instead of six, but in that way they are able to take 8 courses per year.  But in all of the classes that morning the time flew by.  There was a ten minute warning bell before the classes ended, but students stayed engaged.  There was no mad dash for the door when the bell rang. I remember that bell being the sound of freedom.

So what’s different? The students are actually encouraged to think more critically rather than just answer questions about content read.  Teachers are more engaged with the students and, therefore, students are no longer passive. Students are getting a broader, multicultural perspective.. I felt somewhat invisible myself, which is what I wanted, but I don’t know what it would be like for a new student arriving mid-year.

I chose to visit Lincoln High School in southeastern San Diego, a school with a high concentration of poverty like many schools in San Diego. Lincoln has a long African American history, but now a majority of the students are Latino. There are many well documented problems at Lincoln related to student achievement and past violent incidents at the school. All this talk piqued my curiosity about what a day at Lincoln is like.  The classroom teachers knew that I was coming, but they seemed too engaged with the students to worry about the presence of a school board member.  I obviously did not get the full picture, because there were about 40 other classes going on across campus at the same time.  The classes I attended were full, but they did not seem overcrowded. The atmosphere on campus was calm on the day I attended.  Walking across the campus at lunchtime was a similar scene to what I have seen at other high schools in the district.

But I realize that as a school board member I will never fully know what it is like to be a student, teacher, principal or parent at a particular high school.  What I do know is that the teaching and learning that I saw at Lincoln was in many ways higher quality than what I experienced as a high school student myself decades ago.  But that was the only world I knew at the time.  My hope is that Lincoln students will leave with a broader perspective and then go on to improve public education more than we have in the past few decades.