Thursday, December 9, 2010

"You Can Do Whatever You Want, But You Can't"

That is what a high school student told me yesterday. I was sitting in a room speaking with a few of the students attending Coleman Tech Charter High School, which I first reported on last August. At that time, the walls were just up, the cables had only recently disappeared into the ceiling, and the technology infused curriculum was new and shiny and ready to be tested. Students were being recruited and excitement was in the air. Nearing the end of their first term, I decided it was time to see how things were going. So I made a visit to Coleman Tech and spent half a day watching class, speaking to Vice Principal Neil McCurdy ("Dr. McCurdy" to the students) and several of the teachers. And of course the students.

The consistent message I heard from everyone was that the school was special; it provided a personalization uncommon for a public school and everyone had a story to tell to prove it.

The student who made the statement above was summing up several stories about why he likes the school. He says that the teachers and administrators (who overlap, as the qualified administrators also teach) really are open to new ideas and suggestions and pay attention to what students have to say. He feels like a person, not a kid afloat in a mass of bodies. That is the "You can do whatever you want" part. Another student concurred, stating that the school she would have attended has a class size of 60. 60??? Not sure I believed I had heard correctly, I asked for confirmation and she said, yes, really, 60. Eek. This student, who had zero background in computing, is blossoming at Coleman Tech, taking among other things, Computing 2, and doing "extra things" at home with her laptop.

The "But you can't" referred to the way in which discipline and enforcement of respectful behavior are handled. One story, told by another student, illustrates this point. This student felt bullied by a classmate. In that student's old school, said the student, the approach to dealing with the situation would have been for the teacher to make a public display of disciplining the student. Here at Coleman Tech, the student related, nothing happened that instant (note that the situation was not endangering in any way) but over the next few days the perpetrator began to act increasingly respectful. So, the student inferred, something had occurred outside of class. The long term effect was that the student relating the story felt more comfortable and a "scene" had been avoided.

Beyond agreeing with the student's assessment that someone had spoken to the misbehaving student outside of class, I also inferred that one of the reasons that this approach was successful over the long term was because the perpetrator had not been publicly humiliated, which can lead to increased behavioral problems and possible retaliation in other settings. The student who felt threatened was not forced to deal with whatever his peers thought of him - which in high school is a very big deal.

Coleman Tech Charter School has attracted students from all over the region. Some students come from "North County" which is outside of San Diego city proper, whereas other students come from inner city areas in the heart of San Diego. The students are a good representative of San Diego: multi-racial, economically diverse, and, close to 50-50 gender split (the girls slightly outnumber the boys in this tech high school!). I watched an incident unfold that demonstrated another way that Coleman Tech is unique and personal. Everyone, students and teachers, eat lunch together in one large room. At one point an altercation almost broke out and Neil McCurdy, as Vice Principal, stepped in. It turned out that one student came from a background where the response to a perceived provocation was to become overtly aggressive. The other student, from a different background, felt that increased provocation was appropriate. When Neil stepped in, it became an opportunity not only to enforce discipline, but to discuss why each student's approach was not going to get the student what they wanted. Nearby students also heard the discussion. Neil told me later that part of what they try to do at Coleman Tech is consciously teach students about cultural differences among each other and to learn how to successfully interact with people from different backgrounds.

Ok...where is the computing? Everywhere. Every student, as promised, has their own laptop and every class uses the interactive white boards. One teacher in a non math/science discipline at first told me that he didn't really use technology in his class, but moments later was describing how the final project for his class was to create a digital movie! In addition, every 9th grader (approximately age 14) must take Computing 1, which is a programming based class using, guess what, Alice (the same system used in the APCS Principles class that I have been following all fall). There is also Computing 2, 3, 4 and 5. Currently two sections of Computing 2 are running and students are focusing on 3D graphics and animation although when I sat in, one section was discussing how the internet works at the level of IP addresses, packets and routing. Students were fascinated to see live, via a "ping" that a message sent from their school to UCSD a few miles up the road, was routed through Los Angeles. It made for fascinating conversation.

The other section of Computing 2 was engaged in analysis and debate of the WikiLeaks controversy - one group was "the western nations" and the other was WikiLeaks; they each had to decide what technical measures they would take to both attack the opposition and defend themselves. Although the ideas started off with some (to be expected) adolescent suggestions such as bribing North Korea to nuke the United States and its allies, the conversation began to become more serious as the students realized the serious flaws in this kind of argument. Unfortunately class ended just as things started to get really interesting and I wasn't able to hear how it all turned out - or rather will turn out, as this will be a multi-day exercise. I noticed that even amid the joyful chaos of a group of 9th and 10th graders throwing out ideas at random, students were constantly experiencing the "lightbulb effect". I saw several students, girls and boys, saying things like "oh! could that actually happen to my program?" "does the internet really work that way?" "you mean that they can do THAT to my computer???". Minds were engaged.

No comments:

Post a Comment