Back to High School! Part I

Yesterday, I visited The Nueva School and shadowed a student and a couple teachers. This trip was a great opportunity to learn more about what teaching looks like in an alternative independent school like Nueva (and was a nice vacation from my work). Here are some random unorganized thoughts from things I observed:

8:25 AM [Before School]

Arrived at school via a Lyft. I walked up to the front desk and said I was visiting teacher Apple (replacing names with food for privacy). The receptionist called Apple, but he wasn’t there. Despite this, she asked if I knew where I was going and let me in anyway.

This was, to me, the first of many oddities at Nueva. At my middle school or high school, I would’ve been promptly and rudely escorted off school premises with the harsh warning that if I came back, there would be consequences. If you weren’t there with a purpose, you meant trouble. Even if you were an alumnus there to visit a teacher one year after graduation, they assumed you meant trouble. I think there were even times when I was a student when they saw us as troublemakers. I think this attitude from staff / security directly led to less behaved kids. At Nueva, it seemed like none of this existed.

At some point, I met my student host, Barley, who gave me a tour of the school. The school itself has an awesome innovation-lab — makerspace, chemlab space, and art studio space equipped with the materials, tools, and staff to make almost anything! Everything about the school is very open. Students are free to walk anywhere. Teachers have desks at pods out in the open. Almost all classrooms are glass walled. There are lounge spaces everywhere for students to hang out and work.

8:45 AM [First Block]

During my first block, I observed an advanced computer programming class. This class felt a lot like the independent study computer science classes I had in high school. Students were roughly left on their own to work on whatever they wanted. This ranged from learning a new language to working on fairly deep systems or ML problems. For me, this kind of class was super important for furthering my cs knowledge and developing self-study skill, but unfortunately I saw kids struggle with the same problems I did. In particular, this kind of self studying is heavily dependent on the teacher’s knowledge of resources or the availability of “good” textbooks (with the right pace for a HSer). A second problem is self motivation. If kids aren’t internally curious, they won’t learn anything. Luckily for Nueva, most of the kids seem rather curious except for a couple 2nd semester seniors I talked to.

This first takeaway I had from this is that it is important to learn skills. In particular, I’d want to learn enough breadth of topics to be able to help my students at least get started in any area. On the flip side, though, it’s unclear how much knowledge is enough. At what point should I focus less on learning and focus more on teaching? The second takeaway (or rather question) I left with is how can we teach kids to be internally curious? Connie pointed out to me one morning that waking up and directly going into watching econometrics lectures on youtube is something that even kids in higher education don’t have. I’m not exactly sure why people like me randomly enjoy learning things or if it was a learned skill at all, but maybe some answer to this question could help motivate other students.

10:05 AM [Second Block]

In my second block, I followed Barley to linear algebra class. Connie told me the teacher, Cauliflower, changed the way in which she saw math so she was really excited that I’d get to meet her. The linear algebra class was structured with students presenting solutions to problems (which generally asked for some proof). As the student presented their solution, other students, along with Cauliflower, would ask questions and note how ideas could have been explained more clearly. Naturally, the students’ presentations were full of mistakes and confusing explanations, so personally I couldn’t follow the line of questions Cauliflower and other students were asking. They never really led to a better understanding for me, so at some point, I started zoning out the questions until I found a solution. To me, this seems like the main downside — if a student doesn’t think about the problem in the same way (e.g. I saw many of the problem very visually), then the questions asked just add to the confusion.

On the positive side, though, there were so many awesome things the students seemed to get out of the class. Even though it seems like many of their linear algebra knowledge is very jumbled, I think they are developing what people describe as “mathematical maturity” fairly visibly. Students were comfortable with admitting they didn’t understand things. Nearly all of them were comfortable with asking questions or adding comments even though there were ~17 students in the class. Students were also comfortable with going slow and making sure they understood and believed each step before moving on. While they’re not quite all the way there yet (they still miss points and little details), it’s clear that they understand what math is really about (in contrast with classes like calculus). I really admire Cauliflower’s ability to foster question-asking and slow thinking about all the problems.



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