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Need For Unique Teachers Led To Unique Graduate School

— On a Wednesday afternoon, it was time for peer critique in Bobby Shaddox’s advisory class at High Tech Middle School in Point Loma.

Shaddox has dubbed the class ‘Projectopia.' Students started this unit by brainstorming questions – questions they had about anything. Then they categorized the questions as a class.

“Through creating those categories, we found similarities in our questions – and also found how our questions about ourself connect with questions about the world,” Shaddox said.

Bobby Shaddox preps the middle schoolers in his "Projectopia" advisory class for their first peer critique session at High Tech Middle School, Jan. 23, 2013

Aired 2/8/13 on KPBS News.

Training their own teachers to lead unconventional classes led High Tech High charter schools to create its own unconventional graduate school.

Then groups of students chose one of those questions according to eighth grader Victoria Renteria.

“We’re making like that one question and then we’re trying to look out for, what can we make out of that question. Like what product can we make,” she said.

Her group’s idea for a product was a family tree.

“We’re basically doing a 3D tree," she said, "and we’re putting our ancestors and we’re making an article about one ancestor and what kind of like history part they took in.”

As part of the peer critique process, students were bustling around the room, reading other groups’ project ideas and leaving comments about what might work and what might not on bright post-it notes.

This is not what most middle school classes look like - but at the 11 High Tech High charter schools in San Diego, this kind of project-based learning is the norm. Student-designed projects are everywhere in the six schools on the Point Loma campus – a wall in one school is adorned with a set of more than a dozen bicycle wheels. The wheels spin when you turn a waist-level hand crank. The project was the result of a combined physics and art assignment. In that same school, jazz is piped into a boys' bathroom where the urinals are dedicated to different musicians - decoration that grew out of an art unit about frontiers.

But most teachers are not trained to lead project-based classes that are driven largely by student input. So since the first High Tech school started in 2000, professional development to help teachers better lead these unconventional classes has been part of the school’s regular schedule. That grew into a state-licensed teacher-credentialing program that started in 2004 and into two masters degree programs in Teacher and School Leadership, which started in 2007.

Ben Daley, chief academic officer of the High Tech High Graduate School of Education, said the graduate programs offer the kind of hands-on training that is missing from many traditional programs.

“It’s not like in traditional graduate schools; there’s nothing practical, and in our graduate school there’s nothing theoretical," he said. "We’re just saying, whatever that balance is, we think it’s a little bit out of whack in general and I think a lot of people think that and so we’re trying to swing it back toward more practice-based models.”

Shaddox, the middle school teacher, is in his second year of the Teacher Leadership program. The way his graduate courses apply to his daily work is the major difference between the master program and the traditional teaching credential program he went through.

“My action research, which is around democratic learning and collaborative design, I researched that in the first year and created a thesis proposal and outline of what I was going to do in my research, in my classroom and that’s what I’ve done this year,” he said. The result of that planning and research will be the open-ended projects his "Projectopia" students complete by the end of the year.

The graduate school's students work full-time and attend evening classes once a week during their first year and once every other week during their second, when they’re conducting their research projects.

What they did in one recent first-year class mirrored what Shaddox’s middle schoolers were doing to develop their projects.

After a large class discussion about the culture of critique and getting constructive feedback from and for students at different skill levels, they break up into groups to get peer feedback about the projects they're designing for their students.

While many of the graduate students work in one of High Tech High’s schools, they also come from traditional public schools. Melissa Han is a San Diego Unified first grade teacher. Integrating project-based work and student feedback into her traditional classroom has meant small, but meaningful changes – like letting her pencil-hating students do their writing assignments in marker, she said.

“When I looked, my students were actually taking more time, paying attention to what their words were saying. So for me as a teacher – what a simple thing, simple tool. Whereas in the past I think I would have said more writing, more writing, more writing and no – you will write with a pencil,” she said.

The tug of war between public school leaders and those in higher education over what makes a well-prepared teacher has been going on for decades, according to Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. She said more traditional programs have the luxury of providing future teachers with more time to develop and hone a broad range of skills, but that they could take a page from High Tech High's playbook.

"Programs like this are attracting people who may be very talented, who would love to teach but are not willing to jump through the hoops that have been set up to go through a traditional pathway," she said.

As the graduate school moves through the accreditation process, Stacey Callier, the Teacher Leadership Program director, said they aren’t looking to revolutionize teacher preparation or public education.

“Our goal is not to create a bunch more High Tech Highs," she said. "If anything, the goal is for people to hopefully emerge from our programs with a better sense of what’s the education and the school that they kind of aspire and dream about looks like and to have made some steps towards that while they’re here.”

But learning to run her classroom more like she might if she worked at a High Tech school is exactly what drew Han to the program.

“My daughter was going to High Tech Middle at the time and I would go to their exhibitions and come away from them feeling like, these kids love what they’re learning. And I didn’t even need to find the teacher. The kids were happy, felt proud and I remember going home and thinking, why can’t my students have that?”

The graduate school’s students may leave the programs equipped to lead project-based classes – and to change the face of public education.

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