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A New Year, with Big Goals


As we begin our third school year, our entire school community will come together around three shared yearlong goals. In particular, ODA students, families, board, and staff will spend the 2019-20 school year focused on three yearlong goals:

  1. Increase fidelity to the ODA instructional model
  2. Deepen our culture of academic rigor
  3. Use data to inform practice

This year, readers of this newsletter will see regular reference to these goals across the programs and initiatives we lead. Read below for the first such example– an excerpt from one of our teacher’s summer reflections on what fidelity to our instructional model means. From all of us at ODA, welcome back to an exciting new year!

Molly Rice
Oxford Day Academy Science Instructor

According to McTighe and Wiggins, an Essential Question is open-ended, thought-provoking, calls for higher-order thinking, points toward important, transferrable ideas within and across disciplines, raises additional questions, requires support and justification, and recurs over time (Essential Questions:  Opening Doors to Student Understanding, pg3).  I was already using Essential Questions when I started using Harkness Discussions in my classroom, but I have found that now I am much more intentional with those questions.  I tell my students:  I do not do the teaching, you do.  I curate the learning.  So what do I mean by that?  It starts with a really juicy Essential Question that students will engage with for about a month.  When I design a unit, this is one of the first parts I design;  after, of course, looking painstakingly at the NGSS standards and clearly identifying what students need to know and be able to do.  I find a question that really drives the learning.  Something juicy.  Something phenomenologically based.  An example of one I used this year were:  “What cell systems could you target to take out cancer cells without killing normal cells?” Their objective was simple: propose a cancer therapy that could potentially do that as an annotated model or infographic.

Now, if you drop that kind of question and objective on a group of unsuspecting teenagers, you’ll get their attention, but you will also terrify them. How do we begin to answer this question? So we used the Oxford Day Academy Model: we observed the question and deconstructed it. What words do we know? Which ones do we need to know? What questions do we need to answer in order to answer this one? My students came up with: What are cell systems? What is cancer? What is the difference between a cancer cell and a normal cell? This is how we began our cell biology unit. Each week I would go through the list of questions that came up for us as we read and would sequence the information, group questions together, and provide materials that helped to answer them. My students and I went on a journey through cell death, cell signaling, mitosis, meiosis, and protein synthesis. All of the basics of a high school cell biology unit. The most interesting part for me, however, was that for once, I was not coming up with the questions: my students were. I was recording them, clarifying them and sequencing them to be sure, but make no mistakes: I was not driving the bus anymore. The learning in this for me was: students are actually very good at scaffolding for themselves: we just need opportunities and space where they can talk about what they know and what they need to find out, and a purpose to take them there that resonates with their experience of this world.

So what was the result of this in my classroom? The students led all of the discussions. I wrote the objective, essential question and supporting questions on the board and they decided what they would answer, how they would answer it, what evidence they needed and made diagrams of how cells worked. I watched and listened and provided more materials the next week. I read the same articles and penned in my own questions, which I would sometimes pose to the students in class. I also kept data. The homework pass rate (number of students turning in homework on time that was well done) increased in 9th graders from about 25% (semester 1) to 54%. In my 10th graders, the increase was from about 26% to 67%. In addition, over 85% of students not only turned in the final assignment, but they turned it in with a passing grade. Continuing in this model through the end of the year, the students took over more and more of the discussion; I found myself with time to talk to individual students in class and to give feedback. I had more than enough time to grade their work and provide comments. I had time to develop the following week’s dossier and questions. But the real benefit did not hit me until our final project of the year. My students handed in their final paper for Biology on the last day of school. On that day, several students came up to me and told me that they were really proud of their paper and could I make sure to give them some feedback and let them know how they did. My responses to students are habitually questions, so I asked, “How do you think you did? How confident are you in your proposal to resolve your issue related to Global Warming?” The response was in their own way, to say they were really proud of it and knew it was their best work.

Putting the learning in the students hands creates the need to complete homework. Asking deep questions creates the incentive: they want to figure it out and they know that there are multiple ways to argue it. Student accountability to each other creates the environment in which students can ask questions without risk. Learning the science becomes the means to get there. I have been teaching for 12 years now. I have never seen anything like this. I am not saying it works perfectly at this point, but I know it’s better than anything I have already tried in the past. I look forward to adding tutorials next year, as another scaffold, to really help individual students develop their critical thinking and writing skills

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