Secondary

Almost a week ago, on Columbus Day, we visited the kids’ schools to observe their classes. This was our first parent visitation day with both kids in secondary school. It’s a little more complicated than when at least one of them was in elementary school because there are more classes you can potentially visit, and no set time you’re supposed to come. If you have only one kid and you want to, you can follow him, her, or them around from class to class all day long. But we have two kids. Beth was in favor of spending most or all our time at the middle school because A) It’s a new school to us whereas Noah’s in his third year of high school; B) North had a bit of a bumpy start to middle school, though things are improving; and C) North was more interested in having us observe their classes than Noah was. As in they would have been perfectly happy for us to tail them all day and he wouldn’t have minded if we’d skipped the event entirely.

I wasn’t ready to skip the high school, though. At Back to School Night at the middle school in September, Beth and I needed to split up because there was a meeting for 11th and 12th grade CAP parents the same night. We started Back to School night together but Beth only got to hear the gym and chorus teachers’ presentations before she had to leave so she hadn’t met most of North’s teachers and I had. And because I hadn’t been to the CAP meeting, I felt less familiar with Noah’s teachers and the eleventh-grade CAP curriculum, so I wanted to see at least one of his classes. The two I most wanted to see weren’t contiguous, so we decided to attend North’s Spanish and pre-algebra classes, plus part of World Studies before we cut out for lunch and then over to the high school to see Noah’s research methods class.

North was in a partial Spanish immersion program in elementary school and that continues into middle school (the school also houses a partial French immersion program). They have an hour and a half Spanish class that meets daily and they also have World Studies taught in Spanish, which is a change from elementary school when they had math and science in Spanish. All in all, it comes to about a third of the week in Spanish.

Spanish class was also the first class we saw on visitation day. The students began with a warm up in which they had to sort the words in a sentence into the different parts of speech. Then there was a lesson on adjectives. In North’s elementary school immersion program there was almost no grammar instruction, which I think makes sense for the early grades, but with both kids I noticed their Spanish grow by leaps and bounds in kindergarten, slow in first and second grade and then stall out in third grade. I think introducing grammar earlier would have helped, but I’m glad they are getting that now. I’ve heard from parents of older kids in the immersion program that their Spanish really improves in sixth grade.

The kids watched some videos in Spanish and spent some time working on the third drafts of the letters they are writing to their future (eighth-grade) selves. I couldn’t quite catch if they will actually be given the letters back when they are in eighth grade, but it would be cool if that was the case. Señor L seems warm and friendly and his room is decorated with prints of art by Latin American artists (I recognized some Diego Rivera), sombreros, flags from Spanish-speaking countries and pennants from all the houses of Hogwarts. That’s because he’s a big Harry Potter fan, and is reading the first Harry Potter book to them, in ten to fifteen minute increments every day. At first, I thought it would be more educational to read something written in Spanish, rather than a book translated from English, but then I realized it’s easier to follow along when you already know the story, as most of them do.

Señor L has also promised the class a pizza party once they’ve gone a certain number of days without him hearing anyone speak English all class. The chart they use to track their progress, is of course, a pie chart, or rather a pizza chart, with the number of slices growing. He showed it to them near the end of class.

There was a between periods session of PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports), in which the kids in North’s homeroom had to brainstorm about respectful behavior in various locations in the school. It was well-intentioned, but I’m not sure a kid inclined to start a food fight in the cafeteria or stand up on the bus would be deterred by remembering in PBIS they talked about how that was not respectful behavior.

North’s pre-algebra class was working on using equations to solve problems about ratios (fractions and percentages), using something called the butterfly method. They worked in small groups and then presented their work to the class. The problems had to do with figuring out what percentage of her great-grandmother’s age a girl was, what was ratio of different species to each other in a pet store, or how to calculate a restaurant bill (with tax and tip) and then figure out how to choose a dessert to add to the order without going over budget. The kids seemed engaged but they got a bit rowdy at times.

The last class we visited was World Studies. I wanted Beth to see Señora P’s room, which I’d seen at Back to School Night, because it’s gorgeous, with almost all the walls covered in colorful murals, but class was being held in the media center (and mostly in English) because they were hearing a presentation by a librarian about how to take notes in preparation for a research project on ancient Egypt. The tables were all labelled with professions (artisan, embalmer, farmer, pharaoh, scribe, etc.) and heaped with books about ancient Egypt because later they were going to divide into groups and practice taking notes from the books on their chosen profession. We didn’t see that, though, because we left about twenty minutes into class to grab lunch at Lincoln’s BBQ before heading to the high school. (Verdict: vegetarian options there are okay but not great, though I did enjoy the banana pudding.)

We arrived right before eighth period started and reported to Noah’s research methods class. I wanted to see this one because it wasn’t really clear to me what they are doing in this class. It used to build up to a research paper but the teacher found the grading arduous so now it’s (probably) just going to be a series of smaller research projects. I have mixed feelings about this. Noah hasn’t written a long research paper since seventh grade and it seems he shouldn’t go through four years of a rigorous, communications-focused high school program without writing one, but then again, he’s so chronically overworked, it’s hard to get too upset about it. Plus, to be honest, the teacher seems pretty loosey goosey and I might rather Noah’s college freshman composition instructor handle this task.

What the class is doing right now is a unit on race. Mr. S led the class in a spirited discussion of the opportunity gap and how wealth inequality perpetuates itself. He had some provocative statistics to get them started. The kids were smart and idealistic and everything you’d want in a group of sixteen and seventeen year olds, though I noticed Mr. S wasn’t doing as much as he could to bring the quieter kids into the discussion. Every now and then he’d talk a bit about how the statistics were calculated (what counts as wealth for instance and how the numbers change when you add durable goods in, or exclude them). Afterward Beth said she thought he could have done more with that, especially to show them how different think tanks with different political orientations might calculate something like wealth to bolster their own arguments. If we want kids to be critical thinkers, they need to understand how arguments are constructed.

We could have stayed for another period, but Noah had Spanish next and Beth had already sat through a class in a language she doesn’t understand too well, so we headed for the grocery store and home, where we met North who had just arrived home.

Beth was worn out by her day in middle and high school, so she took a nap while the kids got started on their homework. When North finished theirs, they set to work making ice cream. While we value education, that doesn’t mean fun is always secondary.

  • Nicole MacPherson

    Every year when you write this I wish that our school had a day where we could go to school with the kids! It sounds really fun. I wonder what my boys’ days are like. I smiled at the thought of North wanting you to go to ALL the classes and Noah thinking you should go to none 🙂

  • We don’t have anything like that here either. I’m always telling my sisters that I just wish we could have a live camera in their kids classrooms because who knows what the heck goes on all day! It’s cool that you get a little glimpse.