Catlin Tucker: My name is Catlin Tucker and I've been teaching, this is my 15th year and my 14th year at Windsor High School.
Katrina Schwartz: Catlin Tucker and Marika Neto are fed up with traditional high school. They’re especially tired of the limited role students typically play when it comes to evaluating goals in their learning. They say, if the aim is to help students become lifelong learners, then teachers need to stop telling them exactly how to do well all the time. So, they took a hard look at how they could change their teaching to force students to do something many people find difficult: self-assess.
It’s been uncomfortable for students, and their parents, and even for the teachers at times. It’s hard to step outside a really clear system like the one that has determined academic achievement for decades, to try something radically different. But that’s what these teachers are trying to do. And they’re doing it within a big, typical public high school.
Ok, so imagine two basic classrooms connected by what was maybe an office at some point. It’s about six feet across and they call it their makerspace.
Catlin Tucker: Ok guys, make sure you’re transitioning into the space that makes most sense for what you have to do.
Katrina Schwartz: Tucker and Neto, as the students call them, are in charge of a mixed group of freshmen and sophomores, sixty kids in all. Students move fluidly back and forth between the two rooms. They call the program NEW school.
Catlin Tucker: This is really frustrating. How am I supposed to do this little impromptu thing without a good pen?
Katrina Schwartz: Tucker and Neto co-teach English, science and technology through projects every other day. On the days they’re not with Tucker and Neto, students have more traditional classes. They do the usual high school thing of rotating between classes.
Marika Neto: Guys there is an article you need to be reading on Diigo. Please get started.
Katrina Schwartz: On the days when students are with Tucker and Neto, they are working on big unit projects that tie together what they’re learning in science, English and technology.
Catlin Tucker: Let’s say I’m arguing that Tybalt has anger management issues.
Katrina Schwartz: Students are writing papers analyzing how the behavior of characters in Romeo and Juliet could be evidence of mental health disorders. Tucker’s giving an example.
Catlin Tucker: And then I reveal some aspect of the play where like, you know when he’s like, “I hate the word peace.”
Katrina Schwartz: The aim is for students to be motivated by their own interests, so the teachers are letting them pick their own projects. Students are researching and designing solutions to real environmental problems like contaminated groundwater or plastic waste.
Catlin Tucker: Some of them were like, “oh my god, you want us to solve a problem that no one has solved, like what are you asking of us?”
Katrina Schwartz: One student, Samantha, is trying to come up with a new type of renewable energy that could be generated in cities where demand is high.
Samantha: I’m thinking of having a bunch of little turbines that could be put underneath the little sewer grates. So as the water comes down it turns the turbines and then these are connected to a generator which could produce electricity.
Katrina Schwartz: Because students aren’t all working on the same thing at any given time, Tucker and Neto often float around the classroom, checking in here and there. That’s especially important since kids are often working independently on their computers.
Catlin Tucker: It looks like you may be off task.
Student: I may have been off task just a little bit.
Catlin Tucker: Just a little bit? Way to own that.
Katrina Schwartz: Tucker wants her students to reflect on how they can improve at every step along the way, so when she coaches writing she often hops directly into student documents to give feedback as they write.
Catlin Tucker: I’m going to go into suggesting mode because we definitely want to capitalize “Americans”.
Student: Yeah, this is my problem.
Catlin Tucker: You’re killing me.
Katrina Schwartz: And because the structure is often free flowing, students must learn to manage their own time.
Catlin Tucker: You do not have to look up, but you two are super cute sitting side by side at this table.
Katrina Schwartz: Another big difference from other high school classes -- Tucker and Neto don’t assign homework. But kids often keep working on stuff they don’t get done in class.
Student: I’m editing her narrative so that she’ll be able to publish it.
Katrina Schwartz: Students are responsible for showing what they’ve learned, but they can’t just follow a checklist. They have to stop and think about whether they are doing their best work.
Student: I was working on my blog and right now I kinda feel like doing a little bit of coding.
Katrina Schwartz: And in the midst of all the controlled chaos, sometimes a bunch of students struggle with the same skill, so Tucker might jump in with a mini lesson. She’s not subtle about it.
Catlin Tucker: So I have some substantial concerns about your essay and I want to address them now. Remember, for your intro, you are starting with a hook strategy.
Katrina Schwartz: Students love that science has become much more hands-on. They’re used to turning the pages of a textbook and memorizing terms. But in this new setting, many kids say they are finally learning by doing, and that has them engaged in ways they’re not used to.
Student: The bottom and the top of the broom represent different parts of the neurons in your brain. And we’re going to take the penny and show where it goes for someone that has anxiety. And that’s what we’re trying to figure out right now.
Katrina Schwartz: If this all sounds pretty different from what school was like for you, you’re right. It is different. Not very many public high schools are teaching this way. Sure, some are doing projects, but far fewer have this level of integration between subjects.
Catlin Tucker: They have assignments but they have a lot of autonomy, and a lot of freedom about how they complete them, and when they complete them.
Katrina Schwartz: The mixed-age classroom, that’s not common high school practice.
Catlin Tucker: And, "by the way, we're not assigning homework, and by the way we don't have an online grade book. We threw out our grade book.
Katrina Schwartz: The list goes on. But that last bit -- about grading -- is crucial because that, more than anything, represents a core philosophy running underneath everything these two teachers are trying to do. They don’t want students to passively wait to be evaluated. No no no, they’re trying to get kids to build the skills to evaluate themselves, to decide for themselves when they’ve done their best work. That’s a skill-set that will resurface in college and at work. After all, we’re all evaluated by someone.
Coming up after the break, we dive into the surprising grading system Tucker and Neto devised to force students to think about what they learned, and how they know they learned it. Stay with us.
Katrina Schwartz: When students start high school they have already been through eight years of conditioning. Often that means they’ve learned that the teacher’s word is law, and their job as students is to do what they’re told. Progress is measured with quizzes and tests. So, when Tucker and Neto flipped all that on its head students like Josh Wagner were a little freaked out.
Josh: It took me awhile to adjust to that.
Catlin Tucker: The grading was definitely outside their comfort zone for sure.
Katrina Schwartz: As much as Tucker wants to shake things up, Windsor High is still a pretty average public school. Teachers have to submit progress reports every six weeks. But instead of using grades as a way to rubber stamp student work, Tucker and Neto are using the process as a way to push kids to reflect on their strengths, their weaknesses and who they are as learners.
Josh: The first time I did a grading interview, I was like, so nervous. I was like, oh my gosh.
Katrina Schwartz: This is Josh again. Put yourself in his shoes for a minute. For nine years you’ve tried to do your assignments exactly as your teachers wanted them. And that probably varied widely, by the way. Half the time you were just hoping you were interpreting the instructions correctly. Now, your sophomore English grade, which matters a lot to colleges, will be decided in large part by how accurately you can describe your progress in a grading interview with Tucker.
Self-awareness is key. And being honest with yourself. So you don’t overstate -- or understate -- how far you’ve come. After all, these teachers know you.
Catlin Tucker: Oh, Joshua.
Catlin Tucker: Today I asked you to reflect on two specific standards in relationship to your writing on the research paper, right.
Katrina Schwartz: Sounds serious, right?
Catlin Tucker: That formative writing standard and the research standard. Talk me through where you felt like you are, what are you struggling with, what goals have you set for yourself as a writer?
Josh: Well I think one thing I’m definitely struggling with is the research aspect of this project, and pulling everything together, and making sure it's from the right source.
Katrina Schwartz: They are both looking at a Google Document that lists every assignment with columns next to it where Josh has written how well he thinks he has met the standard and has given himself a grade from zero to four. There are also columns for Tucker to write what she’s seeing and to give a number.
Catlin Tucker: The first six weeks, how did you feel you were doing getting into this document and thinking about the work you were working on in your three classes?
Josh: That was obviously one heaping disaster.
Katrina Schwartz: Josh made a mistake several students described, a sort of holdover from their previous experiences in school. He wasn’t assessing himself if he saw that Tucker had already given him feedback. He thought her input was all that mattered, which is probably true in more traditional classes. But in here, he’s not getting off that easy.
Catlin Tucker: And remember, if I go through and say, “I think Josh is a two out of four on this,” and you’re like, “what? I feel like my work is stronger than that,” then on your side you can link to evidence and say, “you know, I actually think I’m a three and this is why.”
Katrina Schwartz: There’s this constant, silent back and forth happening between students and teachers on the Google Document all semester. When it’s time for a progress report, there’s a track record of all those revisions and reflections that Josh can use to propose the grade he thinks he deserves. He also has to provide work samples to back up his claim.
Catlin Tucker: If their grade is wildly different from my grade, then I counter.
Katrina Schwartz: This might seem a lot easier for students, but it actually requires a lot from them. They can’t just sit back and take whatever grade they get.
Catlin Tucker: Those conversations were some of the scariest things we've asked them to do because they're not asked to think about their learning that way, articulate where they're at in their learning, and what they think their grade should be.
Katrina Schwartz: And it’s harder for students to blame bad grades on someone else because they have all these opportunities to go back in and revise work, get help and improve. All of this is really new to students. But Josh says new in a good way.
Josh: It’s definitely overwhelming to go back and try to fix it all, but in the long run it’s better than a class where it’s like, if it’s missing it’s missing and and you don’t get to make it up. I’m glad I have that opportunity to fix it.
Katrina Schwartz: It’s a lot of change all at once. Early on Tucker and Neto wondered if they’d pushed it too far.
Catlin Tucker: There’s pushback from students, too. Like, “Wait a second. You’re supposed to give me the information. Why do I have to do all this work?”
Katrina Schwartz: Scott McGlaughlin is a sophomore that probably falls into that camp. He’s stuck with the program all year, but says he misses being told exactly how to do well.
Scott: I’m really used to structure. That’s always worked for me. So I guess I’m kind of the odd man out.
Katrina Schwartz: Scott can see that many of his peers are thriving in the program, and he was quick to point that out. But he’s just not sure it’s for everyone.
Scott: It’s really hard to get used to.
Katrina Schwartz: Tucker understands how students like Scott feel, but she says so far we’ve acted as though the traditional model should work for everyone when it clearly doesn’t. She wanted to try something different, something that might reach the kids who don’t usually like school much. So, the early pushback from students was especially hard.
Catlin Tucker: I just thought, "Oh my god. What have I done? It's not going as smoothly as I thought."
Katrina Schwartz: A few students left the program early on, and others were just on the brink. It was especially hard for freshman, like Natali Luevano. She was already making a big, scary transition to high school, and on top of that NEW school was just so different.
Catlin Tucker: What made you feel like, OK, I don’t think this program is going to work for me?
Natali: In middle school, it was more like you sit down, they teach you, you memorize everything, you do your work and that’s it, you’re out. But here it was more, I wouldn’t say self-taught, but as a student, you really had to buckle down yourself if you really wanted to get it done.
Katrina Schwartz: She had figured out how “to play the game of school,” and wasn’t sure she wanted to risk academic failure in this new program.
Natali: My parents, they didn’t go to college, and they realized what a big impact that was, so they really expect a lot from us.
Katrina Schwartz: Getting into college means earning good grades. So when Natali was struggling to adjust to all the independence of the new program, and the expectations to self-evaluate, her dad got nervous.
Natali: He just wasn’t used to it because both my sisters were AP and Honors. He was used to if you miss one assignment you’re already behind.
Katrina Schwartz: Natali’s dad was stuck between wanting to keep an open mind about a style of learning his daughter seemed to like, and his experiences with how punitive the system can be.
Natali: I explained to him that we got to sit down and talk about our grades. And that if I didn’t do the best one progress report that didn’t mean that my entire grade was going to drop. Once he understood that he was a lot more calm about it.
Katrina Schwartz: I talked to several parents about the program and many of them were delighted that their kids seemed to finally be enjoying school. Several of them said they were connecting with their teens in new ways. And that it was amazing to see them fired up about learning.
But the pressures of the current education system weren’t far from their minds.
Carrie Carstensen’s daughter, Jewel, is a freshman in the program.
Carrie Carstensen: She was struggling at the beginning. And I thought, how is this going to look on her report card? Are her grades going to go down because this is something completely different and new and challenging?
Katrina Schwartz: Jewel loves the program. But Carrie can’t help worrying about what colleges will see.
Carrie Carstensen: They’re looking at a letter grade versus how much a student actually knows.
Katrina Schwartz: Parent concerns point to a basic disconnect: what we say we want out of an education system -- independent thinkers, good communicators, collaborators -- those things aren’t what we currently reward.
Tucker and Neto knew they were asking students and their families to take a leap of faith by joining this program. And they weren’t sure who would be brave enough to try something so different from the accepted way of doing things. But all kinds of kids were ready to join them in the adventure.
Catlin Tucker: It's not just the honors kids, it's everybody. It's kids who have just been mainstreamed, that English is not their first language. It's kids on the autistic spectrum. It's kids who have learning plans. It's ADHD.
Katrina Schwartz: Tucker and Neto were pretty sure kids who had struggled in traditional school would like something different. But what about the kids who excelled at academics?
Samantha: Hi, my name is Samantha Moberly and I’m a tenth grader.
Katrina Schwartz: This is the same girl who was designing the water turbine. When I talked with Sam about whether she feels challenged, she had a really interesting answer.
Samantha: I have had experiences in past classes where I would do an assignment, and I wasn’t super excited about it, but I would still get an A. And here now, I’m actually working to get to a point where I’m really satisfied with my work. And because I’m grading myself, I’m not just stopping at a point where I know I would get a certain grade. I just going until I’m satisfied.
Katrina Schwartz: Samantha is the kind of student who likes doing homework. She’d probably do well anywhere. But she said there’s an expansiveness to learning in NEW School that doesn’t exist when she’s just trying to meet requirements. Setting her own agenda and her internal barometer for success means Samantha is pushing herself to do much more advanced work than the average sophomore. Sometimes so advanced it even surprises Tucker and Neto. They often don’t have the answers or the materials.
Marika Neto: But that didn’t stop them. It was, well, how are you going to get creative with this?
Katrina Schwartz: The issue comes up a lot for Marika Neto, the science half of this duo. She regularly asks students to design their own experiments and then has to deal with the consequences.
Marika Neto: They were like, “Neto, we need to find BPA.” I was like, uh, okay.
Katrina Schwartz: But these are also the moments that make all the hard work of getting this program off the ground worthwhile.
Marika Neto: As we raise the bar, they keep asking for more. And that’s special. I feel that’s a huge difference from what I’ve seen in the traditional setting.
Katrina Schwartz: But there’s still this lingering question about whether this is really better. How will we know if kids are getting prepared for college?
Tucker thinks about that too.
Catlin Tucker: I worry sometimes, am I giving them enough? Are we getting through enough? I am aware that there are certain things that I don't hit as hard as I used to and I worry, am I preparing them for everything they need?
Katrina Schwartz: That may be the eternal question of teachers everywhere. Tucker is just hoping that she has empowered her students to find the answers to their own questions, to have confidence in who they are as learners, and to constantly reflect on their own work. After this year of risk and experimentation, she’s more clear than ever that those qualities are essential for building anything, including a successful school program.
And Tucker finds comfort in what she’s seeing in the classroom every day.
Catlin Tucker: It’s the kids that pull you over to say, “Tucker, Tucker, look at what I’m doing, look at what I’m doing.” It's that excitement, that curiosity, that joy of being in the classroom and working on what we're working on. That for me is the success, that's what I want to see. It's not the grades, it's that, that energy.
Katrina Schwartz: What teacher doesn’t want that?
Thanks for listening to the MindShift podcast, a production of KQED. Mindshift is all about exploring how we can improve teaching and learning. You can learn a lot more on our website kqed.org/mindshift.
Ki Sung: Mindshift is produced by me, Ki Sung, and Katrina Schwartz. Our editor is Jacob Conrad and Seth Samuel is the audio specialist. Special thanks to Paul Lancour, Julia McEvoy, Olivia Allen-Price, Vinnee Tong, and Devin Katayama. Our executive producers are Ethan Lindsey and Holly Kernan.