Two Excellent Schools, Worlds Apart – Part I

As part of my recent trip to the Northeast, I visited two secondary schools: the Groton School and the Bronx High School of Science.  At first glance it’s hard to imagine two schools that are more different.  Groton is a small, private, Episcopal boarding school nestled among 385 acres in rural Massachusetts.  Tuition, room & board run nearly $52,000.  Classes are small, usually 12 to 16 students, with an entire grade consisting of only 80 students.  Bronx Science in contrast has almost 800 students per grade crammed into a single building on West 205th St in the Bronx.  It is a public, secular, day school offering free tuition.  The classes I observed ranged from about 32 to 40 students.

Despite their eye-popping surface differences, both of these schools are filled with inspiring teachers whose tireless and imaginative classes offer students world-class educational opportunities.   I am grateful to both schools for allowing me to visit, and for sharing ideas and inspirations that I will take back to my own teaching next year.

My visit to Groton began with an hour’s drive northwest of Boston into the rolling Massachusetts countryside.  The campus is beautiful, even on a gray and dreary early December morning.

Groton

Most school days start with a short Episcopal Chapel service.  I was impressed with the students’ behavior in the Chapel.  By 7:59, every student was seated and settled.  Not a single person entered late, and there were no signs of cell phones or other distractions.  I have never been surrounded by hundreds of teenagers in such deep and absolute silence.  They listened attentively to the adults and fellow students who spoke.  One of their classmates gave a thoughtful reflection on privilege and perspective, showing a keen awareness that life in the Groton bubble is not necessarily representative of the “real world.”

Chapel

After Chapel, students filed out to their first class.  I watched a number of classes, including some chemistry classes taught by Sandra.  I was impressed by her really intentional use of technology.  She showed YouTube clips of Young’s classic double slit experiment demonstrating quantum interference, and PhET simulations showing the interaction of light and matter.  Sandra had selected videos and simulations that showed complex interactions that are hard to explain verbally “at the blackboard.”  She paused the simulations, probed students’ understanding, and asked them to predict what would happen when she changed the parameters.  At the end of class, she mentioned that all of the links for the videos and simulations were on the course website so that students could review them on their own at a later time.  I was struck by how effective and interactive this use of technology was.  Instead of reducing or replacing in-person interaction, Sandra’s use of technology actually augmented her in-person interaction with the students.

An interesting aspect of Groton’s science program is the introduction of an alternative STEM track for 9th and 10th graders.  The STEM (Science Technology Engineering & Math) classes are combined science and math classes, each meeting for double the time of a normal class and with two teachers (one science, one math).  The STEM courses provide an interdisciplinary approach, combining science and math education often through the lens of technology and engineering.  The classes make significant use of manipulatives, from store-bought pre-assembled models to student-built commercial geometric forms to homemade structures comprised of cardboard, tape, construction paper, gumdrops, toothpicks, straws, and Styrofoam.

Manipulatives

Manipulatives

During one class I observed, the students were exploring energy efficiency in the design and construction of different sized and shaped houses.  They had to use their knowledge of geometry, algebra, and science to design and build a model house.

Energy Efficiency Assignment

Then they would test the houses to see which one could be heated most efficiently by using a light bulb and thermometer.

Lighted house

Then they had to draw some conclusions about what parameters of the house mattered most in an energy-efficient design – surface area? volume? some ratio of different measurements?

Two sections of this STEM class were running simultaneously in adjacent rooms (separated by large glass windows), and for a while they combined the classes into one larger class while the students were working.  This allowed an amazing ratio of students to instructors: 22 students in a room with one physics teacher, one bio teacher, and two math teachers.

STEM classrooms

Another STEM class I watched had students designing towers out of straws, paper, and tape.  This was an exercise in optimization.  Each material had a certain cost.  The tower had to be a certain height and support a given weight of marbles.  And the students only had a limited amount of time to build their tower.  Again, engineering provided a framework for applying the science and mathematical lessons they had learned.

Tower

Tower supports

Even more “traditional” classes featured visuals and manipulatives.  A chemistry lesson on naming ionic compounds and writing formulas was enhanced through the introduction of magnetic cut-outs of different ions.  Positively charged cations had a notch cut into them to show they were missing an electron, while negatively charged anions had a corresponding wedge showing an extra electron.  They fix together neatly showing a balanced ionic compound.  Cations and anions with charges bigger than one had multiple notches or wedges, showing visually how and why ions must combine with each other in certain ratios.

Ions

The students at Groton are clearly getting a really strong science education.  I wondered how their experience would compared to the students at Bronx Science, who I would be visiting just two days later.

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