Townsend Harris High School in Flushing, New York is well known for the superior classes that it offers. The classes are challenging, the rules are strict, and the admissions policy is almost as difficult as Ivy League college requirements. The students are offered classes that are focused on the humanities, although there are plenty of elective classes that allow the student to focus on an individual favorite area of study. For my observation, I sat in on the ninth grade biology class. While most classes of this type would be fairly basic, the courses at Townsend Harris are always above and beyond what one might find at another school.
The focus of this paper will be on what the writer personally observed from this specific biology class, and will end with some of the writer’s own ideas about classroom policies. An important bit of information to know about Townsend Harris students is that, for the most part, they are very motivated. The dream of many is to go on to a prestigious college, such as Harvard. In that light, most of the classes offered by Townsend Harris are modeled after what one might expect from such a college.
The students must have extremely high grades, be willing to work hard, and also be willing to attend classes before or after school hours when necessary. The ninth grade biology class that was observed by the writer was not quite as difficult as some of the higher level courses, but it had its own challenges. One specific challenge is that the students must prepare for the NYS Living Environment Exam. This exam must be passed if the student is to graduate. One would think this requirement would hang heavily on students that are not more than thirteen years of age, but they take it in stride.
Students come to this particular school to be challenged, so it is no big deal to have to take such an important test so early in their high school careers. While observing the biology class, I noticed quite a few things that were different from what one might expect in a typical high school. One thing was the level of decorum that was displayed during class. The teacher always wore a white lab coat – a touch that seemed to exude authority. The students were required to raise their hands, wait to be recognized, and then stand to ask their question or answer a question posed by the teacher.
The class was also very quiet and courteous. There was no sign of whispering or passing notes, and all eyes seemed to be trained on the teacher, regardless of the fact that I was in the room. The whole feeling of this class was that of extreme focus. I suppose that would be necessary, because it would be detrimental to the grades if a student was to miss something. Despite this very quiet, very intense classroom, the students seemed to be throughly enjoying the lesson. Almost every student had some point to offer or a relevant question to ask, and all participation was encouraged by the teacher.
Instead of giving direct answers to questions, the teacher would help the student work out the answer on their own by asking questions of them and posing the question asked to the whole class. In this way, the students helped each other learn, and this seemed to help everybody understand the concepts given in a stronger way than if the teacher had simply answered the question and moved on. There were many learning types present in the biology class. Some students seemed to listen more than speak, and others seemed to learn more by asking specific questions about each point of the lesson.
There were plenty of students taking notes, but a few obviously preferred making notations in their textbooks to writing out everything that was said. A few students were using small tape recorders in order to have the notes and a recording of the class to listen to. With all the questions and debate over answers going on, this seemed like a good idea. This particular biology class also included a lab. There were models of the human body and human organs to study, and also microscopes set to display cellular structures.
Some students seemed to enjoy this part of class the most. The setup of the class encouraged all types of learning. There were auditory, verbal, and tactile opportunities for every student, and each one gravitated to the method that they found most interesting. No student was forced to learn in a way that was unsuitable for their personal style. I learned many things about how a classroom should be run from this observation experience. As noted before, I found the teacher’s method of having students work out the answers to their own questions to be excellent.
It would have been much easier and taken much less time to just answer the question and move on, but encouraging other students to help and having them all think through the answer taught a lot more than just the answer to the question. It helped with the students’ problem solving abilities, taught them how to think through scientific steps, and taught them how to teach others. I would definitely put this method into practice wherever I might teach. I think it is a great thing for students and teachers to be so respectful of each other in the classroom, but I feel that this class carried things a bit far.
I am all for creating an environment where students would feel the need to hang on every word and not “goof off,” but I do not think I would carry things to such an extreme. In other words, I don’t think I would always wear my lab coat to class, and I don’t think I would require my students to stand in order to make any statement or answer any question. Quite frankly, although the class was quiet and orderly, it was a distraction to have people constantly standing and sitting, especially when a question was being bantered around the room. I certainly approve of students having to raise their hands to be recognized, however.
I have been in classes where students were left to call out questions and comments at free will, and all it caused was people talking over each other, no one hearing what was being said, and quieter students never getting their statements heard or questions answered. I was particularly impressed with all the learning methods that this classroom employed. No one was required to speak. If a student wanted to sit and listen to the lecture and let it all sink in, that was fine. If a student wished to ask and answer questions, that was also fine.
I find this approach much better than some approaches that take off points for not speaking in class, or those that discourage asking questions. Also, the lab component was great for those who learn by doing. I could see that a few students were really absorbing what they had just heard in the lecture by being able to see how everything fit together for themselves. If I was to teach a science class, I would certainly make room in the lesson for hands on learning, even if a lab was not available. I have a feeling that approach was making all the difference for some of the students.
I do believe that I would encourage more note writing than this particular teacher did, if only for the reason that classroom discussions covered more than what was in the book. If my class went straight by the book I would not mind students highlighting and underlining, but I would certainly want them to have some record of what else went on in class. I am also slightly disturbed by the taping of the lectures. While most students were listening and had the recorder going for backup purposes, it did seem to me that some students were taping the lecture so that they could do work for another class.
That sounds kind of unusual, but since skipping class is not tolerated at all in this high school, and study halls are limited, I suppose some students might think it would be a good idea. Personally, I think that I would only allow taping for students that had special needs, and possibly for those who were obviously taking notes while taping. To make sure of that, I would make taping a privilege for those who could show that they were trustworthy enough to have it. The first time they were caught doing something else during class, the privilege would be taken away.
The last thing that made an impression on me in this biology classroom was that even though the NYS Living Environment Exam was looming, the teacher kept his eyes on the lesson plan, and did not spin off into quizzing and practice testing for the exam. I personally thought that was a very good move on the teacher’s part. The exam is very important, but he did not make it the sole focus of the class. Some teachers and schools are not like that. Ever since standardized tests became so important due to the “No Child Left Behind” act, some classes are simply reviews for the test.
The students do not learn anything but what will be on the test, and how to fill in “bubbles. ” I was glad to see a class that taught the material on the test, but also taught different things to prepare the students for the next grade. I thought that was an excellent example of how to teach. For my part, I learned a lot about what kind of policies I would want in my own classroom. First, I would have anyone who wished to speak raise their hand. Yelling out comments and answers would not be tolerated, because that is unfair to the quieter students.
Secondly, I would enforce class participation, but not in a typical way. Participation would include one or more of the following: note taking, comments, or active listening. I would not require everyone to do everything, just what fit their learning style. Thirdly, I would state that there is no “stupid” question, and those that ridiculed another student’s question would be penalized within the limits of the school rules. Fourthly, I would offer privileges for those students abiding by the rules.
These privileges could include using a tape recorder or spending time with the hands on equipment during a lecture. Anyone abusing the privilege would lose it. Fifthly, I would have mandatory meetings with students who were not making at least average grades. In these meetings I would discuss their problem areas with them, and attempt to find their learning style so they could get back on track. Finally, I would be strict about turning in homework and projects, but I would also encourage a calm, safe feeling in my classroom. I would not want to burn out my students, or have them hate coming to class.
As long as the above rules were followed, I would prefer to have my class feel more like a learning lab than a prison. I found my experience at Townsend Harris High School to be very enlightening, and it taught me what I want to do, and what I do not want to do, in my eventual classroom. I hope to encourage learning of all kinds, and to make my class a place where students can come to feel respected and comfortable. I think that by paying attention to all learning styles, as they do at Townsend Harris, I will become a teacher with students that really learn, and I cannot think of a better accomplishment.