Low Tech Low

The future is here and I’m putting on my sunglasses. I’m in San Diego on my own little field trip of one, squinting into the glare and fighting amazement.

I really wanted to hate High Tech High, the famous charter system with eleven schools in San Diego.   Their reputation annoyed me when I saw it cited in books by academics about how their project-based model would give students the 21st century learning skills they needed. I’d think: yeah, wax on, tell it to TED. Right? So what if they, according to their website, used “design principles of personalization, adult world connection, common intellectual mission, and teacher as designer.” What did that even mean?

But I was also dying of curiosity. Too cheap—uh, let’s say “frugal”—to shell out for one of their “graduate school residencies,” I first signed up for something called a “Deeper Learning MOOC.”

You guessed it. The MOOC was terrific. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know I’m a sucker for online learning, and conversely that I don’t stick to any program for long, which was also true of this MOOC. Who wants to sit around looking at strangers talking on screens when the sun is shining and the hills are calling out for a frisky hike? But despite technical glitches early on, even though in typical fashion I only made my way through two out of the nine sessions, I was really intrigued.

In the second class about evaluating student work, a teacher invited critique of an extraordinary yearlong project during which his students had designed and built their own eco-friendly house, funding the project themselves by getting local companies to donate supplies and teaching themselves how to plumb, wire and build.

The idea that kids could design and pull off a project of this scale was irresistible to me. I did a little research and found out that the student body across the three schools is diverse, with a little over 40% Latino/a, around 30% white, 10% African-American, 7% Asian, 5% Filipino and the rest a mix (each school has its own breakdown, but the populations are similar; these are approximate averages). Around 45% of the student body is classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged, quite a bit less than the LAUSD average of 80% or the student populations at Augustus Hawkins, Locke and Animo Leadership, where over 95% of students classify as socioeconomically disadvantaged.

In other words, by and large, High Tech High does not serve a high-poverty community—something that’s of interest to me as I wander around the acreage trying to find the main lobby of the sprawling campus. Would at-risk kids with lower confidence levels and reading comprehension skills be able to take on project-based learning? And how in the world, in this era of budget cuts, can the school afford friendly, welcoming Tour Coordinator Zoe Randall who, when I signed up for a one-hour student-led tour, sent me an email with a link to the weather in San Diego and a list of things to do while in town?

The High School campus is enormous, occupying acres of land in what appears to be an upper-middle-class neighborhood in San Diego. Three different high schools are housed in buildings spread across the property, with a grassy field in the middle; according to the website, High Tech High holds $57 million in real estate that was presumably given by private donors.  In the art-filled, sunny main lobby, I meet my student guide, Brian*, a gangly, genial white kid with braces, who’s in 11th grade and will show me and two other teachers on the tour anything in the school we want to see.

Brian is remarkably poised and at ease, chatting freely as we walk across the lawn. He’s just returned from a monthlong internship at a company, an integral part of the school’s academic program during which every junior is matched with a workplace mentor and must go to a job site every day and complete a real-world project instead of coming to school. Brian says he enjoyed the experience, though he seems happy to be back at school; all I can think is that an internship program, though it sounds incredible, is completely dependent on transportation, something that was always a huge issue for my students. If you don’t have a parent who can drive you every day, if your family doesn’t have a car, if you don’t live near public transportation or can’t afford metro fare, how can you access a program like this?

Though some of the school’s informational materials advertise “state-of-the-art specialty labs, seminar rooms, and individualized computer workstations” on a campus that is “crisscrossed with networking cables and decorated with framed works of art” and “has the entrepreneurial feel of a successful dot-com startup,” what I mainly see in classrooms is not very high-tech. Instead, in smallish classes, teachers have long class periods during which they allow students to structure their own learning to a large extent. Throughout the class period, kids wander from the classroom into a central lobby, one for each grade, stocked with computers and tables for collaboration. There, students work on projects individually or in groups, floating back into the classroom if they need the teacher’s guidance.

When I was teaching, I was dying to do project-based learning and tried as much of it as possible, but I struggled to keep my students on-task. I ask Brian what happens if kids don’t keep up. He tells me that if you fall behind, you get after-school tutoring and assistance—which is great, in my experience, as long as kids show up for it, which mine very often did not.

I’m struck by the level of maturity required to work in this way, something that educators call “self-monitoring.” Do kids develop it naturally when the whole school relies on it? Or is this school self-selecting, attracting families that have already prioritized maturity and independence and have the emotional and financial resources to support it?

I ask Brian who his favorite teacher is. He names his former math teacher, who was also his advisor for two years. What did he like about her? “She really got to know me,” he says.

“Why did that matter to you?”

“Because I could ask her for help if my classes were hard.”

“Couldn’t you ask anyone else for help? Why did it matter that she knew you so well?”

Because I wasn’t embarrassed to ask,” he says simply. “It’s really hard to ask for help.”

Ah, relationships! The dark secret of teaching! But wouldn’t it make sense, of course, that learning is a kind of vulnerability, the willingness to admit you don’t understand, and that a student needs to know and trust someone in order to be admit to being vulnerable?

What I come to love about High Tech High—and I do fall in love with the place, with its ease and friendliness and open doors, where I stay far longer than my allotted hour because they invite me afterwards to go anywhere and visit any class—is that beyond the miles of networking cables and fiberoptics and gazillion-dollar donations from local tech startups, what the school is really doing is prioritizing relationships.

I don’t know how they manage it funding-wise, but each teacher has only about 66 students total, giving teachers time to work closely with individual students and collaborate with each other. Giving teachers professional working conditions, with time to plan, think and learn from each other, seems to be a priority here. At the beginning of the school year, teachers return to spend two weeks of otherwise unscheduled time collaborating and planning, without top-down mandates about what or how they should be teaching. Instead of rubric-based evaluations, teachers are given a “4-2-Q” report by administrators: 4 “celebrations,” 2 critiques and one overall question.

“I know,” Zoe Randall says with a laugh when she sees my expression at the word “celebrations.” “We joke that we’re not really High Tech High. We’re really Low Tech Low. It’s all about relationships.” The words “autonomy,” “personalization,” “community” and “conversation” come up multiple times as we talk. The words “test scores,” “data” and “outcomes” do not ever come up.

Would a system like this work in a high-poverty community with higher-needs students? I don’t know—has anyone tried?

Would a relationship-based evaluation system like this work with corrupt administrators? I don’t know–would anything?

If schools are an ecosystem, how dependent is this fragile and lovely ecosystem on outside money and donations to make these relationships and working conditions possible?

What would it take to bring this kind of relationship-based, personalized learning to the students who need it most?

*as always, I have changed the names of students

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