The Urban School of San Francisco
We’d Rather Do Things In More Depth
Students at most schools would shudder at the thought of a class that lasts for more than two hours; but at The Urban School of San Francisco, students have them every day and don’t mind a bit. “Our long classes work really well,” said one student. “You’re able to get a lot more involved and go deeper into what you learn.”
Urban’s schedule helps bring sanity to the high school experience. Picture the life of today’s high-achieving student: He or she attends as many as six or seven classes during a school day, participates in sports or other activities after school, then comes home for an evening of juggling homework from all the classes. No profession in the world – and no college anywhere – requires a comparable daily steeplechase through so many unrelated activities.
Urban School slows the frenetic pace. “Learning takes time. Students need to focus and concentrate rather than trying to keep a lot of academic balls in the air,” said Jonathan Howland, Urban’s Dean of Faculty. “We get into real depth with a few issues we know backwards and forwards,” said an 11th grader. “It makes classes less of a summary and more of an exploration.” Urban operates on a trimester system, which spreads classes across three terms rather than two. Students attend no more than four classes each day. In a typical week, each class meets three times for 70 minutes and once for 130 minutes.
“Our classes are not so much about the transfer of knowledge, but about students constructing knowledge for themselves.”
Ah yes, those two hour classes. Aren’t the students bored to tears? Not at all, because Urban’s classes look nothing like the usual 45-minute variety. “You don’t do one thing for 70 minutes,” said Howland, “You need at least two or three kinetic changes.” According to Suzanne Forrest, Urban’s Assistant Head for Academics, a well-taught class has distinct phases. Students need a few minutes to get settled into the new class, then a few more to begin focusing intently on the subject matter of the class. A history class might begin with a few minutes of introduction by the teacher, followed by small-group discussion of the previous night’s reading, then additional review of related primary sources, and finally a simulation in which students dramatize points of view expressed in the primary documents. A math class might begin with discussion of a brain-teaser, followed by teacher presentation of related new material, then student work with computer-based graphing to illustrate the concepts, and finally more discussion.
Students at Urban never get bored because control of the classroom inevitably shifts to them. “Good learning has to be a process of discovery,” said Head of School Mark Salkind. “Our classes are not so much about the transfer of knowledge, but about students constructing knowledge for themselves.”
A casual observer might imagine that if students are constructing the knowledge, life may be easier for the teachers. In fact, it is much harder. “Nothing exposes bad teaching like our schedule, said Howland, “It is a test of a teacher’s ability to codify and refine.” In a conventional classroom, the teacher presents one narrative that the students must absorb. In an Urban classroom, each student develops his or her own line of reasoning, in dialogue with the teacher, who must have the agility to guide students on multiple paths and respond to questions from every conceivable angle. Teachers must also be experts at managing time, using a full repertoire of methodologies, to maintain forward momentum during long blocks of time. Talking until the bell rings is not an option.
With so much depending on the work of its teachers, Urban is one of the few schools in the nation to designate time in the schedule for “purposeful collaboration” among the faculty. Each year, departments assign teachers to collaboration teams that work together throughout the year. “The problem with teaching alone is that you will probably make the same mistake this year as you made last year,” said Henri, Picciotto, math teacher and head of Urban’s Center for Innovative Teaching. During school breaks, the school makes additional funding available for collaborative work.
“One of the tragedies of the normal system is that sixth and seventh grade teachers make decisions that will shape their students’ entire academic careers. From what we know about adolescent development, that’s crazy,” said Picciotto.
Urban’s 130-minute periods allow for abundant learning opportunities outside the walls of the school. The class in Constitutional Law visits local courts once per week and takes students for meetings inside the judges’ chambers. The Comparative Religion class makes weekly visits to a broad spectrum of places of worship ranging from a Buddhist temple to a Catholic church. In response to a request from the city parks department, Urban’s Environmental Science class recently spent two weeks analyzing levels of nitrates, phosphates, dissolved metals, and other pollutants in one of the lakes in Golden Gate Park.
Though it is one of the nation’s most innovative high schools, Urban School has no interest in resting on its laurels. “We constantly re-examine our program,” said Forrest. “We have to be better than good. This is no place to be complacent.”
More information about The Urban School of San Francisco.