“I’m giving them a point of focus but I’m not telling them what to think,” Wellington said. “My role is to make sure they are following through with a thought or an idea and not just jumping around. Once they hit on something they have to go deeper—and find support for their position from the text.”
The students keep track of how often each of them contributes to the conversation, setting goals both for themselves and for the class overall. For the most part, Wellington remains on the sidelines, although she occasionally stops the conversation for an in-class writing assignment to give quieter students an extra moment to collect their thoughts and consider what they want to say.
“When I have really strong student dominating the discussions, I’ll tell them privately to hang back a little,” Wellington said. “They all get feedback from me every time, after every discussion. That’s hard data for them, and they love it.”
There have been unexpected developments: When Wellington used a traditional multiple choice test to measure students’ grasp of the content at the end of a subject unit, many of them scored poorly on some of the basic facts of Thoreau’s biography. But their written responses to the essay portion of the test, asking them to explain and interpret transcendentalism, were a different kind of surprise. “They blew me out of the water,” Wellington said. “Their understanding was clearly deeper than just those facts.”
In an age when Google’s search engine is as close as a cell phone, “I would question whether a student knowing the year Thoreau died is really essential,” said Robert Rothman, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based organization focused on high school transformation. “If students didn’t know that he lived in the 19th century, that might be problem. If you’re going to talk about transcendentalism you need to know facts about it, and about the people who espoused it, to provide evidence for your conclusions.”
There are other education theorists who take this argument even further, insisting that there’s little need for much of the rote learning that takes place in public schools. However, “there’s a danger of going from one extreme to another,” Rothman said. “Just testing students on basic facts doesn’t help students develop those deeper understanding and learning. And just having them show they can communicate and write longer essays without some basis in knowledge isn’t going to help them, either.”
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Like many of the nation’s public schools, both large and small, Pittsfield must contend with a high-need student population and a post-recession struggle for adequate funding. Until recently, those challenges were exacerbated by a culture of low expectations for students, say Pittsfield teachers. In 2013, Pittsfield’s 11th graders had a proficiency rate of 61 percent for reading on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) exam; the statewide average for reading was 77 percent. In math, Pittsfield’s proficiency rate of 36 percent was the same as the state average, but that’s almost double the 19 percent that the school reported for the 2008-09 school year. Until 2011, Pittsfield had been on upward trend for several years, but during the past two school years, scores have fallen.