Spring, 2013
Prying Minds

Prying Minds

Prep teachers encourage inquiry

Often we think of the natural environment when we consider sustainability. But the most sustainable envirnment for learning is one that encourages asking—and answering—questions.

Patrick Ferry uses interrogating tactics when teaching his students to become inquisitive learners—but it’s not what you think.

Ferry’s students had read two-thirds of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness when he asked them to start coming up with questions about the classic novel. During his 11th grade AP English classes, Ferry had groups of students write, without filtering themselves,

as many questions as they could about the text. A week later, when the students had finished the book, they practiced the same exercise.

“The questions were much, much better,” Ferry says. “I think it changed the way they read the end of the book. It taught them to interrogate the text.” The questions students posed were then categorized, edited, and eventually used as prompts for take-home essays. And the results, Ferry says, were insightful.

“I think the exercise laid the groundwork for thoughtful response,” he says.

This style of teaching, known as inquiry-based learning, is just one method employed by Prep teachers that encourages students to be inquisitive and thoughtful lifelong learners.

Sarah Cooper, dean of faculty, says the method has been embraced by teachers in all departments, not just English.

“Inquiry-based teaching encourages students to ask questions that lead to research, knowledge, and understanding,” she says. “The idea is that you are giving students skills that they can apply to all areas and all disciplines.”

Scott Myers, English Department chair, has used the same exercise in his classroom for years, also finding that it teaches students to read in a more critical manner.

“We don’t tackle texts as bodies of information to be mastered, but as vehicles for critical thinking and analysis,” he says. “This experience casts the students in a different role. They’re not just reading as English consumers but as active participants in the literature.”

Students in Ferry’s class agree that the Heart of Darkness exercise forced them to think differently about their reading.

Kevin Cookman ‘14 says formulating questions midway through the novel made him more engaged as he finished the text.

“It wasn’t so much that I wanted to answer the questions, but more so that I wanted to see how the ideas we brought up progressed throughout the book,” he says. “I wanted to see how the author would use the themes we discussed to serve the plot.”

Robert Cartwright ’14 agrees.

“It’s helpful to talk about themes and to think about questions you might be answering,” he says. “It allows you to think about what you might write, make connections, and gather thoughts.”

Prying Minds

Flipped out

In the Math Department, Jo French is in the first year of testing what is known as a flipped classroom. French creates online lectures that students watch at home, following along as he explains terms, outlines principles, and solves problems.

During class, students complete what would typically be considered homework, but with the bonus that French is in the room, available to answer questions and explain concepts they may not have understood or embraced from the lecture.

On a recent Friday, French started his second period pre-calculus class by reviewing information from the previous night’s lecture on three-dimensional vectors. Students were engaged and alert—prepared when he called on them to fill in the blanks, but also ready with questions on areas that needed clarification. Students then paired off and began solving problems. French made his rounds though the room, answering questions and occasionally gathering everyone’s attention for a quick tutorial.

“It gives them more opportunity in class to ask questions,” French says, of the flipped classroom. “The lectures give them the framework, and then they have access to me for help when they’re actually applying what they learned.”

The lectures remain online as a resource for students when they’re studying for exams, which has been a great tool.

“Honors pre-calculus is pretty rapid,”he says. “When the pace overwhelms, they can easily go back and review.”

French recently presented on the teaching method at a Computer Using Educators national conference. He spoke to other teachers about the technique, as well as the lessons he has learned along the way.

At the end of the year, French will survey his students to get their feedback on the flipped classroom and will use their input as he moves forward with the experiment.

Prying Minds

Justice for all

For years, History Department Chair Christine Madsen has been holding court in her AP US Government class. After a semester learning the ins and outs of the legislative and executive branches, the two sections spend three weeks focusing on the justice system in a hands-on, student-directed, lab-style environment. The method: a mock trial.

“When I run into students I taught 10 years later, this is what they remember,” Madsen, who is an attorney, says.

Each year, Madsen selects five ambiguous criminal trials provided by the Constitutional Rights Foundation. This year there were three murder investigations, an arson case, and a trial for assault with a deadly weapon. Students in the classes form teams that serve as the prosecution and defense. Teachers and students are tapped to serve as witnesses and as members of the jury. Parents and alumni attorneys and judges volunteer to preside over the cases.

For three weeks, students work in teams—they pore over witness statements, form their defense and prosecution strategy, and study court terminology and rules, learning what they’re allowed to reveal, as well as to what they, and the opposition, are allowed to object. Madsen serves more as an advisor than as a teacher. The exercise encourages students to follow inquiry, interrogate the cases, and think for themselves.

“There are so many assignments that are about digestion and regurgitation,” Madsen says. “In the mock trial, the students are thinking about how they can take the information they’re given and persuade a judge or jury to take their side.”

On March 13, students filed into the Court of Appeals in Pasadena, eager to find out if their preparation paid off. Despite knowing the ins and outs of their cases, there are many variables.

In the first case of the day, the judge granted the defense team’s pretrial motion to exclude a piece of evidence, and the prosecution had to be prepared to change its strategy based on her ruling. Certain lines of questioning were ceased based on upheld objections, and the students had to act on their toes to make their cases within the confines of what the judge allowed.

“It’s a great experience for students,” Madsen says. “They never think about criminal law in the same way again. They leave the experience as more informed citizens.”

Kasey Constantino ’13 agrees.

“We cover a lot of court cases in class, but this introduced a whole new side,” she said. “We got to look at what goes into defense and prosecution, as opposed to just seeing what the judge ruled. This will stick with me.”

The Prep pedagogy is multifaceted—teachers are constantly working new projects, lectures, and activities into their repertoires to challenge and engage students.
French’s online lectures, the English Department’s embrace of inquiry-based teaching, and Madsen’s mock trial are just a few examples of the ingenuity teachers show in their classrooms daily.

“One of the best responses we can hear from students is that they think differently after taking our course,” Cooper says. “Asking students to be actively curious makes all of us, teachers and students, more engaged and inspired.”