This morning, I stopped by one of Oakland’s large, comprehensive middle schools to see what was happening there this year. If you’re not familiar with Westlake, it’s the one across from Whole Foods on Harrison Street, near Lake Merritt. About 600 students go there. Assistant Principal Peter Van Tassell (“VT,” to the kids), an Oakland public schools grad, showed me around.
During passing periods — when Van Tassell wasn’t greeting students by name, rushing stragglers to their next class or telling kids to throw out their gum — we talked about Westlake and about public education in Oakland. (He has some wild stories of OUSD in the 80s, along the lines of what Steve Weinberg described.)
Standardized testing aside, the practice of teaching has also changed quite a bit since either one of us was in school. First off, Westlake teachers are discouraged from lecturing too much and from requiring students to raise their hands before speaking. In the classrooms I observed, students looked busy and focused, often working independently. One teacher rolled the dice to determine who he’d call on to answer a question.
I also learned a couple of new buzz words. This year, in almost every classroom at Westlake (and, apparently, at other Oakland middle schools), each teacher will write a “learning target” on the board so that students know why they’re doing what they’re doing. Teachers are also trying to incorporate a method called “structured cooperative learning” — group work, but where everyone has a specific role instead of one person doing all the work and the others slacking off.
Westlake Principal Misha Karigaca said the focus of his middle school has shifted over the years. “The work is mostly about instruction now, it’s not about operations,” he said, adding that the same principle goes for staff meetings, too.
What practices have you seen or experienced at your middle schools? Are they working? Has yours moved away from hand-raising, as well?