There is hubris in imagining that just because we developed a program that would lead to enhanced student learning that it should happen. But we did do our best to identify a problem, recruit faculty and students, present funding opportunities, and further the school mission in the areas of Judaic integration, integrity, and personalized learning.
Integrated English 11/Media Arts: A Failed Attempt to Institute a Progressive Educational Program into a College Preparatory High School
The Integrated English 11/Media Arts course was developed in the 2016-17 school year by Media Arts teacher Roger Blonder, and English teacher Tony Soltis, in an attempt to enhance the development of critical thinking and creative synthesis abilities in our students.
De Toledo High School in Northwestern Los Angeles is a private Jewish school, serving just over 400 students. Since 2001, we have attempted to infuse Jewish values into a curriculum that emphasizes taking each student as individuals, or as we say, “one mind at a time.”
We attempted to integrate two classes: English 11 and an advanced media arts class. The goal was to revamp the at-level English 11 curriculum toward meeting more rhetorical goals. We wanted our students to be stronger at discerning rhetoric not only on the page, but in media. We wanted our students to be able to form arguments that went beyond the traditional essay to an expression of modern media. Connecting reading, writing and critical thinking in an English class with creative expression in Media Arts would both enhance the learning in English and create a sense of accountability in the Media Class.
A desire to enhance the creation of meaningful media in the arts classes had come from immersion in Bloom’s taxonomy: in order to succeed at the highest levels of synthesis and creation, students need to first develop their ability to see. Most teenagers with cell phone cameras and social media software do not naturally focus on thoughtful creations. They need to be inspired, to discover their voice and interests, to learn how to be better thinkers, readers, writers and creators.
THE INITIAL CONCEPT: A PROGRESSIVE TRACK WITHIN A TRADITIONAL SCHOOL
The integrated class was born out of a broad-based effort initiated by Blonder to establish de Toledo Academies, a progressive “school within a school” that devoted half the day to a cohort of selected students and dedicated teachers in specialized academy tracks. Inspired by advisory based models of progressive education, the writings of John Dewey, and N.F.S. Grundtvig’s School for Life, Blonder recognized that any meaningful evolution to the educational program would require a block schedule which allowed for class periods longer than 50 minutes and the possibility for team teaching and program development.. He proposed a change to the school’s “grid schedule” that would allow the rest of the school to continue operating traditionally while simultaneously creating “blocks of possibility” (clearly illustrated within the attached de Toledo Academies pdf) As the proposed schedule did not interfere with traditional school operations and incurred no expense, it was approved by the administration. With the new schedule in place, Blonder, Soltis, and the directors of our theatre, Jewish Life and blended-learning programs pitched a pilot program that would integrate Theater, English, Judaic Studies and History into a Theater Arts Academy. Theatre was selected because theatre students comprise a pre-existing affinity group with a candidate pool of students in all grades. The dedication and time commitment required by the theater students participating in productions often creates time conflicts with the rigorous demands of academic classes. Our program would solve that problem by bringing passionate and dedicated English, Judaic Studies and History faculty with an appreciation of the demands of theatre into the mix. The academy would be comprised of 4 teachers, 4 class periods, and 15-30 students in all grades and levels. As the teachers would work as a team, they could devise a flexible curriculum which would accommodate both grade level classes as well as allow for the cohort to gather together, go on overnights and have meaningful blocks of time to work on creative projects. In addition, many theatre students at our school come from wealthy families who have supported the school which translates into compelling fundraising/naming opportunities.
This program was designed to address all of the educational categories that the Kohelet Prize recognizes as foundational to progressive education: Interdisciplinary education (Judaic Studies, English, History and Arts), differentiated learning (multi grade, multi level), Real World Learning (based on the Studio Schools model integrating Theater Arts and Design and real world collaboration), Learning Environment (hands-on work in the theater and stagecraft integrated with academic instruction), and the overarching goal to develop both critical analysis, evaluation, and creative synthesis at the highest level of Bloom’s revised taxonomy through grounded academic coursework which would bear creative fruits in the arts.
Our Head of School was enthusiastic and gave a tentative green light to the program, tasking our principal to oversee its development with us and the affiliated faculty and department chairs. During our first meeting meeting, it was decided that the scope and scale of the program should be reduced in favor of in incrementalist approach incorporating only three periods instead of four. After lengthy meetings and discussions, that number was further reduced to two due to concerns about funding (without ever exploring the opportunity the program presented to raise funds), and the challenge of balancing faculty scheduling between the commitment of the program and other school teaching responsibilities . It was agreed that the following school year (2016-17) we could run a trial with Media Arts and English as the core classes (as we were the key architects of the vision) to demonstrate the effectiveness of the progressive model in our institution.
We insisted that the sine qua non to succeed was for our being unscheduled during the other’s assigned teaching period. Although neither of us expected to be paid for the extra time commitment, we strongly wanted to be present for team teaching in each other’s classes as this would provide us with the ability to help the students understand a wider nexus of connection, so vital to progressive education. We made it clear that if both of us being free was too hard to schedule, it was essential that at least one of us be able to attend the other’s class.
However, in the summer, a few weeks before classes began, we learned that due to scheduling conflicts, neither of us would be able to team teach in the other’s class. As our summer planning was designed around creating an adaptive curriculum which would depend on a deep, experiential and participatory awareness of what each other was doing with our shared group of students, we had to change course in an attempt to align, if not thoroughly integrate our efforts.
The second most important factor we realized would be the students themselves. We needed at least nine (according to the administration) to make the class financially viable. This felt arbitrary as there are a dozen or more classes offered each year at our school with less than this.
We were limited to the students who, as sophomores, had taken Media Arts 1, were not in honors or AP English, and were willing to take an additional elective that would fit into their dual curriculum schedules. If this pilot were to serve as a model it would not be reliably replicable in future years as the number of 11th grade Media Arts 2 at our school typically ranges from 3-8.
Consequently, seriously interested students were not permitted to take the class. For some, this was due to scheduling conflicts (honors and AP classes only offered one period of the day constrain schedules frequently at our school). Others were not admitted because they were Seniors and it was decided that the English class could only be open to Juniors. We had to admit students who would normally have not been admitted to Media Arts 2: one student had never taken the requisite Media Arts 1 course plus two former Media Arts 1 students would not under normal circumstances be approved due to a lack of seriousness displayed in the foundational class. We risked their admission to the class to at least have the chance to show what we believed was possible.
Despite our two primary concerns not being met, we went ahead with the class, fully cognizant that the initial risks we were taking had increased to the point that in all probability we were not going to reach our goals.
THE CLASS: PLANNING AND INTENTIONS
Our class conspicuously held Dewey’s view of education: students are social beings who need to be motivated to participate as individuals “in the social consciousness of the race.” We saw motivation, as Dewey does, to be primary in learning, particularly when it comes to mastering skills such as analytic reasoning, complex problem solving, and teamwork. This meant that we needed to know who our students were as individuals. It also meant we needed to show them that their progress as learners was completely up to them. We as their teachers could facilitate that learning, but as with anything they had already learned to do well, knowledge, thinking and understanding comes from willful choice.
Based on their past experiences, our students already believed they had certain limitations, primarily as readers and writers, and English was never any of their favorite class, since we all tend to like that which we are good at, not the things we struggle at. But without hesitation, we both know that the most successful classroom is one that is student-led – where the students ask and answer the questions, where the students find real-world practical application for the problems worth solving, where a culture of critique prevails and everyone’s progress is everyone’s goal.
We divided the year into four thematic units, Economics, Environment, Education, and Satire. In the English class, each unit involved multiple reading and writing assignments, most of which were non-fiction. Students were taught rhetorical analysis skills in the beginning of the year and continued throughout the year to apply that thinking in everything we read, guided by the presumption that all sources are suspect in that there is always an agenda. The writing varied from informal journaling to recursive research papers. Additionally, a primary weakness for these students was their limited knowledge of vocabulary. Although they were already enrolled in a school-wide online vocabulary program, Membean, we added on a weekly etymology study so that they began to understand Latin and Greek roots.
The Media Class aligned with the thematic units: We set out to design currency for the Economics unit, create Public Service Announcements for the Environment unit, a self-reflective documentary for Education and satirical media pieces for Satire.
THE CLASS: PROCESS AND OUTCOMES
We were experimental. For example, taking advantage of our soft Southern California autumn weather, we held all of our classes outside in the second quarter in which we studied Environment. Students wrote of their initial expectations, they wrote about halfway through the quarter of how they felt meeting outside, and then again at the end of the quarter. Overall, they concluded that holding classes outside increased their focus despite their expected distractions.
It was also in this unit that two of our students worked together to make a PSA regarding trash at our school. Perhaps in the big scheme, this might seem a small problem, but our administrators were not succeeding in persuading students to pick up after themselves. The PSA that two of our students wrote and produced took a comedic approach and it was shown to the entire school at a Town Hall meeting. We expected students to enjoy the comedy, but in the following weeks we saw a dramatic decrease in trash on campus and even heard students ironically calling back the video as they used the trash bins. But even more important, it was the first time for either of these two students to have made a school-wide positive impact. This increase of trust in their beliefs about their own potential cannot be overstated enough.
We were student-led. Rather than having quizzes follow reading assignments, students rotated leading class discussion of the selection, focusing on both content and rhetoric. Students asked and answered questions, and the role of the teacher became that of observer who gave feedback — not points — at the end of class. For some of the students, this individual responsibility was new to them. In past classes, they could often get by not reading the assigned material but rather rely on web summary sources like Sparknotes. We wanted students to claim their individuality with reading. This was the argument: if you were assigned to write an essay on what it is like to kiss someone you love on New Year’s Eve at midnight at the Eiffel Tower, it would be much easier to look up videos online rather than flying to France yourself and experiencing your own feelings. In the frame of one’s all too short life, the former would be useless, the latter possibly life-changing. Reading — all experience — is no different.
However, students needed to also understand that their opinion on the reading needed to be based on their reflections. It is not enough simply to react. Thinking is absorption and reflection. They needed to learn how to listen to each other and incorporate others’ reactions into a synthesis with their own. This was a learning process, accomplished through modeling and continuous feedback, giving approbation to the thinking that reflected synthesis as well as analysis — and particularly, creativity.
The most important aspect of the class often had to do with motivation. Convincing the students that their growth as thinkers was important not only to themselves but to our world is not a one-time argument. Over and over, often after a disappointment, students would return to their earlier conceptions of themselves as students, stuck in negative self-messaging somewhere between not being good at school to not being capable of affecting real change in the world. This calls to mind the repeated refrain from Kohelet, “hevel u’reut ruach – all is vanity and a chasing after the wind”. We sought to counter the sense of vanity by emphasizing individual greatness in a variety of ways. The goal was to show them that if they were mindful of any project they took on, their personal investment would energize the project in a way that exceeds typical educational standards. We sought to elevate and sanctify the interpretation of “hevel u’reut ruach”:
Hevel = vapor, breath
U’reut = striving, longing
Ruach = wind or spirit or breath of life
So an alternative translation could be something like “all is breath and a longing for the spirit” or “all is vapor and a striving for the breath of life.” We all have the breath of the Divine within us. It is our task to strive for it that it may fill us with the spirit of life. To utilize that specialness is what ultimately will lead to a meaningful life. This was a new paradigm to them, as they, like most students, bought into “you go to school to get good grades to get to a good college to get a good job so you can buy lots of stuff.” We wanted to lead students to a scaffold of educational success and faith in themselves so that they would be motivated to invest in analytical thinking in order to make creative projects that addressed real world problems.
As expected when we set out on the compromised journey, we enjoyed (and suffered) mixed results. Motivated students with strong interest in the course and its goals made connections and created compelling projects whereas those students who did not meet the prerequisite or only took the class because it sounded like fun, failed to engage deeply on the analytical, evaluative and creative fronts.
In the absence of a team taught/block scheduled class, students fell into their expected habits of compartmentalizing their education in English and their experience in Media Arts. Students have been conditioned to expect an English class to involve reading, writing, discussion, critical thinking, analytical writing, vocabulary tests, essays and the occasional poster-board, PowerPoint, or video which they usually throw together without much appreciation or understanding of design thinking, process or aesthetics. It isn’t the role of the English teacher to spend class time on typography, composition, timing, editing, the relationship between sound and image or other foundations of design. Students in a typical arts class have been conditioned to look forward to a break in the academic day for creative exploration and play. Given the rigors of the college-prep curriculum and the perceived and assumed priorities of parents for their children’s’ education, it is an uphill battle with the souls of overburdened and often sleep deprived students to make the “elective” (read “optional”) class more “academic.” The intention of the joint class was to bring deeper exploration and creative play into English and deeper critical analytical thinking to the process of design and creation. We submitted to the risk/failed category in Critical and/or Creative Thinking because addressing this imbalance was our top priority.
Even though our students knew that the projects assigned for Soltis’ class were also assigned for Blonder’s’ class, without the ability to integrate, schedule and scaffold projects in a shared time and space, the students would show up to English with their English heads on and to Media Arts with their arts heads on. We did our best to keep the classes aligned through discussion and sharing plans and resources, but the end result was more like two musicians playing in different times and spaces than two musicians jamming in the same room. Recording the separate tracks and putting them together into a song might be experimental and interesting, but it’s not something most people would want to listen to.
THE LESSONS LEARNED
- To build progressive educational programs into a traditional academic environment requires the full buy-in by the school administration, academic department chairs, the person programming student schedules, and college guidance counselors. The administration must be willing to back the program, which might mean an investment for the sake of proving the value of the program to potential funders. Simply put, the administration must value Progressive Education. Our risks were compounded by the lack of administrative support both before the class began and at the end. Not one department chair nor administrator asked for any kind of feedback or reflection on the class. The only word we heard was that only three students were taking Media Arts 2 the following year (which was both predictable and shared with the administration prior to running the diminished pilot) and therefore, to quote the Arts Department Chair regarding the integrated class, “that ship has sailed.”
- Educators seeking to innovate and integrate need to answer these questions:
- Is it possible to create deep and meaningful progressive education in a school which defines itself as a rigorous college prep school and has a schedule which is built around AP and honors classes?
- Are there ways to build an integrated program which continues moving on the reading/writing/thinking which remaining aligned while creative production in the arts continues and is refined on material that was learned and discussed earlier in the year?
- But is this question made moot by the former foundational questions about the educational vision of the school?
- To some degree, choice over the students admitted to a pilot program is essential. If it is clear to educators that certain students will be disruptive or not contribute meaningfully to new programs in development, we now question the obligation to admit them anyway — especially if the school markets the promise of the innovative program to parents who are seeking an enlightened program for their alternative/eclectic/creative/brilliant or challenged students who require differentiated learning approaches. On the other hand, schools that tout a wonderful new program to prospective students might be remiss in not attributing the success not to the program if it is only a small cherry-picked group of motivated students and passionate educators
- The reality is that the class was truly successful on many fronts. Several students have stated that it was the best class of their high school lives. Three of the students became enthused about their own learning and this year are succeeding in higher level English classes (honors) and at least two are considering the study of Media Arts in college. They claim our class enlightened them to their own potential and their current academic thriving seems to be good evidence. Another encouraging sign is that one of the books we read, Candide, was put on this year by the Los Angeles Opera Company, and these same three students attended. This is pleasantly surprising: three high school boys going to the opera to see a book they read and enjoyed.
Perhaps it was audacious to try to create a school within a school on this scale. Perhaps whatever was lacking in our educational attempt with regard to critical analysis, deeper thinking, evaluation and synthesis in the creation of meaningful media is less important than the lessons learned which may lead to a more refined approach.
There is arguably tremendous hubris in imagining that just because we conceived, developed and proposed a program that would lead to enhanced student learning and experience at the highest levels that it should happen. But we did do our best to cover the bases in the areas of identifying a problem, recruiting faculty and students, presenting fundraising opportunities, and furthering the school mission in the areas of Judaic integration, character integrity, and personalizing passion based learning.
One positive remnant from the failed attempt is that this year our school has allowed for an integrated English 12 honors class with a Theater class. While this is positive, it is far from the aspiration of a fully integrated Academic/Judaic/Creative academy. The class is fun, the students enjoy it, but we do not have team-teaching nor a progressive education agenda.
Additionally, this year, the administration switched the revised grid schedule back to its previous arrangement on the grounds that the unutilized “blocks of possibility” version scheduled the same class during the first period of the day multiple times during the week. Varying first periods held a higher priority than keeping the blocks which could have supported multi-faceted programs in an academy structure. Blonder was not notified of the change before it was implemented. The feeling evoked by this action as well as the other failures experienced once again call to mind Kohelet and “hevel u’reut ruach.” Sometimes it can feel as if efforts like ours are nothing more than a vain pursuit of the wind, a waste of breath. But considering the impact the class had on the handful of students who made the most of it, the fact that there just might be less trash on our school campus because of their effort, and the lessons learned which will help to shape future endeavors, it is within our power to interpret the phrase as an expression of value. Although our efforts have dissipated like a breath, our striving towards the spirit of life, our words and our actions were not wasted. This is the lesson we hoped to instill in our students and it is the lesson that we must strive to assimilate as well.
We can’t hold on to the world; it is dissolving into thin air around us. As are we. It is vanity to think otherwise. Yet we strive for, we chase, we long for, we pursue an ephemeral spirit within. Like the wind which animates our world, we yearn to understand.
Roger Blonder, MFA, is the Director of Media Arts at de Toledo High School. An entrepreneurial educator, writer and media artist, Blonder’s creative productions have been exhibited in over 50 international film and media festivals and been honored with many awards. Blonder received his MFA from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Digital Media. Prior to joining the faculty of dTHS, he taught animation at Art Center College of Design, and Loyola Marymount University.
Tony Soltis, in his 12th year of Jewish Education, teaches English. In addition to serving as the school's Writer Coordinator, he also reads for the AP Language and Composition examination each summer. Soltis, a former television writer with Emmy and Humanitas nominations, teaches screenwriting adjunct at The Art Institute of California - Hollywood and State College of California at Irvine.