My experience at Phillips Exeter Academy

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To build upon my experiences this summer at the Exeter Mathematics Institute and to improve the newfound problem-based classroom, yesterday I paid a visit to the renowned Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire.

I observed six mathematics classrooms, had a private meeting with some students and had lunch with a few Exeter teachers. In between all of that, I also had some time to roam freely about the leafy campus, spending a good chunk of time at their library. I was on campus from 8am to 5pm.

I tend to process experiences pretty slowly. I say that because I know that I won’t be able to fully synthesize this visit for at least a few days — especially after I’m back in my own classroom. Nonetheless, I’m going to get out my immediate reactions with what else? Isolated bullet points whose main ideas are scattered and disorganized. Clearly, I still blog for myself.

  • This place is very old. Some of the classrooms looked like they hadn’t been renovated since the 1800’s (see photo above). The look and feel aren’t for everyone, but I found it charming.
  • The teachers were so welcoming. Each one mentioned my presence in the room and had every student introduce themselves. I shared the purpose of my visit and thanked them all for allowing me to share their space for the day. I got the vibe that they are accustomed to having visitors almost every day, but I still loved their transparency. One of the teachers valiantly tried all period to get my last name right until the moment I walked out of his classroom. It was a small thing, but I really appreciated that.
  • The students were highly motivated. I fully expected this. Maybe what I didn’t expect was how helpful and respectful they were. I got lost several times while on campus and each time I was politely helped and redirected. They also gave me some student-driven advice on how to encourage buy-in from my own students in this type of learning environment.
  • Most all of the students I spoke with came from a traditional learning setting and they all enthusiastically preferred the problem-based, discussion-based environment that Exeter has pioneered. Their families are also paying upwards of $50K a year for tuition, so yeah, there’s that.
  • In terms of instruction, I saw the same thing in every class. The period opens up with kids spending about 10 minutes putting up the homework problems (~7) on the boards around the room. For the rest of the period, the students present their own (or someone else’s) work and/or solution and the class discusses and draws conclusions. The onus was put on the students to push the lesson forward. This confirmed what I’m doing in my own classroom.
  • Every teacher spent a good amount of time sitting at the Harkness table with the students. I don’t have a Harkness table nor would I want one (give me couches and coffee tables instead), but actually sitting amongst the students during class has been a game changer for me.
  • With that said, just like in any class, there was some variation to how teachers enacted this structure. Some teachers assigned students to certain problems when they walked in by having their names on the board. In others, students openly chose their own problems. In some classrooms, students could not present their own work; they had to present someone else’s.
  • In a couple of the classes I visited, when the class got stuck, it felt like the teachers wanted to lecture — and sometimes they did…for like 15 minutes. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but this was surprising given the completely student-centric classroom that Exeter pushes.
  • This made me think about the problem sets. Every Exeter mathematics teacher uses them and they all did while I was there. If the need for direct instruction was as evident as I witnessed, are the problems scaffolded enough? How much flexibility do the teachers have when it comes to class time? Must it always be problems, problems, and more problems? Or can they filter in occasional days of enrichment based on the concepts learned from the problems?
  • Desmos was widely used in the class discussions around the problems. Most all of the classrooms had a slick setup with an Apple TV and Airplay where students could easily toggle between whose laptop/tablet screen was displaying on the projector. Other than that, there was no sign of using Desmos Activity Builder or any other structure to help maximize its obvious benefit. Maybe a problem requiring Activity Builder to answer it?
  • A few teachers used doc cams for student work. Nice.
  • I constantly saw kids taking photos of the boardwork with their phones. Since my kids can’t use their phones, this affirms why I now have a class iPad and a volunteer that snaps photos of the boardwork and emails it to everyone at the end of each class.
  • I only spent one day on campus, but if I’m honest, I felt a gulf between the teachers and students in the classrooms I visited. The focus at any given time (even at the onset of the period) was overwhelmingly on the standardized problems and less on the individual students in the classroom. Shouldn’t the problems be supplemented with other materials/resources for different classes based on the needs of the kids? Again, my sample size is incredibly small, so I may be way off.
  • From what I saw around campus, Exeter seems to be in touch with the revolution that is happening in our country right now around race, gender, sexual orientation, and other social issues. The library was exceptional on this front. At the same time, students of color were disappointingly scarce both on campus and in the classes I visited.

 

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My experiences at the Exeter Mathematics Institute

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For three and half days this week, I had the opportunity to participate in the Exeter Math Institute.

It took place at the Spence School, an illustrious independent school on the upper east side. I’ve visited the school on a few different occasions, and it always makes me gasp. From carpeted classrooms, busts of historic figures, marble staircases, and a grandfather clock in the welcome hall, in many ways it feels more like a museum than any school that I’m accustomed to.

Getting past my awe, I quickly learned on day 1 of the institute that this would be very different than any other professional development that I’ve experienced. The focus isn’t so much pedagogy or even math pedagogy. The facilitator, Gwenneth Coogan (who I later learned is a former Olympic athlete), was set to immerse us in a Harkness mathematics classroom for three-and-a-half days. Harkness is problem-based, so that meant that I was going to be doing a lot of math — which was actually the whole point of attending. I feel that I negatively impact my students by not mathematically challenging myself on a regular basis. Plus, I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews of the Exeter problem sets. (We worked on Mathematics 2.)

*Notes about Gwen: She had no slides. We used Desmos from time to time, but at no point did she even think about using a projector. This was refreshing as she moved us to be in the moment. Flow, anyone? Also, I found her to be incredibly personable and welcoming. Through all my struggles she provided a warm smile and wholehearted encouragement.

An unexpectedly pleasant aspect of the PD was the fact that I got to collaborate with both public and private math teachers. Rubbing shoulders with them, listening, and sharing stories was so helpful. I now wonder why more PD doesn’t cross over these public-private boundaries. Interestingly, despite Harkness being typically found in elite private schools with class sizes of 8-12 students, I learned from Gwen that Exeter’s goal is actually to develop Harkness in public schools (whose class sizes, to say the least, are not 8-12 students). With that said, there were only 8 of us at this EMI, an intimate little group. Admittedly, this helped the conversations get deep and stay deep. Call me crazy, but by the end of the institute, I thought of asking my principal if we could host an EMI at my school next summer. Why not?

Knowing very little about the Harkness method, being immersed in it taught me a lot about how it works and why it can be successful. Through independent exploration and group communication, students use problem solving to explore and learn mathematical concepts. The teacher isn’t the focus, as they’re just another person in the room who helps spur discussion. The mathematics and the interdependent nature of the class are everything. There are no prescribed notes or detailed lessons, just carefully planned problem strings that help unlock mathematical ideas for students. There is a sequence for the course (I think), but there are no units, per se. Concepts are interwoven into problems and uncovered by students little-by-little over the course of the school year. The result is unbelievably high levels of student ownership of learning. Experiencing it firsthand, it was truly liberating.

I do have a couple reservations. First, how the heck am I make work for a class of 34 students? Putting motivation aside (like, yeah), a rich class discussion is what truly makes Harkness thrive. Having high expectations is one thing, but to what extent can my 30 students have discussions at the same level of sophistication as a class of 12? I’m on board with PBL and Harkness, but that worries me. Second, selecting problem sets is critical in Harkness, and many Harkness teachers actually write their own. I may be the minority, but writing my own problems is not realistic — especially the type of problems that have a variety of solution pathways and generate real learning based on integrated mathematics. And thanks to the Common Core, I know that I can’t use the Exeter problem sets straight up. Lastly, I have a feeling that by shifting to a nonlinear problem-based approach (instead of unit-based, which is more linear), may throw my standards-based grading system for a whirl. What do I do???

Like much of anything we do as teachers do, much of my implementation of a Harkness- style of teaching and learning will rest on lots of tweaks and adjustments over time that will make it effective for students that I teach. I’ll start small and hope for the best. Geoff’s PBL curriculum might also be a big help.

A closing thought. In a Harkness classroom, there are boards all around the outside of the room. A powerful feature of the class — and one that captures the heart of what Harkness represents — is a message that Gwen relays to her students early and often: the boards are you for you, not me. In other words, the board space is used strictly for showing student thinking. It encourages students to be vulnerable, to get things wrong. I made progress in this area last year with VNPS — PBL and Harkness seem like a natural next step.

 

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