Saturday, May 14, 2011
Days #145, 146, 147
Spent the last 2.5 days in Portland, Maine. The flight from BWI only lasted a bit over an hour, which I found surprising. I'd assumed for some reason that Maine was further away than that.
We were charged by the Big Cheese to fly to her hometown to visit King Middle School and to see what we could learn about methodology in order to get some next steps for next year. But more on that later.
Wednesday we arrived around 4:30pm. A quick stop at Hertz and we were driving around downtown in ten minutes. We had a free evening and wanted to make the most of it, having heard from the boss about how funky, hip, and beautiful Portland was.
Our first impressions weren't so hot. The downtown area was rather similar to Baltimore's Harbor before the late '70s rejuvenation projects. A few sad-looking bars and seafood joints poked out amongst warehouses, Quonset huts, and crumbling piers like grass through cracked concrete. We didn't see anything hip or funky, outside of some tatoo parlors and cute craft merchants. But we found a fine local brewery and had a pint, we walked around at dusk and noticed that it was spring and there were still tulips and daffodils and dogwoods abloom, and it was like Baltimore about 3 weeks ago before the moist vise of summer clamped down.
Then we found Wharf Street, an alley of old brick industrial buildings converted to restaurants and bars. Cinque Terre was a spectacular surprise, perhaps the best Italian meal I've had in a restaurant state-side. I knew at the time I'd regret not having the Chef's Tasting Menu, and I do. But the ravioli I did have was out of this world.
The next evening we found a lovely old church converted to a bar and named Grace. Their drinks were called Redemption, Forgiveness, Damnation--and they featured a burly white man on acoustic guitar who did amazing versions of Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and Sam Cooke. We sat getting stewed and watching the late evening sun through glimmer through 19th-century stained glass.
Now let's discuss King Middle School. They're an Expeditionary Learning School, which is the pedagogical model used at my charter. They're an urban school in a lillywhite state with a substantial minority and immigrant population which out-performs the state and district on standardized tests. They held a Site Seminar this week and 130 teachers from around the country came in to see what they're all about. I was able to wander in and out of classrooms at will and speak to kids and teachers, to watch, to take video and notes. They had a wide selection of seminars and PD sessions, and the four of us split up to attend a variety in order to take back as much knowledge as possible.
King's a pretty amazing place. They'd taken over the local Convention Center to set up exhibitions of student work, and kids manned the entire event. As soon as I walked up to a display a middle schooler would approach and docent-like explain the process, the learning, the skills, the products. There were no teachers at the Convention Center who weren't out-of-town visitors. They kids ran the show. They'd made their elaborate video presentations, they'd arranged and recorded the music, and they'd created and arranged the content on the websites.
In a couple days packed with cool stuff, my favorite part was hanging out with the English Language Learners in class. I'd met a couple kids at the Convention Center who were recent immigrants from Somalia and Iraq--kids who had no English a year ago, but who were now able to explain their elaborate projects to me. I was amazed by their excitement and energy and so when we broked on Day 2 to see classrooms in action I headed straight to the classes where kids who had limited English were brought up to speed before mainstreaming into the school population.
Portland is a refugee center, and many families granted asylum end up there. Kids were a year ago hiding from murderous gangs in Sudan were learning the life cycle of frogs with new friends from Pakistan or Eastern Europe or Bangladesh. King works to get them proficient in English as quickly as possible by putting them in two levels of ESOL instruction. They are tutored by other students and when they are mainstreamed they are welcomed into an exceptional school culture where fistfights and negativity are unheard of. My school has a pretty amazing culture, especially considering its location in Murdertown--but we are nowhere near King. And at King 33 languages are spoken, and kids roam around in Muslim or African or Indian clothes, including elaborate head-scarves, high-fiving each other and sharing algebra notes.
I highly recommend this video, which shows what king is all about, and which gives you an idea how Expeditionary Learning works. I had the great fortune to see this presentation live on Thursday, and its very powerful.