History teacher Bruce Baird lectures about the Muslim calendar with a microphone attached to his shirt. His lecture was supposed to be recorded and transcribed for students. The unsuccessful idea, hampered by technological issues, was in response to the sophomore parents' criticism of Baird's lecture-based curriculum.

Sophomore parents raise concerns about classes; agenda outlines issues with curriculum, questions teachers’ methods

Adam Ketchum
History teacher Bruce Baird lectures about the Muslim calendar with a microphone attached to his shirt. His lecture was supposed to be recorded and transcribed for students. The unsuccessful idea, hampered by technological issues, was in response to the sophomore parents’ criticism of Baird’s lecture-based curriculum.

In January, a meeting was held to introduce new high-school counselor Pat Reynolds to the sophomore parents. But the meeting took a turn, and instead parental concerns regarding the sophomore curriculum were brought up.

The concerns of a group of parents were compiled in a Parent Agenda, which revolved around this theme: Some teachers aren’t teaching in a way that all students can learn, and some don’t seem to be prepared for class.

The sophomore parents involved in the group declined to comment for this story.

The points in the Agenda included the following, not necessarily presented in order.

The parents stipulated that students’ grades need to reflect their achievements and failures, not failures of teaching.

“There is an energy of inciting fear and failure amongst some teachers,” they wrote.

To solve this problem, the parents presented a list of requests, many of which related to teacher Bruce Baird’s World Cultures class.

One request was for a “concrete” and “thorough” study guide in the class.

Baird noted that he hands out an outline at the beginning of each unit.

Students can take notes directly on the outline, in a separate notebook or on an online copy of the outline.

“As you listen in class, you’re building frameworks for connections between things,” Baird said. “The outline is logically organized  to help the students develop those frameworks.”

He emphasized that his teaching style is similar to the style he used when he taught at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

“I talk about the same kind of things that I would talk (about) with college freshmen,” he said.

However, Baird also said he “slows it way down,” giving students the outlines and providing  them with a list of possible short-answer questions that will appear on the test.

The Parents’ Agenda also questioned Baird’s multiple-choice questions on tests.

Baird said that these questions are a way to test students’ knowledge more objectively.

Unquestionably, students have found the multiple-choice questions challenging in the past, but many have learned how to succeed every year, he said.

For example, Robbie Lemons, ‘10, originally struggled with the multiple-choice questions but, according to Baird, eventually mastered them.

Baird said Lemons realized that he needed to put in more effort to get A’s.

“He just put his nose to the grindstone, didn’t take anything for granted,” Baird said.

One parent said that some students have problems taking notes in Baird’s class and others have problems getting the notes if they’re absent.

When it comes to note taking, Baird said he hasn’t had to instruct sophomores in the past.

“Students seem to come in here knowing how to take notes,” he said. “I don’t think 10th grade is the place where I’m going to teach them how to take notes.”

Baird said he’s always explained that notes are mnemonic devices there to jog students’ memories about what was talked about in class on a certain day.

“These are skills that are useful for preparing kids to do well in college: how to succeed in college, how to struggle, what to do to overcome challenges,” he said.

Baird said he hasn’t adapted his classroom style in response to the parental concerns.

“I refuse to change anything until someone can give me a very good reason, a pedagogical reason,” he said.

“I also don’t think it’s ethical to change a course midstream in response to unreasonable demands that would end up punishing the students who are doing all the right things.”

However, Baird and Brooke Wells, head of high school, have now designated a sophomore note taker in the World Cultures class, who photocopies her notes in return for community-service credit.

Traditionally, Baird said, official note takers have been implemented for students whose Individual Educational Programs (IEPs) dictate a need for that.

“Now it is also for students who are absent, which is not something we’ve done in the past,” he said.

Another idea was to record Baird’s class every day.

Baird tried using a Dragon microphone to transcribe his lecture. This was in place for only a day, as the program works when only one voice is talking, and the transcribed result was garbled, Wells said.

Four students have withdrawn from Baird’s class and are now taking an online World Cultures course.

Another point in the Agenda was that teachers are not teaching students how to stay organized in preparation for college and need to hold students accountable every day.

In Patricia Jacobsen’s math classes, the parents asked for daily graded homework and a practice test to prepare for the winter final.

Jacobsen said when she first started teaching, she had a traditional homework approach, where she would teach the material and assign the homework daily.

But she’s been experimenting with different homework methods.

“I’m always willing to try new things,” she said, including an optional homework policy.

“The kids who really want to do the homework and really learn it are going to do their homework regardless if I assign it,” she said.

Jacobsen said she thought the policy had been working really well.

“And that was proven by really good assessment scores and in-class participation,” she said.

Then the first week after Winter Break, Jacobsen distributed packets with hundreds of review questions with attached answer keys.

“The kids were super excited about the worksheets,” Jacobsen said. “So it hit me: kids are always excited about doing worksheets.”

So she made another homework change, although it was not connected to the recent parent requests, she said.

Each week, she hands out three to four packets that are collected on Monday. The answers to odd-numbered problems are included. Jacobsen checks the even problems when she grades the packets.

In response to the request for a practice test before the final, Jacobsen said she has always distributed old finals with answer keys and often hands out old exams as well.

“When students take the time to engage in the course fully,” she said, “they recognize problems from the test as the same problems we did in class, which are the same problems they find in their homework, and the same problems on the quizzes.”

When it comes to teacher support, if a student’s performance dips, Jacobsen said she becomes alarmed.

But “if a student is satisfied with a B in the course, it’s not my place to tell that student that that’s not okay,” she said.

Jacobsen said she tells her students that she’s available for help during her free period, one or both electives (depending on the trimester) and usually at lunch and after school until 4:30.

After school, “I’m always just sitting here by myself,” Jacobsen said. “That indicates to me that either (the students) have it and they don’t need help or they’re satisfied with where they are.

In Patricia Fels’s English class, the parents asked Wells to review a test to see if he thought four days was enough study time.

Fels said she was surprised there was a problem with the allotted study time. In past years, she said, there has been one day of in-class review and two nights to study. This year, there were two in-class review days and four nights to study.

Another Agenda point related to the Sophomore Project, which the parents said needed more “written guidelines” and deadlines.

Fels, who is in charge of the research section of the project, said she felt their critique was justified.

“The reason it’s not as clear as it’s been is that I have revised the requirements this year,” she said.

While she said she thinks the students understand what’s expected of them for the project now, she said she still needs to establish some absolute deadlines.

Two other parent requests were for weekly advisor meetings to “guide kids on time management with their unique obligations” and bi-monthly parent meetings “to regain confidence and give real-time feedback.”

Student reaction to these demands was immediate. In fact, the junior and senior classes organized documents to voice their opinions.

“I felt that it was our job as the students and seniors who have been here forever to let the administration know how we felt about what was happening,” senior Emma Brown said.

So she created a Google document to share with the seniors.

Brown said that most of the seniors’ comments praised the teachers and the school’s academic rigor.

Brown and senior Jenny Kerbs assured the document was appropriate and accurate. Then they submitted the document to Wells.

Brown said she thinks creating the document brought the senior class together. “A lot of students were supportive of the document, and that made me really happy,” she said.

The junior class responded similarly.

Junior Isabelle Leavy said the juniors were worried that in the conversation from student to parent to teacher to administrator, some things were being missed.

“(I thought) this would be a good way to put ourselves forward and make it very clear to faculty and administration that we know what we’re talking about, that we’re intelligent people and (that) we are a part of this school and we want to contribute to it,” Leavy said.

The juniors also sent their document to Wells, who Leavy said was receptive to the students’ point of view.

“That makes me feel very good about the future of this school and the way that this issue is being handled,” she said.

“Whenever we have concerns expressed by parents, we always take them seriously,” headmaster Stephen Repsher said. “We look to see what we can do to improve the situation, to ameliorate any problems that we see and to help students and teachers to work together more effectively.”

—By Zoë Bowlus

(The Sacramento Country Day school administration has stipulated that all comments on this story be removed.)

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