Varsity red-white and blue

There are many items of popular culture that depict US high school life. For me as it probably is for most people, it was through TV and movies. When I was a teenager in the 1990s, there was a glut of US high school flicks, from the silly and slapstick (American Pie), the egotistic and glamourous (Varsity Blues) to just plain quirky (Saved By The Bell).

So despite not feeling well over the weekend, managing a headache and sore-throat, I was still relieved and thrilled that I was invited to visit a US high school today. It’s actually been tricky to get permission from a state school but the Alexander Dawson School, being independent, there were less barriers to a visit. Dawson houses K-12 students (in British terms that’s reception all the way to upper-sixth form). It is continuing to grow; a new cafeteria is being built along with plans for an Innovation Center.

I sat in four classes: Environmental Sciences, Human Geography, Chemistry and Engineering. All what we would call ‘Sixth Form’ (Years 12 & 13). Other than the ‘labels’ these subjects are given, and the subjects that are on offer, there was little difference structurally to the way the students experience the day here. They still move from class to class, they still have periodic lessons…

But the most striking difference, was that there were no bells or sirens to signify the start or end of a period. Also, students can freely walk in and out of a classroom for a comfort break, can tap on their laptops, eat food. At the end of the 1st period all classes have a few minutes of reflection and mindfulness. This of course is just as much about the ethos of this school and the staff who teach here rather than a norm of US schools. Wymondham College, for example, also being an independent school instead have period-transition sirens, a school uniform, a strict etiquette about leaving class. In my school as it is in most, it is expected that teachers follow school-wide policy with these things. At Dawson there is a little more flexibility, but from the lessons I saw no-one was abusing that.

I was not the only visitor in a 11th grade (Year 12) Environmental Science class. Micha Rosenoer from Conservation Colorado gave a talk about her work and the importance of being an advocate for environmental causes. There are strong parallels between the UK and the US when it comes to the lack of political engagement or activism by young people. For me personally, it is very sad to see or hear when youngsters have the misconception that they either can’t do anything or don’t see the point in doing anything. Equally, I have met or read about some very inspiring young people who are living proof that the youth hope more power than they give themselves credit for. After all, students help run the Geography department back home!

Ann Carson’s 11th grade Environmental Science class.

Micha showed the class some very simple tools that can help them become advocates for conservation. Firstly the ‘Conservation Colorado Scorecard’. Clicking on either ‘Colorado House’ or ‘Colorado Senate’ you can get a score for each representative in the Colorado General Assembly regarding how often they voted for pro-environmental legislation. The scorecard webpage states: “Find out how your elected officials voted, and see how well their votes align with your conservation values. Then call or write to your legislators and let them know youโ€™re paying attention to their environmental scores!”. Much legislation, whichever way you may want it to pass, gets passed or rejected without much song or dance. This website attempts to keep this part of Colorado’s political process in the public eye.

A screenshot showing how a particular member of the Colorado General Assembly voted on environmental-related issues.

Playing ‘devils advocate’ here. Every single Republican in the Colorado house voted to not clarify a rule that states oil and gas exploration and extraction should not take place within 1000ft of school property (not allowed 1000ft from a building but doesn’t clarify about sports grounds and outdoor facilities). How many of those parents of school children who those politicians represent knew that their representative voted against clarifying this rule and knew that this vote was happening in the first place? Regardless of political persuasion, surely that isn’t very democratic?

Another tool from the Outdoor Industry Association shows how much outdoor recreation is worth to a state’s economy. This is Colorado’s, but you can change the drop-down box to see other states:


One of the projects that Conservation Colorado is working on is the Continental Divide wilderness plan. The issues involved here are almost identical in the UK about conflicting land use and stakeholders in UK National Parks and protected areas. Different stakeholders want different uses out of land. For Colorado Continental Divide, you too have conservationists, loggers/foresters, skiers, hikers, land owners etc.

Micha’s final message of advocacy was about how a group of influential Americans are teaming up with committed organisations and members of the public to represent the United States at COP23 in Bonn, Germany despite the official US Government’s commitment on pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement.

So while there was a clear pro-environmental theme to Micha’s talk, the idea was to promote advocacy, and the class’s teacher allowed the 11th graders to pick from a range of topics for their advocacy work.

The second lesson I sat in for part of the time was Human Geography. The theme was race and ethnicity – back home we’d teach this topic in Geography under the umbrella of other themes, say urban demographics or migration. So the lesson I saw would be closer to what might be taught in a Philosophy & Ethics, Citizenship or History class in the UK. I loved the way the classroom was furnished, and strongly recommend my esteemed colleagues back home such as Dan Keates to give this a go! ๐Ÿ™‚

The way Craig Angus has furnished his Human Geography/History/Social Studies classroom should be an example to others!

There was a fruitful, deep but positive debate about the concept of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’. So really good thoughtful comments and questions from the students included: “So at what point does my family stop being Mexican-White and just become White?”. My favourite bit was the message that race is just a construct. Even how the term ‘white’ is defined changes spatially and through history.

After lunch I joined a Chemistry class. I was invited to talk about the work that NOAA Boulder do in terms of the GMD’s monitoring of atmospheric chemistry. I showed pictures and video of the vertical profile flight and AirCore process, to show the research applications of those with a knowledge and understanding of Chemistry. Again I stressed the collaborative nature of the work, and that not everyone has to be a scientist to play their part – after all, even I helped a little!

I had a lot of fun observing the 11th grade Chemistry lesson. Teacher Kris Deardorff and her students had a wonderful dynamic and there was a lot of encouragement, humour and motivation in learning about sp hybridisation. I found it refreshing and interesting that students could just jump up from their seat without prompt, take a board pen and sketch out their understanding while Kris was talking. The students had a freedom and motivation to cut-in and try work out something they didn’t quite understand. At the end of the lesson, I asked a student if this was the norm for Dawson or just this class; he stated it’s common throughout the school, but (unsurprisingly to me) some classes and teachers it happens more naturally or often.

Students are free to jump-up and grab a board pen and draw/sketch on the wall to aid understanding. This to me was a very dynamic way of learning and contributed to a motivational atmosphere.

My final stop was to a Physics & Design (Engineering) class, which had a mixture of 11th and 12th grade students. Despite my throat killing me by this point, I was still able to give a talk about the AirCore, but this time from an engineering stand-point, and enough time was left for plenty of humour and banter! The students then went back to work on designing and building model bridges that must stand a weight test.

I believe I have already mentioned before that although I’m enjoying stepping out of the classroom and diversifying my experiences, both giving tours to school students at NOAA or visiting Dawson today I’m constantly reminded of how much I love engaging with young people and being a part of their learning journey. One student asked me what was different between British students and American students, and I replied by saying “the accent(!)”, but followed up that there is more in common then different. Which is young people, be-it in the USA, UK or other places I’ve experienced like Malawi, are amazing people to be around and work with when they are engaged. They are simply, the best part of the job.

I had a wonderful time at the Dawson School today. My only regret is that I wasn’t feeling 100%, so I couldn’t put in the full energy into displaying the teaching persona that I’ve become famous/infamous for back home!

Many thanks to Ann Carson, Steve Kerchner (Ann’s husband, a Maths teacher, who I had a lovely chat over lunch with – further delighted that he’s a soccer fan!), Craig Angus, Erik Nickerson and Kris Deardorff for making me very welcome and allowing me to engage with their students. Also thanks to the Dawson students, who would have at least got a kick out of my accent, if anything!


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