A look inside our classrooms

This week’s post is from our new Academic Dean, KaTrina Wentzel. She hasn’t been on campus six months, and yet she’s integrated into the community with ease. I’m thankful for her work and her ability to bring a new set of eyes to our work as we continue to find ways to push educational boundaries and reflect on our own best practices. Enjoy.—Travis

KaTrinaWentzel_smallWhen I arrived in July, I was overcome by a feeling of belonging as I read through the school materials and found statements about Marin Academy that reflected everything I believe about teaching and learning: many voices and perspectives are welcomed and encouraged; high school should be joyful; students are the center of their education. As I thought about my first year of learning and being at MA, I wanted my classroom visits to be focused and purposeful. So I decided that each month, as I visit classes, I would do so with a lens taken from statements or phrases I found woven in the school materials. And recognizing that my gift of being able to get into classrooms isn’t one that everyone has, I also wanted to share my thoughts in order to celebrate and acknowledge the amazing everyday classroom life of MA.

For September, I focused on two aspects:

  • Education should push the boundaries of what is known today.

  • What good is learning without reflection?

Here’s what “pushing boundaries of what is known today” looks like. It looks like Bill Meyer asking Hidden History students to read passages of U.S. history textbooks and study guides in search of the implicit and explicit messages we are receiving from “official stories”—then discussing and questioning them. What do they tell us about the Confederate flag? What don’t they tell us? How do they approach race? Why? It looks like Bob Schleeter and Chris Detrick asking American Roots students how they could push themselves in their practice. Could they make their instruments more accessible? Make their practice space more inviting? Change their routine in some way? How could they make it better this week? It looks like Stori Oates and Liz Gottlieb preparing APES students for a project-based learning experience where learners, in preparation for a Conference of Democracy debate, began to tackle different roles that included reaching out to experts, researching, and making conclusions around a question that has brought much controversy: Should a stricter Stream Conservation Area ordinance be established in West Marin to protect the endangered coho salmon population? It looks like David LeCount purposefully leaving the classroom after putting up an intentional mistake on the board, leaving Honors Geometry ninth graders flummoxed as they tried to figure out what to do with a problem that didn’t quite work. In English III, it looks like J O’Malley returning to a text that students thought they had moved beyond—an excerpt from Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind—to see it in a new light as they were reading The Scarlet Letter. I swear it’s not just because I’m an English teacher that their “aha” moment (when students connected ideas of reason and thought versus passion to both Wilderness and The Scarlet Letter) brought a huge involuntary smile to my face. It happened in all of these classes. Seeing how students are challenged to take in difficult information but then are pushed to see it in new ways and take it in new directions—that’s pushing boundaries. And to me, that’s rigor.

As for my second lens this month, I’ve learned that learning tied to reflection is rampant at MA. In Nicole Klaymoon’s Hip Hop class, students started by reflecting on their practice, acknowledging a part of their growth they are proud of while also thinking about a specific way in which they wanted to grow. Some thought about moves they could do slowly, but not at a faster pace. Others thought about the position of their knees when moving. Still others thought about being aware of their arms. In Jon Bretan’s Advanced Physics class, students were taking a math diagnosis when I visited. In some schools, I imagine this would be a boring activity to observe. But here, it meant students were working in pairs and discussing. It meant they often disagreed about how to solve a problem—then reflected on why one way worked and another didn’t, why both ways worked, or why neither worked. In Human Development, Joani Lacey took students through an entire reflective activity where students thought about how they deal with stress, the stressors in their lives, what was and wasn’t in their control, and how they might begin to combat a piece of it. And in Yue Lin’s Chinese II, students were asked why certain characters would be chosen over others for formal versus casual conversations.

I cannot tell you what a joy it is to be here, to see everything happening in classrooms, and to see the ways in which faculty challenge students to question and challenge what is in front of them and to truly and authentically reflect. This month, I’m visiting additional classes, but also am spending more time with clubs and athletics as well. I’ll be observing with the following lenses:

  • Learning comes alive both during and after class.

  • Many voices and perspectives are welcomed and encouraged at MA.

I look forward to sharing future observations!

KaTrina Wentzel, Academic Dean


About Travis

Head of School, Marin Academy.
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