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Are You Smarter Than a Ninth Grader?

Teacher Jennifer Lundblad asks her students a question about a test they took in her global studies class, as Issa Watson, left, Brett Tracy, middle and Zeth Smith, right, respond.

I admit to the conceit of believing I was smarter than a ninth grader (after all, I’ve been to college and grad school), until recently, that is, when I sat in on a new class for freshman at Laguna Beach High School.

Global studies and study skills (GSS) was approved by the school board last spring thanks to the pioneering efforts of three teachers Mark Alvarez, Jonathan Todd and Jennifer Lundblad, who found freshmen needed a stronger foundation in skills such as critical thinking, research and essay writing, as well as pithier content, than was offered by the world geography course GSS replaces.

“This course promises to deliver a valuable head start for entering students at the high school,” said school board president Theresa O’Hare.

My experience supports that statement.

Entering Alvarez’s class, I receive a copy of a speech Benjamin Franklin wrote for the Constitutional Convention in 1787. A quick glance tells me this is not light reading. How quickly am I supposed to digest this? An edge of panic creeps up as I look around the room gauging the students’ reaction. They do not display any of the intimidation I feel. Then Alvarez points to a formula on the white board. There is a method to navigating this wordy document: SOAPSAQ, which stands for Speaker, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, Subject, Argument, Quote. Okay, we have a plan!

Suddenly, it’s not so daunting. As we go over the speech, Alvarez offers context and perspective that breathes life and relevance into a text that had at first seemed dated. Did we know, for example, that Franklin was quite ill at the time, nearing death, yet still understood the importance of keeping an open mind, eschewing his own misgivings for the greater good? In short, no.

I follow along from the sidelines, mesmerized. But Alvarez engages the students, who evoke an energetic enthusiasm. Hands shoot up as questions are asked. The document dates back more than 200 years, but the dialogue in the classroom indicates the relevance of its content. Finally, these students have not only digested the contents of the speech, but they have written up a short summary, following the SOAPSAQ model.

“We’ve learned a lot,” said Mary Emma Meyer of her experience in the class so far, and she agreed that the format makes deciphering difficult texts “a lot easier.”

Later, I join the tail end of Todd’s class, in which the students were asked to apply the same SOAPSAQ procedure to a more recent speech by former President George W. Bush on his Middle East policy. No problem. Todd said he likes to challenge his students to seek unobvious information in texts, such as positive components in a negative argument and vice versa. All three teachers find ways to encourage critical thinking wherever possible.

As with Alvarez’s class, students participated with passion. “We always have very productive classes,” said Nicholas Rieckhoff. “It’s really fun, and we learn a lot and discuss a lot,” agreed Ben Jones.

Content and skill building claim equal importance in the class and each builds on the other, Alvarez said. Currently, students are focusing on globalization and organizational skills. Future content, such as U.S. history, ancient Greece and Rome, the five major religions and economics, will be paired with skills that include writing, Power Point and oral presentations, critical thinking and public speaking.

When he taught world geography, Todd conferred with his fellow social studies teachers about the best methods to prepare students for subsequent courses. He often found the need to go “off textbook” to incorporate different skills and content.

Collaborating to develop the best instruction allowed Todd, Alvarez and Lundblad to identify knowledge gaps in the previous curriculum and design an entirely new one to fill them rather than revising the old one.

So far, students and teachers alike are pleased with the results. “We tweak as we go,” admitted Lundblad, who said, for example, they discovered when honing skills that slower is better, so they slowed down.

And they discovered an unanticipated benefit. While Todd alone taught world geography, all three teachers share in instruction of GSS. They become sounding boards for each other, comparing notes, learning from the successes and failures of their colleagues. “I didn’t realize how much you can learn from each other,” said Todd.

Teachers incorporate skill development into the instruction. “Organization is a big part of it,” said Lundblad. Pre-tabbed notebooks distributed to the students at the start of the course provide a lesson in organization. Binders are periodically checked by students, their peers and by the teachers. Giving students an organizational system will benefit them in other classes.

Clearly, these freshmen are off to a good start.

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