New Course Evolves from Collaborative Effort

Geography class students, from left, Edy Manetta, Robby McKnight and Spencer Dodson discuss a group project with teachers Jennifer Lundblad and Mark Alvarez, who, with Jonathon Todd, have revamped the class for next fall. Photo by Ted Reckas

Come September, some freshman at Laguna Beach High School will enroll in global studies and study skills, a new class recently approved by the school board and organically developed by social science teachers to establish a platform for higher-level coursework.

The new course replaces the district-required freshman-level world geography class and goes beyond it in both form and content. The curriculum germinated within the social-studies teachers’ professional learning community, a district-wide practice where teachers collaborate on best practices by grade or subject level during the regular work day. Through their collaboration, teachers Mark Alvarez, Jonathan Todd and Jennifer Lundblad identified knowledge gaps in the curriculum and took the initiative to design a class that would fill them.

Todd, who taught world geography, asked his peers for suggested topics to cover with freshmen so as to better prepare them for subsequent courses. As a result, he often went “off textbook,” bringing in current and historical events related to countries they were studying.

At the same time, said Alvarez, the department’s teachers noted a “recurring theme of a lack of certain skill sets,” such as advanced research and critical thinking. They concluded these skills would best be introduced to freshman students, and Todd made every effort to include them in his geography class.

 But there was a limit to how much new content and exercises could be incorporated into existing lesson plans, said Alvarez. They concluded that tweaks to an existing class came up short, while a newly designed one could more completely add the instruction they felt necessary.

This past year, after discussing their ideas with administrators, the department’s teachers received permission to explore developing their concepts.

All courses taught in the district must meet the school board’s approval and district graduation requirements, which meet or exceed admission requirements for the University of California and California State University systems.

As long as college-required courses are offered, the district has discretion to adopt its own requirements, such as the world geography class, or change them without the necessity of obtaining official approval from the UC or Cal State systems, said Asst. Supt. Nancy Hubbell. Even so, the new global studies course does meet the two college systems’ curriculum requirements, as did its predecessor.

Some parents may wonder if the new course draws on the International Baccalaureate curriculum that the district investigated but ultimately rejected in 2008. However, while the IB curriculum spans four years and leads to a special diploma, global studies is exclusively intended for freshman, to ensure they receive foundational instruction and tools necessary for future studies.

In developing the course, teachers took a staff development day to identify the content and skills they felt were underdeveloped in students, and researched the best methods to convey them. After that it was fairly easy to figure out the details, Alvarez said.

Principal Don Austin said that the new global studies course is part of the administration’s effort to ensure students learn certain key skills early in high school.

The class will also be unusual by alternating instruction with another freshman requirement, health, in what is called a “wheel” format, stretching two one-semester classes out throughout the school year. Before, explained Todd, a student that took world geography in the first semester would not enroll in another social studies course until next fall, a nine-month hiatus when learning isn’t reinforced.

Each three-week segment will be designed to complete a specific topic before students shift into health. In explaining the process to the school board last month, Lundblad said she and Alvarez tried the wheel, alternating sections of AP government classes with economics. Student test scores in both classes went up, she said.

Teachers “frontload” content in the first few days of each three-week segment and introduce the specific skill being taught, reinforcing both over the remainder of the segment.

They have devised six pairings of content and skills for the class: government with essay writing; critical thinking and problem solving with economics; public speaking and debate with social issues; organization and goal setting with globalization; research and writing with U.S. history; and presentations with world history.

When board members expressed concern over the loss of instruction in geography, the teachers explained that, on the contrary, maps and geography would be integrated into the content wherever possible.

Lundblad enthusiastically described ways the course can help students find their strengths and passions. Todd said this approach was validated in research when they discovered that colleges offer similar broad spectrum courses to undergrads to give them a taste of different disciplines before they decide on their major.

 “We constantly need to challenge ourselves and our classes and make instruction the best for everyone,” said Lundblad, adding that the willingness of Austin to try new things and the support of the administration have been “awesome.”

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