The long-planned Sequoyah High School began this past August, and after an orientation camping trip, 51 students began taking their classes.
This year’s students matriculated from 33 different schools not including Sequoyah’s K–8. Six students graduated from the K–8 campus into the high school program, and two students returned to Sequoyah’s tenth grade after a year at other schools. In keeping with Sequoyah’s commitment to diverse perspectives, 53% of the student body are students of color, and students hail from 24 different zip codes within Southern California.
The classes that have begun include the required math, humanities, science and Spanish, as well as electives, including music, theater and art. Each student attends three primary academic classes, in “blocks” labeled A, B, and C, as well as a shorter elective class at the end of the day called “Z” block.
Each student has also been assigned an advisor, who assists the student in accomplishing his or her goals. Students meet advisors during an advisory period between A Block and B Block, which occurs between two and four days a week. (Advisory period is sometimes used for classes in human development, as well as student-led clubs.) During Advisory, students discuss goals and how to achieve them, problems they are facing and topics relevant to growing up now, like racism, gender equality and social inclusion.
Laura Haney, the science teacher at the Sequoyah High School, got off to a running start, beginning three classes and a campus stewardship committee in Mod 1. While teaching chemistry to tenth-graders and physics to ninth-graders, Haney is running a competitive robotics elective and co-managing the Sustainable Campus committee.
Haney received her bachelor’s degree in Astrophysics and Math from Barnard College of Columbia University, her Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics from UCLA and is the co-founder of an online science communication group for grad students, SciComm Hub.
Haney told the Barefoot Times she “really tries to utilize Sequoyah’s different Habits of Mind and incorporate them into our learning.” As an example, she cited Perspective. “When we study a specific topic I like to use different lenses to look at the material and figure out ways to use it in the real world. We try to discover on our own, not just by sitting and listening to someone tell us equations.”
Haney’s learning objectives are not restricted to the lab bench, either. “The most important thing about science is your ability to communicate it to others. Being able to talk about the things you learn in class, whether to me, your parents, your peers, is a very valuable skill.” Students in her class are even allowed to talk to their peers in class, as long as it is about physics, of course, to help them understand what they are learning.
Similarly, the goal of the Theater program at Sequoyah High School is “to create a creative, imaginative environment and to help students learn about bringing a show to life on stage,” said theater teacher Arden Thomas, who came to Sequoyah after gaining a Ph.D. at Stanford and running a program on science in theater at Caltech. “The production is what people come to see, but the work of making it come to life is what the students love,” said Hannah Meyers, currently playing Feste in the school’s winter production, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
Thomas said that students begin by reading and deciphering the play, learning to understand the wording of the time period, and put that understanding into action. “Creating a production in less than two mods is no small feat,” she said.
But the Theater program at Sequoyah is not just about producing a show. Classes not specifically directed at a single production, such as Improvisation and Acting I, have already begun, and further classes are planned addressing advanced acting, Shakespeare, theater and social justice, and contemporary theater.
According to Thomas, for the Spring production students will begin the process of putting on a show by researching the political and cultural contexts of the play and collaborating together on artistic choices for costume, set, music and lighting design. “The Spring play this year will be a contemporary play with more edgy, political themes: stay tuned!” said Thomas.
Thomas also teaches a section in the new Humanities program. The high school has integrated the traditional English and history classes into a single foundational humanities program, at least in the ninth and tenth grades.
Current students have been reading ancient texts, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey, which have given them the chance to study not only different styles of writing, but also the history surrounding the works. “This class has given me the opportunity to be a historian more than I had been before,” said Thomas, who has been teaching since 1994, and previously taught English at the Episcopal School in Philadelphia.
Two other sections of Humanities are taught by Ian Chang, who formerly taught in the Out Back class. He explained that in the high school’s program, the focus is not on the grade, but on how much each student learns. Teaching in this way, he said, “really puts responsibility all the way down the line. The administration expects the faculty to be responsible for getting their students somewhere, to make good on our promises about the program, but teachers also expect the students to take control over their own education and to be the driving force of it, and really our program doesn‘t work if the students don’t do that.” Students reported that the classes so far have been engaging and have certainly put a value on responsibility and self-direction.
In addition to the non-traditional pedagogy, these classes offer a non-traditional schedule, with an 85-minute class period intended to give the students a chance to learn more material in a day. This gives ample time for small and large group discussions, presentations, debates, round-robin reading, fishbowl discussion and Socratic seminars, as well as writing essays and reflections. As Thomas said, “In this model, you get to dig deep and you get to be focused and you get to really develop and analyze your material.”
The non-traditional nature of the math program extends to its course names as well. Foundations, a twist on the traditional algebra and geometry of early high school, is taught by Ronnie Bryan, who has a bachelor’s degree in Brain and Cognitive Science from M.I.T. and a Ph.D. in Computation and Neural Systems from Caltech. Sections of Foundations 1 and 2 have already begun, with Foundations 3 and Precalculus set to begin next semester.
Bryan pointed out that since the school’s math program is “intended to build student understanding,” it is fitting that “‘math’ actually means understanding,” referring to the Greek root of the word “mathematics.” Unlike many traditional math classes, he said, students in Bryan’s Foundations classes “try to figure out what the formulas mean.” More practically, Bryan said his goal for his classes “is to prepare all of the students for calculus and statistics.”
“One concept that is unique to my class is a word problem that most of our curriculum is geared toward solving. It is the last question of Foundations 3, in which we use several skills to answer the problem. The solution opens a door to a different way of thinking about math. It allows a deeper understanding of calculus, trigonometry and imaginary numbers,” said Bryan.
One other way Foundations is different from other math classes is “that the algebra program is built on sigma notation and the geometry program is built on compass construction,” Bryan said. Bryan plans to have students do computer programming in Foundations 3.
Bryan’s passion for math has been demonstrated to students, who frequently cited his obsession with completing the square. In addition to his Sequoyah teaching, he maintains a tutoring business called H-Bar that he started in grad school. “After the economy collapsed, it felt like a way to secure myself rather than government grants to continue research. I liked teaching,” explained Bryan. He then explained that H-Bar, Planck’s Constant divided by 2π, is an important number in science as well as math.
As for his experience at Sequoyah so far, Bryan reported that “tutoring is a lot easier” than teaching actual classes, “because all you have to do is teach one person one concept at a time, while being a teacher involves educating a bunch of people on an overall way of math. It is challenging being responsible for their learning, but I think it is a worthy challenge and I am happy to be doing it.”
Sequoyah has traditionally been known for its commitment to music, with the Musicale and other public musical events in the K–8 school, and the Sequoyah High School has continued that tradition under Ben Ede, the new music teacher.
Ede offers various electives, namely Performance 1 (a performance-based class open to beginners), Gryphon Ensemble (a class for musicians with at least some degree of experience that also helps students examine the role of a musician in and outside the community), Composition (a class that instructs students on how to create their own original songs) and Music Technology (a class which teaches students how to use digital resources to compose, record and publish original songs). Students take these classes, like most of the classes offered by part-time arts faculty, during C or Z blocks.
Ede, despite opposition from his conservative parents, has been involved in the music industry for quite a while, as a youth music director, guitarist, singer and choir musician, and has been focused on bringing the joy of music to schools, youth programs and other educational institutions for the past few years. He decided to lend his talents to Sequoyah because he “saw that there was freedom here to put together non-traditional ensembles, cultivate musical skills through music students enjoy, and be more active as a musical citizen than just playing a concert at the end of a semester.”
Students praised Ede’s classes, including Sophia Barrera, a ninth-grader who plays the ukulele for Gryphon Ensemble. Barrera said, “Ben is more friendly and comforting,” compared to other teachers. Barrera previously had some degree of familiarity with Ede’s approach to music, as she had previously met him at Heart of Los Angeles, a music program for students of all ages in the greater Los Angeles area.
Alexis Coro, who took both Performance 1 and Composition in Mod 1 and Music Technology in Mod 2, had no prior musical experience before taking music electives at Sequoyah. Coro explained what she has learned from Ede’s class. “Now I know what instruments are used in a piece, and how to create my own music based on stuff I like. I know how to work with it now.” She added that Ede guided her musical initiation. “Ben helped me through the process. Singing was never something I enjoyed doing, but Ben taught me more about it.”
The art curriculum at Sequoyah also offered differences from the high school norm. Classes so far include Intro to Drawing and Visual Communications, led by artist and teacher Nikki Pressley. Pressley came to Sequoyah from a residency at the Darrow School in New York. A graduate of CalArts, she has also worked in commercial graphic design and exhibited nationally.
Pressley described her classes as having “a studio atmosphere.” By this, she explained, she means that they express a range of artistic moods. They are “sometimes quiet, sometimes chaotic, sometimes symbiotic, sometimes restless. I hope that the students feel a freedom to create work that is meaningful to them and not just adhering to an assignment.”
Referring to other schools’ curricula, Pressley said, “I would imagine some public high school classes may not have as open a curriculum, just because of state-imposed standards. I think art in any capacity, [whether] within a restricted or open curriculum, has so much value in the life of students. It’s a space in the day to let go a little and tap into a part of your brain and being that could be neglected in other classes.”
Eamon Ennis, a tenth-grade Sequoyah student, shared his view about the art curriculum. “Currently, I really like the art curriculum,” Ennis said. Of Pressley, he said, “Nikki is a very great visual arts teacher.”
Ennis should know, having come to Sequoyah after a year at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, a public school specializing in arts education. LACHSA’s arts environment, said Ennis, was “more competitive. But at Sequoyah School, you could be the worst at drawing and sit by someone who is more skilled and both of you will still learn something.”
The Spanish program at Sequoyah, with classes offered so far from Spanish 1 to Spanish 3, is meant to further students’ understanding of the language and culture of Hispanic communities, said Menelik Tafari, the Spanish teacher. The school’s interest in Spanish, Tafari explained, extend beyond communication with the Spanish-speakers, although the prominence of Spanish in the Los Angeles area was a key consideration in choosing it as the first foreign language taught by the school. “In terms of brain development, learning a second language is unparalleled,” Tafari said.
One of Tafari’s other goals for his students is “to teach about language, culture and the history of people who speak this language.” Tafari said he hopes “that by learning Spanish in particular, we’ll be able to truly empathize with others who may look, speak, behave, think dramatically different than we do.”
Students currently taking Spanish are using ¡Qué Chévere!, a textbook published by EMC, and accompanied by online tools called Passport. EMC’s offerings include an online textbook that students do not have to carry around and Passport’s other online resources.
The school is still evaluating the efficacy of a digital textbook, balancing the ease-of-use and multi-media capabilities of a digital platform against the possibility of digital distraction.
Goals for the program extend beyond language development. Tafari connected his program to the international field studies trip being planned for next year, during which Tafari hopes that sophomore students will be able to “go abroad, and not just survive but prosper.” Tafari explicitly connected the goal of his program with a social justice mission, as exemplified by the planned international SIP expedition. He wants his program, he said, to enable students to “investigate and critique, so you can do a social innovation project in a different country and a different language.”