SHC Leads the Way: Pioneers in 21st Century Learning

by Clarissa Mendiola

Originally published in Second Century Winter 2015.

The classroom of yesterday is gone—no more rows of students slumped in chairs as a teacher lectures at the head of the class. Today’s learners crave variety, collaboration and emotional connection to coursework. The internet gives them access to a universe of information, and social media gives them a voice they believe deserves to be heard. Having grown up in the digital age, today’s learners no longer view technology as technology, rather as a constant, organic aspect of their life experience. As we continue to welcome new generations of students to our classrooms, we ask ourselves, how do we engage today’s learners?

Director of Studies Kate McFadden says that it is not the student herself who has changed, “The brain is no different today than it ever was, but we continue to discover information about how the brain functions in the changing world around us.” Based on best and next practices in education, current research, and most important, our experience with our students, SHC develops curricula and creates an environment where young learners thrive in their pursuit of academic and personal excellence.


McFadden describes the experience of curiosity as dissonance in the brain, “There’s a space that I want to fill with ideas and information.” SHC instructors strive to inspire this key moment. When students ask questions based on their natural thirst for knowledge, they experience a sense of gratification upon discovering a solution.

In 2013, SHC put this philosophy in action with the thoughtful restructuring of the science curriculum, which places freshmen in physics before they proceed to chemistry and biology. The foundational physics knowledge gained in the ninth grade inspires questions that can be answered in the sciences that follow. A year later, we are beginning to see the benefit of this organic

reordering. Instructor of Science Joe Murphy explains, “By changing the order of science instruction, particularly with physics first, students become better critical thinkers. They learn how force works and then apply that knowledge to the structure of the atom. As they advance to biology, the knowledge of polar and non-polar compounds gained in chemistry provides the foundation for the study of electrolytes in the body. With an inquiry lab that stresses observations before instruction, students are exposed to the challenges that scientists and engineers typically see. They start with a question, then try to find answers. This is the opposite of many traditional instruction methods, but more in line with the way we solve problems.”

Curiosity is piqued when students experience relevance in the classroom and connect to the material in a meaningful way. In a recent study published in the October 2014 issue of Neuron, researcher Matthias J. Gruber describes the necessity of curiosity to learning, “Curiosity seems to put the brain in a state that is very conducive to learning. Think of it as a vortex that draws in things you are motivated to learn, and everything around it.” Gruber describes findings that illustrate the brain’s ability to retain incidental content, in addition to the main content that initially inspired curiosity. Instructors take advantage of this phenomenon by connecting with students where they are. Assistant Principal for Academics Joan O’Neill shares, “As teachers, it is our job to become a question architect and create experiences that inspire curiosity and spark student questions.”


Students today learned to work together on assignments from an early age, and the desire to collaborate extends to the secondary and college level. At SHC, group research projects and presentations abound, which satiate our students’ desire to work collaboratively while mirroring the experience that awaits them in the professional world.

O’Neill describes one simple and effective way many SHC instructors engage students in classroom collaboration: the think pair share method. Instructors pose a question, students take time to individually contemplate a response, then they group in pairs to discuss their ideas. Finally, they share their findings with the entire class. “When we create opportunities such as this, where all students are engaged in discussions, we increase their ability to retain information. It’s rare in today’s world that we begin and finish something entirely alone.”


To further the collaborative experience, our daily academic schedule incorporates a dedicated collaboration period. During collaboration periods, students can be found working together in the Library or Dining Hall, studying in the La Salle Plaza or attending student organization meetings. Common spaces throughout campus beckon collaboration with modern furniture that can be manipulated and rearranged to suit the changing needs of our students, keeping their space fresh and useful. McFadden shares, “Innovation rarely involves the lone genius in isolation. Students learn so much from each other through group interactions, discussions and projects.”

The San Francisco Classroom

SHC President Brother Ronald Gallagher, FSC, PhD, once said, “The City is our classroom.” Instructors take advantage of our prime location within San Francisco to engage our students in invaluable real-world lessons. Students hear talks at City Arts & Lectures, from Radio Lab host Jad Abumrad to filmmaker Eugene Jarecki. They enjoy shows at the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Ballet. SHC even shared our stage with the ballet’s junior corps. From civics students who volunteered at polling stations in the November election, to English students who attended the San Francisco Film Festival, SHC students apply their course work with relevant experiences that simply cannot be taught within the four walls of the traditional classroom.


Following the success of our Bring Your Own Device pilot year, students and instructors continually discover ways BYOD allows for meaningful engagement with one another and course material. BYOD invites students to select the device they find most relevant. One student may use a laptop, another may choose a tablet, both students access everything they need. Schoolwide use of Google Drive allows for anytime-anyplace-any device access to documents, and SHC’s Educational Technology team promotes the use of free, open-source applications and software to ensure ease of access.

Instructors find BYOD serves as another useful tool in their lesson plans, one that helps connect students to each other, creates digital citizenship and engages students with course material in a manner relevant to their experience.

Instructor of Theology Emilie Fisher-Fleig engages students with their devices through consistent use of SHC’s web-based learning management system, Schoology. Church History and Ethics students participate in class discussions on Schoology, where instructor settings require students to post original ideas before they view peer responses. “It encourages students to craft their responses based on their individual understanding, instead of parroting each other’s comments.”

Instructor of Mathematics Vito Ferrante touts the transformative effect BYOD has on instruction. “BYOD reinvigorates my instruction and makes me a better teacher.” Ferrante’s students receive succinct lectures in video form for homework. The short video lectures allow students to watch as many times as needed to absorb the lesson. The next day, students take an assessment quiz online to apply the lecture concepts. The online format allows Ferrante to immediately view those who aptly comprehend the material, and those who may need extra assistance. With the free class time created through the revised lecture format, Ferrante connects with each individual who may need help.

Ferrante’s students also use their devices to record think alouds, a process which requires them to record themselves as they talk through the process of solving a mathematical problem. Students share their videos with Ferrante, who uses them to assess portions of the content with which students may struggle.

With SHC’s successful implementation of BYOD, Ferrante no longer teaches from a textbook. “The wealth of information out there is well beyond what any single textbook curriculum can offer. I can tailor my lesson with more efficiency and greater customization than a textbook company that is not familiar with my students and community.”

Since the launch of BYOD one year ago, Director of Educational Technology Matt Montagne observed a three-fold increase in overall use of Schoology. “This means students and teachers are taking advantage of tools such as online quizzes for more immediate assessment, online forums for synthesizing and discussing classroom content and more. Teachers use BYOD to gain better insight and make timely adjustments to classroom instruction in a way that benefits student learning. Teachers also leverage student access to create rich supplemental learning resources, and some even created their own digital textbooks. All of this means more timely and relevant learning resources for use in the classroom.”

Emotional Connection

“One enduring truth is the emotional component of learning—students learn when they feel safe,” McFadden says. That environment is built by SHC instructors who honor our Lasallian Vincentian tradition by fulfilling their roles as big brother and big sister.

Natalie Escobar ’14 explains how instructors impacted her development at SHC: “Teachers at SHC took the time to know me beyond a name in their grade books, and they helped me discover my own self-worth. All of the teachers I had served as models of how to live life with meaning and compassion.”

Brother Ron emphasizes the importance of connecting with our students: “Our heritage and Founders ask us to ‘touch the hearts’ of our students. This is a lofty but achievable task, and speaks to the holiness of the vocation of a teacher, one which is sacred and caring.”

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