"Who knows what sophomore means in Latin?"
There's no response from the class full of 10th-graders, so Palo Alto High School teacher Eric Bloom tells them: The word derives from "sophos," which means wise, and "moros," meaning fools, or foolish.
"You're called wise fools," Bloom told a room full of Paly students on their first day of sophomore year Monday morning. They are no longer scared, uncertain freshmen, but now self-assured sophomores embarking on the next phase of their high school careers.
"This is just the beginning of your academic life," Bloom said. "Freshman year was chaos and uncertainty; now you begin this growth of having this wonderful time."
Paly sophomores, along with freshmen, juniors and seniors at both of Palo Alto Unified School District's high schools started a new school year on Monday.
Paly's campus was hectic with a mix of excitement, nerves and some dread about the year ahead as new freshmen familiarized themselves with the campus, upperclassmen reunited after the summer break and teachers kicked off the new year with a range of activities.
Echoes of "do you know where room (fill in the blank) is?" rang through the halls as students rushed to their first classes of the day. More confident groups of seniors -- many clad in green camouflage shirts, pants and hats in a Paly first-day-of-school tradition -- strode in groups together through the quad. (Across town at Gunn High School, seniors wore togas and enjoyed their new status posing for pictures sitting on a regal Greek throne on the quad, surrounded by four columns with "2017" in Greek numerals.)
At Paly, every student met first thing on Monday morning with their teacher advisor. For freshmen, this teacher is supposed to be their go-to person, academic and otherwise, for the next four years -- a consistent point of connection, source of support and that "trusted adult" on campus that is repeatedly referred to as crucial to supporting teenagers' social-emotional well-being.
Bloom, a longtime history and social sciences teacher who created Paly's Social Justice Pathway program with English teacher Erin Angell, also serves as a teacher advisor, with Angell, for every student in the program. The three-year pathway melds typical subject curriculum with social-justice themes and project-based learning, and the students stay with each other and the same teachers in cohorts for their sophomore, junior and seniors years. Juniors participate in an internship with local nonprofits focused on social-justice issues. The program's first cohort of seniors will spend the year developing an in-depth capstone project, starting with a research paper first semester that outlines some sort of social-justice-driven action they will enact second semester.
Bloom and Angell spent Monday morning checking in with students during short advisory periods before more in-depth lessons during the day.
With the juniors, even this brief period on the first day of school was about preparing for the college-application process. Bloom urged the Social Justice Pathway students to make the most out of being part of a program that allows for more student autonomy and plenty of self-directed learning.
"The idea is that junior year is the year that you really want to take off," he said. "In social justice, this is the year where you guys want to really dig deep and find those things."
Even some sophomores were thinking about college on the first day of school. Otto Berndt, a Social Justice Pathway student, said he signed up for the program because "it's a different way of learning," -- which appeals to not only him, but also prospective colleges, he said.
Sophomore Will Robins, though, said he likes learning about current events and appreciates Social Justice Pathway's ties to what's going on in the real world. (This year, the program's history classes are starting with government in the first rather than second semester because of the presidential election.)
These kind of opportunities make school "more interesting," Robins said.
The first week of school for Social Justice Pathway students also looks very different from the typical handing out of syllabi or academic assignments in other classes. Teachers have organized special activities each day this week, starting Monday with an interactive puzzle that blends logic, teamwork and social psychology.
During Angell's second-period class, senior social-justice students participated in the "prisoner hat riddle," during which they have been captured by fictional aliens who want to eat them, but won't if they prove they are rational, logical beings. The aliens give them a riddle to solve in order to escape. In it, five or six people must line up in descending height order, so the tallest person is in the back and can see each group member in front of them. Each person is given a red or white hat (it's placed on their head so they can't see it), and must guess one at a time from the tallest person forward what color hat they're wearing. They can only say either color and make no other signal or noise.
The Paly students strategized their way through two rounds, some succeeding, some not. They reconvened during sixth period to discuss the takeaways from the activity, from learning to persevere through failure to courage and self-control. The seniors spent the entire period talking about pro-social behaviors, exploring topics like altruism, empathy and social capital.
Their first homework assignment of the year? Pick one pro-social characteristic, like self-compassion or wonder, to focus on the rest of the week.
Meanwhile, in Paly's state-of-the-art Media Arts Center, veteran journalism students ran their first classes of the year. The editors-in-chief of student magazine Verde led introductions and then split the class into mentor-mentee pairs, asking them to draw what they did over the summer on small whiteboards and then share with the rest of the class. Some had traveled out of the country; others had taken courses at local universities, volunteered at summer camps, studied for the ACT. One had crashed his car; another had learned how to drive.
The mentorship program is student-designed, Kandell said, with the goal of connecting older students with younger ones in a publication where there is regular turnover of more experienced students.
Between periods, students continued to mingle. In an interview, juniors Vivian Young and Annie Zhou worried about the notoriously difficult academic year ahead of them. Young said she feels like her "excitement for school is wearing off," and Zhou said she felt more dread than enthusiasm on her first day back at school.
But they're still excited about the trappings of typical teenage life that lie ahead this year. Young said she's looking forward to prom season, and Zhou, getting her driver's license.
With Palo Alto Unified's usual staggered start to the school year, kindergarten through eighth-graders will follow the high schools and start the new year on Tuesday. Check Palo Alto Online for more back-to-school coverage on Wednesday.