Breaking down silos
Why American Studies?
CR: Before I got to the Prep, I taught for a year at Marple-Newtown Senior High School (Newtown Square, PA). A course existed at Marple-Newtown somewhat similar to ours in structure, but not in content. So during our shared prep periods, Bill and I talked about this course. Bill said, 'Wow. That's an interesting idea. I wonder if we could do something like that here.'
We did a boatload of research; we went to Marple-Newtown and observed; we got course syllabi from other schools' classes that were interdisciplinary in nature. Our proposal for the new course was approved unanimously by academic council to begin the following fall.
The original reason Bill and I wanted to teach the course was that we thought the two subjects (History and English) inform and complement one another. Since then we've learned that the double-period (80 minutes) fosters a sense of community and camaraderie that is difficult to replicate in a 40-minute period; having two teachers for each class means we're now twice as likely to connect with a student who may be struggling in any way; it also means that Bill and I get to model collaboration for our students.
Two consequences have been the classroom's diversity - with regard to socioeconomic status, geography, GPA, racial and ethnic identity, and family make-up. And second, our class's character and complexion engender some valuable and authentic discussions and even some respectful disagreements. In that sense, our class is truly collegiate in nature.
Could you walk me through the course?
CR: In order to synthesize these two disciplines, we take a quasi-chronological thematic approach. We have 8 units of study which expose our students not only to literature, but also to primary and secondary historical texts. Our main secondary source for history is Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States:
- The History of Native American White Contact
- We read Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie which is set on a modern-day reservation.
- Shay's Rebellion, for example
- Since there isn't a whole lot of literature from that period, we fast-forward and we'll read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne one year, or Arthur Miller's The Crucible the next year so we can get a flavor for the period.
- Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried
- We use O'Brien's book as a lens through which we examine more current geo-political and military issues.
How do you assess your students?
BC: Yeah, we found that for simple quizzes, the blue book is still the best tool.
CR: This year we've become more project-based than ever before. And we've asked our students to collaborate more in ways that we can evaluate. During our Slavery and Abolition unit, our guys had to create a Google Presentation - part in class, part at home - on a slavery excerpt and the ripples of the document's publication. We didn't invent anything with the presentation, but by using Google, it afforded us the opportunity to ask them to dig deeper because they had the time. We also ask our students every quarter to evaluate themselves, to give themselves a grade. What's amazing is that our students are within one or two points of the grades they earn.
Any upcoming changes for the course?
CR: We are constantly evaluating what we do. We're fortunate to take field-trips that aren't too disruptive because of the time our class runs (periods 7-8, end of day), so we're always looking for new areas of the city to connect the present to the past. We're interested in examining more contemporary social and civil rights movements. It is easy and comfortable to look back and say that the civil rights movement was so obviously right, how could anybody be against it? It is much more difficult to look at current movements of a different ilk and negotiate that with an eye towards mission and justice.
What's your favorite thing about teaching American Studies?
CR: I love my job. I never wake up with a pit in my stomach. I think that speaks volumes about the Prep. But if during the course of the day there are any bumps in the road, I can always look forward to American Studies. The level of intellectual effort, and of conversation, is humbling. We have fun together, we laugh. And to be able to work alongside as fine a teacher as Bill Connors - that has made the course fulfilling. Not to mention the atmosphere of the class - which is created organically - it is awesome to witness.
BC: It's the interactive nature of the class - with Chris, with the students, with the disciplines, and when the kids make these connections. When the guys connect across the subjects, across time, and with one another, it's very rewarding.
This blog post was written by Mr. Ed Turner '00, Director of Admission.