“When I was a kid, I used to walk to school three miles, in the snow, barefoot, uphill, both ways!” – the old adage used to minimize the challenges of young people and yearn for a nostalgia gone by. When I was young, I heard multiple versions of this story from adults around me. Like a broken record or playlist mistakenly on repeat, each time I heard it I remember thinking to myself, “Is it really that different?”.
I share this with you because lately, I have found myself making similar comparisons between Berwick students’ education and my own experiences growing up. I imagine this is an occupational hazard of employment in a school or a sign of my own advancing in years – hopefully the former rather than the latter.
I have to admit my vague recollection of high school history classes included hardcover textbooks, biographies of political leaders on transparencies, having to quickly recall major events and dates, and notetaking off the chalkboard with only the sight of the teachers back for almost the entirety of class, “Bueller…Bueller...Bueller.”
As a number of folks may know, I have had the good fortune of co-teaching an Upper School history elective with my friend and colleague from the department, Lucy Pollard. Mind you, I loosely use the term “co-teaching” as she is clearly the “brains” behind the operation.
The class, SOCIAL CHANGE IN AMERICA: Identity and Social Change Movements in America 1900 – Today, explores how different identity markers such as race, religion, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc., divide and have divided society, shaping the course of American history. Students are examining corresponding social change movements that have attempted to diminish these divides and empower oppressed groups. They are learning and practicing the skills needed to launch successful advocacy campaigns.
Topics covered include the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and their work to raise consciousness on HIV and AIDS in the 80s and 90s, social movements focusing on coal mining in Appalachia, and the opioid crisis which has captured our nation’s attention as of late.
Each topic came with informational slide decks, documentaries, and assignments/group projects meant to deepen the learning of each topic. It was truly fascinating to see students’ reactions to the original rendition of the song “Seasons of Love” from the Broadway musical Rent – I imagine for some, their first exposure to the hit song may have been its reprisal on Glee.
Most recently after an exploration of the history of the opioid crisis and its national, as well as local impact here in New England, students created policy memos meant to be sent to policy makers that advocated for an intervention of their choice. Students directed this phase of learning by researching everything from border security, drug prevention and intervention, and ways that physicians and pharmaceuticals can make a difference.
We are currently in the final assignment where we’ve asked students to choose a contemporary social movement, evaluate it based on in-class criteria, and create a plan of action to raise awareness and create movement amongst their peers at Berwick. Students have selected topics ranging from gun control, school safety, female representation in STEM fields, head injuries in athletics, and decreased screen time. Each student will submit their research, hand in a memo detailing their plan of action, and orally present their material before the class.
As we approach the end of the trimester, Lucy and I will certainly be reviewing and refining the scope and sequence of the class and will undoubtedly make changes based on observations and student feedback. I have learned a great deal from my co-teacher, but also quite a bit from the students of the class due to their meaningful choices on research and project topics.
So yes, today’s classroom can really be that different; a mutual learning environment less fixated on content and more so on skills and where the focus of the classroom may shift frequently based on student curiosity – certainly not my father’s classroom, nor was it mine.