Designing a Humanities Program

The following post is written by Emily Breite, Head of Learning and Innovation at the Upper School, who is spearheading the design of a new Humanities program at Mount Vernon. MVIFI helped catapult this work through the Collider event, and we continue to serve on the design team that is building the program. We are thrilled to be able to share the incredible work from Emily and her design team.

“Imagine: You have just stepped out of a time machine. The year is 2017. Mount Vernon has just completed the inaugural year of a brand new humanities program and it has been wildly successful. Now tell us all about it.”

With that challenge, presented during the MVIFI-sponsored Collider conference, we kicked off our journey in designing and launching an Upper School Humanities program. In a school whose mission seeks to bridge the gap between school and real life, it’s become increasingly difficult to make an argument for maintaining the disciplinary silos of “English” and “History.” In reality, the momentum toward a humanities program began years ago. When I joined Mount Vernon’s faculty to teach American Literature, fresh from a strong American Studies program, I was amazed at the difficulty of finding time for collaboration with our American history teacher, whose classroom was less than one foot from my own. Since then, our faculty, who have a desire for collaboration programmed into their DNA, have been similarly inspired, proposing humanities and interdisciplinary courses for the past two years and imagining ways to structure such courses around our mission of inquiry, innovation, and impact.

With added enthusiasm from new Upper School Head Blair Peterson, we began the Collider Think Tank by announcing that 2016 would bring the launch of a 9th grade humanities course. With that declaration in the air, we realized the work ahead of us: Now we’d actually have to design the course.


The Collider Think Tank, which included representation from our lower, middle, and upper divisions as well as our advancement team and one student, was instrumental in shaping the case for why Mount Vernon needed a humanities program. The major take-away, however, was just how diverse our understandings of “humanities” were. To move forward, we would have to develop a shared philosophy.

Our next step was to organize a day-long retreat for members of the Humanities Think Tank who had expressed interest in joining the core design team (and even teaching humanities).

We organized the retreat around four goals:

  • Develop a shared definition of an ideal MVPS humanities philosophy and mission.
  • Refine essential questions that undergird the 9th grade humanities course.
  • Brainstorm course description for 9th grade humanities.
  • Brainstorm essential skills and signature experiences for 9th grade humanities students.

Thanks to the generosity of colleagues at independent schools across the country, we were able to quickly set up curiosity conversations with a number of excellent schools with rich humanities traditions. Talking with leaders from St. Paul’s, Asheville School, Lawrenceville, Riverdale, Hawken, and Greenwich High School, as well as discovering the humanities initiatives taking place in our own middle school, we gathered insight about the successes, challenges, and strategic questions on the horizon for each school’s program. Most importantly, each member of our core design team was able to interview a colleague from at least one school, positioning each team member to share learning with the rest of the team.

Inspired by John Gregory’s suggestion to explore Bard’s Institute for Writing and Thinking, our retreat kicked off with narrative writing to build our sense of team and uncover our definitions of “humanities.” After a few minutes of independent writing, we each shared a moment from our own lives that felt like a “quintessential humanities experience.” Fascinatingly, our reflections took on so many forms–one team member shared treasured moments with her mother and another recounted a transformational trip to Turkey, while others shared moments of making or facilitating interdisciplinary learning in humanities courses they had taken or taught.

From there, we established team norms, focusing particularly on the commitment to “making our thinking visible” (which can be so tough for a group that thrives on ideas and discussion!) and moved into identifying our “Know” and “Need to Know” list, taking a page from project-based learning and design thinking methodology. It was liberating to share the qualities that we know will make up the program (a team-teaching model, for example) as well as the decisions that we have not yet made (What will the curriculum look like? How will we tackle the “honors” question?). We also shared a calendar that delineated the design scope and sequence for the year, freeing the team from logistical questions of hiring, space, and time to create.

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Our next challenge was to develop our shared vision for the program. We began by using a “rose, bud, thorn” structure whereby each team member shared the successes, opportunities, and challenges they gleaned from a curiosity conversation with an admired program. As we talked through each program, we slowly synthesized qualities that would align most effectively with our mission and school structure. Then, using the Mount Vernon Continuum as a compass, we broke into three small teams to begin sketching out prototypical program models that would both draw upon what seems to work best in schools with fantastic programs and feel “quintessentially Mount Vernon.”


As we presented our rough designs, we were all surprised by the amount of alignment the team had developed at that point. Each proposed model privileged elements like the Mount Vernon mindsets, contemporary and real-life connections, foundational critical thinking, reading, writing, and discussion skills, student inquiry and curiosity, thematic structure, and students as creators rather than consumers. After lunch and a few much-needed brain breaks, we ended the day in teams writing a course description, hammering out essential questions, and defining essential skills.

From here, we will be working in small “hot teams” to flesh out the curriculum, develop our communication plan, strategize about scheduling, and visiting schools for deeper curiosity conversations. A number of lingering questions will inform our next steps:

  • How do we create space for student inquiry and curiosity while making sure the course has enough structure to be sustainable?
  • In a course that will focus on enhancing foundational skills, what content will we determine is essential for the 9th grade year?
  • What kind of a teacher-team structure will work for a school and faculty of our size?

We left the retreat energized, if a little exhausted from wrestling with tough questions of design. Ultimately, though, this team of builders left grateful for the opportunity to completely envision and construct a program from the ground up.


One thought on “Designing a Humanities Program”

  1. I love your post and the work on Humanities! As a social studies teacher of many years, I wonder how do you design a humanities course that doesn’t lose all the richness of a silo’d social studies course and a literature and/or grammar comp course. How do you decide what to include in the learning outcomes? How do you decide what to prune?

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