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How to be a Reimagineer in the Humanities

BY JAMES CAMPBELL

The Fall of 2015 sparked the beginning of a conversation around the possibility of creating a Humanities program at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School.  This Collider Session, hosted as part of Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation (MVIFI) professional development, was heavily attended by educators from all MVPS divisions and disciplines.  Conversations at the Humanities session ranged from pure excitement and let’s start this program today to it’s not a no for me, but I need more details.  Thankfully, the conversations continued throughout 2015 and into the spring of 2016.  After about nine months of research and design, we officially launched three sections of the Humanities 9 course for the 2016-2017 school year.

I was initially hesitant to enter this conversation with open arms and warm and fuzzy feelings.  It’s not that I was against the creation of a Humanities course; in fact, my World History class has resembled a Humanities class more than a traditional History class.  My hesitation centered around several questions: how would this impact my teaching style? How many people would be involved in the day to day planning? What would this space and time look like?  With so many unknowns, it was one of the few moments in my Mount Vernon tenure I had a degree of hesitancy.  It was similar to the question I posed during my fuse16 MoVe talk: “to make or not to make.” Humanities or not to Humanities, that is the question.  In the end, I chose Humanities.

Team teaching was one of the non-negotiable elements of the Humanities program.  Understand, I take pride in what I do as a teacher.  My classes don’t always look traditional, and that’s what made me a little nervous about diving head first into a teaching team. What I quickly realized, though was that my unique and non-traditional approach to how I facilitate learning in my classroom is actually the value-add I bring to the Humanities team. Part of what makes me unique is that I am intentional about creating an environment that gives students voice and choice, while preparing them for college and the real world. This is how I operated when I was just “the JamCam show.” Now I get to do that work with an incredible partner, someone who also sees value in providing students with an integrated, authentic approach to the Humanities – and now we’re the Brooks-Campbell team. We’re not just an English teacher and a History teacher; no, we are facilitators of learning, we are re-Imagineers, pioneering a new way to experience Humanities. But all the work is not easy. There are some challenges and some bright spots we’ve already begun to see:

Challenges:

  1. Creating a climate where students see two teachers as co-designers of the lessons and experiences.
  2. Being intentional about co-teaching rather than dividing History and English; figuring out how to teach together and read the cues to interject when needed.
  3. Giving up spur of the moment changes in the days work, if it does not mesh with the teaching partner.

Brightspots

  1. Building on each other’s energy (or supplementing for lack of energy), to create a highly impactful experience for every student.
  2. Getting immediate feedback about how the lesson is going and if we need to change directions or keep going.
  3. Learning from your partner’s expertise.

I have to say I am pleased with the Brooks-Campbell show.  I feel Meg Brooks (my teaching partner) and I complement each other well.  During open discussions we riff back and forth like a jazz band, and while we are still learning, we are getting really good at reading each other in the moment. A by-product to creating a Humanities course outside of the siloes of English and History, is that we model for our students every day that what the world needs is not a bunch of subject experts, but human beings who are willing to collaborate to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. Human beings who strive to be empathic, global citizen leaders.  We have disagreements and various perspectives, but the disagreements are minor and the different points of view allow our students to see how people can see life differently and still work for the good of the whole.  We never told students that I am a History and she is an English teacher.  One of the big wins we’ve had was when a student told Ms. Brooks, “I did not now you were an English teacher.” That was the moment I felt we had transcended traditional titles.

The Humanities 9 program is not a two-person team but consists of a larger Professional Learning Community, which is what makes our approach to building the program unique.  Our team of four meet on a daily basis to plan our units, Honors challenges and day to day activities.   The members of our PLC have varied backgrounds and experiences, but together we are committed to figuring out a better way to facilitate a rich Humanities experience for the students at Mount Vernon.  Of course, working in harmony with a group of four is not without challenges and bright spots:

Challenges

  1. Group planning can be difficult because of because of varied experiences.
  2. Some days your body, mind, and soul need to step away from the group.
  3. It can be tough when your idea is not the one moving forward.

Brightspots

  1. We have a talented group of educators, who have a wealth of knowledge to share.
  2. We get to co-create a program that not one of us would have been able to create alone.
  3. We are a case study for the rest of the Upper School to consider the inherent value of teaching and learning in collaboration with others.

Our Humanities 9 courses are not complete.  They are a work in progress and each day represents a learning experience for our students and us.  We make adjustments to our curriculum based upon larger chunks of time and how we engage students.  We make one of the more open areas on campus a flexible learning space that adheres to student needs.  We weave between traditional researched educational practices and new innovative practices that will change the trajectory of the educational world. Ultimately, we are figuring this out as we go, but we wholeheartedly believe we are providing our students with a more rich experience than we did last year and the year before that, which is part of the reason we want to share our journey. We want others to join us in this journey to make school more reflective of real life – and challenge some of the longest standing assumptions we’ve unintentionally been making about what education should look like.

So, if you are considering launching a Humanities program or an interdisciplinary program in general, there are so many complexities you will have to work through. My team has been working through these complexities, and it’s forced us (in a good way) to challenge our own assumptions of what school is meant to do. Here are some questions we continue to wrestle with:

  • How might we use larger chunks of time to dive more deeply into the complexities of interdisciplinary work?
  • How can we use open, flexible spaces to mirror the needs of what we hope to do in any given lesson, and not have space define the lesson?
  • How might we establish strong teaching teams who are willing to let go of some of the traditional content learning standards in favor of some of the 21st century skills, habits and knowledge that we know our kids need in order to thrive in a complex, changing world?

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