What is a “Humanities” class?

At Whittle School and Studies, traditional history and English content is taught in a course called Humanities, which also includes content one might find in philosophy, civics, geography, economics, and culture courses.  For families and students new to a humanities course, it can be confusing to understand what exactly will be studied. Hopefully, the following will clarify a few things and explain why I am so excited to be teaching at a school that values developing interdisciplinary courses within an interdisciplinary curriculum. 

What do you teach in Humanities?

Basically, our goal is to teach empathy. 

Students of the humanities develop the skills to listen to the perspectives and experiences of others and to effectively communicate their own perspective and experience. Ultimately, we hope they use those skills to partner with people, take action in their communities, and solve issues of great importance. 

These goals support global competency, a set of critical skills for today’s students and global citizens of every age.

But what do the students do?

Humanities students are engaged in a variety of scholarly activities that support the growth of their ability to gather credible information, think critically, and communicate effectively.  They become adept at formulating questions, evaluating sources, synthesizing information, considering multiple perspectives, making connections, and seeking applications. 

It sounds like a lot to cover! How do you select topics, books, and writing assignments? 

It is!  We would never be able to get through a comprehensive chronology or a canonical list of texts.  Writing is a central skill that takes time to develop, AND it isn’t the only way to share a message. Technology changes and so must we to stay modern.

It has been so exciting to design a sequence of courses that move middle school students from a deep exploration of their own lives and identities, to examining the ways in which groups of people interact, to thinking about how diverse communities are built and sustained.  We have found that we are able to touch on many of the classic middle school studies while ensuring each one is delivered in a way that is fresh, relevant, and meaningful to our students. 

We choose content and projects carefully depending on who is in the classroom.  Authors, characters, and settings are intentionally diverse.  Students continue refining skills for reading both non-fiction and fiction of all genres.  Writing assignments include narrative, informative, and argumentative pieces.  We place a strong emphasis on finding, using, and citing supportive textual evidence.  We incorporate graphic novels, podcasts, articles, and primary sources.  Students also produce digital media products like presentations, videos, and screencasts. 

There are some units that are so terrific we will probably do them every year and some that might change as current events and the social climate shift.  I really loved how we incorporated a set of non-fiction and historical fiction texts about a yellow fever epidemic in the 18th century during a study of infectious diseases and the immune system.   Offering 7th grades a choice between The Diary of Anne Frank, Night, and Maus has been a meaningful way to talk about resistance and survival during the Holocaust.  We think it is important to stay flexible and be willing to make changes in response to the children with whom we are working and the current social climate.

 Over the course of the year and the course of their time in the middle school, we hope the books we choose, the writing projects we offer, the historical topics we cover, and the questions we ask give every student an opportunity to experience windows, mirrors, and sliding doors.  We want the experiences we offer to build a strong sense of self and a great deal of compassion for others. We want students to retain and refine previously learned skills at the same time that they acquire new ones. We hope they move on to high school with a clear understanding of who they are, what gifts they have to offere, how to cooperate with others, and how to share the ideas they develop.

How do you partner with the other subjects? How do you do project-based learning?

Here is a week in a 7th grade Humanities class during a study of land, environment, and sustainability.

In Humanities, we looked through a historical lens at how land management and the environment changed once local indigenous people encountered Europeans. The important thing is to choose a question that requires students to think from many angles.  An authentic learning goal makes it easy to move between skills, content, and experiences.  This in turn allows us to make meaningful connections across disciplines that flow organically from one class to another.

What about assessment? I hear you don’t give grades…

It’s true. We don’t give grades.  But we definitely evaluate student progress.  And we do align with best practices and base our decisions on nationally accepted content and skill standards.  We want our students to have an exceptional educational experience.  We also want them to own that experience.  We want them to love deep learning and to know the sweet taste of victory that comes with hard work, risk taking, and perseverance.  We don’t want them to merely check boxes and aim for the satisfaction of teachers and parents.  We value the different ways that children learn. Our model allows us to meet every child where they are and to help them develop a personalized path to success.  Strengths can be leveraged into passions, weaknesses are growth opportunities, and every failure is a setup for a comeback.  We aren’t here to judge. We are here to teach. 

Anything else?

Just that the Humanities rock.  And if you’d like to check out us out visit http://www.whittleschool.org

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