Chapin Charges Ahead into the Humanities
Chapin Chat with Mark Lederer, Director of Curriculum Development
Chapin School Princeton has launched an initiative to immerse students in a curriculum that prepares them for the multifaceted landscape awaiting them. Our humanities curriculum, in conjunction with our STEAM program, has always been very strong, preparing students with the skills and knowledge they need to be prepared for success at the best secondary schools in the country. As part of a two-year curriculum review process, Chapin will adopt a new vision of teaching and learning in the humanities. We spoke to Chapin’s Director of Curriculum, Mark Lederer, and he shared his insights into this vision.
Can you talk a little bit about the curriculum review process?
Chapin has had a curriculum review process for a number of years. Each year a select number of subject areas go over the existing curriculum from Explorers through eighth grade to determine what adjustments need to be made with the possibility of a total make-over if the review committee deems that appropriate. This includes looking at the scope and sequence across the grades for skills, processes, and concepts to be introduced, developed, and mastered, the flow of the units within each grade level, the materials used, and the types of assessments and projects employed. Two years ago the school decided to choose a single methodology for writing the portion of the curriculum that details the lesson goals, activities, assignments, projects, and assessments. A committee of faculty and administrators chose Understanding by Design as the methodology the school would use.
What is Understanding by Design?
Understanding by Design is a form of keeping the end in mind when designing the curriculum. It is a way of establishing the big picture to make sure you are focused on where you want the educational journey to end. As you might imagine, this helps keep a teacher focused on what is important. From there, the teacher designs the activities and lessons that lead to that end goal.
What are essential questions?
Essential questions are a great way of framing those overarching goals. Typically, they are a critical part of the Understanding by Design methodology. You can have an essential question for a unit and then have smaller goals for the lessons that comprise that unit. Effective essential questions set up the big picture, are open-ended, and thought-provoking. If properly used and worded, they create opportunities for students to actively engage with their learning.
How do these concepts help students learn?
The nature of an essential question sets up a thought exploration until the student arrives at an effective answer (but not necessarily the only answer). In another setting, it might be that the students all arrive at the same answer, but the path taken to get there looks very different. In either case, the student has to arrive in a way that makes sense to them and a way that they can validate that they have gotten an appropriate answer.
Why move towards a Humanities class, as opposed to the more traditional split between Language Art/English and Social Studies/History?
There are a number of schools at the middle school level that have decided to take this approach, including ones that Chapin visited and reviewed in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York City. Its main goals are to foster interdisciplinary instruction and thinking. This has great value in broadening the perspective of students and helps to prevent our thought process from becoming “siloed.” An example of this would be bringing the reading and literary analysis typically used in a Language Arts class to read a historical document more deeply, whether it be an important document like the Declaration of Independence, a newspaper report, or a historian’s account. Similarly, using cause and effect, or setting a piece of literature in its historical context, can help a reader understand that literature and its impact. Cross-subject area teaching also creates a synergy that goes beyond just borrowing tools and concepts from the other discipline that can be hard to measure, but you can still see it in students’ work and thinking.
Do you have experience with a cross-curricular approach?
Many years ago, I had the good fortune to work in a school that was committed to a Thinking Through Writing program. This convinced me of the importance of writing across the curriculum as a learning tool and the value of emphasizing metacognition (“thinking about one’s own thinking”) in that process. As a cross-disciplinary study, Humanities is well suited to pursue both of these objectives. Finally, by focusing on the big picture or topics a good humanities course keeps students centered on what’s important and de-emphasizes recall of discrete factual content or concepts that are limited to one reading or topic. This approach allows the teacher and students to step aside from a strictly linear approach to their studies — encouraging flexibility of thought. This further allows teachers to be more responsive to current needs, events, or what’s even happening in the students’ lives as it reduces the pressure to deliver this specific set of facts, plot lines, and so on in favor of pursuing an overall theme.
What reading initiatives are taking place in the lower grades at Chapin?
Chapin is investing a substantial portion of its professional development in enhancing its reading program. One area of concentration is to improve students’ working memory, which goes beyond the memorization of sight words, letters sounds, and letter combinations. It uses executive functions to develop memory strategies and systems. Denée Dill, our Director of Academics, will be leading this effort across all grades by using dedicated professional development opportunities to provide time to practice and reflect on new strategies.
We hear the phrase critical thinking a lot. What does that mean at Chapin?
There are many types of thinking - analytical, holistic, qualitative, quantitative, and so on. All of these will help Chapin students in their future educational experiences. For example, understanding how to do something and why you do something is far more empowering than recalling a specific process. If you understand how something is done, then you can more easily adapt to a slightly or even radically different context while still drawing on your abilities and knowledge. In another way, if you are used to taking both the content and skills you use in one class and applying them in another, you will have more tools to succeed and understand in any subject as opposed to being self-limited by the tools that are only typically used in a subject.
Can you give some examples?
As someone who took a lot of science and history courses, I had other methods and knowledge to bring to those courses that my classmates didn’t have or wouldn’t have thought to use. The objectivity stressed in science can be very helpful in getting a clearer picture of history. Similarly, knowing that ideas evolve over time and that the historical and social context influences the development of those ideas can help you understand how a scientific endeavor might be unknowingly hampered or influenced by that. Knowing that would allow the scientist to possibly transcend that and find a new paradigm.
And how does all of this help students charge ahead and prepare for their academic future?
Understanding By Design, Essential Questions and cross-disciplinary studies like Humanities nurture flexibility of thinking and higher-level thinking which in turn equips a student to tackle all of their educational challenges.