Two weeks ago we shared with students our changes in the high school curriculum, and the slide show covering those changes is above.  (The presentation was in prezi, but wordpress doesn’t support prezi embeds, so, sadly, it has been converted to powerpoint).

As Dr. Michelle Berry, our History department chair, said in enthusiastically introducing the presentation, “We have lots of changes— and I think they are pretty cool.”

The excitement to me among our students is pretty apparent; one of our student journalists came in to interview me recently, and as I articulated the reasons for the changes, her eyes grew wider.  I worried she was appalled, and inquired of her, and she told me no, not at all: “I am so excited about these changes: this is really great.”

These innovations in our curriculum have come quickly, after a rich January conversation at our school’s Academic Committee meeting emerged somewhat spontaneously after a provocative question about the importance of providing students more choice and having offerings that might be more exciting to them.

In the course of that conversation and subsequent ones, nine values and/or goals have emerged informing and underpinning the new curricular structure.

What is the new format?  We are moving away in most of our departments from a four year defined curriculum sequence of year-long, generic (or non-specific, non-“branded”) survey classes.

Instead, it might be said we are aping a collegiate curricular format, continuing with the year-long survey courses in grades nine and ten, and then replacing what was the default, (single option year-long survey in grades eleven and twelve) with semester electives, in most cases more than one in each department each semester, which are topical, more narrowly defined subjects of study.

(I should acknowledge that while this is an important development for our program, it is not extraordinarily rare– many other of the most “intentional” independent schools already do something similar).

A good example can be found in English. Instead of English 4 in 12th grade, students have the choice, in the first semester, of Narratives of Place or Does Race Matter?, and in the second, Shakespearean Tragedy or Duty, Leadership and Power. A full course catalog, still in draft form but nearly completed, can be found here.

Another change worth noting is that, with more choice available and so many great offerings, we have decided to increase the required graduation requirements, such that now students are required to complete not three but four years (8 semester units) of coursework in Science, History, and Math.  (English has always been four, and Languages continues to be three).

The principles and values underlying these changes include the following:

1. More choice for students.

We all recognize that secondary students crave more decision-making latitude, and crave respect for their growing independence. We are preparing them, after-all, for the ultimate choice-friendly environment, the smorgasbord that is college, and we should begin now giving them some greater degree of choice.   Furthermore, we all have greater buy-in to whatever we are doing if we believe we chose it, rather than having had it foisted upon us: students will likely work harder and feel better about that work if they believe they have chosen the course of study they are pursuing.

To quote our long-time teacher and Upper School Head, Susan Heintz,

I have always wanted our students to have more choices, and I think one-semester courses make it possible to offer some very interesting ones. I don’t for one moment fear a loss of challenge or academic rigor, but the element of choice gives students more buy-in.

2. More opportunity for faculty to teach to their passions and their areas of expertise– and to teach in areas which they are continuing to learn about and research. Passionate teachers are the most memorable, and many of us probably have vivid memories of our favorite teachers from youth as being those who taught subjects they adored.  My sixth grade teacher springs to mind; an African American man in the mid-seventies, teaching us about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.  Astounding.

When teachers get to choose what they are teaching, and choose their passions, learning takes on vast new dimensions of energy and enthusiasm.  What is also great is when teachers choose to teach topics not that they have already or long mastered, but topics they are actively learning about and researching currently, because when they do, they model life-long learning and the research process for their students.   Angela Maiers writes frequently, and passionately, about the value of passion-based learning on her blog.

3.  Depth over breadth, and Less is More.  Increasingly, everyone in education is coming to recognize that as the universe of knowledge and informational facts expands exponentially, we need to learn thinking by a focused concentration on a narrow field of study, into which we can delve, discover, and debate.  David Truss wrote a terrific piece recently, entitled Less is More: Teach Less, Learn More, which I recommend highly.

4. More collegiate style topical seminars and investigations. An intellectual ability many college students lack is the ability to recognize, interpret, and articulate an argument.   Many, many too many, struggle in their college years because they perceive their responsibility as being to master a single series of sequentially ordered and uncontested bits of knowledge, when their professors are actually asking them to learn and understand multiple, competing narratives, and to distinguish among them.  For more on this, see Gerald Graff’s outstanding and under-appreciated book, Clueless in Academe.

Now, certainly it is possible for students to learn the craft of argument inside of a year-long survey class, (I am having a flashback to teaching Foucault’s History of Sexuality in the 9th grade Ancient History class I taught for many years),  but it is relatively harder to do so because the whole construct of the course suggests to students there is a single, sustained narrative to be learned.  With topical seminars, students are more likely from the start to recognize they are undertaking a constructed inquiry into a subject, and in that inquiry can seek out and debate competing interpretations.

5.  Subjects better suited to PBL. A major element of my educational leadership has been to promote a greater embrace of project-based learning using technology throughout the curriculum; this is in close accordance with the NAIS Commission on Schools of the Future argument that PBL is a defining and signature element of effective “schools of the future.”   Narrower topics of studies, constructed as inquiries and taught in seminar style, lend themselves to being that much more available to being taught using PBL techniques.

6.  Greater opportunity for interdisciplinary connections. This is an element that has been especially enticing to some of our teachers: by careful planning and coordination, our teachers can teach discipline based courses with parallel themes or subjects, and our students can have a much more powerful, connected, integrated learning experience.   Our teachers too benefit enormously from the greater opportunities for collaboration: research projects, for instance, can be linked and then assessed jointly.   An example of this in next year’s program will be the coinciding seminars of The American West, Borders and Frontiers, in the History department, and Environmental Systems in the Science department.  In time, we intend to seek opportunities for English courses to be similarly co-ordinated.

7.  Courses which better support study and exploration of our school’s two core themes: leadership and innovation. This is especially exciting to me; since adopting a new school motto, Creating Leaders and Innovators, which itself builds on very long-standing and deep school themes, we are steadily developing more and more learning experiences which support the motto.  We can see now in the English department a new course in Duty, Leadership, and Power; in the Arts department, which is moving away from what has been a single required course, Survey of Art and Music, the new model offers students elective options among historical innovations in music, or art, or theater.

The art department will also offer a new course in Public Speaking, an essential element of a leadership education curriculum.  Also, the experiential education department is offering a new course in introductory leadership studies, intended primarily for 9th and 10th graders who are seeking to earn one of our new diplomas in leadership.

8. Scaling down, but not eliminating, the AP. Many schools are moving swiftly away from the AP program, and/or eliminating it altogether, and they are doing so for many good reasons, many of them the reasons stated above.  We at St. Gregory see the arguments for doing so, and we respect that for many of our students or families, AP courses are still very important and strongly ind demand.  We are also holding out hope that the forthcoming changes in the AP curriculum, promised by the College Board, will  correct for the deep flaws in the current program.

With these initiatives, we are seeking to find a new, more balanced approach: AP courses are still available, but students can opt out of them into these new electives, and can do so with confidence that the course titles and descriptions will appear and appeal to college admissions officers as attractive, even stand-out,  intellectual challenges.

9. More “real-world” connected, situated, and applied learning. I know many hate the “real-world” topic, either because they believe that there is no separating wall between the school and the world, or because they believe there is nothing at all wrong with asking and supporting students in learning the great thoughts of the sciences and humanities, even should they have no real-world immediate applications.  The latter argument is very appealing to me: I have taught Greek Classics and Ancient Philosophy many times in the past, and hope to do so again; nothing in this new curriculum eliminates such opportunities, and you can see in the course description courses such as Shakespeare and The West in the World.

But, the new semester offerings do, valuably I think,  provide more opportunities for teachers to shape courses that go further in real-world connections.   Narrative of Place, for instance, or the American West: Borders and Frontiers, offer exciting new opportunities for students to study and research right in their own backyards, looking through the prisms of their family histories and in archives they have immediate access to.   Plus, our Math curriculum is adding a new course in Introduction to Quantitative Analysis, which has as its primary goal the study of Math in the world we occupy: probability and statistics, data gathering and analysis, modeling.  This is math you can use.  Our new leadership course, too, asks of students they shape projects that engage and respond to their immediate communities.

If you are interested in more information, you are welcome to watch the following video, in which our academic department chairs discuss and explain the new curricular initiatives.