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Teaching Arts Holistically


Workshop participants work on lesson plans that include the introduction of works of art.
Photo Credit: 
Photo courtesy of SiCA

Local Teachers and Stanford Faculty Partner to Improve Humanities Education

During the recent Teaching Studio seminar held at Stanford, local high school teachers, predominantly in English and history, learned that taking a more holistic approach to teaching humanities subjects can yield positive results for their students.

Teachers involved in the two-week long institute partnered with Stanford professors to design new approaches to instruction in the humanities. They were provided with the resources - time, materials and support - to create lessons that incorporate new technologies and approaches to teaching history and English.

The institute titled, “Secondary Literacy, Humanities, and the Arts,” was sponsored by the newly formed Center for the Support of Excellence in Teaching (CSET), a part of Stanford’s K-12 Initiative, and supported by both the K-12 Initiative and the Stanford Institute for Creativity in the Arts (SiCa.)   The Institute included 2 workshops:  a workshop on teaching the humanities and a second workshop on composing arguments across multiple genres.  CSET draws on the resources of Stanford scholars to help improve the quality of teaching in local schools both through research and by working directly with teachers.

This program, the first launched by CSET, aims to create a sense of intellectual community between teachers from SF United and Stanford Teacher Education Program’s (STEP) partner schools and Stanford faculty; the focus of the two workshops was developed in conversations among these different players.

Interdisciplinary Teaching, a Growing Trend

The emphasis on teaching humanities arose in part because several of the STEP partner schools have humanities courses rather than separate English and history classes.   “One of the new trends [in secondary education] is more collaborative, interdisciplinary teaching, but there aren’t many training opportunities available to teachers,” Bryan Wolf, program co-director and Stanford art history professor said.

Wolf gave an example of how interdisciplinary learning benefits students. “A student can learn so much more about a period of history by studying an excerpt of literature, a piece of art or documents from the period, rather than just memorizing dates.” Pam Grossman, program co-director and a professor in the School of Education, Director of CSET and co-editor of a book on interdisciplinary curriculum explained that interdisciplinary teaching has a long history in US secondary schools, but teachers experience relatively few opportunities to learn how best to teach the humanities.  “Too often, such interdisciplinary courses give short shrift to either English or history, and seldom do the arts play a central role,” commented Grossman.

Multimedia Training Fosters Critical Thinking

Running from June 22 to July 2, the program’s focus was on this shifting landscape of the humanities and the way humanities are taught in secondary schools today.

English teacher Lena Jones definitely took away the importance of the interdisciplinary approach. “Being able to have a more a more structured aspect of looking at literature from a historical standpoint is very important,” Jones, who is in her fourth year at Fremont High School said. “Allowing students to look at literature from all different perspectives—I’m hoping that’s what they will seek. It’s not just one lens.”

Hosting around two-dozen students evenly split into two seminars, the program also emphasized critical approaches to reading and writing and how the teachers could further instill such skills in their students.  In the “Teaching Humanities” seminar, led by Profs. Grossman and Wolf, the teachers practiced their close reading skills on a variety of different materials: historical documents, literary texts, and visual images. 

In the “Composing Arguments” workshop participants looked closely at the features of a persuasive argument, and practiced reading arguments across a variety of genre and media. Then, with workshop leaders, Jennifer Wolf, an instructor in the School of Education and Human Biology, and Christine Alfano, an instructor in the Program on Writing and Rhetoric, students considered the most engaging and effective ways to teach the features of persuasive argument to humanities students, starting by constructing collections of multimedia arguments and transitioning into writing academic argument.

In both workshops, teachers first practiced these approaches to reading and writing on their own.  In the “Composing Arguments”, teachers first learned to construct their own argument using multimedia resources and prior to planning a unit for their students. In the “Teaching Humanities,” rather then just reading about the Japanese internment camps during World War II, they examined a 1943 painting by Henry Sugimoto entitled My Papa.  

“It becomes a primary document,” Wolf said of the image. “You have to work from within the image to understand how it generates meaning.” A history teacher in his fourth year at Fremont High, Geoff Beckstrom said that this was one of the biggest points he will bring back to the classroom. “The humanities approach is naturally rich,” he said. “Students can have another kind of aspect. It’s about weaving a web, and the more documents you can bring in, the more likely you can ensnare [students]. They have to work to sort it out. That critical thinking, that work, is what we’re always trying to get them to do.” Wolf’s goal for participating teachers was that they would be “excited by the sense of intellectual exploration. That they were really engaged in thoughtful interrogation. At some level, that they were brought intellectually alive. [and] that they will feel empowered to back to school and really translate that structurally.”

Bringing Inspiration Back to the Classroom

The Stanford Teachers Studio may have accomplished exactly what it set out to do. Drew Grimshaw, an English teacher for over 13 years, felt particularly rejuvenated by the program. “This workshop has been an extremely useful experience,” he said. “It’s reenergized me and reminded me about all the links between English and history.” There will also be plenty of follow-up opportunities available, as the participating teachers are encouraged to report back to the program with the progress they have made with their students. 

Participants will stay in touch with each over the coming year via a new website set up for teachers to exchange information, comments, etc. In addition, participants will be invited back during the school year and again next summer to review and reflect on their experiences. Teachers came from 6 different schools, and all had multiple representatives. As Wolf explained, this was done to ensure that each school with participating teachers would take at least something substantial from the program. “Each school has more than one person,” Wolf said. “We don’t want to throw them out into the ocean. You can’t change everything at once, but you can work district by district and school by school.”

Program sponsors hope that it will grow to include schools beyond the Bay Area.