Recommendation from the Humanities Department
Humanities Course Shifts to Better Align with the EMHS Mission

Presented at a forum in February 2021
Attendees: English and History Teachers, Special Education Teachers, EMHS Administration, Multiple EMHS Alumni, Parents

Introduction

We thank you for engaging in dialogue with us about our courses and curriculum. The EMHS Humanities department is unanimously recommending that we move to an honors model for our courses. We trust our instructors to provide a collegiate level curriculum that challenges and enhances students as lifelong learners. We recognize that our students are being trained as artists, thinkers, and policy changers and we believe our content more than sufficiently gives them freedom to grow and think. We believe in creating a caring community that demonstrates integrity, genuine participation, respect, and autonomy to allow students and faculty to reach their full potential. While some strong ideas and practices emerged from our decade long experience with a dual credit model and our five year experiment with the College Board’s Advanced Placement courses, ultimately these models have proven to be untenable at EMHS. An honors model will allow us to create more meaningful and rigorous curriculum that remains consistent with EMHS’s and our department’s mission and values. We would like to gain more autonomy over the influences on our curriculum and have more instructor and student choice, especially with regard to the changing cultural climate and the timelines of our instruction. We would like to reclaim our professional development time to explore subject-specific research and ways to best implement a rigorous and innovative curriculum.

 1) Student Centered Curriculum & Skill Building

Under an honors model, the EMHS humanities department will align and develop curriculum without consideration of a specific institution’s requirements. The department will create a solid, independent curricular framework within the EMHS humanities department based upon the needs of  EMHS students. A framework that represents the values and mission of EMHS will facilitate meaningful reflection, collaboration, and decision making within our community.

The department believes in a curriculum that is student-driven (directed toward a student’s interests and forward planning for careers and college), project-based, rooted in Socratic seminar and discussion, and metacognitive reflective practices.

Our sense of a “skill pathway,” identifies critical touchstones for insightful consideration of history and social studies. By placing this skill pathway in the fore, we can later discuss the content that is non-negotiable. With dual-credit options available, students will sometimes seek out alternatives to “core classes”–these options inadvertently undermine the deeply intentional skill pathway we hope to develop within our own classes.

For example, the history department would like to emphasize the development of history-specific skills within each grade level and vertically aligning those skills, rather than aligning to College Board’s demands. We want to build out a better sense of what historical thinking is, and build a curriculum that explicitly develops mental models oriented around navigating complexity in social studies.

Basic skills that all students should possess are the ability to research and discern strong sources from weak ones. They should also understand the audience and purpose of a source. These will be especially developed in History 9, in collaboration with English 9 and upper-level history teachers. Students should also be able to develop an arguable thesis statement, rooted in evidence and fact. This will be taught in 9th grade history and further developed in 10th grade. That same year, students will also begin to learn how to contextualize history and begin to analyze sources and use them to defend an argument. By 11th and 12th grade, students should be able to articulate a strong thesis statement and deeply analyze and think about various historical topics. Additionally, they can begin to dive deep into causation and comparison and really pick apart some “meaty” topics.

The honors students can especially hone these skills, as their teachers will now be in charge of their own curriculum and untethered to the AP test. Their discussions will be deeper, their research more meaningful, and their learning more profound. The challenge in a history class is the balance of content versus skill. You cannot learn the skill without first learning the content, but you cannot develop skills if all you teach is content. Under this new honors model, teachers can more freely work with each other to collaborate on our specific students’ needs, as well as develop a robust history curriculum in each class that emphasizes both skills and content.

EMHS does not teach students what to think; we challenge them to learn to think on their own and provide them with resources and support to do so. We challenge each student to be a thoughtful problem solver, an insightful thinker, and to speak with intention. Students will continue to focus on college preparation in English 12 and Senior Seminar courses. They will learn not just reading and writing skills that have the majority of students working at the college level, but also include social and emotional skills that will be beneficial in their future college and career studies. If we want students to learn in experiential settings, we must approach our curriculum from a place where we design hands on experiences where teachers serve as facilitators who then ask students to apply those lessons to texts. Teachers want to research and explore ways to revamp our curriculum to be centered around student choice, student driven projects, a flipped classroom model and reflection. This gives us room to take risks in providing student choice and to spend time in areas that are valuable to students.

By shifting this model of classes, we open the way for us to craft truly innovative and meaningful curriculum that is unfettered by the requirements and constraints of other institutions and programs. We can work to craft a deeply meaningful path through the humanities that is in line with our school’s and department’s vision and objectives.

2) Culturally Responsive Practices and Promotion of Diversity

We believe in curriculum diversity, complexity of thought, and helping students make connections between the content they encounter and the things they experience and see in life and society. We encourage global citizenship and participation, recognition of diversity in community and society (both local and global), and an understanding of how literature, culture, media literacy, and changing social norms and expectations, speaks to the human condition. Encouraging students to participate in discussion models like Socratic Seminars allows students to have a voice and creates a safe environment for them to feel open to sharing ideas and learning diverse perspectives. Our Humanities program is designed to enhance and invite students to be thoughtful and responsible about community, environment, and their place in the world. We encourage them to be reflective and insightful about how the study of Humanities engages them with people their age from other cultures and communities, as well as what it looks like to be a member of the global community. Thoughtful reflection and feedback from instructions contributes to intellectual resiliency and encourages students to be challenged by multiple perspectives. We want students to feel empowered to create change in their community.

A collaborative model of professional development within our school and our community encourages experimentation by faculty and allows us to create innovative teaching practices. Our staff thoughtfully curate the curriculum to engage our community of students in a way that encourages them to reflect on their role in the mountain community, and how it might look once they leave this area; unfortunately, the prescribed model of AP and Dual Credit do not fully allow for this. We encourage diversity in reading and writing approaches, consider multiple perspectives and challenge students to guide their own thinking and learning based on their passions, commitments, and expectations of life in the 21st century. We provide intentional individualized attention and social emotional support for every student. We are innovators who are willing to take risks to best meet and engage our students. We would like to do this better, especially for our minority students, and this intention requires training, collaborative discussions, and a time investment. We want our campus to be a beacon for the values of diversity in our community and known for engaging each individual student as valued members of our community.

3) Enhancing Relationships with Colleges and Universities Sharing Our Vision

There is an emerging interest in collaborating with local and regional colleges and high schools of choice to formulate a more robust and culturally relevant curricular path. East Mountain High School was an inaugural member of St. John’s Southwest Partners program, placing us in a network of high-performing schools in the southwest United States. This network could easily be leveraged to coordinate a reconsideration of how we approach instruction in the humanities, and reconsider the skills, texts, and concepts that emerging leaders of tomorrow will need.

Similarly, we are interested in building a program oriented around the public humanities, a field defined by Tufts University as, “a field of scholarship and an advocacy movement with particular importance in our political and cultural moment…involv[ing] such collaborative practices as historical inquiry, recovery, and acknowledgment, as well as innovative uses of narrative and artistic expression to produce civically minded, creative, and just mutual engagements among a broad range of constituencies.” The field of public humanities is emerging as a focus of research and consideration at the college level, with only minor engagement in secondary education. The Humanities Department would like to explore an initiative to develop a public humanities program in high schools.

Another option would be to explore strengthening our relationships with regional universities who hold more prestigious reputations in our state. Currently our students take many classes through CNM and a handful of classes thHumanities would like to help develop opportunities for our students to enhance relationships with higher education institutes that reflects EMHS’s values, potentially with St. John’s, UNM, ENMU, Fort Lewis, NMSU and NM Tech. rough ENMU and UNM. Perhaps college visits and tours could become part of our overall school curriculum and our college preparatory endeavours. Our English 12 teachers would  like the opportunity to teach both composition, literature, philosophy, and creative writing in the same course, something they cannot do under the current model. Freeing the curriculum from CNM course restraints would allow us to create a more engaging and well rounded curriculum for our seniors.

Another option may be to explore adopting some of the values and practices of Colleges That Change Lives. CTCL school are small, liberal arts institutions known for such things as research opportunities for undergraduates, mentor relationships with professors, small/discussion-based classes, interdisciplinary opportunities, and student-driven experiential learning. These traits align closely with the values and mission of an EMHS education.

Ultimately, students will continue to focus on college preparation and post-secondary plans in English 12 and Senior Seminar courses. They will learn not just reading and writing skills that have the majority of students working at the college level, but also include social and emotional skills that will be beneficial in their future college and career studies. Excellent, well-designed curriculum uses backwards planning. When we begin planning from another institution’s expectations for summative assessments, we lose autonomy over our curriculum. 

 4) Implementing Innovative Evaluation and Feedback Models

We would like to explore, research, and experiment with stronger and more innovative ways to give students effective feedback and incorporate reflection into our evaluation of students’ work. An honors model allows us to determine the parameters of our assessments, to adjust the number and type of standards that students need to meet, to create a much-needed “depth over breadth” model, to collaborate with other innovative high schools and to create meaningful relationships with colleges and universities that share our values and goals for students.

Currently, Creative Writing teachers have moved to a standards based grading model which not only has immediate benefits around grading equity in our school, but also allows student choice and autonomy over their evaluations. These are time consuming overhauls that allow us to create unique and collaborative approaches to assessment which sets us apart from other institutions and curriculum organizations, and requires increased collaboration between colleagues and time investments from faculty.

The Humanities Department is suited to piloting a move towards a standards-based assessment model, and would like to explore replacing conventional models focused on GPA. In collaboration with other departments, we propose a five-year rollout of a new assessment model that would ultimately replace numerical GPA calculations in favor of a more thorough and full-featured student profile. (Additional details available here.)

Another option could be to champion a Humanities Diploma of Excellence as an institution. We currently have graduation requirements for a Timberwolf Diploma of Excellence and our vision for the Humanities Diploma of Excellence would build on this model but replace the requirements with subject-specific endeavours. We’d like to reward students who show exceptional critical and analytical thinking within the Humanities and who go above and beyond to take the Humanities electives we offer and who excel in these courses. Potential requirements could be a multicultural/diversity studies project, an independent study that includes an interdisciplinary element requiring students to apply their passions and interests to multiple subject areas, and/or a service learning component.

Conclusions

We believe that returning to an honors model will allow us more autonomy over our curriculum and will ultimately spur increased collaboration among our department and create more well-rounded, thoughtful students. Additionally, an honors model will aid us in creating innovative feedback models, culturally relevant curriculum, and allow us to focus on the skills within our curriculum that are most relevant to our community. Moving to an honors model will give us back our professional development time and allow us to more effectively and efficiently collaborate among ourselves and explore the above ideas. We want our curriculum and students’ overall experience in the Humanities to be rigorous and to genuinely prepare students for a variety of post-secondary experiences.