“Because I Create My Curriculum, I Own It”
Steve Nelson is the Head of Calhoun School. He is also a professionally-trained violinist, a speed skater, a former college vice president, and a columnist for a daily newspaper in Vermont. He likes it when the youngest Calhoun students greet him by hugging his legs.
Nelson firmly believes that good teachers must be fully engaged with the world around them. “All things being equal, I would love to have a chemistry teacher who is also a jazz saxophonist. We want our school to be filled with real, authentic humans who are alive and have diverse interests,” he said.
On the subject of the AP curriculum, Nelson goes a step further. “Anyone who has a lively mind is not going to settle for teaching things the way somebody else says you should. If my life is richer because I’ve been immersed in jazz and the blues, how could I not teach a history class using that as a perspective?”
“We’re really outspoken,” said one student, “We learn to say what we think, and how to respectfully disagree.”
Instead of AP U.S. History or AP World History, Calhoun’s upper-level history courses include (among others) U.S. Foreign Policy, 1799-Present; Immigrant Narratives: New York Through New Eyes; Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in the American West; Globalization and Its Discontents; and History and Politics of the Modern Middle East. The latter is taught by Michal Hershkovitz, who describes as “electric” the class’s debates on the Arab-Israeli conflict. “When I teach courses that reflect my passions, I am at my best,” said Hershkovitz.
Student passions are equally important at Calhoun. When students asked for an upper-level elective on The Bible as Literature, the English Department created one. A second course, Modern American Drama, which includes works from Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, and Lillian Hellman, among others, was also created in part because of student interest. “Adults often underestimate teens,” said English Teacher Phil Tedeschi, “Our students are forward thinkers who are drawn to rigor.”
Calhoun students understand what they’re getting. “Not having AP classes allows us to do more of the stuff we’re interested in,” said a student in grade 11. One of her favorite classes is “Imagining Gender and Film,” an upper-level elective that straddles English and Social Studies. On a recent afternoon, the class was dissecting “Kramer vs. Kramer” and contrasting Dustin’s Hoffman’s likeable (if klutzy) efforts to be Mr. Mom with Meryl Streep’s darker portrayal of the woman who walked out on him. “It’s totally different from any class I’ve ever taken,” said one student, “We come up with so many hypotheses. We go crazy. And it’s a lot harder than everybody thinks.” This student explains that she is much happier at Calhoun than at her previous school, which teaches the AP curriculum. “It puts some students on pedestals and makes other students feel really bad,” she said, noting that Calhoun’s atmosphere is much less stressful.
At Calhoun, student interests are not a detour from the curriculum – they are the curriculum. “The first job of our faculty is to find out about each student’s strengths rather than their weaknesses,” said Jen de Forest, Upper School Director, “The best teachers are the ones who get students talking to students.” The liveliness of those student-to-student discussions is a Calhoun hallmark. “We’re really outspoken,” said a junior, “We learn to say what we think, and how to respectfully disagree.”
“The school encourages you to look outside your comfort zone,” said one student, “I never thought I would be interested in Constitutional Law.”
Calhoun’s teacher-designed curriculum also encourages students to experiment with new subjects. If an eleventh grader in an AP curriculum wants to experiment, he or she must weigh the potential impact of a low score on the AP exam, or, the impact of forgoing an AP course for another one without the AP label that might seem more interesting. At Calhoun, students are often willing to experiment because a teacher whom they know has created the course. “The school encourages you to look outside your comfort zone,” said one student, “I never thought I would be interested in Constitutional Law.”
Nelson worries that education today “is less a joyous adventure than a tedious exercise.” He is fond of asking parents to recall the highlights of their own education. “It’s usually when a teacher left the prescribed curriculum and ignored the rigorous trappings,” he said. At Calhoun, there is no agenda outside of serving the needs and interests of the students sitting in the classroom. In the words of English teacher Ellen Kwon, “Once the class begins, we’re creating English 11 together. Each of us feels very much empowered.”
More information about Calhoun School.