“We Have More Thinking Now”
On a recent day in “From Hiroshima to 9/11,” an advanced history elective at Westtown School, students read “The Catastrophe of Arab Defeat,” a mournful elegy written in response to the Six-Day War by Nizar Qubbani, a Syrian diplomat and author. At various times, the class has debated whether the U.S. should re-tool aging nuclear weapons, pondered if the effects of global warming are irreversible, and screened “Death in Gaza,” an award-winning documentary about the Arab-Israeli conflict. “It’s a course about our world right now,” said one student. “We’re able to have a dialogue about the events we’re living in.”
Current events are a detour in most history classes, to be discussed in passing before the class hunkers down to study the stuff that will be on the test. While the unsolved crises of today scream from the headlines, history classes generally carry students through an unchanging narrative of what happened yesterday.
“It’s a course about our world right now,” said one student. “We’re able to have a dialogue about the events we’re living in.”
“From Hiroshima to 9/11” connects study of the post-war world to the lives of today’s students. “It is a class about what it means to be a teenager living in the shadow of 9/11,” said teacher Joe Marchese. Because the course covers only 60 years, students can delve into details such as the apportionment of water rights between Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank. The culminating project of the Arab-Israeli unit is not a test, but a project wherein students must propose a solution to the conflict.
The course is typical of the in-depth electives offered at Westtown, which replaced the AP designation from the last of its courses in 2007. “The development of unique advanced courses by every academic department - from traditional subjects to religion and the arts - has been one of the most invigorating inteallectual experiences our faculty has ever had. And that’s translating into rigorous and exciting learning experiences for our kids,” said Susan Tree, Director of College Counseling. Though some faculty worried that the new curriculum would appear less rigorous to college admissions offices, Tree maintains that moving away from AP has benefited Westtown students because advanced courses in non-AP subjects are now taken more seriously. “Before, the bean counters would simply look for the AP designation and de-value courses that were actually more advanced than AP,” she said. One such course is Religion and Social Change, which probes the religous dimension of Gandhi’s non-violent resistence, the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, and the contemporary women’s movement, among others.
Rather than offering a single advanced course in each subject, Westtown provides a variety of them from which students can choose. “It brings in people who actually want to take the course, rather than people taking it simply because they want to look good to colleges. It is fun to be in a class where everybody is engaged,” said an 11th grader. Without a curriculum set in stone, teachers can use student input to help define the direction of the course. “With AP, you’re always having to throw away interesting stuff,” said math teacher Kwesi Koomson. “We have more thinking now and more discussion, instead of lecturing and having to get through the material.” Though Westtown offers Calculus and Calculus 2, its most advanced math course is Linear Algebra, taught by Koomson, in which students explore research topics such as Markov chains, linear differential equations, and Least-Squares problems. “If a student is interested in something a little off topic, we have time to explore that,” said Koomson.
“We have more thinking now and more discussion, instead of lecturing and having to get through the material.”
Life is also richer for the faculty. “There is tremendous pressure in AP courses to cover a certain number of novels and genres,”said English teacher Kevin Gallagher. “Now, I can teach what I think is interesting.” Adds a student, “Teachers are free to be who they are as scholars.”
Without AP, Westtown is an entire school that is free to be what it is. That’s a good deal for students and teachers alike.