It’s the middle of May, and the hallways of Hathaway Brown are a little quieter than usual. Ending their last academic year of high school just the week before, 95 members of the Class of 2017 are closing out the final month of their high school career writing their thesis papers off campus.
The end of the busy school year is often a quiet time for the students and teachers still in the classrooms after AP exams have wrapped. And while hallway chatter shifts from PSATs to Prom, in the classrooms a lot of listening goes on. In fact, it was during this quiet time two years ago that the still of the school year lent itself to a productive conversation between then first-year Upper School English Teacher Toni Thayer and her students.
She says that while her students had felt they were more than ready academically for college, there was some expressed desire for more hands-on, real-life learning.
Thayer, along with Director of the Center for Civic Engagement, Stephanie Heidemann, developed a task force to address this educational gap. Teachers and administrators came together throughout the next school year to explore topics outside of standard curriculum in an effort to help make those connections for students in a classroom setting. It was there that the Vitae Term curriculum at Hathaway Brown School was first conceived, its title inspired by the Latin word for “life” and the school’s mission of “Non Scholae Sed Vitae Discimus” (preparation for life).
Now in its second year, the Vitae Term classes offer Upper School girls the chance to participate in interdisciplinary mini-courses, engaging in dialogue and hands-on learning — all of which are part of the school’s Strategic Plan, which indicates a goal of creating a transformative curriculum and robust interdisciplinary planning.
Topics for the Vitae Term have included Chaos & Fractals, taught by Upper School Mathematics and Computer Science Teacher Michael Buescher; Last Days of Pompeii, taught by Upper School Latin Teacher Adam Kollin; and Knitting, Theory and Practice taught by Upper School English Teacher Beth Armstrong and Director of the Center for Technology & Invention Leah Jackson.
“It’s a great opportunity for the students to dig into a topic themselves without being evaluated, encouraging curiosity, questioning, and finding answers,” said Thayer.
And the students concur.
“I had a blast during my Vitae Term because I was given the chance to learn about Pompeii, a topic I’ve been fascinated with my whole life but was never focused on in the classroom,” said Lekha Medarametla ’18.
Two additional courses were introduced into the curriculum in 2017. One was Ending World Hunger, taught by Head of School Dr. Fran Bisselle, Director of the Center for Sustainability Torrey McMillan ’90, along with Thayer and Hiedemann. Over the two weeks of class time, students examined the hunger crises from Zambia to Syria and Nicaragua to at home in Ohio, while identifying problems and potential solutions.
Also introduced this year was a new course taught by educators from every school division, appropriately titled Adulting 101. Students gained baseline insight on everything from changing a tire to writing a resume — practical “adult” skills that help students navigate life after high school. The topics were crowdsourced by faculty members and organized by Dr. Crystal Miller, director of the center for science research and engineering.
In the age of Google where students can learn about anything immediately, the classes offer an experience to learn these life skills firsthand from the educators they already trust, Miller said.
“The students learn skills that are really worthwhile, and the teachers have really enjoyed teaching them,” said Dr. Miller.
While Vitae Term classes are not formally graded, students are required to share their new knowledge in the form of a class presentation, case studies, or individual portfolios, for example. It’s one last project for the students to complete, putting their new skills to the test before the end of the school year, leaving them with more knowledge and confidence than before.
Both Thayer and Hiedemann agree that the Vitae Term curriculum has so far been successful, and plans are to continue the course during the 2017-2018 school year.
“Students and faculty both have had this really terrific opportunity to learn from each other,” said Thayer.
Heidemann agrees, “It’s truly just all about learning.”
Adapted from the forthcoming Fall/Winter 2017 HB admissions magazine.