Asheville School’s Humanities Program Wins National Praise

11/20/2009  |  LOGAN DELOACH
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It’s been nearly five years since Asheville School first adopted a new approach to teaching Humanities, and now educators at some of the top institutions across the U.S. are beginning to take notice. Sarah Wilson, a seventh-year Humanities teacher at the school has witnessed the birth of this innovative program and has seen it grow and blossom into the cerebral powerhouse it has now become. The original conception of the Humanities program at Asheville School five years ago started small, asking freshmen English and history teachers to align their curriculum and team-teach three days a week in the classroom, for 90-minute periods. This was, admittedly, a difficult task, though the school quickly understood that it was a task well worth the effort. “We realized, even in that first year, that it was the right fit — that it was going to work,” said Wilson.

In its current arrangement, the Humanities program entails team-teaching twice a week, for one-hour class periods. On the other three days of the week, English and history teachers, who are constantly teaching art, music, history, and English as one discipline, teach students separately. Team-teaching not only gives teachers a chance to work together to build a solid curriculum,

John Gregory, Chair of Asheville School s Humanities Department, says Asheville School s integrated Humanities program has been successful because it encourages his students to think critically and make important connections to English, history, art and music.

but it also allows students to see the real connections that are being made in the program. “Certainly students are benefiting from studying, for example, the history of Mesopotamia as they simultaneously explore literary aspects of The Epic of Gilgamesh. The cross-disciplinary approach provides more depthof instructionand understanding,”saidJimGardner,a Humanities teacher at Asheville School since 1994.

In addition to providing an integrated, comprehensive education in English, history, art, and music, Humanities teachers are providing students with tools for success by incorporating a rigorous writing program, culminating in one final research project for seniors,entitled “The Senior Demonstration.” This is every student’s capstone academic experience at Asheville School. Students are allowed to research and write about any subject of their choosing, resulting in two major papers and an oral defense of the student’s work.

Students are responding just as positively to the integrated Humanities curriculum as the teachers. “The Humanities are great because the teachers can connect almost anything in the course, from Gilgamesh to NASCAR,” said freshman Jeremiah Ballew. Students are realizing the true value of the education they are receiving in these integrated classes. “We teach thinking,” said Wilson. “We assess their ability to connect… we teach the power of individualism within society.” Students are not only learning information in these courses, they are thinking critically. They are gaining perspective and they are becoming empowered.

In the spring of 2008, Asheville School invited a visiting team of five educators from all over the country to evaluate this young and ever-growing program. The results of this evaluation were positive, constructive and hopeful for the future. The report concluded, “the program establishes a learning routine that regularly calls for pondering significant questions over time, for creative thinking and shared interaction among faculty and students at all times. What the Asheville School Humanities Program is doing is transformative.”

A chief contributor to the current success of the Humanities program is a major grant from the Pope Foundation, solely for use in the Humanities.This fund allows the school to finance teachers’ Masters degree programs, provide other means of professional development, and even support educational trips abroad.

“One of the great things the Pope Foundation allowed me to experience during my three years at Asheville School was to chaperone two student trips to Italy,” said Patrick Burke, European Studies teacher. “Traveling through Italy with my colleagues and students was a great experience. I am eternally grateful to Asheville School, the Humanities department and the Pope Foundation for that opportunity.”

What’s next for Asheville School’s Humanities program? End-of-year faculty meetings will set goals for the writing curriculum, individual course units and integrated class time management. Asheville School will boldly go where few schools have gone before — further and further into complete integration of the Humanities. As more schools realize the value of a comprehensive Humanities education, many are sure to follow Asheville School’s confident lead.

Logan DeLoach is the Humanities teacher at Asheville School in Asheville NC. For more information, visit www.ashevilleschool.org.
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