Meeting of the Minds
In a striking example of creative academic collaboration, a pair of Western Albemarle High School teachers in two different disciplines dreamed up a way to mesh their curricula into a team project that could also serve to enlighten third-graders at Brownsville Elementary. WAHS uses a “global studies” model that matches up freshman English and World History classes so that their content tracks in tandem, and teachers James Walsh (history) and Allison Phanthavong (language arts) decided to take their joint class project one step further.
“The whole point of any learning experience is that you need an audience,” says Walsh, “so we decided to have the ninth-graders write stories they would then read to third-graders.” The freshmen had learned about ancient civilizations such as Egypt, China, and Mali in history class and had worked on narrative writing pieces in language arts. The blended assignment was for groups of two or three students to write an elementary-age fiction tale based on elements of one of the civilizations and to illustrate it with digital art.
“We worked with an instructional coach, Amber Roberts, who was absolutely wonderful,” said Phanthavong, and together the teachers created expectations, a rubric, and a work calendar for the project. The students put their initial ideas onto storyboards, which allowed the Brownsville teachers to give them feedback on reading level and appropriate content. Aiming their writing at a typical third-grader was part of the challenge for the high schoolers.
“We did have groups struggle with the writing, or with the illustration, or just with being in groups, but it was a great learning experience for everybody,” said Walsh. When the day came for the WAHS students to hike over to Brownsville to read their stories aloud to small groups of third-graders, Walsh was struck by the “underlying mentorship” on display. “It’s something we had thought about and hoped would happen,” he said, “but now that I see it, it’s so awesome.”
“It’s a great introduction to these civilizations,” said Brownsville teacher Laura Crotteau. “It really piques the students’ curiosity and exposes them to little bits of information and ideas. We’ll be starting our studies in a month or so.” The plan is for the high schoolers’ stories, which are currently printed on regular paper, to be bound at the county’s printing facility into books that Brownsville students can all access in their classrooms.
While some of the WAHS students’ stories were simple “hero’s journey” tales, others tried a more interactive approach such as a “choose your own adventure” story where listeners decided what happened next at crucial plot pivot points. Ninth-grader Isabelle Lee and her partner wrote and illustrated a story about ancient China. “We made sure it had all the stuff about that civilization, plus I added a sea monster just for fun,” said Lee, who thought the project was challenging and unusual. “It’s definitely nothing I would have done otherwise, but it was really fun.”
Brownsville teacher Bethany Robinson noted another way the project was a turnabout for the third-graders as well. “Our students are most often writing for someone else; they’re not normally the audience in this way,” said Robinson. “That’s our big opportunity today—someone is preparing a gift for us, a story. Next, we’ll be writing stories for shadow puppets to present to the first-graders, and our students will take this experience with them into that project.”
At the beginning of eighth grade, most of the 25 students on Henley Middle School’s State Champion “We the People” team didn’t really know what civics was, much less how to navigate their way around the U.S. Constitution. But they have been quick learners and now will head to the program’s national competition in Washington, D.C., to demonstrate their knowledge of government and their ability to marshal a convincing argument.
We the People is an innovative program sponsored by the Center for Civic Education that “promotes civic competence and responsibility among the nation’s upper elementary and secondary students” via textbook instruction and an annual competition. “All of our eighth-graders participate in the in-school rounds in the fall, and the students who really like it continue on to the regional competition by preparing as a club during their free time,” said Pam Koury, one of two eighth-grade civics teachers who lead the program at Henley.
The competition asks students to research and write about broad topics that touch on constitutional issues, history, and government. “Topics are divided into units, with four of us working on each unit, and they start by giving us a set of questions to write an essay on,” said team member Evan Conway. A sample question might be: What weaknesses did the founders see in their proposed government structure and how did they plan to overcome those in the Constitution? Students have four minutes to read their prepared essay aloud, followed by a six-minute question-and-answer period in which judges probe their argument.
“The judges basically want to make sure your answer has a constitutional example in it, and a [Supreme] court case to back it up,” said team member Kat Love. “A big part of We the People is teaching you how to make your argument stronger by backing it up with evidence. They really try to test you and push you and sometimes even confuse you to make sure your argument is solid.”
Team member Eavan Driscoll’s group topic was due process and the First Amendment, and one of their questions involved whether a public speaker who incites a crowd to commit a violent act can also be held accountable for the act. “It’s very controversial deciding whether the First Amendment protects people asking for violence; there are fine lines,” said Driscoll. “A very good skill you need for this is teamwork, as one member of the group might have strong background knowledge on a topic and can take the lead in answering, and then the others can add to that.”
Defending their position to the judges requires clear thinking on the fly plus a store of detailed facts and examples in mind. “Sometimes you can try to direct the judges toward something you know about,” said Conway, “and it’s always great when you can bring something up that applies.” Conway himself did just that in competition by using an example from the Saudi Arabian constitution that he and teammate Maya MacMillin had happened to look up one day out of pure curiosity.
What accounts for Henley’s success? “The enthusiasm from the students is what I think sets us apart from other teams, and we’ve heard from the judges that they can see our students clearly love what they’re talking about,” said civics teacher and coach Amelia Bochain. Both teachers note that this year’s group stands out in terms of being willing to spend lots of free time researching and learning.
Koury also credits the “institutional support” she and others receive. “I was invited to a professional development event and learned about We the People, brought it back and just jumped in with my amazing partner,” said Koury. “The support we’ve received is fantastic.”
Their enhanced civics knowledge pays off in lots of ways, say the students. “Personally, I like talking, especially about politics, and I like to argue,” said Love. “This group has taught me a lot about how to think about opinions, too. I feel that, really, every opinion is a ‘good opinion’ if you have evidence that it is one.”
“My family is very political,” said MacMillin, “and over this year I’ve been able to understand topics much more clearly and now I can talk with my family about them.” Driscoll agrees: “I used to just jump into an argument,” she said, “but now I can prove my point.”
The national We the People competition will be held on May 4-6, and the students can’t wait to tackle the new topic questions and to explore the nation’s capital.
“This will be the motherlode of what we’re learning about,” said MacMillin. “Can we go see the Constitution?” she asked the teachers. The answer is yes, and beyond a visit to the National Archives, they hope to tour some of the monuments as well.
After all the hard work, the teachers are able only to watch from the sidelines, but that’s okay, says Bochain. “Once they begin the competition it’s all about their knowledge and preparation, and it’s a moment for us to kind of sit back and be proud,” she said. We are all proud of these young citizens—best of luck to the Henley team!
Note: The team has established a GoFundMe account to help defray their expenses at the national competition, at www.gofundme.com/send-henley-ms-to-we-the-people-nationals.
The Western Albemarle High School Leadership Program is launching an ambitious service day event, slated for the morning of March 25, that will send every WAHS student to areas both within the school and out in the community that could use a helping hand. Dubbed “WAHS with a Cause,” the event’s goal is to get all students involved with civic engagement, and close to 50 projects have been lined up toward that end.
“In the past the freshmen have had a service day and there was senior seminar and a few other events, but nothing as organized as this,” said Owen Thacker, a senior member of the Leadership Program’s seven-person executive council. The Leadership team reached out to their fellow students and local schools and organizations for suggestions, and students will rank their top choices and be assigned to groups headed out to the various locations.
The projects vary widely and feature both indoor and outdoor locales, such as weeding, gardening, and constructing picnic tables for a WAHS courtyard, helping the Green Olive Tree staff move to a new location, organizing stock at the Crozet United Methodist Church Food Bank, and reading aloud to Henley ELA students. “One of our big projects here at Western is making ‘plarn’ (plastic yarn) rugs which we will give to The Haven to use as beds, so we’re collecting a ton of plastic grocery bags for that,” said Thacker.
Students in the Leadership Program hope that each project shows how much WAHS students want to “give back to the common good in Crozet,” where most have grown up. Some student groups have adopted specific projects to focus on as a unit; for instance, the football team plans to go to Murray Elementary to help out and interact with the kids there. “The swim and dive teams will be going to Crozet Park to clean out the trails because they use the park so much and want to give back there,” said Thacker.
Several local businesses have sponsored the service day activities, and the group has applied for grants from Costco and Walmart to help cover supplies and other costs. If anyone would like to contact the group to donate funds or supplies or to ask a question, they can be reached at [email protected]