The Lively Art of Teaching Freshmen

Team teaching, while always an appealing idea in the abstract, can be a difficult trick to pull off in practice. Teachers have their own styles and personalities, and they are often accustomed to a significant degree of autonomy in their classroom. Occasionally, though, a great pairing comes along that allows team teaching to succeed in ways a singular teacher would have difficulty replicating. Over the past year, Wayland freshmen have benefited from the dynamic duo of English teacher Elise Krause `04 and history teacher Anna Stern in their humanities seminar.

The new seminar combines two classes for freshmen that have been traditionally siloed at Wayland, World Literature and Composition in the English Department and World Civilizations in the History Department. The pairing of these two subjects allows students the opportunity to integrate the literature they’re reading with historical context and offers them a uniquely unified focus on writing across both subjects.

In addition to designing and co-teaching their humanities seminar, Ms. Krause and Ms. Stern are classmates in a graduate program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Educational Psychology. They are in the final semester of the program and have been able to put their classwork at UW to work in the classroom even as they take their classes.

“The whole humanities class is the product of a project we came up with in a grad school class called School Change,” said Ms. Krause. In turn, their work constructing the new humanities curriculum has provided them with fodder for their work in graduate school. Ms. Krause’s graduate capstone will examine how project-based learning enhances student engagement, and Ms. Stern is writing about whether or not an integrated curriculum can impact or promote critical thinking skills.

Ms. Elise Krause `04

Both teachers have found that combining the freshman class and the two subject areas into one course has been successful. Ms. Krause noted, “I think there are both academic and social gains that our students have made. Academically, I think their intellectual development is further along than it would have been at this time with separate curricula, because they’re constantly forced to toggle between the different expectations of two disciplines and synthesize them into a meaningful understanding of whatever unit we are on.”

Those improvements were expected, but the gains that have surprised both teachers have been social. “We have all the freshmen in the same room at the same time,” said Ms. Stern, “so it’s almost like an orientation activity. Everyone goes through it together. All of them will have this shared experience of being in humanities together.” The teachers use a number generator to randomize students’ assigned seats, so students will sit by each of their classmates at some point in the year. “They’ve talked to everybody multiple times,” said Ms. Stern, “and the nicknames we’ve created for them are the ones they use for themselves. Socially there’s a lot of bonding that happens.”

They also noted that students who are English Language Learners (ELL) are benefiting from the combined curriculum and the interactions they have with their peers in the classroom. In addition to Ms. Krause and Ms. Stern, ELL students benefit from additional work with English teacher Jeff Thompson who does significant work preparing the class and provides ELL students individual help in both English and history.

Krause and Stern are unabashed about their affection for this particular freshman class and feel they have been fortunate to transition into the unified humanities class with this group of students as they help shape the class. “The class is dynamic,” said Ms. Krause. “It isn’t a static entity that we’ve created with a fixed curriculum, so we’ve been soliciting feedback from students, and we’ve been tweaking the course as we go. I think the course has been more successful as we get feedback and use it. We’ve made some pretty important changes based on that.”

Ms. Stern added that she feels students are benefitting from seeing their teachers continue their own education in graduate school. “One of the implicit goals of a Wayland education is for our students to become lifelong learners,” she said. “I think a lot of them think you go to college and then learning stops, when that’s not a reality and it’s not what we want their realities to be. It’s good for them to recognize that we talk about grad school, and we talk about papers and our study habits.”

For an example of how the blended humanities course is succeeding, the teachers pointed to a recent unit where students read The Odyssey while learning about the Classical Greece period. For a creative assignment, one student wrote a conversation between Alexander the Great and Odysseus that the teachers enjoyed so much they asked the student to turn it into a cartoon.

Ms. Stern said, “We talk about xenia and agathos and arête when we’re reading literature, and students are able to translate that to how those concepts actually play out in Ancient Greek culture.” In reply, Ms. Krause said, “One student today asked a question when we were talking about the Greek polis and the acropolis: ‘Where would Odysseus have lived, relative to where the Acropolis is?’”

“They’re asking harder questions is what this has become,” acknowledged Ms. Stern. “And they should be asking questions we don’t have answers to.”