The Humanities at MICDS

In most high schools, if you put six students in a room and ask them to talk broadly about their education, you’ll get six short replies before needing to ask a new question. But if you put six MICDS students in room and ask them to talk about their humanities education, you’ll get 45 minutes of non-stop reflection, explanation, excitement.

For Sruthi Sripada ‘18Mary Moore ‘18Hopie Melton ‘18Nick Jones ‘18Campbell Schaefer ‘18 and Leigh Dennis ‘18, the humanities have been the bedrock of their secondary school education. Even though each of the six recent graduates have varied pursuits — from Sripada’s medical future to Moore’s literary hopes; Schaefer’s passion for history to Dennis’ love of technology — all were quick to agree on one sentiment: The humanities taught them how to be human.

“Being able to think and to talk to people and to listen — those are the most important things about being a person,” Melton said as she explained what the students meant by “human.”

To develop those qualities, their humanities classes focused on building tangible skills — reading, writing, public speaking, research and visual literacy — while also cultivating necessary intangibles, such as confidence and empathy. And, according to a large percentage of young MICDS alumni/ae, these are the skills that set them apart in the college setting and beyond. They are the skills many say they need to become successful, both professionally and personally, in the 21st century.

“At MICDS, they really teach you how to write. I was extremely prepared when I got to college,” said Sam Erwin ‘17Noah Siegel ‘17 added, “MICDS taught me not just to learn the material, but how to learn the material.” Finally, Cameron Macones ‘17 reflected, “The big thing is collaboration…learning how to work with others. It seems like a lot of people coming from other schools just don’t know those skills.”

The humanities at MICDS gave each of these recent graduates a variety of tools to add to their toolset, though none of them were acquired in their senior year alone. The dynamic lessons and cutting-edge projects that teach students how to communicate, collaborate, connect and be human thread throughout all divisions and across the English and History curricula, beginning in Lower School.

Small Scale, Big Foundations

Lower School Project-Based Learning

To kick off the 2nd Grade Civic Responsibility Project, teacher Kristen Kaiser turns to the Internet—specifically, video creator Kid President. A small boy, no more than six years old, Kid President stands behind a stately desk adorned with a crayon-drawn Presidential seal. He makes videos for kids about how to change the world despite their young age. In the one Kaiser shows her class, Kid President tells the students, “The world is changed by ordinary people. Little people living out big love.”

This small, but important, idea guides the students as they work with another member of their class to identify and execute a plan to help their community.

This civic responsibility project supports and deepens what Kaiser believes is the mission of Lower School social studies.

“We hope to teach them to be kind, respectful people that contribute to their community and eventually to the world,” Kaiser said. Even though her students are only seven or eight years old, Kaiser does not believe their age prevents them from changing the world — it just necessitates a smaller scale.

In order for the 2nd Graders to complete the project, they must go through five stages: First, identify and research a potential issue in their community. Second, draft a written report about their research. Third, put together and execute a plan to address the issue. Fourth, present what they learned and what action they took. Finally, reflect on what they had accomplished.

“[The project] takes collaboration, communication, critical thinking, compromise — all of those skills that will serve them well,” Kaiser explained.

One past project Kaiser recalls included two students who wanted to help the environment by decreasing the number of littered cigarette butts. After completing their research, the students connected with Charter Communications and installed a cigarette butt collector in their break room with a sign explaining the project. After a couple of weeks, one of the company’s employees called MICDS, shocked and delighted that 2nd Graders could have executed all of that, from start to finish.

While that reaction doesn’t always occur, Kaiser recognizes how important that kind of positive reinforcement can be for students.

“If you try something and you feel good about it and made a difference, the chances of you trying again are much higher,” she said.

Giving Voice to Your Narrative

Middle School Personal Essays and Perspectives

Like many Middle Schoolers, Aariz Ahmad’s ‘22 trivial worries often include losing an opportunity to play his video games because of spotty WiFi, homework or both. At least, that’s how Aariz felt before he went to Bangladesh with his family to give medical aid to Rohingya refugees. That experience, which angered, saddened and ultimately inspired Aariz, was the focus of the end-of-year personal essay he wrote in Andy Kay’s 8th Grade English class.

“If I was annoyed that I had to do homework, then my mind would automatically go back to the camp and think about the pharmacist who had to camp outside of a food distribution center multiple times a week, sometimes multiple times a day, to get his meal,” Aariz wrote. “I’m sure he wouldn’t mind doing some homework instead of waiting in a four-hour line.”

While the personal narrative certainly represents a culmination of the writing and presentation skills the students have been working on throughout Middle School, it is also meant to spark a maturation of the self.

“The theme of 8th Grade as a whole is becoming a young adult, and we believe it is our responsibility as English teachers to help students find a voice,” Mr. Kay said.

And for a student like Aariz, that’s exactly what happened. In fact, after Aariz finished his personal essay for Mr. Kay’s class, he was invited to share the essay in front of both his peers and MICDS parents during a Parents Association Passport Series event to raise awareness about the Rohingya Refugee Crisis. During the event, Aariz, along with his parents and siblings, also shared a compelling video they created about their experience.

One MICDS parent said, “This was extremely moving. I had never heard of the crisis happening in that part of the world, and now I feel much more educated and compelled to do something.”That sentiment is what MICDS humanities faculty members hope for when they give students an assignment—that it doesn’t just fulfill a requirement, but rather it inspires students to take an out-of-classroom experience, process it through written and verbal communication, utilize it to understand who they are as human beings in relation to other human beings and, in turn, become compassionate leaders who will speak and stand up for what is good and right, as well as persuade others to want to do the same.

Learning these skills—empathy, compassion, leadership, argumentation and communication—may sound like a lot to ask of Middle School students. But according to Kay, it happens every year at MICDS.

“By the end of 8th grade, they welcome a new version of themselves, ready to meet the challenges of high school and the world that awaits them,” Mr. Kay said.

At MICDS, shaping one’s understanding of self starts long before attempting to craft a personal narrative. From 5th Grade to the end of 8th, each assignment and course—equally deliberate and intentional—builds on the next, allowing students to develop important skills through innovative teaching and learning and strong teacher-student relationships.

For example, in Grace Barlow’s 7th Grade history class, students finish the year by writing a well-researched essay on World War II. Barlow remembers one student in particular who was struggling with his introductory paragraphs. Discouraged but determined, he came to her for assistance. For ten minutes, Barlow let the student talk through his struggles while she typed a transcript of his thoughts. Barlow remembers that, as he talked, she could see the gears begin to turn.

“I saw the confidence build in him in a way I hadn’t seen before that meeting,” Barlow said. “It was exciting—and extremely gratifying—to see how much he had grown since September.”

This growth of foundational skills is central to the transformation of the student’s voice and understanding of him or herself. But also necessary for that maturation is the development of an empathetic worldview.

“We’re seeking to make empathetic people,” Barlow said. “Even if they end up going down a math/science road…how can [they] look at that patient, not as patient No. 001, [but] as a person with a name and story.”

For a student like Aariz, that sentiment may ring especially true as he helped administer medical treatment in a refugee camp. For example, he retells one story from his trip about a woman with diphtheria. He writes that, to many, she could have just been the booklet of symptoms. But Aariz remembers something different. He tells of how his dad greeted the woman, smiling at her and approaching her with kindness, not just as another patient to treat. It makes sense, then, that Aariz ended his essay with a reflection on the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Perspectives of Global Citizens

Upper School Action and Community Participation

Having a solid foundation in the humanities through their Lower and Middle School experiences, Upper School MICDS students focus on applying their skills as they focus on two important themes: narrative and perspective. By the time students graduate, they understand these central themes and have honed a sense of self, fully adept with tools to understand the world, argue their views and adapt to whatever field they choose to enter.

Teaching these themes can often prove difficult, though, as each is more amorphous than writing an essay or researching an event. But that doesn’t stop 11th Grade English Teacher Tex Tourais, who uses the board game Clue to explain how he approaches the idea of narrative.

“Because of the narrative—a detective in an ominous old house where someone was murdered— we can immerse in a game that’s really more about a process of elimination,” Tourais said. In other words, by teaching his students five key skills (reading, writing, public speaking, research and visual literacy), Tourais attempts to show how narratives and context define our citizenry.

Mary Moore ‘18 was quick to advocate for this approach and how much it helps with understanding. “You’re going to understand the stakes so much more if you understand the context” she said. “Context means everything.”

With narrative and context comes perspective, and more specifically, how perspective shapes the way the story is told. To illustrate this, JK-12 History Department Chair Carla Federman asks her students “who is the one telling the story,” a question that often impacts the way Federman’s students approach their other studies.

“I live by that,” Sruthi Sripada ‘18 said. “Everything I do comes back to that question: looking at another person’s perspective.”

Both narrative and perspective play a critical role in one of the largest projects MICDS students must undertake: The 11th Grade Regional Resilience Research Project (3RP). Much like the civic responsibility project in the 2nd Grade, 3RP seeks to get students involved in the community by identifying an issue of resiliency and forming a solution—except it all happens at a much larger scale.

“If we say we teach reading, writing, public speaking, research, and then visual and media literacy, 3RP is the class where the rubber hits the road,” Tourais said. “[It] requires students to have high level skills across the board in all five of those strands, and…it’s an attempt to leverage their own interests in order to create engagement.”

The project forces students to demonstrate they have mastered the core skills of the humanities while also showing they have developed their own self enough to care deeply about a specific issue. It’s the final test to prove they are global citizens ready to meet the challenges of this world with confidence.

How those skills and emotional lessons manifest in each student varies. For example, Leigh Dennis ‘18 learned to be innovative in her problem solving. Hopie Melton ‘18 learned to not only hold opinions, but to listen to others and to reframe her opinions to be more sound. And Sripada learned how “to be the best kind of doctor that I can be.” Because of the humanities, each of them is prepared to enter an ever-evolving world and to approach it with questioning, understanding and, most of all, empathy.

Building a Foundation for Success After Graduation

If there’s any recurring sentiment MICDS students hear from recent graduates, it’s this: MICDS teaches you how to think critically and communicate effectively. All six of the seniors had heard it, other alums have commented on it, and those tools are a direct result of a solid foundation in the humanities.

Young alumna Louisa Goldman ‘17, a pre-med student majoring in American Studies with a minor in creative writing, took the praise a step further when she said, “MICDS gave me that courage, those tools that I knew I had in my toolset, to be able to handle all those different disciplines.”

And while those humanities skills translate seamlessly to a college setting, they also make students more attractive to future employers. Mr. Tourais made that clear when he posed the rhetorical question, “What high-level job does not require public speaking?” With a modern age steeped in social media, communication, interpersonal relationships and visual literacy are all vital skills for the modern workforce.

Alumna Kierra Graves ‘17 credits MICDS for teaching her all three of those skills, acknowledging that she came to the school shy and reserved but left with the confidence to engage with her professors despite the large class sizes of college.

She shared, “MICDS taught me how to be a self-advocate—to have those interpersonal relationships, have important conversations with people, and have it come naturally now…I’m better prepared for that because of my education at MICDS.”

Confidence and compassion, critical skills and the resolve to stand for that is right and good — these are the values inherent to the MICDS Mission, and these are the values inherent to our students’ humanities education.