“A way of learning that’s full of connections”: Socratic discussion in Austin’s alternative schools

One of the most inspiring forms of learning I’ve encountered is Socratic discussion (sometimes called Socratic dialogue or Socratic seminar). Yet I often find myself in consultations struggling to adequately describe it to families who've never experienced it themselves or seen it in action. So I suggested that our staff writer-researcher, Shelley Sperry, delve into some local versions of the Socratic method with the help of students who love it. Here’s what she learned from them.

A Socratic discussion at Acton Academy

A Socratic discussion at Acton Academy

I remember my old high school was so divided. You were an island. But Socratic is a way of learning that’s full of connections.
                                                             —Cade Summers, KoSchool

Socratic discussions are powerful ways for students to help each other explore ideas, values, and opinions on important political, social, philosophical, and artistic issues. The Socratic method originated, as the name suggests, in ancient Greek philosophers’ methods of teaching and learning. Today, in some of Austin’s alternative schools the focus of “Socratics,” as students often call them, is on listening to all members of the group and finding common ground and new approaches, rather than trying to persuade or rigorously debate. During Socratics students try to develop a shared understanding of a particular essay, poem, or problem through analysis and creative interpretation, but the goal is never winning or losing a point but rather deepening the students’ own thinking.

As a newcomer to this way of learning, I wanted to understand how various students employ Socratic discussion in daily practice, so I interviewed three students who are fans of it. I am deeply grateful for the time they took to talk with me. I came away impressed by their ability to reflect on their own learning and communicate with a novice like me. The students I interviewed are Jesse Estes, age 18, who attends Skybridge Academy; Sam Sandefer, age 14, who attends Acton Academy; and Cade Summers, age 18, who attends KoSchool.

I learned through these interviews that the three schools’ Socratic programs have much in common as well as some differences. For example, Skybridge Socratics place emphasis on drawing personal connections to the issues and ideas under discussion. At Acton, focused Socratic discussions often explore ongoing, overarching themes like the “Hero’s Journey,” but Socratic questioning also takes place throughout the school day. KoSchool’s Socratic courses, much like college seminars, encourage students to delve deeply into complex texts and write clearly about them. I’ve edited my conversations with the three students to make these connections and subtle differences among their schools’ approaches clearer.

A Socratic discussion at Skybridge Academy

A Socratic discussion at Skybridge Academy

How would you define or explain Socratic discussions for a total newcomer?

Jesse: It’s an open-ended dialogue where you make sure everyone has a voice, and the goal is less important than the process.

Cade: Socratic is a more personal way to learn. Even if the group is divided somewhat in terms of the points everyone is making, you’re always connecting and learning from other people.

Sam: It’s really about learning to ask questions instead of giving and getting answers.

Can you talk about how the discussions work in practice? What’s a typical Socratic like?

Jesse: In our school, the student leader or the teacher/guide has a topic or question to consider, but then the floor is open to all students. Groups vary in size, but it’s usually about 10–12 people, which I think is optimal. We sometimes have as few as five people, but then discussion is slower. We each voice our thoughts in response to what someone else has said. Sometimes in philosophical discussions people do take sides, but in a lot of discussions there aren’t sides—there’s more of a spectrum. We do things mostly freeform and orally, but there is a whiteboard if someone needs to illustrate a point.

Cade: We practice Socratic dialogues in normal classes every day and I also host a “Bonus Socratic” after school. We usually have around 6 people, but it can be as few as 4 or as many as 11. The number doesn’t matter once you have a group that functions well. Michael—we call him a guide, not a teacher—often brings in a text, but students bring in poems and articles too. We might read the text, or part of it, to start the discussion. Then students just start sharing ideas.

Sam: We weave Socratic discussions through the day, not just in one particular time period. When you ask questions, you usually don’t just get one answer, you get another question to help lead you to an answer. So for example, if I ask someone about a math problem, instead of telling me the specific answer, the person might say: “What do you think the first step is in finding the answer?” Or they might say, “Could you try this? Or could you try that?”

Do you have any favorite discussions or moments during discussions in the past year?

Jesse: One of the best questions we had—and one that people kept talking about after class, like a running joke, was: If you have a boat and you take away one piece each year and replace it, until every piece is replaced, at what point do you have a new boat? We talked about this for three hours with no conclusion, but everyone participated and people changed opinions, and then kept talking about it after class.

Cade: I remember at one discussion a friend of mine was feeling a lot of anger coming into it, but having the Socratic turned the way he was feeling around. Discussion can help you alleviate some stresses because you can say what you’re thinking about issues—political or social or other things—and you can get some different contexts from other people and see things in a different light.

A Socratic discussion at KoSchool

A Socratic discussion at KoSchool

Finally, what’s the value of Socratic discussion for you, carrying forward after high school or with your family and community?

Jesse: You learn how to draw people into conversation and to really listen to and understand their points of view. I think I have a much stronger voice than I had earlier, and my perspective is wider. We’re encouraged to lead our own discussions during the semester, so you also gain leadership skills, and now I’m leading my own class. It’s inspired me to look at something related to leadership and teaching when I go to college.

Cade: Learning how to discuss and communicate is invaluable. I definitely spoke more when I started, but I’ve learned gradually to be more introspective and really listen. I think at home I take a more introspective approach now, too, and work on my ability to empathize and understand other people, including my younger brother.

Sam: I think it’s made me much more independent—so rather than relying on someone else to give me answers, I want to find them on my own.

Shelley Sperry

A way outside of the box

Zach Hurdle is director of math education at Skybridge Academy in Dripping Springs and a PhD candidate in mathematics education at Texas State University. He joins us on the blog to share some of his own journey as a learner and educator, as well as his thoughts on how students really feel about math and learn it best. He also invites Austin-area teens and tweens to a unique summer camp he’s co-leading with Skybridge social studies director Tyler Merwin.

I grew up in a traditional public school system in north Dallas. I was thrown into a competitive blender full of students I sometimes knew, but mostly didn’t, and was one of hundreds in what would end up being a graduating class of 1,167. I didn’t have relationships with most of my teachers. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure if they remembered my first name. But then, that’s just what school is for everyone, correct?

Clearly not.

I didn’t know there were places in education like Skybridge Academy. Sure, alternative education is alive and thriving in Austin, but it wasn’t until I got an opportunity to teach mathematics at this private school that I realized we could make a place for those kids who think outside of the box and want learning to be an experience rather than a chore. That’s part of how I have created my teaching strategy: it’s formed as a direct result of the job. I’ve learned as my students have learned.

We focus on relationships in the classroom. Relationships among students, relationships between myself and the students, relationships with mathematics. Strangely enough, math doesn’t have to be some terrible ordeal, created solely to make kids’ lives harder. Once the pressure to understand everything the teacher is telling them is lifted, students realize that they can achieve goals greater than themselves. At Skybridge, we don’t put the pressure of grades on kids. How can they value the process of learning cohesively if there is an underlying need to outscore each other on tests?

What really makes school hard for thinkers is not just that teachers say so much that doesn't make sense, but that they say it in exactly the way they say things that are sensible, so that the child comes to feel—as he is intended to—that when he doesn't understand it is his fault.
—John Holt

Part of what makes the math experience at Skybridge different from others is that students make their way through the curriculum at their own pace. Of course some ideas may be more difficult than others; this is only natural. That’s how life works, and it’s how mathematics works as well. Why should a student struggling with a problem set have to be pushed forward despite minimal understanding for the sake of moving the class forward? Why should students who are excelling at a topic have to pause their process for others to catch up before continuing? Students will learn, as teachers should highly expect, but they will learn from internalizing, self-actualization, confidence, and practice.

Allied to imagination is the notion of engagement. Exercising imagination is inherently engaging, so a classroom in which students use their imaginations to study content, play with ideas, and imagine new possibilities should be an engaging one.
—Alison James & Stephen Brookfield

With this kind of education comes freedom. I don’t experience this freedom alone in lesson planning; the students feel less pressure, too, and can leap to meet high expectations. While we cover material that students throughout the country are expected to learn, we do it in engaging ways: building polyhedrons, evaluating percentages on field trips to stores or restaurants, evaluating the importance of ratios in actual cooking scenarios, to name a few. But at the same time, students also recognize the value in repetition and exercise. They don’t typically hate math, they just hate the system that comes with math. Students hate not knowing how to do something and being expected to grasp it immediately. Wouldn’t you?

Math, Cooking, Reading, Playing: A Summer Camp

I have teamed up with Tyler Merwin, head of social studies at Skybridge, to offer a summer camp because we’ve found that our students miss school over the break! Further, we feel that students outside of the Skybridge community could benefit from taking a glimpse into the culture we share at this school, to test the waters of a different way of learning, so we have opened this camp up to the public as well. The idea started as a math camp, but gradually morphed. It will include group dialogues about social issues, mathematics exercises and activities, and time set aside for reading, cooking practice, outdoor play, video games, and general socialization.

If you (or a young person you know) would like to join in for academic and social rejuvenation over the summer, here are the details:

Dates: July 11–July 15, 2016 (8:30am–4pm)
Ages: 11–18 (middle and high school)
Location: Skybridge Academy, 26450 Ranch Rd 12, Dripping Springs, TX
Cost: $450 (includes lunches)
What to bring: A laptop, snacks, water bottle, reading book
How to sign up: Contact Tyler Merwin, 608-751-2947, tyler@skybridgeatx.com or Zach Hurdle, 469-556-9617, zach@skybridgeatx.com

Zach Hurdle

Making a very different Romeo & Juliet

Brian Oglesby (also known as the award-winning playwright Briandaniel Oglesby) teaches theater arts at Skybridge Academy in Dripping Springs, Texas. We invited him to share with our readers his unusually collaborative process of writing and producing a new version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—one that speaks from and to the hearts of his young students.

In late May, a group of junior high students will perform an LGBT adaptation of Romeo and Juliet at Skybridge Academy. Romeo and Juliet are a same-sex couple. The students helped make this little play, and they are proud of it.

The existence of a rainbow-flavored imagining of the bard’s work isn’t revolutionary. The age of the students, and that this is in a school in Texas, and that the students chose this project—that’s what breaks new ground.

Broken ground will eventually become a familiar path; in a few years, preteens telling these stories will be normal. In the meantime, I marvel at the fact that this is happening.

Two years ago, Skybridge hired me to teach theater after I graduated from UT’s Playwriting program. I didn’t want to simply produce the same old Our Town or Guys and Dolls; those plays don’t speak to the current condition, and besides, I’m a writer, not a director. I wanted to contour the plays to my students, to make something from and for them. And Skybridge’s emphasis on teacher-student collaboration made new work a natural fit.

I use improv-based activities and devising techniques to generate material that I fashion into text so the students become part of the fabric of the plays. We find the space where my skills and interests as an artist collide with their skills, interests, and potential. The students take ownership of the play and, I hope, realize that they can make work of their own.

Early this semester, the junior high students generated a number of story ideas, and one stood out: a king with a rebellious daughter in love with another princess. Energy began to coalesce around this.

The students also responded to adaptations of classics. When I suggested Romeo and Juliet (which offers a robust plot and multiple protagonists), one of my students piped up that we should make Romeo and Juliet a same-sex couple, taking the conflict they’d created and mixing it into the old text.

The students voted anonymously, and the clear victor was this adaptation.

We set to work. Improv-based activities brought about irreverent ideas, like turning Friar Lawrence into a Fryer—a guy who operates a fry shack—and Paris into, well, a Paris Hilton-like figure. Dozens of their lines, including a translation of the pilgrim sonnet, made it into the script.

And we got to talking. We talked about heavy issues like gay teen suicide and LGBTQ history. Some of the students can’t invite grandparents to the production, demonstrating the generation gap. This gap is a tension in the play itself, as Juliet’s father wants him to marry a woman. We talked about how few stories exist for young LGBTQ people. We talked about how what we’re doing just isn’t done.  

Two years ago, a project like this would have scared the hell out of me. Heck, in December this project would have scared the hell out of me. I’d be afraid of being accused of promoting the “Gay Agenda.” If the students hadn’t suggested this project, it wouldn’t exist.

Part of this is Skybridge. The students know that our school is a safe place for LGBT people. We all make sure we’re using correct pronouns. I’m out and proud, as are a number of their classmates, and I teach an LGBTQ+ Stories class.

Part of this is generational. There is no “new normal” to the current crop of young folks; there is normal and there’s the “old normal.” Same-sex couples are being crowned prom kings and queens, and more than 50 percent of the upcoming generation recognizes that gender isn’t binary. And when you co-create with young people, the work reflects this reality.

Young people will replace us. Some of their values will change as they get older; and some of their values will change the world when they get older. This reality will find its way into the mainstream, and there will be more LGBTQ stories about, by, and for young people.

And the students have a sense of this. They are proud to be a part of it.

In two weeks, this will be similar to every single junior high play the audience has seen before. Someone may forget a line, of course, and our lighting will be clip lights, and it’s set outdoors. But I can also guarantee that this will be unlike anything they’ve ever seen.

Unless it rains.

Brian “Briandaniel” Oglesby

[You and your family and friends can experience this special production yourselves on May 20 or 21. Learn more here.]

Sex in the library (books)! How our students helped me develop a plan to handle mature content in their Skybrary

Kendra Fortmeyer is an award-winning author, a teacher at Skybridge Academy, and a graduate student in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin. She blogs about her adventures in school librarianship at The Skybrary and graciously shared with Alt Ed Austin this fascinating post about how she handles one of the stickiest aspects of her job.

In the summer of 2015, I developed a school library for Skybridge Academy, the small, progressive private school where I’d been teaching English for the last two years. I was (and am) enrolled in a graduate program in library science, the school administration was passionate and supportive, and I used to reorganize my books for fun when I was eight—a perfect fit, right? Though I knew, intellectually, that it would be a mighty endeavor, some part of me was dimly certain that it would be a summer of dancing through the school Maria Von Trapp style and depositing books into the hands of shining-faced students.

Well, let me tell you.

What followed was a summer of less (though certainly a bit of) singing and dancing, and more buckling down and facing question after question I never could have anticipated. I walked away three months and one library later with an immensely deepened respect for librarians. The business of getting books into people’s hands—especially young people’s hands—is one riddled with challenges. Perhaps the most basic of these is: What do we give them to read?

 In the alternative education field, all of us understand the tightrope walk that is navigating the dual identity of responsible educator and champion of intellectual freedom. When do you give your students hard-hitting material? How do you decide they’re ready? This was a unique challenge for me at Skybridge Academy, a combined junior high and high school that serves students in grades 6–12. This population runs the gamut from smart but very (emotionally) young ten-year-olds to 18-year-olds with part-time jobs and coffee addictions. Obviously, books for one age group might not be of interest, or appropriate, for the other. This is what we call having a dual-audience library.

What do public libraries do?
In a public library, all library content is available to all patrons. It’s detailed in the American Library Association Bill of Rights—the librarian’s job is to allow everyone access to all information. A parent may tell his eight-year-old that he may not check out
Sex Criminals. However, the librarian may not do so.
     It’s different in a school library. For one, the parent isn’t present, and many schools have privacy policies so that parents may not even know what their child has taken out. Also, because the library collection has been selected especially for youth (as opposed to a public library, which caters to all ages), there’s an expectation that the materials in the library already are youth-appropriate. In making that collection development policy, the librarian is putting her implicit seal of approval on each book. There’s no expectation that she’s
read every book, but her collection development should be so intentional that she could stand behind every single book in a challenge (and she certainly wouldn’t put Sex Criminals in her collection).

How could we properly serve users at all stages along this development spectrum? There are a few options:

  1. Shelve all materials for all ages together, and trust students to choose material that is appropriate for them developmentally.
  2. Shelve all materials together, but label “mature” content (i.e., content that you’ve identified in a written policy as not appropriate) with stickers or other signifiers. Only allow older students to borrow these materials.
  3. Keep “mature” content in a secured closet or other locked area that older users may access with teacher permission.
  4. Do not keep mature content in the library at all; students may access such material at home or from a public library.

Frankly, none of these options sounds great. The first two put an awful lot of trust in 11-year-olds to not hang out in the library at lunch and giggle over naughty bits of lit; the third stigmatizes material that may be developmentally important for high schoolers (like “first time” sex narratives, or stories in which characters fight to recover from sexual abuse) in the manner of the XXX back room of a video store. And that fourth one—the so-called safe route? It cripples your collection by making it irrelevant to teens who may not be able to get that kind of information elsewhere, thus gutting your own mission statement.

Not the vibe we’re going for. (image credit: yelp.com)

Not the vibe we’re going for. (image credit: yelp.com)

To solve this dilemma, my director and I set aside abstraction and philosophy and took a more radical, direct approach: we talked directly to the students. Enter Oleanna, Rose and Tav [names changed to protect the children], three of our high school girls and most vocal readers (and, as a result of this discussion, the newly minted Student Library Council). After about an hour, the council ultimately decided this:

  • The Skybrary will contain material suited for teens only, which can be borrowed only by high school students, as well as middle school students whose parents have given written permission.
    • This allows developmentally appropriate students to have access to the material. It also protects this material from being challenged (librarian-speak for “attempted censorship or banning”) by the parents of younger students who don’t want their children reading that material.
  • The material will be kept on a shelf in the office marked “Mature Readers.”
    • The school’s office is a walk-through room directly outside of the library, and is almost always overseen by the co-directors or an administrator. This allows the administration to enforce the high-school only rule.
    • Additionally, because this is a high-traffic space, it is more difficult for kids to clump up and giggle, thus decreasing the self-consciousness of those who may want to borrow the material.
Beautiful, Orpheus-inspired book for high schoolers; too much sex and teen drinking to endorse it for middle schoolers.

Beautiful, Orpheus-inspired book for high schoolers; too much sex and teen drinking to endorse it for middle schoolers.

The student council members also suggested that some books with sexual content may remain in the main collection if sex is discussed abstractly, or if the writer employs the “fade to black” narrative lapse that eclipses the actual sex scene (such as in Twilight or Divergent, where sex occurs in the timeline of the book but is not described for the reader). Books that discuss sex explicitly would only be appropriate for the mature readers section. Additionally, books that take a casual, more adult attitude toward sex (as opposed to treating sex with the great importance that many “first time” high school narratives do) are questionably not appropriate for the library and will be handled on a case-by-case basis. (Fifty Shades of Grey and Lolita? No way.) And again, this isn’t preventing the students from obtaining those books—they can easily do so at a public library. However, as an adult responsible for their education, I don’t feel that I can so actively endorse their consumption of these materials as to put the books in their hands myself.

Both the director and I came away exceedingly impressed with the intelligence, eloquence, and depth of consideration of these young women. Their solution was mature and responsible and, most importantly, spoke deeply to the needs that they felt as teen readers and learners. Sometimes, when puzzling over how best to serve your students, it’s powerful and formative to set down the books on education and librarianship, break out of your own brain-box, and talk to those students. They’re just as invested in their learning community as you are, if not more! And in libraries, valued, invested readers will become your greatest advocates: they will do more to build a community than you and your books could ever do alone.

Kendra Fortmeyer

My whirlwind tour of alternative schools in Austin

Michael Goldberg has been traveling the country, visiting alternative schools, and writing about them. He recently spent a week and a half in Austin and kindly agreed to share his impressions with us. You can read more about Michael’s alt ed adventures on his blog.

Michael Goldberg navigates Austin feet first on Lady Bird Lake.

Michael Goldberg navigates Austin feet first on Lady Bird Lake.

From February 2 to February 11, 2015, I visited eight alternative schools in the Austin area. Seeing those schools was part of a larger project of exploring alternative education that I began in September.

Last school year I worked at a charter school in Chicago. While I learned a lot during that year, I was also disillusioned by much of what I saw—particularly by how my school’s near-total focus on raising standardized test scores distracted from students’ developmental needs and did little to foster students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. I felt that there must be a better way to educate, so I started looking into alternative approaches.

I decided that I would travel the country on a mission to learn as much as possible about alternative education. I have a blog where I’ve written about some of my experiences.

I saw some very exciting things during my time in Austin:

  • At Clearview Sudbury School, I sat in on a Judicial Committee meeting. Judicial Committee is a democratic, participatory way of holding people accountable for behavior. Students or staff may fill out “complaint forms” against anyone whom they perceive to be disrespectful or breaking the rules, then J.C. (made up of students and staff) investigates the claims and votes on an appropriate response. The J.C. process strikes me as an excellent example of restorative justice.
  • At Whole Life Learning Center, I took part in “rhythm gym” class. We danced, juggled, and skipped to music in a circle. Later I learned about one class’s efforts to make a film about climate change and the environment for SXSW’s short film festival.
  • I learned about Radical Roots Community Schoolhouse’s noncoercive, play-based curriculum, as well as its focus on sustainability and appreciation of nature.
  • I helped smash acorns into acorn flour at Greenbriar School, then sat in on geography class, and finally joined the community for a potluck dinner.
  • I was immersed in the alternate reality that is Game of Village at Austin Ecoschool. Game of Village involves students taking on a specific role in an imagined community—the “village”—applying for a “bank loan,” building a model home, and putting on an end-of-the-year fair, among other things.
  • At the Inside Outside School I sang along during morning circle. Later, kids learned how to smoke meat over a fire during outdoor survival class.
  • I attended the Austin Alternative School Fair, where I met a lot of great people working in alternative education.
  • I learned about Skybridge Academy's democratic process for choosing classes. This school seems to be on the cutting edge of offering the intellectual freedom of a college-like experience to students in middle school and high school.
  • Lastly, I saw kids busy at independent work at Parkside Community School.

And there are still many more alternative schools in Austin that I unfortunately did not manage to visit.

One common thread of the schools I’ve visited, and of alt ed more broadly, is that students are not approached as being primarily minds, intellects, test-takers, or grade-earners, but rather as whole human beings whose experiences, desires, and intrinsic motivations are acknowledged and valued. That is not to say that the adults in traditional schools do not or cannot approach their students in the same holistic way, but I do believe that the policies and educational structures of many traditional schools make taking that approach more difficult to realize in practice.

So what makes Austin such fertile ground for alternative schools? I imagine it’s not unrelated to the goal of “keeping Austin weird.” Progressive parenting styles likely also contribute. Perhaps Austinites are just willing to try things differently.

I believe that alt ed in Austin, like alt ed throughout the country, has its reasons to celebrate and its challenges to face.

Alternative education seems to be growing—as more people realize that their values and approaches to parenting may not align with the practices of many traditional schools. We should celebrate the fact that people are waking up to this, that they’re feeling comfortable to question the assumptions many of us hold about education and to actively seek out and construct alternatives. And we should celebrate that many kids are experiencing formal education in holistic and liberating ways.

At the same time, alt ed is not without significant challenges. The most pressing and most important of these, I believe, both in Austin and in the country at large, is to make private alternative schools more accessible and inclusive. It’s important to keep in mind that there are many families who do not have easy access to educational alternatives. Addressing this will not be an easy task, and it will not be confined only to factors within the immediate control of alternative schools. Nonetheless, alternative schools should do everything within their power to make the education they offer as accessible and inclusive as possible.

I don’t believe that there is a single approach that works for everyone. Individuals, families, and communities should each be empowered in educational decision-making. The alternative education movement—if there can be said to be such a thing—is largely about offering such freedom of choice. And although there is work to be done to ensure educational quality and genuine freedom of choice for all families, it’s exciting to see Austin offering so many options.

Michael Goldberg

Using art to teach history

Tyler Merwin teaches history and philosophy and leads Socratic Seminars at Skybridge Academy. He joins us on the blog to share his experiments with making art in the history classroom.

I have always had an interest in art, whether paintings, literature, propaganda posters, or pottery. That being said, I have never been much of an artist. Even something as trivial as shading inside the lines of a fourth-grade coloring book can feel less like fun and more like the New York Times Sunday Edition crossword for me.

With this in mind, I have had an aversion to using art as an instruction method, partly because I felt that in order to properly teach something I should have some level of competency, and partly because I didn't want my students to see their 26-year-old history teacher struggling to draw something a 6-year-old could whip up during snack break. But after seeing the work that our art teacher, Johnny Villarreal, was doing to help his students navigate their anxieties with art, and witnessing students bravely posting their artwork across his classroom walls, I decided to take the leap—and the results have been astounding.

“Anyone? Anyone?”

“Anyone? Anyone?”

One of my biggest concerns as a history teacher is that my lessons are going to be boring. I am always working to use humor, academic controversy, or anything else that may seem remotely interesting so that students feel fully engaged—and so that I don’t feel like the economics teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Most students are not exactly thrilled by the prospect of writing research-based papers. So how can we help prepare them for research-intensive college courses while at the same time keeping lessons fun and engaging?

One answer can be art.

For example, I’m currently teaching a class called Civilizations, which explores various aspects of many of the major societies of Earth’s history, starting with precivilized humanity and ending with the Mongols. Currently we’re learning about ancient Egypt. For the first few classes I used a short lecture along with an informative YouTube video and student-led research about Egyptian culture. Over the next few days, students wrote a historical fiction piece based on this prompt:

Imagine you are someone alive at the time of the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Write a two-page story about a day in your life. You can be the Pharaoh, you can be a pyramid builder, a merchant, or any other entity relevant to that time. The goal is to research about the time and write a short story that could have actually happened.

(These assignments can also require students to cite their sources, giving them a taste of what the academic research process is like.)

The results were fascinating. The stories’ narrators included a woman who is questioning the applied gender roles of the time, a pyramid builder planning a workers’ revolt, a Pharaoh who has become consumed by materialism and is refusing to escape his burning town in fear of abandoning his possessions, a revered cat in charge of watching over the grain stores, and a tomb thief who meets an untimely demise, among many others.

The level of effort students put into their research and writing was incredible. To create more immersion, we played ancient Egyptian–themed music we found on YouTube, alternating with a loop of construction noises (kind of corny, but actually kind of cool). To help create a sense of community, between times spent helping students as needed, I too wrote a story that I shared with them.

Being in a room with 15 high schoolers ditching their phones and iPods to work fastidiously on ancient Egyptian historical fiction pieces was the highlight of my week (which has also indicated to me that I am officially transitioning into boring adulthood; I think I’m OK with that). To finish the assignment, we shared the stories together in class, and it served as a great way for students to compare, contrast, and ask questions pertaining to the subject.

Modern cave paintings recently discovered on the walls of Skybridge Academy

Modern cave paintings recently discovered on the walls of Skybridge Academy

Another example of using art projects to teach history also comes from my Civilizations class. In learning about the Neolithic Period, we studied the struggles that cave dwellers endured and examined their cave paintings. We then used charcoal to create original cave paintings that emulated the styles of examples from sites throughout the world. Students (and teacher, in this case) who didn’t feel competent in drawing found themselves comfortable with this assignment because of the lack of complexity of many cave paintings; they didn’t require a high level of artistic sophistication or skill. We covered the classroom walls with these simple paintings, creating a cave-like feeling in the classroom.

Propaganda posters are almost universally fascinating to high school students. So playing off of my students’ interests, in our World War II: A World at War class we spent a day discussing and exploring forms of propaganda. We also had a Socratic Seminar discussing the serious nature of propaganda in its various forms and the dangerously powerful effects it can have on a society. To finish the lesson, students independently researched posters used in World War II by all sides, looking at the artistic styles, the messages they transmitted, and their potential effects. I then prompted students to create posters that would not glorify violence or be vulgar (because allowing for these kinds of negativity, while perhaps more realistic, is a slippery slope that we discussed and decided against as a class).

The student who drew this propaganda poster wanted to depict the urgency of the Allied nations’ need for a "hero" to help fight the war.

The student who drew this propaganda poster wanted to depict the urgency of the Allied nations’ need for a "hero" to help fight the war.

Students took many different approaches to the posters. Those who were confident in their artistic abilities made posters that were visually arresting, using imagery that forced you to pay attention. Others chose to concentrate on the verbal aspect, creating posters with original slogans that evoked the sense of urgency associated with the propaganda of the time. Most students were very engaged, and many said they had gained a better understanding of how propaganda seeks to manipulate emotions to promote ideologies. A few students, however, were rather curmudgeonly about the idea of doing art in history class and complained that they were “not an artist” or that they didn’t “know how to start.” That’s OK. It gave me time to work with these students, encouraging them to abandon their inhibitions. I used my own work as an example of why you don’t need to be the next Gabriel García Márquez to write a fun historical fiction piece, that you don’t need to be a young Da Vinci to make an awesome cave painting.

The creator of this poster wanted to point out the evil nature of concentration camps. The gate reads, “Work Will Set You Free,” a slogan used cynically by Nazi camp officials.

The creator of this poster wanted to point out the evil nature of concentration camps. The gate reads, “Work Will Set You Free,” a slogan used cynically by Nazi camp officials.

Every couple of months I spend some time reflecting on myself as a teacher and evaluating my progress. I try to figure out what has been working, what hasn’t been working, how I can improve, how I can adapt. Implementing art into my classes has been one of the biggest breakthroughs I have ever experienced as an educator. Although I still cannot color inside the lines, I have seen major progress from my students in engagement and productivity. Art appeals to all ability levels and works for most learning styles, and this is why it can engage students in meaningful and emotional ways.

Tyler Merwin