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  • Bailey McFadden

Reworked Humanities Curriculum Puts Focus on “Cultural Relevance”

New Humanities I and II textbooks / Credits: Bailey McFadden

Humanities has always been a cornerstone of the Walls curriculum, but this year, teachers reconsidered what a humanities course should be. This semester marked the first few months of heavily revised versions of Humanities I and II, required ninth and 10th grade courses, after a comprehensive overhaul that aimed to improve programmatic relevance to students’ lives.

“At the beginning of last year we came up with a goal for the humanities department, to look at the texts that we had and how culturally relevant they were,” said Carolyn Schulz, the head of the Walls humanities department and a teacher of Humanities I and II. “We started to review the Humanities I curriculum and it became very clear…that it wasn’t [culturally relevant].” She added that for Humanities II, “similar trends came up for different reasons. It really wasn’t representative.”

Before the changes, ninth graders spent their year reading and analyzing ancient texts, and 10th graders spent the year doing a “survey” of American literature, starting from pre-European contact until the modern day.

After considering the issue, Ms. Schulz and Ginea Briggs, who teaches Humanities II and AP Research, launched an overhaul of the courses. The department adopted a textbook for both Humanities I and II, in a significant departure from the previous classes’ structure. “We’re a humanities course, not English. We’ve always borrowed information from a variety of sources,” Ms. Briggs said. However, “the benefit of the [text]book adoption is there is a wealth of readings and selections for the teacher to choose from,” she added, which made finding effective sources for the new framework easier.

In Humanities I, most of the ancient texts were scrapped in favor of more contemporary works. “The struggle was making the connection to students and the relevance of ancient texts,” Ms. Schulz said. “While you may have had representations from different cultures, it still felt like an antiquated course because you didn’t have a lot of contemporary connection.”

One ancient text from the old curriculum, the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, was kept in the course. “We really believed that the thing that was really solid about the Humanities I curriculum was looking at the origins of storytelling and the purpose of oral tradition, and building a foundation for literature,” Ms. Schulz said. “We wanted to make sure that that was still a part of that course.”

In the new course, Ms. Schulz explained, early literature at the heart of the former curriculum serves as a starting point for broader study “by theme.” “We now look at the beginnings of story by looking at the origins of storytelling,” she said. “Then out of that we talk about how now all these themes that we see throughout all different types of literature are at the root of the origins of world tradition.”

The structure of Humanities II was flipped. “We used to teach Humanities II in what’s referred to as a survey, meaning you start from date x or point x and move chronologically until an end date,” Ms. Briggs, the course’s primary teacher, said. “The [text]book we adopted takes a very different philosophy looking at American literature and studies, and they believe that we should start now to understand how you got that older literature.”

Ms. Briggs added that the old course “was just literature from the same voices over and over. The overwhelming majority of the authors were white authors, white male authors in particular.” In the new course, “we’ve been talking about 9/11, we’ve been talking about immigration, we are now talking about things like Native American reservation schools,” she added. “Next we’re going to be talking about police brutality. These are topics you all are aware of.”

Some things were held over from the old courses. The sophomore speech, which Ms. Briggs said has become a “rite of passage” for students, and the freshmen research paper will remain, for instance. Those projects in Humanities I and II are “a critical part of the building blocks for getting students ready for Senior Project,” said Ms. Briggs.

Humanities IV was modified “for representation,” in the same way as Humanities II, said Ms. Schulz, adding more female authors and authors of color, but the curriculum was not updated to the extent of Humanities I and II.

Iris Singer, a ninth grader in Ms. Schulz’s Humanities I class, said that she hasn’t found the class relevant to so far, but that she is optimistic for the future. “I know we’re going to read some novels [later in the year] and that’s exciting,” she said.

A 10th grader in Ms. Briggs’s Humanities II class, who asked to remain anonymous, remained disillusioned with the class. “I just don’t know how necessary [the changed curriculum] is. It doesn’t feel like we’re doing anything,” she said. “I think it’s a good course but there’s other things that could’ve been added.”

Another 10th grader in Ms. Briggs’ Humanities II class, who also asked to remain anonymous, had a very different perspective. “We’ve been learning about oppressive systems, and I think that’s important for us to learn. Because the U.S. still has oppressive systems in place, and so it’s nice we’re learning about them.”

Lilly Shaw, a senior, said she didn’t think her education in her first two years of humanities was relevant to the world around her. “I felt like we were talking about things in very ancient world history, and although I really enjoyed learning about some of these topics it definitely didn't give me any insight into current world events,” she said. “I think it's good that they've scrapped some of those ancient texts, especially moving towards content that'll be a little more relevant.”

Savannah Alexander, also a senior, said, “It didn’t feel like [the old curriculum] was relevant. We were learning about these ancient texts in Egypt and Greece and I didn’t really see how they connected to our lives.”

Ms. Schulz also adds that this year is a pilot year for the new curriculum. “When you do a revision of a curriculum you have the pilot year, and then that following year you have a revision of the curriculum again.

And then you kind of see how that takes place, and then there’s another year and another revision after that, so that third year generally tends to be about when the curriculum is kind of solidified, where it’s going to be. But it takes about three years, collectively.”

“I think about the essential question — what does it mean to be an American?” Ms. Briggs said. “In the beginning of the year most everyone had a definitive answer, and I hope that during the process of a course like Humanities II that that answer gets more and more nuanced.”


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