Academics: Broadening the Mind Through Humanities

 

BMA teachers give an inside look at what Burkies are learning and how it’s shaping their outlooks on themselves, others, and life.

Rachel Norton
English 9
In 9th grade English, we explore works of literature that relate to the ways in which we communicate and how that establishes a community. The ability to communicate is essential.

If you are unable to communicate, you are unable to fully participate in your life and be present in the world around you. We communicate in many different ways through different mediums, with many different people, and this is how we come to find a sense of community. We have delved into different art forms, how they serve as forms of communication, and how they create a community.

After reading our first book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a memoir written by Jean-Dominique Bauby, in which he suffers a stroke and develops a condition called locked-in syndrome, each student creates his or her own language. As a result, students can better appreciate what it would be like not to be able to communicate in a traditional way and they genuinely gain empathy for this person. They critically examine how they would communicate without their usual language skills and it forced them to solve a problem. One student came up with a system in which the person would use a piano, each key was a different letter; her language was exceptionally creative.

 

Jim Norton
English 10-12, Creative Writing
In all of my classes, I strive to expose students to challenging works by diverse authors, poets, and playwrights. As a teacher, I consider the study of literature to be a series of interconnected conversations. Students have conversations with the writers through their words; with me through writing; with classmates individually and in groups; and most importantly, through reading, writing, and thinking, with themselves about what is important in both literature and life. These conversations provide opportunities to realize the differences and similarities between human beings and helps to cultivate empathy.

However, to truly encounter the world as a being with agency, empathy is not enough. Students must be able to ask questions that probe deeply into both language and the world it represents. Words have the power to shape our world in a very real sense and students must realize this power and look at what they read and hear critically. The analysis of diverse and challenging literature forces this deeper examination. It also allows students to pose problems and create solutions, even hypothetical ones, or ones that cannot ever be answered.

English 10 is about to begin a unit in which students read two works of graphic non-fiction that depict the Iranian Revolution and the war in Bosnia in the 1990s. In addition to describing conflicts and cultures that are likely unfamiliar to them, these works both take an unflinching look at faith, war, and survival. The choice of these artists to represent serious topics in a graphic format is also be a topic for discussion as well as the larger issues represented by cultures and neighbors at war.

 

Dave Chamberlain
World History, American Gov’t and Econ, Current Affairs, Winter Term Geography
In my Current Events class, we wrestle with challenging and provocative texts that are often used in college classrooms or graduate seminars. This year, students tackle Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Sam Quinones’ Dreamland:  The True History of the American Opiate Epidemic,  and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land.  

The class is conducted in a seminar style nearly every day so it is impossible for students to hide in the classroom. Students are expected not simply to consume these books but to produce their own critiques and interpretations of the problems raised by each text. The best classes are politely contentious, where students’ views are shaped and challenged, through intellectual honesty, vigorous debate and informed analysis. Recent BMA graduates often email me and let me know that many of the books that we read together in class are on their college syllabi, which appears to both puzzle and impress their professors.   

As part of a unit on the legacy of segregation and the ongoing salience of race in America, students read The New Jim Crow, which puts forward the controversial thesis that the mass incarceration system in America functions as an insidious new iteration of a much older system of racial domination. Students write an extended piece of fiction, informed by the text, that asks them to create a story of an African American who finds him or herself arrested, tried, and incarcerated. However, rather than simply narrating the story from only the African American perspective, students must also tell the “same” story from the perspective of a white arresting officer, a white judge, and a white prison guard in a series of chapters that seeks to foster a more empathetic and nuanced understanding of race in contemporary America.  

 

Elizabeth Duffy
Winter Term English
The Winter Term English course is designed to help eighth-grade students develop their skills as critical thinkers and writers through the discussion, synthesis, and analysis of diverse genres of young adult literature. The Theme for the course is “Becoming Who You Are,” and students will begin to navigate the discovery of themselves through literacy by engaging in units designed to build on their understanding of first themselves, then the world around them, and finally, their role in the world around them.

The course is full of text choices which encourage students to delve deeper into the topics and issues that interest them. Additionally, each text is aligned to the others in a theme so that students may create understandings together through focused discussion. For example, during the first unit, students may choose to read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Watsons go to Birmingham or Salt to the Sea. Each text is told from a different voice, offering students different avenues to connect, but each one is focused on the presence of discrimination in our world.

After navigating through the units, it is my hope that students will have a better understanding of who they are and what they are passionate about. The next logical step is taking that understanding of the self and circumstance and contemplate one’s role in making the world a better place. The culminating project of the course will ask students to think critically about a realistic way of improving the community around them. They will be supported by model texts in which characters similar to themselves seek to do just that. I am very excited to see what these students think up and to see their character develop over the course of the Winter Term.

 

Francesca DeLorme
Art 1, Art 2, Advanced Art
In art class, we focus on “visual problem solving” and visual communication with an emphasis on sharing and self-reflection.

The first assignment for Art 1 students is to create a personal logo that visually represents, expresses and explores who they feel they are. They begin by creating a list of ten positive personal attributes and using the elements of art, such as color, shape, line, texture, etc., they turn those words into pictures and work to convey their personal attributes visually, rather than by words. The act of compiling the word list with accompanying illustrations begins as a self-reflective problem-solving exercise, but quickly becomes a shared experience when students help each other identify attributes to add to their lists, and especially when they share their lists in class and provide feedback to one another in an effort to help distill the ideas toward final concepts. Through this project, students learn about themselves and their peers and see that what one student thinks of as a happy color or a friendly shape might be completely different from what another visualizes when thinking of the same words and concepts.

During the unit, students are also recognizing, studying and learning about the history of the myriad of logos they encounter every day by contrasting, comparing and critiquing them based on their design, their message and how effective students think they are, which culminates with an online sharing of their most and least liked logos and an online discussion.

Students then complete their final logos and write a self-reflective piece on the process, including the reasoning behind their art, as well as their personal choices for their final logo rendition.

Studies in cognitive development have suggested that the efforts to go between verbal concepts and visual concepts activates more areas of the brain and forges new connections between them, promoting better problem-solving skills. By sharing their work along the way with their peers, and both providing and receiving feedback, students are able to connect with each other through visual as well as verbal cues, which research suggests bypasses many of the filters people might normally use that can restrict deeper interactions and this helps promote empathy. There is a long historical tradition, backed up by recent research, that suggests visual arts can play a unique role in the development and exploration of empathy.

The project is also an enjoyable and effective way for me to get to know the students quickly while teaching them the basic building blocks or the “elements” of art!

 

Jon Rice
US History

The first semester of United States History is a traditional survey course based on close readings of primary documents. The goal for the first half of the year is to expose students to the many themes that have influenced the development of the United States from the colonial period to modern day. In addition, the first semester focuses heavily on both research methods and the writing process.

In the second semester, the class is thematically based and the students explore more deeply the ideas and literature surrounding American Identity, slave narratives, American foreign policy, a case study of the Vietnam War, and the intersection of social class and the attainment of the American Dream. For each of these themes, students are asked to apply their knowledge and craft an authentic product that answers a question that is pertinent to the present day American experience. For example, after reading Overthrow by Stephen Kinzer, students are asked to craft a policy paper to address one of the foreign relations situations facing the United States and our global community. The goal of the second semester is for students to develop more ownership over their own learning and tackle questions that are interesting to them and relevant to our shared American experience.