Academic Reflection, One Teacher's Perspective

Posted by: Karen Nichols on Wednesday, July 21, 2021 at 12:00:00 am

We Widened Our Worlds...Anyway!

By Karen Nichols, Humanities teacher

As COVID-19 forced unnatural “social distancing” upon our community, I identified a primary goal for the year. During this time of utmost constriction, I would encourage Oakwood students to transcend artificial barriers like masks and Zoom to expand their worlds: they would against the odds know the world better and to know it with purpose.

Why this goal? As a geographer by training and a teacher of history, English and senior seminar courses in the Oakwood upper school, I see immense value in exposing students to “the real world” at every possible turn. This translates into a pedagogy where central themes in the humanities work together with current case studies to reveal ongoing, actionable issues rooted in history. Such an approach to learning challenges the misguided idea too often promoted in U.S education that real learning happens “in college” and that world problems and opportunities must wait. Oakwood does not subscribe to this limiting notion. Not surprisingly Oakwood students were ready to engage with the world through the lens of our curricula. Because they were capable, I made it a point to bring in some of the college-level materials that I typically use with my students at Mount Saint Mary College, where I am a part time faculty member in the Social Sciences Division (teaching physical geography, economic geography, and anthropology). Oakwood students were ready!

Ninth graders in World History led the charge as they explored “ancient African societies” only to find that colonization has deprived many of these civilizations of their histories and material culture. Students discovered that non-local “anthropologists'' had excavated many cultural artifacts from African societies such as Great Zimbabwe and Dahomey (Benin) and that a heated debate over artifact repatriation rages today as repositories in France and Britain face their histories.

Tenth grade English students traveled the world as well. They took on literature by authors with diverse backgrounds, many of them women. They learned about the complexities of Dutch East Indies politics and ethnic hierarchy in what is today Indonesia. They grappled with the tensions facing Chinese and Puerto Rican immigrants to the United States and they saw the world through the eyes of a Shona teenager in Southern Rhodesian (Zimbabwean) prior to independence. They emerged from this world tour, which included a stop in the worlds of Frankenstein and The Tempest with expanded geographic literacy and knowledge of social hierarchy, oppression, and resistance.

Seniors in the Environmental Hazards course tackled contemporary environmental case studies through a lens of global climate-change. They explored such topics as sea level rise crises in small island states (e.g.,Tuvalu), megadrought-related wildfires in Australia, and dust storms in Northern China. They did this all with an eye to cause, effect, and problem-solving. It is worth noting that international students provided real-time reports about hazards in their regions. Their experiences inspired me to investigate how monsoon flooding affects the Mekong River Delta and to prepare a module comparing China’s typhoon patterns with US East Coast hurricane patterns.

Opportunities for extracurricular travel were limited this year. Model UN could not head to Montreal for example. Still some students jumped at the chance to prepare for a local international affairs quiz bowl, Academic WorldQuest (AWQ). The competition is sponsored by the World Affairs Council of the Mid-Hudson Valley (WAC-MHV). As a long-time WAC-MHV board member and co-coordinator of the regional competition, I was thrilled to see how intensely the Oakwood team members prepared. As their coach, I could only facilitate so much. It was up to them to pore over the packed study guide of topics, which ranged from “Uzbekistan” to “the ILO”, knowing they would face 17 other high school teams. While Oakwood did not win this year (one team narrowly missed going to nationals), they expanded their worldview and camaraderie.

In many ways, 2020-2021 had real COVID barriers. But we transcended them and widened our worlds anyway!