Second in a series of four
The most difficult part of teaching high school is getting to know 150 students. On average high school teachers have 30 students in a class and teach five classes; thus 150 students, give or take.
To tell you the truth, I try to learn something about each of my students. To tell you the complete honest truth, I do not get to 150 either fast enough or even at all.
Nonetheless it is important that I and all teachers try our best to connect with all our students. Studies will tell you, as will practical experience, that students have better attendance and graduation rates when they have someone in the school whom they can rely on and confide in.
So why do high schools assign classes this way? A century ago, schools prepared students for life in a factory so the schedule reflected that. Even teaching was an assembly line model with teachers doing the same routine five times a day. We ought to bring this outdated system into the 21st century.
I propose that we simultaneously reduce the number of students a secondary school teacher has each year and replace the factory style set up of our high schools. We do this by having teachers teach more than one subject to the same students. We can effectively halve the number of students a teacher has while at the same time reuniting for students subjects arbitrarily dissected by the factory model of learning.
For example, I am a Latin teacher. I could also easily teach English or history to the same students. This way I can explicitly link concepts, themes, trends in both literature and human development. As it stands now we can only hope students will make cross-curricular connections.
Certainly some teachers do collaborate on subject matter. As a ninth-grade Latin teacher, my primary focus of translation is Julius Caesar’s “Commentaries on the Gallic Wars.” The ninth-grade teacher down the hall from me teaches William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” We chat amongst ourselves about what Shakespeare got right and what he “Disneyfied.” I’ve even been known to make a guest appearance in the English class dressed in my gown.
While such cross-curricular magic can happen now, it is more by accident than design. The above-mentioned English teacher and I happen to be neighbors in the hall so we chat. It’s not that the school specifically sets up professional development time for us to co-plan our assignments. And even if the school did, each of us would still teach 150 students.
Imagine if I taught the same students both Latin and English. I would plan for both subjects every day. I would be able to discuss in each class how the grammar and vocabulary words connect. I tell my English class how Julius Caesar basically perfected the one-paragraph essay. I could show my Latin students how studying Cicero’s speeches are a splendid way for them to approach their English term paper. The examples are as endless as they are fruitful.
While not every school offers Latin (shamefully), every school does have ways of reuniting subjects that were artificially divided. Schools could group together their math and science classes, their arts classes and English classes, history and science, or whatever way they want. After all, no subject evolved isolated from all the other subjects.
Imagine a teacher instructing students in both literature and biology with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” as their first course of study in September. Bioethics would no longer be some intangible concept, it would be… wait for it… alive!
What’s amazing is that we already have this “merger” in our elementary and middle schools. We all take it for granted that students have one kindergarten teacher but seven high school teachers. When my children were in the sixth grade they had what I am calling combined classes. They had a combined math / science class called STEM and a combined English / history class called humanities.
When I saw how their homework had them applying pre-algebraic concepts with science and using essay writing practice to discuss civil rights issues, that’s when I started thinking that we should make high school less fractured. This past year I taught English Language Arts in summer school.
When I would talk to students (in four different grades, from three different schools, on two different platforms – in person and Zoom) I would bring in examples from the ancient world related to their readings from James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time.” Just as people should not live segregated lives, neither should our subjects be thus divided.
Of course even if Boston adopted a more unified approach to learning, the transition would take time. Principals would have to craft the pairing of subjects and teachers would have to work on developing new curricula. The planning would need both dedicated time and funding. However we should not let the implementation be a barrier to a better learning experience for students.
There are so many creative and beneficial ways to help our students, let’s not hold back for fear of challenges or mistakes. We ask a lot of our students, we should ask no less of ourselves.
Michael J. Maguire is a Latin teacher at Boston Latin Academy, serves on the executive board of the Boston Teachers Union, and is a self-declared candidate for BPS superintendent. The ideas expressed here are his own.