Category Archives: Humanities

Reinventing the Student Notebook

Three years ago, during my first year at Morgan Park Academy, I had to improvise part of a lesson after I was left without one of the handouts I planned to use.

I tried a slightly different way to get my seventh-grade English students to engage with the classic Robert Frost poem “The Road Less Traveled.”

I had them take out a piece of notebook paper and draw their understanding of the poem. Think about what the poem represents. What do you think it means? What images are most prominent? What colors come into your mind when you read it?

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The students loved this approach. Some of them drew compelling images from their interpretations of the poem. When asked to explain their images and how they connected to the poem, they had clear, analytical answers that showed their understanding and a higher level reading of the poem.

This success got me thinking: How can I do more of this in my classroom?

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Making Connections and More “Ah-Ha” Moments in the Classroom: Curriculum Integration

Ah-Ha!

Yes! I got it!

Ohhhhhhh!

All of these phrases come from students when they ‘get it’, when the light bulb has been lit, when they’ve finally figured something out. They describe the glimpse of real-time learning teachers strive for every day in their classrooms. These are moments teachers work to see, to witness in their students in every lesson, every activity.sandi

However, these moments are sometimes hard to find, hard to catch, and hard to create in the classroom.  Educators are perpetual students themselves, seeking to better their classrooms for their students and their communities so that more of their students experience these flashes of learning. The question arises at every meeting, every seminar, and every conference: how do we, as teachers, help facilitate more of these moments?

This year, MPA has sought to create a learning environment that will allow students to experience more of these moments in the classroom by integrating our English and History curricula more closely between disciplines. With this in mind, MPA Middle School English and History teachers chose novels, poems, plays, visual media, textbooks, and projects that help bridge the two disciplines, which will link the material they are learning together in a dynamic way.

Our goal is to give students not only content knowledge, but also the space and opportunities to make close connections between the literature they are reading and the history they are learning. Those ‘Ah Ha!’ moments increase in number when students can see that history is the retelling of past lives, and the literature they are reading is a reflection of those lives. Making clear, relevant connections between the two disciplines deepens understanding and builds comprehension and retention.

Currently, students in the 6th grade are reading a young reader’s version of the Epic of Gilgamesh and simultaneously learning about the civilization of Sumer (ancient Mesopotamia) where this great story takes place. Meanwhile, students in 7th Grade English are reading Anna of Byzantium, and concurrently making connections from the medieval Crusades described from the main character’s point of view and the historical events of the Crusades about which they are learning in 7th Grade World History. In addition, while students in 8th Grade English are reading Esperanza Rising, a story of a young Mexican girl forced to immigrate with her newly widowed mother to the United States in the midst of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, they are learning about Mexican cultural traditions, such as the creation of yarn dolls, and the plight of migrant workers in southern California during this period. Later in the year, 7th and 8th grade English classes will read A Long Walk to Water, which describes the struggles of young children in southern Sudan, and will link together the issues concerning that country and the larger continent of Africa being discussed in 8th Grade World Geography and 7th Grade World History.

Relating people, places, and events in history to the characters, settings, and conflicts in integrated literature will build a network of learning that will carry them into Upper School classes, and later help cement a foundation of knowledge that will endure through college.


By Sandra Burgess

Ms. Burgess teaches Middle School English.

Not Your Grandmother’s Term Paper: The Demands of Research on Students Today

“Doing research on the Web is like using a library assembled piecemeal by pack rats
and vandalized nightly.”  –Roger Ebert

Students today are faced with this veritable avalanche of information every time they do a google search. Sadly, quantity does not equal quality, and students are often so overwhelmed by the number of search results that they simply choose the first couple links and look no further. As a result, over the past several years I have come to realize that what I used to teach as research was a gathering of information. What I must teach now is the curation of information.
claireLast year in my Global Issues course (a one semester elective for upper classmen), I put students in charge of creating what would become our ‘text.’ The text evolved from a series of boards (similar to Pinterest) curated by groups of students on the global issues we had agreed upon. These included religious extremism, the future of food, and women’s issues. This proved to be a challenging exercise for all concerned.

There is so much information out there it is easy to fill up a list of resources. But curation is not simply gathering, it is choosing in order to create a meaningful collection and it is this tool that students will need as they pursue higher education and need to do research for both their future vocations and their avocations.

I gave students a list of criteria for their sources: several perspectives, multiple countries, visual and non-visual, primary and secondary, and they collected their information. They annotated each entry into their curated site explaining origin, bias, and general subject. This was a successful effort in that their research was focused and used only quality sources; it no longer seemed as if it were assembled piecemeal by pack rats. However, it still didn’t reach the level of something that appeared as if the students had both carefully selected and interpreted each source.

The next step was to help them explain their choices in such a way that a visitor to their site, like a visitor to any good museum exhibit, emerges from their reading with a larger understanding of the topic and some concluding understandings. Even high quality sources are only as good as the story that weaves them together. The final products were quality sites that presented carefully chosen and vetted information in a way that walked a visitor to the site through the issue and towards possible solutions.

Both I and my students learned that, unlike in the past, the research process is no longer simply about gathering information, summarizing it, and forming an opinion about it.  The wealth of resources on the internet has changed that. Students now must learn how to select the best pieces of information and to assemble them so that they tell a meaningful story. They must become curators of their own information museum.

5 Reasons Reading to Your Child is Awesome

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Nearly every night my daughter and I snuggle up in bed—or sometimes on a couch–and read together. Some days she chooses simple books from when she was younger and other days we embark upon the days- or weeks-long journey of a longer novel.

As a third-grader, my daughter is a fairly independent reader who often reads on her own, either before or after our reading time. So why do I persist in reading aloud to her each night for up to an hour?

1. I love it. As newspapers and websites scream about how busy we all are, I believe it is important to show my daughter that time to relax and spend time together is more important than my to-do list.

2. It is an opportunity to get to know her in new ways. The questions she asks about the books or the things she chooses to comment about let me know what is important in her world these days. Often, during or after our reading, she opens up about things that have been bothering her.

3. We can explore interests together. Our early forays into Little House on the Prairie books have led to a longstanding interest in previous historical periods and thereby to lots of additional historical fiction and, eventually, museum trips. Sharing an interest and learning together will, I hope, set the foundation for lifelong learning.

4. It exposes her to new ideas. Reading aloud together also gives me a chance to expose my daughter not only to different times and places but to new ideas and ways of thinking. Many are the mornings when our breakfast table conversation revolves around something that happened in a book we are reading that she wants to talk about. Why someone behaved as they did, how a situation might have been handled better—all of these are real-life issues we can discuss without judgment because they are about fictional characters.

5. It improves her thinking and writing. I can read books to her that are above her own reading level. This not only increases her vocabulary, it also exposes her to more sophisticated syntax in writing. All this will eventually creep into her own thinking and writing. My experiences teaching English at Morgan Park Academy certainly show me that frequent readers tend to be better writers and even better thinkers. It also prepares her to read these more complex books—on her own or in future classes.

Of course, most of all, I hope that, like me, she will become a lifetime reader who never goes anywhere without a book nearby!


By Claire Concannon

Ms. Concannon teaches Upper School English.

Teaching Empathy

Morgan Park Academy

One of the greatest lessons we have to learn from the study of history is the importance of empathy. But so often, students don’t understand this. They hear about events that seem totally irrelevant and can’t help but think: This was so long ago! They’re all dead now! How does this impact me?

So to keep history from feeling distant or dull, we take an empathetic approach at Morgan Park Academy.

Our history teachers ask students to try on another’s shoes and go for a walk, understand where they were coming from, analyze the events of the time and consider why these individuals did what they did, and look into all the consequences of these decisions.

In teaching this way, we take time to acknowledge to our students that people are complex; that decisions are not made in a vacuum; and that from this there is value both to understanding the past and in gaining insight to understanding ourselves and others.

To approach history as merely a series of dates and facts and places to be memorized is to do a serious disservice to the discipline itself, to the people of the past, and most important, to students who are desperately trying to make sense of the world in which they are growing up.

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Meet Our Teachers: Sandra Burgess

burgess-headshotPlease help us welcome Sandra Burgess to our Middle School Humanities faculty!

Ms. Burgess brings a wealth of experience teaching composition, literature, and history courses at colleges and universities including Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), Washington University in St. Louis, Westminster College, Stephens College, Lewis and Clark Community College, and St. Louis Community College.

She holds a Master’s degree in history from the University of Missouri, a Master’s in English and the Teaching of Writing from SIUE, and a B.A. in English and Classical Studies from SIUE.

Q&A

What do you want your students to take away from having known you?

I want them to know that you should never stop learning, that learning about the people and the world around you makes you a more aware and knowledgeable citizen. I also want them to see me as someone who is there ready and willing to not only teach them, but also to learn from them.

How do you help students learn to learn?

I try to take a multi-disciplinary and diverse approach to teaching. I understand and recognize that not all of us learn in the same way or at the same pace. I try to build into my classes varied ways of learning. I also seek to encourage students to become critical thinkers, readers, and writers, knowing that these skills are necessary for success in their later academic pursuits. Therefore, I work to make this happen in my classroom, seeking to try a number of ways to impart the materials to them. I want them to immerse themselves in materials, learning about the history, the social connections, and the influence works of literature have on people.

What professional development activities have you participated in recently?

I am very interested in the connections between technology and learning. Therefore, the past three years, I have participated in being certified in Blackboard Technologies and Quality Matters. Blackboard Technologies provides a virtual learning environment, not just for online classes, but also for face-to-face classes. Quality Matters is a system designed to help educators facilitate online education to all types of learners, at all stages in the pursuit of education. I see these technologies, and many others, as ways to increase access to education, allowing more people to pursue education in many forms, and thereby, improving society.

What has your path been to Morgan Park Academy?

In 1999, after graduating from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, I began teaching rhetoric, composition, and literature at the collegiate level. After taking a short study abroad trip to Greece and Turkey, I decided to further my education and in 2001 began a graduate study program in ancient history at the University of Missouri. During my time at MU, I worked as a mentor/tutor for MU student-athletes, a graduate teaching assistant in the history department, an adjunct instructor at Stephens College, and a visiting lecturer at Westminster College. I moved back to Illinois and began teaching at Lewis and Clark Community College and St. Louis Community College. I have been published in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review and in Hermes, an ancient history international journal.

What are some of your interests and hobbies?

I love to read, write, watch television, and see films. In my spare time (when I have any!), I attend movie festivals and write movie reviews. I love traveling, from short, two-day trips to longer trips around the world. I have a list of countries and U.S. states that I want to visit, and every chance I get, I mark one off my list. I also love to continue learning, and am always looking for ways to increase my knowledge and to broaden my view of the world.

How to Help Your Child With a Writing Assignment

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Students often find writing papers for English class a mysterious and frustrating experience, and parents can find the process equally mysterious. They want to help their child write better, but what kind of help is most useful? How much help is too much?

Here are a few tips for parents from a longtime teacher of freshman English at Morgan Park Academy:

1. Support the Process

First, writing is like any skill—students have to practice if they want to improve. Just as you cannot practice the piano for them, you cannot write for them if the goal is improvement. Try to keep the focus on improving your child’s skills and confidence rather than on grades.

Second, if you suggest what seems like a sensible way to improve the writing or organization of the paper and your child says, “But that’s not what my teacher said!” —encourage them to go back to the teacher and ask again. Perhaps they misinterpreted; perhaps the teacher did. Or maybe it is a general rule that in this case needs an exception. The bottom line is that the piece will have the student’s name on it, so she should write something that makes her feel proud.

2. Form a Great Idea

Often students are so focused on completing the assignment that they forget to first find something important to say. Ask them about the book or topic: What did they find interesting? (If the answer is “nothing,” ask them what others found interesting). What was controversial or confusing? What did the class talk about and what do they wish the class had talked more about?

Get them to jot down several ideas, even if they don’t think they are good. Once they have a list going, they can look it over—maybe a topic will be sitting right there, maybe the list will lead them to a good idea, or maybe two ideas can be combined to make a good topic.

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