An independent K-12 school on a beautiful wooded campus, 3 miles from Washington, DC

charlotte Gaw

In my classroom, I strive to blend intellectual challenge with the energy and joy young people bring to the study of history. I focused on helping my students develop their own interpretations of critical issues and, more broadly, their own intellectual passions. In this process, I've found that my students have a lot to teach me.

When I started at Swarthmore College, my plan was to go to medical school. All that changed after a few amazing courses in history -- these courses changed how I viewed the world in powerful ways. My graduate work at the University of Chicago allowed me to focus more deeply on the history of the abolitionist movement in the United States.

Charlotte Gaw
Intermediate and Upper School Teaching Fellow

For a history teacher at Potomac, the arrival of spring means research papers and writing instruction. Indeed, both my seventh grade and ninth grade students are in the midst of significant research and writing efforts. For my seventh graders, this means researching and developing a thesis-driven essay about what they believe to be the most important cause of the Civil War. My ninth graders develop a more analytical paper on the influence of humanism on three pre-modern intellectual revolutions: the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution. For both my seventh graders and my ninth graders, these writing projects are the culmination of a school year's worth of dedicated effort to growing their reading, writing, and critical thinking skills. And while the introduction of these extensive assignments to my classes is inevitably accompanied by groans (and the perennial question: "Wait... how long does it have to be?"), I know the process is inevitably rewarding to my kids, who witness their writing and analytical skills develop significantly over the course of the process.

Research paper season can be stressful for a teacher. For one, it's the most time-intensive unit of the year, as reviewing student work requires extra hours of focused effort. In addition, there's the inevitable stress that comes with giving up some level of control in the classroom. I work to guide students toward strong work, but in the back of my mind, I always wonder, "Are they understanding this? Will everything turn out ok?"

Still, I've found myself reflecting lately about the value of these research and writing projects with regard to both the students and myself. I've come to think that spring research paper time might be my favorite academic season at Potomac. The reasons why I love it so much, I think, goes back to my own schooling. When I was in high school, I thought that writing was a solitary process. I was assigned an essay in class, I wrote it at home, I turned it in, and then I got a grade. In college and graduate school, I came to love writing, in part because I came to see the ways in which writing is an intellectual partnership between teacher and student. Indeed, all of the significant writing projects I've undertaken in higher education have been written in consistent conversation with a valued academic mentor. It is the social aspect of writing - working closely with a respected teacher to challenge myself to grow - that is truly joyful.

Now as a teacher, I work hard to provide my students with that same experience of academic partnership in writing. The student always "owns" the work, but by engaging with each student deeply throughout the revision process, I feel that we are on a shared journey to create a piece of writing that showcases each student's creativity, intellect, and powerful writing skills.

One of the reasons I became a teacher is that I love to read. Historical fiction, fantasy, nonfiction -- there are few things more satisfying to me than spending the afternoon on a couch with a good book. Over winter break, I relished the opportunity to catch up on some of the books I've been meaning to read.

As a teacher in the humanities, I'm frequently in the position to impress upon my students the importance of independent reading. Aside from the ways in which reading helps us build important language skills, escaping into another world in the form of a book allows us to encounter people different from ourselves and to imagine the world from their perspective. When I think about my favorite books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Harry Potter, I am struck by the lessons they have imparted on me about the way the world looks from different vantage points.

But, I feel the need to be honest about my reading habits of late. Despite my full-throated enthusiasm for reading, how often do I actually read? Have I successfully found the time and space to devote to reading in my daily life? I'd give myself about a "C." I read my usual news sources as part of my daily morning routine, but in my life as a teacher these past few years, I haven't always found the time to devote to more sustained reading in the form of books. Or, rather, with papers to grade and emails to write, it's hard to make reading a top priority. But, if I ask my students to make the time to read, shouldn't I cultivate reading as a daily practice, too?

This year, then, my New Year's resolution is to read more. Kari Dalane, our fantastic Upper School librarian, put together a wonderful 2017 Reading Challenge. She's asking members of the Potomac community to read 12 books in 2017 that challenge us -- these should be books outside of our go-to reading selections. In her own words, "Reading has the potential to broaden our perspectives. It allows us into the lives of others and teaches us we are more alike than we are different." That's a good hook. I'm happy to say that I've accepted her challenge. Maybe you will, too?

This summer, my colleague Jared Williams and I spent time reworking our 7th grade history curriculum. We're very excited about some of the revisions we made, but one thing we were sure to keep was the Constitutional Convention project.

When I came to Potomac in 2015, Mr. Williams introduced me to the Convention Project, which he brought to Potomac a number of years ago. After learning about the weaknesses of the nation's first government and the Articles of Confederation, each student adopts the identity of a different delegate at the Constitutional Convention. Delegates from all 12 states present at the historical Constitutional Convention are in attendance at our class convention. Students research information about their delegate, make inferences about who at the convention might be an ally to their interests, and write proposals about the structure and function of the three branches of government. Proposals are debated in a multi-day convention, where we adhere to Robert's Rules of Order. Students can draft or present amendments to proposals. Proposals that get a majority vote are adopted into our class constitution.

Today was the first day of the Convention. After an extensive preparation process that included a "party," where delegates mingled with each other and gained important information about their allies and their opposition, debate opened with a consideration of how representatives would be apportioned. Some students argued that each state should receive equal representation in the legislature; other students argued that representation should be based on population. In the end, students produced a hybrid between those two systems, in which each state received one representative and an additional representative for every 50,000 peopleā€”an interesting idea that is not too far off from the legislature the Founding Fathers created in 1787!

The Convention Project comes before we've studied American government and the Constitution. After the Convention Project, we'll spend a number of weeks delving into the structure of American government and comparing the American Constitution it to our class's Constitution. But by working through the process of compromise in the Convention Project, students come to understand in a much deeper way both the process of creating American government as well as the essential ideas, motivations, and fears that underpin the Constitution.

The end of the year is full of milestones. My ninth graders just hit a big one as they finished their research projects. The culmination of three solid weeks of class work and homework, these projects asked students to pick an individual in world history and come up with an evidence-based argument for their heroism. The project involved significant original research. Most notably, the project required students to immerse themselves in the time period in which their subject lived in order to make an authentic argument about their subject. These specific historical moments were largely not covered in Early Civilizations, meaning that students had to use the skills they've learned this year to deeply understand unfamiliar historical periods like Enlightenment-era Russia, apartheid South Africa, and the Hundred Years' War in France.

One of the things I love about research projects is the way that they call into question the assumption that the teacher undoubtedly knows best. For while I can lecture about Catherine the Great, or Gandhi, or Joan of Arc, I can't tell a student what to make of all the specific information they come across. Indeed, the sources they choose to use and the way they choose to interpret those sources are highly original. During the research process, students quickly notice that my feedback tends less to affirm in the style of "Yes, this is correct." More often, my feedback opens avenues for the student to evaluate their own work: "Sounds feasible -- do you have evidence?" Students drive the research process by coming up with their own unique perspectives and arguments.

And yet, if the student is the driver of their research project, I am in the motorcycle sidecar. For three weeks, I was fully immersed in eleven different research projects as a guide, sounding board, and resource. I remember the first thesis, the revised thesis draft, and the beginnings of paragraphs that were quickly left behind. I've seen unreliable sources be left by the wayside and last minute research to furiously fill-in holes in the overall argument. It's expected that students feel a sense of joy and relief when they submit their final research work. But, after coming along for this whole ride, I, too, feel joy (and a small bit of relief!) at the culmination of their hard work.

While we were off school for the actual Martin Luther King Day on Monday, this week in the Intermediate School featured a wonderful assembly to commemorate the important holiday. The assembly taught students about the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and featured personal stories from a number of faculty related to justice, integration, and the importance of Dr. King’s work and legacy. We also watched a clip from Dr. King’s last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” where he proclaimed that the work of Civil Rights activism was to “[take] the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers...” It was powerful to re-experience a breathtaking speech with young people who were perhaps hearing it for the very first time. Shout out to the faculty who spoke, and to the amazing organizers of the event!

The Martin Luther King Day assembly coincided with a multi-day exploration of African Americans and women in the Revolutionary War in 7th grade history class. Having learned about the causes of the Revolution and the war itself, students spent a handful of classes examining the biographies of African Americans and women who participated in the Revolution, focusing in particular on understanding the challenges they might have faced and their motivations for participation. Students uncovered a variety of African American and female experiences in the war, from women who found ways to engage in military combat, to African Americans who chose to enlist on both sides of the war, to slaves who were forced to join the war on behalf of their masters. All of this work is in service of one of the essential questions in 7th grade history: why did people make sacrifices for freedom?

Some students’ work focused on the life of James Forten, a free African American from Philadelphia. Forten heard the Declaration of Independence read from Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 8, 1776, and he served in the Continental Navy on the Royal Louis in the war. Captured by the British, he narrowly escaped enslavement. After the war, he became a prominent businessman in Philadelphia, and, in the early nineteenth century, he rose to be one of the most significant abolitionist voices in the burgeoning anti-slavery movement. Toward the end of his life, Forten gave financial support to a young abolitionist named William Lloyd Garrison, helping him to begin publishing his newspaper, The Liberator. Garrison and his paper would go on to define the antebellum abolitionist movement around calls for “immediate abolition” for slaves in the South.

One group of students who created a poster about James Forten articulated his contributions well, arguing quite correctly that he was one of the first Civil Rights leaders. In the same week that we had the opportunity to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s achievements in the 1960s, it is powerful for our students to encounter the long history of Civil Rights activism that King drew from when he proclaimed that he was taking us back to those “wells of democracy.”