I first began teaching the Humanities I in Action course in 2003, and from the beginning it intuitively felt like the kind of education students wanted. And for more than ten years I have talked about proposing a Humanities II in Action for the simple reason that every year students – like Matthea, Jonathan, and Nicole – ask why there isn’t a second year of the “in Action” approach to learning.
Four years ago Mike Kersten and I wrote a curriculum for a Humanities II in Action, but the timing wasn’t right to propose it. So, it had always remained something of a disappointment that a year 2 had never even been discussed, despite abundant student interest. All that changed last school year, however, when new energy emerged from an unlikely sector: a small group of junior year students wanted to propose a Humanities II in Action course. How could students succeed in proposing a new course – especially a core offering – where experienced, passionate, and committed teachers had failed? What follows is their story of how it happened.
Tomorrow night Matthea, Jonathan, and Nicole will graduate from HKIS, and so it seems like a fitting final “assignment” for them to tell us how they came to create Humanities II in Action, their vision and hope for what it might become, and the lessons that they learned through the lengthy proposal process. It is with a deep sense of gratitude for their efforts that I share this entry. Even more than that, however, it is with a profound, giddy sense of wonder – I remember my spontaneous victory dance in the middle of the department when I heard the news of its acceptance – that I make this post, confident that positive forces are now being unleashed within teachers and students who will embark on this journey to co-create a course in August, 2018 that I expect to be even more powerful than Humanities I in Action.
I. Introduction on Student Voice by Matthea Najberg
Regardless of the obstacles and curveballs that are thrown your way, with unwavering commitment and a passion for your cause, success is attainable. This is what my two partners and I have learned after almost two years of working towards creating a Humanities II in Action (H2iA) course in our school. The incredible experience of Humanities I in Action (H1iA) left us wanting more after leaving freshman year, and we took matters into our own hands, working to increase the number of “social conscience” courses available to students after freshman year. But even more so than lessons about perseverance and success, we learned about giving ourselves a voice, and using our position as students to make changes that we felt would benefit our peers.
The first lesson we learned regarding student voice was that student voices alone are not enough. Teachers are not obstacles in your journey towards an end goal, but rather open and experienced members of the community that are often willing to help you in any way needed. If they share your desire for an end goal, they are especially willing to put in lots of time and provide resources students may not be able to access on their own. They have years of experience reading books, watching documentaries, finding creative ways of teaching, and they can provide the resources that give a course a backbone. They may provide more legitimacy to your claims and efforts, they have experience of how the school works and they may be one of your greatest benefactors.
At the same time, there are huge advantages to being a student and leading projects like these on your own. Students are less subject to school politics, whereas teachers may need to act in a certain way to protect people or structures in place in our school. There are no complicated inter-teacher relationships that we need to mindful of, and we can just focus on writing a sound curriculum without other distractions influencing our work.
Students also know exactly what students want. We’ve been in the situation of freshmen, sophomores and most other students at HKIS. We went through the life-changing H1iA course and felt what it was like returning to a non-“in Action” class the year after. We also have the ability to talk to our classmates who had similar or different experiences, and gain a broad view of what the student body wants. Students may feel like they have to filter their words when talking to adults, but with us they are quite likely to provide open answers that can inform the direction we want to take the project in.
II. The Origins of Humanities II in Action by Jonathan Chung
Humanities II in Action (H2iA), as its name suggests, is the successor to a course that we took in our freshman year, Humanities I in Action (H1iA). H1iA is a social conscience course that seeks to “burst the bubble” of HKIS students’ privilege by exposing them to a plethora of world issues. It emotionally engages students with world issues by asking us to reflect on our relationship to them – how our privilege insulates us from many of these problems and narrows our worldviews, and what our role is (if it exists at all) in fixing them (many other posts on this blog provide more eloquent and comprehensive explanations of H1iA). Matthea, Nicole and I all took H1iA in our freshman year – we were all in the same class taught by Mr. Kersten – and it altered the trajectory of our lives. It woke us up to many of the problems the world faces, and in doing so made us reconsider and take an active part in the shaping of our views of the world and our place in it. All in all, the course lit in us a desire to make the world a better place.
However, H1iA was also a disorienting experience, as researcher Jack Mezirow suggested was the initial step in transformative education. Being exposed to so many issues and powerful experiential learning activities left us outraged at the state of things – H1iA had effectively burst our bubbles of privilege. But after leaving H1iA and going into sophomore year, there was no follow-up to H1iA, no similar “social conscience” course that combined personal reflection with experiential learning, no outlet that helped us temper the indignation we felt coming out of freshman year into something productive, nothing that provided us with new priorities and senses of purpose after our previous ones – perhaps earning good money, or living a comfortable life – had been shattered by the “shock and awe” of H1iA. We yearned for a similar experience to H1iA beyond freshman year.
During summer 2016 – the summer in between my sophomore and junior years of high school – I attended a “Leadership Institute” summer course at Brown University. This course included designing (and hopefully implementing) an action plan that addressed an issue in students’ home or school communities. I identified the lack of a continuation to a social conscience course like H1iA that was widely accessible to students beyond freshman year as the issue I wanted to address, and came back to Hong Kong looking for solutions. That was back in August 2016, the start of our junior year, and marked the beginning of this entire process.
III. Carrying out the Strategy (with eventual success!) by Matthea Najberg
Once we had identified an issue in our school, this was only the beginning of a long process towards an end goal. It all had to start with a goal. The goal was slightly different for all of us, but went something along the lines of wanting to extend the social conscience education we experienced in our freshman year to students of older grades. With this broad goal, any form of lasting change would be a win.
What we realized from the get-go was that the core of all this was being open. We had to be open to feedback from teachers and students and open to the end goal taking a different form than we originally anticipated. We began the process by simply meeting with a majority of teachers in the Humanities Department. We thought it was important to meet with a variety of teachers who were experts in different parts of the class, from the American Studies lens to the literature components. Some meetings were more successful and helpful than others, but we started to realize that even if many of the ideas suggested to us were not implemented, it was never a wasted meeting. Approval for a course requires support from a variety of members in our school, who can possibly even advocate for it to their colleagues, so letting them in on the process made them more involved and gave them a stake in the project. We recognized that oftentimes when you feel related to something or like you had a great impact on it, you are more likely to want to see it succeed.
Throughout these beginning stages, we had no idea what the final product would look like. We had originally thought of making this class simply a “zero-block” elective course that met once a week after school. We thought students would be too busy and there were already so many amazing Humanities electives available that this was the only form of course that students could spare enough credits to take. Our end goal shifted many times, and we considered ideas like creating a regular 0.5 credit elective and that took place during regular school hours, simply modifying the existing Humanities II curriculum or even creating a class solely for juniors. It was only when one of us came up with the idea of viewing America through the lens of myth that we saw a link between America and our own personal transformation – one that could be explored in a sophomore class that still met in our school’s Core Curriculum requirements. This was our idea for a Humanities II in Action (H2iA) course, which was the ideal outcome, but we were open to anything that would extend social conscience education at our school.
One of the first meetings we had to have and one of the first things we had to have explained to us was the history of what had been tried before in relation to a prospective H2iA course. Only once we understood this context could we move forward and avoid the pitfalls that had caused issues in the past. This was why, for instance, we knew we had to make the course related to American Studies, because this way, it would extend social conscience education at our school, while still meeting the school’s American Studies Core Curriculum requirement.
A Facebook group chat is what has held this whole project together. Depending on the stage of our project, we would talk anywhere from once every few days to multiple times a day on the chat. This communication was vital for scheduling and discussing ideas during our busy days. In a group of non-committed people, this means of communication can be extremely inefficient, as messages can be easily ignored. However, we’ve been fortunate enough that this has been one of the most committed groups any of us have ever worked with. Every message got a response, every meeting was attended and every mistake was apologetically explained. None of this would have worked if everyone in the group didn’t care in equal amounts for the cause and make this their priority.
Jonathan with Miyona Katayama, who was an instrumental member of the team before heading off to university, brainstorming during the summer of 2017.
With a group of such strong-minded and passionate individuals, conflict was inevitable. We had disagreements and frustrations throughout, but perhaps none worse than during the five-day period at the beginning of the summer when we put in the majority of our curriculum writing. One day, it all came to a head, and a teacher had to come in and mediate a mini-debate over how we could work together going forward. As tough as that day was, since then, our work has been much smoother. I think we realized that our disagreements were distracting from the work we were doing. We all had the same end goal, and we had to put personal feelings aside to do what was best for the project.
As fun as it can be working with your friends on a shared passion, and as helpful as it can be to get a variety of teacher input, having a mentor is almost always a must. This mentor must understand your visions and goals and, to a certain extent, share them. Once it is made clear that they are your mentor, they will likely be willing to give up more of their time and bring their own unique ideas to the table. They will likely want to stick with you through it all and until you arrive at a place you are satisfied with. Everyone is busy, but we wanted to find someone who would help us if we really needed them regardless of other commitments. We are lucky to have had four mentors who cared deeply about this project and helped us throughout this process – Mr. Marty Schmidt, Mr. Mike Kersten, Mr. Brian Oliver and Ms. Sarah Wheatley.
Research was also a large part of our process. By “research”, I don’t mean only Googling different things, but also reading some books, talking with different people and reaching out to organizations to better inform ourselves and shape the course. There are so many different aspects to a course, especially a social conscience one, so we wanted a solid foundation to speak from in all of these different areas. When justifying the existence of this course, we needed a good idea of the history and literature that would be taught, the experiences that would be offered and how the curriculum material could lead to students’ personal transformation.
All of this goal setting, openness, meeting, finding of mentors, research and collaboration led up to our final presentation to the Humanities Department. To ease our nerves and practice presenting to a live audience, we chose to present to the American Studies teachers two days before the actual presentation. Not only did this give us helpful feedback, it also showed us what worked in the presentation and where we seemed to lose people. The day of our real pitch, we were left a little disappointed when we ran out of time, but we still had hope after hearing some teacher feedback. Teachers were telling us this was bigger than just one class; this course passing would cause a shift in the whole department’s curriculum structure. It had started larger discussions that were bigger than us, or even the course itself.
All of this doubt and not being able to sit in at the meeting to answer some questions left us anxious to hear the outcome. A preliminary vote didn’t seem too convincing, but we had not yet given up. A few days later, our mentors called us in and told us the good news: the class had passed by about 90 percent! We had never expected such an amazing amount of support, and in that moment we realized our work had paid off. All the hours, frustrations and triumphs had led up to this point, and we couldn’t believe that three students could do something like this. The course went on to pass through the Department Heads and High School Administration, and from then on it was quite surreal. The course was being put into handbooks, advertised at Academic Marketplaces and got 80 signups for the next school year. We can’t wait to see how the course continues to take shape as it is taught in the years to come.
IV. Hopes for the Course by Jonathan Chung
Being a form of transformative education, Humanities II in Action’s (H2iA) purpose is to change people for the better. As such, above all, we hope that this course is able to have a positive impact on students who take it, no matter whether they took Humanities I in Action (H1iA) or not.
In order for it to do so, the course’s curriculum and experiential activities will need to meet students’ developmental needs. What are the big questions that sophomores are asking coming out of freshman year (regardless of whether they took H1iA or Humanities I)? What stages of emotional development are they in? Knowing this, how can H2iA help them answer and resolve some of these questions, guide them further along the path of social conscience and grow as people?
All we can say is that we won’t know for sure until the course is taught. Although we have memories of what it was like to be a sophomore, we can’t say for certain what the big questions sophomores face are, or generalize from our own experiences developmental needs that are shared by most sophomores. We believe that we will only know the answers to these questions once the course is actually taught. Thus, we expect the course to change shape over the next few years, as teachers get a better grasp of what sophomores seek in their personal growth and adjust the course to better meet their needs. We think that these next few years will be a process of co-creation for H2iA, as teachers and students work together to shape this course into something that meets the needs of sophomores and helps them grow.
V. Lessons Learned by Nicole Lim
Any task that is presented to you will inevitably be filled with setbacks, but turning those setbacks into lessons are what enabled our group to achieve our goal. In the moment, a setback may seem like an impasse, but the issues themselves are never as important as how your group solves them. From every mistake, every miscommunication, and every failure, there is something to be learnt and appreciated from that moment. There will be times that you feel like giving up, but the only thing that matters after it all is the fact that you didn’t. I was very lucky to work with two incredibly committed individuals, and the lessons that I learnt have been invaluable to me.
The people in your group will make or break the project, but don’t forget that you’re part of the group as well. There’s no way to produce a quality product at the end unless you have quality people working on it in the first place, and the first place to start is to look for people who are amazing at what they do; preferably, amazing in a different way than you. Although a group with different personalities will clash at some point, the presence of different strengths and skills will only help your group. And, as with all problems, the way to overcome them is to find a way to trust each other and compromise. However, an uncompromisable trait is commitment. We are always busy, always surrounded by distractions, and always on the go. There needs to be a mutual understanding within your group that everyone may need to sacrifice in order for the project to work, and people really need to have a strong sense of purpose in order to stick to their commitments.
Having a purpose and having a goal are two very different things. We knew from the onset that we were all passionate about and wanted to extend social conscience education at HKIS, but each of us were passionate about it for different reasons and had different ideas of what our ultimate goal looked like. Defining a group purpose starts with understanding what the group believes in, and is the biggest foundational step a group can take. Then, with a unified purpose, your group will be able to create a goal with much more clarity and understanding. Although all of us had our own set of motivations that drove us to work on this project, we share the belief that social conscience education – education that transforms the student – is vital, and that was the purpose that united us as a group.
The idea of having a goal sounds quite rigid, but if you want your project to be the best that it can be, you need to be open to adapting it. That’s why your purpose is so important, because it allows you to know exactly what you can and cannot compromise on when determining your goal. Knowing that our overall purpose was to extend social conscience education at HKIS, we were able to be flexible with our final goal, exploring many ideas such as creating a “zero-block” class after school or a 0.5 credit elective course. Finally, though, we realised that the only way for us to make a true impact in service of our purpose was to pursue the goal of a 2-credit, Humanities II in Action core course offering for sophomores.
As high school students, there’s no way that we could’ve understood more about the academic material than a teacher on that subject. That’s why, as we developed our idea, we had to consult numerous teachers to learn from their expertise. Asking for help will never worsen your idea because you have the power to take or leave the feedback. Go and get criticized, go and get shut down – the more you’re aware of the possible weaknesses in your project, the higher quality it will end up being.
In addition, when you do something that is unprecedented, you will inevitably face push back. There will always be people that just won’t agree with you, and you need to accept that now so that it doesn’t hold you back. However, it’s more likely that people will be supportive of what you’re doing because you’re pushing boundaries, and they can appreciate your passion.
Finally, focus on the work, not the outcome. We can never guarantee that things will ever go exactly as we want or expect them to, so trust the process and your purpose, and focus on doing what’s within your power and nothing else. Before we presented to the Humanities Department, Mr. Schmidt told us: “When I proposed this course ten and four years ago, it failed, but those failures were necessary to get us to this point, and if this proposal doesn’t pass as well, it will be necessary for whatever happens in the future.” Therefore, it’s most important to work hard and let go of all the external results, trusting that whatever happens is for the best.
VI. Conclusion by Nicole Lim
Just a fair warning: you won’t immediately get the same respect as a teacher. They are qualified professionals who have studied their subject in depth, and you’re a student looking to make an impact. Your position doesn’t give you the same respect as a teacher, but it gives you the chance to earn that respect. This may sound disheartening, but this lack of authority can actually help you in your process. Our inspiration for this course came from a course designed by Mr. Schmidt over a decade ago and taught to us three years ago by Mr. Kersten, and with their support we were able to make it into something that another two teachers wanted to represent and back with their authority. Believing in your project gets it started, but having people with the right authority believe in your project is what makes it go through.
However, the most important part of this process is understanding who you are and believing in your knowledge and passion. When you know who you are and what you stand for, you’ll know what kind of impact you’re capable of making. We didn’t go about forming our group through a huge sorting process, we put our idea out there and let those who believed in our idea come to us. If you’re clear about your passion, you’ll attract others who share that vision and those people will be the best that you can find, because they will pick up on and share your sincerity and genuine passion for the project.