High School Curriculum Leading to the CESJDS Portrait
We know that college education, graduate education, and the nature of paid work are different today vs. years ago. Nearly 20% into the 21st Century, high school education now prepares students for a less predictable, less-defined, and more dynamic future. Given this landscape, some argue that for high school education, content is no longer king--emphasis should be on development of thinking and communication skills that can be applied in any context, including contexts that none of us have yet envisioned. The utility of emphasizing thinking and communication skills today is clear, but at the same time, we shouldn’t reduce our teaching of content to a bare minimum. Budding young minds need to learn a body of content, across disciplines, in order to develop their thinking and communication skills. Learning to think and communicate doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Content (e.g., historical events, literary works, Jewish texts, scientific procedures, mathematical theorems) is raw material that gives students the seeds, the perspective, the range, to begin thinking and communicating effectively.
Sound and effective thinking and communication, learned in conjunction with the accumulation of content knowledge, are the crux of goals for our students that are highlighted in the CESJDS Portrait of a Graduate. In particular, the Portrait describes the CESJDS graduate as an independent, creative, and critical thinker who, among other things, “exhibits diverse and broad knowledge with the passion and skills for lifelong learning,” “evaluates ideas and information from diverse sources for validity, relevance, and significance,” and “reaches well-reasoned and creative evidence-based conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards.” The Portrait also describes the CESJDS graduate as an effective communicator who, among other things, “reads for comprehension from various literary sources and styles,” “writes effectively for various audiences and with personal voice,” and “uses technology and digital tools appropriately to explore, research, and exchange ideas.”
These thinking and communication skills are developed via many of the assignments that our high school students complete. I’m grateful to Mr. Buckley, Isadore and Bertha Gudelsky History Department Chair, Mr. Bregman, Evonne and Elliot Schnitzer Family Jewish History Department Chair, and Dr. Worden, David Bruce Smith English Department Chair, for sharing details and descriptions of assignments that foster the thinking and communication skills described in the Portrait. A bit about those assignments is offered in the following few paragraphs.
In 11th grade US History, all CESJDS high school students complete a research project. The assignment is framed for students in this way: The defining skills of the historian are most evident in their ability to research, contextualize, and synthesize a variety of sources into a unique historical analysis. As a way to conclude your journey as a historian at CESJDS, you will have the opportunity to discover and research a topic of your choosing and craft your own piece of scholarship. You will have the flexibility to select from a wide-array of topics and analyze the ways in which that area of focus related to or influenced broader historical trends. Several stages of the project are outlined for students, with the final product being a 6-8 page paper.
Also in 11th grade, many, but not all, CESJDS high school students take History of Arab Israeli Conflict. In this class, they write a paper regarding the Palestinian refugee question. Here is how the assignment is framed for students (altered slightly for ease of understanding here): Please complete a letter that begins with this, “Dear Secretary Pompeo, Before we enter another round of negotiations with the [Palestinians/Israelis] and with an eye towards peace, we find it necessary to lay out our vision and framework for addressing the Palestinian Refugee question.” You can choose either to be a representative of the Israelis or Palestinians, tasked by your government for helping to advance the negotiations. Your job is to write a compelling argument (550-750 words) explaining your delegation’s position regarding the Refugee question. Your argument must address the following: What are your key concerns regarding the Refugee issue? What should be addressed as part of the solution? What is your delegation willing and not willing to accept in the negotiations? Your argument should anticipate and respond to counter-arguments, and be rooted in the texts and topics discussed in our course.
In 12th grade, all CESJDS students complete the English program’s capstone project, the ISearch essay. It offers them the opportunity to bring everything they have learned about critical reading, thinking and writing to bear on their own terms. For the first time, students have the choice not only of their own topics, but also of the primary sources in which those topics are based. Some students opt for visual media—film, tv shows or series; others, musical arts or cultural artifacts. The interest areas on which students move forward necessitate a variety of research strategies. Students are called upon to draw from the tool kits they have compiled in the years leading up to this project for the analytical and persuasive moves they make in constructing the arguments they put forward. Set in MLA format and sometimes highly sophisticated in their conception and execution, the final products are often extremely impressive.
These assignments and the many others that make up the CESJDS high school curriculum are intended to prepare our students for their futures. They are also a part of the way we facilitate students’ unique processes of growth and development. The beauty of education is that it is a process of expanding, broadening, illuminating, realizing, and empowering. Lessons learned by our students today are theirs forever, to draw upon and build upon, as they think and communicate and navigate their worlds, finding meaning and purpose and affecting positive change for themselves and others.