All Together Now
Firing on All Cylinders
For the past five years Ben Bakker has served as chair of the Science Department; before that he was a ten-year veteran of the Deerfield faculty. Bakker remembers the detached cylinders that departments functioned in, and he’s happy to step away from that model. Today, he is instrumental in moving forward educational initiatives such as the paired classes biology teacher Andy Harcourt and English teacher Mark Schloat will begin teaching this coming fall. Odd bedfellows? Not really.
Harcourt and Schloat’s classes will highlight a topic that has been featured in the news recently, and is sure to become even more prominent in the future: water. A science teacher and his English counterpart might just be the ideal team to teach this subject: essential for the living world and the global economy, the Earth’s supply of uncontaminated water is in danger of disappearing. In order to have any chance of solving this problem, we will need people who have been trained to think critically and creatively, to communicate well, to collaborate, and who are comfortable with inquiry and research. Where better to learn those skills than in classrooms where students will be required to read extensively, present, complete lab work, and conduct research “in the field”?
“It’s not ‘just’ a science course,” Bakker points out. “And it’s not ‘just’ an English course, either. We want our students to carry specific skills from one class to the other—from one discipline to another—and to feel comfortable creating an entirely new skill set by merging them. I’m happy to support a faculty that is working together to become a more powerful teaching force for the preparation of Deerfield students.”
Peter Warsaw echoes this sentiment, and sees the collaboration between departments as an important step in the Academy’s evolution. “Individual department chairs can help promote a culture of growth and reflection—a culture that values collective professional development within and across all the departments,” he explains.
"Faculty are the pistons moving up and down--working hard--within their departmental cylinders," explains Peter Warsaw.
However, Schloat and Harcourt’s “H2O class” is for juniors who have completed a year of chemistry . . . what about those “foundation” classes all students need? Chairs are gathering their departments to examine those, too. “It’s a matter of consistency,” Warsaw says. “We are constantly looking at our students’ workloads, and considering common texts, units, and exams for ‘multi-section’ classes.”
For example, all juniors take US History but logistics and Deerfield’s commitment to small class size require more than one history teacher to teach multiple sections of US History. So historically, all juniors were studying US History but there wasn’t necessarily anything cohesive to link one teacher’s class to another’s; now, a shared vision has emerged, which includes common units with common texts and a common assessment; shared essay questions at the end of a unit; and primary source documents and secondary readings that have been agreed upon by the history teachers as critical to the teaching and understanding of US History.
Department Chair Joe Lyons comments, “Summer symposiums and retreats where we establish essential questions for our students and develop common units and assessments as well as sharing resources are always great opportunities for collaboration, and my department and I look forward to them.”
“Students deserve a consistently good experience from class to class and year to year,” says Peter Warsaw. “The foundation for that is built when colleagues talk to each other about teaching and learning—when we engage each other on a meta level.”