“Our higher education advisory board recommended we create a program to reinforce transferable skills that students need for success in college,” explains John Williamson, executive director of curriculum and content development at the College Board. “They said students were coming from AP to college well grounded in content, with deep knowledge and good skills, but for lack of a better word, they needed more ‘generic’ skills such as presenting and creating arguments.” It’s material that matters just as much outside the classroom as in, because it’s really about teaching kids how to think—and then how to convince others to think the same way.
Global H2O is a collaborative teaching effort between science teacher Andy Harcourt (above) and Director of Global Studies Dave Miller.
So if you think it sounds like the title of the course is somewhat beside the point, you’re right. In fact, none of the other fourteen schools in the AP pilot are using issues of water as a unifying theme. In fact, they’re not focusing their courses around a single theme at all; that was Deerfield’s idea. “The real push is about skills, yet our thinking is you can’t really do the same kind of high-level skill development if you don’t have a body of knowledge to work with,” says Harcourt. And anyway, in the midst of all rhetorical training, Harcourt is still teaching hard science. “We started the course with a whole unit on fracking. There’s a lot of science up front—about how the rock layers are built, how you pry apart the layers, how you get these gasses out.” How do they get from the geophysical to the geopolitical? “We took all that and looked at why are people doing this, and why is there a debate over it,” Harcourt continues. “And we looked at the effect of fracking fluids and the possibility of them getting into drinking water, and suddenly the kids are saying, wow, there’s more to this than just extracting for natural gas.”
The layered quality of the conversation is what most excites Dave Miller, whose job is by nature interdisciplinary; his business card reads Director of Global Studies, and yet he says, “I go to History Department meetings. As an undergrad I studied anthropology and environmental studies,” he explains. Here at Deerfield his role is to help students knit together their various courses of study as they learn to synthesize knowledge, keeping the proverbial big picture in view. “It’s not just interdisciplinary, it’s transdisciplinary,” he emphasizes. “If I’m doing my job well, everyone in the school is part of my department. We’re not trying to create something new; we’re overlaying on what’s already here.” This makes Miller a natural fit for the AP capstone course, which is also attempting to transcend content. “We want a program that complements the deep understanding of content,” Williamson explains, “but that focuses more on critical thinking and collaboration.”
Underscoring that emphasis on collaboration, Deerfield’s globalism course moves beyond the sciences into the humanities. Immediately after Harcourt finishes his science section, Mike Schloat moves in to reframe the discussion in a literary context with English 349, aka American Currents, which is rife with tension between empowering the individual and working on behalf of the common good. “I try to use literature as a lens through which students can better understand the American story,” he says, “and then apply those sorts of questions and philosophies and principles to the work that they’re doing in the water course.”
English teacher Mike Schloat’s American Currents reframes the Global H2O discussion in a literary context.
This is just one of many ways to approach the subject. Students are encouraged to make connections between the concepts they encounter in Global H2O with just about any other discipline you can think of. “They’re not looking at science differently, but looking at problems differently,” adds Miller. Philosophy, religion, ethics, economics: “Sure,” agrees Harcourt. “They’ve even had a crash course on the World Bank and the IMF.”
Keeping the breadth of the subject in mind, Schloat has assigned some texts that are obvious fits, like Karen Russell’s Pulitzer-nominated Swamplandia, a dense family drama set in the swamplands of Florida. But other texts may seem like a stretch—like the 19th-century stalwart The Scarlet Letter. How does one fit Hester Prynne into the context of global water debates? “Well, in essence, The Scarlet Letter is about the individual fighting against the community in the pursuit of happiness, in a very American way,” Schloat points out. “We see that same thing happening when we talk about, say, a large corporation trying to buy water rights in Deerfield, and how the community rallied to fight that.” Or whether something intrinsic to human existence, like access to water, can be privatized, as in the mock UN debate? “Right,” he acknowledges. “A lot of what happens in Andy and Dave’s section makes its way into this one.” In fact, despite the fact that Schloat isn’t a science teacher, he sits in on every section Harcourt and Miller teach. “I’m listening and thinking about what they’re doing. If I know they’re going to do a unit on human rights, that may guide my approach to the novel we’re reading. You can always approach books from so many different angles, whether it’s human rights or justice or the changes from the 18th century to now.”