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Critical Elements

Deerfield Magazine Spring 2013

By Naomi Shulman with photography by Brent M. Hale 
For 
Deerfield Magazine, Spring 2013

It’s a tense geopolitical scene at the United Nations, as international experts from around the world address ambassadors from the United States, Bolivia, and New Zealand. They’re considering a deceptively simple question: Is water a basic human right? Passionate representatives of both public and private interests are debating who should control access to water. The human rights side makes a compelling ethical case: Private companies tend to set their products at expensive price points, caring more about their stockholders than those below the poverty line. But the privatization side is coming back with a strong economic argument: Corporations working to make a profit will work efficiently, while governments simply tax the populace and waste the money. The conversation is rhetorically heated. When the Bolivian ambassador questions whether privatized water would limit accessibility to those below the poverty line, a corporate lobbyist leans across the table and shuts him down. “Would your government really deprive its poorest citizens of water?” she says acidly, leaving the Bolivian ambassador stumbling for a response.

Soon the Secretary General closes the debate. Only it’s not the Secretary General. It’s science teacher Andy Harcourt, one of a triad of teachers running Deerfield’s new, two-year, two-section Advanced Placement capstone course. Harcourt, along with his colleagues Mike Schloat and Dave Miller, is shepherding his students—who today were world leaders on the national stage—through a new kind of course, one that depends less on a body of knowledge than it does a cadre of skills in research, rhetoric, and presentation.

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The title in the course catalog is Global H20/American Currents, and as the name suggests, it’s a multidimensional, multiyear deep-dive into the challenges we face as water becomes an ever-diminishing resource. It’s also an experiment—a pilot of the AP College Board, which selected just fifteen schools to help them shape a new kind of research-heavy advanced placement course, one intended to train students to navigate the rough terrain that faces them in college and beyond. While traditional AP courses have tested students on their retention of knowledge, this one gauges how they approach a problem, gather data, and then make their case. And it’s attracted students right out of the gate. “I’m getting a solid understanding of a prevalent issue,” says Tripp Kaelin ’14 , one of the students in Deerfield’s pilot, “while improving a set of critical analysis skills that could be applied in any situation involving an argument or a debate.” Global H2O is technically a science course, but those critical analysis skills are the real key here.

“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.

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 

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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.” 

H2O6This 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.” 

It is that last part—the changes from century to century—that most defines the work taking place in this somewhat experimental class. An observer of the mock UN debate would notice that as the students assembled around the table, each one had an iPad on the table in front of them, and as the discussion heated up, students were busily searching the Internet for statistics and facts to bolster their arguments. 

“Oh yes. It’s a 21st century phenomenon. I feel like I’m in the classroom of the future,” agrees Harcourt. The model is different; students aren’t simply reading a text and then taking tests on the material. “The Internet—the world library—is basically their main textbook. The texts we assign are points of departure, and the kids have to develop the skills to critically analyze the texts.” Miller points out that in a sense, they are harnessing a power the students already have, to varying degrees. It’s a rare teenager who doesn’t spend ample time surfing the Internet these days, after all. 

“Spending time online—that’s what they’re doing anyway,” Miller explains. “We’re forcing them to think critically while they do that, so when they’re pulling up different pages they know what to look for.”

 Making a practiced judgment about the information they access is an essential component of thinking critically in the digital age. “They’re learning how to rapidly assess the validity of an argument,” Miller says, “and the validity of an author, too.” According to the AP College Board, it’s working. “When I visited Deerfield, students told me the skills they were learning in the seminar course are transferring into their other studies,” Williamson says. “They’re learning argumentation and research and presentation, and using them in other courses.”  

H2O7Tally Behringer ’14 wholeheartedly agrees. A self-described future scientist, Tally was drawn to Global H2O because of the subject matter, but realizes she’s learning more than chemistry and physics.  She’s becoming a savvier consumer of information. “We’re gaining the ability to trust—or not trust—our sources,” she says. “You need to focus on where you get your information from, and whether it’s valuable or not.” 

True to the mission of the course, Tally is also stretching her ability to make an argument. “I’m not a great debater,” she insists. But it was she, as a faux corporate lobbyist, who shut down the Bolivian ambassador during the mock UN debate. “I thought, maybe I’ll attack the moral aspect of the issue. Personally, emotionally, as a human being, you don’t want to be responsible for peoples’ deaths,” she says reasonably. And so Tally came up with a zinger that any real-life corporate lobbyist would be happy to employ. It wasn’t necessarily her personal opinion—but that’s a big part of the point, for her. “What really struck me was the ability to see more perspectives and to understand how someone in a developing country is being affected by unavailable water sources, versus someone like me, who turns on the faucet whenever I want,” she says. “I wanted to learn to see through other people’s eyes.”

Her classmate Tripp echoes Tally’s experience; he too was drawn to the course for the subject matter, but realizes he’s gaining more than an understanding of water and current issues. While Tally was speaking for corporate interests, he was arguing for the country of India—both positions that had been assigned by Harcourt and Miller. “Whichever side you were on, you had to go fully for that side. You weren’t allowed to take a happy medium. It put us out of our comfort zone a little bit,” reflects Tripp. “There have been times where I’ve had to argue against what I actually believe. It’s made me think about how to deconstruct the other side—I know where they’re coming from.” 

A science course that is also a literature course, an economics course, and a philosophy course is in keeping with a plethora of facts and data that Tally, Tripp, and their peers are sailing into; in order to navigate, they have to learn how to figure out whose data to trust, integrate it with other data, and gain confidence in their resulting opinions. Harcourt sums it up simply, “It’s the bigger picture.” 

Which brings us back to the name of the course. It’s not just H2O; it’s Global H2O, a comprehensive look at a subject that has different challenges for someone from Africa versus someone from the US, or even someone from Nevada versus Massachusetts. Tally and Tripp are just two members of the generation who will have to face those challenges, but they are already readying themselves to take them on. While Deerfield sits on the same plot of farmland it has occupied for two centuries, its students have always had to learn to think expansively . . . now more than ever. ••

Naomi Shulman has written for The New York TimesReal SimpleLadies’ Home JournalWhole LivingFamilyFun, and other publications. She is a frequent contributor to Deerfield Magazine