Sparhawk elementary students in a project-based learning lesson during humanities class.

The primary focus of the history program at Sparhawk School is the study of human endeavor and achievement. People can be good; they can be industrious and they have not only survived, they have thrived. This alone would be incomplete, without the study of human foibles, including war and other examples of cruelty and intolerance. The investigation of human activity, where considerations of right and wrong emerge, can be complex, often times contextual, or controversial, and in other cases, impossible to decide. We embrace the intellectual exercise these issues offer.

Because the scope of content in the humanities is limitless, thematic programs provide frames of reference for the integration of vast amounts of knowledge and for cross-curriculum insights necessary for effective consideration of mighty ideas. We use thematic curriculum each year to provide this focus.

We wish our children to cultivate their emerging abilities to make sense of, even question, what they read and hear. In other words, we teach them to become critical thinkers as well as knowledge generators. The “hands-on” aspect of our program serves this purpose well. Students participate in experiential and project-based learning, theatrical reenactments, presentations, and thematic field trips in order to begin to grasp the history and the culture of the people they are studying.

Socratic Seminar

Socratic Seminar is a structured classroom practice that promotes critical and creative thinking, intellectual curiosity, and scholarly habits of mind. The main goal of Socratic Seminar is to build deep conceptual understandings of "texts" and ideas, where the word “text” is used loosely to refer to a piece of writing, visual art, music, movement, and so on.

In seminar, the teacher shifts his or her role to that of facilitator, so that the students can move from passive reception of knowledge to actively constructing meaning and understanding. With practice, the students become self-sufficient, and, together, they are able to tackle big ideas.

Participants in Socratic Seminars are meant to engage in dialogue, which is different from either debate or discussion. Debates and discussions are both fine practices and they have their own goals and purposes. Debates are typically characterized by two sides in oppositional or competitive roles, where each team attempts to prove their entrenched view. Dialogue, on the other hand, is characterized by a cooperative atmosphere, where all the participants attempt to work together to form greater shared understandings. Classroom discussions often look similar, but they are typically meant to broaden a topic, whereas Socratic Seminars are meant to deepen.