Humanities Theory, Curriculum & Practice At Sparhawk

Humanities Theory, Curriculum & Practice At Sparhawk
Yvonne Domings

Humanities Theory, Curriculum & Practice At Sparhawk

Introduction by Yvonne Domings, Upper School Director

Sparhawk Upper School’s humanities curriculum is thematic; that is, students read and analyze literature and learn about history by looking through the lens of a theme. Thematic curriculum provides a frame of reference for integrating content knowledge from a variety of subject areas and perspectives. Rotating over four years, the themes that we explore at the high school follow a timeline from Becoming Human to 20th Century & Beyond.

The focus of our history courses is historiography “the way [history] has been written, the sometimes conflicting objectives pursued by those writing about it over time, and the way in which such factors shape our understanding of the actual event” (Conolly-Smith, P., 2007). Students learn to consider historical events through varied lenses, source documents and multimedia. As a result, they come to understand that historic understanding is crafted by examining primary source documents not only those created by the victors, but also by examining evidence from the experiences of ordinary people (memoirs, diaries, etc.)

In English Composition and Literature courses, we choose engaging literary works of fiction and nonfiction in varied genres and help students focus on developing analytical and evaluative skills. Research suggests that the amount of reading a child does is correlated with academic achievement across the curriculum (UofL, Institute of Education, 2013) and even reluctant readers read voluminously when passionate about the subject matter (Fink, 1998, 2007). Therefore, we try to choose highly engaging reading material to not only convey information about the theme, but also to help students gain skills to read for purpose and then spend time in exploring, analyzing and evaluating ideas in discussion and in writing.

Students are encouraged to make connections between the literature and history courses. In examining mixed perspectives through the lens of a theme, students gain valuable insights that help them to develop higher order thinking and communication skills. As a progressive school, we encourage students to test out and trust their own ideas and to learn to communicate them effectively both verbally and in writing through Socratic seminars, presentations and traditional research papers.


Middle School in the Middle Ages

by Eric Getz, Middle School Teacher

The Middle School humanities classes are all about the Middle Ages this semester. Guided by our reading of Romeo & Juliet, we’ve separated our classes in the Capulets and Montagues, explored iambic pentameter, staged Shakespearian insult contests, written sonnets, and delved into Elizabethan England (the good, the bad, and the stinky!). 

In our History classes, we jumped into our ‘wayback’ machines to investigate the causes of the Fall of the Roman Empire—which turned out to be the western portion of that empire as the eastern portion or the Byzantine Empire continued to flourish for another 1000 years. Over the remaining two months of the school year, our studies will take us throughout Medieval Europe where we will meet all kinds of royalty, knights in shining armor, grand fortresses, the Black Death, and the peasants who may have been more educated and better organized than we have been led to believe.


At the High School, this semester we are exploring these essential questions in our Global Village theme: What is culture? How are gender roles defined, perceived, and perpetuated in diverse cultures? How do our own biases affect our understanding of other cultures? How do literature and arts shape and reflect a culture? Are there universal characteristics of belief systems that are common across all cultures? What are they and how can they bring us together?

Exploring Varied Worldviews

By Bob Delibero, Upper School Teacher

As a humanities teacher, I’m always looking for opportunities to help my students expand their worldview by reading the works of authors from different cultures, both historical writing and literature and to confidently and effectively communicate their ideas both in speaking and in writing. This semester’s theme in particular provides students with rich opportunities to do so.

My African literature course has been a detailed introduction to the major writers and diverse literary traditions of the African continent. We have read a novel, Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, and are currently finishing up another by Mariama Ba titled, So Long a Letter. Discussions and writings have been centered around the culture, rituals, and traditions of the African people, especially the plight of African women.

My Eastern Ethics class has been delving into the philosophical study of morality, including the theory of right and wrong behavior, the theory of value (goodness and badness), the theory of virtue and vice, justice and crime, etc. In contrast, we have researched and discussed the works of Western researchers Kohlberg and Gilligan and their theories on moral development. The students have been wrestling with ethical dilemmas and have had to work their way through them this using reason, logic, and critical thinking skills. We have held Socratic seminars on several current topics, and continue to explore ethical questions that have arisen in indigenous cultures both internally and externally, and discuss how they affect or have changed today’s global society.

The Value of Considering Mixed Perspectives

by Nate Velluto, Upper School Teacher

As a history teacher, I believe it is essential that students are able to form their own perspective on history. To this end, I strive to provide them with mixed perspectives on historical events and concepts. An example of this would be in my World War II class during our study of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The students were given multiple articles—totaling fifteen or so--which all gave contrasting viewpoints on the use of the atom bomb. Students were given time to read and discuss the articles. We then hosted two debates: students took both sides, once advocating for use of the bomb, once protesting its necessity. Finally, each student wrote a paper expressing their own thoughts on the bomb. Papers weren't graded on the opinion they held, but on the quality of writing and use of evidence to support their claim. In an age where our youth are flooded with information, being able to evaluate and synthesize viewpoints is becoming far more valuable than memorizing facts.

To this end, another tool that I find incredibly useful is Socratic dialog. Often, whether in history or in English, I will give students a topic or question with which I would like them to wrestle. After time to prepare, students engage in a dialog in which they strive to explore the point at hand to find deeper meaning. In this exercise, it isn't important to find what's correct; instead, the exploration of themes and information at hand leads to deeper understanding of the topic as a whole. For me as the teacher, it can be excruciatingly difficult not to jump in to add my ten cents to theses dialogs, but it is essential that the students work as a group to build understanding. Oratory, supporting evidence, and rhetoric are all skills that Socratic dialog builds upon. 

 Learning to Dig Deeper in Eastern Philosophy

by Lee Ford, Upper School Teacher

As a humanities teacher, I want students to dig deep to learn more about the topic we are studying. To do so, we are exploring thematic texts that present very different ideas from those that students have considered before. Doing this well requires students to closely read texts, consider them at length, discuss them and make connections.

This type of “deep dive” is illustrated thematically this semester in Eastern Philosophy where students are digging—reading, analyzing and interpreting ancient South and East Asian texts. In the process, they are connecting religious and philosophical movements to historical events. They began our course of study in India with the Bhagavad Gita, and from there spent much of March and April learning about the origins, history and philosophy of Buddhism. Most of these ideas expose them to different ways of thinking than many of our students are accustomed to considering. Students have been fascinated by these ideas, which in turn have provided rich opportunities to think deeply about them and work through them with their peers in socratic discussions in class.

Student voice

by Shelley Carpenter, Upper School Teacher

From my perspective, an important part of being a teacher is not only leading discussions with intriguing questions, but also sitting back and listening to student voices. I want students to learn to lead as well as to follow. They need to find their voices in the classroom, to share their thoughts and to respond to others both verbally and in writing. This is a skill that needs to practiced and skillfully honed in high school in order to prepare students for college and beyond.

This semester in Contemporary Voices from the East, my students have been immersed in Eastern fiction. They are currently reading modern short stories and flash fiction from Thailand, Vietnam, China, Korea, Japan. By reading engaging texts, they have become invested develop an opinion and express it with ease. My students engage in literary criticism each day in class. They then learn to apply their ideas in their writing by comparing and contrasting literary elements and discussing literary mechanisms such as points of view and flashback.

Students in my Chinese Cinderella and Other Young Voices class have finished their first novel, When My Name was Keoko set in post WW2 Korea. They have been intrigued by Korea’s history and the characters in the story who navigated through the Japanese occupation. As a result, much of the class is spent in lively discussion. This week, they will begin reading their second novel, Chinese Cinderella a memoir about a Chinese girl who lived a Cinderella-like existence from Post WW2 China through China’s Cultural Revolution. I’m looking forward to hearing their reactions to the story and their literary criticisms, as well.

Works Cited:

Connolly Smith, P. (2007.) Writing on History. History Dept. at Queen’s College Retrieved from

Fink, R. P. (1998). Literacy development in successful men and women with dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 48, 311-346.

Fink, R. P. (2007). What Successful Adults with Dyslexia Teach Us about Children. In K. W. Fischer & J. Holmes- Bernstein (Eds.), Brain bases of learning disorders: The case of reading. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education. (11 Sept 2013). Reading for pleasure puts children ahead in the classroom, study finds. Retrieved from