Class challenges VUHS students

VERGENNES — For Vergennes Union High School junior Emma Gardner and the other 22 members of the school’s Humanities class, Jan. 22 loomed large.
The members of the class had spent a semester researching topics of their choice for the interdisciplinary Humanities course. That morning, the time had come for each to deliver a 10-minute roundtable presentation in the school library based on the 10-page papers they had already written based on that research.
Taken together, the papers and presentations equaled 20 percent of the students’ course evaluation.
See related story: VUHS class has wider impact
And not only did Gardner and the other students have to present their findings to three classmates, but also to two adult community members. Then they had to discuss and possibly even defend their conclusions, all while overcoming natural fears of public speaking.
Gardner said she felt strongly about and had done the homework for her topic — that gender identity is more than biology, but is often defined by culture. She also admitted to nerves, but said she had prepared for the presentation.
“I was actually really freaked out last night. I practiced, like, three times,” Gardner said.
Her talk went well, and Gardner described something she discovered about herself by doing the presentation capping a course that focuses on the issues of individual identity and roles within modern and historical cultures.
“I also learned I can speak well if I need to,” she said. “The process itself really taught me that I can do whatever I put my mind to.”
Senior Tia Hunt described a similar experience doing her presentation on feminism and what she sees as the unfortunate stigma attached to the movement.
“I was so nervous. But it was amazing. It was exhilarating and empowering somewhat. Being so nervous, I just had to tell myself we’ve been working this whole semester on just this one 10-page paper. And we put so much hard work into creating a great project,” she said. “I have still just skimmed the surface of feminism, but still I have learned so much and I have so much more knowledge than I had before. And that made my presentation so much easier because I was confident in what I was saying.”
Social Studies teacher Becca Coffey and English teacher Michael Thomas have team-taught the VUHS Humanities course for seven years.
Co-founded two years before then by Coffey, Humanities incorporates each discipline and focuses on what the course description calls “some of the core questions of human existence”:
“What is the purpose of life? How should I live? What should I value? How should I relate to others and to the world?  How do I know what is true, what is good, what is beautiful? Students explore these questions by examining the art, literature and philosophy of diverse cultures throughout history. Our focus is on the relationships between self, society and subject matter.”
Coffey and Thomas said they hope students not only learn to write and present research papers, but also to discuss complex issues openly and civilly.
Still, those student presentations up the ante, the teachers said, as does having community members sit in on and evaluate students’ performance.
Thomas said a former student once explained the influence of the adult volunteers at the roundtable presentations.
“One student put it very memorably,” Thomas said. “He said, ‘It’s one thing to look stupid in front of you and Miss Coffey. It’s another thing to look stupid in front of a member of the community.’”
Coffey and Thomas said they want their course to challenge students to think; consider, research and discuss issues; to complete longer-form research papers; and, as VUHS and the state move toward proficiency-based education and personal learning plans, to find a topic of personal interest and pursue it. 
“Students tell us when they go to college that this course prepared them for the work they have to do. We want to jump-start that experience for them here,” Thomas said. “They’re not simply doing something we’ve told them to learn and do. So it’s very student-directed.”
Gardner said she found her project to be challenging and rewarding.
“I spent all my time after school on it. There were things I didn’t know. There had to be a flow to the paper. And finding credible resources for some of these ideas that aren’t really talked about or set in stone is really hard,” Gardner said. “It was a really good experience for me, going into college, having to produce papers like this.”
VERGENNES UNION HIGH School student Jaymee Fulcher makes her presentation for her humanities class final project last week in the school’s library. — Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Thomas said students typically choose topics with personal meaning. Other subjects included American attitudes about the environment, societal and medical influences on personality and identity, and the social and psychological impact of a serious injury on student-athletes.
“It gives them a new way to look at something in their own lives,” Thomas said. “Some of them, it helps them think about a career choice.”
Hunt said after her research she still may be leaning toward physical therapy as a career, but may want to incorporate Gender Studies. She added her enthusiasm about feminism carried her through the semester and the presentation.
“I’m very excited about the topic,” Hunt said. “So therefore I can make my presentation exciting and make it something that would show that I am passionate about it and that it should be something people are passionate about.”
The teachers also said their different knowledge bases allow them to support a wider variety of projects.
Thomas cited senior Téa Keifer’s work on the social and psychological implications of her devastating sports injury.
“The disciplinary divisions are artificial,” Thomas said. “Her whole point was realizing physical injury has a social element to it. That’s biology. It’s anthropology, it’s sociology, psychology.”
They can also set the example of how team-teaching helped the class discuss sometimes sensitive issues.
“Once they see we question each other and push each other, they feel free to question,” Coffey said.
As semesters progress, Coffey said, students use what they’ve researched to spark discussion.
“They’re saying, ‘Wait, this relates to my roundtable paper topic, and I’ve thought about this, and we should think about this research,’” Coffey said. “When that starts to occur, we’ve done our job, and they’ve done their job as students.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
VERGENNES UNION HIGH School students participate in the final of a humanities course that required the students to research and write a paper and then present it in a roundtable format last week. — Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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