At School: Mini-courses keep students interested at term’s end
Monday, June 07, 2010
By Dana Vogel, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ninth-grader Hannah Mellor holds a stethoscope to a tree, trying to listen to the movement of the sap in the trunk of a tree outside of the Ellis School in Shadyside.
Crowded around a small tree in the Ellis School courtyard in Shadyside, a group of high school students pressed stethoscopes against the branches to try to hear sap running.
Just a few feet away, another group of students examined the leaves on a different tree.
The students were trying to identify trees — some from around the world — in a mini-course, titled “Ellis’ Trees Please.” The course is one of 52 mini-courses the school offered in the two weeks between the end of final exams and the end of school, from May 25 to Tuesday.
At the end of the school year, it is easy for students to lose interest in learning.
Since 1972, Ellis has offered the mini-courses — covering topics from trees to sports medicine to basic rock guitar — to give students a chance to explore more nontraditional topics or to study a particular area more in-depth, said Jack Gaddess, mini-courses coordinator and Spanish teacher.
Freshmen, sophomores and juniors are required to take at least six mini-courses, each once a day, while seniors use the time to finish senior projects.
Another private school, Winchester Thurston in Shadyside, also has offered weeklong mini-courses for high school students for the past seven years, initially in March and now in May. The courses are required for freshmen, sophomores and juniors.
Winchester offers 23 mini-courses, 12 of which are connected to the school’s City as Our Campus initiative, which links the curriculum to Pittsburgh’s cultural and educational resources. Some are offshoots of subjects taught during the academic year; others are new topics.
“We have a pretty extensive curriculum, but we are certainly not able to do everything,” said Mick Gee, director of Winchester’s Upper School, adding that other goals of the mini-courses include getting students involved outside of the campus, allowing them to work with local universities and giving them a chance to fully immerse themselves in a subject.
At Ellis, teachers design the courses to explore an aspect of their regular courses more in-depth — as Mr. Gaddess did with a previous mini-course on Mexican painter Frida Kahlo — or to explore a personal interest — as he now is doing with a mountain biking course.
The theme this year is “Where does it come from and where does it go?” in response to Pittsburgh hosting the United Nations World Environment Day.
Not all courses are designed around the environmental theme, however. While some students were examining the trees, for example, others were dancing in a class called “Traditional West African Dance,” taught by University of Pittsburgh lecturer Oronde Sharif.
Mr. Sharif said he enjoys teaching the mini-courses because of the students’ enthusiasm. “When you have students who want to learn, it makes a difference.”
Junior Katie Mathieson, 17, of Fox Chapel, agreed. “People are still interested even though the classes aren’t graded.”
“Students find something they wouldn’t have expected and learn something about themselves they wouldn’t have expected,” Mr. Gaddess said, explaining that what students learn often develops into an interest long after the course ends.
Claire Richards, a 16-year-old sophomore from O’Hara, said her “Prevention of Genocide” class inspired Ellis’ chapter of Students Taking Action Now Darfur — STAND — to work with bigger groups like the Pittsburgh Human Rights Network.
Stacy Kamumbu, 16, a junior from Stanton Heights, said she also used what she learned in “Personal Finance” after the course ended. “I opened a bank account the summer after I took the course,” she said.
The reach of the courses go beyond just the students. Upper school receptionist Susan Cohen joined a yoga course a couple years ago and has done yoga ever since.
Freshman Emily Oblak, 14, of Churchill, said her family is applying in their home what she is learning in a course titled “Pittsburgh Green Story.” The course explores environmentally friendly architecture and includes field trips around the city. For a final project, each student will present an eco-friendly redesign of her own home.
“It’s really cool because my family has been trying to do this, but we didn’t have the materials or know a lot about this,” Emily said.
The final part of the mini-courses comes Tuesday with field trips to organic farms, waste management facilities and the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority.
In the meantime, the students of “Ellis’ Trees Please” are continuing their efforts, as several trees remain unidentified.
Identifying the trees is no easy task, said Charles Altman, drama teacher and Ellis archivist. Many of the trees were planted by the Arbuthnot family, who once lived on the school’s property, Mr. Altman said. The Arbuthnots purchased many of the trees while abroad at the turn of the 20th century, when importing plant material into the U.S. was legal.
Just last week, Mr. Altman said, the mystery of the names of two of the largest trees was solved. They are both water oaks, native to the deep South.
“It seems the Arbuthnot family did not limit themselves to bringing home far away foreign trees but distant American ones as well!” he wrote in an e-mail.
Dana Vogel: email@example.com or 412-263-1953.
Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10158/1063708-298.stm#ixzz0qHmyPGAy