New unleveled history class focuses on collaboration

GRAPHIC BY NICK CLONEY AND JEREMIAH LEVY

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World History: Identity, Status, and Power (WHISP) is the new unleveled freshman world history class that has adopted a project-based and collaborative work environment. The social studies department adjusted both the leveling and curriculum of the course to tackle larger social divisions within social studies classes. 

Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator Gary Shiffman has been discussing creating this course for years with his colleagues. According to Shiffman, the old curriculum had been designed for a world history MCAS exam that never took place. The new WHISP class was designed to take a non-traditional approach to much of the same content.  

As a project for the China unit, for example, students will work in teams to create a system for recruiting government officials as a way to explore the theme of power and its implications in ancient China. 

“What is different is that we are putting ideas at the center,” Shiffman said. “We’re inverting the pyramid. Instead of everything leading to a test, testing is actually checking where you are. Writing and projects are summative assessments. It feels more authentic and engaging.”

The updated course has not only a new approach to the curriculum and structure, but to leveling as well. According to Shiffman, about 70 percent of freshmen were taking Pre Modern World History Honors. 

“What we were getting was social sorting,” Shiffman said. “By class, by race, and by gender, we were segregating our students,” Shiffman said. “So we thought that if the history department can’t teach kids at once about the world they live in, at least for one year, then why are we history teachers?” 

Shiffman said that from what he has observed in his class, the unleveling has had a meaningful impact on the classroom dynamic. 

“The average behavior across the board is vastly improved. Behavior in all of our classes now is typical of our very best honors classes. It’s amazing,” Shiffman said.  

History teacher Stephanie McAllister said that she so far had a positive experience teaching the course. Like Shiffman, McAllister thinks that leveling was often destructive and served as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The class has allowed McAllister to engage with all freshmen and personalize the material based on the student’s strengths and weaknesses. 

“I think part of what we are communicating to everybody is that they can all do this,” McAllister said. “These are all ideas that are accessible and if you need more support, or more push, or more reach, we can do that, but we can do that all together.”

Although the class allows for personalization and flexibility, McAllister said that the assumption often made that unleveled classes are taught at a standard level is false. 

“It’s not going to make anyone happy to water things down,” she said. “I think the goal is to make it challenging and engaging and provide the scaffolding and the supports so that everybody can participate.”

McAllister said the course has only just begun and that there will be challenges ahead. Currently, McAllister believes that the biggest challenges have to do with the more general schedule changes and switch to OLS. 

Freshman Alex Cooke has found WHISP to be drastically different from his middle school history class. According to Cooke, middle school history was more traditional and structured than WHISP. 

“Now we have been asking more general questions like ‘what is a community’ and ‘what is wealth,’ the sort of topics that actually make you think and comprehend what you’re learning,” Cooke said. “I think it’s been great so far. I’ve really liked it because it gets the whole class engaged instead of just watching a video or reading a textbook.”

Freshman Maya Shavit has enjoyed the project-oriented structure of the class. Shavit also sees value in WHISP having no level. 

“In some classes, like math, it’s a lot more important for it to be leveled. But in WHISP it’s less important because there isn’t one right answer,” Shavit said. “I have really liked being in one class with everyone instead of being in levels.”

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