Beyond the Grade

These Ohio high school educators are focused on something much bigger than the next project or assignment.

Perhaps you’re familiar with “Cleveland Historical,” a free mobile app that features significant places in the city of Cleveland. Developed by the Center for Public History and Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University, the app features several sites, each one with an accompanying essay and photos that explain its importance. Some of the sights include an oral history that tells the story behind the location. At St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, students in Mark Pecot’s history classes create mini-documentaries like these. The goal: To be published in the app.

“It’s about doing something bigger than a project just to get points,” Pecot says. “In this project, which engages the students, I am not actually instructing them in any content. They learn how to research and present their findings and communicate what they find. Ultimately, they hope it will be published.” It’s a type of learning that goes way beyond simply regurgitating the information. The entire project is designed to teach the students how to research, think critically and uncover information.   

When a group of Pecot’s students featured the longest-serving vendor at Cleveland’s West Side Market in their documentary, it was published in the app. The following summer that same vendor was diagnosed with terminal cancer and lost his ability to speak. A Plain Dealer reporter decided to write an article about the vendor, and she found the students’ online documentary. As a result, she interviewed the students, the story ran in the newspaper, and clips from the oral interview appeared on the website.
Pecot also uses popular culture as a teaching tool. A recent field trip to see the movie “Lincoln” ended back at the school with a video conference between the students and the head of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois (the place where Daniel Day Lewis did his character research for portraying the part).

Together, they discussed accuracies and inaccuracies in the movie.

Sparking Their Interest

At Summit Country Day School in Cincinnati, biology teacher Karen Cruse Suder knows a great deal about her students even before they arrive on the first day of their freshman year. During the summer, they are required to write a letter of introduction that includes what they enjoyed about middle school, where they traveled during the summer and what they’re reading.

“If someone is a big traveler, I try to incorporate that into the classroom,” Suder says. “If I discover that a student likes to hike or another student likes to ride horses, for instance, I look for a way to connect that to the learning. It’s easier to play off students’ interests and what’s going on in the Cincinnati area.” Suder also insists that it helps to ease the transition from middle school to high school.

Last summer, Suder accompanied a group of students to Hawaii for a 15-day marine science seminar. The students studied biology, chemistry and physics, but they also learned about the myths, legends and history associated with the people living on the islands.

“The students were taught by native Hawaiians, and all the lab work took place around the island and involved hands-on engagement, like going into the ocean for a snorkeling lab,” Suder says.

As part of the Ohio Department of Education Honors Summer Science Institute, Suder developed a crime scene course at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati. Working in groups, high school participants design their own crime. The groups then attempt to solve each other’s crimes. The exercise, which involves every aspect of science, mimics a modern forensic case and incorporates everything from hair and fiber analysis to what type of evidence to collect.

These examples go way beyond the typical classroom experience. Instead, they are designed to broaden students’ minds and inspire them to learn. Suder realizes that many students may not initially be interested in science, but she tries to spark their interest with a particular topic or scenario. Suder quotes the Greek historian Plutarch: “A mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be ignited.”

“I constantly try to remind myself of that,” she says.

Preparing to Be Better Citizens
As an English teacher at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Kimberley Butler hopes her students will learn to read beyond the words. By emphasizing analytical and creative writing and critical thinking, she prepares the students to be active citizens and better community participants.

“I am helping my students understand why we are studying it. I want them to be good writers, but I also want them to be engaged citizens of the world,” she says. “I want them to understand what Odysseus was going through, for example, and that it is not dissimilar to what their service-men and -women go through today. I want them to understand the relevance that it has to who they are in 2013.”

Perhaps one of the best examples of this is a class Butler developed called “From Harlem to Hip-Hop: The Cultural Anthropology of the Urban Experience in Modern America.” In addition to helping students analyze and understand the development of urban American culture and how it impacted society artistically and socially, it also addresses topics such as inequality and injustice.

“With the students, I look closely at what divides our society and aim toward understandings that bring us together,” Butler says. “We challenge societal pathogens like racism and injustice.” The end goal, she explains, is to help students draw from what they have learned, and then apply it to what they personally want to become as human beings. “We want them to be people who can contribute to their world and make positive changes,” she adds. “It’s not really a suggestion; it’s their duty.”