History department hosts visiting committee

The History Department hosted a visiting committee of four working scholars and educators from California and New York Feb. 3 and 4. Respective upper school and middle school department heads Katherine Homes-Chuba and Matthew Cutler, along with former department head John Corsello, hosted a panel made up of Elisa Milkes from Horace Mann School, Carolyn McNulty from University High School, William Deverell from University of Southern California and Douglas Smith from Colburn Music Conservatory.

Horace Mann School shares similar viewpoints to Harvard-Westlake in terms of student and parent communities, and Holmes-Chuba had previously helped to review their history department. Holmes-Chuba, Cutler and Head of School Jeanne Huybrechts had spent some time at a workshop at University High School and found the school to be different enough from Harvard-Westlake to provide diverse feedback.

“You don’t want people who are exactly like you because that’s not very informative,” Holmes-Chuba said. “The nice thing about University is they know us but they don’t really know us.”

During the review, the History Department presented the panel with its six-year program, the changes they were contemplating and the changes they were already undergoing.

The process included a sit-in review of classes, a roundtable discussion between teachers and the visitors and a final  document submitted to the department.

In March, Cutler and Holmes-Chuba will present a report to the Board of Trustees and start to collectively involve both upper and middle school departments in addressing the various issues brought up for the six-year plan. Both departments expect to discuss matters of research projects, the writing program, plagiarism, grade level transitions and the integration of technology.

One concern with research papers is the large amount of plagiarism, so the department is looking forward to a discussion on how to shrink that number and how the visiting schools have managed to do this.

The reviewers recommended assigning longer term papers, as it is “hard to develop a real argument in just five pages,” Huybrechts said.

Teachers were also commended for their efficient integration of technology in the classroom.

“The students are really focused and I see a lot of enthusiasm for courses,” McNulty said. “I’ve been watching computer use too: [I’m] delighted to see kids are actually taking notes on their computers.”

Specific recommendations for the middle school were rewriting the seventh grade curriculum to include more American history, improving the writing program and smoothing the transition from ninth to tenth grade.

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