The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

Constructing Curriculum

Illustration by Eva Park

Following the events of Jan. 6, 2021, Sarah Parmet ’25 watched her eighth grade history teacher stray away from the pre-planned curriculum to instead lead a class discussion on Zoom about the violent insurrection at the Capitol. 

“It was obviously necessary to interrupt the unit to talk about the major political event that was happening in real time and affecting the country,” Parmet said. “I remember being in shock [about] the news and wanting to be in an in-person class to have the discussion.”

The school enacted the Anti-Racism Plan in 2019 in response to student concerns and furthered its initiative with plans to redesign the curriculum of various humanities courses to focus more on the experience of minority groups in response to the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, according to History Department Head Celia Goedde. Some teachers have continued to alter their curriculum to make room for discussions of social and political issues as they occur within society.

French Teacher Simona Ghirlanda said the curriculum of her French V: Contemporary Culture and Communication course incorporates geopolitical and sociological themes. The class discusses global societies related to the Francophone world, socioeconomic issues and how governments respond to their people’s needs.

Ghirlanda said she prioritizes addressing current events in her class and is willing to change lesson plans if a political or social issue becomes relevant.

“In this course, we have great flexibility in terms of what needs or doesn’t need to be covered,” Ghirlanda said. “When something urgent comes up, we stop what we are otherwise doing, and tackle it in real time by searching sources of information, which we then analyze and compare for accuracy.”

Ghirlanda said she has made adjustments to the curriculum when pressing social or political conflicts come up while still incorporating French into the course.

“Last year, my Spanish colleague, Ms. Riemer, and I decided to teach our two level 5 courses together for about a month to address the tensions between Israel and Palestinians through an Argentinian movie called ‘God’s Slave,’” Ghirlanda said. “The movie contained some segments spoken in French when Lebanese characters were involved, but more importantly, it showed tragic results of antisemitism, which affects many countries and communities.” 

Ghirlanda said it was important for students to empathize with those affected by the Israel and Palestine conflict.

“For us [teachers] and our students, the real purpose was to try and understand all arguments from both sides, ideally abstaining from judgment and just trying to build empathy toward this ongoing tragedy,” Ghirlanda said. “We teachers took a great risk and were worried about it, as we could not anticipate all reactions from our students. I believe [the students] understood our objective.” 

Science teacher Nancy Chen said she teaches the course Natural Disasters: Science and Social Impact and that the course connects science with current worldwide issues instead of having a purely scientific focus.

“The reason [the course] came about was to offer a science course to students who are not science oriented and to kind of make [science] more available so it’s not just physics or biology classes,” Chen said. “Natural Disaster aims to understand natural processes and connect them to the different disciplines, especially in the social sciences. In the first part of every unit, we learn about the science of the hazard and then in the second part we dive into learning about historical hazards, how new policies came to be about or how the economics of the world are impacted by certain natural disasters that have occurred or are currently occurring.”

Chen also said she incorporates ongoing environmental issues within the curriculum of her course.

“In the first two units, I will be talking about how climate change affects wildfires and landslides and I will definitely bring up the wildfires in Maui that are happening right now and what the certain aspects that cause Maui to have casualties are,” Chen said. 

Chen said it is important to address social and political issues not only in the context of a humanities class but also in the context of a science class.

“Using the pandemic as an example, even though the science had been put forth, a lot of the country was directed toward the political and economical side of it,” Chen said. “I do think that talking about [political issues] in class is important because it’s one thing to present the data and the science, but our country is not only run by science. Bringing in different aspects to science makes people aware of how everything that you learn at school is interconnected.”

Goedde said revising a course’s curriculum and choosing which issues to discuss in class is an ongoing process.

“Most teachers make adjustments [to their curriculum] from one year to the next,” Goedde said. “Thinking of myself, in Honors United States History, I looked at [the curriculum] and really thought about where I want to spend my time. I know that if I increase time in one area, I have to decrease time someplace else. So it’s just kind of judicious, really thinking about things objectively and saying ‘do I need x number of days on the early 19th century or can I shorten that a little bit and increase something else?’”

Goedde said teachers face time restraints when incorporating current issues into a course.

“I think [discussing current political issues in class] can be really important, but we just have so much limited time,” Goedde said. “When I started at Harvard-Westlake in 2010, and probably until 2015, we had current events quizzes and students were expected to look at the physical newspapers to look at the front pages. On a certain day, you’d come to class and you’d know you’re going to have a current events quiz. And [it was] just a couple of short questions about what the results of the election in Ecuador or whatever the case might be. But again, that’s kind of gotten squeezed out with the time pressure.”

Goedde said she and other teachers worked to incorporate more diverse perspectives within the Advanced Placement (AP) United States History course, now called Honors United States History. 

“We developed a bunch of additional resources and our focus was more voices,” Goedde said. “For me in particular, when I looked at my older curriculum, Native Americans were just in a couple of places. Now I have a lot more documents [and] a lot more readings, and they’re interwoven throughout much more of the course. I probably added them to three additional units.” 

Goedde said she and the rest of the department revised certain assignments to be more inclusive and to allow students to explore certain societal issues.

“We changed an entire essay assignment for that course to actually allow students themselves to pick a population within the early 19th century American history and kind of dig down into that,” Goedde said. “So [that essay] could be about the treatment of women, the treatment of Native Americans or the treatment of Black Americans.” 

President Rick Commons said he intends for the school to be a place where students can safely express their views with an emphasis on constructive criticism.

“It’s important that reasonable and respectful views on all sides of a political issue [are] brought into our classrooms and into our community culture,” Commons said. “We cannot be a place where thoughtful and respectful disagreement is not available. We’ve got to make a part of the education at Harvard-Westlake understanding what you don’t agree with as well as what you do.”

Commons said it’s necessary for the school to intentionally incorporate diverse perspectives within the curriculum. 

“We are committed to giving an equal sense of belonging to every member of the community,” Commons said. “That requires that we make sure that students who are transgender, students who are coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds or students that are coming from different racial backgrounds all feel a sense of inclusion. [This] requires, in our curriculum, that we emphasize diversity and that we think about the ways in which ideas historical or current are being presented.”

English Teacher Eric Olson said the department made the choice to add in a poetry unit and omit “1984” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” from the 10th Grade curriculum this coming school year so that students would be more prepared for future texts. 

“For sophomore year this year we made a really hard call in letting go of our dystopian books,” Olson said. “That decision was made because we really felt the loss of teaching poetry, especially in the Shakespeare unit. We really felt like we needed to have more attention to that very compressed language in poetry before we got to Shakespeare. That sort of decision is driven more by how we’re teaching close reading and cognitive abilities of our student than having anything to do with social needs.”

Olson said that even though teachers will be unable to have discussions with their class about particular social themes in the context of one of the dystopian novels, the poetry units allows teachers to have freedom on what social issues they choose to address. 

“I’ll really miss the opportunity to talk about ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and what it has to do with gender and power, so there’s a lot there to lose,” Olson said. “That being said, the poetry unit will give me the opportunity to really be flexible with the different authors I choose and the sorts of issues the poems might raise. [The poetry unit] is a unit where teachers have a little bit more discretion in what they chose to teach. So I might choose [to teach] Jericho Brown, who is an 

award-winning African American poet and has written a ton about race and power.”

Parmet said her English teachers have done a good job of addressing social issues in books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Maurice” while not interfering with the educational aspects of courses.

“Some adaptations are good, but I think the most important thing is that we’re still reading quality books,” Parmet said. “I think [the teachers] did that really well because the books that we’re reading touched on social issues while still being really high quality pieces of literature. As long as the books are well written, having books that address social issues definitely isn’t a bad thing because English is about understanding everyone’s experiences and perspectives.” 

Olson said when deciding what books are included in the curriculum, the English Department recognizes that the negative repercussions of teaching certain literary texts can sometimes outweigh the educational value students gain from the text.

“There are things that we taught where [the book’s] usefulness ends up feeling outweighed by the potential trauma that those books bring,” Olson said. “‘Huckleberry Finn’ is a great example where for years the book was taught throughout high school curriculums and the appearance of the n-word appeared something like 280 times in that book. Something that people finally recognized is that [teaching the book] did more harm than good. So even though I make an argument for the value of Mark Twain’s satire, the book normalizes a word I don’t want normalized.”

Student Leaders for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Equity (SLIDE) Co-Chair Cole Hall ‘24 said he can see how it can be challenging for teachers to be unbiased while facilitating conversations about relevant social issues but that just bringing up the social issue is beneficial to the class.

“All the teachers are supposed to come at social and political issues from the point of neutrality, which is a difficult place to put them in,” Hall said. “If a teacher really strongly believes something but they’re not really allowed to express that, it’s difficult to even pose the conversation in the first place. If you phrase a question in a certain way to the class, it can be taken as you support this or are against it. So just bringing it up and allowing students to have their own conversation that relates to the topic while still being in line with the course work is really important.”

Ghirlanda said she thinks it is crucial for educational subjects to have room to adapt and discuss current issues.

“Content is important, if not necessary, but it should not be set in stone and run our courses,” Ghirlanda said. “I strongly believe that we educate ourselves by learning how to approach any content, whatever that may be. It’s obviously easier depending on the subject taught, but I believe that there should always be an open door for the unanticipated when there’s a pressing issue. This never means random improvisation. Everything needs to be approached and explored with method and specific criteria, but the content itself should always be relevant, and sometimes what becomes most relevant is unanticipated.” 

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