What makes a Rivers education special? Our teachers. They are passionate about learning and committed to crafting courses that inspire, excite, and engage. Their students not only master the subject matter, but develop valuable life skills and gain important insights into themselves and the world around them. Read on to learn how the teachers of these six exemplary courses in math, science, art, history, literature, and the humanities strive to bring the Rivers commitment to "Excellence with Humanity" to life every day in their classrooms.
6th and 7th Grade Pre-Algebra with Tori Wilbur
Flipping the Classroom
If a visitor were to drop in on Tori Wilbur’s 6th or 7th grade pre-algebra classes on any given day, the one sight they would never see is students sitting in rows staring passively at their teacher as she stands at a whiteboard explaining a new mathematical concept. Rather, what they most likely would see are students divided into small groups collaborating on problem-solving tasks, planning real-life applications of math concepts such as shopping lists and recipes, or talking excitedly as they plan their next project.
As for Wilbur, she would be found floating from group to group helping to clarify concepts, challenging students to extend their thinking, outlining the parameters of the next activity, or talking individual students through a particularly challenging problem set.
AP Physics with Stewart Pierson
Exploring the Mysteries of the Universe through Physics
“Physics,” says longtime physics teacher Stewart Pierson, “constantly requires you to figure out the rules of this world you are in and to figure out how to apply those rules to solve problems.”
Since almost every student at Rivers takes a course in physics, Pierson hopes every one of them finds the subject as fascinating as he does. He admits that’s a lofty goal. Nevertheless, he is convinced that everyone who takes physics will benefit from the experience in critically important ways.
“Those with an affinity and passion for physics can move onto the sophisticated concepts of Advanced Physics and AP Physics,” he says. “But even the students who take introductory-level physics get the benefit of having gone through the process of solving unfamiliar problems. Physics forces you to solve a succession of challenging problems. It hands you that practice every day in every test and every lab. Being good at problem solving is a fundamental life skill.”
Those who do go on to take higher level physics courses find Pierson eager and ready to lead them into an deep exploration of the complex workings of the universe.
8th Grade Visual Art with Chris Love
Exploring Our Identity through Art
For millennia, philosophers have considered the question of who we are. At Rivers, students are encouraged to explore this age-old inquiry through artistic lenses. Middle School art teacher Chris Love uses art projects and skill-building exercises to plumb the depths of student identity and build appreciation for artistic techniques.
“Over the years, I have seen too many students edit their personal story based on what they think others want to see,” says Love. “My goal is to use art to help students learn to see themselves more clearly.”
Love starts the year by instructing students to draw self-portraits that include a line down the middle of the page that separates their summer self from their school self. Asking the students to depict the components of their “twin” selves in as much detail as they can helps them start to see the difference between who they are and who they might think they are. As the students work, Love instructs them on the use of line and color in their drawings and how to use visual cues and symbols to convey meaning.
International Relations with Andrea Diaz
Exploring Global Connections
The history curriculum at Rivers challenges students to go beyond just knowing dates, names and events from the past. It encourages them to analyze the past from different perspectives, to think critically about the ways in which societies evolved, and to make connections between the past, present, and future.
To accomplish that, courses are carefully crafted and arranged to provide a logical growth path for student learning. “Student learning should proceed on a continuum that builds skills progressively and leads students into deeper and deeper levels of complexity,” says Andrea Diaz, chair of the history department.
In the Upper School, that growth path begins in 9th grade with a course in world history that focuses primarily on the past 200 years. The course is not taught chronologically, however. Rather, students study history through the lens of different thematic units such as wealth and poverty, violence and conflict, and the function of religion/ethics in the human experience.
It’s an approach, says Diaz, that makes the material more engaging for students and more effective for making connections between the past and present. It also makes it easier to understand the complexities of various socio-political issues. Finally, it provides context and a framework for understanding the courses students will take in later years.
Literature with Jennie Hutton Jacoby
Examining Literature through a Psychological Lens
For many, adolescence can be a challenging time. Teenagers can often feel anxious, confused, and isolated. Jennie Hutton Jacoby’s English elective on psychological literature strives to help students gain a better understanding of these years by giving them insight into themselves and others with a bit more clarity and empathy. She does this by using literature, both fiction and nonfiction, to introduce her students to the different branches of psychology, the different approaches to psychotherapy, and some common psychological profiles.
“Literature serves as a great vehicle for discussing difficult topics,” says Jacoby, who has taught at Rivers for 23 years. “It provides students with the opportunity to see that they are not alone in their struggles to understand their emotions and their reactions to the stresses of life. It also provides a safe way to talk about those things."
The discussions we engage in during the course of our work can be powerful and personally meaningful." — Jennie Jacoby, English teacher
For example, students examine the dysfunctional family in Judith Guest’s Ordinary People and explore the damaging effects of guilt and blame. Peter Shaffer’s play Equus provides the vehicle for using a Freudian lens to uncover the motivation for a teenager’s violent crime.
The revolutionary counterculture novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey provides the opportunity to discuss the debilitating effects of rejection and shame as students examine mental illness and the power dynamics in an institutional setting. Sylvia Plath’s poetry and her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar help students understand the spiral of depression, while Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper explores a new mother’s descent into postpartum psychosis.
8th Grade Humanities with Melissa Dolan
Systems of Justice and Injustice
Four years ago, humanities teacher Melissa Dolan '98 became increasingly concerned by the way in which the growing polarization in the country was making it difficult to engage in civil discourse on complex issues. People were viewing the world in stark, black-and-white terms, as nuanced thinking, along with compromise and empathy, seemed to be disappearing from the national stage.
Although the 8th grade humanities course has long focused on helping students understand U.S. history and the American experience through the use of literature, Dolan, who graduated from Rivers in 1998, realized the course needed to evolve in order to help students make sense of the growing tensions that were dividing the country.
“We needed to talk about complex historical events, like segregation and the civil rights movement, in a way that would help them better understand the political and social dynamics that were at play in the world around them," Dolan says. "We needed to make the course more relevant, to strengthen the connections between the past and the present. And we needed to help students develop the thinking skills necessary for engaging in nuanced discussions about current events.”
Today the course achieves that goal by introducing students to the concept of “systems thinking,” a learning technique that helps students analyze complex subjects. “If we think about people as belonging to different systems that influence their beliefs, development, experience, and actions, it helps students become more open-minded in how they view the world. It helps them appreciate cause and effect and be more empathetic to different perspectives,” says Dolan.
The course begins with discussions that help students identify what a system is and how it impacts people who operate within it. Then, using the U.S. Constitution as a framework, the course explores systems of government and all their complexities and responsibilities. The goal is not to teach students what to think, but rather how to think about complex subjects.