Innovative Courses that Inspire and Engage Rivers Teachers Challenge Students to Challenge Themselves

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.

"One of the things I like about the flipped classroom," says Tori Wilbur, "is that it lets the kids explore more. I want them to struggle a little bit because that’s where the learning occurs, in those moments of challenge and struggle. But I also let them know they are not going to fall because I’m here to help them."

So when do the math lessons take place? The students watch those at home on their iPads. The lessons consist of interactive videos that Wilbur created using the Explain Everything iPad app—41 lessons for sixth grade and 57 lessons for seventh grade.

Welcome to the flipped classroom, a world where students use homework time to get an introduction to a lesson and use classroom time to deepen their understanding of the topic and to work collaboratively on a wide range of projects that put mathematical concepts into practical use.

The interactive nature of the iPad and the Apple Pencil allows Wilbur to create lessons by writing and speaking as though she were working one-on-one with a student. Students then move through the lessons at home at a speed that is comfortable them. If they come across something that confuses them, they can use Schoology, another app on the iPad, to ask their classmates for help, or they can email Wilbur for assistance.

The next day, in class, Wilbur reviews the previous night’s topic to make sure everyone understands how each problem is solved before moving onto the application stage.

“The flipped classroom lets the passive part of the learning process—the lecturing— happen at home, and it allows students to move through that process at their own pace,” Wilbur explains. “The active part of learning happens in the classroom with the support of peers and the teacher.”

Hands-on projects that put mathematical concepts into use are a big part of the classroom experience.

For example, during their study of statistics, Wilbur’s 7th graders must give a presentation that uses statistics to inform others about a specific topic, such as how an analysis of the ages of football players can be used to draw certain conclusions about player longevity and position demographics. They’ll make posters and charts for their presentation and prepare a speech. In an interesting twist, they’ll create two versions of the presentation, one that makes straightforward use of statistics, and one that manipulates the statistics in a way that misleads their audience into drawing erroneous conclusions.

“That project came out of an interdisciplinary partnership with the Media Literature class,” Wilbur says. “It helps the students understand how statistics can be used both to enlighten and confuse.”

The sixth grade “Natick Open Door Project” requires the students to plan, prepare, and serve a meal to 60 members of a nearby elderly community. Using their math skills, the students have to choose and modify a recipe, shop for the groceries while comparing unit prices and working within a budget, and cook the meal. “The project involves lots of practical uses of math, as kids have to calculate food amounts and grocery costs,” Wilbur says. “Plus, it gets them out into the world, teaches them a bit about cooking, and introduces them to the rewarding practice of community service.”

When asked to identify the benefits of a flipped classroom, Wilbur can easily rattle off a long list. But of all the benefits, perhaps the one she likes best is that it makes math fun.

“I think that’s the most important thing at this age: that kids have fun in math and that they experience success. Early middle school is when they are going to decide if they love math or hate it. It feels like a really important job to me to help them love math.”

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.

Physics teacher Stewart Pierson enjoys the energy Rivers students bring to class and the fact that "they are genuinely interested in learning."

Over the years, the AP Physics courses at Rivers have evolved, moving from non-calculus-based classes to calculus-based classes. Pierson is excited by the change.

“Connecting the two subjects allows students to bring their growing math skills into their physics work. That physics relies on math is probably obvious, but when you bring calculus into it, it raises the game. Students quickly come to see the power of calculus. Calculus and physics working together gives you the ability to solve problems in the real world that algebra can’t. It allows us to explore physics at a deeper level and tackle more interesting problems.”

This exploration happens through classroom work and labs. During the labs, students engage in hands-on activities that help them understand complex concepts. During the section on forces, for example, students will physically work with pulleys, pendulums, rolling carts and even swinging bowling balls as they study the many forces at work in the world around them.

“We try to find a good balance between hands-on work and diving deeply into the textbooks, which students need to do in order to develop the depth of the math that they need to know,” says Pierson.

Not everyone will find physics fascinating … but I certainly do. So I try to help students see what I find fascinating about it — to view it as a way to understand the world." — Stewart Pierson, physics teacher

Although the students in AP Physics are up for the challenge, Pierson acknowledges that the material is hard. To keep his students engaged, he starts each class by asking one science question that the students will discuss for 10 minutes. The questions can be as esoteric as “Do we have free will?” or as practical as “How does a refrigerator work?”

“Instead of just jumping into homework, we start with a free-flowing conversation about what we know and what we think,” says Pierson. “We spend a lot of time hypothesizing an answer, and the discussions are great. It gives us a chance to relax and just enjoy thinking about the world and how it works so that we can take that energy and go back to studying physics.”

By the time the course comes to an end, Pierson hopes his students will have increased their enthusiasm for science, increased their confidence in their analytical skills, and developed pride in their ability to persevere. That pride and that confidence, he says, “will make them stronger people in the face of adversity in their futures.”

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.

Art teacher Chris Love keeps a watchful eye on the work students are creating, leaning in when necessary to make suggestions or demonstrate a technique.

The fall continues with students working on personal stories that have written and visual components. With the focus still on self-exploration, the projects that students tackle are designed to demonstrate how different media, alternative techniques, and varying color can convey a large part of their story in a way that words might not. An iteration of this quest for identity involves another round of self-portraits as part of Día de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday that celebrates remembering friends and family members.

“For this project,” says Love, “students take a selfie and transform it into a mask representing how they would express their personality and tell their own story through images on their face.”

My goal is to use art to help students learn to see themselves more clearly." — Chris Love, art teacher

During one classroom exercise, Love had Middle School students drawing their shoe over and over again in five-second increments from 10 seconds to 45 seconds. It was an unusual exercise. And, in fact, he even told the students that, for centuries, drawing was not considered art; drawing was used to practice learning how to paint. In this instance, though, he wanted students to see shapes as well as details, to experience the simplicity of line and form, and to understand that “you’ve got to mess up to get great.”

“I tell my students that they need to learn to risk it all. If you feel bored doing the same artistic task repeatedly, ramp up the challenge by using different colors or new media," Love says. "Ultimately, I want students to understand that they can learn from each effort of drawing what they see, and that what they see in front of them is an aspect of who they are.”

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.

History department chair Andrea Diaz makes current events central to her class on International Relations.

After completing United States History in the 10th grade, students in grades 11 and 12 can choose from several AP courses as well as an array of trimester electives. Diaz teaches three of these electives: International Relations; Cities: The History of Metropolitan Culture; and Modern Latin America.

In her International Relations elective, Diaz stretches students' understanding of the dynamics that shape the relationships between nations. She teaches students about the four fundamental theories of international relations--realism, constructivism, liberalism, and radicalism--and then helps them apply the theories to current events so that “we can understand what is motivating different countries to do the things they do.”

“Students come to see that international affairs are complex and that finding solutions to global problems is not easy. They come to appreciate the importance of compromise, diplomacy, and cross-cultural understanding,” says Diaz. “It also makes them appropriately skeptical of those who suggest there are easy solutions to these complicated problems.”

I love teaching at Rivers because of the tremendous amount of freedom teachers have to make courses engaging and relevant. Creativity and innovation is strongly supported at both the institutional and departmental level." — Andrea Diaz, history department chair

Diaz ensures the course is tied tightly to current events by giving students a bi-weekly assignment to select a news story that is relevant to the study of international relations and present an oral summary of what the article is about. Students must choose a different area of the globe for each report - Southeast Asia one week, Africa the next, Western Europe the next. The exercise gives students the chance to engage in deep discussions about countries, such as Russia and North Korea and France, whose relationships with the U.S are in the media that surrounds them every day.

One significant new asset that Diaz and all the teachers at Rivers have at their disposal this year is the Center for Community and Civic Engagement, directed by the former chair of the history department, Dr. Amy Enright. Equipped with a video conferencing system and driven by its mission to teach students how to become knowledgeable, engaged citizens in the world, the center provides the potential for exciting new learning opportunities.

“The center will help us strengthen the connection between history and current events, and it will create new opportunities for our students to talk directly with experts in various topics located around the world,” says Diaz. “The center will help bring to life even more vividly for students the concept that past is prologue.”

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.

English teacher Jennie Jacoby uses literature as a mirror that students can hold up to themselves.

By pairing these and other literary readings with memoirs and case studies, Jacoby makes the literature feel more real and relevant. “Reading the biographies of the various authors as well as studying the cultural landscape and political environment of the time periods in which the works were written allows us to gain deeper insights into the meanings of the works and into the mindset of the authors.”

For Jacoby, one of the most rewarding outcomes from the course is for students to be able to make connections between the literature and their own lives, encouraging them to become more aware, forgiving, and empathetic. It is the kind of course that students often reflect upon and remember for years after they graduate.

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.

Humanities teacher and Director of Middle School Curriculum Melissa Dolan '98 helps students gain a deeper understanding of history and literature through systems thinking.

The course, which is an interdisciplinary blend of history and English, makes use of a wide variety of resources, including primary source material written by historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as poetry and novels.

“We think about the characters in the literature we read—like To Kill a Mockingbird and Animal Farm—and the kind of systems they are in,” Dolan explains. “We talk about how they understand their role in these systems and the kinds of emotions, values, and motivations by which they operate within the systems. Over time, students start linking different time periods and characters and novels, and they start making connections that help them understand the larger world.”

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.” — Melissa Dolan '98, humanities teacher

The course also includes extensive writing lessons that help students not only develop their writing skills, but understand how language can be used to promote a particular interpretation of a story. The goal is to help them become critical thinkers, to examine how a story is being told and whether or not the storyteller—be it a historian, novelist, or newscaster—has an agenda or bias.

At the end of the year, each student takes on a final project that requires them to explore a particular system that intersects in some way with the American experience and the responsibility of government to ensure justice.

“This is an inquiry-based class, where we tackle big questions and figure out how to answer them,” says Dolan. “As a teacher, I set the structure and expectations, but the students drive the conversation. I love helping students wrestle with complexity. I love to see their thinking skills develop, and I love how they can often show me new ways of thinking about things. The students are active and collaborating, and a big part of my job is knowing when to get out of the way and let them run."

“In the end, my goal is to help students develop their voice so that they can communicate their thoughts in an articulate and positive way," Dolan says. "This is just one way to bring Rivers’ Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion mission statement to life in the classroom: by challenging students to engage in courageous conversations that require them to ask hard questions and seek solutions to complex issues.”

Photos by John Hurley

Created By
Stephen Porter

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