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Systems of Justice and Injustice 8th Grade Humanities with Melissa Dolan

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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