Reading a book
Faculty Projects: Reinvigorating U.S. History Courses with Ms. Haber

Commonwealth School teachers bring an infectious intellectual energy to their classrooms, fueled, in part, by their own innate curiosity. What happens when that curiosity is unleashed? The Hughes/Wharton Fund for Teachers aims to do just that. Named after the late John Hughes, who taught English at Commonwealth for nearly thirty years, and after recently retired Head of School Bill Wharton, who founded the original Hughes fund in 2011 and championed faculty scholarship throughout his tenure, the Hughes/Wharton Fund ensures faculty can pursue their academic passions, access fulfilling professional development opportunities, and have the latitude to create new courses and reinvigorate existing ones.  

Below, history teacher Melissa Glenn Haber ’87 reflects on her most recent Hughes/Wharton project, a summer spent exploring ways of decoupling reading and writing skills, as well as adding more diverse voices to Commonwealth’s history curriculum. 

My summer 2021 Hughes/Wharton project sprang out of an observation from the City of Boston course I teach: students who sometimes struggle to get their ideas on paper in classes like Ancient History or English 9 can write quite vividly about subjects they know well. This led me to a truth that like all truths is obvious when you see it: writing is hard when you’re not sure what you’re saying. Understanding that, my Hughes/Wharton project focused on ways to allow U.S. History students to work on their reading skills without having to simultaneously work on writing, similar to the way swimmers sometimes isolate their arms or legs for training. I have so often witnessed students’ growth spurts, and I wanted to see if it would be possible to make multiple paths through the course for maximum accessibility—and enjoyment.

What does that look like in practice? Much of my research into reading comprehension focused on variations on the themes of slow down and rephrase what you’ve read, and emphasized the importance of embedding questions in the sources. And so this year the sourcebook includes more of those embedded questions in the primary and secondary sources. I’ve also tried to come up with more heuristics of what to look for when you don’t know what you’re looking for, drawn from my experience as a graduate student in history (and whose last U.S. History class had been right here at Commonwealth with Mrs. Kaplan in 2C!). I also created new “reading question” versions for every response paragraph to give students the choice to work on opening up the reading without putting it together in an argument. I developed other supports for the most difficult sources as well, including some audio recordings and annotated versions that students could use after trying them on their own.

Related: History Research Paper Sample: Democratic Ideology in the Election of 1800

I also tweaked assignments and added some new material that stems from my ongoing efforts to include more non-white, non-male voices into history assignments about general topics, such as:

  • A primary source from 1833 when the Wompanoag sought to free themselves from their Harvard (!) overseers, capitalizing on the 1832 nullification crisis and the outrage over Georgia’s encroachments on Cherokee land
  • More material on the lived experience of free Black Americans in the North, including works by Major Martin R. Delany after he was accepted and then disinvited to the Harvard Medical School, as well as a collection of love letters from one free Black woman to another
  • The visions of Rebecca Jackson, a Black Shaker Eldress, related to the Second Great Awakening 

In my U.S. History Since 1865 class, I’ve added more on the Harlem Renaissance, drawing on Alain Locke’s seminal collection The New Negro; a selection of stories from Jade Snow Wong’s The Fifth Chinese Daughter; and an outrageous new documentary on the role of Freud’s nephew on using advertisements in the 1920s to create desire. After reading Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire, I’ve included more details about the Philippines and other overseas holdings in both courses. 

My Hughes/Wharton project also involved some meditation on how much support is too much—and what the implication should be for grades. I decided, at least for this academic year, to see how students do charting their own path without extra credit for challenge assignments or maxing out grades for the more straightforward options. Instead, my thinking is that if people are working right at the edge of what is difficult—working to failure, as they say at the gym—their growth and practice will be reflected in the assignments that count for most toward their grade; e.g., the research paper, essays, tests, and exams.

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