Hughes Grants: When High School Teachers Conduct Their Own Research Projects

By Jack Stedman

Commonwealth students will soon be tracing the roots of Turkish food, designing virtual chess, and reading sonnets about the first 200 days of the Trump presidency. Others will be mastering trigonometry, analyzing scientific articles from the cutting edge of biology, and comparing theories of quantum physics. 

These latest additions and tweaks to the ever-expanding curricula at Commonwealth come from Hughes Grants. Named for the late John Hughes, the first teacher hired at Commonwealth, the John Hughes Fund for Faculty Development provides grants for teachers to explore their areas of interest and develop new courses.

You can meet this year's grant recipients below—six teachers who have been scrutinizing, researching, and exploring to expand the breadth of knowledge and wisdom in their classrooms. 

Deep Blue Part Two? Coding a Chess Game from Scratch

Matt Singer, Computer Science

Mr. Singer is developing a new project with old roots for students in his Computer Science 2 class: chess. 

In the wake of the tumultuous spring 2020 semester, Mr. Singer wanted to update his curriculum for a radically different (and even more digital) world. So he decided to give his CS2 students the opportunity to design and code their own chess game, which will include playing against a live opponent or against artificial intelligence.

This project is sure to offer the kind of challenge Commonwealth students crave. At around 1,500 lines of code, the chess assignment is double the size of any project in the prerequisite class, CS1, and the complex game requires complex code. Each chess piece has its own unique properties, the board and pieces must be color-coordinated, and the world state involves numerous scenarios with all the distinct moves and possibilities. 

Despite the difficulty of the assignment, Mr. Singer is confident that his students are prepared to declare checkmate.

Listening to Black Voices in America, from Langston Hughes to Kiese Laymon

Mara Dale, English

Ms. Dale originally intended to use her Hughes Grant to focus on the German language. Improving her grasp of German grammar and reading more native texts, she thought, would amplify her English course work, which is guided by themes of voice and perspective. 

But when nationwide protests of racial injustice came to the fore this summer, and particularly when a group of alumni/ae wrote a letter to Commonwealth about how the school can and should improve its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, Ms. Dale realized that this was "not the year to look away from this country." She turned her focus to Black voices in America and their explorations of race, from legendary writers such as Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Gwendolyn Brooks to contemporary authors including Kiese Laymon and Terrance Hayes. 

During her Hughes Grant presentation, Ms. Dale gave a reading from Laymon's essay "Da Art of Storytellin' (Prequel)," in which he reflects on his own voice and the voices of his 90s hip-hop idols OutKast and Lauryn Hill, as well as from Hayes' collection "American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin," which reckons with the first 200 days of the Trump presidency. 

Updating Math for Modern Times

Anna Moss, Math

Math may be full of constants, but that doesn't mean it's unchangeable.

Ms. Moss is hoping to bolster and refresh the math curriculum at Commonwealth by focusing on how trigonometry concepts are introduced to students as they go from geometry to algebra. By reexamining that transition, she hopes to help students take Calculus as early as possible to allow for greater exploration of other subjects, such as statistics, during senior year. 

Throughout this project, Ms. Moss has also continued her steady work in improving DEI efforts in STEM. In particular, she has examined ableism and neurodivergence and is eliminating construction math and the use of protractors and compasses. "Not everyone has the fine motor skills or visual-spatial memory capabilities to effectively learn that topic," she explains. "And I wanted to be sure that everyone in my class has an equal chance to succeed."

Solving the Puzzles of Biology

Emma Sundberg, Biology

In her Biology 2 course, Ms. Sundberg is finding a better balance of increasing scientific rigor while still reviewing basics from the prerequisite Bio 1. The central goal of her Hughes Grant project is to incorporate more literature-based material, right up to the cutting edge of today's scientific innovations. Topics such as gene editing, cryo-EM (used to determine the structure of proteins), and super-resolution microscopy will have students up to date on the latest finds. 

Her updated syllabus will include more academic papers, exploring more complex, quirky, and innovative concepts in biology. Using strategies typically reserved for reading textbooks, Ms. Sundberg will help her students unpack those texts, teaching them how to read dense, and often uninviting, academic writing more efficiently, especially through effective skimming. 

Also new to the curriculum? A biology-themed puzzle hunt/escape room experience, which her students can look forward to as an end-of-year activity.

Turning a Critical Eye on Legendary Physicists

Chris Barsi, Physics

With the preeminent physicists of the time in attendance—Curie, Einstein, Bohr, Planck, Schrödinger, and more—the 1927 Solvay Conference in Brussels on electrons and photons is now the stuff of legends. Yet, the storied event perhaps gave rise to a flawed view of quantum theory that came to dominate the mainstream. 

His Hughes project was an opportunity to pursue a puzzle: although modern quantum mechanics possesses a mathematical framework that has yielded phenomenal agreement with experiment, it ignores deep, foundational questions. Without a resolution, the topic is a terrific venue for students to get a sense of what it's like to pursue unanswered questions and to formulate unknown physical principles. 

Delving into Turkish Dialects and Delicacies

Barbara Grant, History

Ms. Grant is exploring all things Turkish with her Hughes Grant. The medieval history teacher, who has studied Arabic, Persian, and Hindi-Urdu, is adding Turkish to her speaking repertoire. She is learning the language to better inform her understanding of the history of the Mughal and Ottoman Empires. The founder of the Mughal empire, for example, actually wrote his own account of the rule in India in a Turkish dialect. In studying modern Turkish, Ms. Grant is making connections between cultures as she finds cognates that still exist, tying modern Turkish back to Persian and Arabic.

But that's not all the fun. Ms. Grant is also dipping into Turkish delicacies. She is exploring how the culinary fabric of Turkey, much like the language, has been influenced by the move of people and empires across Asia and the prolific trade of the Silk Road. Yogurt and garlic are Turkish staples, for example, but many spices and herbs— from pepper and cumin to purple basil and green fenugreek—came from regions conquered by the turks as they moved west from central Asia.