Donning sunglasses and oxygen masks, students entered a darkened classroom. A few spotlights shone through the fog onto a pool filled with “primordial soup.” Thunder boomed and lightning flashed. This was the first day of biology in the Annenberg Science Center, and sophomores began their coursework with a hands-on lesson in the study of evolution.
It was a dramatic display, and it happened at least four times during the first week of school. That’s because the course is taught by a team: Josh Sham, Caitlin McDermott, Meredith Salmon and Jennifer McKeever. The four members of Peddie’s science department work closely together to plan lessons, create assessments, grade student work and inspire one another.
The level of excitement the faculty members display about their class plans is infectious.
“That lesson was so cool!” exclaimed Salmon. “It’s the first time we’ve tried anything like this. No matter how much you plan, you never know how it will go until the class gets going.”
The group had talked last spring about switching things up in their syllabus, but it wasn’t until McDermott and Salmon were working in separate graduate programs over the summer that the idea for beginning the course with a unit on evolution started to churn.
“It makes sense, because this unit is a great way to enforce some basic concepts before moving forward into more complex material,” said Sham. “But it has to be taught in an engaging way that fosters a deeper understanding of evolutionary principles.”
“We know that not all of our students will pursue science-related fields,” he explained, “But many of them will go on to AP biology or anatomy and physiology next year, and we want all of them to be able to be scientifically literate when it comes to scientific topics, so we try to plan the coursework in a way that leaves a lasting impression.”
The team’s idea was supported by Department Chair Shani Peretz, Ph.D. and they quickly set to work adapting the existing curriculum, re-ordering units of study and brainstorming ideas for effective teaching of concepts. Much of the work was done during preseason athletics, in between coaching responsibilities.
During the school year, faculty schedules allow for weekly meetings, but department members also meet spontaneously throughout the week. “We talk all of the time,” Sham explained. “Sometimes, even just passing in the hallway, I’ll quickly review what went well or not so well in my last class, so that the next person teaching the lesson can tweak and improve it a bit.”
Collaboration supported, and encouraged, at Peddie
Collaboration among teachers happens in most high schools, but it occurs at an extraordinary level at Peddie. Teachers are encouraged to work closely together, share ideas with one another, and collaborate both in their own discipline and across departments. The administrative structure at Peddie is relatively flat, which fosters an ease of communication between teachers and the administration that enables the school to approve and implement new plans quickly and effectively. And, faculty here not only teach together, but they also coach together, live in dorms together and often eat their meals together, too.
“Our administrative emphasis on collaboration between teachers is supported in structural ways, including scheduling priorities,” explained Associate Head of School Catherine Rodrigue. “Teachers who are part of a team for a specific discipline have regular meeting times built into their schedules. This promotes reflection on practices and content that, in turn, often leads to ideas for improving our classroom instruction. So, changes and new ideas often start at the classroom level and get communicated through the department chairs.”
Experimenting with new programs and solutions
This deeply collaborative spirit is tangible in every department at the school. Last year, art department teachers Andrew Harrison and Liz Sherman created a joint course, Acting for Film and Television, in which acting students to collaborate with film and video students to gain experience on both sides of the camera. The math department is rolling out a newly designed path of coursework based on research and input from a department subcommittee. The new program, designed by Laura Hoffman, Emily Scott and veteran faculty member Betty Tennyson, replaces the traditional lecture-based format of learning with student-led problem-based learning.
Members of the history and English departments have joined together this year to design and teach parallel courses matching the study of American history with period literature. Spanish classes integrate work in the art studio into their cultural studies. And AP United States History (APUSH) teachers Erik Treese and Alison Hogarth have woven together content and lesson planning so that students can – and do – transition seamlessly from one teacher to another if they need to make up a class or receive extra help.
“Each of us brings something to the table – we have different areas of interest and our own ideas,” explained Treese. “Throughout our department we often remark about the mix of input into lesson plans from both past and current history faculty. It’s important to keep what works, but it’s also key to know that we have the support to be creative – and to continue to move forward if something doesn’t work.”
Treese and Hogarth see evidence of how their collaboration is making an impression on students.
“Our students know that Erik and I work closely together, planning the course, writing tests, and even co-grading assessments,” said Hogarth. “As a result, they, too, collaborate--students study together even if they have different teachers, and they often attend review sessions with a teacher they don’t have in class.”
Working across disciplines
There are larger academic undertakings whose roots lie in this culture as well. Peddie’s Digital Fabrication Lab, for example, has its origins in the math department. Several years ago, teacher Mark Sawula and Department Chair Tim Corica sought to further develop programming and technology offerings. They approached Rodrigue, who in turn formed a committee made up of members of the math and technology departments. The committee researched and then visited models they thought might work for Peddie and interviewed a series of candidates to head up the initiative. They made a proposal to Headmaster Peter Quinn, received support from the Board of Trustees, and launched a full program, now in its second year.
Teachers Stef Graefe (History), Kurt Bennett (English/History) and Matt Roach (English) felt their students could increase and deepen connections between literature of the era and the history they were studying. They took their ideas to Rodrigue, who not only gave them the green light to explore new options, but also teamed up with registrar Mary Palilonis to look at the complex academic schedule and puzzle out how to practically implement the new coursework.
“Both Matt and I were inspired by a course offered at Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English, where we spent the summer doing graduate work,” said Bennett. They approached Graefe, who jumped at the idea and spent much of the summer revising the US History curriculum to align it with works to be taught in Junior English: “Men We Reaped,” excerpts from “Walden,” “Huck Finn,” works of authors Junot Diaz and Toni Morrison, movies like “Gangs of New York” and “12 Years a Slave,” and even songs from the hit musical “Hamilton.”
“There is so much support here, both from the administration and from fellow faculty members,” said Roach. “There is a universal sense of wanting to get better as teachers, and a level of trust among the faculty that encourages us to explore the best ways to teach.”
In typical Peddie fashion, faculty members are quick to give credit to others for the encouragement and success. Treese and Hogarth are profoundly grateful for both the practical and personal support Department Chair Sarah Somers gives to their efforts.
“There is no pressure regarding scores, and we don’t feel judged,” Hogarth said. “That, plus Sarah’s informal and formal efforts to encourage and allow time for collaboration, goes a long way in giving teachers the courage to be creative, and that in turn builds confidence in the classroom. Collaborating with others also reassures us that the basic foundation of our course is solid, and that knowledge frees us to put our own personal stamp on each class.”
I feel fortunate to have this kind of experience,” Treese said. “It has made me a better teacher, and it certainly makes the course better, too.”