The Elective Imagination

The Elective Imagination
The Elective Imagination
By Sacha Zimmerman

An expanding array of elective courses at Sidwell Friends allows students to explore their emerging interests, take a deep dive into an advanced subject, and broaden their academic perspective even before they leave Upper School.

In a ripped-from-the-headlines moment, the juniors and seniors in Dr. Laura Barosse-Antle's forensic science class are investigating the murders of the four University of Idaho college students that shocked the nation last fall. 

In a presentation before the class, a group of three students explains how cellphone mapping not only placed the suspect outside the victims’ house on the night of the murders, but it also put him there over the course of weeks as he apparently cased out the house more than a dozen times.

After the presentation, the class starts throwing out ideas for further avenues of research: Are there similar unsolved crimes in locations where the suspect has lived over the years? Can cellphone mapping show analogous stalking behavior elsewhere? Can authorities test for blood on the murder weapon outside of the victim pool in Idaho? Meanwhile, other students ominously note that the suspect was bullied as a youth and was even studying criminal justice, causing Barosse-Antle to warn the students to check their assumptions: “Just because someone is bullied or studying criminology does not make them a serial killer,” she says before reminding the class, “You’re studying criminology after all. It’s not a cause-and-effect situation.”

The Upper School at Sidwell Friends is a virtual laboratory in educational innovation, where faculty can use their expertise to teach even the most established subjects in new ways in elective classes that build on methodical, traditional coursework in science, history, languages, literature, and more. In Forensic Science, for example, Barosse-Antle, a PhD in chemistry, teaches DNA analysis, spectroscopy, and microscopy using real-world scenarios. In other words, she’s not just teaching a science survey course; she’s teaching kids to think and work like real scientists.

For those students who opt in to Barosse-Antle’s course and other electives, they experience an early introduction to a level of conceptual and analytic precision and intellectual freedom more often encountered in college. And for teachers, electives are
an opportunity to go beyond the pedagogical confines of standard advanced courses. At Sidwell Friends, faculty have long voiced their support for coursework that reflects the School’s educational philosophy and rigor. “My overall level of excitement about innovative elective courses is high,” says Barosse-Antle. “We are definitely, objectively trading up.”

Inventive classes mean that students who might otherwise have taken, say, a broad survey course in a given subject to prepare for a standardized Advance Placement test might instead take a more focused and nuanced course, such as Modern American Popular Culture, Topics in Art History, Women’s and Gender Studies, History of Science and Technology, or Modern China Through Film—in other words, the kind of courses they will actually be taking in college. Of course, once a student has reached that elective level, they have already made it through years of thorough and broad coursework. That’s why, for seniors, electives are a way to drill down on topics that have particularly captured their imaginations.

It’s exciting to be able to go into an advanced class where the teacher is free to really take a deeper dive into something that they’re interested in.”

“It’s exciting to be able to go into an advanced class where the teacher is free to really take a deeper dive into something that they’re interested in,” says Assistant Principal for Academic Affairs Robert Gross. Looking at secondary education in the United States, how many courses are actually taught by PhDs and other subject-matter experts? Across the spectrum of American high schools, that number would be vanishingly few. But at Sidwell Friends, it’s not uncommon.

In large part, it was this reasoning that drove Sidwell Friends to decide in 2018 to phase out Advance Placement (AP) courses from the School’s curriculum. Run by the College Board, a nonprofit in New York City, the APs were designed as a way for high school students across the country to experience and showcase advanced coursework in a variety of subjects. But as Upper School Principal Mamadou Guèye notes, the appeal of AP courses and exams at Sidwell Friends had been fading even before the 2018 announcement.

In recent years, many independent schools have reached the same conclusion as Sidwell Friends and opted to develop their own alternatives to the AP curriculum. For Sidwell Friends, the 2023/24 school year will be the first with no AP- designated courses, though students can still continue to take the AP exams, and Sidwell Friends will remain a testing site for the APs. In many cases, Sidwell Friends students have traditionally taken AP exams in various subjects even without having taken an AP class.

The contrast to the standard AP course is evident in classrooms all around the Upper School, as one can see in classes like Women’s and Gender Studies: An Interdisciplinary Introduction, where Jewell Debnam, the chair of African and African American Studies at Sidwell Friends, and her class are exploring writers like Roxanne Gay, Ida B. Wells, bell hooks, and Alice Walker. After one student examines language from the Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977, another student notes the dramatic contrast between the collective—a Black, feminist, lesbian, socialist organization active in Boston in the 1970s—and the plight of the “invisible Black woman, always on the periphery in the Civil Rights and feminist movements.” Debnam, who has deep expertise in gender studies and a PhD in history, runs the class like a college seminar, with intense textual readings and group discussions.

Similarly, one would be hard-pressed to distinguish Steve Steinbach’s Perspectives on American Government from a university course. There, 14 students are contemplating the challenges of free speech and the constitutionality of limiting it. Some agree that schools and libraries have special obligations to youth and must ensure that children are not exposed to material that is too mature or violent for them. But who acts on those obligations? “Librarians should have a set of heuristics,” says one senior in the class. “Merit and quality could weed out the bad.” But what is bad? Are librarians and administrators obliged to protect minority rights? Should there always be sections with, say, LGBTQ literature so that schools and libraries don’t make queer youth feel erased? What if the minority isn’t queer but racist? Should their preferred literature be protected? What if incendiary material is vital to scholarly work?

While the kids wrestle with “curation versus banning,” Steinbach ups the stakes. “What about video games?” he asks before showing still photos from violent—and yet wildly common—video games. A tacit groan is felt as the students attempt to justify their own impressive gaming habits while also trying to shield much younger children from the same content. Is there a difference between a book you can close and shocking images that require mere milliseconds to affect an underage viewer? Is it constitutional to put ratings on books and video games? Where is the Supreme Court on such matters? (Spoiler alert: All over the place!)

The Sidwell Friends History Department decided years before the rest of the School that it would lean into qualitative excellence in its courses, including Steinbach’s, and eschew the AP standard version. That doesn’t mean kids don’t take AP history exams; they do—with success. “Learning about the history of the Supreme Court is learning U.S. history,” Steinbach says after class. “I’m not teaching to a test, but any student who takes history classes at Sidwell Friends is going to be more than prepared for college and advanced coursework.”

As an independent school, our courses should be designed by people—our teachers—who have our School’s mission and our students specifically in mind, rather than courses that are externally defined."

Physics teacher and Upper School Science Department Chair Christopher Ritacco agrees: “I think offering courses that serve our students as best as possible and where we’re able to get into the level of depth that we want to in these advanced-level courses is fantastic,” he says. “As an independent school, our courses should be designed by people—our teachers—who have our School’s mission and our students specifically in mind, rather than courses that are externally defined.” Ritacco is also quick to mention that senior science electives are options that come well after a strenuous grounding in all the basic sciences.

In Chinese teacher Qihui Tang’s Advanced Chinese Seminar class, there are just three students—but, Tang says, all of them are truly fluent in Chinese. For these students, taking a class on China that just so happens to be in the language rather than a class about the language itself is incredibly valuable. “They’ve advanced beyond the traditional language studies and offerings,” Tang says. “That means, without this seminar class, they wouldn’t be able use their skills while at school.” This again is where independent schools have a pioneering edge. Rather than watching as students who have reached fluency leave language studies (maybe with the faint hope that the students will pick
the language up again in college), Sidwell Friends gives fluent speakers an opportunity to move to that next level of study as soon as they need to.

Tang’s small seminar means that her students can dive into ancient and modern
Chinese literature, history, art, politics, and more to create a massive portfolio of work that reflects, yes, their language skills, but also their deep knowledge of China and the norms of Chinese education. For example, the seminar students practice traditional calligraphy (something Tang herself spent a part of each school day doing as a child in China). The practice isn’t just about developing a cool graphic talent; it’s about understanding character work and vocabulary at an in-depth level. It’s also a skill that even someone who grew up in China could spend the rest of their life perfecting. For Tang’s Sidwell Friends students, the seminar is an undeniable opportunity to pursue an avenue of study that traditional school language programs cannot offer.

We try to form connections while realizing that you don’t have to be part of a specific community to see yourself in one, because intersection matters.”

It is also an opportunity that extends across all languages at Sidwell Friends. “The idea is that seminars teach you something in Spanish instead of just learning the language,” says Spanish teacher Camila Villanueva ’03. “There are no grammar units, but you’re learning literature or cultural identity.” The topic depends both on student interest and the teachers’ own specialties. For her part, Villanueva teaches Le Nuovo, which means the new generation. “It focuses on cultural identity in the United States in the context of personal narrative,” Villanueva says. “The units are structured around the racial ethnicity groups that you’ll see on the U.S. census. Then for each one, we’ll get historical context and ask the students where they see themselves in this story and where they do not. We try to form connections while realizing that you don’t have to be part of a specific community to see yourself in one, because intersection matters.” It’s part sociology, part political science, and 100 percent an immersive Spanish-language environment.

Building on a comprehensive scaffolding of coursework across subject matters means that senior students can begin to specialize in an almost mind-blowing array of interests: particle physics, advanced statistics, literature from the French diaspora, neuroscience, and much more.

“Who brought in animal hair?” asks Barosse-Antle as the Forensic Science class transitions away from making the case against the suspect in the Idaho murders to a lesson on hair and fiber analysis. Students begin offering up little baggies of dog and cat hair from home as Barosse-Antle makes a list on the white board of the various dog breeds (Australian Shephard, Labrador, mutt, etc.) and one cat breed (Western domestic cat) that they’ve collected. (“I have a turtle,” says one student from the back, and the class momentarily loses it.) Next, each student heads to a microscope and begins to detail the varied hair traits of their pets. Specifically, they are measuring medullas, the innermost layer of the hair shaft and a key difference between animal and human hair. Using the “Medullary Index,” the young scientists create a short profile of each animal hair and then trade papers with one another in what can only be deemed a peer-review process.

In addition to far-away crimes that receive national attention, Barosse-Antle is also keen to make her class more directly relevant to the District, Maryland, and Virginia (DMV). “Did you know that the DC Department of Forensic Sciences hasn’t had accreditation for the last year and a half?” she asks. It turns out that the department lost its national accreditation over concerns about the accuracy of its evidentiary analysis. In the meantime, the department has had to outsource a large portion of its work, including DNA and ballistics analysis, to federal laboratories at great cost to the city. Enter Sidwell Friends’ Metropolitan Policy and the DMV class, an elective run by Gross and Director of Equity, Justice, and Community Natalie Randolph ’98. This course examines the key challenges facing major U.S. urban areas and encourages students to work in partnership with local organizations to solve problems across the DMV.

Recently, that included a close look at the Restoring Trust and Credibility to Forensic Sciences Act, which is currently compelling the local government to strengthen the DC Department of Forensic Sciences’ internal oversight board and restructure itself as an independent agency—removing it from the direct control of the mayor. For the students in both the DMV and forensics classes at Sidwell Friends, the act has been a crucial policy point in their studies, as it could ensure both cost savings and responsiveness for the city. In addition to the expense, outsourcing to federal crime labs—who are often examining terrorist threats and mass- casualty crimes—has meant watching DC’s evidentiary needs fall to the bottom of the priority list.

Barosse-Antle is also excited about the act’s passage as it bodes well for even more meaningful field trips going forward. Her forensics class has been able to visit the Department of Forensic Sciences (soon to be renamed the Forensic Science and Public Health Laboratory as part of the act), where they have met with working chemists, college-level interns from George Washington University, and crime-scene investigators. Barosse-Antle has also used her forensics class to educate students about racial justice and how evidence may be viewed differently among prosecutors and defense attorneys. This cross application of topics like science, social policy, and politics give electives a special interdisciplinary feel.

“To me, this is first and foremost why electives are so exciting,” says Gross. “The teachers have designed the courses themselves, so they also bring their own creativity and enthusiasm for it to class.” Guèye agrees: “The primary driver of electives is: ‘What are going to be the best courses for our students in terms of the depth of their learning, the quality of their experience, and the intellectual engagement?’ That’s the North Star.”

The primary driver of electives is: ‘What are going to be the best courses for our students in terms of the depth of their learning, the quality of their experience, and the intellectual engagement?’”

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