Bring Back American Studies

Shawn Kelly taught American Studies and also advises MOR. Kelly has no voice, opinion, or sway in this article. I am writing this purely for the reason of wanting other students to have the opportunity to experience American Studies in future years the way I believe it should be. Jennifer Weeks, another English teacher, helped with writing edits and grading on this piece. 

     Ria Varki (‘22) expected to be completing her American history credit in a “boring” class where she had to memorize the dates of historical events and the names of old white men who took part in the American Revolution and Civil War. Instead, after taking American Studies, Varki was shocked by how much information carried over with her, how interesting it was, and how many laughs she got out of it.  

     American Studies, a class that is a mixture of American history, literature, writing, and art, has been a team-taught class since the early 1970s at Oyster River High School. Shawn Kelly, an English teacher, and David Hawley, a social studies teacher, continued that tradition together over the last seven years. Due to COVID-19 last year, the class was cut this year for cohorting purposes. Next year, it will return to the program of studies, but the course won’t be the same as it was. As of right now, the class is going to be held as a 40-student lecture. Making American Studies similar to a lecture hall in college would take away important class aspects, such as small group conversations, one-on-one help, and an engaging learning environment. I believe American Studies should continue as it was to maintain the quality of the educational experience. 

American Studies was a fast-paced class that had high expectations for work quality and prepared students well for college. Although the work was challenging, the teachers taught me how to plan out my time, making it manageable by slowly building up a workload as the class went on. Through this, I learned how to make my own goals and schedules, and how to check in for feedback. I’ve also gained writing skills, retained knowledge, and made projects I fondly look back on. Any year in high school is a helpful time to take the class, but for me, taking the class sophomore year really helped me balance a busy schedule in my upperclassmen years. I’ve used the foundational skills from that class in almost all my other classes following that one. 

     According to “5 Benefits of a Smaller Class” from Fremont College, classes with 20 or less students have been linked to high grades, higher material retention, and faster learning. These benefits come with the opportunities to participate, get more feedback, and make classroom connections. For these reasons, big name, successful schools like Yale, Brown, Amherst, and Johns Hopkins, prioritize small class sizes, especially for the most crucial classes in preparing students’ for after high school opportunities. These small classroom benefits are critical to the class American Studies, as student connection, feedback and participation are in the nature of the class subject. We should prioritize the small classroom environments like other well-respected institutions, if we consider writing, understanding American history and other skills, like managing a large workload, important developmentally for students.

    The small classroom environment and foundational skills were appreciated by students other than just myself. Hawley’s desk drawer is filled with thank-you notes from students who were appreciative of the skills they learned from American Studies as they continued their education in college. Hawley said, “we don’t get the thank-you note until the end of their freshman year in college when they have taken a humanities course and they’ve had an in-class essay. They are like, ‘man I’m so glad I got that [in American Studies] because I knew what I was doing [in college].’”

     Sarah Lyon (‘22) is another former student who believes the class taught her many meaningful skills, aside from just in-class essay writing. She said, “I feel like it was one of the best prep classes I’ve taken in terms of college. It really gives you a chance to sit down and learn. There’s a big workload but they teach you how to manage it, and work you up to doing nightly readings and responses, which is obviously pretty standard for college. Also, the work we did on The Crucible essay thesis, where we spent a week just learning how to craft a great thesis, was very helpful.”

     The main way Hawley and Kelly helped students with these skills was through one-on-one conversations about goals students wish to reach in their writing, when doing homework, in-class participation, and more. Their help was especially evident throughout the many thesis papers on pieces of American literature in the class. Hawley or Kelly would meet with every student and help them come up with an original college-level thesis and give feedback on the way students evaluate it. Through the meetings and work, I really learned how to prove a point through writing and evaluate literature. Having someone really care about my writing and guiding me in class made me really care about my writing. 

     With that individualized format and aid, there was less motivation directly on grades and less competition in a rigorous classroom. Hawley said that most of the time he didn’t need to use grades as a motivator for students to want to improve their skill sets; the motivator was growth. He explained, “more often than not, there will be a student who will be frustrated that they can’t figure out a thesis statement. Kelly and I will not provide it, but guide you through the process of doing it. It’s developmentally super hard, but then you get it.”

     Ria Varki really enjoyed this approach, not only for motivation and acquiring skills, but also for how it supported her as a person. She felt there was a caring aspect of the class; it wasn’t all about being an ideal 4.0 student. She explained, “I really like how it wasn’t all about memorization and grading. It was always about projects that would use skills you need for the future, like graded discussions that would simulate meetings and in-class essays, essays, and creative projects where you would have to actually apply the material. As a result, I still know the material now.” She continued, “the class puts value on you rather than just you as a student…  I always felt valued as a person in that class, not just the work I put out. I learned a lot and it felt relevant.”

     Despite American Studies’ ability to give students preparatory skills, there are only two options that have been presented in continuing American Studies next year: splitting the class, and its teachers, into groups, or having a larger class. This is because the school needs to provide classes for a student body with a population 200 more than it was a couple years ago and teachers are required to teach a certain amount of classes. Noe explained, “if you have two teachers, all together if you count by semester not by year long class, they teach ten semesters a year. If you put two teachers in a room but it’s a 20 person class, you’re not running something that that teacher could be teaching. By making it bigger, now you have more kids who can take classes they want to take.”

     Although two classes could be taught during the time period of American Studies if the teachers individually taught classes or if the class had more students, I think having a small, two-teacher class is worth it for the skills and experience gained in American Studies. The teachers are not getting away with any less work. Rather, there are two teachers to account for the fast-paced learning environment and to give students the resources they need to succeed. Losing this small two-teacher classroom structure would make the class more challenging, less entertaining, and just wouldn’t show the same amount of student growth. 

     The class American Studies is unique from other classes in that it’s not about just knowing the material and facts, but it’s about understanding it from the eyes of many diverse people. Everyone in the class picks up different concepts and conceptualizes them differently. The exchange of those unique perspectives and understanding is what made the class American Studies. Without discussion and collaboration, that’s harder to achieve in a large classroom and there would be a loss of that understanding. If we didn’t break down concept questions as a group, I feel that I would have gotten frustrated with workload, wouldn’t have a rounded view of history, and wouldn’t have been successful in assignments. Unlike other fast-paced classes, the answers were not in a textbook. They were in the minds of the class participants and all the people who lived in history. 

     Oftentimes we would display our understanding of historical events through projects and share them. Students did creative writing, paintings, and music. I personally used art to visualize and symbolize different issues, for example in slavery. To make the project, I had to understand the topic through reading comprehension and discussion. Looking at other people’s art gave further understanding of others’ perceptions. The class was a lot about working together but also had an emphasis on your own voice, opinions, and way of viewing things. Communicating those things was crucial to the class. Each individual understanding was important for the learning process. 

Student artwork for American Studies projects

     Varki enjoyed conveying her interpretation and opinion because it made her feel important. Varki explained, “I was able to voice out my opinions more, and have it feel more like a conversation rather than a presentation with a bunch of students’ eyes. Varki continues, “we would have open discussions on the material and I thought that was a really nice piece, hearing other people’s opinions and what they thought. But, I also had a voice.”

     The class discussions not only helped with learning perspectives but also created a fun and engaging class community. Hawley explained that his favorite part of the class was watching students break down the history together. He said, “I just love every day’s discussions and how kids respond to the reading and how to make that reading approachable, but also give the course a bit of levity because it could be pretty intense. The humor part of that is also fun making sure that there’s this balance of rigor, understanding complexity, and also the love of learning.”

     The humor in the class really made all the hard work worth it by adding fun and keeping me focused. That was just one of the ways the class balanced work with fun. As concepts, readings, and projects piled up, students worked through that together with their teachers and got individualized help when necessary. While, like in any class, students did struggle with some aspects of the class, they ultimately gained the skills necessary not only for American Studies but also for future learning. As a result of hard work and individual attention, students improved immensely on skills, more than what could be expected in a 40-student lecture. 

     Varki explained how this format and feedback looked for her midterm and how it showed her growth. She explained, “when we started [the class], we came up with three things we wanted to work on for this year. In the interview [for the midterm exam] we talked about how we improved, and I thought it was really cool [that] they actually came back to it.”  

     This was not the only way that American Studies brought attention to what students believed they needed to work on. American Studies yearly gets feedback from its students regarding what parts of class were most helpful, what additional support students need, and what can make the subject more engaging and comprehensive. Hawley explained that so much of what was done in class to learn material was student-based. He said, “the students drive a tremendous amount of that curriculum. So, whenever we did the course evaluation at the end of the class, Shawn and I would take that information and we’d process it. We usually would hang out and go on a backpacking trip in the summertime and we’d go through and try to figure out how to integrate the feedback and do our best to accommodate that. That would drive certain elements of content. We discovered that early on the theater work was a really popular bit, so we integrated more little plays in the second semester.”

    With a larger class, students would have less say what happens in the curriculum and wouldn’t get one-on-one feedback on skills they want to work on. That takes away from learning and interest. When students aren’t interested and they are thrown simply an agenda, learning becomes grade motivated. Lyon thought what made the class so great was the fact that material felt relevant. She said, “I think it’s really important they have that experience. Just having a class that makes you excited about things that happened 200 years ago is really rare and just having good teachers and a good class environment is so important.” 

     Because American Studies has offered students so much, it’s important to students and teachers to continue providing the level of educational quality for future students. Having this class is an important substitute for students who struggle to engage in a regular history class and who want the opportunity to go the extra mile, gain many skills at one time, and at the same time get walked through it. Hawley explained that American Studies’ “intent is to give kids an alternative because it’s hard to find a good match. There’s a lot of folks who really enjoy that structure in U.S. [history], but there’s a fair amount who don’t. We’ve always been there for the fair amount who don’t.” 

     Hiring more teachers, to keep small class communities and amazing educational experiences, I believe is worth it. 70-75% of Oyster River students continue on to four year colleges, so investing in those students’ foundational skills would help their futures while making their present more enjoyable. The skills I obtained in American Studies were worth the extra time, teacher collaboration, and hard work. The most memorable classes for students are in the ones where they feel a connection with their peers and feel they’ve accomplished a lot. With that in mind, American Studies isn’t a wasted resource. Rather, it’s an example of what a class should be.