Making Meaningful Connections in Humanities Classes at Bosque School

The English and social studies faculty at Bosque School have been working on a structural shift in how they teach their subjects. On the surface, combining separate courses into one humanities course might not seem earth-shattering.

At the same time, it might be unsettling if you are used to seeing traditional course titles outlined on your student’s schedule. You might wonder what is really happening in those classes and whether the learning will be as deep as before.

“Typical” Is Not What’s Best
If you think about it, typical English classes consist of a course list of several books—usually novels—that are from an approved list. Students follow typical classroom structures of reading, completing projects and quizzes to see if they are actually reading, and writing a final essay.

Students often figure out how to “half-read” the novels, getting by with a minimum of energy and participation.

History classes usually teach about different time periods, complex issues, and historical events, such as wars. The amount of facts students are supposed to learn can often be overwhelming—or, let’s face it, a bit boring. Watching a movie or documentary is a typical earned reward for students when they make it to the end of the unit.

Thematic Learning is Deep Learning
At Bosque School, the faculty organize their humanities classes around themes. Using a theme to organize and drive classroom learning, students can find multiple ways to develop their understanding based on what interests them about a topic. They read both fiction and nonfiction texts.

Upper school humanities faculty, Mr. Knox, says, “A [former] colleague here. . . .drew me into understanding it in a more profound way which, I think her phrase was, ‘a reading is a writing.’”

He continued, “When you critically engage with a text to a certain extent, everything you bring to the text, everything the author brought, everything that the text is within its own situatedness of cultural time and place . . . in a very real sense readers are authors of what it is they read because you're going to read it differently than I would.”
In other words, from early on in middle school, students learn how to see themselves as readers and writers, keeping in mind that they each bring something different to the interpretation of a text.
Bosque School students also expand their understanding of what a text actually is, rather than being confined to a prescribed list of books. A text could be an interview with an expert, for example. Or it could be a video game.

But one thing is for sure, they are always reading and writing, which is a habit modeled at the school in different ways, including reading buddies in 8th grade, the 7th-grade stories project, as well as the 7th-grade Book Talk Television exercise.

Collaboration Equals Connections
Because the courses are designed around themes, students see connections between history, cultural experiences, current events, literature, and more that might have been lost if they were jumping from novel to novel, or from one historical period to another.

The only people who really care about keeping English and history separate are usually teachers who prefer to teach their subject in the linear way they learned it. Change is still hard for many of us—even if it makes sense.

Fortunately, the humanities faculty at Bosque School are collaborating with a shared vision—analyzing student writing to see what students need to be more than prepared for college-level writing and thinking.

They build time into their schedules to plan across departments to ensure students are finding meaningful connections in what they are learning.

An Example of Thematic Learning in Upper School Humanities
In grade 10, students explore the topic of human movement and migration. Sample questions students explore include:
  • Why do people move?
  • What are the push and pull factors?
  • What leads people to explore new lands or even planets?
  • What happens when we encounter new people and societies?
  • How do we build knowledge through the process of travel?
As stated in the newly redesigned curriculum guide: “In Humanities 10, we will explore a collection of historic migrations or voyages in an attempt to answer these questions and understand the history and lived experiences of human movement.

We will discuss diverse literature and texts, how to read them, and how to write about them. We will build critical reading, thinking, and writing skills to explore our own contemporary voyages and examine how questions of knowledge production and travel continue into the present.”

Faculty Collaboration for Better Learning Outcomes
Because all Bosque School students take Senior Thesis (Capstone) and are required to present to a panel of judges to graduate, the faculty put a lot of effort into preparing the students along the way.

Mr. Knox says, “We moved very explicitly towards expository writing, [which is] the focus of humanities 6: thesis based, argument based, evidence-based writing. [At Bosque School,] when we do formal writing by and large, 80% of the time, that's what it is. And that culminates in the senior thesis process as well.”

Student Work Informs Planning in the Humanities
The humanities team is working together to review student work and identify where they could make the curriculum flow even better. They want to ensure the curriculum builds from year to year, so students are ready for senior thesis. It is important that the faculty align how they teach expository writing.

“[We ask ourselves,] when we talk about expository writing, when we talk about the parts, what language are we using? We're using more or less the same language, we’re teaching it more or less the same way,” says Knox.

In middle school, the courses are still structured with separate titles for English and Social Studies. However, the faculty plan collaboratively, so their courses are constantly weaving through themes and topics that interrelate.

What is Senior Thesis?
Mr. Knox explains: “It's modeled after graduate-level research, however, it is modified to be developmentally appropriate for 18-year-olds. It's kind of like graduate-level thesis with training wheels. It has a lot of those core components that any graduate-level academic research process would have.

It's divided into quarters, and quarter one is project design. We spend a lot of time with students helping them understand the difference between essential questions, quotidian questions, and researchable questions—something that’s answerable, and arguable. They’re really asking the question, not just trying to find evidence to support what they already really want to say.”

This process can be messy, and faculty have to be patient and persistent in helping students find their way.

“And then they write, so it takes a while. It takes a couple of weeks and a lot of conversations,” says Mr. Knox. “They're all over the place at first, and it's just finding out how to get them there. It takes a lot, and we’re in that process now.”

Capstone Topics In Hand—Now What?
What do students do once they have their topic and question ready?
“[Students] write a prospectus, and they have to get an outside or primary reader. So [they have] a lot of adults and peers to bounce ideas off.

Quarter two is mostly research, but then we are working to help them organize their research well.”
As they conduct their research, they also write about their sources. They look at how each source either speaks to or against their question.

“They are processing what they’re learning from pretty high-level academic databases, but then ideally doing a little synthesis to think about the source in conversation with their research question, or this source in conversation with that source, as it could illuminate their research question.”

Believe Us—Your Student Can Do Difficult Things!
Many Bosque School parents have looked at their grade 6 or 7 students and wondered, are they really going to be able to write a 20-page paper when they’re a senior?

In reality, the faculty lays the groundwork carefully and thoughtfully. By the time the students are in high school, it is much easier to see how this level of work is possible.

Not only is it important for students to know they can do difficult things, but the experience sets up a path as unique as each student.

These paths have led students to accomplish great things. For example, Bosque School alumni have gone on to combine a passion for playing the cello with interest in environmental issues. Students have combined dance and biology, philanthropy and science, and all manner of combinations of science, service, and art.

Check Out These Thesis Topics
To further understand senior thesis, it might help to see a selection of recent topics:
  • Mind Over Gray Matter: Neuroscience and the Juvenile Justice System
  • Microtransactions and Loot Boxes: How Companies are Getting Kids Addicted to Gambling
  • A Truly American Game? Analyzing Race and Privilege within the sport of Lacrosse
  • Sexism Ed: How Sex Education Can Perpetuate a Culture of Fear and Shame for Young Women
  • MoMA: The Museum of Missing Art and the impact of Hispanic Art and Social Movements
  • Mycorrhizal Fungus Populations in the Albuquerque Bosque
As you can see, the humanities program is as much about being a human in the real world as it is reading and writing. And our students do all of these things exceptionally well.

The Education Is the Experience—and the Outcome Is the Evidence
As director of college counseling, Mark Giesmann says, “Having worked in high schools for 20 plus years, I'm amazed at how articulate our students are, how well they can argue a point, and how good they generally are at public speaking. I've been SO impressed on colloquium night when students present their thesis in a 25-minute presentation to an audience.

So many of these are so well done and something I wouldn't have been able to do until many years later. This just shows that they are being asked to speak up in class, to share their opinions, and defend their statements.”


Know a rising 6–11 grade student who would thrive with a hands-on, inquiry-based learning approach? Encourage them to schedule a visit.