This story was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Harker Magazine.
A key tenet of Harker’s philosophy is enabling students to explore their interests and pursue their passions. One way the school accomplishes this is by encouraging its faculty to do the same. Many of Harker’s classes, especially its unique electives, exist because teachers are eager to share their passion for a subject with students.
Never content to rest on their laurels, Harker’s faculty and administration continually work to create new and exciting classes that pique students’ interest, while preparing them for college and beyond. This innovative approach enables Harker to recruit high-level teachers who are experts in their disciplines and have an infectious enthusiasm for the subjects they teach, said Jennifer Gargano, assistant head of school for academic affairs. These teachers continually reevaluate and adjust curriculum to give students the skills they need to be successful, she added.
“Teachers know that we are not a static institution, which is exciting for many,” Gargano said. “We attract the type of teachers we seek – those who are entrepreneurial, hard-working and desirous of an evolving curriculum.”
A rich experience
In many ways, Harker’s upper school course list reads like a college catalog, with elective offerings including The Science of Food; Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation; and Advanced Stone Carving. These unique offerings even extend to physical education, where two semester-long courses in Kinesiology and Sports Medicine introduce students to topics including exercise physiology, biomechanics, and the prevention and care of athletic injuries.
Often these specialized classes aren’t offered at other schools. Take, for example, Sam Lepler ‘96’s post-AP class, titled Honors Advanced Topics in Economics: Game Theory, which is in the business and entrepreneurship department.
“The class examines strategic human interaction using primarily mathematical modeling,” Lepler explained. “It covers various game structures (like the famous prisoner’s dilemma, a common game theory example), as well as strategic moves like threats and promises, the economics of information asymmetry, voting, auctions, bargaining and more.”
Though it’s become a core course in university economics departments, Lepler said he doesn’t know of any other high school that offers an advanced course in game theory, “especially not withthe use of multivariate calculus that I include,” he added. “I knew the students would love it, learn a ton, be able to use what they learn outside the classroom, and be well prepared to explore further at the university level.”
And while the course sounds highly specialized, it draws a diverse group of students. Nearly one-third of the senior class takes the course, Lepler said. Some students enjoy the strategic decision-making, while others enjoy the applied math concepts or economics in general, he explained, adding that the diversity of students in the class makes it “dynamic and entertaining.” Tiffany Zhao, grade 12, became interested in game theory when she took AP Microeconomics as a junior. She took Lepler’s game theory class this past year and thoroughly enjoyed it. “The course material itself was fairly nuanced and complex, but extremely fascinating, covering strategies and applications that many business models use,” she explained. Zhao said the class prepared her well to continue studying game theory in college, adding that the concepts also are applicable to everyday life.
“As Mr. Lepler said on day one of the course, game theory is simply a strategic analysis of basic human interactions,” she said. “When I go off to college, I’ll meet more people and knowing more about the economic basis behind our interactions will deepen my relationships with my peers.”
Many of Harker’s courses reflect the college experience, commented English teacher Charles Shuttleworth. In college, for example, “literature courses are almost always genre studies or focused on a particular author. Students get the chance to develop a deeper understanding of a particular area of study that they’re interested in exploring, and to study with teachers who have a particular expertise and passion for the subject.” To bring that rich experience to his classroom, Shuttleworth developed a course titled Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation. Shuttleworth first became interested in Beat writing in college and taught on the subject 25 years ago at Horace Mann School in New York, which Kerouac had attended. At that time, Shuttleworth interviewed more than 30 of Kerouac’s former classmates and presented his findings at a conference celebrating Kerouac’s life and work.
“I think [it’s] a very important and relevant topic, as it had a profound effect literarily and culturally,” Shuttleworth explained, adding that the class covers more than literature. It explores “the changes in America from the 1930s to the 1970s, from the Great Depression through the hippie and punk movements – the emergence of a counterculture focused on personal freedoms and personal expression, giving voice to ‘the unspeakable visions of the individual’ (Kerouac’s phrase).”
Shuttleworth said the opportunity to teach such specialized classes is what prompted him to leave his native New York to join the Harker faculty. Teaching on the Beat generation in Northern California – a major hub of the movement – also enables him to incorporate unique hands-on experiences, including an annual field trip to City Lights Bookstore and The Beat Museum in San Francisco. Over the years, students also have attended readings by Beat poets, toured a home that was a setting in a Kerouac novel, and met with two Kerouac biographers, as well as Jami Cassady Ratto, daughter of Beat poet Neal Cassady.
In an anonymous class evaluation, one student marveled at the depth of the class and Shuttleworth’s passion for the topic. “I am in awe at how mature a scholar you are and I think this experience taking your class is unparalleled,” the student said.
This past year, Shuttleworth applied for and received a grant from the Raju and Bala Vegesna Foundation’s Teacher Excellence Program at Harker. The grant enabled him to further his research on Kerouac, “in particular his experience as a fire lookout in Washington state, which was pivotal in his life and career,” Shuttleworth said, adding that during his research, he uncovered several important unpublished documents, and has been able to share his experience with his students. (For a fuller account of Shuttleworth’s work on Kerouac under the Vegesna grant, see news.harker.org and search for Shuttleworth).
Of course, no matter how passionate a teacher is about a topic, a class won’t be successful if it doesn’t appeal to students.
“The primary goal in developing a new course is to think about the needs and interests of our students,” said science teacher Kate Schafer, adding that since Harker already offers a wide variety of courses, new offerings should fulfill unmet needs.
Such was the case with The Science of Food, an elective Schafer developed several years ago. Students eat up the class – both literally and figuratively.
“It’s definitely the only science class where you get to eat the results of your experiments,” Schafer said, adding that labs regularly involve cooking and baking. For example, different groups might prepare slightly different recipes to explore the differences between leaveners, fats or temperature. “One of the things that really excited me about developing this course is that it had the potential to appeal to a wide swath of Harker students with varying academic interests. This definitely turned out to be the case.” In the class, students develop some kitchen skills while learning science, Schafer said, adding that there is also a nutritional component. “It’s important to have an understanding about how to make good choices in your diet and to be skeptical of the claims made about various diets and ‘health’ foods. It’s become clear that cooking for yourself means eating healthier, and I hope that my course helps students to have confidence in the kitchen and a curiosity about the science of why we prepare foods the way we do.”
When the class was introduced in spring 2016, students did their cooking and baking in the kitchen in the auxiliary gym complex. Though Schafer made it work with the support of Harker’s kitchen staff, it wasn’t ideal to have 16 students gathered around one stove, she explained. This year, Schafer’s classroom was outfitted with two stoves, a dishwasher and a refrigerator. “It’s allowed us to do so much more in the course than we could initially,” she said.
Even at the middle school, classes such as Innovation Lab and an extensive array of visual and performing arts electives give students a taste of the specialized courses offered at the upper school.
Innovation Lab, a sixth grade elective, teaches students to use a process called design thinking to develop solutions to unique problems and challenges. “The idea is to use a process that encourages designers to understand their customers well and to explore multiple design concepts before settling on one to prototype,” explained teacher Sam Linton. “I enjoy seeing all the surprising and amazing things that the students come up with.”
Standing out from the crowd
Before developing a new class, teachers must first get buy-in from the Harker administration. Once teachers get the green light, the process of developing the class and getting University of California approval as a class it will accept on a student’s transcript can take a year or more.
“I have found that the administration is open-minded to new courses if they foresee a strong demand. I had to sell the idea, but they were open to buying it,” said Lepler of his game theory class. Other teachers echoed this sentiment, adding that the administration is committed to providing a wide range of classes to meet student interest and set Harker apart from other schools.
“As a large school with a large faculty, we are able to offer many courses that speak to the interests of our students,” Gargano said. “Especially by the time students are juniors and seniors, they can create a specialized schedule based on their interests and/or the skills they desire to learn or enhance.”
When Jaap Bongers, just-retired visual arts department chair for K-12, started the art department at the upper school in 1998, then-president Howard Nichols asked him how he could help make Harker stand out.
“I answered him by saying we should allow art teachers to teach their strengths,” said Bongers, who had previously spent years carving marble sculptures in Italy. Stone carving isn’t a widespread skill and few high schools had facilities for such a class, Bongers said.
“Howard asked me what it would take. I explained to him that we needed a setup for pneumatic tools and small individual studios,” Bongers recalled. “You can imagine how surprised I was when I came back from summer break and found everything I had mentioned in place.” Bongers said stone carving is an activity that students either love or hate. “It takes a lot of patience and perseverance to work in stone, and that is not for everyone,” he explained. Unlike modern-day technology, which offers instant gratification, “this class forces the students to think long-term and develop the patience and ability to give things time, be creative and open to change all the way until the project has been completed.”
The love of learning
In his 40 years teaching high school Latin, Clifford Hull said Harker is the first school he has taught at that offers post-AP Latin classes. Hull teaches honors advanced Latin literature courses covering Roman epic, satire, history and love poetry. Post-AP Latin students must already have successfully completed the AP Latin course and received at least a three on the exam. Most have taken at least five years of Latin, and they all have a deep knowledge and love of the language. These students have spent many years studying Latin and the school administration recognizes that some students would love to continue on, Hull said.
When developing or tweaking courses, Hull said he considers how the course relates to students in the 21st century; whether students will enjoy the class and what they will get out of it; how the knowledge they gain will relate to other disciplines; and whether the course will increase their love for and interest in Latin. Senior Nikhil Dharmaraj, who began studying Latin in sixth grade, said Harker’s post-AP Latin classes instilled in him “a true, deep love for the subject.” Whereas lower level classes focus on grammar skills and translating sentences, and the AP class is geared toward the exam, post-AP classes are about “being a scholar, getting to read esoteric, incredible Latin works – not learning new grammar rules, but applying the ones we’ve already learned to uncover fascinating stories from the past,” he explained.
“The classics are inherently interdisciplinary,” he continued. “In studying Latin, I learn so much about religion/culture, mythology, history, philosophy and linguistics. And since Latin is the root of so many modern languages, it is also mind-blowing to start making those connections, seeing how words I use every day come from this civilization from so long ago.” As a 2018-19 Mitra Scholar, Dharmaraj wrote an extensive research paper on the influence of Roman poet Lucretius’ works – including his epic poem “De Rerum Natura” (“On the Nature of Things”) – on Charles Darwin and the ideas he presents in “On the Origin of Species.” He plans to study both computer science and classics at Harvard University in the fall.
Hull said he is pleased to see his students, like Dharmaraj, making connections between Latin and other disciplines. “My greatest rewards for teaching these courses are the ‘aha moments’ when students make it very clear with an audible ‘aha’ that have just learned something new, and to also see them decoding, analyzing and appreciating the intricate motifs interwoven in the texts,” he said.
Jennifer Maragoni is a freelance writer and editor based in Folsom.