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Charting a New Course: Reinventing High School Classes for the New Millennium

reviewed by Scott Bailey & Maxwell M. Holmes

coverTitle: Charting a New Course: Reinventing High School Classes for the New Millennium
Author(s): Eric E. Castro & Paul Totah
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1681238969, Pages: 126, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

In Charting a New Course: Reinventing High School Classes for the New Millennium, by Eric Castro and Paul Totah, the title provides an interesting (perhaps intentional, yet unaddressed) conundrum. Are the authors calling to chart a new course, as in a new direction, a new pathway, a new way of doing things, or is their intent to chart a new course, as in develop a new class to teach and a new way of imbuing content with experiences in the classroom (or perhaps both)? The authors don’t explicitly answer the question, perhaps because any individual answer depends on an individual’s current place in a school hierarchy. Either way, the premise of the book is simple: by providing enough examples of successful, innovative classes already being taught in schools around the country, teachers and school leaders will be inspired to educate with a holistic approach and to develop new interdisciplinary, experiential, and problem-focused courses in their own schools.


To that end, the book is divided into disciplined-based sections, with a total of 28 separate narrative discussions of exemplar courses that are, or have been, successfully implemented. As Castro and Totah note, a comprehensive view of these courses results in the emergence of several themes critical to student progress and success, including collaboration among disciplines, resilience, sense of place, empathy, and systemic support. The narratives effectively demonstrate how these courses prompt students to think outside of the proverbial box and to connect with a sense of place in a way they have not experienced previously. They allow students to break away from the "banking method" of education to a more independent form of learning, which will enable them to guide their learning and establish authentic voice.


The learning-based schools allow students to see the end goal of starting a business or solving a problem with an implementable solution. Being able to see what they are learning and how it can be applied in the real world provides a better understanding of how to transition from knowledge to practice. Many narratives focus on self-learning, self-direction, and taking ownership, which support the ideas of student agency, allowing students “to be entirely in the driver’s seat and have agency over what happens in the class” (p. 38). Learning is about the process rather than traditional grades or other measurable outcomes.


As an example, the narrative explaining the course “Making of The Modern Mind,” elicits the ideas of John Dewey and the ideals of democratic education, as teachers share in the learning experience with students. As noted by the teachers, “We’re partners in this experience, and students see this” (p.12).  Moreover, “They learn to see teachers as ‘soft partners’ and as collaborators. I see myself as a facilitator and coach in the classroom where power is dispersed, everyone generates ideas, and few people worry about the grade” (p. 17).


The last narrative demonstrates the challenges of implementing project-based learning and why individuals may be hesitant to move forward on changing the curriculum, with one teacher noting that “we know students will learn content through their projects, but in project-based learning, you have less control over what they will learn” (p. 106). Many teachers may shy away from losing control. Any change such as this will need to be supported by a cultural change and strong leadership.


As a reader, it is important to note the combination of narrative stories focuses on helping teachers create a starting point for inspiration. “It's not a blueprint that administrators can unroll to build a new school from top to bottom (p. xiii),” and was designed “to help teachers in traditional schools see a starting point for changing their own courses" (p. xv). However, in that process, consideration must be given to the cultural context and local environment of each school, and many readers will likely struggle with generalizability.


As reviewers, we approach the book from different backgrounds: one with a strong background in traditional public schools and the other with a firm foundation in private schools. Still, we share the same concern, and that is the issue of generalizability, and hence, reproducibility. Looking beyond the courses themselves and examining the schools where these courses are actually being taught raises the level of concern even more, as there are no examples housed in traditional public schools.


Thus, from a public school perspective, we wonder how the exemplars characterized in these narratives will translate into standardized curricula, assessments, and scores. Very few of the narratives are tied to the traditional assessments seen across the country. The narratives can be seen as useful in creating a holistic approach to learning, but may fail to translate to the current and traditional model for state assessment and accountability. This may be a reason so many schools that employ these approaches are independent or private schools, as evidenced by one teacher who even stated that “this is not an AP Economics course…no one could take the AP test coming out of my class” (p. 13). The authors provide little guidance related to feasibility of implementation in traditional settings, especially in terms of garnering the state-level approval that would be required to offer one of these courses for credit in a traditional public school.


From a private school perspective, innovation is critical to being competitive among other private schools. Unique programs, innovative courses, and project-based learning become essential as schools strive to stand out among private school competitors and demonstrate a unique difference between themselves and public schools. These schools need to demonstrate they can educate students to think critically and be successful with metrics beyond standardized assessments. Private schools have more creative freedom in designing curriculum and the resources needed to create these types of programs. In that light, private schools, when pursuing these types of innovative courses, must remain carefully focused on the intended educational outcomes and not use the courses simply as marketing tools.


The narratives and lesson plans throughout the book have the potential to increase student agency, build upon principles of democratic education, foster student resilience, enhance students' sense of place, promote empathy, and develop systemic support in students. Unfortunately, without further efforts, the courses may only be applicable and beneficial to certain types of schools and will not be generalizable and accessible to all our students, all of whom would benefit from them.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, 2018, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22358, Date Accessed: 10/18/2018 12:22:27 AM

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