Greetings from Dr. Brenot: Inside the Classroom

Dear parents:

First and foremost, thank you to all who joined us for Parents' Weekend. It is always a joy for us to come together with you, meet your families, share some good cheer, update you on your daughter's progress, and learn something new from our keynote presenter. I found the presentation by Dr. Lindsay Heller'95 on Saturday informative and felt that there was something for everyone—parents, students, and faculty alike—to take away for living a well-balanced life. I hope you enjoyed it as well—and that you are making good use of the sleep masks that Lindsay made sure you received that day!

As I mentioned in the opening program on Friday afternoon, the faculty are at present reading with me The Road to Character by David Brooks. I invite all of you to read it this winter, as well. In the book, Brooks challenges us to "rebalance the scales between our 'résumé virtues'—achieving, wealth, fame, and status—and our 'eulogy virtues,' those that exist at the core of our being: kindness, bravery honesty, and faithfulness." These are the values that we, in partnership with you the parents, work to instill in our girls every single day. I believe that our girls form character here; while they build their résumés for college applications and beyond (and achieve wonderful results), it is character that matters most.

During Parents' Weekend, I gave you a brief update about some of our curricular changes this year, namely our new Math 4 class and our new senior history research seminars. I visited these classes this week and am eager to tell you about what our seniors are learning.

In Mr. Stork's Math 4: Statistics and Personal Finance, the class is learning indirect counting methods to better understand some interesting case studies. In Tuesday's class, the students and Mr. Stork talked about products such as the iPhone 8 and massive networks such as FedEx. With regard to the iPhone 8, the students learned that the fundamental counting principle and other indirect counting methods can be applied to quickly quantify the number of models being sold. The students in his class discussed how a corporation like Apple may choose to limit buying options in order to control the manufacturing process, ensure a high quality product, and maximize profitability. The students told me they love studying such "real world examples" in the study of statistics; they look forward to studying personal finance next semester.

The three new history research seminars for seniors are in full throttle, and the students are fully engaged and enjoying the courses. At the start of the semester, each seminar class made several visits to the library for presentations and training on research resources from Head Librarian Eileen Schnur and their history teacher to learn about key historical resources, especially primary sources, available in the library. Since then, a number of students have worked one-on-one with Ms. Schnur to work through, update, alter, and/or find a new angle on their reference work. Her assistance has been invaluable to their research. Additionally, students reviewed the process of research and writing and learned a new citation management system, called Noodletools.

In Mr. Place's fall seminar course, "Women in America," students have finished the draft of their research papers and are entering the peer review stage. Some of the topics individually researched are:

  • Women's Participation in the Olympics
  • Maternity and Paternity Leave in the Workplace
  • Social Media and Body Image for Girls
  • Gender Stereotypes in Running for the Presidency
  • Commonalities Among the Women Who Have Become Supreme Court Justices (including an email interview with Ruth Bader Ginsburg)
  • Sex Trafficking

The students are learning that the purpose of writing the research paper is not to tell the teacher what you know; rather, it is to write a persuasive, solidly researched paper to convince someone else of the writer's point of view. This process pushes each student to think like the reader, to get outside of herself, and to understand how another person could or would read or see her research findings. The peer review process, in which each student gives a copy of her draft paper to each classmate in her seminar to discuss and offer constructive feedback, offers the writer the golden opportunity of discovering what would help other readers best understand the paper.

Mr. Place shared with me some great moments in his seminar. When Ali '18 realized she could not find enough information on why some women failed to become Supreme Court justices, she had to reverse her thesis to answer the question: What did the four who did become justices have in common? According to Mr. Place, "Her ability to approach the issue from another perspective was great." Another great moment was the excitement of Kari '18 when she "struck gold" in finding just the right sources she needed.

In Dr. Lumsden's fall seminar, "Teenagers Who Changed the World," some of the research topics include:

  • Joshua Wong (pro-democracy student activist in Hong Kong and one of the leaders of the Umbrella Movement)
  • Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez (environmental activist and rapper)
  • Jazz Jennings (spokesperson for gender identity)
  • Aaron Swartz (developed the internet information service RSS at age 14)
  • Belle Boyd (Civil War spy)

Dr. Lumsden notes that one of the things he has observed through his seminar is the way in which the students have helped each other, in the true spirit of a seminar course. Various students have found and shared with their seminar classmates useful software, such as a free Google Docs add-on that converts footnotes to endnotes; databases; and source collections. "The students have developed a healthy spirit of scholarly collaboration that begins with a genuine interest in each others' topics. Classroom discussions have been spirited and helpful," says Dr. Lumsden. The students have come to greatly appreciate the swiftness with which they can call up online source materials, and the efficiency that modern technology affords them in terms of saving their research information onto electronic index cards coupled with the ease of leveraging processing software to generate notes, bibliographies, and a properly formatted research paper.

Seniors in Mr. Oder's fall seminar, "The Constitution and Government of the United States," spent the first month reading every word of the Constitution, coming to understand the meaning as well as the reasoning of the Founders. They reviewed the use of sources, formatting papers, documentation, and developing theses. The students also learned how to constructively critique classmates' papers, a key part of any research and writing seminar in college. Since the end of September, Mr. Oder's students have been researching their 10-15-page-long research papers, which include topics such as:

  • Mendez v. Westminster, a California state legal case of the 1940s that ended segregation of Hispanic students in California schools
  • Miranda v. Arizona, the case which gave rise to the familiar Miranda warning
  • United States v. Miller and Heller v. District of Columbia, two key Supreme Court cases involving the Second Amendment right to own a firearm
  • Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz, a case from the 1990s on the constitutionality of random sobriety checkpoints
  • Bush v. Gore, from the election of 2000
  • Roe v. Wade
  • Korematsu v. United States, a Supreme Court case on incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II
  • Congress and the Metrication of American standards of weights and measures from the 1970s
  • The failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and early '80s
  • U.S. v. Nixon regarding powers of the president
  • West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, a case from the 1940s wherein the Supreme Court ruled public schools cannot make a student recite the Pledge of Allegiance

There is no doubt that the seniors in these history research seminars are developing strong, college-level research methodologies and critical thinking, reading, and writing skills. I only wish I could take each of these seminars!

As we now enter the month of November, please know how grateful we are for you entrusting your daughters and their education to us. We are grateful to share their journey with them, and to guide them toward their goals. We wish you a happy, healthy, and restful Thanksgiving holiday.


Kassandra T. Brenot '87, Ph.D.
Head of Upper School

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