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Notably Nueva: Bringing Humanities to Life
Dianne Willoughby


Nueva deeply embraces the humanities through the integration of traditional school subjects of history, social studies, writing, and English, with important tie-ins to science, language, and literature. Last fall, we launched the Nueva Center for the Humanities. The Humanities Task Force and Center Director Matt Berman stand on a strong foundation to build the future.

“The study of the humanities gives us the ability to read deeply, to think logically and creatively, to write and speak clearly and persuasively, and to use language fluidly.”
-- Matt Berman, Director, Nueva Center for the Humanities

“The study of the humanities gives us the ability to read deeply, to think logically and creatively, to write and speak clearly and persuasively, and to use language fluidly,” describes Matt. “We gain an understanding of other cultures, of ethics, epistemology, and the history of our species, and the empathy and insight into others that comes from wide reading. All these and more are gained in the humanities and are fundamental to success in all fields of endeavor.”

In the recent past, two events have highlighted Nueva’s commitment: The first Humanities Circle and a week-long Artist in Residence visit by acclaimed author Andrew Lam.

Humanities Circle

The Hillsborough campus was glowing with Nueva’s first Humanities Circle on a Friday evening in March, as nearly 150 students and their parents participated in hands-on classes that sparked and deepened passions for literature, language, history, and culture.

Students participated in multiple 45-minute sessions led by Nueva humanities teachers and special guest Dr. Pete Bowers, developer of Structured Word Inquiry (SWI). In addition, activities including calligraphy, bookbinding, build-upon stories, word-play, and historical games were available throughout the evening.

The cold and drizzly night didn’t slow anyone down. As you’d see at any professional conference, attendees zipped between rooms to get to their sessions, excitedly talking about where they were going next.

Depending upon their age, students selected offerings such as Metropolis: Ten Cities, Ten Centuries, American Sign Language, Food Writing, Haiku Poetry Books, Structured Word Inquiry, and many more.

The Chu Family, whose son Lachlan is entering seventh grade, had fun in Harry Potter Blackout Poetry with Sandy Chang, Middle School Writing Teacher. “We’re a very creative family, so humanities are very important to us,” said Christy MacLean-Chu.

Jessica Salceda and her son, Pablo Z. were overjoyed by the Humanities Circle. “My son gets his love of humanities from his love of reading and writing, so when I saw the ad for this event, I signed up immediately.”

Pablo, a new Nueva fifth grader, joined Blue with Colin Tribble, Middle School Humanities Teacher. In this session, they examined the history of this special color, solved some mysteries of history, and even made their own blue paint.

Pablo’s mom reflected, “I was so surprised when he picked Blue,” she said. “But one thing I love about Nueva is the teachers’ knowledge and excitement about their subjects. This night has been great.”

Some students never left the I-Lab throughout the evening, learning calligraphy and making their own books. “I loved book binding because I read a ton and liked getting to bind my own. Then I made blue paint,” said Winne C., Nueva fifth grader. “I came tonight because when I looked at the list of sessions, there were so many I wanted to try.”

“I observed a lot of happiness throughout the evening,” said Matt. “Our master teachers created wonderful, creative sessions that they shared with excited and engaged students and parents. Students tried thought-provoking activities they’d never heard of or done before. It was a fantastic evening.”

Artist in Residence: Andrew Lam

During the week of March 25, the Nueva Center for the Humanities welcomed Andrew Lam, author of Perfume Dreams, East Eats West, and Birds of Paradise, and regular commentator on NPR's "All Things Considered" as part of a the Artist-in-Residence program.

Andrew worked one-on-one with eighth graders on their cultural identity podcasts. Additionally, he showcased a short story and Q&A with the entire eighth grade, worked with elective classes, visited a ninth-grade English class at the Upper School, and held an afternoon reading for faculty and parents.

The cultural identity podcast assignment asks eighth graders to capture the uniqueness of someone they know. This assignment is part of the eighth-grade cultural identity curriculum: Students begin by reflecting on their own personal identity and expand outward to dive deeply into the cultural identity of an international city during a particular time period. They study historical writings and also read the work of social scientists and neuroscientists such as Claude Steele and Robert Sapolsky to begin to think metacognitively about how identities are developed. This curriculum leads to their culminating international trip to China, Japan, or Spain depending upon the language they are studying.

Andrew’s visit had an immediate impact. He brought both his experience as an accomplished writer and his perspective as an immigrant to the United States. A native of Vietnam, he was eleven years old when he was part of the mass exodus during the fall of Saigon, and since then he has written extensively on his search for identity. Through his examples, Andrew went beyond simple writing prescriptions and shared his passion.

“You can’t feel how I feel, but with visual details, you see through the writer’s eyes and start to have sympathy,” he described. “You capture character by thinking about how an artist captures the details of a face, that little crooked smile for example. You find the specific detail, a truth, about that person you care about.”

Andrew’s warmth and compassion for the work of the students was a magical match as he gently and objectively coached them.

“Andrew gave me specific direction and real feedback in a nice way. He was a neutral observer, and he helped me realize what needed further explanation. My grandmother is a reservoir of memories about the war. He also helped with transitions, and his suggestions were straightforward and concise,” said Alex F.

“He helped me figure out how to distill three ideas to one that is more cohesive and interesting to the reader,” said Lucie L.

“Meeting with Andrew gave me a new context for the point of view. He helped me to weave threads of the ideas into one cohesive story.” Sophia E.

“It’s no exaggeration for me to say that the experience of having Andrew visit was a career highlight, one of the best weeks of my 20+ years as an educator.
-- Jennifer Perry, Teacher, Middle and Upper School Writing

Faculty benefited also as Andrew spent time with the eighth grade teaching team. Jennifer Perry, Middle and Upper School Writing Teacher, expressed her appreciation. “It’s no exaggeration for me to say that the experience of having Andrew visit was a career highlight, one of the best weeks of my 20+ years as an educator. I learned so much about the creative process, about the life and work of a published author, about cultural identity, about podcasts, and much more that is hard to quantify.”

The Artist in Residence program brought three additional visitors to Nueva this year: Jim Weiss, storyteller extraordinaire, Amy Cann, nationally-known musician and dance instructor, and Armistead Maupin, renowned author of Tales of the City and many other works.

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