Joyful and vigorous study is at the heart of the Nueva experience. We sat down with 12th grade dean, upper school history teacher, and Nueva alumnus ’05 Brian Cropper for a conversation about the inspiration for his newest class and his role as 12th grade dean. Brian also shares how his students and colleagues inspire him every day.
Jim Morrison: What are the greatest challenges and rewards of being the 12th grade dean? How are you staying connected with your students and teaching team?
Brian Cropper: The most rewarding thing about being the 12th grade dean is being able to walk alongside our seniors as they navigate their final year at Nueva. These students are so well-prepared for the world and to navigate their learning and care for one another. As our eldest class, they have already built meaningful relationships, developed passions for classes and really impressive expertise. As their dean, it’s my job to play sous-chef: to make sure they’ve got all they need—that their ingredients are prepped and their knives are sharp.
Another part of being a dean is having a clear sense of what is happening across the grade at any given time. It can be challenging to visit classrooms in the remote learning environment. Therefore, my grade-level team serves as my eyes and ears. I have heard some amazing stories about how teachers are adapting their courses to the remote environment, while very much leaning into the spirit of exploration and student empowerment that we, as an institution, have always valued.
Teachers are making a concerted effort to stay connected and informed about each other’s work. We are dropping in on each other’s classes and sharing resources. Tanja Srebotnjak has been visiting my Ecological Humanities class almost every day. I have had a great time talking poetry with Triple Oswald. I’ve loved brainstorming for our new Friday morning ritual, Maverick Mornings, with Lee Holtzman, Jo Newman, and Tom Dorrance. It has been so lovely to come together and start off our Fridays with such a vibrant expression of community. So many times over the past few months, I have left that meeting not knowing that I had really needed to put on a costume or dance.
JM: You mentioned your Ecological Humanities class. What are your learning goals for this new class? What was your motivation for hosting the class?
BC: I picture the course like a tree: its roots are the history of ecological ideas in philosophy, religion, and culture; its branches are the disciplines of the humanities (e.g. ethnography, literature, science fiction, diplomacy and world affairs, and comparative religions.)
This course is intended to be a site for rigorous interdisciplinary questioning: How can “good" science fiction help us grapple with challenges and imagine new solutions to the climate crisis?
Gifted students, in particular, are highly sensitive to injustice. So, when they are invited to travel and immerse themselves in a place through our annual travel program, they pick up on the challenges of making real, sustainable change. They gravitate toward conversations with people and organizations walking the talk of environmentalism.
The climate scientists, ecologists, and community activists we have worked with over the years are all aware that their work intersects with the environmental crisis. Time after time, we heard that it was a book, or a poet, or a religious or spiritual conviction that filled them up and inspired them to do their work. This course was designed to bring that thinking back onto our campus.
To plan the course, I met with our Environmental Center directors, Tanja and Aron, our upper school Science of Mind teachers, DEI/Social Justice coordinators, environmental activists, and religious groups.
JM: Environmental Humanities is one of our new electives at the Upper School. From your observations and conversations with students, what do you see is the greatest value of our electives program?
BC: The electives program, especially at the upper division for our most advanced students, presents such an exciting opportunity.
In the humanities, our electives offer deep dives into the complexities of disciplines and questions as they are expressed by experts. But the reason we offer them, and the way that we develop our courses, takes into account student interest and in particular, the questions that they can’t stay away from.
In history classes or on trips to Peru and Costa Rica students kept drawing connections between geography (as a location and as it is imagined in the minds of humans) and human development. They realized what climate experts have been saying for a while: a solution to our environmental crisis will not come from technology alone, we need to rethink our relationship to the environment and change our priorities.
This kind of imagination can certainly be cultivated within the humanities, and this course is a wonderful community from which students can bring this all together. It, like so many of our elective classes, is where we get to live the motto, “learn by doing, learn by caring.”
JM: If you were to close your eyes and place yourself back in any moment from your time at Nueva, when would it be?
BC: I want to be right where I am! I love the first day of ninth grade history, I love welcoming our students to the upper school community. This community is full of lifelong learners and I’m so grateful to be able to do what we love most together.
JM: What are you most looking forward to–once we are all able to be back together again in person?
BC: I am so excited about being in the same room exploring these ideas. The chance to be down the hall from our environmental economics classes and our research teams is really exciting. I can’t wait to hear what students bring in from their history classes, English courses, and their observations from the train. This work is most rewarding when it shows up for our students in their lives. That’s where I’m getting my energy from these days—I can’t wait to see where our students lead us.