CN AmericanStudiesInterdisciplinary learning took center stage as the eleventh grade hosted the second annual American Studies Conference in the Upper School’s Writing and Research Center.

Beginning May 22, panels of two to five students examined recent ideological and political movements since the 1970s through the lens of historical forces and as expressed in a literary text. To allow flexibility for student interest, the term “literary text” was broadly defined to include conventional prose and poetry, as well as film scenes or dialogue, television show content, and musical lyrics.


Interdisciplinary by Design

Allen Frost, upper school English teacher said, “This assignment developed students’ powers of observation and analysis to understand to think carefully about the richness of art and culture over the past forty years, and the ways history informs and influences literature and art, and vice versa.”

Students either selected one of many historical themes and text pairings offered by faculty, or, with approval, designed their own. Each student created a visual presentation and in their five minutes were required to cover essential elements, including:

  • Overview of their selected historical theme as it related to their literary text
  • Location in the text where the theme was activated/reflected/influenced
  • The significance of the historical theme to the literary work as whole
  • The ways the text addressed the political/historical context
  • The reception of the work and/or author in the United States

Panel discussions grouped students with similar themes, and, after individual presentations, panelists shared a conversation about one another’s findings. They also entertained questions from the panel’s moderator, the faculty panel, and the audience.

As a conference, the offerings were impressive. Panels covered diverse themes such as environmentalism, immigration and Islamophobia, race and politics in the 80s and 90s, and imperialism. Examples of presentation titles help illustrate their work: “Islamophobia and The West Wing: Isaac and Ishmael,” and “Xenophobia in the Movie Arrival,” done by Ishani G. Enjoy this list of the literary pieces examined.


Students Dive Deeply into Topics That Interest Them

In addition to its explicitly interdisciplinary design, this assignment exemplified another of Nueva’s core pedagogical principles: self-directed instruction. While the assignment was complex, the contemporary time period and the broad definition of literary text encouraged students to craft their project around topics and texts that resonated with them. Ethan W., whose topics was “A Criticism of Capitalism in Contemporary America as seen through Reagan, a song by Killer Mike, said, “I enjoyed that I got to research something I really liked and to work with others who also chose topics they cared about.”

Ishani loved this project because she has a passion for analyzing literature and this assignment allowed her to extend her skills to analyzing contemporary film. She said, “This project was exciting to me because the movie was so relevant given the tense period last year surrounding the presidential election. It was interesting to see how the movie evolved from the original 1998 short story, to its first script in 2012, its final script in 2015, and the actual movie released in 2016. Also I’m so much more aware that having authorial context makes a huge difference in how we experience art.”

Additionally, the panel discussion format with an audience required students to deeply know their topic. Ethan said, “When we got to the conversation and question segment, we answered in completely separate ways with informed, legitimate opinions, within this format where each person respected each other. We were aware of their understanding of our shared theme because we heard their presentations. It was a true dialogue.”

Having so much flexibility also stretched many students. Devon H., whose presentation examined the parallels between the Vietnam War and the War on Terror in the poem Independence Day 2010, by Hoa Nguyen, said, “The fact that the assignment was so open-ended was hard for me at first, but once I found the connections I wanted to make, my reading skills and my historical knowledge made it easy to come up with my own personal interpretations of the poem.”


Moderators Played an Important Role

Each panel was assigned a moderator, who facilitated the presentations and subsequent discussion. Ishani G., who was the moderator for the environmentalism panel, prepared herself by considering her experience as a panelist a day earlier. “I wanted to be sure I would facilitate the discussion in a positive way to bring the audience into it. I listened carefully, took notes, and looked for connections that I thought would inspire conversation. Directly inviting panelists, faculty, and audience members into the conversation also worked well.”


Was it a success?

Student excitement about their topics was obvious during the conference and afterwards, as the discussions continued into the upper school corridors. Several students commented that if they could change one thing, they would give more time for presentation and discussion. “Having a time limit helped us be concise presenters. On the other hand, because we were the only panel in our block session and did not have a hard stop, it allowed our panel discussion to be more fruitful,” said Ethan.

Allen said, “The American Studies conference was a success for a number of reasons: It allowed students to investigate and share their interest in a contemporary literary text, highlighting the connections between history, politics, and literature. It showed how well the students have learned to take control of discussions and participate in dialogue with their peers. I’ve also been very impressed by the sheer breadth of the topics and texts presented at this year’s conference — everything from more orthodox poems and novels to television shows including The Wire and also very recent rap and hip-hop lyrics.

“And, as befits a real academic conference, we had coffee and snacks each morning!”


June 2, 2017




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