The Great Ethical Debate: SHS Teachers Transforming the Curriculum

History and English departments merge for a cross-curricular junior research and debate project

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This year’s junior class is in the midst of one of the largest interdisciplinary projects Scituate High School teachers have ever seen. This project, the “Junior Ethical Research and Debate Project,” unites the English and history departments for a research project that delves into current controversial topics in America.

For the past several years, juniors completed two research projects during their spring semester — one in English and one in history. The projects were very similar, as students were expected to complete a research paper in history and a research-based ethical debate in English. History Department Chairperson Steve Swett believes this year’s collaborative project offered students “the possibility of working together to develop skills specific both to history and ELA without doing twice the amount of the research work.”

During the project, juniors worked collaboratively with their English and history teachers as they met in the SHS library for three weeks during class time. Students received instruction in both disciplines, and they were permitted to work with students from other classes if their English class met during the same period. Students formulated groups and chose a controversial topic to research for their six-page history essay and their ethical debate.

For the first two weeks, students worked on researching their topics and writing a persuasive essay. During the last week of the project, students used the research from their history essay to structure their formal debate. Their notes and research paper were translated into opening statements, cross-examination questions, and closing statements for a formal debate incorporating rhetorical devices. Each side used their skills and research to persuade the audience to support their position. Formal debates were held in the SHS library, where students and faculty members could observe and participate through asking questions and offering written feedback.

Teachers who organized the collaborative Ethical Research and Debate Project credit SHS senior Callie Moos with sparking the idea. As she finished her history and English projects last year, Moos proposed combining the two disciplines. Moos explained, “Last year we were doing the ethical debate project and we pointed out to the English teachers that it has roots in English and history. A light bulb went off in Mrs. Hall’s head and she thought they should merge the projects.”

Not only has this project impacted the students, but it has also impacted the teachers. According to Swett, “It has been a great opportunity for teachers to be able to work closely with each other because it’s interesting for [them] to see how other teachers do things, and it breaks down the difference so that we can all benefit from each other’s ideas.”

As this is the first year the project is being facilitated, there are some kinks that need to be worked out in the future. Scituate High School English teacher Paul Scavotto said the faculty plans to address some of the issues that have been uncovered throughout the project. He said, “There are definitely some bugs, so we need to hear from students. We need to look at how this fits into the regular curriculum.”

And what do students have to say about this project? Junior Maggie O’Donnell said, “I think it’s a great idea that we combined classes because it really is a project that’s meant to go together. I think, regardless, we were going to have a project, so if we’re going to have to do something, this is a great idea.” O’Donnell added, “I think it’s just a matter of getting the work done and the fact that it was just thrown at us. Next year it will be better.”

Students have been given a chance to work in a more independent style and teachers have also had new experiences throughout this project as well. English teacher Kate Harwood spoke about the new opportunities facilitated through this project. “It has given me a great opportunity to interact with teachers that I don’t usually interact with,” she said. Principal Robert Wargo expressed his opinion of the progress of the project, stating,“It’s great that the teachers are learning from each other, students are learning from each other, teachers are learning from students, students are learning from teachers. It’s exactly what we want quality learning to look like.”

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The Great Ethical Debate: SHS Teachers Transforming the Curriculum