The Power of Perspective

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From Many Angles
ON THAT perfect blue Tuesday morning, when American Airlines Flight 11 exploded into the North Tower, four-year-old Max Fuld ’16 and his family lived in Manhattan. Max was a preschooler at the Benjamin Franklin School on East 79th Street, just 5.5 miles north of the attack site.

“I remember going to preschool and getting let out early,” he recalled. “I had no idea why I was getting let out early.”

Now, nearly 14 years later, Max is one of 16 Brunswick and GA Upper School students who gained perspectives on the tragic and unprecedented attack and its complex consequences in a new interdisciplinary course entitled “Understanding 9/11.” The second-semester initiative, involving several faculty members and guest speakers, proceeded under the joint direction of Upper School Academic Dean John Booth and Assistant Head for Academics Richard Beattie ’80.

“About two years ago, the Upper School curriculum committee began to talk about interdisciplinary studies,” Booth said. “The idea of a course on 9/11 came later.

“We felt like it was time,” Booth said.

“Now, especially for Upper School students, it’s history — within five years, we’ll be teaching kids who weren’t even born when 9/11 took place.” In designing the students’ experience, the team sought to encourage broad faculty involvement, and also to focus the syllabus.

To prepare, Beattie and Booth traveled to a two-day seminar produced by “Facing History and Ourselves,” an education organization promoting curricula focused on global citizenship and human rights, and to the 9/11 Tribute Center, founded and staffed by survivors of the attack.

There, the pair compared notes with teachers from around the country — but no one they met had yet had the opportunity to conduct a full-semester elective.

“We wanted to make sure there were two full-time teachers in the classroom,” Booth said. “And we also knew that someone must lead.” Booth recalled an early interdisciplinary course he took in college. “Five faculty members shared responsibility,” he said. “When nobody’s in charge, the experience lacks focus and impact.” Still, camaraderie among faculty is essential. “We’re lucky,” Booth said. “Rick and I are such good friends — and, in teaching an interdisciplinary course, that’s so crucial.

“We brainstormed from Day One,” Booth said. “Selecting the material is probably the most difficult part of the job — as there is so much out there to choose from. We knew we were in a good place when we agreed on the ‘Five Unit’ structure.”

Within each unit, Booth and Beattie grouped primary-source documents and literature targeted to providing students with a foundation of understanding.

Beattie described the selection process for arts and literature. “Our main thrust was getting at certain literary subject and voice components that might be common to the genre ‘Post 9/11 Lit’ — if there is such a genre (and if there isn’t, there will be),” he said. “We chose readings that would reflect those commonalities. We assigned several excerpts from novels for expediency’s sake, and to allow students exposure to a wide variety of authors and literary styles.

“Obviously, there’s still opportunity to include other voices, so readings may very well vary from year to year.” Both veteran faculty members expected incoming students would have a lot to learn.

“When the course started, if we asked kids why terrorists attacked the Twin Towers, the simple response was, ‘Those people were crazy,’” Booth said. “Once students gained perspective and began to see issues from many angles,the quality and depth of their responses grew tremendously.”

After students established a basic grasp of the pre-9/11 world, guest faculty lecturers provided insight on a spectrum of related topics:

  • Arabic teacher Mimi Melkonian discussed “The Middle Eastern Mindset”
  • English teacher and Afghanistan and Iraq combat veteran Lt. Col. Robert Benjamin brought frontline views of a solder’s experience in the field of battle in fighting the War on Terror
  • Middle School teacher Anthony Fischetti discussed impacts on popular culture and consciousness
  • Sally Maloney Duval, wife of Middle School math teacher James Duval, shared her pain and grief in having a family member killed in the attack. (Her brother, Edward “Teddy” Francis Maloney III, an account manager at Cantor Fitzgerald in One World Trade Center, left a pregnant wife and 14-month-old daughter.)

In addition, the class spent a full Sunday in March exploring the 9/11 Museum, Memorial, and nearby Tribute Center, gaining on-site experience of three very different perspectives on the tragedy.

Classroom study also became increasingly multidimensional. In addition to watching clips from Zero Dark Thirty, the 2012 film chronicling the long hunt for Osama bin Laden, under Beattie’s direction, students read and dissected the screenplay.

“For students, simply seeing the movie would have been a passive experience,” Booth explained. “But, in this case, history and creativity converged as they also learned about the art of writing a screenplay.” At every juncture, studies were geared to be contemporary, diverse, challenging, and globally based. Readings included excerpts from a graphic novel based on the Patriot Act, “The 9/11 Commission Report,” Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, and Dom DeLillo’s Falling Man — and even Bruce Springsteen’s 2002 album “The Rising,” composed to honor firefighters who perished during rescue efforts. As the course evolved, discussion became much more nuanced. “We had some really good debate about surveillance — kids pulling and tugging at civil liberties issues — as we’re in the middle of America’s longest war,” Booth said. “That’s the beauty of what can happen in an interdisciplinary course.”

Beattie offered his own view on the value of that progression. “We started the course with a discussion of ‘world-changing events’ with an eye to placing 9/11 within that context,” he said. “Though I think everyone in the room that day could understand 9/11 as an important historical event, I was pleased with how the course coverage firmly established the long-term ramifications that have dominated the global and domestic agenda for the past decade.” Students concur.

Today, 18-year-old Max Fuld has a far greater understanding of the terrorists’ views of the United States, as well as tremendous appreciation for the entire war effort. “I had no idea that it all wound down to the terrorists’ religious beliefs,” he said. “I also had no idea how much time it took for the U.S. not only to identify where Osama bin Laden was staying, but also to kill him.”

Classmate William Dym ’16 echoes Fuld’s observations. “When you actually break down the events and specifics of it, you truly realize how diabolical the plan was,” he said. “It’s mindblowing to see how the terrorists actually pulled it off — one of the most surprising and devastating things I’ve ever learned.”

In September, having devoted much of his final semester at Brunswick to studying 9/11, Senen Ubina ’15 will be a plebe at the United States Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Md. “I really liked the sections on how we’re managing the war — the weapons, technology, and reasons for deploying troops in one area as opposed to another,” he said. “Hearing first-hand accounts from Lt. Col. Benjamin was a high point.” For Senen, however, the greatest overall takeaway was “understanding the cultural clashes that led to 9/11” and learning about similarities and differences between ISIS, the Taliban, and Al-Qaeda.

And for all students, the topic and approach continue to resonate. “When you roll out a new class, you’re happy to get eight to 10 kids,” Booth said. “Right out of the gate, we had 16 — and we already have sign ups of about 18 for the second year. It could be even more.

“We’re preparing kids for a world that works in an interdisciplinary manner,” Booth said.

“You solve problems not just by thinking like a historian or a scientist. Here, we’ve gotten students to think analytically and collaboratively — helping them to be great problem solvers and also good citizens.

“It has been a tremendous honor to teach this course,” Booth said. “I really feel we’re serving our students’ best interests with this kind of approach. “I’m tremendously proud of all the work we’ve done together.”

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7 Views on a Whale of a Topic

IMAGINE THE difficulty in constantly engaging the mind of a 12- or 13-year-old boy.

He thrives on action and excitement. He yearns to experience new and different adventures. He often feels trapped by the monotony of routine. Middle School boys need their attention captured, their curiosity satisfied — or they’ll soon become lost in the clouds.

And it’s the job of the teacher to fulfill (or prevent) all of the above — all day, every day. It just doesn’t seem possible, or even realistic, for the best of the best in the world of pedagogy. So, why not — every so often — go all-hands-on-deck and team teach? Why not attack a given subject from an interdisciplinary level? Why not allow students to hear different voices and to learn in different ways?

In March, as part of Middle School Mini Term, the 7th grade did just that — spending the entire week immersed in studying the whaling industry and then visiting the Charles W. Morgan Exhibit at Mystic Seaport to culminate their efforts. Class Dean Jimmy Manyuru and his fellow teachers decided on whaling because of the industry’s ties to Connecticut.

“I wanted us to do an interdisciplinary project that had a connection to Connecticut, as it’s easy to overlook things right in our own backyard,” he said. “Having a sense of place, of where you’re from, isn’t always apparent among Middle School-aged boys — but is vital to their educational awareness.”

The teaching team also considered projects focused on the helicopter (Sikorsky, in Stratford, Conn.), submarines (Groton/ New London, Conn.), and the Merritt Parkway, named in 2010 by the National Trust for Historic Places as one of the nation’s most endangered historic sites. “We wanted this study to be relevant for everyone,” Manyuru explained. “New London isn’t called the Whaling City for just any reason. The Whalers of the NHL weren’t named accidentally. There’s Connecticut history to be learned.”

In addition, Sasha Bulazel ’83, longtime woodshop teacher and board member of Mystic Seaport, knew the ship firsthand and had a hand in its restoration. The Morgan, built and launched in 1841, is the last of an American whaling fleet that once numbered more than 2,700 vessels. In July 2013, after a five-year restoration process, the whaler was launched for the first time in 70 years, and left Mystic Seaport in May 2014 to embark on her 38th voyage to historic ports of New England. The ship returned in August 2014 and now remains an exhibit and flagship of the Museum at the Seaport.

Throughout the weeklong, interdisciplinary study, boys rotated in groups through the classrooms of seven different teachers, each of whom focused on one specific aspect of whaling. Jay Crosby, a history teacher by trade, provided students with an overview on the history of whaling, the development of Nantucket as a whaling community, and the whaling ship Essex — the inspiration for the literary classic Moby-Dick.

Science teacher Matt DuCharme gave lessons in buoyancy and its various principles. Boys then created boats using tinfoil, Popsicle sticks, and hot glue — applying what they had learned and competing to see which boat could hold the most weight. Top prize held 1,200 grams on deck.

Boys also learned about environmental issues, common diseases among sailors, the whale hunt itself, and folk songs sung aboard ships. “There was huge value in this type of approach. The boys moved from class to class and experienced a subject in a truly interdisciplinary way,” Crosby said.

“They saw how each teacher’s subject plays out in the real world during real-life situations,” he continued. “They learned about a specific ship in one class, what made it float in another, the techniques used in a third, how the boats were built, and what it took to survive.”

Math teacher James Duval added, “Each teacher became the quasi-expert in his or her facet of whaling. We were all able to explore single concepts at a deeper level.” And so, too, were the boys.

Whatever a particular boy’s natural interest — history, science and problem solving, music and literature, disease and medicine, or woodworking — he could dive right in and follow his passion as far as he wanted to go.

Ryan Heinzerling ’20 has always loved to work with his hands. “I really enjoy building, so to build a model of the Morgan with Mr. Falco and Mrs. LaRiviere was probably the most fun for me,” he said.

Fellow classmate Logan Darrin ’20 found it worthwhile to hear from a variety of teachers as he soaked up as much information as he could. “With all sorts of different perspectives, we were able to gather a lot of knowledge about whaling in a short time period. It was fun to mix up the learning process,” Darrin said.

All told, it made the visit to explore the Morgan firsthand much more meaningful for the entire group. It wasn’t just a field trip for a field trip’s sake — it had real value, real significance, real purpose. And the boys had a vested interest.

“To see the conditions the men lived in on the ship and to experience something I had heard about in Mini Term so many times was the most rewarding part of the week,” Heinzerling said.

Darrin added, “I loved climbing up the webbed net of the whaling ship, 35 feet off the ground, then picturing myself in the middle of the ocean, on the hunt for whales.”

How’s that for a look into a different life — in a different time?