American Heritage Classes Thrive at Valley High School
Written by Alexandra Wade
Close to 2,000 students are enrolled at Valley High School each year. With the recent additions, Valley has expanded to include more classrooms than ever before. The administration has worked to adjust to the school’s enrollment and space needs over the years, while also making sure Valley remained a personal experience for each student. One of the efforts toward this goal resulted in the creation of the American Heritage class.
The American Heritage class was spearheaded by Dr. Vicky Poole, former Valley High School principal and current school board member. Poole recruited teachers interested in contributing to an integrated curriculum. Together, they explored different ways to combine courses. The group decided language arts and social studies would be the strongest integrated curriculum. The American Heritage class was first offered for the 2003–2004 school year. The class was only taught every other year at first, due to low interest in the class. Through promotion of the class, more students became interested as they realized how beneficial the class could be. This led to a second team of teachers being added by the 2007–2008 year.
The four current American Heritage teaches are Lori Hinton, Nick Nelsen, Cameron Gale and Greg Hudson. Hinton and Hudson teach social studies, while Nelsen and Gale are language arts instructors. Former American Heritage teachers who helped to develop the program include Ann Broderick, Shannon Johnson and Jim Martin. The class is now extremely popular, being taught every year to at least two sections of students. It covers U.S. history from the Constitution to present day and provides a survey of American literature. The instructors have found that combining the subjects helps students gain a deeper understanding of both.
“Looking at [history and literature] in an integrated way makes them more relevant,” Nelsen said. The cultural context keeps students interested, while also increasing their knowledge and understanding.
Classes are taught in two-hour blocks by two teachers, one representing each subject. Classes tend to have an average of 35 students, mostly juniors. The extended time together and structure of the class help students reach a level of comfort with each other that they might not otherwise. Students are more willing to engage with each other and take risks, resulting in strong group work and class discussions.
The clearest example is the 1920s-style radio broadcasts the students have to create. Students reflect their knowledge of history at the time by putting together a radio show about the news and cultural events of the period. They read “The Great Gatsby” during the unit, giving them a better idea of what the era looked and sounded like. Some students might be reluctant to give their all to a performance-based project, but the American Heritage students’ projects reflect the comfort and confidence they feel with each other and in the class.
There is a strong sense of community in the classes, but any individual attention needed is also easily available with two teachers in the classroom.
“Classroom management is a breeze because there’s two of us,” Hinton said. She added that classroom observation was also easier. Having two teachers makes for a more relaxed atmosphere, as students see the teachers interacting and joking with each other. The dynamic benefits the students most, as they have two instructors to learn from or go to with questions.
“Students learn in different ways,” Hudson said. “Some gravitate to one or the other of us. It gives them an option, which is good for different learning styles.”
The instructors said that they also felt a stronger sense of community. Teaching in teams has provided connections with their colleagues they might not have had otherwise. Teamwork between the teachers is key to the process. They take part in common planning time and figure out how to balance the two subjects. History will take precedence on some days, while other classes will focus on literature. It comes down to a give-and-take between teachers and between teams. The good relationships the teachers have are essential to making the class work.
The administration has continued to provide a high level of support for the class, something the teachers are very thankful for. Scheduling can be tricky with so many teachers, but the administration has made a strong effort to continue the class and to keep students with the same teaching team, bolstering the sense of community. Accommodating the class size was also a challenge at times, something the new addition to Valley addressed. The new building includes a room designed with American Heritage classes in mind. The room is a better fit for the large class sizes. The teachers have their own classrooms as well and rotate in and out of the American Heritage room.
In a school as sizeable as Valley, it is valuable to provide such a personal learning experience for students. Each American Heritage class has shown this to be true by becoming its own small learning community, forging connections between students, between teachers, and between the two together. The American Heritage class may have started small, but it has grown into a popular class that encourages confidence and passion in both the students and the teachers involved.