St. Johnsbury Academy's Freshman Humanities Capstone Program Partners with Local Cultural Institutions

COURTESY PHOTO

St. Johnsbury Athenaeum Director Bob Joly presents to an Academy Freshman Humanities class in the Athenaeum’s art gallery.

"St. Johnsbury is home to so many cultural treasures of which many students either have little knowledge or take for granted. We are working hard to change that through our Humanities program," says Denise Scavitto Freshman Capstone Program coordinator.

Six years ago, St. Johnsbury Academy created the Freshman Humanities course, a yearlong, team-taught, interdisciplinary class that focuses on key skills including analytical writing, critical reading, research, and public speaking. Freshman Humanities explores themes of community and identity through a study of world cultures and history. A few years after the program began, the Freshman Humanities Capstone project was added. The program is now going strong.

The Academy has forged strong partnerships with Catamount Arts, the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium, St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, the St. Johnsbury History & Heritage Center, starting with the formation of the St. Johnsbury Arts and Culture Campus year ago. These existing relationships provided the perfect opportunity to pursue an experiment in place-based learning, which highlights the power of place as an educational tool, lens and opportunity. Extending the classroom into the community allows students to foster a deeper connection within the town. The cultural institutions in town have been very welcoming to Academy students.

Scavitto continued, "Our partners have been wonderful in working with the students. One of my favorite aspects of this program is spending time with the students off campus, and our partners have been incredibly accommodating in making that happen. As an example, when we visited the Athenaeum, staff met us before they had even opened for the day so our students would have the opportunity to research the paintings in the gallery and talk with Athenaeum Director Bob Joly about the architecture of the Athenaeum. The same openness is true of all of our partners; they are always excited to have our students at their institutions."

The Freshman Humanities Capstone program has evolved into a familiar rhythm. Students begin work in teams with their partner institutions to research, design, and create products for presentation and display. They then work collaboratively to define research questions and assign tasks as a team, and conduct research with local experts. Their ideas about final projects are pitched to their Capstone partners, from whom they receive feedback, and in response they then adjust their work to meet the needs of the audiences who would view it. The semester-long project culminates in a final presentation.

Students are currently hard at work on this year's projects. In December, every freshman at St. Johnsbury Academy was introduced to the missions and programs of Catamount Arts, Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium, St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, and St. Johnsbury History & Heritage Center. During these visits, students helped generate ideas for individual projects, and have now selected topics and are beginning their research. At Catamount Arts, students are focusing on topics such as Open Mic Night and the history of the Masonic Temple. At the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, some students are researching the architectural details of the building, while others will add information to an existing digital tour of the Art Gallery started by students in the previous two years. Students working with Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium are learning about the creation of museum exhibits and researching the mythology behind the constellations in the night sky. Those focusing on the St. Johnsbury History & Heritage Center are investigating the history of several buildings on Main Street or researching the effects of the Civil War on St. Johnsbury. All of these projects, and over a dozen others, highlight the importance of place and identity.

Throughout the course of the semester, students will complete their research and then pitch ideas of how to share their knowledge with the public. Some groups will create websites, while others will build physical exhibits. Other groups will create short documentaries to be shared with the partner institutions.

While the program has evolved over the past few years, the essential components remain. Students leave campus to explore architectural treasures and work with local experts. In the process, they take in the tremendous opportunities that are available in this area, learning about the missions of local arts and culture institutions. This year, students will share their work with their peers and partners at the April 28 Freshman Humanities Capstone Presentation Day.

Academy Headmaster Tom Lovett said, "The Humanities Program and its Freshman Capstone exemplify what education should be: collaborative, interdisciplinary, highly engaging, creative, and genuinely relevant. By exposing students to the research and design elements required in fashioning professional quality products, this program prepares them for success in their Senior Capstone and beyond.

We couldn't do this work without the cooperation and expertise of our partner organizations; if they didn't welcome our students, this program couldn't happen. We are truly fortunate to be located in a town with such valuable and accommodating institutions that support local education."

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